It is in the ordinary, tired, everyday life of this world – even this child we celebrate tonight – that God is truly found. And God’s transforming light and life finds room in everything ordinary, even us. Until all is made new.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord
Texts: Luke 2:1-20
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Let’s go to Bethlehem now and see this thing that’s happened, which the Lord told us about.”
This is pretty remarkable, actually. Whatever they saw and heard on that Bethlehem hillside, afterward the shepherds didn’t shrug it off as a dream. They didn’t stay frozen in fear. They looked at each other and said, “Let’s go see.”
But what did they see when they got there? We know what Christmas cards and movies and carols say. They found a barn or cave, a soft light rising up from a manger. Cow and donkey placidly lie on either side. A holy couple sits demurely beside the glow, and a silent, beatific God-child looks up in wisdom and peace. Soft heavenly background music completes the scene.
But that’s nothing like what greeted the shepherds when they got to town.
We tend to take this moment of God’s coming into the world and wash it in sentiment and light.
We clean the whole picture up so it looks like it’s supposed to. All is calm, all is bright round yon virgin. The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. Love’s pure light, radiant, beams from the child’s holy face. Beautiful.
Many of our carols go this way, and we’re good with that. We love this irenic picture to complete a night of perfection in a world of brokenness and pain. On my vicar year, the high school shop teacher helped me build a stable for our Nativity figures. It’s beautiful. Since then I’ve often dreamed about figuring out a way of installing a warm spotlight on the ceiling that would wash the manger in a glow, only the manger. Because no matter where we put candles, Jesus is always in the dark.
But that perfect scene isn’t what the shepherds saw. And as long as we insist on perfection tonight – in our Nativity scenes, in our carols, even in our families – as long as we insist on bathing everything in a warm glow, we miss what’s really important. What the shepherds actually saw is what gives us life. Gives us hope that cannot be quenched, even by imperfection, suffering, pain, loss, or whatever else we try to shoehorn out of this night.
Seeing Jesus in the dark, that’s what we need to see. That’s what the shepherds help us see.
Because what the shepherds saw was utterly ordinary.
They didn’t find a barn, or a cave. Luke says there was a manger. But Luke’s Greek is good, and he never says there was no room in the “inn.” He uses the Greek word for “inn” in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here he uses a word better translated “guest room.”
In a culture of hospitality, it’s unthinkable that this couple would have been turned away, especially by relatives. But if cousin Betty and her whole family were already in the one upper room on the roof, Joseph and Mary would have been welcomed into the main room where everyone else slept. Including one or two animals the house owned, brought inside for the evening for warmth and security. Put the baby in the manger so he doesn’t roll around on the floor with the others.
So in a dark house lighted by a couple oil lamps, the shepherds see an exhausted mother, without a chance to freshen up, a tiny baby wrapped in cloth, sometimes screaming like all babies do. An extended group of folks hovering around. A family probably short on patience, now greeting a bunch of rubes from the hills.
So how did these shepherds believe this was the Messiah the angels told them about? A newborn is beautiful, even miraculous. But also ordinary. Without the spotlight and background music and beatific mother and child, what did they see in this utterly ordinary scene?
When we start asking this, we realize it’s always the question with Jesus.
We imagine a practically perfect Jesus as a boy, but Mary must have had hundreds of ordinary moments with a boy who sometimes smelled bad, who skinned his knee, who had to learn to behave. How did she see God’s Son in this ordinary kid?
As an adult, Jesus was a gifted teacher, and attracted followers. But it’s pretty clear from the Gospels that they saw him in mostly human terms, until the end.
And the end: that’s the big question, isn’t it? How did they look at a man hanging on a cross, humiliated as a criminal, and say, “Yes, there’s God-with-us. That’s the one.”
We start asking the question tonight, with the shepherds, because this question’s never going away. How do we see God in this ordinary baby? In Jesus, who looks like us, talks like us, is like us?
Luke says we hear as well as see. That helps.
The shepherds left the family apparently satisfied they’d seen what was advertised. But what they went and proclaimed was “what had been told them about this child,” the same thing that led them to the baby.
Mary “treasured all these words” she heard from the shepherds, and “pondered them in her heart.”
The disciples heard Jesus speak about God’s reign, about God’s love, heard his invitation to follow in God’s way. Slowly they figured out who he was. The acts of power helped, but what they heard opened them to see what they needed to see.
And they probably didn’t see God on that cross. Only failure and disaster and the end of all their hopes. But then they saw Jesus alive on Sunday, and heard, heard, him say “Peace be with you,” and, “woman, why are you weeping?,” and they could see. When he broke the ordinary bread in that ordinary little house in Emmaus, and spoke, their eyes were opened.
When we strip away the sentimentality to see the ordinariness of this birth, we might be afraid we can’t see God on this night anymore.
But the opposite is true. Like the shepherds, and Mary, and the disciples, we, too, have heard. And we need to see what God’s doing as clearly as we can if we’re going to find God’s life in this child, whom we’ve been told is God’s Son.
When we look with clear and open eyes what we see is this wonder: God comes into human life in the most ordinary of ways. In a simple, ordinary birth of a child. In the growing life of a young boy. In the teaching life of an obscure rabbi. Isaiah says, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)
But in this ordinary life, in an ordinary world, God has come. Into an ordinary baby, born in difficult, harsh, threatening times. Just like every baby born tonight in hospitals or shacks all over this difficult, harsh, threatening planet. This we have heard, and this we now see. God has come to restore all the creation by imbuing God’s own self into the creation.
We’ve already known this, already heard this, if we’ve forgotten.
Tonight we will gather once again at the Table this ordinary rabbi sets before us, and eat a small piece of bread, sip a little wine. But in this ordinary bread, in this ordinary wine, grown from the earth itself, made into nourishment in the same way for thousands of years, we have heard, yes, we have even seen for ourselves, God is present. We taste the death and resurrection of this ordinary one, this Jesus, in this ordinary meal. And we know Christ has come to us.
And if Christ can inhabit ordinary bread and wine, can inhabit this ordinary baby born long ago, then here is our Christmas wonder:
Christ can inhabit us.
Because there’s nothing more ordinary than we who are gathered here. We know our failures and flaws, our weaknesses and doubts, our brokenness and pain. If God can only be seen in the perfection of a photo-shopped picture, there’s no room for us in God, and no room in us for God. If God can only come into a perfect family, perfect relationships, a Christmas out of the storybooks, then how could God come to us?
But the shepherds heard and saw and proclaimed God in the ordinary of this world, bringing healing and restoration from within. We might not be much to look at, either. But in us, as in the whole of this ordinary world, God is transforming the whole creation.
So let’s go to Bethlehem now and see this thing that’s happened, which God told us about.
There is no place in the whole creation where God is not, so all the creation will be healed. That’s what we see on this holy night.
There’s nothing so ordinary that God is not there, so everywhere God makes newness of life. That’s what we see on this holy night.
An ordinary baby. A tired set of parents. Strange shepherds. A humiliating death. See, God is there! And God’s life cannot be stopped.
A morsel of bread. A sip of wine. Ordinary people trying their best but feeling that’s not enough. See, God is here! And God’s life cannot be stopped.
It’s a lot to process. So let’s not only go see. Let’s also take a seat beside Mary and ponder in our heart these things we’ve seen and heard. Until we can see God and God’s healing in all things, making ordinary extraordinary, making wholeness out of brokenness, even life out of death.
Good news of great joy indeed!
In the name of Jesus. Amen