Brief synopsis of the readings: The Old Testament prophet Micah described Bethlehem Ephrathah as “the least of the clans of Judah” but will be the birthplace the Messiah (“the one who is to rule over Israel”). The ruler will reunite all those who have been scattered. “He himself will be peace.” Luke’s Gospel describes a pregnant Mary journeying to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth had been unable to conceive a child for many years and was thought infertile. But here she is pregnant with John the Baptist. When Mary greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s child “leapt in her womb.” Both women were moved by this and Elizabeth said: “Why should I be honored by a visit from the mother of my Lord?”
Imagine this: you’re an expert in your field and you’ve been offered the CEO position of a cutting edge and wealthy company. You show up for your first day fully expecting a large corner office on the top floor. But instead you’re shown a small office in the basement down a long hallway next to the large and noisy HVAC unit. When asked for an explanation you’re told that you can do your work anywhere, and since you’re on the bottom of the seniority ladder, this is your office.
We are conditioned to respect power and trappings while ignoring humility and simplicity. When archeologists discover an ancient grave they can often tell us the social status of the person who was buried: look at all the publicity when the tomb of King Tut was discovered in 1922. Even in prehistory we can find evidence of status and power.
Our friend next to the HVAC room likely felt humiliated, disregarded and ignored. He probably felt that he was being set up for failure and regretted accepting this job offer. Likely he felt he wouldn’t get the respect he needed to steer the company.
But what if he didn’t? What if he decided that even though he was starting below street level he had enough vision to overcome this experience and change the course of his company’s future?
Well, in essence that’s what Jesus did. You see, Jews of Jesus’ time looked back on David as the apex of their history and pined for a return of those days. But even though David was born in Bethlehem, by the time of Jesus birth it had become kind of backwater. Today it’s basically a suburb of Jerusalem but back then it was not even that well respected.
And yet that is where God chose his birth. I’ve spoken about this before, but if there’s one thing God tells us, it’s that he has different values than we do. Look at Isaiah 55:8: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” While we look to the corner office on the top floor for direction, God looks on the poor and lowly. While we seek inspiration from the one with full purse, God seeks the one with an undivided heart.
But there may also be something deeper here. We don’t think much about how Jesus grew and matured. While he was both fully human and fully divine we tend to focus more on the divine part. But that doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t learn throughout his life.
We all learn from our environment and we admire those who grew up in hard circumstances to become successful. Ask anyone who has filled out a college application and they will tell you about scrambling for an example of how they “beat the odds.”
We know little about Jesus’ formative years, but we do know he was born to unmarried parents, fled to exile as an infant, and likely grew up without a father. I like to think that this gave Jesus an understanding of what it means to be poor and discounted. I like to think it gave him a sense of empathy and kindness that may have eluded him had he been born wealthy.
During my time as a hospice chaplain I worked as member of a team. The team consisted of a doctor, a nurse, a volunteer, a social worker, a chaplain and a home health aide. We all had our roles, and far and away the hardest physical job belonged to the home health aide. That teammate bathed and dressed patients who could not care for themselves. It was often backbreaking work and they suffered the most injuries. And they were paid much, much less than the rest of us.
Simply put they were easy to ignore. They had certificates while the rest of us had degrees and they often weren’t allowed to participate in team meetings where we discussed the patients.
I found that particularly troubling because I often found they spoke a truth most of us never heard. Patients who experienced fear, loneliness, and despair often didn’t feel comfortable talking to other team members (particularly me) but they would talk with the home health aide. I joked that we tend to be more honest when we’re naked, but I also think that’s true. I was at my best when I heard what the home health aide told me what was really happening with the patient and I could provide the care the patient was embarrassed to tell me.
We can all recall times when we felt we had something contribute but were ignored and it’s not a good feeling. But we learn nothing if we don’t recognize the times we have the opportunity to to reach out and hear those who have no voice. When we do that we do exactly what Jesus demands of us.
And frankly, if we look at those first followers of Jesus they were far from the rich and powerful. They were not the ones who commanded seats at the head table or the Temple. But they were the ones who understood that the Messiah could be born in a backwater town like Bethlehem.
Maybe the guy next to the HVAC room has something to tell us.