Thursday, December 20, 2012

C, Advent 4 /Christmas Day 2012 – Micah 5:2, Luke 2:4-7 “Fruitful Bread”

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And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4–7 ESV)
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. Bethlehem or Ephrathah was a place associated with food and fruitfulness. It seems to focus on life being created but it hasn't always been that way.
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 picture 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 fathers 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 Benjamin, a tribe of Israel, and Israel's other tribes.
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; sin that commits humanity to death; 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, such as 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." (Micah 5:2 ESV)
When Jesus was born and laid in the manger; he was born to lie in the darkness of death for you and me. Bethlehem has much to do with us. 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.
In fact you are this Bethlehem; you are God's fruitful house of bread! You may see your life as less than ordinary, not extraordinary in the least. But God does. He has laid his Son in you, in the manger of your heart. Right in the place where out of the human heart come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. (Mark 7:21–22 ESV)
Bethlehem dished up some horrendous daily bread for those who lived there. And at other times it would have seemed just an ordinary boring town amongst the flocks of sheep and fields of wheat. So too you may feel nothing special, or in times of strife in your life, your daily bread may make it seem that God is nowhere to be found.
But surely if our Father in heaven would lay his son in such a place to suffer and die, and then raise him to his right hand! Then wouldn't he also bear his eternal fruit in us having laid his Son is us? You are Ephrathah Bethlehem, smallest of the small, but within lives he who is not only ruler of Israel, but Lord of creation! The single most fruitful bread and our only daily bread that will sustain you forever! Amen.