As we come close to the end of the year, we might be filled with anticipation and a sense of hope about Christmas this year. Borders are reopening. Restrictions on work, travel and gatherings are easing. There is a sense of promise that long-separated loved ones might be reunited.
At the same time, many of us are feeling weary and worn, maybe exhausted. Along with a deep desire for things to finally change, many are nervous about how precarious this sense of promise feels. Whatever the normal challenges of life, the experience of living through COVID over two years has left marks on our lives that are wide and deep and long. Life has laid some of us low.
I wonder if this will change how we hear the readings, songs and stories of Advent and Christmas this year? I wonder if our life experiences will mean we feel more deeply the ache of Elizabeth and Zechariah for the child they never had? Or the weariness of Mary, travelling while heavily pregnant to Bethlehem, giving birth while separated from family and home? Will we feel more acutely the loneliness and harshness of working life for the shepherds? Will we hear the surprise and joy they all felt when the unexpected happens?
During the Seasons of Advent and Christmas, we hear ancient stories of longing and yearning for life to be different to what it is. We hear the cries of prophets for justice and peace and healing of the earth. We hear songs of hope and stories full of promise. We hear of signs that God is about to break into our lives and world, bringing the peace that only God can bring.
This year, as we hear Luke’s story of how God breaks into our world and our lives, it is in a very simple story of the birth of a very human child, to a young mother and her betrothed, separated from home and family, in precarious circumstances.
Luke tells stories of the wonders of God, being worked through stories of unexceptional events, in the lives of unremarkable people, in unimportant places.
Even the central part of Luke’s Christmas story – the actual birth of Jesus – is told in a way that would be easy to overlook. It’s only a couple of verses long, and is sparsely told. Mary’s time came to deliver her child. She gave birth to a son, wrapped him, and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn. It’s a very small story. An unremarkable event taking place in the lives of easily-overlooked people. It all happens so much on the edges, that most people wouldn’t notice anything significant was happening. Yet it’s precisely here, Luke tells us, that God meets us and does astounding things.
It’s not amongst the successful, the wealthy, the powerful, or the important, that God breaks into the world. God comes to Elizabeth and Zechariah, a childless elderly couple. God comes to Mary, a young unmarried woman. God comes to shepherds, night-shift workers out in the open weather. God comes amongst the unnoticed and overlooked, while they’re going about their normal daily tasks, at the edges of things. These are the ones God favours, and it is amongst these that God is revealed and God’s peace arrives. These are the ones God fills with the Spirit, who recognise God at work, whose lives are transformed, and who tell others of the wonders they see and hear.
Luke’s stories ring true for many of us. If ever we feel, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, that we are too old and that it’s too late for God to be at work through us, this story is for us. Like Mary, we could feel we are too young, or too unimportant, for God to do anything significant. Like the shepherds, we might imagine our part in life is too small to matter much in the big scheme of things. We might find it difficult to imagine that God can be at work in the middle of us feeling exhausted or feeling like life has overtaken us. In these COVID times, we might feel this more acutely.
But Luke’s story tells us, it is amongst those who are laid low by life, that God breaks in and fills us with the Spirit. In the middle of grief, regardless of age, when exhausted by life’s journey, or overlooked by others, God comes to us in Jesus, and raises us up.
The Christmas story is just the beginning, but the story of Jesus’s birth points us to what will unfold. In Luke’s good news, Jesus is the bearer of the Spirit. In him the Spirit of God is at work. In every encounter with Jesus, ordinary lives are transformed. The Spirit invites, inspires, encourages, comforts, and heals. The world’s idea of power is turned upside down. Grand and big projects and empires are not what God needs for lives to be transformed. God favours the lowly, the hungry and those who are unacknowledged. And it is they who recognise God working in the small stories of their lives, and who tell others of the wonders they have heard and seen.
Whenever we are tempted to think that we need to be younger, or more experienced, or have more money or bigger projects for God to work in us, Luke tells us something different.
It is in our smallest stories and some of the most unremarkable events of our lives – like visiting relatives, praying, giving birth, gathering with friends to share our joys, involved in our daily work, receiving guests – that God breaks in to our lives in Jesus, lifts us up in the Spirit and does astounding things.
May we recognise the wonders of God in the small stories of our lives, and share with others what we have heard and seen.
May the blessings and peace that God brings in Jesus, be with you this Christmas.
Rev Denise Liersch