The extraordinary hidden in the ordinary

Rev Heather de Gruyther, 2019-12-24 (Luke 2:1-20)


Here we are! Christmas Eve – the waiting is almost over- the moment is finally here. How many of
us have been rushing around all day – finishing work, getting the last few presents we’d forgotten
to buy, doing the food shop, doing the wrapping, a last minute unplanned trip to the shop for a roll
of wrapping paper or sellotape, keeping the children calm and getting them in bed. The rush is
now over, the preparations are made, what’s not been done now will be left undone, and all will be
well – right here, right now we have the chance for some stillness as we await tomorrow. As the
carol we will sing in a moment says O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie – we sit
here are along with all of creation, we hold our breath in anticipation for just a while longer.

There’s a weight, a palpable sense to this anticipation. It’s in the stillness of this midnight peace as
much as it has been in the fevered preparations of the day and the barely contained excitement of
children.

So much preparation, so much anticipation, so much excitement for this one extraordinary day.
And yet – if your household is anything like mine, there are the things that you do year after year –
the family traditions that amid all the extraordinary preparations become ‘ordinary’ and almost
predictable when they come around. The old faithful stockings will be put out again. The Night
Before Christmas will be read before bedtime just as I read it every year as a child. The baby will
be placed in the crib by the fireplace once more.

This is a night of extraordinary ordinariness.

And the same can be said for our gospel reading – at the heart of the reading, there’s half a
sentence, ‘and she gave birth to her firstborn son.’

What wonders are contained within those eight words – ‘and she gave birth to her firstborn son.’
That’s it – those words go right to the heart of why we are here tonight. These are the words that
have drawn us from our extraordinarily ordinary preparations, to hear again the story of the birth of
a child in Bethlehem two millennia ago.

When we strip away all the detail of the story around these 8 words – this is what we’re left with.
The birth of a firstborn son.

And that’s something most of us can relate to in some way. Whether we are parents ourselves or
not – most of us will relate to the waiting for the birth of a child. Maybe our own child, maybe the
birth of a niece or nephew, or a younger brother or sister, the child of a dear friend or even a new
addition to the royal family. We follow developments as the pregnancy progresses and we wait for
news once we know the time for birth is approaching,

And during this time we hope. We hope and we plan and we wonder what the future will be like for
this child, who this child will be and what our lives will be like once the child is with us.

And there is a sense of responsibility often for the parents to be – and expectations to live up to.
So many sources of anxiety and wider family tension – will we be able to raise this child? What if
we mess it up? Who should we tell first when the moment arrives? Who gets to visit first? What if
we want to do things differently to the way people expect?

Looking at tonight’s reading, I was struck again about this weight of responsibility on Mary with
Joseph by her side.

But how much more complicated had her journey to this point been. Pregnant in unlikely and
socially judged circumstances – the threat of stoning hanging over her. Giving birth for the first
time away from the familiarity of home and family.

Tonight – that night -Mary’s hopes and fears would be met in the face of her new-born son.
And then there’s the added weight of the prophecy spoken to her by the angel Gabriel – Your son
‘will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne
of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his Kingdom there will
be no end.’

No pressure there then – Did Mary wonder: Will I be able to raise this child? What if I mess it up?

But there’s more. As part of a good Jewish family – Mary knew the prophets of old. She knew the
prophecy contained in our reading from Isaiah. ’For a child has been born for US, a son given to
US, authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Ever
Lasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually and there shall be endless
peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with
righteousness from this time forwards and for evermore.’

Tonight – that night – the hopes and fears of ALL the years are met in the face of a tiny child.
Now, there’s pressure.

And as if that isn’t enough – after months of hoping and fearing for herself and for her unborn
child, after enduring months of gossip and sideways glances, after trekking for a week to an
unfamiliar place and after the shock of giving birth, the visitors start to arrive.

Any new mother will tell of the exhaustion of visitors – even visitors you love dearly. But here
appear a group of shepherds, fresh from the hills – strangers, probably dirty strangers, and
probably not the sort of visitors that had thought to bring a casserole for later.

But in they burst – the anticipation just pouring out of them. Never mind the prophets of the past –
this tiny child was to be claimed by the present peoples as well.

The visit of the shepherds was more than just a case of enduring the presence of well-intentioned
but nosy neighbours. It seems the tidings of great joy had got out – Mary’s hopes and fears for her
child, the hopes and fears announced to her by the angel and the prophets were being made
known publicly, because for those who hadn’t seen the angels, the shepherds couldn’t keep quiet.
Tonight – that night – the hopes and fears of all people are met in the cry of a new-born infant.

The gospel reading finishes with Mary ‘treasuring all these things and pondering them in her
heart.’ She’s the only one with all the pieces of the puzzle so far. And how she must have
wondered what was to come. As the years unfolded and this tiny child grew into a man, how she
must have wondered again and again at these events. How she must have continued to hope and
fear-right until the end of the story.

In this one sentence, Mary treasures these things and pondered them in her heart, we’re given a
glimpse, a way into the mystery of Christmas and of Easter to follow. They are two sides of the
same coin and we are so much like Mary in that through the gospel accounts we too see both the

beginning and eventually the end of the story. We can both sit with Mary at the manger and stand
with her at the foot of the cross.

And in this service, and in our service of Holy Communion tomorrow, we bring the two parts of the
story together – tonight we come to meet both the Christ Child in the Manger and the Risen Christ
in the bread and the wine. The extraordinary hidden in the ordinary.

Reading Luke’s gospel we can see how important the ordinariness of the manger was. In a few
short verses it gets mentioned three times – more than the extraordinary birth!

You would have thought that a heavenly host of angels on the hillside telling you the good news of
Jesus’ birth would have been enough wouldn’t you! Quite the extraordinary birth announcement –
but the sign for the shepherds that this is really real, that they can trust this good news that the
promised Saviour has been born, is a humble manger – an ordinary thing of everyday life – and in
it, a tiny, extraordinary baby wrapped in bands of cloth just like all the other babies born that night
in Bethlehem. The extraordinary literally wrapped in the ordinary.

Graham Kendrick’s song Thorns in the Straw asks how aware Mary was of the extraordinary as
she delivered her child. It wonders if between the extraordinary announcements of the angels, the
actual birth itself was perfectly ordinary without an angel in sight. Was Mary aware as she looked
into the eyes of her new-born son just how extraordinary he would be?

It took the announcement of the extraordinary angels to send the shepherds running to see.

But time and again ordinariness is a pattern of Jesus’ life – taking on the ordinary things of life that
come to us all, even death, and doing something new, making them extraordinary.

I wonder where we will find the extraordinary in the ordinary in the coming days. I wonder how
hard we will have to look to see it. And I wonder how much of it we will miss because it’s not
accompanied by a singing choir of angels to point it out.

The Christ child in the manger is not just for Christmas – too easily we rush him to adulthood by
Easter and the glories of the resurrection that amaze and astound.

But maybe, just maybe we should leave out the crib all year round and remember the tiny cry of
the new-born infant in the night and remember to keep our eyes open for the extraordinary
presence of God with us wherever we encounter it.

But when we miss it – the message of the angels still speaks to us reminding us to look closer – to
approach the manger and meet the Christ child for ourselves – to find the everlasting light shining
in the ordinary streets of Bethlehem that comes to meet the hopes and fears of all the years and of
each of us and transform them into something extraordinary.

Amen

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