Fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:39-45
We live in an age seemingly dictated by the adages “bigger is better” and “more is always desirable.”
This all comes into bold relief during the Christmas holiday season when our focus turns to consumer spending inspired by long-standing traditions of holiday gift giving.
A national retail trade association suggests that holiday retail spending this year may exceed 850 billion dollars, which apparently tops the Pentagon’s budget by somewhere around 100 billion dollars.
That’s a lot of stuff. The pandemic has exacerbated some of this. In the absence of spending on services, people staying home are buying more consumer goods and products which has put pressure on international shipping logistics and has contributed to the highest inflation rates that we’ve seen in decades.
All of this consumer spending on retail goods contributes to higher quality of life in some respects, but it also creates enormous burdens. There are the personal burdens of responding to loved ones’ expectations of receiving particular gifts, goaded by advertisements and pressures to “keep up with the Joneses.” And then there are burdens on the environment – consumer by-products create enormous amounts of waste, especially plastics which don’t easily decompose.
There’s no real need to belabor these points about our society’s acquisitive energies to have more and more. Except to say that the Christian faith tradition, as evidenced in today’s readings, offers a very different view than that encapsulated by “bigger and more are better.”
In fact, the witness I see in our readings for today suggests the opposite, that less is more, and little is great and very holy indeed.
The prophet Micah proclaims God’s word in our first reading for today, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me the one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)
So it is that we sing, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! …yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and dreams of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Then the author of Hebrews in today’s second reading focuses on the immense significance of one body being offered once and for all for the sins and burdens of the whole world for all time. The Hebrews author concludes, “it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10)
Once again, the witness here is “less is more.” A single offering of Christ’s body does far more than centuries of countless sacrifices and burnt offerings.
Then there’s the witness of today’s gospel reading featuring the visit of Mary to Elizabeth who lived in a Judean town in the hill country, a little rural place of little worldly significance compared to the holy city of Jerusalem or of Rome, the imperial capital.
At the time of Mary’s visit, Elizabeth was pregnant with the child who would become John the Baptizer. Luke reports that Elizabeth said that when Mary greeted her, the tiny little child in her belly leaped for joy.
Yet again, less is more, little is great, even the tiny movements hidden inside Elizabeth’s womb.
Then there’s Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which served as today’s Psalmody. Mary sings that God has “looked with favor on [her], a lowly servant.” Moreover, Mary sings that “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” And “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Still more evidence the reversals that come with the logic of God’s dominion, that less is more, little is great, small is holy, all in contradistinction to the dominant values of our wider society, a counter-cultural but grace filled witness against the burdens of “more and bigger are better.”
And there’s more to be said about less is more.
The cross of Christ is at first glance an inconsequential thing, a common form of execution in ancient Rome. Yet, look at what God did to make the cross the tree of life for the salvation of all people.
The empty tomb is an understated reality, but from it emerged resurrected new life that has changed everything.
Turning to our own routines here in this place, a small quantity of water poured over us at the font is akin to an ordinary bath. Yet we come out from the font a bit wet but as new creations in Christ, as adopted children of God.
Then there’s the tiny bit of bread and sip of wine at this holy table, a tiny meal that contains the full banquet of everything that Christ has to offer for our salvation.
Likewise in our assemblies here at Resurrection Church, fewer than one hundred people usually, small by megachurch standards – yet here, too, is the fullness of Christ in word and sacrament.
You see, again and again, Christian values and Christian practice extol the greatness of the small. Less is more. The ordinary is extraordinary.
That’s all good news in a world increasingly incapable of delivering on the seductive illusion that bigger and more are better.
And the Christian witness restores our faith not just in God but in ourselves, that we, in our seeming insignificance are also sacred vessels used by God in ordinary ways for sacred, extraordinary ends.
So it is that we leave this place trusting that God will use our small efforts to advance the heavenly, eternal dominion. Think of just this one example in our life together where a little goes a long ways: your offerings translate into gifts that benefit those in need in our local community and extend across the entire globe where Lutherans embody the saying, “God’s work, our hands.”
Once we see and embrace that “less is more,” that the tiny and modest contains God’s greatness, we begin to see more and more examples of the truth of such divine realities.
Thus, in this holy season, we embody in our ministry and mission the wisdom contained in the final stanza of today’s Hymn of the Day: “We are called to ponder mystery and await the coming Christ, to embody God’s compassion for each fragile human life. God is with us in our longing to bring healing to the earth, while we watch with joy and wonder for the promised Savior’s birth.” (ELW 258, “Unexpected and Mysterious, text by J. Lindholm)
Thanks be to God. Amen.