One advantage of now living in Gidea Park rather than Lancashire is that we Westons are much closer to the sights and sounds of central London. We have had several fun family days out, showing the children the impressive buildings, world-famous museums and historic monuments of London. Going up Tower Bridge was a recent highlight for James and Alice, and last month we took them to see the Lord Mayor’s Show - a very impressive spectacle, despite some heavy rain!
If we had been living in 700BC, at the time of Micah the prophet, we would no doubt have been impressed by the sights and sounds of Jerusalem. It was Israel’s historic capital, a prestigious location with a large population - the political, economic and religious hub of the nation. Like London today, it was outwardly very impressive. In contrast, I doubt our attention would have settled on the little town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem was a small place, of little significance, rather off the beaten track. A place low on God’s agenda, one might think. A place unlikely to have any role in the religious and political destiny of the nation - somewhere like Bognor Regis or Burnley perhaps today?!
Yet we would be in for a surprise. Because in our passage today it is Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, where God will be at work. The prophet Micah declares that God’s global rescue mission will begin on the backstreets of Bethlehem, not in the royal throne room or Temple precincts of Jerusalem. Against all the odds, it is Bethlehem where the action will begin. It is this Judean backwater, not Jerusalem that will witness the birth of the Messiah.
In the four short verses of our passage today, i) we see a people in need of a Saviour, ii) we witness the way God works, and iii) we meet our magnificent Messiah.
- We see a people in need of a Saviour (v.1, 3a)
Firstly, then, we see a people in need of a Saviour. In verse 1 Micah says: “Marshal your troops now, city of troops, for a siege is laid against us. They will strike Israel’s ruler on the cheek with a rod.” In verse 4 he goes further, and predicts that Israel will be “abandoned” for a period. In these verses Micah is warning God’s people, especially those in Jerusalem, that hard times lie ahead.
In Micah’s own lifetime, in 701BC the Assyrian army besieged Jerusalem, having already invaded the rest of the Promised Land. King Hezekiah and many of his subjects were trapped within the city walls, facing humiliation and defeat. On that occasion God spared his people, and the siege was miraculously lifted.
But the Jews were not so lucky a century later. Around 590BC the Babylonians invaded Judah, Jerusalem was overrun, and many Jews were taken away into exile. Even the Jewish king, Zedekiah, was arrested, humiliated, and led into captivity in Babylon. Everything sacred to the Jews was taken away from them – their land, their city, their temple and their king. God’s people in exile were powerless, incapable of helping themselves, and utterly reliant on God for any restoration of their kingdom.
As well as feeling powerless and fearful, many of Micah’s contemporaries must have felt rather confused and depressed upon hearing his dire predictions. What had happened to God’s great promises in the past to men like Abraham and David? A promise to bless the world through Israel, and a promise to establish a royal dynasty that would never end - a line of kings after David that would stretch on forever? As the Assyrians and Babylonians ‘moved in for the kill’ it looked like the end for the children of Abraham and the descendants of David. How on earth was God going to fulfil his promises?
Well, thankfully, into this situation of judgment, destruction and despair, God speaks words of grace and hope. Through the mouth of Micah, God promises to restore and save his people in the most improbable and unexpected way. A baby born in Bethlehem is going to become the new King of Israel, and the Saviour of the World.
- We witness the way God works (v.2)
I guess we’ve all used the expression “The Lord works in mysterious ways” at one time or another. We usually use it when we are flummoxed by some event in our lives, and can’t quite see what our sovereign Lord is up to. We use it in situations where we can’t work out what good plan God is pursuing, and when we wonder what he is going to do next. When it came to sending the Saviour of mankind, God certainly acted in a mysterious and surprising way.
God’s surprising message comes in verse 2 today: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” In other words, God will provide his own great king for his people. A Messiah (an ‘anointed one’) who will re-establish God’s rule over Israel and ultimately the whole world. But the big surprise is that this great figure will not come from Jerusalem or any other great city. He will be born in Bethlehem. Remarkably, God’s new kingdom would begin in a small, trifling town about 6 miles south of Jerusalem.
Twi years ago my family visited La Gomera on holiday, one of the smallest Canary Islands. La Gomera is far too small to have its own international airport, so accessible only by ferry from neighbouring island of Tenerife. We visited the house Christopher Columbus stayed in before embarking on his famous transatlantic crossing, and saw the well where he (allegedly) drew his last supplies of fresh water for the voyage. From a humble house on an insignificant island, Columbus began a journey that would enter the history books, and which would propel him to worldwide fame. Out of La Gomera, small even among the islands of the Canaries, came a great hero, a global figure - the first European to discover America. In a similar, yet even more remarkable way, out of insignificant Bethlehem would come the Saviour of the World.
We may well ask why God chose to work this way? The first answer is that Bethlehem was the home town of King David. God was ‘turning back the clock’ and returning to David’s birthplace to produce a new and greater king in his family tree. Like we might reboot and restart our computers when they crash, God was rebooting and restarting the Davidic dynasty after the crashing sins of almost every Jewish king since David. The Messiah that Micah promised from Bethlehem would have excellent pedigree, with his origins and ancestry stretching as far back as David himself.
But a second, deeper reason, why God chose Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah is that it is typical of the way God works. By beginning his great work at Bethlehem, God was acting entirely within character, entirely true to form. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, God chooses “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak things of the world to shame the strong, and the lowly things of the world so that no one may boast before him”.
Throughout history God has used insignificant people and insignificant places to achieve his purposes. He has used fallen fallible people to take the Gospel message to the far corners of the world – he has put his treasure in human “jars of clay”. And he has begun great works in the smallest, most insignificant of places.
The first Bishop of Liverpool, John Charles Ryle, wrote a book called Christian Leaders of the 18th Century. In it he charts the amazing impact of a dozen clergymen who led the great evangelical revival in England during the 18th century. A revival that led to thousands of people coming to Christ. What is so remarkable is the profile of these clergymen and the places where they worked. Men like William Grimshaw and John Fletcher didn’t hold posts in Cathedrals, city parishes or other prominent locations. On the contrary, these men lacked wealth, fame or high status. They had no money to build a congregation, no connections to win converts, and worked in insignificant places like Madeley in Shropshire and Haworth in Yorkshire. Places that could best be described as ‘the back of beyond, off the beaten track, in the middle of nowhere’. You’ve probably never heard of their names. But by the grace of God these preachers and these places became hotspots for Christ, strategic centres for the spread of the Gospel in England.
God is so great and so good that he is willing and able to do great things through weak people and through unpromising circumstances - even through people like you and me. If we are prepared to trust and obey him, God has the power not only to transform our own lives, but to bless our neighbours, friends and relations through us. With God’s help any one of us can share our faith, volunteer as a street pastor, help out at a food bank or comfort a friend. God is willing and able to work through us in the most ordinary and unexciting situations - however small our circle of friends might be, or however limited our time, money, talents or theological knowledge might be. No matter how unimportant or inadequate we may believe ourselves to be, God is willing and able to use us for his glory and for the good of others.
- We meet our magnificent Messiah (v.3-4)
The final verses of our passage today provide a captivating portrait of the Saviour that Micah saw coming. As he looked into the future, God gave Micah a vision of a great ruler who would “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength [and] majesty of the Lord”. Micah foresaw a magnificent Messiah who would rescue and unite God’s people from the far corners of the globe, a man whose greatness would “reach to the ends of the earth”. According to verse 2, this Messiah would have origins from of old. Mysteriously, the Messiah would be ancient. He would have been around for eternity before he was born. How could this be?
As Christians, of course, we know which man was able to fulfil Micah’s prophecy. Indeed, today’s passage is familiar to many of us because it is read each year in our Christmas Carol Services – in our services that celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel explicitly tells us that when Jesus was born, Micah’s promised Messiah had arrived. After 600 years of waiting, Israel’s great king had come, the Good Shepherd had arrived, and the world’s Saviour had been born to die and rise again. The eternal Son of God had now come into the world he had created.
As we look at Jesus’ life, from his birth right through to his resurrection and ascension, we see him fulfilling the job description of Micah’s Messiah. Jesus reunited God’s people around himself, calling both Jews and Gentiles to follow him. And over the past 2000 years the greatness of our risen Christ has become known around the world. And Christ’s royal rule will culminate at his return in glory, when creation is renewed and every knee will bow before him.
As I finish today, I hope we are grateful that this prophecy of Micah has been preserved for us. Because it reminds us of the way God works, and it places before us a beautiful portrait of Jesus, the Messiah. The challenge that faces us, however, is the one that faced people when Jesus was first born in Bethlehem:
- Will we be like Herod and his henchmen, who could not tolerate the baby born in Bethlehem. Men who were not willing to submit to the world’s rightful ruler? I hope not.
- Or are we going to be like most of the residents of Bethlehem that first Christmas - people who were oblivious to the arrival of God’s Son, people who didn’t recognise the Messiah in their midst? Are we going to dismiss the baby born in Bethlehem as just another human baby, with no special significant, and overlook the fact that he is our Heaven-sent Saviour. Again, I hope not.
- Or are we going to be like the shepherds and the wise men, who all recognised Jesus Christ for who he really was? Will we be like them, and come to Christ as Lord and King? Will we follow their example and tell other people we have found the Saviour of the World?
I certainly hope so. But we need the Holy Spirit’s help to keep believing in the baby of Bethlehem, and to keep telling others about him - so let’s pray…