“Can You Believe It?”
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
Reading: Micah 5:2-5a
Can you believe it? In the summer of 2018, Rodney Smith Jr. wanted to do something to help out single mothers, veterans, and other elderly people, so he set out to mow 50 lawns in 50 states; when word of his campaign spread on social media, he raised enough money in donations to be able to also buy blankets, supplies and gifts for homeless people in every city that he went to.
That same year, in Newark, NJ, high school principal Akbar Cook installed a laundromat in his school after finding out that some students were chronically absent because they were being bullied for their dirty clothes, the result of the poor living conditions they had to live in through no fault of their own. Since the principal had the laundromat installed, school attendance has improved and an influx of donations have allowed him to also open a “free store” providing toiletries and other necessities for students in need.
Also that year, a boy named Austin won the hearts of people around the world when he embarked on a mission to deliver chicken sandwiches to homeless people in 15 different cities, spreading the message #showlove. Austin was just 4 years old. Can you believe it?
These are three stories that CNN’s website reported on people who had inspired them in the year 2018. Early this coming January they will report on 2019’s most inspirational people. These are not celebrities, or royalty, or wealthy people; these are just ordinary people – even a small child – doing small acts of kindness that are changing people’s lives and inspiring the world.
The passage Dr. Stirling read for us from the book of the prophet Micah tells us that as early as the 8th century BCE God was telling Israel that their salvation would come from the most unlikely of places, from somewhere that nobody would have expected: “Bethlehem, you who are too little to be among the clans of Judah.” Not from Rome or Jerusalem, but from little Bethlehem, too little to count for anything; too insignificant to even think of. Israel’s existence as a nation, their salvation, their hopes and their future, would come from a town that is “too little to [even] be among the clans of Judah.”
For us, of course, because of our familiarity with the Christmas story, Bethlehem is such an important place in our minds. But it wasn’t always so.
Why was Bethlehem considered so insignificant?
The great theologian of the reformation, John Calvin, writes this about this passage from Micah: “The prophet, in order to show that this town was small and hardly of any account, says, ‘Thou, Bethlehem, art hardly sufficient to be one province.’ And it was a proof of its smallness, that hardly a thousand men could be made up from Bethlehem and its neighbouring villages. There were not, we know, many towns in the tribe of Judah; and yet a large army could be there collected. Since, then, the town of Bethlehem was so small that it could hardly attain the rank of a province, it is hence no doubt evidence that it was but a mean town.”
And yet, the Messiah, God said, would be born in the insignificant town of Bethlehem: can you believe it?
So when Jesus began to perform signs and wonders, and then they realized that he’d been born in Bethlehem and was of the lineage of King David – facts that Jesus could not have orchestrated himself – with every passing day they realized that his life was unfolding the way God had foretold through the prophets.
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” The greatest thing to ever happen in the world, is going to happen in the most unexpected, insignificant place on earth.
“The Message” version of the Bible – which is a modern-day paraphrase – translates the first verses of this passage this way: “But you, Bethlehem, David’s country, the runt of the litter…” That’s how the town of Bethlehem was viewed – as the runt of the litter.
When I read that, I couldn’t help but think of my favourite cat, Tico, who I lost a week ago at the age of 14 ½. As I loaded him into the front seat of my car to take him to the vet – knowing there was a good chance I wouldn’t be bringing him home – my mind wandered back to the day I had loaded that 6-week-old kitten into the front seat of my car to bring him home from the Animal Rescue Shelter in Nappan, NS.
Tico had been the runt of the litter. Very tiny as a kitten (even at 6 weeks) and with a slight malformation in his back hips and legs, he had been abandoned by his mother when he was two weeks old and left for dead on the side of a busy highway. A trucker driving along outside Amherst one night swerved when he saw in his headlights this tiny kitten on the road; he stopped, picked up the ragged little thing, and took him to the doorstep of the local shelter, where volunteers found him in a box with a note the next morning. The volunteers named him Lucky.
Four weeks later, I was the lucky one when I walked into the shelter looking for a female cat; but this little stinker won my heart with his beauty and his moxie, and for 14 years we shared love and cuddles and great fun and adventures. Who could have believed that the runt of the litter, rejected by his own mother, would give someone’s life so much joy? Many of you have pets and know exactly what I’m talking about. God can do amazing things with those things in the world that are so often considered insignificant.
And the truth is, don’t we sometimes feel that our lives are insignificant in the eyes of the world? Don’t we sometimes feel like we’re “the runt of the litter,” too unimportant for people to bother with; rejected sometimes even by people we care about most; so flawed and broken that we can’t imagine anyone would still love us if they really knew us.
Over the years I have met people from just about every walk of life who feel that in some way – deep down inside – the person they really are remains unseen, unknown or even unlovable. Sociology researcher Dr. Brene Brown writes that so many people live their lives in fear: fear of failing; fear of making mistakes; fear of not meeting people’s expectations; fear of being criticized; fear that deep down inside, who we are and what we bring to the world is not enough, and will never be enough. We’ll never be good enough, smart enough, successful enough; we’ll never – that is – be perfect.
One of the most important things that I think we learn from the Christmas story, though, is that God looks at the world with different eyes. God sees the small; God sees the broken; God sees the “not good enough” and loves us for it; God loves the seemingly insignificant, the runt of the litter, the ones looked over by society.
We learn from the Christmas story that none of us is so small, is so insignificant, that God can’t do something great and purposeful with our lives. Can you believe it? Can you believe that God came into this world, came to a place like Bethlehem, was born in an ordinary stable, came to us as a normal, humble little baby – because He sees YOU; He loves YOU; because He has a purpose for YOUR life?
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.”
Centuries before Jesus was born, God saw the insignificant little town Bethlehem and said:
“…from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.”
From ancient days, God saw the little, insignificant town of Bethlehem; God did not consider that community to be invisible, unknown or unlovable. He chose it for a purpose with eternal significance, and throughout the history of Christianity, Bethlehem has been honoured as the place that God chose to come into the world, a little baby, born to a poor family, in a smelly barn.
It’s true that none of us is, or ever will be, the Saviour of the world; we may not go down in the history books for our greatness. But that doesn’t mean that our lives are insignificant. It doesn’t mean that God can’t use us for His good purposes. Maybe God will use us to do great things; or maybe God will use our humility to shine a light on others and their gifts. Both of these are honoured by God and fulfill a divinely appointed purpose.
Like my Tico, the runt of the litter, maybe you feel hurt or rejected by someone you love, or by the world; but God may be preparing you to be the one He uses to bring hope, comfort and joy to someone else.
I hope you will take that into the new year with you. Brene Brown talks about waking up in the morning and thinking to ourselves: No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It sounds a little bit like the SNL skit from the 90s “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley.” But this is how God sees us. This is how God sees the world, those who think they are not enough, those who think they are not significant, and God seems us as worth enough to come into the world, to enter into our pain and struggles, to draw us to Himself.
Bethlehem, you may not be Jerusalem, but you are enough. A baby is not a warrior king, but he is enough for God to accomplish His purpose. A stable is not a top hospital, but in it we see God’s beauty. You may never accomplish all that you want; you will never achieve the perfection so many of us feel driven to strive for; but just as you are, right now, you are enough. And God loves you and has a purpose for your life.
The Christmas story tells us – among many things about how loving God is – that in the eyes of the one who created the universe; in the eyes of the one who died on the cross and rose from the dead to have victory over death, those who seem insignificant, those who feel worthless, those who have experienced rejection are precious in the eyes of God, and can be used by God for the most amazing, world-transforming purposes. Can you believe it?
In the coming new year, I pray that all of you will connect with God in a new or deeper way, believe that He loves you, and discover the beautiful purpose He created you for. Merry Christmas. Amen.