Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 23, 2018
Micah 5:2-5a Commentary
This is the quintessential Advent text, because it was so clearly fulfilled in the birth of Christ. In Matthew 2: 5, the chief priests and teachers of the law answer Herod’s frantic question about the birthplace of the long promised King of the Jews. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written, ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people, Israel.’”
That New Testament interpretation makes Micah 5 the exclamation point of the long line of prophecy we’ve been tracing throughout the last several weeks. We began with the little thread of David’s genealogy in the story of Ruth from the time of the Judges. We continued with texts in I and II Samuel in which that thread became thicker and richer. Prophecies in Jeremiah, Malachi, and Zephaniah gave various twists on the theme of God’s coming action on behalf of (and sometimes against) God’s people. Now, two days before Christmas we have this crystal clear prediction about a ruler being born in the city of David who will shepherd God’s people into eternal peace and security.
It’s all so clear that we might miss the texture and flavor and deeper meaning of this classic Advent text, if we just read it by itself and ignore the context in which it was written. Its promise of a ruler who “will be their peace” was a welcome word for a people living in the midst of a most un-peaceful time. Micah lived between 750-686, during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah in Judah. During his lifetime Assyria was a constant threat, having attacked Israel and other surrounding nations. Israel lost most of its territory and then was over-run. Judah had to pay yearly tribute and when Judah revolted in 701, most of its territory was conquered, though Jerusalem was spared for the time being. In other words, Micah lived through several decades of international turmoil.
Micah says little about this total lack of homeland security, perhaps because he was a small town boy who knew a lot more about the social and economic conditions of the working class people in his hometown. Not only was there no Shalom on the international front, but there was no Shalom in the lives of the little people he knew so well. Those with power abused that power to take advantage of those without power. Micah’s indictment of Judah’s leaders reaches a peak in 3:11. “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us?’” But Micah declares what all the prophets knew all too well. A society without justice awaits the judgment of God.
That mixture of international warfare and internal social injustice is the background of this lovely Advent text, and that background gives bite to this text. Again and again, Micah prophecies judgment against Judah and the surrounding nations. Then, again and again he prophecies salvation for God’s people. As we read through the whole book we are whiplashed back forth from judgment to salvation, from humiliation to glory.
We see that in our little reading. Verse 1 of Micah 5 predicts that a siege around Jerusalem will result in the smiting of the king’s cheek with a rod. Verse 5b says, “When Assyria invades our land and marches through our fortresses….” In the midst of all the gloom and doom, we hear this prophecy about a coming ruler who will bring Shalom at last.
This is not exactly the message people want to hear on Christmas Eve eve, but then again maybe it is precisely the message we need to hear. In a world full of international turmoil and in a nation seething with economic and social inequities, where the problems seem beyond the solution of our leaders, we need to be reminded that God has a solution. We celebrate the Good News that the solution has already come and we anticipate the final solution when he comes again. This text calls us to joy and hope, to shalom that brings justice.
That joy and hope, that peace and justice are rooted in the little town of Bethlehem which has already loomed large in Israel’s history. It was the home town of Israel’s greatest king and, says Micah, it will be the birthplace of the greatest king in the world, “for his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” That sounds most unlikely, given how insignificant Bethlehem was and how overwhelming the problems surrounding it were.
But, says God through Micah, this ruler will come “for me,” that is, for Yahweh himself. This ruler will be the representative or agent for Yahweh’s kingdom. So he will stand and shepherd his flock “in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God.”
Indeed, this ruler has all the marks of divinity himself, because his “origins are from of old, from ancient times.” “Ancient times” might be a reference to the three hundred year old prophecy of the eternal Davidic dynasty. Or, the Hebrew can also be read as “from the days of eternity,” which might point to the eternal origin of this ruler who will be born in the hick town of Bethlehem. Whatever we make of those specific words, God is clearly saying that this ruler will be up to the task of bringing security and peace to a troubled people.
In fact, says the very last phrase in our little prophecy, “he himself will be their peace.” This echoes the words of Micah’s contemporary, Isaiah, that God will send one who is “the Prince of Peace.” And it anticipates the words of the angel choir on Christmas night, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Paul began to explore what such peace might be when he said, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility…. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14-16)
In other words, the ruler who is himself our peace will bring peace in multiple forms, which should not be surprising, since shalom always had multiple dimensions. Of course, Jesus brought peace with God (ala Romans 5). And he brought peace within (ala Philippians 4). And he brought peace between warring parties, like Jews and Gentiles, as in Ephesians 2. And that ought to bring peace into the domestic scene in Judah and in North America. Micah’s emphasis on social justice is part of the shalom brought by him who is our peace.
This is a complex and demanding and, at least for some, unwelcome message in this joyous holiday season. The absence of international peace casts doubt on the truth of Micah’s message. Of course, we could say, with Paul, that God has begun that international peace making mission by creating a church composed of people from all the warring tribes and nations. And that is true, praise God. But the church itself is the scene of so much internecine warfare that, once again, the reality casts doubt on the truth of Micah’s prophecy. Further, the church itself is often silent about, if not complicit in, the economic and social inequities against which Micah rails.
Most of your congregants will not want to hear about all this today. Let’s just celebrate Christmas, they will say, and leave all this business about justice and peace to another day. But we can do that only if we ignore this lovely Advent promise and its context. And that would rob us of hope in the face of all the messes in the world. They are so many and so difficult that we despair of solutions. That is precisely why we should preach on this text. It reminds us in no uncertain terms that God has sent a solution, and “he himself is their peace.” Though this good news does not negate our responsibility to live by Micah 6:8, it does remind us that the Ruler who came once is coming again to do for us and through us what we cannot do ourselves.
So have yourself a merry, peaceful, just Christmas.
The Guiding Light Mission, located just a block from my former church in downtown Grand Rapids, has a marvelous mission to the homeless, often mentally ill, and almost always alcohol and drug addicted street people who are our immediate neighbors. Each Christmas season they put out a special appeal for help in their mission. On billboards, street posters, newspaper ads, and TV promotions, one image is projected into the minds and hearts of Grand Rapidians. It’s a picture of a homeless man, unshaven, shaggy haired, dirty faced, hollow eyed, raggedly dressed, staring at us in desperation. That, says Micah 5, is what Christmas is about. That is a picture of Christmas. Not happy families gathered around a tree opening gifts, but the Prince of Peace bringing peace, security, compassion, and justice to a broken world. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” who has humbled himself for you. (Micah 6:8)
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!