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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC Christmas Eve Svc, 2011-12-24

Text: Micah 5:1,2 

As we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus tonight I would like to direct your thoughts to the place of His birth – the town of Bethlehem. Located about 8 km south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is actually an ancient town which dates all the way back to the time of Jacob (about 38 centuries ago). As the birthplace of Christ, Bethlehem has the unique distinction of being the place which the Almighty God chose to enter this world in human form.

It also has the distinction of being the only place on earth where all the angels of heaven gathered together as one to praise God for this great event in the sight of some lowly shepherds. Interestingly the angels’ words ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’ (Luke 2:14) would actually be very meaningful to the people of Bethlehem. This is because throughout its long historyBethlehem hasn’t enjoyed much peace. In fact, the scars of violence are etched all over the Church of the Nativity which marks the site of Christ’s birth.

The words of the familiar carol, ‘O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie’ may give you an idea of a very quiet and peaceful place. But Bethlehem has been the subject of much bloodshed, conflict and war in history. About a century ago archeologists discovered a letter dating to the 15th century BC in which a Canaanite warlord asked the King of Egypt for skilled archers to help him reconquer Bethlehem. Although this town came under the tribe of Judah through Joshua’s conquest, it became a Philistine garrison during the time of King Saul (2 Samuel 23:14-16) until King David recaptured it. It later came under Greek and Roman control successively.

Bethlehem was destroyed by the Samaritans during a revolt in 529 AD and was rebuilt by the Roman emperor Justinian. It was conquered by the Persians in 614 and then by the Muslims in 637, captured by the Crusaders in 1099, and then captured by the Seljuk Turks in 1187. The British gained control ofBethlehem during the First World War, but it fell under Jordanian control 30 years later.

Israel occupied the town 20 years later, but since 1995 it has been controlled by the Palestinian authority. Bethlehem now lies in the West Bank – the land which is under endless dispute between Palestinians and Israelis. Ten years ago violence engulfed Bethlehem in an uprising which lasted for 4 years. In recent years it has been used as a hiding place by terrorists to launch attacks in Israel. Today visitors to Bethlehem will notice a wall 9 meters high that the Israelis built in 2003 to isolate Bethlehemfrom Jerusalem. The entrance to the town is marked by a security checkpoint where traffic slows down to a crawl. And at Christmas time when thousands of tourists visit Bethlehem, security is so tight that shopkeepers hardly have any opportunity to get business from them. After only two hours of sightseeing, the tourists quickly board the coaches and zoom out of the town. A very fragile peace pervades the place where our Lord Jesus was born.

And this brings us to the question: Why, of all places, was Jesus born in Bethlehem? What significance is there in being born in such a place? The answer is found in a prophecy which was given about 700 years before the birth of Christ. It is written in Micah 5:1,2– “Now gather thyself in troops, O daughter of troops: he hath laid siege against us: they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek. But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

What you will notice here is that this prophecy was given in a context of war and violence. Here, Micah was speaking about the Babylonian conquest of Judah which was to take place in 586 BC after a 3-year siege. Many Jews would be taken into captivity and some would be killed. The awful sorrow and pain that this would bring points us to one reason why Christ was born into this world. He comes as the One who fully understands the plight of all who suffer sorrow and pain. Hence one reason why Bethlehemwas chosen was that:

1. It Was an Appropriate Birthplace for the Man of Sorrows

Bethlehem has been associated with sorrow and pain from ancient times. One of the landmarks inBethlehem today is Rachel’s tomb which is found at the town’s entrance. Rachel was the beloved wife of Jacob. According to Genesis 35 Rachel went into labour as Jacob’s caravan approached Bethlehem. She experienced a very painful and difficult labour probably with heavy bleeding. And as poor Rachel was dying she gave birth to a son and called him Benoni – which means, ‘Son of my sorrow’ because of the difficult labour she had gone through. But Jacob changed his name to Benjamin (Son of my right hand).

Till today, Rachel’s tomb stands as a solemn reminder of her pain and difficult labour in childbirth, and of Jacob’s sorrow in losing his beloved wife. And Rachel’s name is mentioned later on in connection with the killing of all babies in Bethlehem by King Herod. This is recorded in Matthew 2:16-18 – “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”

How grieved all the bereaved mothers in Bethlehem must have been to lose their infant children whom they loved and cherished so much! No wonder the prophet Jeremiah compares their sorrow to that of Rachel’s – an inconsolable sorrow of unexpected loss. Is there anyone who can really understand such extreme sorrow and pain? Yes, there is – He is the One whom Isaiah called, “a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3)

I believe that Christ deliberately chose to be born in Bethlehem – a place of sorrow and grief – to indicate that was already destined to suffer on the Cross of Calvary to deal once and for all with sin. His death has wrought our salvation, and we are delivered not only from the penalty of our sins, but one day we will also be completely delivered from all the effects of sin in our life including sorrow, grief and pain!

I am sure all of us look forward to that, especially when we go through very trying experiences, and we suffer because of the sins of others or because of our own sins. Because of the original sin of our first parents, sickness, disease and all the debilitating effects of old age are now part of our daily experience and they make human life miserable. All nature is groaning under sin’s terrible curse of disaster, decay and death. And because of man’s inborn depravity we keep hearing of acts of deception, cruelty and rage which hurt people and ruin innocent lives. King Herod slaughtered all the young children ofBethlehem in his day.

In our day we see youths in our own land getting involved in gangs, crime and violence. We see marriages and families destroyed by gambling, adultery and pornography. We hear of Christians suffering persecution in other countries. Whenever we are troubled by all this sorrow, grief and pain that sin has produced, let us remember this: Christ was born in a place of sorrows to be the Man of Sorrows so that He may bring an end to all our sorrows.

And that is not the only reason why Christ was born in Bethlehem. In verse 2 of our text, Micah’s prophecy reveals that Bethlehem was chosen to be His birthplace because it was little. It had no importance or significance among the thousands of Judah. And by being little,

2. It Marked the Beginning of Christ’s Humiliation

There were other more prominent cities in Judah that could have been chosen. E.g. Hebron – well known as the place where the Old Testament patriarchs lived before; or better still, Jerusalem– the place where the Holy Temple was found and where the Kings of Judah had reigned. Surely no place could be better than this for the birth of the One destined to be our Great High Priest and the King of kings! But of all places, God deliberately chose Bethlehem. This town was so insignificant in the tribe of Judah that it was not even mentioned in the list of Judah’s towns in Joshua 15 or in Nehemiah 11. Bethlehem wasn’t one of the 6 cities of refuge in Israel where judges would preside. Neither was it one of the 48 Levitical cities where the priests would reside.

We all know that what eventually made Bethlehem famous was the fact that David came from this town. But before David became king, there was nothing in his origins that he could boast of. Listen to the reply David gave to King Saul in 1 Samuel 18:18 when Saul offered to make him his son-in-law: “Who am I? and what is my life, or my father’s family in Israel, that I should be son in law to the king?”

Now, just as David’s humble beginning lies in the fact that he came from a town of no importance, the humble beginning of our Lord’s life on earth also lies in the fact that He was born in Bethlehem. And not just in Bethlehem, but in a lowly stable in Bethlehem– the place where donkeys and cows give birth! Can there be any place of lesser importance than that? No! Out of the thousands of places in Judah where babies were born, God deliberately chose the humblest of places for Christ to be born.

Why? Because this very place marks the beginning point of the voluntary humiliation of our Lord. Philippians 2:7 says that Jesus “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant…” The words ‘no reputation’ here literally means ‘nothing’. Christ began His human life as nothing in man’s eyes, and being born in Bethlehem made this even more obvious. It marked the beginning of the lowly path that would ultimately take Him all the way down to the Cross – to die a form of death that was reserved for the worst criminals in society.

Why was it so necessary for Jesus to humble Himself to such an extent? He did it in order to save even the lowliest of all sinners. Jesus did not only want to save sinners from the most learned and privileged level of society. Neither did He merely want to save sinners from the middle class and upwards. He also wants to save sinners right from bottommost level of society – those who are most despised and regarded as outcasts. That is why the dying thief on the cross became the first to receive salvation from Him!

And so by humbling Himself down to the very lowest level, Jesus is able to save all sinners without distinction. This is the good news we must proclaim. If anyone should ever think that he is too small, too poor, too useless, too insignificant or too sinful to be saved, simply tell him, “Why else would Jesus choose to be born in a lowly stable in Bethlehem if it wasn’t to save someone like you?”

And since Jesus was willing to humble Himself, we must be willing to humble ourselves too in His service. We cannot regard any task as being too lowly or too demeaning for us to do for the Lord. This applies to those who are caregivers. Caregiving often means doing things that are unpleasant, things we dislike – e.g. cleaning up someone’s vomit. This also applies to those who give counsel to others. It may mean spending a lot of time to listen carefully, to exercise much patience and even to be stretched beyond one’s limits spiritually and emotionally to help someone to change his ways. If you want to do all these things well you must do exactly what Jesus did – regard yourself as nothing. The moment you think that you are really something you cease to be effective. Choose to be like Bethlehem– so small and insignificant in the eyes of men. Then Jesus can use you to bless others, just as He used that little town of Bethlehem.

Besides this there is one more reason why our Lord chose to be born there. It is found in the latter part of Micah’s prophecy in verse 2: “…Out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel.”Since Bethlehem was the birthplace of King David, the birth of Christ in this place…

3. It Brings the Hope of the Restoration of David’s Throne.

Of all the kings that Israel had in the Old Testament, none were as good and as godly as King David. He was known as the ‘Man after God’s own heart.’ And though he wasn’t a perfect man and he sometimes fell into sin, he was careful to seek God’s directions for everything that he did. Half of the book of Psalms are from David and they reveal the sweet fellowship he enjoyed with the Lord he loved, and his firm reliance on God. So King David ruled Israel well and God blessed the people and forged them into a powerful and prosperous kingdom through him.

All the kings that reigned after him were judged according to how much they were like David. But as kings often become proud and self-reliant, most of the kings after David became corrupt and idolatrous. They led the kingdom into sin and idolatry. And they brought God’s judgment instead of God’s blessing on the people. Eventually the line of David ceased to reign because of this and Israel came under foreign domination. The Jews began to hope for the time when the throne of David would be restored and a king from David’s line would reign over them again.

One of prophecies that kept this hope alive was Micah’s prophecy concerning Bethlehem – “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel…” This prophecy was recognized by the Jews who lived at the time when Jesus was born. This explains why, when the wise men from the east came to Herod’s court asking where the king of the Jews was born, the chief priests and scribes that Herod consulted immediately cited Micah 5:2 as proof that he would be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:4,5).

And later on when Jesus ministered to the people, some of them doubted that He could be the Messiah because they mistakenly thought that Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee. We see this in John 7:41-42– “Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?”

Therefore to all the Jews, the town of Bethlehem became known as ‘the city of David.’ That was also how the angel who announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds referred to it. He said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

However by time of Christ’s birth, most of King David’s descendants were dispersed throughout Israeland not many of them would have been living in Bethlehem. How then would Micah’s prophecy be fulfilled that David’s throne would be restored only by a descendant born at David’s birthplace? The couple God chooses to bring Christ into the world must come to Bethlehem and give birth to Him there. But how would this happen?

God used a Roman Emperor to make it happen. According to Luke chapter 2, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that everyone in his empire was to be taxed. In order to ensure that taxes were paid by every person, all subjects were required to return to their ancestral hometown for registration. This meant that every descendant of David would have to return to Bethlehem. And so Joseph and Mary had to go toBethlehem despite the inconvenience of having to travel over 100 km all the way from Nazareth where they lived. And they did not seem to have any close friends or relatives there who could help them, since they went to an inn to look for accommodation.

Now if Joseph and Mary had never been to Bethlehem before, I am sure that just like any ordinary couple today, that they would have preferred to have Jesus born in their own home at Nazareth where they may already have prepared everything for the baby’s arrival. But the emperor’s decree must have come with a deadline and a penalty that was severe enough to keep them from postponing the trip to a time after the baby’s arrival. Perhaps they might have hoped that they could quickly make the trip there and back to Nazareth in time before the baby arrives. But they probably found that the trip to Bethlehemtook a lot longer than usual because of the unusually heavy traffic with everyone traveling to their ancestral homes at the same time. So whatever plans they had made did not materialize.

Mary’s labour pains may have started soon after they arrived at Bethlehem. And so even though Mary and Joseph had not intended the birth to take place there, that’s where Jesus was born. And that fulfilled exactly what Micah’s prophecy had foretold – that Jesus would be born not in Nazareth or elsewhere, but in Bethlehem, in the very town where King David had been born a thousand years earlier! And this confirmed that David’s throne would one day be restored through Jesus.

One lesson that you can learn from all this is that when things in your life don’t seem to go according to what you have planned, God’s providence may be working to fulfill His higher purpose for you. And it is only later on, on hindsight that you will be able to see what that purpose is. Perhaps you are disappointed that something you had hoped for did not materialize because of changed circumstances. For example due to unforeseen circumstances you had to cancel the holiday you had been planning for a long time, but it turned out that this cancellation enabled you to be around for something more important than that holiday! God’s ways are always higher than our ways. And in all things that God does, we can be assured that His ultimate purpose is to bring this whole world under the rule of Christ.

In this message you have seen how God used even the place of Christ’s birth to accomplish this glorious purpose. You have seen that Christ was born in Bethlehem because it was an appropriate birthplace for the Man of sorrows who would bring an end to all our sorrows. You have also seen that His birth in Bethlehem marked the beginning of His humiliation on earth. And you have seen that His birth inBethlehem was designed to bring the hope that David’s throne would be restored.

How should you respond to all this? Do what the shepherds did after they learned that Christ was born inBethlehem – they went to find Him and worship Him without any delay. If you have not turned to Christ yet and made Him your Lord and Saviour, God calls you to turn to Him now. Your coming here for this Christmas service is not by chance. God has brought you here so that you may know that Jesus Christ is the only One who can save you from sin and eternal death. Will you turn to Him now? If you will, then your response would be like that of the shepherds who went to find Jesus and worship Him without any delay.

But that was not all that the shepherds did. They also told many others about what they had seen and heard. May all of us be willing to do the same thing. We must go and tell the world that Jesus saves. This is the least we can do for Him after knowing all that He has done for us, and will do for us. May the Lord move our hearts this Christmas to love our Lord Jesus and honour Him more as we meditate on these things.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25