December 20, 2015
Bethlehem was the one place I could not wait to see. It wasn't that I didn't want to visit the other countries and sites we were touring, but Bethlehem? Bethlehem was it. It was the real deal. This was the town that I had been singing about and hearing about my whole life. I was finally going to see and experience that little town of Bethlehem. I guess in my mind, I saw Bethlehem as a cozy, charming village. After all, the artistic depictions of Bethlehem I saw growing up made it seem like a quaint little town tucked in the Swiss alps. Just substitute sand for snow and you've got it. Of course these are the same pictures that portrayed Mary as blonde and blue-eyed, so I should have guessed that reality might differ from the pictures.
Bethlehem different from the pictures? That's an understatement. Bethlehem was nothing like I thought it would be. How shall I put this? It was a dump. A dive. A pit of despair. A ditch of despondency. You get the idea. The pictures and paintings I'd seen growing up were far cries from the reality of Bethlehem.
When we first pulled into the town, I looked eagerly for those dark streets that were once illumined by an everlasting light. But they were just dark. And if they were wide and open enough to be filled with sunlight, then what really stood out was the dirt and the dust. There were people walking around, but they stared at our tour bus with suspicion and distrust. I can't say that I blamed them.
“Oh goody. Another group of westerners come to stare at us.”
What really stood out to me was the Israeli military encampment on one side of a main road and the Palestinian neighborhood directly opposite. I use the term neighborhood loosely. Most neighborhoods I know aren't surrounded by large metal fences with access in and out dictated by turnstiles.
The Bethlehem I visited and the Bethlehem of lore were two very different places. That really shouldn't have been a surprise, I know. But the disparity between the ideal and the reality was far wider than I would have ever thought possible. Bethlehem in 1993 was a sad, neglected town, ravaged by violence and hopelessness. Never was I so glad to leave a place as I was Bethlehem.
As I said this was 1993. Things change. My dear friend, Ellen, took a tour of the Holy Land just a couple of years ago, and the souvenir she brought back for me was a coffee mug from the Bethlehem Starbucks. If Starbucks has made it to Bethlehem, then you know there has been some progress; Starbucks in lieu of a star. I have no problem with Starbucks. As many of you know, I believe strongly that coffee has the power to effect change and inspire hope. At least that's what it tells me every morning.
But lattes aside, the Bethlehem I visited was a different place from the one which abides in the carols we sing. Yet the Bethlehem of my memory doesn't seem that different from the Bethlehem Micah spoke of and to in these verses.
"But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days."
As always, understanding of these particular verses comes from understanding the larger context. Israel and Judah were under siege by the Assyrians. Samaria, the stronghold of the northern kingdom had fallen. According to one Old Testament scholar, great walls and fortresses were built around city after city in attempt to thwart the invaders. But city after city had fallen. They lay in ruins. Bethlehem was no different. It was ravaged by war and conquest. All that was left of its mighty walls and ramparts were smoke and ash. But in the midst of this devastation, Micah spoke this miraculous word of hope. Out of this little clan, this little town, this seemingly unimportant and conquered place will come one who will rule. This one that Micah spoke of would be both rooted in the ancient days of Israel's beginnings and in the future that would be grounded in God's promise and faithfulness. Out of this little one, this little Bethlehem, would come one who would rule, shepherd, and bring peace.
In the midst of such terrible devastation, Micah prophesied that one would come who would bring peace. And that one would come from the most unexpected of places: Bethlehem. It's easy to Christianize Micah's words. Certainly they tie in neatly with our story from Luke. Another little one, a young woman named Mary, would give birth to that ruler and shepherd and bringer of peace. However, Micah and the people to whom he prophesied, were probably not thinking of the one we call Christ. I imagine they heard these words and saw a new David, a new king who would once more rule with might and power. Their enemies would be defeated. Their homes would be rebuilt. Their lands would be restored by this new and powerful King.
Yet just as Bethlehem was an unexpected and unlikely place for a ruler, the one who would come was equally unexpected. This isn't a surprise to us, is it? That's the radical nature of the gospel. The unexpected and surprising nature of God's incarnation is what makes the story of our faith such good news. From little ones, little towns, little people, comes great hope, peace, love and joy. That is amazing and wonderful news. It is God's divine surprise. God is where you least expect, and God is found in the unlikeliest of people.
It seems to me, though, that while we know this about God we don't really know this about God. We either take this good news for granted, or we forget it in the midst of the darkness that surrounds us. The pain of the world is so great that the idea of light overcoming darkness sounds like just a nice thing to say. This world we live in is so filled with enmity, violence, greed and fear that it is surely beyond redemption. And that’s just out there. What about in here? What about in us? What brokenness lies within each of us? What pain and sorrow do we bear? Will this bringer of peace bring peace to our lives, bind up our broken hearts, and soothe our weary spirits? Of course God will. Of course. Again, that is the good news! That is the gospel! We say it, but do we always believe it? I know I don't. The darkness of the world fills me with despair, and I find it easy to lose hope. I find it hard to believe that a light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
But God never fails to surprise me. God never fails to meet me in places and through people I least expect. I may take the surprise of God for granted, but then God surprises me anew. God surprises me, and I am shaken from my complacency and knocked out of my selfish ease. God surprises, and that is the reason that I can find joy on this morning. In the midst of so much pain and loss, there is still reason to be joyful because God surprises us through the little ones – little people, little places, little churches. God surprise us through the unexpected ones, the least and the lowest ones.
The gospel is a gospel of surprise, and the call of Advent is to be surprised again by God. After all, how can we not be surprised that our God was born into this broken body in a broken world, not to overwhelm us or destroy us but to love us? To love us.
To. Love. Us.
God came through the little ones to bring large love. God surprises us. Thanks be to God.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.