God’s gift offered

Sermon: Sunday, 13th December, 2020                      Micah 5:1-5 & Matthew 2:1-12
Guest speaker : Tony Fowler

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Giving presents can be a complicated process: planning the gift, paying for it, and arranging delivery. And, of course, timing is essential: it has to be the right gift… in the right place… at the right time! It’s all done in anticipation of the joy the gift will bring. This is the giver’s great reward. We see this in the Christmas story – especially when we consider how God planned it all so perfectly. To do this we need to look back into the Old Testament, to one of the promises God gave his people through the prophet Micah in 5:2-5a. Let’s see what we can learn about Christ’s birth, Christ’s kingdom and Christ’s conquest.

1. Christ’s birth
Micah wrote about 700 years prior to Christ’s birth. It was a time when Israel and Judah had ‘never had it so good’ – at least not since the days of Solomon some 200 years before! There was prosperity in abundance – no days of austerity for them – though something worse was coming! As verse 1 makes clear, it would be something even more devastating than Covid-19! But along with the wealth had come callous indifference to the poor, a lack of concern for justice and disregard for God’s laws. The wealthy were regularly at worship; but it was all show and no substance. There was little true faith in the Lord. Dark days were coming; but they weren’t without hope. God had a promise for his people, if only they would trust him.

This promise centred, geographically at least, on Bethlehem. Bethlehem was a tiny place: ‘small (or least) among the clans of Judah’, says verse 2. It literally means ‘House of Bread’. The old name Ephrathah, which also stood in for the name of the region, means ‘a fertile area’. We can picture lush green fields, ideal for crops and sheep. It was a lovely place, but also one with a history. It was there that Israel’s greatest king was born and grew up. It was the city of David – a grand name for a small place! And it was from there, says Micah in verse 2, that a new ruler would come.

Before Jesus’ birth, Jewish scholars used this passage to forecast where the Messiah would be born. We saw that in our reading from Matthew 2, didn’t we? When the wise men arrive, Herod’s religious advisers have no problem in directing them to Bethlehem to find the child ‘born king of the Jews’. Of course, when these same religious leaders rejected Jesus as the Messiah – even though he was born in Bethlehem – they faced the impossible task of trying to explain it away. A century later orthodox Jewish teaching stated that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem, but in AD 70, on the day on which Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army. The Messiah was then hidden away from the people as punishment for their sins.

Micah prophesied the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem in a way that enabled Herod’s men to send the magi to the village. But how could the prophecy come true when scholars have shown that there were no family members of King David living in Bethlehem just prior to the birth of Jesus? Well, it needed a census ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus to send a young couple from Nazareth to Bethlehem. That journey, of Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary, was part of God’s plan. God’s present to the world was sent ‘with his exquisite sense of timing’, as one writer puts it. Jesus was the right gift at the right time for God’s people.

2. Christ’s kingdom
All human empires crumble! Yet the mightiest kingdom the world will ever know began in a most inauspicious way. The Scottish poet, author and minister, George MacDonald, put it like this:
‘They all were looking for a king to slay their foes and raise them high;
Thou cam’st, a little baby thing, that made a woman cry.’

Micah hints at the significance of what was to happen in his prophecy which points both backward and forward in time. Looking back, Micah referred to Christ’s pre-incarnation – to a life before he was born. He speaks in verse 2 of a ruler ‘whose origins are from of old, from ancient times’. That word translated as ‘old’ in this passage is used of God himself in a couple of Old Testament passages. (Habakkuk 1:12 and Deuteronomy 33:27) So Micah is looking back not just to the days of King David, but to the divine figure who existed along with the Father from all eternity. He may not have fully appreciated what he was saying, but Micah is telling us that the life of the second person of the Trinity didn’t begin with his birth in a small Judean village. The nativity is simply the unveiling of God’s Son to the world – to all with the eyes of faith to perceive him.

One of the great old carols, seldom sung these days, makes the same point:
‘Of the Father’s love begotten ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore.’

That hymn, like the prophecy, looks forward as well as back. Micah tells us that Jesus was born to do what his heavenly Father wanted. He ‘will come for me’, God says through Micah in verse 2. He came to fulfil God’s purposes, not just to meet his people’s deepest longings. The Saviour’s birth is an expression of God’s nature, as those well-known words from John 3:16 remind us: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…’ I don’t think we’ve grasped the true meaning of Christmas until that wonderful thought has gripped our minds, hearts and souls. It’s God’s nature to love… and to give of his very best… even for those who don’t deserve it!

When Micah says of the ruler in verse 4 that he will ‘shepherd his flock’, he’s using a term the Old Testament applies to Israel’s kings. He came to be the ruler that Micah’s fellow prophet Isaiah had foretold. (Isaiah 9:6-7) Again, Micah may not have grasped fully what his prophecy was pointing to: the Messiah was not only from all eternity, but will also continue to all eternity. Jesus is ‘Alpha and Omega’, as the carol put it, ‘the source’ and ‘the ending’ of everything. The writer to the Hebrews would state the same truth this way: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.’ (Hebrews 13:8) Christ’s kingdom never ends.

3. Christ’s conquest
Verse 3 of this prophecy refers to the birth of Christ and the future dispersion and restoration of the people of Israel. The following verse speaks of the Messiah as the shepherd who tends his flock. Jesus used this picture to describe himself, especially in John 10. The Messiah who was born in Bethlehem in fulfilment of prophecy gave loving care and protection to those who chose to become part of his fold. Notice the word ‘securely’ in the middle of verse 4. ‘They will live securely…’ That’s the essence of our salvation. We are secure in Christ for eternity whatever challenges and dangers we may have to face on the way. Christ’s eternal kingdom isn’t based on military conquest, but on love’s conquest of our hearts. In Jesus God offered, and continues to offer, the greatest gift of all. Regardless of race or class, or whatever we’ve done in the past that causes us shame, we can enter Christ’s kingdom through faith. The Lord Jesus invites us to come to him, to the Good Shepherd. He will forgive us and care for us. That’s how ‘his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth’. For, secure in Jesus, we can share with others the good news of his love.

And, as the final words of the prophecy remind us: ‘he will be (our) peace!’ This is the true blessing of Christmas: peace with God through faith in our Saviour, the Lord Jesus. It’s my prayer that we all experience that blessing as Christmas draws near.