Nothings and Nobodies (Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 2:1-14)
As Luke came to tell the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, he took pains to put them at a specific time and place so as to anchor them in this world. At the same time, when he came to thinking about the meaning of the coming of Jesus, he often did it in the form of songs or poems, what we might call Dr. Luke’s Christmas Cantata. We’ve mentioned a couple of these songs in past weeks: the song of aging Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and of Mary the Mother of Jesus in chapter 1, which we saw last week. Then, there’s the song of old Simeon. God had promised that he would not die until he beheld the Messiah. When he saw Jesus he sang a song that began, “Master, you are now dismissing your servant in peace.” A bit later we simply learn of the 84 year old widow and prophet Anna who recognized Jesus and praised God. What’s interesting about these beautiful songs is that they were all sung by nobodies in their world. Old men, old women, and peasants. Nothings.
Two of the hymns we sing today refer at least another of Luke’s songs. This one was sung by somebodies. It’s the song of the angels from our familiar Gospel text in Luke 2. The angel choir’s song was the climax of a message to a group of shepherds who were at work, doing what they needed to do to subsist. Because they were working out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, they could not take time for the ritual cleansings that were necessary, so the first to hear of the birth of the Messiah out in the world, who were already nothings (shepherds), were also religiously unacceptable. The song the angels sang to those nobodies can be paraphrased as, “Glory (or Praise be) to God in the highest (that is in heaven), and (down here) on earth (God will give) peace (wholeness, shalom) to people, with whom God is pleased (this pleasure showed by the very thing that God had done).”
The message, to which this song was the climax, was, first, to set fear aside as a motive for doing or not doing things, and then, it was an encouragement to go to Bethlehem to see the promised Messiah, the Saviour, the Lord – all important terms in Luke’s story of Jesus. The sign that this miracle had taken place was to be the very normal birth of a human baby, wrapped in what passed for a wrapping and a diaper all at once, lying in, of all places, a feeding trough for animals. The universal, almighty God, who is always and everywhere present, who knows everything and everyone, is known in this particular small birth, in a small town, in a small province. All nothings and nobodies. Christian faith has always been marked by its insistence that the universal has been made known in the particular. When you look for God, don’t overlook the little things. And there are no nobodies.
That is a point made by our Old Testament Lesson in particular. As I said to you when I read the text, the Book of Micah, beginning at chapter 4, verse 1, speaks of hope on the horizon. As you know, by its very nature “hope” occurs in hopeless, difficult contexts. That is surely true of the context in which Micah 5 occurs. The pomp and wealth of the Jerusalem monarchy had all been done with smoke and mirrors, and the people spoken of here were confused. Although they had put great trust in the power and might of royal Jerusalem and the valour of the king’s army, it had all, pretty much disintegrated and come to nothing. The present was a disappointing, unpromising, and even threatening political mess that didn’t seem to allow much room for faith, hope, peace or joy.
In the midst of the gloom and the mess they were in, the prophet reminded them that (as my mother used to say around Christmas time) nice things come in little packages. He made what he was saying concrete and specific by pointing them to that little town of Bethlehem; that small package. He admitted that, when it came to providing soldiers for the army or taxes to support the royal house, this town, this clan, was really insignificant or even trifling (for that is what the Hebrew word translated as “little” in verse 2 really means). Nonetheless, from this most unlikely place God had once brought forth no less a one than David. The hearers of this prophecy might have remembered this (they couldn’t read, and had no printed Bibles). But we can read that, when David came from there, even his own family considered him too insignificant to take seriously as the Prophet Samuel searched for the one God would make the new king. Yet, David was the one from whom all the successive kings of Judah had descended. And few of them had measured up to him. Micah reminded them to look at their roots and to remember that nice things had come in little packages, that God had used this insignificant shepherd boy to do unbelievably significant things. God could take this trifling little town and produce another ruler in the future who would come forth to care for people in wholeness and peace. Micah says that the origin of this one who would come was “from old, from ancient days,” by which he probably meant back to the time of David himself, which by the time this text was finished was centuries past.
Remember that I said that Micah’s message of hope was placed into a context of despair? Well, verse 3 intrudes into the good news to remind us, yet again, of that fact. For the moment, this promise was “on hold.” But, in due course (and Micah didn’t say just “when”) God’s promise would be fulfilled.
Now, when the earliest Christians read this passage, they thought they knew when it had been fulfilled. They were convinced that this was one more Old Testament promise filled full of meaning by the coming of Jesus, who, as you all know, they held to be descended from David and born in Bethlehem. In that little town, in that little baby, the great God was showing great love. They were saying what Micah was saying: when you look for God, don’t overlook the no-places and the nobodies. So today, I say to you, when you think about acting as God acts, don’t overlook that little thing that has been done for you, or the little thing that you do for others. In these things we are imitators of the God who brought a gift for the world and for the ages in a little thing, a little person. And yet, the very angels were singing about this supposed nobody from no-place.
Let’s now go back to try and understand that song of the angels in Luke chapter 2. The most important thing about this song of praise is that it is directed to God who has done this great and universal thing in a little, particular act. The song is, of course, familiar to most of us: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men” is the old King James I memorized as a boy. I must admit I’ve had problems with this for a long time because it isn’t inclusive. And I don’t mean it can be fixed by simply changing the last word to “people.” Like quite a few things in the King James Bible, this translation was based less good Greek manuscripts. So, later, I re-memorized it this way: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those whom God favours,” which is a pretty good translation based on the best and oldest Greek manuscripts. These words still do not ring true in my soul. Does this mean that only the ones God already likes are gifted with peace? Or those with whom God is pleased? What do I have to do to make God like me, or pleased? This kind of reading assumes that some are “in” and some are “out.” The next fight is then about who’s in and who’s out. And what started out to be good news of great joy to all the people is one more excuse to excommunicate some from “our crowd.” And, there’s no doubt that these kinds of things can be stumbling blocks to many. Who says that God’s pleasure is only given to some? What it took me many years to recognize the simple fact that ancient manuscripts have no punctuation in them. What if we insert commas in our translation this way: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among humans, whom God favours (that is, by what God has done here at Bethlehem)? Then the whole text makes sense, then it is good news of great joy to all the people. Then it is as inclusive as God’s love. But does God favour human beings? Christians and Jews sometimes get a bad rap because of the emphasis that some have placed on the wickedness of the world and humans. We and the world are so depraved and wicked that God just can’t wait to punish us all for how bad we really are. I know of Christians who don’t feel that they’ve been to church unless they’ve been beat up, at least a little, for their sin. Even God’s grace gets to be more about how bad we are than how good God is. As one who deals quite a bit with the Old Testament, I know very well that there are things there that could play into such an attitude. I would also say that there are quite a few things in the New Testament that could lead us there.
If, however, we look at the story that stands very first in the Bible (not from the point of view of when it was written, but, I would take it, from the point of view of first principles), no fewer than six times the narrator passes God’s judgment on different aspects of the created order: “That’s good.” God created humankind “in the divine image and likeness,” and, again, found that to be “good.” In fact, everything that God made was “very good.” It was just what God intended.
In spite of all the bloody, dirty, messy tales that ensue in the Bible – giving it a realistic and identifiable soberness – in the end of the day Hebrews could still affirm in worship: “The steadfast love of the LORD endures forever,” and an early Christian could spin out the story of this steadfast love by writing “For God loved the world in this way, by giving the only begotten Son that whoever has faith in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The reality is that since “the beginning” God is indelibly and irreversibly committed to us humans, for reasons we cannot begin to fathom, and has chosen to continue to be committed to us and to the world in spite of everything.
Frankly, that’s really the angel’s song – perhaps another little thing – that in the good news of great joy which shall be to all the people (in short the universal gospel) is simply one more example of God’s identification with people in the world. In Jesus, God came to be with us as one of us.
As Luke tells this story, he is saying to the readers, that this one is the one in whom God’s indelible and irreversible commitment to the world and to people was reaffirmed. In this little act of a human birth lay God’s hope, God’s power and God’s overwhelming love for the world. It is not in the might of Caesar Augustus (or his modern counterparts), but in the love of God that hope, peace, and joy exist. It is not in the excess of gift-giving, and the great power that money and things can buy that meaning is found, but is in God and in giving as God does to show our love, that we find meaning for life.
Now, all of this is old news. I know I’ve said it to you many times. It is as old as “the Beginning” when God created the world and humans and declared that they were good. In spite of the fact that much in us and in our world has chosen to be destructive, God-denying, cruel, violent, greedy, lustful, and all the things we know about – in spite of all that, God has chosen not to give up on us, but to become incarnate in a baby, that we might come to believe that God loves us and is for us, and that believing that, we might live in ways that imitate that same love for others, even those who choose to be destructive, and who want to deny significance to us.
This Christmas, may we begin to appreciate that greatest and most significant act in all of history – the coming of God to live, work and be beside us. And may we with open arms and hearts respond, “Rejoice, rejoice Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.