THE LITTLE COME UP BIG
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...."...one of the little clans of Judah." We sing, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Have you ever noticed that whenever we speak of Bethlehem, we always seem to call attention to the fact that it's little? I'm on the short side, but I wouldn't necessarily want people calling attention to the fact all the time. Please don't call me, "Little Paul." Dwarfs and midgets don't really relish being called "little people." So what's the deal with little Bethlehem? What's the big deal with the fact that Bethlehem is little?
In fact, it seems to be a theme today, because Mary refers to herself as a lowly servant, for whom the Mighty One has done great things. She sings of how the powerful fall from their thrones, and God lifts up the lowly. It will be a theme, as well, for the child in her womb, who will grow up to later say things like, "Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last" (Luke 13:30). He will even tell a parable about Judgment Day where those on his right find out that they helped Jesus himself when they fed or served the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters. Yes, the least, the last, the lost, the lonely -- they seem to be the truly important ones in God's scheme of things.
Let's go back to little Bethlehem for a moment. Little Bethlehem was made famous by the fact that Israel's first great king came from Bethlehem, King David. Do you remember the story? The first actual king of Israel was King Saul. He never became great -- even though the Bible emphasizes that he was very tall. King Saul was bigger than everyone else in Israel. But that didn't make him great. In fact, God tells the prophet Samuel that Saul's time as king is up, and that he must go to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem and anoint one of his sons as the new king to take Saul's place. Well, Jesse had eight sons, so which one was Samuel to anoint? He starts with the oldest, but he's not the one. Samuel is still grieving the fact that Saul is not to be king anymore, so, as the first son of Jesse stands before him, God tells Samuel straight out: "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Jesse parades his first seven sons before Samuel, and they are all rejected. Jesse's youngest, littlest son is out in the fields tending the sheep. It is David who is anointed king. Little David, whose first act after being anointed king is to go and kill the Philistine giant, Goliath, little David is from little Bethlehem. And so Micah prophesies that some day another great king will someday arise from little Bethlehem.
"For the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." The Lord doesn't see as mortals see. Perhaps there's Good News in that for us this morning. When people come to look at Grace Lutheran in Kenosha these days, what do they see? Do they see a shrinking congregation number-wise? Yes. I've heard members remark about how small the church has become. But the important question we might ask this morning is, What does God see when he looks at Grace Lutheran in Kenosha? For this is the same God who chose Jesse's youngest son from little Bethlehem to become king. This is the same God who chose lowly Mary to give birth to the King of Kings in little Bethlehem. This is the same God whose Son would grow up to be among the most lowly and forsaken of all, among those hung on a cross to die. What does the God of Jesus Christ see when he sees Grace Lutheran of Kenosha. What does our Lord himself see when he looks upon us?
He sees, first of all, a group of human beings, human beings who don't see as God sees. So we are inclined to get discouraged when we look around and see how small we've become. We are a tiny parish in the city, who doesn't compare favorably with the mega-churches on the fringes of town, like the Assembly of God church. We don't look so, either, compared to our sister church, St. Mary's Lutheran, just twenty blocks straight south of us. We don't compare favorably, however, when it is human eyes doing the looking. For us outward appearance so often matters. Size so often matters. But God doesn't see that way. Jesus doesn't see that way. He looks at the heart.
And when Jesus looks at the heart of this congregation he sees it serving the least of his brothers and sisters. He sees the least, the last, the lost, the lonely coming in our doors all week long to seek help. He sees the children of our neighborhood coming here after school to find caring, loving people. Last Friday, the Lord saw a number of our older women serving a holiday meal to the children of our neighborhood. This Friday he saw several of our families, old and young alike, singing Christmas carols to our shut-ins, the least and lonely of our parish. When our Lord looks upon this ministry, he sees people who are members from our big sister churches like St. Mary's coming here to do God's work.
Yes, it's easy to get discouraged. We see through human eyes and look upon appearances and size. But the Good News this morning is that our Lord doesn't call us to a ministry that's big in size only. He calls us to a ministry that's big in heart. And he invites us to look upon our ministry through his eyes. He invites us to see the least, the lost, the last, the lonely of this world and to see him, to reach out and serve him. He invites us to sing with Mary, and to sing with our little choir with the big heart,
My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.... The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.... He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly....Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, December 21, 2003