Tuesday, February 20, 2007

C, Ash Wednesday - Micah 5:2-5 "Bethlehem"

Text: Micah 5:2-5

2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” 3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labour gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. 4 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. 5 And he will be their peace. (Micah 5:2-5)


It’s hard to imagine someday we will return to dust and dirt. You are dust and to dust you shall return. We know it will happen, but even so, it’s a tough thing to grip.

Perhaps even more difficult is the knowledge that we came from the ground. God made Adam from the earth and breathed life into this body of dirt, and then created Eve from him. It’s hard to believe humanity was formed from soil.

During the midweek Lenten services, and then into Holy Week and Easter, we will examine locations in the bible. Tonight we look at Bethlehem in Judah, then in following weeks we will study places such as Egypt, Nazareth, Jericho, Bethany, and Gethsemane; Jerusalem, the Upper Room, and Paradise – the garden of eternal grace.

But tonight, one might ask, what’s Bethlehem got to do with Ash Wednesday, and what’s Bethlehem got to do with death and dirt?

The name Bethlehem in Hebrew means, house of bread. Around the town were grain fields and sheep grazing country. Bethlehem is also referred to in the Old Testament as Ephrathah, which in Hebrew means, to bear fruit. So Bethlehem or Ephrathah was a place associated with food and fruitfulness. It seems to focus on life being created from the soil rather than death and our return to the dust.

We all know the Christmas gospel ­— baby Jesus born at Bethlehem. But Bethlehem appears in a number of places in bible. Let’s look at them to give us a fuller knowledge of what happened at Bethlehem because of us and for us.

The first mention of the town is in Genesis, and it’s a sad occasion. Rachel was the wife of Jacob, and the mother of Joseph. She had trouble conceiving and bearing children and as the family moved towards Bethlehem, or Ephrathah, Rachel went into labour with her second son. She gave birth to him and on her death bed named him Ben-Oni, which means, son of my sorrow. But Jacob renamed him Benjamin, which means, son of my right hand. And then he buried his much loved wife, Rachel, in a grave at Bethlehem.

So here in Genesis we have a prototype or preview of the gospel at Bethlehem. Jesus was the son of Mary’s sorrow because of her birth pains and his death on the cross, and like Benjamin, Jesus is the Son who now sits at the right hand of his Father.

Then in Judges chapter seventeen, a cloud is cast over Bethlehem, as it becomes the location from where an idolatrous Levite came as priest to serve a man called Micah in Ephraim. This is not the prophet Micah who spoke out against idolatry, but rather he and the Levite became the father of idolatry in the tribe of Dan after the tribe overran Micah’s house and carted off his idols and the Levite priest.

And from events starting in the Bethlehem, in Judges nineteen, unfaithfulness, rape, murder, bodily mutilation, war and near genocide took place between the tribes of Israel and another of its tribes, Benjamin.

This all came about when a concubine left her husband and returned to her home at Bethlehem. On fetching his concubine and travelling through the Benjamin countryside, he stayed in Gibeah and when his life was threatened, he gave his concubine to the wicked men of the city and they raped her and left her for dead. Her master cut her into pieces and sent her body to the far corners of Israel. So distraught at what had happened to the concubine, Israel fought against the city and their brother tribe of Benjamin, and nearly destroyed it forever.

As we can see, Bethlehem was anything but fruitful or a house of wholesome food in these times. Rather, from the events of this town, we see very clearly the sin that permeated the Israelites; the sin that commits humanity to dust and ashes; the sin that shows our need for a Saviour.

This fruitlessness continues at the beginning of the book of Ruth. Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, fall on hard times as they battle drought at Bethlehem, so they move to Moab with their two sons. After moving, Elimelech dies and the sons marry two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Eventually the two sons die as well, leaving the three women widowed. Orpah returns to her family in Moab, but Ruth stays with Naomi, who returns to Bethlehem just in time for the barley harvest.

On returning to Bethlehem, Naomi requests she be called Mara, which in Hebrew means, bitter. Naomi in Hebrew means, pleasant or beauty. She told them she had left for Moab full, but the Lord had brought her back empty. One could understand why she might have felt this way, with no welfare system and having lost all the men in her life, Naomi’s future looked more bitter than pleasant.

But the Lord had not left Naomi and Ruth bare and bitter in Bethlehem. Her husband — whose name Elimelech, incidentally means, my God is king — had relatives at Bethlehem. And the Jewish custom was for the family of the dead husband to support the widow and children with a kinsman-redeemer. Boaz was the redeemer and eventually married Ruth and looked after Naomi. Therefore, Ruth remained faithful to her mother-in-law and found favour with Boaz, a relative of her father-in-law, and continued the line of Elimelech. It is no accident that Boaz and Ruth are the great-grandparents of King David.

As we all know, David was a shepherd who came from Bethlehem. God laid his hands on David through Samuel and also made him shepherd and king of Israel. There were numerous times in David’s kingship that he looked to God as his “Elimelech” — his God as King. We can see, despite the horrors and bitterness surrounding Bethlehem, God was making the town, Ephrathah, fruitful!

Therefore, it is no accident Jesus Christ, humanity’s Kinsman Redeemer, was born in Bethlehem. Just as the human spirit of Elimelech lived on through Boaz and Ruth in King David; our God — the King of Creation — was conceived in Mary, lived on earth, and was raised to life through the Holy Spirit, in the person of Jesus Christ, beginning at Bethlehem. It comes as no surprise to us that God fulfilled his promises made through the prophets, like the prophet Micah, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (Micah 5:2)

But if it is hard for us to imagine our flesh has come from dust and will return to dust. It is even harder to fathom how the Creator of the universe could come down to a town on earth which has had so much evil and sin surrounding it, and be born as a part of his creation, and laid in all the filth, Bethlehem has to offer — the manger.

From Psalm twenty-two we hear, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? 6 …I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: 8 ‘He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’ 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. 17 I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. 18 They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing. (Psalm 22: 1, 6-8, 15-18)

When Jesus was born and laid in the manger; he was born to lie in the dust of death for you and me. Bethlehem has much to do with us and Ash Wednesday. We are weak; our lives without a Redeemer, God, and King, would be bitter; much more bitter than Naomi and Ruth’s life without a kinsman-redeemer.

Therefore, we are called to believe that we have a Saviour, who saves us from our sinfulness and weakness. Mary’s sorrow in loosing her Son at the cross is our Salvation raised to the right hand of the Father in glory. Jesus was laid in the dust of death beginning at Bethlehem, but Bethlehem has been fruitful for us who believe, ever since.

Jesus was raised out of the same dust as Adam, but he remained without sin. He was killed by the sin of humanity, in the Garden of Eden, at Bethlehem, and here today. And he was raised to life and lives on as our Redeemer over sin and death. His greatness reaches the ends of the earth; he is our peace forever! Amen.

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