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Don’t Despise the Day of Small Things

By: Rev. Lee Shelnutt, Moderator

What major anniversary do we as Protestants, as Associate Reformed Presbyterians, celebrate this year? The 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, right?

Imagine with me this scene. The year was 1521. Huge crowds greet Martin Luther as he entered into the city of Worms, for the Diet (a major meeting of both political and ecclesiastical officials). The very Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire himself, Charles V., was there in great part to hear the testimony of Luther. While Luther thought he would have an opportunity to make a case for his views, the Roman Catholic Church and the Emperor had other things in mind. He had been summoned there either to recant or be condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake. After a painful delay, a moment of weakness, a dark night of the soul, when pressed and forced to give his answer — would he recant his writings? — he famously responded in Latin:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.

Then it is said by some that Luther added in German these famous lines:

“Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.” Spanish soldiers of Charles cried, “El Fuego” – the fire!

As officials conferred, Luther was swept out of the room through the crowded streets and shouting crowds, where he was abducted by “bandits,” a.k.a., servants of Luther’s friend and German ruler, Frederick the Elector. They covered his head and face and raced in horse and wagon on a circuitous route through forests to finally pull into Wartburg Castle where Luther would go into disguise and hiding, protected from being burned at the stake as a heretic and there given the time and opportunity to translate the New Testament into German, putting God’s Word into the language of Martin’s people!

It’s the stuff of epic Hollywood movies. It is a grand story! It was a big deal! The Reformation was on!

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “but you said that was in the year 1521. If that’s the case, why are we celebrating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in 2017 and not in 2021?”

Ahh, you’ve been paying attention! Good! Because we mark the beginning of the Reformation not by this momentous, big, powerful, sweeping moment upon which there was no turning back, but rather by another moment, an earlier one, a seemingly insignificant, small moment, when an inquisitive scholar-monk with a troubled conscience wanted to have an intellectual debate on problems he was having with the Roman Catholic practice of indulgences. He walked to the door of the University of Wittenberg’s Cathedral door with parchment, nail, and mallet in hand and did something akin to tacking up a “Yard Sale” notice on the local community notice board, or making a post on your Church’s Facebook page. He simply tacked his 95 theses to that door and walked off. But you see, it was that small, quiet, un-extraordinary, seemingly insignificant act that truly marked the beginning of the Reformation, the Reformation that in God’s providence in great part gives birth to who we are today!

Over the past few months that historical example and so many more present examples have illustrated for me a pervasive and persistent truth of Holy Scripture. Once you begin noticing it, you can see it everywhere. You soon find it to be like a surprising and beautiful thread woven all throughout a grand tapestry. And that truth is this:

Our glorious, majestic, sovereign God so often exercises His omnipotence in a counter-intuitive way. He uses what Luther himself would describe as left-handed power. Our God so often exercises His omnipotence through the small, the weak, the seemingly insignificant, the foolish, the poor… Or as my main text puts it – He exercises it through the Day of Small Things.

Zechariah 4 is a classic text. Here’s the setting. The Jewish exiles who had been in Babylonian captivity, in God’s providence, working through the actions of Cyrus, the Persian ruler, had returned home to the Promised Land, to Mt. Zion, to Jerusalem, where the walls of the city and the Temple needed to be rebuilt. As that work began and as they faced opposition from the inhabitants of the land, and as the older Israelites remembered the glory and splendor and impressiveness of the old Temple, their hearts sank at what they saw. It hurt emotionally. It was a bleak time economically and spiritually. What hope was there to have a magnificent Temple like in the day of Solomon?

It is at this point that our gracious LORD sent to His people of old, gracious words, words of assurance and encouragement.

The rebuilding wouldn’t be by the power of a mighty man. It would not be by brute right-handed power. No, it would be by the power of the Spirit and it would happen. Zerubbabel’s hands would complete it. They could bank on it and know that they would be joyful when it came to pass before their eyes. Yes, they were financially strained. Yes, they faced opposition. Yes, they were weak. They were a small people in a world of the likes of the Persians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and a parade of human empires. Yet, they were to trust God and be patient, for one day they would rejoice. They were the sort of people in the very kind of situation in which Yahweh relished to work, in His counter-intuitive, left-handed power sort of way.

For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.

In other words, don’t despise the day of small things! There is no need. The LORD is at work, by His Spirit, and one day you will rejoice when you see what He has in store!

Think about this biblical truth and theme. You see it throughout the Bible. Just consider a few instances in the Old Testament. Wasn’t it one man and his sons who built the ark? One man who would become the Father of nations? One young slave and prisoner in Egypt would save that nation and his family in the years of famine? Wasn’t Gideon commanded to reduce his force to 300 men and then and only then would he gain the victory? Wasn’t it the young shepherd son David chosen over his more impressive brothers? Again and again, we see God’s left-handed power at work. And that’s the message we need to hear, for we are so prone to be like the Israelites in the day of Zechariah. We pine for the good old days. We are discouraged by our smallness, our weakness, our seeming insignificance.

I have been an ARP for 30 years and I dearly love our denomination, but there is something it’s hard not to pick up on if you’ve been an ARP for long, and it’s that we get the fact that we are a small denomination. Right? Sure, I suspect there have been some who sometimes, take pride — an unhealthy pride — in being small, as if that’s a de facto proof of being more faithful. We know that attitude don’t we? And if we find that sort of sentiment in our hearts there’s nothing to do but to repent of such sinful foolishness.

But that’s really not the dominate sentiment I’ve noted through the years when we are self-conscious of our size and strength as a denomination. No, the sentiment I have encountered is more like embarrassment with a tint of hopelessness. It is a “poor, poor pitiful us mentality.” Yet, through my time as a minister, and my service in Presbytery and Synod, my travels and blessed involvement with World Witness, and through my work this past year as Moderator-Elect, I have witnessed many amazing ways in which God has and is exercising His left-handed power in building and revealing his kingdom! Think about these:

  • A father leading his family in prayer and family devotionals;
  • A faithful pastor preparing his messages week after week with love in his heart for God, God’s people, and God’s Word – steadily committed to the means of grace;
  • A youth minister listening, loving, counseling and putting resources into the hands of a young person struggling with doubts in this antagonistic world;
  • A mother tenderly caring for children in the church’s nursery;
  • A senior citizen at a nursing home praying regularly for her church family;
  • An older congregation reaching out to refugees despite the difficulties and this not being the vision and ministry of the church of their youth;
  • A camp counselor at work revealing the love of Christ to those she works with at Camp Joy, a camp that works so well because of the untold small acts of a whole cadre of disciples of Christ;
  • A young family parachuting into a new community with the hopes of beginning a new church plant;
  • Accounting minds pouring over budgets at all levels of our denomination, seeking to be good stewards of our resources and our laborers;
  • A college professor with a high view of Special Revelation faithfully loving students as he teaches them of General Revelation;
  • A seminary professor faithfully encouraging seminarians to consider service in the ARP;
  • An Army chaplain willing to jump out of airplanes and go to the battlefield to proclaim the Gospel as he lives it to fellow servicemen and women;
  • Missionary families serving far from home in dangerous situations with the love of Christ and doing so for His glory;

Dear ones, I could go on and on. I am here to tell you that what are seen through natural eyes and a worldly hearts as nothing, as small, as insignificant, or even as foolish, I’m convinced are nothing less than examples of the left-handed power of God at work in and through the ARP Church, building and revealing his kingdom. Just as God was with our forefathers of ancient Israel, as they worked at building the kingdom of God, He is with us today.

Let us dare not despise the day of small things! We don’t glory in small for the sake of being small but we also don’t despise humble, small, weak, beginnings for we know that our God loves to display His power through our weakness and smallness. You see, He calls on us not to trust in our own strength and give glory to our own names but rather to depend upon Him and give Him the glory.

Don’t despise the day of small things. After all, wasn’t the Lord of the Universe and our Savior veiled in human flesh and laid in a manger? Wasn’t the King of kings, nailed to the cross, and seen as a broken, humiliated, criminal with no power at all? Didn’t this same Jesus turn the world upside down through a small, rag-tag, band of Galilean fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, and a former terrorist?

For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.

Let’s pick up our parchment, nail, and mallet and see what God does! One day we will rejoice!

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