Monday, December 21, 2015

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Micah 5:2-5a

William Cooper writes of a visit to the “rough and hilly country of Otsego” in 1785, the place where now stands our beloved village of Cooperstown. At the time, the place was even less inhabited than Main Street on a cold day in midwinter in the 21st century. He writes, “There existed not an inhabitant, nor any trace of a road,” and yet Cooper envisioned in this place a village that he would soon afterwards establish. Years later, his son, novelist James Fenimore Cooper, said, “We shall have no mushroom city, but there is little doubt that in the course of time…this spot will contain a provincial town of importance.”

Indeed for a community that has seldom numbered more than 2,500 inhabitants, Cooperstown has certainly distinguished itself. Many famous men and women have at one time or another lived within our tiny village, and we have gained fame as the home of many respected institutions such as the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Glimmerglass Opera.

This morning I would like for us to take a look at another “provincial town of importance;” not the village of Cooperstown, but the village of Bethlehem of Judah.

When Joshua names the cities that will be part of the inheritance of the tribe of Judah, Bethlehem doesn’t even get a mention. Neither does Bethlehem get included when Nehemiah mentions the various villages in which the tribe of Judah dwell, and yet the prophet Micah foretold greatness for this provincial settlement,

“But you, O Bethlehem Eph'rathah, 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 origin is from of old, from ancient of days.”

In these words we have a prophecy of the birth of Jesus Christ. People don’t normally have a choice about where they will be born or to what family. Unlike some other religions, Christianity does not teach the preexistence of the human soul. We had no existence in heaven or anywhere else before we were conceived in our mother’s womb, but here we have one notable exception. Here we have prophecy of the birth of one who existed “from ancient of days,” or literally from before there were days, before there was time. Who could this be but God himself, the first and the last, who existed from everlasting and called all things into being?

The eternal Son of God himself would be born in Bethlehem, the mighty ruler and deliverer of Israel will come,
“…when she who is in labor has brought forth.”

He chose this tiny village, too small to be numbered among the cities of Judah, to be the place of his advent. He could have been born in any place, in any family, in any family that he chose. He could have been born in Jerusalem or Rome. He could have been born in Manhattan in the 1930’s, or Cooperstown in 2015. Yet he chose to be born in Bethlehem. He could have been born in a palace to a princess, yet he chose to be born in a stable to a poor woman.

What is the significance of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem?

First, Jesus’ humble birth in a humble place is a challenge to the idea that one’s dignity consists in where one is born or who one’s parents are.  It destroys pride of class. If God chose a noble birth, people might suggest that there existed some merit for this tremendous blessing, but God chose to exalt the lowly so that no human being might boast. He chose the poor and despised to show forth the greatness of his grace. Mary herself declares,
“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

Furthermore, although insignificant in the world’s eyes, Bethlehem was also the birth place of another person of humble state exalted to greatness, King David. When Samuel came to the home of Jesse to anoint the new king of Israel, David was the last to be brought before the prophet. After God rejected all of his much more impressive looking brothers, David was called in from tending the flock. The humble Shepherd boy became Israel’s greatest king, and it was from his line that God promised to bring forth the Messiah.

Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem identifies him as the promised Davidic King, a new and greater David. Jesus is the Son of David, and yet David calls him Lord. He would be born after David, yet his origins are from everlasting. Before even Abraham, Jesus says, “I am.”

It is not so much that Jesus is modeled after the example of David as David is modeled after him. David is a type that points us forward to Jesus.

Just as David was a shepherd, this one will be a shepherd too. Micah writes,
“And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.”

To feed here means more than simply giving food. To feed the flock means being a shepherd and overseer of the flock. It means leading them, restoring the wanderers, healing the wounded, defending the weak, and giving rest to the people. Jesus is the Good Shepherd King promised by the Prophets, who will lead the people into righteousness and blessing.

Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem also offers another clue to how he will feed his flock, and it has to do with the meaning of the name Bethlehem Ephrathah itself, a sign more obscure and less obvious than the others. Bethlehem is Hebrew for, “House of Bread.” Ephrathah is a word that means ‘fruitful’. The village was no doubt given that name because it is situated in one of the most fruitful and fertile areas of the Mediterranean, especially when it comes to producing grain. It is sort of like Kansas, which leads our own nation in agriculture, and is therefore called the breadbasket of the world. So what is the significance of this?

Jesus called himself “The Bread of Life” (We spent most of the summer emphasizing this fact in our scripture readings!) He gives us his own body as bread in the Eucharist.

 When Jesus was born, they wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a Manger, a place for grain, a feedings trough for animals! The image is somewhat disturbing, and isn’t often emphasized in our sentimental Christmas carols, but the tiny baby is pictured as being offered up as food. He is the bread that came down from heaven like the manna given to Israel in the wilderness. This bread is for the life of the world.

Bethlehem, is spiritually, the Bread Basket of the world. It is here that God has acted to save the people of the world, who were starving for truth, from spiritual famine. The human race, in its fallen condition, was like a withered tree that bore no fruit. Jesus taught, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Here in Bethlehem, God produces the fruit of righteousness that he long sought for from the human race. Here in Bethlehem God gives us his own Son, perfect in righteousness, to be our representative and our atonement.
Bethlehem is blessed among all the places of the world because in it was born the Son of God and Savior of the world, just as the Blessed Virgin Mary is blessed among women for being the mother of God. In his birth, Jesus has exalted the poor.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,Descend to us, we pray;Cast out our sin and enter in,Be born in us today.We hear the Christmas angelsThe great glad tidings tell:Oh, come to us, abide with us,Our Lord Emmanuel!