Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.” … For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice. (Zechariah 4: 6, 10)
It was natural that the people should despise the day of small things.
Jerusalem was a heap of ruin. The people had been in Babylonian exile for four generations. They had no money. They had no might. They had no power. And there was a city in ruins to be rebuilt. A day of small things for sure.
The Bible narrative is a story of small things.
Abraham a sojourner in a land not his own.
Moses is working as a shepherd for his father-in-law when he meets God in a burning bush.
David enters the story, not as a king, but as an anonymous shepherd boy.
The prophet Elijah, fleeing from the wicked Queen Jezebel, pours out his complaint to God:
“The people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:9-10)
A day of small things. In the Bible, the story always starts that way. Always.
Life comes to us as a series of one small things — and each small thing has the potential for great beauty. But we are interested in big things, important things, lasting things, so we can’t see the glory that is forever staring us in the face.
Jesus spoke continually of small things, especially when he was describing the Kingdom of God.
“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Luke 13: 18,19)
A grain of mustard seed. A pinch of leaven. Small things.
Small things are new things. Imperfect things. Unfinished things. How can we have the Spirit, we ask, when there is no might and there is no power. Well, that’s how God works.
“Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Mark 2:22)
And, as he shared a last Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus said:
“I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Luke 22:18)
And in Acts we read:
“And they were amazed and wondered, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” (Acts 2: 7-13)
Can we drink the new wine with Jesus in a day of small things?
The disciples, huddled, fearful, poor and hopeless in an upper room were filled with the new wine of the Spirit. It was a day of small things. No might, no political power, but the Spirit was alive among them.
Mature, well-aged, wine appeals to the sophisticated palate; but new wine had a reputation for being particularly intoxicating — hence the insult. The apostles were being accused of drinking the cheap, intoxicating, tart wine of commoners and fools.
Pentecost followed hard on the heels of Good Friday. Zerubbabel and the Babylonian exiles had no living memory of good things — all they knew was disaster.
But it is precisely when we have no might and no power that we are free, should we choose, to rely completely on the Holy Spirit of God.
New wine may not satisfy the connoisseur, but it is growing, fermenting, expanding and alive. That’s why you can’t pour new wine into old wine skins that have already been stretched and hardened.
New wine demands new wine skins.
The day of small things is a day of new things. Things that, like new wine, haven’t realized their full potential. A grain of mustard seed. A pinch of yeast. The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says, its power consists in what it will become, not what it looks like now.
New wine is a work in progress: active, gassy, expansive and potentially explosive.
Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.
The Book of Hebrews begins this way:
“God, who in many and various ways, spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets; 2 hath in these last days spoken unto us by a Son who reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of God’s character, upholding the universe by his word of power.” (Hebrews 1: 1,2)
Jesus, as an act of conscious will, laid aside all power and all might so he could preach his new-wine kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It may seem odd to hear the writer of Hebrews speaking as if he lived in “these last days” when we all know he wrote 2,000 years ago. But when the kingdom explodes and ferments among us we are already living in the last days with Jesus, drinking new wine in his kingdom.
We think of time as moving in only one direction. Every day, we think, we are getting one step closer to the ultimate goal of history. In the Greek language, however, there is chronological time (one day after another), and there is kairos time (“the fullness of time”; the supreme moment).
The author of Hebrews wasn’t stating dogmatically that his generation was the last; he was saying that the kairos time of God had come in Jesus; the supreme moment had arrived; the new wine was flowing.
And this is why we must not despise the day of small things. If we are but willing, the day of small things becomes the kairos time of God — the fullness of time — even if it looks like a grain of mustard seed of a mere pinch of leaven.
Inside the new wineskin, filled with new wine, things are happening.
Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit saith the Lord.
In this sense, the church Luke describes in the second chapter of Acts was living closer to the “last days” than we are. They were participating in the kingdom of God in ways that we are not. They had no Bibles, no churches, and no money. But the words of Jesus were still ringing in their ears.
Three hundred years after Jesus died on the cross the Church was still struggling. Christians who refused to celebrate the divinity of the emperor were thrown into the arenas that dotted the Roman world, there to be torn to pieces by wild beasts. Many believers, most in fact, avoided this ugly fate by crossing their fingers and pretending to worship the emperor. A rift was created between those who succumbed to fear and those who refused to bend the knee.
It was a day of small things.
And then a miracle happened. Or so it seemed. A general by the name of Constantine fought his way to the top of the Roman scrapheap and was crowned emperor. Constantine ended the persecution of the Church. No more ugly spectacles in the arena. Now you could be a Christian and a citizen in good standing. Before he was finished, Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was now illegal not to be a Christian.
Christian leaders, virtually without exception, were thrilled, and who can blame them? The day of small things had passed and glory shone around. With the advent of Constantine, the prophecy of the book of Revelation had been fulfilled: the kingdoms of this world really had become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. Who could ask for anything more?
Just one problem. The new wine of the kingdom had been exchanged for the old wine empire. The Church had might; the Church had power, but the Spirit got lost in the shuffle.
God may have spoken unto us by a Son, but much of what that Son said couldn’t be squared with the imperial style of Constantine and his heirs.
The Roman Empire was about crushing your enemies, not forgiving them.
The Roman Empire was about keeping the poor in their place; “liberation” and “oppression” were not words the Romans liked to hear.
By wedding Christianity to the Roman Empire, the Church effectively silenced Jesus. We didn’t do it on purpose. We didn’t even realize it was happening. But it happened all the same.
We had power. We had might. But we sacrificed the new wine of the Spirit.
The Church invented the idea of Christendom: a society where everybody was forced to be a Christian whether they liked it or not.
We weren’t satisfied with the grain of mustard seed; we wanted the tree full grown.
We weren’t satisfied with being a pinch of leaven, we wanted the whole lump of dough.
Jesus could be our Savior; but he was no longer our rabbi, our teacher. The Church took on that role.
When we hear people tell us that they like Jesus but they don’t like Christians we shouldn’t be offended. This is what happens when we silence our Savior.
The situation became particularly grim with the advent of what we call “The Dark Ages.” The Roman Empire collapsed in everything but name. Learning and literacy were all but extinguished. The Bible was still read in the churches, but only in Latin and, increasingly, only the priests and monks could speak Latin. Priests knew just enough Latin to stumble through the liturgy, but most of them didn’t understand what they were saying.
And, for the most part, kings, priests and princes liked it that way. In a society predicated on violence, oppression and class privilege, the words of Jesus were not welcome.
Then, in the 14th century, John Wycliffe, a professor at Oxford University in England, started translating the Bible from Latin into common English and reading his translation to the illiterate peasants who lived nearby. Then he started teaching his students to follow his example. One hundred years before the invention of the printing press this all had to be done by hand, and yet hundreds of Bibles were created.
The results were dramatic. Simple laborers were learning to read so they could have direct access to Scripture. On Sunday mornings, while the priest droned away in Latin, farmers in the congregation would start reading the Gospels to everyone within earshot.
“Look here,” one would say, “Jesus said ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ That’s us, right?”
Someone else would say, “Last night I read this story about a father who had two sons; let me read it to you.”
It wasn’t long before the common people were seeing themselves through the eyes of Jesus, not as peasants and slaves, but as sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus.
The promise of Pentecost, long dead, stirred in its grave.
And that’s when the hammer came down. In 1408, the English Parliament, on orders from the King, declared it a crime to translate the Bible into the English tongue.
For 130 years, no one had the courage to defy that order. A day of small things, indeed.
Then the mustard seed kingdom of God started asserting itself. In 1454, a man named Gutenberg invented the first printing press. Sixty years later, a German monk named Martin Luther was translating the book of Galatians when his life was turned upside down. Luther started writing books that, thanks to Mr. Gutenberg’s printing press, could be circulated by the hundreds. Then, while in hiding, Luther translated the Bible out of Latin into German.
Once again, the words of Jesus created an immediate revolution. Peasants learned to read the Bible for themselves and called for change. If we are a Christian society, they said, we ought to be living by the words of Christ. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” they cried. The promise of Pentecost shook itself awake.
Luther was appalled. Maybe giving the people the Bible in their own language wasn’t such a good idea after all. The explosive, fermenting new wine of the gospel was making these peasants impossible to control.
Soon little groups of Anabaptists were springing up across Europe demanding that Christianity return to the simple teaching of Christ. One of these people was my ancestor, Ana Bihn, who (I recently learned) was burned at the stake in Germany. Why? Because she wanted to be baptized as a believing adult just like in the New Testament.
Even in the face of horrible oppression, the new wine of the gospel was finding new wine skins flexible enough to hold it.
Meanwhile, back in England, William Tyndale had learned Greek and had started translating the New Testament out of its original language. His goal was to translate the entire Bible into ordinary English, but to do that he knew he would have to move across the English Channel. For one thing, not a single person in England in 1520 could read Hebrew. More importantly, it was still a crime to translate the Bible into English.
Tyndale settled in Antwerp, Belgium, and started mass producing English Bibles that were then smuggled back into England. Remembering what had happened with John Wycliffe 130 years earlier, the English Church was determined to stop Tyndale. He was kidnapped in Antwerp, brought back to England, convicted of heresy, and burned at the stake so no one else would follow in his footsteps.
But the new wine of the kingdom couldn’t be stopped. The promise of Pentecost could not be confined to the grave. It was a day of small things, to be sure. These gospel Christians had no might and no power, but they were filled with new wine — they were experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit and no one could shut them up.
We see a similar pattern in America. It was once a crime to teach an African slave to read. Converting the slaves to Christianity was just fine, but if they got their religion straight from Jesus they might start getting ideas. And so a version of Christianity evolved in America that could be safely taught to slaves and share croppers. A version of Christianity expressly designed to make slave owners feel good about themselves. Cotton was king, so the smooth, mellow, sweet wine of Empire was preferred to the tart, intoxicating new wine of the kingdom.
We created a version of Christianity where Jesus saves but he doesn’t teach.
And it was this version of Christianity that the Western world took to Africa, and Asia and Latin America. First the soldiers arrived, then the traders and businessmen, and when the western power (whether England or Germany or Belgium or France) had complete control of the situation, the missionaries were brought in.
I spent three long years reading about the modern missions movement, so I know of what I speak. Missionaries were suggesting that Christianity and western civilization were a package deal. If you wanted to be rich and powerful like the westerners, they needed to accept Jesus as your Savior.
But what kind of Jesus. And what kind of salvation?
We had might and we had power, but we were preaching a spiritless Christianity. We had exchanged the new wine of the gospel for the old wine of empire.
And now all of that is falling apart. Travel to England or Germany or Sweden and you will find yourself in a post-Christian culture. Christendom, with its close link between Christian religion and political power, is a dead letter. Christianity is just one of many religions being hawked in a secular marketplace.
Travel to Boston or San Francisco or New York and you realize that the secularization of society we see in Europe is rapidly spreading to America. In my native Canada, the process is much more advanced than it is here.
So, this is a day of small things, and it is threatening to get smaller still. We are like Zerubbabel and his band of exiles casting our eyes over a ruined Jerusalem.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
And all the king’s horses and all the kings men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
But here’s the good news. God doesn’t want us to put our Humpty Dumpty religion back together again. God doesn’t want us to pour the new wine of the Spirit back into the worn-out wine skins of Christendom.
God is driving us back to the revolutionary, intoxicating, spirit-filled words of Jesus. And this time we don’t have to control the whole show. This time we’ll be the leaven of society, not the whole lump of dough.
Do not despise the day of small things, brothers and sisters, for if we are but willing, it can be our salvation.