Living each day
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labour has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace. (Micah 5:2-5a)
Our first reading this morning is noted these days not for its original context but for its fulfilment in the story of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded by Matthew who spends the beginning of his account of Jesus’ life repeatedly making the claim that Jesus is a son of Abraham, a son of David, the new king of Israel and specifically a shepherd king with all the links to both King David and God himself this Jesus personifies a faithful Israel of the Old Testament which is only possible because he is also Immanuel – God with us. In making his presentation, his case, his setting the scene about Jesus, Matthew records that the king of the time, Herod, whose wife recently had not had a child, had to consult the chief priests and scribes who searched the Scriptures and yes, they found Jesus in Bethlehem Ephrathah. This is the story we know well and we smile and nod at the prophecy of Micah and God’s cleverness and faithfulness.
Today, however, while not forgetting the celebrations of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I would like to pause and go back about 700 years from that first Christmas to the period of time when the northern kingdom – called Israel – was facing the threat of the expanding Assyrian Empire. Remember that after King Solomon the kingdom split into a north and a south – Israel and Judah – and both sets of kings played with varying success politics with the major players of the region while also trying one-upmanship with the neighbours.
Their relative prosperity had resulted in easy living and their identity as God’s people was increasingly
remembered by less and less people over the generations. God sent the prophets to call the people back and maybe a king listened or the people amended their ways for a time but overall there was a steady decline in following God – in being God’s people. Micah’s call primarily to Judah with Jerusalem its capital in the south was before and after the north’s destruction. I’m summarising 20-30 years of living – just imagine what that’s like – playing politics, juggling economies, keeping the wolves at bay – and in 722BC the northern kingdom is obliterated – Israel (also called Samaria) falls – and Judah quakes and fears for its existence. Judah survives through paying fines and tributes but doesn’t learn to return to God – not really – so that just over a hundred years later, when it is now the Babylonians as ‘top dogs’, Judah and Jerusalem will be destroyed.
But back to Micah and his messages – a combination of judgements and promises from God – call the people to repent and saying when tough times come that these will end. The messages come because of the context and our text is at a time when it seems that siege and powerful forces will end in destruction. Bethlehem is just outside of Jerusalem – I was surprised how close it is – and even then its smallness and seeming insignificance – apart from its one claim to fame of being the birthplace of King David – was noted. If Jerusalem with its walls and fortifications weren’t going to stop Assyria then Bethlehem outside the walls had no chance! We don’t know who specifically was pregnant in Micah’s time but as I said the southern kingdom weathered the Assyrian storm and continued for another hundred years and a bit – so I think it is fair to say that the people in Micah’s time could say ‘God helped us’. Judah had the remnants of the northern tribes – the brothers were together – the temple in Jerusalem still conveyed God’s presence and blessings – and the king brokered a peace. Life went on.
And that’s the point! There was no dramatic divine intervention. The northern kingdom was overrun and in ruins as far as the tribes of Israel who used to live there were concerned. It was a tough call, for sure, for Judah but did God really help Judah? How do you know? In what should the people find their security? Their king? His foreign policy? His negotiating skills? Their economy? Sheer dumb luck? The prophet’s message was obviously grounded in God. That is where one’s security lies. But what does that mean in practice – each day? What does it mean if you’re the king or if you’re just the local carpenter in a suburb who is trying to make ends meet – and I don’t mean table legs!?
I imagine it was easy for many people to hear Micah and just mutter ‘nutter’ or ‘looney’ or ‘you’re not in the real world, mate!’. To be fair, a lot of Micah’s talk was to the king and the ‘movers and shakers’ but that didn’t absolve the people – anyone – everyone who was in the covenant which meant those circumcised and their families and who knew, maybe even as a type of fairytale, of God’s rescue of the ancestors from Egypt, from their own personal behaviour before God. Because that’s what living boils down to whether the country is flourishing or going down the gurgler, in peace or at war – where each person needs to work out and decide how he or she will live – big picture and little detail stuff. Yep, it can be easy to follow the crowd, to live unnoticed – just in my little corner, to rationalise our behaviour – but the prophets were always calling people to remember, to recall that they were in a relationship with God and for that relationship to govern how they were to live. That’s why the Old Testament prophets ultimately pointed to the Exodus – God’s rescue of his people from slavery and making them his people through the wilderness and in their own land. It was God’s faithfulness to covenants he made despite the people’s continual breaking of them that were the backgrounds to the promises God kept making – that he wasn’t going to walk away and wash his hands of them and leave them to the ravages of this planet to be gobbled up and destroyed, to receive the consequences of their rebellion.
Living faithfully can be easy to talk about but much harder at times in practice. Where is our security? Whom do we listen to for guidance and direction? On what basis do we decide what we do in this or that situation? These questions are asked by everyone, I think, at various times.
Micah interpreted what was happening in terms of God’s judgement and promises. He claimed to speak the truth when he said ‘Thus says the Lord …’ for both judgements and promises. How do the hearers know whom to believe? Ultimately it is when what the prophet said comes true – but that can be quite a wait. In the meantime you need to work through the message of the prophet and compare it to other messages from God and then look inward to one’s own relationship with God. Do I want to honour God? Obey him? Draw closer to him? We know that inner barometer when God challenges us and the struggle we have. And then it is a matter of stepping out in faithful obedience to God’s Word – not to our feelings or social pressure or whatever else we let guide us.
That’s the critical thing for us today is the knowledge of and responding to God’s Word. Reading it, studying it, digesting it – and growing in its message – that God is not abstract and distant – not back in Micah’s time and not now. Yes, the revelation has changed and we, as Christians, tell the world that Micah’s message was fulfilled in Jesus who has achieved what no one has achieved – peace with God – paradoxically in a world full of conflict. For us Micah does now point to Jesus and his message of God’s promise of rescue is overshadowed by or fulfilled in Jesus. Micah’s situation and context remind us that people have always struggled with living faithfully in this world – with security issues – whom do we trust? – and with being faithful to what we believe and trust. That is the human condition. And then and now, God does not leave us to live meaninglessly and die purposelessly. Sure – all religions make such claims – and Christians continue on Micah’s trajectory and Matthew’s story by talking about God being born to die and to live again so that we may not die but, more than that, so that we may live these days – purposefully and meaningfully towards both God and those around us. Is such a thing possible? Yes! That’s why we’re going to Bethlehem later this week …
- Micah 5:2 - 5a