23 December 2012
“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie...”
Let’s do a little crowd sourcing here and paint a picture of Bethlehem. What do you know about Bethlehem? I know some of you have been there. Some of you have studied the place. You’ve all sung about it.
When you drive into the casino district in Reno, Nevada you go under the Reno Arch, which colorfully displays the city’s motto – “The biggest little city in the world.”
With gratitude for their hyperbole I’d like to borrow it and modify it slightly to describe the subject of our text this morning – Bethlehem – “The biggest little town in the world.”
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, are the smallest town in Judah. Your family is almost too small to count, but the “Ruler of Israel” will come from you to rule for me.” – Micah 5:2 (ERV)This passage is actually kind of strange when you think about it – the prophet Micah, speaking on behalf of the Lord is addressing a small town. Although, the Hebrew word often translated as town or village here is usually rendered as a quasi military term -- as a company of men under a single leader.
Thus the CEB is a great translation here:
“As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.”In other words, the emphasis is not so much on the geographical location but the relatively insignificant people who reside at that place.
It’s the eighth century BC and the prophet Micah is condemning the sins of both Israel and Judah. In verse 1 of chapter 5 he levels a blast at the great city of Jerusalem. “Mobilize! Marshal your troops! The enemy is laying siege to Jerusalem. With a rod they will strike the leader of Israel in the face.”
These words of warning are a follow-up on the condemnation of Jerusalem for all of the injustices committed there – especially in chapter 3. For example, 3:9-10
Hear this, leaders of the house of Jacob, rulers of the house of Israel, you who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight, (Note how this sounds like the opposite of the John the Baptist prophecies!) who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice!And then in chapter 4 there is a discussion of hope and the restoration of the temple.
It’s all about the fall and the rise of Jerusalem – but then almost parenthetically is this mention of Bethlehem -- which doesn’t make all that much sense in the context. Why Bethlehem?
Bethlehem is a backwaters podunk town a few miles south of Jerusalem. We’re talking about a town about as impressive as Winkleman or Ajo, Arizona.
“But you, O Ajo of Pima County, are only a small crossroads town in southern Arizona. Yet a great ruler will come from you...”
The first readers would all be hearing this with similar -- surprise. Ajo – Bethlehem? Okay...
Most don’t know where Ajo is but everyone knew where Bethlehem was – and we are talking about Bethlehem in the ancient region known as Ephrathah – not Bethlehem of Zebulunite – which was way up north.
Everyone knew this town because it was the family town of King David.
There were thousands of these little hamlets spread across the countryside – and they were family towns – where everyone was all more or less related. And Bethlehem happened to be the town and people from which King David came. So everyone knew of it.
Yet it is a bit of a surprise in this prophecy. It appears from nowhere in the discussion.
So, what’s the big deal with Bethlehem? Why does it suddenly appear in the prophecy and subsequently become the focal point of the whole Christmas story?
This morning I want to offer two simple – yet complex reasons as to why Bethlehem. Two ideas that I think will make your Christmas more significant as you ponder and chew on them over the next week.
Okay – the two ideas –
#1 – THROUGH BETHLEHEM WE DISCOVER THE CONTINUITY IN THE UNFOLDING OF GOD’S ONGOING PLAN.
That God would invade humanity was not a last minute decision on the part of God.
The prophet Micah was 700 years BC. This whole thing was a part of a big beautiful elaborate plan.
You know, Jesus could have been born anywhere. Think about it – why wasn’t Jesus born in Jerusalem? -- the center of Hebrew life – the ancient city which King David had established as the capital. Or why not Rome or Babylonia or Athens or Phoenix?
All great cities – yet God chose a backwaters town. It was place of Rachel’s tomb. It was the home of Naomi – and eventually Ruth – who married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David. David was born there and was anointed King there.
Well, any good Jew in the first century would be making the connection without any effort at all. Bethlehem, as I said earlier, was the family town of King David’s clan.
That’s why Mary and Joseph went there. Remember how Luke 2 starts? You memorized this for the Christmas program when you were 7 -- Luke 2:1-6 (KJV)
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.Bethlehem was the family town of King David – and at least Joseph – and quite possibly Mary – were descendants of that David.
And God wanted the people to connect the dots and see that with the coming of the new “ruler” – the Messiah, the King of Kings – or as Micah says – THE SOURCE OF OUR PEACE -- With his coming, God was continuing on in a course that he had established with David – and even before.
“As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.” ~ 5:2 (CEB)Do you remember that cheesy old television show called the A-Team (hopefully I’m not offending too many people by calling it cheesy) – and Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith had this predictable line in each episode. “I love it when plan comes together.”
Bethlehem is about a plan coming together. And the idea is that the readers of the prophets and the gospels will look at all of this stuff – step back and say – “I love it when a plan comes together...” God’s plan...
Centuries – millennia – of preparation – kings and prophets – the development of temples and little towns – this is all the straw being placed in the manger in anticipation of the baby. Christmas is the culmination of God’s great and wonderful plan for the world – laid out on the card table like a holiday puzzle – a piece at a time – over a long period of time – the corners – then the edges -- and the picture begins to take shape.
Bethlehem is a picture – a symbol of the fact that God has put major energy into preparing for the incarnation. And as such it begs the question – am I prepared to receive what has been so long in the coming?
Secondly, THROUGH BETHLEHEM WE DISCOVER GOD’S DISPOSITION TOWARD SMALL BEGINNINGS.
Micah 5:2 –
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village in Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past.” (NLT)“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!”
Again, we ask, why not Jerusalem? Why not Athens or Rome? Why not San Francisco or Los Angeles? Any good PR person can tell you that global trends don’t start in Ajo -- but in San Francisco or New York or LA. But it was a small town affair. And that’s because God has this thing about starting out with the small and seemingly insignificant.
Abram – when God called him in Genesis 12 to leave his country and relatives to go start the Hebrew people – Abram was a nobody. And it was just him and his wife Sarai (as she was known at that time). Well his nephew Lot tagged along for awhile.
Genesis 12:1-2 --
Then the Lord told Abram, "Leave your country, your relatives, and your father's house, and go to the land that I will show you. I will cause you to become the father of a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and I will make you a blessing to others. (NLT)Small beginnings. And Israel – Israel wasn’t some great world power. When Jesus arrived on the scene they were on the bottom of the world food chain – in subjection to Rome.
God tends to work from the margins toward the center.
And the incarnation itself – speaks of small beginnings – a baby – not a full grown warrior beamed onto the planet by God. A baby, a baby born to an unwed mother who couldn’t even get a room at the Motel 6 so she ended up in the barn and the baby – God incarnate – ended up sleeping in the feeding trough.
This thing is about humble beginnings.
And then, look at Jesus’ own preaching as he came into his own. Luke 13 (NLT) --
Then Jesus said, "What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed (tinny tiny seeds) planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds come and find shelter among its branches." He also asked, "What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like yeast used by a woman making bread. Even though she used a large amount of flour, the yeast permeated every part of the dough."Small beginning – big impact. And that’s what Bethlehem symbolizes.
No, it’s not on the list of the fastest growing cities in the world.
Just a little side note here, Bethlehem is once again in decline. I mean it’s happened over and over again throughout history. In the second century the Roman Emperor Hadrian wiped it out. And the church Father Tertullian in AD 197 said:
“We perceive that now none of the race of Israel has remained in Bethlehem – ever since the edict was issued forbidding any of the Jews to live in the confines of the very district.”And again, in 2012, Bethlehem appears to be in population decline -- especially among the Christian Palestinians. It is miserable living there because of the Palestinian - Israeli conflict. I’m told the place is one checkpoint after another.
There was an article in the prestigious Huffington Post this week written by a Palestinian Christian who left to live in the US. And he describes the current state of Bethlehem --
Today, Bethlehem and the surrounding areas still have some of the holiest churches of Christianity, and they still vibrate with the prayers and celebrations of Palestinian Christians. But the Palestinians of Bethlehem, Christians and Muslims alike, are a people besieged. For Bethlehem today is surrounded by a host of physical barriers, including several miles of a concrete wall that is over 20 feet high, built by the Israeli occupation authorities. ~ http://goo.gl/5VFWyThe Christians native to the whole area are being chased away by the Israelis and the Muslims – which is bad news for peace because they were acting as a buffer between the two warring factions.
I read one report, and I can’t confirm the figure, but it said that there are only 1,500 Christians left in Bethlehem – down from 30,000 just a few years ago -- driven away by the violence.
Even today Bethlehem is not some major economic center. It’s not currently the model of peace and prosperity. In many ways it is still the small town of ancient days – perhaps even worse off.
A troubled place – a small place.
And yet, what happened in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago -- what began in that small place – continues to shape the world in a big way.
From Bethlehem came the Savior who died on the cross -- releasing the world from bondage to sin and evil through his resurrection. Now it remains for the world to accept that release – just as it remains for individuals to latch on to that which began in Bethlehem – the biggest little town in the world.
In a nutshell – we’re going to be talking about and singing about Bethlehem numerous times over the next few days. And it seems to me that if we’re going to know what we’re talking about and singing about that we need to understand what Bethlehem is about. God’s big plan for the world -- and the fact that he begins in small places when he’s carrying it out.
So Bethlehem is no small wonder – It’s the biggest little town in the world. Keep an eye on that place. Something has happened there and it could and will change your life.
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