This talk was given by Dr Andrew Faraday on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and over the Internet.
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After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:
‘“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.”’
Matthew 2:1–6 (NIVUK)
‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.’
Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labour bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.
He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.
Micah 5:2–4 (NIVUK)
I’ll be talking about the importance of Bethlehem. In fact, the importance of Bethlehem is that it’s not really very important: what happened is, but the place isn’t. This is messages of Advent from the people’s prophet as I call him, Micah. Gill Morgan last week quoted from Benedict of Clairvaux, saying that God comes in three ways at Advent. Firstly as Jesus of Bethlehem, secondly as Jesus in our hearts. He’s promised to come like this to every believer. Sometimes he speaks to us more directly, not just through scripture. Thirdly, Jesus is going to come in triumph at the end of the age.
This leaves out a very large part what the old testament prophets are about and about what the meaning was for the people that they delivered to. Here is my zeroth message of the coming at Advent. Saying God will not protect his people from destruction if they forsake his ways and rely on major paths for help. This time it’s the enemy that will come. Prophecies like Micah ’s were very much for the here and now as well as the distant future. They also had a very political message, not just a spiritual one. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were both toying with alliances and greater powers around them.
For example, Judah even under the good king Josiah entered into an alliance with Egypt against the great power of Babylon. When the culture of the day entered into an alliance, also meant an alliance between their gods and your gods. As Judah was mostly a smaller partner in the alliance, this implied that their God was inferior to the Egyptian gods. That the Jewish God wasn’t being recognized as God of the whole earth. Judah was not relying on God himself to save them as He’d done before when they were slaves in Egypt. They were doubting God’s promise that the land had been promised to them forever if they kept to his ways.
Micah said the people had a choice. Either they rely on foreign help with no guarantee of even temperate success or return to following God’s ways and then we would have continued safety in the land. Well, the Jews didn’t heed God’s warning, their towns and cities were destroyed. First those in Israel then those of Judah and the main families were taken off into captivity. God through Micah’s prophecy said this would be a punishment, but it would be temporary and then a remnant did return. The people had been given a choice to avoid this by turning to God.
Israel fell at the first attack, Judah repented on time and escaped, but then lapsed back and fell later. I wonder, is there a lesson from this for today? When you look at the modern state of Israel, it seems to have put its trust in foreign alliances, its secret service, and nuclear weapons: and it’s not exactly living peacefully, is it? The old testament tells the Jews to love their neighbours, but they in Israel seem to define their neighbours as fellow Jews. That’s not what God intended. I wondered how we as a nation also are trusting more in alliances, armaments, and political solutions rather than God and keeping his commands. What does the future hold for us?
We can’t assume something similar will not happen to us? That’s a sobering message, but here’s plenty of joy as well in the message of the prophets. Let’s look at what Benedict of Clairvaux has as his first message: The coming birth of Jesus. There’s what Edith read to us and also Gill. It’s a favourite lesson of Christmas services of lessons and carols from the prophet Micah. It is a significant verse. It’s the only one in the prophets where Bethlehem is mentioned as the place where Jesus the Messiah would be born. I think it really would have been rather unexpected to the Jews.
The Messiah was going to be a mighty king who’d lead them to victory. Surely like all the kings of Judah, he’d be born in Jerusalem. When the place of his royal birth prophesied by a major prophet who worked in royal circles like Isaiah? But no, it’s Micah who was announcing where he’d be born. Micah is rather discouraging of the place of the Messiah’s birth. He calls it Bethlehem Ephrathah to distinguish it from the larger, more important Bethlehem in North ern Israel. He says it’s small and he paints its fame as only really in its past. Why would God have chosen such an insignificant place and such a minor prophet with the message?
Micah was a contemporary of our Isaiah. By the time Micah, as I said, didn’t live in influential circles at Jerusalem, he lived in Moresheth-Gath which you can see on the map with a question mark. It was some way from Jerusalem, you can see up there to the top right. He said the coming destruction which God was going to allow as punishment for the people’s sins would come, not just to Jerusalem but to many of the little towns in Judah which you can see named on the map. He names them all. Many of them including his own.
God’s concerned for everybody and wants all his people to hear is warning.
I am reminded of a quote by Abraham Lincoln. God must love the common people, He made so many of them. Maybe God also wanted to emphasize where his salvation was going to come from. Not from a royal palace with great public funfair but from within common people. We know Bethlehem was where King David was born but his origins were humble too. Samuel, the priest was told to go there to anoint one of David’s sons as king. Samuel wanted to anoint Jesse’s first son but God says there, “Do not consider his appearance or his height for I have rejected him.” The Lord does not look at the things people look at.
People look at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart. Samuel saw all Jesse’s sons in turn and God said no each time. David was only brought up at the last minute as an afterthought, him being considered to be insignificant. Jesus also was born of lowly parents in the humblest place imaginable. His birth was announced to the world by shepherds, who were the lowest level of society. As Edith read to us, we find that Micah’s message again is there in the story of the wise men. They came to Herod to ask where this new king of the Jews was to be born. Here you have royalty involved in the story but in a very negative way.
Herod’s advisors immediately said it would be Bethlehem, creating Micah’s prophecy. The wise men went and found Jesus, but were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod as he was not to be trusted. There was a lot of angelic involvement in the Christmas story. We’ve got the visit of the angel, to Gabriel and angel Gabriel to Zechariah about John the Baptist, then to Mary at the annunciation, then in a dream to Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy. It was the heavenly host of angels that appeared to the shepherds, then the angelic messages in dreams to the wise men and also to Joseph warning of Herod’s plans to kill all the young children.
Later, there was a message also sent to tell Joseph to take the family direct from Egypt to Nazareth as Herod’s successor wasn’t to be trusted either. All we’re seeing angelic involvement made me wonder about how God works out his plans when his people so often, and us too, want to go their own way. Does he use angels more widely? While we hear of angels only a few times in the bible, but what do angels do all the rest of the time? Jesus said when he’s talking about the little children, “See that you do not despise on of these little ones for I tell you their angels in heaven always see the face of My Father in heaven.”
This does suggest that we have guardian angels. In the letter to the Hebrews, it also says, “Are not all angels, ministering spirits sent to those who will inherit salvation,” This seems to confirm it. Hebrews also says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” This suggests we’re often not aware of their involvement in our lives and we’ll hear more about angels next week I think with Moira. God keeps much of this involvement among us secret, it’s as if he’s often ticking the no publicity box.
I did wonder if is that why Mary went all the way to Elizabeth, Zachariah’s wife, to tell her that she was pregnant with the Saviour. Was Elizabeth the only one she could trust with the news? Later it says Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart, she wasn’t broadcasting what had happened. Then when Jesus starts his ministry, he tells the people when he heals them not to go around telling everybody. He tells the disciples and his mother not to broadcast that he is the Messiah. From one point of view, this secrecy makes it difficult for us today to convince non-believers that God exists and is active in the world.
God doesn’t want to frighten people into believing in him, he wants to win us by love, not fear. In James’s letter, he says, “Even the devil’s fear, but that doesn’t make them want to return to God.” Jesus’ ministry also brought him into contact with demons or evil spirits and they recognized who he was when he cast them out. He commanded them to be silent throughout that as well. Don’t forget there are bad as well as good influences around us, but we know that the bad will never win in the long term. I’m sure many of us will have read The Screwtape Letters, that’s a very good story about all of that, isn’t it? Behind this angelic involvement is part of the second promise of Advent: Jesus coming to dwell in our lives.
This must be a general aim in which Jesus fulfils his promise to be with us as always even unto the age. This promise doesn’t rely on us following God’s law like the promise to the Jews, to stay and protect in the Holy Land. The wonderful thing that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus brought about the promise only relies on our trusting Jesus and keeping following him.
It’s not what we achieve, but the direction we’re facing. There’s much prophecy of Jesus’ suffering and death in the Old Testament, but only two possible prophecies of the resurrection. Even they could only have worked out in hindsight. No wonder the disciples were totally unexpecting it. I wondered if God was keeping it secret so the devil wouldn’t know about it beforehand and try to stop the crucifixion. Now we come to the third way that God comes to us in Advent. In triumph to at the end of the age. Micah has given us a picture of what was going to happen.
“In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains. It will be raised above the hills and the people will stream to it, he will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken. All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.”
That’s a wonderful promise and vision in the future. Let’s finish now. Micah does it far better than me with the final verses in Micah’s book:
Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry for ever
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
You will be faithful to Jacob,
and show love to Abraham,
as you pledged on oath to our ancestors
in days long ago.
Micah 7:18–20 (NIVUK)
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.