Let All Creation Praise the Particular
“O Bethlehem of Ephrathah… from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.
From Betlehem, according to the prophet Micah, the one who will rule is to come.
From Bethlehem the messiah will come.
It doesn’t make any sense.
Prior to the birth of Christ, Bethlehem was a place of little consequence. Five miles south of Jerusalem, you could call Bethlehem a “one-donkey town.” In the same way many questioned whether anything good could come from Nazareth, it is not unreasonable to question Bethlehem as the prophesied location of the coming Messiah. The Messiah, the one to set Israel free from bondage, coming from a place like Bethlehem? It doesn’t make any sense.
Bethlehem had its time to shine in the Hebrew Bible. Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz all walked the streets of Bethlehem. David the shepherd, psalmist, and king hailed from Bethlehem. So yes, Bethlehem had a history with the people of Israel, but now, when G-d was speaking through the prophet Micah, Bethlehem can barely be considered a suburb of the recently destroyed Jerusalem.
This “one-donkey town” hardly appears to be the kind of place a promise of peace could herald from. Remember, if David, arguably the greatest king of Israel, hailed from this town, and the giant-slaying king could not guarantee the security of the nation after his own death, how can it be realistic to think peace and security will come from the same town, through another shepherding king?
Security for Israel could be found in one of two ways: submitting to their occupiers (Rome) OR overthrowing their occupiers and establishing peace for themselves by securing their land from enemy invaders. Judging from what has happened to the Temple in Jerusalem the latter seems far-fetched, especially if you consider the Roman Empire will one day occupy the region.
It doesn’t make any sense.
Speaking of not making any sense, an angel appeared to a virgin engaged to a guy named Joesph, and apparently, she is favored by G-d, and is going to conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit and name him Jesus.
Making it even more perplexing, the virgin’s cousin is pregnant and her child will, “will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Elizabeth, we read, was barren, could not bear a child, and yet her child to come will prepare the way for the child to be born of a virgin.
We are not told where or how Mary found favor with G-d. We have no idea where she is from. We do not know her qualifications, her family pedigree. This is an odd scene.
Just like it made little sense for Micah to choose Bethlehem, G-d choosing Mary makes little sense. When all of this was happening patriarchy reigned supreme. A woman’s value at this time began and ended with bearing children to carry on the family name of her husband. And we have a barren woman and a virgin joyously anticipating what G-d had promised to do through them.
So much leading up to the arrival of the messiah goes unexplained, making little sense or worse unnoticed.
The prophets told the people of Israel the where and how of the coming messiah. They knew the messiah would arrive by means of a virgin birth.
“ Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” - Isaiah 7:14
Micah told the people where this even would take place.
““O Bethlehem of Ephrathah… from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” - Micah 5:2
And Isaiah declared a messenger would be sent to prepare the way of the one born to a virgin, in the specific town, and still no one believed it.
Separately, neither of these scripture readings makes any sense. When pieced together they becomes (slightly) clearer, but come on, we do not read about people waiting it out in Bethlehem for a virgin to give birth.
G-d promised divine revelation to the world through the Holy Spirit and many missed it.
G-d promises divine revelation to us today through the Holy Spirit and we miss it.
G-d is talking about us.
“That’ll happen to those people, but me? No way”
And as was made know through the prophets Mary and Elizabeth, one of whom would be first-hand witness to the empty tomb, this unlike event to come in an unlikely place at an unlikely time will happen. Yet, we learn it was a very particular place in a particular person.
G-d’s great turning point in history is near. The baby inside Elizabeth knew it and leaped for joy. Elizabeth knew who and what was standing before her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is your child! What an honor it is to have the mother of my Lord come to see me!” And Mary, more than anyone else knew nothing would ever be the same.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary does not get a lot of attention outside of Christmas and Advent. We might recall Jesus passing her on his way to the cross or her nagging him at a wedding to find more wine for the because the hosts didn’t buy enough. Bethlehem is not mentioned any other time of the year in church.
She was an unlikely means for the incarnation taking place, at an unlikely location during an unlikely time.
In a time when patriarchy ruled the day, the lowly servant of the Lord was overlooked by all, except by the One who created her. Karl Barth notes men have, “nothing to do with this birth… Man (humankind) is not simply excluded, for the virgin is there. But the male, as the specific agent of human action and history, with his responsibility for directing the human species, not now retire into the background… G-d did not choose man in his pride and in his defiance, but man in his weakness and humility, not man in his historical role, but man in the weakness of his nature as represented by the woman, the human creature who can confront G-d only with the words, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
G-d’s grace is revealed to us in the most unlikely of places. We often expect G-d to be revealed to us in “mountain-top” experiences, but as G-d made know through the prophet Micah and writer of Luke, the incarnation - the in-breaking of G-d into our world in flesh - will take place in what many then and many now consider to be the wrong place and through the wrong person. Yet these are the persons and places through whom G-d had promised to redeem creation.
This is what makes the Good News different from the promise of security and peace offered to us by empires and the elite. The Good News of Emmanuel is a particular promise available and revealed through particular yet unlikely means, in particular yet unlikely places, and at particular yet unlikely times. We can expect the Good News to be revealed to us through powerful kings and prophets but also through those we are told are not capable of bearing such a promise and those who had forgotten the promise all together.
Emmanuel is coming, and in an odd and daring proclamation promising to reveal the grace of G-d in the places, people, and things we least expect. The places and people G-d has already establish a covenant with. The Good News of Emmanuel will topple hierarchies and call into question preconceived ideas of what G-d will do not only through those on the margins of our communities but also through us. G-d continues to use people like us and at times it makes absolutely no sense. Through two unlikely people the subversive messiah was announced and through an unlikely servant the in-breaking of G-d’s grace will occur. And in doing so, all creation will kneel and praise.