Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.
It’s a wonderful scene. This timeless hymn paints a beautiful picture. One can imagine the stars of the sky on a clear night shining down, a full moon providing its soft light, onto a field where a cave pokes slightly out of a hillside. There in that cave is a young couple with their newborn child, smiling sweetly as he sleeps.
The nativity scenes we have at home depict this. Or they depict Mary and Joseph praying next to a bed of hay where Jesus is sleeping peacefully. Or where Jesus is either playing or praising, arms outstretched, smiling, as only those older than four months do.
What a wonderful, brilliant, beautiful scene.
Jesus was born Immanuel, God with us, God made human, but here at the birth the emphasis must be on human: God came into the world as a normal human baby.
Which means that this silent night we sing of almost certainly wasn’t.
On a brilliant, hot, day, a mother groans and yells and screams. Her fiancé tries to comfort her but she angrily yells back at him. The sun shines through the entrance to this makeshift barn where oxen and donkeys are feeding while this mother goes through the same pains and challenge every female human knows.
Then, the baby appears. He cries out into the day, sounding his alarm that his world has suddenly and dramatically changed. His lungs take their first breaths. The parents smile, the mother collapses, and the baby is washed and presented.
The birth of Jesus was almost certainly like any other human birth: noisy, full of pain and suffering, and in that way totally ordinary.
The birth of the savior to two ordinary people. The coming of the Son of God to an obscure, average, couple. A pregnancy begun by the extraordinary means of immaculate conception resulting in a very ordinary human birth.
An extraordinary thing happening to ordinary people.
Let’s hear our scripture this morning: it’s the story of the angel visiting Mary to announce the good news that she would bring the Son of God as a human into the world.
Greetings, favored one…do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
The news Gabriel brings is crazy. An extraordinary thing will happen. Mary will become pregnant, but not by the usual means. She will give birth to the Son of God, the long-awaited King of Israel, whose kingdom will be forever. Whatever she has expected will happen in her future: making a nice life for her and Joseph in their modest Nazareth home, that dream is now officially over. God has much larger plans for her.
But she’s just an ordinary teenager, betrothed as most of her age were. She’s nothing special. She’s ordinary.
An extraordinary thing happening to an ordinary person.
If Mike Rowe’s show “Dirty Jobs” had existed on Galilean TV back in Mary’s day, shepherds would have certainly been featured. Like the folks who go into sewers, work landfills, and make cheese, shepherds were considered dirty. So they kept to themselves, on the outsides of cities, living their lives taking care of sheep, especially for the temple.
These were, perhaps, some of the most ordinary people imaginable during Mary’s day. And it’s to these very ordinary people, these ostracized people even, these outcasts, that God decides to make his big pronouncement. Like the Queen of England announcing the birth of a child to Prince William or Prince Harry, God puts his royalty on full display in the night sky by sending a gaggle of angels out to the fields where “shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night.” They sing, they put on an incredible show, an extraordinary show.
It’s fair to say that Silent Night’s version of this scene was probably right, except that the angels were anything but silent: “Silent Night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight, glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing Alleluia.”
And from this extraordinary experience, these very ordinary shepherds go to the very ordinary barn where a very ordinary-looking baby was just born.
An extraordinary thing happening to ordinary people.
Note with me that the word extraordinary is a compound noun of the words extra and ordinary.
This time of year, it’s easy to get lost in the extra-ordinary nature of Jesus’s birth. We get ready for the season by doing extra things; things out of the ordinary. It’s extra that we decorate our homes beyond what we do for any other season. It’s extra that we decorate our church beyond what we do for any other season, even Easter. It’s extra that we buy all these gifts. And in a typical season, we have extra parties to attend, extra social obligations, all because Jesus Christ was born.
It’s an extra-ordinary season; an extraordinary season. So it’s easy to think of Jesus’s birth as extraordinary. And indeed it was. Who else in history has had an immaculate conception? How many have been visited by angels and told that they would play a consequential and decisive role in history? How many of us have seen the heavenly host singing in the sky?
But these extraordinary things happened to ordinary people, in an ordinary town. And ordinary is being polite. These were really obscure people, from an obscure town.
Like Eastman. When people ask me where I’m from and I say Eastman, most of the time, they look puzzled and say, “where’s that?” Eastman is obscure to most of the world. Were we to imagine a teenager, on the outskirts of Eastman, Georgia, giving birth to a baby outside while visited by garbage collectors who’ve just seen a host of angels singing to them, we’d be pretty close to the scene of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Describing the birth of Jesus in that way highlights just how ordinary Jesus’s birth was. And in the midst of an extraordinary season, we’d be wise to not miss the ordinary nature of Jesus’s birth.
An extraordinary God coming down as an ordinary human.
For God came down in human form to be one of us, to empathize with us humans. Consider this very famous verse from Hebrews: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) God sent Jesus to experience what it was like to be human, to be one of us, to be ordinary for most of his life.
For consider how little we know about Jesus’s life. We know something of his three years of ministry, leading up to his execution and resurrection. We know a little bit about his early years: his birth, the flight to Egypt, the visit of the magi, and the scene of him teaching in the temple as a boy. But, we know very little about him otherwise.
That’s because Jesus, as a toddler, a little boy, a teenager, and finally a young man, was ordinary. He was the obscure son of a carpenter, learning to ply his father’s trade. For those in Nazareth, Jesus was probably considered Joseph’s biological son. Based on the scene in the temple, we can imagine that he had a reputation as being particularly talented at religion, and maybe his neighbors thought he would become a priest one day. That would be no different than a child we know who’s particularly talented at soccer, or math, or high in emotional intelligence; the kind of child for whom we have high expectations and see a clear career path.
The point being Jesus, prior to his ministry, was ordinary. And the whole of his earthly life, he was human, just as we are.
And because he was human, he could and still does empathize with our human plight, because he has intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be human, just like us. He experienced all the trials, hardships, challenges, and emotions, we know in this life. And so he is, as Paul said, our high priest who can sympathize with our human experiences.
Jesus, the extraordinary coming of God in human form, knows what our ordinary lives are like.
Imagine Mary, visited by Gabriel here in the scripture, having to suddenly completely recalculate her life. Whatever dreams she had of the future she and Joseph would build together, they are now dead, lost to God’s plan as revealed by Gabriel.
We’ve been there. We know what it is to have our lives suddenly interrupted, having to recalculate our dreams and our future. Jesus has been there, too, and knows what it’s like.
Imagine the journey from the field to the cradle for these shepherds. Perhaps they doubted themselves, wondering if they’d made it up, or maybe they’d had too much wine and thus imagined the angels. Perhaps they thought others would think they were crazy. We’ve been there: doubting ourselves or worried others would think we were crazy. Jesus has been there, too, and knows what it’s like.
That’s because Jesus, who was fully divine, came to earth to be fully human. To walk a mile in our shoes. Which is the definition of empathy.
And that applies to every situation in life. We can all relate to what it’s like to be completely elated, overtaken by joy. We know what it’s like to be terribly depressed. We have moments of severe doubt and incredible confidence. We know what it’s like to be carried away by an irrepressible love and by a burning hatred. So does Jesus. He’s been there.
Jesus was God, come down as an ordinary human to know what life is like for us, to experience life as we do, to empathize with our trials, challenges, and suffering.
That is an amazing, extraordinary, love.
The power of that love for our lives today comes through in the third verse of Silent Night: Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light, radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus, Lord at thy birth. Jesus, Lord at thy birth.”
Love’s pure light. Only love, that unconditional love God has for each of us as God’s creation, would cause God to want to find out what life was like for us. Only that kind of amazing, passionate, intense, love, would cause God to want to suffer as we humans suffer.
In this very ordinary human birth, we see God doing something extraordinary: choosing to be ordinary, just like us, to know what life is like for us, actually choosing to experience suffering, just as we do. We see, ultimately, how God was and is truly with us, Emmanuel. We see an extraordinary love for us ordinary people that we find through the ordinary birth of an extraordinary God; a God who wants to live life with us, through all our trials, challenges, temptations, and suffering.
This message of God’s love for us, seen through the birth of Jesus, came through powerfully for me in a song a friend of mine recently shared a song with me. It’s a mash up of two Christmas carols: “What Child is This?” with a much newer one titled “Child of the Poor.”
The lyrics of “Child of the Poor” speak directly to Jesus’s ordinary presence among us as a human being: “Helpless and hungry, lowly afraid, wrapped in the chill of midwinter, comes now among us, born into poverty’s embrace, new life for the world. Who is this who lives with the lowly? Sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger? This is Christ, revealed to the world in the eyes of a child, a child of the poor.
Jesus, coming into the world as an ordinary human to share in our sorrows, to know our hunger. To, as a later verse of “Child of the Poor” says, look for shelter among us, to become an outcast, to share in our sorrows. All of this revealed through this ordinary human life; an ordinary human life meant to do show us the extraordinary nature of God’s love for us.
Hearing Child of the Poor together with What Child is This? strongly, deeply, communicates that extraordinary love for us, come down in ordinary human flesh. So as we close out this sermon series, as we approach the end of our common devotional, and as we close out this sermon, I can think of nothing better than to listen to this song together.
This song, this devotional, this sermon, this season, reveals an extraordinary fact: Jesus is with us in every emotion, in every hardship, because Jesus has known them all personally. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, present with us in all of our hardships, whenever we’re feeling any sort of way, because Jesus was one of us; Jesus understands our suffering because Jesus was an ordinary human; Jesus was one of us.
For us today, and for us everyday, that should make the word Emmanuel, God with us, carry tremendous power in our lives. For God is with us, in our humanity, in our trials and temptations, just as Paul said, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
Jesus walked a mile in our shoes. He knows what our ordinary lives are like. That is extraordinary. That is love’s pure light.
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh, come peasant king, to own him.
Bring all who thirst, all who seek peace; bring those with nothing to offer.
Strengthen the feeble, say to the frightened heart: ‘Fear not, here is your God!”
The king of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone him.
Who is this who lives with the lowly? Sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger?
This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
This is Christ, revealed to the world in the eyes of a child, a child of the poor.
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.