the fourth sunday of advent

reflecting on the journey (Micah 5. 2-5a)
Salvation doesn’t come from Temples, but from stables!

“…where all the women are strong,
all the men are good-looking,
and all the children are above average ….”

Of course, if you’ve been a Lutheran for any time, at all, those words are familiar ones! They’re the description of the people living in Lake Wobegon! And they’re the closing words of the monologue from Prairie Home Companion. A weekly radio variety show by Garrison Keillor that aired on Minnesota Public Radio for forty-two years! “…where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average ….” It’s tongue-in-cheek! Maybe, even, a little sarcasm. But in a real way, it’s very Lutheran! And by Lutheran, I mean German. Norwegian.

Lake Wobegon, Keillor said, was an Indian word. It means “the-place-where-we-waited-all-day-in-the-rain-for-you!” Woebegone comes, actually, from Middle English. It means “Afflicted with grief.” One thing it reveals … as Lutherans – especially German and Norwegian ones – we set the bar high. Or, at least, we had. And it made for great jokes … if you’re Lutheran! If not, well, odds are good you won’t get it!

“…where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average ….”

And most Lutheran congregations, once upon a time, were just that! Strong! Good-looking! Above average! But sometime in the Sixties or Seventies, that began to change. The bar got lower … and lower … and lower … Membership, attendance, and offerings got smaller and people grew older, grayer. During the Eighties and Nineties, we started to worry. By Y2k … well … an object in motion … Then, Prairie Home Companion was off the air. Lake Wobegon a memory. Success, nowadays, is surviving. And surviving is the rule, not the exception. And Lake Wobegon itself has gone the way of most small towns on the plains. Like congregations, it’s smaller … and older … and clutching at straws. Strong women, good-looking men, and above average children, nothing more than a memory. And like them all, we look in the mirror and wonder what happened … the pandemic notwithstanding.

Truth is, as a congregation … as a church … as the people of god … we’re no longer much to look at. No steeple. No doors. And not that many people … even when we get together. There was a time. When it was different. We weren’t the biggest. Or the brightest. But it was enough. We held our own. Back in the day. When moving vans came to Midland, they brought families from Pennsylvania and Nebraska and Minnesota. Lutheran families. And we, too, had choirs … and youth groups … and a preschool we were proud of. Now and again, I still get calls asking about the preschool. But today … It would be easy to be discouraged … tempted to walk away … After all, it’s easier – and safer – to remember, than it is to dream. Saver, easier, to look back than to look ahead. Maybe that’s why Prairie Home Companion’s no long on the air. It wasn’t funny, anymore. There isn’t much left to laugh about.

We live in a world where bigger is better! Where biggest is best! Where temples are preferred over stables! Where we’d rather have gold than straw. Where leaders don’t turn the other cheek, but rule with iron fists. But that isn’t our world! The world of the church! And this is where Micah comes is … At least, the part of Micah we read a few minutes, ago …

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.

Bethlehem, the unexpected! Bethlehem, the shock! The surprise! For us, we’ve been taught that Bethlehem is nothing more than a piece of the puzzle! A prophecy with its own tabs and blanks! Luke doesn’t play that game. Not here. Not now. Matthew does, combining a couple verses from the oldTestament to prove Jesus is who he is. “So, it has been written!” “So that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled.” But that’s not Micah’s concern. He is speaking to a group of people who have nothing left to brag about. Small. Unimportant. Insignificant. Easy to overlook. Easier to forget. That is the Bethlehem to which he is speaking. And he says, “You! You are the future! You! You are god’s tomorrow! Not Jerusalem! Not the Temple! The big! The bigger! But you!”

When he speaks to Bethlehem, he doesn’t us qualifies like merely or only or just. But he looks at them with promise and hope! And when he says their name, he says it as if it means something! As if they were someone!

Growing up in the church – in the Lutheran church – I, naturally, heard a lot about Martin Luther. And I heard a lot about Wittenberg, as well! His home. His town. And I’d always imagined it as one of the great cities of the world. Cities like newYork and London and Paris. But it wasn’t until seminary that I discovered Wittenberg wasn’t a city. Wittenberg was a town – a small town – of twenty-five hundred people! Wittenberg wasn’t much bigger than Stanton, Texas, just a little east of us! Uncouth! Uncultured! Known for their beer and for their brawls! Wittenberg, that is, not Stanton! But if Micah had lived in Europe, at the beginning of the Reformation, he could have said, “But you, O Wittenberg, who are one of the smallest ….”

That’s what we believe! That’s why we keep keeping on! Our importance isn’t determined by our size! And neither is our unimportance! Who we are and what we pass on has nothing to do with things like membership and attendance and offering! Who we are and what we pass on has nothing to do with whether or not we have a steeple and stained glass! The church, from the beginning, has always been comprised of nothings and of nobodies! The church, right from the start, has never looked beyond two or three! And the church has, still, changed the world! Or rather, god has changed the world through us!

Bethlehem is, simply, a city. And it’s not, just, as town. Bethlehem is us! Bethlehem is you! Grace doesn’t trickle down from above; it bubbles up from beneath! God doesn’t appear in cathedrals, he lies in mangers, he sleeps on straw. When the prophet speaks, he speaks of you …

“But you, my friends … you … you … you … you who are one of the littlest … one of the least important … one of the most insignificant … from you shall come forth for me the goodNews! From you shall come forth for me the gospel! From you shall come forth for me Christ!“