The Second Sunday After Christmas
The Tiniest Seed
Micah 4:1-5, 5:2-4, Psalm 65, Isaiah 61:1-3, St. Matthew 2:19-23
God is big . . . really, really big. Let’s be clear about that. The legendary evangelist Billy Graham was poised to open his first London crusade when a newspaper reporter braced him: “Are you an optimist or a pessimist?”
Pastor Graham missed not a beat: “I’m an optimist! I know God and I have read the end of the Bible and it assures me that we who are in Christ have the victory.”
No Christian worthy of the name would say him nay.
Yet many pastors remonstrate with their flocks for failing to make God big enough. J. B. Phillips wrote a book titled, “Your God Is Too Small.” He pointed out 15 ways in which Christians undervalue and under-deploy God’s surpassing greatness.
And here’s one more: William Carey, the famous English missionary to India who translated the Bible into more than 20 languages and dialects, said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
I am a priest of the Most High God and you will not find me diminishing His greatness . . . but I do have a caveat to put before you. Let’s begin with something Jesus said: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32).
God chose the tiniest seed He had made and, beginning with it, created a wonderful tree. And if we follow that thought down a wee path it will surely lead us like a guiding star to . . . Bethlehem.
“O little town of Bethlehem.” It’s a staple of Christmastide hymns. We read St. Luke’s report: "Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child” (2:4-5).
Little Bethlehem, six miles southwest of Jerusalem in the region called Ephrathah, is a humble place. With apologies to any who might hail from these towns, Bethlehem is an Ignacio or a Mancos or a Dolores, scarcely mentioned beyond their close confines. Please forgive our pride in our teeming metropolis of Durango.
As we have heard, the prophet Micah wrote of Bethlehem. Like his colleagues among the prophets, Micah throws alternating curses and blessings at us at a blistering speed. He reminds me of the great pitcher Satchel Paige, of whom it was said, “He could throw a lamb chop past a wolf.”
He is speaking to a Jerusalem under siege. The Babylonian army has descended and cut off the city. The wolf named Starvation is at the door. And Micah begins our first passage: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it. Many nations shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.”
A glorious day, to be sure, but one at a far remove from the present reality. That scene appears as the prophet begins chapter 5: The invading army “will strike the judge of Israel with a rod on the cheek.”
But then Michah pirouettes out of this darkness like a ballerina – yes, a strange image for a creaky old Hebrew prophet -- and into a sun-splashed scene: God will restore His people, and He will use someone He summons from this dinky little town called Bethlehem to deliver them: “Yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (5:2).
So, has God put some special anointing on this wide spot in the road? After all, Rachel, wife of the patriarch Jacob, died and was buried there. Ruth, whose story is told in the Old Testament book that bears her name, called this village home.
Indeed, one who has been called “Ruler in Israel” also was rooted there. He was Ruth’s great-grandson, David by name, a nobody, a shepherd boy . . . who would become king and establish a dynasty of Israelite monarchs who would rule just up the road in Jerusalem for 500 years.
Yet God is now content to stand afar off and watch His holy city smashed to pieces. The Babylonians will blind and bind King Zedekiah and haul him off to die in exile. The Davidic dynasty will falter and crumble. The succession God promised will appear to collapse.
Is God finished with Jerusalem? Indeed not. He will restore her glory . . . and once again He will beckon a boy from little Bethlehem to assume the throne.
Another shepherd will emerge from the House of David and this One will establish a kingdom that endures through all eternity. It is He “whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.”
It is He of whom it is said: “And this One shall be peace.” Shall . . . be . . . peace. A boy from little Bethlehem.
St. Luke picks up the story in the first century A. D. Caesar Augustus decrees a census for the entire Roman Empire. Each man must appear in his hometown to register. Luke shows us Joseph and his pregnant wife plodding south to comply.
On their approach, they would have seen Herod’s fortress outside of the town, constructed to commemorate a military victory decades earlier. It stood on the highest point in the Judean desert, with a commanding view of the highway, and protruded from the top of the hill into the sky.
The mother of God and her husband would never have been permitted to enter, of course, but they knew something of how royalty lived.
They might have summoned up in the mind’s eye something close to the true picture of expansive grounds with the fortress topping Herod’s palace, which contained, in addition to living and working quarters, a lake fed by an aqueduct and a Roman garden. It made a restful part-time residence for the man who would try to murder the Son of God. It would also be the site of Herod’s tomb.
On they go, almost at their destination now. Soon, without a decent room to be had in the town or the money to pay for it if there were, they will arrive at the manger.
What else do they see? Sheep dotting the hillsides around the town. The animals for the temple sacrifices are kept in the area, near at hand when the time for sale rolls around. When a major festival approaches there are countless sheep.
Some have said the sheep with their white fleece scattered on a hillside brought to mind an image of Jesus’ feeding the 5,000.
The early church made much of this backwater called Bethlehem, and of Micah’s prophecy regarding her, and for good reason. The associations Micah set up between the shepherd-king David and his greater son who would also be born there were low-hanging fruit for use in the evangelization of the Jews.
The evangelists and the fathers who followed them insist that we do not miss its special character. Its small circumference and lack of renown are the very reasons it is special. For it speaks of this great God, who chooses that little speck of a mustard seed from which to grow a large and lovely tree, using the humblest of means through which to demonstrate His power.
Why not Jerusalem, the capital city with its massive temple perched so grandly on the heights looking down on Bethlehem? But is not this the way of our God both throughout the Scriptures and in history since?
An old preacher friend of mine named Harry was fond of saying, “God can hit a home run with a crooked stick any time he wants.” And so He can. He can part the sea and call the dead forth from the tomb.
But He usually doesn’t.
Think of God the Son. Whom did He heal? Princes and governors? No, beggars and children. Whom did He teach? Noblemen’s sons? No, rough country folk and even the despised tax-collectors and harlots.
Whom did He love? He loved one and all but He ministered with special tenderness to lepers and paupers and outcasts.
Whom did He chastise? The sin-soaked and despised? No, Hebrew rulers and a Roman governor.
Search out the low places and the low-born people and down in that dank pit you will encounter our great God, patiently and ever-so-lovingly unfolding His plan to save His creation, most often using mundane means to bring about radiant restoration.
A peasant couple – she “with child,” and in the late stages of her pregnancy – make the long and arduous journey from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south at the behest of a callous bureaucracy in faraway Rome to attest their existence in Caesar’s realm.
They encamp in their stable and there, surrounded by barnyard animals, lowing and braying – and baaing, for we must not forget the lambs -- the woman gives birth to a child . . . and this Child is God enfleshed.
He is Immanuel – God with us. He is Savior, Lord, High Priest and King. And for all that it is fitting that he should be born in a manger because He is the Lamb of God, who will spill His blood to take away the sins of the world.
And He will offer His life on a cross, where only slaves and foreign devils and enemies of the state meet their demise.
A peasant child, low-born and esteemed not at all. The prophet Micah knew – and bids us learn – that when God touches the insignificant its significance shakes the world.
So let us heed the words of those giants of the faith who have made God so very, very big . . . never forgetting to make ourselves very, very small . . . for then, like Bethlehem, we may be of some use to our King.
There is one more chapter in the story of this dusty, musty, nondescript, royal village called Bethlehem. In Hebrew, bet, which comes into English as “beth,” means “house of.” For example, Bethsaida, the town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee from which the fishermen Peter, Andrew and Philip hail, is “House of Fish.”
“Bethlehem” means “House of Bread.” Bethlehem was a village plopped down among the grain fields on the flatter terrain south of Jerusalem. That word that names the region, Ephrathah, fills out the picture; its root, parah, means “to be fruitful.”
Bethlehem hunkers in the middle of a fertile strip that is Judah’s breadbasket. It is the “House of Bread” from which comes the One who will say: "I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger . . .” (John 6:35).
Well – wonder of wonders -- to this hamlet the hungry world will come, represented by the three wise men, the magi, to worship its Savior . . . because God uses the humblest scenes to enact the grandest deeds.
I bid you now, come to Bethlehem. Come to the table of the Lord and partake of these common things, bread and wine, spiritually transformed, that we might be in Him and He in us.
A legend says that every time a baby is born God endorses the world. For us . . . every time we celebrate Holy Communion, we experience anew the Incarnation of our Lord in the baby Jesus . . . O come, o come, Immanuel, God with us.
We celebrate our mystical union with Him who was born in a manger to die upon a cross for the salvation of the world over which He will rule everlastingly as King.
We rejoice in the miracle of Christmas! And so, brothers and sisters, saints and sinners, come to the little town of Bethlehem and partake of the Bread of Life. Amen.