Monday, December 6, 2010

O Little Tiny Backwater Town of Bethlehem

A couple of years ago I read an article by an atheist about why he can’t believe the accounts given in the Bible about Jesus.
In part he wrote, “So I can reason rightly that a god of all humankind would not appear in one tiny backwater of the Earth, in a backward time, revealing himself to a tiny unknown few, and then expect the billions of the rest of us to take their word for it, and not even their word, but the word of some unknown person many times removed.”
It is a good question why does Jesus appear during this time of history and in this place?
This morning I want us to think about why does Jesus appear in Bethlehem?
It is a place of no real significance in the world.
I looked up some of the history of Bethlehem and I have to say it is not pretty.
One war after another happens in Bethlehem.
It only has a population of about 30,000 people, even smaller the Concord, NH.
It was destroyed in 529 AD, then rebuilt only to be conquered by Arabs, then conquered again by the Ottoman Empire.
It was ruled by the British, then Israel, and currently by the Palestinian National Authority.
This is all to say that it is a tiny backwater part of the earth.
It is of no real significance to anyone.
Even in Jesus times it was not the greatest place to be.
Why not be born in Rome the middle of one of the greatest Empire in the history of the world?
Why not be born in Jerusalem the center of religious life the place of the temple?
Why this place?
Why Bethlehem?

What my atheist friend fails to see is that this is exactly the point.
The significance of Bethlehem is that is of no consequence.
It is a place of war, destruction, sin, humanity.
This is precisely why God has chosen such a place to come.
As we are told in Isaiah this morning “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”
God’s judgment is different than ours.
God chooses what is foolish, tiny, and backward to the world, and in it reveals the biggest truths.
It does not make sense that God would appear as a baby defenseless and weak.
It does not make sense that God would appear to shepherds dirty and unsophisticated?
And it certainly does not make sense that God’s Son would die on a cross.
But what is common sense to the world is not to God.

Here is the good news that if God can appear in Bethlehem in that backwater tiny town, then he can appear to us.
The God of the universe cares about our lives, our tiny backwater insignificant life.
God cares about our failures, our success, our hurts, our pains, our joys, and our weakness.
More than this God knows them first hand because Jesus experienced all of this with us, among us, as our brother, and friend.
Sure God could have shown up in some other time, place, and way.
God could have made some huge show…maybe throw some lighting down and then tell yell from the heavens… “Hey, I really love and care for all you little people down there.”
But instead God came down into all of the humanness of life, into the tiny dirty backwater places of our lives and transformed them.
In Jesus God gave us hope, love, joy, and peace not so we can escape this world but so we can learn to live more deeply into it.

I was thinking this week of a friend of mine who I lived with after college for a short time.
He and I had this conversation once about faith.
He was really struggling with believing in God.
He said it happened one day in worship when he was at the communion rail.
“I was kneeling there and I just started to think that all of this was really nonsense.”
I remember telling him that faith was about belief in what we can’t see that even though he couldn’t see it now someday he was going to need his faith again.
Not too long after this conversation his mom suffered a major stroke.
That moment changed his faith too, it helped him find again.
It is precisely for moments like that when we need to know that God is with us.
It is moments when everything falls apart that we need to know that there is a merciful, loving, just God, that God has a plan (even if we fully don’t always understand the plan), and that we are going to make it through.
It was interesting to me that he lost his faith in worship at the communion rail when the symbols and God’s message was right there.
But that he found his faith in a difficult time, he found his faith when he least expected too.

This is what Isaiah’s vision is all about.
Israel was in fear of being conquered by the Assyrian armies; Isaiah replaced that fear with a vision of God’s promised future.
Isaiah told the people of Israel that a shoot that would come from King David’s throne.
That shoot would bring righteousness, peace, and faithfulness.
That shoot would replace the fear of armies with the knowledge and understanding of God.
That we would someday see things that we did not think possible like the wolf and lamb living together.
Isaiah like all the prophets had a vision beyond the immediate crisis into what God was preparing.

And maybe that is the most miraculous thing about Jesus.
Is that it was not just a moment.
It was something that God was preparing for long before the night in Bethlehem.
When God anoints David King over a thousand years before Jesus birth God is preparing for a great glorious future.
What Isaiah prophecy 700 years before Jesus birth is pointing us to the night Bethlehem?
When the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem 700 years before it happened God was preparing us for the night in Bethlehem when the angels would declare “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all whom he favors.”
God was preparing his people even then for what God was going to do.

I wonder today what God is preparing us for.
What is God’s preparing us for 700 years from today?
What is God’s preparing in your life?

Here is what Bethlehem teaches us.
That plan is not always obvious.
It is not something that we can always see with our eyes.
We need to see it with something more.
We need our hearts, minds, and ultimately with faith.

This is the ultimate lesson of advent that our lives are preparation for God’s promised future.
Jesus coming was preparing us for this day that we live today.
Jesus was preparing us to see God in those tiny backwater places of life.
To see God in the places where we don’t think God will show up but does.
God is preparing us for God’s promised future.
So be prepared when God shows up in some tiny backwater place that you never thought of or imagined you would find God.

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