All through the weeks leading up to this night, we’ve been learning about the women in Jesus’ family tree. Their stories were difficult ones. They revealed how hard the lives of those women were. They reminded us of how much darkness there is in our world and in our own lives today. But there was also wonder in those stories—love and faithfulness and endurance and courage, wonders that point to the ultimate wonder that we celebrate tonight—the wonder of God coming to us in the form of a tiny newborn baby.
We share the wonder of Elizabeth, as she felt her baby leap for joy at Mary’s approach. Elizabeth was six months pregnant with her first baby when Mary came to visit. A first-time mother may not feel her baby’s movements until as late as twenty-five weeks into her pregnancy. I like to imagine that Elizabeth felt her baby move for the very first time as Mary approached her. I remember my wonder at the first flutters of movement when I was carrying Peyton, a sensation of bubbles or butterfly wings at first, then wiggles and kicks as she grew.
Imagine Elizabeth’s wonder at the evidence of life within her—further proof of what God had done in her life. Imagine how her joy opened her heart to the Holy Spirit and allowed the Spirit to reveal to her a greater joy—that Mary’s baby was the Son of God. Imagine how that joy welled up in her, a joy and amazement that she just couldn’t keep inside, a joy that invited Mary to respond in kind.
There are times when wonder simply spills out in audible and visible ways. Mary’s did, as she sang of all that God had done for her and of what her baby would do for the world. Sometimes we just have to share our wonder with others, oohing and aahing as we do when we watch fireworks bloom in the sky, or as the angels did when they gathered in the heavens above Bethlehem and sang their Alleluias.
Sometimes our wonder is quieter—a precious thing to be cherished in the privacy of our own hearts. This is the wonder of gazing for the first time into a newborn’s face—counting his tiny fingers and toes, caressing the pink shells of her ears, cupping the downy head in our palm. It is a wonder that comes from so deep inside us that words can’t begin to do it justice, and the only way we can express it is with grateful tears.
Wonder like this is a warm and glowing thing. Imagine Mary and Joseph in the stable, before the shepherds knocked on the doorpost or opened the creaking gate, followed by curious onlookers who had followed them. Picture Mary and Joseph simply gazing with love and awe at the baby in Mary’s arms—so small, so defenseless—and yet knowing that this baby’s tiny shoulders would one day carry the weight of the world’s sin. What words could possibly express all that they felt in those moments together in the presence of their baby and their God?
As the shepherds made their way to the stable, I expect they weren’t a particularly quiet bunch. They may have recovered somewhat from the terror they felt when the sky filled with angels and light and singing. I can hear their excited voices as they walk the dark paths from the fields, recounting what had happened, adding a memory here and correcting a detail there. But as they enter the town of Bethlehem, they grow quieter. What will they find when they get to the stable? Will the angels have gotten there ahead of them, continuing their Alleluia choruses?
No. When they get to the stable, all they find is a swaddled infant in the protective embrace of Mary and Joseph. In that moment, all the excited chatter abruptly ceases, as they gaze into the face of the one the angels sang about—the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. In that moment, their response can only be to kneel in wondering silence before the infant king in the manger.
I imagine that even the animals in the stable had some inkling of the wonder of Jesus’ birth. If you’ve had pets in your life, you’ve probably chuckled at how they react to some new thing they don’t quite understand—ears perked up, head cocked, eyes intent, nose busily sniffing the air. The animals in the stable couldn’t have known what the new creature in the manger was, or what he meant for them. They couldn’t have known that this baby had been born to redeem not just all of humanity, but all of creation.
But I’ll bet they picked up on the change in the air. I’ll bet they picked up on the feelings of the human beings beside them. And so, I imagine the cows shuffling in their stalls, a donkey making gentle snuffling noises, the sheep nudging each other, a protective dog sitting close by the manger watching the newborn’s face intently, a curious kitten reaching out a tentative paw to pat the baby’s swaddled body.
A sense of wonder is tightly entwined with an appreciation for mystery. We know so much about the world, we can begin to think there is little mystery left—that there is little left to wonder at. This can even happen as we listen to the story of Jesus’ birth. We hear the story every year. Many of us can probably tell it pretty well, or even recite it word-for-word. But, just as we can become blind to the beauty of the fields that surround us or the stars that gleam above us, we can become blind and deaf to the Christmas story, so that it no longer moves us to wide-eyed, open-mouthed awe.
God has blessed us with the gifts of intellect and questioning minds, but we will never be able to comprehend all that God has done in the world. Woe to those who leave behind a child-like sense of wonder and an appreciation for the mysterious, for they will be forever impoverished. As Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious . . . . [The one] who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead.”
The world contains endless mysteries—endless opportunities for wonder. Our moments of greatest wonder happen when we witness or experience things we don’t fully understand, and realize we can never fully grasp. We can chart the ocean’s floor, but we can’t fully grasp its vastness and power, so we stand in wonder on the shore. We can measure the distances between the stars, but we can’t comprehend the endlessness of space, so we lie back on the grass and lose ourselves in the wonder of a star-strewn sky. We know the science of changing leaves and falling snow, but the resulting beauty is a mystery to us, so we simply take in the wonder of their visual feast.
We know the story of Jesus’ birth. We know the stories of his life and death and resurrection. But we can’t explain the mystery of God’s coming to us in human form. We can’t fully grasp a love so great that God would give everything to draw us close. We can’t fully comprehend the wonder of that night in Bethlehem when the Son was born to us. All we can do is accept that mysterious, wondrous gift with speechless awe and deeply-felt gratitude. Nothing in this world is more mysterious and wonder-filled than the birth of Jesus.
On this night, we are again invited to enter into that mystery. And so, on this night, enter into the wonder of a young girl, who has been surprised by the mysterious plan God has for her life and who gazes in stunned wonder at the tiny infant in her arms. Enter into the experience of Joseph, wondering at the mystery of this child whom he has been called to raise. Look up at the sky with the shepherds, open-mouthed in amazement and even fear, wondering at what has been revealed to us. Then, make your way to the manger, to kneel in silent awe at the great thing God has done—at the Creator of heaven and earth, coming to us as a tiny baby, in order to lead us all into eternal life in the presence of his Father, and ours. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young