“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” -Henry David Thoreau
When I was a boy one of the Bible stories that I was the most fascinated with was also one that I found the most disturbing. It was the story of King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem.
The Ark had been captured by enemies of Israel, the Philistines years earlier. Because the Ark was known as the located presence of God on earth, it was a huge victory for the Philistines and they put the Ark in their Temple to their god Dagon. But that was a mistake.
In an amazing twist, the Philistines had to get rid of the Ark because God gave the Philistine people (and I kid you not this is in your Bible) hemorrhoids. So they send the Ark away and it winds up at a small Israelite village where it stays at a man named Abinadab’s house for years.
Finally King David decides to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem and he makes a big deal about it. He puts together a parade and King David dances as the Ark finally returns home. A happy ending to a great story right? Almost.
Because at one point the Ark starts to slip off of the ox cart that they’ve put it on, and a guy named Uzzah tries to catch it. He reaches up to grab the Ark and stop it from falling.
And God strikes him dead.
King David gets really upset because, you know, this does seem a bit of overkill. After all, Uzzah was just trying to help. And no one should get killed for that, I can understand maybe giving another bad case of hemmoroids, but death?
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
That story never made sense to me. It seems to be out of character of a good God to do something like this.
But in college I had a professor point out something to me that I thought was fascinating. It’s just this intriguing detail from 2nd Kings. Look at how the Bible introduces us to Uzzah:
They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart
Uzzah has grown up with the Ark of the Covenant hanging out in his living room. He had grown up with the Presence of God and he has lost his ability to appropriately appreciate it. Uzzah lost his awe and wonder because it’s always been right in front of him.
I’m a B.U.I.C.K., a “Brought Up in Church Kid” and I can’t tell you how relevant this story is to me. Not only did I grow up in Church I’m also a preacher, I hang around Christians all the time, I’m always thinking about God/theology/church and I can easily fall into the trap of Uzzah.
I see this all the time with ministers, and most often in the mirror. It’s easy to become inoculated to the Gospel, and forget how much I need God, and how small I really am in the grand scheme of things.
On my worst days, I, like Uzzah, start to believe that I need to protect God. And I lose the profound reality that Dallas Willard points out, “I don’t defend the Christian faith, the Christian faith defends me.”
The sin of Uzzah wasn’t touching the Ark, it was the loss of being able to see the Ark for what it really was.
And this is a sin that we religious people struggle with particularly.
There’s a reason that all throughout Scripture God is harder on religious people than non-religious ones. There’s a reason why Jesus is much harder on the Pharisees than all the immoral people of his day.
Because there is a way of approaching God that thinks we have figured God out, that we have mastered God. There is a way of approaching God with familiarity that makes us feel big and God seem small.
When people first realized that Jesus had raised from the dead, they were terrified. The first response to the Gospel wasn’t how can I use this? Thats the way religious people think. The first response was’s fear and trembling.
This is bigger than you, the world is now a stranger place, it’s a little bit scary, and incredibly hopeful.
This story is better than we know, but we’re too close to it to realize how wonderful it really is.
Remember what happened when Jesus ascended into Heaven? The first Christians stood staring up into the sky in awe for so long that Angels actually appeared and asked them “Why are you standing here looking into the sky? Jesus will return, so you know…get to it.”
I like that. I like that the Angels told the first Christians to start doing something about the amazing thing they’ve just seen God do. They remind us that God’s people aren’t supposed to just sit around and enjoy their goosebumps.
But these days I wonder if the angels wouldn’t encourage us to remember to Look up again and spend some more time staring in the sky.
All through the Bible, we are commanded to “Fear the Lord” but that doesn’t mean be afraid. In the original language it means sustaining a joyful, astonished awe, and wonder before Him.
It means to look up
I don’t think it was an accident that the wise men, the first people to recognize Jesus for who He really was, were stargazers. They were people who were so used to looking up that they were in tune with the music of the cosmos. In the words of Jonathan Martin:
When they followed the stars far enough, they ultimately found themselves eyeball-to-eyeball with Jesus. I’m convinced that if we follow the wonder back to the source, if we follow the beauty all the way home, we’ll find Jesus too.
This is the heart of wonder, a sense of being overwhelmed by the universe and realize our inadequacy in the face of it all. It is to realize that there is a vast and wordless mystery that is reaching out to you. To be sure, there is a way that religion can turn into a self-reinforcing certainty where we just become an echo chamber for what we already believe. But that kind of religion is not the way of Jesus, it is the way of Uzzah
in the words of the Christian poet Christian Wiman:
“When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life… Never? Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life.”
The Engilsh word miracle comes from the Latin words miro (to wonder) and mirus (wonderful) The early Church was known not primarily for it’s power (it was a bunch of peasants and fisherman after all) but for it’s wonder.
The early Church was not known for it’s certainty, there was a kind of humility that characterized the Christians in the book of Acts, it was known for not always knowing what to do.
In a word it was known for having faith.
These days it seems like when we talk about signs and wonders we either talk about the certainty that God works or our certainty that He no longer does. We have a box, and we expect God to fit inside of it. But the first Christians were the ones who had learned that God no longer fit inside any of the boxes they had tried to give him.
Consequently, whenever God did something they were just as surprised and filled with awe and wonder as everyone else.
Maybe that’s what it means to say the early church was known for her miracles.
She was known for her wonder.