Heaven Shining Down Into Bethlehem
First in a Series of Nine “Heaven Shining Down!”
January 5 and 6, 2018
The Epiphany of our Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6 / Ephesians 3:1-12 / Matthew 2:1-12
Behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
Dear Friends in Christ,
The season of Epiphany is one of the oldest seasons in the church year, second only to Easter. This season of lights begins with a celebration of the Wise Men visiting the Christ child and ends with the Festival of Transfiguration. This Epiphany season is about as long as it ever gets, due to the late date of Easter this year. Today is the first of nine sermons under the theme, “Heaven Shining Down.” Three truths we would emphasize in this series.
First, as we travel with Jesus from manger to his baptism and into his public ministry of performing miracles, we rejoice that God has reached down from heaven to rescue us, even as we admit that we have no way of reaching up to him. Secondly, we explore the obvious reality that mission and ministry happen in specific locations, each with their own significant history and particular opportunities. Third, we reflect on this epic battle between Light and darkness in the past, the present, and the future.
Today we focus on Bethlehem in Old Testament times, Bethlehem in Jesus’ day, and small town living today.
Bethlehem B.C. At this time, I invite you to notice in your bulletin a map of Israel in Jesus’ day. Today, we will be focusing on the little town of Bethlehem in Judea, located six miles or so south of Jerusalem. In coming weeks we will be focused on Jesus getting baptized in the river Jordan, then on Jesus performing his first miracle in Cana of Galilee, then on Jesus reading in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth / not too far from Cana, then to Capernaum also up there near the Sea of Galilee, then out on the Lake of Gennesaret, then for two Sundays we hear Jesus preaching to the crowds on the level plain, and ending up at the Mt. of Transfiguration, where Jesus reveals his glory in spectacular fashion.
Rachel (dies) Bethlehem was a small village, perched on some rounded hills overlooking the desert to the east. It was six miles south of Jerusalem and an obvious stopping point for those on a pilgrimage to the temple of Jerusalem. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread,” it was a stopping place for supplies / sort of the Kwik Trip of its day, and a place surrounded by wheat fields and shepherds watching their flocks.
You may remember that Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, he was the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, and eventually his name was changed to Israel. And so Jacob’s 12 sons gave rise to the 12 tribes of Israel. You may also remember that Jacob’s favorite wife was Rachel, and his less favorite wife was Leah. Rachel gave birth first to Joseph, and as she gave birth to Benjamin, she passed away… There in Bethlehem, also called Ephrath, Rachel was buried, and Jacob put a pillar over her tomb.
Ruth (gets married) Bethlehem is also that place where the story of Ruth, the grandma of King David takes place. Ruth was a Gentile woman from the land of Moab who had married into a Hebrew family. When her husband died, she chose to travel with her grieving mother in law back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem, where she met and married Naomi’s relative Boaz – and thus the name of Ruth makes it into Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus – Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.
David is (anointed king) Bethlehem is also that place, where some time later, one of Israel’s greatest prophets Samuel comes to Bethlehem to visit that family of a man called Jesse. There the prophet passes over seven older brothers and chooses the youngest boy David, who was out shepherding the sheep. David is described as ruddy / attractive, had beautiful eyes and was handsome. There in Bethlehem, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward.
From that day forward, Bethlehem was associated with great King David, and as expectations grew that God would send another king like David, the prophet Micah predicted that even though Bethlehem was “small among the clans of Judah,” yet from here would come a ruler of Israel, whose origins are from old. As we move from this little town’s Old Testament history to Jesus’ day, keep in mind, that in this sermon series we explore the obvious reality that mission and ministry happen in specific locations, each with their own significant history and particular opportunities.
Bethlehem in Jesus’ Day In terms of Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth in Galilee down into Bethlehem, we could imagine them traveling along with other family members, we could speculate that it was a five or 6 day journey by mule or donkey. In terms of the magi / wise men visiting from the east, scholars suggest they may have come from as far away as Babylon and that their visit was months after, perhaps up to two years after the birth of Jesus.
It’s not so important to figure out exactly who these magi were or where they came from or when they arrived. What matters is heaven shined down with one of the stars of this universes. In Old Testament times, God led his people by day with a cloudy pillar and by night with a pillar of fire. Now God uses a star, Scripture, and a dream to guide the Magi on their way to and from Bethlehem. In our Gospel lesson for today, Bethlehem is both a place of danger and a place of divine reversal.
First, A place of (danger) The story of these first Gentiles visiting and worshiping the Christ child is jam packed with all kinds of joy mixed in with all kinds of tragedy. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh on the one hand and bloody massacre on the other. A great light shining in the darkness on the one hand, and darkness doing its dastardly best to overcome it on the other. Bethlehem on the one hand the birthplace of the very author of life and on the other a little town of 300 people or so crying until there were no more tears as they see with their very eyes a dozen or two dozen or more beautifully created baby boys slaughtered.
Second, A place of divine (reversal) Bethlehem was already a place associated with divine reversal. David had been a child, the youngest son, when God called him to be the anointed king of Israel. God had overturned human expectation in the choice of his king; humans so often look at outward appearances, but the writer of I Samuel comments, “the Lord looks at his heart.” Now in Jesus we see something similar; a humble birth in a tiny village, but the one born here will in due course be spoken of throughout the world. (Isaiah 60 language) Nations would come to his light, and kings would come to the brightness of his rising.
As we move from Bethlehem in Jesus day to small town living today, keep in mind, that in this sermon series we explore the obvious reality that mission and ministry happen in specific locations, each with their own significant history and particular opportunities.
Bethlehem Today is a majority Muslim town cut off from its sister city of Jerusalem by an 8 meter high wall. The old city has a population of 5000 or so, and its chief business is tourism. You could find 30 hotels and 300 handicraft workshops on these streets. Rachel’s tomb is only a short drive from Jerusalem. It is completely walled in, and only bullet proof buses and vans are allowed to pass between the 15 foot high concrete barriers that lead to the Tomb.
In closing today, we note two truths about small town living on the subject of light vs. darkness. Two truths about what it means for this church and school to be like a city of lights set on a hill shining Jesus Christ all over our neighborhoods. Two truths about what it means (Ephesians language) to join the missionary Paul in preaching to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things…
Two truths, one obvious and one not so much. Truth #1 is obvious. Darkness is still causing all kinds of (trouble) The kingdom of darkness is like a country where two political parties engage in debate that is often petty, occasionally poisonous, and increasingly profane. It’s like large cities and small towns alike where unborn infants are aborted and many argue that it’s nobody else’s business. It’s a land where darkness infiltrates our families on a daily basis, it attacks our relationships morning, noon, and night, it hides in the shadows, it lurks around many of our corners, more often than not, it is predictable and surprising at the same time.
Truth #2 should be, but isn’t always obvious to the naked eye Those who look to him are (radiant) This is Psalm 34 language, it’s King David language after he had confessed his transgressions to the Lord, after the Lord had forgiven the iniquity of his sin, and after he had changed his behavior. He writes, “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes it boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! I ought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.
The kingdom of light is like sinners who have cried out for mercy, mercy has arrived, and a huge weight has again been lifted from their shoulders. It’s like a marriage where husband and wife say to each other again and again, I’m sorry, I forgive you, I really do want to do better. It’s like classmates and co-workers and church members who have stumbled into self-centeredness and sarcasm and cynicism and worse, who have looked themselves in the mirror, shaken their heads in disgust, and in the quiet of the night they have asked for and received forgiveness. They understand now what Solomon once declared, “the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.” They look around the sanctuary and think about what Isaiah predicts, “Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and exult.”
Heaven shines down. In the case of the Wise Men, heaven shines down with a star, in Scripture, and in a dream. This week, we pray that heaven would reach out through us, in every one of our relationships, in every one of our conversations, in every one of our actions, that we would be like a city of lights set on a hill, obviously radiant, difficult to ignore. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
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