Saturday, December 15, 2018

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Micah 5:2-5a, the First Reading appointed for the 4th Sunday of Advent, is good news through and through.  It announces the coming of a sovereign who shall "stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord."  This sounds better even than green pastures and still waters!  Surprisingly, this ruler will come not from the royal household in Jerusalem, but from a sleepy little of-no-account village in the hill country.  Once again, God is turning the world upside down, showing weakness as strength, smallness as greatness, and foolishness as wisdom.  What an unpredictable God we have!

(The following questions have been formulated to get at some of the fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers (i.e. How does the Word function?).  To learn more about this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Undoubtedly the Word functions here as Gospel, with an announcement of what God is doing.  There is an element of surprise as well, since the people first hearing this oracle might have assumed that rulers would come from Jerusalem.  Then again, their experience with the royal line was one of corruption, so this announcement that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the righteous ruler might have been good news to them.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There seems to be no word of Law here.  The only exception might be for the corrupt rulers who hear this oracle and are threatened by one who comes to rule and "whose origin is from of old.   They might well hear a threat in that word.

3.  With whom are you  identifying in the text?  We are those who have longed for this word.  We are the first hearers of this text who lived under the rule of corrupt politicians, morally bankrupt religious leaders, and greedy business folk.  We are those who long for power to be given to the just, the morally upright, and those who ensure that all live secure in the land.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  One can only look at the gospel word here and imagine the opposite of that to create some appropriate couplets.  Some suggestions:  starved/fed; dwelling in fear/dwelling secure; living in strife and war/living in peace.

5.  Exegetical work:  Hans Walter Wolff, in his excellent commentary, reminds us of the full import of this Ruler of Peace being born in Bethlehem:  "Bethlehem reminds us of the Israelite monarchy's humble beginnings.  Thence came in the hoary past the erstwhile despised youngest son of Jesse.  So when its great leaders are first buffeted and then deposed, Zion should think back to its origin in ancient days.  Despite its Lord's lowly origin, it should be certain that he will step forth with divine authority as the royal shepherd."  (Micah the Prophet, p. 93)  The ancient commentaries see in this statement regarding one "whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" an allusion to the Only Begotten Son of God.  Theodoret of Cyrrhus, 5th century bishop, is one example:  "Now this patently resembles the prologue to the Gospel, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; he was in the beginning with God.'" (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, Vol. XIV, p. 166).

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock always insisted that the job of the preacher was to bring the experience of the text to the listener.  How will we preach this text so that our listeners will hear the freeing word of this coming Prince of Peace?  That is our challenge.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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