My first trip to Bethlehem in 2000 seems like a blur. With a tour group of over 40 people and many other groups about us our stop over at the Church of the Nativity which sits in the heart of Bethlehem was rushed, crowded and slightly overwhelming! We went below the main sanctuary to the caves where Jerome translated the Vulgate and read Luke’s account of the birth of Christ but as there were so many people there it was hard to hear and I really could not get a picture of what it was like when Mary and Joseph arrived in this sleepy little village long ago. But even so Bethlehem felt like a special place.
Bethlehem is not mentioned very often in the Old Testament and only appears in the account of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament. Why then Bethlehem? When the tribal allotments take place it is in the area assigned to Judah (Jud. 15). The Book of Ruth places it at the center of David’s lineage (Ru. 1:1). Samuel is sent there to anoint David (1 Sam. 16:1) as the next king of Israel, the Philistines controlled it for a short time and some of David’s mighty men go to great lengths to bring him water from its well (2 Sam. 23:13-17), and Rehoboam fortified it after the defection of the Northern tribes (2 Chr. 11:5-12). However Bethlehem’s “claim to fame” comes from none of these Scriptural snippets. It is the prophet Micah who brings Bethlehem into the forefront of history when he prophesies that in this humble little town the promised Messiah would be born (Mic. 5:2-5). Both Luke and Matthew confirm that this prophesy indeed came to pass (Mt. 2:1, 6; Lk. 2:1-7). And it is apparent that others were aware of this as well (Mt. 2:4-6; Jn. 7:42).
It is not surprising really that as a descendant of David the Messiah would be born in “his city” (1 Sam. 20:6; 2 Sam. 5:7, 9; 1 Ki. 2:10; Lk. 2:4). But when Mary is found to be with child both she and Joseph are residing in Nazareth, 85 miles north of Bethlehem. Traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem meant covering a difficult terrain. Most people could cover 15 to 20 miles per day but in Mary’s condition she and Joseph most likely covered less. Tradition pictures Mary riding on a donkey with Joseph faithfully walking by her side but the Scripture does not say anything about this. Whether on a donkey or by foot this was not an easy undertaking! Enter Caesar Augustus, the pagan ruler who much like Cyrus (2 Chr. 36:22-23; Ez. 1:1-2) propels God’s plan of salvation forward by an official decree that sends Joseph and Mary to their ancestral home. The decree did not mandate that they do so, but it was of great importance in the Jewish mind to be connected to one’s ancestral tribe, therefore Joseph and Mary made the journey to Bethlehem and fulfilled the words of Micah as promised. Author Jeremy Royal Howard said, “How fitting that God should use the mundane transactions of a pagan king to fulfill heaven’s prophecies about the King of Kings.” Yes, how true! But I am not surprised when God uses the mundane or insignificant for His will. He is and always will be the God of the Unexpected!
Is there a place in your history that is significant to you? Mine would have to be Caldwell, New Jersey. I grew up there, married there and my children were born there. Like the Church of the Nativity, the church I attended for many years stands at the heart of the town and its beautiful spire rises above a bustling community. Whenever I return, I remember events and people who have been a part of my life and helped to shape who I am. Most importantly Caldwell played a critical role in my journey of faith. It is where I recognized Jesus as my Savior and learned the Bible lessons that carried me over the peaks and valleys of life. It is my Bethlehem; insignificant in the eyes of most, but a part of God’s plan in my life nonetheless. Where is your Bethlehem and how has God used it to shape you?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 1/1/2017