Ancient cultures interpreted thunder and lightning as the voice of God. For Ancient Greeks, the lightning was Zeus’ thunderbolts. Indo-Europeans associated thunderbolts with the Sky Father, For Ancient Jews, the lightning was a symbol used for God’s unspeakable name, Yahweh. But more than just a symbol for the divine, lightning was seen as an instrument of cosmic order. The one who hurled thunderbolts changed lives when they did, changed the course of history, spoke their will from the heavens. Scholars believe that the word “Yahweh” was originally the word that described a lightning flash, perhaps even the word that caused the bush in the wilderness to alight when Moses heard the voice of God from the bush. A lightning bolt is still used today with certain action heroes in both DC and Marvel universes as a part of their costume, and it marks Harry Potter as the boy who lived, or chosen one. Even in our scientifically sophisticated world, Lightning bolts, or thunderbolts, are still are used as symbols of power today.
UNEXPECTED. No one expects to be struck by metaphorical lightning, and more than we expect to be struck by physical lightning. It most often strikes when we are doing ordinary things, leading our ordinary lives. We don’t expect to hear the voice of God, or receive sudden moments of insight, or have our world turned upside down on any given day. No. We crawl out of bed expected the EXPECTED things that happen every day. We expect traffic, schedule foul ups, moments of companionship – but we don’t really expect moments when the world as we know it shifts into a totally new direction.
Saul of Tarsus….Saul was a devout Jew. He did everything the traditional way: he ate kosher, he attended Sabbath, did all of the prayers as proscribed. Probably if you asked a Jew on the Street in his time, they would tell you that he was greatly admired, even the person that parents pointed to with their children to show them how to be a good Jew. And because he was admired and trusted he was given the task by the High Priest of going to Damascus to root out the dangerous thinking there among people who called themselves followers of THE WAY – the early Christians.
When Saul got up that morning, he probably just expected it to be his final day of travelling on a trip of several days. It’s about 135 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus in Syria– about 40 hours of travelling in his day. At least three long days. As he approached the city, he would need to find the Christians who were in hiding, arrest them and take them back to Jerusalem in chains. As a passionate defender of the faith, he might have been a bit excited as he anticipated the day’s events – but also a bit unsure how all this would go and how quickly he could accomplish his mission and get back on the road.
Up to this point, Saul’s life had been according to pattern. He was a traditionalist’s traditional believer. A Pharisee – those who adhered to the strictest of rules and went above and beyond them in their faith and life all of the time. Predictable – some might say rigid observers of the law. Saul didn’t expect to have an experience of God on that road to the city of Damascus. He didn’t expect to hear the voice of God, or receive a sudden moment of insight, or have his world turned upside down.
– But it did.
After. Every one of the experiences of being THUNDERSTRUCK by God seems to divide nicely into life before and after. Before is the normal pattern of life. After – everything is changed.
Biblical examples: The Bible records a number of stories of people who experience a sudden and unexpected experience of God. Jacob seeing the ladder of angels and becoming aware that God is in places without our awareness; Moses with a burning bush; Gideon with a call to leadership that he tests rather persistently with a fleece; Isaiah in the Temple and his vision of the holy as he is called to be a prophet; Mary as the angel Gabriel announces her calling and mission. LOTS of stories. ALL of them have a very different life AFTER their experience of God.
a. Something Pivots – even Clicks. There is a pivot point that comes with these experiences of being THUNDERSTRUCK by God.
n New insight like Saul (Persecuting the LORD!) or Isaiah (I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips)
n a new calling or purpose like Moses and Mary,
n a whole new way of seeing the world like Jacob or Isaiah. (God was in this place and I didn’t know it!)
Sometimes this experience means joy and wonder – like Isaiah at the Temple or Mary after hearing the news from Gabriel. Sometimes it brings a very different life path – like Abram and Sarai packing up in their old age.
FOR US, if we are lucky enough to have this experience, it may take us on a path that brings us greater joy. It may be when we
Find our mate, our person. Like in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, Italian expression for being hit by the thunderbolt (colpo di fulmine)
Find our vocation…. Climb every mountain….Audra McDonald sang as the Mother Abbess in the live televised version – and you can find it when she sang in concert at the Kennedy Center.[i]
Climb every mountain, Search high and low, Follow every byway, Every path you know. Climb every mountain, Ford every stream, Follow every rainbow, 'Till you find your dream. A dream that will need All the love you can give, Every day of your life For as long as you live.[ii]
“Find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Wisdom Popularized by Harvey Mackay. [iii]
AFTER we are thunderstruck – everything is changed. We are changed. Life is changed. The world is changed – because we have come close to a wild and strange experience of God.
We may well wonder what this particular gift of the Dark Wood, the gift of being thunderstruck, has to do with us. We may never have experienced this gift of being thunderstruck. Most of us PROBABLY haven’t had this experience.
Perhaps this is important as “a word to the wise” so that IF you have an experience of being thunderstruck, you don’t think it’s the end of the world. People DO have these experiences, and there IS an AFTER the event life – that is different and mostly more meaningful than the BEFORE. All of our biblical characters would agree. Certainly Saul, exemplary Jew that he was found a great deal more meaning and purpose in his life after his experience of the living Christ. His name change to PAUL reflects his AFTER-life.
MY EXPERIENCE of being Thunderstruck came in my first experience of preaching. I was on staff in a church happily doing Christian Education and youth ministry, family ministry and intergenerational ministry – program stuff and I loved it. But the pastor with whom I was working pushed me to preach. He had to push pretty hard – I really was resisting pastoral ministry pretty determinedly. I enjoyed the preparation on the sermon that week very much. It was similar to preparing a retreat for the youth with speeches and topics – but for a broader audience. But when the day arrived and I began to preach, I felt the power of God moving through me, the spirit of God filling me and speaking with me – and I was thunderstruck. When the service was over, Randy said that I was glowing and I announced to Lincoln that I couldn’t live without this. He sagely nodded and began discussing the next steps towards seminary.
My own experience of being thunderstruck was one of vocational clarity and a shift in direction quite literally, as we moved our family to Tennessee. It also involved giving up some things that I hadn’t anticipated along the journey – as well as some amazing new experiences, also unanticipated. So I would say that if you experience being thunderstruck with a new sense of what God is calling you to do – don’t miss the journey.
But I think that there is another way that this can be a gift for us. It helps us see more clearly, even if the experience isn’t our own. My Grandad told a story of a really frightening plane flight. The plane took off in a storm, and the pilot warned the passengers that it would be a rough ride. The fasten seatbelts signs never were turned off, and soon the turbulence became enough that he wondered if the plane would break apart. As he looked out the window, the lightning was cracking across the night sky spectacularly and often. Then the plane faltered, and tilted rather alarmingly. Many of the passengers cried out in alarm and the voice of the captain come over the loudspeaker announcing that one of the engines had failed. They were about 40 minutes from an airport where they could make an emergency landing, and then passengers would be put on another plane for the rest of the journey. The captain’s calm remarks led the passengers to believe that everything was under control – but the turbulence didn’t let up and the plane’s balance was way off. An anxious 40 minutes later, the plane landed hard and bounced and spun a bit as it landed. When Grandad left the plane, he commented to one of the flight attendants who still looked shaken. “This was serious. It was frightening. Remember – from here on out, all the rest of your life is a gift.” He thought his words might give her comfort, until she looked him in the eyes and said with calm assurance, “It’s all gift, sir. Right from the very beginning.” We don’t have to experience being thunderstruck to know that. But it may remind us.
It may be that the Dark Wood has even more mysteries and gifts than we know. In the moments that are beyond our control, when the lightning flashes and the storm swirls around us, we may glimpse a power and mystery that satisfies even when we can’t even begin to understand. Like Job, we may be looking around us and wondering, “Why?” and then BOOM! CRACK! Lightning arcs across the sky -- And we say, “Okay. I understand. You are God. We’re good.” And perhaps we’ll nod as we remember that its ALL gift. Before the moment of “Aha!” – and after. It’s all gift.
[ii] “Climb Every Mountain,” by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein.
It never fit in the sermon anywhere, but Roy Cleveland Campbell, a park ranger at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia was struck by lightning seven times. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Sullivan