Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sermon for Dec. 23rd (9.00 service)

Micah 5:2-5a: Good Things Come in Small Packages

In the mid-1990s there was a major flood in the town of Peace River and a lot of buildings close to the river were damaged, including the Anglican cathedral and the offices of the Diocese of Athabasca. When the time came for government assistance to be portioned out, however, the church was told that it did not qualify for aid because it was not an ‘essential service’. Just to give you some perspective, the application of the Legion for assistance was approved!

The end of Christendom has made a huge difference in the way the Christian Church is seen in society, and in the way we see ourselves. For over a thousand years the story the Bible told was generally accepted in western society and was the rule by which all other truth claims were judged. Most people were baptised at birth and were assumed to be Christian by virtue of their membership in a society that saw itself as Christian. Intellectual acceptance of the truth of Christianity was rarely an issue: what was an issue was the degree and passion of a person’s commitment to Christ. The Church was involved in the coronations of kings, queens and emperors, and was consulted at the highest levels of government.

This has all ended in the past fifty years. Christian churches are now marginalised in society and are competing on a level playing field with other religions and philosophies of life. Sunday churchgoing is one option among thousands, and for many people it seems like the least attractive option.

It’s easy for Christians to feel intimidated in the face of this change; after all, we were used to the privileged position we had in the days of Christendom. It’s easy to forget that for the first three hundred years of its life the Christian church had absolutely no support from government or society, and that in those years it did some of the most effective evangelism it has ever done in its entire history. Our Old Testament reading for today reminds us that God’s plan doesn’t always go forward with the help of the powerful and influential. Usually it starts small and looks insignificant. It’s only as people look back that they can see that something world-changing was happening.

A thousand years before the birth of Jesus, the nation of Israel was threatened by a powerful neighbour, the Philistines. In the face of this danger the people had asked for a king for the first time in their history. But their first king, Saul, had not worked out well, so God instructed the prophet Samuel to choose a replacement for Saul. God sent Samuel to the little Judaean village of Bethlehem, to visit the family of a man named Jesse. God told Samuel that he had chosen one of Jesse’s sons to be the new king of his people.

So Samuel had Jesse’s sons come and stand before him. The first was a big strong man named Eliab, but God told Samuel “He’s not the one”. The second was Abinadab, but he wasn’t the one either. Seven of Jesse’s sons came and stood before Samuel, and each one was rejected by the Lord. Samuel asked if there were any more, and he was told “Just the youngest one, but he’s out looking after the sheep”. Samuel sent for him, and he came and stood before him; the Lord said “He’s the one; anoint him as king”. So Samuel anointed David as the new king.

But it was years before he became king in fact as well as in name. Understandably, Saul opposed David and tried to kill him. At one time he was forced to live as a fugitive; for a while he even had to go and live with the Philistines to keep safe. And even after Saul was killed, at first only David’s own tribe of Judah accepted him as king; it took seven more years before the whole nation acknowledged him as their ruler.

It would have been easy for people to dismiss David. “He’s just a boy – and what good could come out of little Bethlehem anyway?” I’m reminded of the story of the old timer who was asked, “Were any famous people born in this village?” “Nope”, he replied, “just babies”. David started out as an ordinary baby like everyone else! But in the years to come Israel looked back on him as their King Arthur, and his reign was seen as Israel’s golden age. And in the dark days of Israel’s suffering, the prophet Micah promised that a future king from the royal line of David would be the Saviour of his people:
‘But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days…
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God’ (Micah 5:2, 4a).

Nine hundred years after the death of David, in fulfilment of this prophecy, another insignificant family was making a painful journey from Galilee in the north of Israel to Bethlehem in the south. There were thousands of travellers on the roads; the Romans were taking a census, and everyone was required to participate. No one would have noticed Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife or seen any great significance in their journey to Bethlehem. They certainly weren’t the only ones to be told that there was ‘no room at the inn’ that night, and I doubt if Jesus was the only baby born far from home during the days of that particular census.

Like David, Jesus was opposed at first. Just as Saul tried to kill David, so Herod was threatened by the news of the birth of a new King of the Jews, and did his best to kill him before he became a threat. Just as David had to hide for a while in the land of the Philistines, so Jesus had to live as a refugee in Egypt when he was a boy. And when he and his family could finally return to Nazareth, he spent years in obscurity working to support his family – a strange preparation for a career as the Messiah, the King who would set Israel free.

Even when Jesus began his ministry he didn’t look like a King, and his crucifixion certainly seemed to have ended his Messianic pretensions. And yet fifty days later his church burst out onto the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming that he was alive, and so began a dynamic movement that transformed the ancient world. Despite opposition from government and society, the Jesus revolution spread like wildfire, armed with nothing but a stubborn belief in Jesus as Lord of all and a habit of love for one’s enemies.

You and I have an opportunity to be part of this movement for transformation. Bethlehem was ‘one of the little clans of Judah’; we are one of the little groups of Christians who continue to meet to worship and encourage each other as followers of our Master. In the face of a society that seems to have turned away from Christianity, it would be easy to become defensive and to retreat into the safety of our own little group. It would be easy to concentrate on our own comfort, our own worship, our own programs, and to ignore the supposedly hostile world around us.

Easy, but a betrayal of our mission. Jesus the Good Shepherd has other sheep who are not of this fold; he wants to bring them home too, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd. He has sent his church out into the world to make disciples of all nations. We are to work for the transformation of the world once again, by spreading the Gospel, calling people to turn to Christ, and doing our best to create a world of justice and peace.

In the long history of the Christian Church, there have been many instances where a small and insignificant movement has become God’s tool for the transformation of the world of its day. John Wesley’s Methodist movement started with one group of friends and ended up transforming working class society in Britain in the eighteenth century. A similar small group a few years later took on the enormous task of ending slavery in the British empire, and in forty years they succeeded. So let’s not get discouraged about this! At St. Margaret’s we may be one of the ‘little clans of Judah’ – one of the little groups of Christians in Alberta today – but the one we follow is the King of the Universe, the one who sends us out with his love and his message to the ends of the earth. So let us be faithful to this task, so that the day will come when these words of Micah will be true, not just of Israel but of the whole world:
‘And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace’ (Micah 5:4-5a).

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