Glory To God In The Lowest
I love Christmas…
I love its joy and hope and caring and expectancy and excitement. I love its bright lights and glowing candles and red flowers and smiling faces. I love its childish squeals and its embracing love and its deeply moving music. I love its story of shepherds out on hillsides hearing symphonies by angels, and of the Son of God being rocked to sleep in an animal’s feedbox, and of strange kings traveling great distances bearing exquisite gifts. I love Christmas. I love every part of Christmas. But most of all, I love its silence. For Christmas is the one day in all the year when the whole world stops and becomes still and quiet, yes, I love its silence…
That is why I have always found it so beautiful to realize that Mary, in the midst of all the astonishing circumstances of that first Christmas, found herself unable to speak. Before Christmas, she spoke with the angel at Nazareth. And she sang with her cousin Elizabeth in Judah. Yet in the whole narrative of that first Christmas, no word of Mary is recorded. It simply says: “she kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” It was as if what happened to her there was too deep to be encompassed by words. It was as if her breath were taken away and she was caught up in some kind of speechless ecstasy before God. It was as if she could do nothing more than lean against the warm damp straw of the stable and clutch her child in her arms and ponder in her heart all that had happened there. And what did she ponder? I’ll tell you what I think…
I think she pondered first, how low God speaks.
Strange, isn’t it, how when we want to get someone’s attention, we make a lot of noise and clamor. Not so with God. There was no Bethlehem extravaganza. There is no place in Scripture where it says that God ever knocked anyone’s door down. Instead, God says: “Behold I stand at the door and knock, if anyone hears my voice and opens to me, I will come in to him.”
There is a painting by Holman Hunt based on that verse. It hangs in the British National Gallery in London. It portrays Jesus gently rapping on an unopened door. A little boy was visiting the Gallery with his father, and they were looking at that painting. “Daddy,” the little boy said, “Why don’t they answer the door?” The father replied: “I don’t know why.” There was a moment’s pause and then the boy said: “Maybe they are making so much noise inside that they can’t hear Him knocking.” Yes, that might be true.
You see, the infinite power of God always moves in silence. Gravity, that awesome God-ordained force which holds us and our cities to this earth so that we do not float away—gravity is silent. The tides, which ebb and flow at the magnetic pull of the moon to cleanse our shores and to launch our ships—the tides never make a sound. Springtime, which renews the earth with life-giving power—springtime comes with no rolling drums or sounding trumpets. So it is with God He is always heard best in the moments which are quiet. He whispers to us in the woods. He preaches to us when we look at great mountains. He insinuates the sweet aroma of Himself into the gentle things of life. He is where the least noise is.
That’s the way He was with Jesus. He spoke to Jesus through the gentle words of His mother, Mary. He spoke to Jesus through the silent splendor of the lilies of the field. He spoke to Jesus through an inner voice which became the commanding guide for all of His days and led Him all the way to a cross. And what was true for Jesus is also true for us. This interior hearing of the highest—it happens, best when we are most still.
So Christmas ought to be a time for quiet—a time when the whole earth holds its breath and tries to hear once again the reed-thin cry of a baby in a manger. Yes, I think Mary pondered how low God speaks.
And I think she pondered next how low God stoops.
An inn was not a very pretentious place in the first century—just a bare, spare shelter from the elements. The innkeeper provided a roof over your head, a fire for cooking your own meals, and some fodder for your animals. That was all, but Mary and Joseph didn’t even have these comforts. The manger, of course, was the animal’s feeding trough cut out of the rock wall of the cave which served as a stable. And the whole thing took place in Bethlehem, which wasn’t much of a town then, nor is it now.
There is an enormous observatory at Mount Palomar in California. There is a giant telescope there which can look out into space and pick out the light of a star so far away that one hour of focusing that light upon a photographic plate is required to make even the faintest impression. That telescope has tremendous capacities for focus. But that is nothing compared to the way everything that God is was focused down into that child in a manger.
Yes if He had to come, why did He have to come in such a lowly way? Well, there was a European king who used to make his servants anxious because he would take off his royal robes, and then, dressed as a peasant, would go out amongst the people. His servants worried that something might happen to him, but he said to them: “I must do it. I cannot rule my people unless I know how they live.” And…there was a Hindu scholar who rejected everything about Christianity because, he said, that God would never so humble Himself. Then one day this Hindu was out walking and came upon a large ant-hill. As he bent low to examine it, his shadow fell upon the hill and all the ants scurried away. And no matter how carefully he approached the hill, the ants were frightened and moved where he could not see them. Until finally he thought to himself that the only way in which he could approach that place and understand them as they are would be if he himself became an ant. The moment he thought that thought was the moment his conversion to Christianity began.
I wonder if as the Son of God stood on the balcony of heaven and counted the cost of coming to the earth—I wonder if as He prepared to focus Himself down into this world of poverty and need—I wonder if He hesitated. As He prepared to empty Himself—that is what Paul says—”He emptied Himself”—It was like pouring out everything that is in a pitcher—if we had been there, would we have seen Him pause and hold back for a moment? I do not think so. No, I think He looked down and saw it all, including the cross, but then plunged down into the arms of a waiting world. He stooped so low for us—tiny bits of humanity thrown into the scale of the infinite, but of sufficient importance to God to send His Son tumbling down, down, down to the earth.
I think that Mary looked at her child and looked at her surroundings and pondered in her heart how low God stoops.
And I think she pondered finally how low God seeks.
The shepherds, of course, were the first ones to hear—and there’s a great message in that fact. Let me explain. Mary would have missed music that night. You see, it was the custom in those days that when a child was born all the neighbors would gather around and play musical instruments and sing. That’s what would have happened in her hometown of Nazareth, but she wasn’t at home—she was in Bethlehem where no one knew them. There would have been no music. But then the word came from shepherds that there had been music—a cosmic serenade out on the hills. The shepherds heard first.
They were considered, you know, to be beneath the proper people in society. The Pharisees had labeled six professions as being unworthy—one of the six was being a shepherd. They had no religious standing, no political standing, no social standing. They were the lowest people in the society. And God sought them first.
Of course, they didn’t understand it all. They couldn’t grasp the full truth and the full impact of what they saw and heard. But that’s the point—they didn’t have to understand it all. They were living proof that what Paul said is true—that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, that He chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, that He chose that which is low and despised, things that are not, to shame the things that are.”
In other words, you don’t have to understand it all. At the center of the Gospel is the truth that the knowledge of God is not essentially an intellectual experience—it is an experience of the heart. You don’t have to be a Ph.D., you don’t have to be a high-powered intellect, you don’t have to be a captain of industry, you don’t have to be on the social register, you don’t have to have a fat bank account to come to the manger. You just have to be like a lowly shepherd…or like lowly Mary…or like the way I feel now.
You see, I look at the creation around me and I don’t feel particularly self-confident. I read about the immensities of space, and I realize that my life is only the flaming of a match against eternity’s darkness. I see the awesome flow of humanity’s story, and I realize that my work in the name of Jesus is like dropping a pebble in the ocean. I am aware of the colossal problems which buffet the nations of this earth, and I realize that all I have is a single vote, one shouted voice against the cacophony of the world. I even look at my inner life and see how far short I have fallen from the glory of God. But Christmas speaks to all of that. Christmas is the announcement that you and I, low and insignificant though we may be, are worth enough to God for Him to come. Yes, the fact that He came first to shepherds reminds us that we are of infinite value to God, made in His image, and the objects of His love.
When you confront that, all you can do is be quiet and, like Mary, ponder in your heart how low God seeks.
If I could give you a gift this Christmas I think it would be the pondering heart of Mary. She lay there in the damp straw, holding a holy child in her arms and thought deep thoughts about how low God speaks and how low God stoops and how low God seeks. That’s why I think that while the angels out on the hillsides were singing “Glory to God in the highest”, Mary, in the stable, was singing “Glory to God in the lowest.”