Something very small is about to take place. Something small, yet personally significant, at least to the parents, Mary and Joseph. A baby is going to be born. Certainly, in their hearts, there is a stirring, there is hope. In their imagination and conversation, they speculate and anticipate. Both have had dreams and visions around the child to be. That is common. Anyone who has had a child dreams and speculates and anticipates. Hope stirs in every parent’s heart.
353,000 hearts stirred yesterday; 353,000 babies were born yesterday. Very few of them will do big things, and all of them will do small things, which is as it should be. For as Mother Teresa said: “It is the small things the Lord likes best, especially when they are done with love.” It is the small things that make us smile. It is the small things that change the world. It is the small things that are the greatest things of all. Advent is a season of small things.
The God we anticipate coming into the world in the season of Advent is all about the small things. The way Jesus heals makes this point. Jesus heals one at a time, or at most ten at a time. You remember the story of the ten lepers. Jesus asks: “What can I do for you?” Then he responds with: “Rise up little girl.” Or “Your son will live.” Or “Your faith has made you well.”
I used to wonder why Jesus didn’t heal all lepers all over the world. I used to wonder why Jesus didn’t cure all blind people, or all people struggling with mental illness? Instead, he healed “the him” or he healed “the her;” particularly, specifically, uniquely, for each person is unique, specific and particular in the eyes of God.
Jesus did not heal as my father healed when he was practicing medicine. When doing rounds, he was surrounded by students, talking them through what he was doing so they might learn. But that wasn’t how Jesus healed. Jesus was not about imparting information. (Imagine how much he knew that he didn’t tell us.) He was about smaller things, particular and personal like the mother whose daughter had a demon; or the woman who bled for twelve years; or the lame man at the pool of Bethsaida.
On the surface, I realize the healings of Jesus seem like big things. But, I don’t imagine they were to him. They were normal things to him, quite possibly small things to him. Like with all gifts, they are to the owner “normal,” even if to us who do not possess them they seem extraordinary. It is a small thing for LaBron James to hit a three pointer; it is a small thing for Jim Crutcher, Jr. to replace a hip; it is a small thing for Camille Hayward to manage a classroom full of children. These are their gifts, applied for a particular person, at a unique moment in time.
If there are small things, then there are big things as well. Do you ever think about the big things? Probably less and less the older you get. One of my ambitions in life now is finding time to sit at the dining room table with my wife, Kristin, and work on a jigsaw puzzle. There is tons of silence. Sometimes we talk. Occasionally, our son Desmond will plop down and snap in a few pieces. It is all very small, and fundamentally inconsequential, and yet…it is the small things that the Lord loves the best of all.
That was the storyline told to George Bailey by the angel in the movie: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Most of you know it, but if you don’t, I recommend you watch it this Advent. Basically, this guy, George Bailey is about to kill himself by jumping off a bridge. He had done nothing big in life. But an angel intervenes, and together they walk back through George’s life, stopping along the way to witness the small things that George did; the little, regular things; kind words, acts of love, habits of love really, and yet, things that impacted a particular person, at a unique moment in time. And in the end George chooses not to jump off the bridge, but instead to celebrate the wonderful life of the small things. It is the small things the Lord loves best of all.
You know Jesus only really did one big thing… resurrection. And it was a big thing indeed. I could say a lot about resurrection. I have said a lot about resurrection… millions have said a lot about resurrection, some of you included. But today, I’ll say only one thing about resurrection: it was this big action that blessed and sanctified all the small actions done in love by all people over all time.
I’ll say it again, because it is a small thing to do: resurrection was the big action that blessed and sanctified all the small actions done in love by all people over all time. Now that said, resurrection wasn’t God throwing a net over these actions, and swooping them up, taking credit for them; but rather, resurrection was God blowing the cloud of human self-delusion away so, we might notice how the small things are really the things that mattered the most of all
Shane Claiborne, in his book The Irresistible Revolution wrote: “We live in a world that has lost its appreciation for small things. We live in a world that wants things bigger and bigger… But amid all the supersizing, many of us feel God doing something new, something small and subtle. This thing Jesus called the kingdom of God is emerging across the globe in the most unexpected places, a gentle whisper amid big chaos.”
When I was young my mom would say to me: “Quit being such a big deal.” Or “You think you’re such a big deal.” She probably said this to me ten different ways…the point is, there was a theme; the “big deal” theme. I suppose that is not unusual for a teenage boy. Or maybe, I should say, for a teenage boy of privilege. The promise was that I would do big things, or maybe it was the expectation that I would do big things. Those demons still chase me… the promise, the allure of the big thing.
And yet, it is the small things that are emerging; the pandemic has exposed them. I used to anticipate the next big vacation, or at least the next big party. Now I aspire to a quiet couple of minutes snapping a puzzle piece in place.
John the Baptist’s ambition was even more humble. It was something less than tying one thong of one sandal that Jesus wore. I am not even sure what “less than that” would be. John seemed so powerful, such a big deal, there in the desert with people flocking to him, and listening him, and acting when he commanded them to repent, to turn around, to change their lives, to put God first!
And yet, John, honestly and earnestly saw himself as a particular man, at a unique moment in time, standing at the threshold of the Kingdom of God, crying out, as simply as a town crier, that God is here, in the world, very clear, very near, and God has a name, Jesus. It was a small thing really, and when it was done John said with humility: “Now he must increase, and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30 para). It is the small things that the Lord loves the best.
Humility is the vestibule outside the room of small things. Humility is the whisper that you are going in the right direction. If my ears were a musical instrument, I could say with certainty they were not well tuned to the key of humility. Mostly, it is a pitch I strain to hit. Fortunately, I work at Epiphany.
The other day Zach, our Music Director, called me Yoda. I wasn’t sure how to take that, particularly because last week as I was going into the pulpit to record a sermon, I asked Jad, our Communications Minister, who was back in the AV room, if my hair looked OK. He responded: “It looks scraggily.” And I thought I was having a good hair day; and maybe I was. I looked like Yoda.
In the world of small things humility forms us into humble people. A bad hair day may be humbling, but humble pie is most offend served when our big dealness is exposed as myth. And no one likes that. When it happens, if you are like me, you don’t want to see anyone; you don’t want to face anyone; you want to be by yourself.
And while that is possible (to be by yourself) it is not completely possible, because God is right there with you. Loving you. Listening to you. Soothing your soul, and waiting, and waiting for the right moment, a moment that may happen in the very next moment or a moment that may come years later, when God sanctifies the humiliating event in a way that suddenly floods your heart with love… with the love of small things. And suddenly what had been such a big issue becomes a small thing, and more so, a small thing that God loves. Humility is the gift that reorients our ambition toward things that God loves.
My hope for you this particular Advent is for small things. Handwritten notes. Telephone conversations that last longer than you expected. Walks in the rain. Leisurely putting up Christmas decorations. Not having to rush off anywhere. And, I also hope that you experience more moments of embarrassment or maybe even humiliation: moments when you flood the Bloody Mary with too much tabasco; or when the foundation of a big theological point you were making is undercut by a twelve-year-old’s doing a Google search; or when you have to admit to your grown son that you haven’t worked in months, and you need a loan.
All of those things are good for our heart. It helps us let go of our habit of being a big deal. The hope of humility is self-honesty and right-sized ambition. John the Baptist is a good role model. He did not aspire to be the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet, but only, maybe, to tie one thong on one of Jesus’ sandals. It is the small things that God loves best of all.
Between now and Christmas day I invite you to listen for a whisper emerging in your heart; one that cuts through the cacophony of big deals, with the still small voice, well-tuned, singing softly: “It is the small things that I love best of all.”