“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)
House of Bread. That’s what it means. Also called Ephratha – fruitfulness. A small little town in a tiny little part of the world called Israel. Rachel was buried there. Ruth found her kinsman redeemer there. It is David’s city. And as Micah makes clear, it is a city of great promise. God loves to do great things in small places.
But let’s not misread this wonderful verse. Hindsight is 20/20 and it is easy to look back upon Micah’s words through lenses that were unavailable to those who first heard Micah’s message. We read about Bethlehem and hear the voice of Linus as he holds his blanket and recites the Christmas story. We think of nativity scenes and mangers and mixed in with that are images of Christmas trees, eager children ripping open gift after gift with smiles and laughter, and jolly old Saint Nick. Nothing wrong with any of that. I’m planning on a good strong dose of all of it at my house. But if that’s all we see, we miss something important about Bethlehem.
Go back and read the fourth and fifth chapters of Micah. God’s people are in exile, oppressed by pagan nations, scattered and defeated. There is compromise and idolatry. Things are desperately wrong and there is a deep longing for God to act and make things right. Micah 5:2 is located right in the middle of this mess. God will send a ruler. When he comes he is going to defeat the enemies of God’s people and restore their rightful inheritance. He will overthrow corrupt leaders, tear down idols, establish justice, and vindicate the small remnant of the faithful.
Imagine Herod’s reaction when he was told that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. I can see the beads of sweat forming on his brow as his hands gripped the arms of his chair as knuckles turned white. Wise men from the East, guided by a star, had been led to the land of Israel, looking for this new King. Having come to Herod for guidance as to where they might continue their search, Herod is informed that Bethlehem is the promised location. Can you imagine Herod’s face as this passage is read in his hearing? He can’t help but think in terms of the defeat of Rome and the overthrow of his own power base. The ensuing slaughter of children powerfully demonstrates the fear that must have gripped his heart in that moment. Rachel is crying for her children.
Far from a cute little nativity scene, the incarnation of Christ is, and has been from the beginning, a most subversive thing. A small baby in an obscure village represents God’s invasion to overthrow evil. A tiny baby represents the ultimate threat to corrupt rulers. No one could ever have anticipated this plan.
“But they do not know the thoughts of the Lord; they do not understand his plan, that he has gathered them as sheaves to the threshing floor. ” (Micah 4:12, ESV)
As we celebrate Jesus’ birth this year, let’s be mindful of what God is really up to. He is taking over, not with an army, but with love. He is destroying corruption and idolatry, not with a show of force, but by lowering himself beyond comprehension, even to the point of death. He is making all things new.
Peace on earth. Good will toward men. Bethlehem.