Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Small Things

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
Christmas Eve (December 24, 2017)
Luke 2:1-20 – “Small Things”

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

I wonder if anyone believed the shepherds at first. Luke tells us “everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them,” but doesn’t necessarily say “everyone who heard it believed them and had to go and see the baby for themselves,” did he?

Shepherds weren’t the sort of folk people listened to back then. It was more the case that shepherds were the ones people tried not to see, picking up their pace on the sidewalk so they didn’t have to make eye contact. These were not just shepherds—filthy, smelly, live outside with their flocks sort, but they were the “night-shift shepherds,” way down at the bottom of the social ladder. So when these roughnecks came rolling into town, wild-eyed, scared out of their wits, and babbling on and on about how angels told them about the birth of the Messiah, do you think their story was credible?

We’re used to this being an earth-shattering announcement nowadays, even if we rehearse it year after year, because it’s kind of the culmination of the year in the West and one of the two biggest holidays on the liturgical calendar. Kids can hardly wait for Baby Jesus to arrive! And because of all the songs and the art and the other fanfare of the season, our perception is skewed toward this being a monumental event in its original hearing, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

But these mangy shepherds are the only audience for the announcement of Christ’s birth. There was no decree by ol’ Governor Quirinius of Syria. No messenger rushed to Rome to tell Caesar Augustus about it. No “breaking news” notifications flashed across television or smartphone screens. “In those days,” what seemed to be happening on the surface was an everyday occurrence in the grand scheme of things. They were taxing everybody (again!) and a Jewish couple had to trek from out in the boondocks to the big city to register, like you did. This poor, young woman (pregnant as can be as they left; do you think the Emperor knew or cared?) had to give birth far from home in a space that was the equivalent of a barn.

This, to the world-at-large, wasn’t big news at all. It was a small, insignificant thing, not even a blip on the radar to anybody who was somebody. Status quo, at best.

Yet… and yet, the One who hung the stars was born of a woman and swaddled in cloth.

Over time, we’ve made a big production of what was originally a very small thing—not small in significance, but small in scope.

We prefer big though, don’t we? The pressure is on at Christmas time! Whatever “thing” we’re after, it has to be shiny and impressive and darn near perfect. Simple will not do.

And in a larger sense, in an existential sense, we crave very big doses of whatever it is we’re seeking. Hope. Peace. Joy. We crave big to match the size of the problems. The crises at hand are always ‘uge, tremendous. The catastrophes, the cruelties, the mammoth-size despair begs a proportionate response, or at least we want goodness and redemption in equal measure.

But this was God’s response: one human life. This is how God ushers in God’s reign, that project of restoring and repairing a broken creation, in the tiniest way. God responds to a very big problem—the very biggest problems really, sin and death—with a decidedly small thing.

The little one would grow up, of course, continuing to act in small ways. Touching a leper. Feeding a crowd. Breaking bread with pariahs and sell-outs. Confounding a religious professional or two. We know his name now, but then? A nobody from Nazareth. He showed what a transformed life look like, though, he even taught about it. “With what should I compare the kingdom?” he was always asking. Seeds. Yeast. A pearl. A party. Children. Miniscule, ordinary things.

God shows up in the small things, if we’re paying attention. As mind-boggling as that is, as frustrating as that is to those of us who want the problem fixed or the grief to disappear or the challenge erased or the villain defeated, or the war won, God is still there:

  • When one wrinkled hand grasps another by a hospital bed;
  • When the kid with a fully-packed lunch shares with the one whose stomach is empty;
  • When those words, “I’m sorry, please forgive me, I was wrong,” break the stalemate;
  • When someone gets clean after battling inner demons for years;
  • When a group of college students decides to stage a sit-in at lunch counters;

Movements, revolutions, cures, reconciliations, all start with a thought had, a chance taken. Small things.

And hat does God ask of us? To respond in our own small ways. To trust. To step forward in faith. To let go. To put ourselves in someone else’s shoes for a moment. To stay in the struggle just a little while longer. To give just a little more. Small things.

An editor of a magazine I read told a story about the life-sized nativity a church he served years ago used to set up during Advent. It was a giant structure, yet fragile in its own way—made of timber and plywood and usually having electrical problems. People would vandalize it, like clockwork. A pickup truck even crashed into it one year. Baby Jesus went missing another.

One morning, as the pastor was making his rounds “to see if Jesus was still asleep on the hay,” he saw a small gift beside the manger. “The handwritten label taped to the wrapping paper read, ‘Happy Brithday Jesus.’ Birthday was misspelled. Was this a booby trap? A makeshift bomb? A candid-camera prank?” He finally mustered up the courage to open it.

“An old Shake ‘n Bake pork seasoning box was beneath the red paper. Inside the box were 33 cents and a piece of notebook paper with the words: Dear Jesus, Happy Brithday. Here’s some small change for you to feed someone who is hungry. I give myself to be kind to other as you were kind to other people on earth. Love, Maria” [1]

The pastor knew who it was. Maria lived on the church campus in the house for people who struggled with severe mental illnesses. “Maria,” he wrote, “had a big heart she shared with a few whom she trusted. She seemed to know that love was the only thing she had to give away, and she knew that love came from the Lord.”

The prophet Isaiah said it so grandly, so long ago:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. [2]

Yet it was all very small, though, in the beginning. And that is all God expects of us in return.

We’re not singing it tonight, but I’m thinking of that song, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” the last verse:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart. [3]

Merry Christmas… and many blessings to you in this next year, whatever 2018 will hold for you, whether that’s celebrating a major life transition or simply trying to keep your head above water.

May God meet us in the small things.

May we be found faithful in the small things.

[1] Peter W. Marty, “What can I give him?” The Christian Century (December 20, 2017), p.3.

[2] Isaiah 9:6-7, NRSV

[3] “In the Bleak Midwinter,” by Christina Rossetti (1872)

Featured image: “Birth of Christ,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.