We conclude our series of Christmas reflections with a sermon preached by Dr. Wes Avram, pastor of Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Christmas Eve, 2014. The sermon is based on Matthew 1:18–2:12. Click here for audio of the sermon.
“If the meter is the measure of humans, then we are closer to quarks than we are to quasars. However, if we take the second as the heartbeat of our lives, then we are closer to the age of the universe than to the lifetime of elementary quarks.”
That’s how Timothy Paul Smith begins his remarkable book, How Big is Big and How Small is Small (Oxford University Press, 2013). Let me try to explain what he said this way: If you make a long, flat number line and put yourself at the position of one, you could double your size 10 to the 25th times, that’s 10 with 25 zeros, to get to the edge of the observable universe. Now if you go to the left and reduce your size down to the very smallest of things that we can discern, you get to a factor of about 10 with 18 zeros. At that point you’re in the sub-atomic zone of quarks and gluons and things I know nothing about. They’re things that we’ve decided exist not because we can see them but because we can discern their traces, like catching their echoes. And many scientists who measure things that little think we might not be done, that there might be things even smaller.
As Timothy Smith says in the first sentence of his book, you and I are only a bit to the small side of the scale of size, when compared to the universe. And if you find the earth on that line instead of yourself, you get much closer to the middle.
That means that after about four centuries of science humbling us by telling us just how vast existence really is—and thus, haunting us with the idea that events of Earth are so small that they can’t be significant at all—we’ve now measured enough in the other direction—toward what’s small—to tell another tale again.
It turns out that if size is the measure, then the world we live in is pretty much at the center of things after all. It all depends on how you measure.
And so, as we also now see, if time is our measure, then when we consider the jumpy existence of those sub-atomic things, the span of our lives is actually on the longer side of the scale—surprisingly closer to the nearly 14 billion year old universe than to the length of time of the most fleeting thing that can still be called a thing.
Go figure. We might just matter after all.
But we didn’t need science to show us that. We’ve had Christmas all along.
We’ve had this remarkable evening, year after year, on which we come together for a little while to sing songs, to pray in hopes of feeling connected, to hear a story of a little place that comes out big, of a fleeting moment that turns out to be eternal, of an event that seems insignificance in a world of big plans and big ideas and big struggles, but that becomes the beginning of the most potent, meaningful, and world-changing story of all.
Appearances can be deceiving, it seems. What is little can be big. And what pretends to be big can be humbled by what is little.
This little story, Christmas, can measure all things—space, time, and the very meaning of it all. That is what Christians claim.
Think of it in terms of space.
Bethlehem, a small town in the distant province of a foreign empire under military and political occupation; down a street where others walked and hid from the authorities. There, in that small place, where the men of all the empire were ordered to come and be numbered, there this little one came who seemed too small to be of any note at all—and yet whose followers have numbered more than can be imagined.
He was there, in a little manger shaped for animals long before it was prepared for a baby. And there, in the dark fields on the edge of town where tired and forgotten shepherds heard a word from God and followed their gut to that manger, and in a land far away where a small group of foreign diviners decided to come and see.
There it was.
We sing of cattle lowing, of angels singing, and of a mother pondering and loving. And we now call this birth a miracle. We call it the very incarnation of God. Yet in that place, one could easily doubt its significance beyond Mary and Joseph. For what god would come like this? Only the God who is little enough to touch the quark, while big enough to hold the quasar. And only the God not pretending to a glory too grand for a humble planet and yet still big enough to see, and to know, and to cry the cry of new birth, and to receive the unexpected warmth of a strange and yet welcoming place—with atoms still spinning and the universe still expanding.
Hear how Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez talks of it (taken from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, 248–9):
“Apart from its historical coordinates the event loses its meaning. To the eyes of Christians the incarnation is the irruption of God into human history: an incarnation into littleness and service in the midst of overbearing power exercised by the mighty of this world; an irruption that smells of the stable. The Son of God was born into a little people, a nation of little importance by comparison with the great powers of the time.”
That little place, we say, is at the center of it all. And so, too, that brief moment, that moment that was as fleeting as any moment.
Little seemed changed on the surface—with Herod still thinking he was in charge, with Roman troops still hurting the weak, with human need still overwhelming love and innocence undone—yet underneath it all, something genuinely new had occurred (paraphrased from Philip Yancey, also in Watch for the Light, 257).
This little moment would reinterpret everything that came before and everything still to come. This little moment, disappearing into the next, would open to a stretch of other moments that led step by step to resurrection. In the vision of faith, this instant of birth becomes the fulcrum of time itself. It is an instant of time that touches the eternal.
This is how God always comes, even to us. For no matter how long we’ve lived and no matter how distracted we feel by things more urgent, when God comes that instant changes time. God comes and rewrites our story, both what’s gone before and what’s yet to come—upsetting what we thought and reordering what we trust.
Even for the strongest of believers, who’ve repeatedly welcomed God into their lives; even for you, the hint of God’s presence, in any moment, re-centers your life. It is the center of everything.
For though the world seems tilted toward the predictable, the powerful, and the inevitable, you can’t read the Christmas story without getting the impression that God has something else in mind.
No matter how long you wait for God, the instant you are touched by this Spirit is the right moment. It’s the moment in which you sense that things do hold together, not by your own power, but by a Spirit beyond you.
For this story measures space in new ways.
And this story measures time in new ways.
And this story measures what matters in new ways.
For, you see, this story is not just about . . . , this story is for.
It’s given to us to be meaning and hope for those who suffer out of sight and who need to be heard. And it’s given to awaken the hearts of those who live in peace and want to serve. It is a gift traced in every gift we give each other
. . . for the sake of our healing,
. . . for the sake of our freedom,
. . . and to open the possibility of a new future for each one of us, for all the world and for all creation.
It’s a little story at the center of all things—quark to quasar.
It’s a little story in the fulcrum of time—from the fleeting to the eternal.
It’s the story, oddly enough, of God.
What difference might it make for you?