The Rev. Paul J Cain
Fourth Sunday in Advent C, 23 December 2012
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
About the Cover: Little Bethlehem was a humble town whose name means “the house of bread.” There, [Jesus,] the Bread of Life would be born. [The town was] So like Him—humble and unpretentious. Who would even guess that such a village would have the honor of welcoming the King of kings at His birth among us? [Jesus] (He) continues His unpretentious ways today, coming to us still in humble words, water, bread, and wine. [Humble, yes, yet still a royal, hence the blue for Advent. Jesus brings you peace the world cannot give.]
Today, the sermon text is the Old Testament reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, five verses from chapter five of the book of the prophet Micah.
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 coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
Bethlehem, “house of bread,” is a Hebrew word, and so is “Ephrathah,” a specific term for the specific surrounding area of the suburbs of Bethlehem, the “greater metropolitan region” around Bethlehem. Other than being a name for a few people, the word is only used here and Ruth chapter four.
St. Matthew, in his second chapter, quotes this verse as “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah…” Matthew shows there is something more going on later in that chapter(16-18) as he writes:
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Micah wrote about Bethlehem, and so we sing our hymns of joy because of He who was born in that little town. Micah also prophesies of Bethlehem Ephrathah, because of the horrors of what would happen “in Bethlehem and in all that region” when King Herod tried to kill the King of Kings. We will meditate more on that tomorrow evening. Even today, Rachel, wife of Jacob, also known as Israel, weeps for her children. She reminds us all how much we need the peace of God.
Martin Luther takes the time to focus on the latter part of this first portion of our text, where Micah predicts: “from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”
About the timing of all of this Dr. Luther writes: “He does not come forth first from Bethlehem [right] after the Babylonian captivity but came forth a long time ago already. This is just the way John [the Evangelist] describes the divinity of Christ (John 1:1): ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ In his song, Ps. 90:2, Moses sings: ‘From everlasting to everlasting Thou art God.’ There Moses used the same expression that Micah uses here, that is: ‘You did not begin with the world, but, when the world began to be, You already were.’ Christ also says about Himself: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58)” (AE 18:248). End quote.
There’s another issue of timing in the text. Between the time of the Prophet Micah and the fulfillment of this next prophecy, the people would suffer at the hands of their enemies.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.
The phrase “give them up” means what you think it does. When the good guys come to arrest the bad guys, they call out, “Come out with your hands up. Give it up.” God’s ancient people would be conquered for cause—unfaithfulness to the Lord.
Micah writes during the time the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated by Assyria, just over 700 years before the first Christmas. Less than 600 years before the first Christmas, the city of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, and Judah, including Bethlehem, was defeated. The people were taken into captivity. They were allowed to return seventy years later, but were henceforth under the thumb of foreign rulers, including the Greeks and the Romans in between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Even the chief priests and scribes of bad King Herod’s day knew where THE King of the Jews was to be born, little Bethlehem, Ephratha, and that there would be political ramifications for whoever thought he was king at the time. That’s why Herod felt so threatened by a baby boy.
Until the time. That’s what we’re waiting for, “when the fullness of time had come,” according to Galatians 4, or as our text says, “until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.”
We know that the virgin Mary is the mother in labor. We know that the first Christmas is the day. We know that Jesus is the birthday boy. Who are “the rest of his brothers”?
First, his brothers are those of His own people, the Jews. Many believed in Him during His earthly ministry and were the first apostles and Christians. Some of the Lord’s ancient people rejected Him in ancient times, all the way back to the very beginning of history. Some rejected Jesus’ claims in during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Many Jews still reject Jesus as Messiah and the Son of God even today. Some don’t, thanks be to God!
Second, “his brothers” are those whom He calls brothers, when He teaches all Gentile and Jewish believers in Him to pray, “Our Father who art in Heaven.” Yes, ladies, Jesus even calls you His brother. All who pray “Our Father” as Jesus taught are included.
Third and finally, “his brothers” are potentially the entire human race. St. Matthew begins his Gospel account in this way: The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Mt. 1:1) At the end of Luke 3, St. Luke concludes his genealogy of Jesus by tracing Him back to the very beginning: 38 the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God (Luke 3:38). Christmas is to be good news of great joy for all people.
Jesus, the Prince of Peace, has roles to fulfill according to the prophet Micah:
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.
He shall be your peace. How? He is your shepherd, your Good Shepherd. And that word transcends languages and cultures, continents and centuries to be a word familiar to all of us, pastor. The word “p a s t o r” means shepherd in Latin, German, and even in English. Jesus will stand and shepherd you. He will pastor you through me, through your Called and Ordained servant of the Word.
Jesus will continue to shepherd you through good days and bad, war and peace, prosperity and adversity, even sickness and health, and He will do so in the strength of the Lord for He is the Lord. He will shepherd you in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God for He is the Lord God and has the Name that is above every name in heaven and on earth and under the earth. And you—even you—shall dwell secure. And He is Great to the ends of the earth. The sun never goes down on the holy Christian Church. He has His Christians around the world and one day, peoples of every tribe, nation, and language will gather around His throne to praise Him. That is heavenly peace. In the meantime, Jesus is your peace now and always. Amen.
The peace of God, which [sur]passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.