REV. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
Stouffville United Church
Isaiah, Chapter 9, Verses 2, 6 and 7 , Luke, Chapter 2, Verses 1 to 20
I think that tonight of all the nights of the year, I can say that I know where to find God. Through the words of our bible passages and in the carols we sing tonight, we find God in the manger, in the birth of Mary’s son, Jesus. And angels and shepherds and kings will join us in the retelling of the story, told for countless centuries, as a sign of hope, and peace. I know I can find God in other places too, in moments of great blessing, like a wedding, or a baptism. We can find God in the beautiful, in times and places that are set apart in some way.
Where are the places that you ‘expect’ God? Do you expect to find God in a church? Or somewhere in nature? Think of being in a canoe on a still lake in the early morning, mist rising from the water, the call of the loon heard in the air. Or look up at the stars in a cold winter night, soft snow on the ground, the air crisp and the silence like velvet. Or simply when you’re digging in the garden, and look up to find a butterfly poised on a flower. Or maybe its when you’re rocking a baby to sleep in your arms.
God’s footprint is found everywhere. And we know where to find it, we know where to ‘expect’ God. Because we’ve encountered God there before – in moments that are a part of our regular routine, our daily walk, when life is going the way it’s supposed to go.
But what about when things happen, and it’s not the way its supposed to be, and we say, ‘It’s not supposed to be like this’ – when our lives, or the lives of people we love, have been interrupted in a terrible way. And we face an enormous gap between the reality we find ourselves in, and how far away we are now from what was. Everything is changed. It’s not supposed to be like this.
Mary’s labour pains would have started some hours before Jesus was born. Mary would have felt the hardness of the muscles in her belly, as her body prepared for the contractions of childbirth. She should have had a room by now. Some of Joseph’s family might have been there by now, people she could welcome as family. It shouldn’t have been like that, being led by Joseph to a strange dark building, a stable where they kept the animals. As the lantern lit the way, she saw glimpses of dark stalls, and curious faces of the barn animals as they peeked out to see the procession. Joseph put down the lamp on the floor, and there was a pile of clean straw to finally lay down on. It’s not supposed to be like this, she said, as she collapsed on the bed of straw.
It’s not supposed to be like this. But it was. And God was there.
When things do not go as planned, God is there.
As Mary laid on her straw, the new born baby close to her body, God arrived in the gentle presence of the shepherds. Even when the birth happened in the last place she would have imagined, under the direst circumstances, God was present in the circle of shepherds who came into the warmth of the stable, and quietly joined them. The shepherds, too, had also been interrupted in the midst of their every day routine in minding the sheep in the fields, by the strangeness of angels in a night sky. God noticed, God knew, and God sent the shepherds to let Mary know, that regardless of how everything was not the way it was supposed to be, that in some way, it became the way it was supposed to be. Mary had no notion that she would give birth in a stable at the back of an inn, or that people she didn’t know would become part of the family that would hold her and her son in tender love. It wasn’t ever supposed to be like that. But it was. And God was there.
To the kings who had come to the stable, following a star, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. A new born King should have a cradle of gold, and garments of silk. Not swaddling cloths, in a manger with straw. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. The news of the birth of a King should have been heralded by trumpets and public proclamations, not hidden in the back of a stable, with animals, and a few shepherds.
Our first bible text tonight from the prophet Isaiah offers an honest appraisal of the history of suffering that has never stopped being a part of the story of humankind. “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – onto them light has shined.” In the current struggles of politics around the globe – from Trumpism to Brexit struggles, from Hong Kong tensions to North Korea threats – from the torrid heat in Australia to the awakening to global climate crisis, there is darkness. And there has always been this darkness. And just as God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to the people who had struggled through the darkness of military conquests and oppression, that message of ‘light’ continues to speak clearly to us tonight.
When you have said, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, God comes.
We shouldn’t lose the ones we love, but we do.
We shouldn’t get sick, but we do.
We shouldn’t suffer, but we do.
It isn’t supposed to be like this. But it is. And God is here.
God arrives in the people you never noticed before. They aren’t the people you are looking for, but they become ‘your people’, and they become part of your narrative, your life story, and you will always remember them.
The nativity story has become predictable. We know where baby Jesus will be born. We’ve heard about the angels and the shepherds and the kings. We know that through Jesus, God enters our world in human form, to teach us what God’s love is about, what it looks like, feels like, sounds like. Words of peace, and justice, forgiveness, and love, God’s love spoken to us through his only Son. But over the years, not every Christmas has been a ‘Hallmark’ moment for us. Someone we love has died. The circle of family is broken. And we say, it isn’t supposed to be like that.
When we feel, it’s not supposed to be like this, God comes into the places we can’t predict, and in people we’ve never noticed. When you feel, it’s not supposed to be like this, God comes.
Every single time.
May God’s greatest blessings by upon you and your family this Christmas. Amen.
 FOTW, Pastoral, 120.