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December 20, 2015

Sermon Micah 5:2 . . . “It’s a Miracle:  A Little Town called Bethlehem”


“It’s a Miracle:  A Little Town called Bethlehem”

Micah 5:2

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

If Phillips Brooks was anything, he wasn’t a success.

He was born in December of 1835, in Boston, one of five sons of an Episcopal minister.  He prepared for college at a school in Boston, then attended and graduated from Harvard in 1855.  

And just as soon as he graduated, young 19 year-old Brooks was given a teaching post where he himself had once gone to school.  And as he began work in the autumn of 1855, things started out well enough.  But by the beginning of winter, things quickly went south.  No matter how hard he tried, he could not control the thirty-five lively boys under his charge.  He wrote to a friend: “I believe the boys consider me as a sort of dragon with his claws out, a gigantic ogre who would like to eat them.  I’m teaching French which they don’t, Greek which they won’t, and Virgil which they can’t understand or appreciate.”  Poor Phillips Brooks.

A month later, to no one’s surprise, his career as a teacher collapsed.  According to one biographer, he resigned.  According to another, which is more likely the truth, he was dismissed.  He said, “I do not know what will become of me and I do not care much…I wish I were fifteen years old again.  I believe I might become a stunning man:  but somehow or other I do not seem in the way to come to much now.”

Even worse, as he walked out the door, never to return again, his headmaster told him he had never known anyone who failed as a teacher to succeed at anything else.  In other words, goodbye and good riddance.

So there he was, at the very threshold of his life, humiliated, discouraged, utterly broken down, and beaten.  As far as anyone was concerned, he was a catastrophe.

So he decided to become a pastor instead.  The very next year, he attended the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.

But that didn’t go so well either.  While he was there, he preached his first practice sermon, which another biographer described as “almost as much a failure as were his first efforts in teaching.”  Another called it an “unqualified disaster.”

For one thing, he talked too fast.  Most preachers speak at a rate of some 120 words a minute.  But Brooks sped along nearly twice as fast.  

Later, the editor of a local newspaper wrote about his preaching and said, “His voice is not resonant, his enunciation is not clear, his speech has the rapidity of a mountain torrent.  He frequently misses the word wanted and seldom looks his audience in the eye.  His gestures are infrequent and awkward.  Most of the time, he turns his gaze toward the sounding board above his head.”

Could there have been a worse disaster than Phillips Brooks?

But somewhere, sometime, something changed.  For later in life, he became known as “compelling,” “dynamic,” and even “eloquent.”  He was the most loved preacher of his day.

So what made the difference?  What brought about such a remarkable change?  

Phillips knew the Man and the Miracle of Bethlehem.  And it was that reality that turned what would have been a mediocre ministry into an inspiring triumph.

The story of a Christmas is a story full of miracles—the appearance of angels, the virgin birth, and the star that guided wise men to meet their King.

But one of the most stunning and remarkable miracles of all is that Jesus would come, of all places, to a little town called Bethlehem.

Is it any surprise?  It shouldn’t be, for that’s what the prophet Micah promised hundreds of years before.  He said, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for Me One who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Bethlehem.  What do we know about Bethlehem?

Unfortunately, there’s not much to know.  Today, as many as 28,000 people live there.  But in Bible times, there were as little as 300.  Podunk.  Bump in the road.  One stop sign, if that.  Don’t blink or else you’ll miss it.  

Think about it.  If it were up to us, Bethlehem would never have been the place of Jesus’ birth.  It’s too small.  It’s out of the way.  In fact, when Joshua and Nehemiah made a list of all the cities in Judah, they didn’t even bother to mention poor little Bethlehem.  It was just too small.

So why not somewhere else?  Why not Hebron?  It would have been a perfect place.  Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and David all spent time there.

Or how about Jerusalem?  It too is a perfectly logical choice.  Solomon’s temple was there and so was the royal palace.  In fact, that’s the very place the wise men went—to Jerusalem.  “Where is He that is born King of the Jews,” they said.  “We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”

And what about Nazareth?  It was the home of Mary and Joseph.  Life could go on as usual.  Joseph could tend to his business and Mary could have the support of her family and friends.  Besides, it would save weeks of torturous travel at the worst possible time.

Still, in God’s infinite wisdom, only one place would do.

So why Bethlehem?  Maybe the Lord chose it so that we might marvel at His power to rule over history.  Mary and Joseph made their home in Nazareth, but only an omniscient and omnipotent God could have arranged even the minutest detail, a Caesar and his census, that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem.

And when the Lord chose Bethlehem, He showed the truth of His inspired Word, for seven hundred years before Christ, the prophet Micah promised it would be His place of birth.  “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.”  We can trust the Bible.  God means what He says.

And maybe just one more reason.  Jesus was born in Bethlehem to remind us of what He would do to save us.  He was God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.  Yet, as Paul wrote to the Philippians:  “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”  He came down, all the way down, even to little Bethlehem, to accomplish our salvation.

In the book of John chapter 15, Jesus sat with His disciples for one last Passover meal.  It was on that night that He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and said, “Take eat, this is My body, given for you.”  Then He took a cup of wine and said, “This is My blood of the new covenant, shed for you.”

And it was also on that night that He said, “If I had not come…”

“If I had not come…”?!  What if Christ had not come?  What if He had not been born in Bethlehem?  Where would we be?  And what kind of world would this be?

Imagine, for a moment, that some powerful hand suddenly wiped Christ’s influence from our civilization, as if you’d erase a blackboard in a classroom.  Go to a library and you’d find no trace of the life or the words of Jesus.  They’re all vanished.  And in the encyclopedias, the entries on “Jesus Christ” have all been removed.

In the museums where “The Transfiguration” and “The Last Supper” and “Christ on the Cross” once had been, there are only empty spaces.  The works of the great masters are gone.  The great cathedrals are nothing but trees and farms and fields.  The poems of Dante, Milton, Wordsworth and Tennyson are gone, vanished without a trace.  If Christ had not come, all the Christian schools and hospitals all around the world would perish, as if leveled by some cosmic earthquake.  If Christ had not come, all the churches and their good works would be erased from the earth.

No more Concordia Universities.  No Notre Dame.  No Harvard.  No Yale.  No Christian radio, no Christian TV, no Christian books, no Christian magazines, no Christian music of any kind.  No great hymns, no choruses, no gospel songs.  No Martin Luther, no Reformation, no missionaries sharing the gospel, no Bible translators, no Christian relief organizations bringing hope and help to the hurting people of the world.  No Christian colleges or seminaries.  No Christian doctors, lawyers, dentists, and no godly business people donating their time and talents for Christ and His kingdom.

No Christmas carols.  No Christmas trees.  No children singing, “Away in a Manger.”  No “I’ll be home for Christmas.”  No Christmas Eve services, for there would be nothing to celebrate.

No churches anywhere, if Christ did not come.  No Faith Lutheran Church.  No building, no people, no music, no worship, and no sermon, because there would be nothing to preach.  All would be vanished, gone, if Christ had not come.

Even worse, if Christ had not come, all of God’s promises would be unfulfilled.  The world would still be darkness.  There would be no bridge to cross the gulf of sin.  There would be no Easter and no hope beyond the grave.  If Christ had not come, we would be lost forever, for there would be no Savior from sin.

So we ponder the wonder, the mystery and the miracle found in the words of the angels:  “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.  For unto you is born, this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

In 1810, world-renowned sculptor, Augustus St. Gaudens, created a statue for the citizens of Boston.  Of all subjects, it was a statue of Phillips Brooks.  Today it stands just outside Trinity Church, the church at which he preached for twenty-two years.

In this statue, you see him standing beside a lectern, his left hand draped over its edge, his right hand  raised, upwardly, outwardly, inviting his hearers to come to Jesus.

But even better than the statue of Phillips Brooks, is a second statue standing just behind him.  It’s a figure of Jesus.  His right hand reaches forward gently resting on his shoulder, giving him the strength and the courage to speak.

Maybe that’s why his ministry became such an inspiring triumph and why he became the best loved preacher of his day.  For it was he who wrote the words of the hymn that we all know and love so well:  “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.  Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

We thank You, dear Father, for the wonder, the mystery and the miracle of Bethlehem.  Help us to know You will choose even the small things and the lowly places, to accomplish our salvation.  This we ask in Jesus’ name.  Amen



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