Christmas Advent, Faith, Spiritual Encouragement, Stories from Scripture, Uncategorized
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Simply Jesus, Day 4

Rising up from the desert floor near the Colorado and New Mexico border Mesa Verde stretches its red rock tall and wide. Covered in green growing things, Gambel oaks and junipers, Pinyon and Ponderosa Pines, fir trees, yuccas and hundreds of varieties of wildflowers, Mesa Verde is an oasis of life in the high desert.

After a long, winding ascent to the table-top we realize Mesa Verde is so big that while we’re up there, we can’t see the drop-off. The table-top is the whole landscape and fills every horizon. An ancient people, long gone, left signs of civilization there. They are called now, Anasazi, though no one knows who exactly they were or why they traversed the steep walls of the mesa to build dwellings deep in its canyon walls. Mesa Verde is protected and part of our National Park system. The kivas (round, sunken rooms) and sandstone shelves and tiny rectangular doorways and windows are all protected. We hike to peer at them, climb up and down to tour them, ask questions no one will ever know the answers to.

Thousands of miles away from Mesa Verde in another desert region lies the city of Bethlehem. When Jesus was born, Bethlehem had declined to barely a small village. It could have easily been a town abandoned, a future archeological dig filled with remnants and questions, save for the few shepherds that called it home.

We would know (or care) little about Bethlehem had not Jesus been born there. But paintings of Bethlehem grace our Christmas cards. We hold a collective vision of a pastoral scene with low, stone buildings slung sleepily under the light of a single star surrounded by rounded hillsides dotted with dozing sheep. Let’s play archaeologist and ask, Why Bethlehem?

Scripture: Micah 5:2-5

“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 old, from ancient times.”

Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.  He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth and he will be their peace.

Jeremiah 33:14-15

“The days are coming” declares the Lord, “when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land.”

Isaiah 4:2

“In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious.”

 

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Inspiration

Sometimes digging through scripture feels a little like being an archeologist, or so I like to think. There’s so much I don’t know (and so much I wish my brain would retain) and every time I return to the treasure hunt, I’m never left disappointed.

Did you know these things about Bethlehem?

• Bethlehem is an ancient town. The first mention of it being in Egyptian correspondence found on clay tablets dated around 1350 BCE.

• Bethlehem is the geographical location of the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz (found in the book of Ruth in the Old Testament).

• Bethlehem is the burial place of Rachel, Jacob’s wife (mother of Joseph and Benjamin). {Genesis 35:19}

• Bethlehem is the birthplace of David and he was anointed king by the prophet Samuel there. {1 Samuel 16}

• Bethlehem is only about 6 miles away from Jerusalem.

• Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus.

• Bethlehem means “City of Bread”.

• Bethlehem later became the site of the Church of the Nativity and the Mosque of Omar (the oldest mosque in old Bethlehem. A center of conflict during the Crusades, Bethlehem was part of the “Kingdom of Jerusalem” (1229 AD), part of the Ottoman Empire, under British mandate, a center of conflict in the Six Days War and finally part of the Palestinian National Authority.

• Bethlehem is now divided from its sister city of Jerusalem by the West Bank Barrier, an 8-meter high wall that cuts off the road between cities.

• Bethlehem was Joseph and Mary’s destination when Caesar Augustus called for a census (a fancy way to say “count every single last person and make sure you get them to pay their taxes”) and ordered that everyone return to their family’s hometown to be registered and taxed, because they were descendants of David.

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It seems to me that Bethlehem has never been glorious, really. It is place for shepherds and sheep.

Even Jeremiah’s prophecy about the “Branch of Jesse” coming forth from the territory of Benjamin, primarily focuses on the return of flocks and that Bethlehem will be a place where shepherds can count the heads of their sheep. The vast hill country affords the space for sheep to gather.  Jerusalem on the other hand is the city of God, the city on the hill, the place called:

1. The city of David 2 Samuel 6:12

2. The city of the great king Matthew 5:35

3. The holy city Isaiah 48:2; 52:1; Matthew 4:5

4. Salem, which means “peace” Genesis 14:18

5. The city of God Psalm 46:4; 48:1; 87:3

6. The city of the Lord of hosts Psalm 48:8

7. The city of righteousness Isaiah 1:26

8. The city of truth Zechariah 8:3

9. The city of the Lord Isaiah 60:14

10. The perfection of beauty Lamentations 2:15

11. The joy of the whole earth Lamentations 2:15

12. The Lord our righteousness Jeremiah 23:6; 33:16

13. The Lord is there Ezekiel 48:35

14. Ariel, the hearth of God Isaiah 29:1

Bethlehem is city of bread and sheep. Not very glamorous.

But Bethlehem fulfills the prophecies about Jesus’ birth.

Bethlehem is the village of beginning. It is humble. Even the territory of Benjamin, where Bethlehem is located, is the region of land given to the descendents of the youngest of the sons of Jacob. Small, insignificant yet dearly loved by God, even as Benjamin was dearly loved by his aged father. In all the miles of land on this planet, among the billions of people, God still looks with love upon Bethlehem.

I believe (and I may be wrong) that it is through the territory of Benjamin–when Jesus again is in Jerusalem and salvation is extended to any who will come–that we will walk on that highway in Isaiah 35:

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness….only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

The road is blocked now, but then will be a highway to Jesus, a place of life and peace and singing and joy. I will be skipping along toward Jerusalem through the hillside country near Bethlehem among the redeemed.

Mission: Take Away

I love the model that God uses repeatedly: starting small.

Humble beginnings.

Shepherd boy, David.

Last-born nobody from a family of nobodies, Gideon.

Ditched and sold as a slave, Joseph.

Young, virgin teenager, Mary.

Refugee baby born in a hillside cave and laid in a feeding trough, Jesus.

Why Bethlehem? Humble beginnings.

God knows we fall into the ways of pride like fish swim in water. It’s our human nature. Yet Jesus taught that the first will be last and the last will be first. His model of servant-leadership undermines the human expectation of leadership via superiority. His model makes room for motive. Always it comes down to love. Love decreases pride and increases service. Love minimizes self and maximizes grace.

Where do we find ourselves puffing with pride? Is it in our personal, private thoughts? Do we find ourselves judging constantly? Is it national pride? Is it connected to fear or confusion? Examining pride can be bruising, pressing upon delicate places we carefully guard from others. But pride is opposed to God’s way. Pride is opposed to true worship. Pride steals away love.

When I think of Bethlehem, as it’s presented in the bible, I want to remember humility. Being small is perfectly fine with God. Being a mom, I can relate with being known for humble things — bread and sheep — nothing fancy here. But truly, I’m never happier than when I’m surrounded by people eating food I’ve made for them. Bread and sheep.

So maybe I can learn from Bethlehem, territory of Benjamin, smallest of the tribes of Israel. I can remember that it’s not about my grandeur, my intelligence or my significance — it’s about Jesus born in me, his starlight shining over and through me, his word being fulfilled through me. Why Bethlehem? Why me?

Because God works miracles in the small things.

Play: Have Fun

Something very small that most of us encounter in the winter are snowflakes. A basic primer on the science of snowflakes can be found here on PBS.org

So is it really true that no two snowflakes are alike?

“It’s like shuffling a deck and getting the exact same shuffle for 52 cards,” Libbrecht said. “You could shuffle every second for the entire life of the universe, and you wouldn’t come close to getting two of the same.”

Snowflakes are tiny and fascinating and a fun way to see how small things make big things — like glaciers!

Free snowflake pattern here and free Star Wars snowflake patterns here. (woot!)

If you feel like channeling your inner Martha Stewart, you can watch this video and learn how to create your own flurry of Crystal Snowflakes with pipe cleaners and borax.

Or play in the snow like a kid.

We like to think of the birds in wintertime. They are small but the bible says that God sees every sparrow that falls from the sky. Nothing in his creation is insignificant. Filling up bird feeders and watching them gather in the yard is always good for the soul, and pairs nicely with a piping hot cup of chai tea.

Yes, And Amen

Father,

You choose the ignorant, the unlearned, the foolish of this world and you fill them with the breath of life, your Spirit of wisdom and give the seemingly small and insignificant your presence. You transform us with your son Jesus and make us shine from the inside out, just like Bethlehem. Thank you for Bethlehem, for preserving it and making it the humble home of Jesus’ birth. Thank you for showing us whenever we look into your word that you use the humble, the small, even the littlest bit of faith to work your great wonders. May we never run out of praises for you as we hold fast to the promise that we will one day “enter Zion with singing.”

 

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