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Fourth Sunday of Advent Cycle C (1)
Some of you grew up in a small town, so you can identify with some of those lists that begin with “You know you live in a small town when . . .” For example,
City limits signs are both on the same post.
Traffic light in McSherrystown
Your car breaks down outside of town and news of it gets back to town before you do.
Without thinking, you wave to all oncoming traffic.
You know you live in a small town when the New Year’s baby is born in October.
A “Night on the Town” takes only 11 minutes.
The local phone book has only one yellow page.
You know you live in a small town when you call a wrong number and they supply you with the correct one.
It takes 30 seconds to reach your destination and it’s clear across town.
Well, you get the idea. Small towns don’t get much respect.
Abraham Lincoln, generally acknowledged as our greatest president, hailed from Knob Creek, Kentucky which was so small it no longer exists.
President Jimmy Carter, of course, still calls Plains, Georgia home. Plains has a grand population of 611. You don’t have to be a big city to produce a big person.
Of course, the greatest person who ever lived came from a small town in one of the unlikeliest places on Earth. We read in Micah 5 these beautiful words, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel . . .”
These words were written 700 years before Caesar Augustus issued his decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world . . . a census that required Joseph and Mary, his young bride-to-be, to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem because Joseph belonged to the house and lineage of David. You know the story, probably by heart.
The time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room available for them in the inn. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
“Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened . . .” The world didn’t know it, but all the truly important people on earth were huddled in a stable that night long ago in the tiny town six miles outside of Jerusalem known as Bethlehem. In the world’s estimation the important people were in Rome–Augustus Caesar, his household and the Roman senate–but we know better. In August, 1865, shortly after the Civil war, the parishioners of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia sent their pasor, Phillips Brooks, abroad for a year. His travels took him through Europe, and in December to the Holy Land. There he traced the footsteps of Jesus southward and visited the scenes of the Bible narrative. After two weeks spent in Jerusalem, Christmas Eve found him in Bethlehem at the birthplace of Jesus. Of his stirring emotions on that “Holy Night,” he later wrote to his Sunday school back in Philadelphia. He said, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born. The whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God. It was as if I could hear angelic voices telling each other of the Wonderful Night of our dear Savior’s birth.”
Two years later, in 1867, Brooks put his pen to paper and wrote these immortal words:
“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.” (1)
The prophet Micah, who first announced where Christ would be born, was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. Not as well known as Isaiah, Micah still helped shape Israel’s national character. His inspired preaching against injustice eventually brought Hezekiah the king to repentance and, in doing so, saved Israel (Jeremiah 26:17-19). During this time there was a shocking contrast within both Judah and Israel between the extremely rich and the oppressed poor.
Bethlehem means house of bread. “Sounds more like a home for the Pillsbury Dough Boy,” says one author, “than it does the birthplace of a king.” (2)It is profound, don’t you think, that God would raise the one who would be the “bread of life” from the so-called “house of bread?”
As someone has written: “Bread is one of life’s most common things. God wanted His Son available to all. His birth was announced to shepherds, the common man, but not to the religious elite nor to those with political clout.
The birth of Jesus also made possible a new way of living. We hear people ask, why can’t we keep the Christmas spirit all year long? And the answer is, of course, that is why Christ came–that we might keep his spirit all year long. The Christmas spirit is no more than the way the follower of Jesus is to live every day of his or her life–showing kindness to strangers; treating all people regardless of their station in life with respect; being generous with the poor and compassionate with the wayward. That’s not an aberration. That is simply living the Christ life.
Helmut Nausner is a well-known Methodist pastor living in Austria. He tells of a Christmas Eve during the Nazi occupation when he was very young. His father was away, so his mother gathered the children around her to read the Christmas story and to pray. As they did they could hear the soldiers outside their windows, marching the streets, patrolling the curfew, and enforcing the orders forbidding religious celebration. They were very quiet.
During the reading and praying, young Helmut kept wondering what his mother would do about the music. Poor as they were, they had a piano that was used for house services where his Papa preached and his Mama played the hymns. Mama, he said, loved the Christmas music, but surely the soldiers would hear if they sang. “What would they do to Mama and to us?” he wondered.
When they finished their reading and prayers, Helmut’s youngest sister asked, “Mama, aren’t we going to sing?” With only a moment’s hesitation, his mother answered, “Tonight we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child into our world. He came that we might never be afraid any more. Of course we are going to sing.”
So she gathered her brood about her and they sang, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.” (7)
You and I don’t have to sing in fear this morning–all fear has been taken away.
Everyone is looking out for the little guy, but it’s hard to know who the little guy is. Of course, every presidential candidate wants to lift the little guy up—that’s why they’re running. For most it’s the middle class which has been kicked around for the past two decades. For some it’s the corporations who have been deluged, as they put it, by reams of regulations which keep them from making money. For others, it’s big corporation executives who have been getting such bad press. For a few it’s the hourly wage earner at the bottom: $15 an hour, and nothing less. You don’t hear much about those living in poverty, but I’m sure someone is rooting for them. If you are an immigrant, or a Muslim immigrant, you’re almost so little everyone has forgotten you even exist, except to double-check your visa or your papers.
We see how “little-guy” God thinks in the Gospel when Mary, who has just received this astonishing revelation through the Archangel Gabriel, doesn’t prance around Nazareth like a queen; rather, she runs through the hills, hastening toward the house of Elizabeth, the elderly woman who has become pregnant and who surely needs help. Elizabeth says: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Yes, Mary knows she’s among the little guys.
Because Christmas is mostly for those so small, so overlooked, so desperate, they only have dreams and hopes to live on. God’s definition of a “little guy” is this: one who never looks down on another because “little guys” already know they are at the bottom. For many people it’s the bottom of the pecking order, or the economic ladder.
It turns out that Jesus himself, the new King whose birth we closely await, is himself a little guy. For his life is defined not in terms of what he gets but in terms of what he gives. The second reading give us the angle on this: upon entering the world, Jesus says that he lives to accomplish the will of his Father, the desire of Absolute love—to give himself that everyone else’s life may be deepened, enriched, fulfilled, and redeemed. To give himself, showing us the pattern of divine life: that we are great only insofar as we live for others, especially those overlooked by fame and fortune.
In a few days we celebrate the feast of Christmas—the Incarnation, which is the big word we use—when the Word becomes flesh. When this happens, all flesh is changed, even the lowliest flesh. God is reaching down, as far as God can. And who are we to think we don’t have to?
So Mary runs through the woods, a simple young woman rushing to help a simple older woman. Elizabeth’s baby, John the Baptist, leaps for joy because God’s love for the lowly reaches even into the womb. No one is discarded in the eyes of God. Every life makes a claim on divine love, for none is too little. That’s why he comes as a baby, a child. Jesus comes to accomplish his destiny of love and show us, in the end, we can all be little guys, the blessed, if only we realize the depth of our need for him.