The Smaller Things
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
There are a lot of BIG and important stories in the news right now. They are full of big names like Trump and Mueller and May or hashtags like #metoo. Or important places like Washington DC, Hollywood, New York, North Korea, London. Everyday it seems there is a new nationwide conversation that needs to be had: maybe about sexual harassment, global warming, nuclear power, nationalism, or taxes. In fact, in this last month I’m pretty sure we’ve had to talk about all of these, every week.
It seems like most weeks lately we experience something new and monumental that will certainly be bound for future history books and biographies. Some things beautiful, like the rising fame and recognition of female film directors like Amma Asante and Patty Jenkins and Niki Caro who are rising to the top of an industry rocked with allegations of sexual harassment. Or the overwhelming offering from citizens of finances and resources to places like Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico.
But we’ve also seen some not-so-great things happen in our world that are going to be hard for our kids to read about when they’re in high school history class. How, as the hurricane seasons grew more intense, the US government pulled out of talks and agreements aimed at decreasing global warming. How the racial divide in 2017 looked both better and worse as hate groups felt more comfortable publicly declaring their superiority and others then felt more emboldened to stand up against such hate. And the name Trump will be remembered and repeated and analyzed for a very, very long time.
Big things are happening, important things that shape a nation, a world, and history. Things that make our everyday lives feel smaller and less important, certainly less apt to make any sort of history amidst the really consequential narratives of our nation right now.
Our reading from the Gospel of Luke that Shelby read just now started out similarly tonight. In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.
This is a big deal. First, Luke tells us about a really important person, you probably recognize him: Emperor (or Caesar) Augustus--FIRST emperor of Rome, he reigned for 41 years. He is the one for whom most Roman Caesars will be named after or related to. When you think about Roman history and Roman rulers, other than Julius Caesar, his uncle, Augustus is the person you are probably going to talk about. He established the Roman mail system, started the police and fire squads in Rome. He laid the road system of the empire, began the aqueducts and actually made the Mediterranean area into what was finally considered an empire--hence being the first Emperor. He is an important person in history, important in the narrative of the whole western world.
And he made momentous things happen. A couple decades into his reign, In order to leverage his growing empire’s assets (his conquered land), Augustus decided to count everyone. So Luke tells us that Augustus sent out an edict that all the world (ALL THE WORLD), should be counted in order to tax his people. He doesn’t go through all this trouble just to make dashes on a tablet, he needs to know how many people now make up his empire and how much expected revenue he can make from these conquered lands.
So he forces large swaths of people to register themselves in their family’s towns all across the Mediterranea (the world, as he sees it). This is so important the registrations are marked in history and recorded even outside of the Bible--he’s the first to try it in the Roman Empire. This census is headline news that will surely shape how people see themselves (Roman or Judean? A citizen of Augustus or a citizen of God or Israel?).
It will also seriously affect their livelihoods as well, as a new set of taxes descends on their meager budgets, especially in rural towns like Nazareth and Bethlehem, where resources were already scarce.
Luke starts his story off with what appears to be the decisive and monumental information, the important things and headline news--
the emperor, the empire, and taxation.
And I’m sure that the people of Augustus’ empire felt similar to how we often feel in the wake of such widespread power and, sometimes and more often than not, destruction. I bet they also felt small. Insignificant or insubstantial. Perhaps powerless. Oh I’ve felt it this year, if nothing else, the burden of such large narratives and historical events weighing down and overshadowing my own life and story, my “one one wild and precious life” as poet Mary Oliver calls it.
What about the small things?
And then Luke introduces us to Mary and Joseph. I guarantee you those names were just as common and unexciting then as they are now. No offense to all those uncommonly colorful Marys in my life.
And Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, a town which was small enough and part of a region insignificant enough to be easily conquered by the Roman empire, and almost every other empire before that including the Persian and Babylonian and Egyptian Empires. In fact this region, Syria or Judea or Israel, or whatever you want to call it, had basically written its own history (The Old Testament) based on its smallness in the face of these large forces.
Such small lives caught up in such a big, important, and powerful empire.
In the least powerful place, with the least powerful people Luke’s most important story starts. In the least powerful place, with the least powerful people, God enters the world.
So many scholars and theologians and pastors and priests have tried to explain why God came like this, as a powerless, vulnerable baby to two folks trying to make their way in one of the biggest empires in the world. No headlines, no edicts, no decrees--just a manger and some shepherds as witness.
One explanation runs like this: God wanted to prove that God could do anything. Others say that God wanted to show that rulers, even rulers of empires, were nothing compared to God. Some believe that God wanted to come as a baby so that we’d feel comfortable approaching the divine--it’s just a baby! Some believe that God came as a small baby because people expected God to come in might and strength--God wanted to surprise and re-orient people’s assumptions about power and love and what is important and what is not.
Y’all, maybe one or all of these are true. I’m not sure.
But what I do know, at least about my own life, is that small babies matter. Baby Jesus matters. Baby Clementine matters. So do baby Darcy and baby Micah, baby Winn and Finn and Patrick and Duke--this church needs to work on daughters.
Marys and Josephs matter. The most common people with the most common names matter. They shape our days and our moods and our sense of belonging and worthiness. They care for the ones who need caring for and walk in faithfulness that births God’s love.
Small neighborhoods and towns matter. Bethlehems and Nazareths and Grant Parks and Ormewood Parks matter. This small neighborhood church building matters as did the barn that held this holy family.
God shows up in the smaller stories.
We cannot spend next year, as I did too much this year, assuming that our lives are defined and overshadowed by the national and international history that is always in the making. If God can arrive in Luke’s story and love on the world through a baby with ordinary parents in a run of the mill town, then God can certainly arrive in ours, no matter how small we feel or limited our means.
And these people and places matter not necessarily because they will be politically powerful in the end, dethroning Augustus, regaining sovereignty--that is not what Jesus or Mary and Joseph’s lives looked like in the end, quite contrary in fact. It might not be the impact we have either.
But these small things and people matter because it is in these places and people that God shows up. It is in these people’s lives and homes and small acts of courage where God comes to offer salvation, love, forgiveness, joy, peace, the really big and important things that will make this life worth living, that will transform our small kingdoms into the kingdom of God.
Tonight is the night we remember that in spite of and in the midst of the seemingly important and powerful people and governments making headlines and legislation, God shows up in our one precious and wild life, just like God arrived in the middle of Mary and Joseph’s lives, in the middle of a conquered, hurting people and a world that seemed so big and made them feel so small. We remember tonight that in the “little town of bethlehem” the everlasting light breaks through. The hopes and dreams of years are met.
So tonight, in this sanctuary on Delaware Avenue we might not make it into the history books, but that does not mean that important things aren’t happening among us. The light is breaking through. The risen savior is present. Our lives are here to be those small vessels of a God who shows up.
As the angels said to those frightened and weary shepherds in the middle of the night in the middle of a field I say to you, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day the Messiah, the Lord. God has come among you. This will be a sign for you: you will find a small, and vulnerable child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. That’s where you’ll find God.”
Glory to God in the highest and smallest, amen.