Listen to this reflection here:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel,
whose origins are in the distant past,
will come from you on my behalf.
…And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
Then his people will live there undisturbed,
for he will be highly honored around the world.
And he will be the source of peace.
According to a 2018 study in the UK, researchers found that the most popular hour for a baby to be born is 4AM, and that the majority of babies are born between the hours of 1AM and 7AM. So why do so many babies seem to arrive in the middle of the night? I asked precisely that question to a mid-wife in our church. She shared three possible factors. First, for mothers with partners, the other parent is often at home at night, so a sense of support may be felt. Second, at night things may be calmer and so the body feels again perhaps more safe than unsafe, relaxation signaling the potential of a secure arrival. Given that our ancestors were likely dispersed in the day and huddled together for protection at night, this makes some sense. The third reason she gave was that the consensus between all babies must be that they dislike midwives altogether and want to rob them of as much sleep as possible – a kind of massive prenatal conspiracy to ensure that midwives get paged at the most inconvenient of hours. All to say, we’re not entirely sure why babies are born at the times of day or night they are.
No one knows exactly what time of day Jesus was born, either. It may very well have been at night, perhaps, as St. Luke tells us, just before the shepherds heard the news. That would of course be helpful, ensuring our Christmas cards and favourite carols remain accurate, but there’s no way of knowing. We don’t really even know what time of year Jesus was born, in all honesty. Some scholars hold it was in the spring, some in the winter, and still others have brilliantly (and conveniently) calculated that it really was on December 25th. But in truth, we’re not sure. I don’t think this unknowing makes the season any less special, but in a sense more special, very much in step with the mystery of the incarnation itself, the mystery of God-made-flesh-and-blood, the mystery of the light shining in the darkness. And if at Christmas we reflect on God’s light burning brightly in the dark, then a winter’s night is a good a time as any.
Bethlehem & Micah
We might not know exactly when Jesus was born, but we do Bethlehem, a small village about 10km south of Jerusalem. St. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph travelled some 130 kilometres south from their home in Galilee to Bethlehem to register in a census serving the Roman empire’s taxation efforts. So we know where Jesus was born, and Luke offers us one perspective as to why Jesus was born where he was: taxes. Imagine that. Taxes, the reason for the season. Taxes, possibly the only thing more inconvenient than God! The prophet Micah, however, gives us another perspective, as we just read. Where St. Luke is keeping a historical record of Jesus’ birth, Micah predicts his arrival some 700 years prior.
Very little is known about the prophet Micah, other than that he was a contemporary of other prophets like Isaiah, and that he lived in a time when his people were about to face terrible upheaval and destruction. We do know that Micah was probably from a rural village himself, so you wonder if he took some pride in sharing a prophesy about a mighty ruler hailing from a small town like his. But Micah also knew, of course, that Bethlehem wasn’t entirely insignificant. Bethlehem had a famous history since another ruler had emerged from the village in days gone by. David, the mighty shepherd-poet-king, the giant killer, the nation-builder, the Psalm writer. Perhaps in part this is what Micah means when he says this new ruler will have “origins from the distant past”, and maybe also why Micah uses a shepherd metaphor when he says this new ruler will “stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength”, ushering in protection, safety, peace.
Micah’s message here is not unlike what we hear from the other prophets: things might get worse before they get better, but one day God will send a freedom-bringer, a darkness-dispeller, a hope-fulfiller. One day, God will come through. A shepherd-king is coming, says Micah, to bring us peace.
Shepherds & Safety
Shepherds feature prominently in scripture. For Israel God is imagined as a shepherd, and so when Jesus turns up, he is also styled as the good shepherd. The average first-century shepherd, however, wasn’t usually considered good. The shepherds present at Jesus’ birth, for example, are often depicted as cuddly and safe, when in fact shepherds were usually societal castoffs, untrustworthy types. Anyone who wanders around for a living can be easily accused of having sticky fingers and shepherds often were. In Jesus’ time shepherds were even considered contagious, dirty, and were therefor excluded from community and religious life.
In light of all this, when we think about the shepherds invited to witness Jesus’ birth, we’re not so much meeting a maintained but mangy bunch; these are people considered more infectious than immaculate. What an encouraging thought for us today – Christmas, the nativity story, tells us that we needn’t clean-up in order to get close to God. Christmas tell us that we can’t contaminate God with our darkness; God always infects us with light. So we’re welcome into the stable of light just as we are.
So shepherds might not have been regarded as safe by society, but they were safe of course for sheep. And that’s why Micah uses shepherd imagery here. God will be like a sheltering shepherd to his people, like a shepherd to a flock. God will guide, guard, bring home, create security for his people. In Micah’s words God, “will be the source of peace.” Micah is pointing us toward Jesus, whom Isaiah also calls the “prince of peace” (Isaiah 9.6).
Peace. What a nice idea.
Some of us can’t wait for Christmas to arrive, some even playing Hallmark Holidays movies since Halloween. Others of us, if we’re honest, are dreading Christmas like some kind of festive cavity filling, and we dread it for good reason. Many find that the holidays bring about not calm, not serenity, not safety, not peace, but conflict, infighting, wounding. And it looks like much of the same in the news. A world fighting in the dark, a world where we’re at one another’s throats any chance we get. From violent ethnic and religious persecution, to the global refugee crises, to twitter feuds between pop-stars, presidents.
Peace. Wouldn’t that be nice.
Peace Made Possible
Micah says, peace is possible. Micah says that this shepherd we’ve been hearing about will be “highly regarded around the world”. And there’s a sense of foreshadowing which might remind us that Jesus, this safe shepherd, isn’t owned by any one tribe or group. Peace, in other words, isn’t something we can truly poses at the expense of others. Either we all have peace, or none of us do. Psalm 50 reminds us that God owns “all the cattle on a thousand hills.” In other words, God is the world’s shepherd. And the world, including you and I, need peace more than ever. We long for peace.
The hope of Peace is what we’re offered at Christmas through the vulnerability of a baby on the breast of teenage girl. Not a king at war, sword in hand. Not a military coup. Not an argument or an imposition. Just a baby in the hay. Just a broken body on a cross. This, God says, is where peace begins. If only we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the hearts to receive and learn. That’s what the Christmas story tells us. That in Christ, God didn’t take sides, but brought the hope of peace. The manger is part of God’s vulnerable exposure in “the heart of creation” through Jesus, God’s equitable accessibility to everyone. Jesus, we could say, had no target audience. Peasants, shepherds, astrologers, blood-thirsty tyrant kings. Christmas is a reminder of God’s all access pass to himself.
We’ve yet to wrap our heads around that. More importantly, we’ve yet to wrap our hearts around that. If we could maybe we’d find more peace.
Last night was the longest night of the year and for many of us the darkness is inconvenient. Dim mornings, long nights. Even if we don’t know what time of day Jesus was born, we know he wasn’t born into convenience. In a sense Jesus was born very much at an inconvenient hour: into tax season, into an oppressed nation, into a mucky animal room, into the dark. Jesus wasn’t born into light, into peace, he brought it; Jesus made peace possible through his birthing, breathing, dying, raising.
I like to say that Jesus is just God’s heart walking around outside of God’s chest. And if in Christ God is found to be vulnerable, open, loveable even, what of that might we absorb today, so that the hope of peace might grow in us, even just a little? That begins, of course, with our own vulnerability with God. Are we tired of the inner turmoil, the self-loathing that sits just below the surface of the tough guy act, and ready to give in to God, inconvenient as God might seem? “God”, are we groaning this Christmas, “I need peace. I need you.”? And to that, as the carol invites: Let every heart prepare him room.
From that room in our hearts, perhaps peace grows a little into our connections with our partner or family, neighbour or enemy, and we begin to learn that peace is less about wall building than it is about door opening. We follow Jesus’ lead by opening up to others whom we may be unsure of, not unlike a mangy gang of shepherds. In doing this we begin to believe that love is truly stronger than fear.
Perhaps also that vulnerable love might lead to more peace for those around us as we’re afforded the chance to become peacemakers, peace bringers, and avoid the laments of the ghost of Jacob Markey in A Christmas Carol:
“Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
Where could we bring peace for another by doing for them what they could not do for themselves? Speaking of which, maybe the hope of peace for us has to do with forgiveness this Christmas. Have we become tired of carrying around an overstuffed bag, not full of presents, but of resentment and pain. Is this the Christmas we let go and let the hope of peace rush in by forgiving someone? Is this the Christmas we let God evict the evil which has overstayed its welcome, and to move in his furniture: patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, peace.
All of this, of course, is the invitation we are given at Christmas. To welcome the hope of peace. To wrap our hearts around Christ; to swaddle God in the dark depths of our being, so that peace would find a home and mature. Perhaps then, the hope of peace would grow brighter in a world still fighting in the dark. Grow, little by little, one heart at a time.
God, be our source of peace.
Move into our hearts, at war as they are,
With ourselves, our neighbours, our enemies.
Evict the evil. Evict the dark. Move right on in.
Fill us with light. Fill us with life.
Fill us with your Spirit.
Fill us to the brim with peace.
In the name of Jesus, the Peace Prince,