This morning I brought with me my little nativity scene. Nick and I bought this little nativity, or crèche, quite a few years ago at a Ten Thousand Villages store. What I liked about this particular crèche was the little figures – simple, hand-painted, and quite small so you have to get up close to see the detail and identify the various characters. Unfortunately, our Joseph is missing. I don’t know if we lost him just after we got the set, or if he was always missing. But the taller shepherd stands in for Joseph when I set up the scene.
You can have a look at our little nativity scene at the end of the service if you like and see the beautiful tiny figures. But the reason I brought it today is because the prophet Micah got me thinking about little things. The prophet wrote, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah [the least of the clans of Judah], from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
It’s the same reason why I suggested that we sing “O little town of Bethlehem” this morning. Even though we sang it last Sunday, it seemed so appropriate to sing today about the little unlikely town in which the Saviour of the world was born, that we had to sing it again. I didn’t know the story of this popular Christmas carol until just the other day when I read about it in a reflection by Nancy Taylor:
“The carol’s story begins with a simple visit to Bethlehem but has grown to stretch around the world. On Christmas Eve in 1865, a young Episcopal priest named Phillips Brooks approached Bethlehem on horseback and then worshipped in its ancient Basilica of the Nativity. The simplicity and beauty of the service made a lasting impression on him.
“Three years later, while he was serving as the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, the Sunday school children asked Brooks to write a new Christmas song. The memory of his Christmas Eve in Bethlehem came rushing back, and he penned the words in a single evening. On Christmas morning in 1868 the little children of Holy Trinity first sang a song that has become one of the best loved of all the carols.”
Won’t you sing with me?
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by:
yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
In a little town, in a back-room stable, to an unimportant couple, a tiny child is born who will be the long-awaited Messiah, who will not only save his own people, but who will turn the world upside with his love.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that God had chosen an unimportant place or an unimportant person to play an important role in what God was doing. The prophet Micah, writing around 735 BCE, was waiting for and hoping for a Messiah to come and save God’s people Israel. He believed that the reign of King David would survive throughout all of Israel’s history. And although David had been dead for almost three centuries, Micah and some of the other prophets were looking for his return – for a new king to be born in his line who would extend the empire he established long ago.
And David had been born in Bethlehem. David was the youngest – the least in his family with a bunch of older brothers. He was the one they left out in the fields looking after the sheep when the prophet Samuel came looking for the future king, because no one thought he was even a possibility. David was little. But he was chosen by God. And with God’s help, he was able to do great things for his people.
And so Micah speaks words of hope to his people who are in despair. He concedes that the situation is grim: the nation is in extreme distress, Jerusalem is under siege, and the king has suffered humiliation. The people see no hope. But Micah sees hope. He sees beyond the current circumstance to what God is promising to do. “And they shall live secure,” he proclaims. And he encourages the people to open their eyes to see how God is going to do it in the most unexpected ways, in unexpected places and through unexpected people.
There are some people and some parts of the world today that are experiencing the kind of insecurity that Micah’s people must have felt – nations in conflict, violence in the streets, rulers struggling for power, poverty, exile, homelessness, and hunger. When we pay attention to the news and listen to the struggles of our neighbours, we may become very aware of the fact that we live in an insecure world – a world that is marred by terror, war, poverty, accidents, and tsunamis, not to mention the ordinary but nonetheless anguishing events of old age, illness, and death.
How many conversations have you had in the last week about the horrific shooting of the school children and teachers in Connecticut last week? And how many parents felt just a little cautious when dropping your kids off at school after such an event?
Even with all the security systems and pensions and insurance and resources that many of us have, what people today have in common with the ancient Israelites is that sense of insecurity that pervades many of our lives. How did a disturbed young man get a hold of the guns he used to murder all those children? They belonged to his mother who apparently owned them for protection – because she somehow felt insecure enough that she wanted to have a collection of guns at the ready.
When we feel insecure, like the ancients, we typically look towards perceived seats of power for rescue. Some buy guns, while others lobby our governments to control access to such weapons. We hope that our leaders and people in positions of power and influence will see to our needs and to the needs of the most vulnerable among us.
“Yet, while we are looking towards prime ministers and presidents, satraps and senators,” Nancy Taylor points out that, “Micah is jumping up and down, waving his arms, desperately trying to point us in an entirely different direction. He is pointing to a small, out-of-the-way place: a town called Bethlehem. He is pointing to a leader who stands ‘in the strength of the Lord’ rather than in the strength of weapons or power or wealth or territory… It takes one’s breath away, this promise… Micah captures the ache with which we live each day and the hope that is in us for a future that only God can deliver.
“Christians understand God’s provision of true security in the One whose birth the church is soon to celebrate. Christ is our security. He is bread for our hunger, drink for our thirst, and life for our death.”
And Christ arrives as a tiny, helpless child, born in a stable and placed in an animal’s feed trough. Even today’s story of Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth before the birth highlights the unlikely way that God works. Mary and Elizabeth meet with no pretensions to greatness.
Another commentator, Stephen Cooper, describes the scene as absurd: “The coming of the Messiah who will redeem Israel is anticipated and proclaimed, not by archangels or high priests or emperors or ever ordained preachers. Rather, two marginalized, pregnant women – one young, poor, and unwed, the other far beyond the age to conceive – meet in the hill country of Judea to celebrate (and possibly commiserate about) their miraculous pregnancies.”
And “yet,” as Taylor describes it, “a babe leaps, the Holy Spirit turns up, and Elizabeth, sensing the wonder of what is occurring, cannot hide her astonishment that God’s blessing and presence would deign to visit her humble abode.”
Elizabeth was surprised by what God was doing in her life and in the life of her young relative, Mary. But she noticed. And Mary noticed too. And Mary didn’t think, “Well, this must be happening to me because I am very special. This must be happening to me because I have been good and pure and faithful to God my whole life through.” Instead she recognized that what God was doing through her was an amazing gift of God’s grace.
And Mary – young, and pregnant, and unimportant as she was – became a prophet announcing the good news of what God was doing, and what God was about to do. She sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant… the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
We are just two days from Christmas now – a time when food and family and frivolity may draw our attention away from the concerns and insecurities of the world and perhaps even distract us from our own individual worries for a time.
But over these next few days, and this next week, I invite you to remember the reason for our joy, and our gladness, and our celebration. We are not just distracted from our troubles and concerns, but we are encouraged with hope because Christ is born. As humble and precarious as his coming was, he is the one who has the power to save us from ourselves and deliver us into the glorious kingdom of God.
As John the Baptist recognized the Christ child coming near and leaped in Elizabeth’s womb, may we also experience the joy of our Lord’s presence this Christmas. Let’s keep our eyes and ears and hearts open during this season, because we’ll probably need to look towards some unexpected people in some unexpected places.