God does not despise "the day of small things"
|Small things in nature make a big difference; so too do small|
things in human society
In 2018 the i newspaper ran a Christmas charity appeal for the Muscular Sclerosis Society. It raised £67,000, a small sum compared with efforts like Comic relief, Children in Need, and Sport Relief. Yet the money made a huge difference to 72 people who benefited from such things as mobility scooters, home adaptations, wheelchairs, special chairs and beds, respite breaks, furnishings & appliances, driving lessons, essential home repairs, exercise kit, and laptops.
One of the smallest grants was to young carer for skating lessons and to another for a school trip. Those small sums bought two young people in challenging circumstances the opportunity to enjoy being teenagers with unforgettable experiences.
Small things can make a big difference. “No-one is too small to make a difference”, 16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg told the COP24 conference in early 2019; the claim has become her mantra since and is the title of her book of speeches. As a result of her one-girl school strike in Sweden for climate change, a new wave of concern has swept across the world. Greta is autistic, for which she has been lampooned on social media. But autistic people are not handicapped or insignificant. They’re often highly gifted and focussed. They, like anyone else, can make a difference.
We know this in theory, and occasionally we experience the little things – the smile, the gift, the encouragement – that make our day. But confronted by an impersonal world in which everything seems to be organised on a mega scale that ignores individual needs, it is still hard to believe that the little we can do in any area of life can have any effect whatever. So in a period of momentous upheaval and change technologically, politically, socially, environmentally and even spiritually, the biblical message – and challenge – that God puts a high value on small things is worth hearing again.
When the Jews returned from exile in Babylon to their ruined city of Jerusalem some 500 years before Christ, they started to rebuild the Temple. It was hard going; the workers were few, the resources scarce. Slowly the work petered out. Corporate depression set in. Then the Old Testament prophet Zechariah challenged them in God’s name: “Who dares despise the day of small things?” Who dares say that their small effort is worth nothing to God nor can accomplish anything in the great scheme of things? He reminded them that anything that is accomplished for God is “not by [human] might nor power, but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6,10). God is not limited by our human weakness. The work got done.
|"No-one is too small to make a difference"|
Small beginnings, unlikely people
Most big outcomes have small beginnings. Multinational corporations begin as local small-scale initiatives. Throughout the Bible God always starts small, and often with the most unlikely people. One elderly, childless, semi-nomadic couple – Abraham and Sarah – were told they would be the founders of a numerous nation (Genesis 15:5,6). They believed the promise, and were.
When those descendants were reduced to hopeless slavery God took an aging murderer on the run, Moses, to rescue them. He was a stuttering man who couldn’t face public speaking. Yet God used him to liberate the Israelites from Egypt and organise the rabble into a nation. When that nation bemoaned its own smallness and weakness, he stated the Gospel principle: “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous [or talented] than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you that he brought you out and redeemed you” (Deuteronomy 7:7f). The theme is reiterated in the New Testament: “By grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). We are small, unlikely and undeserving – yet loved, and called to serve.
There’s more. The spirited teenager, David, killed the lumbering Philistine giant who was terrorising the Israelite nation and so delivered them from oppression, doing with a catapult and a stone what armoured soldiers with swords and spears had failed to do (1 Samuel 17). Jeremiah was young, inexperienced, prone to depression, yet called to be a prophet and speak truth to power. He never lost his sense of weakness and inferiority, yet persevered in a thankless but necessary ministry (Jeremiah 1:4-10; 20:7-18).
Jesus was a Jew from an insignificant part of an occupied territory who began his work of transforming people and society with 12 followers whose loyalty, understanding and ability were imperfect. After his unjust crucifixion about 120 of his followers gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Inspired by the Holy Spirit their numbers had swollen to over 3,000 within 24 hours and the Christian church now numbers about two billion.
“God chose the weak (or small) things of the world to shame the strong,” Paul told the largely lower middle class congregation of Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:26-29), “so that no-one may boast before him”. Strip away the pretence of human pride and status, and the message applies to all, whatever our circumstances. “All have sinned; all are freely justified” Paul says elsewhere (Romans 3:22-28), adding that human equality before God rules out any form of boasting. Small things, small beginnings, small and allegedly insignificant people, are beautiful for God.
In one of his most famous – and counter-cultural – statements, Jesus commended an impoverished widow who dropped two pennies into the collection plate. He said she had given more than the richer donors who were merely donating their spare change, because she had given all she had (Mark 12:41-44). He valued motives more than dutiful gestures. What we have is irrelevant to God: what counts is how we regard it, and then what we do with it.
|Climate activist Greta Thunberg's|
book of speeches
Jesus illustrated that principle powerfully when he took a boy’s packed lunch, fed a crowd with it, and then had the problem of disposing of a mountain of food-waste (Mark 6:35-44). A small offering of service placed into the hand of Jesus can have great consequences, whether we are aware of them or not.
So, Jesus said, “you are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). Salt is spread thinly if it is to have a good effect. So too is yeast in a batch of bread dough (Matthew 13:33). Small numbers within a congregation do not necessarily indicate failure but neither should they be a reason for entrenchment. Jesus told us to pray for more people to spread his word and vision (Matthew 9:35-38) and commanded his minority movement to boldly make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). Small need not be ineffective; big (as in some mega churches) does not of itself define “success” or “blessing”. Large churches have to downsize into smaller groups if they are to be pastorally and evangelistically effective.
Being small should not be a reason for inverted pride, though. Some sects and separatist churches consider themselves the minority custodians of a particular emphasis or doctrine, and thus spiritually superior. The Kingdom of God grows best when small groups work together on the agreed broad principles of the Christian Gospel even if their individual emphases and forms of organisation are different.
While Moses was receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai he faced a subtle temptation to go it alone. He was informed that the Israelites had given him up for dead and created an idol to worship. God suggested he destroy them and “then I will make you into a great nation”. In other words, to start small again, with Moses as a single faithful leader. Moses refused the offer and said that, in effect, such a move would do God’s reputation as the saviour of the people irreparable harm (Exodus 32:7-14). God relented, and Moses was left to continue his leadership of a mixed bunch of stroppy human beings. He had done the right thing.
Later the prophet Elijah was blind to the remnant of faithful people around him in an otherwise corrupt society. He bleated that he alone was left as a servant of God and that it was time to give up. But he was told that there were 7,000 other believers who he could have supported, or been supported by, and that there were three remaining things that only he could do (1 Kings 19:10-18).
That is the point of Jesus’ parable of the “talents” (Matthew 25:14-30). The man who was given just one bag of gold (as the NIV interprets it) “was afraid” and hid it away, earning the donor’s displeasure. “There’s nothing I can do” is a lie for anyone who belongs to God’s Kingdom, whether uttered by an eight year old or an eighty year old. No-one is too small to make a difference.
Nor is anyone’s faith too small. Jesus taught that faith needed to be no larger than a tiny mustard seed to move mountains: “nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). Our personal assessment of the size of our faith is irrelevant because God is always bigger than what we think. God does not despise our day of small things; neither should we.
In his latest book, Pete Grieg, founder of the 24/7 prayer movement, writes “when you pray about the small things in life, you get to live with greater gratitude.… When you learn to pray about trivia … you start to notice how many minor miracles are scattered abroad in the course of an average day” – even, he suggests, when we truly pray “give us this day our daily bread” “in a land that’s full of the stuff”.1
The Tesco strap line is right: “Every little helps”. It applies in every area of life, not just in the part we label “religious”. The small difference we make – whether reducing our use of plastic, feeding the birds in a garden, making the tea at church, inviting someone to an Alpha course – whatever, adds to the small difference someone else makes. In an election our single “insignificant” vote adds to the total of support or dissent. Who dares despise the day of small things?
God loves small things, and ordinary people, because through them he can demonstrate his power without it being confused with human virtue or talent. “When I am weak then I am strong, because God says, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
So give him what you have. Those two small coins. A picnic. A sling and some stones. A single bag of gold. Send a card. Give a hug. Listen to someone. Spend less, share more, slow down. Set an example that others can follow. Pray. Just live for Jesus where you are. The Holy Spirit, the energiser, the gift-giver takes our small things, small beginnings, and multiplies, magnifies them. That old saying about the straw that breaks the camel’s back reminds us that small things add up. God never loses count of them; “Your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Ever.
Think and talk
1. Why do we so easily despise the day of small things?
2. “Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful. To go for gigantism is to go for self-destruction” (E.F. Schumacher, Small is beautiful, Vintage Books 2011, p. 131). In what ways has “gigantism” proved detrimental to people, churches, nations and the planet?
3. Elisha’s servant was terrified by the sight of a marauding army descending on his home, until his eyes were opened to see the angelic host and learn that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). How might stories like this and assurances such as those in Romans 8:31 and 1 John 4:4 encourage and strengthen our weak faith in the face of great challenges?
4, There is a temptation faced by many (especially leaders in church, commerce and state) to talk things up, to make situations or achievements seem greater, more effective, more significant, than they really are. How might we learn to celebrate and value the less than perfect reality, and what good might come from being more honest and realistic?
1. Pete Grieg, How to Pray, Hodder & Stoughton 2019, p.71
© Derek Williams 2019