On the Road to Bethlehem
Sunday, January 2, 2022
Pastor Arne Bergland
Some five centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah wrote a poem that was something of a pep talk for God’s people. They had been in exile in Iraq for a couple of generations. In returning to their homeland, they discovered that Jerusalem had been leveled. They were in despair. They were home, but their homes were no longer there.
In the middle of the mess they found themselves in, Isaiah invites the sad people to look up, to hope and to expect everything to change. “Rise, shine, for your light has come.” The poet figures that Jerusalem will turn it around and prosper. “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. . .” Caravans loaded with trade goods will come from Asia and bring prosperity. It was a promise of stability and prosperity. This is cause for celebration. God has promised peace, a peace they had not known in generations.
Isaiah’s words of comfort are echoed today as we remember the story of the Magi, the wise men who traveled a great distance to visit the Christ child. Matthew was aware of Isaiah’s poem and so were the Magi. Scripture told them to go to Jerusalem and to take their gifts with them to offer to the new king of all peace and prosperity. But when King Herod (hears of these plans, he is frightened. After all a new king is a threat to the old king.
Now the story takes an interesting twist. In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with the leading Biblical scholars. He says to them, “Help me out here, tell me about Isaiah’s poem. What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?” The scholars tell him: “You have the wrong text. These wise men are using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem and the Israelites will prosper and have great urban wealth and power and be restored as the center of the global economy. In that scenario, the Jerusalem elites can recover their former power and prestige. There is nothing here that helps the Magi in their quest.
Herod isn’t satisfied and asks, “Well, do you have a better text?” The scholars are afraid of the angry king, but tell him, with much trepidation, that the right text is Micah 5:2-4:
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old . . .”
This is not the voice of the high and mighty, it is not a voice that is impressed with high towers and great arenas, great wealth, and achievements. Micah’s poem anticipates a different future, a future that is not yet. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to all people, not by great political ambition mind you, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground.
Herod lets the wise men in on the secret. The rest is history. The Magi head for Bethlehem, a rural place, dusty, unnoticed, and unpretentious. It is, however, the right location for the birth of the one who will offer an alternative to worldly dreams of wealth and power.
The story of Epiphany tells the tale of these two very different human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises. The path to Bethlehem, the journey of Epiphany, takes a different route. Epiphany comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual expectations. We can receive life given in vulnerability. It is amazing — the true accent of Epiphany — that the wise men do not resist this alternative but go on to the village to see the promised one of God..
Bethlehem is nine miles south of Jerusalem. The Magi were wise, but they had blown the call on this one. They had missed their goal by nine miles. We could well wonder how the story might have gone had Herod’s interpreters not remembered Micah 5.
Our task is to let the vulnerability of Micah 5 disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah 60. We might wonder if we like the wise men are looking the wrong place. Are we off by nine miles? This story invites us to travel a different path that departs from worldly ambition.
Epiphany is a good time to take such a journey, to be reminded that our hope is not in power or wealth or security but rather in something quite different. It is found in vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares. A concern for those forgotten and left behind. A hope for those who are hopeless and homeless.
If Epiphany means a sudden break through, a new experience with the truth, then we know the birth of Christ to be the break though of history, the light in our darkness. If that is true, if at that is what we hold to be most sacred, then it means that God’s way makes a difference not only in some future life but here and now.
Celebrating the birth of Jesus is an incredible opportunity for all Christians to begin again – be born again – to a journey of transformation, first of ourselves and then as instruments of transformation in the world.
The church, the baptized people of God, is created by the Holy Spirit through the gospel to proclaim and to follow God’s crucified Messiah. We are called to follow the Magi to Bethlehem. Not Jerusalem. As the gathering of children, youth, men, and women who hear, believe, and receive the living Christ in Word and Sacrament, the church witnesses in word and deed to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
The proclamation of the Gospel as the good news of God’s salvation given in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus distinguishes the church from all other communities. The gospel liberates from sin, death, and evil and motivates the church to care for the neighbor and the earth.
We do not live for some future hope, we live in the present hope of a God who came to us and comes to us. We do not wait for some grand conclusion but rather for the birth of Christ here today, working to reconcile the world to God’s intention. We live in the light in the here and now showing Gods love by the way that we respond to our neighbors, providing for the least of us, in how we welcome strangers not just to our churches but our communities and our country. We work to turn swords into plowshares that God’s peace may be a reality. We are called here and now not to Jerusalem but to Bethlehem. We are called not to power and wealth but to humble service and love of neighbor. We are called to learn love and not hate, to live hope and not fear and to walk each day in the way of justice, grace and mercy that bear the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ. No easy task for those living in unsettled and worrisome times. Yet faithful people are called to be a light. We are called to remember the reality that the light does not remove the darkness. The light shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it. So, in following the magi we continue to be the flicker of hope amid many dark days. Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.