Now why do you cry aloud? Is there no king in you? Has your counselor perished, that pangs have seized you like a woman in labour?
Writhe and groan, O daughter Zion, like a woman in labour; for now you shall go forth from the city and camp in the open country; you shall go to Babylon. There you shall be rescued, there the LORD will redeem you from the hands of your enemies.
Now many nations are assembled against you, saying, “Let her be profaned, and let our eyes gaze upon Zion.”
But they do not know the thoughts of the LORD; they do not understand his plan, that he has gathered them as sheaves to the threshing floor.
Arise and thresh, O daughter Zion, for I will make your horn iron and your hoofs bronze; you shall beat in pieces many peoples, and shall devote their gain to the LORD, their wealth to the Lord of the whole earth. Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are 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. If the Assyrians come into our land and tread upon our soil, we will raise against them seven shepherds and eight installed as rulers.
It feels like I’m in a time-warp. As I write this reflection, we are only a few days away from the start of Advent and here I am reflecting on that ‘little town of Bethlehem’ – so no prizes for guessing which song has now taken residence in my brain!
Interestingly Bethlehem, small and insignificant though it was, pops up now and again in the history of God’s people. Jacob’s wife Rachel, having died giving birth to Benjamin, was buried just outside Bethlehem (Gen 35:19). The story of Ruth centres around Bethlehem – Elimolech, husband of Naomi, came from Bethlehem but moved to Moab to avoid the famine. When he died, Ruth accompanied Naomi back to Bethlehem and married Boaz there. (Book of Ruth). David was refreshed by water from the well at Bethlehem (2 Sam 23:14-16). And then Micah drops into his prophecy that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem – and he does this some 700 or so years before the birth of Jesus.
In the Advent story, Herod’s chief priests and scribes were very aware of this prophecy – after all it may have been a tiny place but it was only a few miles from Jerusalem so they probably had it marked as a favourite on their SatNavs (Matt 2:3-6). But they were probably pretty focussed on when the promised Messiah will put in an appearance and they probably knew the scriptures inside out anyway. After all, God surely can’t want his people, his chosen people, to continue to live under these heathen Romans with their Gods and idols and ruthless soldiers. He must surely be planning to sort this out pretty soon. There’s been plenty of folk claiming to be ‘the One’, the Resistance, the Zealots have been making life difficult and lots of people have paid the price of these uprisings. Surely the Messiah can’t be far away!
Little did they know just how close he was!
Amazing God, As we look back over the big story, we may be surprised to see how your plan unfolds, step by step. Our lives are filled with uncertainty, disappointments and fear as we look at the world in which we live. Help us to move our attention away from the fear-inducing elements of our world to look instead for signs of your handiwork, your influence, your love in action through us – your imperfect yet perfect creations. Help us to look for the works of your Spirit in our world and, having spotted them, help us to rejoice and give thanks to you. Then we will be ready to give reason for the hope we hold. Amen
The Rev’d Sheila Coop is minister of Macedonia URC in Failsworth, Greater Manchester.