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The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens

The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens is senior minister of Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Dunwoody, GA


The Place Where Heaven Will Touch the Earth

Micah 5:2-5a

Advent 4 - Year C

December 20, 2009

I am Micah.  You know me because I wrote one of the books of prophecy that is found in what is called by some the Old Testament and others the Hebrew Bible.  I lived in the latter part of the eighth century before the birth of Jesus Christ. I came from Moresheth, a village located 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem.  It was a part of Judah called Shephelah.  This is an area about fifty miles long of gently sloping limestone hills and fertile valleys separating the Judean hill country from the western coastal plain.

If you go by that part of the world today, you will find orchards and crops in the valleys and herds of sheep and goats on its steeper regions.  Strategic roads crossed through our area, and we would hear from those who traveled of the news from Jerusalem as well as the Northern Kingdom.  As foreign armies invaded our land, often our region was the way the enemy would come.  We knew the price of not being prepared, of not being faithful, time and time again.

I lived in a time of transition.  Both the kingdoms of Judah and Israel had prospered in the years before my birth, but now those greater powers around us, such as Assyria, were turning their attention to us.  They were threatening our very existence.  I could see those paying the greatest price were the poor and the voiceless.  I felt called by God to proclaim a warning to all of God's people.  At first, I focused on the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  For, indeed, it was in the greatest danger if for no other reason it was located right adjacent to Assyria.  And, honestly, I found it easier to deal with the problems of another land than my own, Judah.  The call to Judah would come later to me.  And, indeed, history showed that the situation in Israel was much more urgent, for I had hardly started my ministry when the Northern Kingdom fell.  It is always easier to see the faults of another than to be honest with our own.  And, to be honest, it's the only way my land, Judah, avoided the same fate at that time was by paying huge tributes to Assyria and becoming what you would call a satellite state; and it particularly broke my heart to see our religious practices corrupted.  Of course, you know that a century later our land would fall as well.

Many of those who would call themselves prophets in my time would like to feed the people false optimism.  Their ministry ignored reality and chose to play to what people wanted to believe rather than be brutally honest with what they needed to be warned of.  I saw my call as one to alert those who would listen to the danger they were facing and to bring them to rely on God.  My name Micah comes from the very word in our language that means, "Who is like the Lord?"  My very name would challenge my listeners to remember the Lord God is our ultimate hope.  We must never let our faith be shaped by the hope of being successful or to gain popularity.  I see much in your times that are similar to mine.  I see where for some religion becomes a way of ignoring what we really must deal with.  Faith is never an escape from reality.

One of the dangers for those who proclaim false optimism is to believe that God will always forgive without consequences, and we will not have to pay the price for poor decisions.  Indeed we were God's people, but it doesn't mean that we are not responsible for our actions when we turn our back on God.  God was born in human flesh at Bethlehem to call us back to where we needed to be.  God came because God cares, and we must care as well to know the full depth of the joy of this gift.

I am sure that the reason one of my writings from your Bible is one of the chosen lessons for this time on your calendar is what I saw in Bethlehem's future.  If you could have seen that place 28 centuries ago, in my time, it was not at all like today.  Today you will find a busy city, then it was a small village, a collection of a few homes that shepherds lived in, perhaps an inn or two, and a few shops.  Today it is a place where people come on pilgrimages to see; then it was the kind of place that one would have never noticed if it had not been the birthplace of the greatest king our land ever had.  For it was in Bethlehem that David was born.  It was in Bethlehem that Samuel came to find among Jesse's sons the future king for the land.  It was in Bethlehem that David was anointed as the future king.  But what I proclaimed was far greater, though at that time I did not realize how much greater.

What I said, as written in the book called "The Message," bearing my name Micah was:

But you, Bethlehem, David's country,
   the runt of the litter-
From you will come the leader
   who will shepherd-rule Israel.
He'll be no upstart, no pretender.
   His family tree is ancient and distinguished.
Meanwhile, Israel will be in foster homes
   until the birth pangs are over and the child is born,
And the scattered brothers come back
   home to the family of Israel.
He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God's strength,
   centered in the majesty of God-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home,
   for the whole world will hold him in respect-
   Peacemaker of the world!

I was seeing Bethlehem and her future by a different standard than we usually use in this world.  It was not her size or power in this world.  But it was the one who was to be born there that would make her great.  There was no reason to believe this seven centuries before it happened except the same thing had been said when David was chosen to be anointed king.  Just as Bethlehem was small, so was David the youngest and least likely candidate among Jesse's sons, but the scripture tells us that God did not look as we look, but rather at the heart.  I was seeing Bethlehem as a place where heaven would touch this earth.  In your life, God may come in a moment the world will hardly notice, but you must be open to God's presence.  For as with David and Bethlehem, God's standards are eternal, not of the moment.  God's standard of greatness is based on the final outcome and not the immediate impact.

I was seeing Bethlehem in a new way.  Anyone ever connected to this little village could tell you the story of David.  It was a proud part of our nation's history that they took great pride in.  But one cannot live in the past.  What I was proclaiming was a vision for the future.  Yes, a great king had been born in this place many years before, but I was envisioning something far greater.  And, you know, even after Jesus was born and walked the earth, many still do not understand.

I could not proclaim such hope because of anything our people were doing.  I could not proclaim such hope because I thought we were worthy of such grace by God.  

But, rather, I could speak of such hope because such love and grace is the very nature of God.  That, my friend, is your hope today.  We can face tomorrow because of the God that is with us today and forever.  I can tell you from what I saw in the Northern Kingdom and what was to soon follow in the Southern Kingdom.  Nations will rise and fall, but God is eternal.

The power of hope changes the boundaries with which we live.  I would live to see the Northern Kingdom, Israel, fall and would warn the same would happen to the Southern Kingdom, Judah, as they turned from God and were unfaithful in their ways.  But though I saw destruction and ruin in our land, I could see further.  I was led by God to proclaim that from the little village of Bethlehem would come the one that would gather his people, protect them and feed them, as a shepherd would his flock.  And I saw the boundaries reaching far beyond the borders of our little kingdom and our time to the ends of the earth.  And the promise of a new king would make possible all would dwell secure and live in peace.

Of course, this would not happen overnight.  There would be difficult days ahead.  The world you, my current listeners, live in still faces hunger and illness, bigotry and hatred, violence and war.  But we still live empowered by the hope of the one who was born at Bethlehem will be with us and, like a shepherd, guide us, protect us, and care for us.  This call is for us to be patient.  This call is for us to trust in the Lord.  This call is for us to do what we can to fulfill this hope.

God's promise that he allowed me to share so many years ago is not just for the world that I, Micah, lived in, but rather a vision for the ages.  The possibility of experiencing the holy comes to all that open their hearts to the one who was born at Bethlehem.  Heaven will touch the earth again when we know Jesus in our hearts.  This is a vision we can grow by.

You might protest that your world is different.  You are listening via radio and, of course, we had no way of speaking except to those in our presence.  You may be in an automobile as you listen, and we were limited to where we could walk.  But the truth of seeing the holy is still a need for all of you as great as it was for us.  We still need to find a focus greater than the crises.  We need to know the last word will be God's word.

I know that his coming was a part of God's eternal plan.  God allowed me to see the possibility of what would happen in Bethlehem six centuries before it happened.  Our land would be invaded, our cities destroyed, our fields laid barren, our people taken in exile.  They would return, but still oppressor would follow oppressor, and we would struggle to survive, but God's eternal plan would not change.  His Son, the one you know as Jesus, would come to be the Great Shepherd of the world.

Some would argue that I could not see that far in the future, so why was I so certain.  Well, for one thing, God had done it before in this little village when David was born there and grew up there.  I fully trusted God would do it again, and what better place?  Another reason for seeing Bethlehem this way is all the speculation about the Messiah that he would come from the House of David.  I had based my hope on the fact that God is always faithful to his people when we are faithful to God.  And though I could see much in our land that did not reflect faithfulness, I did know our history and how many times the Lord God had embraced and empowered the faithful.  I also based my hope that it would happen in Bethlehem because I knew how time after time God had not chosen the biggest or strongest of candidates; but time after time, God had gone against what you call conventional wisdom and made a surprising choice.

Of course, you, the listeners of my message today were not my first audience.  As a prophet of the eighth century, I was trying to warn my people of the terrible days that were ahead, if they did not turn to the ways that God would have them to go.  I was trying to give them hope to hang on by, to make strong for the tests that were ahead.  I would say you still need the same message.  Terrible days are ahead for you and your land unless you seek the way God would have you to go and find the faith to follow that way.  You, too, need the gift of hope that no matter how dark the world may grow, God's light will be brighter.

Even though as a prophet of so many years ago, I do not fully understand your world.  I, Micah, can tell you as the holy days of Christmas approach you may ask, "How shall I find the sacred in the midst of the secular? How can I reclaim the reason for the season?"  It is so easy to lose the hope of his coming.  It is so easy to go through the motions of traditions and miss the joy that his birth brought, to be so blind that we miss the peace that can be ours by accepting his presence in our lives.  I saw the same in the worship of my people in ancient Judah.  I asked how could one come before the Lord.  How can we bow before God on high?  I asked should I come before him with burnt offering, with calves a year old.  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?  I even went so far as to ask if I should give my first born for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my body.  It is always a struggle for we who are finite how we are to approach the one who is infinite.  And that is true whether it is a special season such as Christmas or worship on any Sunday or, for that matter, any sacred moment that we need to be aware of God that God is indeed with us.

Let me warn you also that you will be surprised at times when you find those sacred moments.  Just as the world would have expected the Messiah to have come from Jerusalem and not Bethlehem, we sometimes mistakenly think that God will be with us only at the big and major moments of life.  This holy season will give you opportunities to experience God's grace and glory in small and seemingly insignificant moments.  Don't overlook them; take them for the gifts they are.  

So God led me to see what God requires of each of us.  And though it sounds simple, it demands all of who we are.  We must do justice, not merely treat it as an ideal, but live out true justice to all the lives we touch.  To treat others in the same fair manner that we expect them to treat us.  We must love kindness.  We are called to have a passion to be kind to others and when we really care, it changes how we live each day.  One life can transform the world around them by how one responds to others.  But, most importantly, we must walk humbly with God.  Let us never be so arrogant to think we can earn God's peace and grace.  Let us never be so arrogant to think that we can control the will of God.  We are the sheep of his pasture and we must follow our shepherd.

Your celebration of Christmas, if it stops at Christmas, can be very misleading.  The power of the message that the one I prophesied would come from Bethlehem is far more than a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.  And while that is important for us to know that God came in human form and knows our condition, the message must not stop there.  We must see beyond the sentiment to worship the one who is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  We must know that the proclamation the angels sang of--"Peace on Earth and Good will toward all"--even in your day is the reality that is coming.  We will yearn for the day that it will be true in all of God's creation.  We must follow the one born at Bethlehem and not merely pay homage to the babe in the manger.  

Let us pray. 

O God of all, let us know the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, not only in the season of Christmas but in all the days of our lives that we can walk humbly in your presence.  Amen.

 


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