Fourth Sunday in Advent
For he hath looked upon the low estate of his handmaid: For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Four hundred years is a long time. Here in the United States we have very little history that goes back that long. Most of us have never traced our family tree more than a few generations, but even fewer can identify family that existed in 1612. The earliest settlements in the United States were just beginning in the early 17th century. The first tobacco crop was shipped from Jamestown in 1612. In England there were witch trials and hangings in 1612. The earliest known telescope was made in 1608 and Simon Marius was the first to see the Andromeda Galaxy through one in 1612. People in many countries lived in structures made of wood and stone, but nothing like we know now. Sewer ran in the streets. Cooking was done in fireplaces. People rarely bathed.
It was a completely different world. Most youth canít imagine life before cell phones and computers, but very few of us have even lived without running water or electricity in our homes. Modern history has seen incredible change in just decades; four hundred years is beyond our imagination. Not much has changed with tobacco in that time, but we certainly do not hang witches anymore. What would Simon Marius have thought if someone told him that not only would we see to the ends of the universe, but that man would walk on the moon and would send robots to explore the planets? He would probably have laughed at the idea that man could live in a structure that orbited around the earth. Four hundred years is a long time.
Can you imagine if God were silent for that long? We get frustrated when we do not hear answers to our prayers in days or even minutes. But God was silent for the people of Israel between the Prophets and the Evangelists. Four hundred years divides Malachi from Matthew. It is no wonder that the people were becoming lost. We forget friends when we donít hear from them in a couple years; four hundred years covers of the lives of generations. Fathers and mothers stopped sharing the stories. Children learned the Law from the teachers and priests, but the lost touch with the God who gave them the Law. God was silent, but is it because He had abandoned them, or because they stopped listening?
God did not forget. He did not forget the promises He made to His people. He did not forget the promises to Abraham and David. He did not forget that He promised to send a Savior to His people. It is not surprising that God kept His promises. At the right time, God was faithful. How He did it, however, is unexpected.
I live in Texas, and everything in Texas is bigger. Bigger is better, right? Thereís a commercial where a man is talking with a group of children and he asks them if bigger is better. They talk about how a bigger treehouse is better because they can have a disco and put a big screen TV inside. We are fascinated by the biggest presents under the tree. My Christmas tree this year is bigger than ever. With a cathedral ceiling we were able to go ten feet tall! It made it interesting to decorate.
But is bigger always better? While our televisions are getting bigger, our cell phones and computers are getting smaller. Who wants to carry a brick sized phone when you can carry one that is not much bigger than a credit card? Small boxes can contain jewelry or even the keys to a car. Bigger is not always better.
And yet, we still expect good things to come out of something big. Famous people donít come from small towns, right? Kings arenít born in villages. Yet, Johnny Football, Johnny Manziel the Heisman winner for 2012, came from the small town of Kerrville, Texas. And the Savior of the world was born in Bethlehem.
Why Bethlehem? It was such a small town, very unimportant. Itís only claim to fame was Rachelís tomb. Rachel, the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, died during childbirth. Isnít it interesting that all the people important to this story are the least and yet are so important to Godís purpose? Jacob, the second son, was a conniving cheat. Rachel, the beloved wife was the younger sister, but Jacob worked seven extra years to earn her hand in marriage. In the end, she had difficulty conceiving and was scorned by a servant. Joseph, the beloved son of Rachel, was the least of his brothers and yet a spoiled child. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, suffered unjust cruelties and was eventually blessed by God in a way that would save his family from famine.
Bethlehem was the hometown of David, through his father Jesse. Jesse was the son of Obed and the grandson of Ruth. He was a sheep herder. We often think of Jesse as an important man because we see this image of the prophet Samuel visiting Jesse in search of the new king. Surely Jesse must have been a man of means? Yet, he was from Bethlehem, the grandson of a foreign woman, a keeper of sheep. It may have been a large herd of sheep, but he was still nothing but a farmer and breeder. David was not even the most important among his brothers. He was the last, the youngest, and small in stature.
This seems upside down. Shouldnít God have chosen the biggest, the firstborn, the capital, the strongest? Shouldnít He have chosen the best of everything from which to bring forth the Savior of the world?
But God knows what Heís doing and told His people that the Bethlehem would bring forth the Messiah. The psalmist also talks about God focusing His blessing on Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Why these three? Why these tribes?
Benjamin was the youngest of Jacobís children, and the favorite because he was born of the beloved Rachel. Ephraim and Manasseh were Josephís children, the other favorite son of Jacob. The two children were made equal to Jacobís other sons, blessed by Jacob on his deathbed. On Shabbat, the Jewish people pray that their children will be like Ephraim and Manasseh. Why? I found the answer on a Jewish website, www.chabad.org.
The answer, ďPerhaps one might say that the highlight of their character is their remarkable upbringing. They were born and raised in Egypt, in a profoundly secular society, a place where the people were not of high character. Yet they remained faithful to the morals and ideals that were espoused by their grandfather Jacob, as they were transmitted through their father Joseph. To be great amongst great people is also a challenge, but to maintain a high level of spirituality and character amongst a society that is devoid of morals and ethics is the real test. This is why Jacob chose these two boys to be his own. They were able to prove true strength of character. How does one know if a fish is healthy? If it can swim upstream; against the tide of society.Ē
Ephraim and Manasseh, as well as Benjamin, were the youngest of Jacobís offspring, but they were the most blessed. God does not necessarily choose the biggest, strongest or even the oldest to do His work. Sometimes it is the smallest, weakest and least significant that receives the greatest calling.
God turns the world upside down. He doesnít choose the way we choose. He looks to the heart. He sees beyond the surface. He knows the way the world works, but He also knows there is a better way. His King was not meant to be a conquering hero born in a palace made of gold. He was meant to be a humble shepherd willing to care for Godís people. The majesty is not found in the faÁade, it is seen in the heart.
God knew Maryís heart. Can you imagine choosing a girl who was probably no more than thirteen to be the mother of a King? Mary was a nobody, a humble young girl from Nazareth. We see Mary as a very special young woman, perhaps even perfectly righteous. She is willingly obedient to the angel when she answered, ďLet it be to me as you say.Ē We wonder if we could ever be so devoted to Godís word or even if we could believe that it was from God if we were called to something so extraordinary.
Yet, though she humbled herself and submitted to that which she had been told, there may have been a sense of doubt or uncertainty in her mind. She asked the angel how it would be, how she would become pregnant since she had never been with a man. Did she feel anything when the Holy Spirit came over her? Was there a tingle, or an unexplained wind? Was she aware of His presence at that moment? Whatever happened, she said ďYesĒ to Godís call. However, she did not face the world with this knowledge until she was absolutely certain it was true.
Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth for a time. In todayís story, the child in Elizabethís womb (John) leapt for joy when Mary arrived and greeted Elizabeth. The Holy Spirit came upon Elizabeth who cried, ďBlessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.Ē She could not contain her joy at seeing Mary, the mother of her Lord. This was all so unbelievable. Elizabeth at least had some stature as the wife of a priest, but Mary was a child. She had no wealth and no husband. The pregnancy was scandalous, particularly to her betrothed. Elizabeth was well beyond child bearing years, and had been barren for her entire life. It is all so ridiculous.
But Mary was overwhelmed with joy because she saw the fulfillment of Godís promises in this absurdity. Mary responded with praise and thanksgiving. She didnít doubt that God could choose her; she recognized that God does call the lowly to great things. God didnít choose her because she was holy. She was holy because God chose her. The same is true of all the characters in the story we are preparing to hear in a few days. Elizabeth, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men were all made holy in their calling, not called because there was anything particularly special about their lives. These people, like Ephraim and Manasseh were fish that could swim against the tide of society.
The writer of Hebrews shows us that Jesus came because the ways of the world do not work. We think bigger is better, but it isnít always. We think we can earn our way to heaven, but we canít. We think that if we are good enough, if we do everything right, if we obey the Law, then weíll experience the blessings of the righteous. But it is impossible for us to become righteous by obeying the Law. Jesus came to do what we cannot.
The Christmas story is sweet and wonderful until we remember why Jesus came. We love the images of Bethlehem, the manger, the starry night and the shepherds in the field. We love the image of wise men on camels carrying gold and myrrh and frankincense. We love the image of a donkey and cow and sheep surrounding the baby with golden light and soft soothing music. We love our Christmas trees and the presents, the cookies and the parties. We love everything wonderful about the holidays.
But Christmas is not all sweet and wonderful. Jesus came because there was work to do. He came to turn the world upside down, and God did it in a way that is the opposite of everything we might expect. Jesus didnít come to be a king, but to be a humble servant. He came to be a shepherd, to take care of the deepest needs of Godís people. He came to save us, not as a conquering hero, but as the Son sent to do His Fatherís work.
That work is the most shocking part of the story. The Son did not come to rule on an earthly throne or lead an army into war. Jesus came to die. We have made the Christmas story to be one of sweetness and light: a mother and a baby, the farm animals close by keeping the happy family warm on the cold night. The pictures have beautiful angels singing praises to God and kings dressed in robes of spun gold fabric. It is a beautiful moment until we realize that Jesus came to die. God turned the world upside down, using the wrong people in the wrong places to do what He knows to be right.
Bigger might be better, but we are reminded in todayís lessons that God doesnít choose the biggest to do His work. He chooses the lowly, the humble, the littlest. He chooses those who will be turned, who can be changed by His grace. He chooses those who willingly obey His call. He chooses you. Are you ready to swim against the tide of society? You might be among the lowly, but God is ready to bless you in ways you cannot imagine.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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