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Christmas Day: Let us now go to Bethlehem
It was an amazing night. Frederick Speakman, in his book The Salty Tang, put it like this, “It was silent and yet there was music. It was dark and yet there was light.” Bethlehem almost missed it. No room! Many of us recall the moment of the birth of our first born. The trip to the hospital, the sterile environment, the presence of family and friends. But on the first Christmas a young pregnant Jewess found herself without the decency of even a clean sheet on a simple cot. In her hour of childbirth her bed was straw in a stable and when the baby was born, with trembling, yet thankful, fingers she wrapped the baby in cloths and laid him in a manger.
Down the hillside from the small village was a group of common shepherds. While the big event was transpiring unannounced in Bethlehem they had a surprise visit from heaven itself. After the angelic announcement of the Messiah’s birth and the praise song of the heavenly choir, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15). And they came. And they found Him. Then they “returned glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” (Luke 2:20).
Nestled on the top of a Judean mountain about six miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem has had a long and memorable history. It is first mentioned in scripture when Rachel died there and her heartbroken husband Jacob buried her just outside the city (Gen. 35:19). It was Bethlehem where Ruth, the Moabitess, fell in love with Boaz, the Lord of the harvest (Ruth 1:22). It was in this same village that David as a boy tended the sheep of his father and where he was anointed king by the prophet Samuel (I Sam. 17:15). It was Bethlehem, centuries before the coming of Christ, that Micah foretold would be the birthplace of the coming Messiah (Mic. 5:2).
As we walk through Bethlehem today it is still a small village on the side of the same hill. Fifty thousand residents call this town on Israel’s Palestinian-controlled West Bank their home. Their tiny streets are invaded by over one million visitors each year. Each of these pilgrims is there to visit the cave which rests underneath a large Byzantine Greek Orthodox church which has stood since 530 A.D. and itself was built over the site of the structure built by Helena, Constantine’s mother, in about 325 A.D. Today Bethlehem is a troubled village, awaiting like every other city in the world the coming of the Prince of Peace. Our Lord was born into an environment in Bethlehem much like the one that prevails today. Both the Jews of Jesus’ day and the Palestinians of modern times are subservient to the economic interests of their richer and more powerful neighbors. Both were in refugee camps or small villages alongside a culture that was more modern and influential. Both were victims of disgust and discrimination. And, both groups had an element within them that was prone to calling for armed revolt and violence. It was into this environment that our Lord entered our world.
Let’s go to Bethlehem and while there ask ourselves a question — is my life a Bethlehem? What do we mean? Bethlehem is a place of potential. It is a place of providence. It is a place of privilege. Our Lord longs for each of us to become a Bethlehem in our own right. That is, a person of potential, providence and privilege.
Bethlehem is a place of potential
Think of it. Of all the places for Messiah to be born, God chose Bethlehem. In the words of Micah it was “little among the thousands of Judah” (Mic. 5:2). One certainly would have expected Messiah to be born in Jerusalem or at least any of the scores of towns in the region larger and more prominent than Bethlehem. But God has a way of dwelling among the lowly. He said, “I dwell in the high and holy place, but with him who has a contrite and humble spirit” (Is. 57:15). Bethlehem reminds us that the small shall be great and the last shall be first, that God brings strength from weakness and brings the base things of the world to value and to nothing the things that are valued. Yes, Bethlehem is a place of potential. Perhaps you feel insignificant, little among those around you. You, like Bethlehem are just the person God can use. Bethlehem is a place of potential…and so are you! It may be that, like Bethlehem, you simply have not awakened to it yet.
As God looks upon us today He doesn’t see us for what we are but for what we could become, if and when we make room for Him. Do you remember Simon Peter’s first encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ? The Lord looked at him and saw him not for who and what he was, but for who and what he had the potential to become. He said, “You are Simon (a small pebble) but you shall be called Cephas (a rock)” (John 1:42). Jesus saw the potential that was in his life. Three and a half years later, Peter reached that potential and became the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem church.
As the Lord looks into your life and my life He sees us not for what we are now, but for what we could become. That is part of the message of Bethlehem. It is a place of potential. It was “little among the villages of Judah” (Mic. 5:2) but what potential it held. Is your life a Bethlehem, a place of potential?
God did not come to Caesar’s palace to be born, nor to Herod’s court. But very quietly, almost unannounced and somewhat incognito, He arrived in a seemingly insignificant little town, but a place of tremendous potential.
God is reminding us today that, even though we may seem somewhat insignificant in the eyes of the world, in His eyes we have potential for greatness. Bethlehem is a place of potential. See yourself as a Bethlehem today. You, too, are a person of potential.
Bethlehem is a place of providence
Long centuries before Christ’s birth, God foretold through His prophets that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the promised Messiah of Israel. When reports spread of the “birth of a king,” Herod asked the chief priest the location of the King Messiah’s prophesied birthplace. He quickly replied, “in Bethlehem of Judea”(Matt. 2:5-6). But how could this be, since Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, 70 miles and several days journey to the north? Bethlehem is not simply a place of potential, it is also a place of providence. God still works in the affairs of men by His own design and sovereign will.
Luke begins the story of the Christmas narrative by saying, “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). But in reality there is so much more behind that verse. The decree was not issued by Caesar but by God Himself! It was divine providence moving Caesar to issue that decree. Caesar was but a pawn in the hand of God. If there was ever a place of providence it was Bethlehem. God put the whole world in motion to fulfill His word. At just the right time He used a Roman decree to move Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
God is still at work in our world today. Daniel reminds us that “the Most High rules in the kingdoms of men” (Dan. 4:17). Solomon says, “The King’s heart is in the hand of the Lord” (Prov. 21:1). God is moving behind the scenes in world affairs today. He is putting the whole world in motion to fulfill His word. There is tremendous euphoria over the unification of the European community especially in light of its common currency. Could it be that behind it all is the hand of God fulfilling His word as He moves our world toward the coming of a one-world government with an electrifying ruler who will emerge to offer world peace and will be followed by the masses?
Bethlehem is a place of providence even though the Jews of the first century world could not see it. Put yourself in their place. They were oppressed by an invading government to whom they despised paying taxes. They were inconvenienced and incurred unexpected expenses in order to travel to Bethlehem to register for the Roman tax. They must have wondered, “Where is God?” And all the while it was the hand of God’s providence behind the whole affair in order to get them to Bethlehem.
The same is true for us. Many things which may appear on the surface as problems may be nothing short of the hand of God getting us to our own Bethlehem. Perhaps you feel as inconvenienced as Mary must have felt. Talk about inconvenience, Mary had to journey 70 miles on the back of a donkey over the most rugged terrain imaginable while in her final trimester of pregnancy. And all the while God is moving behind the scenes, orchestrating by His providence your situation or circumstance and even allowing certain things to take place that do not appear to be of benefit to you. Why? In order to get you to Bethlehem so that you might see your potential and His providence. Is your life a Bethlehem?
Bethlehem reminds us that God fulfills His word. What He promises He performs no matter how insurmountable the obstacles may seem to be. If you begin to doubt some of the promises He has made to you, simply remember Bethlehem. It is a place of providence as well as potential.
Bethlehem is a place of privilege
What an awesome privilege to be the hand-picked city to cradle the Son of God. Out of all the cities in the world, why Bethlehem? Why not Jerusalem? It was the seat of religious power. But God was sending a message. The hope of the world is not in religion. Why not Rome? It was the center of political power. God wants everyone to know that the hope of the world is not in politics. What about Athens? It was the center of intellectual power. But the hope of the world is not in philosophy. God privileged the little town of Bethlehem because the hope of the world is in a Savior! Bethlehem is a place of privilege.
The Lord Jesus came on mission to Bethlehem and 33 years later that mission led Him to a cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem. But before the cross was a cradle and that cradle was divinely placed in the town of Bethlehem. But when the moment came, most of the village missed it. Divine moments come and go. How are you going to recognize them? Speakman says, “So often they show up like any other moment and so often when we are so occupied or so convinced something else we are doing is so important.” And the danger is we let the moment go and never know what could have become of it, much like the Bethlehem innkeeper.
This very chapter could be a Bethlehem moment for you! Like Bethlehem you too could awaken to a brand new world. The same Christ born in Bethlehem could be born again in you. Paul puts it this way, “My little children for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). If we think Bethlehem is privileged to be the birthplace of our Lord, what a greater privilege for Him to be born in us. When much of our world has never even heard His sweet name, what a privilege for Him to reside in us.
In my library I have an old antique book written by a man named Phillips Brooks. He was pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia in the nineteenth century. In 1865 he made a personal pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Unlike the one I made recently, it took Brooks several weeks on board ship instead of several hours on board a jumbo jet. On Christmas Eve he made his way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by horseback. The scene and experience were forever etched in his mind. Back home in Philadelphia during the Christmas season of 1868 his mind was flooded with memories of the earlier Bethlehem Christmas. He sat at his desk and the words began to flow from his pen to the paper. He penned the words that night that we believers have sung for over a century now known as “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Thinking of Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks put it this way — “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. ”Yes, the hopes and fears of all the years were met in Bethlehem that night. Christina Rosetti put “that night” in the following poetic language:
That night when shepherds heard the song of angelic hosts caroling near,
A deaf man turned in slumbers spell and dreamed that he could hear.
That night when in the cattle stall slept mother and child in humble fold,
A cripple turned his twisted limbs and dreamed that he was whole.
That night when o’er the new born babe a tender mother rose to lean,
A loathsome leper smiled in sleep and dreamed that he was clean.
That night when to the mother’s breast the little king was held secure,
A harlot slept a happy sleep and dreamed she was pure.
That night when in the manger lay the Holy One who came to save,
A man turned in the sleep of death and dreamed there was no grave.
What shall be our gift to him?
What shall I give him poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I’d give him a lamb.
If I were a wise man I’d do my part.
What shall I give him?
I know…I’ll give him my heart!
And when we do, we too, become a Bethlehem, a place of potential, providence, and privilege