God makes big splashes in small seas
Christmas reveals God’s favorite strategy when he enters history. God used a backwater town – Bethlehem. He recruited through angelic messengers Mary and Joseph – a nondescript couple. Jesus was born in a rough-hewn feedbox for cattle – nothing special.If we lived at the first Christmas, we might have missed it. Wouldn’t you guess if God were to make a big-time move, he’d set it up in Jerusalem? With a celebrity couple striding into the party scene. And the birth would flash glitter and gold, with tabloids hyping each tinseled moment.God likes to work with what’s small, at first sight inconsequential and usually overlooked. Only afterward, when perceptive folk scrutinize how God works in history, do we perceive the large consequences of God habitually using what’s small. He plants tiny seeds and reaps big results. God takes what’s considered mundane and makes of it magnificent turning points in history. This dynamic played itself out in Thomas Jefferson’s first New Year’s Day at the President’s House. He invited the public to greet him and tour the president’s home. Some farmers from Cheshire, Mass., arrived early in the morning to meet Jefferson and present him with a peculiar gift. Carrying this heavy present like wise men bearing gifts, these farmers gave Jefferson a gargantuan wheel of cheddar. This mammoth cheese weighed 1,230 pounds, measuring more than 4 feet in diameter and 15 inches thick.Jefferson advertised this unusual gift as a prime example of abundant agrarian production. From the milk supply of “Republican” cows, animals belonging to owners in Jefferson’s political party, had come raw materials to make this Mount Everest of cheeses. With prayer and thanksgiving, these farmers proudly pressed out the mammoth cheese, loaded it on a sleigh and headed for Washington.Opposition-party Federalists might have dismissed the farmers’ huge gift as cheesy. They brought fine French wines and English embroidered linens when dining at the presidents’ table. What we know now is that this small-time rural gift of cheese stood as a portent of our nation’s huge farming production. Record crops were recorded. A myriad of inventions bumped up harvests. Cows with swollen, milky udders heralded a national economy that shot up like a rocket.This gift mirrored God’s strategy at the first Christmas. He took a whimpering Jewish baby, one among thousands, and announced this child would grow to become Lord of Lords and King of Kings. What started small turned hugely significant. Jesus was “mammoth cheese” material.The Apostle Paul promoted God’s strategy of transforming the mundane into what’s majestic. Paul referred to Jesus’ birth as an epic event toward which all history points. “When the time had fully come,” Paul announced, “God sent forth his son, born of woman,” Galatians 4:4.What does “when the time had fully come” mean? Roman emperors ruled from Rome, not Bethlehem. Emperors conquered kingdoms stretching far on the horizon. Mary and Joseph, lacking clout, rode a donkey to an inn with a “no vacancy” sign. Muscular Roman centurions jousted with swords and pikes. In comparison, Jesus lay in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes, strips of fabric binding his tiny frame.God didn’t have much with which to work. But look more closely. Massive, unseen forces, inexorably pushing forward below Rome’s radar, grabbed hold of history and changed it. Jesus’ birth signaled an “aha” moment, the coming of the “fullness of time.”Professor Paul Maier, in his book titled “In the Fullness of Time,” reveals how God capitalized on a small window of opportunity opening at Jesus’ birth. Through this window appeared four dominant megatrends that put baby Jesus on the ancient world’s map. His vital witness spread like a prairie fire burning parched grass. How?- The Greek language, a linguistic Web site, knit together the Mediterranean world. This historic moment brought with it a language having universal appeal and validity. Because the Greek language predominated, Christ’s message rapidly traveled, even in an era when nothing moved more quickly than a galloping horse.- For the first time in history, relative peace on earth spread across the cradle of civilization. The Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace,” paved a way largely free from war, which made it easier for Christ’s message to permeate the Empire.- As interstate highways unified our nation during the Eisenhower presidency, Rome built highways and shipping lanes. Riding on these transportation conduits, listeners across the Roman world readily heard “the good news of great joy” an angel sang to shepherds at Jesus’ birth.- Masses lost confidence in their pagan religions. They sought a new, godly word from on high. Eager hearts and nimble minds received Christ’s good news.The small became great. God’s strategy prevailed. The seemingly insignificant showed huge significance. Christmas is celebrated as an earth-shattering event in which the divine became human, the great became small, in order to do “big cheese” work on earth.The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.