How Small Is God? – Devotional Series
Matthew 2:1–12 (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
What a privilege to share a devotional meditation on the Day of Epiphany 2021! Epiphany follows the Christmas season on the Christian calendar. Whereas the twelve days of Christmas (December 25–January 5) celebrate Christ Jesus’ birth, Epiphany celebrates his appearance to the world. It begins with the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12). In many cultures, Epiphany (a.k.a. “[Three] Kings’ Day”) is a bigger deal than Christmas. And why shouldn’t it be? In the Magi, who represent the nations, we witness the presentation of the gospel to the world.
Epiphany means appearance so, during this season (January 6–February 16, 2021), churches spotlight the Gospel stories of Jesus’s presentation at the temple with Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22–40), his baptism in the Jordan by John (Mark 1:4–11), the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2–9), and of course the Magi’s visit. During Christmas, we sing “how quietly, how quietly,” but Epiphany means that Jesus is no longer the baby in the secluded manger. Christ now begins to appear to the world.
Through their astronomic observations, the Magi discerned that a new king of Judah was born, so they went to its capital, Jerusalem (Matt 2:1–2). But this king was not found in the luxuriant palaces of Herod the Great. In fact, the thought of a rival king upset the rich and powerful (2:3). After investigating, they learned that Messiah’s birthplace would be the birthplace of Jesus’ forebear, king David (2:4–6). Scripture led them to Jesus’ humble beginnings in Bethlehem, nothing spectacular.
“God with us” (Emmanuel, Matt 1:23) would be small, humble, and human. This ruler would be a shepherd. A modest neighborhood instead of a capital. The king would be a helpless child. “God with us” will be one of us.
J.D. Walt has noted that Christians are comfortable acknowledging that Jesus is God. The Army’s own doctrines affirm that he is “truly and properly God.” We are less accustomed to the correlating truth: God is Jesus. Everything that humans can know about God, they can see in Jesus (Col 1:15–20; Heb 1:1–4).
Christ appears not in the palace, but in the humble home; not in the official, but in the peasant; not in the powerful, but in the dispossessed; not in the wealthy, but in the marginalized. In this passage, devout Jews and Gentiles both recognize how God comes (Matt 2:4–6, 9–11). The perceptive, regardless of their ethnicity (ethne, Greek for nations, Gentiles), can see “God with us.” Phil Needham writes:
God has not only entered our world, he has come in lowliness. He has focused his attention on all the human race, and particularly on those who are most ignored—the marginalized, the poor, the mistreated, the “inferiors,” the human leftovers that do not fit in secure social structures. So much for a God too great or too far! … A paradox of divinity, a God acting un-Godlike to help us grasp who he really is. He is a lover going out of his way … to find his beloved (When God Becomes Small [Abingdon, 2014], 41).
The church calendar is a typology that teaches theology. During Advent, the church sympathizes with exilic Israel, expressing human forlornness and hope. During Christmas, the church joins Mary in quiet wonder at holy grace. During Epiphany, ordinary events in human lives incarnate revelation to the world. Each season represents associations whereby the church inhabits various dimensions of the gospel—Israel at Advent, Mary at Christmas, and the world at Epiphany.
Salvation Army soldiers sign a covenant, The Articles of War, in which they assert that “the love of Christ … requires from me this devotion of my life … for the salvation of the whole world.” Everywhere a soldier goes should be an epiphany of Christ.
God is present and active in the ordinary and is unimpressed and uninvolved in human displays of arrogance and power. As Mary said in her Magnificat, “He pulls the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble … He fills the poor with good things and sends the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46–55). This is how God works—not through shows of force and coercion but through courage and trust.
Visit of the Three Wise Men (1973)
JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the Lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa. Each of the readings was selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by the community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings.
Source: Vanderbilt Library
What king invades a realm no arms bearing,
but being borne in arms of tender Mary?
not a burnished helm and title “the Great.”
No warhorse bears him sleek and plumed,
but she who bore him from her womb.
“God with us” in submission, not in pride;
nor conquest whereby other souls must die.
Entering the world as other humans do,
betokens worth of places he passed through.
Though sought as royal in a royal hall,
in humble home his wise admirers fall.
The signal shining bright round every bend
confirmed that they had reached their journey’s end.
The gifts and accolades unlooked for came,
as every nation joins in his acclaim.
Thus born to make God known upon this sphere,
not from proud stages but from places near.
Plain and peculiar as any human being,
yet recognized as more by humans seeing.
Will he fight to the death? Yes, his own.
Will he wear a crown? Yes, of thorns.
Will subjects rally to him from their hearts?
Yes, but just a few flawed followers.
How did they know it was him?
He didn’t stand out; he chose to stand in.
Will he be great? No, he’ll be atomic.
See how small God is? God is Jesus.
O God of light and peace,
whose glory, shining in the child of Bethlehem,
still draws the nations to yourself:
dispel the darkness that shrouds our path,
that we may come
to kneel before Christ in true worship,
offer him our hearts and souls,
and return from his presence
to live as he has taught. Amen.
∗ From Vanderbilt University Library’s Revised Common Lectionary worship resources (https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu)
by Isaiah Allen, Mission & Culture Department, USA East