God, the Unlikely, and the Lowly

Approach to ancient Bethlehem, From 1878 “Pictorial Bible and Commentary,” thanks to Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.

Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:46b-55

Most people want leaders to be heroes and heroines, mighty men and capable women who look the part they are called upon to play. Sometimes people get the leaders they want. Saul, the first King of Israel, looked the part. He was not only the most handsome man in Israel, but he was a head taller than any other. But Saul was a colossal failure, for he sinned and transgressed the Word of the Lord.

The next time God chose a king for Israel he rejected the likely for the unlikely. When the prophet Samuel met with Jesse and his sons to anoint a King to succeed Saul, he saw Eliab, Jesse’s eldest son, and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before (me).” But God said:

“Do not look on his appearance, or the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

David was the least of Jesse’s four sons, still a boy; but he was God’s choice, for David—though fallible, was a man after God’s own heart.

Throughout the history of Israel, God often chooses the unlikely over the likely.

When God appointed Jeremiah a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah said, “Ah, LORD God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.”  But the LORD said to Jeremiah:

“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak.  Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

God is more interested in our availability than our ability, for one man, any man, or one woman, any woman, plus God can do whatever God purposes. God even seems to prefer weakness to strength. Three times Paul asked God to remove his thorn in the flesh, and three times God responded, “My grace is sufficient for you—my power is made perfect in weakness.”

God chose unlikely individuals, and God chose unlikely nations, and clans, and out-of-the-way cities and towns. Egypt was rich, and powerful, and blessed by the waters of the Nile; but God chose Israel because she was small and weak, a desert people dependent upon the rains. (Note 1:).  Likewise, God choose little Bethlehem over Jerusalem because it was small and remote. In Micah 5:1 we read:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler 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.

When God sent his Son into the world, he could have set his birth in a grand palace, like the one Herod the Great built in Jerusalem that rivaled the temple for grandeur; but God choose a stable in Bethlehem. And God could have chosen a noblewoman as to be the mother of his Son, a queen, or a princess, but God chose a little girl from the hills of Galilee who had more in common with Loretta Lynn, a coal miner’s daughter from the hills of Butcher Hollow, Kentucky than she did with Princess Grace of Hollywood and Monaco or Princess Diana of Great Britain. Moses was raised by Pharoah’s daughter; but Jesus was raised by a Carpenter’s wife.

It was when Mary was told of the special role, she would play she said:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,  47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  48 for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;  49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,  52 he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.” (RSV) (Note 2:).

Jesus himself is the perfect embodiment of one whose greatness depended entirely upon his relationship to God.  The prophecy of Isaiah 53 has long been used as descriptive of Jesus himself:

He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by all; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

Jesus accomplished what no man ever had because he obeyed God’s plan to the letter.  “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me,” he said.  And though he could have summoned twelve legions of angels to deliver him, Jesus allowed himself to be driven out of the world onto a cross. In obedience to God, he died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and, because he did, on the third day, God raised him from death, and exalted him to the right hand of His Majesty on High, and gave him the Name which is above every name, that,

“at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

II

Having noted God’s affinity for the poor, we might now reasonably ask, “Do we share this affinity as Americans?”  And “Do we share this affinity as Christians?”

The founders wanted this country to avoid a class of nobility like the one that burden Great Britain and most of the countries of Europe; but both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson recognized the five pillars of aristocracy that set some apart from others: 1) Beauty, 2) Birth, 3) Genius, 4) Wealth, and 5) Virtues.

Should these things affect us when we look for leaders?

What about beauty? We say, “No,” but political pundits say that Kennedy beat Nixon, because when they appeared in a debate on television, Kennedy was handsome and clean-shaven, and Nixon was less handsome and had heavy five o’clock shadow.  To our credit, despite a fascination with appearance Americans elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a polio victim, to the presidency. Other leaders who faced physical challenges include including Bob Dole, wounded in WWII; John McCain, wounded in Vietnam; and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs to an RPG while serving in Iraq.

What about Birth? There are few substitutes to the advantages of Birth. This is true up and down the social scale.  I thought about that this week after a conversation I had with an African American neighbor. We were talking about how easily one once survived on a little.  I told him how my grandmother had purchased a lot at Long Beach in 1961 for $300.00, and a trailer for $800, and then, with some additional yet modest outlay, lived there for the next thirty years. It was only after I left him that I reflected that his family probably could not have purchased a lot at Long Beach in 1961 for any price. Some of us are born in more fortunate circumstances than others..

What about Genius?  There was a time when Americans valued intelligences and elected educated leaders like Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, the Roosevelts, both Harvard Men, and the Bushes, both graduates of Yale. At other times we have feared leaders who are too intelligent and labeled people like Abdali Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey as dangerous “egg-heads.” In his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Yuval Noah Harari says that most people vote how they feel, not how they think. It is easier to love or hate, than think and evaluate. Some of our leaders still don’t understand this, but unfortunately it will rule our future.

What about wealth? Americans once chose our leaders from all classes. Our 1st president, George Washington, was one of the richest men in America, of course, he was rich in houses and land, but he was usually strapped for cash. The same was true of Thomas Jefferson. Other presidents, like John Adams and John Quincy Adams, were of more modest means.  Our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was born in a long-cabin, and presidents like Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barak Obama rightfully claimed modest origins; but most achieved a measure of wealth, some before, some after, serving as president.  When George W. Bush and Al Gore were running for the presidency, Oprah Winfrey famously said, “One thing is certain, come January 6th we will have a rich, white man in the White House.”  Though this was only half-true in the case of Barak Obama, has been true on both counts ever since.

Personally, I am not automatically impressed when someone is born to wealth. However, I am impressed with self-made individuals like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mary Barra, the president of General Motors. I also respect the talent of wealthy athletes like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Tom Brady, and I suppose they should be able to negotiate any salary that the market allows. That said, I enjoyed professional sports a lot more when superstars like Micky Mantle and Willie Mays made about $100,000 a year, and Johnny Unitas worked in a hardware store in the off-season so he could continue to play quarterback for the Baltimore Colts. Today, I am thrilled that people like Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates (no longer a couple) have pledged to give away 95% of their wealth in their lifetimes. But I continue to be chagrin that CEOs of companies listed on the S&P are worth 288 times what their average workers make and that the super-rich often pay less in taxes than people like me and you. I love this nation—and I loath to see it become an oligarchy, that is, a nation ruled by the rich and famous. Yet, I fear we are well on our way to being precisely that. Our parents and grandparents would not have stood for it; Baby-Boomers and our children seem set on making it happen. Perhaps our grandchildren will reverse the trend.  One can only hope and pray.

That leaves the virtues, usually defined as honor, loyalty, courage, and justice.  These things speak for themselves—and some think they have not said much lately. We should be chagrin to think they have disappeared from public life altogether

And what about the church and the poor? The church should function on a different plane than the nation. In the church, we know that God is committed to the poor and dispossessed.  We know that as followers of Jesus we have a responsibility to provide food, clothing, shelter, and basic health care to the weakest members of our society. Still, in helping the poor, most of us want to help those who are poor through no fault of their own, and few of us want to help the poor who remain poor because they rather deal drugs, draw unemployment, or become licensed beggars than work. We applaud the apostle when he said, “If anyone will not work, let them not eat.” So, too, most of us celebrate what Max Weber called “the protestant work ethic,” because we continue to believe that hard work leads to prosperity—at least until our jobs are lost to automation or exported off-shore. When jobs do go off-shore, we would like to think that people in other countries receive a decent wage, but that is not always the case.

Today, Christian Stewardship is a three-legged stool. The first leg of the stool is legislation.  The poor need a legal leg to stand on, but we should not tie our faith too closely to politics and power.  Thomas Aquinas said that the single best argument for Christ’s divinity is that “without the support of the secular power he has changed the whole world.” Today, when the church rejects the way of power, it is following in the way of Jesus. It is not when the church exercises great power, but when the church humbles itself under the mighty hand of God that God exalts the church.  (James 4:10). Do we believe this? The second leg of the stool is giving, because we can send our money where we cannot go.  Some of us write monthly checks to World Vision International, Food Bank, or Forsyth Prison Ministry. The third leg of the stool is involvement, and some of us are able to volunteer regularly at places like Sunnyside Ministry, The Street-School, or City with Dwellings. Finally, every stool has seat, and the seat of the stool we are crafting for the poor is always the pew. The message of “Him who, though He was rich, became poor for our sakes, to make many rich” is more dynamic than many fully appreciate. The late Pop Semands was a United Methodist missionary to India for more than forty years. He used to say that the moment an Untouchable became a Christians, his economic future grew many times brighter. This is true regardless of location. In the early days of the renewed Moravian Church, many were refugees, and few were educated. Most Moravians of the time were simple laborers, and craftsmen at best, but under the influence of people like the already late Bishop Comenius, often called “the Father of Modern Education,” we made the education of our children, boys and girls, a priority, and the children of those Moravian refugees became teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, business owners, and the like. I saw the same thing happen in the lives of the children of a little mill church that I attended as a boy.

Today, at the very least, when we welcome the poor into our lives and churches, we return to our roots. In 1st Corinthians 1:26-31, St. Paul wrote:

For consider your call, brethren (and sisters); not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth;  but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” 1st Corinthians 1:26-31

Finis

Note 1: Scripture reveals that God chose Israel precisely because she was small and weak, and her harvests depended upon the rains.  One of the most ancient texts in the Hebrew Bible reads:

‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.

It was God who made Israel a nation, great, and mighty, and populous.  What can anyone say to this except?  “This is the Lord’s doing, and marvelous in our eyes.”

Note 2: Today, Protestants celebrate Mary as “Mary the Mother of Jesus,” and Catholics celebrate Mary as “Mary the Mother of God.” All Christians celebrate Mary for her steadfast faith in God, for her bravery in the face of gossip and innuendo, and for the modest, devout home she and Joseph provided Jesus and his brothers and sisters.  Much of what Mary prophesied in the Magnificat still lies in the future, but the hope of it is a present reality for many.

 

 

 

 

 

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