But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:2
The story of Christmas brings with it scenes of peace and tranquility. So when the church gathers and sings the beloved hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem, we do so with a certain vision in mind. We envision a starry night sky above the heads of shepherds tending their flock. The story is so familiar that we can almost hear the angels as they sing “Glory to God in the highest.” And Bethlehem, that sleepy little town lies just over the hill, peaceful and serene as the new born Christ child is laid in a manger. This is our beloved vision of Bethlehem on the first Christmas.
The reality of Bethlehem, however, is much different. It was a small insignificant town; a town on the outskirts hidden within the shadows of Jerusalem. Bethlehem was a watering hole for shepherds, and shepherds were anything but the peaceful gentlemen we envision being visited by angels. No, Bethlehem was a blue collar town filled with transients and those who provided basic services for people who could not afford a night in the big city.
Today, Bethlehem suffers from much the same identity crisis. As drivers park buses filled with tourists alongside narrow streets, curious vacationers pile into the Church of the Nativity hoping to stand in the spot where Jesus was born and have their picture made marking their visit to this most holy place. Street vendors pedal their wares to anyone with a desire for a souvenir and an open wallet. And lest any of these unsuspecting tourists notice, interspersed throughout the crowded streets is a well armed militia keeping watch. This is Bethlehem, touristy, grimy, noisy and caught between two warring peoples. It hardly seems to be the place for a celebration of Christmas. Yet this is precisely her purpose.
Through the prophet Micah, God promised this little town would give birth to the One who would rule over Israel forever. The long awaited Messiah would come to free people from their sin, deliver them from bondage to the powers that defy God, and reconcile those places fallen and given in to sin; places such as Bethlehem. The ancestral home of Israel’s most beloved King David would also give rise to Israel’s eternal King and the Savior of the world. So even as we must face the harsh reality of a city such as Bethlehem, we also have hope, for the one born unto Mary and Joseph is the Savior which is Christ the Lord. The promise God made to Bethlehem so long ago has been fulfilled. Certainly, O Little Town of Bethlehem, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Holy and loving God, just as you kept the promise of Bethlehem, so to do you keep your promise to your people. We give you thanks and praise that your have provided your people a Savior, Christ the Lord. Open our hearts and minds to receive him in faith that we may prepare ourselves to welcome him when he comes in glory. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.