Ralph W. Sockman - "The Wonder That Grows" (December 11, 1960)
|May I preface my Christmas message
|with just this personal word.
|It's always a pleasure to come
|to this great campus, this beautiful chapel
|this pulpit distinguished by its current preaching.
|It's been my cherished remembrance to have the friendship
|of your presidents from Dr. Fuze date of this.
|Now I count myself singularly fortunate,
|but I come on the weekend of founders observance,
|but I have had the privilege
|of knowing three generations of the Duke family.
|I think of the good they done to the world
|and the splendid way in which that tradition
|is being carried on by the present members of the family
|even in this city
|I counted high privilege to be here at this particular time.
|There are some wonders which we outgrow
|and some which grow with us.
|Consider the field of aviation 57 years ago.
|Arville and Wilbur Wright down here
|in your state of North Carolina
|flew the first power driven airplane in history.
|So unbelievable was their achievement,
|but most American newspapers were loath
|to risk their reputations by printing the report.
|But 40 years later, 1943
|when it was desired to observe the 40th anniversary
|of the Wright brothers miraculous attainment.
|A little item appeared in a back page
|of a New York newspaper to this effect.
|Kitty Hawk celebration canceled by blizzard.
|Can you imagine the American papers two weeks
|hence announcing the Christmas celebration canceled
|by a blizzard or a flood or even a global war?
|Christmas will be observed by more people
|this year than ever before.
|The wonder of it grows, the Bethlehem event grows
|in wonder in my own personal thinking.
|When I was a boy,
|Christmas was the red letter day of the year,
|and when the first holiday decorations began to appear
|my spirits began to Mount until they reached a crescendo
|on the night before Christmas.
|The emotional excitement of Christmas
|has abated some with maturity
|but the wonder of it, deepened and widens.
|Whereas in my childhood, I thought primarily
|of the gifts to be received and to be given.
|Now, I think of that glow
|which suffuses the face of almost the whole world
|no matter how dark our and dismal our dangers and our fears.
|What keeps Christmas going and growing?
|Oh, some cynic may say
|it's the commercialization that keeps it going,
|and to be sure trades people have
|all too much taken advantage of the season
|to turn it into a period of profit making.
|But the Christmas observance outruns the lanes
|of the marketplace, it will quicken the hearts
|and pulses of people in Karenni refugee camps
|in the far north and in lonely prisons.
|Yes, you can't explain Christmas by commercialization.
|The wonders is a baby born in Bethlehem
|should have the power to quicken business.
|Others may say that we have made Christmas
|a kind of pagan celebration that sort of stirs
|a glow in our hearts.
|Oh, we admit that many pagan elements
|have come into the Christmas observance.
|The very date of it comes, you know
|from a pagan Roman celebration of the solstice
|and we've brought the Yule Log from Iceland,
|the missile toe from England,
|the jarring St. Nicholas from Holland,
|the Fox furry from Germany,
|all of them pre-Christian in their source.
|Nevertheless, I do not think
|of Christmas as just an artificial concoction
|of pagan elements to give us a kick.
|No, it would seem to me that these pagan elements
|signify this fact that all over the world
|from beginning of history there have been dreams and hopes,
|and when the Christ child appeared
|he was the magnet that drew dreams
|and hopes of all the years and all the places.
|The wonder of Christmases that it does bring
|in all these universal pre-Christian elements.
|And the wonder grows, when I think that only that it endures
|but that the fact of our calendar
|is that Christmas dates our calendar.
|What other event in history is universal enough
|to be a reckoning point of time?
|Some 700 years ago, Genghis Khan swept his Imperial rule
|across Asia, unparalleled phenomenon,
|but if you ask a man on the street
|what he knows about Genghis Khan,
|he isn't sure whether it's a mountain peak or a race horse
|or a former wife of husband of Rita Hayworth.
|He wouldn't know.
|There other events that are so called a puddle
|the fall of Rome,
|signing of the Magna Carta,
|The declaration of independence.
|But what would those dates mean in Asia or Africa?
|Know that only one event seemingly
|universal and perennial enough to mark time.
|The only explanation that I can make of this is,
|that in Christmas we see what the prophet Isaiah predicted
|and what Matthew declares in his first chapter.
|That the one born in Bethlehem shall be called Emmanuel
|which means God with us.
|The reason that Christmas grows in wonder,
|and in the observance is it's God within us coming closer
|to us consider first this fact it is the God within us.
|The response to Christmas is spontaneous,
|We, when Christmas is in the air
|our spirits begin to fluter toward Bethlehem
|just as birds fly south in the winter.
|It is said that birds, even in a cage,
|feel the flutter in their wings
|when the migrating season is on,
|and so we, we adults caged in our conventions
|the wings of our imagination clipped by the shears
|of science limited by the grab daily surroundings,
|we like little children somehow feel the lure
|of Bethlehem, children take to it. Naturally.
|It's more than a mere nature story.
|It's more than the perennial fascination of a baby.
|It's the fact that when we come back to Christmas
|we're coming back to something
|that we feel is our native air, our homeland.
|It's amazing to me in New York
|how crowds are Christmas Eve will flock
|from the theaters and nightclubs and places
|of entertainment to the churches to sing Christmas carols
|for when they come back to that tender love of a mother
|the hospitality of the humble
|the amazing wonder of the wise,
|it's like coming back to the home of our souls
|our native air, the best in us is born at Christmas.
|The God within us comes to light.
|It's more than a birthday of even a great personality.
|I have a friend who just passed his 104th birthday,
|Dr. Arthur J. Brown.
|He has a whimsical way of saying
|that if you want to know how long you will be remembered
|after you die, just stick your finger into a pale
|of water and pull it out
|and see how much of a hole it leaves.
|Rather vivid reminder that we are quickly forgotten.
|Only one of our presidents is recognized
|for his birthday throughout the whole country.
|This is more than the birth of a great prophet or man.
|Jon Belcher, late beloved governor general of Canada
|wrote a book biography of Caesar Augustus
|who ruled the time of Jesus birth,
|and when Caesar Augustus died the mourners and Rome said,
|"well, we made Caesar a god and gods do not die,
|he'll be remembered," but he's not remembered,
|and Belcher explained it to us, he said,
|"Caesar Augustus is not remembered,
|whereas Jesus Christ is, because making a man
|into a God is not the same as God coming into a man."
|We didn't make Jesus by our ceremonies into a God.
|It's God coming into man.
|That's why Christmas lived.
|His name is Emmanuel, God with us.
|Now think in a second place, how he also brings
|near to us the God who is above us
|in our music this morning we sang of the star,
|on our Christmas cards we shall see the star,
|Matthew records, the wise men following a star.
|Now of course Matthew and Luke were not eyewitnesses
|of the Bethlehem event.
|When we read the nativity stories
|we must think of a, something like this,
|when we go into a motion picture theater
|and the play is on, our minds follow the plot as it goes on,
|but our imaginations try to reconstruct
|what took place before we came in.
|The biographers of Jesus came on the scene
|in the midst of Jesus, amazingly dramatic achievements,
|and they tried by getting tradition
|and by their inspired imagination to picture
|what could produce this Jesus who lived
|and loved and work as he did.
|The symbolism of Bethlehem reveals something deeper
|than mere superficial fact reveals truth.
|The truth symbol lies in that star is what John put
|into the prologue of his gospel
|when he tells the story
|of Christ's birth, in the beginning was the word
|and the word was with God and the word was God.
|What we see in Christ is the, a creator of the universe,
|the God above us coming near to us
|the star hovers over the manger.
|The creation of heaven is showing its kingship
|with the creatures of earth.
|Oh, it it's hard, isn't it,
|to think that this universe, the creator is revealed
|at a baby born and out of the way province,
|and it's even harder now in these days of space travel
|because we're beginning to raise the question
|of whether we may discover planets that are also populated,
|and if we do, people say how then can you say
|that Jesus child of Bethlehem reveals the God of creation
|there may be other gods there.
|Well, the way I approach it is this,
|God has to be the highest we can imagine.
|What is highest form of creation we can imagine?
|It's personality, more than any Sputnik,
|more than any Milky Way is this personality
|that can think and dream
|and make its space traveling machines,
|personality is the highest form of creation we know,
|and what's the highest form of personality?
|19 centuries have tested and out of all that testing
|this tangled scheme of human events
|the most thoughtful minds have come to believe
|within that brief life in Palestine,
|we see reveal the character of the creator.
|When we see how Jesus lived and loved and died,
|how on the cross he said,
|"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
|We can't think beyond such living and loving
|therefore the God who is the highest we know
|must be like the Christ the highest we could imagine.
|It's not easy, but that's what we can think of Christmas.
|Paul Tillich has said that you can't really see the divinity
|in the manger unless you realize how much
|like a child creation is, a child is here, but not all here.
|We think of his mystery
|of his birth and the potentialities of his future.
|You can't appreciate a child unless say you see the whole
|in a fragment, the invisible invisible,
|so is it with the manger.
|You can't appreciate it
|unless you use your imagination to see
|that that star means the heavens are involved
|in the creation of the most perfect personality.
|Oh, it takes more than imagination.
|You said today in your collective prayer
|we have worshiped at the manger,
|we have not obeyed his will,
|you wanna feel that God within us and above us,
|you've got to commit your will to this Christ.
|Last summer, I was for a week teaching
|at over here in Richmond at the union, theological seminary
|at Presbyterian church, and one of the ministers there,
|Presbyterian minister, drew illustration from Blondin,
|the famous French tight rope walker
|who visited this country in 1958, 1859, a hundred years ago,
|and he walked on a tight rope
|back and forth across Niagara falls
|even carried a man on his shoulders across Niagara falls,
|and this minister, since he was a Presbyterian
|I assume of course his report was authentic,
|but anyway, this minister said
|that Blondin once asked a man at Niagara falls
|"do you believe I can carry a man across that tight rope?"
|Man said, "yes"
|"will you be the man?" Man said "no"
|there's our point in a nutshell,
|we believe that God revealed himself
|in the manger of Bethlehem but will we follow?
|ah, the most convincing thing
|about the Divinity of Christ to me is the reveal
|of God's goodness is, those who've tested it
|most deeply believe it most firmly,
|hopefully hard to think that a God who creates a world,
|which there are wars and floods
|can be the kind of loving being we saw in Christ,
|but those who tested him most believe it most.
|Only this morning, I talked with a friend of mine,
|a former member of this faculty
|who in the year has lost an only son,
|he still believes God is love.
|Think of George Frideric Handel,
|the time in his life when he had lost all his money,
|his debtors were about to throw him into prison,
|his body was half paralyzed, was about to give up,
|then an inspiration caught him and he wrote the Messiah.
|When this Christmas we sing the Messiah
|and stand to sing the hallelujah chorus,
|the Lord, God omnipotent reign.
|Just remember Handel wrote that
|when he was dead broke and half paralyzed.
|There is a power in Bethlehem
|that reveals the God within us and the God above us.
|Eight years ago, this Christmas
|I broadcast my Christmas message
|from Jerusalem for the national radio pulpit.
|The only broadcasting station then
|in Jerusalem was in the Israeli side of the city,
|but I asked my Israeli host to take me as closely
|as they could to Bethlehem
|that I might catch the atmosphere.
|They took me to a hill.
|I could see Bethlehem some nine miles away,
|but right within a few yards of east to the soldier
|withdrawn bay in it just below was the barbed wire
|separating those two tenths countries of Jordan and Israel,
|and my heart was sad to think that 19 centuries had passed
|and we still hadn't caught the spirit of Bethlehem.
|The Christian century wrote an editorial shortly after
|with this caption, 'Bethlehem is still there,'
|and a year ago, last summer, I was again in Jerusalem
|on the Jordan side,
|and I went to Bethlehem,
|I went to that field where tradition says
|the shepherds watched their flocks by night.
|I saw the sun set behind those dusty domes of Bethlehem.
|The city's grown, (inaudible) gone. Caesars are gone.
|I still felt the urge that made Phillips Brooks write
|"O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
|above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
|getting by dark street shining, the everlasting light,
|the hopes and fears of all the years
|are met in thee tonight."
|Bethlehem is still there,
|and the one who was born there has a power over men today
|that all the armies, the marks and the bummers
|that fly can't match.
|Truly he must be Emmanuel, which means God with us.
|Let us pray.
|Eternal father who does hold the stars in thy hands
|and yet keeps track of the falling sparrows,
|we would feel by greatness and by nearness
|as we approach the season of thy revealed love,
|and now unto him, but is able to do exceeding
|abundantly above all that we ask
|or think according to the power
|that worked within us to him be glory
|and honor through the church, world without end.
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