To help you prepare your mind and heart for Christmas Day, today and the next three days, I’ll be posting a series of articles about Bethlehem!
Let me begin by asking you three questions about your place of birth.
Where were you born?
How long did you live there?
What’s one interesting fact about the city or town where you were born?
Here’s how Jesus would answer those questions.
He was born in Bethlehem.
He lived there probably until 2 years old or younger. After the magi visited, the holy family fled to Egypt. Then, after King Herod died, they re-settled in Nazareth.
It would be hard to pick only one interesting thing about Bethlehem. Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel was buried on the way to Bethlehem. Boaz and Ruth lived in Bethlehem. By the time Jesus was born, Bethlehem was most famous for being the hometown of David. It was called the City of David.
Bethlehem was the promised city from which a Savior would arise, as Micah prophesied: “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)
Sadly, Bethlehem also would become known for the slaughter of the innocents, when King Herod’s soldiers killed all the baby boys of the town, hoping to eliminate the newborn king.
We tend to romanticize Jesus’ birthplace as a place of peace and tranquility. “O little town of Bethlehem. How still we see thee lie.” “Silent night, holy night. All is calm. All is bright.”
On the night of Jesus’ birth, it was probably anything but silent. The holy family couldn’t find lodging. There was no room in the inn. Probably the town was abuzz with visitors, driven by Caesar’s census to return to their hometowns.
That’s why Mary and Joseph were there. Joseph was a Bethlehem native, a graduate of Bethlehem High School, Class of 32 B.C.
As it appears in the Christmas story, Bethlehem was a place of inconvenience. Mary and Joseph would have preferred to remain settled in Nazareth with Mary in her ninth month of pregnancy.
Ashley and I wouldn’t travel up to Arlington to see my parents at the end of her pregnancies. And that was five hours away – by car, with rest stops, convenience stations, and restaurants along the way.
The trip to Bethlehem in ancient times would have been much riskier and more exhausting than a trip up I-35 today. Although, one thing to their advantage: They didn’t have highway construction!
For Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem was a place of inconvenience. Have you ever had to travel to a place of inconvenience? The emergency room. The courtroom. The boss’ office. The unemployment office. The funeral home.
None of those were places you wanted to be, but you ended up there nonetheless and had to make the best of it.
God made the best of Mary and Joseph’s trip. For all the things that Bethlehem was known for, all of those became eclipsed by what took place on that fateful day so long ago. The birth of the Savior changed everything.
Today, more than two million people visit Bethlehem every day. Nearly all of them are there for one reason. It’s not to see Rachel’s tomb or to set foot where Ruth once walked. It’s not even to visit David’s hometown. What draws people to Bethlehem is the birth of Jesus.
The number probably would be higher if the logistics of traveling to Bethlehem were easier. Bethlehem is not a part of the nation of Israel. Did you know that? It’s a Palestinian territory.
The Israeli government forbids its citizens from entering Bethlehem, out of concern for their safety. A tour bus entering Bethlehem has to switch personnel before proceeding. The Israeli driver and tour guide have to de-board. A Palestinian driver and guide then get on the bus and conduct the tour in the city. Then when a group leaves Bethlehem, the Israeli personnel gets back on and continues their tour.
So in some ways, Bethlehem is still a place of inconvenience.
But you know what? In places of inconvenience, God can give birth to good things. In Mary and Joseph’s place of inconvenience, a Savior was born.
How about in your place of inconvenience – the place you really don’t want to be but life has placed you there? In those places, God can give birth to greater dependence on Him. In the most difficult places, God can give birth to new insights on life, a fresh perspective on people, a renewed commitment to healthier choices.
Even in those places, God is leading us – shepherding us.
Bethlehem was a place for shepherds. We know the shepherds of the Christmas story. Bethlehem is only six miles south of Jerusalem. Many of the sheep raised in Bethlehem were taken to Jerusalem and used as temple sacrifices. It was only fitting that in Bethlehem was born the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus’ purpose in being born was to die to pay for our sins.
In a great twist of irony, the Lamb of God is also the Shepherd. Micah 5 describes the promised Savior in this way: “He shall stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they shall dwell secure.” (Micah 5:4-5)
As Jesus would teach about Himself, He’s the Good Shepherd who cares for our souls. He shepherds us through all of the inconvenient times of life. All of the times when we find ourselves in a situation we would never choose but end up having to manage. In those moments and seasons, the closing verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem is a great prayer.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray! Cast out our sin, and enter in, Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel!
By His presence in us, Jesus shepherds us. He comes to us. He abides with us. He shows us what being our Lord Immanuel is all about.
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