Why the Little Town of Bethlehem?
Why, of all places, would God choose to perform the first great miracle of the Christian faith in this little town of Bethlehem? Why did God chose to become a human being in Bethlehem?
Turn with me, if you would, to the Old Testament book of Micah, Chapter 5 for our Scripture text today. Hear now the Word of God.
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 labor bears a son,
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 our peace
when the Assyrians invade our land
and march through our fortresses.
We will raise against them seven shepherds,
even eight commanders,
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
Several years ago the church hosted a Christmas dinner for the participants of the ministry we call English for Students of Other Languages (ESOL). Each student who was a part of that ministry brought dishes of food from their own country of origin. I was fascinated to see how the large number of students and their families present. I actually greeted every person and asked their name and the country of their birth as they came through the line. As I recall on that particular day, thirty-one countries were represented. Students from five different continents were enrolled in classes here to learn English. You will have to agree that ESOL is quite a ministry.
When I introduced myself to one woman and asked, “Where were you born?” she said, “I am from Israel.”
I asked, “And your name?”
I know a lot about Israel, so I inquired, “What area are you from in Israel?”
She answered, “I am from Bethlehem.”
I thought, I’m going to get my plate of food and sit down at the table next to Mary of Bethlehem. I want to find out more about her while we eat this Christmas dinner. After everyone had been served, I fixed plate and went over to sit beside this lady. I learned that she was a Palestinian Christian who had been a Christian since she was twelve years old. She had been a member of the Orthodox Church in Israel and was currently a member of the Orthodox Church here in Spartanburg.
During our conversation, I said, “Mary, I just never thought that I would have Christmas dinner with Mary from Bethlehem.”
She said, “I will tell you something even more surprising. My birthday is December 24. When people ask me where I am from, I always tell them that I was the next-door-neighbor of Jesus. As a little girl, I could wake up in the morning, look out my bedroom window on the second story of my home, and see the Church of the Nativity, the place where Jesus was born.”
Having visited Bethlehem on two occasions, I have to ask the question, Why, of all places, would God choose to perform the first great miracle of the Christian faith in this little town of Bethlehem? Why did God chose to become a human being in Bethlehem?
Bethlehem is fairly indistinguishable from most other towns in Judea except for one feature. This is the location of the Church of Nativity, generally undisputed as being built over the traditional site of Jesus’ birthplace. Constantine was the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire. Not more than 250 years after the birth of Jesus, Constantine actually sent his mother to the Holy Land to identify holy sites and to designate locations where churches were to be built. At that time everyone agreed that Jesus was born at that location.
In order to enter the Church of the Nativity, you must stoop and pass through a very low door called the Door of Humility. After entering the back of a huge sanctuary, you wind down some stairs to a series of caves underneath the church. One particular cave marked by a star was used as a stable. This town, located about six miles south of Jerusalem, is really a kind of out-of-the-way place. It is, however, the place God chose to enter this world.
Our son Kris traveled with me on my first trip to Bethlehem. We noticed the strong presence of the Israeli military in the country. Every high school graduate is required to join the military, with boys serving three years and girls serving two. No matter the location in Israel, we saw older teenagers in uniforms of olive drab. They all carried automatic weapons made in the United States of America.
Kris wrote a card to our daughter, Betsy, from Israel, saying, “Betsy, you won’t ever want to shop at a Gap store in Israel. Everything they have is olive drab.”
Solomon Reuben, a Jewish-Israeli man with quite the Jewish name, served as our guide on that first trip. We had no problems traveling in Bethlehem at that time. My second trip was quite different, however. Some of you went with Bob Morgan and me as part of a tour. Our guide at that time was a Palestinian Christian named Saliba.
One day we traveled along the road leading to Bethlehem, which is in Palestinian territory. When we reached the checkpoint going into the town, it was blocked. Like Mary, whom I met at the ESOL dinner, about one-third of all Palestinians are Christians, not Islamic. They have been the most persecuted. I noticed that all the young people in the military wore black uniforms and carried weapons made in Russia.
When we were not allowed to enter, Saliba, quite a determined fellow, directed the driver of the bus to follow back roads to another entrance to Bethlehem. Apparently the soldiers at both checkpoints were familiar with the tricky ways of Saliba. The guards had obviously communicated with each other, and those at the back entrance refused us admittance as well.
Bethlehem is actually built on a ridge. Saliba instructed us to get off the bus; we were going to walk to the top of the hill through a small settlement. We soon came to many concrete barriers that looked like the Maginot Line. We wound our way through them and crossed the border. A bus was waiting for us outside of Bethlehem, and the driver took us down into the city. We were about the only tourists there that day. We ate delicious falafels, deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas seasoned with onions and spices and shopped at many stores, including one that carried olive wood carvings of manger scenes. We visited again The Church of the Nativity, that wonderful site built above where tradition says Jesus was born.
Why did God choose Bethlehem? He had prepared the place, giving it a rich history. We read in the book of Genesis that Rachel was buried near Bethlehem. We actually passed the traditional site of Rachel’s tomb on my second trip into Bethlehem.
Shepherds have been in Bethlehem for centuries. At the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were out in the field. They had the intense responsibility of taking care of the flocks of sheep and lambs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The flock at Shepherd’s Field, near the place of Jesus’ birth, was unusual. The animals had to be perfect. They had to be without spots, blemishes, and scars since they would be used as a sacrifice on the altar in Jerusalem, just a few miles away.
I see a connection between those sacrificial sheep and Jesus Christ. Remember that John said, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). We read in I Peter 1:19 that Jesus is “a lamb of God without blemish or defect.” Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Of course Jesus should be born at a place where sheep were so prominent, especially where temple sheep without any imperfection were prepared for sacrifice. Mary had her little lamb in Bethlehem.
A part of the history of Bethlehem is the beautiful story of redemption of Ruth the Moabite, settling there with her mother-in-law, Naomi. Bethlehem was the bread basket for all of Judah. Ruth and Naomi lived there after a great famine because the area had a plentiful supply of grain. You remember that Ruth went into the fields of Boaz to glean. He made sure that his harvesters left enough for this pretty young widow. In some ways their relationship was love at first sight. Boaz was the redeemer kinsman who took Ruth as his wife. The couple’s child would be the ancestor of Jesus.
The very name Bethlehem is significant. It means “House of Bread.” How appropriate a name for the One called the “bread of heaven,” (John 6:32) and the one called the “bread of life,” (John 6:35) to be born at the place called the House of Bread. How appropriate a name for the One who fed 5000 people with just five loaves and two fish.
God chose that place to bring the Redeemer of the world in human form. Mary brought forth her firstborn son and laid him in a poor, humble stable. This baby is the Redeemer. He is the eternal God. He is the everlasting Father. He is the Prince of Peace. He is the Savior of the world. We sing “Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing. Come, adore on bended knee, Christ, the Lord, the new-born king.”
Why Bethlehem? We could say that God chose Bethlehem so that the prophecy could be fulfilled. God promised through the prophet Micah to send a Redeemer from this very small place, a Redeemer who would change the world forever. Micah was very clear about where this birth was to happen. He was not at all cryptic like some of the other prophets. We would never understand some prophesies in the Old Testament if we did not look at them through our instant-replay perspective. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are two such books that contain puzzling prophesies. We must look through the eyes of Christians who now know that God intended those prophesies to apply to Jesus. Bethlehem, a small town, is the place where God moved in this decisive way.
Bethlehem is the city of David. We are told that the One to come would sit on the throne of David. The family line was still intact because of David’s time as a shepherd there. Later in his life when he led his army against the Philistines, his thirsty soldiers drank from one of the town’s wells.
Mary and Joseph, both of the house and lineage of David, were required to travel to Bethlehem. This long, inconvenient journey was not just a Christmas trip home. The couple went to Bethlehem to be taxed and counted, like so many cattle, for the census. As the crow flies from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the distance is about sixty-nine miles. The trip itself was probably closer to eighty miles.
I tried to put this distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem in perspective. The distance is almost identical to the distance between Pacolet and Batesburg-Leesville. Think of traveling through Jonesville, Union, Whitmire, Kinards, Newberry, Prosperity, Mount Williage, and then to Batesburg-Leesville. The hilly terrain is about the same, but imagine this trip for Joseph and Mary, who was “great with child.” Their mode of transportation was a donkey, allowing them to walk about 2.5 miles an hour. It took about three days, three hard days of travel, for the couple to reach Bethlehem. To say that Mary and Joseph left Nazareth and trekked to Bethlehem is similar to saying that they walked from Pacolet to Batesburg-Leesville.
Jesus born of Pacolet? Maybe. Jesus born of Batesburg-Leesville? Maybe. That notion is really not too much of a stretch if you have ever visited Bethlehem. The two towns are pretty much the same size.
Why did God select Bethlehem, such a small, insignificant place? The International Olympic Committee would never choose such a place. They desire a location that can provide the funding to build new facilities and develop a site that will make a lot of money. Any expanding business would not choose a place like Bethlehem. The town is scarcely worth counting among the clans of Judah, yet God chose this place to bring this Messiah into the world. God chose a location out of the way and unspectacular to change the course of history. He still acts that way.
We cannot say, “God is free to do whatever He wants to do, but of course God set His favor on Bethlehem. Look at its accomplishments.” God usually does not choose bigness, even when David was chosen to be the king. Bethlehem was the city of David. Remember that Samuel overlooked David. God said, “Samuel, people look on the outward appearance. I look on the heart. You choose the one who seems the least likely, the youngest one.” God chose a place for His Son to be born, and no innkeeper can boast, “Yes, he stayed at my place. He slept here.” God chose a manger, and no craftsman can say, “I built his bed.” The town council cannot say, “He chose us because we have the greatest Chamber of Commerce. We are the greatest spot on earth.” God does not have to look for the great people in the world. He chooses the ordinary. He chooses you and me. God wants to be born in us. He chooses the small, the insignificant, because the glory goes to God, not to us and not to Bethlehem.
Phillips Brooks wrote the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1865 after visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Thinking the song would be appropriate for children, he took the lyrics back to Massachusetts and started circulating the words. Finally one of his friends put it to music. One line in particular seems so important: “Yet in thy dark streets shining the everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
I urge you to go home and look at your own manger scene. As you look at Mary remember the day the angel told her she was pregnant. The first comment the angel made was, “Mary, do not be afraid.” As you look at Joseph remember his dream in which the angel said, “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Look at the shepherds who were watching their sheep out in the field when all heaven broken loose. The angel said, “Fear not.” Look at the wise men who went in search of the Christ Child. Because they suspected Herod’s evil intention, they returned home by taking another route. Though the individuals in the manger scene began their journey to this place in fear, they all came with hope. Hope and fear meet in Bethlehem. Hope and fear meet in our hearts at Christmastime.
Our son Scott was unwrapping his nativity when his three-year-old son, Ben, reached in the box and pulled out a figure. He held it in the air and said, “Look, Dada. I found God!” The figure was actually Joseph, but my hope for all my children and grandchildren is that they will find God.
A family told me several years ago that when they had gotten their nativity set out at Christmastime, they could not find the manger. They lamented, “We have lost Baby Jesus. We don’t know what happened to him. He must have been put in a different box. We’re still searching for the manger.” Their comments struck me in this way: Every year I, too, have to search for the manger. Christmas cannot come unless I find the manger, just as the shepherds and wise men did.
Dr. Jess Moody told a story that I dearly love. While seated on a platform at a Democratic fundraiser, he overheard a conversation between two prominent people – Rose Kennedy and Governor Jimmy Carter.
Rose Kennedy said to Governor Carter, “I understand that you are a born-again Christian.” She had heard that Governor Carter had made that statement during the campaign.
He said, “Yes, that is right.”
She said, “I am, too.”
Governor Carter was surprised because he knew that Mrs. Kennedy was a lifelong Roman Catholic. He said, “Mrs. Kennedy, I would like to know about that.”
She said, “One Christmas right after our son Joseph died, I was in no mood for Christmas. I did not want to celebrate, but my maid kept singing and humming Christmas carols to the point that I got sick of it. I finally told her, ‘Hush. I’m in no mood for that. I don’t want to hear any more of your Christmas songs.’ My maid looked me in the eye and said, ‘Mrs. Kennedy, you need a manger in your heart.’ I was infuriated and fired her on the spot. Later that night, I got down by my bed on my knees and prayed that God would put a manger in my heart. That is the night I was born again. The next day I called my maid and invited her to return to work. I assured her she could sing all the Christmas carols she wanted.”
Every year we must find the manger in our own heart. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.”
Have you found the manger in your heart this Christmas? Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior? If not, could I invite you to make that decision? Acknowledge him as the Lord of your life. Perhaps God has laid another decision on your heart. If so, we invite your response.Kirk H. Neely © December 2012