READ : Micah 5:2-4
The village of Bethlehem was famous in the Old Testament as the birthplace of the great King David. But a passage in the prophecy of Micah points to an even greater fame, for a far greater birth that would occur there – as we see in today’s program, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Late one night comes the sound of a loud knocking at King Herod’s palace gate with cries to open up. A sleepy-eyed porter finally stumbles to the door and peers out into the darkness of the street. What he sees soon chases the sleep from his eyes for standing outside his gate are three figures whose likes he had never seen before. They are dressed in rich robes and turbans. The scent of spices and incense drifts from their loaded camels to the porter’s nostrils. The glint of gold and sparkle of jewels are reflected by the torchlight that falls on these strangers.
The gate is quickly opened and the travelers are admitted into the courtyard of the palace from which a servant rushes into the banquet hall where Herod the king is feasting and drinking. “Visitors, your Majesty,” the servant reports breathlessly, “three of them – kings, every one and magi too, with gold and rubies and emeralds and spices and star-charts.” “Get a hold of yourself,” growls the old king, “Catch your breath and then bring them in here to give us all a look. Let’s see these magic kings of yours.”
The doors to the hall open and the three visitors walk in. An instant hush falls over the room. Even Herod is visibly subdued – no mistaking the regal bearing and lofty brows, nor the costly apparel. Herod at once becomes oily and polite – “Welcome to your majesties. Please, sit here next to my throne. I am entirely at your service. May I ask to what do I owe the great honor of this visit?”
“We have come to see the Child,” replies one of the three. “Yes,” adds another, “we are magi, and we saw his star rise some time ago when we were studying the heavens in our homeland. There can be no mistake; it is a great and clear sign.” The third speaks up, “Where is he; where is the royal baby, the Child who is born to be the King of the Jews?”
“Child,” stammered Herod, “uh, new-born King? Uh – there must be some mistake. There’s no baby here, is there? No? Right. I’m sorry, but your calculations must be off – I’m the only king of the Jews here!”
But Herod is troubled. He sends for all his advisors, his counselors, his scribes, his priests. He asks them: “What about this king business? Where’s the king supposed to be born?” The scribes and priests look at each other, and finally one of them nervously steps forward: “Bethlehem, your Majesty. The King will be born in Bethlehem. For so it has been foretold by Micah the prophet: ‘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 in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days'” (Micah 5:2).
A Little Town
That’s something like how I imagine the visit of the magi to King Herod might have gone. When Herod heard the prophecy from the book of Micah about Bethlehem as the birth place of “the Ruler,” he sent the magi there, in hopes they would betray the baby’s identity to him. But the question is, why Bethlehem? After all, the magis’ mistake was a natural one. When they saw the star, the sign in the heavens of the coming King of the Jews, they naturally went to Jerusalem to the palace to seek him out. Where else would the King of the Jews be born but in the Jerusalem palace of Herod, the half-Jewish, Roman-appointed ruler of their province of Judea? True, Bethlehem was a nice enough little village. And it had had its share of the spotlight in the Old Testament. Of course, Bethlehem was most famous as the city of David, the place where the great king was born and grew up. But even when David was alive, he had moved to Jerusalem. Besides, David was long dead by Herod’s time – none of his descendants had ruled in Israel for hundreds of years. Now the Romans were in charge, and any kings would be required to have their approval. Bethlehem was ancient history, a sleepy village with a long-outdated claim to fame, and no future at all.
But God sees things differently. He has his own purposes, his own way of working them out, and his own timetable for their fulfillment. So the true King of Israel would be born in Bethlehem because the Messiah would be the long-promised restoration of David’s line. He would fulfill God’s ancient promises to David’s house. “His origin is from old, from ancient days,” prophesied Micah. God had told David that his descendants would reign forever. Now that promise will come true, in an unimaginably greater way than David ever could have guessed. Christ’s birth in Bethlehem was no accident, as if Mary just happened to go into labor while far from home. Nor was it a hurriedly thrown together contingency plan, as if God had to find some way of retrieving the fortunes of the house of David. No, this was God’s plan and purpose from the beginning, his way of bringing, not just Israel, but the whole world its rightful king.
And in executing his plan God raised Bethlehem from obscurity to glory, as wonderfully described by Bernard of Clairvaux in a Christmas sermon that he preached 900 years ago. Listen to his words.
“Jesus Christ is born in Bethlehem of Judah.” Consider the dignity of this. It is not in the royal city of Jerusalem that he is born, but in Bethlehem, the least among thousands of villages in Judah. O Bethlehem, so very small but forever magnified by him who was so great and who within your walls became so small. Rejoice, Bethlehem, through all your streets let a festive Alleluia be sung. What city, on hearing this news will not envy you for that most precious stable and the glory of that manger? Your name is now celebrated all over the world, and all generations call you blessed. Everywhere, O city of God, glorious things are said of you; everywhere it is sung that “a man is born in her, and the Highest himself has established her” (Ps. 87:5). Everywhere, I repeat, it is preached, everywhere it is proclaimed that “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Judah.”
Where Meek Souls Will Receive Him
Christ’s birth in Bethlehem is a sign of his royal identity, for those whose eyes look at events through Bible lenses, those whose ears are attuned to the promises of God. But it’s also a message to us. Bethlehem is a little town, an out of the way place. When God chose to enter our world to become our king, he didn’t choose a palace in a great capital. He chose a stable in a village of mud-walled houses and dirt streets. And if we would receive him, we must be as humble and lowly as he, making a Bethlehem of our hearts. “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
Many years ago a preacher named Philip Brooks on one Christmas eve sat looking out over the little town of Bethlehem and penned these words.
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming but in this world of sin where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.