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Of Amazement and Ecstasy


Acts 9:21                                 Acts 12:16                                Mark 6:51

“Did you enjoy the piano recital?” someone asks me. “Yes,” I reply; “I enjoyed it.” In my cool, objective, critical detachment I have assessed the quality of the evening’s music-making.

But when Chopin played the piano people didn’t leave the concert hall saying, “That was rather good, wasn’t it.” People didn’t leave. They didn’t move. They couldn’t. They were immobilized, speechless as well. Chopin had hands as large as a gorilla’s. With his oversized meat hooks he could caress a piano key as sensitively as a blind person senses Braille. Those who heard Chopin play were beside themselves, taken out of themselves, never the same again.

I was born too late to hear Chopin play. But several years ago in Ottawa I heard Kathleen Battle “live” for the first time. My favourite soprano, Beverley Sills, had retired. Kathleen Battle was now a star in the musical firmament. At the Ottawa concert she sang all too briefly, I thought, but made up for it with several encores. The first was an operatic piece. The second was Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. She sang it without accompaniment. Do you know what it is to hear a soprano like her sing a haunting black spiritual when she, a black woman, is only three generations removed from slavery herself? The man sitting behind me began weeping and couldn’t stop.

I wasn’t present, several years ago, when General Douglas MacArthur, the old campaigner, delivered his last public address to the cadets at West Point , the military academy that had been closer to MacArthur’s heart than anything else throughout his notable military career. I didn’t hear his address, Truth, Duty, Honour. I’m told that those who heard it have never been the same.

Being pleased at a performance is one thing. It’s entirely something else to be caught up in an event that takes you out of yourself. And for this latter development the Greeks have a word (as usual.) The word is ekstasis. The English word “ecstasy” nowadays means “intense pleasure.” But the Greek word ekstasis is derived from ek (“out) and stasis (“standing”); “standing-out.” For the Greek mind ekstasis means “amazement”, but not amazement in the shallow sense of “Wasn’t that something!” Amazement, rather, in the sense that we’ve been drawn into an event that has taken us out of ourselves and left us standing outside our “self”, outside our everyday “self.” Now we are “beside” ourselves, as we often say. We are even a different person.

If hearing Kathleen Battle sing or General MacArthur speak can do this on a creaturely level, what kind of “amazement” – transformation – occurs when we are overtaken by an event pregnant with God himself? Over and over scripture speaks of this kind of amazement, the profoundest possible.

Today we are going to look at several instances of it.


I: — The first concerns the Christian people in Damascus who are amazed at the preaching of Paul. “Isn’t this the man who slashed and scythed those who called on the name of Jesus?” they not to one another. They are amazed that the arch-persecutor of Christians has become a disciple and a witness.

Paul had been the chief villain in the savage treatment accorded the earliest Christians. He harassed them, hammered down the door of their homes, had them imprisoned, and had even arranged for some of them to be put to death. And then he is found standing up in Damascus , the site of his inner and outer turnaround; he’s commending Jesus Christ even as he urges hearers to put their trust in him. Someone had overtaken him on the Damascus road; the same one had overwhelmed him, taken him out of himself, and therein altered him forever. He in turn now overwhelms those who are already Christians. They now stand amazed, beside themselves, at what God has done.

We must never minimize the difference that faith in Jesus Christ makes. We now have a different standing before God (from condemnation to acquittal.) We now live in a different relationship with him (from indifference or hostility to love.) We possess a different self-understanding (we are a child of God, no longer a cosmic orphan.) We are motivated by a different aim in life (from “yuppie” hedonism to self-forgetful service of our Lord through our suffering neighbour.) We should never minimize this difference.

On the other hand we should never minimize the difference that faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t make. Our Lord’s incursion into our lives doesn’t make us silly or freakish or psychotic; doesn’t change us so as to make us unrecognizable. Our Lord’s incursion doesn’t mean that the quiet woman suddenly becomes a man-eater or the assertive fellow a wimp. A difference like this would merely point to psychological imbalance, even outright mental illness. Instead God adopts, newly deploys whatever we are. The zeal and persistence and undiscourageability Paul showed in persecuting Christians are the same zeal, persistence and undiscourageability now rechannelled in the service of Christ and kingdom and church.

It was the same with Malcolm Muggeridge after he had come to faith. The waggish sense of humour and the splendid turn of phrase and the sharp eye for contradiction and corruption that marked Muggeridge’s journalism during his pagan years were precisely the same qualities that came wonderfully to be used on behalf of the gospel.

You’ve often heard me speak of Martin Niemoeller, the pastor and leader of the Confessing Church who was imprisoned in Germany for eight years, 1937-1945. Niemoeller was the brightest student in his class at the Naval Academy . He was also the most resistant to any institutional conformity he regarded as pointless or demeaning. He was never expelled for insubordination during his days as a naval cadet, but he came close. At the close of World War I Niemoeller, now a submarine captain, was instructed by German Naval authorities to deliver two submarines to the British government as part of the Armistice arrangements. “I won’t do it,” Niemoeller replied; “I don’t grovel; I don’t creep around, cap in hand. I lost too many friends and classmates in U-boats whose memory I won’t dishonour by demeaning myself in this way. If you want submarines delivered, Admiral Fat Cat Whoever-You-Are, then you deliver them.” The twenty-six year old Niemoeller could have been court-martialled and his naval pension cancelled. He could have been punished in almost any manner at all. His audacity was stunning.

It was the same combination of intellectual brilliance and nervy defiance that became, by grace, the spearhead of his resistance to Hitler and of the encouragement he gave to fellow-strugglers in the Confessing Church . When everyone else feared crossing Der Fuehrer, Niemoeller went out of his way in public to dress down Hitler for molesting the church. Niemoeller knew that a fearsome price would have to be paid for this, but he also knew that if the gospel doesn’t free us to speak the truth and pay the price then gospel doesn’t do anything.

After World War II it was the same combination of traits in Niemoeller that became, by grace, the spearhead of his intercession for ordinary civilians. American authorities had unjustly accused these civilians of being Nazis and were about to punish them. Niemoeller was incensed. “Are you telling me,” he foamed at American military judges, “that the clerk in the local grocery store merits the same treatment as the architects and torturers of the Third Reich?”

Our union with Christ doesn’t make us something we aren’t. Instead it redirects, rechannels, re-deploys what we are in the service of Christ and kingdom and church. This point is important. I think there are many thoughtful, earnest, eager people who are attracted to Jesus Christ, who want to stand with him, and who want to do on behalf of others what they know discipleship mandates them to do. But they are held off by one thing: they fear that faith in our Lord will turn them into religious oddities, psychologically bizarre, somehow distorted. They must be brought to see that intimacy with Jesus Christ doesn’t turn us into religious screwballs. Instead it redirects whatever we are into the service of him whose mission it is to heal the raging haemorrhages of the human heart and the world at large.

The Christians in Damascus were amazed – speechless, beside themselves – when they came upon Paul announcing the gospel. Together with the apostle they had been overwhelmed by an event that had taken them out of themselves, altered them profoundly, encouraged them endlessly, and reconfirmed their faith in the truth and efficacy of the gospel.


II: — In the second place a handful of Christians in Jerusalem was amazed at the providence of God. Peter is in prison. A knock is heard at the door of the house belonging to Mark’s mother. Rhoda goes to the door. She recognizes Peter’s voice. (No doubt he was urging her to let him in before Herod’s goon squad caught up with him again.) Rhoda, startled, runs back into the kitchen to tell the group that it’s Peter at the door when he’s supposed to be in prison. They tell her she’s mad. They open the door, see Peter, and are “amazed,” the English text tells us. Actually they were beside themselves, speechless. An event has unfolded that has overwhelmed them, altered them, and left them different people, rejoicing people, newly-confident people. The event is an act of providence.

How are we supposed to explain providence?   If we had time this morning we could finesse what philosophers call “co-planar causality,” a situation where an event is undetermined in one plane yet directed in another plane. We haven’t time this morning.

But I must say this. Regardless of what we say about providence, regardless of what explanations we put forward, we had better not make God the author of the very thing his face is dead set against: evil. And we had better not attribute to God the behaviour for which we lock up human beings.

At the same time I have lived long enough to know that there have been providences without number in my life. I know that God presides and provides.   When Bishop William Temple, a giant in the Anglican Church several decades ago, was asked to explain providence he replied, “I can’t explain it. All I know is, as long as I keep praying the “coincidences” keep happening; when I stop, they stop.”

For myself I have found that whenever I’ve suffered significant setback (what I consider significant setback) it’s always been followed by something that lifts me and encourages me and enthuses me. I continue to find it startling.

I began today by telling you I was overwhelmed by Kathleen Battle. Earlier still I had been overwhelmed in like manner (albeit more profoundly) by Professor Emil Fackenheim. I had been Fackenheim’s student as an undergraduate and a graduate. I knew he was one of the century’s finest philosophers. One evening, years after I was no longer his student, he gave a public address at the University of Toronto . He overwhelmed me again, stunned me as he had often stunned me before. His address was followed by a question-and-answer period, an arrangement that I felt to be unendurable in the wake of what we had just heard. I knew I couldn’t withstand hearing people follow him with trivial comment or nit-picking criticism or whatever, and so I slipped out of the lecture hall and went home. Next day I wrote him a letter telling him why I had left. I told him as well what he had meant to me as a professor of philosophy, how weighty his influence had been, how he had stamped himself indelibly upon me.

Six months later Fackenheim and I were at a party together. He took me into a corner and told me my letter had meant everything to him. He said he’d been going through a bad period personally, with upheavals on many fronts. In it all he had begun wondering if in his decades of university teaching he had done anything for anyone, begun wondering if he’d ever ignited a student, wondering if he’d made a significant difference to even one person. He had become very depressed. Then he’d received my letter telling him that he had made a life-altering difference to me. “Your letter,” he told me, “did more for me than you will ever know. It got me back above water.” I in turn was amazed again.

You people frequently get to hear my personal stories. I don’t get to hear yours as often. But I’m sure if we sat down together you could talk to me for an hour about the providences in your life that have left you quietly amazed. Remember: the Greek word ekstasis that we translate “amazed” doesn’t mean “surprised.” It means overwhelmed by an event that finds us “standing beside ourselves” as it were, takes us out of ourselves, and leaves us forever different. Bishop William Temple maintained that this kept happening as long as he kept praying.


III: — Lastly. In Mark’s gospel the disciples are in a boat during a fierce storm. Terror-struck, they are overtaken as Jesus Christ steals upon them and speaks his unique word: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” The storm abates, and they are “amazed.”

We need to know that Mark’s gospel was written during the fierce persecutions of Emperor Nero. Christians are being fed to wild animals in the Coliseum, or crucified or burnt alive. The tiny church, seemingly fragile then as now, appears about to be engulfed. In the middle of Nero’s storm (thirty-five years after the event described in Mark’s gospel) the same Lord appears and speaks the same word to these newer disciples, one generation later: “Take heart. It is I. Have no fear.” And they are as amazed in the year 65 C.E. as were their mothers and fathers in faith a generation earlier.

Mark wants us to know that when our Lord appears to have abandoned us to the fury of whatever hurricane is upon us, in fact he hasn’t. He comes to us as often as we need him, and his coming to us is sufficient.

We must be sure to understand something crucial here: however often you and I have found our Lord to be sufficient for our needs, we are never such advanced disciples that we are beyond needing his approach and word again. We are never advanced to the point that all we need do is recall that we have proved him sufficient in the past. The truth is, we always stand in need of a fresh visitation. In other words, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, a learner, is always a matter of learning all over again.

I used to be disheartened by this inasmuch as I thought myself to be a slow learner, uncommonly slow; such a slow learner, in fact, as seemingly to be a non-learner. Now, however, I’m no longer disheartened about myself. I realize now that life’s twists and turns are always new. I’m aware of something else as well: however much we can anticipate in our head, we can’t anticipate anything in our heart. Above all, while we can always store up food and medicine and money we can never store up our Lord. He has to come to us as often as the storm threatens. And so he does. “Take heart. It is I. Have no fear.”

There are days when we are strikingly aware of his approach. There are other days when our head believes the promise even as our stomach seems not to. On both days we are comforted by friends who are the vehicle of our Lord’s comfort. In it all we aren’t forsaken. And in God’s own time we shall be amazed yet again.


Because God lives and God loves he will continue to overtake us, overwhelm us, render us beside ourselves as he rechannels our gifts and personalities in the service of the gospel. He will do as much again as he startles with that providence which remains the stuff of life. He will do as much too as he stays our panic once more.                                           Victor Shepherd   May 2005