Here are the thoughts that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the 4th Sunday of Advent, 24 December 2000. The scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 5: 2 – 5, Hebrews 10: 5 – 10, and Luke 1: 39 – 45.
Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem is an interesting one. It is the only mention of the Messiah’s birthplace in all of the Old Testament. Why is it that only one prophet, and one of the “minor” prophets at that, the only one to give the location of Jesus’ birth?
Could it be that God wanted to keep this event quiet? Maybe God’s plan was to keep it under wraps and let Israel gradually prepare for their new king? That doesn’t seem to be the case, since the shepherds were told and three wise men from the east came looking for the new child king.
Perhaps God wanted on the Biblical scholars of that time, those who spent all their time studying the scripture, to be the ones who knew of Jesus’ birth. But if that were they case, why were they not the ones who brought the gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense? Why did it take them so long to answer the questions from the wise men about the location of this birth?
No, I think the reason for Jesus being born in the little town of Bethlehem was far simpler than that. True, Bethlehem was the city of David and Joseph and Mary, being descendants of David, needed to be there for tax purposes. But Bethlehem was also one of the smaller cities of Judah and by size and location of little importance.
In Jesus’ time, where you were born and who your parents went a long way in deciding what it was that you would do with your life. Your place in society was pretty well established before you were born and society went out of its way to make sure that you knew your boundaries.
Your success in gaining salvation was also determined, in part, by your place in society. How you obeyed the law, the actions of your daily life were the determining factors in your salvation. It was thus that the world around you was ordered. From our viewpoint in history, it is hard to say just how many common folks truly observed the law as the Pharisees established it. No doubt some tried but they probably found it hopeless and gave up. Other probably didn’t even try, knowing that there efforts would be wasted.
By being born in Bethlehem, far from the center of society and outside its boundaries, Jesus established his ministry as an alternative. It is no wonder that people came from far and wide to hear his message. It was a message of hope and promise; it gave light to the darkness of their lives. IT showed that salvation was theirs and that they were not required to follow the dictates of the Pharisees in order to get it.
Jesus’ core message was one of caring and compassion, not compliance. Jesus made clear to the Pharisees and other religious leaders of that day that they were to blame for the people losing hope. These leaders would rather use the law to meet their own goals rather than to show concern for others. It must have really driven them crazy to see Jesus eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other notorious sinners. They were the ones excluded by law and the requirements of society, yet they were the ones who needed to hear the words of salvation the most.
And I find it interesting that many contemporary religious leaders of today, including many in the United Methodist Church, did not learn this lesson. For at a time when compassion is most needed, this modern day Pharisees preach condemnation and intolerance.
While Jesus’ ministry was one of inclusion, these preachers preach a gospel of exclusion, shutting the doors in the faces of those who most need to hear the true Gospel and need the presence of Christ in their lives.
What does Christianity mean? To many it is a system of requirements and rewards, not unlike the Jewish society Jesus was born into. But instead of requirements based on what you do, the requirements today are based on belief and behavior. You must believe as your are told to believe; you must behave as you are told to behave. Your rewards will come because how you believe and behave, perhaps in this lifetime, most certainly in the next.
And this message is delivered with a smugness and arrogance, as if those who give the message know the answer and you don’t. This is not just a casual comment.
It’s frightening when you are an 18-year old college sophomore struggling with your own identity to be told that your own baptism, 50 years ago this day in Lexington, NC, doesn’t count. Never mind that I was raised in a Christian household or that I have come to know Christ myself. To these critics my baptism as an infant simply doesn’t count. And you can imagine how apoplectic they get when they find that I have never had the mind-blowing experience Saul encountered on the road to Damascus.
But like Elizabeth feeling her baby, the future John the Baptist, kick her when Mary walked into the room, I have felt the presence of Christ in my life. Just like Wesley after that night at Aldersgate, I have known the comforting assurance of Christ’ presence. I don’t need someone telling me how I should feel or act. I have always known that Christ was a part of my life and as I looked at the many times in my life when things could have gone wrong, I realize that Jesus Christ is truly my Savior.
The passage from Hebrews for us tells us that Jesus came and was the single sacrifice necessary for our salvation. The whole passage from Hebrews points out that the work of the earthly priests of that time was never done. But Christ’s sacrifice took away our sins and made it possible for us to come to God without meeting a series of endless requirements or to behave in a particular manner.
Jesus message was a simple one. It was about caring and compassion for the people around you, of respecting people for whom they were. In these little acts, Jesus gave hope to the people when society had forgotten them. Often times, it is the little things that we overlook that turn out to be the greatest things in our lives. Like a baby kicking in the womb, Jesus may come to us.