The Power of One
Luke 1:46-55 December 8, 2019
There was a woman in her nineties who decided she was just too old to shop for her family. So she decided she would simplify her Christmas a bit. She wrote checks for all her Christmas cards. On each card she wrote, ABuy your own present,@ and then mailed all her cards early. She enjoyed the usual Christmas activities. After Christmas she went to clear up her cluttered desk. Under a stack of papers, she found all the checks she had forgotten to enclose in her cards.
So let us try to simply things this morning, remembering that in spite of all the clutter and confusion, the message of Christmas is very simply. It reminds me of a fifteen year old who had to substitute in a Sunday School class. He prepared diligently. He read to his mother the lesson plan: today=s lesson is designed to help each person realize that he or she is an individual with different potential and capabilities. Try to show our students that there is value in individuality as well as conformity. He looked at the lesson plan for a moment, and then said, AIf that doesn=t fly, we=ll just make Christmas ornaments.@
The kid teaching Sunday School had some great themes to deal with. They are the themes of Christmas. Who are we and what are we here for? Do I count for anything? Am I important in the great scheme of things?.
We all ask these questions. A child asks them when she begins to realize she is different from every other girl in the world. A teenager, so fraught with insecurity asks them. In middle years, when the kids leave home, a woman whose life has revolved around her children, asks that question. When you are old, and no longer working, and seem not to matter anymore to the world, you ask them.
You can measure how important these questions are by looking at how much effort we expend to prove we are worthy, to prove that we are somebody, to impress the world that we really matter. Our homes, our cars, our careers become extensions of ourselves. They become symbols of reassurance that we matter.
I was thinking about this question in a personal way this week as I reviewed all the churches I have served. The first church where I was a pastor we had about 350 members. That was in Philadelphia. Then I moved to Portland and served a church of 1000 members. Then on to a suburb of Chicago, a church of 2300 members. Then a mega-church in Charlotte, almost 4000 members. And now here at Briarwood, where we have about 550 members. Was I of more value in Charlotte where I served a powerful and prestigious church than I was in Philadelphia where I served a little, struggling neighborhood church? Was I of more value in Chicago with a church of 2300 members than in Jackson where we have 550 members?
The world suggests to us that our worth is linked to a powerful job, a sizable income, the number of people we can influence.
And as long as we believe that, as long as we succumb to that, our identity is never secure. To this struggle to keep our egos intact in an impersonal and uncaring word comes the simple word of Christmas: AYou out thereBJohn and Betty and Ruth and Tom….You….you count for something. You are worthwhile apart from what you=ve accomplished or who knows your name. You count, simply because you are a child of God. This is your ultimate identity. When you come to know that, the world can never have absolute hold over you again. When you come to know that, other people can never quite twist you around in the same way again. When you come to know that, you know the most important thing you can ever know.
How is it that Christmas speaks this message to us? Look at Jesus and the human being he became. He was a Jew who did not confine himself to the Jewish people. He was a man, but he was never macho. He could live every day without lusting over power, or caring about popularity, or seeking recognition by the elite of his day. He was able to be a simple and vulnerable human being. His pattern of living is a template for us, a template for us to be ourselves, and not anything else the world wants, or other people want, to be the beloved sons and daughters of God.
There is a famous preacher who taught homiletics in Atlanta whose name is Fred Craddock. One night Fred Craddock and his wife were sitting down in a restaurant in a little town in Tennessee, looking forward to a quiet dinner. They noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired gentleman making his way from table to table. He was talking with all the people in the restaurant. He finally came over to Craddock=s table, asking Fred Craddock what he did for a living. When Craddock told him he taught preachers how to preach, he said, AI have a story for you.@
AMy name is Ben Hooper. I was born not far from here, just across that mountain. My mother was married after I was born, so that fact stuck with me as I grew up. When I started to school, my class mates had a name for me, and it wasn=t a very nice name. I used to go off by myself at recess and lunch. What they called me just cut so deep.
AWhat was worse was going down town on Saturday morning and feeling every eye burning a hole in me. They were all speculating on who my real father was.
AWhen I was about 12 years old a new preacher came to our church. I would always go late and slip out early. But one day the preacher said the benediction so fast I got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. I could feel every eye in church on me.
AJust about the time I got to the door I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I looked up and the preacher was looking smack dab at me. >Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?=
AI felt the weight of the whole world upon me. Even the preacher was putting me down. But as he looked down on me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition.
A>Wait a minute, I know who you are. I see the family resemblance. You are a son of God.=
AWith that he slapped my on my rump and said, >Boy, you=ve got a great inheritance. Go and claim it=.@
The old man looked at Fred Craddock and said, AThose were the most important words anybody ever said to me.@ With that he smiled, shook Fred Craddock=s hand and moved on to the next table.
Then suddenly Fred Craddock remembered who the man was. On two occasions, the people of Tennessee had elected an illegitimate child to be their governor. His name was Ben Hooper.
AI see the family resemblance this morning. You, you, are a son, a daughter of God. You=ve got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.@
That=s the simple word of Christmas to each of you. You and you and you are children of the Most High. This is the first simple word.
And the second simple word is this: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Meaning what? Meaning that each of you possesses within your person the power to change the world. The birth of that ancient child is about the power of the personal. Where do we find the power to change the world, to make this old world over into something better?
Why, conventional wisdom says that people with clout are the people who have the ability to change the world.
The president is powerful. A waitress is not. Anchor persons are powerful. Maiden aunts are not. CEO=s are powerful. Bus drivers are not. Generals are powerful. Garbage collectors are not.
Why do people, young and old, gravitate toward Washington, D.C.? Because that=s where people assume the power is, and the prestige that goes with it. AYou can almost feel the power in the air,@ a friend who lives in Washington told me.
Art Buchwald says that Washington, D.C. can be a tough town, especially at cocktail and dinner parties. The first thing you=re asked is, AWhat do you do?@ A woman friend of Buchwald=s got sick of the question and came up with some unique replies. When a man sitting next to her one night asked her that question, she said, AI told him I was a paper clip inspector at the State Department. They have to be twisted just right, otherwise, the papers won=t stick together.@
Ever since then, the woman thinks up a new job before the inevitable question comes up. When a Congressman put the question to her, she told him she designs the white lines for shopping mall parking lots. She told a general she runs a half-way house for FBI informers.
Once she was at a Georgetown party, and all the people were full of themselves, dropping names and quoting VIP=s they had met that day. Then someone asked her, AWhat did you do today and she answered, AI carved the last gargoyle on the Washington Cathedral. For the longest time I thought the wind would blow me off the scaffold.@
After that they had the quietest table at the dinner party.
We don=t think individuals can do very much. Instead we believe that governments and economic forces and the inexorable laws of nature shape human destiny. Individuals are viewed as pawns of powers beyond their control, helpless before the onslaught of historical drift and devastation.
Not so says Christmas. Here is one man, one solitary human being, without position and prestige, without party and political power, without wealth or pedigree.
AHe grew up in an obscure village. He worked in a carpenter shop until he was about thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant reacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never traveled…He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
Yet al the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put togther have not affected the life of this world as powerfully as has this one solitary personality.@
He did it simplyBone to oneBby the power of his person, his love and care, his embrace of those simple folk who hung out with him down those dusty roads of so long ago.
And he said that those who come after him and follow him will do greater works than he. He who was the light of the world calls us to be the same. His story says that those of us who are grasped by his spirit and committed to his way will, inch by inch, budge the lever, that turns the world toward God.
It is not institutions that will do it.
Nor corporations or political parties or mass movements.
It is each of us, one by one, ordinary people, who make the difference.
A little over fifty years ago a Johns Hopkins professor gave a group of students this assignment. Go to the inner city and find a sample of two hundred boys between 12 and 16. Investigate their background and environment. . And then try and predict how they will turn out.
The students talked to the boys, compiled al the data they could. They then predicted that 90 per cent of the boys would spend some time in jail over the next twenty-five years.
Twenty-five years another group of grad students were given the assignment of following up on the study. They went back into the area to find the boys, now men. Some of the men were still in the neighborhood. Some had died. Some had moved away, but they did manage to track down 180 of the 200 original boys. They found out that only four of the group had ever been sent to prison. Why was it that these men, who had lived in a breeding place of crime, had such a surprisingly good record? The only constant they could find were the words they heard from many of them, AWell, THERE WAS THIS TEACHER.@
Well, there was this teacher. There was this pastor. There was this scout leader. There was this unique woman…
Why are we placed on this earth. To be the salt of the earth…to be the light of the world…to touch at least one other life and impart courage when the sky overhead is dark, to mediate grace when that person=s life is broken, to model faith when that person has nothing to believe in.
That=s why we are here. That=s the message of Christmas. The power of one.