sermon/Christmas 2016: ordinary extraordinary humanity

Unedited/uncited by J. Lavoy
Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Eve is among my favourite aspects of being a pastor. More than the pretty trees and candles, Christmas Eve is a time full of tradition, when a whole community of people gather in this one place, to pause for a just moment. The baking is done, the presents are wrapped, the song Christmas Shoes has been listened to at least 10 times. At this point, all that’s left to do before Christmas is sleep.

My biggest challenge for Christmas Eve is the sermon. Its very difficult to prepare a two-hour long sermon, when the story is so familiar. Thanks to the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, we can probably recite the scripture from memory. “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…”

As I sat with the scripture, I noticed something that I never saw before. Our story for today is divided into three paragraphs, or three different scenes.

The first scene is very ordinary: Mary and Joseph, a young, pregnant couple, receives notice that they have to go to Bethlehem to participate in the Census. Because of the Census, there were lots of out-of-town visitors, so Mary and Joseph had to make do. After having given birth, they spent the night in the lower room of a guest house, where the animals sleep. It’s a matter-of-fact scene, describing the miracle of every-day life.

The third scene is also quite ordinary: a group of every-day shepherds who heard about an exciting new birth, went with their sheep to Bethlehem, and met an infant, lying in a hay crib. Mother Mary was deeply moved by their visit, and scripture says she “treasured their words in her heart.”

If you use your imagination, I bet you can draw parallels to your own life: something goes wrong while your out-of-town, and you have to be flexible; kind strangers do something nice for you, and the gift stays with you for a long while.

But that second scene is quite extraordinary and startling. A group of angels appear out-of-nowhere, and announce to a band of shepherds that an infant who will change the world is born just a few kilometers away. They should all go witness it.

The story of Jesus’ birth is a pattern of ordinary, every-day activities, interrupted by startling miracles.

I think that’s the story of our life and humanity.

The theological word that pastor-types like to use at Christmas is incarnation. It means that God is present in human form. A human body – of which there are billions – possessed by the startling miracle of beauty, God, our souls.

In this room, there are people of many different spiritual backgrounds, ages, and assumptions.  Some of our spiritualties are just starting to form. Others have traveled a course for many years. Others took some profound left or right turns.

I believe that it is our job to have many and various beliefs about God. A singular, uniform belief in God is not belief in God: it is the creation of God in our image. Christmas teaches us the very opposite thing: that we, in all our diversity, in all our form, in all of our thoughts and experiences, are created in God’s image. And God appears in the world, in the form of living things.

The poet Wendell Berry offers us a concise Christmas message:

Born by our birth
Here on the earth
Our flesh to wear
Our death to bear

God knows wellness and sickness; living and dying. God knows contentment and anger, peace and violence. God knows adolescence and older age. God knows middle age and first love. God is in all of these things, and takes on all of their forms.

I think that the Gospel story is patterned after our living. A series of ordinary decisions and experiences, strung together by unexpected, extraordinary beauty.

What would happen if the shepherds weren’t paying attention? Would they have missed the angels? Does anyone remember the TV show, Touched by an Angel? It focused on three angels, who wore everyday bodies and clothing, doing miracles for people in need. The people with whom the angels interacted never knew they were living with an angel, until after the miracle had happened.

There is a poet named Ranier Rilke who uses every day scenes to say the most extraordinary things. My daily devotional is a collection of his poetry and writings. The entry for today speaks so deeply to what I’m trying to communicate. It would be very bad theology of me to suggest that an angel put it there, so I’ll chalk it up to a miraculous coincidence, but who’s to say it couldn’t have been angels?

This is an entry he calls, “for the sake of one line poetry.”

“To think of things is not enough. One must remember many nights of love, of which none was like another. One must remember the cries of women in labor and the pale, distracted sleep of those who have just given birth. But one must also have been with the dying and sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful sounds of life. And it is still not enough to have memories: one must be able to forget them when they crowd the mind and one must have the immense patience to wait until they come again. For it is not the memories themselves. Only when they become our blood, our glance, our gesture, nameless and indistinguishable from who we are – only then can it happen that in a very rare hour the first word of a poem rises from their midst and goes forth.”

I think that sermons are supposed to invite you to into some new growth, or call you to do something. So I, as your pastor, even if just for this evening, invite you into this Christmas attitude of incarnation – God present in human form. The root of all justice, the root of all healing, is in noticing God in our midst.

As you go about your living, your working and playing, I invite you to notice God in your wellness and sickness; living and dying. In your contentment and anger. In your adolescence and older age. In your middle age and first love.

You might use this prayer: “God, help me to notice you here. Amen.”

Remember those shepherds: if they weren’t paying attention, they might have missed the extraordinary that gives life its form and meaning.