Imagine that two of your friends are attending the Blues hockey game at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. The game is being televised and you’re watching it at home. You know your friends are there and wonder if by chance you might spot them somewhere near the Blues bench in a crowd of 18,000. What are the odds? Then suddenly there they are! A camera pans across the crowd and settles on them long enough for you to recognize them. It’s an amazing moment. You shout out their names as if they can hear you! What are the odds? The many and the one, or in this case, the many and the two!
It’s easy to get lost in a crowd. As in the old Where’s Waldo? books, it can be hard to find the one among the many. Within the pages of Scripture, we see how God is more than pretty good at finding someone in the crowd. Four thousand years ago, God found a tribal chief named Abram from among all the nations and the people of the earth. God singled out this leader out of a crowd and promised to bless him. But He didn’t just bless him, through Abram God would bless all the nations of the world.
Some see this idea of Abraham blessing the nations as fulfilled in his impact on the world’s religions. The three great world religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all called “Abrahamic religions.” Each of them recognize Abraham in some way as significant in its history and tradition.
For us Christians, Abraham’s impact goes so much farther than that of a historical or religious figure. We believe that God blessed Abraham to establish the nation of Israel and from them God blessed the world with the Messiah, with Jesus. We believe that when God first blessed Abraham, God already had blessing the whole world in mind. You can’t miss this in the promise which God gives to Abraham. It’s all very personal and yet at the same time, it’s all very universal. The one and the many. God says, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3).
We live among the many. We are defined by the communities we cherish, the relationships we hold dear, the culture which shapes us. More and more we think globally. We care about what happens halfway around the world. And yet it is so easy to lose ourselves within the culture. Almost a century ago, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town was prophetic in recognizing how one can get lost in the many. Wilder has one of his characters, Rebecca, recalls a letter her friend Jane had received. It was addressed to “Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” You can picture Jane in that address become smaller and smaller, less and less significant.
This can be a blessing, this strong sense of the many, especially when it leads us, as in the case of the letter in Our Town, back to the One, back to God who created it all, who created this community and culture of which we are a part of. From the individual we move to the universe and ultimately to the Creator, to God. The challenge with this is not to lose oneself along the way. The challenge is to know that even though God is busy working His divine plan to save the world through Jesus, God has not lost sight of you in the global crowd. “God so loved the world” is true, but just as true as “God so loved you.” God has work to do, cutting through all that is between you and Him, stuff like families, nations, and cultures. But God gets the divine mail delivered to Jane and He gets it delivered to you.
This is the message of the call of Abraham. Yes, God is out to save the world, the many, but God does it one by one, family by family, nation by nation. And when God gets through, when the saving work of Jesus takes hold of an individual and that message is shared, that love is shared, then a community is born. This new community is with God, with the church, and with the neighbor. This community contains all the objects of the individual’s Christian love. In other words, from the many God finds the one who in turn blesses the many. God finds you and you in turn bless others.
A favorite painting of many at Christmas time is done by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel. It’s called The Census of Bethlehem. He painted this in 1566. Bruegel places the story of Christmas Eve in his own contemporary setting of a taxing census in a bustling peasant village in the Low Countries of the Netherlands. There is enough to see in the painting to fill a good chunk of time. You have ice skaters, snowball fights, kids sledding across the ice, the draining of a slaughtered pig’s blood for sausage, a makeshift pub, a crumbling castle, a well-kept church, and a long line of tax payers. You have to look for her among the many, but down there in the foreground, among the bustling crowds of a Renaissance Christmas Eve is Mary, the expectant mother of our Lord. She rides a donkey led by Joseph into Bethlehem. A cow beside her looks to the viewer, to you, as if to say, “Please, take note. He has arrived.” The one among many, blessed to be bless many. As Elizabeth said to Mary when her baby leaped in the womb, “Blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:42)
Marked by a fresh candle each week, we embark today on the season of Advent, a season of preparation which leads to the celebrating of the birth of the One who came to save the many. In a sermon for Christmas Day, Martin Luther said,
“The Gospel does not merely teach about the history of Christ. No, it enables all who believe to receive it as their own, which is the way the Gospel operates. Of what benefit would it be to me if Christ had been born a thousand times, and it would daily be sung into my ears in a most lovely manner, if I were never to hear that he was born for me and was to be my very own?”
(“Sermon for Christmas Day; Luke 2:1-14,” The sermons of Martin Luther, Lutherans in All Lands Press, 1906).
Much of this season will be spent doing what we do at Christmas with people we love the most. The season of lights and carols and greens and cookies and gifts will in many ways bring its own blessings to our lives and, yes, to our culture. It will be a lovelier time when the world takes on a yuletide glow and the message of peace on earth, goodwill toward all seems to be more than just a slogan. We will do it all with millions of Christians across the world, and that will be good.
But with that said, the good news of Christmas is also meant be ours, to be yours, one by one. God has always had a heart for the one through whom many will be blessed. So it was with Abraham. So it was with Mary. So it was with Jesus of Nazareth … and so it is with you. Christ was born for us. Christ was born for you. This Christmas may God find and bless you among the many and make you a blessing.
The last verse of Philips Brooks’ carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” closes with a prayer. May it be our prayer, one and all. Let’s pray together.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; case out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel! Amen.