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Jesus the Hope of the World

RCL Year C:

December 19, 2021

4th Sunday of Advent

Highlighted Text: Micah 5:2-5a 

Summary of the Text

The small size of Bethlehem reminds one of a common biblical theme: When God is about to do something great, human estimates of status, size, power, and influence are completely irrelevant. In fact, God often deliberately chooses someone whom we would probably dismiss as the most unlikely candidate for carrying out God’s mission.

Daniel J. Simundson, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (OT), Vol.7, The Book of Micah, Abingdon Press, 2015.

Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?  

Because the minor prophets are not typically as well known as other areas of scripture, it might be helpful to start with the historical setting of Micah. The name Micah, which means “Who is like [Yahweh], was a rather common name in the 8th Century B.C., which is the time period we believe Micah was active in his ministry. 

Superscriptions from the text place Micah’s prophetic ministry as occurring during the reign of three kings in Judah. First, Jotham (742–735 BC), then Ahaz (735–715), and  finally Hezekiah (715–687). Like Bethlehem, Micah came from a small town southwest of Jerusalem called Moresheth. I can’t help but wonder if God’s prophecy resonated with Micah, as he too knew what it was like to come from humble origins.

It is important to note  the dynamics at work in this time that led to Micah’s harsh prophetic oracles as well as visions of hope for a people in great distress. The 8th Century BC was a time of great turmoil as Israel’s neighbor to the East (Assyria) grew in power. We know that Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 720 BC, which, as we see from our dating above, would probably have occurred during the latter part of Micah’s ministry. The danger that pressed upon the Northern Kingdom would also threaten the very existence of Judah as well. Micah, a faithful prophet of the Lord, would call for trust to be placed in the mighty king of kings, Yahweh, but more often than not, the kings of Judah would pay large tributes to fend off their more powerful neighbors. These payments would often disproportionately impact the poor. Micah would pronounce God’s judgment against the abuse of the poor in his prophecies.

When you look at the book of Micah, the first three chapters are primarily oracles of judgment, in which ultimately the people of God are exiled to Babylon for a time. In chapters 4-5 however, the tone shifts to oracles of hope and salvation for those who remain faithful during the impending judgment of Judah for its turning away from God.

Our text is a salvation oracle, where deliverance comes from the most unexpected place. Daniel Simundson, whose quote appears at the beginning of this guide, says it well: 

The small size of Bethlehem reminds one of a common biblical theme: When God is about to do something great, human estimates of status, size, power, and influence are completely irrelevant. In fact, God often deliberately chooses someone whom we would probably dismiss as the most unlikely candidate for carrying out God’s mission.

This is exactly what Micah is getting at in chapter 5, where a leader, from the house of David will ascend to the throne as king and ruler, and whose leadership will bring glory to the LORD.

The text says explicitly that “ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” 

The majority of Biblical scholars see this as a reference to the Davidic line. But could it not also be argued that there are layers of meaning here, that even if Micah was not aware of it, that this could be referring to the Son of God, who reigns eternally with the Father and the Holy Spirit until the “fullness of time,” when He enters the world to bring peace and reconciliation with humanity?

The text tells us he will come from lowly origins, that is, the small Judean town of Bethlehem.

According to Ralph Smith in the New International Version Application Commentary, Bethlehem Ephratah was “the smallest, most insignificant clan in Judah.” Not only that, but the word used to describe Bethlehem in this passage is tsaìyr in the Hebrew, which Smith describes as, “not the regular word…for “little or small” but a word rarely used…[a word] that call[s] attention to the trifling or insignificant.” 

And yet it is from this smallest of clans that the deliverer, who is much stronger than the paltry excuse for the contemporary kings of Judah, who cut deals with their more powerful (in worldly eyes) neighbors, particularly Assyria. This is one of the major themes in Micah, as it is in many of the prophets as well, that is, placing trust in military power and political alliances rather than the sovereign God who brought His people out of Egypt, who parted the Red Sea, who made the walls of Jericho fall. And yet, the kings of the time would rather pay enormous debts to their more powerful neighbors to keep them from attacking them.

There is a significant preaching angle here, about whether or not we are likely to trust our version of chariots over God’s provision. This needs to be dealt with sensitivity, but it’s a good place to apply the text to our own situation. Where are we trusting in ourselves and not in the Lord our God.

Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?

Bethlehem is a compound word that means “house of bread”…it is a fitting place for Jesus, the savior of the world to be born, not just because of its ties to the house of David, which are significant enough, but also the foreshadowing of significant events that are to come in Jesus’ earthly ministry.

For he is the one who will be tempted in the desert to turn stones to bread, the one who will one day call himself “the living bread” and the one who will use bread as a way to remind his disciples of his impending death…all of this is foreshadowed in his birth in this small, seemingly insignificant town, the “house of bread”.

Preaching Angle: Do you need to visit the house of bread this Advent season? Do you need to visit a place of peace, where God demonstrates His provision for His people? 

What does this text teach us about the coming savior, “who will rule over Israel”? The text speaks of one who:

will stand and shepherd his flock

In the strength of the LORD,

In the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. vs.4

Describing Israel’s rulers like shepherds goes back at least to the time of David, who I imagine felt that wrangling his elders was as difficult if not more so than wrangling sheep. For Micah, this idea of a shepherd served as a metaphor for a strong leader who would lead God’s people, who would, as vs.4 says, “live securely.” That is, this leader would be one who would establish the country as a power not to be trifled with, whose people would experience peace and prosperity because of their leadership, backed by Yahweh himself. 

But of course, what it looks like for Jesus to be a shepherd goes far deeper than a strong [earthly] king. 

Jesus is the good shepherd because he is willing to lead us “to the ends of the earth” vs.4 and “he will be our peace.” vs.5. That peace is not merely an absence of war, of threats looming on the borders of Israel’s land, but the shalom that comes from following the good shepherd. The shepherd who provides the easy yoke that leads to a fullness of life with God and with our neighbors. 

Recently I (Stu) was watching a lecture on Old English (yes, the nerd levels are extremely high here), which looks almost nothing like the English we speak today. It is essentially the result of Germanic tribes (Angles and Saxons) moving to/invading parts of England, and combining their language with the native tongue of the Britons. Anyhow, that isn’t the point of the story. 

During the lecture, the professor began discussing the etymological connection between our word for God and the word “good.” 

Not exactly a difficult connection to make as they are separated by a single letter. Probably like many of you, I had noticed that connection before, but never knew if that was an accidental similarity or something more significant. When these Germanic people began to worship the God of the BIble, they needed a word to describe him. They of course had proper names for the pantheon of Germanic gods (e.g. Odin, Thor, Freya), but they didn’t have a word that would ultimately work as a way of describing the God of the Old and New testaments. The God revealed most fully in Jesus Christ. But as these people began to learn about the God of scripture, and God’s inherent goodness, they decided to take a form of the word “good” and make it their word for God. In fact, the words are almost indistinguishable in both the early Germanic languages and the modern languages (German, Dutch, English) from which they came.

So there you go, when a group of people came to believe in God, the word that made the most sense for them to use was the word “good.”

Our text describes just such a God, who would take on human flesh and would act as a good shepherd.

Preaching Angle: What does it mean to follow the good shepherd?

Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?

One of the themes that perhaps cannot be overstressed in terms of Jesus’ ministry, is the paradoxical relationship between humility and strength. Like the classic hymn/passage from Philippians 2, there is a recognition of Jesus’ humble origins, where Jesus takes the “form of a slave/servant (doulos), but then ultimately is exalted, where “every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” 

As followers then of Jesus, it is our responsibility to demonstrate our strength through humility and servanthood. We are at our best when we recognize our place as humble servants of God, whose leadership and authority are to be stewarded for a season, never to be used for our own advantage, and never to be taken for granted. Our leadership, our authority are always provisional and can (and should) be taken from us if we ever lose sight of our place as those who witness to Christ. 

I’ll never forget in seminary, one of my professors, Darrell Guder, describing that famous painting by Matthias Grünewald  (click here to view) of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus as an appropriate analogy for what the Christian life, and Christian leadership, ought to look like. As John the Baptist says in John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (ESV) In some sense, it is as simple as that, we, as ministers of Christ, point to Jesus and say, “this is what God looks like.” 

Along those same lines, I find myself uncomfortable whenever I come across a ministry named after a person, for example, “Stuart Strachan Ministries.” Stuart Strachan doesn’t have a ministry, he participates in Christ’s ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the posture we need to continuously return to as we keep our egos at bay so that the gospel from humble origins can flourish.

Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.

In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.

Sermon Resources

Key Quote

Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.

Augustine of Hippo

and

Humble. Before Jesus, almost no pagan author had used “humble” as a compliment. Yet the events of Christmas point inescapably to what seems like an oxymoron: a humble God. The God who came to earth came not in a raging whirlwind nor in a devouring fire. Unimaginably, the Maker of all things shrank down, down, down, so small as to become an ovum, a single fertilized egg barely visible to the naked eye, an egg that would divide and redivide until a fetus took shape, enlarging cell by cell inside a nervous teenager.“ Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb, ”marveled the poet John Donne. He “made himself nothing … he humbled himself,” said the apostle Paul more prosaically.

Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, Zondervan.

Key Illustration

Coming Down

We catch sight of a new key principle—the power of the Higher, just in so far as it is truly Higher, to come down, the power of the greater to include the less. . . . Everywhere the great enters the little—its power to do so is almost the test of its greatness. In the Christian story God . . . comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life . . . down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created.

But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. . . . [O]ne may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover.

C. S. Lewis, Miracles, Macmillan.

Additonal Sermon Themes

Liturgical Elements

 

 Call to Worship

Adapted from Luke 1:46b-55 (NRSV)

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

 and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

 and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Prayer of Confession

Father of mercies,

Your word is like a double-edged sword. When we read about the humility, the sacrifice of your son, in comparison with our own lives, we are convicted of our sin. We have not humbled ourselves in the ways that you have called us to. We have bragged of our accomplishments, boasted of our talents, acting as if we are the ones responsible for all the good things that come to us. But when we read your word, we are laid bare, and we see our own failure to live a humble life, a life according to your easy yoke. But we come to you grateful, that you are not a God who holds grudges, but your mercies are new each morning. Help us to continuously turn over to you our pride, our insecurities, that we may embody the beauty and the power and majesty of Jesus Christ in our own lives, through the power of your  Holy Spirit, Amen.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Assurance of Pardon

Isaiah 53:1-5

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

Benediction 

Hebrews 13:20-21

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.