The Fourth Sunday of Advent December 20, 2009
95, 710 [TLH alt, 647], 76, 702 [TLH alt, 74]
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” Therefore He shall give them up, until the time that she who is in labor has given birth; then the remnant of His brethren shall return to the children of Israel. And He shall stand and feed His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God; and they shall abide, for now He shall be great to the ends of the earth; and this One shall be peace.
In the name of Jesus, dear fellow Christians:
Have you ever wondered why we wrap presents and put them under the tree? Why not just hand someone a box, and say, “I bought you a coffee maker. I hope you like it.” or “Here’s a sweater for you. Try it on and see if it fits”? It’s the element of surprise, isn’t it? This year I wrapped presents earlier than usual so that family members would have plenty of time to look at their packages, maybe pick them up and shake them a little, and imagine what might be inside. Have you ever tried to see through the wrapping paper to read the printing on the box? When the package is ready, wrapped, and under the tree, anticipation builds as each day brings you closer to the time when the wrapping is torn off and the surprise gift is revealed.
On Christmas we celebrate the revealing of the greatest gift of all, God’s only begotten Son born on earth. But long before, God wanted people to look forward to Jesus and anticipate His coming. Many of the details regarding God’s Gift remained wrapped in His eternal counsel, but as the time drew closer, He revealed more and more through the prophets. One of them was Micah. In this text God lets us peek through the paper and begin to see His surprising Gift.
Even the location is a surprise. There are certain places you expect to find Christmas gifts: under the tree, in a closet, or perhaps in the mail. But you would not ordinarily look in the microwave or in the backyard. God announced that His Gift would be a king so the natural place to look would have been in the capital city of Jerusalem. In this case, though, Bethlehem would receive the honor. It was just a tiny village, unknown and unimportant to most people, and yet that was where Jesus was to be born. It was a surprising and perfect choice. Bethlehem had one claim to fame. Israel’s greatest king, David, had been born and raised there. The Lord had promised David that one of his descendants would rule over an even greater, eternal kingdom.
God was faithful to His promise in every detail. Mary, Jesus’ mother, was from David’s line. Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather and legal guardian was also descended from him. At just the right time God used the unbelieving Roman emperor’s decree to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of the Savior—David’s greater Son. Bethlehem was small and insignificant in the eyes of the world, but not to God. It was a little detail which played a major role in His plan.
All the little things matter to Him. That is so reassuring for us. It means that we can count on every one of God’s promises. He will be faithful to them all. It means that, even though we are unknown and insignificant in the world, we matter to God. Jesus was born for the people of Bethlehem, as well as for those in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel. He was born for us and for those whose names and faces are on TV. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Usually, the greater someone is, the less he notices or cares about the little things. What a wonderful surprise that the greatest One of all is the One who cares most of all about us!
We know all about the natural order of childbirth which God established already at creation. A baby is conceived in his mother’s womb, and about nine months later is born into the world. For Mary that time came while she and Joseph were in Bethlehem. Luke’s record sounds very ordinary and normal: “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son…” (Luke 2:6f). Micah foretold that a woman would be in labor and give birth, but did you also catch the surprising part of the prophecy? “His goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” [v.2]
This newborn Baby existed long before His birth. He is eternal! Isaiah prophesied: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 NIV). “Immanuel” means “God-with-us,” and that describes Jesus perfectly. He was a true baby boy in every respect. But at the same time, He was true God, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb. John sums it up like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,14).
The Creator of the universe entered His own creation. The Almighty One humbled Himself and trusted Mary and Joseph to care for Him. Billions of babies have been born over the years, but none like Jesus, the God-Man. Every baby born is a miraculous gift from God, but none is God except Jesus, the virgin born Savior!
Have you ever thought that you knew exactly what was in a certain present only to find out on Christmas that you were wrong? The Jewish people in general thought they knew what was in God’s Christmas gift before it was even opened. At least they knew what they wanted: a Messiah-King who would drive out the Roman occupation forces and establish a new Jewish state centered in Jerusalem. Jesus’ own disciples had a hard time getting over that idea. Today many still have fond dreams of a millennialistic kingdom with Jesus ruling from Jerusalem.
The surprise to human reasoning is that these dreams are too puny. Jesus came to establish a much greater rule. Micah tells us He would come in the strength and majesty of the Lord God to gather in the scattered remnants of Israel and to stand and feed His flock. It is a picture of a strong Shepherd-King who loves each sheep and is willing to do whatever it takes to defend and care for His flock. Jesus would gather His sheep through His comforting Word. He invites all who are burdened, battered, and discouraged to come to Him for rest. He rules in hearts with His love, not by force of law. He assures all His sheep that He has set them free from every fear by laying down His life on the cross.
Christ’s rule is as wonderfully surprising now as ever. We are used to seeing nations rise and fall as they fight one another over territory, or even fight within themselves like the warring factions inside Iraq. We know that our country and its leadership are far from perfect. At the same time, we thank God for the many benefits we enjoy here, recognizing that most people in the world cannot share in them.
Christ’s kingdom, however, is open to all through faith. It is not restricted to a certain territory on the globe. It does not need an army to protect it or to hold it together. It is permanent and secure for all times. Every day the Good Shepherd feeds us His sheep with the green pastures and refreshing streams of His grace and makes sure that no one will snatch us from His hand.
It happens at times that someone is looking for one gift in particular on Christmas. The person opens all his presents but doesn’t see the one he really wants. Then someone points out a package under the tree that was there all along and was somehow missed, and inside that box is the longed-for treasure. The gift that many people around the world are looking for this Christmas is peace. U.S. servicemen and women and their families long for the day when they can return home. We certainly pray for that too.
But the surprise is that the gift of peace is already there for us to have and enjoy in Jesus. The prophet wrote: “For to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6 NIV). Micah states simply: “This One shall be peace.” [v.5]
Still, we miss seeing the peace because we sometimes look for only one kind of peace—the outward peace between people here on earth. Jesus, however, was born to be a much better peace for a far more devastating conflict. The domestic violence, street shootings, and international wars are only symptoms of an underlying problem between mankind and God. All people are conceived and born in sin and, therefore, are God-haters. God is angry with them because of their sin.
That is what makes God’s Gift so incredibly surprising! God in His justice hates sin and yet in His love He sent just the Gift needed to make peace. Jesus is our peace because He was born holy and without sin so that He could meet God’s requirements for holiness in the world’s place. He is our peace because He came to step between mankind and the bullet of Gods punishment. He suffered the fatal shot on the cross so we wouldn’t have to. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NIV). You can hear the surprise and awe of God’s saving actions in Micah’s words: “Who is God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19 NIV).
The peace of the Christ Child means that you are forgiven and righteous before God. You are free from guilt and your conscience is clear. No enemy is left standing, not even death. You are a child of God and an heir of heaven. You have a loving Father, not an angry Judge. And there is another surprising benefit. When we have peace with God through Jesus, the Holy Spirit works in us the desire to reflect that heavenly peace in how we speak and act toward others. So Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28 NIV). May Jesus’ peace move us to live in peace with all those around us.
You may have one or more surprising presents waiting for you under the tree, but the best one is in the manger at Bethlehem. It will continue to be unwrapped and revealed to us and all mankind. It is the surprising Gift of God’s Son, the wondrous Gift of His love! Amen.
A great and mighty wonder,
A full and holy cure:
The Virgin bears the Infant
With virgin honor pure!
Repeat the hymn again:
“To God on high be glory
And peace on earth to men!”
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.