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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Hope from the Most Unlikely Places - Advent 4

Sunday, December 23, 2012

            “O Bethlehem … from you shall come forth … one who is to rule in Israel.  … He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.

            … He shall be great to the ends of the earth

            … He shall be one of peace” (5:2, 4, 5a).

            Jesus came from Bethlehem.  “ … one who is to rule …”.  Is Jesus the king?  In frustratingly incomplete accounts in the four gospels, Roman governor Pilate is struggling with whether he should release Jesus or condemn him to death for rebellion against Rome.  Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you king.”  Jesus is silent.  Jesus, bloody, small and beaten, stands with composure that Pilate, the image of Roman strength, cannot muster.  Jesus talks about his kingdom and says it is not from this world and not one Pilate can possibly understand (v.36). 

Is Jesus the king who does what the prophet Micah says the coming one will do?  His birth so terrified Herod he tried to kill Jesus when he was just a baby.  His claims were substantial enough that Pilate did decide to crucify him.  If the New Testament and the early church are true, then he did rise from the dead – resurrected – and in a transformed body, one equipped for eternal life. 

He is “one to rule in Israel,” and He shall “stand and feed his flock,” according to the prophet.  Mary believed it when she was pregnant with him.  She sings of God, “He has scattered the proud … and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 2:51b, 53a).  The Gospels tell of Jesus miraculously feeding 5000 with a boy’s lunch.  Throughout history his church has overseen the work of feeding the hungry.  At HillSong, we feed the hungry in North Carolina, in Ethiopia, and in other places. 

Micah said he is “one to rule,” and he shall “stand and feed.”  Jesus did these things and his church does these things in his name.

Micah said this one “shall be great to the ends of the earth.”  Even as Christianity declines in Europe, the region where it enjoyed its greatest political strength, and even as Christianity has an uncertain future in the United States, in Africa, Brazil, China, South Korea, and other places, millions are turning to faith in Jesus.  They praise His name.  They proclaim him to be Lord of Lords and King of Kings.  His name shall be “great to the ends of the earth.”

We have journeyed with Old Testament prophets this Advent.  We begin with Jeremiah who spoke God’s word in the midst of the time in history when God’s people in Judah fell into exile.  Then Malachi brought the word of God from that time after exile, a disillusioned time when God’s people seemed weak and at the mercy of foreign powers.  In spite of their losses, they sought God and sought to reclaim and re-establish their identity as God’s people.  The we went a couple of generations before Jeremiah to Zephaniah who spoke the word of the Lord on the eve of exile when disaster was imminent but the people, caught up in their own ways to the neglect of God’s ways, could not see it.  Now today, we step back a few more generations to Micah who speaks to a conflict-filled populace, a people who do not seek God or his ways.

In this, I have tried to show how Jesus fits the role of the one the prophets said God would send.  Each prophet spoke words that were true in their day and for God’s people in subsequent generations.  They weren’t predicting Jesus as precisely as some Christian writers suppose.  They were inspired to speak God’s truth.  Methodist pastor and author Charles Aaron writes, “New Testament authors look to Micah, not because he had a crystal ball to predict the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but because the prophets had insight into the ways of God” (Preaching Hosea, Amos, and Micah, p.117). 

The ways of God; perhaps the greatest question we can ask in our lives once we decide we want to be Christians and be Christ-followers is are we seeking to live in the ways of God?  The problem these prophets dealt with in the midst of the chosen people of God was that the general populace and especially the leaders in the temple and in the king’s palace were not seeking the way of God.  In fact they brazenly rejected the ways of God thinking they were safe standing on their nationality and theologically unique station in history.  This was true in the generations leading up the exile to Babylon, it was true on the eve of exile, during the exile, and afterward.

We are not in exile, but as a nation and as Christian people we feel the sting going away from God to our own ways.  As we move to Christmas to celebrate the birth of the Savior – Jesus – I am struck by three things.

First, a black shadow rising from the unspeakable tragedy at the elementary school in Connecticut hangs over us this Christmas.  It is sad, sad, sad.  I don’t lessen my belief that Jesus is the king who rules in the majesty of God, whose name is great to the ends of the earth, who feeds his flock, and who is the one who brings peace.  But as my heart goes out to families who have lost their precious children and to a community that can no longer feel safe putting their little ones on the school bus, a seemingly normal, benign activity, I wonder if my feelings about Jesus would be as strong if I lived there?  He is the only who can bring hope, but are those who mourn able to receive it?

Second, I am struck by the conflict among us that rises when we should focus all our energies on prayer, support, encouragement, love, and caring presence.  One side yells that without God in schools we can expect this kind of man-made disaster.  The other side yells that if we had better gun control laws we could have prevented this disaster.  And I have one friend who is very intelligent, conscientious person, and he has used this sad event to bring to light the normalcy of killing in other parts of the world.  Even as our president mourns the loss of innocent children in Connecticut, and I do not doubt the sincerity of the president’s emotion, my friend observes that our government sends drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The drone missiles are indiscriminant and school children have died.

Is this the way of God?  It is just as sad when a Pakistani first grader dies because an American-sent drone was off target as when Connecticut first graders die due to a deranged gunman.  We cry harder for the Connecticut first grader.  God weeps for both. 

I am struck by the events of last week.  I am struck by how this sadness heightens conflicts among us.  And third, I am struck by the Gospel and the truth that even in times that our tragic and bewildering, there truly is good news.  More shockingly, this good news comes from the most unlikely of places.

I said a moment ago that the prophets do not speak words that directly predict the birth and life of Jesus.  Rather, the prophets are attuned to God’s ways and when we read them, we should read with humble, vulnerable minds, ready to accept their critique of us and ready to be changed by the force of God in the prophets’ words.  One of the most outstanding features of God’s ways is to work in the world through people who do not appear powerful in the world.

God conquered Pharaoh and established his people through Moses, a speaker that stuttered.  God defeated the Philistine giant, Goliath, through a boy, David, who was so small he could not even wear the king’s armor.  God established his church, which now worships him from all over the world, through a tiny minority of people from within a nation – Israel – that itself was a persecuted weak minority within the Roman Empire.  Do you ever perceive yourself to be small, powerless?  If so, it is through you that God will change history because that’s God’s way.

In the case of Micah, preaching God’s ways in the face of a world that seemed indifferent and even in open rebellion, one word of prophecy turned out to be a direct link to Jesus.  “You, O Bethlehem, … from you shall come … one of peace” (5:2a, 2c, 5a).  From time to time, God’s hovering Spirit, influencing world events in big-picture way, moves in and God’s hand directs specific events.  I don’t know why God doesn’t move in specifically and prevent tragedies.  I am sorry I don’t know.  I feel terrible as a pastor that I cannot say why God doesn’t stop gunmen in schools.  I just don’t know.

But around 4BC, God moved Caesar to call for a census.  Joseph from Bethlehem had to return there to be counted and taxed by Rome.  He took his young pregnant wife, Mary.  And Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

In Micah’s day everything happened in Jerusalem.  But he prophesied that Jerusalem, Zion, the city of David, would be a “heap of ruins,” (3:12b).  Seven hundred years later, Bethlehem was like every other Jewish village, crushed under the merciless heel of Rome.  Today, Bethlehem is surrounded by an oppressive wall, 24 feet high.  That wall is there to keep Palestinians in and Jews out.  Today, Bethlehem enjoys over 50% unemployment.  Those who do work have menial, low-paying jobs in Israel.  Those who do not are fertile fields, recruited to be suicide bombers for the PLO and other groups.  Today Bethlehem is the epicenter of the unending war that plagues the Middle East.

And yet, we believe with all that is in us that Bethlehem is where peace comes from.  Jesus comes from Bethlehem and he is the hope for the world. 

I spent more time this week walking and praying than I have in a long time.  I thought about all the tears of our nation and of those in Connecticut.  I thought of how it must evoke memories of Aurora, Colorado, Virginia Tech, and Columbine.  And others.  I thought about places where death has become so normal that events like school shootings are not that significant.  And yet, as I walked and prayed, a more powerful thought overcame these others and that is the thought of God.  I thought of who God is and what God had done in Jesus. 

We’ve recited Micah’s prophesy.  In Jesus God comes out of nowhere – Bethlehem.  In Jesus rules, provides, and brings peace.  Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s love.  As the darkness and the thoughts of God’s action in the form of Jesus competed for dominance in my mind, something came to light.  The most inspiring stories are born in the darkest of times.  The teacher gave her life for her students.  Celebrities and strangers, in the week after, reached out in generous and loving ways to comfort the victims’ families.  The president, and I say this not disregarding legitimate critiques of him, showed his heart.  Why does such inspiration come from the midst of such pain?  Because that’s who God is.

I fully believe the hope that inexplicably rises from Bethlehem will visit all who wail in Connecticut and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Bethlehem of the 21st century other places of great pain.  God comforts those who mourn.  That is God is.

More to our context, I believe God will visit where we mourn.  Maybe this Christmas is hard because you lost someone this year.  Maybe a relationship in your life isn’t going well.  Maybe your life is not where you want it to be.  Maybe you’ve given lip service to faith and the truths of Christianity, but you cannot see how it helps in the particular difficulties in your life.  Maybe you did not expect any help from a prophet who spoke and wrote in the 7th century BC.

But she who is in labor has brought for a son who is the prince of peace, who is God in the flesh, and who is not the Savior of the world, but the Savior who is your Savior.  When we give our lives to Him we enter into a real relationship with a living, present God. 

We wouldn’t expect our individual stories to turn around dramatically, but the God we celebrate in our Christmas songs comes to us in unpredicted forms and wows us in ways we did not expect.  When he comes, and He will, we have hope.  Whatever you might be going through right now, God sees you, knows you, and loves you.  There is hope because of who God is.  Micah knew this, even in his dark prophecies.  The people in Connecticut are discovering this even their grief.  And we will discover it too as worship, celebrate, and remember throughout this Christmas season.


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