Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 20, 2015, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Micah 5:2-5a
Sermon Theme: “Just another Little Town?”
(Sources: Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; “Do We Really Know Where Christ Was Born, CBN.com; original ideas and illustrations; “Bethlehem: Then and Now” by Mitri Raheb; Anderson’s Cycle C Preaching Workbook; Harper’s Bible Dictionary; Introduction to Micah, CSS Bible.)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I was a kid growing up in the small, rural town of Dime Box, I was ashamed to tell strangers where I was born, because experience taught me they would laugh when I told them. I thought they were laughing because I was born and lived in a small, nowhere town, but it’s more likely they laughed because of the name “Dime Box.”
Jesus was born in a small, rural town also, a town in Judea named Bethlehem. Historians and archeologists believe Bethlehem had a population of between 300 and 1,000 inhabitants at the time of Jesus’ birth. If 300, it would have been the size of Dime Box at the time of my birth. If 1,000, the size of Wallis when I was called to the church here in 1988, — the population of Wallis was exactly 1,001 in 1988.
A couple years after I was called to serve at Wallis, I was at a pastors’ workshop, and one of the pastors of a big city church asked me where my church was located. When I told him “Wallis,” he wanted to know how big Wallis was, and I replied that the population was exactly 1,001.
“Are you the one?” he asked me.
“No, I live in East Bernard,” I answered.
The population of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth was probably about 600.
Today, Bethlehem is a bustling city of 28,000, very different from the way it was at the birth of Jesus, though it is still a relatively small city as cities go, and a relatively insignificant city in comparison to Paris and London and New York. Also, today, it is not in Israel but in Palestine, though a good third of the Arabs living there are Christians. Thus wooden nativity scenes made in Bethlehem today are made by Christians, not Muslims.
Bethlehem was and is a hilly town located about five miles south of Jerusalem. A steep valley dropped from the south side of the town down to the Dead Sea. A rocky donkey path to the wilderness descended from the east side of town. A rocky pass to the valley of Sorek ran west, where many caves in the limestone are still seen. The very ancient name for Bethlehem was “Ephrath,” which is why Micah says, “Bethlehem Ephrathah.”
To be sure, when Jesus was born, Bethlehem was a small, humble, rural village like Dime Box, which is also hilly — only the rural folks raised sheep rather than cows, and local histories of the area tell us the shepherds kept their sheep in, and even lived in, the many caves surrounding the town. CBN recently showed pictures of those caves, saying they believe the shepherds to whom the Angel of the Lord appeared occupied one of those caves.
Likewise, the stable (that is the animal shelter) where Mary and Joseph stayed because there was no room in the Inn, was also probably a cave. While in Dime Box, like most Texans, my family had cows in a wooden barn, with hay stored in one end and cows sheltered in the other. In my lifetime, I have known only one Texan, a tenant farmer, who lived in the barn on the farm he worked, but it was not uncommon in Jesus’ day for shepherds to live in those caves.
So, spending a couple nights in a Bethlehem stable was not quite as unusual as spending the night in a Texas barn. And Mary and Joseph, like the shepherds, were poor folks, who certainly were not used to luxury. For the Messiah to come from folks such as them would have been considered unusual by most Jews.
We all know many stories of people of “great expectations,” of whom much was expected. Richly endowed by wealth, education, family ties, and circumstance, they seemed to be destined for great things, but somehow they end up being losers and also-rans.
The town of Bethlehem, on the other hand, would fall in the category of “small expectations.” Compared to the numerous other towns making up the tribe of Judah, it was small and inconsequential. That is true in spite of the fact David, the greatest King Israel ever had, and one of the greatest poets the world has ever known, was born in Bethlehem. The Pharisees and the Sadducees expected all great things to come out of Jerusalem, and led the people away from believing the prophesies of Micah, Isaiah and the other prophets.
Micah’s prophesy in our sermon text had already nailed it in 700 B.C. , if the folks had just listened to him and believed in God’s Promise. Micah prophesied, “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 of Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth . . . .”
It’s all there. Bethlehem. The Virgin. She who is in labor has given birth. Micah continues, “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.”
As I said in a previous sermon, “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread.” It’s doubly significant that one shall come who shall feed them as a shepherd feeds his flock. In the New Testament, Jesus tells the people that He is the Bread of Life, and He taught them and us a prayer, which included, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In other words, “Give us what we need for whatever it is we have to do.”
So from a tiny animal shelter on the back streets of Bethlehem has come the one who will feed us with a bread that touches every basic hunger we face, fulfilling Micah’s great prophesy.
Just as folks in Micah’s day doubted the Messianic Promise itself, and folks in Jesus’ day doubted that the carpenter’s son was the Messiah God promised, many folks today do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior of the World, and Christmas as a time to celebrate the birth of Christ.
You know, if some alien visitor from another planet came to Earth during the Christmas season, I wonder what he would make of our holiday. I daresay that in most American cities he would receive mixed messages about the exact nature of our celebration.
How would he put together the pieces of our Christmas puzzle? It’s a jigsaw puzzle that includes pieces ranging from a baby in a Bethlehem manger to a red-nosed reindeer; from a stingy Scrooge to a grouchy Grinch; from a bearded, heavy-set man bearing gifts down chimneys to an animated snowman.
How would this alien from outer space decipher the relationship between the three great sites of Christmas: Bethlehem, the North Pole, and the shopping mall?
What kind of riddle would our Christmas songs present to a intergalactic stranger? He’d hear us sing the glories of a newborn king, the sentimentality of a white Christmas, the achievements of Frosty, the merits of Rudolph, and the surprise of seeing mama kissing Santa Claus.
How might our visitor from another world reconcile the angels with the elves? This year, the Elf on the Shelf, or the Elf Off the Shelf, has become more important than the Angel on top of the tree. How might he reconcile the three Wise Men with the three French Hens? The poor peasant baby in a stable with the upper middleclass shoppers in the mall?
When you really think about it, our Christmas celebration is precisely about a visitor to Earth at Christmas time. A divine visitor. But the growing numbers of unchurched folks in our communities are receiving mixed messages about the exact nature and meaning of this season of the year. It is most certainly our business as believing Christians to set it all straight and show them the truth of God’s Promise through Micah fulfilled.
It is our business to help them to know that the true Site of Christmas is not the North Pole, it is not the shopping mall! It is you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah! You’re not just another little town! In a cave in your rocky hills, the Messiah, the Savior of all mankind, was born! You, the House of Bread, gave us the Bread of Life, which we receive today in the Holy Sacrament, His Precious Body given unto death for the forgiveness of our sins and the Salvation of our souls, in, with and under the Bread and Wine. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.