Let’s go together to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. As you drive into town, you can still see flocks of sheep on the hills, shepherds walking by their side. But you also see an imposing security wall that vivisects the landscape, dividing Palestinian territories from Israel.
The Church of the Nativity is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Millions of pilgrims from around the world come to visit the site where Mary gave birth to God’s son and placed him in a manger, and they all must enter the church through the strangest doorway you’ve ever seen.
You’d think a site like this would have well-planned and easily-accessible entrance area with a lobby, restrooms, and gift shop, but instead you are met with the most awkward entrance imaginable. It’s known simply as the “Door of Humility.”
As you approach the entrance, you are struck by the height of the building. Stone blocks bleached white by the sun reach towards the heavens, lending the church the appearance of a castle.
Off-center, over to your left, you spot the Doorway of Humility, which is so low that adults must bend over when they’re going through so that they don’t bang their heads. Someone my height must bend over double to make it through unscathed—it would be more comfortable to go though on your knees, hence the name.
Back in the Middle Ages, when the doorway was built, it wasn’t designed to make a theological statement. It was made that size during the Crusades so that soldiers on horseback couldn’t invade the space. In that era, the building truly was a fortress.
But now, the doorway remains for theological reasons. The point is this: if our God can be so humble as to be born to an ordinary family in an ordinary town in an ordinary time, then the least we can do when approaching that ordinary ground made holy by the birth of our Savior is to approach with awe and humility.
The doorway, like God’s kingdom, isn’t conventionally beautiful. It’s asymmetric lines aren’t anyone’s idea of architectural perfection. In fact, the Church of the Nativity hardly impresses until you go through that low doorway into the nave.
There, you are struck by dazzling gold lamps and fixtures, vibrant paintings and icons, stone floors worn smooth from the tread of pilgrim’s feet, and the scent of incense. When you go in, every one of your senses is engaged.
On the outside: a cold austerity, an imposing façade, an awkward doorway. But on the inside, a warmth, a beauty, a fullness that takes your breath away.
This is how God’s kingdom tends to work: through awkwardness, asymmetry, and the appearance of scarcity. But the message that we can hear in our readings is that God’s enough is always greater than our scarcity.
Let’s stay in Bethlehem, where we meet the prophet Samuel, who is now an old man who’s heard and seen it all. He’s heard the people of Israel calling out for a king during the time of the judges—you remember Deborah, Gideon, Samson and others. The judges were more like tribal leaders. The refrain that we hear over and over in the time of the judges is that God’s people are “doing what is right in their own eyes.”
In Tallahassee, God’s people follow one set of rules, but there are completely different rules in Tampa and Orlando. This leads to confusion, division and warfare, and so God’s people call out for a unifying authority, a monarch that calls all the shots. One law; one court; one army to defend the people from their enemies.
Samuel hears the people call out for a king, just like they cry out for relief in Egypt as slaves or when they wander in the wilderness. But God, speaking now through the prophet, Samuel, warns the people.
Samuel reminds the people that kings take. That’s the key verb: they take from the people’s abundance and often leave them in a place of scarcity. Kings tax the people, conscript sons into armies, and compel daughters to work. Kings take, take, take from their people, Samuel declares, depriving them of life and liberty.
They ignore him and cry out: “We still want a king.” Very well, he responds. He goes out and anoints Saul the first king over Israel. Remember what made Saul fit for the office of king: he was tall and handsome. Not his wisdom, experience or depth of character: he stands heads and shoulders over all the other people of Israel.
We might consider this kind of foolish, but we do the same thing today: we say that a certain candidate does or does not look “presidential.”
Saul looked like a king, and Samuel anoints him. But Saul, like all the kings of Israel, turns out to be a mess. He’s makes several poor decisions that result in suffering for his people. But Saul is also undeniably charismatic—at times, he’s filled with the Spirit of God and capable of sound leadership.
But it’s time now for a new king, a leader after God’s own heart, someone who will truly follow God’s lead. That brings us to today’s reading. Samuel is on mission: God instructs the prophet to travel to Bethlehem and go to Jesse’s home. One of Jesse’s sons is to become the next king of Israel.
When the prophet gets to town, the people are trembling because they fear that he might be there to issue a judgment against them. Visits from prophets were rarely happy occasions. But Samuel assures them that he has come in peace.
He finds Jesse’s home and asks to see his sons. The oldest, Eliab, is brought before Samuel. He looks very kingly, very presidential, and so Samuel concludes: “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands before me.”
God replies with words that get to the heart of the whole reading: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”
Son after son is brought before Samuel, but none of them are destined to serve as king. Samuel then asks: “Are there any others?” Almost as an afterthought, Jesse replies: “I have one more son, the youngest. He’s keeping the sheep.”
And it’s in this moment that we witness the way that God works in our world: the asymmetric line, the humble doorway into unexpected beauty and strength: David coming in from the fields, smelling of sheep, himself the runt of the litter. He may have beautiful eyes and good looks, but he’s still the smallest and least impressive of the lot.
In that, David has a lot in common with a mustard seed. When it’s sown in the ground, Jesus, a descendant of David, tells us, it’s the smallest of seeds. Yet, when it grows up, it becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
Like David, Jesus is a Good Shepherd born in Bethlehem. As if to drive this point home, the angels first announce the Good News of Jesus’ birth to shepherds who run from the fields to visit the Christ-child.
Jesus is born in the city of David, Bet-lehem, or house of bread. Jesus, who calls himself the Bread of Life in John’s Gospel, also tells his friends in John: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Or as Paul says today in our reading: “He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
“From now on”—think of Samuel looking into the heart of David—“we regard no one from a human point of view . . . if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”
Through the waters of baptism, you and I are a part of that new creation, and we’re to regard no one now from a human point of view. From that human point of view, we can only see scarcity. A scarcity of love in the world, a lack of compassion, a deficiency of hope, a dearth of faith.
We examine our own lives and hearts and realize that on our own, we’re never enough. We can’t love enough, give enough, think enough, work enough . . . it always seems like no matter how hard we try, we fall short. We make mistakes. We fail to get it right.
But what if we viewed all those imperfections as if they were like doorways of humility through which God is able to enter into our lives? What if our faults and frailties are asymetric lines that make it possible for us to be transformed by God’s mercy?
We may look on the outward appearance of people and things, but God looks at our hearts, which are filled to overflowing with God-given faith, hope and love.
God’s enough is always greater than our scarcity, so in the coming week, regard no one from a human point of view. If we are in Christ, we are a new creation. Everything and everyone has become new!
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, FL, on June 17, 2018.