St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 20th December 2015
Readings – Micah 5:1-5a; Matthew 1:18-25
God’s surprising choice
So there we were at a conference somewhere in the wilds of Somerset when we introduced ourselves to a smart lady of the village. The conversation followed the usual lines. “Where do you come from?” We exchanged looks. “Devonport”, we replied. “Ah, such a pretty little place”, she said merrily, as if expecting us to agree. Well, we gave her a few statistics and a brief description of the area, and I think she realised her mistake. Whatever place she was thinking of, it was certainly not Devonport.
But the conversation got me thinking. Because so often we judge a place by its reputation, or the headlines it generates, and it can be so easy to write off an area simply by listening to the word on the street. Now of course Devonport as a whole has its challenges. We can’t be blind to the real issues that confront this part of the city, or the extent of the deprivation all around us, and it’s our mission to work out how to be good news right here in our local community. But parts of Devonport and Stoke are quite attractive; many folk round here are wonderful and warm; and certainly I for one consider it a real privilege to live and work here. The headlines and the statistics tell a story, but it’s not the whole story.
Now today we are coming to perhaps the most famous passage in the whole of the book of Micah, about the town of Bethlehem Ephrathah. It’s read at almost every carol service, and indeed you’ll be hearing it again at St Michael’s this afternoon. It’s a prediction that out of this village will come one who will rule over Israel and bring peace to all.
I guess many of us are very familiar with this passage, but to those who first heard Micah’s prophecy, his words must have been absolutely extraordinary. Bethlehem – perhaps a bit like Devonport – was a place with a rich history, but at the time had declined into quite an insignificant settlement. We first hear of Bethlehem back in Genesis as the place where Rachel, the wife of Jacob, was buried, and if today you manage to get through the Israeli checkpoints, you can still visit the site where apparently she was laid to rest. Much later on in the Bible we read of Bethlehem as the place where Boaz took Ruth to be his wife, and this led to Bethlehem’s claim to fame, as the hometown of the greatest king of Israel, King David. It was to Bethlehem that Samuel was sent in 1 Samuel 16 to anoint David as king, and it was from Bethlehem that David set out to fight Goliath in the next chapter.
However, once David became king over Israel, Bethlehem really fades from the records. There are very few references to the place before its inhabitants are carried into exile, along with the rest of the population of Judah. But we get some idea of how small Bethlehem had become from an obscure little detail in the book of Ezra which tells us that when the people of Israel returned to their country, there were only 123 men from that town (Ezra 2:21). That’s not a great deal by anyone’s standards, even if a lot has happened in the 200 years or so between Micah’s prophecy and the return from exile.
Yet here is Micah standing up and proclaiming: 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 (Micah 5:2). Isn’t that extraordinary? You’d have thought he would have talked about somewhere important, like Jerusalem, somewhere which was on the up, and where things actually happened.
But to me this verse is really significant, because it tells us that God does not always choose the obvious, the successful, the well-known. God is as interested in Bethlehem, as in Jerusalem; in Devonport, as in Plymouth. Sometimes when we see a place that has real issues or seems particularly dead, we talk about it being “God-forsaken”. That’s not how God sees a place, because whether we realise or not, everywhere is special to Him.
Early on in John’s gospel we have an incident where Philip tells his brother Nathaniel that he has found the one foretold in Scripture – Jesus of Nazareth. And what is Nathaniel’s reaction? John 1:46: Nazareth! Can anything good come from there? You see, both the place where Jesus was born and the place where He grew up were hardly happening places. Yet the Lord chose them as the places He would use in His plan to save and to restore the world He had made. So, I wonder, what are the plans the Lord has in store for Devonport and Stoke? Do we dare dream that something good might come out of here?
But even more important than Micah’s prophecy about a place, is his prophecy about a person.
By the time we reach the book of Micah the glory days of King David are long gone. The kingdom of Israel is split in two. The current rulers are a mixed bunch, some of them genuine God-fearers, some definitely not. There’s a real crisis of leadership and the religious teachers aren’t a whole lot better. That’s why Micah’s immediate message is one of judgement and it’s fully deserved. Yet as we have already seen Micah also teaches us that this message of judgement is not and never will be the last word.
And so here despite everything has happened, Micah prophecies that one day the Lord will send someone from the town of Bethlehem who will restore the people of Israel. Listen again to what he says in verse 2: 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. Here is a king who will stand as a worthy successor to David, who will once again make God’s people great.
Now there is no sign that the people deserved such a king. If you read through the whole book of Micah you will realise that they weren’t exactly wholehearted in their worship of the Lord, and their behaviour was questionable at best. Yet God knew their longing for a just ruler who would reign fairly and truthfully. He heard their prayers that the kingdom of Israel might once again be renewed.
Isn’t there something here that we can take away from this verse? Because, to me, this prophecy is so much than just about an Old Testament prediction about the one who is to come. It’s a reminder that we have a God who answers our prayers even in spite of ourselves. In Micah 7:14 we read how the prophet prays: Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance, which lives by itself in a forest, in fertile pasture-lands. Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in days long ago. And here in this verse is the Lord’s answer. Despite the sin and wrongdoing of His people, the Lord has heard and the Lord is going to act. Just as despite our sin, despite our wrongdoing, the Lord still chooses to hear us and to act on our prayers.
So when exactly would this king come? Well, the start of verse 3 is not promising: Therefore Israel will be abandoned. Yes, judgement is not the last word, but this doesn’t mean we can simply escape the consequences of our actions. Within 150 years the nation of Judah would be carried off into exile, the temple destroyed, the last king executed. There would be a time of great sorrow and suffering ahead, because despite all the warnings the people had not listened to the prophets and turned away from the evil they were doing.
This king, then, would not come immediately, and indeed there must have been many occasions since Micah’s days when folk wondered if his prophecy was ever going to be fulfilled. And yet, despite all the suffering, despite all the delay, in God’s timing the prayers of Micah’s time would be most wonderfully and most graciously answered. Verse 3 again: Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labour gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.
Now of course the question arises: who is this mysterious “she” who suddenly appears in this verse? For the people in Micah’s day Jerusalem was known as “she”. They would have heard Micah’s words as a sign that the city would be restored and the whole nation of Israel reunited. But with the benefit of hindsight we can see that this prophecy as so many in the Old Testament was fulfilled in the New Testament in a far greater way than anyone ever expected.
Listen to what Micah says in verse 4: 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. So then, this king will not simply be a national figure, or someone reigning over a small part of the planet. He will be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit – the strength of the Lord. He will reflect the glory and majesty of God Himself, and His rule will extend to the furthest points on the globe.
And Micah’s words are important to us because they help us understand what really happened at the first Christmas in Bethlehem. For the baby born in, of all places, Bethlehem, is the one the prophet foretold over seven hundred years previously. The king who will rule over His people will not be a distant figure, living in a palace, handing down decisions from on high. He will be someone who can identify with us at the deepest level, who has shared our every human experience, who shows His power and His authority by dying for us on a cross. His name will be Jesus and His kingdom will be unlike any other in human history, ruled over by a shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.
So what then do Micah’s words mean for us? The answer comes with the promise in verse 5: And he will be their peace.
Now what does this word peace mean? Well, I guess you can give a variety of answers to that question. For some of us, in the midst of the Christmas rush, the peace we are looking for is a break from all the hustle and bustle, an opportunity to have a slow coffee and put our feet up, or to take time out from the demands of children and grandchildren. I’m not sure that’s the type of peace we are talking about here, although Jesus does invite all who are weary and burdened to come to Him.
For others, the peace we want is an absence of warfare, an end to terrorism and oppression and violence. And indeed we are told in Micah 4:3 that one day swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks. But if we were to read on throughout chapters 4 and 5 we would quickly realise that the immediate prospect for God’s people is anything but peaceful. Those who follow the Lord will constantly face attack and danger until that day comes, and it is striking that Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem is sandwiched between an announcement of a siege in verse 1 and of an Assyrian invasion in verse 5.
But then again, the Lord never promises an easy life for who believe and trust in Him. To come under the rule of King Jesus means that we will face opposition and even persecution from those who refuse to believe in Him. We will find ourselves in a spiritual battle as hostile forces all around us seek to undermine our faith and our confidence in the Lord.
So what then is this peace which Micah is talking about? There’s an important clue in our second reading, when the gospel writer Matthew explains the significance of the angel’s visit to Joseph. Listen again to these words from Matthew 1: 22-23: All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us”.
They will call Him Immanuel … God with us. What Jesus promises, you see, is an assurance that whatever we go through the Lord is with us. In the midst of the hectic Christmas rush when there is so much to do and so little time He is with us. When we are afraid and fearing for the future He is with us. When we are out celebrating with family and friends He is with us. This King called Jesus gives us a relationship with our Lord that is permanent and secure and can never ever be broken.
That is also what Micah means when he says at the end of verse 4: And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. He isn’t telling folk that from now on life will be getting better if they trust in the Lord. After all, as we have seen, he has just foretold that Israel will be abandoned, and he is realistic about the hard times that lie ahead. But what He is saying that no matter what God’s people are about to face, the Lord promises the blessing of His presence in each and every situation and no matter where the invading armies may take them, they will never, ever be removed from His love.
And as I hope you can see by now, Micah’s words are also very much words for us here today. We may say that the Lord can’t possibly be interested in us. The message of peace, of a new relationship with Jesus is for other people, the sort of nice, respectable folk who live in nice, respectable areas and live nice, respectable lives. Well, God chose Bethlehem as the place where His Son was to be born, and that to me is a clear message that God is interested in every person from every place. There is nowhere and no-one and beyond the reach of His love.
We may say that we have been praying so long for the Lord to come and to help us. As we have seen, the people in Jesus’ day had been waiting for over 700 years for Micah’s words to be fulfilled. They must have wondered if their prayers would ever be answered. Yet when the Lord decided to act, He had a far greater answer to their prayers than they could ever imagine. And unlike the people of Micah’s day we don’t have to wait for our prayers to be answered. Because this king Jesus is even now reigning as shepherd of His people and He is only ever a prayer away for you. His offer to you of peace and a lasting relationship with the Lord is available to you this morning, and all you have to do is put your faith and trust in Him.
Because, finally, the amazing truth that Micah teaches us is that the Lord’s offer of peace is something that stands firm in every age, and really is available to everyone. So let me ask: do you know the peace of Jesus in your life? Do you know Him as your Immanuel – God with us? And if so, what will you do to make His peace known this Christmas time and always?