Here’s the sermonette from the morning service at St David’s Uniting Church, 30 December 2012. The readings were Luke 1, 26-31; Matthew 1, 19-21; Luke 2, 8-14 and Matthew 2, 13 and 19, all read from ‘Good as New’.
Some of you already know that one of my very favourite films is Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’; it’s much loved because ‘Python’ humour was one of the biggest comedy influences of my youth. Sure, it’s irreverent at times, but it pokes fun not at Jesus, or even Christianity, but at zealous religious types and to some extent the unbiblical Hollywood blockbusters; those who were having their legs pulled were the very sort who did protest so violently!
Be that as it may, one of my favourite lines comes right at the start. Three Wise Men arrive at the stable where Brian is born – the stable next door to the one they are looking for – if you’ve not seen it. Mandy, the mother of Brian, played by Terry Jones asks ‘Who are you then?’. To which John Cleese replies ‘we are three wise men’. Quick as a flash, Mandy retorts ‘what you doing creeping round a cow shed in the middle of the night, doesn’t seem very wise to me!’
And of course, Mandy is right, if you think about it. Nothing of the Christmas story makes particular sense if you are trying to be ‘wise’ about it; we are so familiar with it, have glossed it and glamorised it, we have turned it into the most special time of the year, and the church made capital out of the festival perhaps even before it occurred to the supermarkets. But that first Christmas was different, very different, and what I want to do for ten minutes or so this morning is just give the characters some of the original back again. Whether wise or not, we’re going to creep around a cowshed ourselves.
Let’s start with Mary – what sort of girl was Mary? Young, certainly, perhaps no more than 14 years old; ordinary, she was promised in marriage to the local carpenter, quite probably seen as a very good match by both families. It is very unlikely that Mary was educated, at least not in any way we would recognise. Ancient and ignorant superstition would have played more of a part in her life than anything we would recognise as learned intelligence, though no doubt too she would have been encouraged in matters of faith and religion. ‘Simple’ is almost too naïve a word for Mary; she was ordinary because of the constraints of her time and her culture.
And yet, though we know only a little of Mary from the Gospel stories, mostly through what Luke tells us, what we do know was her devotion to God and her understanding of Jesus himself. Even before Jesus’s birth, she sings of the greatness of God, and of her understanding that the Messiah’s birth turns the world upside down. Extraordinary from the ordinary, don’t you think?
We don’t know a great deal about Joseph, if we’re honest. It’s possible that he was very much older than Mary (religious art depicts him as such) but it’s also possible that he was no older than his late teens or early 20s. We certainly should not judge his betrothal to 14-year-old Mary by our modern understanding of childhood and adulthood. Much of the conjecture about Joseph’s older age seems to be linked to the fact that by the time of Jesus’ ministry, no mention is made of Joseph; that he is not present at his son’s burial has been interpreted to suggest that he had by this time died, but that would not be remarkable for someone in his mid-50s.
Joseph was ordinary; a carpenter, possibly a technician with limited skills in metalwork as well as woodwork. But carpentry may well have been amongst the more respected professions, skilful, a service to the community, not someone lowered in status as to have to work the land or tend animals.
What was not so ordinary was the way in which Joseph accepted Mary’s position, the way in which he listened to God’s message which was, essentially, ‘don’t worry, it’s going to be ok’. And as a result of this, Joseph makes a series of extraordinary decisions.
There’s no nativity play Innkeeper in the Biblical narrative, though wholly reasonable to assume that someone owned the boarding houses. Whoever had answered the doors, it would seem that the people of Bethlehem had no interest in, felt no responsibility for the heavily pregnant girl from the north. So we hear that they found shelter in a stable. A gesture of reluctant support on the part of a kindly soul? I doubt it somehow; I’ve often imagined Mary and Joseph scrambling around just for a bit of shelter. We’ve romanticised the stable. Picture-postcard, soft-focus light, warmth from the worshipping animals, if not from saintly halos. But it we’re honest, the animal house is one of the most ordinary bits of this story. It was dirty, offensively so for hygiene-conscious, religious Jews, it would have been noisy and completely lacking in privacy.
The setting for the birth of Jesus is extraordinary for being so thoroughly awful.
Perhaps the most ‘ordinary’ of the characters in the Christmas story are our shepherds. We are reminded frequently enough of the fact that the first people to hear of Jesus’s birth were poor people, that this is a thematic link through to a focus of Jesus’s ministry, his good news for all people, not just the rich, the well-to-do, nor even just those with whom, we might imagine, God is pleased, as sang by angels. But these aren’t just ordinary people, they are bottom-of-the-pile people. These are men and boys (probably) who make their living in the open air; equivalents of our dustbin men, our ‘Big-Issue’ sellers. These are people who would not have been out of place visiting a baby in an animal house – it’s their environment.
What’s extraordinary of course is that they were drawn to do so; what’s extraordinary is that the message of the Angels got through to them! I’ve often imagined them stood there, in the field, thinking, probably asking ‘you talking to us? you got the right people?’. Well, yes.
We’ll leave the wise men, the magicians, the star-gazers, for another time, except to note that the one thing that they were probably not was kings – as in the ‘we three kings’ sense. The contrast with the shepherds is not so much one of ‘poor and rich’, but rather Jew and Gentile, a different type of outcast; foreigners, ordinary in their own land, are extraordinary in the context of their worship of the infant Jesus. And that, of course, is the point Matthew makes.
But our readings were all about messengers and their messages, so we need a word or two about angels. Of all the things which have been given the soft-focus treatment, the romantic angle, the ‘ahhhh’ factor, nothing much comes close to the angels. Now, quite seriously, I don’t want to take anything away from that – I still remember Isobel’s first role in a nativity play, at Ysgol Feithrin Sardis, with that tear-in-the-eye fondness which nursery children dressed as shepherds and angels brings – it’s quite an unusual emotion, and valued.
But having said that, the angels we read about in the Christmas story are not extraordinary for their heavenly wings and their ‘wow’ factor, even if there’s a bit of that in the story of the shepherds. The Gospel writers are far more concerned with the extraordinary nature of the message itself than with the appearance of heavenly creatures. Indeed, this is something we find difficult to appreciate sometimes, that what we might consider miraculous or somehow astonishing would have been accepted as wholly possible (if without explanation) to ancient people.
The angels may well have been ordinary messengers, and there’s lots of literature out there which draws on this possibility, and speculates as to who they might have been. And of course, we’ve also turned it round, to adopt ‘Angel’ as someone who looks out for us, or who brings us messages of good news.
You probably spotted the link between all of these things long ago. What we have in the nativity stories is a series of ordinary people and situations coming together in extraordinary ways, to make something very special. Something which changed the world, no less. Finding something special, building something special from the ordinary becomes a theme then in the Jesus story, whether it’s the calling of simple country people to be friends, the telling parables using ordinary language, or eating a meal together.
And in a way, it continues to be our story too. We are ordinary people, with a range of varied but ordinary skills, personalities, talents and experiences; as individuals we’re not particularly remarkable. But together, we can be something special. As individual churches, we can be very ordinary, but as projects like Street Pastors shows – not to mention our own ecumenical explorations, together, special things can happen.
There’s a 1970s pop song which you will have heard (if only subconsciously) over the last month, by a group called Wizard ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day’; it’s an interesting thought but one which I’ve mostly thought to be very silly, particularly in the context of the song’s lyrics which are mostly about snow, skating and Santa. I think I also object to the inherent dangers of having too much of a good thing – basically when things that should be special become common-place, they revert to being ordinary and are very much taken for granted. There’s lots of that, I feel, in the secular Christmas.
But not in the Christian Christmas – Immanuel, God with us, is already ‘Christmas every day’. The ordinary has become special, and in touching us, the love which comes to us, born in an ordinary cow shed makes us – all of us – special too. Amen