A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.
December 23 2012
Micah 5:2-5a; Philippians 4:4-7
Mother Teresa tells the story of being chastised by a fellow nun once as she ministered to people in Bangalore, India. “Mother Teresa,” scolded the nun, “You are spoiling the poor people by giving them things free. They are losing their human dignity.”
Mother Teresa offered this response: “No one spoils as much as God himself. See the wonderful gifts he has given us freely. All of you have no glasses, yet you can see. If God were to take money for your sight, what would happen? Continually we are breathing and living on oxygen that we do not pay for. What would happen if God were to say, ‘If you work four hours, you will get sunshine for two hours?’ How many of us would survive then?”
Day in and day out, God showers us with gifts. No one spoils us as much as God himself. And that’s especially evident at Christmas. Think of the gifts that come our way in addition to those packages under a tree. Time off from work. Time with family. Food and friends. The joy of the season.
But those of us that have been around the block a few times know there’s a dark side to this season as well. The poor feel bereft, and the unemployed feel abandoned. Single people feel lonely, and families in turmoil feel overwhelmed. Those who’ve lost loved ones feel the heaviness of grief. And these days in America with fiscal cliff and deadly shootings in the news, who doesn’t feel anxious?
Years ago a popular Christmas card read, “May your favorite gift this Christmas be wrapped in swaddling clothes.” And of course all believers would publicly affirm this sentiment. But given the deep anxiety that clouds our hearts and minds these days, we find ourselves privately wondering if that babe in swaddling clothes can speak to our deepest fears.
The prophet Micah and the Apostle Paul assure us he can.
Whenever we feel tempted to give in to despair, we ought to remember what the likes of Micah, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and Paul endured. Micah lived seven hundred plus years before Christ was born during a bleak chapter of Israel’s history. The rich were blatantly exploiting the poor, and laughing all the way to the bank. The leaders of Israel were corrupt and shameless. Meanwhile, Israel had powerful enemies knocking at the door, ready to invade and plunder at any moment. Not surprisingly, the Israelites lived on a knife-edge of panic.
After sounding off like a prophet of doom, Micah does a surprising about face in Micah 5 and suddenly sounds hopeful. He predicts the day will come when a new leader will be born in little ole’ Bethlehem, although he will have existed from the beginning of time. When his mother gives birth, the fortunes of Israel will change because this newborn will grow into a mighty shepherd who will feed and guide his flock. And here’s the clincher…he will provide security, and he will be their peace.
Security and peace. Now Micah has our attention.
Speaking of Bethlehem, I’ve always thought it was ironic that the mother of the Prince of Peace had such a stressful delivery. Of course moms will tell us no birth is stress free! But Mary had extra stressors…like being an unwed, teenage mother, forced to leave home just before her delivery to obey a very inconvenient Roman law about a census. And then there was the problem of giving birth in a cave of stable full of livestock. Meanwhile, common shepherds were invading her privacy to see her baby, and eventually Herod and his henchmen would be doing their level best to kill her baby.
And yet, it was this baby of whom the angels declared would bring peace on earth, good will to men and women.
Later, a follower of Jesus named Paul who launched the church in the Mediterranean world would face his share of adversity. Paul was beaten and flogged and stoned within an inch of his life. Most if not all the churches he started struggled mightily to survive doctrinal disputes and personal vendettas. Eventually Paul was rewarded for his service to the Kingdom by being thrown in jail, the very place where the letter to the Philippians was written. Paul was eventually released from prison when he was executed.
Why is it important to remember these details? Because when we actually remember what the likes of Micah, Mary, Paul, and even Jesus had to endure, we might be slower to dismiss those scriptures that speak of security and peace as Pollyanna platitudes.
Micah and his fellow Israelites were about to be rolled over by Assyrian troops when he predicted the coming of a ruler would bring lasting security and peace. Mary was living inside a nightmare when she gave birth to the Prince of Peace. Paul had every reason to suffer a nervous breakdown when he commanded his Philippian friends to rejoice always, pray about everything, and then be prepared to experience the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
The hope of Micah, and the equanimity of Mary, and the joy of Paul didn’t come about in cushioned environments. These folks were living in pressure cookers that few if any of us could appreciate. Yet, there was something going on in their souls that led them to a peace that is beyond explanation.
And I don’t know about you, but I’d love to know more about that because my security system is often threatened, my joy short-lived, and my peace fleeting. What is it, who is it that provides peace in the middle of storms and crises of life?
Micah says our security and peace will come from one born in Bethlehem. Small and insignificant though it may be, Bethlehem was the birthplace of the mighty King David, and the Son of David who will lead Israel into peace will also hail from Bethlehem, that city Joseph and Mary had to visit to satisfy the census requirements of Rome.
What’s interesting is that Micah does not mention the word, Messiah. Nor does he clarify when this leader will come or what his name will be. And to be brutally honest the precise leader predicted by Micah never did appear. There never was a shepherd leader who raised up an army to defeat the Romans and secure Israel militarily forever.
Even so, centuries later there was born in the city of Bethlehem one who became a different kind of shepherd, a leader who ruled with majestic power but without an army, a leader who fought evil not with spear and lance but with grace and love.
In time this leader did not conquer Rome, but was crucified on a Roman cross. What should have been the end was only the beginning, for the one who was born of a virgin at the beginning of his life was raised from the grave at the end of his life. And the Spirit of the Risen Christ is alive and well to this day.
When Paul says in Philippians 4 that the Lord is near, he’s referring to this same Risen Jesus. The “Lord is near” means Jesus could return at any moment. But it also means Jesus is near at hand, as close to us as the air we breathe. The very one who said, Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you, not as the world gives, I give unto you will inhabit our very souls if we will let him.
We don’t conjure up our own peace. It is a by-product of a vital relationship with this babe from Bethlehem who is uniquely qualified to give us security when life is falling apart at the seams. That’s why the bible says peace is a fruit of the Spirit. We cannot manufacture this peace, package this peace, or understand this peace. But we can experience this peace when our finances or even our very lives are threatened.
This is not to say we have nothing to do on our end. What I notice about people like Micah and Mary and Paul is that what kept them afloat in tough times was their memory of God’s faithfulness in the past and their trust in God for their future. Micah knew what God had done for Israel in the past, and trusted God to act in Israel’s future. I’m confident he didn’t know it would be more than 700 years before Jesus would come. But he believed with a childlike trust that God would eventually deliver his people by delivering this baby.
Mary and Paul also had this tenacious faith. And an ability to hang on in the present through considerable ambiguity and difficulty. What I notice about people of deep faith is their ability to tolerate considerable uncertainty and discomfort, even when God seems noticeably absent. Like in a foul-smelling manger, or a musty prison cell.
They keep on keeping on because they are regularly fed by the Good Shepherd in their souls. Fed by his word. Fed by his presence. Fed by the worship of God and the fellowship of God’s people. By these and many other ways, they remain spiritually well-nourished and ready to face whatever life brings.
There’s an old legend from the early church dating back to the third and fourth centuries that comes from writings outside the bible, so we’re not sure if it’s true or not. The legend says that when Jesus was a little baby in Bethlehem, the people of the village would arrange to see Jesus, especially when they were worried and anxious. Why? Because to a person they learned that when they spent time in the presence of this baby, there troubles would mysteriously dissolve, and they would walk away in peace.
No wonder Phillips Brooks wrote of Jesus, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
Friends, allow me to offer you the most precious gifts in the world this Christmas. They are the security and peace we find in Jesus.