The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 24, 2017 – Midnight Service
The universe is big – so big we can’t wrap our minds around its enormity and majesty.
Though they move us to awe and wonder, we can grasp the greatness of an elephant, a Sequoia or a huge cathedral; but the greatness of the universe causes our minds to shipwreck on their limits of comprehension. The universe humbles us even as it awes us.
Astronomer Peter Edwards tries to give us some idea of its immense magnificence. The Hubble telescope shows us but a single tiny segment of the sky, but that tiny portion is enough to make our minds run out of gas.
How much of the sky the Hubble telescope displays is, Dr. Edwards says, equal to how much of the sky is blocked by a grain of sand held on your fingertip at arm’s length. Yet, within that one miniscule portion of the great expanse of space, there are 10,000 galaxies, each of which contains about 100 billion stars. Since there are 100 billion or so galaxies in the universe, there are in it something like 10,000 million million million stars, more stars than all the grains of sand on earth.
The Bible tells us that behind the immense universe stands an immense God who created it and sustains it each second. If the universe is that big, how much bigger must be the God to whom it owes its existence? And if we can grasp the universe only to a limited extent, can we expect to understand God much?
The story of Christmas is the story of God’s coming within the range of our knowing, of God’s entering our world and becoming someone like us, becoming someone we can wrap our minds around, as much as one human being can another. That means that in the divine-human person who was born in Bethlehem we can have a relationship with God, that the infinitely big God has become small enough that we can relate with Him, enjoy His company, and be able to take in the reality of the many gifts He is offering to all takers.
Consider an analogy from the mission field in a Muslim majority nation. A missionary tells how, when he and his wife first moved to the Middle East, they heard that on festival days everyone dresses in their best clothes and goes to visit relatives and neighbors. So, for their first Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, they carefully cleaned their apartment, dressed up, loaded their cupboards with food to hand out, and waited in their home.
But no one came.
Another missionary explained what they did wrong. He said, “On festival days, the small visit the big, and the big give gifts.” For example, everyone in a family visits their parents or, if they’re dead, their eldest brother. When they arrive, they kiss the hand of the older person to show respect and honor. The host then graciously feeds them and gives them money, treats and other niceties.
As newly arrived foreigners, without social standing or prestigious relatives, the missionary and his wife were considered too “small” to be visited. They were the ones who were to do the visiting.
This incident led the missionary to ponder what happened in the incarnation. In every other religion, human beings (the small) try to gain enough standing to be visited by God (the big) by becoming big themselves. But they cannot become big enough, even when they dress up in their best and become very good.
What happened at Christmas was that God took the role of both the “small” and the “big”. God humbled Himself to become “small” enough to enter where we live. But God also assumed the part of the “big” as He graciously welcomed people into His home and offered them there many gifts: forgiveness of sin, empowerment for justice and compassion, joy and peace from the Spirit and, best of all, a friendship with Him.
The only problem with the present that Christmas is, is that it is one of those presents that it takes swallowing our pride to receive. Let me explain.
Suppose one of you gives me for Christmas a gift certificate for a toupee shop and another of you gives me a book entitled Speaking Better in Public. For me to welcome such gifts I have to, in some sense, admit that I could use a lot of improvement in my looks and in my preaching. And admitting my shortcomings and my need of help hurts my ego.
There’s never been a present that so makes us swallow our pride as the present God gave at Christmas. That present means we are so lost, so unable to pull ourselves up and live the life that’s needed, that nothing less than the infinite condescension of God and the brutal crucifixion of Jesus could save us.
Only one of two things can motivate us to humble ourselves enough to fully accept such a present: a wild desperation, or a wild appreciation of how wonderful it would be to know the love of the God-Man of Christmas.
Consider the experience of a premature baby named Zoe. At her birth, Zoe weighed one pound, seven ounces. A wedding ring could slide up her arm to her shoulder. She had two IVs in her navel, one in her foot, a monitor on each side of her little chest, and a respirator tube in her mouth. She had but a 5% chance of living three days. Her mother could barely cope, and her father had jumped ship the month before her birth.
The first part of her life, the only world Zoe knew was a scary, cold, institutional place called a hospital.
But Zoe also knew the love of a grandfather who every day would come into that place and make it his place as well. He’d just sit there by her side, caressing her with the tip of his finger, and telling again and again that God loved her and that He would make everything turn out just right in the end.
Thanks to that experience of love, Zoe survived and is now enjoying a happy childhood.
Zoe’s salvation gives us a lens through which to grasp the enormity of the present that is Christmas. It is God entering our scary world and making it His home. It is God staying by our side. It is God touching us and talking with us as long as it takes to save our life and help us grow.
And all we have to do to receive the present is to humble ourselves enough to admit that we need it, that we could never pay for it, and that we will forever owe God a debt of gratitude for such gratuitous and wildly extravagant grace. But in that we can be of good cheer and exceedingly great joy forever. Let us pray.