You, O Bethlehem

Advent Sermon - Week 4“You, O Bethlehem”
(#4 in series: Witness Makes a Difference)
Sunday, December 20, 2015
Fourth Sunday of Advent

Micah 5:2-5a, NRSV

We’re almost there…Christmas is just 5 days away!  The decorations are up, the shopping is done, the cookies are baked – we’re all ready!  Only 5 more days!  On this Fourth Sunday of Advent we light the candle of love on the Advent Wreath.  All that’s left is to light the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve.  We’re so close; we must be ready – right?  But I wonder – are we really?

This morning we hear from the prophet Micah, one of the most beloved of Old Testament passages.  Micah, like Isaiah, speaks both judgment and hope to the people of God.  Outside of this original context, I believe Micah speaks to us as well.

Let us pray…Guide us, O God, by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

This Advent Season we’ve been talking about our witness as followers of Jesus.  We began by introducing the concept of waiting – waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise.  But we don’t like to wait.  Jeremiah assured us that the day is surely coming when God’s future will replace our present and there will be no space for the sins of humanity.  Our witness is to boldly proclaim that we are waiting for a baby to be born while we know that the baby has already been born, and is still being born in us –
this Emmanuel who came and is coming and is already among us right now.  Next we heard the words of Zechariah as he spoke for the first time in nine months.  Doubting God’s promise, Zechariah was struck dumb until after his son John was born.  Then his voice burst forth with blessings and promise and praise.  He spoke of shalom, God’s peace, and the need for our repentance.  Zechariah challenged us to bear witness by preparing the way for Christ to come into our broken and hurting world.  Last week, we heard the prophet Isaiah encourage the people to shout for joy, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.  We noticed how the world is often unpredictable and out of our control.  We were reminded that we can draw from the well of God’s grace to sustain us in these times.  We saw how our witness is to boldly proclaim “Joy to the world!” even when the world seems to be falling apart.

Today we hear Micah talk to us of assurance; the confidence of knowing that God offers us security that the world cannot offer.  “Security” – that really seems to be at the heart of our Advent hope.  It is the hope of many nations around the world.  Border security, national security, financial security, job security, and data security – These are all topics of conversation and concern for nearly everyone.  What can this ancient prophet possibly add to this debate?  How can Micah begin to understand the complexities of the modern world?  The world in which we live is marred by war, terrorism, poverty, hunger, and devastating weather events.  Ordinary circumstances like aging, illness, and death disrupt our lives and remain outside of our control.  Criminals threaten to steal our identities and greed threatens to de-stabilize our economy.  In the midst of all this insecurity, we tend to look toward the perceived seats of power for rescue.  We hope that our leaders will selflessly see to our needs and the needs of those less fortunate.  We look to science to “solve” the problems of natural aging, cure all illness, and keep us alive as long as we want to live.  We expect our security to come from the powers of this world.

Micah is jumping up and down, waving his arms, desperately trying to point us to a small, out-of-the-way village called Bethlehem.  He is pointing to a leader who stands “in the strength of the Lord.”  He points to someone who has no need for the strength of weapons, power, wealth, or territory.  From this tiny village comes the
Light of the World!  I think we can all agree that life is precarious.  Being human can be frustrating, disappointing, and downright dangerous.  There are those who will say that our faith is simply a defense mechanism designed to cover up our true feelings.  What we must realize is that the things in which we place our security in this world are also precarious.  Insurance policies, savings accounts, credit cards, anti-aging creams, and elected officials are here today and gone tomorrow.  There is no long-term security in any of these things.  God promises a security that the world cannot give.  It does not wither and it can’t be stolen.

I’m not just talking about the promise of eternal life.  That is a concept that many of us find difficult to comprehend.  It can be hard to care about life eternal when so many people are homeless and hungry this Christmas Season.  Heaven seems far away when we are worried about interest rates, stock prices, and economic instability.  Feeding our hungry souls, quenching our thirsty spirits, and life after death may not be our primary concern in a culture that values “instant”, “now”, and “mine”.  I believe that Micah is pointing to Jesus and asking us to realize that the promise of security is both “NOW” and “NOT YET”.  The “not yet” is that eternal life we all long for.  It is, hopefully, far away, filled with wonder, and free from our earthly woes.  When our time comes that’s where we want to go.

It is the “now” that troubles us as we struggle to allow Jesus to be in charge.  This is why I have spent so much time over the past few months encouraging us to look for “Jesus Moments” in our everyday life.  These are evidence that God continues to do God’s job of saving the world.  Every time we notice one of these moments we begin to understand that, if we allow it, God can and will make a difference in the world right now.  God is not “saving his strength” for eternity; God is, has been, and will be doing the work of redemption throughout time.  Our witness is to notice God’s work and then point to it.  We should be like Micah – jumping up and down, waving our arms and pointing to Jesus so people will notice that our faith IS NOT about covering up our feelings; it is about believing in the very real work of God in the world every day.

“You, O Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Israel…”  Micah tells us that God is at work in the nooks and crannies of life; in the alleyways and backyards.  From places we don’t expect, for people who often go unnoticed, Jesus arrives to feed, clothe, and comfort through the actions of people like us.  Advent calls us to open our eyes, ears, and hearts and expect the unexpected.  We are supposed to listen for the most unlikely voices.  When we place our security in the hands of the living Christ, we become part of the solution to many of the problems of this world.  Not that we will end world hunger or bring about world peace, but we will certainly be better able to treat one another as Jesus commanded.

“The only hope of blessing the nations is for the nations to see that Micah 5:1 has never been a solution to the long-term cycles of war and peace.” [i]  World history demonstrates more than 28 world civilizations that rose and fell.  It seems that these patterns are destined to repeat as long as human lust for power and control marches on.  The promise is that, little by little, the love of God sent to earth in Jesus and manifest through the work of believers, will overtake the world.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  Could the people of Micah’s day believe that, in spite of what they saw in their world, there could be a moral arc that ultimately led to justice?  Could they believe that someone from the tiny village of Bethlehem would be “great to the ends of the earth”?  Can we believe it?

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”  “Love” – the last candle in our Advent Wreath.  The most important element of God’s plan for us.  “Love came down at Christmas,” one of the many familiar carols we sing.  Our witness today is to point to Jesus so that others will know that, “his greatness will reach the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.”  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[i] Miller, Calvin. Feasting on the Word (Y-C, V-1, P-75) © 2009, Westminster John Knox Press.