Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55
4th Sun of Advent
St Barbara’s 23.12.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today is the third and the last in our series looking at Old Testament prophecies linked to the coming of Christ. Today we look at the words of Micah.
I wonder if you have also found it to be the case, but every place (county, town, neighbourhood) seems to have another place that it can look down upon, that it can view as inferior. “We may not be the best place, but at least we’re not…” Growing up in Suffolk, that is definitely how we viewed Norfolk. “Suffolk may not be great, but at least we weren’t Norfolk!” Or school. Even the kids who hated school were still adamant that their secondary school was better than the one down the road. It applies to sport too. “We may be bottom of the league, but at least we’re not…” (usually referring to the local rivals). We can feel better about ourselves if we can convince ourselves that we are not the bottom of the pile, that there are other places, other people worse than us.
Well Bethlehem in the time of the prophet Micah was a place that was very much viewed as bottom of the pile, as a place to be looked down upon and sneered at, especially if you were part of the rich elite in cosmopolitan Jerusalem. The opening line of the carol “Once in Royal David’s city” may suggest something grander, but in fact less than 10 miles down the road from Jerusalem, it was a poor and insignificant place, a place to be mocked and to be treated with disdain.
So imagine the scorn, the disbelief, that Micah’s words would have been treated with when he declared that out of Bethlehem will come one who will be ruler over Israel.
Israel certainly needed new leadership. The current leadership, Micah pointed out, were greedy and corrupt. They were exploiting the poor, seizing their land and selling it off for huge profit. They were bribing the religious leaders and prophets to proclaim God’s blessing and favour on them. And they were blindly trying to ignore the peril at their gates – the massive superpowers of Assyria and Babylon – who Micah warned were poised to crush and destroy their nation.
What was needed, Micah proclaimed, was a clean slate, a fresh start. To go back to the beginning and start again. When God appointed Jerusalem’s first king, he did not pick someone from the most powerful clan or the most prestigious family. He chose a shepherd boy called David, the youngest in his family, of the least significant part of the least significant tribe in Israel. David was born in Bethlehem; and so would the new king too. The new king would not be of the royal elite in Jerusalem. He would be like the original David, emerging from obscurity, to lead his people in humility and compassion, like a shepherd caring for his flock.
But this leader never actually appeared in Micah’s day. The leaders kept on their path of greed and exploitation until the dire warnings of Micah were realised, and Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed. The people were left wondering when, if ever, this new leader Micah spoke of would materialise.
Several hundred years later and the words of Micah appear again. Some travellers from the East arrive looking for a new-born king that has been prophesied, and Herod, greatly disturbed, enquires of the religious leaders. They reply by quoting Micah’s words that it will be in Bethlehem that the king will be born.
How Herod must have hated those words! The legitimacy with which he held the Jewish throne was tenuous at best, and he held on to power through a terrifying reign of assassinations and brutal repression, killing many of his own family if they displayed even the slightest whiff of a threat. The last thing he wanted was a rival king to arise who would be compassionate and caring, who would look for justice and righteousness. And hence he orders the chilling, horrific slaughter of young children in Bethlehem to eradicate the threat.
But for others, Micah’s words were words they longed to hear. At last a day was near when the tables would be over-turned, when the powerful would be brought to account, when the poor and dispossessed would receive justice. Mary’s wonderful words in the Magnificat, which we have just read and sang this morning best capture this – that sense of a new start, a slate wiped clean, of a new king coming to restore hope and love and compassion to a world where injustice and evil have reigned for too long. A God coming into the world to bring the hope of his mercy and love.
Fast forward two thousand years and we encounter Micah’s words again, today, and also every year, as we read the stories of Jesus’ birth and Matthew’s account of the magi before Herod. But what do they mean for us?
Firstly, his words tell us about Christ. For we see in Jesus’ birth, his life, his death and his resurrection, that he is the one who fulfils Micah’s words. That this Christ is a king, is a leader, but like no other. Who is not only born in the humble environs of Bethlehem, but chooses to live his whole life in humility, leaving the glories and wonders of heaven, turning his back on the temptations of easy power and might on earth, accepting suffering and death for our forgiveness, and rising to a resurrected life that most of the world still struggles to acknowledge. The Jesus whose birth we celebrate tomorrow and Tuesday is a birth that on earth almost went unnoticed, save for some lowly shepherds and an adoring mother and father. This humility is what God looks like.
Micah’s words also point us to what true leadership is like. We live in turbulent times. In recent days, our Prime Minister has survived a confidence vote, has been undermined and plotted against by colleagues, and seems incapable of finding a way through the political, economic and emotional complexities of Brexit. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, addressed the French nation calling for peace amidst the anti-poverty riots, whilst sitting behind a gold-plated desk and beside a gold lampstand. Donald Trump appears immune even when his own lawyer, now jailed for three years, described him as leading him from light into darkness. We continue to do deals with Putin and the Saudi Arabies even when both regimes have been linked with political murders.
This is not true leadership, leadership that leads with compassion and love, with a hunger for justice and righteousness, not for self-interest and self-vindication. It is easy to single out political leaders, but the challenge is true of leaders in all areas of life. Here in church, in our workplaces, in our communities, in our families. We are called, each one of us, to be people of humility, to seek the interest of others before our own, to value those who are least valued, to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
I wonder what that looks like for you? For many of us we will be seeing family and friends over the next few days. That can bring great joy, but it can also bring challenge. The combination of lots of food and drink and a lack of exercise and fresh air, often within a confined space, can test relationships as well as enhance them. What will it look like for you to live humbly, compassionately and lovingly this Christmas?
And when we start a new year in just over a week’s time, what areas of our lives will we look to start with a clean slate? What areas for us call for renewed humility, for renewed service and commitment?
Micah puts our calling most simply, in words that will be familiar to many of you, and which we said in our words of confession this morning: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
May God help us to do so as we prepare for his coming among us.