When was the last time you felt a moment of genuine awe?
Medical research has shown that experiencing awe is critical to human well-being. Its tremendous health benefits include calming down our nervous system and initiating the release of oxytocin, the hormone that promotes trust and bonding. The experience of awe slows our heart rate and deepens our breathing. And psychologically, awe is a way to quiet our inner critic—those voices telling us we’re not good enough; we’re not “enough.” One author calls awe “the absence of self-preoccupation.” [NY Times, The Science of Awe: It can mean many things, by Hope Reese, 7 January 2023]
A sense of awe plays an important role in spirituality as well. It’s a feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world or “blows our mind” with expansive insight. Holding a newborn baby, taking in the world from atop a fourteener, grasping a complex truth for the first time, hearing a singer nail a high C—as our guest soloist Janinah Burnett did in worship a few weeks ago- all these can produce awe.
Our morning Scripture text narrates a story of awe experienced by the man who would become the father of John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus. As we read it, consider how it mirrors or is different from your own experience. And notice how Zechariah responds: not with certainty, but with questions.
Whaaat???? How will I know that this good news is true? He is completely floored by a mystery he cannot explain. A reading from Luke, in the first chapter, verses five through twenty-three. Listen for God’s Word that exceeds expectation, sparks hope, and has the power to change the way we see….everything. [Luke 1:5-23]
I returned from DC and time with my family with thanksgiving, joy…..and a bad cold bestowed upon me by the two Petri dishes that are my darling grandchildren. I had no voice for a couple of days and can really empathize with Zechariah: a preacher with laryngitis isn’t good for much (although, come to think of it, some might say it’s an improvement. . . .or at least a potential cure for long sermons!)
I’m intrigued by the way Zechariah’s silence is portrayed as punishment for his skepticism and disbelief. But I wonder. There were no other eyewitnesses to Zechariah’s angelic vision, so this text is his own account. Might he have been too quick to interpret as divine judgment what may instead have been an authentic encounter with divine mystery? One that literally took his breath away.
As old Zechariah went about his routine religious duties on an ordinary Sabbath, he was literally silenced into awe. His testimony before the gathered congregation—though mute—was eloquent. And the months before his voice returned—shortly after his son John’s birth—provided rich opportunity to reflect on the ways of God that are vaster than human comprehension.
The Church’s season of Advent is one characterized by “waiting,” and honestly, these days, I am tired of waiting. Waiting for the Christmas promises of “peace on earth, goodwill to all” when the same plains upon which shepherds received that good news are reeling in violence and bloodshed. Children do not sleep easily in Gaza, neither north nor south.
According to Metro Caring, more than 20% of our region’s children suffer from periodic food insecurity, and the need for “emergency food deliveries” has soared. Children go to sleep hungry in our city and rural communities. The immigration debates in our nation are deeply divisive and have become bargaining chips in the funding of government services.
We seem to have lost sight of the actual people fleeing persecution and extreme poverty to seek asylum in the land of the free. The journey is perilous and increasingly deadly. As one migrant expressed to a reporter, If your house is on fire, you don’t wait inside the house for the fire department to come. [Jordan Vonherhaar, The Texas Observer, November 21, 2023, article sent to me by Richard D. Garcia, immigration attorney] Immigrant children’s sleep is broken up by nightmares and unimaginable trauma.
Like Zechariah, I am weary of waiting. And skeptical of promises that frankly seem too good to be true. How can we believe this good news?
I do not know, friends, except by trusting the One from whom it originates and listening to the angels, prophets, storytellers, and witnesses who bring it. By cultivating opportunities to experience awe and its elevating and energizing outcome. By waiting—not passively—but with spiritual eyes and ears attuned and attentive. Distraction is the enemy of awe, and this season may be the most distracting of any.
Could church provide an antidote to the mall, Amazon, and the frenzied preparations we make for Santa’s big day? Can we practice a different way with intention? We can be inspired by Biblical prophets and angelic visions, yes. You might expect this preacher to suggest worship as one good way: focused time for meditation, music, peaceful community, and invitations to serve. And most compelling of all, encounters with the folks bringing good news right here and right now.
There is so little we can do about moving the dial on Middle East peacemaking. Certainly, we pray for peace and seek understanding through reading and conversations with Jews and Palestinians. Today we have the opportunity to purchase handcrafted items made by Palestinian Christians. A small thing, perhaps, except that it contributes to a livelihood for families living in hostile, unstable communities, a glimmer of hope where hope has all but died.
Today every one of us can take home an “Advent calendar” featuring the most needed food and hygiene products from Metro Caring. With mindfulness, we can purchase one item each day through Christmas, collect them, and bring them to Central, where they’ll be distributed to Metro Caring in January (Metro Caring designed this timeline as a way of addressing food shortages after the generous holiday time).
I am happy to share the news with you that we have leased part of the third floor vacated by the Central Visitation Program to the Richard D. Garcia Law Office, a community-minded immigration law firm assisting immigrants with asylum claims and various legal matters involved in permanent residency, resettlement, and eventual citizenship. They are delighted by the space but even more by the ways their mission and ours align to support people seeking a better life. Though they’re still moving in, they’ve already reached out to discuss ways we can collaborate and build on the work Central’s Mission with Migrants has done to date.
Turns out, friends, that everyday awe is not too difficult to find. Just as Mister Rogers encouraged us to “look for the helpers” in times of trouble, so too the church looks for the prophets, people and organizations that are fulfilling the promises of God. Feeding the hungry; welcoming the stranger; comforting the lonely and brokenhearted; doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
The Communion meal we will share in a few moments represents a vision of the world God intends: a table where everyone is welcome, everyone is fed, everyone thrives, and a great song of praise arises from the people of earth. It’s a foretaste of that day –yet ahead!– when all will be fulfilled. It nourishes hope and strengthens us for the active waiting that is our calling.
I’m glad Zechariah gave voice to our own doubts in the holy mystery of God. But it didn’t end there. His awed silence was eventually overcome in a spirited expression of hope, bringing good news to you and me and all people, even to this day.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. [Luke 1:78-79]
It will be so, friends. We have God’s word on it. Thanks be to God!