The small town of Bethlehem had a proud tradition – but it was still just a small town. There was a monument to Rachel, Jacob’s wife, who was buried there. It was the city of Naomi and became the city of her daughter-in-law Ruth, who lived there with her husband Boaz and became the great-grandmother of Bethlehem’s most distinguished citizen, King David. But that was a long ago. The fact was, the town really wasn’t very significant.
Jerusalem, not far away, was filled with magnificent buildings. The temple was there; it was the seat of power, the seat of government. But not Bethlehem. Bethlehem is described in the New Testament as but a village.
The prophet Micah was distressed about the corruption that he saw all around him amidst the worldly splendors of Jerusalem. He looked to the modest town of Bethlehem as the place where from a rich past would come Israel’s future hope. As Peter Gomes puts it, the text “is a promise that in the midst of bad things, great things will come from small things.”
Sometimes, what we need the very most may be found in small things, in the ordinary and everyday. And that is largely where life is lived. Life is filled with small things, with everyday activities and demands and encounters, with mundane details. Life is filled with those things that are unremarkable. And while every community is unique, for every big city, for every Chicago or Minneapolis, there are hundreds of Gilberts or Huxleys or Ogdens. Bethlehem had a proud history, but it was no Jerusalem; it was just another small town. But salvation can come from unexpected places. Micah looked to Bethlehem.
As it turns out, size and power and wealth don’t seem to be all that important to God. Goliath was a lot bigger than David. Egypt was much stronger than the Hebrew slaves. Pharaoh was more powerful than Moses. Rome and Jerusalem were a lot more powerful than Jesus and his bunch. As Paul put it, “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth.”
God isn’t all that impressed with bigness. And the ultimate revelation of God’s power was to be born in Bethlehem. Small, modest, unimpressive Bethlehem.
This was not the first time God had pulled such a stunt. Gideon was the youngest in his family and came from what was described as the weakest clan. Saul said that his tribe was least of those in Israel. David was the youngest in his family and had come from this same small town of Bethlehem. And the Christmas story itself is chock-full of the small, insignificant, and those without power. Mary and Joseph – a poor, common, not-yet-married couple. They had come to Bethlehem from Nazareth, which rated no better – folks would later say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The Christmas story includes Elizabeth and Zechariah, an old childless couple; a tax on an already oppressed and impoverished people; and lowly shepherds out in the fields. Nothing big or impressive.
Christmas is a time for remembering that God is often to be found in the small, insignificant, common, seemingly “unimportant” things.
The writer Frederick Buechner, reflecting on his own life, wrote: “I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open... even such a life as the one I was living…opened up onto extraordinary vistas. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the windows. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving room for you to recognize him or not recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.”
One of the titles for Jesus is Emmanuel—“God with us.” In Christmas, we celebrate that God is indeed with us, and longs to be with us so much that God took on human flesh and became one of us. By doing so, God has again declared the creation to be very good, and God has marked all of life, even the small and insignificant things, as of great value.
What we find most meaningful about this time of year is so often in the little things. Think about Christmas when you were growing up. (For some of you, that means right now, and for some of you, that was a long, long time ago!) What do you remember most? I remember our family going for rides to look at Christmas lights. I remember my grandmother coming to visit. I recall certain ornaments that went on our tree, even a couple of ornaments I made with my grandma that are on our tree at home right now. I remember getting up early on Christmas morning, earlier than my parents really wanted to get up but they went along with it because the kids were so excited. These are small things, really, but small things can be filled with meaning. You may have your own memories of Christmas, your own traditions. And chances are, many of these memories are of “little things.”
Christmas is filled with such small things. Things like Christmas carols, and baking cookies, and Salvation Army bell ringers. I just loved our Christmas program last week, which was a highlight of the season, and it was small things – the joy of seeing young people grow and blossom and contribute their talents, the wonder of kids over a wide age range all working together, seeing three year old Ethan singing with the big kids and actually knowing the words to the song.
This season is filled with small kindnesses and unexpected gifts. This spirit of giving is part of what makes Christmas. And the fact is, these little things are not so little at all.
In the movie Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ dying word is “Rosebud.” Welles played a heartless and powerful newspaper mogul. Nobody knew what he meant by “Rosebud.” And though a curious investigator interviews many people, he never discovers the truth about Rosebud. Rosebud was not the name of a woman he once loved or anything else that one might imagine a person to utter with his last breath. Rosebud was the name of a sled he had as a child, a sled he enjoyed so much, a gift given to him in love, back when he was an innocent child and before his life was given over to the worship of power and money.
In the end, what he remembered most was not some moment of power and glory, not some moment of triumph, but the simple joy of a boy sledding in the winter snow.
From the very beginning, from the prophecies of the Old Testament, the story of Christmas is about common places and people. Which means that it is about ordinary places like Ames, Iowa and small churches like First Baptist Church, and regular people like you and me, people with hopes and dreams- and shortcomings and heartaches - and good days and bad days.
If the Christmas story begins in places like the prophecies of Micah concerning Bethlehem, it reaches its fulfillment in the story as told by Luke:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’The traditions surrounding a birth in Jesus’ day were not all that different from ours. When someone has a child, we celebrate. You may see balloons in the front yard and a sign saying, “It’s a Girl!” There are baby showers and gifts. And photos are perhaps sent out through social media.
If a child is born to a famous person, things are a little different. In that case, it’s not just social media among friends – it is all over the place. We read about it in the papers and learn all about it on Entertainment Tonight. If the birth is to royalty, it is a major news story. When Prince William and Kate have a baby, the media is all over it – as was the case just this week when it was learned that they are expecting a fourth child.
In Jesus’ day, an important custom surrounding births was music. Local musicians would come and play at the birth of a baby. It was a way of simultaneously announcing the birth and celebrating the birth. The birth of a child to a family of power and wealth would be announced with great fanfare and singing. If the child were a royal heir, there would be a huge celebration with loud, joyful music.
As we read of Jesus’ birth, there are no earthly musicians around. There are no singers in Bethlehem; there is no dancing in the streets. And yet, there is an announcement of the birth. There is singing, wonderful singing, the singing of angels.
If you could arrange such music, more beautiful than anything ever heard, whom would you want for the audience? Friends? Family? Facebook Live? Network television?
It did not happen that way with Jesus’ birth. The voice of angels was heard only by shepherds.
It is hard for us to understand the social standing of shepherds in that culture. Raising sheep seems a respectable enough profession to us, even if it’s something we’d just as soon leave to someone else. But in Jesus’ day, shepherds were the scum of society, looked down upon because they were ceremonially and religiously unclean. Not to mention just being unclean, period - they were dirty and smelly, rough people, poorly educated.
Why do you suppose the angels sang to the shepherds? It seems to have a certain “pearls before swine” quality to it. Why was this beautiful music announcing the birth of Christ sung to some shepherds? Why not to stars and celebrities? Why not to government and religious leaders? Or Roman authorities?
The reason must be connected to everything else in the Christmas story. Bethlehem. Judea. Mary and Joseph. A stable.
In Matthew, we have a somewhat different angle. The Wise Men, Magi from the East, come to see the Christ child. But in Luke, we see the birth of Jesus very much through the eyes of common people. The very first to hear were the shepherds. Christ’s birth is good news for all people – that was part of the angel’s message. But when the angels said all people, they really meant all people.
Queen Victoria of England once attended worship at a small village church in Scotland, near the royal castle at Balmoral. The register for the day quaintly recorded the attendance by profession. It read: shepherds 12, servants 11, queens 1.
Jesus birth represented the fulfillment of a great hope for all people. It is a hope expressed by the prophets and gospel writers in so many ways. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, God With Us.” “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all people: for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”
Jesus’ birth was the fulfillment of a great hope for a Messiah. It is indeed “good news of great joy for all people.” But it is more than that. From start to finish, in the coming of Christ into this world, God forever pronounced the goodness of creation – all of creation.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,All of creation is created by God, blessed by God, loved by God. Even small, out of the way communities; even unglamorous, common, run-of-the-mill places and things. Even young, scared, poor, forgotten people. In the Incarnation, God pronounced forever the goodness and importance of all of life, even the small things. Because out of love, God became one of us, coming not only to a small and humble place, not only to be greeted by lowly shepherds, but coming to us as a tiny, vulnerable baby.
And every common bush afire with God.
There is an expression we sometimes hear about “keeping Christmas.” If we were to keep Christmas throughout the year, live in the spirit of Christmas, it would mean to see and know and cherish the value of every part of creation. God values vulnerable people so much that God became one of them. God delights in small, unglamorous places so much that Jesus was born in such a place. God cares about rough, hard-working people so much that the news of Christ’s birth was first announced to shepherds. And in Jesus birth, even everyday things like stables and feed troughs and donkeys took on a new importance.
In our times of anxiety and hurt and worry, God is with us. Emmanuel. And in our times of joyous celebration, God is with us then, too. Emmanuel, God with us. God is with us, even in the little things, if only we will look. Amen.