The power of the small man
Luke 3, 1-6
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
So now there are only 2 more Sundays until Christmas. How are the preparations going? All organized? Cards in the post, pressies wrapped and ready, turkey ordered and Christmas cake iced. Did anyone watch St Delia this week? She’s back with a Christmas cookery programme for the first time in several years because apparently Christmas has now become so stressful that we all need a bit of organisation and help.
The reason for this, according to a report that I read, is that Christmas is no longer 1 or 2 days of entertaining – it’s a week! No wonder we need Delia’s calm reassurance and military planning.
As if the kitchen wasn’t stressful enough, I also read that stress levels are heightened by the political sensitivities that surround our great festival. We read the usual stories in the newspapers of politically correct local councils banning nativity plays for being overtly Christian. Even wishing someone a Happy Christmas is a bit dodgy and the advice is to tone down the Christianity and use the sickeningly American term Happy Holiday.
Even if you manage your way through the minefield of political correctness, of food preparation of catering proportions, of shopping in the rain for those last few presents, of sending 300 cards to people you can barely remember you still face the ultimate stress – of spending time with your family!
Because Christmas is peak time for family breakdown, for rows and rifts.
With all this stress – how on earth are we to prepare spiritually for the Christmas season for we are now in that great time of preparation – the season of Advent. It’s at this time of year, in pulpits across the land that sermons are preached about the secular versus the sacred. This is the time when people like me exhort you to forget about the shopping and the cooking and the cards and the decorations and to make time for God. We echo the words of John the Baptist, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord”.
Well – that would be what I would usually do but this year I won’t. Because to ask people to choose between the secular and the sacred is an unfair choice, particularly if, like me, you love Christmas and all that comes with it. Forget all that stuff about the stress of Christmas, the wonder of Christmas more than makes up for it.
It’s the joy of finding some silly gift that you know will raise a smile from a good friend or a loved one. The joy of watching children’s faces of wonder in the midst of a nativity or the beauty of this church when lit by 150 Christingle candles. The pleasure of listening to the laughter of friends and family around a shared table of celebration – all the stress of that food preparation forgotten.
The joy of Christmas for me is in the small things just as God is in the small things of life. What greater proof have we of God working through the small things in life than the Christmas story itself.
Here we have God, himself becoming that smallest of things – a baby. Not a grand baby, born in the glare of royal publicity but a poor and private baby, born to an unknown and unmarried teenage mother. Born in a cold and windy cave or barn at the back of a non descript inn in a non descript town in an unknown backwater of the might Roman empire.
G K Chesterton summed it up far more poetically than I can in his famous work, ‘The Everlasting Man’. I apologise for my paraphrasing.
What happened in that fold or crack in the great grey hills was that the whole universe had been turned inside out. All the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing, were now turned inward to the smallest. God who had been only a circumference was seen as a centre, and a centre is infinitely small.
The story of the birth of Jesus has power over us not because it turns our minds to greatness, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. Rather its power is instead in something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal parts of our being as if we found something at the back of our own hearts that betrayed us into good.
Isn’t that wonderful? The birth of Jesus was such a small thing but the power of that small thing was so immense and nowhere do we get a better sense of that power than in the words of today’s gospel. Luke is such a great storyteller – no other gospel writer can match his narrative and when it comes to the story of the nativity our imagery all comes from Luke. So the opening of our reading seems a little odd – a little non Lucan, a little boring – that long preamble of names and positions that’s such a nightmare for the unfortunate modern reader. Let me remind you what he says….
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis and Lysanius ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
So why the long preamble, why the long list of names? I think Luke wants to make a point about the big things and the small things. In first century Palestine, that list of names was the big one – that’s all you needed to know. If it were today, it would be the equivalent of saying, “When Barack Obama was President of the United States and Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia and Gordon Brown Prime Minister of Britain, during the reign of Elizabeth II, Queen of England when Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan Williams presided over the Western Christian churches….”
Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas – these were the big people, the important people. John, son of Zechariah and Jesus the Nazarene – they were nobodies. And what an assortment of big people they were – a real rogues gallery.
Tiberius, Pilate and Herod were noted for their cruelties and treacheries. Tiberius was hated and mistrusted by his own political cronies and finally resorted to jumped up treason charges to keep them all in order. Pilate was renowned for playing both ends against the middle – cheating his Roman bosses and abusing his Judean subjects. Herod was insanely paranoid and ended up having three of his own sons and his own wife executed because he suspected them of plotting against him.
The religious leaders weren’t much better. Annas, the high priest was little more than a lackey of the Roman authorities, having sold out any morals that his position might have still held. He did better at getting his family appointed to key Temple positions by the Roman rulers – five sons and his son in law, Caiaphas – than he did at preserving the integrity of a religious institution.
Luke’s introduction to the rich and powerful contrasts beautifully with that for John who was simply “in the wilderness”. But John’s power, the power of the small man rather than the great comes from a more ancient and a more powerful non Roman source. The word of God came to John. The word of God as defined in the Torah, the word of God as promised in Scripture, the word of God came to John – the small man.
Now what was to become of these powerful men – these men who ruled the lives of everyone in Palestine? What did history have in store for our rogues gallery? Well not much in the way of good news I’m afraid.
The Emperor Tiberius died a broken man on 16 March 37 AD, just 7 years after the events that Luke describes. Lysanius died in the same year. Pontius Pilate was sent back to Rome in disgrace one year before that in 36AD and died. Herod died a horrible death in 39AD while Philip, a good ruler, died in dishonour in 33AD, the year of Christ’s crucifixion.
Annas lived to a ripe old embittered age living to see the line of priests who descended from him preside over the destruction of the Temple that he held so dear. This included his son in law Caiaphas who was unceremoniously deposed 3 years after presiding over the mock trial of Jesus. Caiaphas died a short time later.
Where are they now these great men of Palestine – remembered only for the fact that their lives touched that of the small men – John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Their power and authority did them no good – for many of them it corrupted and destroyed their lives. The nobody’s changed the world.
The voice of the madman shouting in the desert, living on insects and honey and dressed in animal skins. His is the voice that still rings out today shouting “Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord” The words of the poor carpenter’s son, born to a frightened girl and her devoted fiancé in stable in Bethlehem – those are the words we hear today. Not the ranting of an Emperor or a great High Priest but the wisdom of a man from the backstreets.
God chose carefully his entry into our lives. He chose that non descript stable and a humble family for His only son. He chose a small life not a great one. He chose some simple shepherd to be the witness, not kings and courtiers. He chose this because God is in the small things.
God is in the joy of Christmas. He is in those smiles and laughter, in the eyes of children, in the warmth of giving. He wants us to take pleasure in the celebration of his greatest gift, the gift of his Son. Enjoy the anticipation of Advent and the growing excitement of the Christmas season. Prepare your gifts and your food and prepare your hearts and minds for that great gift of life and light – the coming of something so small and yet so large – the coming of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.