Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Advent
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-46 [46-55]

Lo, I am come to do thy will.

I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania, in a town called Allentown. Allentown was part of a metropolitan area that included Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. Allentown was the largest of the three cities, Bethlehem the middle and Easton the smallest. Surrounding these three cities were lots of smaller communities, all of which were unique and yet part of the whole. It is hard to tell the difference between city and town as you drive through the Lehigh Valley. One runs into another. We went to Bethlehem regularly for a variety of reasons. But to me, it was just part of one great big city. Allentown overshadowed both cities, especially Bethlehem, which was right next door.

Bethlehem has a unique place in the history of the Lehigh Valley, though. It was founded by a group of Moravians, who settled there on Christmas Eve in 1741. The named it Bethlehem after the town where Jesus was born. Beginning in the early 1900ís the city of Bethlehem installed an electric Moravian Star that shines over the city year round. That star is a reminder of the Moravian heritage and its namesake, a small town where a great thing happened.

When the town was first founded, it was open to only members of the Moravian Church. The church owned all the property, and everything was shared between the members. A number of buildings still exist in the historic part of the city which gives us a peak at what communal life might have been like. The city has grown up around that first community. Citizenship is no longer limited to Moravians. It has been a center of industry and innovation. The first waterworks in America was built in Bethlehem and was home to Bethlehem Steel, one of the largest steel producers in the United States.

The once tiny town of a few hundred grew into a successful and prosperous town and despite the loss of the steel industry is still home to more than 70,000 people. The little town of Bethlehem is in many ways the same. The place where Jesus was born is now home to about 25,000 people. The tiny town that was once six miles from Jerusalem has grown into the outstretching city. It is hard to tell the difference between city and town now.

When we see pictures of the Bethlehem of Jesusí day, we see an image of a bustling town with many people. As a matter of fact, with the counting of the census, the little town is pictured overflowing with people: the streets are packed, the inns are full and there is nowhere left for a small family to stay. We picture Joseph going door to door, from inn to inn, trying to find a room. It is possible, even probable, that Bethlehem had very few places for people to stay. Only six miles from Jerusalem, it would have been a common place for people to stop on their way to the city.

Some scholarship suggests that Bethlehem was not a very big city and that it was unlikely that it was crowded at the time. It seems the census was not done in a day, a week, or even a month. It may have taken years. Josephus mentions a time of Roman taxation in AD 6, which would have been based on a previous census. They couldnít do it the way we can, so it is possible the census began well before the birth of Christ. Why Joseph and Mary would try to travel when Mary was so close to being due is a puzzle, but it fulfilled the prophecies that we read in todayís Old Testament lesson. Jesus was meant to be born in Bethlehem, and God found a way to make it happen.

Why Bethlehem? It was such a small town, very unimportant. Itís only claim to fame was Rachelís tomb. Rachel, the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, died during childbirth. Isnít it interesting that all the people important to this story are the least and yet are so important to Godís purpose? Jacob, the second son, was a conniving cheat. Rachel, the beloved wife was the younger sister, but Jacob worked seven extra years to earn her hand in marriage. In the end, she had difficulty conceiving and was scorned by a servant. Joseph, the beloved son of Rachel, was the least of his brothers and yet a spoiled child. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, suffered unjust cruelties and was eventually blessed by God in a way that would save his family from famine.

Bethlehem was the hometown of David, through his father Jesse. Jesse was the son of Obed and the grandson of Ruth. He was a sheep herder. We often think of Jesse as an important man because we see this image of the prophet Samuel visiting Jesse in search of the new king. Surely Jesse must have been a man of means? Yet, he was from Bethlehem, the grandson of a foreign woman, a keeper of sheep. It may have been a large herd of sheep, but he was still nothing but a farmer and breeder. David was not even the most important among his brothers. He was the last, the youngest, and small in stature.

This seems upside down. Shouldnít God have chosen the biggest, the firstborn, the capital, the strongest? Shouldnít He have chosen the best of everything from which to bring forth the Savior of the world?

God turns the world upside down. He doesnít choose the way we choose. He looks to heart. He sees beyond the surface. He knows the way the world works, but He also knows there is a better way. His King was not meant to be a conquering hero born in a palace made of gold. He was meant to be a humble shepherd willing to care for Godís people. The majesty is not found in the faÁade, it is seen in the heart.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy, to follow in the footsteps of David. This is what the people expected from God; a new Israel that would be like Davidís golden kingdom. David, though he was the weakest of his brothers, turned out to be a strong king. He led his people to prosperity. They wanted to defeat the Romans and become an independent and prosperous people again. David knew God and kept his trust in the God of his forefathers. Though they knew Davidís story and the promises of God, they were still caught off-guard with Jesus. He wasnít what they expected. He wasnít going to defeat Rome or establish a new earthly kingdom. He came to turn the world upside down.

This is what we see in Maryís song. Again, we see Mary as a very special young woman, perhaps even perfectly righteous. We see her willing obedience in her answer to the angel, ďLet it be to me as you sayĒ and we wonder if we could ever be so devoted to Godís word or even if we could believe Him as she did. But, even though she humbled herself and submitted to that which she had been told, there may have been a sense of doubt or uncertainty in her mind. She asked the angel how it would be, how she would become pregnant since she had never been with a man.

Who was Mary? Again, she was a nobody. She was just a child when she became pregnant, and then she was mistreated as a whore. She gave birth in a cold stable, and then went on the run with her husband and young child to save his life. She was widowed early since Joseph was much older, so her position in society was quite low. She deeply loved her son, but at times even He seemed to disregard and disrespect her. Think about the stories: the day he went to the temple and they could not find him, the wedding at Cana where He told her that it wasnít time, the time she and Jesusí brothers went to talk to Him and He told her that those listening were His mother and brothers. And then, after all this, Mary watched her son die a horrible deathóexecution on the cross.

Mary was uncertain about the word of the angel, but he gave her a sign that everything was true: her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age. So Mary had to see. She had to know. She had to witness this sign for herself to know that everything was real. She left Nazareth to travel to Zechariah and Elizabethís home. When Mary arrived and greeted her cousin, baby John leapt in her womb. That was the moment when Mary fully believed. That was the moment when Mary cried out in praise and thanksgiving for the gift she had been given.

Maryís song reveals that Mary was a humble recipient of Godís grace. She says, ďÖfor he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.Ē God does not choose the rich and the mighty, but the poor and the lowly. He chooses the humble, the unimportant and even the unworthy. For it is the unworthy who look to one who is greater, they are the ones who humble themselves before God. It is the humble who listen to Godís word and believe.

Jesus didnít come to be a king, but to be a humble servant. He came to be a shepherd, to take care of Godís people in the deepest needs. He came to save us, not as a conquering hero, but as a son sent to do His Fatherís work. That work is the most shocking part of the story. The Son did not come to rule on an earthly throne or lead an army into war. Jesus came to die. We have made the Christmas story to be one of sweetness and light: a mother and a baby, the farm animals close by keeping the happy family warm on the cold night. The pictures have beautiful angels singing praises to God and kings dressed in robes of spun gold fabric. It is a beautiful moment until we realize that Jesus came to die. God turned the world upside down, using the wrong people in the wrong places to do what He knows to be right.

When we think that the world is upside down, we can look to Godís promises and know that if it is, He will turn it right in His time and in His way. This is the promise of Christmas: that despite our insistence of making God fit into our expectations, He does the most incredible things to bring us back to Him. In Him we will find peace.

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