On one ordinary night, God prepares the world for extraordinary change
In many ways, the story that we tell tonight is rather ordinary. As the story begins, the government is doing what the government does – finding ways to tax the people. And so the people without influence are herded – herded back to their hometowns to be registered so that the Emperor can be certain he is getting all he is owed. But anytime you move masses of people, you get overcrowding. That is what happens in Bethlehem this night. Though Joseph’s extended family is expecting him, they run out of space. Though the story says there is no room in the inn, the more likely scenario is that the family guest room was already full.[i] So Joseph and his pregnant fiancé get the leftovers – the area of the home meant for the animals. We’ve had those moments – when your delinquent uncle or your slacker friend shows up unexpected. You grab a pillow and a blanket and offer space on the couch – or the floor if the couch is already taken. This is just an ordinary night of making the space work.
Of course, no woman would want to give birth under these conditions, but that is the funny thing about birth – births happen all the time, whether people are ready or not. Though every time a baby is born we marvel at the miracle of life, births are really much more commonplace that we give them credit for being. Just like any other mother, Mary finds a place to lay the baby and finds a way to swaddle him so that he can ease off to sleep. And so in the messiness of managing civic life and familial life, here our story has us working through the ordinary mess of reproductive life.
And in case we were to get too excited about our story, God decides to reveal the occurrences of that night to even more ordinary people. Enter the shepherds. These are ordinary men, doing the necessary work of shepherding. In fact, these men are so ordinary, they are almost invisible to the outside world. They are not busy heading to their hometown to be counted because according to the day, they are not worth counting.[ii] They are the migrant workers who do the work no one else wants to do. So while everyone is sleeping, or eating, or enjoying the warmth of a fire, the shepherds are out tending their flocks, focused on the ordinariness of agricultural life.
Of course, the story becomes interesting when we hear about all of the extraordinary parts of this story. Yes, there is the same greedy government, the same crowded family, the same new parents, and the same business of farm life. But something extraordinary breaks into the ordinary this night. In the midst of everyday lives, God breaks in through the ordinary and proclaims good news of great joy. The Messiah has been born – the long awaited Savior who will change everything. In fact, the angels are so blown away by this extraordinary moment in time that they break into song, praising God. That is what we do when faced with the extraordinary. We praise God for God’s goodness and mercy and grace. God takes on human flesh for us, and the angels do the only thing they can – they praise God in gratitude.
The shepherds’ initial reaction to the same news is quite ordinary – they go and talk to the family. They tell Mary and Joseph what they saw. Again, the scene is quite ordinary – a travel-worn family making due in rustic quarters having a conversation with equally worn shepherds. No one is out of place in this scene – everyone is equally ordinary. And yet, the extraordinary lights up the room. So extraordinary is the night that the shepherds leave, glorifying and praising God. They echo the response of the angels, expressing their overwhelming gratitude in the only way they know how – praising and thanking God. Mary, too, knows how extraordinary this night is. She treasures this extraordinary moment in her heart, left pondering what new thing God is doing.
That is what we love about this story: the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extraordinary. The ordinary part we know intimately. We, too, find ourselves living ordinary lives. We work, we play, we laugh, we cry. We pay our taxes, we deal with family, we go through labor pains. We come to church, we pray together, we read scripture together, and we feast on the holy meal. With the exception of a few fun vacations, nights out on the town, or the wedding of a friend, our lives are relatively ordinary. I am pretty sure most of us have not witnessed a heavenly host bringing us good tidings of great joy.
We do not get the extraordinary most days: except, of course, when we do. Even in our ordinary lives, God breaks in with the extraordinary. Just a couple of weeks ago a parishioner was telling me about how our conversations at church had finally worn him down. When he ran into a homeless person on his walk in the city, he decided to finally give him some money – a practice that he never endorses. Something about his experience with God was softening his resolve and he was able, in a moment of clarity, to see the humanity of the man. Or the other week, I was talking to a teacher about the profound things her children sometimes say. They sometimes say things that stop her in her tracks and make her reevaluate her way of being. Or a few months ago I was talking to another person of faith about her prayer life. She confessed rather sheepishly that sometimes in her prayers, especially when she makes room to listen to God, hears a response back. She felt like she could not really explain the phenomenon well, but she knew the voice must be from God because the words rang so true and were nothing she would have come to on her own.
That is what happens in our ordinary lives – God breaks through again and again, overwhelming us with the extraordinary. Those moments are gifts that we celebrate an honor, because they are just that – gifts. That is the same reason we celebrate tonight. We honor the gift that God gives us in Christ Jesus. For all intents and purposes, Jesus is just another baby born under ordinary circumstances. But we know that he is so much more: God Incarnate, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Tonight is about honoring the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. Tonight is about claiming the joy that can only come from extraordinary acts of God. But tonight is also about claiming the joy of a community that invites us to praise – to glorify God as we go our own ways this night. We are blessed over and over. In the trials and tribulations of ordinary life, we are so blessed by our extraordinary God and the community of faith that gathers with us. In fact, the extraordinary nature of God hallows our ordinary lives, making them anything but ordinary. Tonight, I invite you to embrace the extraordinary in our midst, to honor the holiness of the ordinary, and to find ways to share that extraordinary in our ordinary lives tomorrow. Amen.
[i] Richard Swanson, “Commentary on Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20,” December 25, 2013, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1880 on December 22, 2015.
[ii] Michael S. Bennett, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 118.