In Praise of Awe

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, January 24, 2016

Genesis 28:10-22 ESV

Have you ever had the experience of looking at the same thing time and again, and every time seeing it in exactly the same way?  But then one day, when you look at that same thing again, you see it in a totally different light.  Maybe you see something that proves to be an epiphany.  Perhaps you even see something that Wows! you.

I have read this colorful story of Jacob and his ladder numerous times over the years.  But when I read it again recently, I was inspired by this story in ways I had never been before.

For one thing, as I considered this ancient story again, a possible sermon title or topic came to mind: “Good News and New Hope for Scoundrels.”  For, you see, Jacob was a scoundrel of the worst kind; “a scoundrel from the word go,” as preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor puts it.1  Jacob, as you may remember, was the second-born of twins.  This meant that his twin brother Esau (who was born first) was the rightful heir to their father’s best blessing and choice inheritance, or birthright.  We may not think such was right, but that was the way it was back then.  But with the help of their mother, Jacob—ever the sly, cunning one—figured out a way to cheat his brother Esau out of his birthright, as well as their aged father’s blessing.  The enmity and strife got so bad between the brothers, that Esau had thoughts of killing Jacob after their aged father passed away.  Their mother, also fearing for Jacob’s life, sent him away from home to live with relatives.

So it was that during Jacob’s flight from home that he stopped at a place called Luz to spend the night.  And as Jacob slept, he had this fantastic, life-changing dream of a ladder reaching up to the heavens and angels ascending and descending on the ladder.  Jacob also felt that he heard the voice of God blessing him and making promises to him of a prosperous future yet to come.  Such is the way the ancient story goes.  Thus, the assurance that there can be good news and new hope, even for scoundrels!

And then, there was a second thing about this story that struck me in a new way having to do with awe-inspiring experiences of life.  So powerful and real was Jacob’s experience, that he felt God in that place in an extraordinary way.  Such was his experience that he set up the stone he had used as a pillow and renamed the place Beth-El, which means “the House of God.”  “El” was one of the early Hebrew names for God.  Thus the word, “Beth-El,” meaning house of God.  “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” Jacob proclaimed.  “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  “How awesome is this place!”  Now, here is the point I aim to stress: What previously had seemed to Jacob to be an ordinary place proved to be an awe inspiring place!

And such makes me wonder if it couldn’t be the same for you and me—if some of those “ordinary” places where we find ourselves might prove to be “awesome” places, if we were to open our eyes to see the sacredness present there; if we were to open ourselves to the awe-inspiring “Beth-Els” along the road of life.

Barbara Brown Taylor thinks so.  And such is the thesis of her 2010 book titled An Altar in the World.  In her thoughts on the Jacob story, Brown observes regarding her own life, “I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is. . . .  Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”2

And so, I chose to title this sermon “In Praise of Awe.”  The idea is one that has naturally evolved within me these past few years.  The older I get, the more occasions I find to stand in awe of life, “Beth-Els” along the journey, and the natural world around me.

As most of you know, for two and a half years now, I have been seriously engaged in naturalist studies, through the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, but also through the voracious reading of the works of the classic naturalists.  Some of you may have wondered about this.  But just to set the record straight—if, indeed, it had any need to be set straight—my naturalist studies have overlapped with and complimented my theological studies and inspirational and devotional thought.  Consequently, naturalist studies have resulted in greater and more numerous “Beth-El” experiences, akin to that one experienced by Jacob of old.  As Richard Dawkins even admitted, “All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation.”

And so, those “ordinary” objects and experiences of life take on a whole new appearance and often end up being awe-inspiring encounters.  Such was the case this morning when I was leaving for church in the dark and saw a gorgeous, giant moon hanging just above the horizon in the western sky.  When I look at a tree, which at one time I might have said, “Oh, that is a nice tree,” I now may do so with an attitude of awe, as we did standing before a 2,000-year-old bristlecone pine tree at Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah this past summer.

A recent article on the “DailyGood: News that Inspires” website titled “Top 10 Insights from the Science of a Meaningful Life 2015” caught my eye; one point did in particular on experiencing awe.  The point was “Experiencing awe makes us, well, awesome.”  It was noted that “Several studies published in 2015 suggest some profound, previously overlooked benefits associated with awe, which is defined by researchers as feeling like we’re in the presence of something larger than ourselves—be it a natural wonder, a work of art, or feats of athleticism or altruism—that defies our understanding of the world and makes us feel like we’re just one small part of a vast, interconnected universe.”3  The section goes on to note that “A paper published in April in the journal Emotion linked awe to special health benefits . . . results revealed that awe was the emotion most strongly associated with . . . better health. . . .  A separate study, published in June in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that awe might not only boost our health but also make us more kind and helpful to others.”

So the bottom line seems to be that experiences of awe are good for body, soul and personality and character.  As scientist Albert Einstein said, “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”

Let’s return to where I began—the experience of looking at the same thing time and again, and every time seeing it in exactly the same way, but then one day when you look at it again seeing something totally different.  Could it be that the difference is on rare occasions we are more open, more willing to see, more sensitive to wonder and the potential Sacred that presents itself to us?  Could it be that at some rare times much more than others we are more open to being awestruck?

And the avenues and opportunities that can prove to be awe-inspiring are varied and beyond number—for those who are open to seeing them: the natural world around us, the vast universe where new discoveries are being made every day as with the evidence of a new planet in our solar system that astronomers announced this past week, the miracle of birth, the wonders of science and medicine, the marvels of the human spirit and human sacrifice. In any and all of these ways and more we may find ourselves being awestruck and feeling that how awesome is this experience; this is the gate to heaven!

I cannot help but think of those poignant lines by poet Elizabeth Barret Browning, which seem to point to the burning bush experience of Moses more so than the ladder to heaven experience of Jacob.  But the words are applicable nonetheless:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries. . .”

Yes, the older I get, the more “Beth-El” encounters, more awe-inspiring experiences that seem to come to me.  With Jacob of old I find myself thinking more often, “How awesome is this place!  This is the gate of heaven.”  My hope and prayer is that it might be more so for all of us.  In praise of awe.  Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World.  New York: HarperOne, 2010. p. 15.

2Ibid.

3http://www.dailygood.org

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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