Awesome ... it’s a word, rather like ‘wonderful’ or ‘dreadful’, that was originally brimming with meaning and now filtered out by modern usage. No doubt you’ve heard expressions like, ‘That film was awesome!’
Originally, it would describe, ‘an otherness’, something outside the familiar, eliciting a mixture of fear, wonderment and a sense that we are out of our depth in terms of our human experience; we are entering or have entered the unknown and we can only respond ‘in awe’.
I’ve recently read the story of a most unexpected visitation in the book of Judges: an angel of the Lord visits an ordinary, nameless and childless woman and tells her she will have a son. What next? Her husband, Manoah, and she offer a goat in the angel’s presence and the angel ascends in the flame of the altar and disappears. How awesome is that? Manoah and his wife fall on their faces to the ground. Wouldn’t you? They were encountering something truly awesome, something ‘wonder-ful’. When disciples of Jesus, Peter, James and John, saw Jesus, Moses and Elijah, clothed in splendour from another world on a ‘high mountain’ they were overwhelmed - awe-struck. The Bible is full of stories of people encountering awe-inspiring happenings.
But let’s bring it down the earth - with me, actually. I’ve never seen an angel, a burning bush, entered a cloud dense with the divine presence or heard an audible voice from Heaven for that matter. Yet, countless people like me have had one of those moments, let’s say extra-ordinary, God-charged moments, when He appears to have stepped into the ordinary - unexpectedly, perhaps momentarily, and life has changed.
I first had a moment like this when I was around twelve or thirteen; it was just before ‘reporting time’ for bed in the boarding school I attended; I was sitting alone, by the window in an upstairs classroom, reading the New English Bible which had been recently published and had been given to me as a Christmas present. Starting at the beginning, I had only reached Matthew 5 when I began reading: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
It is hard to describe this moment: it was charged, it was the weightiest moment of my life; it probably lasted only a second or two but the memory of it has remained impressed on my mind ever since. In a moment, I decided, I knew, that this was the way I would live, to love and not to hate, to follow this teaching. There was no sinner’s prayer or moment of conviction of sin but yet a radical turnaround, a moment of repentance, a decision to follow the Great One; it was a divine moment.
Was it awesome? Well, not scary as some awesome moments are. Yet, it was electric, impregnated and completely unforgettable.
I have known similar moments since: they have come unexpectedly and often in a time of great need. Some would use the jargon, ‘God showed up’. God doesn’t show up; He is present all the time. But, He does choose His moments ... and perhaps part of His awesomeness is that He is God of the unexpected. Often, again ‘the interruption’ has been but for a moment but how weighty the content and, after, I have seen my life situation quite, quite differently.
Truly there are God-encounters described in the Bible that are truly awesome, to use modern jargon, ‘enough to blow your mind away’: Moses encountered the divine presence in the burning bush and on Sinai, Ezekiel saw the moving throne of God, Daniel had awe-inspiring encounters of angels and Christ Himself, Mary had a conversation with the angel Gabriel. My experience at school was nothing too awesome perhaps, but enough for me! God had broken into my little world and that has made a massive difference ever since.