Micah 5:2 - 5a
Click here for the video: Bethlehem
One of the unfortunate side-effects of the internet is that conversations that in the past might have been confined to the late-night ramblings of bar room banter, have been somehow elevated to the level of national attention. What I’m referring to, of course, is the current debate raging over which is the better Christmas movie: Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis; or Lethal Weapon, featuring Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. If you don’t frequent the internet often, you might have been spared this particular debate, and may in fact be wondering what either of these two movies have to do with Christmas in the first place. Die Hard, after all, is about a Philadelphia police officer who stumbles upon a plot to blow up a building in order to make off with a fortune in bearer bonds. And Lethal Weapon is a cop buddy picture about thwarting- well, something equally nefarious, I’m sure- before the veteran cop retires. But beyond all the tropes of any good action movie, what both have in common in that they are set against the Christmas season. Thus making them, in the minds of some, essentially Christmas movies. Or so the reasoning goes, even though neither one really has anything at all to do with Christmas.
The reading before presents us with something of the opposite problem. It looks for all the world like a passage about Christmas. It starts with a prominent reference to Bethlehem for goodness sake. How is this not a Christmas reading? The answer to that quandary is found in both history and context. Because, while the gospel writer Matthew makes good use of this reference to Bethlehem in his telling of Jesus’ origin story, that really isn’t how the prophet Micah is using it.
You see this Word of the Lord that comes to the prophet Micah arrives a good 700 years before the Imperial Roman census and the journey that a carpenter from Nazareth and his pregnant fiancé will make to register in Bethlehem. There is no Roman Empire. There isn’t even a Macedonian empire. Alexander the Great won’t be born for another 400 years. No, the circumstances surrounding these words of Micah are brought about by the aggression of the Assyrian army that has already taken the kingdom of Israel that lies to the north of Judah and Jerusalem. Now that same army has laid siege to the great city of Jerusalem. So these words that we might easily misread through the soft focus of pre-Christmas sentiment, are really to a people under siege. Which if you stop to think about it for a second, turns out to be pretty good news.
Not many of us have experienced the kind of armed encampment the Judeans faced around the cities that we call home, but I would venture to suggest that quite a few of us know what it feels like to be under siege. Quite a few of us know what it is like to feel like we are beset on all sides by forces that threaten our well-being. Quite a few of us know what it is to be up against an assault in one form or another that has us feeling outmatched. There are the obvious currents of political and cultural division that plague friendships and family relationships. Then there’s the relentless inundation of stories in the media that magnify the conflict and despair of the world. All of which only serves to heighten our anxiety about the more personal threats that face us. Like the family we gave assistance to this week who are pouring every available asset they have into the deductible for a transplant and are afraid they may lose their home. Or the person managing a terminal illness who is not only battling the very thing that threatens her life, but managing the emotions of those going through it with her. There’s the couple besieged by the weight of everything that’s gone unsaid for the last ten years as their marriage begins to buckle. We were catching up with a friend recently who shared some of the struggles her extended family is facing right now and were reminded that each and every one of us is contending with something, besieged by something.
And the interesting thing about the Word that comes to Micah is that the redemption of Jerusalem, the redemption of these people who are under siege, will not come from within that mighty city. Jerusalem is not going to pull this one out on its own. As big and impressive as it may have become. As important as its role is in the life of the people of Judah, that’s not where salvation lies. In fact, what the surrounding verses make clear is that it is the calcified power structures of Jerusalem and its wealth that have ignored the priorities of God, run roughshod over the poor and dispossessed, and invited the very siege that threatens their existence. Which is where Bethlehem comes in.
I put out a question to my Facebook friends this week asking them for places they’d never have heard of had it not been for the fact that someone famous was born there. A few folks offered up Tupelo, Mississippi- birthplace of Elvis Presley, the king of Rock and Roll. Other notable musicians and their otherwise inauspicious birthplaces included: Lubbock, TX, home of Buddy Holly; Gary, IN and the Jackson 5; Liverpool, England and The Beatles. There was even a vote for Riverside, Iowa, birthplace of the fictional character James T. Kirk from Star Trek. In Micah’s day, Bethlehem was known for one thing and really one thing only, and that was David. But not David the King that he became, so much as David the shepherd boy; the last of his brothers to be seen by Samuel because he was an afterthought. Much like Bethlehem itself. That David wasn’t a product of the monarchical establishment. That David would never have been selected to be king if God hadn’t whispered it in Samuel’s ear.
The prophetic use of Bethlehem is a reminder to a people under siege, just like it is to us, that when it comes to what we really need, when it comes to the way God works in this world and the people that God ultimately chooses- God never goes with the obvious choice, and rarely goes with the people we would pick if it were up to us. It is a reminder that when God comes to us, because of the way that God comes to us, it will almost always catch us by surprise- coming when and where we least expect it.
It will also comes with a certain measure of pain. I know we don’t like to hear that. I know that we would rather stick with the numbing stories that we like to tell in which we can just skip to the end and dispense with the hard part. But the simple biological, and by extension theological fact of the matter is that nothing new gets born into this world without the pain that comes with the labor that it takes to bear it. Our Christmas stories conveniently skip that part, by and large. One minute we see Mary all round and pregnant riding a donkey to Bethlehem, and the next thing you know she’s smiling down on a baby lying in the straw of the manger. Every mother thinks their baby is special, and Jesus may have been the son of God, but I guarantee that there were no anesthesiologists back then, and certainly no epidurals. My guess is that Mary experienced every bit as much pain in bearing Jesus into the world as any other mother. No more, but certainly no less.
When we are besieged. When we feel like Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson, fighting off the nefarious forces that would do us harm, it turns out that we don’t need an action hero’s arsenal. We don’t need an exceptional combination of luck and skill to outwit the bad guys. That may be the stuff of action movies, but it isn’t the stuff of Christmas- at least, not the way God tells the story. Instead, we rest in the assurance that the one who comes to feed us in God’s strength will come to us in not in what is extraordinary and exceptional, but in the everyday ordinary stuff of life, the places we are quick to overlook. He will come to us not in spite but rather through the pain that is common to us all, the pain that signals the birth of something new. Then we will dwell secure, not due to his superior firepower, but rather due to the power of his peace that passes all understanding and saves us from the siege.