Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lloyd Menke|Our Saviour’s
What gives you a sense of awe and wonder?
By www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos (beach-night-stars-usa) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Do you get a sense of awe gazing at the stars away from all the lights of the city? Or how about a beautiful piece of music or magnificent sunset?
Lloyd Menke, Mississippi Sunset, Own work, Schaar’s Bluff, Hastings, MN, 2016
Or maybe it was witnessing the birth of your child?
a4gpa, Wonder, Flickr Free, ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Perhaps traveling to new places and seeing new and interesting places gives you a sense of awe and wonder. Regardless of what gives you a sense of awe, I suspect all of our experiences have one thing in common: awe comes from something outside ourselves. It is not something we can conjure up. It is something that happens to us.
I found it interesting that researchers have now found that there are health benefits to experiencing a sense of awe and wonder. In a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers Melanie Rudd, Jennifer Aaker and Kathleen Vohs found that participants “who felt awe… :
- felt they had more time available,
- were less impatient,
- were more willing to volunteer their time to help others,
- and more strongly preferred experiences over material goods.”
“Awe is quite threatening in certain ways, and something that is challenging and unwelcome can border on fear,” says Vohs in an article published in “The Atlantic.” She recalls the experience of encountering an astonishingly big fish he saw while swimming in the ocean. Vohs continues, “It was giant—no big teeth, and it seemed like a gentle soul just floating in the water—but still!”
How would you describe your experience of awe and wonder? I found Vohs’ description fit with my experience. She continued, “The experience of awe is one where you are temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world. … People mostly walk around with a sense of knowing what is going on in the world. They have hypotheses about the way people behave and what might happen; those are pretty air-tight. It is hard to get people to shake from those because that’s just how the brain works. We are always walking around trying to confirm the things we already think. When you are in a state of awe, it puts you off balance and as a consequence, we think people might be ready to learn new things and have some of their assumptions questioned.”
Carl Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The transfiguration was an experience of awe. (Mark 9:2-9) Peter, James and John were put off balance. Mark tells us Peter offers to build three dwellings for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus “for he did not know what to say for they were terrified.” The experience of awe offered them the opportunity to question some of their assumptions and learn something new.
The voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Jesus has something new for them to hear. Mark tells us that the Transfiguration takes place six days after Jesus “…began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.”
But, Peter doesn’t want to hear this! Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. Jesus turns and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebukes Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus’ words are not easy to hear. All this talk of crucifixion, suffering and death – it’s not upbeat – it’s not positive and uplifting. And besides, it makes no sense. It makes no sense that forgiveness comes through betrayal. It makes no sense that the response to suffering is mercy. It makes no sense that hope comes through hopelessness. It makes no sense that life comes through death.
Jesus commands them to tell no one about this until he has risen from the dead. None of this will make sense until the resurrection – and even then it will take some time for the disciples to wrap their heads around what has happened. It is no wonder that as they come down the mountain they question what rising from the dead could mean. Nothing fits what they already think. This is not simply confirming the way they thought. Put yourself in the disciples’ shoes for a moment. Images of Roman cruelty were fresh in their minds.
Fyodor Bronnikov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Imagine how they felt when they heard Jesus say: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
No wonder they needed a dose of awe and wonder in order to come to terms with how God could possibly be at work in that! They needed an experience of awe and wonder that came outside of themselves. Something beyond what they themselves could manufacture or create. We tend to begin by focusing on ourselves. What we need. What we need to do.
Faith calls us to refocus on what God in Christ has done and is doing for us. Worship is intended to help us with that refocus. Perhaps that is why they built the great cathedrals in Europe, to help create a sense of awe and wonder as part of worship.
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=288845
Our human ability to create a life-transforming sense of awe is limited. There is a kind of awe that only God can provide.
In the 2 Kings reading (2 Kings 2:1-12), Elijah tells Elisha granting a double portion of his spirit is not his to give. But if he sees him taken from him, it will be granted. Who will be Elijah’s successor is God’s to grant. And so is the experience of awe that is to be the sign that Elisha has received the gift.
Giuseppe Angeli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Elisha sees horses of fire and a chariot of fire come for Elijah as he is caught up in a whirlwind. Only God can grant this experience of awe.
While such dramatic demonstrations of awe are rare, God does infuse ordinary events with an experience of awe. From the martyrs of the first century, to Loraine Claiborne, who I talked about last week, to the people you know in your family, friends, and in this congregation who God has granted an experience of awe in big and small ways. Those experiences have sustained and nurtured faith allowing God’s people to live heroic lives of faith. Sometimes just the glimpses of awe are enough.
He was eighty-nine. She was eighty-six. They had lived as man and wife for sixty-five years.
Every day he would get up, have breakfast, and hobble down to the bus stop, a book in his hand. He was headed for the nursing home, where his wife had been for four years. He hadn’t wanted to put her there, but when he had had a heart attack, he was forced into having her placed in a care facility. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was deteriorating very quickly.
He stepped off the bus, and walked the two blocks to the nursing home where his wife was. “I wonder how she is today,” were his thoughts as he pushed the security buttons to get in. “I wonder if she’ll know me. She didn’t yesterday.”
A lump welled up in his throat as he recalled the many happy times he had shared with his beloved wife. Now she rarely recognized him. She sat limp in her chair, her eyes dull and distant. When he approached her to give her the usual kiss she recoiled, trying to push him away. “Come on, my little Turtle Dove,” he would say, taking her hand and squeezing in beside her on the love seat. “I’ve brought you your favorite book. What story should I read you today?”
He watched as her eyes flickered. She moved her hand to touch the Children’s Bible Story Book he had brought with him. He turned the pages until she placed her hand on a picture. He smiled, taking her hand again. He had read her this story for four days in a row, but he didn’t mind
He started reading. “I am the Good Shepherd,” the story began. It was the story of the little lost lamb that the Good Shepherd left the flock for, in order to rescue the wandering lamb. He finished the story: “and the Good Shepherd carried the lamb back to the flock, wrapped its injured leg with a piece of cloth, torn from his clothes, and laid it beside him, as he continued the night watching the flock.
He saw her wipe a tear from her eyes. That was enough for him. He kissed her wrinkled face, which to him was still beautiful, and led her to her bed. She fussed a little, but he lay down beside her. Soon they were both asleep. Two hours later he sat up, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and kissed his wife goodbye, promising, “I’ll see you again tomorrow, my wee Turtle Dove.”
God can infuse ordinary moments with an experience of awe. When that happens it can be just enough.