Wonder that leads to Joy

Joyce Rees, Dec 16, 2023, 11:55 PM
Joyce Rees Prairies and North Pastor
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What do you eat on Christmas Eve? In our house we fire up the raclette grill after church and get busy feasting on veg and meat, boiled potatoes and melted cheese. Our kids create some fairly wild concoctions (think green pimento olives, farmers sausage, Emmental cheese, and cranberry sauce). I know, right? But they linger and cook for themselves and anyone else they can ply with their creations, we wear our Christmas cracker crowns, and laughter and music abound. Sometimes we have a dance party after feasting, depending on the willingness of our guests and how full we are.

I'm sure you have your own traditions, but I love that our Christmas Eve table is tethered to the shepherds (albeit Swiss, not Jewish ones). This type of peasant food is meant to help us remember the first evangelists and their wonder response to Jesus' birth.

I think true Advent joy begins with wonder.

Curiosity, doubt, and awe are intrinsically human responses, perhaps especially so when we consider the Advent of "Emmanuel" – God with us. Wonder is an essential part of the nativity story I want to dig into. But before we get there, I want to ask you about your own wonder. When you pause to think, still the noise, to be – what surfaces? What are you wondering about?

Maybe what comes up is why there's so much suffering in the world today. Or why certain prayers you've prayed have never been answered. Maybe you find yourself asking why God does or doesn't do certain things or you wonder if your spiritual experiences have actually been real or true. Perhaps you wonder why you haven't seen signs of God's kingdom breaking in for a long time, or why apathy has settled on your church, or your own heart. There's likely a lot of things we're collectively wondering about.

I find considerable comfort in the wonder responses in the nativity story. Zechariah doubted (Luke 1:18) and as a result was left to wonder silently for many months until his son John was born. The shepherds jumped into action and went to check out what they'd been told - their wonder compelling them to hurry to see, tell, and then return to worship Jesus (Luke 2:15-18). Luke tells us Mary pondered all the things she'd heard, experienced, and witnessed - a quiet wonder (Luke 2:19). And we know the wisemen were determined seekers - who made a very costly journey in their pursuit of Jesus so they could worship him. Surely they wondered at what they'd seen in the sky, and it propelled them to profoundly trust God was speaking to them! (Matthew 2:1-12)

From the very beginning wonder is a normal response to encountering Jesus.

We tend to think of "wonder" differently when this word is framed in the context of Christmas. That kind of wonder conjures up images of magical moments – twinkling lights, the excitement of children, happy gatherings of friends and family, singing and making merry and feasting. But, of course, this is an idealized, and dare I say "hollywood-ized" version of Christmas "wonder". The reality for many people is that Advent is the loneliest time of year, for others holiday gatherings are the most volatile environments for relational brokenness to emerge. It's a time when grief is profoundly heightened for those in mourning. And when those who struggle with anxiety or depression internalize pressure to overcome and join the happy throng in ways they simply cannot manage. I worked for many years serving people living with addictions and mental health challenges. Some of my colleagues referred to Advent as "suicide season". This is graphic but also highlights the reality of the darkness many folks live with during the literal darkest time of the year. Hardly "wonder-full", right?

And yet it's precisely into hard and dark realities that Jesus first came to be God with us. God's people had suffered war and subsequent occupation by an enemy army. Their daily life saw extreme violence as the norm. The right of any ruler was almighty, as we see in the slaying of thousands of babies to protect Herod's reign (Matthew 2:16-18). There was a hopelessness that had been hanging over God's people for literally hundreds of years. And it seemed there was silence from heaven in response. No prophets. No voice of encouragement. Definitely not a world filled with hope, peace, and joy. Surely there would have been much wondering among God's people. Why didn't He answer their cries for help? What was going on? When would it change? How would God respond?

And then Christ's Advent happened.

Light in the darkness. An announcement of good news of great joy which would be for all people. And everything was upended. Like the earliest players in the Advent story, our hearts should lean in with wonder at not just what God did, but how He did it, and why He did things the way He did. I have a lot of wonder surface in me when I read the stories surrounding Christ's birth. As I let it really sink in, I move from doubt, to curiosity, to downright awe...and my heart is filled with joy.

Consider the shepherds. These guys being included as central players in the birth of Christ is absolutely mind blowing. What is God doing and saying by their inclusion? His method and message match right from the get-go. Here's the radical hospitality of God in action. These shepherds would have been considered "Ha'ares" – people of the land – a derogatory term used for peasants or perceived ignorant people. Educated religious leaders wouldn't have anything to do with them. Although these shepherds were Jewish, they would have suffered the stigma of being unclean because of their work, dealing with animal carcasses, birthing, and blood and more. In fact, many scholars have suggested the night the angels appeared to them may have been the first time these men were ever included in worship.
The angel began the invitation by saying, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." (Luke 2:10) Can you hear an echo of the voice of the prophet Isaiah saying, "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor." (Isaiah 61:1)
This good news is meant to lead to great joy for everyone, and the good news is not just coming to the poor, it's coming through them.

The layers are so profound when we look through the lens of scripture. God is both Good Shepherd (John 10:11) and perfect lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Did you know the very lambs the Bethlehem shepherds cared for would have been the same ones sacrificed in the Passover celebration – they came from the Bethlehem fields. Think way ahead to Jesus's triumphal entry, riding on the donkey – the humble king in procession. Luke 19:37-38 describes it this way,
"...the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

"Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!"
Sounds like the angels on the Bethlehem hills, right? The people replacing the angelic choir. The good news had become their great joy! How amazing to realise during Jesus' triumphal entry, the shepherds would also have been bringing sheep in from their Bethlehem fields for the Passover sacrifices. Likely sons, nephews, and grandsons of the Luke 2 nativity shepherds bringing the Passover sheep into Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday. Do you see the detail God wove into His coming – who he came to and how he came tells us a tremendous amount about what He's like! The shepherds weren't happenstance players, they were intentionally chosen to amplify the good news.

There's more. Did you know Bethlehem means "house of bread"? Remember how the angel said to the shepherds, "This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." (Luke 2:12)

A sign is something that points to something else. It's not hard for Christians to see what the shepherds could not have known on the night of Christ's birth. Luke 23:53 tells us Jesus was wrapped in linen cloths before he was laid in the tomb. Some scholarship also says this is how new lambs were wrapped. But there is another interesting layer here too. A manger is a feeding trough. The shepherds journeyed towards the House of Bread, and what did they find when they got there? They found a baby lying in a feeding trough. A sign indeed! Remember Mary's song – about the hungry being filled with good things? (Luke 1:53) Now we realize the good things the hungry would be filled with is God himself. The nativity story is made even more profound when we hear Jesus saying, "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35) and even later when the Apostle Paul tells us on the night Jesus was betrayed, he took bread, broke it, and said this is my body which is broken for you. (1 Corinthians 11:23-24).
I love these layers in the Advent story. It makes me realise how beautiful God is to weave all these parts together and so much more. We're invited into a much deeper discovery of Jesus. Wonder turns to awe, when truth is illuminated in these ways, and we are filled with joy and worship Jesus.
A few years ago, when my son was in grade two, his teacher told us about a moment in class that had impacted her. During their science unit, experimenting with taste, each child did a blind taste test and told the class what it was. When it got to my son's turn the teacher put the item in his mouth and asked him what it was. He responded,

"It's the body of Christ."

She was confused. "What did you say?" she asked him.

He replied, "The body of Christ broken for you. It's the body of Christ!" Then he ripped off his blindfold and exclaimed, "You guys don't know much about God, do you?!?"

Maybe this was because he'd had a deprived childhood and only ever had white bread during his weekly experience of communion in our worship gatherings, but I wonder if something more profound was going on. The kingdom belongs to such as these after all. Maybe he really associated the taste of bread with Jesus as our life. What a wonderful response!

The shepherd's response is also a wonder-full example to all of us – they hurried to encounter Jesus, to see if what they'd been told was true. And then they announced the good news about Jesus to everyone they encountered and their wonder spread. Luke describes it this way:

"When [the shepherds] had seen [Jesus], they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them." (Luke 2:18)

Think about the shepherds this Advent. Will you let their example call you to hurry in God's direction? Invite the Holy Spirit to help you (re)discover Jesus this Christmas as the living bread, the one who sustains us now and for eternity, who is our Good Shepherd and our perfect Lamb, the One who gave his life for us and is to be our Life. Who will you tell this good news to, and how might telling it fill you with joy and invite others to wonder?

A few years ago the kids in our church made a nativity movie that is both amazing and profound. My jaw nearly hit the floor in the movie theatre when we first screened the film, as I saw a binner pushing his grocery cart through the field behind the wise men following the star. He wasn't a part of our script – he just happened to be crossing through the scene. I could feel the Holy Spirit highlighting this man to me as a modern day "shepherd". Binners might be the most overt parallel we have in our current society to the Ha'ares in the time of Jesus. The humble. The ones with the job others are unwilling to do, unlikely to show up in a worship gathering, and thought of as "unclean". These are the very ones God prioritized in his first Advent, who hurried to encounter Jesus, to discover what His coming meant, and who's lives became good news to others.

Maybe this week you'll witness children in your church donning bathrobes and towels to mimic the garb of the first shepherds. Or perhaps you'll find yourself in the grocery store buying potatoes, or cheese and you'll be reminded of "peasant food" and the beautiful upside-downness of a God who chose to reveal himself to the least and brought joy through them to the whole world. Or maybe you'll take a bite of bread and be reminded Jesus is the bread of life who satisfies the hungry.

May you wonder.
May it lead you to awe.
And may you be filled with great joy.

Written by Joyce Rees
Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash