“’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads. And Ma in her kerchief and I in my cap had just settled down for a long winter’s nap. When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash. The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gave a luster of noonday to objects below. When what to my wondering eyes did appear but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.” (“A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore”)
Whenever I read this poem, I remember the pictures in the book that my parents would read to my brothers and me every Christmas Eve, right after they’d manage to a snap a photo of the four of us in our new pajamas, sitting in front of the fireplace, where “the stockings were hung by the chimney with care.” I can still see the page in the book where the man is looking out the window with a mixture of excitement and fear and confusion at something he just couldn’t get his head around. I love how the poet Clement C. Moore describes him as having “wondering eyes.”
Wonder is a special kind of feeling. It’s different from awe or admiration or excitement or surprise. It includes those things, but there’s something more. Wonder is the feeling we have when we come face to face with something that we can’t explain and, more importantly, know in the depths of our souls that we’ll never be able to explain or even fully comprehend. We wonder when we come face to face with mystery.
When was the last time you had “wondering eyes”? When was the last time you experienced something so far outside the boundaries of your ordinary routine and understanding that it caused you to wonder? We might feel awe at seeing something of great beauty and power—the vastness of the ocean or a towering mountain range, or the explosion of color when the sunlight hits the autumn leaves at just the right angle. We might feel admiration for the musical virtuoso or a gold medal Olympian or a selfless hero. We might feel a deep solemnity when we witness a momentous event. But, wonder? That’s a feeling we don’t have very often.
It’s not because we don’t have the opportunity. It’s because mystery makes us uncomfortable. We can explain so many things now, and with easy explanations right at our fingertips, we tend to turn away from what we can’t explain. Being able to explain things gives us a sense of mastery, and we like feeling like we’re in control of our lives. Mystery surrounds the things we can’t explain. We can’t control the mysterious, so we do everything we can to avoid it. Or, we assure ourselves that there’s an explanation out there; we just don’t know it yet. We even have a hymn that assures us that, when it comes to the mysteries we confront in life, “we’ll understand it better by and by.”
And yet, wonder-worthy mystery is at the heart of our faith. There’s so much we can’t understand. We can explain how the world came to exist, but we can’t explain why God chose to create it. We can’t explain the mystery of the Trinity. We can’t explain how a virgin could become pregnant, or how Jesus could be both fully human and fully divine all the time. We can’t explain how a handful of water can change who we are, or how a bite of bread and drop of grape juice can convey God’s love and Spirit to us. It’s all a mystery.
As faithful people, we don’t reject these divine mysteries. But we still insulate ourselves from them. We do this by simply taking them for granted. Words like “Creator” and “virgin birth” and “Son of God” and “Communion” tumble from our lips with just about as much wonder as our telephone numbers or email addresses. But, we cut ourselves off from wonder to our peril. Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious . . . . [The one] who can no longer pause to wonder … is as good as dead.”
When we stop to wonder, we allow our spirits to simply absorb the mystery of who God is. We don’t try to explain it. We don’t try to manage or control it. We allow ourselves to be wrapped in the mystery of what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do. And, I’m convinced that this wonder creates in us a space for the peace of God to flow in.
Wonder makes space for God’s peace to flow in, and the peace we are promised is itself an object of wonder. Jesus promised us the gift of peace. His peace isn’t your garden-variety kind of peace. It’s not just an absence of conflict. This is a peace that came from his relationship with his Father and enabled him to be at peace with others. A peace that enabled him to face the cross with acceptance. A peace that goes beyond all we can understand or explain. A mysterious peace. A peace that comes to us as we allow ourselves to wonder, and then causes us to wonder some more.
This peace has its roots in righteousness—the alignment of ourselves with God and God’s purposes. This is one of the reasons we have the season of Advent. Like Lent, it’s a time of self-examination and repentance—a time of seeing where we’re out of alignment, like a car that pulls to the left or the right and needs some adjustment so that it can travel in a straight path. Isaiah tells us that “the effect of righteousness will be peace…[and] quietness and trust forever” (Isaiah 32:17). Jeremiah prophesied that the one who will lead us to this righteousness will be the promised one, whom we know to be Jesus.
Even before Jesus promised us his peace, Zechariah announced it in the passage we read today. “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us…to guide our feet into the way of peace.” God promises us a pathway to peace. That pathway would be the way of Jesus, and on it we find a peace that changes our relationships with God, with others, and even with ourselves.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains that our faith in Jesus is reckoned to us as righteousness, and he goes on to say that “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” So often we’re like headstrong children, wanting our own way, rebelling against our parent’s desires for us. If you’ve ever had any interactions with young people who are trying to establish their independence, you know that this is anything but a peaceful process.
Unfortunately, our sinfulness puts us into a constant state of rebellion against God. Our rebellions may be as small as an uncharitable thought here and there, but they are acts of rebellion just the same. We know we’re acting in opposition to God and disrupting our relationship with God. We deprive ourselves of any real sense of peace.
But by our faith in Jesus, we are justified and made righteous. We’re given the power to tame our sinfulness so that we can enjoy the promised peace with God. We become what James calls a “friend of God.” Imagine that—being friends with God. That’s a peace to wonder at.
Jesus’ promised peace brings peace to our relationships with others. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds us that, in his flesh, Jesus broke down the walls that divide us from each other. “He is our peace,” Paul says—the one who unites us and enables us to be one people. Even when we have differences of opinion, we can experience that peace. His peace enables us to listen to a different view, consider the experiences of another, and hold open the possibility that an alternative way forward is possible and maybe even desirable. He enables us to live without the anxiety, fear, and insecurity that rob us of peaceful relationships with others.
Imagine what our world would look like if everyone were filled with that kind of peace. This is the peace that leads to a world where weapons are turned into tools for growing food—a world that learns war no more. CNN and MSNBC and Fox News and the others would have to just start showing videos of cute little kittens and puppies because the conflict they thrive on wouldn’t exist. Human beings living peacefully side-by-side—that’s a peace to wonder at.
The peace of God gives us peace within ourselves. You know how hard it is to drive that car that’s out of alignment. You’re constantly fighting the car’s tendency to pull in the wrong direction. It’s exhausting and life-draining. Paul knew what that was like: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,” he wrote. But he goes on to say that we find relief from this pulling away from God in Jesus, who restores our righteousness and rescues us for life and peace. That obstinate sinful streak in us is erased when we ask Jesus for forgiveness. The control our own desires have over us gives way when immersed in the peace of Jesus. A peace that enables us to live in the way we were created by God to live—that’s a peace to wonder at.
Peace with God, peace with each other, peace within our very souls: are you feeling a sense of wonder at that? Or do you feel more like you’re watching a movie that you’ve seen so many times you can recite the lines without even trying—a movie that long ago lost its power to move you? Have you ever sat silently and pondered just how mysterious it is that the God of all creation would love you enough to give you such a great gift? Why you? Why me? Have you ever prayed with the wonder that accompanies the unexplainable, “O God, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
If you’ve never had that sense of wonder at what God has done, or if you once had it but haven’t felt it in a long time, how can we claim it? How can we regain it? We can find it by pondering one simple word—a name: the name of Jesus.
Jesus’ name is another word we often repeat without thinking. We pray in the name of Jesus. We sing of its power: “All hail the power of Jesus’ name.” “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow.” We are awed by Jesus’ that power. We admire his selflessness and his wisdom. We are excited by the stories of his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and the gift of his Spirit. But does his name create in us a feeling of wonder? It should. Because the name of Jesus embodies the greatest mystery of all: that through him, God saves the world.
The angel told Mary what to name her baby. Joseph got the same instructions: “You will name the baby Jesus.” This was no accident. The name Jesus literally means “God saves.” His name encompasses the end result of God’s sending the Son into this broken world, full of sinful people, in order to restore it and heal it. God sent the Son, not to condemn or punish but to show us the way to eternal life. God sent the Son so that the world might be saved by faith in Jesus.
Why would God have so great a love for us? Why would God so desire a loving, two-sided relationship with us? How can it be that a God would come to us as a human being—a human being whose love for us led him to the cross? Why would God offer us salvation in Jesus? It’s a mystery—a mystery to wonder at.
“God saves,” and it’s in the salvation we find in Jesus that we find the peace we seek. If we aren’t saved from our sins, there is no peace for us. We will constantly be at odds with God. We will never be able to truly love our neighbors. We will forever find ourselves in the same predicament Paul found himself in: at war with ourselves as we struggle to be what we want to be and what God wants us to be. But Jesus saves us from that struggle. “Come to me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” he says.
We read in Colossians that, in Jesus, “God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” God reconciled all things—all of creation, all of humanity, you, me. Through Jesus’ blood on the cross, God removed all obstacles to our enjoying that peace that passes all understanding. Our sinfulness doesn’t need to stand in the way. Fear, even the fear of death, loses its power. Insecurity over whether or not we are loved evaporates. The name of Jesus reminds us that in him we are saved from all that by a God who loves us.
How and why can this be? It’s a mystery thousands of years of theologizing and theorizing haven’t been able to explain. We stand in awe of Jesus’ gift. We stand in excitement over the freedom Jesus offers. We stand in admiration of the giver, whom we call Jesus, “God saves.” But most of all, we should simply behold him in wonder—not trying to explain the unexplainable but simply allowing the mystery to surround us and astound us. We should speak—sing, breathe—the name of Jesus with wonder.
Throughout these weeks of Advent, we’ll be reflecting on other wondrous aspects of this season. The world around us sees these weeks as nothing more than a marketing opportunity, and the wonder of salvation and the peace it brings will be nowhere on its agenda. But in this season, we have the chance to reclaim our sense of wonder. We may admire the beautiful lights, listen in awe to the beautiful music, and participate in all the excitement. But, this year, may we open our eyes wide with wonder at the gift of peace God gives us. Let us move through these weeks with wondering eyes and hearts as we gaze upon the one named Jesus. This Advent season, may our eyes behold with wonder the mystery of our faith. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young