But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are the one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.
The children looked perfect in their Christmas pageant costumes. One by one they entered the chancel area in preparation for proclaiming their individual lines. The shepherds came first, watching over their sheep. Then the animals of the manger came forth, including a cow, a bird, and a mouse. They all made it to their spots and sat perfectly still as a donkey, Mary, and Joseph walked up to the microphone and exclaimed that a baby would soon be born, but they would need to find a place to stay.
Then the angelic cherubs boldly walked down the center aisle in the dark each holding an electric candle. The lead angel walked up to the microphone and frightening declared: “Do not be afraid! I bring joy to everyone!” The wise men and a camel followed the star to the manger where they presented the baby Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
I had the best vantage point of the entire production from up here in the pulpit. I could see all of the children with their costumes and I could also look out at the faces of all the parents, families, and friends that had gathered for this spectacular performance. I was honestly beaming while I stood up here on Tuesday evening because the kids had all done such a great job, they all nailed their lines, and were standing perfectly still in their spots.
Except for one of our shepherds.
Throughout the weeks of practice we had purposely withheld the shepherd staffs from the children knowing full and well that they would play with them too much. And during the actual performance most of them were being wonderful, but one of the shepherds could not overcome the desire to do something.
At first he just twirled the staff around in his hands like trying to start a fire on the carpet. Later, he swung it from side to side like a microphone at a rock and roll concert. I tried my best to whisper powerfully for him to stop, and though he would for a moment or two, he would then start up with something new.
As we were nearing the end of the performance, nearly all of the characters and animals from the manger scene were in place; the little shepherd grabbed his staff and started lifting it into the air. I, of course, immediately thought of Moses lifting up his staff in the wilderness to strike the rock for water. I, of course, immediately thought of how theological our young shepherd was being as he lifted the staff into the air, but then I realized he was about to bash somebody on the top of the head!
Breaking character from the pulpit, I quickly reached down and stopped the staff in mid arch. My eyes went down the shaft of the staff to the little hand, to the arm, to the face of the young shepherd, and instead of seeing a repentant and apologetic look; he had the biggest and proudest grin on his face.
We lean toward violence. From Preschoolers picking up shepherd staffs, to fights in high school, to international and political disagreements, we lean toward violence. There is a power that comes with violence and demonstrates our importance and opinion. Violence has been at the forefront of some of the most important historical moments in the entirety of human existence and still captivates our attention. The movies that make the most money, the stories that garner the most attention, the moments we can’t tear our eyes away from usually contain violence.
As I have found myself saying too often from this pulpit: just turn on the TV or get online and you will be immediately bombarded with the violence in the world and the local community. Even this season of Advent and preparation for the holidays tends to bring out the worst in us. We have short tempers with the people ahead of us in line while we are buying gifts. We mutter inappropriate comments about drivers that are just driving too slowly. And we secretly expect to receive as many good gifts as we give.
Our lives and the world are filled with aggression, anger, and violence.
Yet, the prophet tells us about the one who will come with peace.
Micah spoke during a time of considerable unrest. The situation was grim with corrupt political leaders. There were fearful enemies on the horizon. Internal disputes were pinning people against one another. (Sound familiar?) And while the people saw no hope, Micah saw the promise of peace. Micah looked beyond the present circumstances, he looked beyond the news headlines and the talking heads, he looked beyond the broken and tarnished community to what God was promising to do.
From the little town of Bethlehem will come one who will rule the world. From a back road town of insignificance will come the one who will lead his flock in the way that leads to life and peace.
Many of us have a hard time imaging that an impressive hero can come from such a small town and such a fragile beginning. We, instead, look to politicians and presidents, magistrates and ministers, to fix all of our problems. But from the words of scripture this morning, Micah is jumping up and down and waving his arms to move us in an entirely different direction. He is pointing not at the towering leaders of the world on CNN. He is not drawing us to the political buildings in Washington DC. Instead he is pushing us to a small, out of the way, little place called Bethlehem.
Jesus is the one of peace, the one who comes as a light in the darkness, the one who will stand and lead like a shepherd. Jesus came from humble beginnings and changed the world.
One of the things that the bible loves to show us is that true power and peace often comes from unexpected people in unexpected places. Many of us have heard the Christmas story so many times that we are desensitized to the insignificance of Bethlehem in the most significant story ever told.
Yet, important babies that change the world can be born just about anywhere. Bethlehem is proof of that. Every baby has the potential to help remind us of the way that leads to peace. Jesus is proof of that.
This week, our little neck of the woods made national news. A local geography teacher landed in the hot seat for an assignment where her students were required to copy a text in Arabic from the Quran. The purpose was to demonstrate the beauty and power of calligraphy and, in a sense, teach students to appreciate people who have differing beliefs and opinions. However, when a particular parent found out that the text in Arabic said, “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” everything came to a head.
In the days that followed, a community meeting was held at a local church for concerned parents who were outraged by the assignment. Augusta County rightly started to step up security measures in order to maintain the peace, but the longer the situation percolated the more frightening it became. On Thursday morning there were armed guards at Riverheads elementary school. And on Thursday afternoon, every student in Augusta County was ordered to leave their respective school and the buildings were to go on lockdown. Lastly, Friday’s classes were completely canceled.
Augusta County received so many threats by phone and mail that they believed they could not guarantee the safety of their students and decided to cancel an entire day of school.
There are so many facets to the story that we don’t have enough time to address all of them, but suffice it to say, it is sad. It is a sad that a teacher did not take the time to re-evaluate what text she was having the students copy. It is sad that an entire community responded immediately out of fear and hatred. It is sad that such a tremendous amount of people were filled with rage to the point that Augusta County had to cancel school. It is sad.
While Fox News picked up the story for the nation to learn about what was going on here, I felt God’s Word calling me to listen to the Bethlehem-like voices. Instead of reading news article after news article from talking heads, I went to the local youth of our community and listened.
This is what one of them said: “Religion is not the problem. Religion does not breed terrorism. Ignorance breeds terrorism. Lack of education breeds terrorism. Failure to see the world around you breeds terrorism. Incompetence breeds terrorism. The inability to accept one’s wrongs breeds terrorism. The inability to connect and empathize and understand your fellow human beings is what breeds terrorism.”
I don’t know how to fix or change what happened in Augusta County this week, but if we continue to treat everyone who is different from us with nothing but suspicion and fear, then we have lost our connection to the one who comes in peace. If we make the self-righteous assumption that everyone should look like us, think like us, and talk likes us, then we have stopped following Jesus.
For too long we have lived with a culture that teaches us to defeat our enemies so that only our friends will be left. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do! Jesus, the one born in a manger in Bethlehem, Jesus the one who shall be our peace, Jesus the one who we worship on Christmas Eve and every Sunday of our lives, tells us to love our enemies! Jesus calls us to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus tells us to live our lives in the way that leads to peace.
God’s peace in Christ is a gift; a gift with strings attached. God gives us peace, but we are to be instruments of God’s peace on earth. We know that peace is not easy. It requires a willingness to sacrifice and be vulnerable with people who differ from us. Peace is uncomfortable. Peace is strange. Peace is difficult because it is so contrary to the ways of the world.
Peace is hard, but so is following Jesus. Amen.