Bethlehem. It is a name that has been driven into our
consciousness as Christians. And how can
it be otherwise? This is the place where
Jesus the Christ was born into the world.
This is the place where a virgin gave birth to the incarnate Son of God
who had been conceived by the work of the Holy Spirit. Everything about our Christmas celebration is
focused on the baby in the manger in Bethlehem.
Christmas focus on Bethlehem blinds us to the reality that, as a place,
Bethlehem was nothing. Bethlehem is in
the area of the promised land that was allotted to the tribe of Judah. When Joshua chapter fifteen lists around a
hundred cities that were located in the land of Judah, Bethlehem isn’t even
mentioned. It wasn’t large enough to
make the list.
was small. However, it became incredibly
significant when Yahweh said to the Samuel, “Fill your horn with oil, and
go. I will send you to Jesse the
Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” There God
had Samuel anoint David as the next king of Israel. Later, as we saw in our first mid-week Advent
sermon, God promised that he would establish David’s royal lineage – that he
would establish his kingdom forever.
But as a
place, Bethlehem was left behind. David
went on to capture Jerusalem and made it his capital. The royal palace was built there. David’s son, Solomon, built the temple
there. The city was fortified by walls
and it became the best defended location in Judah. Jerusalem would the home for
the Davidic king. The kings that
descended from David, such as Solomon, were born there. Jerusalem was the place to be – the place of royal
power and wealth.
There is a
note of irony in what Micah writes, because at the moment Jerusalem and the
king descended from David, Hezekiah, didn’t look very powerful. The prophet says in the first verse of our
text, “Now muster your troops, O
daughter of troops; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike
the judge of Israel on the cheek.” The
Assyrians were laying siege to Jerusalem and the outlook was grim.
Yet in the previous chapter, Micah had spoken about a
glorious future – in the very words that Isaiah also uses. He says, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain
of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to
it, and many nations shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the
mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us
his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the
law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” The present might be grim.
But Yahweh was in control and he would bring a time of salvation for his
We learn about the One who will do
this in our text as Micah writes, “But
you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans
of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in
Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” Bethlehem itself was small – too little to be
considered much of anything. But out of
Bethlehem – not Jerusalem - God would bring his Messiah.
We learn that the One who will come forth from Bethlehem
will be the ruler for God. We are told
that “his coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” Now normally, this phrase would be understood
as a reference to the long lineage of David.
But in this case, the language points to something more. It points to
the truth expressed by the angel Gabriel when he told Mary, “The Holy Spirit
will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God.”
The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, yet as the Son of
God he has existed for all eternity. He is the One about whom the apostle Paul
wrote, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or
authorities--all things were created through him and for him.” In the incarnation God sent forth his Son
into this world.
Micah describes the coming Messiah in words of power and
might. He says, “And he shall
stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the
majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for
now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall
be their peace.”
The prophet says that this One will be
the source of peace. Jesus Christ did
come into the world to bring peace. He
was born in Bethlehem to do this. But
let us pause for a moment and consider that fact. The Messiah – the Son of God – was born in a
small and insignificant place. We will
see in the season of Epiphany that when the magi went looking for the one who
had been born king of the Jews they went to Jerusalem. Apart from Micah’s
prophecy that was shared by the chief priests and scribes, they never would
have even heard of Bethlehem.
Jesus Christ was born in our world to
bring peace. The apostle Paul told the
Galatians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his
Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who
were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” We needed to be redeemed – to be set free –
from the curse of the law because we break God’s law in thought, word, and
deed. We do not fear, love, and trust in
God above all things and this shows up in every aspect of our life.
We could never achieve peace with
God. In fact, as fallen people we had no
desire for it. But during Advent we are preparing to celebrate the fact that
God acted in an amazing and unexpected way to give us peace. He sent his Son into the world as he was
conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. And as Micah tells us, Jesus the Christ was
born in Bethlehem.
“City of David” sounds grand, but
Bethlehem was in fact nothing. If you
were choosing on the basis of worldly standards a place in Israel for the
Christ to be born, Bethlehem would never enter your mind. But the humility of the location reflects the
way that Jesus Christ has won our peace.
He did this by being nailed to a cross to suffer and die. The apostle Paul tells us, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the
law by becoming a curse for us--for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who
is hanged on a tree.’”
Cursed by God for or sins – cut off from God – Jesus was
buried in a tomb. And that looked like
the end of things. However, Jesus had
been born in Bethlehem because of God’s promise. He had been born there because God had chosen
David and promised him: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever
before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” On the third day God raised Jesus from the
dead. Ascended and exalted to the right hand of God, David’s kingdom has been
established forever in the risen Lord.
Because Jesus Christ has redeemed us, he is now our
peace. He has given us peace with God,
and so we are now sons and daughters of God. We are people who possess the hope
of the resurrection. Jesus has risen
from the dead, and he will return on the Last Day to raise us as well. During Advent we prepare to celebrate
Christ’s first coming. But he will
deliver the consummation of the salvation he won during his first coming, when
he returns on the Last Day.
In his first coming, he was born as a helpless baby in the
nothing town of Bethlehem. But his
second coming will be one of almighty power, might, and glory. He will indeed,
“stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord.” He, the Son of God, is the One will bring
what Micah described in the previous chapter when he wrote: “He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong
nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and
their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.” The
Messiah born in Bethlehem will bring the eternal peace as we live with God in
the new creation.