A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on the 25 December by Revd Sally Hitchiner.

2020 has held some monumental events; a global pandemic, social distancing around the world, closed boarders, national lockdowns, recession. And these changes have transformed every part of our lives. Prime ministers and world leaders hold press conferences, laws are changed and we are forced to barely leave our homes.

Living a life with such monumental global transition can make us feel smaller and powerless but it also gives us fresh perspective on familiar stories.

Mary and Joseph faced monumental change too.

The story starts with an Emperor. An emperor, a governor, an international decree that everyone has to change their plans. “All went to their home towns.”.

The decree didn’t care that a teenager was pregnant. The decree didn’t care that a peasant who found himself in the wrong place had a fiancé he couldn’t leave alone for fear of violent honour killing. The decree didn’t care about her comfort or desire to be near loved ones at this important and vulnerable time. Decrees… like a viruses… do not have eyes or ears or hearts, they do not have compassion or hope. Decrees, like viruses, simply exist. And if they are big enough, they exist in a way that changes and even threatens other existences.

There was an emperor and a governor and a decree and the only reference to people is in the word “all went” – the effect of the decree – no names, no details just two words “All went”.

 

So far so familiar, most of what was written down about history before the Victorian Novel was powerful men doing powerful things. That was it. All that was important.

 

But then something happens just as our story is getting going, that if we weren’t so used to it, if we hadn’t heard this story every year since our infancy, would make us stop in our tracks.

 

There’s a name, a name of an ordinary person, Joseph, then another name, Mary.

Names of people who are not powerful or notable but now most of the world knows their names. Compare them to the names of the Emperor and the Governor – they’re now a pub quiz question – I bet after a glass of Christmas fizz, you couldn’t even pronounce that Governor.

And there are details! Details about these ordinary people’s lives. Joseph lives in a town, a named small northern town called Nazareth, but his people were from another small town, this time near the capital city but an inconsequential satellite town called Bethlehem.

In fact, the two places of note in this story within Bethlehem are – sheep pasture – a working class workplace – and a home… about as  ordinary as they come.

Shepherding was dirty and unromantic work that someone had to do but no one liked to think of… they did the type of job that carried on even when everyone else downed tools for religious holidays – they were unsentimental, they got on with it!

Don’t forget, the shepherds were afraid when they saw the angel. Perhaps anyone would be afraid to see an angel but this was especially true for this people who were not used to powerful people coming to them with anything good.

 

The second place in this story is a home. God is to be found in the ordinary domestic setting – sorry to break the news to everyone who travelled in today but God entered our world in somewhere closer to the living rooms of the members of our congregation joining us from home.

It wasn’t their ideal home.

Mary and Joseph were still probably a bit sore from a near relationship ending row.

Money was tight – a few weeks later they had to go for the discounted offering when they visit the temple to give thanks for a first born son.

The wise men went to the local king as they assumed it must be somewhere of political or religious significance… but no, it appears God wanted to enter our world in a domestic setting.

 

That’s one reason why we tell this story repeatedly, the story of the God who values things that are so ordinary that others don’t notice, who relates to ordinary people we’d all rather forget. Jesus welcomes Kings too but Jesus was first, the God of the ordinary.

 

In fact Jesus spent a lot of time in people’s homes through his life on earth, often in out of the way places. Where as most kinds lived in palaces with high walls, Jesus came knocking on doors.

 

God hasn’t stopped being the God of the small, the personal, the domestic. Like a huge hamper of delights being delivered on Christmas morning, Christ seems to have a fondness for turning up just when you think everything is ordinary.

 

I’ve been hearing all year of people who have offered simple acts of kindness that have carried more importance than anyone would have imagined. “It was just a note” people say “just a box of chocolates”, “It was just a phonecall”, “All I did was listen, really” but that simple act stayed with people for years.

How did that happen? How did it happen for Mary and Joseph, those shepherds? How did it happen for that manger? That little town?

The same way it happens in the sacraments. What are sacriments? Just a bit of bread – just a wafer, just a bit of wine, a bit of water. Nothing special. But with the presence of God the ordinary becomes infused with glory.

This glory is all around us, even if we are in very ordinary circumstances, especially if we are in very ordinary circumstances. And it is this that makes all the difference.

Speaking as Gandalf, JR Tolkein writes “Evil believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

 

I have come to believe there is no coincidence in God coming to humanity as a baby. Babies require kindness to survive. They entice us to softening our voices and wanting to care for them. God’s first gift for humanity was not to do something kind for us, but to have big eyes that entice humanity to coo and stroke hair and play peekaboo.

 

There is no-one so transfixing and no one so commonplace as a baby. Every single person here today has been a baby (even the people who we think  must have popped out aged 45). Babies can’t use force to get what they want. They can’t elicit commands like Roman Emperors that multiple countries will follow. And yet, in almost every household that has had a baby, human beings are enticed to put themselves through more physical and psychological work than they have ever done for an employer or political leader.

God comes to us, today as God does 2000 years ago, not from a position of religious or political strength but in the ordinary places of our lives, our places or work, our homes. Christ comes not as a decree but as a person, not as a powerful leader but with childlike hands held out… to you this day.

Do you hear the angels?

To you who are getting on with paid or unpaid work in the fields while everyone else is resting.

To you who, with Mary, are unstable after tension with those you live with or recovering after a major experience in your body.

To you who, with Joseph, haven’t been able to provide the space you’d have liked for your loved ones today.

To you who are not sure whether you’ll have enough money for next year.

 

Christmas is here for all humankind but for those who have it all lined up today it is always in translation. If you have everything today but feel dissatisfied, reach out to those who are on the edge of Christmas today, find an excuse to connect with them… I suspect you’ll find that’s where Christ is waiting for you.

 

But to you, you know who you are, is born this day in the out of the way town, a saviour. And this shall be the sign. He will be found wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in less than ideal living arrangements.