O Little Town of Bethlehem - A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4C (Micah 5)




 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

*****

                O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
                Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
                Yet in they dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
                The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. (Philips Brooks, 1868).


        When we hear the Christmas story, the Gospel of Luke brings us to the little town of Bethlehem, and Matthew gets us out of town, just in the nick of time. In Luke it’s an imperial census that draws the Holy Family to Bethlehem, while in Matthew it is an enraged king who drives them out of town and into exile in Egypt. While Bethlehem is the city of David, the hometown of the young man, whom Samuel called to a new vocation, from shepherd to king of Israel. The prophet Micah speaks to a different age, several centuries after David’s rise to power. The kingdom that David put together no longer exists. It had divided into two parts after the death of his successor, and the northern portion was destroyed by the Assyrians during Micah’s time, leaving Judah as a remnant. While much of Micah’s message is one of judgment upon that kingdom and its leaders, this reading seems to offer hope of something, something better. What that might look like is uncertain, but for Christians this portends the coming of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, who is the one of peace.

           When we who are Christians read a passage from the Hebrew Bible, we need to remember that it has an original audience different from us. Sometimes that audience is difficult to discern, as it is here. Is this the message of an eighth century prophet who hails from the rural regions of Judah or a voice calling out from the exile, hoping for a restoration of what once existed, a kingdom under Davidic rule? Scholars are not of one mind on this. As Christians, however, we read it in light of the Gospels and apply it to the birth of Jesus. Micah may have had a different scenario in mind, but we hear it speaking to our Advent journey, pointing us to the little town of Bethlehem, from whence one will come bringing peace.

            The opening lines of the book of Micah identifies the prophet as “Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem” (Micah 1:1). This puts the prophet in the eighth century, around the time of the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. Much of the early chapters of the book fit such a context, but some scholars place chapters four and five during the exilic or post-exilic period. So, while the opening chapters offer words of doom and gloom, chapters four and five offer a word of hope, possibly to a post-exilic people that the throne of David would be restored. Of course, that never occurred. Descendants of the Davidic line did hold some power in post-exilic Judah, but not as king. On the other hand, there is the possibility that this is not a post-exilic piece, but actually comes from the eighth century. Since Micah takes a rather dim view of the monarchy, including Hezekiah, then perhaps what is being suggested is not the post-exilic restoration, but a royal do-over. Remember Micah isn’t an urban prophet, he’s a rural prophet. He sees the devastation out in the villages that took place after the Assyrian invasion, because the authorities pursued war rather than peace. Thus, Micah is seen envisioning a shepherd king, rather than a warrior one. As you can see, the original audience is difficult to pin down.

       While the original audience is difficult to discern, Matthew and Luke found it to be pregnant with possibilities, as they tell the story of Jesus’ birth. While these two Gospels offer two rather different perspectives on Jesus’ birth, both stories center in Bethlehem. Micah may not have been the only influence, but likely influenced this vision. So, now, as Christmas draws near, and we prepare for that moment when we welcome the child born in Bethlehem, whom the angels celebrate, we hear this word of restoration. The word for us is that “he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.”

          I like the idea that Micah may be envisioning a new beginning, something unlike the historical record. It’s not that he envisions a restoration of the current order. It’s clear he’s not impressed with David’s successors, and maybe not even with David. But Bethlehem might be a better starting place than Jerusalem. It’s not a matter of making Judah great again, but rather living into God’s vision of a realm that is just, where those who rule do so for the good of all, and as Alan Gregory puts it, this person rules for the good “of all who struggle and work for life, who prefers peace to war, and who desires to secure their posterity in the land” [Connections, p. 50]. If as seems possible, Micah speaks from a social location that is rural and has been decimated by war (after all the rural villagers don’t have the benefit of Jerusalem’s walls to protect them, like Hezekiah did), then we can see how this vision might resonate.

Indeed, it may resonate in our day, as many in rural America feel left out and ignored. They many have also contributed their sons and daughters to serve in foreign wars or seen support for their communities sucked up by military budgets. Perhaps they have been left behind by the technological revolution. What is true for those living in rural America is often true of those living in our urban cores. Neither share in the benefits of living in suburban America (my social location), and thus feel a certain anger toward the government, who seems more intent on representing those with the means to contribute to political coffers than those living on the margins. That is, the community to whom Jesus more often than not spoke.

This is the Sunday we light the candle of love. Love is the foundation for peace and justice in the world. It is love that brings nourishment and strength to the people, allowing those gathered by God’s love to live securely. That is because the Good Shepherd is the prince of peace. Peace may have been the theme of the second Sunday of Advent, but the message peace continues to ring out. We long for its promise, even as military budgets eat up much of the governmental budgets here in my country and around the world. Maybe there is a better way, a way of peace. Micah proposes it, and Jesus exemplifies it in his words and deeds. The one who is born in Bethlehem becomes the good shepherd, who takes us on a different path.

O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O Come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.
                                                                               —Phillips Brooks

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