SJF • Advent 4c 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You, O Bethlehem, are but one of the little clans of Judah... but from you shall come forth one who is to rule in Israel. (Micah 5:2)
THERE’S SOMETHING IN US ALL that loves to see the underdog finally get ahead; to see the little guy bring down the big bully; to share the joy of the little shopkeeper who wins the lottery, of the hard-working housekeeper who inherits a fortune. This is the stuff of fairy tales: of Cinderella, raised from the dust and ashes of the hearth to become a princess; of the Ugly Duckling turning out to be a swan; of the Little Engine Who Could, finally making it over that steep hill; or, in keeping with the season, of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, shunned at first because of his odd and shiny nose, later turning out to be just the one Santa needs to accomplish his Christmas Eve mission.
Yes, this is the stuff of fairy tales, but it is also the stuff of salvation. For once, long ago, just about exactly three thousand years ago, — yes, I’m counting correctly! — in a little suburb of Jerusalem, a little town belonging to the smallest clan in Judah, a little town called Bethlehem, an unlikely young man came to the forefront of everyone’s attention: and his name was David, son of Jesse — the shepherd-boy who would go on to knock down that towering Philistine giant Goliath with his slingshot, and later would go on to become the king of all Israel.
The prophet Micah, remembering this savior from his nation’s past — much the way we might remember Abraham Lincoln or George Washington — spoke to his people in their present turmoil to comfort them with the promise of another king who would arise from this little town of Bethlehem. From this little suburban village, one would come forth who would be great to the ends of the earth. He would “feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.”
Such stories, such promises, give hope. It is wonderful when the tables are overturned and the haughty mighty ones are toppled, especially when that toppling is done by poor, simple souls lifted up from where they’ve been downtrodden for so long. It is so wonderful that it’s worth singing about. That’s what Micah did, and that’s what Mary of Nazareth did, too.
In today’s Gospel, little Mary, the carpenter’s wife, you know, the housewife — she lived just down the street — the working-class mother-to-be; she was spending some time away from her home up in the hill country, visiting her cousin Elizabeth, also soon to become a mother. And as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, she felt the child leap in her womb, the yet unborn John the Baptist already sensing somehow and announcing with a kick the arrival of his Lord hidden in his mother’s womb. And Elizabeth too was urged to prophetic utterance, addressing Mary as blessèd, as the mother of the Lord, a Lord only just recently and miraculously conceived, and yet already announced by his unborn cousin.
And that’s when Mary sang. The song she sang has been repeated since in every language on earth, sung to many melodies, throughout the world sung every day as part of the evening worship of the church, a reminder before bedtime that our God is a mighty One who does great things, who lifts up the lowly, who afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, who fills the hungry with good things, but sends the rich away empty; and who, above all, is faithful to his promises.
Mary’s song is the song of all the little people, of all the underdogs, of all the people who never got a fair shake finally winning their reward. In Mary’s Song is summed up all the history of God’s chosen people, loved by their faithful God even when they were unfaithful, chosen not because they were numerous or powerful, or great, but just because they were little and insignificant — as if God were saying, “I can work with anything. I’m going to take this lousy little tribe of people wandering around in the desert and from them will come the ruler of the universe...” whose coming we celebrate this week.
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There’s an advantage, you see, to being little! (I guess I should talk, right?) Little people can fit into places big people can’t. And I don’t just mean on the “D” train! Little people notice things that the big people are too busy to see, or too caught up in their own importance to notice; they keep their heads up. Little people know they need to keep their eyes open and look around. One Saint took this very seriously, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who was known as the “Little Flower.” She was a little lady, but because of that she knew she wasn’t cut out to be a great heroine of the faith, a martyr who would face death and torture rather than deny Christ, or a missionary called to go to far off lands. So she resolved to follow what she called “The Little Way”: to do every little daily task as if it were the most important thing in the world; to do the dishes as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar; to scrub the floors of the convent where she lived as if they were the paving stones of heaven; and to face all challenges and difficulties with the same sweet innocent smile, as she said, “We are too little to be able to rise above great difficulties; so then let us quite simply pass beneath them!”
Herein lies the great advantage that the humble and meek have over the rich and powerful: They pay attention to the little things, they listen, they keep their eyes open — they have to! They’ve learned to know how to avoid being stepped on; and it is no accident that when whatever it was that wiped out the dinosaurs wiped out the dinosaurs, the little mammals survived because they could slip through the cracks of disaster! The rich, the powerful who imagine themselves to be self-sufficient, fail to remember how dependent they are on others and on God, and so they lose their grip on what they have, and when the tables are turned, they slide from their thrones. It was precisely when Israel got fat and rich and comfortable and big that the people lost sight of God, and slid into exile or captivity. Only when reduced to the point that they could acknowledge their failings would they turn to God, their deliverer, in meekness and repentance.
The meek, unlike the proud, are receptive, open to God’s arrival. The great Episcopal preacher and bishop Phillips Brooks — who once stood in this very pulpit as he preached at the wedding of the third rector, Charles Tiffany — Phillips Brooks had that in mind when he wrote the words of that wonderful hymn we sang today, “where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
And what is it that Christ enters into? We find the answer in the collect for today: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” Or, as Brooks put it in the same hymn: “O Holy child of Bethlehem descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” When we become little, when we become meek, God dwells among us, with us, and ultimately in us: truly Emmanuel: God-with-us.
God chose Mary to bear his Son as he chose Israel to be his people. It wasn’t because Mary was great, but because Mary was humble, meek and lowly, that God chose her. It was God who made her great, who did great things for her. It was God who lifted up his lowly handmaiden, and made her the mother of his Son.
That same meekness, that same humility is available to us. We can be like Mary — we can open our hearts to God and to each other, to welcome Christ, who is always willing to enter into a humble heart. If God — think about that — even God, could become so little, an infant lying in a manger, can not we too shrink ourselves? Can we not pare down our egos and our angers, engage in a fast of righteousness and shed the pounds of pride and resentment, freeing ourselves to run like happy naked children through the sprinklers of God’s abundant grace?
It is a challenge. It’s hard to become little when you’ve gotten used to living large — dieting and losing weight is hard! Israel learned that lesson, over and over again. And we stumble and fall, too. We’re so often told to act like grown-ups; that big is better; that maturity is judged by power instead of wisdom. But in God’s world, it is better, far better, to be like a child — didn’t he tell us that? It is far, far better to be like one of the blessed little ones who behold God’s face in everything they see.
So, brothers and sisters, let’s be little together. Let’s lose the weight of sin and selfishness. Remember, as the doctor said to the overweight businessman: “It’s either lose forty pounds now or lose two-hundred forty soon!” So let’s go on the diet of righteousness starting now! Let us sing Mary’s song, now, and on Christmas Day, and the day after that, and forever after. When we feel ourselves getting too big for our britches, let’s remember little Mary’s song. Let us join in the chorus of praise, the chorus of souls who magnify the Lord by acknowledging their own littleness, their voices echoing down the corridors of time and space. Let us watch with charity; and with faith hold open the door of grace. Let our hands help lift up the lowly, as we are lifted up ourselves; let our hands feed the hungry, as we are fed at the hands of God. Let us open our hearts, our simple, little, one-room hearts, which, by the grace of God, will become mansions prepared for his Son at his coming. “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel!”
(Note: unfortunately the audio recorder cut off 2/3 through the sermon...)