27 December 2017

"The Extraordinary in the Midst of the Ordinary" (Christmas Eve Sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 24, 2017
Scripture:  Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-5, 10-14

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”

A baby is born.  An ordinary, every-day occurrence.  Earlier this week, my sister gave birth to her second child, a healthy baby boy.  He was one of many babies born that day.  On average, every day in Canada, 1068 babies are born.  If you expand that to a global scale, an estimated 360,000 babies are born every single day.  That’s more than 4 babies being born every single second.

And yet if you’ve ever held a newborn baby, you know that each and every single one of those babies is a miracle.  There is a new life where there wasn’t before.  This infant is a 3lb or 5lb or 9lb bundle of potential.  All of the things that this baby is going to do and be are yet to be discovered.  The extraordinary miracle of life is found in the middle of the ordinary every-day.

Every Christmas, we read the same story about how Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and when they are there, Mary delivers a child.  “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  The story doesn’t change from year-to-year.  After we’ve heard it a couple of times, the story can become so familiar to us that we don’t give it a second thought.

This is a birth like any other birth, filled with pain and messiness, followed by joy and relief.  But even though all births share some things in common, each and every birth is unique.  We tell birth-stories after babies are born.  When my sister tells her birth story from last week, she will probably tell of how she went to the hospital and was told that there was no room at the inn – in other words, the nursery was full – and how she was sent home and told to come back later.  I wonder what Jesus’ birth story looked like.  Imagine all of the details that are left out of the story that we read – all of the details that the narrator isn’t telling us.

I wonder if Mary was attended by a midwife; and if she was, what was the midwife’s experience of the birth?  The baby is placed in a manger – a feeding trough for animals – so I assume that there were some animals nearby.  I wonder what animals witnessed the birth of this baby?  I wonder if they were surrounded by Joseph’s extended family, or was the young couple alone in a strange city?  Even though the songs we sing at this time of year tell us, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” I’ve never met a baby who didn’t cry.  I wonder if he was a fussy baby or if he was easy to settle.

A baby is born.  An every-day experience.  But like all births, there would have been a unique birth story – after all, this was the only time that this baby was born.

And not only would there be a unique birth story, but in the middle of an ordinary, messy, and painful birth, was born a special child.  Nine months previously, Mary had been visited by the Angel Gabriel who told her that she would be giving birth to a holy child, the Son of God.  God’s Word had become flesh and had come to the world to dwell among us, to be one of us.  God had become human and the world would never be the same again.

In the middle of the every-day miracle of birth, God is born in human form.  In the middle of the ordinary, the extraordinary breaks through.  “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.”

The first people in the story to hear about the birth of this baby, other than his parents, were some shepherds living in the fields.  Now shepherds weren’t people who held positions of power, or people who were respected.  Shepherds were people who lived on the margins of society; people who were not trusted; people who lived transient lifestyles.  Shepherds worked hard, were often cut off from society living in the fields, and their hard work was not well rewarded.

But that night, to a group of shepherds in the field, at first one angel and then a multitude of angels appeared to them.  In the middle of an ordinary night, the extraordinary breaks through.

Can you imagine what those shepherds must have been thinking or feeling?  The first thing that the angel says to them is “Do not be afraid” so their first reaction was probably one of fear or terror.  An army of angels is not what you normally expect when you are working on the side of the hill at night.  But after the angels leave them, the shepherds leave the hillside, visit the baby lying in the manger, and when they return to the hills outside of town, they are praising God for everything that they heard and saw that night.

And here we are, more than 2000 years later, gathered once again around the manger.  The story is the same one that we read last year and the year before.  The baby is the same, the manger is the same.

The manger, another ordinary, every-day object.  A trough, maybe made of wood, but more likely carved out of stone, filled with animal feed.  Yet did you notice that this is one detail that the narrator does include in the story?  We aren’t told about the midwife, we aren’t told about the animals, we aren’t told about relatives, but three times the narrator tells us that the baby was lying in a manger.

In an everyday, ordinary animal feed trough lies a baby who will grow up to say, “I am the bread of life.”  The one who lies where animals are fed will grow up to feed the world with the bread of life.  The extraordinary is breaking in again, and is lying in the ordinary.

One of my favourite Christmas Hymns, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” captures this perfectly, when the second verse begins:
            “Lo, within a manger lies,
            He who built the starry skies…”

And so here we are, gathered this night around the manger.  We are reminded once more that God is with us – that God has become human so that we, in our humanity, can no longer be separated from God.  The extraordinary has once more broken into the ordinariness of a birth; the extraordinary has once more broken into the ordinariness of marginalized workers just doing their job on the fringes of society; the extraordinary has once more broken into the world and lies in a manger from whence he will feed the world.

How are we going to respond to the extraordinary this year?  How are we going to be changed by the birth of this baby?  How are we going to live as though we can never more be separated from God?  How are we going to let the Christmas story change us?

Will we be like the shepherds, rejoicing and singing praises to God?  Will we be like Joseph, trusting that God has a plan for us and for the world?  Will we be like those who heard what the shepherds told them, amazed at what we are hearing?  Will we be like Mary, and treasure the message we have been given and ponder it in our hearts?

My prayer is that each one of us might be changed by this Christmas story.  That we might know not only that God is always with us, but that we might know that the extraordinary is always breaking into the ordinariness of this world.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            we give you thanks for this holiest of nights.
We thank you that you are always present with us –
            always breaking in to our ordinary lives.
Fill us with the awe, the wonder, the joy
            that comes with the birth of a baby –
                        with the birth of your Word-Made-Flesh;
And let this awe transform us,
            and keep us close to you.
We pray this in the name of the Christ-Child.

(Preparing the worship service)

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