The Sense of Wonder
December 24, 2012
It couldn’t have been more than a week before Christmas, and you know how fiveyearolds get as the Big Day Approaches. I was definitely a hundred pounds of excitement in a fifty pound package. I was more excitement that our house could hold. So Mom told me to walk around the block. I was an obedient kid. Besides, there was a connection between my being out of the house and Mom getting my presents wrapped, so I put on my coat and walked around the block. A little more than halfway around I saw a dandelion in someone’s yard. It must have been December 20 and there was an honesttogoodness little spot of yellow, sign of spring, harbinger of hayfever, growing right there on the 1700 block of Peoria Avenue.
I don’t remember what I got for Christmas that year.
The shepherds saw an angel surrounded by the glory of the Lord and they were terrified.
In college I lived across the hall from a magician. Literally. He had a top hat and cape, magic wand, the works. Once we persuaded him to perform at a dorm event and he said something that I’ve never forgotten: “Magic,” he said, “works best for an audience of little children, junior high aged people are the worst audience.” (He didn’t bother to tell us what kind of an audience college people are.) He proceeded to do some tricks with help from members of the audience and we were all impressed at what Steve had learned to do. Like a good magician he didn’t reveal his secrets, and like a mature audience, we didn’t ask him to. We were impressed, but not overwhelmed. We were entertained, but not awed.
We, the sophisticated college audience, believed that there was some secret behind his sleightofhand, and if we practiced the techniques, we could do magic tricks too. We were impressed that Steve had spent so much time perfecting his show, but we knew it wasn’t magic. I’ll bet Steve liked to perform for young children best because they believed their eyes--they knew there was magic, because they had seen it. . . .
Suddenly, there was an army of angels, praising God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
One of my colleagues reported something his confirmation class said a few weeks ago: Christmas isn’t special to them anymore because there’s no mystery left in it. I heard similar grumblings from certain high school aged people last week. They just weren’t in the Christmas spirit yet. Maybe that’s because we didn’t have much snow until December 20. Another thought that Christmas was coming too fast this year, we should only have it every other year. . . .
Everyone who heard what the shepherds told them was amazed. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
Twenty-five years ago I was going through my Puritan stage. Everybody said so--my family, my classmates, my boss. I went on a crusade against Christmas trees. I refused to believe that there could be any possible connection between Jesus’ birthday and killing a tree, dragging it into the house and hanging stuff on it. Wasted electricity. Fire hazard. People were homeless in our city and we were decorating a dead tree. Humbug.
Twenty-four years ago I became a reformed Puritan. Mom pointed out that it’s her house, she paid for the tree and if I didn’t like her tree, I didn’t have to look at it. As I hung my ornaments that year I started to cry. I’d missed a year’s worth of memories. I hadn’t gotten to remember how important these bits of styrofoam and cardboard and glitter had been to me. How they signaled “my side” of our trees of past years, how they connected me to those thrilling days of yesteryear, to magical times of awe and wonder, excitement and anticipation. . . .
Jesus went to the synagogue in his hometown and after he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah he told them that the reading had been fulfilled. Everyone was astonished at his gracious words. They asked each other, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”
An old and beautiful tale tells of a rabbi’s child who used to wander in the woods. At first his father let him wander, but over time he became concerned. The woods were dangerous. The father did not know what lurked there. He decided to discuss the matter with his child. He took the boy aside and said, “You know, I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. I wonder, why do you go there?”
The boy said to his father, “I go there to find God.”
"That is a very good thing,” the father replied gently. “I am glad you are searching for God. But my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?”
“Yes,” the boy answered, “but I am not.”
Once a man who was paralyzed was brought before Jesus and Jesus said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” Immediately he stood up and carried away what he’d been lying on. Amazement seized everyone who saw this, and they glorified God, and they were filled with awe, and they said, “We have seen strange things today.”
Remember the Christmas of ’83? It was 20 below in Peoria. And you know what happens when it’s cold and clear like that, don’t you? The sunlight hits ice crystals high in the atmosphere and it gets refracted and you see little wadded up rainbows on either side of the sun. They’re called sundogs. These were the brightest ones we’d ever seen. We went outside and looked at them while the turkey cooked. . . .
One day Jesus was in a boat with his disciples and a windstorm swept over the lake, and they were in danger or drowning. Jesus got up and yelled at the wind and there was a calm. The disciples were afraid and amazed.
Sometime during this season, you're sure to have seen an ad on television showing a child with a gleeful and wide-eyed look of wonder. Children are good at that. For a lot of people the only experience of awe at Christmastime comes in watching the faces of little ones. Environmentalist Rachel Carson described the natural awe of children in her classic book, The Sense of Wonder, this way: "A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”
Carson believed that everyone can experience wonder, but because we do not open ourselves to what is wonderful, we lose the ability to be lost in wonder. The sense of wonder is essential for every believer. It is the beginning of faith and Carson wrote, that it is “an unfailing antidote to the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
What takes your breath away? What inspires awe for you? What is so mysterious that you can’t begin to understand it, and so you must try to appreciate it? Which of life’s mysteries have you given up trying to solve? When did someone do something to you that was so unexpected and so kind that you couldn’t even say “thank you?”
Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves: then he went home, amazed at what had happened. . .
On Christmas Eve we gather to celebrate the story that began with a mother who heard amazing things, and wondered at them, and treasured them in her heart, and continued as the mother’s child grew and did things that left people stunned into silence. . .amazed. . .astonished. . .and astounded.
It continues still in the eyes of a child. It continues still with colors in the sky. It continues still when people see weeds growing out of season. It continues still with little boys looking for God, where God can find them. My prayer this Christmas is that you will begin to understand and take part in this story. As we ourselves are astonished. . .filled with wonder …amazed. . .and stunned into silence. Amen.
An earlier version of the sermon was published in The Cresset, Christmas/Epiphany 1997/1998.