Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Big Things in Small Packages

Micah 5.1-5, Luke 1.39-45

Last week all eyes were fixed on Copenhagen, and no wonder for the very future of the world hangs in the balance. Will the world's leaders be able to settle their differences and save the human race and many other creatures from extinction, or will they continue to bicker and prevaricate while one half of the world fries and the other half drowns?

Great hopes were invested in President Obama. Would he or wouldn't he even go to Copenhagen, and if he did would he be able to break the deadlock? Sadly, his keynote speech seemed only to make matters worse by putting all the blame on China and humiliating the Chinese delegation. Is something as basic as injured pride going to be the cause of humanity's downfall?

Micah describes a similar situation. It's not the world that is under threat in his prophecy, of course, but the tiny country of Judah. The people have had to flee the land and take shelter behind the walls of their cities while the Assyrian hordes lay waste to the land. The ruler of Judah, King David's successor and the Lord's anointed representative, is publicly humiliated - suffering the equivalent of a smack in the face from a leather glove, the sort of taunt used by men to demand a duel or Nazi officers laughing at their hapless prisoners.

And yet, while all the attention is focused on the walled cities, where all the action is, Micah reminds his readers that sometimes big things come in small packages. Tiny insignificant Bethlehem was the place where the mighty King David had been plucked from obscurity as a shepherd boy to lead his nation to victory over the Philistines, and the same thing can happen again. When Bethlehem, or perhaps the nation, has brought forth a new leader, his compatriots will be able to return from exile or, perhaps, go back to their farmland for he shall restore security and peace.

If Copenhagen had witnessed a similar David and Goliath moment, when a leader from somewhere small and insignificant proved to be the catalyst for a new era of peace and prosperity, it would surely have been Dessima Williams - the passionate, articulate and outspoken leader of the Alliance of Small Island States - who would have emerged centre stage. Whenever she was interviewed she was always impressive and compelling, but sadly President Obama and Prime Minister Hu Jintao did not listen to her, or indeed to the British delegation either, so the struggle will have to go on.

The last part of verse 5, incidentally, does not belong with the rest of the prophecy. It has been inserted into the text at this point by a later editor. It doesn't refer to the new messianic leader from Bethlehem at all. Rather it is a boastful claim that, if the Assyrians attack Judah, countless people will rise up to lead the nation against them. The phrase seven and eight in Hebrew means 'an incredibly large number' and, although it might seem strange to us, 'shepherds' and 'rulers' are often interchangeable in Hebrew thinking.

And so to our Gospel reading. It describes a moment of hope, expectation and joy because these two women really do believe that now the prophecy of Micah is going to be fulfilled and, from Bethlehem, there will at last come a leader who will change the world for ever. However, the Christian interpretation of Micah's words sharpens the message. Not only will God's new messiah come unnoticed from an insignificant place like Bethlehem, while all the world's attention is focused elsewhere, but also the new leader will himself be a very ordinary person - born in a stable, of doubtful parentage, a carpenter by trade. And yet, already, John the Baptist is foretelling the new Messiah's imminent arrival, even though he is still in his mother's womb.

Sometimes when young people are off out for the night and everyone else in the house is going to bed before they return, Mum or Dad will say to them, "I'll keep the light on for you" so that they will be able to find their way back into the house safely and easily when they return. Isn't that the role of Christians in a time like the present? We have to keep the light on, keep hope burning, even when the world's leaders seem incapable - as one environmental campaigner said sadly - of looking beyond their own narrow self-interest. 'If we're ever going to beat problems like global warming we will need a totally new kind of leader,' he said. Isn't that what Christmas is all about?

The Gospel says that ordinary people, and ordinary communities of people, can make a difference to our world - especially if we are inspired by the example and the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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