December 19, 2021 Humble, small, lowly and blessed!
Micah 5:2-5, Hebrews 10:5-10 Luke 1:39-45
A war has been waged for a while now: The two wealthiest men on the planet are fighting over who will rule the universe! This war is also called the Billionaire Space Race. In fairness there is another billionaire involved but he is falling behind. These men have enough money to last a very, very long time. If you were to spend $10,000 a day it would take about 275 years to spend a billion dollars. The two leaders in the space race have a combined wealth of almost half a trillion dollars. And these riches make them very powerful. No wonder one of them was named Time’s person of the year.
Interesting fact: A year ago, 62 people control half the world’s wealth. Now 8 persons do.
Most people are really fascinated by famous, wealthy, and influential people. We tend to look up to them, perhaps even wish we were like them, for having so much power, influence, and clout that set them apart from mere mortals like the rest of us.
And over time we, as people of faith have come to define success and purpose in terms of the accomplishments of the wealthy and powerful. Yes, it seems and feels that there is no greater measure of success than financial wealth. Material wealth is still a major yardstick in terms of measuring who is getting ahead in the modern world.
And sometimes this definition of power and influence is carried over to the Church as well. There are pastors (and church members) who measure their success on how many people attend worship services in sport stadiums, and the number of books they sell, the price of their suites, or even the size of their airplanes.
This happens in spite of the fact that research shows that there are 2 greater yardsticks of healthy, holistic, and purposeful lives: spiritual wealth and love.
A powerful, super-wealthy, business leader said that his company, one of the biggest in the world, looks for three things when they hire people: intelligence, energy, and integrity. “If they don’t have the latter, he says, the first two will kill you, because if you’re going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb”. So deep down the super-wealthy know that there is more to life than wealth.
Our Biblical readings show us a way that is completely different from the way of power, wealth, influence, and success. And this is the way God chooses to work. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1 says that God’s way, the way of cross, is foolishness for the world, but it is God’s strength. Hear what the says in 1:27-28: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world…..”
On this 4th Sunday of Advent we have more glimpses of God’s way of working with human beings – and again, God’s way is not one of power, status, influence or force.
The words in Micah were spoken during the Babylonian Exile. As you know by now the Babylonian Exile was a devastating time in the history of the Jews. For Israel it was a geo-political disaster, it destroyed the economy but above all it rendered their theology obsolete. For decades they believed that God would never allow Jerusalem with its majestic temple to be destroyed. Why? Because the temple was God’s dwelling place and Jerusalem was the great and powerful city of the legendary King David!
But then in 586BCE the unthinkable happened: the Babylonians destroyed the City of David and the Temple. It was a time of many questions and few answers. It was a time of despair! All in all, a hopeless scenario! The temple was destroyed and the land that God promised to Abraham and his offspring was far away.
It was in this hopeless situation that the Prophet tells the people: “There is hope! Don’t give up! Hang in there! Trust in God!”
However, the prophet continued, God’s promise to intervene was now linked, neither to the former great and powerful city of Jerusalem, nor to the city of the strong King David! No, the promise of a coming ruler was linked to a tiny, humble village that was almost not worth mentioning because it was so insignificantly small! “Bethlehem Ephratah, one of the little clans of Judah!”
We know that Bethlehem was the town of David but the mention of this little village was meant to take the people back to the time before David was the powerful king in Jerusalem! The mention of Ephratah, was meant to remind them of the time when God chose young David, the diminutive shepherd boy! Sure, the focus was on the house of David – but not the powerful military complex that David built in the capital Jerusalem. God would bring salvation in God’s own way, which was and had always been in a counter-cultural way!
Let’s for a moment apply this to our time and our context. The world is in turmoil, it is a dangerous place and to many people the future seems outright uncertain. I recently heard that there are 55 civil wars raging in the world at the moment. We live in a time of death, terror and uncertainty. We are anxious about our safety during a resurging pandemic, and we feel helpless about a planet that is not well!
And in this context let us assume that someone comes up to us and speaks on behalf of God: “Don’t despair! There is hope! I will send you someone who will fix things. Someone will come and repair the broken world!” And let’s assume he then says: “He will come, not from Washington DC or NY City. No, he is not coming from Silicon Valley or Beijing or Berlin! Not from London, the World Bank or the Pentagon. I will send someone who will fix everything and he will come from the little country of Tuvalo or the Maldives!” What would you think? Not hopeful, right? (Or a teenaged, pregnant, uneducated, girl?)
Before you respond, let me remind you of God’s work in the past. Israel, a small, insignificant group of slaves! Sarai, an old woman whose womb is barren, who is “almost as good as dead”! Moses, a man who cannot speak! A man who has many excuses: “Suppose they don’t believe me or listen to me” and “I have never been eloquent, I am slow of speech, slow of tongue”. David, the youngest child. The smallest and not the tallest! “Me a prophet? I am only a boy, I don’t know how to speak!” A wild man, with a weird diet, who prepares the way! Fishermen! A tax collector! Sinners! Little children! Women! The spineless: “I don’t know the man!!” Cowards! “Keep the door locked!”
A young, poor, uneducated, vulnerable, and pregnant woman. And then of course a baby! A vulnerable baby!
A promise in the same tradition: “But you O Bethlehem of Ephrata, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule Israel!”
The God of Israel is, and I say this with respect, is an odd God! God’s seemingly preferred modus operandi is to under-promise and over-deliver. Who takes delight in surprising people. When all the odds are stacked against God, God acts and the outcome is astonishing!
When our culture places value on status, wealth, health, youthfulness, eloquent speech, and tall, model-like appearance, heroism and bravery, God prefers to go with the old, those who are not eloquent, or the very young, the vulnerable and the small, yes even a baby! Why? Well for one, God really does not need the powerful, the impressive, the big, the strong, the beautiful and the bold, to accomplish God’s goals! These traits that the world values, are not prerequisites for God’s work! Truth be told, God chooses to step in when there is realistically no chance of success! God’s power, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, at display when we are weak!
This is exactly the point! God chooses to address the world’s fundamental problem not through overwhelming military or political force, not with carpet-bomb destruction or through influential politically connected men and women! God chooses a different way – one that seems weak, vulnerable, and on the surface not very impressive!
God gives hope to the Jewish people in Exile who have lost everything by reminding them of the past. He reminds them of the time when Samuel said to Jesse, David’s father: “Are all your sons here? And Jesse said: “there remains yet the youngest, but behold he is keeping the sheep!”
Yes, the coming Ruler is from the house of David, but not in the way you expect, not with military, political and theological power.
It seems to me that during this time of Advent, the church of Christ needs to be reminded that we too belong to God who works in this way. When the Western Culture in general and our culture in particular place such a great emphasis on power, wealth, and status, we need to show that our trust is in God!
The church’s contribution to the world’s complex problems is not to outdo those who rely on various kinds of power to overwhelm others! Christians should not fall to the temptation to compete for the kind of power the world wants and trusts. We should not fall to the temptation to place our trust in military power, political, or economic power or any other secular power!
Christians should bring to the table the quiet trust in God! What we can ad is the power of reflection, the patience of waiting, the trust and confidence in praying, the merit of making peace, the healing that is in forgiving, and gentle restrain.
The prophet ends by saying: “He shall be the one of peace!” Let me point out that there is theological significance in these words as well as a critique against the expectation of some of the Exiles that the only way they could defeat the Babylonians would be by overwhelming Davidic military power. The prophet, by referring to the coming ruler as “the one of peace” was presenting his people with an alternative – God’s alternative!
The young Mary understands God’s way. Her spirit rejoices in God for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. She understands that God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful and lift up the lowly. God send the rich away empty, and fills the hungry with good things.
Almost 2000 years later, the world (and sometimes the church too) still does not really understand God’s modus operandi! People still want to change God’s way of the holy Infant, the cross, and peace into one of power and influence! Some still consider God’s way weak and ineffective. They still want force and power! To them trust in God is impractical and dangerous! Unfortunately, the church also needs to be honest here: The church too often gives in to trusting power instead of trusting God.
Sometimes we too doubt the message of God’s peace. Sometimes we too consider calls for restrain, patience, forgiveness and peace as being weak.
But the Bible gives us some comfort and reassurance that God’s way works! God uses a tiny nation, a few people who speak out, a man who could not speak well, a boy, a young vulnerable woman, and ultimately a Baby to achieve God’s goals and to bring about God’s kingdom! This is the way God has always worked: God takes the humble, small, lowly and God blesses them and uses them in God’s kingdom! May God’s way continue to surprise us!