Restoring Wonder - Christmas Eve 2017
It happened one spring day on a school camping trip. I was hiking with the kids and another adult chaperone, and I saw a stand of yellow wildflowers growing in a clearing. “I wonder what flower that is?” My fellow chaperone pulled out his smart phone and said, “Let’s find out.”and within seconds we learned that what we were looking at was solidago, of the aster family, more commonly known as goldenrod.
I have often wondered if for me this moment marked the end of age: the age of wonder.
Before the advent of google and smart phones, I used to wonder about lots of things:
why do squirrels run in short bursts?
what is the weather like in Ohio today?
what does ‘pernicious’ mean?
What is the slightly alcoholic flavor in my lobster bisque?
Now with the world at my fingertips, I can know anything in a moment. I don’t need to wonder about anything anymore.
Now don’t get me wrong—I am grateful for my smart phone. I can find almost any scripture passage within seconds, and I don’t get lost anymore. But sometimes I think we may have lost something – The world has become bits of information for us to consume. It has lost some of its mystery. We don’t wonder anymore because we have seen everything already.
Is it still possible in this technological age to be startled by something surprising and beautiful ? Is it still possible to stand in awe of the unexpected?
It is a question that seems especially salient this time of year. We have heard the story of the shepherds in the field and the baby in a manger so many times that it can seem dusty and worn. The sentiment in the carols and cards can sound cliché. It is hard to be surprised by a story you know by heart. It’s hard to stand in awe of something that has become routine (tradition). The meaning of Christmas can be swallowed up by going through the motions.
So as I read the Christmas story as a preacher, I try to look at it with new eyes. And as I read it tonight, I think that perhaps we are not the only ones who have trouble seeing the wonder of the world around us. I think about those shepherds, out in the field night after night with their sheep. They didn’t have the problem of light pollution blocking out most of the stars. Every night they had a grand display of the glory of God every night they could lift their gaze toward other worlds. The psalms express the wonder of this moment: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
But do you suppose that the shepherds did that every night? I think they were probably like us with our Christmas story, used to the night’s sky’s shimmer and dulled to its spectacular glory. Plus, they had sheep to look after, thieves and wolves to look out for, stories to tell around the campfire. The shepherds were like the rest of us, taking care of business, not gazing up at the stars.
But sometimes there are things that shake us out of our workaday perspectives. This past August, I spent a week with 6 of our youth on a mission trip in Orland ME. On our day off, we got up at 3am to drive to Cadillac Mountain in Accadia National Park and see the sunrise. Now, I have to admit, I thought this was a crazy idea. What teens want to forgo sleep to get up early any day? Especially their day off!
But to my surprise, the kids were excited about it—so I wasn’t going to be the party pooper. We got up at 3am as planned, drove the hour, parked the car, and trudged up the mountain in the dark. To my surprise, there were a lot of other people up there!
From the top of the mountain we saw the inky black give way to deep purple. The horizon began to brighten, and the sky turned pink and peach and yellow and when the sun finally broke the horizon, the crowd began to cheer.
Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.
The sun rises every day without much fanfare, but on this day the sunrise and timeless words of scripture restored our sense of wonder.
I think that is what must have happened for the shepherds that night so long ago.
The stars above them, which they had seen thousands of times before, suddenly burst into song! The sky was transformed into an angelic host, proclaiming the message: God is here! “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!” God does not dwell far off, in some distant heaven, separated from daily life and immune to human struggle. God is in a baby, in human skin, ready to be cared for and grow up, and ready to walk with love and justice alongside the people that God loves.
The angel chorus lifted the shepherds’ eyes to see the wonder of God all around them.
Now perhaps you and I don’t get the angelic host visiting us. But we still have their message: that the God of the universe, who created worlds we can only glimpse at in the night sky, who is as great as a supernova and as infinitesimal as the atom deigned to come to be one of us. Another psalm praising the God of universe says:
What are human beings that you are mindful of them?
We echo the question: Why care about us?
It seems positively rich—preposterous.
And yet that is the Christmas message: God became human to know you. Jesus came to be with you. God came in the lofty choir of angels and in the mundane baby to show us that God’s blessing and love are all around us, in every particle, in every being. And in hearing that audacity of that message, to see the holy and the everyday juxtaposed, restores our sense of wonder.
Once the shepherds recovered their dumbfounded voices, they said
“Let us go now to see this thing which the Lord has made known to us!”
This Christmas, let that be our mantra, too.
Let us go and see what God is doing in the world.
Let us look for the places where God is bringing healing and forgiveness
Let us see with fresh eyes the fragile beauty of this planet, our island home.
Let us see within each other the face of Jesus, and the wonders of his love.