Sermon series: The Songs of Christmas
- Simeon's Song, Nunc Dimittis - Luke 2
- The Angels' Song, Gloria - Luke 2
- Zechariah's Song, Benedictus - Luke 1
- Mary's Song, The Magnificat - Luke 1
President John F. Kennedy's goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's launched the space program and our imaginations. Everyone seemed caught up in the hope and then the reality of human beings transported through space to walk on the surface of the moon. But as with any feat, no matter how significant, the admiration wanes and the enthrallment leaks. Such was the case near the end of NASA's Apollo program.
Jack Needleman was one of the reporters covering the launch of Apollo 17 in December of 1972. It was a night launch. Jack joined with other reporters, who made it a social occasion. They strolled the lawn of the press section of the Kennedy Space Center, where refreshments were laid out on picnic tables, and all was business as usual.
But then the countdown began and all eyes and cameras turned toward the 36-story high Atlas rocket, even jaded reporters got more were overcome. As Needleman told the story in Bill Moyer's book A World of Ideas, the reporters were suddenly all but blinded by an extraordinary orange light, which was just at the limit of what one can bear to look at.
Then the rocket rose slowly against the dark canopy of night in total silence, because it took a few seconds for the sound to come across the distance. When the sound waves strike, they washed over the reporters with a thunder that rattled their bones. Needleman said, "You could practically hear jaws dropping."
The rocket traveled higher, then higher still, as the first stage ignited in spectacular blue flame. It seemed to have become a star as it carried three men bound for glory. And then . . . it was gone, vanished into the periphery of the atmosphere and on into the depths of space. Jack Needleman said silence ensued among the press corps. The wisecracks died out. Mens' eyes were filled with light, their mouths wide open, and their faces lit by the inner glow of sheer wonder.
The whole demeanor of these hardened newspapermen was changed. They got up quietly, offering to help one another. They were kind and reverent. When they did speak, it was in muted tones as though fearful of spoiling the moment. Wonder had done its work. (lan W. Steier, Linton, North Dakota. Leadership, Vol. 16, no. 3; online at www.preachingtoday.com. See also "Apollo 17" @ http://en.wikipedia.org.)
As we draw near to Christmas, it seems to me that it is exactly this experience that we are in danger of missing. In our day, when technological advances have explained huge mysteries and scientists are peering into our DNA and movie-makers can render on screen spectacles of such magnitude that it boggles the mind, I fear we are in danger of losing something--something powerful, something needed, something that can reawaken our souls. It is wonder that is endangered in our day.
A sense of wonder comes when our expectations are exceeded. Wonder is being astonished at the fantastic, jolted by splendor. It is the byproduct of being the presence of something that takes your breath away. But there is also an element of the will to wonder.
You know it's true: You and I can choose to be dull in the presence of glory; to yawn when I should exult; to cross my arms when I should be applauding. In our "been there, done that, got the t-shirt" culture, it's become cool to be "anti-thrilled" at something spectacular. But there's something wrong with our hearts when something great only brings a drowsy interest.
A century ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote, "The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder." This morning, the Holy Spirit means to break in on you with the surprise of Christmas. Consider that first Christmas, and the wonder of His birth.
I. The wonder of His birth
Awe touched Elizabeth and Mary.
Angelic appearances to this very old woman and this teenage virgin were shocking enough, but consider what they said! God had made the impossible possible: they would each give birth to miracle sons who would be connected together in a movement that would sweep the globe and change the lives of people forever after. Can't you just see Elizabeth and Mary, embracing and weeping with joy?
Holy fear gripped Joseph.
Or consider the huge reversals for Joseph, who got news of the pregnancy and believed what any of us would have until an angel cleared it up for him. He can't sleep the rest of that night, waiting for the dawn and a chance to find Mary and tell her that all was well between them.
"Mary, Mary you had better sit down; there's something I have to tell you." And Mary would reply, "I'm so glad you've come; there's something you need to know as well." And they would each tell their angel stories. Joseph spills out the angel's message, that Mary's pregnancy is the work of God Himself, and that the child will be a boy, who is to be named Jesus, which means "Yahweh will save," "because He will save His people from their sins."
And Mary breaks in, "That's the name the angel told me as well!" And she would tell of Elizabeth's pregnancy and that the identity of this baby boy was "the Son of the Most High," and that the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end. (Luke 1:32-33) And laughter would replace fear and shouts would ring out as they danced and prayed and cried and spoke of their future together. Wonder took hold, don't you see! Things that simply cannot be, are!
Marvelous intersections of eternity and time surrounded Jesus' Birth.
In 9 months, the birthday of this baby will come. In what manner shall this birth occur? I imagine Mary and Joseph thought about this a hundred times. The Bible says that it was a normal birth like all others. But the child Himself is unique in mind-blowiing ways. He who spoke light into existence at Creation will see with human eyes for the first time. He who sits on the circle of the earth will be completely dependent upon Mary for His survival. And she laid Him in a feed trough, in back of an inn, surprised once more that God, who had superintended every detail of Christ's coming, would choose so humble a debut.
And then there were the shepherds, who had their lives changed by a song, which is unique among the songs we are studying from Luke 1-2 in that it has a backup choir. It is recorded for us in Luke 2:8-20. It is the Angels' Gloria. And it holds wonder!
"In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Don't be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: today a Savior, who is • Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David. This will be the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough."
Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors! When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the feeding trough.
After seeing [them], they reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told.
And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Step into these fields and join the shepherds and you will once again be greeted with joyous surprise. What strikes me here, what humbles my heart and quiets my soul is that God, the God of all there is; God who is ringed with angels who declare His glory; God to whom messengers attend and move with strength and speed at His will . . . this God comes to nobodies.
Let me fill in the back story here. The Pharisees of that time said that there were six professions that were unworthy. One of those was shepherding. A shepherd was not permitted to give testimony in a court of law. A shepherd was not allowed to enter a synagogue, because the requirements of his job kept him ritually unclean. There was at least one occasion in Israel's history where shepherding was assigned as a punishment for sin (Num. 14:33). People simply had no dealings with shepherds.
But God did. When He chose to reveal the greatest news anyone would ever hear, He went to the least and the last, the social and spiritual outcasts, the despised and the distrusted. God's coming to shepherds with this word would be much like picking up the newspaper tomorrow morning and finding a story of a group of hoodlums, who while they were counting all they had stolen from the pocketbooks of Gulf Shores, suddenly got a visit from the angel of the Lord, who said to them, "Look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy . . . today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David."
The shepherds, of course, did not grasp all that they were hearing. You can't capture Niagara in a teacup, or the ocean in a single straw. But they were the first to know of it. And this is wonderful news, friends. Because at the center of the gospel is the truth that the knowledge of God is not strictly an intellectual experience. It's not something that is given only to the powerful or to the educated or the deserving. It's to the shepherds, to the ungood."
I always enjoy reading letters that children write to Santa Claus. One little guy wrote, "Dear Santa, you did not bring me anything good last year. You did not bring me anything good the year before that. This is your last chance. Signed, Alfred."
But this remains my favorite: "Dear Santa, there are three little boys who live at our house. There is Jeffrey; he is 2. There is David. He is 4. And there is Norman; he is 7. Jeffrey is good some of the time. David is good some of the time. But Norman is good all of the time. I am Norman." But we aren't Normans. We're shepherds. (From the sermon "Glory to God in the Lowest" by Bruce Thielemann, at www.preachingtoday.com.)
Two thousand years ago, God delivered highly sensitive, vitally important news to ungood shepherds. He still does today. Marvel that He came for you. Be stunned again with the remarkable truth that God searched you out with the Gospel. He did not give up with you were indulging in sin or resistant to His kind invitations, too busy and worldly to care for Him or His Son. He simply loved you enough to one day awaken you to the irresistible music of Good News of great joy to the saving of your soul. And once you heard that song, your heart swelled to its sound and you believed.
II. Awakening wonder
Now I know it's possible that you're hearing the words I'm saying but remain unmoved by what they describe. So let me close by telling you how you can recover wonder this Christmas.
A. Wonder begins in the presence of God
Verse 16 tells us that the shepherds dropped everything and ran to Bethlehem. They raced through the streets, ducking into every stable to search for newborns. Finally, they "found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby was lying in the feed trough." They were in the very presence of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. They had seen the resplendent light, heard the sounds, confirmed the signs. With the thunder of an angel chorus replaced by the cooing of a nursing infant, wonder crowded out every other emotion.
Hear me this morning: Get yourself into the presence of God. It isn't hard; He is here. That you have missed Him doesn't change the truth. Let the glory of His nearness to the likes of you penetrate past your defenses.
B. Wonder becomes contagious
When something is wonderful, you just have to tell somebody else about it. And then they get in on it. You're excited about some news - there's no cancer! Our daughter and son-in-law are expecting their first baby! What do you do? You spread the joy! To keep quiet about it would just be wrong because wonder is contagious.
Verse 17 tells us that's what happened with the shepherds. " After seeing [them], they reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them." Maybe the reason we witness so rarely about Christ is that we wonder so rarely at what God has done for us in Him. Because once you let the truth in, once you drop your guard and are overwhelmed by the glory of it, it will flow from you like an artesian well of joy, and wonder in Christ will spread.
C. Wonder births worship
The shepherds saw, heard, and felt God. And what did they do? "The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told." (Luke 2:20). When shepherds act like spiritual people, alive to God, joyous in Him, something big has happened. Wonder became worship. Discovery created delight. Truth had vibrated their bones. They believed in Christ, and the core of their life was altered forever. That first Christmas was a day that changed everything.
In Chicken Soup for the Soul, Dan Millman tells the story of Sachi. When she was four years old her baby brother was born. Little Sachi began to ask her parents to leave her alone with the new baby. They worried that, like most four-year-olds, she might feel jealous and want to hit or shake him, so they said no.
Over time, though, since Sachi wasn't showing signs of jealousy, they changed their minds and decided to let Sachi have her private conference with the baby. Elated, Sachi went into the baby's room and shut the door, but it opened a crack - enough for her curious parents to peek in and listen. They saw little Sachi walk quietly up to her baby brother, put her face close to his, and say, "Baby, tell me what God feels like. I'm starting to forget." (From Chicken Soup for the Soul, p. 283)
Christmas should be the time we snuggle up close to God to see, to feel, and to hear His heart once more. It is a time when things that cannot be, are. Does your wonder need reawakened? Do you need to see Christmas again for the first time through the eyes of a child? Open your eyes - see the light. Open your heart - feel the emotions. Open your mind - understand the meaning. Open your ears - Do you hear what I hear? There's a song in the air and a baby in a feed box and everything is gloriously topsy-turvy as God breaks into this world and into your life.