Ordinary and Extraordinary

a sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 and Mark 1:4-11
preached on January 8, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

The magi had seen it all before. They had been on these kinds of journeys to other nations when they had seen other stars that indicated the birth of new rulers, so they knew something of what to expect. When they got to Jerusalem, though, things started to look a little different. Even though they had seen the star of the birth of the king of the Jews, the current king could tell them nothing. He had not had a new son recently, and the people around him became very worried when these wise men suggested that there might be some unknown heir to his throne.

But eventually, some of the court advisors sent them on their way to Bethlehem, where some ancient texts suggested a king might be born. There was no palace to be their guiding landmark in this small town, but the star that had begun their journey continued to guide them to the home of a newborn boy in Bethlehem. When they arrived, their familiar routine kicked right in. They kneeled down before the child to pay him homage and offered him their royal gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It was all very ordinary, but something about it was truly extraordinary – somehow these magi from another land knew that this little child whose birth had been missed by almost everyone would be far more important than anyone could ever imagine.

John the Baptist had seen it all before, too. People had been lining up to listen to his call to repentance for quite some time. Throughout his ministry in the wilderness, people were wondering and asking if he was the one that people had been waiting for, and repeatedly he responded that someone else was coming with greater power to do even greater things. John’s days were surely quite repetitive, with crowds gathering by the Jordan River, ready to listen to his message and be baptized in repentance for their sins.

But one day amidst the crowds, Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee made his way into the water to be baptized. John baptized him like everyone else, but then something strange happened. The heavens were torn apart, and the Spirit descended like a dove onto Jesus. Then, a voice followed: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In the midst of an ordinary day, something extraordinary happened – a faithful, penitent man who had traveled many miles to hear and respond to John’s proclamation received a word far beyond his wildest dreams as he moved into the next phase of his life.

We’ve seen it all before, too. We know about the strange men who came from far away to visit Jesus when he was young, and we know that Jesus began his public ministry in an encounter with John the Baptist. We’re probably more used to the other story of Jesus’ birth in a manger and the visit of the shepherds, and we’re probably more comfortable with other manifestations of divine power that came later in his ministry. So all too often, we set these stories aside, assuming that there is little for us to learn here or that we already have everything we will need from them.

We’re people who have seen it all before. Someone in our culture gets a great idea – then everyone else copies it and exploits it so that we’re all sick and tired of it. Think about American Idol or Survivor or most any successful television show of the past few years! “We’ve seen it all before,” we mutter. The life of faith seems to be on endless repeat, with little need to engage things in a new and different way and no time and space to connect to the community that shapes and remakes us. “I already know everything I need to know – there’s nothing new still out there,” we say. “I can do the rest on my own.” The world seems to be on endless repeat, with nothing new coming into being and nothing true worth exploring. How many times do we drive past the same places day after day, never noticing the new things around us? How often do we see only the people we have always seen before when we look around our neighborhood? How long will it take for us to notice that things are different, that the world is not what it once was?

The Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus that we celebrate today remind us that we must be open to seeing things anew. We cannot simply expect to make it today with only what we have seen and experienced before. We need the wisdom of this time and this moment to flourish, the vision of a new time and place to help us see the fullness of things here and now. Amazingly, these stories tell us that we don’t really have to look that hard to find what is new. The new things here lie not in the revolutionary moments but in the ordinary ones. The extraordinary is seen here in the ordinary.

In our life together in this congregation, there is much new that lies ahead for us in the coming year. We are finally putting the uncertainty of litigation behind us, and in the coming months we will complete the sale of the manse, the purchase of an apartment, and the construction of an office here at the church. But even this is not everything that lies ahead for us. These short-term changes are only a glimpse of the bigger things that can shift in our life together in the coming years. As our world and our city and our neighborhood changes, we must keep our eyes open to discover and participate in the bigger vision that God is opening before us in these days. We can start to glimpse a new and different way of life together that embraces the best of who we are and remains sustainable for the resources we have in these days. And we can hone our eyes and ears and all our senses to watch for the ordinary to suddenly become extraordinary – not by anything that we do but by the wonder and power of God at work in our midst.

This way of life is not easy. We don’t naturally see the extraordinary in the ordinary of our world, but today even as we worship we have a chance to practice this way of seeing and being. Today we remember how the common, ordinary waters of baptism touch our heads and become the sign and seal of God’s presence in our midst. And today we gather at this table where a small portion of bread and grape juice mysteriously become the full presence of God in our lives and our world. As we share these incredible moments of God’s presence in our midst, we can practice seeing things differently even as we trust that God can do incredible things and be truly present in the midst of the most routine, mundane things of our lives.

So even when we’ve seen it all before, may the ordinary become extraordinary for us, in our daily lives but especially in this place, for in those moments we might just see God in our midst and have a chance to follow where God is leading us and all the world as all things are made new. Amen.

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