Genesis 28:10-19a; Matthew 28:16-20
When I was a senior in college, I found myself in a difficult place. I had just come back from a semester abroad in Zimbabwe, and I couldn't figure out how all of what I had experienced-- which had completely changed how I thought about myself and the world-- could be integrated into my life back here in Minnesota. I was struggling with what to do with all of that, and how God was a part of it all. Then one night I was walking to campus after dark and I noticed how brilliant the sky looked. It occurred to me that because of the passing of time, I was now looking at virtually the same sky that I had looked at when I was in Zimbabwe. I stopped for a moment to find the constellation Orion, and in that moment I saw a shooting star. Usually when you see an asteroid, or a shooting star, before you can realize what you're seeing, it's gone. But this one took it's time. It was so brilliant gliding across the night sky, that I actually had time to recognize what it was and continue watching it for a few seconds. And in that moment, I was filled with awe. I could see the connection in that night sky between the two worlds that I was a part of, and in that moment I felt a sense of assurance that I would find more tangible connections as well. I felt close to God, to our world, to the people I had grown to love who were now on the other side of the world.
We know that people often feel a sense of awe when they are up high-- on the top of a mountain or a skyscraper-- and they are able to gain a new perspective. Maybe for you it was when you first met your child or grandchild-- seeing how small their fingers and toes really are, how well that little body fit in your arms. When we experience awe-- true awe-- we often feel more connected to the earth; to each other; to God.
One select group of people that have all had this experience are astronauts. More than thirty years ago Frank White coined the phrase "the Overview Effect" to talk about the change that happens to astronauts when they see the earth from space. What they all have in common, is that in that intense moment of awe, something shifts for them. The way they understand our planet, the way they see political arguments between nations, the way they understand themselves in relation to the world-- everything shifts fairly dramatically in that moment so that many astronauts come back and get involved in advocacy work. They want to make the world better in some way and so they focus on that the rest of their lives. You'd think that seeing how small the earth is in space might depress you or make you feel so small that you think there's nothing you can do. But the opposite is the case-- that sense of awe opens people up to want to delve deeper into the commitments in their lives and the lives of those around them. It fills them with purpose and meaning.
Albert Einstein once said that awe is the most beautiful thing we can experience-- that it is the source of all art and science; and I would add, religion.
Awe is when we experience something remarkable that we haven't yet figured out a way to integrate into our lives-- and so there's some mystery and wonder that we take with us after we experience it. In the last few years psychologists have really started to study awe. And what they've found, is that awe is extremely important in our lives. When we experience awe our body relaxes, we calm down, and we become open to new experiences and receptive to finding deeper meaning.
So far in our series of Biblical heroes we have seen Elijah handing over the mantle of faith to Elishah. We have heard Hagar's courageous cries, calling upon God in difficult times. We have walked with Ruth as she dared to begin a new life in a foreign land with a foreign people and a foreign God. Today's hero is a bit different. Jacob is Abraham's grandson, but he doesn't seem to have inherited any of Abraham's faithfulness. Abraham, you may remember, is the one whom God called to go to a new land; the one God made a promise with that his ancestors would number more than the stars; the one who gave up everything and followed God. He had his own issues, too, of course; Abraham wasn't perfect by any stretch; but he did learn over time to trust in God's promise to him.
Two generations later, his grandson Jacob really has nothing to do with God. This God, who was God to his father and his grandfather, is just that-- a God of his ancestors. Jacob doesn't trust in the promise; doesn't believe in God's blessing falling upon him. In fact, Jacob goes to every length to gain a blessing-- his father's blessing-- by pretending to be his brother, by actually cheating his brother out of his blessing. We join Jacob this morning in scripture while he is on the run. He is not on a spirit quest or a retreat or a spiritual journey that he knows of; Jacob is running from his brother so that he can live another day and hopefully live long enough to see the benefits of his father's blessing. You see Jacob is living for himself and no one else; he's on his way out of the promised land.
And that's where God finds him.
It's hard for us to imagine today what it would be like to be in the desert, an entire day's walk from home, alone, in the dark-- the real dark; the dark before electricity dark. And so when Jacob stops for the night and lays his head on a stone for a pillow, running from everything he knows, there's a natural space, an opening, for God to enter. At home, where he is scheming all the time to get ahead, Jacob can be focused on what needs to be done. But out there, under the stars, in the dark, Jacob has only his own thoughts to deal with. And it is there that Jacob has a dream that he can see heaven and there are angels going up and down a ladder to heaven. He's standing on the ground and God comes to him and tells him about the blessing; tells him that his ancestors will be like the dust of the earth; and then he wakes up. And this is the moment I believe Jacob takes his first step towards being God's hero. He could've just shook his head at the strange dream; ignored it completely; convinced himself that being in the wilderness alone can do strange things to a guy. But instead of any of that he says to the wilderness around him, "God is in this place and I didn't know it!" One day Jacob doesn't have the time of day to waste on speculating about things like God; and the next morning Jacob experiences an intense sense of awe. That may not seem like a super power, but it is the first step towards transformation. For the first time in his life Jacob has a sense that maybe this life is not just about him; maybe God is involved in this life somehow too. Jacob is filled with awe. And in that awe is an opening for Jacob to take his first step towards being God's hero.
Research has shown that people who experience awe on a regular basis are more kind, more generous, and more capable of making a positive difference in the world.
Although Jacob's experience isn't fully integrated into his life yet, it is a moment that Jacob will never forget; a moment when Jacob realizes that something more is happening in his life-- that although he is completely alone in that moment, alone in the desert running from all he knows as fast as he can towards a future he cannot see, he also realizes for the first time that he is actually not alone. That God is walking with him. For a man who has begged, borrowed, and stolen everything in his life up to this point, this is a huge leap to make-- to realize that while he stole one blessing, God has been trying to offer him a much larger blessing.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells us his disciples to go into all nations and make disciples. We often call this the great commission. We think of it as something we "should" do. But I wonder how we could hear these words as a gift instead. Imagine for a moment that Jesus is offering us these instructions not just so others will know about God's love, but because until we share the good news of how God has changed our lives, we will not be able to embrace it for ourselves. Imagine for a moment that God is calling us to reach out to people like Jacob-- people right here who aren't able to trust in God's promises yet because they've never experienced them-- precisely so that not only can others experience God's love, but also because we will not fully believe in that promise ourselves unless we share it with others. Jesus is inviting all of us into a practice of forgiveness; generosity; kindness; truthfulness; justice. And those aren't things we can practice by ourselves. Jesus is inviting us to share the good news with our own grandchildren and children; with our own neighbors and coworkers; with the people we interact with each day so that ALL of us will be able to fully receive God's blessing through each other.
We are going to vote in just a little while on whether the MCCI prescriptions are the direction we believe we should be going, and on whether we want help implementing those prescriptions. They are a very specific set of next steps for us to follow for the next couple of years. And as you discern how to vote, I want us to remember something-- I want you to remember that sense of awe you had when you realized as a church that God was going to make a way for you to start over in this neck of the woods; I want you to remember the sense of awe we all had when we realized that we exceeded our goal for the capital campaign this past spring and that only the Holy Spirit could've done something like that. I want you to remember the experiences of awe you have had within this community of faith because God has been walking with us the whole time, and God isn't about to leave us now.
We moved out here on faith. And we will continue into the future on faith. I believe the MCCI prescriptions are bold enough that we will have to rely on God-- and that's what's exciting to me. Through our prayer life this past year, we have come to a place of action that God is leading us to, a place you have been preparing for long before I showed up; and I hope that today we can proclaim with confidence, with awe, with trust in God, that God is in this place, leading us into the future.