Sunday, December 20, 2015
Some of you grew up in a small town, so you can identify with some of those lists that begin with “You know you live in a small town when . . .” For example, “You know you live in a small town when . . .”
City limits signs are both on the same post.
Your car breaks down outside of town and news of it gets back to town before you do.
Without thinking, you wave to all oncoming traffic.
You know you live in a small town when the New Year’s baby is born in October.
A “Night on the Town” takes only 11 minutes.
The local phone book has only one yellow page.
You know you live in a small town when you call a wrong number and they supply you with the correct one.
It takes 30 seconds to reach your destination and it’s clear across town.
Well, you get the idea. Small towns don’t get much respect. Abraham Lincoln, generally acknowledged as our greatest president, hailed from Knob Creek, Kentucky which was so small it no longer exists.
President Jimmy Carter, of course, still calls Plains, Georgia home. Plains has a grand population of 611. You don’t have to be a big city to produce a big person.
Of course, the greatest person who ever lived came from a small town in one of the unlikeliest places on Earth. We read in Micah 5 these beautiful words, 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.
These words were written 700 years before Caesar Augustus issued his decree for a census. A census that required Joseph and Mary, to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem. You know the story, probably by heart.
Joseph went to register for the census with Mary, who was engaged to him and was pregnant. While they were there, she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
And who can forget about the shepherds out in the fields watching over their flocks. An angel appeared and said, don’t be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. You’ll find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
When the angels left, the shepherds said, let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing.
Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened. The world didn’t know it, but all the truly important people on earth were huddled in a stable that night long ago in the tiny town six miles outside of Jerusalem known as Bethlehem. In the world’s estimation the important people were in Rome, such as Augustus Caesar, his household and the Roman senate, but we know better. The truly important people that night consisted of some humble shepherds and a young couple with their newborn son who had been forced to take shelter in a stable because there was no room for them in motel 6. Why do I say that all the important people were in Bethlehem? Because the babe which was born that night would forever change the world, as well as humanity’s relationship with God. And it happened in a small town called Bethlehem.
In August, 1865, shortly after the Civil war, the parishioners of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia sent their rector, Phillips Brooks, abroad for a year. His travels took him through Europe, and in December to the Holy Land. There he traced the footsteps of Jesus southward and visited the scenes of the Bible narrative.
After two weeks spent in Jerusalem, Christmas Eve found him in Bethlehem at the birthplace of Jesus. Of his stirring emotions on that “Holy Night,” he later wrote to his Sunday school back in Philadelphia. He said, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born. The whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God. It was as if I could hear angelic voices telling each other of the Wonderful Night of our dear Savior’s birth.”
Two years later, in 1867, Brooks put his pen to paper and wrote these immortal words:
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
The prophet Micah, who first announced where Christ would be born, was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. In those days 700 years before Christ’s birth, God was speaking to both men of the One who was to come.
Not as famous as Isaiah, Micah with his inspired preaching against injustice eventually got King Hezekiah to repent and saved Israel (Jeremiah 26:17-19). There was a huge contrast within both Judah and Israel between the extremely rich and the oppressed poor. Does that sound familiar? And the corrupt political and religious leaders of that day went along with it. This failed leadership caused the nation to become morally bankrupt and therefore ripe for judgment.
Micah foretold that there would come a ruler who will “shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then His greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And He will be our peace. The place where this ruler would be born, said Micah, is Bethlehem.
Bethlehem means house of bread. Sounds more like a home for the Pillsbury Dough Boy, than it does the birthplace of a king. It’s profound, don’t you think, that God would raise the one who would be the “bread of life” from the city called “house of bread?”
Bread is one of life’s most common things. God wanted His Son available to all. His birth was announced to shepherds, not to the religious elite nor to those with political clout. His cradle was a manger, a common animal’s feeding trough in a lowly stable. You don’t have to be rich to know Him. You don’t have to be well-known or popular to know Him. You can just be you. Jesus didn’t come for the religious, for the ones who thought they were all right, but for the ones who were aware of their needs. That Christ born in ‘The House of Bread’ gives us confidence that God does indeed want us to be His children no matter how insignificant we may seem to ourselves or to those around us.
God came to us in a small town and a small baby. Not in a power center of the world, not with pomp and circumstance, but in a stable, filled with animals and furnished with straw.
When a new king is born you can hear the artillery canons fire a 41-gun salute. When a new king is born, the chapel bells peal loud clanging music into the night. When a new king is born, champagne corks pop by the thousands. When a new king is born, people stand together and sing choruses in the street. When a new king is born, millions of people feel like they are members of one harmonious family.
At least that’s the way one newspaper article says it was on June 21, 1982 when at 9:03 p.m. the future King of England came into the world.
His name was William, Prince of Wales, born to Prince Charles and Diana. This boy was a legitimate heir to the throne. He was of royal ancestry. Born to be king.
But that’s not the way it was when Jesus came into the world. It’s difficult to imagine a birth more humble or lowly than the birth of Jesus. Imagine finding a young woman giving birth to a baby in an abandoned car in some urban alleyway, and you understand the way it really was. And that was the way it was when Jesus was born. A small town, a small baby and, miraculously, an entire world was saved. I say miraculously because Christmas is from God.
When this child was born, the whole course of human history was changed. Art, music, literature, western culture itself, with all its institutions and western man’s whole understanding of himself and his world. It’s impossible to conceive how differently things would’ve turned out if that birth hadn’t happened, whenever, wherever, however it did. The birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life, but a new way of living it. The truth of this incarnation should never cease to amaze us
The birth of Jesus made possible a new way of understanding life. You can listen to a cricket singing and think that he has no knowledge of other crickets in other fields, some far away, some nearby. He has no knowledge even of the cricket in the field across the road. His world is one patch of weeds, and his lifetime, a single summer.
And you can think of ancient man, with no knowledge of countries and continents across the seas. His own little community is his world. He knows nothing else. Think of the worlds unknown to us, of the outer limits of the universe about which we know next to nothing. This little ball of mud, our whole universe, and our whole lifetime, these few years. God has kept some greater knowledge in reserve for us for the future.
But once in a while, God opens a window in that larger eternal, heavenly world. He opened such a window at Bethlehem when angels appeared to shepherds.
The birth of Jesus also made possible a new way of living. We hear people ask, why can’t we keep the Christmas spirit all year long? And the answer is, of course, that’s why Christ came, that we might keep His spirit all year long. The Christmas spirit is no more than the way the follower of Jesus is to live every day of his or her life; showing kindness to strangers; treating all people regardless of their station in life with respect; being generous with the poor and compassionate with the wayward. That’s not an abnormality. That’s simply living the Christ life.
On Christmas Eve during the Nazi occupation when a little boy was very young. His father was away, so his mother gathered the children around her to read the Christmas story and to pray. As they did they could hear the soldiers outside their windows, on patrol and enforcing the orders forbidding religious celebration. They were very quiet.
During the reading and praying, the young boy kept wondering what his mother would do about the music. They were poor, but they had a piano that was used for house services where his papa preached and his mama played the hymns. Mama loved the Christmas music, but surely the soldiers would hear if they sang. What would they do if they heard them?
When they finished their reading and prayers, the youngest sister asked, Mama, aren’t we going to sing? With only a moment’s hesitation, mom answered, tonight we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child into our world. He came that we might never be afraid any more. Of course we are going to sing. So she gathered the children close and they sang, O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.
You and I don’t have to sing in fear this morning, all fear has been taken away. How? Well, it begins in a small town called Bethlehem, “the house of bread.”