By Pastor Glenn Pease
Typical of last minute Christmas shoppers, a mother was running furiously from store to store. Suddenly she became aware that the pudgy little hand of her three year old son was no longer clutched in hers. In a panic she retraced her steps and found him standing with his little nose pressed flatly against a frosty window. He was gazing at a manger scene. Hearing his mother's near hysterical call, he turned and shouted with innocent glee: "look mommy! it's Jesus-baby Jesus in the hay". With obvious indifference to his joy and wonder, she impatiently jerked him away saying, "we don't have time for that!" On the first Christmas the problem was, no room. The modern problem is, no time for Jesus.
Few of us, if any, could with confidence cast stones at this mother. The attitude of impatience grips all of us at some point during the Christmas rush. The problem is really not the speed of things for our text tells us that the shepherds came to Bethlehem with great haste. Even on that first Christmas we find the rush of life. But the shepherds had something that is being lost in our modern Christmas. They had a sense of wonder. No matter how fast life is people always have time for what they consider to be wonderful. The curse of modern man is to be so busy he has no time for wonder. Dag Hammerskjold said years ago, "If spiritual things become a drag and the message of Christmas is dull you can be sure the problem is not in the message but in your loss of awe and wonder at the message".
A group traveling by train through the Rocky Mountains was thrilled and visibly moved by the magnificent panorama. A woman on the train with them hardly raised her eyes from her book, and when she was asked why she explained, "this is the thirteenth time I have crossed the mountains. The first time I could not keep the tears from rolling down my cheeks, so impressed was I. But now I have known it so well that I frequently go through the whole range with scarcely a glance out of the window". Her sense of wonder was gone, and she no longer recognized the grandeur of the breath-taking beauty around her. This same principle is constantly at work in relation to the marvel, mystery and majesty of God and the wonder of Christmas.
Lawrence Houseman, who opened the way for religious drama in twentieth century England with his famous nativity play, told of an incident that happened during rehearsal. The wise men paid their tribute and retired off stage. All lights were to be turned off, except the one shining on the manger. Someone by mistake turned off all the lights leaving the stage in utter darkness. A voice shouted, "hey there-you've switched off Jesus!" This is what is happening on the stage of history today. Jesus is being switched off and Christmas without Jesus is incapable of inspiring any lasting awe and wonder.
Dylan Thomas, in his reflections on A Child's Christmas in Wales, shows the pathetic and pitiful result of a purely secular Christmas where love for Christ and wonder at His coming are not instilled in the heart. He writes, "One Christmas was just like another....I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six." When Jesus is switched off, this is the kind of heritage that is passed on. No matter how much earthly glory you put into it, it is a fading and temporal glory which cannot move you to the depths of your soul.
The trivial always becomes tame and tiresome but the eternal message of Christmas and the Incarnation: "God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man", always carries in it the potential for inspiring wonder. We want to study Luke's account of the first Christmas from the point of view of the wonders involved. Just scratching the surface of a match can cause it to burst into flame, and though that is all we can do with Luke's record, scratch the surface, it is hoped that this will kindle a flame of wonder in our hearts for Christmas. Consider first-
I. THE WONDER OF THE FIRST CHRISTMAS SETTING.
How can we help but marvel as we look back at the matchless mystery of God in a manger and the circumstances and characters on the stage during this great drama. John Adams, a founding father of our country, said, "I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth". He was a man who knew how to wonder at the providence of God in history. How much greater the wonder of God entering history as a child in a manger.
Here's a wonder never known,
A king a manger makes his throne.
The paradoxes of that first Christmas are fantastic. The most high as a lowly babe; the details of prophecy worked out by God's providence, yet no provision of a room for the creator of all space. God's perfect plan was being worked out, but the actors had to be in a state of confusion. Imagine the emotions of Mary and Joseph as the day of her delivery drew near. What was going to happen? The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem but the Angel did not say anything about this to Mary. What were they to do? Should they deliberately go to Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy even though they had no revelation on the matter? Who knows what anxieties they suffered? Then came the decree of Caesar that opened the way to go to Bethlehem, and the are amazed at the marvelous providence of God.
The record of Luke, which he received from Mary, conveys details that reveal the deep gratitude of Mary for God's loving guidance in all the problems she faced in bringing forth the Messiah. God had provided her with the refuge and comfort of her cousin Elizabeth. Now as the child is to be born only six months after her marriage to Joseph, God works out a plan to fulfill prophecy, and also take her away from Nazareth for the birth of her child. We see the wonder of God's thoughtfulness in dealing with Mary and Joseph.
We see also the wonder of God's casting in this great drama. Caesar Augustus, the Emperor of the mighty Roman Empire, plays only an incidental part. Enter mighty Caesar in all your pomp and glory and make your decree; then exit, for in the rest of the drama the lowly are exalted. The main characters in this drama apart from Mary, Joseph and the child are persons even more obscure and lowly than they. The shepherds play the prominent supporting role and they were persons held in contempt by the leaders in society. Nothing is a parallel but imagine the president of the United States working out a Middle East peace plan and instead of announcing this news of great joy to congress he goes to a meeting of garbage collectors and announces it there. Such a procedure would leave the whole world stunned and in a state of disbelieving wonder. Yet it cannot compare with the wonder of God's humility and condescension in this first Christmas setting. God gives the best news in history to the lowly and the obscure.
Back before World War II, one of Europe's royal families announced the building of a five thousand dollar crib for a baby born into the family. Carving, metal work, studded jewels and artistry led to this enormous expense. But the royal son of David and greater yet, the Son of God, is laid in a manger made for feeding animals.
O most Mighty! O most Holy
Far beyond the seraphs thought,
Art Thou then so mean and lowly
As unheeded prophets taught? Author unknown
The wonder of the first Christmas setting is a gift of God to all of us. It assures us that God cares for the lowly and the unknown and not just the celebrities of the world. Secondly look at-
II. THE WONDER OF THE FIRST CHRISTMAS SONG.
Mary magnified the Lord and Zechariah sang blessed be the Lord God of Israel, in their pre-Christmas songs. Now on the first Christmas we hear an angelic anthem ringing over the Judean hills. Again, the paradox of the setting is wonderful. Here is the greatest choir ever assembled on earth to sing the greatest hymn of praise and the audience is a handful of shepherds. Nothing was too extravagant to bear witness to the wonder of the Incarnation. The pre-Christmas songs of expectation were solos, but now that the wonder of God in human flesh was a visible reality, a vast multitude was necessary to make music appropriate for the event. If all heaven rang as the angels sang, then how can we who are the benefactors of God's Christmas gift ever cease to sing and wonder.
The wonder of the first Christmas song is that is says so much with so few words. The essence of praise is in the phrase, glory to God in the highest. The essence of salvation is in the phrase, peace on earth to men in whom God is pleased. The peace is not for all but only for those who are reconciled to God by faith in his Son. The peace is that of forgiveness of sin and fellowship with God. This is the basis for singing glory to God in the highest.
When young Queen Victoria had just ascended to the throne, she was to attend a presentation of Handel's Messiah. She was instructed not to rise when others stood for the Hallelujah Chorus. As the orchestra and chorus resounded with "...for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth," she remained seated with difficulty. But when the chorus began to sing that overpowering musical line, "For He Is King of Kings, And Lord Of Lords," she suddenly stood and bowed her head, as if to take her crown and cast it at His feet. Such is the power of music when the majesty of God is the theme. Her actions were a silent singing of Glory to God in the highest.
May God help each of us to catch the spirit of wonder that compels us to praise and glorify His name in song. All we need to do is recognize that the wonder of it all is that all the wonder of it involves us personally.
To God on high all glory be,
Who gave his only son for me,
For which the angels carol clear,
And sing us such a glad New Year. Author unknown
Finally look at-
III. THE WONDER OF THE FIRST CHRISTMAS SERMON.
The setting and the song of the first Christmas are usually only considered once a year at Christmas time. But the first Christmas sermon is the very essence of what the church exists for proclaiming the year around. It is the good news of joy to all people. "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord". The wonder of the first Christmas sermon is a living wonder for it goes on and on repeating itself every time the gospel is preached. The setting is gone and does not relate to us. The song comes closer in that we can enter into the angelic anthem of praise. But the wonder of wonders is the sermon-the message which makes Christmas as contemporary as the light of the sun. Christmas is a continuously contemporary event. Wherever the message of it is preached something wonderful still happens. Jesus Christ is born again in the hearts of those who believe.
Yet as Lucretius once said, "Nothing is so great or so wonderful but all men, little by little, abate their wonder". That is why Christians need to be constantly regenerated in wonder at the marvel of God's gift of His Son. We hear the message so often that it becomes dull and commonplace. It is in the sharing of this good news that the wonder is kept alive. The shepherds repeated the sermon of the angels and note the result in verse 18- "and all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds". Wonder is kept alive by multiplication. Wonder is like the fire of a candle; if it is kept to itself it will go out, but if it is touched to another candle's wick it will multiply itself.
Paul preached the gospel over and over yet he never got tired of it, but could say, "thank God for His inexpressible gift". Because he spread the gospel and saw it's power in the lives of people he never lost his sense of wonder. Let us share the wonder of God's love in the Christmas message and we too will never lose our sense of wonder.
Love caused Thine Incarnation,
Love brought Thee down to me;
Thy thirst for my salvation
Procured my liberty.
O love beyond all telling
That led Thee to embrace
In love, all love excelling,
Our lost and fallen race. Author unknown
The play by Joseph Hayes, The Desperate Hours, illustrates on an earthly level what God did for us in sending His Son into the world to destroy the works of the devil. The play is about an escaped bandit who keeps a family prisoner in their own home. He holds a ten year old boy in front of him as a shield. Unknown to anyone, the father was able to get at the bandit's two guns and unload one and keep the other. The climax comes when the father stands across the room from the bandit who holds his son. He alone knows that the bandit's gun is unloaded and that all would be okay if his son would pull away. He shouts, "pull away son, he can't hurt you!" The convict warns, "try it and see." The father urges him, "it has no bullets in it, run!" The boy with great faith in his father runs and the bandit's gun clicks helplessly without power to enslave any longer. This is what the wonder of Christmas is all about. God has, in the gift of his Son, defeated the power of Satan to enslave. He now calls to all men, "come unto me and I will save and set you free".
Happy all who hear the message
Of His coming from above:
Happier still who hail his coming
And with praises greet his love.
Blessed Savior, Christ most holy
In a manger Thou didst rest
Canst Thou stoop again, yet lower,
And abide within my breast? Author unknown
The wonder of wonders is His answer is yes! This is the never ending Wonder Of Christmas.