But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days. - Micah 5:2, ESV
A Most Remarkable Small Town
Then, the story of Bethlehem turns hopeful and redemptive. The Book of Ruth tells the story of covenant faithlessness and curse, as Elimelech takes his wife, Naomi, and heads to Moab during a famine, leaving the Promised Land in pursuit of material well-being. After Elimelech and both of his sons die, the women of the family- Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah- are left alone, abandoned and hopeless. Yet Ruth and Naomi return to the Promised Land, to Bethlehem, where their kinsman-redeemer, Boaz, gives them hope and a future again.
The next chapter in Bethlehem's story finds a prophet, Samuel, in search of a new king for Israel. He is sent to the house of Jesse, where he anoints the least-expected son, the youngest, a shepherd-boy, David. David's older brothers don't even take him seriously, so how would Israel? Yet David becomes the hero of Israel and then her greatest king.
Hundreds of years after David's death, Micah the prophet foretells the coming of a future glorious king, who would be born in Bethlehem and would "stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God." (Micah 5:4) This glorious king would be one "whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days." (v. 2)
Over 700 years after Micah's prophecy, Caesar Augustus issued a decree to get a census count of all the realms of his vast empire. Local leaders were allowed to conduct the census according to their cultural traditions, so the census in Israel was done by ancestral lineage, with each family going to their ancestral city. This brought Joseph and his new bride, Mary, from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem.
Yet Bethlehem's story doesn't end with the birth of Jesus. It actually closes with the fulfillment of a prophecy regarding Rachel. Jeremiah the prophet foretold a time when Rachel would be "weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more." (Jeremiah 31:15) Where was Rachel buried? Bethlehem. So, if Rachel is going to weep, where would she weep? Bethlehem. And Matthew tells us this prophecy was fulfilled in Herod's slaughter of the innocent baby boys in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem's story thus comes full-circle, from Rachel's death to Rachel's weeping. But the middle chapters are full of hope and redemption: a kinsman-redeemer, the restoration of hope, the anointing of a king, the promise of a glorious future. All of these themes come together in Jesus, the Kinsman-Redeemer who restores our hope, the King who is greater than David, the One whose death brings life for God's people.
Today's Advent lesson is to follow God's story from beginning to end. Never lose sight of what God is doing in His redeeming love. In unexpected places like sheepfolds and mangers, He is always at work!
Heavenly Father, thank You for Bethlehem. It reminds us of Your redemption, powerful and faithful. Thank You for Your story, surprising and hopeful. Give us eyes of faith to see You working and the grace to follow where You lead. In Jesus' name, Amen.