For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 4 – Micah 5:2-5a – O Little Town of Bethlehem
Christmas and Easter are the times when any obscure OT passages in which people have seen echoes of the birth and death of Jesus are taken out of the cupboard and out of their context for use at our services. Micah 5 is one such text, with its references to Bethlehem and a new king. But of course you, as a faithful reader of RevJohnLeachBlog, know better, and as always we need to ask ourselves how the original writer of this passage would have expected the original hearers to have understood it. As we do that, some profound and topical truths will arise for us.
In its wider context the book is an oracle of judgement against both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms. This is of course a common theme – it was the prophets’ bread and butter to tell the people off. But interestingly Micah has a slightly different take. Yes, there is the usual condemnation of evildoing, covetousness and theft, although false worship is not a major theme for Micah. But as well as being tough on crime, he is also tough on the causes of crime. In chapter 3 he lays the blame squarely on the nations leaders, whose dishonesty has set the tone for the whole nation. So, in 5:1, too nasty to appear in our lectionary reading, the king is about to be struck on the cheek, a sign of complete disdain, which of course Jesus suffered too.
But them comes a promise. A new ruler is going to be born, and he’s going to come from Bethlehem. That, and the fact that he’s going to be born after a period of his mother’s labour (not an unusual way to be born) are both significant, and it is these motifs which can yield some surprising good news for us today. Bethlehem is of course the city of David, known (or rather not known) for its obscurity, but also for being the birthplace of the greatest and most godly king Israel had ever known. Even 1000 years before Mary sang the Magnificat God was in the business of exalting the humble and meek, and leaving the more likely-looking brothers, and the more likely looking city of Jerusalem, out of the picture. And the picture of labour is a picture of great pain and suffering, just like the awful time through which Israel was living, with enemies all round ready to pounce, and also the time through which we are living with a minute but powerful enemy keeping us all in a state of fear, and some of us in a state of bereavement and grief. But the whole point of labour is that it is temporary, and eventually brings forth new life and new hope. This king will be our peace.
I heard an interesting point of view expressed in the sauna at my gym this week. A group of men were discussing the latest revelations about partying and corruption in Downing Street, and one said that it was all being blown up out of all proportion by the media, and that the whole point of getting to the top of the tree was so that you could get the perks without bothering to obey the rules. With the gift of hindsight I realised how I should have reacted to that idea, but at the time I was too shocked to do anything. I have increasingly found myself interpreting 1 Timothy 2:1, that bit about praying for our rulers, not as I used to in terms of ‘Lord, bless them, give them wisdom …’ and so on, but rather ‘Lord, stop them!’ Cast down the mighty, O Lord, and exalt the humble and above all the honest! Micah would have agreed with this, but the motif of childbirth and labour gives us hope. This will not go on for ever, and when it is over something new but yet ancient will come forth. This is good news for us as we try to celebrate Christmas (if we’re allowed to this year) in the midst not just of an external viral enemy, but also the enemy within of lying, corruption and shamelessness, which it appears is in some ways trickling down from the leaders to the public, as of course is always the way whatever example out leaders set us, for good or ill. This won’t be allowed to go on for ever, and our ancient King will be born anew to judge all that is evil and to bring security and peace.