Delivered by Michael Harward in a sacrament meeting of the Montgomery Ward, Cincinnati Ohio East Stake, Sunday 12 December 2021
When it comes to Christmas carols about the Wise Men, we don’t have a lot of choices in our hymn book. But I really like the one we do have because it begins by describing the way the Wise Men chose to experience the star: with wondering awe. I also love the depiction of the Wise Men in the video simply named The Christ Child, produced by the church in 2019 as part of the Light the World campaign. Each time I watch this video, I too experience the same complex emotion portrayed by one of the Wise Men when he noticed the promised star “in the heaven springing,” as the carol continues. Though he had studied and learned all about the star, anticipating its coming for his entire life, when it finally appeared, it was still an astonishment, something that amazed him. And why? Because he allowed himself to be surprised at its greatness, its perfection, and yes, even its inexplicableness. It was still, for him, a wonder. And when he finally met the child a few years later, he had not lost any sense of his astonishment. In fact, it seemed to me that his astonishment had been transformed into a reverence, into a sense of being overcome with awe, of being overwhelmed by the simple but impressive status and mission of the child.
I wonder how much wonder and awe I bring to Christmas.
Actually, I wonder how much wonder and awe I bring to life because to tell the truth, I think that I spend too much of my life trying to understand things so that I can control them and have certainty about them—which is not the way the Wise Men approached the birth of the Christ Child.
Nephi, son of Lehi, described the people in Jerusalem he saw in vision as having turned “their hearts aside” by “rejecting signs and wonders.” I suspect that one way they rejected the signs and wonders was by examining them so closely and carefully that they explained them away. The consequence of all their explanations was that they ended up creating a wonder-less existence. And what was of particular concern to Nephi was that their wonder-less existence became one in which the power and glory of God did not and could not abound. (1 Ne 19:13)
In contrast, James Fisher, who was a missionary in New Zealand in the 1890s wrote in his journal that like the other effective American missionaries, he lived with the Māori in their villages, spoke their language and ate their food. One day as he and his companion were riding on horseback between villages, they shared with each other their concern for their wives and the families they had left in America, and their homesickness for American food and comforts. In his own words, he shares what happened next:
“My companion suggested that since we were in a heavily wooded area and no one was on the road, we should have a few words of prayer. He suggested that we might even ask our Father in Heaven for something to eat. We got off our horses, retired into the woods, knelt down, and said a sincere prayer. After the offering of this prayer, we arose, and feeling comforted and spiritually lifted, rode on.
“After riding just a short distance ahead, we found lying on the road a sweet, fresh loaf of bread wrapped in a white cloth. My companion and I were so pleased to come upon this ‘manna from heaven’ we each wrote home to our wives telling of the incident. Three months later, my companion received a letter from his wife. She wrote that on that very same day, she had been baking bread. When she opened her oven, one of the pans was empty and a white cloth placed on the table was gone. She had been home all the time and saw no one come in or leave.”
In our own wonder-less society like that of ancient Jerusalem, wouldn’t we explain the story away, not believing that loaves of bread disappear in Utah and re-appear in New Zealand? I am afraid that we are too uncomfortable with the inexplicableness of such a story. We have lost our astonishment at such things. Because we too set aside our hearts, we too relinquish our sense of the glory and power of God.
Another Nephi, this one the grandson of Helaman who was the grandson of Alma the Older, described how the people of the new world, like their old-world counterparts, had allowed Satan to harden their hearts such that they no longer believed in the wonders they had seen. Satan was doing exactly what he said he would do in the pre-mortal council: guaranteeing certainty. No one would fail, everyone would be saved. And how would he assure such a guarantee? Everything would be understood and known. There would be no lack of control. There would be no inexplicableness. His was a black and white world. Nothing new would ever be initiated unless the outcome were known ahead of time.
After the first temple in the Southern Hemisphere was built and dedicated in New Zealand in 1958, the Sikahema family in Tonga wanted to enjoy the blessings of being sealed together as a family for eternity. But they were very poor and the expense of getting the whole family to New Zealand was beyond their means. But they had faith and were determined, even though so much was out of their control. However, what little was in their control, they gave up, even the siding on their house. After years of saving, they finally had enough to go to New Zealand, but not enough to get back to Tonga. As uncertain as it was, they made the trip to the temple in New Zealand anyway. And they were blessed for their faithfulness in that the father got a job shearing sheep and was able to make enough money for the family to return to Tonga. But what is important is that for the family, getting the job was not merely the guaranteed outcome of the father looking for work. Instead, they choose to experience the getting of a job as a wonder, a blessing from God that was inexplicable.
I am puzzled that the word awe is found nowhere in the scriptures except in the Book of Psalms. It is such a perfect word to describe what Moses must have felt at the burning bush, or what Lehi must have felt when he envisaged the Tree of Life, or what the Kirtland saints must have felt at the dedication of the temple. Fortunately, it is used often in modern day conference talks.
Shortly after the New Zealand Temple was announced, Les Clarke was asked to leave Canada and return to his Kiwi homeland to oversee the installation and implementation of all the electrical systems of the new temple, which was one of the first to be largely driven by electronics. On his return, he went up to the temple site one evening and, like Joshua of old, walked around the temple seven times, then knelt in prayer very much in awe, overwhelmed at the task before him. Two and a half years later, just days before the open house was to begin, electrical inspectors came to check for problems. They found none. Not one. Such an outcome was unheard-of in New Zealand
When the exterior of the temple was completed, after it was painted a bright white, and after all the scaffolding was removed, all the workers were invited one night to go to the visitors center to watch the first lighting of the temple. Ray Park shared his experience when the switch was flipped and the large mercury vapor outside lights came on very slowly:
“It was like a vision taking place. Here’s this building coming out of the darkness as these lights came on stronger and stronger. And there it was. What a beautiful sight. Here was this magnificent building sitting there on top of the hill all by itself. No trees. No vegetation. Just nothing. Just raw beauty. And I tell you, the spirit was so strong that people were crying. In fact, I almost cried myself.”
I don’t know about you, but that is the very experience of wonder and awe that I want to be part of my world. Without that kind of wonder and awe, I cannot Hear Him, I cannot Let God Prevail, I cannot Stay on the Covenant Path. Without that kind of wonder and awe, I cannot let go and allow the enabling power of the atonement to transform my life into one where I am able to live in God’s presence.
I am so grateful for the wonder and awe of Christmas, if I so choose to allow myself to experience it that way.