Christmas and Bethlehem. They just go together, don’t they? As we are moving into the advent season, celebrating the coming of Jesus Christ the savior of the world, the tiny town of Bethlehem enters our lives again. We decorate our homes and our communities with scenes of the nativity, commemorating the birth of Jesus not at the inn, because there was no room at the inn. We have our Christmas scene, our beautiful snow globes, capturing the iconic beauty of the birth of Christ not at the inn, but in a cave lying in a manger.
Some of our greatest art depicts this very scene. I bet you own something yourself showing the birth of Jesus. There has been no event more earth shattering, more monumental than God becoming flesh and walking among us. We can think of no more beautiful scene to depict and treasure forever than that silent night.
But we need to understand that Jesus wasn’t born into a snow globe. He wasn’t born into an iconic nativity scene. He wasn’t born into a world of silent nights and peace on earth. Rather, Jesus was born at the intersection of beauty and pain. He was born right on the fault lines of our most intractable conflicts. When we’re faithful to the bible, there is nothing sentimental or naive about the Christmas story. Jesus was born into a war torn world with despotic, paranoid kings who would dispatch death squads to kill two year old boys. He was born in a place where, to this day, you can find tear gas canisters and rubber bullets in the street. What more intractable conflict in the world do we have than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?? So while Bethlehem brings to mind our idealistic picture of the manger scenes, magi, and snow globes, if you visit there today you could just as likely leave with some of the tear gas canisters and rubber bullets littering the streets as with an an iconic depiction of Jesus’ birth.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf. Bethlehem means literally “house of bread.” We can get behind that, we know that the bread of life was born there. But what about “Ephrathah”? Why is Micah using this word as well??
Ephrathah means “ash heap”, and THIS is how the little town of Bethlehem enters the bible. “Leaving Bethel, Jacob and his clan moved on toward Ephrath. But Rachel went into labor while they were still some distance away. Her labor pains were intense. After a very hard delivery, the midwife finally exclaimed, “Don’t be afraid—you have another son!” Rachel was about to die, but with her last breath she named the baby Ben-oni (which means “son of my sorrow”). The baby’s father, however, called him Benjamin (which means “son of my right hand”). So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Jacob set up a stone monument over Rachel’s grave, and it can be seen there to this day.” Genesis 35:16-20 NLT. Bethlehem is the town where Rachel, beloved wife of Jacob who became Israel, died during childbirth delivering Jacob’s son Benjamin. And as surprising as it may be, since this passage in Genesis was probably written 3500 years ago, Rachel’s tomb still stands to THIS very day!! It is just outside the wall separating Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and yes you could visit it if you wanted. Bethlehem was born into the bible as a place of sorrows, as an ash heap of mourning. It would later become the birthplace of David, then of course for the son of David who would reign forever, but it first appears as a place of sorrows and tragedy.
The text also lets us know that Bethlehem, though just a small place in the world, would be the birthplace of the Messiah. Jerusalem, the great city, is not the birthplace of Jesus. It is where He would go to die, but it is the little town of Bethlehem where Salvation is born. God likes to use small beginnings, you see??
But Bethlehem was not peaceful, even on that silent night. We know the story of the wise men, who somehow saw in the stars that the awaited Jewish Messiah was born and travelled a great distance to bring him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. A beautiful story. But the other part of this that they inadvertently almost screwed the whole thing up when they alerted Herod, the reigning King of the Jews, that the long prophesied Messiah, the awaited King of the Jews had been born. Herod being who he was got a little paranoid about it, with tragic consequences. “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.”” Matthew 2:16-18 ESV. Rachel weeping for her children, as prophesied by Jeremiah. War torn Bethlehem Ephrathah, the house of bread, the ash heap. The slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt. If not for the warning of an angel the story of Jesus would have ended right there. Tear gas and rubber bullets.
Christmas is not simply a hallmark card. That is really just too sentimental. It’s also not just tragedy and conflict, tear gas and rubber bullets. That’s too cynical. But both need to be taken together. Both are part of it all – hope and horror. Beauty and brutality.
We have the beauty of the conception by the Holy Spirit. Salvation began at the point of the conception. Salvation is not a plan but a person – the person of Jesus Christ. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6 ESV. We have the adoration of the magi, away in a manger. Iconic beauty.
But we also have Herod’s death squads. Ugly darkness and paranoid rulers. Darkness verses light. Good versus evil.
In the Christmas story, we have darkness and we have light. But know one thing for sure – the dark and the light are not evenly matched. The darkness and the fear come from sin and satan. Light and hope come from God. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” John 1:5 NLT. Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, has come to save the world.
Let’s bring this down, from big picture to little picture. We know Jesus was sent to save the whole world, but what about you and me?? What is true in the big picture of God saving the world is also true in the little picture of God saving your soul. God saving you. Little picture…but not so little to you, is it?? Jesus is the king who saves the world, but he’s also the doctor who heals your soul. Yes, that’s a doctor, not a lawyer. Jesus never uses a metaphor describing Himself as a lawyer, but frequently as a doctor. In fact one of my favorite scriptures comes when Jesus is being criticized for hanging out with sinners. “When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”” Matthew 9:12-13 NLT. So, Jesus sees himself as a doctor, not a lawyer. He is the great physician. Yet we get this switched around and tell ourselves that somehow what we need for salvation is mostly legal and what need is a lawyer to cut us a deal in kind of a quid pro quo arrangement. There is truth to this comparison, but the much better comparison is Jesus as great physician.
When we believe in Jesus, Jesus is born into our lives. When we believe in Jesus, you could say we become Bethlehem. But remember, Christ was not just born into the beautiful places in Bethlehem. He’s not just born into the beautiful places in your life. He’s not just born into the places of your life that looks like a Bethlehem snow globe. He’s also born into the war torn places in your soul. He’s born into the iconic beauty, but also into tear gas and rubber bullet Bethlehem.
We want it to be all about the silent night, the snow globe Bethlehem. We hope for the snow globe, but sometimes it feels like we’re getting a lot of tear gas. But Jesus also comes into those deep, dark places in your soul. Those places inside you where the tear gas of confusion is choking you. Those places where the rubber bullets are hurting you. The Great Physician comes into your life to heal the hurt, to heal those conflicts.
To come to Jesus, you don’t have to wait to get things right in your life. You don’t have to wait until you get things all cleaned up. You don’t have to wait until you deserve Jesus to ask Him into your life. You just have to say yes to Jesus, then make room.
Remember Jesus was not born at the inn – because there was no room at the inn. But rather, He was born in the cave, because there IS room there. Repent, make room for Jesus. Invite Him into the deepest darkest caves in your soul, those places you don’t bring guests. If you want the beauty of the nativity scene, the peace of the snow globe, you have to let him into those war torn, tear gas and rubber bullet places inside you. Those places nobody else knows about. Those places you tell everybody else don’t exist. Those places you tell yourself don’t exist. Jesus is born in those places. Let Jesus be born into those dark caves inside you where you don’t invite guests.
Bethlehem came into the bible as an ash heap of sorrows. But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. God takes the smallest beginnings and make them great. When you say yes to Jesus, you become Bethlehem. Bethlehem is born in the bible as a place of sorrow, grief, mourning and loss. You’re only one person, a small village. And you know all the hurts you have. You know the wars you’ve waged. You know the guns you’re shooting. Yet He’s going to come into the ash heap of your life and heal your soul.
Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf. From the distant past…the eternal past. Christ has been there from the beginning….the “in the beginning” beginning.
The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the woman in labor gives birth. Ever feel like you’ve been abandoned to your enemies and they’re just beating the crap out of you?? Ever feel like it’s just you against the world and the world is winning?
Then at last his fellow countrymen will return from exile to their own land. One of the great themes of the bible. Coming out of exile. Coming home. Finding your way home. Are you ready to come home? Christmas is a time of coming home, isn’t it?
And he will stand to lead his flock with the LORD’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. Because He is the Good Shepherd. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:11-15 ESV. He’s born into our war torn world, but He knows His sheep. He leads His flock with the Lord’s strength, and with the Lord’s strength He lays down His life for the sheep.
Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored around the world. Even in the land of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, we will be undisturbed. And seriously – think about this – who does not honor Jesus? Other religions, atheists, all the nations. Some may do their best to try to ignore Him, but even then they end up honoring Him. Jesus Christ is honored around the world. In fact, Jesus is judging the world right now, and we don’t even know it. Because He the perfect human, and we actually all know it.
And he will be the source of peace. Even in your tear gas and rubber bullet Bethlehem, he will be your peace. We all want those tear gas and rubber bullets to be turned into the snow globe. That time will come, Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. But when the sirens are wailing and guns are going off in the background, you can still be singing “Silent Night”, because the peace is within you, the peace is within us. We carry it out into the world a little bit at a time.
He assumes our humanity so that He might heal our humanity. Just come with a little bit of faith. Make just a little bit of room inside, because God loves the smallest beginnings.
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf. The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the woman in labor gives birth. Then at last his fellow countrymen will return from exile to their own land. And he will stand to lead his flock with the LORD’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored around the world. And he will be the source of peace.”
Micah 5:2-5 NLT