Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Why Bethlehem?

You'd think the Messiah would descend in fire and smoke on the temple mount in Jerusalem, wouldn't you? The Old Testament is full of prophecies about the things that will happen on Zion (Jerusalem) when the "day of the Lord" comes. You can't shake the earth from a place like Bethlehem. Can you?

In the Old Testament, we first hear of Bethlehem in Genesis 35 when Jacob's wife Rachel dies and is buried near there. A few times in the book of Judges the town is named as the home of various bit players. The first real drama around Bethlehem happens in the book of Ruth, when Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth return there in grief to make a home. Ruth winds up being the great-grandmother of King David, and suddenly in 1 Samuel 16 Bethlehem breaks out as the home town of King David, whose shadow looms large over the rest of the Old Testament.

David's shadow looms especially large over Israel's hope for a deliverer, a "Messiah", the one God will choose to lead his people. The pinnacle of David's reign as king was God's promise to him that "When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever" (see 2 Samuel 7). This prophecy was partly fulfilled in David's son Solomon, who built the Temple in Jerusalem. But Solomon was not faithful to God and after his reign David's descendants were a pretty motley crew, some better, some worse. But this prophecy finds its fulfillment in Jesus, the heir of David ("Son of David" was a common title for Jesus) and the one who fulfills what God had promised. Thus it is fitting that Jesus, the heir of David, should be born in David's hometown, Bethlehem, even though it was small, out of the way, and more known for shepherds than for kings. In fact, God had promised that this chosen ruler would come from Bethlehem. (See a prophecy about Bethlehem in Micah 5.)

What does this mean for you and me?

One phrase from a sermon that often rings through my thoughts says, "Do not despise the day of small things." Nearly five hundred years after David's time, the temple his son Solomon built was destroyed and his people were taken into exile. When they returned many years later, they rebuilt the temple but on a much smaller scale. In Zechariah 4:10 God tells them that those who have despised the day of small things -- i.e., this little temple -- will be proven wrong. This is a word that goes hand in hand with the Christmas story. What smaller beginning could there be than a baby laid in a borrowed feed trough in backwater Bethlehem, adored by shepherds while his peasant parents look on? Yet in the plan of God, this humble beginning is the way the Messiah arrives. Those who have eyes to see can recognize that God is in these small details!

What are the "small beginnings" where God is at work in your life? What are the places where, if you only have eyes to see, God is at work? Have you dismissed these little things because you believe them insignificant? The brief conversation, the unseen change of heart, the decision to turn here instead of there, to write the note, to make the phone call, to forgive, to leave the television off, to open your heart -- these are the small things that lead to life change. Where is God at work in your life, in whatever minor way? Do not despise this small beginning, but nurture and cherish it, bathe it in prayer, invite God to create more and more space for his work in you and through you.

I was remembering this morning the image of my grandmother, eyes nearly blinded by cataracts and tears, sitting in the back pew of the sanctuary when I was ten. I tried to hold the hymnbook so she could see the words, but she shook her head and whispered, "I don't need it." Then she proceeded to sing every word from memory:

Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown
When thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem's home there was found no room
For thy holy nativity
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for thee.


  1. This post brings back lots of memories for me:
    1) My mother playing the piano (without music - she couldn't read music) she knew every hymn and Christmas carol I ever heard.
    2) The prayers that my mom said - even in her last weeks of life - she prayed better than most preachers! Certainly more fervently.
    3) And a mental picture of the little town of Bethlemhem; Joseph with his wife. The worries he must have felt.

  2. Great stuff, Bruce, Powerful pictures, especially of your Mom. What a blessing! Hope you have a merry Christmas!