“God Came Down for This Moment”
November 27, 2022
When I was in 5th grade we spent a couple months studying outer space. One of our big assignments was to keep a moon journal, with drawings and notes on what the moon and the stars around it looked like. So every night for a couple of weeks, I’d walk out to the curb, about 50 feet from our house, carrying a flashlight, gloves and my moon journal that had a ring of clear pebbles glued to the front of it, each pebble shaded slightly different to represent the different phases of the moon.
And each night as the darkness descended, the sky began to light up and pulse with wonder. I remember watching as stars came to life right in front of my eyes and the moon seemed so much grander and more mysterious when I started to notice the scars that littered its face. And night after night I drew the moon and made notations on the brightest stars using the most scientific jargon a 5th grader could think up.
And I remember being struck by how predictable the night sky became. By the end of my two weeks journaling and staring up at the sky in wonder, I knew where to expect the brightest stars, I could predict whether the moon would be bigger or smaller, I could tell which bright dots where satellites or planes, and I was still just as excited seeing my fifteenth shooting star as I was when I saw my first. The night sky had layers of predictability, but also still had a mystery to it.
It’s humbling and awe-inspiring and a little bit crazy to think that the night sky I spent studying for two weeks as part of a fifth grade class assignment is the same night sky that the Magi in our Christmas story looked up and studied every night, 2000 some years ago.
We reread and sing songs about the adventures of these Magi every year at this time. Some people argue there were three of them and they had to all be men, others point out that there’s nothing in the story that says so. There’s a lot we can only guess about these mysterious characters who show up in the middle of the Christmas story. But we do know that these Magi are probably best understood to be wise people or astrologers from the East, probably Arabia.
We’ve heard the Christmas story so often that it seems so normal for the Magi to be a part of it. Of course they’re part of it, because we have their figurine in our nativity set!
But have you ever thought it odd, that these Magi, who are pagans from the East – they almost definitely didn’t have a Jewish bone in their bodies – that these are the only characters in the whole Christmas story who notice the birth of Jesus on their own?
Everybody else is told by God. Mary and Joseph are visited by angels. The shepherds have it announced to them by a whole heavenly host while out tending sheep. But these Magi – pagan foreigners from who knows where – figure out from watching the night sky that the king of the Jews is about to be born—and they want to go worship him.
The start of their story is almost comical, because the Magi stroll into Jerusalem assuming that everyone else in the city is on the same page and is looking for this new king to be born. They walk into town and ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star and have come to worship him.”
All they get is a bunch of blank stares and puzzled looks. Even the religious leaders, who of all people should have been looking out for the birth of their Messiah, have no idea what the Magi are talking about. Jesus was being born right in their own backyard—God was showing up on the scene to rescue them and be with them—and they had no idea.
Before we think to puff up our chests and look down our noses at the religious leaders and people in Jerusalem, thinking to ourselves, “Hmph, if some pagans from the East knew about God showing up, how did they miss it?”…before we are tempted to look down on all the people who missed God showing up, I wonder about how often we miss God showing up in our own backyard?
As Christians we believe that God’s Spirit is in us and all around us, moving, shaking and bringing all things to a promised fulfillment. We gather each Sunday morning to sing songs, pray prayers and be reminded about what God is doing in and among us. There are times we might almost say that we can feel God’s presence here in this place, encouraging us, exhorting us, inviting us…..And then we walk out of those church doors and it’s almost as if the closeness we feel to God in here just evaporates…
It evaporates as our minds are immediately switched back to the plans we have for the rest of the day: the grocery shopping that needs to be done, the homework assignment that will be annoying to write, that difficult conversation that needs to be had with a coworker or family member, the medical diagnosis that you’re still coming to grips with, the anxious pieces of your life that flood back into your thoughts.
I notice this in myself, especially this time of year. The holidays are such a busy season. It’s ironic, because for most of human history society slowed down in the winter time when it started getting dark early and the fields couldn’t be worked. Winter was usually a time to rest and slow down.
But no, us modern people, in our infinite modern wisdom decided that this was the best time of the year to ramp things up…so we invented Christmas parties and decided that everyone needs to host one so that we can all attend at least three a week.
We decided that the best way to show love to our friends and family is to coordinate with the whole rest of the city so that we can all go out in the snow and the dark at the same time, driving on roadways and walking through stores that are jammed full like a can of sardines ready to burst, spending money we don’t have and buying things we don’t need, all while reassuring ourselves that this is supposed to be fun, this is what the holiday spirit is all about.
It’s ironic, because at least for us Christians, the Christmas season is meant to be a season that encourages us to slow down and to really ponder the miracle that God came down to be with us. It’s meant to be a time where we look for God in wonder and awe around every corner, because if God could show up in a manger then he could show up anywhere, anytime.
I know I sound cynical of the Christmas season, but it actually is my favorite time of year…I confess to breaking out the Christmas music in October. But as each Christmas season seems to fly by quicker than the last, I wonder how I can recapture some of the wonder and awe that the Magi had. I wonder how I can be more attuned to what God is up to in my own backyard and in my own life, so that I don’t miss him. Because if busyness numbs our ability to see and hear God, then perhaps it’s slowness that invites us to see the divine moving in and around us.
I wonder if I can learn from the Magi, pagan foreigners from the East, about how to keep my eyes open for where Jesus is showing up.
Because, is it not odd that it took pagans from the East to invite the Jewish religious leader to remember their own tradition: that a light will arise and shine and usher in the promised kingdom of God?
Is it not odd that that Magi, wise scientists—who made their living on the merits of research and reason—were wise enough to go beyond reason and follow the intuitive tug of their own hearts, and chase a star to a faraway land?
The Magi brought three gifts to worship a baby in a manger. They offer us a gift this Christmas season too. The gift of wonder and awe.
The Magi found Jesus, not because they started looking for him in the first place, but because they allowed the night sky to leave them in awe. They saw a star that made them say, “Wow!” and they chased it. I wonder if we can learn from their lead? I wonder if, by beginning to notice once again the things that make us say, “Wow!”, we might find God hiding in plain sight.
Maybe this is what Jesus was talking about when he told his disciples that unless they became like a child again, they wouldn’t be able to see God’s kingdom.
I’ve heard a lot of bad sermons on how Jesus is telling his disciples to stop thinking so much and just have faith like a child—to be unthinking and undiscerning and just believe! As if that’s so easy.
But I don’t think Jesus is asking his disciples to have a childish faith, but rather, a childlike faith. One that’s full of wonder and awe at the world around them.
Because if there’s anyone who knows how to say, “Wow!” it’s a child.
Iona has recently loved playing “Peek-a-boo!” Sometimes we’ll stand near a corner in the room, disappearing and reappearing around it, yelling “Peek-a-boo!”. And sometimes we’ll just stand right in front of her, covering and uncovering our face. And her face just lights up every time! She’ll smile and giggle, throwing her arms up and down, rocking her body back and forth as if to say, “Again, again!”
I think I actually have a video here…
This is wonder and awe at its finest. The ability to say “Wow!” again and again at whatever is right in front of us. Most of us grow out of this childlike wonder by high school. The things that used to “wow” us no longer hold the same sense of discovery and mystery. We think we know so much. So instead of saying “Wow!” we say, “I already knew that.”
The changing fall colors no longer stop us in our tracks like they used to. Snow is no longer beautiful, but an inconvenience. The stars and the moon are old news, not worth looking up at as often. The wonder we used to feel at everything we discovered about our partner or spouse as we were dating and first married has given way to mild annoyance or the assumption we already know everything there is to know about them. And the Christmas season no longer “Wow’s” us like it did when we were kids. We know the stories. We’ve gone through all the motions so often now that we pass by the opportunity to rediscover the most beautiful, hopeful news there ever was: that God loves us so much, God came to dwell with us.
I wonder how it might change us this Christmas season if we adopted a peek-a-boo kind of faith? The kind of faith that makes us say, “Wow!”, treating every moment as a new gift to unwrap. It’s the kind of faith that is willing and open and keeping its eyes peeled for anything and everything that might leave us with a deeper sense of wonder and awe at the world God created. A peek-a-boo faith is a faith that is willing to be surprised by what’s right in front of you again and again and again.
The Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, writes that “the purest form of spirituality is finding God in what is right in front of you—the sacrament of the present moment.”
When the Magi followed the star to Jesus, our English translations tells us that they were overjoyed by what they find right in front of them. But the Greek is actually clunkier and more emphatic. The Greek literally reads: “They rejoiced a great joy very much!” In other words, they said, “Wow!”
May we also find God in those spaces and places of wonder this Christmas season.