A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 6, 2015
Luke 1:26-38 ESV; “Mindful” by Mary Oliver
Since beginning my studies in the naturalist certification program just over two years ago, I have found that my life is more wonder-filled than ever before. Because one of the important lessons that you learn early on is that one of the key, foundational aspects of the naturalist’s life is being observant. It is paying close attention to everything you see and hear around you, especially in the world of Nature. And so, you train yourself to see those things that you once may have taken for granted—the shape, color and texture of a leaf; the intricate parts of a flower; the different colors and markings of the birds on your lawn; the shape and complexity of a spider web drenched in the morning dew; and the frost-covered fields as you drive to work. And not only are you more observant of those natural wonders that you encounter; but you actually go in search of them.
I have also been inspired so much in recent years by the poems of Mary Oliver and her keen observations of the natural world. I choose to see Oliver as a true, contemporary nature poet, one who has her writing pen on the pulse of the natural world better than any other contemporary poet of whom I am aware. In her poem “Mindful,” Oliver shares how every day she is astounded by some aspect of wonder. And it is not the extraordinary or the exceptional; it is the common, the everyday, the ordinary that most of us habitually take for granted where Oliver says she discovers a sense of wonder and awe.
“Every day I see or I hear something that more or less kills me with delight . . .” Oliver proclaims.
That is what can happen when we train ourselves to look beyond the initial, surface appearance to the wonder and beauty that lies deeper.
Then considering our scripture reading for today, we have read again the familiar story of Mary: a poor, ordinary, Nazarene teenager who was going about her ordinary, daily life when she was astounded and filled with wonder. Such is not to detract from any Divine, one-of-a-kind experience that Mary may or may not have had. Rather, it is simply to draw a parallel and say that wonder and awe can and do break into ordinary lives for those who are open and observant and poised to be “killed with delight,” to use Oliver’s phrase again.
Now, all of this is to say that the season of Advent can be the most “wonder-filled time of the year,” if we allow it to be. Attending special Advent and Christmas programs and activities and Sunday services during Advent—which have special touches like the Advent Candles, special music, Advent and Christmas hymns, and all the beautiful decorations—can prove to be times of wonder for all of us. This past week, one of our members made my day by sharing in an email the joy of being involved in our church during Advent in a way they have never done so before: “it is so very magical to be in a sacred space during this most wonderful time of the year,” this person said.
The interaction with someone less fortunate to whom you may be delivering a food basket, or fruit basket, or tin of cookies, or Christmas gifts can become a wonder-filled moment as you see them smile or wipe away a tear of appreciation.
But when it comes to all things Advent, we may walk into the Chapel and see all the beautiful decorations—the garland, Advent paraments, candles, bows, and certainly the Chrismons Tree—and we may think, Oh, how lovely! and let it go at that. And, I have to admit that there is a certain amount of wonder in that. But in order to experience the full wonder possible, we have to look beyond the obvious, beyond the surface appearance of the candles, garland, bows, and Chrismon Tree.
For instance, behind the surface beauty of the candles we discover the deeper, spiritual meaning of light: Jesus, the Light of the world; light as a metaphor for teaching, revelation, or understanding; light as that which penetrates the darkness of our world, metaphorically speaking; light as that which we take into the world as people of light; and so on. Then there are the colors of the candles that also have a deeper meaning beyond themselves—blue as the color of celebration; pink representing love—God’s love and ours; white for the Christ Candle representing purity.
Beyond the surface beauty of the green garland lie the teachings of eternity and life that never ends, even during the cold winters of life and beyond death. And the circle of garland around the Advent Candles is symbolic of God and eternity.
And we can’t even begin to talk about the wonderful teachings and symbolism behind the beauty of the Chrismon ornaments, because there are so many of them! But behind every single Chrismon ornament, there is a spiritual meaning, teaching, or truth. Our Chrismon group is currently working on a slideshow that will enlighten all of us about the rich meanings and wonder behind all of those beautiful white and gold Chrismon ornaments. But if we only view and admire the Chrismons Tree from a distance—as most of us probably do—we miss out on so much of the deeper spiritual meaning and wonder hidden there.
But wait, there is more! Those ordinary, day-to-day activities and encounters can also become moments of wonder and joy, if we are sensitive to the possibilities. Things like baking in the kitchen with your children, grandchildren, or your parents. What better vehicle to bring us together and become wonder-filled moments than working together to prepare food that we all love?
Something like drinking a big mug of hot cocoa in front of a warm fire with loved ones on a cold winter’s night can become a wonder-filled moment.
Going out onto the lawn to fill a birdfeeder on a snowy day can become a wonder-filled moment as you turn to see the birds appreciatively alight on the feeder almost immediately.
Taking an early morning walk on a cold, frosty, winter morning can prove to be a moment of wonder as you marvel at the frost formations on the fields.
Looking inside flowers or up close at tiny aquatic insect life with a magnifying glass or microscope can be a wonder-filled moment as you discover an intricate micro-world you never imagined existed. In the Aquatic Natural History course I took in late summer 2014, tiny larvae of a variety of aquatic insects were placed under a powerful microscope and the images were projected onto a screen on the wall. The vibrant colors and intricacies of those microscopic organisms were astounding, filling all of us with wonder and awe. But to experience such wonder and awe, we have to look deeper, beyond the surface and the obvious.
So the overall point today is this: Most of us are prone to overlooking much wonder in life because we don’t look closely enough in order to discover the potential and hidden wonder we encounter every day. As ancient philosopher Socrates said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.”
And so, one of the key summons of the season of Advent is to wake up! And be alert to the deeper meaning and wonder around us, that are peculiar to this wonder-filled time of the year, but that are also present in our everyday, ordinary lives.
Advent is that one peculiar season of the Church year that calls us to awake from our soul slumber and be spiritually alive and alert to the spiritual, soulful truths and blessings that present themselves to us.
And when we are awakened to the beauty, awe and wonder all around us; and when we train ourselves to look beyond the obvious to the miracles and wonders of life that lie in wait for us; we may find ourselves to be astounded by everyday encounters that we once took for granted. We may even find that we, too, along with Mary Oliver, see or hear something every day that more or less kills us with delight! May it be so for all of us. Amen.