In praise of insignificance: Why being faithful is better than being famous

Pope Francis was called to ministry through an obscure Buenos Aires priest.Reuters

Azmaveth son of Adiel – who on earth was he?

If you want to know, he was in charge of King David's royal storehouses, and you can read about him in 1 Chronicles 27:25. To save you looking it up, that's all we know about him.

It's not even a good factoid for a Bible quiz, since no one's likely even to ask the question. But there are many chapters in the Bible which seem to be made up of not much more than lists of names like Azmaveth's. More informational gems from 1 Chronicles 27 include the identity of the man in charge of the olive oil (Joash), the man in charge of the camels (Obil) and the man in charge of the donkeys (Jehdaiah).

The spiritual significance of this record escapes me, unless it's something like this: 

In plays and dramas there are people who are known as "spear carriers". They're the people who stand around holding – well, spears, or machine guns, or some other sort of prop. They're there as part of the furniture, to make a scene look good. They have no other function, no back story. In an action film, they're probably there to be killed by the hero.

But in God's story, there are no spear carriers. All of us matter, and the least of us matters as much as the greatest.

This is one of Jesus' revolutionary statements. On one occasion his disciples James and John asked him for a special favour. The others were furious, and Jesus wasn't impressed either. He said to them: "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all" (Mark 10:42-44).

The Christian world has its heroes. Some of them are genuinely spiritual people who happen to have a wider ministry than their local church, or who hit the headlines because of something that happens to them. Others, sad to say, are people who just like the limelight. We know what Jesus thinks about them.

Most of us don't fall into either category. We're spared the praise that comes from fame, and spared its temptations, too.

Most people in most churches will never be known for anything beyond our own small circle of friends and acquaintances. But within that circle our influence can be immense, as God uses our words and actions to affect the lives of others.

No one knows who converted CH Spurgeon.

The story of the conversion of CH Spurgeon, the great 19th century Baptist preacher, is well known. The young man had wrestled with his faith for years, and was on his way to church one Sunday in January 1850. A snowstorm meant he was diverted to a Primitive Methodist chapel; the snow had kept the preacher away and a member of the congregation stepped in. He took as his text Isaiah 45:22, "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else."

In his Autobiography Spurgeon says: "He had not much to say, thank God, for that compelled him to keep on repeating his text, and there was nothing needed – by me, at any rate except his text. Then, stopping, he pointed to where I was sitting under the gallery, and he said, 'That young man there looks very miserable' ... and he shouted, as I think only a Primitive Methodist can, 'Look! Look, young man! Look now!' ...Then I had this vision – not a vision to my eyes, but to my heart. I saw what a Saviour Christ was..."

No one remembers that preacher's name, but he was responsible under God for the ministry of one of the greatest preachers of all time.

History's littered with similar examples. John Calvin's ministry in Geneva laid the foundation for a body of spiritual writing that has fed millions of people. Very few people have heard of William Farel – but without Farel, it would never have happened.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose life overlapped Spurgeon's, was an equally famous Anglican and then Catholic priest. While still a young man he took a tour to Italy and became seriously ill on the way home. He was cared for devotedly by his Italian servant. Without this man he would certainly have died – but of all those who venerate Newman's name, hardly anyone remembers Gennaro.

And another young man was passing the church of San Jose de Flores in Buenos Aires when, on impulse, he went in to have his confession heard by a new priest, Fr Duarte. The priest died only 12 months later, but the young Jorge Bergoglio always regarded that as the moment God called him to the priesthood – and, many years later, to the papacy.

At the end of her masterpiece Middlemarch, George Eliot wrote: "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

We need to beware of valuing fame too much, or setting too much store by people whose names are in the headlines of the Christian press. We may well find that they haven't done half as much good as they think they have. The people who have really influenced the world for good are the ones sitting beside us in the pew, whose acts aren't at all historic, who "live faithfully a hidden life", and will one day "rest in unvisited tombs".

What marks out people like this? Three things, perhaps.

First, they pray – and not necessarily in prayer meetings, either. To the world's eyes, prayer is futile. But the people God uses to change the world believe in prayer, even when only God hears them. They have an intimate connection to him, and God honours their faithfulness.

Second, they notice. Most of us are so taken up with our own dreams, ambitions and cares that we don't see what matters to other people. The people God uses to change the world have their eyes open to others' needs.

Third, they love – and they don't only love loveable people. The people God uses are those who see him in even the most challenging individuals, who don't seem to respond to graciousness and kindness. They sow seeds that produce a harvest in years to come.

Paul tells Timothy, "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching" (1 Timothy 5:17). That's true, of course; but in the upside-down Kingdom of God, those who are never honoured at all on earth may sit in the highest places in heaven.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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