Yesterday I drove over to Cambridge to see my sister and her family for the ritual exchange of gifts. On the way over, I heard on the radio that the first Monday in December is the peak day for internet buying, as people having looked around the shops over the weekend buy on line – and hope, sometimes forlornly, that the gifts arrive in time for 25th December. In the afternoon we went ten-pin bowling, which I am very bad at, not helped by the fact that I am left-handed and the ‘house’ bowling balls are drilled to be used with the right hand (check it out next time you go!) – a centimetre/half an inch or so makes all the difference. These two factors have swirled in my mind as I began to contemplate the season of Advent.
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor." Aware of this, Jesus said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her." (NIVi)
I cannot begin to imagine how much money will be spent this Christmas as people seek to demonstrate to others their love, to win approval, or maybe to outdo a rival. This little snippet from the latter part of the gospel according to Matthew suggests that lavish gifts are not automatically wrong, indeed there are, it seems, times when giving to the poor is not the best choice. How scandalous! The members of Jesus’ inner circle fail to grasp what is going on here – this woman is offering her all to Jesus. Some commentators have suggested that what she did was tantamount to offering him her life’s savings, her pension plan, her future security – a crazy gesture fuelled by love for this man who in a few days would be executed.
There is something crazily lavish about what God does for us, and Christmas is a great time to focus our hearts and minds on the abundance of Gods’ grace which is there for us long before we even begin to recognise it. Wasteful? Maybe. Loving? Undoubtedly.
Matthew 13: 31 - 33
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches…”
“The kingdom of God is like the yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (NIVi)
These parables, so beloved of preachers and Sunday School teachers, point us to the importance of small things, tiny things; things that seem insignificant – like the positioning of the holes on a bowling ball! Yet, as we know, without the yeast (or leaven) the dough will not rise, unless the tiny seed is planted (to leap momentarily to John 12:24) it cannot grow into anything. Little things can make a big difference.
Something as tiny as an ovum in the body of a peasant girl? Something as tiny as baby born in a small town in the first century? Something as insignificant as the words of a travelling preacher? Evidently so! The God we consider to be so mighty, so strong and powerful, chose tiny, a mere blip in what was happening, to transform the life of the world for ever.
Matthew 13: 45-46
“The kingdom of God is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (NIVi)
A mere incidental – a speck of sand or debris caught inside an oyster. A protective layer built up to cover the irritant. A beautiful jewel sold for an enormous price. Remarkably the two are linked!
As I walk my way through Advent this year, I will pause to think where and why I spend my money – what is the motivation behind it? – but I will also pause to ponder the little things, the mere incidentals that make all the difference, be that a smile given away or the wonder of a God who chooses to enter time and space by doing something as unimaginably insignificant as being born.