Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: From Bethlehem

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 19, 2021, Advent 4C

Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55

From Bethlehem

Let’s do a little experiment for a moment with this reading from Micah. Imagine for just a moment hearing this:

But you, O Hodgenville of Kentucky,

who are one of the little towns of Kentucky,

from you shall come forth for me

one who is to rule in the United States…

For the most part I’d suspect that the largest number of people would respond to such a proclamation with a puzzled expression and a grunted “huh?” For many people it just wouldn’t make any sense at all. They might wonder if Hodgenville was some kind of tobacco-growing town, or if perhaps it was one of the towns hit by that horrible tornado outbreak a couple of weeks ago (as opposed to the severe weather outbreak just this past week).

For some, though, that pronouncement would be freighted with history. You see, Hodgenville, Kentucky holds the distinction of being the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, or at least the closest town to that reported site. There’s a quite nice national historical center set up there that tells you the whole story and includes a replica of the cabin in which he was born. Lincoln, of course, was the sixteenth president of the United States, the president who served through the US Civil War, and who virtually always ends up either no. 1 or no. 2 on any list of the top US presidents in history. For folks who know this connection, the invocation of Hodgenville evokes a significant history and importance.

The parallel is not exact by any means, but perhaps it suggests something of what Micah’s hearers and readers would have experienced at the proclamation found in the first two verses of this reading. The mention of Bethlehem, which Micah even notes is from one of the smaller clans of Judah, would have meant little to, say, the region’s Assyrian foes who dominated Judah and Israel by extracting heavy financial tributes, nor would it have meant much the Babylonian emperors or armies that had hauled off numerous people into exile. It might have sounded vaguely familiar as a central town in the part of Judah that produced much of the region’s wheat, but otherwise, it didn’t mean much, most likely.

But to the people of Israel and Judah, those who knew their history, the name Bethlehem meant much, much more. It was, of course, the town from which David, regarded as the greatest king of Israel, had come. In that light a prophecy that “one who is to rule in Israel” was going to come out of Bethlehem immediately brought up all sorts of memories and associations with the great King David and tremendous expectations for this one whose coming was being proclaimed. 

Verse 4 of this reading only amplifies those expectations, describing the promised ruler as one who “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,” as one under whom the people “shall live secure,” one who “shall be great to the ends of the earth” and who “shall be the one of peace.” Strong expectations, indeed, in a land that had known mostly foreign domination and exile for many, many years.

Prophetic oracles, such as this one from Micah and others we have heard across this Advent season, gave hope to the peoples of Israel and Judah across exactly those kinds of dark times, and darker times yet to come. The region continued to be dominated by foreign powers until at last the Roman Empire became the ruling outside force in the region, now given the name Palestine and divided up into smaller units for greater control. 

It is in this context that the reading from the gospel of Luke takes place, as Mary comes to meet her relative Elizabeth. Of course, both women are bearers of miraculous children; Elizabeth is soon to deliver John at this point, with her husband’s angel-induced muteness looming in the background, while Mary’s own angel-announced pregnancy is moving along as well. As Mary arrives the Holy Spirit gets busy, and first Elizabeth and then Mary are given things to say. 

Elizabeth’s exultation should not be overlooked; she knows exactly what child Mary is carrying. While she acknowledges this, her blessing is very much for Mary, naming her “blessed among women” and naming Mary’s willingness to believe what she had been instructed by God through Gabriel the angel. 

Mary’s song, on the other hand, is all about the God who is doing all these marvelous things. The “strength” invoked in Micah’s oracle does make an appearance in Mary’s song – “He has shown strength with his arm” – but there’s a lot more about things like mercy in this proclamation; not just in verse 50’s direct claim about God’s mercy for those who fear him or verse 54’s remembrance of mercy, but more indirectly in God’s favor in looking upon “the lowliness of his servant,” or lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry. 

It’s all fine and good, perhaps, until Mary starts singing about things like God bringing down the powerful or sending the rich away empty. Even in a land dominated or occupied by foreign powers, there were still going to be rich people within those occupied borders. Perhaps they got that way by collaborating with the occupiers, or just taking advantage of conditions to get ahead, or who knows how. In any case, such a person would not take this Magnificat as good news. Nor would a person for whom power is life, whatever kind of “throne” they might occupy or seek. For that matter, even “the proud,” however that term might be defined, come under sanction in this song. 

At this point Mary is unlikely to be thinking anything about Bethlehem. She’s from Nazareth, after all. She and Joseph both live there. Nobody has said anything about a great empire-wide census or registration that was going to require folks to get up out of their current dwellings and go back to their ancestral towns and cities. But that decree is coming, and as a result Mary and Joseph (who we will learn is of the lineage of David) will be in Bethlehem by the time this child is born, and prophetic oracles like Micah’s will come into play. 

So many words over so many centuries became attached to this child, the one who ended up born in the seemingly nondescript but historically magnified little town. So much weight of history, so much hope and expectation, so much crying out for relief, for comfort, for mercy. 

We are so often misled about where to seek such things. We live in a society that is not dominated by a foreign power, despite the efforts of some. We still, though, can be easily confused about where to look for hope. We get bamboozled by fame, or the bright lights of the big city, or any number of other willing distractions. We look for answers to our troubles in Washington, or New York, or possibly Los Angeles, and discount with a laugh the idea that anything good could come out of a place like Hodgenville, Kentucky. Or, for that matter, Gainesville, Florida. 

God works in the margins. God shows up in the least-expected places. God moves in and through folks from no-account towns, or folks from the “wrong side of the tracks” in the big city, or any number of places that don’t look like much from the outside but have their own hopes and heritage and history. God moves not just in mysterious ways, but in places we don’t remember to look, or don’t choose to look. 

You see, the challenge for us is to remember what to look for rather than getting caught up in the where to look. We need to be looking for the one who stands and feeds the flock in the strength of the Lord. We are challenged to behold the one who looks with favor on the lowly, who shows mercy over the many generations, who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, who remembers promises. And that one shows up sometimes in the least-expected places. 

For the little places where God acts, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #87, Comfort, Comfort Now My People; #100, My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout; #97, Watchman, Tell Us of the Night

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