Christmas Astonishment
by Jack Wald | December 4th, 2016

Luke 1 & 2

The word “astonishment” has its roots in old French and Latin in the word “thunder”. So to be astonished is to be thunderstruck. It is something good that is completely unexpected. If someone living in your home country, a family member or friend, without telling you they were coming, walked in through the door of the church this morning, you would be thunderstruck, astonished, surprised, and amazed. “How did you get here?” “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” If your favorite musician showed up at your apartment or villa and rang the doorbell, you would be astonished. If you left church and on your drive home everyone was polite, stayed in their lanes, and waited for you to go through an intersection, you would be astonished.

We are astonished, amazed, we marvel at good things that are completely unexpected. So when the all-powerful, all-loving, pre-existing creator God makes himself known to his creation, one of the emotions that is to be expected is astonishment, marvel, amazement. This word is found four times in the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel.

Zechariah was visited by an angel when he was on duty as a priest in the Holy Place. The angel told him he and his wife would have a child and when Zechariah asked how he could be sure about this, the angel told him he would not be able to speak until his son was born because he had not believed what he had been told.

Nine months later Elizabeth gave birth. It was a time for a huge celebration. She had been barren for so long and now, in her old age, she had given birth to a son. The natural expectation was that the baby would be named after his father. One miracle to a family was the thought and they would never have the opportunity to name a second baby. But to the amazement of the people Elizabeth and Zechariah insisted their son be named John. (Luke 1:62–66)
They made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.”

The shepherds came in from the fields and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger, just as the angels had told them. (Luke 2:17–18)
When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

On the eighth day of the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple to be dedicated. And old man came up to them. (Luke 2:28–33)
Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.

Joseph and Mary were amazed by what Simeon said about their son. Mary and Joseph heard him say that in seeing their baby boy, he had seen his salvation and that this salvation would be not only for Jews but for Gentiles as well. What did they expect? They had both been visited by angels. They were both aware of the miraculous manner in which Mary had become pregnant. They had both heard the story of the shepherds who had seen angels in the sky announcing Jesus’ birth. They had not yet seen the wise men, that visit was still a year in the future by which time they would be living in their own house, no longer in the home of relatives where Jesus was born. Mary and Joseph had reason to know Jesus was special, but Simeon’s words blew them away.

When Jesus was twelve years old, he came with his parents to one of the annual festivals in Jerusalem. Everyone left to go home and then Mary and Joseph discovered Jesus was not with them. So they returned to Jerusalem and searched for him. (Luke 2:46–50)
After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished.

The people in the temple courts as well as Mary and Joseph were amazed by the understanding of Jesus when he talked with the teachers. Where did a twelve year old boy get such understanding?

Amazement, astonishment, and marvel did not end with the birth and early years of Jesus. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 7:28–29)
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

When Jesus and his disciples were caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus spoke and quieted the storm. (Luke 8:25)
“Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.
In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

(Matthew 15:31)
The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

The Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking him if it was right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar. Jesus told them, (Matthew 22:17–22)
“So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Jesus was brought before Pilate with the chief priests and the elders as his accusers. They spoke against him but Jesus did not reply. (Matthew 27:12–14)
Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.

Amazement, astonishment, and marvel did not end with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Peter and John were on their way to the Temple to pray and healed a man born lame. (Acts 3:9–10)
When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

The Sanhedrin called in Peter and John to question them and were surprised at the way they spoke and were unafraid. (Acts 4:13)
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

James was arrested and killed by Herod. Peter was arrested. And as the followers of Jesus prayed for his release, Peter was released and came to the home where they were praying. Despite the word of Rhoda, a servant, that it was Peter at the door, the believers kept on praying for Peter to be released.  (Acts 12:13–17)
But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.

Paul and Barnabas traveled to Paphos on the island of Cyprus and had a power encounter with a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Elymas. He opposed Paul and Barnabas when they spoke to the proconsul. Paul, filed with the Holy Spirit, pronounced judgment on Elymas who was blinded and had to be led away. (Acts 13:12)
When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

There are many amazing, astonishing events in the Bible. Where is amazement and astonishment in our lives as followers of Jesus?

One of the problems we have is that we have heard the stories in the Bible over and over again. We read about the shepherds being out in the field and being surprised by the angels. We read about the miracles in the life of Jesus. We read about the disciples discovering that Jesus had risen from the dead. We know these stories.

When we play with a child and cover our face with our hands and then open them and say, “peek-a-boo”, the child laughs and wants us to do that again and again. But we are not children and are not surprised and delighted each time we hear the stories of the birth of Jesus again.

If we had been with the shepherds or if we had been with Jesus, then we would have been astonished and amazed. But we are reading about these events 2,000 years after they occurred. They have been studied and analyzed, dissected and put back together again. We have heard sermon after sermon about these events. How can we be expected to be astonished and amazed? Our problem is that the unbelievable has become ordinary news.

What do you think is amazing about a map of the world, a hand-held calculator, an MP3 music player, or an airline flight from the US to Paris?

One of the games I play is to think of someone famous from the past and then consider what one thing I would show them from our modern world if they were to come back that would truly astound them.

Columbus is credited with discovering North America (despite evidence that the Norwegians and Chinese traveled to North America years before Columbus made his voyage). How amazed would he be if I were to put in his hand a GPS electronic map of the world that showed where he was at any point on his voyage? Columbus was a 15th century Italian explorer who made four trips to North America and mistakenly thought he had arrived in India (which is why he called the natives of North America “Indians”). What would the native Americans be called if he had known where he was?

A hand-held calculator does not seem like much, but consider this: In 1942, J. Presper Eckert, John W. Mauchly, and their associates at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania decided to build a high-speed electronic computer. This machine became known as ENIAC, for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (or Calculator).

ENIAC cost about $6,000,000 in today’s dollars. It was about 8 feet high, 3 feet deep, and 80 feet long (24.34 meters). It weighed 30 tons (27,215.5 kilos).  It was down half the time to replace vacuum tubes gone bad and it used a lot of power. The joke was that when it was running, the lights in Philadelphia dimmed. ENIAC could perform 385 multiplications per second which was amazing in its time.

How astonished would the men and women who worked on ENIAC be if you handed them a calculator or a smartphone that had a calculator app?

A calculator today costs just a dollar or two. A smartphone is just a couple hundred dollars. Either one can be held in my hand. ENIAC could perform 385 multiplications per second; the iPhone 4 can perform 2,000,000,000 instructions per second. Amazing!

I’m reading a biography of Beethoven. When he wanted to hear his music play (this is before he became deaf), he had to assemble a group of musicians. How do you think Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach would feel if I were to put a pair of earphones on them, plug the earphones to an MP3 player, and have them listen to one of their symphonies? Do you think they might be astonished? What if I told them all of their works were on this little device?

I like reading history and biographies. John Adams, who was the second president of the United States, made several long voyages across the Atlantic to negotiate for the brand new United States of America with the European countries. If I were to take him on a flight that left New York and arrived in Paris six hours later, how amazed would he be? How happy would he and his wife, Abigail, have been if they did not have to endure such long absences from each other?

When Annie and I arrived in Morocco in January 2000, phone calls to the US were expensive and there was no Skype. But now we can see our children and grandchildren and talk with them in Boston or in Thailand at no cost. Free! We can even have a three way Skype and share a meal together: breakfast in Boston, lunch in Rabat, and supper in Chiang Mai. This is amazing!

But my grandchildren are growing up experiencing these things as normal. For them, they are not extraordinary. Many of the things we take for granted would totally stun men and women from the past. We quickly take for granted what is new and astonishing. So what are we to do to recapture the amazement of what God did in Bethlehem two thousand years ago?

Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment and he answered: (Matthew 22:37)
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

The first and most important thing we can do to awaken what is marvelous, amazing, and astonishing is to love God with all of our being. Hebrews 12:2 tells us to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” As we follow Jesus, as we pursue Jesus, we will be led into astonishing experiences. We may not have the astonishing experience of Peter, James, and John who followed Jesus up the mountain and saw him transformed into his heavenly glory, speaking with Moses and Elisha, but we will have our own amazing experiences.

I remember a strong sense of the glory and wonder of God one night in the middle of the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the northeast of the US. I sat out by a waterfall, looking at the stars, and had an amazing sense of the greatness of God.

When I was in the US in October I had the amazing experience of seeing how God has been changing me when I discovered I was less judgmental about the behavior of people and more conscious of how we all are imperfect and are making our way in pilgrimage through this life as we head to our eternal home. I do not have a lesser view of sin but a greater sense of imperfect pilgrimage.

How can we recapture wonder and amazement?

We need to see the stories of the Bible with fresh eyes and the eyes of children are great eyes to see through. Each year I read the John Shea poem of Christmas told through the eyes of a little girl.

Sharon’s Christmas Prayer
She was five,
sure of the facts,
and recited them
with slow solemnity
convinced every word
was revelation
She said
they were so poor
they had only peanut butter
and jelly sandwiches to eat
and they went a long way from home
without getting lost.
The lady rode a donkey, the man walked,
and the baby was inside the lady.
They had to stay in a stable
with an ox and an ass (hee-hee)

but the Three Rich Men found them
because a star lited the roof
Shepherds came
and you could pet the sheep but not feed them.
Then the baby was borned.
And do you know who he was?
Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars.
The baby was God.

And she jumped in the air
whirled around, dove into the sofa
and buried her head under the cushion
which is the only proper response
to the Good News of the Incarnation

John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected

Children see the story of Christmas with fresh eyes. Enjoy what they see.

When I was a pastor in Ohio and my youngest daughter Caitlin was about 4 years old, I was talking in a children’s message one Sunday in Advent about the Rapture and how the Bible says that Jesus will come back. There will be a loud trumpet blast and then we will rise up in the air to meet Jesus. Caitlin spoke out in a loud voice, “I think you’re fooling us.” Everyone burst into laughter. Caitlin continued, “I can see that look in your eyes, I think you’re fooling us.”

Why did people laugh? They laughed because she expressed what most of us think. It is pretty preposterous that the Rapture would actually happen as we read it in the Bible. The Creator of the Universe is going to come to be born in the flesh, live among us, die and be raised to life? And then, when he returns, he a trumpet will blast and we will rise up in the air to meet him? What strange science fiction movie have you been watching? We take the story so much for granted that we fail to see the mystery and wonder of the story.

Another way to capture a bit of the astonishment of the Christmas story is to look at the story through the eyes of those who doubt that the story is true. We can so easily tell someone what we believe, but when you stop to listen to what is being said from the perspective of one who does not believe, the facts of what happened begin to be amazing truths. An unbelieving perspective helps us to see just how impossibly grand is the truth of what did happen. We begin to see that the stories of Jesus would be preposterous and nothing more than wishful thinking if they were not, in fact, true stories.

In a TV show titled Thirtysomething, Hope, from a Christian family, is married to Michael, from a Jewish family. In an argument about holidays she asks him, “Why do you even bother with Hanukkah? Do you really believe a handful of Jews held off a huge army by using a bunch of lamps that miraculously wouldn’t run out of oil?” Michael replies, “Oh, and Christmas makes more sense? Do you really believe an angel appeared to some teenage girl who then got pregnant without ever having had sex and traveled on horseback to Bethlehem where she spent the night in a barn and had a baby who turned out to be the Savior of the world?”

We need to see the stories we believe to be true through the eyes of others who understand the mystery of what we believe better than we do.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to speak with Jesus in the middle of the night, asked Jesus how it was possible to be physically born again. How can a man be born when he is old? How can you possible crawl back into your mother’s womb? Jesus went on to explain that he was talking of a spiritual rebirth. Nicodemus caught the incredulity of this and asked, “How can this be?”

Does it seem incredible to you that we can be born again spiritually? Does it seem incredible to you that God was born a man? That God died on the cross? Does it seem incredible to you that the God who created this world and the universe in which it sits also is aware of your existence, let alone that this Creator God also loves you, and works events for your eternal benefit?

We need to see Jesus with fresh eyes.

A few years ago, Phil Yancy wrote a book titled, The Jesus I Never Knew. He wrote this book because he wanted to help us take a fresh look at the events in the life of Jesus. We read about the birth of Jesus knowing what happens next. Yancy wrote this book from the perspective of those who had no idea what would happen next. Angels appear to shepherds, Jesus is born and then what? How does one understand what had happened when the rest of the story is unknown?

Reading this book is an excellent way to capture the astonishment of the events in the life of Jesus. Read this book, then take time to contemplate and reflect. Don’t read the book all the way through in one or several sittings. Read one chapter at a time and allow some time to think about what you have read.

Don’t be addicted to one version of the Bible. When a new translation comes along, take advantage of it and read the Bible again with fresh new eyes. Eugene Peterson’s translation titled, The Message, is a translation that has helped me quite a bit. I read from that translation sometimes in church when I want us to hear the truth of Scripture in a new way. As you learn a new language, read the Bible in that language. Don’t worry if you read a paraphrase rather than an accurate translation of the Greek and Hebrew. Read a new translation and you will stop and say, “Does the Bible really say that?”

Sit down some time and write a poem about some part of the life of Jesus. Poetry reaches into our soul and pulls out deep truth. Let God speak through your creativity and allow your heart and mind to be opened to new truth.

Sit down sometime with earphones and concentrate on a piece of music that will allow you to hear God’s truth presented. Music has a way of reaching past our mind and into our hearts. Let the complexity and beauty of classical music speak to you of the creativity and beauty of God. There are many fine Christian artists who have written songs that reach into our hearts and lift up our souls in wonder at what God has done.

Explore God’s creation. When God finally answered all of Job’s questions and all of Job’s friends’ questions, what did he say? He told them to look at his creation. Episodes of the BBC series, Planet Earth, can be found on the internet. This has amazing photography and takes us deep into the beauty and wonder of the world God created.

Take a walk in the woods and take time to closely examine the world of insects, birds, flowers and plants. Get down on your knees and watch ants at work taking a piece of food to the nest. Don’t just glance and go on. Spend five or ten minutes watching. If you see a bird in a nest, spend some time watching the behavior of the adult and baby birds. Go down to the Challah and spend some time watching the storks build their nests and care for the baby storks.

Read some books on animal behavior. Learn how it is that birds and fish can migrate such long distances without getting lost. Learn why it is that a mother bird rolls the eggs over in the nest so the egg is evenly incubated. Learn about the herding instincts of a border collie. God wanted to impress Job with who he was and so he pointed to his creation, to meteorology, astronomy, zoology. The more you learn, the more praise and wonder can develop.

The study of science is an excellent way of stretching our minds and can open us to the wonder of what God has done in creating this universe. It is easy to say that God created the world, but quite another thing to consider the world he created. The precision that is critical for the survival of this planet, our solar system and the universe itself is mind boggling. The rate at which the universe first expanded after the Big Bang and continues to expand is critically precise. Any more or any less and the universe would not exist. Steven Hawkings, A Brief History of Time is a difficult book to comprehend, but a wonderful examination of the intricacies of the universe. The Language of God by Francis Collins is another excellent book to read that helps to see God in his creation.

Read Isaac Asminov’s book on human anatomy. The more you learn about the human body, the more amazing it becomes. Phil Yancy wrote two books with Dr. Paul Brand: In His Image and Fearfully & Wonderfully Made. These books take the mysteries and wonders of the human body and make applications to our Christian life. They are wonderful books to read to stretch us and take into wonder and praise of our creator.

The study of science does not prove or disprove the existence of God, but for the believer it helps to see the wonder and grandeur of God.

Pray for others and see God at work in your life and in the life of others. Listen to the stories people tell of how they became followers of Jesus. God is still working miracles in the lives of people. A Moroccan friend just shared this story on Facebook. He became a follower of Jesus in 2002 and went through some difficult experiences. At one point he had no money for food and then a friend surprisingly gave him 70 dirhams.

   That same night I went to downtown Rabat, I had a coffee in Mohamed V Avenue. When I paid the waiter I handed him 50 Dh bill, he Gave me 20 Dh and some coins back, I pulled my wallet to put the 20 Dh bill in, I heard a clear voice telling me don’t put it there. Where do you want me to put it I asked? Put it in your jeans pocket, I did. I left the coffee shop, I walked about ten yards then the same voice asked me to turn around and showed me a women walking in the street carrying a baby and told me go give her the 20 Dh. I refused, I said I can’t do that, she looked rich and wearing very nice clothes. I walked away, then I felt like someone stopped me and turned me around and ordered me to give her the 20 Dh. Just then I realized who is talking to me. I took the 20 Dh bill in my shaking hands and walked towards her, I stopped her and said I’m sorry but I want to give you this, she looked at me puzzled, took it and said thank you.
    I ran away from her wondering why this happened. Somehow she managed to follow me and stopped me and asked, why did you give me the 20 Dh?
    I asked God what should I tell her? the truth said God. I told her my story that I’m Christian not Muslim and that 20 Dh is all I have and that God wants me to give it to her. She asked me to repeat my story 3 times then she started crying and said, few seconds before you came to me I asked God to provide me with 20 Dh to buy diapers for my daughter and you came and give it to me right away.
    She walked away repeating God is good, God is Good…. I stood in my place crying then God told me, I provide for this woman who doesn’t know me, do you think I can’t provide for you.
    This experience showed me that God may allow us to go through hard times, for a reason, but He remains in control.
    If you are going through some financial hardship trust God, he will provide for you on the right time.
    He is good, he is good….

God is good. God is doing amazing things in the world today. God will do amazing things in the world tomorrow.

Don’t make the search for amazement your goal. I don’t have time to talk about this but many have been misled by searching for exciting miracles. Simon the Sorcerer in Samaria sought the miraculous, was rebuked by Peter, and ended up deluding many people who followed him because of the miracles he produced. In Revelation 13 John tells us that the world will be mislead by the beast who comes out of the sea and is healed of a fatal wound. Whatever that means, it does say that people will be misled by the miraculous.

Seek Jesus, not miracles, and then amazement will come as you seek Jesus. Read the Scriptures, allow them to speak to you. See the Gospel stories with fresh eyes. Open your heart, mind, and soul to God. Explore the world and discover the depths of the beauty and creativity of our God who loves you, who sees you as his beloved daughter, his beloved son.