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The Bethlehem Disconnect
December 24, 2000 Micah 5:2-4
By Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn to the prophet Micah chapter 5, and follow along as I read vs2-4. Hear what the Spirit says in the Word.
2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.
3 Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Let me give you the theme for todays sermon up front. People today need to disconnect from their stressed lifestyles and reconnect with the Living God. We can make this reconnection because God has already connected with the world in the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. But let me come at this theme in a different way.
Five years ago today, December 24, 1995, tens of thousands of people poured into the city of Bethlehem from all over the West Bank, Israel and the world. Manger Square was ablaze with the tricolored flag of the Palestinian National Authority. Wall-sized banners of Yasser Arafat were draped over the walls. Armed Palestinian guards patrolled the parapets above the shoulder-to-shoulder jostling crowd.
Only the day before, Israel had formally turned over the city to the PNA as part of the peace process. Orthodox Jews had mounted a strenuous protest. Israeli soldiers met them outside of town to control the mob. But Palestinians, many of them Christians, were rejoicing. Some estimate that Palestinian Christians account for almost 40 percent of the population in Bethlehem. That Christmas Eve, they crammed into the ancient city's churches to worship.
At Redeemer Lutheran beneath its cone-shaped tower, the crowds came early. Candles were lit and people sat in expectant silence. Dignitaries were seated. Suha Arafat, Yasser Arafat's wife, arrived. She is a Christian by the way. That is not the kind of thing you would ever learn by reading our newspapers, is it?
Every people and nation put their own spin on history. Let me give you the Palestinian viewpoint, which might come as a shock. The Palestinians say that the people called Israelis are invaders. And it is true in that most Israelis came from Europe in the twentieth century. The Palestinians say that they are the people who have always been there and who have always been conquered by someone else. That is why that day in 1995 was so important to them. For the first time in Bethlehems history, the city was a self-governing political entity. Gone were the Israelis, the Jordanians before them, the British, the Ottoman Turks and the Romans. Not since the birth of Jesus had this village been free.
All of this was on everyone's mind when the pastor's wife stood up to sing. She had obviously had no formal training in voice. The tone was mellow but wavering. The notes were hesitant, but the spirit firm. Tears coursed down the faces of all present who heard these words as though they had never heard them before:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
The hopes and fears - of all the years!
Go back now 2,000 years and imagine a young couple arriving in this sleepy village - she about to give birth to a child and he worried about where they are going to spend the night.
Bethlehem is not a holiday destination for Joseph and Mary. The city suffers under the burden of Roman occupation. They are there because they have to be there to fill out the "long form" of the Roman census. Do you remember the US census earlier this year. I hope the Romans did a better job of counting than the Romans did. They sent my mother the short form which she promptly filled out and sent in. Then a census taker showed up at her door and had her fill out another short form. Mother actually enjoyed the company. She served the census person cookies and milk. Then the same census taker came back and had her fill out a long form. Then another census taker came back a fourth time and had her fill out another long form. I told mother that census takers were just goofing off, passing the time with this older lady, who would serve them cookies and milk.
Anyway, in the first century, Bethlehem was a quaint out-of-the-way place, the kind of place we might dream of going to get away from it all. That was not the motive of Mary and Joseph. They were forced to go to Bethlehem at the behest of a powerful empire, and when they arrive they find total disconnect.
You know the story. The village is too crowded and every inn in town is overflowing. They had to camp out somewhere. What they need is a drink of the milk of human kindness; what they get is the vinegar of rejection - a door in their face, and an invitation to join the farm animals out back in the stable.
Today, there are some people, usually people who have it all who would love to spend a few days of vacation in a stable. A stable is still and quiet, a sleepy place--No telephones ringing, no TVs playing, no Santas singing, no palm pilots plotting, no Christmas rush rushing, no e-mail answering, no partridge in a pear tree. It would be different, you have to admit, a chance to get away from it all. And many people like that. Vacationers these days are increasingly willing and anxious to rough it. Busy executives are escaping to spots such as the Aloha Mana Garden in Anahola, Hawaii, where they can stay in one of a small collection of cottages scattered across seven acres of Hawaiian jungle. Such disconnect vacation packages are available all around the globe.
Of course some of them are not as disconnected as you might think. In 1997 Mark Pastore thought he had found just the place to ignore technology for a week. He scheduled a trip to the tiny Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily. He landed on the islands just days after the first Internet service provider launched there. Each day he would leave his hotel and walk into the balmy Mediterranean air, then proceed past the small storefront the ISP had built to seduce locals with walk-in dial-up access. Each day he passed by a machine wired to Internet time.
This is not exactly what Pastore, the vice president of an Internet company in Redwood City, California, had in mind when he planned a getaway that would remove him from the hyperproductive, instant decision-making workstyle his career had fostered. Before his Aeolian vacation he had been commuting two hours each day to work, chattering on his cell phone all the while. He had taken one-week trips before and then broken his rules for relaxation, compulsively calling in to check voice mail and e-mail. So it only makes sense that back in 1997 a PC in the window of an Aeolian Islands' shop was all it took to trigger thoughts of work for this taughtly wired Web exec. "I was trying to disconnect, but I couldn't," Pastore says of that trip. "I was so burned out I didn't know I was burned out." [Jane Hodges, "A Welcome Disconnect," Business 2.0, March 2000, 384-86.]
This story makes an interesting point. We want to disconnect. We need to disconnect, at least for a small period of time, to recover our emotional and spiritual balance.
Today, if you're wanting to disconnect you can forget Bethlehem. It's fully wired, and virtual, online tours of the Church of the Nativity or the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem are now available. So you have to go elsewhere, to a place where you can not compulsively check voice mail, call the office on a cell phone, or answer e-mails on a laptop.
There is another reason why some people want to disconnect. They find our postmodern society to be an alien place, hostile to any spiritual impulses. As evidence of this modern hostility to God, we might point to the court decision in a ACLU-sponsored lawsuit that declared the motto of the state of Ohio to be illegal. That motto is, or was, "With God, All Things Are Possible." The Cleveland Plain Dealer has suggested some tongue in cheek replacements for the state motto. Have you heard them?
1. "Without God, some things are impossible."
2. "With money, all things are possible."
3. "With the ACLU, no God is possible."
4. "With the Tooth Fairy, all things are possible."
5. "What have we done?"
Thas is a good question. I sometimes wonder what Christians have done to make our society so hostile toward us. But one things seems certain. This society has determined and decided that it will have nothing to do with God. So anyone who has any spiritual inkling or any spiritual feelings has to feel disconnected and out-of-place in this society.
Back to Mary and Joseph. The irony is that it is precisely in this Bethlehem disconnect - in this place of discomfort and loneliness, far from the madding crowd, far from their life in Nazareth. In a place where they know no one, have no help - it is in this disconnected place that God and humanity are finally reconnected. As John 1:14 puts it: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us."
The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was a fulfillment of OT prophecy. Micah 5:2 contains the prophecy: "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting."
Micah the prophet is less known today than his more famous contemporaries, Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. Micah of Moresheth lived in a small settlement in the Judean lowlands, southwest of Jerusalem. While he served as a prophet to the southern Kingdom of Judah, his message was also addressed to the northern Kingdom of Israel. Micah appears to have lived during the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel and the attack of the Assyrians on Jerusalem (750-20 B.C.)
The book of Micah is challenging to read. That is the nice way to put it. It is a tough go. The book has poetic language, making use of similes and metaphors, and it contains various oracles and speeches made by the prophet during different parts of his life. Micah was a prophet filled with an awareness of the living God. Micah saw what was underneath the surface of society, the corruption of politicians, the exploitation of the poor and the delinquency of the religious leadership in carrying out their duties. Micah's messages address not only the moral disease of his society, but go beyond his own time and place and out to future generations. In today's reading, he speaks of the coming of the messiah to Bethlehem.
This passage is well-known due to its connection to Christmas. When we hear these verses from Micah, they elicit from us the memory of the town in Judah where the infant Messiah was born. In Matthew's Christmas story, when the Magi question King Herod about the exact location of the birthplace of the king of the Jews, Herod's chief priests and teachers quote Micah.
The meaning of this prophetic reading is not completely clear. In verse 2, God is speaking to Bethlehem, saying that in spite of its insignificance, one day it will produce another David to rule the new Israel, the people of God. Before the birth of Christ, Bethlehem was famous for one reason. It was the home of King David. The implication is that Bethlehem's history will one day repeat itself in the birth of a Messiah. The coming ruler will be from Bethlehem and that ruler will be a new David. The same idea is voiced in Isaiah 11:1, which promises a shoot from the stump of Jesse, also pointing to a new David. This is a common biblical theme. God's choice tends to be for the smallest, the least likely to be able to accomplish God's purpose. The point is that God does not need us to accomplish his will, though God does use us to accomplish his will. We see this idea most clearly in the baby in a manger. This helpless little baby is the mighty power of God come into the world to us.
Micah 5:3 sounds like a side-comment placed between the description of the Messiah in verse 2 and the action of the messiah in v4. V3 reads, "Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel."
The "He" in this verse is God, who will give the people over to their enemies. The Lord lets the people suffer for a time at the hand of their enemies. The first limit is expressed with the image of a woman in labor (cf. 4:9-10). The pain is acute, but it will end. The second limit has to do with the return of the exiles. When the woman who is in labor brings this heir of the Davidic kingdom into the world, the scattered members of the people of God will be unified once more.
Verse 4 reverts to the theme of the future ruler proclaimed in verse 2. "And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth." The reign of the new Messiah will be marked by strength, peace, and the fidelity of all the earth. Under this ruler, the people will live in security because his dominion will extend to the "ends of the earth."
We live after the fulfillment of Micahs prophecy, 2000 years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem.. but there are some lessons that we can learn from Bethlehem.
We may feel as disconnected from our society as Mary and Joseph did in Bethlehem. We may feel that we want to get away from it all, that there is nothing here for us. But just getting away from it all is not enough. We must not only disconnect with society, we must reconnect with God. Or to put it another way, detachment is important, but only insofar as it leads to reattachment.
The Babe of Bethlehem is a reattachment. The human race has not always been disconnected from God. In fact, we were made, we were created, to be united to God. But sin came into the world, the connection was broken. At Bethlehem, God reestablished the connection.
We need that connection today as much as any human beings ever did. On a deep spiritual and emotional level, we find ourselves searching for an experience that will disconnect us from the busyness of our lives. But there is no value in such disconnection, unless it enables us to reconnect. In other words, it is not just that we need to get away from it all. It is that we need to get away from it all in order to find something better. It is not that we physically need to go to Bethlehem, or to a rustic corner of Maui or to a mountain retreat. We need rather a disconnection of the mind so that we can have a reconnection of the heart.
Of course, Christmas Eve may not be the time to talk about disconnecting from life so that we might reconnect with living. We all have too much shopping to do, too many parties and family and social and church obligations. Yet, maybe right here in this advent moment, God is giving us an opportunity to disconnect from all this stuff, and attach in a new and meaningful way to God.
Perhaps, you are feeling that, like Bethlehem for so many centuries, you too have suffered under the burden of occupying powers - powers like sin, guilt, selfishness, career ambition, and cultural noise. Now is the time to reattach. Now is the time to decide that we are going to get back to what matters, and what matters Jesus the Christ, the babe of Bethlehem. If you have found that attachment, you have found the meaning of Christmas. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 12/22/00