The Advent story is full of surprises. In many ways we’re so familiar with it, that often those surprises pass us by. We think of shepherds and angels and wise men and it all seems so… normal. Which is odd, when you think about it!
Today’s passage from the prophet Micah likewise has its share of surprises. Any of us who’ve attended traditional carol services over the years will recognise it – the promise that the new king would come from Bethlehem.
That the town of King David should feature is, we might think, not unexpected. The great shepherd king would prove the ancestor to an even greater Shepherd who would ‘stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord’ (v3). This ruler would transcend even the boundaries of the nation: ‘his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth’ (v4).
But there are hidden surprises here. The first is that prophecies of the new king’s birth refer both to God honouring Galilee in the north of the country (in Isaiah), and also Bethlehem in the south (here in Micah). Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries – one was of noble rank and lived at the court, one lived in relative poverty and obscurity away from the corridors of power. How would this conundrum be resolved?
God’s solution is simple, but beautiful: Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth (in Galilee), but had to travel to Joseph’s ancestral hometown (Bethlehem) to pay Caesar’s poll tax. Galilee and Bethlehem – both prophecies fulfilled without contradiction.
The second surprise is that Bethlehem was chosen at all. It may have been linked to King David, but in other respects it was a small, insignificant place. Its name means ‘house of bread’, and its main business was to live up to its name – it provided the capital city of nearby Jerusalem with corn, and also lambs for sacrifice.
Centuries later, the new ruler prophesied by Micah – the one born in ‘the house of bread’ – would stand up and declare to the world: ‘I am the bread of life.’ This Great Shepherd would himself become the ‘lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.’ You never really get away from the place of your birth.
God knew what he was doing when Bethlehem was chosen. As we spend the next three weeks on our annual pilgrimage to the stable situated in ‘the house of bread’, may we too be fed daily by the Bread of Life, and fall in adoration before the Lamb of God. Bethlehem is just the beginning…