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2018-2019

 

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December 23, 2018, 4th Sunday of Advent

 

 

LectionAid 1st Quarter 2018-2019

December 23, 2018, 4th Sunday of Advent

Christmas Eve, Eve Once Again

Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 80:1-7; Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45(46-55)

Theme: Lifting Up the Small

Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON

Starting Thoughts

On this Fourth Sunday in Advent Christmas is just two days away, and the secular world is in a frenzy to sell and buy. Sell and buy, sell and buy—and the bigger the Christmas present, the better. Thus, we do well to ponder Micah’s words, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah….” In looking ahead to the coming of the Messiah, the ancient prophet follows in the Biblical tradition of seeing God at work not in the large, the powerful or the showy, but in the small, the weak, and the unspectacular. The “one who is to rule Israel” will be born, not in the capital city of Jerusalem, but in the small village of Bethlehem a few miles away.
In Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ the magi from the east, following a star that alerted them to the birth of a new king, stop at Jerusalem, no doubt believing that this is their destination. They go to the royal palace, where the happy birth of a new king would be expected to take place, but they do not find a happy father. The tyrant King Herod is “frightened, and all Jerusalem with him,” according to the gospel writer, when the visitors request to see the new king. Herod consults with his advisors, and they quote to him the passage from Micah, informing them of the place where the prophet claimed the savior of Israel would be born. And so, the wise men set forth on what proves to be the last leg of their journey, promising to get back to the powerful man in Jerusalem who is now fearful for his ill-gotten throne. Instead of being the progeny of a rich and powerful family, the new king would spring from a peasant couple. Although, like Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph could trace their ancestry back to King David, their present status was as insignificant as that of the village itself.
Matthew is reminding people that what the world thinks is important often is not. I find it very entertaining and sometimes sad that what the world thinks is news is often just one side shouting at another side. Often the news is not reported. While writing this the only real news this morning was the happy NASA controllers that managed to land a small robot on Mars, so we can come to understand the new world we one day might visit. But that was the third thing. It was all politics until then. It was all petty squabbles from Washington and New York which in a few weeks will be forgotten. The potentially world changing story was number three. I wonder where Jesus birth would have rated on TV, or the News Papers or Twitter or Facebook? It probably would not have been mentioned at all. We often make the big things small and the small things big. Jesus teaches us that often the things over looked are really the important things of life. Jesus teaches us to lift up the small things in life and realize that they are important.

Exegetical Comments

Micah was writing for his own time, most scholars would say, in an attempt to bolster the morale of his people threatened by attack from a foreign invader. But the first Christians could not regard his prophecy, with its mention of Bethlehem, as a mere coincidence. The ancient prophet spoke better than he knew; God indeed is bringing about the birth of the Messiah in the City of David. Micah does not use the term “Messiah,” but “the one who is to rule Israel” he describes as a descendant “from of old, from ancient days”—and he pictures him as a shepherd who “shall stand and feed his flock in the name of the Lord.” As a result, the people “shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” The prophet adds that “he shall be the one of peace,” perhaps foreshadowing the announcement of the angels to the shepherds, “Peace on earth, good will….”
Yes, Micah’s calling Bethlehem “one of the little clans of Judah” is in keeping with the theme found throughout the Bible of God choosing those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”
1. It was not a strong and healthy pair whom God chose to become the founders of a new and special people, but the old and childless Abram and Sarai.
2. It was not the first-born Esau whom God chose to multiply and sire the twelve tribes, but the conniving, unworthy younger one, Jacob.
3. It was not the older sons of Jesse, among whom the prophet Samuel thought he would find the king to replace Saul, but the boy who was not even present, David, out in the fields watching the sheep.
Throughout his ministry, Christ, born in a stable, not a palace, who had “nowhere to lay his head,” chose “the weak and the foolish”—fishermen, even a hated outcast, the tax collector Levi—to be his disciples. And he raised the status of women, children, Romans, and even Samaritans as worthy of the kingdom of God—people whom the religious authorities considered as beneath consideration, even as nonentities. The Apostle Paul sums this up well in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1:26-29).
During these holidays we need to ask if we are making choices in keeping with those made by God and Christ. Have we become seduced by our culture into believing that the bigger and more expensive the present, the better it is? Have we lost Christmas in the flood of shiny catalogues? How are our celebrations helping “the least of these”—at home, church, office, and school? When we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” can we still hear the “Christmas angels” calling us, as they did the shepherds, to leave our comfortable and familiar surroundings and seek the Messiah in the small and overlooked places of our cities and countryside?

Preaching Possibilities

Lifting up the small things in life has been an underlying message throughout this Advent Season. As we count down the final days until the Christmas Season we once again concentrate upon all the small wonders of our world.

Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON

Different Sermon Illustrations

A good example of how the world, like the magi, mistakenly equates bigness with goodness and importance is the fate of Dr. Seuss’s wonderful little story How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In its televised animated form, little more than 20 minutes in length, it was a wonderful visual parable that preachers have often turned to because of its moral, which is driven home to the Grinch at the climax of the story, “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store/Maybe Christmas is something more.” (You might recall that the Scrooge-like Grinch, upset by the seasonal cheerfulness of the denizens of Whosville, had stolen all their gaily-wrapped presents in the mistaken notion that this would spoil their Christmas.) And then Hollywood got hold of the story, proving that Dr. Seuss, while he was alive, was right in refusing to grant film rights to his stories. This was not the Hollywood of filmmakers with a vision, but the Hollywood of those eager for a box office blockbuster, who think that the more special affects you can insert into a story, the better it is. Numerous subplots are added to the story line of the original, turning a 20-minute sharply defined parable into a 102 minutes bloated epic that contradicts by its very showiness Dr. Seuss’s point that Christmas is not the outward, glitzy affair foisted on us by commercial interests, but an inner, spiritual affair (“Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store/Maybe Christmas is something more.”). The full title of the film is Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but this is a misnomer; the title should have been Hollywood’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Your Savior comes not with gaudy show,
Nor was his kingdom of the world below;
The crown He wore was of the pointed thorn,
In purple He was crucified, not born.
(John Dryden)

The highest service may be prepared for and done in the humblest surroundings. In silence, in waiting, in obscure, unnoticed offices, in years of uneventful, unrecorded duties, the Son of God grew and waxed strong. (Inscription in the Chapel of Stanford University)

“His parentage was obscure; His condition poor; His education null; His natural endowments great; His life correct and innocent; He was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence.” (Thomas Jefferson)

Every preacher this time of year should have a copy of Ann Weem’s wonderful collection of Christmas poems and meditations Kneeling in Bethlehem. Her evocative style captures the mystery and the wonder, the sacred and the secular, the sublime and the mundane of that first Christmas and of our present ones. Especially pertinent here is the last poem in “The Stables” section; the subject of which is the visit of the shepherds, “Had We Been There.” She describes “the poor and dirty” visitors to the manger from the standpoint of our modern obsession for sanitary conditions. She imagines that if we had been the Christ child’s parents gazing upon the intruders of the night, we would have feared robbery or infections from their uncleanliness. Certainly, the poet says, if we had been God, we would not have selected such an unkempt little group to be the first to see the Child. She concludes with the observation that because they were indeed so chosen, “perhaps we could brush up on our humbleness.”
In the prose poem “The Refugees” Ms. Weems deals with the ancient and the current refugee situation in which a pair of “the least of these” are slowly making their way to the border during a dark, starless night. She describes their plight and their many fears along the way, and we can picture a Latino couple and their child desperately trying to reach and cross the border safely before the border patrol spots and arrests them. Only at the end does she state that the trio is “Mary and Joseph and the Babe.”

It’s not your typical bedtime routine. Every night like clockwork, two visitors show up at Kathy’s home. They greet her warmly. They plump her pillows. They pull off her slippers and plug in her wheelchair. Then they lift her into bed.
When Kathy developed multiple sclerosis, 50 friends, neighbors, and Church members banded together to take turns doing the things she could no longer do herself. Kathy figured it would last a few weeks. Years later, her visitors still arrive, night after night, to lift her. Kathy isn’t the only one who has felt lifted by the experience. As one volunteer put it, “She has lifted me in so many ways.” (https://www.lds.org/blog/to-love-others-is-to-lift-others?lang=eng)

One of the great visual parables of the strength and might of the small is the film Seabiscuit, the true story of a horse as humble and small in its own way as were Bethlehem and the stable. Although racing experts passed over the horse as being too small and misshapen to become a winning horse at the racetrack, horse trainer Tom Smith saw something in the run-down horse that excited him. He persuaded his boss Charles Howard to buy the horse, and then set forth on a long and grueling program to completely retrain it. His choice of a jockey was equally against the “wisdom of the world.” Red Pollard, after a few years of doing fairly well at small racetracks, fell onto hard times, aggravated by his drinking, but Tom Smith saw something of the champion in him, too. At first everyone thought Tom and Charles were crazy in putting their faith in such an ungainly horse and jockey, but as “The Biscuit” proved himself by winning race after race, losing only the big one at Santa Anita, they soon came around. However, it would be many years before the snooty owners in the east, especially the owner of the great champion War Admiral, would come to accept Seabiscuit as the great champion that he was. In many ways “The Biscuit” and Red Pollard were underdogs like so many whose cause God took up in the Scriptures.

In the second of the Star Wars Trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker almost overlooks the heroic Jedi master warrior Yoda, whom his deceased mentor Obi Wan Kenobi had instructed him to seek out. When Luke’s spacecraft crashes in a swamp on Yoda’s planet, Luke climbs out to survey his surroundings. He is very unimpressed by the little green creature that he meets. To speak face-to-face, Luke would have to kneel down to speak to the small creature—and when Luke does speak, his voice is condescending. Imagine his surprise when he learns that this pint-sized character with the pointy ears is the legendary Yoda, master Jedi and soon to become Luke’s teacher in the mystical ways of the Force!

In Walt Disney’s classic Pinocchio, a crucial character can be held in the palm of Pinocchio’s hand—and yet the tiny creature looms large in the puppet’s struggle to become a real boy. This is, of course, tiny Jiminy Cricket, appointed by the Blue Fairy to be the puppet’s conscience. This is an apt symbol for that small, indefinable part of our being that speaks in a small voice to remind us of what is right and what is wrong. Although the stubborn Pinocchio seldom does what Jiminy tells him is the right path, he cannot get rid of his tiny nemesis. Only after the harsh results of his willful ways land him in all kinds of dangerous trouble does our wooden-headed hero learn his lesson and eventually reach his goal of becoming a real boy.

A favorite hymn this time of year is Philip Brooks’ “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” in whose streets “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Brooks wrote the hymn when he, as a young clergyman, visited Bethlehem in 1865. He worshiped in the ancient basilica built by Constantine over the traditional site of the Nativity, and he also visited the field where tradition maintained that the shepherds had encountered the angels. Thus, he drew on his own experience, feelings and hopes when he penned his immortal words. A bachelor, Brooks loved children, a love which they reciprocated. After his death a story circulated that a five-year old girl replied to her mother, when told of the clergyman’s death, “Oh, mama, how happy the angels will be!”

Having spent my entire life as a shorter-than-average person, one of the greatest suggestions for an epitaph I have ever received was, “short in stature, great in spirit.”

Many snowflakes may fall one by one onto a branch. But it only takes one, the last one, small and delicate as all the others, which shifts the balances and causes the branch to bend. One small snowflake has the power to move an oak.

We are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. (Beyond the Dream, Martin Luther King Jr.)

While King is best remembered for the I Have A Dream speech he gave 40 years ago today, he called for more than just dreams.

I have two enemies in all the world,
Two twins, inseparably pooled:
The hunger of the hungry and the fullness of the full.
(Marina Tsvetaeva, Russian poet, 1893-1941)

Those who are weak in a society often have the fewest safeguards to protect them. One of the United States Supreme Court’s most regrettable decisions was rendered in 1927 in the case of Buck v. Bell. The case centered around Carrie Buck, an eighteen-year-old woman who was deemed to be “feeble-minded” and had been remanded to a state institution. According to the court records, her mother was alleged to be feeble-minded also, as was Carrie’s daughter. The question before the court was whether Carrie Buck should be sterilized. In writing for the majority, Justice Holmes enthusiastically endorsed the idea, declaring: “It is better for the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.... Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” After Carrie was sterilized and released from the institution, she went on to live with her husband until his death. She was reported to be an avid reader, and those who knew her described her as being intelligent and kind. Likewise, although her daughter has been judged to be feeble-minded by the court, she ended up making the honor roll during her first two years of school before dying at the age of 8.

Although God tends to look at those on the bottom and raise them up, we tend to focus on those who are on the top. For this past fall’s California governor recall election, state law required that the names of the 135 candidates be placed on the ballot in a random order. That drawing for positions on the ballot might have been one of the more important factors in the whole election process. Psychologists have found that when people are presented with a list of names or a list of options, they have a tendency to pick the first item on the list, no matter who or what it is. A psychologist at the Ohio State University reports that tendency has been documented in a number of scientific studies. Professor Jon Krosnick suggests that in any election, a large number turn out at the polls simply because they consider it their civic duty to do so, without having a full understanding of the issues or the candidates they are required to cast votes for. As a result, many people simply cast their ballots for whoever or whatever is listed first. According to that professor’s research, the average advantage of being listed first on a ballot is about 3%. But in the case of the 2000 presidential election, he found that George W. Bush received 9% more votes from Californians when his name appeared first on the ballot. They could not find any other explanation for the difference, even considering the districts’ voting history and demographics. Psychologists have also found that when people are asked to taste several samples—whether it’s ice cream, beer, or cheese—they tend to say that the first one they tried is the best. Likewise, on multiple-choice tests people tend to do better when the correct answer is listed as the first option, because many people choose the first choice if they’re in doubt about the correct answer.

When it comes to the legal system in the United States, many people are waiting for a great reversal to take place. The current system all too often seems to lift up and reward the undeserving while leaving the suffering with little or nothing. Last December a class action settlement was reached with AT&T for overcharging customers on telephone leases. In the terms of the settlement, the lawyers received $84 million, while each customer got between $15 and $20. In another settlement between Sears and people who had improperly-done wheel balancing, the attorneys took in $2.45 million; each customer received $2.50 per tire. In a major settlement that involved 165,000 Christians who felt they were defrauded by Jim Bakker’s Praise the Lord Ministries, each victim got a check for $6.54; the lawyers walked away with $2.5 million. And in a settlement involving allegations of price-fixing among cosmetics manufacturers and retailers, lawyers took home $2 million, and each customer was given a free cosmetic.

As Christmas approaches, our thoughts turn to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Yet while the carols and the Christmas cards present us with images of a sleepy and peaceful hamlet, the reality in Bethlehem today is quite different from that. Not only are the on-going tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians evident, but there is even controversy in Bethlehem among the various Christian groups. Recently the Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem angered the Armenian and Roman Catholic Churches by claiming that the Greek Church alone exercises control over the locks and keys to the Church of the Nativity, the site that is revered as the birthplace of Jesus. The Greek Orthodox monks at the church announced in August that they had changed the locks on the church, and they were refusing to share the keys with any of the other churches. Back in 1852, Ottoman rulers dictated that the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenians Churches all had a right to worship at the church of the Nativity. According to that set of rules, known as the “Status Quo,” the Greek Orthodox were supposed to be responsible for opening and closing the church doors each day, but the Catholics and Armenians were also entitled to their own set of keys. The Greek Orthodox Archbishop said they made the decision to change the locks and keep all the keys when a Catholic or Armenian monk apparently opened the church doors one day without proper permission. This most recent clash over the keys to the church started last year when Palestinian militants sought refuge in the church when Israeli troops began to fire upon them. Several of the Palestinians died as a result of the attack. When the Palestinian families later came to retrieve the bodies, the Armenians were the only ones who had keys readily available, and so they opened the doors for the grieving family members to come in. The Greek Orthodox monks objected that the families should have been made to wait until they came and opened the doors with their keys. The Palestinian Authority, which has exercised rule over Bethlehem since 1995, has said that it will attempt to mediate the differences between the different denominations.

Bethlehem is a name that literally means “house of bread.” An author recently detailed how bread plays a central role in many different cultures. Susan Seligson published Going with the Grain: A Wandering Bread Lover Takes a Bite Out of Life. She says she got the idea for the book while traveling in Morocco several years ago. She observed that every morning in the town of Fes, hundreds of families would bring their homemade dough to community bakeries, where a worker would bake the unmarked loaves and send the bread back to each household. As she saw what was going on, she wondered how the bakers could remember whose loaf was whose. One baker readily explained that to them, no two loaves are precisely alike. Each loaf, the baker said, has a distinctive color and feel, just like each person’s face is different. From then on, Seligson began to recognize what a major role bread plays in the lives of so many people throughout the world. Jews bake bread each Friday in preparation for the Sabbath. Muslims take bread and lay it on the graves of their loved ones. And of course, in the Christian tradition, bread is seen as a symbol of Christ. The tradition of break-making drastically changed in the United States in 1921. That was the year when the Taggart Baking Company in Indianapolis introduced Wonder Bread. That was the first time that people were able to purchase bread at the grocery store, rather than having to bake it at home. In the Arabic language, the word aysh, which means “bread,” also means “life.”

In his book Sermons, Peter J. Gomes observes that sometimes we prefer to be unknown and unnoticed. The minister at the Memorial Church at Harvard University recounts the legendary college tale of a student who was busily writing his final examination. When the proctor called time and ordered everyone to turn in their test booklets, that student kept right on writing—a major academic offense. After all the other students had promptly turned in their exams, the proctor saw that the student was still writing. Losing his patience, the proctor sternly ordered the student to bring his exam forward immediately. A few minutes later the student obliged. As he prepared to hand over his papers, he asked the proctor, “Do you know who I am?” The proctor, feeling indignant that the student expected some kind of special treatment, snapped back, “I most certainly do not, and I don’t care who you are.” The student smiled and said, “Good,” and he quickly tossed his exam booklet into the midst of all the other exams and raced out the door, reveling in the fact that his anonymity and obscurity would shield him from any penalties or punishment.

Before deciding on the name of Tiny Tim for the key character in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens considered three other possible alliterative names: Little Larry, Puny Pete, and Small Sam.

Tradition alleges that Joseph was an older man when he married Mary. That difference in their ages, tradition says, explains why Joseph is not mentioned when Jesus reaches adulthood. The assumption is that Joseph had already passed away. Throughout history many people have married someone who was a great deal older or younger than themselves. Sometimes those marriages have worked out exceedingly well, while in other instances the results were not so good. Earlier this year in Mobile, Alabama, 42-year-old Daina Sancho and 14-year-old Vincent O’Rourke were married, following a courtship of several months. The boy’s father, who approved of the marriage, said, “If you’ve met the man of your dreams, why wait?” The couple went to Alabama to get married, because that state allows people as young as 14 to get married, as long as they have their parents’ permission.

While John Calvin did not think that it was necessary to assert the perpetual virginity of Mary, other Reformers were not so quick to abandon the doctrine. For instance, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli contended that Mary was a virgin even after she gave birth to Jesus. Bullinger likewise leaned toward that view when he wrote the Second Helvetic Confession in 1566.

Early Christians saw predictions of Jesus’ birth in some of the ancient secular writings that existed at that time. The Roman poet Vergil, in the fourth of his Eclogues, predicted a breaking-in of a “new order of the ages”; “for “now the virgin is returning,” and “a new human race is descending from the heights of heaven.” This change, Vergil said, would be brought about by “the birth of a child, with whom the iron age of humanity will end and the golden age begin.” Vergil expected that the birth of that child would change human nature: “Under your guidance, whatever vestiges remain of our ancient wickedness, once done away with, shall free the earth from its incessant fear.” The emperor Constantine proclaimed that the Fourth Eclogue was indeed a prophecy concerning Jesus. He made that declaration in his Good Friday Oration to the Saints in 313.

In an essay titled “Women of Faith: Toward a Reformed Understanding of Mary,” Daniel Migliore tells about a Roman Catholic church in Guernavaca, Mexico, which had been renovated after Vatican II. In the front of the sanctuary, hanging over the altar, is a large crucifix. Toward the front, on the left side, but quite definitely in the nave, there is a simple, unadorned statue of Mary. Instead of drawing special attention to her, the statue has Mary’s eyes directed toward Jesus on the cross. That, Migliore suggests, is an image of Mary that both Reformed Christians and Catholics should readily be willing to agree on and share.

“Any god can make something good out of the exceptional and the extraordinary. It is our God who makes out of nothing, something; who takes nowhere and makes it somewhere; who takes nobody and makes him somebody.” (Peter J. Gomes)

“The point is neither to have wealth, power, or wisdom nor not to have it (and have poverty, weakness, foolishness). The point, rather, is to continue trusting God’s ‘bare goodness’ regardless of one’s circumstances.” (Lois Malcolm)

“A people are known by the heroes they crown.” (Greek proverb)

“At Bethlehem God became man to enable men to become the sons of God.” (C. S. Lewis)

I’ve come to discover that small things, when applied consistently and over long periods of time, have the ability to change your life. Small things, applied consistently and over long periods of time, also lead to massive success. In addition, they can help you achieve health and happiness. And indeed, they can help you change the world.
Let’s start with a topic that is not particularly polite to talk about. Money. It seems crass to talk about money in this august setting, when we are here to celebrate your intellectual and academic achievements. Money isn’t only delicate to talk about here and now. Even in a job interview, it’s tricky to talk honestly about it, because most employers want to hire people who are driven to be a part of their organization for more noble reasons. And that’s fine. But let’s face it. Money is important, to one degree or another. If you have student loans to repay, if you would like to travel internationally, live in a good home in a nice community with good schools, it’s important. If you want to support causes that you care about, it’s important. And, of course, if you want to make big donations to Wesleyan one day, it’s very important!
Money is also an example where it pays to understand the power of small things. The first small thing is an insight, so obvious, that it can be easy to overlook. That is, if you want to make a lot of money, the single best way to do that, is to go into a field that pays well. To quote New York Times columnist Ben Stein, “Over the years, I have seen it. Smart men and women in finance and corporate law always grow rich, or at least well-to-do. Incredibly smart men and women in short-story writing, or anthropology, or acting rarely do.” But what if you are drawn to other, more creative or mission-driven work, like short-story writing, anthropology, or acting, not to mention public service, international development, or academia? Here is where the power of small things can come to the rescue again.
About 18 months ago I was in Istanbul, Turkey, for the November Board meeting of my firm, Spencer Stuart. Our job is to recruit leaders to many of the most important organizations in the world, which, by the way, is how I’ve done so much research around careers and success. Over the past 22 years, I’ve recruited over 600 executives and board directors, including the CEOs of such companies as Twitter, Intel, Yahoo, Hulu, New York Times Company, and MetLife, as well as not-for-profit CEOs to such organizations as Sesame Workshop, PBS, NPR, New York Public Library, The MIT Media Lab, and Radio Free Europe. In Istanbul, we were hosted by the head of our business in Turkey, a great guy named Kaan Okurer, of course, a Wesleyan alum, class of 1997. Well, upon seeing Kaan at the opening dinner, I was struck by how great he looked. He was clearly ripped and in incredible shape, noticeably fitter than the last time I had seen him. “Kaan, you look amazing, what have you been doing?” I asked him. “You won’t believe it if I tell you,” he replied. I implored him, and he finally told me about his new regime. “I walk wherever and whenever I can,” he said, “but the real secret is a remarkable app I found and have been following religiously. It’s called, ‘The 7 Minute Workout.’”
He was right, I was incredulous. The 7 Minute Workout? Come on. I grew up in the era of “No pain, no gain;” of running 40+ miles a week to train for a marathon; the more the better. How could something that takes only 7 minutes possibly be worth anything? Well the answer, once again, is the power of small things.
When I graduated from business school, I had a lot of potential directions that I could pursue. Thanks to being supported by and then challenged by my great Vassar professors, especially my freshman English professor, who saw some inkling of academic and literary potential in the midst of a quite immature 18 year old, and the empowering culture of the liberal arts, more broadly speaking - inquiry, writing, thinking, and examining - I was able to thrive and get a good job upon graduation. After three years as a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley I was accepted to Harvard Business School. As I headed toward graduation in 1986, I was intent on getting the best job I could. I took an analytical approach to the process, identifying the criteria that I thought were the most important in a job. I created a spread sheet and then rated each opportunity against the criteria. For me at that time, I boiled it down to: Prestige, lifestyle, and money. I wanted to work for a company and in a role that I was proud of. I wanted to make a lot of money. And loving my freedom and sports, I didn’t want to work 80 hours a week. Against these criteria, there was one job that scored head-and-shoulders above the rest. So, I joined Goldman Sachs as an associate in private wealth management. Great prestige - an associate at Goldman; great money; and based in New York with much better hours than investment banking or many other high-paying jobs. Well, the analysis was great, but it turned out to be fundamentally flawed leading to a horrendous career mistake. Happily, however, I learned some valuable lessons and took away two additional concrete examples of how to apply and benefit from the life-changing power of small things.
The first lesson was the singularly powerful role of people and purpose in what you choose to do. My three criteria – prestige, money, and lifestyle – are simply the wrong way to make a career decision. It quickly became obvious that I made a mistake, as I was miserable after only four months on the job. It turns out that there are two things that central to happiness and satisfaction in your work – people and purpose. Extensive research shows that the single biggest explanatory factor as to how engaged and satisfied people are in their jobs is how much they like and respect the people they work with on a daily basis. So, if you want to be happy in your career, whatever you do, default to choosing to work with people that you like and respect. It wasn’t just that I didn’t become friends with most of the other members of the Goldman private wealth management team, they were fine enough; it was more that I didn’t aspire to be like most of them. What they cared about was the stock market; investing; landing big new “pools of capital;” talking to clients and each other about money and markets. Not only did I find no deep purpose in what I was doing there, I also realized that I was lousy as an investor and investment advisor. Here’s another key career management principle - do something that you are fundamentally interested in and that you are good at. I know, obvious stuff, but you’d be surprised by how many people make bad decisions based on missing the key things. People, purpose, and playing to your strengths and interests. (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/life-changing-power-small-things-james-citrin/)

One of the legends of Wall Street was named Richard Menschel, who was on the management committee of Goldman. One day he sat me down in his glass-walled office and shared what he said was his single best piece of advice. “At the end of each week,” he said, “spend a few minutes reviewing the things you did that went well, and the things that did not work. Then commit, each week, to make one concrete change to improve the things that didn’t work. Develop this as a habit, and you will be amazed at its power and impact.” What he was saying was that through the power of small things – making single improvements each week, they will build upon one another and over time have an extraordinary impact on your performance and results. (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/life-changing-power-small-things-james-citrin/)

An Amazing Fact: The first step in constructing a bridge over the Niagara Falls Gorge was made by a 15-year-old American named Homan Walsh. On January 30, 1848, Homan flew a kite he named Union from one side of the gorge to the other. Someone on the opposite side caught the kite and tied a stronger string to the end of the kite string, and Holman pulled the new, thicker string back across the gorge. The process was repeated with an even stronger string, then a cord, then a thin rope, then a thicker rope, and eventually a steel cable, which crossed the expanse and was strong enough to support workers, tools, and materials. Finally, a sturdy bridge, over which trains and trucks could easily pass, was completed. And it all began with a string. (https://www.amazingfacts.org/news-and-features/inside-report/magazine/id/10687/t/the-power-of-little-things)

Jesus says, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10). According to our Savior, little things can make a significant impact on the big picture.
For instance, in the parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 13:31–32, He explains, “The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” (https://www.amazingfacts.org/news-and-features/inside-report/magazine/id/10687/t/the-power-of-little-things)

Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)

Call to Worship

Leader: The day is coming when the first will be last, and the last will be first!
People: The day is coming when the strong will be made weak, and the weak will be made strong!
Leader: The day is coming is coming when the crooked will be made straight, and the small will be lifted up to greatness!
People: Come, Lord Jesus! Come and change our world!

Prayer of Confession

God of compassion and hope, as Christmas Day draws closer, we confess that our thoughts are not so much on the Bethlehem manger or on heavenly choruses winging across the sky. Rather many of our thoughts are upon much more earthly things. We fret about whether we have all our shopping done or about the Christmas dinner. We’re troubled over whether all our decorations are arranged the way they should be. Amid all the hustle and bustle of this season, forgive us for losing sight of what is really important. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior, help us to keep ourselves focused upon Jesus, for He alone is the reason for this season. In His name we pray. Amen.

Prayer of Dedication

Loving God, at this time of year we pause and remember the abundant gift that You shared with us in Jesus Christ. As we offer our treasures before You, even though they may not be gold, frankincense, and myrrh, accept them as signs of our devotion. With bended knee, we offer You our praise and worship. In the name of Jesus. Amen

Pastoral Prayer

Almighty God, You are a God of great reversals, a God who acts not in the ways that humans do, but in ways that often go beyond our understanding. Enable us to join in prayer for those whom You put first. We pray for those who hunger, while we prepare to sit down to our turkey-laden tables. We pray for those who suffer from sickness, disease, and disabilities of different kinds. We remember those who will be forced to face Christmas all alone, without the love of any family or friends around them. Open our eyes, dear Lord, and show us perhaps what we are able to do to help someone around us to experience the joy of Christmas.
We pray for all those who face times of turmoil in their lives. As the television shows at this time of year constantly remind us, Christmas is supposedly a time of never-ending happiness. But we know from our own lives, and from the lives of those near to us, that idea of Christmas is nothing but a fairy tale. But even so, even though all our heartaches do not suddenly disappear on Christmas morning, we trust, O God, that You will bring us hope. So, we come in prayer for families that are going through times of tension, for people who are facing uncertainty about the future of their employment, and for all those who feel overwhelmed and confused by the burdens that have been set upon them. Raise up those who have been brought low and give us hope. We ask all these things in the name of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. Amen.