Thus says the LORD: You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old,
from ancient times. Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel. He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the LORD, in the majestic name of the LORD, his God; and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace. (Micah 5:1-4a)
At the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem was a small nondescript village five miles from Jerusalem. There was nothing significant about it except this: it was the birth place and home of David, Israel’s greatest king. Moreover, from the time Micah spoke the words of our passage some 700 years before Jesus, it was the prophesied birth place of the Messiah, the one from the lineage of David who would save Israel and the whole world.
This was one of the clearest and best known of prophecies. So clear that the scribes of Herod knew the answer when the Wise Men came from the east asking “Where is he who is to be born king of the Jews?” In response they simply quoted this passage from Micah 5. Later, when Jesus began his ministry, other scribes, not knowing where he had been born but only where he had grown up (In Nazareth of Galilee), questioned whether he could be the Messiah for “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?”(John 7:42)
It is the birth of that Messiah, Our Lord Jesus Christ, that has given that nondescript village its lasting fame. It is to that town that Joseph was forced to come by imperial decree:
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…and Joseph also went up from Galilee, from Nazareth , to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.”
Yet surely he was not forced to bring Mary. Nevertheless he did. Why? I think because both Mary and Joseph recognized in that decree the Lord’s providence and, knowing who she was carrying in her womb, they both knew it was Mary whose presence was really required in Bethlehem, by even a higher authority than the emperor. And so, as always, Mary said “yes” and accompanied her betrothed to Bethlehem with the full intention that her baby be born there.
So it is that the Birth of Jesus in the city of David has not one hint of accident about it. It was fully planned by God, the way paved by God, and consummated by Mary and Joseph whose desire was to cooperate fully with God. Once again, Mary (and Joseph) said yes. Yes to a long, difficult, and harrowing journey while far along in her pregnancy. Yes to separation from family and friends who could help and support at the birth. Yes to uncertain and rugged lodging both on the way and on their arrival. And yes to many, many other things as well, all because God had asked it of her. The Messiah must be born in Bethlehem and so she must go to Bethlehem with Joseph.
In this season of the year we often journey to Bethlehem in our imagination. We are helped in that sacred endeavor, if we stop and look, by the countless nativity scenes that grace our mantles and the space beneath our trees. If we take the time we can meditate slowly on the whole Christmas story and grow in wonder as we remember each of the participants and their God ordained role and especially if we notice that each of them is focused in awe and wonder at the baby lying in the manger.
This year, in your meditation, remember exactly where this scene takes place, Bethlehem, and remember that is exactly where God said it would be. Remember, too, that it happened there because of a Roman emperor who had no idea of the role God was having him play and because of two Galilean peasants who knew exactly what they were doing. In remembering, give thanks – thanks for the God who planned it all and thanks for the two who said “Yes”.
May thoughts of Bethlehem fill your hearts this season; and may we all learn to say “yes” to wherever and however God has called each of use to serve him :
“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 all on earth
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear can 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.
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.
Image source: Photo © Bonhams, London, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library