It is a story most of us know well. The woman and man traveling to his hometown for a census. The baby born, wrapped in cloths, and laid in a manger.
Casual observers would know nothing about the angel who visited Mary or the agony Joseph had gone through when he learned his fiancée was pregnant. Mary and Joseph must have seemed like perfectly ordinary travelers.
Even the birth itself probably didn’t register as an unusual event for most who knew about it. The Christmas pageant version is fairly striking, but all we really have is Luke 2:7: “And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
That’s it. No stable. No lowing cattle. I must admit I felt a bit disillusioned to learn that the Greek word translated here as “inn” is more accurately translated as “guest room.” It is the same word used to refer to the room in which Jesus and his disciples eat the last supper. And that it was common for animals to be brought into a courtyard or even part of a house at night—so the presence of a manger does not necessarily mean that Jesus was born in a stable or a cave.
It’s an ordinary story all around.
Until we get to the shepherds. You know, the ones “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” when “the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them.” And in case angel appearance is not shocking enough, suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.”
The sight is so extraordinary that these shepherds abandon the sheep they are supposed to be watching and head into town in search of this baby.
A normal baby. Wrapped in cloths the way any poor baby would be. I’ve often wondered how the shepherds found Jesus, and how they knew, when they saw him, that he was the one the angels refered to as “a savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
Maybe the heavenly host gave them directions: “Head straight into town on highway 50 then turn left at the stop light, right at the four-way stop, it’s the second house on the left—bright blue with green trim—you can’t miss it.”
Maybe there was a holy glow around the mother and child, even around the house—like in the old paintings.
Maybe they could hear the baby crying and screaming from a mile away.
Maybe Joseph was in front of the house pacing back and forth back and forth wondering what in the world he was going to do now that he had another mouth to feed.
Luke doesn’t tell us how they found the baby, just that they found the baby. Somehow, these ordinary shepherds are able to recognize the extraordinary nature of this seemingly ordinary baby; this child born of Mary who was nothing less than God in the flesh.
The story Luke tells of Jesus’ birth reveals that the ordinary and extraordinary are closer together than we think. The Divine and mundane dwell together in this world.
The Divine may come to us in family stopping in after a long journey. Or the Divine may burst upon us like a host of angels singing “Glory.”
We may know the Divine through a miraculous event such as Mary’s virginal conception, or we may be drawn to the Divine through an ordinary yet amazing experience such as the birth of a child.
If we, like the shepherds, go in search of the Divine, we may have the words of scripture—or angels—to guide us. Or we may not.
Our destination may bear tell tale signs of Divinity—a holy glow, celestial music. Or maybe not.
Maybe we find the Divine by listening with new ears to the cries of pain and joy that we hear every day.
Maybe we find the Divine by learning the story of the pregnant teenager. By talking with the nervous new father.
The gift, the grace, that God wants for us is that we know the Divine now. That we appreciate the extraordinary in our lives as we live them.
To travel as a family. To visit with a sibling. To laugh with our friends. To play with our nieces and nephews. To read a great book. To cook a nourishing meal. To make footprints in the deep and beautiful snow.
The Divine is here. That is why we call him Emmanuel—God with us. The God who came to dwell with us over 2000 years ago is still here—still insisting that the ordinary is indeed extraordinary.
Through the familiar story we celebrate today, may you know the extraordinary presence of the Divine with us–Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer–both now and forevermore. Amen.
[Full disclosure: This post is adapted from a sermon I preached last Christmas season.]