In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.


“Awesome” is one of those words that has been so overused that it has lost much of its original power.

“Awe” is defined as an attitude directed toward an object that inspires reverence or fear. Looking at the Grand Canyon leads us to have feelings of reverence toward the beauty of nature. A display of summer lightning is awesome because we fear its destructive force. Today, though, people use the word in a much more ordinary way. They say that a new film is “awesome”—without any fear or reverence involved.

Of course, words change all the time, and there’s not much we can do about it. However, this particular change forces us to think of the original meaning in order to appreciate a sentence in today’s Old Testament Lesson. The Lesson tells the famous story of Jacob’s Ladder.

Jacob was on a journey and he camped for the night. While he was sleeping, he dreamed of a ladder that stretched from earth all the way up to Heaven. Angels were traveling up and down on the ladder.

As he watched, Jacob heard the voice of God, who said to him, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…”

Needless to say, Jacob was thunderstruck by this dream. When he awoke, he said to himself, “How awesome is this place!”

The place was awe-inspiring because to Jacob it seemed to be “the house of God, and…the gate of heaven.” And we would surely agree that such a vision of Heaven elicits fear and reverence.

Yet the most significant part of this story for future generations to come wasn’t the ladder with angels traveling back and forth to the realm of God. The crux of the story was God’s promise to Jacob that his descendants would form a great nation.

Indeed, this promise reflects a major advance in the Hebrew understanding of the divine. For the dream looks beyond the tribalism that would have characterized religion at that time.

Ancient peoples lived in one region. Even if they were spread out over a large territory, they would still be confined within the borders of a single tribe or nation. At that time, too, most gods were local—worshipped only in one village or region. The Genesis story actually recognizes this when Jacob names the place where he has his dream, “Bethel,” which means in Hebrew, “House of God.”

In Jacob’s dream, however, God promises him that his people will emigrate in all directions. And as they spread out over the face of the earth, the Hebrew people will proclaim their God to be universal: the Lord of every land.

Jesus reinforced this inclusive understanding of God when he commanded his disciples to go out and baptize people of all nations in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Beginning with Jacob’s dream at Bethel, the goal of the entire Bible becomes the worship of the one true God in every place by every people.

So we often focus on this aspect of Jacob’s ladder: his vision of God as Lord of the world. But we should also focus on the other side of the story: God’s vision of us.

While it’s not hard to find people today who dislike some aspects of organized religion, those same people might well claim to be very interested in the spiritual. I recently received a book to review that has the title, More Than Matter.

And many people who never darken the door of a church consider themselves to be “more than matter.” They consider themselves not just physical organisms. They are spiritual persons who have souls.

Such a concept of human beings doesn’t mean that we are angels! However spiritual we feel, we remain creatures of flesh and blood. Yet we are also capable of looking beyond our physicality.

Our spiritual natures are evident, for example, in our capacity for awe. Consider the curious attraction we have to fireworks. This past Fourth of July, millions of Americans braved traffic and lost sleep in order to see a few minutes of sparkling explosions. No doubt, many of these watchers felt that the fireworks were “awesome.”

No doubt, as well, few of the watchers felt that they were being religious. Yet only a creature with an imagination would be touched by these displays. Only human beings can appreciate the seemingly impossible patterns of color and light and sound.

Every year, you may go to such fireworks. You know exactly what to expect. You know that you won’t learn anything by attending. You recognize that no useful purpose is served by all these detonations.

And yet, every Independence Day, you find yourself excited and moved. The spectacle of power and beauty draws you beyond yourself. “Awesome,” indeed.

You might have similar experiences on vacation when you hike to the top of a mountain or when you watch the pounding surf at the beach.

Now I recognize that none of these experiences would necessarily be called, “religious.” But I would bet that for most of us, there is an element of the spiritual. We sense that we are drawn beyond ourselves. We feel what theologians call, “the transcendent.”

And when we link these experiences with a specific set of practices and doctrines—as Jacob did—we do connect up with religion and the universal divine.

And so we realize not only that there is a power beyond ourselves. We see how that power manifests itself on earth and becomes incarnate in our mortal flesh and blood. The angels go down the ladder as well as up. The splendor of creation dwells in our hearts as well as in the world around us.

And that is truly: awesome!

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

Leave a Reply