in Insignificant Places
A sermon on Micah 5:2-5a & Luke 1: 39-55 by Nathan Nettleton, 20 December 2009
I’ve lived almost all of my life here in Melbourne, a very large city. But originally I came from a very small town called Waitati. By almost any measure, Waitati is an extremely insignificant place. To most people who ever see it, it is just a bend in the road with a general store that used to be a petrol station. If you look, as you sail through on the highway, you’d see there are other houses too, but why would you look. It is about 20 kilometres outside of Dunedin, which is a middle sized town pretending to be a city; the smallest of the four cities in New Zealand. And New Zealand, of course, does not rank very high among the movers and shakers of world affairs. So that’s where I come from. Outside of Waitati, I am never going to be regarded as any kind of “someone” on the basis of where I come from! No one is ever going to say, “Well you can tell he’s destined for something big because he came from Waitati!”
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. (Micah 5:2)
That’s what the prophet Micah had to say about Bethlehem. A little insignificant town in the region occupied by one of the little insignificant clans of Judah. Nowheresville. Until Micah’s prophesy changed people’s expectations, no one was ever going to say, “Well you can tell he’s destined for something big because he came from Bethlehem.” And even then, it was only ever expected that Bethlehem might produce one somebody.
Mostly we expect that important people and important happenings originate from significant places. We take very seriously the rankings of significance, and weigh accordingly what comes from them. In Copenhagen this past week, the big powerful important places have had a hearing out of all proportion to the small vulnerable and insignificant places. If the Prime Minister of New Zealand had got up and unilaterally announced the terms of an accord, no one would have even deigned to notice, but when the President of the United States did it, everybody had to take notice and take sides, for it or against it. It might not have got up, but it was in no danger of being ignored. Because he is someone from somewhere. If events are going to change the course of history, we expect them to be initiated by a person of importance from a place of significance.
Mary and Elizabeth were not people of importance from places of significance. They were pretty much no-ones from a couple of Nowheresvilles. They certainly wouldn’t have attracted the ear of anyone in Copenhagen last week. And they both knew it. They held no delusions of grandeur. Elizabeth says, “Who am I, that you should come to me?” when Mary visits her. And Mary herself describes with surprise how the Lord has taken notice of her despite her lowly status. They too expected that big things would only happen to people of importance from places of significance. They too thought that if God was going to do something big, something that would change the course of history, then God would surely act through people of importance from places of significance.
But God, it seems, does not stand on such ceremony. From little Bethlehem comes forth one who will be the saviour of the people. And Mary, regardless of her lowly state, is found to be bearing God-made-flesh in her womb. Bethlehem, on this occasion, is God’s chosen place. Mary, on this occasion, is God’s chosen person. But who sees? Who knows? Who discerns what is going on? Somehow Elizabeth knows, but who is Elizabeth? No one important from no where significant.
Why does this matter? Well Mary seems to get the significance of it. The song that she sings when she visits Elizabeth, the song which we sang as “Tell out my Soul”, celebrates the theological importance of this — the good news about God that is carried in these details. God is lifting up the downtrodden and pulling down the tyrants from their thrones. God is feeding the hungry and withholding food from the greedy and overfed. God is overturning the normal accepted structures of who matters and who is expendable, who is important and what places are significant. The decisions that were made in Copenhagen this week — the decisions that we could leave without having made any real decisions — were made on the understanding that some places don’t matter as much as others, and that some people’s homelands are expendable. Some places — Waitati, Bethlehem, Tuvalu — are too insignificant to worry about. They don’t matter. Nothing important comes from such places. We can disregard them. And the people who comes from such places. They bear nothing of value. We can disregard them too. But God does not accept such assumed logic. And when we join in singing Mary’s song, we are siding with God’s ways and adding our voices to the protest.
If Advent and Christmas just told us that God comes to us, and comes to us as a human being, that would not in itself challenge our expectations about where God might emerge from and who might be bearing God among us. But they don’t stop there. For Jesus was born of Mary, in the little town of Bethlehem. And we would be missing the point if we just therefore concluded that Bethlehem should be added to the significant places list and Mary should be added to the important people’s list. The message is that the lists are trashed. The lists are being torn up. Every place might be holy, might be significant. Every person might be holy, might be a God-bearer.
How different might last weeks Copenhagen proceedings have been if every place was regarded as holy? How different might our lives might be if every place we go, the places where we live and work and play and travel, was a place we recognised as holy, as significant, as worthy of respect and honour and care? And how different might our relationships be if we recognised every person we come across as quite possibly one who comes bearing the presence of God and the word of God to us? How differently would we treat people if we knew that deep in our guts?
I am not for a moment wanting to downplay the importance of Mary or of Jesus himself. It is of the essence of the gospel that we recognise that Jesus is a unique revelation of the presence of God among us. But these stories tonight warn us that the ways in which God comes among us and to us are not consistent with our expectations of what places and people are significant. The God who comes to us in a baby of questionable parentage born in an animal shed could just as easily and just as likely come to you and speak to you through Shelley of Horsham, or Samara of Brighton, or Ian of Pascoe Vale, or Ellen of Brunswick. Or through some other person you might be speaking to over drinks and nibblies after the service tonight. And if we begin to catch a glimpse of that and begin to treat one another as if we knew that, and even looked for that and expected that, then the spirit of Christmas would really have begun to take hold of us and would begin to transform our lives in the image of Christ. And for the coming of that day on this, we work and pray.