According to the Bible, there were political reasons why Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The powers that ruled at the time demanded a census throughout the Roman world, which meant that Joseph had to return to the city of his forefathers. Providence over-ruled the politics, and the son of David was born in the city of his famous forefather.
But according to the Bible there were deep theological reasons for the birthplace too. Old Testament symbols came into their own; ancient types reached their consummation; centuries-old predictions were fulfilled.
Not least of these, according to the Gospel of Matthew, was the prediction of the prophet Micah, who had declared that in spite of its smallness and comparative insignificance, Bethlehem would be the place in which the Messiah would appear. Though least of the cities of Judah, God’s divine ruler would first see the light of day in Bethlehem; Matthew turns that around to say that far now from being the least, Bethlehem has been honoured above all other places as the place of Messiah’s birth.
The evidence of the prediction is seen in the fact that people sing of Bethlehem now; no-one sang of it in the prophet’s day. The coming of a singularly remarkable individual gave glory and prominence to an otherwise insignificant location. As one commentator puts it, it is the person that gives glory to the place, not the place that gives glory to the person.
I have never visited Bethlehem, except on the wings of faith. But I have often been struck by the sheer beauty and poetry of the prophet’s prediction; from a place so small as to have been all but forgotten, the Messiah would come. And his coming would ensure that Bethlehem would never be forgotten again.
I am not sure but that the principle encapsulated in the prophet’s words can be applied in many different ways.
Take our own islands for example; they hardly compare on the political spectrum to the great cities of the world. Edinburgh, London, Paris and Belgium are significant in ways that Stornoway never will be. Anti-terrorist squads do not fear that Lewis will be bombed, or fear for the safety of the masses on Cromwell St.
Yet the gospel has given our islands a significance they would never otherwise have had. The past two centuries in Lewis have witnessed some of the most remarkable movements of gospel blessing and power anywhere in the world. People know about the Lewis revivals; many throughout the evangelical world have heard Lewis preachers, many who are serving the worldwide church began the story of their lives here.
The gospel has been our crown; God’s Providence has been our inheritance. We are no cultural backwater either; some of the finest thinkers, writers, and artists have come from our shores, who continue to give eminence to our communities on the edge of Europe. But none has given such prestige to our islands as the gospel of David’s Son.
The sheer number of churches - whatever the negative aspect of their multiplicity - bears testimony to this. The gospel has made our island significant; the footsteps of the King give prestige to the place.
But the principle holds good in many other respects too. After the hype of the holidays and the rest and relaxation of the season, we are about to return to our routines.
Sometimes we may feel we are achieving very little in these. Our lives are on a treadmill of responsibilities and of activities, many of which leave us feeling that we could, and should, be doing a whole lot more.
But there is another perspective from which we may look at our lives. A cup of cold water may carry an eternal reward, according to Jesus. The least service done to the least person will be regarded as having been done to Jesus himself.
The kingdom of God does not advance through leaps and bounds, but through the power of little things, all of which are multiplied with blessings out of all proportion to their size.
Just as Bethlehem was lifted out of obscurity by the appearance of the Son of God, the same Jesus lifts our words, actions and deeds out of obscurity and invests them with a significance they would never otherwise have had. His fingerprints are over the lives of his people. I do not think we realise the capacity we have, in our everyday lives, for doing something of eternal value.
And no matter how much our culture may despise the preaching of the evangelical faith and its promulgation, or banish it into cultural obscurity and irrelevance, it is in the nature of God’s working that the things which appear most obscure will carry the greatest influence and become channels of the greatest blessing.
Bethlehem could never have imagined just what the prophet’s words contained: the prospect that in a manger would lie the light of the world.
It seems to me that we need to capture the prophet’s dream as our culture spirals deeper into the morass of political correctness and pluriformity. Anything is acceptable, except the Christian gospel; everything is to be respected, apart from the Christian church.
But mark carefully the prophet’s words: God has a unique way of working in the shadows, to bring light into every corner and every place. Go and serve him where he has placed you; you may be surprised to discover that Bethlehem may, in fact, be anywhere.