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What We Do with Small Things
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 2.
Phil, thank you for preaching for us last week. I’m always grateful to the Lord for giving us so many people able and willing to teach the truth of God faithfully. I’m also grateful to pastor a church who allows and even insists that I rest, who makes provisions to care for me and my family. Thank you.
We took the kids to a cabin in the woods in Georgia, and went hiking every day. With the kids in tow, it was significantly less relaxing than that trip usually is, but it was also good. I want my kids to have memories of hiking in the woods with their dad. Annie was in the back of the line of hikers, which I made fun of her for until one of the kids got tired and I had to carry him for about a mile or so and I realized she had been carrying a child the whole time.
It’s the small things that fill my soul. A weekend spent hiking. My seven-year old “sounding his barbaric yawp” above the treetops and throwing spears he whittled from sticks at some poor mouse in a field. Sometimes in life, as in the kingdom of God, little things can mean a great deal. I titled this sermon, “What we do with small things,” because the people in our passage each make a choice of what to do with people who, in the worlds eyes, are very small and unimportant. And that’s a choice we each have to make in our own lives.
Go with me, Matthew, chapter 2, starting in v.1 [Matthew 2:1-18] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Sometimes familiarity helps your understanding of a thing—like how I know what my wife will say, usually, before she says it, and by the way she’s breathing I can tell if she’s tired or distracted or what kind of day she’s had.
Because of Christmas and epiphany, I must have preached this passage four or five times already. I’ve probably read it a hundred times, heard it a hundred more. I’ve even performed an opera about this passage, which is probably something I should stop admitting out loud. That was the first place I ever drove by myself when I was 16: opera practice.
It’s wonderful to know something so beautiful so well. But I want us, for just a moment, to consider this passage outside of Christmas. Not only because we are reading it in April, but because there’s something to be gained here from fresh perspective. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll come back to Christmas before the end of the sermon, but for just a few moments, try to see this passage differently. A child is born in this world, and what might happen next? Will he grow and thrive, live long and happily, or will the brokenness of the world break him?
And more importantly, what will each of us do with this child? Or in another sense, what have we done with this child? Or for those of us who struggle with metaphor, I’ll ask it this way: What do you do with the small things in your life?
In my last sermon, I showed you this mural in New Orleans of a father and his child, and talked about the meaning of the halo, an artist giving a spiritual crown to people who, usually, are far from receiving an earthly crown of any sort. It’s an artistic insistence that someone is valued in the kingdom of heaven, even if here on earth he’s despised. What I didn’t talk about in my last sermon with this mural is that it’s a play on an art motif that for thousands of years has dominated religious art—madonna and child. Here’s one medieval version, but there are hundreds from every age.
Usually in protestant churches we don’t embrace this motif—we don’t want to encourage the worship of Mary which can sometimes accompany this motif, since Jesus and his mother both have halos—and it’s of interest to me that the more modern mural drops the adult’s halo. But I’m going to assume we’re safe from that pitfall this morning and leave this picture up. Again, the halos are an artistic insistence that even though Mary and Jesus may not have had crowns in our world, and were generally despised in the world, in the eyes of God, they are people of great importance.
The reason I’m drawing your attention to this motif is just to show you, as well as tell you, how small Christ became—small, unimportant, despised, unnoticed. He didn’t have a crown. He had a halo. Phil spoke last week on the shame of the advent, which comes through so beautifully in Matthew through the genealogy, and on what God does with our shame. I want to focus this morning on what we do with small things—what we do and what God does.
Jesus has a halo in this painting, a halo and not a crown. King of Kings, Lord of Lords, who left his crown in heaven when he came to us. I was thinking this week of a book I read when I was a child: The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain. In the book, the crown prince of England and a working-class Londoner trade places. They look exactly alike, so no one notices. Twain uses the novel to expose both the sins of that time, and our human tendency to not recognize the worth and value of unimportant people.
No one takes care of the king when they think he’s a pauper. No one waits on him, and at one point he’s even beaten. When he tells them all, truthfully, that he’s the crown prince of England, and under his reign, when he takes his rightful throne, such abuses will be illegal, they mock him and hold a mock coronation ceremony.
In our passage, the son of a king trades places with one of the paupers of his people, and what happens to him, now that no one recognizes him as king? How do people treat him? It depends on the person. Let’s start with Herod. King Herod, the man who rules over Jerusalem so long as Pilate is away at his beach house in Caesarea, which is most of the time. Herod, who is playing a tricky game of keeping the local masses happy enough to keep peace, and yet also keeping his Roman overlords happy by sending the true wealth of his people over the sea to Rome.
So long as he does both, he gets to live in a big house at the center of town with private security. He gets to walk into the temple and hold his head high, sit near the front, answer his phone in the middle of the service and no one says a word. But it’s precarious, and I’m sure that was hard to explain to people. Do the wrong thing, and Rome comes to slaughter everyone and burn the city down. Did anyone else besides Herod see that? The people hate him, even though he’s saved their lives countless times, so he hates them in return. He was doing what needed to be done, unpleasant as it may be, to keep the worst case scenarios at bay.
A friend of mine ran into Leonardo DiCaprio once in the Whole Foods on Magazine a few years ago. He was smoking a cigarette as he walked through the store gathering what he needed with two guards walking behind him. I could see Herod doing whatever the ancient version of that would be, and knowing in his core the whole time he’s doing it, that if all the people at the bottom of the ladder would just wise up a bit and figure out how the bread is buttered they would be able to live better lives, but you can’t save a person from intentional ignorance.
One day, Herod’s in his office, already took his crown off, opening the wine early that day because he’s already had to put out twelve fires, and his secretary walks in talking about three people from some country he’s heard of but probably couldn’t find on a map, and they’ve come to speak to the king and she tells him they’ve been traveling for over a year to get here. He puts the crown back on, checks his watch, slams the wine, and tells her they have five minutes.
Imagine the awkwardness in those five minutes when they tell him they actually didn’t come for him. This king was newly born, one that had been anointed by God, not by Rome. They were just at the palace to ask if they knew where the true king might be. Herod starts to panic. You wouldn’t know it from his face and demeanor, but his stomach begins to turn. This has happened before. Judas Maccabeeus. Sure, he won a few battles, but what followed was war, years of it, and in the end Jerusalem was both conquered and punished. He was an idealist who didn’t understand the way of the world.
Herod would again have to do the unpleasant thing that would keep the worst-case scenario at bay. Herod, the savior of Jerusalem yet again. He keeps the conversation casual and manages to get a timeframe from the people from the country he can’t really place. His finance guy went to Catholic school and makes a guess about location—a small town, unimportant. He tries to get a more exact location, too, of this pretender from the foreigners, but they start spooking, suddenly get all moral, and refuse to help. What could have been quick and clean, then, is going to need to be a little messier. Their fault, really, because they wouldn’t give him the info he needed for his plan a. So plan b is to use the info that he has and just to kill all of the children in the small town, which is the cost of saving the city. An unpleasant calculus, but one that needed to be done. The foreigners leave, he tells his secretary what’s needed, drinks another glass of wine, clears his desk, leaves by 6pm.
But when the magi leave, they go searching for this new king. They had nothing left to say to the old king. There were plenty of cities where they came from, with plenty of people who rule over them. Herod invites them back to a fancy dinner, but they don’t go. If they wanted food and command over cities, they could have stayed where they were. They didn’t come all of this way for Herod. They came for the king the heavens are celebrating. They find him, not in the city after all, but up the narrow road and through the narrow gate, in a very small house in a farming town.
That was the first time the magi realize how small this king of heaven became, but they see in the star a kind of halo, the prince in the pauper. And to this toddler, and his parents, they offer stately gifts, worth more than even the house they were standing in.
Mary receives the same news as Herod does. Did you notice that? She’s told, your boy is born both Christ and king. She would learn later what Herod knew about the danger of being anointed king by God but under Rome. But Mary doesn’t respond in any way like Herod. She clothes the boy, nurses him, raises him. When her husband has a disturbingly real dream about the edict coming from Herod, she flees to protect the baby, sends word to Elizabeth, tries to save as many children as she can, and I would imagine got more than one snigger about uprooting your whole life over a bad dream. This girl, suddenly so spiritual after being pregnant at her wedding feast.
So the question Matthew presents in this passage to his readers, put most simply, is which king do you worship, Herod or Jesus? Which one do you want to be more like? Is what you’re doing in your life more directed toward the crown or the halo? The dark irony of the passage is that Herod, king of the Jews, is murderous to the children of his own people in order to maintain Roman rule, while the kings of these three other nations bow in submission to a Jewish child whom they know to be the rightful ruler.
On the surface, the question seems obvious. Between the genocidal puppet ruler who appears and dies in this one chapter, and Jesus, Jesus is the obvious answer. We should try to be like Jesus. But the question is almost never posed this way when it comes to us in daily life.
I went to a meeting the other day, a group of hispanic pastors asked me to go with them as they met with a city counselor about some rights issues they were experiencing living in our country. One lady flew in from Puerto Rico for the meeting. The city counselor didn’t show, sent an aide instead and took the dog to the vet because the dog was sick. That’s how the question comes. The enemy usually doesn’t walk right up to you and say, “Are you choosing a crown or a halo today, killing children or raising them.” The enemy instead tells you to skip the meeting with the folks who represent a minority of your constituents, because it probably won’t make the news or really affect your polling numbers.
In my life this choice usually looks like my phone ringing right when I get home to my kids, or it looks like me exhausting myself at work and not having much at all to give in the evening with my family. Or it looks like a choice to be more prepared for the big meeting or sleep, sabbath, and rest. A lot of my life over the past three years has been defined by the choice between the halo and the crown. But the question comes to all of us in some kind of a way: what are you going to do with the small things God has given you?
Most of us either have contact with kids or with the elderly. You start life small, and you end it small, too, if you live long enough. I heard a retired pastor of some renown mention recently the constant temptation he faces to talk about who he used to be and what he used to do now that he’s not so impressive to the people he meets; now that he’s just some elderly man in the pews. We all have contact with the poor, with kids in foster care, people facing addiction or food insecurity. We have a choice to love them well or to insulate ourselves against their needs.
Beyond that, there are other ways of making ourselves large and neglecting or even abusing the small things. We can go for the moral high ground, make people feel like they’re not good enough; tell them we’re doing the real work of the ministry. Or we could go for the intellectual high ground and make sure people know we’ve studied. Over and over again we face a temptation to make ourselves high and large. But Christ chose to be more like Mary and less like Herod. He pursued the halo, and explicitly rejected the crown over and over again, and I told you we would get back to Christmas.
I know I’ve been harping on this point recently, but there’s something here I don’t want us to miss about how small Christ became. He really was a king, but came into the world as a pauper, and when he told the people around him that they laughed and performed a mock coronation ceremony. At one point he’s even beaten. I doubt the way Christ decided to live in the world is what any of us would have chosen, but there is hope for us yet through sanctification of the Spirit to walk in his way.
The passage quotes the old testament twice: once from the book of Micah, which we just preached through, and once from the book of Jeremiah. When we got to this passage as we preached through Micah, I asked you to consider Micah’s original readers, knowing nothing about Jesus’ birth, what they would have understood about this reference to Bethlehem, and we talked about how the only thing anyone knew about Bethlehem before Jesus was that it was where King David was born. It was a place where God took the most unlikely person, the smallest son, of so little importance that everyone was surprised when the prophet even asked to see him, and did incredible things.
In the Jeremiah passage, one of lament for the losses of the people of God, the very next section assures the readers that there is still hope in God for their future, and that he will bring her children back to her.
Friends, this morning, I hope you choose the halo over the crown, and I hope in so doing that even if you mourn, that in Christ you will find comfort. Even if you face loss, in Christ there is hope for the future. Even if people in this world despise and reject you, in truth, in Christ, you are the son of the king, and when his kingdom comes, such things will be undone, and all of the small things of the world will find their place and their worth in him.