Bethlehem, Christ and Us

Burkhard Vetsch

It was the little Jewish town of Bethlehem where the Savior of the world was to be born. What does that mean for our lives? A call and an encouragement.

In Bethlehem, Israel—and nowhere else in the world! —the Savior of the world had to be born as a Jewish child. God let the prophet Micah know more than 700 years beforehand: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).

Bethlehem Ephrathah, a small village amid vineyards and olive groves, is the Jewish city where King David was born. And this is exactly where the Messiah, the coming King of kings, is born. Bethlehem means “House of Bread”; Ephrathah means “fruitful.” Bethlehem, you little town…How dear this place is to us! Bethlehem…Christmas! What jubilation, what joy the dear Christmastime brings. But for the Messiah, the King and Lord, no worthy accommodation or suitable place will be found.

Stables and mangers aren’t romantic at all, but bear witness to bitter poverty. God willed it so that His Son would not be offered a palace for His shelter. His life on earth was marked by poverty and deprivation from the first day. Jesus’ path led from the wooden manger to the wooden cross, by way of suffering.

As the one sacrificial lamb designated by God, He made atonement for our sins through His blood. He obtained salvation for us sinners on the cursed tree. Isaiah had prophesied it long before: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).

In this way, God gave us His Son Jesus for Christmas. And what have we made of His birthday? A luxury party! Do we still think of Jesus’ birth, when we enjoy presents and a sumptuous, candlelit feast?

Bethlehem! Heaven opened above you as angels brought the eternal good news to a small, timid group of shepherds on the pastures that night. This same news also makes us happy again and again: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:9-14).

Now He had arrived! The promised light, the bright Morning Star that the prophets spoke of. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isaiah 9:2). Jesus, fulfilling the Old Testament promise, spoke to His people and said, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life…I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness” (John 8:12; 12:46). He’s talking to you and me today! Whoever lets this mercy light shine through his life is drawn into the kingdom of His peace and joy.

Bethlehem! Blessed place of remembrance, cradle of Christianity. How it warms our hearts. And today? Sad place of misery and desolation under Islam. The power of evil and hatred tries to extinguish the light of the gospel. The place that should remind us of Jewish history, falls victim to destruction with brutal force. Today, “Allahu Akbar!” is declared where God’s Son was born. It is written in the Quran 9:30, “The Christians say, ‘The Messiah is the son of Allah.’ That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?” Should the power of darkness really triumph over the eternal Word of God? Why does Jesus allow His birthplace to be violated? Have so-called Christians made memorial sites too much into shrines, instead of honoring the Lord Himself in devoted obedience to the faith? Do we give more honor to the created than to the Creator?

Jesus hated and castigated all pious hypocrisy and outward ceremony. It’s no different today. He seeks sincere hearts to perform Spirit-led acts of love. Colossians 1:10 demands that we “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God.” Every hypocritical action is an abomination to Him: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous” (Matthew 23:27-29).

What is the use of kneeling at Jesus’ birthplace, of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, if the filth of the heart is not recognized and eliminated? Of what advantage is the most pompous Christmas party, if impurity and disobedience continue to proliferate in our hearts? If we wish for God’s good pleasure over our lives, then we must consent to the same path of humility that Jesus followed. He only returns to where He finds sincere hearts. He promises that such people will be allowed to see God.

But Jesus doesn’t just want an invitation to the party; He wants to be our Lord and rule over our lives! That’s why an impressive Christmas party, dutifully arranged each December, isn’t enough.

When we celebrate the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago at Christmas, we don’t want to remain at the manger holding the cute little child. Jesus is Lord, King of kings, who will soon return triumphantly! We want to align ourselves accordingly and prepare.

His light of mercy must penetrate where the darkness of sin still exists. He says to us in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” More than ever before, Jesus needs light bearers as messengers of peace, who proclaim the gospel to those who are still living peacefully in their sinfulness. By contrast, the power of darkness wants to destroy God’s plan for peace. But Jesus remains victor! Let’s take His side, for the vision that Isaiah received in spirit must be fulfilled: “I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6b). Then Zechariah 2:10 also applies to us, and we may happily join in: “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD.” Our joy will be complete when Bethlehem and Israel can rejoice in Jesus’ return.

In spite of all adversities, may Christmas become a celebration for all those who have experienced the power of forgiveness through Jesus’ blood. In Jesus Christ, I wish you true joy and a blessed Christmas!

Midnight Call - 12/2018

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