Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Place Called Bethlehem

I’m excited about the idea of focusing on place this week. As an introvert and someone who relates best to God when I am surrounded by his outdoor creation, I connect deeply with place. This is especially true for places where I feel safe and comfortable, but any visceral reaction to a location has the power to draw out parallels and applications for daily life. This week’s theme of Bethlehem is a treasure-trove of inspiration for Christ’s lineage of expectation.

As few weeks ago, as I was listening to a sermon on the book of Ruth by Alistair Begg, I was reminded how unique and important the little town of Bethlehem was and is. If you know the story of Ruth, it is full of locational and theological parallels to the story of Jesus’ birth. After the loss of her first husband and transition to a new religion, new country, and the new community of Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi, Ruth marries Boaz, and becomes the great-grandmother of David. Yes, that same David whose name and lineage become like gold to prophets of the Old Testament: 

12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”
- 2 Samuel 7:12-16
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
- Jeremiah 23:5-6
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,

    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked . . .
10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
- Isaiah 11:1-4, 10

Back in those days, one’s lineage was marked by where your ancestors were born. Even as God’s people were scattered across the known world, they were recognized by their ancestral places. When Caesar Augustus called for his census,  Joseph—being a descendant of the line of David—had no choice but to travel with his betrothed to the town of Bethlehem. (I’ll come back to this point later in the week!)

But one more thing about Ruth and Bethlehem: At one point in his sermon, Alistair Begg pondered something that made me press pause. Those fields where Naomi and Ruth walked as they entered into Bethlehem—adjacent to Boaz’s ancestral fields where Ruth collected barley left behind by the workers—were the same fields where lowly shepherds stood awestruck by the great “Glorias!” of the angels announcing Jesus’ birth. Maybe as young shepherds, they sat at the feet of their parents and grandparents, re-hearing the stories of Ruth, Boaz, Obed, Jesse, and David. It is no small wonder that they were the ones chosen to first visit the Christ child.

While I am focusing on a different set of themes for Advent this year, I still wanted to draw connections between Bethlehem and Peace. At first glance, Bethlehem was far from peaceful on the night that Jesus was born. I’m positive Joseph was stressed at not having an adequate place for Mary to sleep, much less give birth to their son. The transition from the discomfort of riding all day on a donkey to the pain of childbirth most likely caused Mary no amount of rest. Those lodging nearby the stable would not have had a peaceful night, with the sounds of Mary moaning through the contractions, and the little baby Jesus crying as He entered the world (I don’t care what the songs say, I’m sure Jesus cried). And the shepherds’ “peace” was certainly disturbed when the angels sang out “Glory to God in the Highest!”, shocking their hushed and tedious existence.

But Bethlehem can and should be associated with peace, because it is the place where the Prince of Peace was born. Shalom entered the world. The angels would announce Him, the shepherds would act as witnesses, the wisemen would travel far to give Him with gifts, and the great rulers of Jerusalem would scoff at Him. He was no mere baby, not even an earthly king, but the One who reigns, forever, with justice, righteousness, and peace.


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