God on the Small Side

"Census at Bethlehem" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566.

“Census at Bethlehem” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566.

A sermon for Christmas Eve, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 9:2-7Psalm 96Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Miss Rhoda Harting is a young woman who plans to celebrate Christmas by herself.  A character in a short story by Stella Gibbons, [“The Little Christmas Tree”] Rhoda finds just the right little cottage and begins to gather together everything she needs for a perfect Christmas:  a small chicken all to herself and a very small tree.  She puts her tree in a pot, fastens on a few tiny candles and ornaments, and lights the candles to make sure it looks just right.  After admiring it for a little while, she blows out the candles and goes to bed.
The next day is Christmas, and this being 1940 in Buckinghamshire, England, it snows and everything is beautiful.  On Christmas morning Rhoda hears a knock at her door.  When she opens it she’s surprised to find three small children.  The leader of the three tells a story of a wicked stepmother and asks for shelter.  Rhoda takes the children in and proceeds to feed them and share her Christmas with them.

Later, there is another knock at the door.  It turns out to be the father, looking for his precocious children.  When the kids realize they have been caught in their made-up story, Judy, their leader blurts out, “Don’t tell! . . . I made it up.  I made it all up . . . [about the wicked stepmother and the whole thing]  We saw your little tree all lit up in the window last night…We wanted to see your little tree.  We’ve never had a little tree at home. Everything’s SO BIG.  It’s HORRID…”  (p. 14-15)

The children are drawn to what is small.  While most children today don’t use the word “horrid,” I think it would be easy to find kids who might pass by a large, loud, impressive Christmas tree in favor of a smaller one.  There might be children (and maybe even a few adults) who feel lost in a giant house with lots of people, and would seek out a little cottage.  And now, as in every age, what is loud and grand and dramatic sometimes gives way to what is quiet and small and insignificant.

Whenever that happens, I think we should pay attention.  Because chances are, that’s where we may meet God.  God moves in the downward, lesser, quieter way.  God is found in what is small.

If we think of God’s self-revelation in scripture, we can see places again and again where God shows a preferential option for the small.  The men and women God raises up as leaders are usually not the high and mighty.  David who becomes King is the least likely in terms of toughness and world-readiness.  Rahab the harlot (with God’s help) becomes a heroine.  The prophets are mostly oddballs, misfits, and outsiders to the people they’re called to serve. Even God’s chosen community is weak and vulnerable.

Our first scripture reading tonight comes from the part of Isaiah in which the people of God are in trouble.  Assyria, the great power to the north, is a threat not to be toyed with, Isaiah warns.  But Isaiah offers hope.  He sees hope in a descendant to the throne of David.  “A child has been born for us.”  Biblical scholars argue over exactly who Isaiah imagined that child would be—whether someone closer to his own situation and time period—or the Messiah of the future. But what is clear is that in Isaiah’s words is that God is reaching out—reaching for the small, the faithful, the just who are willing to listen and to try to follow God.

In that Isaiah’s words move quickly from describing a child who is to come, to describing a mighty savior in all-too-human, political, and cultural terms, we see a paradox in our faith:  That what is great, enormous, and indescribably big news actually comes in a small, quiet, almost secret way.

The story of God’s coming—of a child who is born for us— happens off-stage from the major events of its time.  Joseph and Mary are not married.  They don’t travel with their family. They journey to register for the census and have to find space to sleep in a barn.  Though St. Luke imagines choirs of angels directing the traffic for shepherds and providing a heavenly chorus, even the angels describe the birth in simple terms:  “a baby wrapped in rags, lying in a feeding trough.”  The light of a star is needed to supplement the faint light of a poor person’s lantern.  Later, the visiting magi will bring incense, which probably came just in time to help cover up the smell of animals and dung, of sweat and stink and poverty.

Throughout the human life of Christ, people are surprised by the everyday, ordinary quality of Jesus. He’s from Galilee.  His parents are locals.  He is uneducated.  He hangs out with common people, with rough people, with sinful people.  From the standpoint of the sophisticated and cultured Romans, Jesus is simply one of the “little people” to be ignored.  When he seems to create a problem, he’s simply to be disposed of.

To see God in small things runs counter-culture and meets with resistance.  In the 1980s Peter Gabriel put words to what has (before and after) been a large part of the American dream:  “to use big words to get to a big, big city, to be a big noise among the big boys, to pray to a big god and to kneel in a big church.” (Big Time, 1986)

While some might want to argue that life always favors the big—the strong over the weak, the large over the small, evolution also shows that those that are too large do not survive.  Whether they be dinosaurs, empires, multinational corporations, or people— growth beyond means eventually turns to weakness and decay.  Better to be small.  Where vulnerability can lead to collaboration and weakness can promote reliance upon others.

Though our building can feel large, we are not a big church.  We don’t have a big budget and most of our members don’t have very big wallets.  But here we are—doing what we can. We have a small shelter to help with the homeless.  We offer a Tuesday and a Saturday meal to a small number of people relative to the vast numbers in need.  We conduct beautiful worship services, make heavenly music, and support one another on shoestrings (and paperclips, duct tape, and anything else we can find—all wrapped up in prayer.) Small is faithful, too.

Here and there, in the history of faith, small voices emerge.  Once place was near the end of the 14thcentury.  The church in England was busy being “big” in most ways intertwined with the power of royals and nobles.  But in a small room attached to a small church in Norwich, a woman named Julian reflected on her bit of experience with God.  God came in a series of visions to Julian, and then she prayed about those visions and wrote about them.  This was quiet work, out-of-the-way work, largely ignored work, until almost 500 years later. But in one vision Julian imagines that God places something in her hand.

“The Lord showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand . . . and it was as round as a ball. . . I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. In this little thing I saw . . that God made it, . . . that God loves it, . . . [and] that God preserves it . . . God is the Creator and the Protector and the Lover.” (Showings, p.183)

Julian saw God in small things, and so can we. God comes into the world at Christmas in a tiny way.  God becomes incarnate in a little baby.  God takes on flesh in all of its weakness and smallness.  The Incarnation continues to be felt and seen and heard in small things – a word here, a look there, a hand held, a wrong forgiven, an honest word said out loud, a just word shared.

Especially on Christmas, may the light of a single star illumine us.  May the smile of a child reach us. And may we know the touch of God, as small as a baby’s finger, held out for us to enclose our hand around, for us to receive, for us to cradle, and for us to embrace.  Thanks be to God for being small.  Amen.

 

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About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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