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Friday, December 14, 2018

O Little Town of Bethlehem



    Jesus’ birth. Spiritual warfare. Has the battle between good and evil ever been seen more clearly on this planet than it is in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke? Satan tempts Joseph to break off his engagement to Mary (Matthew 1:18-19). It takes an act of Caesar to bring the couple to Bethlehem, the town where prophecy says the Messiah will be born (Micah 5:2, Luke 2:1-7). King Herod tries to trick the Magi into revealing Jesus’ whereabouts so that he can kill Him (Matthew 2:1-8). Through it all, God’s will wins out even in difficult circumstances.

    Sometimes I find myself questioning His Word when it says over and over again that God used an angel or a dream to tell someone exactly what they needed to know or do. (Five times in  Matthew chapters 1 and 2; three times in the first two chapters of  Luke.) Why would He rely so heavily on such an unusual means of communication?

    Maybe the intensity of the warfare required the use of rare weapons. Maybe the people involved needed clear and obvious directions from God in opposition to the wily lures of Satan. Maybe the uniqueness of the form of communication underscores the uniqueness of the times.

    As I’m reading the story, I rejoice every time evil is thwarted and good prevails. Then I reach the part where Herod orders the slaughter of all the boys in and near Bethlehem who are two years old and younger, in a desperate attempt to kill the King of the Jews. Jesus’ family escapes to Egypt, most likely using the gifts from the Magi to finance their trip (Matthew 2:11-14). In spite of the danger and the need for sudden flight, God provides for Jesus’ safety and for His family’s travel expenses.

    But what about the boys who were murdered after Jesus, Joseph, and Mary escaped? What about their parents’ terrible loss? Has evil won out at this point? Wouldn’t a good god have prevented this? The Bible doesn’t downplay the pain and grief. It describes weeping and great mourning (Matthew 2:17-18). The suffering produced is important enough to God that He included a prophecy about it in Jeremiah 31:15. But as we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in church at Christmastime one year and the pastor comments on how very small Bethlehem was, I realize that the events also convey God’s mercy.

    Jesus wasn’t born in a booming city like Jerusalem, as might be expected of a king. Centuries earlier, God had announced His birthplace, including a comment on the small size of the town. The religious leaders knew that the Messiah would appear in Bethlehem. Wouldn’t you think that large numbers of Jews would flock there in the ensuing centuries, hoping to be among the first to see Him? Shouldn’t Bethlehem be a thriving metropolis by this point?

    But no. Jesus was born in the little town of Bethlehem. Some estimates put the number of boys murdered by Herod at less than ten. Had Jesus been born in a larger town or a big city, many more families would have suffered from Herod’s wrath.

    Of course Satan would wreak havoc on the place where the Christ was born. Because of the Fall, people everywhere are subject to his cruelty. But God in His mercy limited the pain and loss to the little town of Bethlehem. Somehow, through all the centuries following Micah’s prophecy, He discouraged people from moving there. He kept the town’s population, and thus the number of baby boys, small.

    It helps me to see this illustration of God’s protection. Too often, I think I’m living in a world in which Jesus was born in populous Jerusalem where Herod would destroy hundreds of baby boys to get to the one. Where God would seemingly stand by as Satan had a field day slaughtering innocent children.

    Too often, I forget the truth that I live in a world in which He was born in the little town of Bethlehem where God limited Satan’s influence and ability to inflict harm. Too often I see only the very real suffering, which the Bible never denies and never attempts to cover up, and close my eyes to God’s even greater mercy and provision.

    I don’t understand why God allows suffering on the scale of World War II. But this small picture of His hand actively interceding to minimize the pain in Jesus’ earliest years on earth gives me a glimpse of His wisdom and compassion, a wisdom and compassion that prevail not just in the little town of Bethlehem, but in the world as a whole.