"O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight."
These words come from the popular Christmas carol called "O little town of Bethlehem." What are your "hopes and fears" this Christmas? Have you even had time to think about what your "hopes and fears" might be this year? To understand today's reading from the prophet Micah we need to understand the hopes and fears of the people living in Israel about 700 years before the birth of Jesus. What did they fear?
Above all the people of Israel feared the Assyrians. In their world the balance of power was different to what it is today. The Assyrians, the people of the land we now call Iraq, were the military superpower like America is today. And the people of Israel were afraid that the Assyrians would invade them and destroy their homes and take away their freedom. Earlier in Micah's prophecy we are told that,
"Now many nations are assembled against you . . ." (Micah 4:11 NRSV)
And in the verse which comes immediately before today's reading says,
"Now you are walled around with a wall;
siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel
upon the cheek." (Micah 5:1)
Not surprisingly, the people of Israel hoped for a king who would be powerful enough to keep them safe from the Assyrians. Not surprisingly, they would have been very happy to hear the words in verse 2 of today's reading. Through the words of the prophet Micah God makes a promise to Israel:
"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, . . ." (Micah 5:2)
At the heart of Christmas is a celebration of the faithfulness of God. At the heart of Christmas is our belief that the birth of Jesus was coming of the new ruler God had promised. In the Gospel of Matthew some wise men come to ask where they can find the child who was born to be the king of Israel. What answer are they given? The answer from the prophet Micah:
"In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.' " (Matthew 2:5-6)
The new ruler is described as a shepherd to his people. Most of us have probably heard enough Christmas sermons to know how the traditional Middle Eastern shepherd cared for his sheep. He didn't drive his sheep from behind but lead them from in front. Even when several flocks of sheep were mixed they could be separated simply by the shepherd's call to his own sheep. At night the sheep were often kept in a small enclosure surrounded by stone walls like this one. The shepherd would often sleep across the door of the enclosure to protect them. That's what Jesus was thinking of when he called himself the "good shepherd" and described himself as "the door of the sheep."
So was Jesus the new ruler that God promised? Was he the answer to the hopes and fears of the people of Israel? In the final verses of today's reading we hear that the new ruler was also expected to be a peacemaker:
"And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace." (Micah 5:4-5)
But there's a problem here, isn't there? The people of Israel hoped for a king who will bring peace and set them free. But history tells us that the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the northern half of Israel. And for many years they threatened the south as well. And in the time of Jesus we discover that the situation was much the same. The only difference is that there is a different superpower—the Romans instead of the Assyrians. And the same objection could be made today. When we look around how much peace do we see? I think the answer to our question is be found in the prophecy of Micah. Micah's words contain a promise of hope for the future. But the promise comes attached to a call to follow God. The Bible uses the picture of people "walking" with God. This call was summed up in probably the best known words from his prophecy in chapter 6, verse 8:
"He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)
It seems to me that when God says Jesus is the promised ruler he means this. Jesus is the One I've sent to bring peace. If you follow him, he will guide you in the way of peace. To know that Jesus is God’s peacemaker is to become a peacemaker. The people of Israel often failed to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God. But the really great news of Christmas is that God sent Jesus anyway! We have also often failed to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. But the really great news of Christmas is that Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again for us anyway! At the heart of Christmas is a celebration of the faithfulness of God. I pray that whatever "hopes and fears" you have brought to Christmas this year you will be able to share in the celebration. Can I conclude by wishing you all a very merry Christmas!