Living in Awe

8 Oct, 2023

By the Rev’d Lucy Nguyen

Season: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Readings: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 | Philippians 3:4b-14 | Matthew 21:33-46.

Today’s readings speak of the ordering of the universe and the ordering of human life. (5) And our response to such ordering.

In Exodus 20, we have the life-changing moment of Moses presenting the Ten Commandments – We know it didn’t happen like in Cecil B. De Mille’s movie, The Ten Commandments. (1) Yet the offering of rules to live by is significant, and the manner in which they were given and received offers us insight into right living.

As the biblical writers tell “Moses concludes by saying to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’” In the original language, it’s been said that: ‘Fear the Lord’ doesn’t mean be afraid. It means sustaining a joyful, astonished awe and wonder before Him. (3)

Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid, because God has come only to test you and to make sure you are always in awe of God so that you don’t sin.” … always in awe and wonder of God so that you don’t sin! I think that’s an incredible phrase. And perhaps with a different emphasis from when you learned about the Ten Commandments. The fear of the Lord is not a dread and terror of God which causes us to flee from and avoid God but rather draws us to God in awe and reverence. (2) And sinning we know to be the “turning away from God”. Awe keeps us from turning away.

Bruce Epperly puts it well, writing – in Exodus, God proclaims God’s loving-kindness to the newly formed people. God loves them and delivers them from captivity. God establishes a positive relationship with the people that then becomes the basis for a positive relationship among the people. Apart from the admonition to honour God and place God above all other creatures, the commandments focus on our arms-open wide relationships with fellow humans and creation.

When we love God rightly, we will love creation. “Our love for one another is a way of honouring and loving God. God does not need to be honored for God’s sake – although our openness to God enables God to be more effective in the world, God is honored so that we can place our lives in a larger and healthier ethical and spiritual perspective.” Put simply, the commandments are about honoring the holiness of life, first by seeing all life as springing from God’s creative wisdom and liberating action, then setting apart times for rest and worship, and finally for having positive and life-affirming relationships with our fellow humans and implicitly with the non-human world. Following these commandments leads to personal and communal well-being. (5)

And we are to do this in AWE – not fearfulness, or dread ….

Why AWE – what’s the divine plan here? Contemporary research suggests that awe can make you happier, healthier, humbler, and more connected to the people around you. Awe may improve your mood and make you more
satisfied with your life. Awe does not make you simple-minded – studies suggest awe may be able to sharpen our brains, helping us to think more critically. Awe seems to decrease materialism.

So often, when we think about, talk about the ‘TEN COMMANDMENTS’, there is a sense of guilt and punishment. That impression is not true to a sense of awe, that of right and healthy relationship. More about controlling children by fear.
We do not need to continue the use of old images, even while all that we are saying is from the ancient of days. People are frightened enough. Our suicide rate is ridiculous, our use of drugs, our high rate of incarceration all point to fear: NOT WORKING. We say “Fear of God” – people walk/run away.

All the while, we know that one of the most profound effects of awe is how it can change our perception of ourselves relative to the larger world. Experimentally inducing participants to feel awe led people to acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced way and to better recognize how outside forces contributed to their successes.

And if you’re thinking I don’t have time for all this – well, apparently, Awe can make you feel like you have more time!

A study found that people induced to feel awe felt less impatient and agreed more strongly with statements suggesting that time is plentiful and expansive than people who were induced to feel happiness.

The researchers reported with more time on their hands, people feeling awe reported a greater willingness to offer that time to others—help others, … well we do believe in a God of RELATIONSHIP.

Awe can make you more generous and cooperative. It can make you feel more connected to other people and humanity. (4)

And AWE is biblical.

Our task as Christians is to live as the people of God – which means knowing you are loved | love others, and loving others includes sharing what we ourselves have learned. We know people are struggling – and our Christian based faith forms us to have resilience, compassion, care …. and a large part of that is brought about by living in an awe of God – it is a way of life.

As said earlier, the commandments are about honouring the holiness of life, first by seeing all life as springing from God’s creative wisdom and liberating action, then setting apart times for rest and worship, and finally for having positive and life-affirming relationships with our fellow humans and implicitly with the non-human world. (5)

Living with awe following these commandments leads to personal and communal well-being and in this time of societal distress – we must share what we ourselves have come to know. Belief, faith in God – a God of love and awe makes a difference.

For some reason, though, we are perhaps not doing our best in sharing this with others in a way which opens conversation and consideration.

Perhaps we learned parts of our faith through a system or language that no longer works. If we learned parts of scripture only in fear and trembling, as rules which, when broken, bring punishment, we may need to first re-examine our own thinking to recover our “awe”. We even need to find the awe in the Gospel. This morning is another parable which spotlights
the grace of God and the consequences of turning from God.

The “landowner”, God, does everything possible to save their workers and to bring them back to a positive relationship. The workers in turn, scorn every attempt the landowner makes, violently turning from the owner’s grace to the point of killing his own son. A price now must be paid. There are consequences, we see this to be true in the world around
us, in our homes and relationships, in creation.

Epperly writes, “A graceful God cannot fully nullify the consequences of our behaviour on body, mind, spirit, and social order.” (5)

And so, we need to circle back to where we began – in awe. In awe which is grace and wonder, in grace and wonder which is hope and love… Opening to awe awakens new possibilities and energies. God will find other ways to break into our bubbles of self-centredness. This is the story of our faith and our lived experiences. The cornerstone is not lost. How much more could happen if we stop turning away from God. Make way for awe, and you will know. We can all leave here this morning with a conversation pathway which allows you to share an insight into what gives you a spring in your step, what makes you get out of bed, what gives you hope, what makes you show up to clean the church, help out at the food bank, or the Selwyn Centre or support any number of good causes.

People are struggling to do what you do – and it just doesn’t seem right to not share the good news. Find your own awe inspiration and share it with someone who might be struggling to make their own connections. And sharing it may mean simply accompanying someone who’s having a hard time or sharing a gently “’awe moment”. We are made to do life together. Awe is an invitation to come together and to reach out to those around you, to love more openly, and to receive it more freely. (6) Don’t be afraid because God has come to make sure you are always in awe of God so that you don’t turn away from God.


  3. Timothy Keller

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