Selected highlights from this sermon.
Jesus made Bethlehem famous. Why choose Bethlehem? God loves to choose the unimportant things of the world, and Bethlehem fits that description. While it was David’s birthplace, Bethlehem was small and filled with repulsive shepherds.
In this divine selection, we see the unpredictability of God. He loves surprises. Is this an encouragement to us? When we feel overlooked and unimportant, Jesus comes to us that we might be saved. He is the Bread of Life and the Good Shepherd!
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"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by."
This is a series of messages entitled The King is Born, and today we consider the king’s birthplace. Mention the word Bethlehem and there is warmth within the heart of every single Christian. Whether you’ve ever been to Bethlehem or not, it doesn’t matter. You mention Bethlehem and everyone knows that it is here that the redeemer was born, so we are attached to the town with a great deal of sentimentality and love.
Back in 1858 there was a man by the name of Philips Brooks who was the rector of the Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. And he was struggling with what they would sing at some Christmas program that they had and he thought back to the time when he had visited Bethlehem and was in the Church of the Nativity for a service, and as he thought about it these words came to him – O little town of Bethlehem. He gave them to Mr. Redner who was the music man and said, “Write some music for it.” And nothing came to this man. In fact, that Christmas the song was not even used but one night when Redner was asleep, thinking about Christmas, he woke up and within a matter of four hours wrote the beautiful music to O Little Town of Bethlehem, and he said that the inspiration was such that he saw it as a gift of God. And wouldn’t you agree with me that O Little Town of Bethlehem and the inspiration of the song and the music is indeed a gift from God?
Some cities are known because of their power. I’m thinking of Washington, or maybe Berlin. Some cities are known because of their learning. You know you have Athens, and then of course, more recently throughout the centuries you have Oxford. Some are known for their birthplace. I mean who ever heard of Hope, Arkansas, until Bill Clinton came along? And I need to say that there’s no way that you would have heard of Bethlehem were it not that Jesus was born there.
It is Jesus Christ’s birth that made Bethlehem famous. It was not the place that was used or suggested by travel agents - by no means. If you have your Bibles let’s speak for a few moments, and my remarks for today shall be briefer, but from the book of Micah 5 we are going to look at the Old Testament prediction. It’s an ancient prophesy about five centuries before the coming of Jesus, and the prophet says in verse 2 of chapter 5 of Micah, “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 origin is from of old, from ancient days.” There are different ways to translate the Hebrew but that’s essentially what the Hebrew text says.
Now the question I want to answer very briefly is why Bethlehem? Of course we don’t know all the reasons that God has for doing what God does but there are good reasons why Bethlehem was chosen and it’s obvious that it was a very appropriate place and we’ll go into some of those reasons right now.
Number one, it’s because of its history. Bethlehem originally was called Ephrathah, and that word means fruitful, and then later on it was called Bethlehem and the word Bethlehem means house of bread. Bet in Hebrew means house, and then lechem means bread. It is a place where there was a great deal of barley sown in the environs. We learn that from the book of Ruth, and it is here that Bethlehem’s history comes into focus. It’s the house of bread. How appropriate that the one who is called the bread of life should be born in a town called the house of bread.
Remember Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees and they said, “Moses gave us bread from heaven,” and he said, “It is God who gave you bread from heaven,” and he said, “I am the true bread which came down out of heaven and I give my life for the world,” and then he says, “He that eateth this bread shall live forever.” You see, what bread is to the body (and it is a very good food, especially if you eat whole wheat bread by the way – don’t buy that white stuff), Jesus is to the soul. What a tragedy for people to be so interested in their bodies and not interested in their souls.
George Mueller was a man who spent a great deal of time building orphanages by faith in England. It’s a remarkable story of miracles of how God provided, but he said the first duty of every Christian is to find your soul satisfied with God. So he never ate breakfast in the morning until he was reading God’s word and found his soul satisfied with God. Jesus is the bread that comes down from heaven, the bread for your soul.
There’s another reason why perhaps Bethlehem was chosen, and that was it was a royal city. Do you remember what the angels said to the shepherds? Very clearly they said, “Born unto you today in the city of David is a savior. David was born close to Bethlehem. That’s why Bethlehem was known as a royal city. It’s because David was there and it was to David that God gave the promises and said that someday you are going to have a son who is going to rule over the House of Jacob forever. You’re going to find that prophecy fulfilled, and so how appropriate it is that Jesus would be born in the town very close to where David was born.
It’s a remarkable story that David is actually an ancestor of Jesus. Jesus is a descendant of David and yet, Jesus created David because Jesus is Lord and Jesus is king. So it only makes sense that Jesus would be born in a royal city where David was born. That’s one reason. It’s because of its history.
There’s another reason and that is because of its size. Now you’ll notice here in the text it says, “You were too little to be among the clans of Judah.” What’s going on there? What that means is that if you read the Old Testament book of Joshua where it lists all the land and all the cities that were conquered, Bethlehem isn’t there. It was too small to be mentioned. Nobody talked about Bethlehem being the place. I mean, after all, Bethlehem is five miles south of Jerusalem so Jerusalem is the place with the activity. Jerusalem is the place with the temple. Jerusalem is the one that gets all of the press, so to speak.
It’s something like being born into a family where you have a very famous brother that everybody talks about, and everybody immediately associates you and your relationship with the brother. The only thing important about Bethlehem is how far it was from Jerusalem, and so we see here that it was a very overlooked city. It’s maybe like having a small church close to Willow Creek Church out in Barrington where all of the activity is over there and you are over here and their ain’t much going on. Nobody ever bragged that they were from Bethlehem. There were no great thinkers there, no great miracles. Jericho we know. Jerusalem we know. Hebron we know, but where is Bethlehem and why would it be important?
But God loves to do those kinds of things. God loves to take those who are unimportant and choose the most unlikely place to reveal himself. What an awesome choice God made. And by the way, because the prophet said Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. There’s no chance that Mary could have had that baby along the way because God said Bethlehem, and all of Rome had to agree. Augustus had to agree with Jesus, and Rome had to agree with Bethlehem. And when Augustus gave that decree that it was necessary for that couple eventually, because of the enrollment, to go to Bethlehem, God’s will and God’s purpose was fulfilled. And God says, “It’s not going to be Jerusalem. It’s not going to be Hebron. It’s not going to be famous Jericho. It will be Bethlehem, the overlooked city.”
I think there’s another reason and that is its location. It was close to shepherds. There were shepherds’ fields in the area, and in those days there was plenty of room. Now if you go to Bethlehem today you know that it is so spread out that you don’t see this as clearly as it would have been seen centuries ago. But in the surrounding hills (and there are surrounding hills around Bethlehem) there were just a lot of grazing fields, and the shepherds were there, because I think that it was within the plan of God, certainly, that the first guests that Jesus Christ would have would be the shepherds. Shepherds were lowly. They were largely despised. They never took a bath for weeks. Do you remember that old line? Today in Israel you see Bedouins living in a tent and sometimes you see goats in the tent and somebody said to a Bedouin, “How do you put up with it?” He said, “No problem. The goats get used to it.” So you can understand that you could know that a shepherd was in the area if you were downwind by 500 yards. And Jesus said, “These are the people that I want to be special guests.”
So the first ones really to see the Christ child are going to be the shepherds. God again confounds human wisdom and he goes to the lowly. He goes to those who are not included within his program for the most part, and he says, “They are the ones that I want to have come there.”
And so you have shepherds. You also have sheep, needless to say, and isn’t it appropriate that Jesus would be born in a place that was known for its shepherds and known for its sheep? And there’s evidence that these were temple sheep. By temple sheep we mean that they would be the ones that would be sacrificed in Jerusalem when many people would bring their sacrifices. They would have to buy sheep. Sometimes sheep were sold and sacrificed by the hundreds and they had to grow somewhere. They had to have fields for them and so the shepherds are shepherding sheep that most probably were scheduled to be put to death in Jerusalem as a sacrifice.
What happened in Old Testament times is that a priest would put his hand on the sheep and then the sheep would be killed as a sacrifice. Now those sheep never really did permanently take away sin. They were symbolic of the coming of Jesus who was going to take away sin. But think of the change that happens. Whereby in the Old Testament times the priest offered a sacrifice, when Jesus came, he came and he offered himself as a sacrifice. Jesus becomes the sacrifice. Jesus gives himself for his sheep and he says, “I am the good shepherd and know my sheep and I am known of mine.” What a wonderful thing, and so right there in the middle of the area where Bethlehem is there are sheep and there are shepherds reminding us that the Good Shepherd is going to be born there and give his life for the sheep.
As we think of the bottom line regarding all of this, I’d like to just bring out two lessons. First of all, we see here the unpredictability of God. Maybe I could say he is the God of surprises. Who would have dreamed that it would be Bethlehem? But as I’ve mentioned, God enjoys taking that which is least and most unlikely and using it for his glory. I had a seminary professor who said that long ago, after thirty or forty years of teaching, he stopped predicting whom God might mightily use. You know you have somebody in the classroom. He’s very bright and he has so much potential and years later, you know, he’s just off on the sidelines somewhere. And then you have somebody nobody ever thought would amount to much, and in the midst of that you see him or her perhaps having a great ministry or an impact in the lives of their families that you would have never guessed.
I say to you today who feel marginalized, you who feel as if you are always the one who is left behind; you are kind of the Leon who is willing to do any part. And then when everybody else gets a part in the play the teacher says, “You’re going to have a part.” “Really? What is it?” “You have been chosen to applaud. That’s your responsibility and privilege.” Do you feel that way? Understand that God’s grace overcomes barriers. God’s grace extends to the lowly, to the broken.
Yesterday, here at the church the women had a brunch, and it has been my privilege to attend with Rebecca all of the brunches that we’ve ever had since almost the beginning of time. And we had two marvelous testimonies of women really sold into sexual slavery. In many respects they were terrible stories but true stories, and redeeming stories. In the midst of their needs, in the midst of brokenness and helplessness God came to them and they became open to the grace of God.
And God is saying there in Bethlehem, “I’ll deal with the lowly.” Remember it says in First Corinthians that God chooses the foolish and God chooses the weak to confound the wise and to confound the strong. When God wants to shake up Europe and bring it out of traditions that have been entrenched in centuries what does he do? He doesn’t begin in Athens or the larger cities of Germany. He begins in a town called Wittenberg, and he begins there and a reformation begins that changes the map of Europe and really changes the world and still affects us today. Always remember that God is the God of surprises. If you feel overlooked recognize that God is there with you and he can choose you just like he chose Bethlehem.
And then of course (and it’s very obvious) I also see in all of this the larger picture - the grace of God. It’s not possible for us to even visualize how far Jesus came to redeem us. In heaven nobody had to ask, “Who’s Jesus?” In heaven the angels sang one song of praise after another – not just Holy, Holy, Holy but other songs of gratitude. In heaven Jesus was recognized to be the king.
Now he comes to Bethlehem in the form of a baby and there in the midst of that situation he grows up and he is spit upon and he is shouted at. “Move it over there, Jew boy. Get with it!” And he takes on the form of a servant. He is unrecognized. He has to show his I.D. so to speak. Nobody knows that they are dealing with the king of glory. For the most part they don’t catch on. And Jesus, coming from that kind of adoration to this world shows, if I might put it this way in quotes, “the great humility of God,” and yet man remains proud. Man is determined to have his own way, and God says, “I’m coming to you in grace. I’m coming to you with forgiveness and hope and transformation,” and that’s the way in which the Lord God comes to us.
The name Christopher means Christ bearer. Christopher Hitchins was a very famous atheist and loved to debate people about his atheism. In the process he debated many Christians and if you listen to those debates I am convinced that the Christians won. But nonetheless Hitchins liked the publicity. His books sold well, like God Is Not Great, and others that he wrote. And before he died (he was diagnosed with cancer), he said in many interviews that he feared people would say that he had a deathbed conversion or that he might actually, before he died, indicate that he was interested in conversion or believe in God. So lest that happen, ahead of time he gave us a narrative. He said, “If you hear that I have converted, just understand that it must be because of the chemotherapy and the drugs. Consider me already dead.” He asked Christians not to pray for him. He said, “Why would you bother praying to the deaf ears of a God that doesn’t exist?”
There’s something else that Christopher Hitchens said. He said that he didn’t expect to meet anything on the other side but he did like surprises. That’s a quote. Between you and me I think he got his wish but it’s not the kind of surprise that any of us would like to have. But here’s what I want to say. When Christopher Hitchens was on his deathbed if he had called out to God and said, “God, I believe in your existence,” that would not have changed his destiny. You don’t have a different destiny just because you believe in God. Tons of people who believe in God are going to find themselves on the wrong side of the barrier when they die. If Christopher Hitchens were to be in heaven – and evidently he isn’t, though God is his final judge – it would be because of Jesus. Jesus Christ came to this earth in a huge redemption project, a huge rescue mission to rescue us from our sins and from ourselves. And as you have heard me say so many times from this pulpit, there is nobody else out there who can do what Jesus can do - nobody else, no prophet, no guru. He’s the only one who is able to take away sin.
Have you trusted him today? Do you know him as your savior? Philips Brooks was absolutely right. What a beautiful song he wrote. “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.”
Jesus came to Bethlehem so that he might be able to come to us, and when we receive him as Savior he does come in. He forgives us, he makes us a child of God, and he does come in. And he casts out our sin. That doesn’t mean that we become sinless but, by the blessed Holy Spirit of God, Jesus dwells within you. He said regarding the Holy Spirit, “He is with you and shall be in you, and after I leave he will come to you.” Philips Brooks was absolutely right. He casts out our sin and he enters in and he desires to be born in us today. That’s the message of Bethlehem. That’s the message of Christmas – that Jesus came, died, and was raised again so that you and I might be redeemed. O little town of Bethlehem! May we love the town not just abstractly as a town but love with sentimentality the fact that Jesus was born there to become our Savior, and because he came to Bethlehem he can come to you and to me.
Have you trusted him? If you have trusted him do you worship him? Let’s bow together in prayer.
Father, we want to thank you so much for this prediction, and we thank you that the one who was born there, his goings forth have been from of old and from everlasting. We thank you for the eternality of Christ both as we look back and we see that he is eternal, and of course, he shall be eternal in the future. We pray today, Father, that you might cast out our sin. Come to us individually. Come to us as a church and enter in. For those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, be born in them today. Help them to reach out even now as they are listening to this prayer, and say, “Jesus, today I receive you as mine. Come into my messy world and save me.” In Jesus’ name we ask, Amen.
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