“Prophecies of His Place (Advent in Prophecy)”
Micah 5:1-5, Isaiah 9:1-2, Hosea 11:1
December 24, 2016
Jesus came to bring light to the humblest and darkest places.
I. Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-5)
II. Egypt and Nazareth (Isaiah 9:1-2, Hosea 11:1)
This Christmas season we’ve focused on the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus, his incarnation and birth. We looked at the work of the Messiah, the human descent of the Messiah and the divine descent of the Messiah. Tonight, as we remember and celebrate his birth, we’re going to take a brief look at the places that were prophesied about for the Messiah. We’re only going to mention three – Bethlehem, Nazareth and Egypt, though Jerusalem itself could be considered a fourth and central place for his work.
But the Scripture we just read points very clearly to the Messiah, to his birth in Bethlehem. The first verse of Micah 5 is a prophecy of doom and exile for the Jerusalem of Micah’s day, roughly the same as Isaiah. “Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the judge of Israel on the cheek.” The implication is that Israel is under siege by her enemies and is conquered. Micah prophesies this defeat often, but he alternates his prophecies of near-term doom with long term hope. Chapter 4, which we’ll touch on a week from tomorrow, looks all the way forward to the gathering of the nations under the Messiah’s rule.
But here he offers the hope of the Messiahs first coming. Verse 2 “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.” Ephrathah is the ancient name of the Bethlehem near Jerusalem, to distinguish it from the one in Galilee. It was in this small, isolated town that David was born. It was isolated, away from trade routes, with only sheepherding for an industry.
But now from this town, God says, a ruler will come for me. He will not act on his own behalf: he comes for God. This ruler has origins that are from of old, from ancient days. Some have taken this to mean that he is simply a descendant of David. But there is more going on here. The words "coming forth” reflect a Hebrew phrase that depicts an army departing for battle. This ruler, the promised Messiah was coming in power to free his people. And the terms "from of old" and "ancient times" imply not only antiquity, but eternity past. In fact the first of these two phrases is used in the Old Testament of God himself, of his purposes, and his declarations.
To use this phrase of a future ruler implies an eternal ruler, the one we’ve seen so often in the prophecies of the Messiah. And this prophecy was well known and understood. In Matthew when the wise men come to Jerusalem they ask Herod. “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Herod, who is only half Jewish and no scholar, doesn’t know, but when he assembles all the chief priests and scribes, they know. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet.” And then they quote Micah 5:2. So the common expectation among those who longed for a Messiah was that he would come from this little town, Bethlehem.
Verses 3-5 show the ultimate rescue this promised ruler will achieve. Verse 3: Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. It’s natural for us, on Christmas Eve, to see ‘she who is in labor’ as Mary, giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. But in chapter 4 the whole nation is groaning in childbirth, longing for the rescue achieved by the ruler from Bethlehem. Under his rule “the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.” This could point to the first return from exile, but that only involved the tribe of Judah. It could point to our time, when Gentiles the world over are coming to faith in Jesus. But it probably points forward to the millennium when Jesus reigns over the nations from Jerusalem.
Verse 4 “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.” This ruler from Bethlehem comes as a shepherd. But not a weak cowardly shepherd: Israel had enough of those; the world has had enough of those. This is the one who would come in the strength of the Lord and in the name of the Lord and the majesty of that name. This metaphor of the masterful, faithful shepherd is throughout Scripture. Psalm 23 teaches that the Lord is that shepherd. When Israel’s leaders failed to be faithful, God says “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.”
And John records how Jesus saw himself enlarging that promise as he fulfilled it. “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Then in verse 16 he adds “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also.”
Jesus lays down his life to rescue his sheep from death and destruction. He gathers his flock from all nations. I think he’s been reading Micah. “And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. 5And he shall be their peace.” The words ‘dwell secure’ translate a word that means ‘continue dwelling.’ The lives of people in Bible times were insecure, whether under the Romans, the Assyrians or in Judges when everyone did what was right in their own eyes. The odds of living without violence or persecution were low. So when the Hebrew says ‘continue dwelling’ it is talking about a deeply desired core blessing: to live without threat or uncertainty. Only Jesus offers that blessing. “He shall be their peace.” The Old Testament saw ‘shalom’ as the highest good, highest gift from God. Part of this was freedom from violence. Like Syria or Sudan so many other places today, the violence and instability in Bible times meant that to dwell secure and be left alone in peace was a huge blessing.
But Biblical ‘Shalom’ is so much more. It is human flourishing and peace in every relationship. Paul says it’s between Jews and Gentiles. It’s ethnic: every tribe tongue and nation. It’s national: no war or terrorism. But it’s also personal: all the peace in the world is worthless if there is warfare going on in your own home, or between families, or in a church. It means no hatred, or bitterness, no cruelty or neglect; it means, instead, treasuring each other. And must begin with peace within, no warfare in our own hearts, a filling of the God shaped vacuum that assures us God is for us no matter what and that nothing in all creation can separate us from that love.
Micah says, and Paul says in Ephesians 2:14 that Jesus is that peace. Peace is not found in our circumstances; peace is not found in our own strength; peace is not found in the dark streets of Bethlehem, or in the shepherd’s fields. When the angels say ‘peace on earth goodwill to men, they are not saying that circumstances are going to change, that a new political system will save them. They are saying that a person is coming, the one who by his presence in our world and in our lives is the peace we long for, the shepherd we long for, the rescue we long for, the ruler we long for. The message of the dark night of Bethlehem is that the light of the world is the shepherd of the world is the savior of the world is the peace of the world.
Kadia looked with a mixture of anger and sadness at the little Christmas tree on the table in the kitchen. She was angry because it was so small. Last year, when Kadia was six, her parents had bought a large real tree and pushed aside the furniture to fit it in the tiny living room of the apartment. But now there was no room. That space was occupied by Yakob’s crib.
Last year there had been plenty of presents under the big tree, most of them for her. Now there was no money, and the few presents under the tree seemed to be mostly for the baby. Last year their apartment had seemed large and fine, but now there was no room and nothing new.
It had all started when her parents got the call from Germany. Her aunt had finally escaped from Iraq and one of the helpers in Germany, someone who had a purse, Kadia thought, had arranged a call to her brother. She told of the horrors of the years since Kadia’s parents had escaped. Kadia couldn’t remember Iraq, couldn’t remember any of the bad things that had happened there, but she knew her parents were happy to be here in Chicago where they could work at their jobs and go to their church without any danger.
But Papa’s sister had told him how much worse things were in Fallujah, how many people had been killed or were starving. And she told him of Kadia’s cousin, Yakob, whose parents had both been killed crossing the water. He was stuck in Greece with no one to care for him but the Purse people. The Germans would not let Papa’s sister go back and get him.
That was when the bad things started to happen. Her parents stopped buying her toys or even treats. They were saving all their money to go to Greece to try to bring back little Yakob. At first Kadia was happy at the thought of having a little brother. But when she found out that both Mama and Papa were going away to get him, she got scared and angry. It was even worse when she found she would be staying with old Tatia, whose hands were cold and bony and whose breath smelled bad.
Worst of all, Christmas was coming, Kadia’s favorite time of year, and Kadia was not even sure her parents would be home. But they did get back, weeks before Christmas, and for the first few days Kadia was happy. But not any more. Yakob, who her parents called Jacob in American, just as they called her Katie, seemed to take all their time and attention. He was cute, but little and skinny and he didn’t eat well and he cried all the time.
She tried to help, but it seemed she was always in the way and Mama kept telling her to move. There was just no room. Now every time she saw little Jacob on her mother’s lap, and every time he cried she got mad. Why did they have to squeeze the little pest into their lives and into their home. It was theirs, after all. Sometimes she was so mad she tried to hit the baby. But her mother was so quick that she never actually did it. And her papa spanked her for even trying.
Finally, she got an idea. Maybe, when her parents weren’t looking, she could take him out and leave him someplace. She knew a little hidey hole in the bushes at the park that nobody could see. She would pick him up out of his crib when he was sleeping, so he wouldn’t cry. She would slip away so fast her parents wouldn’t even know he was gone. Then they could put away his awful crib and put back up the big Christmas tree with all the presents.
But before she could put her plan into action, Christmas came. She went with her parents and the baby to church, where strong smells and candles always reminded her of home, though she couldn’t think what she meant by that. The priest was scary, with his black robe and big beard, but tonight he invited the children forward for a story. He told how Mary and Joseph had gone to Bethlehem, where they didn’t have a home, and there was no place for them there. Even the hotel did not invite them in, so they had to have baby Jesus in a smelly stable. “There was no room for Baby Jesus in Bethlehem,” the priest said. “I wonder if you have room for him in your lives? Do you talk to him and pray to him? Do you have room in your lives for others? Because when you make room for others, when you are caring and kind to others, you are really making room for Jesus.”
The priest seemed to be staring right at her with his bright black eyes. She turned away and bit her lip. She knew she was unkind and uncaring to Jacob. And that made her think “but there’s no room for him.” And that made her think “Just like Baby Jesus.” At that moment, the priest dismissed the children back to their families. Kadia ran, with tears in her eyes, and gave Mama and the baby a big hug. “I’m so sorry, little Jacob, sorry that I didn’t invite you in. I promise there will always make room for you from now on.” And in her heart she said “And there will always be room for you, Jesus.”
The Gospel of Matthew alludes more to the fulfillment of prophecy than any other Gospel, and sometimes the allusions are difficult. There are three in the section we just read. In verses 13-15 we find that after the wise men left, Joseph is warned in a dream that Herod will try to destroy Jesus, and he is to flee to Egypt. They stay a relatively short time, it’s hard to calculate how long, until Herod the Great dies, which is in 4 BC. Matthew tells us that this was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” That’s Hosea 11:1, which we also just read.
On first reading it seems a stretch that a reference in Hosea to the 400 years of bondage the people of Israel suffered in Egypt would be applied to the few months Jesus spent there before returning to Galilee. But Jesus in the New Testament becomes the focus of all God’s promises and works for Israel. In a sense he becomes Israel, and God’s love for Israel shown in Hosea 11 is now rightly seen in his love for His Son Jesus, whom he sent to Egypt for his safety and brought back to Galilee to do his work.
In Matthew 2:16-18 we read the gruesome account of the murder of Bethlehem’s babies. But Herod’s insane rage is all too familiar to us who have watched from a shamefully safe distance the cruelties of ISIS and Boka Haram and even of their opponents. Matthew says this fulfills Scripture. Verse 17: Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” Jeremiah is writing about the warfare and exile of the Jews, offering hope to God’s people. Matthew sees that prophecy again in the slaughter of the innocents, but with the same hope, because Jesus has escaped and will return to rescue his people not just from their enemies but from their sins.
In verses 19 to 23 we read of that return. Joseph is told in a dream that Herod has died. He could have returned to Bethlehem. The family had apparently stayed there for Jesus’ first two years or so. But he decides to return to Nazareth instead, probably because the son of Herod the Great who ruled Galilee had inherited a little less of his father’s insanity than the one who ruled Judea. Matthew says this was “that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he could be called a Nazarene.” There is no specific Old Testament prophecy that names Nazareth. But Jesus was often “Jesus of Nazareth,” and this was a sign of humility. Nazareth was a nothing town. It didn’t even have any particular history. And it was in Galilee, which was nice enough that it was kind of overrun with Gentiles and their cities.
So people hearing this phrase would possibly hear it as “Jesus, from the crummy little town of Nazareth in the Gentile dominated region of Galilee. Can any good thing come from there?” Which is in fact what Philip said when Andrew told him where Jesus was from.
But Matthew sees this humble origin as fulfilling a prophecy, and though he doesn’t specifically allude to Isaiah, I think the best candidate is Isaiah 9:1-2 “But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
Zebulon and Naphtali are two of the twelve tribes of Israel. They were assigned the area west of the Sea of Galilee. That region, Isaiah says, has been brought into contempt, as we just saw and has been labeled, derisively, Galilee of the Gentiles. Isaiah says these people walk in darkness, in deep darkness and in gloom. The previous chapter of Isaiah makes it clear that it is their own sin that has brought that darkness on them. But God. There will be no more gloom, Their land will be made glorious by God’s intervention. The people will see a great light, those who dwell in deep darkness will find a light shining on them and for them. That light is Jesus.
Tomorrow morning we’re going to look at John chapter 1: “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” We’ll hear Jesus say in John 8 “I am the light of the world.” But tonight we’re going to act it out, as believers have done on this night for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. In the little town of Bethlehem light broke into the dark world, not just for shepherds or wise men, but for you and for me, for those blinded by sin, for those gloomed by dark circumstances and weighed down by the deep darkness of a fallen world. So tonight we’re going to light a candle to celebrate the birth of the promised Messiah. And we’ll recognize again, with Isaiah and John and centuries of believers that light dispels darkness. And as we make room in our hearts and our lives for Jesus, darkness flees, and we are renewed by his light and his life incarnate for us.
House lights down. Start to sing, pass the light. Sing some more. Benediction