Dec 24, 2009

Christmas Eve: O Little Town of Bethlehem

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
     are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you,
     one whose origins are from the distant past.

In our translation, Micah 5:2 describes Bethlehem as “a small village.” Its diminutive size is forever enshrined in the opening of Phillips Brooks’ beloved carol: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” Brooks penned these words in 1867, after visiting Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, 1865. At that time, the population of Bethlehem numbered several thousand, much larger than the hundreds who lived there at the time of Jesus’ birth. But the Hebrew word translated as “small” did not only mean “small in size,” but also “insignificant.” It was called Bethlehem Ephrathah, and its “last name” distinguished it from other towns named Bethlehem, which means in Hebrew “house of bread.”  The village was an unimportant little place about five miles south of Jerusalem.

With one great exception, Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, the great king of Israel, and the one who had received God’s promise that his progeny would reign forever (for example, Psalm 89:4). Thus when the Israelites fell to foreign powers, they yearned for an anointed ruler, a Messiah, who would set them free, someone from the line of David, someone from Bethlehem, of all places. This yearning was fueled by the prophecy of Micah, who contrasted the insignificance of Bethlehem with the greatness of the ruler who would come from this village. This royal figure from Bethlehem would “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” (5:4-5a).

The contrast between Bethlehem’s smallness and the Messiah’s greatness highlights the unexpected and upside-down nature of God’s saving work. When the Lord comes to deliver his people, in the words of Isaiah, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (40:4-5a, KJV). God’s glory entered human life, not in a palace but in a stable, not in safety, but in vulnerability, not in mighty Jerusalem, but in insignificant Bethlehem, not as a powerful superman, but as a helpless baby.

At Christmas, we remember how and where God become human. The insignificance of Bethlehem reminds us not only to praise God for his inscrutable wisdom, but also to consider our potential for contributing to God’s kingdom. Many of us count ourselves out because we aren’t powerful enough, important enough, accomplished enough, wealthy enough, or articulate enough to make a difference. Or so we think. But God has chosen to use that which seems foolish to the world for his purposes. You don’t have to be a “somebody” in the world’s eyes in order to contribute to God’s salvation and transformation of the world. You simply need to be available to him.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Do you ever discount your contribution to the kingdom of God because you think you don’t have enough to offer? How does the example of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem encourage you?

PRAYER:

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

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
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 Lord Emmanuel!

Amen!

“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” lyrics by Phillips Brooks, 1867, public domain.

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