When I look at the people involved in the Christmas story I’m often struck by how ordinary most of them are. An old priest called Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, a childless couple probably on the verge of retirement, one of many such couples in Judea. Joseph, the village carpenter, and Mary his betrothed – surely not the most famous engaged couple in Israel at that time, and certainly unknown to King Herod! A group of shepherds out in the fields over Bethlehem, doing a job despised by religious Jews because it was impossible to do it without breaking the sabbath. Two old people in the temple, sitting in the quiet and praying. I don’t think this story will ever make the bestseller list, do you? We aren’t going to see it in the National Inquirer any time soon!
There were many things going on in Israel at the time. The Romans were doing their best to keep control of the province of Judea, working with the cooperation of the Jewish council, and none of them spared a thought for one more birth in Bethlehem. A group of Jewish extremists called the Zealots believed that God was calling them to set their country free by murdering Roman soldiers, stabbing in the dark and hoping that military force would lead to deliverance. They would have found it very hard to believe that God was working in his own quiet way through an insignificant couple in Bethlehem who had just had their first child. A government official writing the yearly records wouldn’t even have mentioned Mary and Joseph and the baby. But we, looking back now with the eyes of faith, can see that the birth of Jesus was the most significant event to happen in the entire Roman Empire that year. Almost everything else has been forgotten, but two thousand years later the birth of that child continues to influence the lives of over a billion people in the world.
That’s the way God works. God can’t usually be discovered by our five senses, and a pleasant tingle in your spine doesn’t necessarily mean that God’s around either. God is so huge and majestic and bright and glorious that for him to make himself obvious to us would be the death of us – our brains would fry up on overload because they just wouldn’t be able to take it in. And so God chooses to show himself to us by hiding behind ordinary events, and waiting for us to make the connections ourselves. This means that in order to see God at work, in order to hear God’s voice, we have to look very carefully and listen very patiently. What do we learn about this from the people in our Gospel today?
First, we learn that in order to see God at work, you don’t have to look for extraordinary events. Simeon went into the temple and saw a young couple with a six-week old baby. Forty days after childbirth a Jewish couple had to offer a special sacrifice for the mother’s purification. The only distinctive thing about the sacrifice Mary and Joseph offered that day was that it was the special cut-rate sacrifice for poor people. The law said that they should offer a lamb, but if they were unable to afford a lamb, a pair of doves or two young pigeons would do. No doubt such an event happened every day in the temple, but Simeon could see with the eyes of faith, and because his ear was open to the voice of God he knew that this couple was different, that this baby was special, and that his eyes were seeing the Messiah.
Spectacular and dramatic things do happen in the course of God’s plan, but the remarkable thing is that they’ve never been very effective in bringing people to faith in him. In Moses’ time, all the Israelites saw God deliver them from the Egyptians at the Red Sea crossing, but all but two of them died in the desert because they didn’t trust him to help them again. In Jesus’ day thousands of people saw his miracles, but few became his followers. And when Jesus wanted to establish a sign by which his disciples could be distinguished in the world he didn’t point to daily miracles but to a very ordinary thing: love for one another.
When one person takes time to listen to another person’s distress, God is at work. When a group of people in a community decide to set up a food bank, and when volunteers run it, raise money for it and keep it going month by month, God is at work. When a family enjoys a positive time together around a meal table, God is at work. For every extraordinary event through which he works, there are probably a million ordinary events that God uses to work out his purposes. In order to see God at work you don’t have to look for extraordinary things; just learn to look below the surface of ordinary life.
Secondly, in order to hear God speak you have to listen quietly. God was doing a lot of speaking to these people in the Christmas story. Joseph was having significant dreams, and Mary was having visits from angels. We don’t know how God spoke to Simeon and Anna; we are simply told that ‘it had been revealed to (Simeon) by the Holy Spirit’ and that he was ‘Guided by the Spirit’ (Luke 2:26-27). But we do know that Simeon was ‘righteous and devout’ and we are told of Anna that she ‘worshipped…with fasting and prayer night and day’.
In the modern world we don’t tend to be very good at listening quietly. We’ve tried as hard as we can to eliminate silence from our lives. There’s the radio, the TV, CDs and the Internet, all conspiring together to get rid of every little gap between the noisy spots in our lives. In some ways it’s harder for our generation to hear God speak than it has ever been for anyone. God’s message doesn’t usually come on heavenly loudspeakers drowning out every other sound; God’s voice is described in the Old Testament as a ‘still small voice’, and it comes in the quiet of our hearts when we make time and space to listen for it.
In order to hear it, we may have to stop what we’re doing, turn off the music, be quiet and still and give our full attention to God. Prayer and fasting are two activities known in all religions as ways to help us hear God’s voice. There’s an ancient wisdom about this, and in our noisy world it’s been largely forgotten. Small wonder that people rarely talk about hearing God’s voice any more. We may have to learn all over again how to listen quietly for him.
In order to see God at work, you don’t have to look for extraordinary events. In order to hear God speak, you have to listen quietly. Thirdly, in order to see God at work, we have to be patient. Zechariah and Elizabeth waited their whole lives to have a child. Simeon is described in this reading as one who ‘was looking forward to the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25). God’s agenda is rarely in step with ours and usually we’re trying to get ahead of him. After all, we figure, we’ve only got our eighty years or so – let’s get this show on the road! God, on the other hand, has eternity, and so usually he’s in less of a hurry.
This has always been a problem for people. In the Old Testament we read of how God promises seventy-five year old Abraham that his wrinkled old wife was about to have a son. At first, no doubt, the two of them were happy, but as time went by there was no sign of a baby coming. The longer they waited, the harder it got for them to believe. Eventually they decided that God obviously couldn’t do this by himself; he needed a hand. So Sarah gave her slave girl to Abraham and said ‘Here, go sleep with her and have a baby; it’ll be counted as my child and that way God’s promise will be fulfilled’. But it wasn’t to be; God had meant what he had said about Sarah having a child. Finally, when Abraham was ninety-nine, Sarah gave birth to his son and they called him Isaac. They had to wait twenty-four years for God’s promise to be fulfilled – the blink of an eyelid to God, no doubt, but an awful long time in the life of a childless couple.
We are an activist age, and we like to get things done. Getting things done is good, but when it comes to the job of saving the world we have to realise that no amount of human effort can accomplish it. We are not in the salvation business – God is. And if we want to hear him speak or see him act, it isn’t usually very effective to sit down, set your alarm clock for ten minutes and say ‘Now I’m going to wait ten minutes for you to speak, God, and if I don’t hear from you I’m out of here!’ When I do that, I often fancy that God replies ‘Fine; off you go – I’ll see you when you fall on your face!’
We’re such a busy age and we’re such a tired age too. Perhaps we need to hear Isaiah’s words again: ‘Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint’ (Isaiah 40:31). In order to see God work, you have to learn to wait patiently.
In order to see God at work, you don’t have to look for extraordinary events. In order to hear God speak, you have to listen quietly. In order to see God at work, you have to be patient. Finally, when you see God at work you have to point it out to others.
Everyone in the Christmas story passed the message on to others. When the shepherds saw the baby Jesus they ‘made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them’ (Luke 2:17-18). When Simeon saw Jesus he explained to Mary and Joseph what God had revealed to him about this child. When Anna met the little family she gave thanks to God and then she ‘began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2:38).
Notice that none of these people were pointing out anything unusual to the folk they talked to. They were simply explaining the significance of the ordinary events that everyone could see. Everyone could see the baby in the manger, but not everyone knew who he was. The shepherds knew, so they passed the message on. Everyone could see the young couple in the temple, but not everyone knew what this child was going to accomplish; Simeon knew, by God’s guidance, and so he passed it on to others.
Of course, not all of the others believed it. The baby looked no different from any other baby and it all sounded so improbable, so far-fetched. That’s the way it is when you point out what God is doing to people. Some people can see God at work, while others only see time and chance. We, the witnesses, aren’t answerable for how people respond to the message; we are only called to be faithful in passing it on.
I’m told that radio waves are passing through the air all around us all the time. However, in order to pick them up you have to have the right equipment and tune it to the right frequency. In the same way, the Bible teaches us that God is trying to communicate with us all the time; we simply have to learn to listen and respond to his voice.
All over the world today God is at work in the ordinary actions of ordinary human beings like you and me. None of us is too small or too insignificant to be the instrument God uses to accomplish his purposes in the world. We don’t have to be especially bright or gifted in order to do God’s work. We simply have to be like Simeon and Anna: able to see God at work in ordinary events, willing to listen quietly for the still small voice of God, willing to wait patiently for God to do his work, and ready to point out to others what God is doing. The kingdom of God advances through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God is calling you and I to be a part of that.