In 1915, Bishop Herbert Bury wrote about St Andrews.
He says it is ‘startlingly .. like a London suburb’. And continues, “But as I saw it on Christmas Eve last year it was Russian enough, the great courtyard was full of troikas and sledges, and the clear air musical with tinkling bells as the people came driving in from far and near, clad in warm furs, for the service.”
Well I do see a bit of snow, but I don’t see many troikas outside. But however you came it is lovely to see you
Christmas eve is a magical night. We have gravity defying reindeer and legends of animals that speak at midnight.
But there is something very special about tonight. Because on this holy night, we believe that the extraordinary meets the ordinary, and the ordinary touches the extraordinary.
THE EXTRAORDINARY MEETS THE ORDINARY
It is about the extraordinary: prophecies that go back over 2000 years being fulfilled, appearances of angels, remarkable dreams, a virgin birth, an unexpected star, visitors from a foreign land
And it is also about the very ordinary: It is about innkeepers and shepherds. You can’t get more ordinary than that.
If I am honest, the innkeeper is not mentioned in the story, but his inn is – but the innkeeper or two have a role in most school nativity plays. I like the story of the little boy who wanted to play Joseph, but got relegated to the part of first inn keeper. His only line was ‘no room, no room’. He thought this wasn’t good enough and wanted to make his role much bigger. So when the big day of the performance came, and all the mums and dads were there, and Joseph knocked on the innkeeper’s door and asked if there was a place where Mary and he could stay, the boy replied, ‘Yes of course, please come in’.
And shepherds come and visit. They are the most ordinary of the ordinary.
People told jokes about shepherds. Jesus told a joke about a shepherd. He had 100 sheep and he lost one. So he abandoned the 99 in order to go after the one lost sheep. And while people were still laughing at the stupid shepherd, Jesus turned it around and said, ‘God is like that’. Each person is so precious to God that he would leave 99 others in order to find you.
But it is about the very ordinary. There was nothing special about Joseph and Mary, a carpenter and his wife, a young couple alone, unnoticed in a town that was full of people. And at the centre of this story is a young woman giving birth to a baby. Now I know that to the couple that is far from ordinary, but on a grand scale – 15000 babies are born every hour.
But on the first Christmas night, the extraordinary met the ordinary. Angels greet shepherds. A star appears to astrologers. And the eternal Son of God, the one who was there before there were any beginnings, the creator of all things, strips off his divine status, strips off his eternal privilege and power and, in the words of St Paul, empties himself and becomes a human. He becomes a baby, born to a peasant couple.
St Augustine wrote:
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother's bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.
This holy night, the extraordinary meets the ordinary.
The eternal Son of God allows himself to be embraced in the arms of a peasant girl.
And this holy night is also about
THE ORDINARY REACHING OUT FOR THE EXTRAORDINARY.
That is why we are here.
We’ve come to worship. We’ve come to hear again the message, to declare the praises of God.
We, limited by space and time, have come to reach out for the unlimited
We, mortal men and women, have come to reach out for the eternal
We have come to reach out to the one who – in choosing to be born as a human being – bestowed eternal value on each human being. God became like you.
We have come to reach out to the one who was born as a human being because he loves you.
Now please do not get this wrong.
When I say he loves you, I do not mean that he loves you like an indulgent grandfather who lets you do whatever you want. That actually is not love.
Real love looks at us and sees us. He sees the muck in us, the sin, the greed, the perverted twisted desires that control us, the bitterness and unforgiveness, the lies and deceit, rebellion and disobedience, the self-centredness that thinks that life and everybody and everything should rotate around us – and he hates it.
He hates it because it is a denial of everything that he is, because he is holy and he cannot look on that sort of stuff.
He hates it because it destroys other people. It denies their eternal significance and it turns them into tools who are there to satisfy us.
And it is destroying us, shrinking us, shriveling us up, making us into nothing.
And real love looks at what we were made to be, and it will pay any price so that we might become what were created to become.
So in his love, he reaches out to us, he comes to live as one of us, to live a perfect life. And he comes to die on the cross so that we can be forgiven;
and now he offers to change us – so that we become beautiful on the inside (and in eternity radiant on the outside) - and so that we do not need to shrivel up and become nothing – but we can flourish and grow and become like Jesus, become like God.
And we have come to reach out to the one who is Emmanuel. When God tells Joseph that Mary is going to have a baby, he calls him Emmanuel. It means God with us.
Yes of course God was with Mary and Joseph in an oh so real way. And God walked and talked and laughed and ate with the 12 disciples and many others 2000 years ago. But Jesus has said that even though now we cannot see him, he is no less Emmanuel. He is beside you. He is closer even than your breathing. He is with us.
So when we worship, when we praise God in the carols, when we bow down and confess our sins – and say that he is right and we are wrong, when we hear and believe his word, we are reaching out to touch the face of the one who is with us.
This holy night, we the ordinary are reaching out to touch the extraordinary
But this holy night something even more remarkable can happen.
Forget gravity defying reindeer, forget speaking animals - this is the night that our deepest dreams can come true
THIS IS THE NIGHT WHEN THE EXTRAORDINARY EMBRACES THE ORDINARY SO THAT WE ORDINARY CAN BECOME EXTRAORDINARY
This is the night when frogs and beasts can become glorious princes
This is the night when scullery maids can become radiant princesses
I know that this is the language of poetry. But it is very real.
When the early church fathers preached, they used a simple phrase: The eternal Son of God was born as a human baby, so that human beings might become sons and daughters of God.
Or, as John writes, even more simply, ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’.
You can become a child of God. You can know God as your heavenly Father. You can have intimacy with him for eternity. And you can be changed so that you can begin to become like him. You can begin to know his desires and share his desires – so that the prayer ‘your kingdom come’, ‘да прийдет царстве твое’ really becomes your deepest desire.
You can begin to see people and things and situations as he sees them. You can be filled with his love, with his mercy, with his generousity, with his goodness. You can also begin to glimpse evidence of his power beginning to work in you and through you.
And it is all possible because of this holy night, when the extraordinary became ordinary and lived among us.
We’ve sung a prayer this evening:
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
That is what we need to do.
As we tonight reach out to touch the extraordinary who became ordinary, so now, if we wish, we need to ask him come into us – just like the bread and wine that we will eat and drink in a few minutes. We need to invite him to live in us, as our Saviour – the one who rescues us; as our Lord – the one who we obey; and as our friend. Because then, this holy night, we the ordinary can begin to become extraordinary.