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For All the Saints

A Celebration of the Saints of the Church and the Church Calendar

Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (386) – March 18


Cyril was born around 315 and became bishop of Jerusalem in 349.  He is famous for his catechisms that he prepared for those who were awaiting baptism.  His five Mystagogical Catecheses on the Sacraments were composed for the newly baptized.  Cyril instituted the observance of Palm Sunday and Holy Week;  

Scripture Reading: Luke 24:44-48;

Collect—Strengthen, O Lord, we beseech thee, the bishops of thy Church in the special calling to be teachers and ministers of the Sacraments, that they, like thy servant Cyril of Jerusalem, may effectively instruct thy people in Christian faith and practice; and that we, taught by them, may enter more fully into the celebration of the Paschal mystery; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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gloryofthelamb1But 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)

One of the most popular writers in America today is the New Age guru, Deepak Chopra.  Chopra’s philosophy is basically a westernized, self-help version of Hinduism, influenced by Vedanta and the writings of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holy books of Hinduism.  Occasionally he ventures into the realm of Christianity, trying to make Jesus fit into Hindu ideas and the current fad of New Age mysticism.   Oprah Winfrey loves the writings of Deepak Chopra, so it is not surprising that many people are quite familiar with his work. 

A few years ago, he wrote a book entitled The Third Jesus, in which he Chopra basically says that we must reject the Jesus of history, the Jesus of the Church, and discover the third Jesus who was a spiritual master who attained enlightenment and God-consciousness, just as we all can.  For Chopra, Jesus is not THE savior, but A Savior.  Furthermore, for Chopra, Jesus is certainly not the eternal God incarnate in human flesh.  Chopra writes that Jesus did not “physically descend from God’s dwelling place…nor did he return to sit at the right hand of a literal throne.”  In other words, Chopra denies the eternal existence of Christ and the eternal deity of Christ.  Jesus was just an ordinary man who happened to achieve the enlightenment of God-consciousness.  For him, Jesus was divine only in the sense that we are all divine.  Oddly enough, Chopra tries to use the Bible, at least parts of it, and attempts to make the sayings of Jesus fit it into this system of Hindu thought.  But what does the Bible actually say in respect to the traditional teaching of the Church that Jesus is, in fact, the one and only, eternal Son of God? 

            For the past few weeks we have been looking at this prophecy concerning how Christ was to be born in Bethlehem.  We have seen that he was no ordinary child, but rather, he was born a king, the ruler who would shepherd Israel.  But this verse also teaches that the Son of God existed long before he was born in Bethlehem.  Every Sunday we confess our faith by the means of the Nicene Creed, affirming that the Son is eternal, just as the Father is eternal.  The Son has no beginning and no end.  He always existed in the bosom of the Father.    We confess this truth by saying that we believe in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God:  Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; Being of once substance with the Father; By whom all things were made:  Who for us men and for our salvation came from heaven.”  Notice how we boldly confess that the Son is God, just as much as the Father is God.  The Son, like the Father, existed from all eternity past; and the Son, in contradiction to Deepak Chopra, “came down from heaven.”

            This truth concerning the eternal pre-existence of our Lord Jesus Christ is spoken of in this prophecy in Micah 5:2.  The prophecy tells us that his goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.    This one who would be born in Bethlehem, had an existence before Bethlehem, therefore he is different from any king, or any other man who has ever been born, for his goings forth had been from of old, from everlasting.  Some scholars have said that this phrase, “from everlasting,” simply means that the ruler spoken of here would come from an ancient, royal ancestry.  But the word that is used here for everlasting, though it can mean simply “long ago,” is the same word used in Psalm 90:2:   “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.”  This ruler spoken of in Micah 5:2 has his origins in eternity past.  Though many babies were born in Bethlehem, of which children, of which men, could it be said that their goings forth had been from of old, from everlasting?  Could any mere man make such a claim?  Therefore, this verse can only refer to our Lord Jesus Christ.  Other men, other rulers, such as David, came out of Bethlehem, but only of Christ could it be said that his goings forth had been from everlasting. 

            At this time of year we love to dwell upon the theme of God becoming man.  We quote so often that saying, “They shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”  This is the miracle of the incarnation.  God became man.  What a mysterious, historical occurrence the incarnation is!  But just as mysterious, just as difficult to fathom, is that the Son of God existed long before he was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary.

            I remember sitting in a seminary classroom many years ago and hearing one of my friends express his doubts concerning the pre-existence of Christ.  Even the seminary professor was shocked to hear what this future pastor said, and rightfully so.  The eternal pre-existence of Christ is one of the most important teachings of our faith, that Jesus Christ is the eternal God in the flesh.  It is a belief which separates us from the cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that Jesus Christ was a created being.  If you want to know whether someone is orthodox in his doctrine, don’t merely ask, “Do you believe in Jesus?”  The Hindu will tell you he believes in Jesus.  The Buddhist will tell you he believes in Jesus.  The Muslim will tell you he believes in Jesus.  Even the liberal, Christian theologian will tell you he believes in Jesus.  Rather ask them, “Do you believe that Jesus is God, the eternal second person of the holy Trinity?”  If you deny the eternal existence of Christ, the eternal deity of Christ, then you deny the Christian faith altogether.   The Nicene Creed was hammered out by the Church to say once and for all that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God.   Instead of merely asking people in our generation, “Do you believe in Jesus?”, we must ask them, “Do you believe in the Jesus as defined in the Athanasian Creed?”, which states:

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man; God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching His godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching His manhood; who, although He is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the godhead into flesh but by taking of the manhood into God; one altogether; not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ; who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, He sits at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the quick and the dead. At His coming all men will rise again with their bodies and shall give account for their own works.  And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.  This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

 

When we ask people if they believe in Jesus, this is the Jesus whom we ask them to embrace.  Not a “third Jesus,” but the Jesus of the inerrant word of God, the Jesus that the Church has recognized down through the ages in its interpretation of the word of God until arrogant men of the last few centuries began to posit their own ideas of Jesus to replace those of the ancient creeds and holy men of the Church

At this time of year, we often think of St. Nicholas, a bishop of the Christian church, a man who was, indeed, very kind and generous to all people, especially children.  We have several large nutcrackers at home that we bring out at Christmas, but my favorites is one of St. Nicholas, dressed in his bishop’s robe, holding his bishop’s crook, wearing the bishop’s miter.  St. Nicholas was not only a kind and generous man, he was a bishop who stood against the heresy proposed by Arius, that the Son of God was a created being.  According to some accounts, St. Nicholas on one occasion slapped Arius across the face for teaching this heretical doctrine.  The Church worded our Nicene Creed so carefully to protect us from ever denying the eternal deity of Jesus Christ.   It is one of the strangest things that bishops, priests, and other clergy in the Christian Church can say the Nicene Creed every Sunday, confessing they believe this truth, when, in fact they do not believe it, and say so publicly in their writings.   It is an incredible thing that Deepak Chopra’s book was endorsed by some Episcopalian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic scholars and theologians.  But the bedrock of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ is the unique, one and only, eternal Son of God.

            Our Lord himself claimed that He had existed long before his incarnation.  In John 6:33, our Lord said, “For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.”  Notice how he says that he came down from heaven.  No one else could say that.  You and I were born, but we couldn’t say that we came down from heaven.   In verse 38 of the same chapter, he said, “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.”  Notice again, “I came down from heaven.” He does not say that he was born in Bethlehem,  grew up,  and became a great, enlightened teacher, but rather, “I came down from heaven.”   Then, in verse 62, Jesus says, “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?”  Jesus was in heaven, long before he was born in Bethlehem, and when he ascended into heaven, he was returning to the place where he had come from, where he was before.    He was in heaven, in a state of glory, long before he came down to this earth and was made flesh.  As you can see, the Jesus of Deepak Chopra is a complete fabrication.  Chopra may not understand what Jesus was saying, but the Jews knew what he was saying, and they were outraged.  Look at verses 41 and 42 of that same chapter:  “The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, I am the bread which came down from heaven.   And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?”    For them, like Chopra and these other New Age heretics, Jesus was just the son of Joseph.  How can he say that he came down from heaven?  They were beginning to see what Jesus was portraying himself to be—someone who had an existence before his birth in Bethlehem.  They were thinking, “This man was just born about 30 years ago.  We know his father and mother.  How can he say that he came down from heaven?” Christ was definitely telling them here that he had an existence before he became incarnate.

            The Scripture tells us that he existed when this world was created.  In John 1:1-3, we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.   All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”  Of course, this Word that was God was our Lord Jesus Christ, for John tells us in verse 14 of that same chapter, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”  That the Word of God is another name for Jesus is revealed again in  Rev. 19:11-13:   “And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war.  His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself.   And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God.”   The writer to the Hebrews also tells us that the Son of God was present at the creation of the world:   “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,   Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1-2).      

            Seeing that our Lord existed before the creation of the world, can we go back even further and find his existence?  Yes!  We can go back into eternity for there never was a time when our Lord Jesus did not exist.  Not only was Christ present at the creation of the universe, he existed before its creation.  In what we call the “High Priestly Prayer,” just before his crucifixion, our Lord looked to heaven and said, “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was. “  Jesus said in John 8:56-59:   “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.  Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?  Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.  Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.”  The modern, liberal theologians might miss Jesus’ meaning in John 8:58, but the Jews didn’t.  They knew he was claiming to be the eternal God so they attempted to stone him as a blasphemer.

            Then, of course, we have this prophecy in Micah 5:2:  “whose goings forth have been of old, from everlasting.”  The first time he came forth was when he came forth from the Father, what theologians call the eternal generation of the Son.  You may think that I am contradicting myself and say, ““But you just told us He was not created, that he always existed. “ That’s right.  Then how can He have come from the Father, and not have been created by Him?  He eternally came from the Father.  Article II of our Articles of Religion describes him as “the Son which is the Word of the Father; begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father.” In one of the most profound mysteries, beyond human comprehension, Jesus was eternally begotten, he eternally went forth, and he has been going forth ever since.

            In time and place, he went forth before he was born.  We read of His going forth in the Old Testament.  We call these “pre-incarnate appearances” of our Lord, those times when the Son took on a human shape and appeared to men.   There were times in the Old Testament when Christ appeared to men before He was made flesh and dwelled among us.   Theologians call these appearances “Christophanies.”   It was God the Son, for example  who appeared to Hagar in Gen. 16: 7-13:  

And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur. And he said, Hagar, Sarai’s maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai. And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands. And the angel of the LORD said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude. And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.   And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me? 

Sometimes, when the Scriptures describe an angel of the Lord, it may be one of the created angelic beings, but at other times we find that the angel of the Lord is none than God himself.  Hagar realizes this when she says that it was the Lord who spoke to her there.

It was God the Son who appeared to Jacob:

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.   And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.   And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.   And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.   And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.   And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.   And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.  There can be no doubt that this man that Jacob wrestled with was our Lord Jesus Christ.  He was in the form of a man, but then Jacob realizes who he is when he says, “I have seen God face to face.” (Gen. 32:24-30)

 

This man turns out to be none other than God, and therefore, another pre-incarnate appearance of Christ.

 

It was God the Son who went before the children of Israel to bring them to the Promised Land.  God said in Exodus 23:20-23:

 

Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.    Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him.   But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries.   For mine Angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off.

 

 Who is this angel that can pardon, or not pardon sins? Pardoning sin is God’s work, not the work of an angel.  Who is this angel that has God’s name in him.  It can only be the Son of God.   Even the early Father of the Church interpreted the Scripture in this way.  Tertullian (160-220), one of the early Church Fathers,  in his work, An Answer to the Jews, wrote:

 

For He who ever spake to Moses was the Son of God Himself; who, too, was always seen.   For God the Father none ever saw, and lived.   And accordingly it is agreed that the Son of God Himself spake to Moses, and said to the people, “Behold, I send mine angel before thy” – that is, the people’s – “face, to guard thee on the march, and to introduce thee into the land which I have prepared thee: attend to him, and be not disobedient to him; for he hath not escaped thy notice, since my name is upon him.” For Joshua was to introduce the people into the land of promise, not Moses. Now He called him an “angel,” on account of the magnitude of the mighty deeds which he was to achieve (which mighty deeds Joshua the son of Nun did, and you yourselves read), and on account of his office of prophet announcing (to wit) the divine will; just as withal the Spirit, speaking in the person of the Father, calls the forerunner of Christ, John, a future “angel,” through the prophet: “Behold, I send mine angel before Thy” – that is, Christ’s – “face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee.” Nor is it a novel practice to the Holy Spirit to call those “angels” whom God has appointed as ministers of His power. For the same John is called not merely an “angel” of Christ, but withal a “lamp” shining before Christ: for David predicts, “I have prepared the lamp for my Christ;” and him Christ Himself, coming “to fulfil the prophets,” called so to the Jews. “He was,” He says, “the burning and shining lamp;” as being he who not merely “prepared His ways in the desert,” but withal, by pointing out “the Lamb of God,” illumined the minds of men by his heralding, so that they understood Him to be that Lamb whom Moses was wont to announce as destined to suffer. Thus, too, (was the son of Nun called) Joshua, on account of the future mystery of his name: for that name (He who spake with Moses) confirmed as His own which Himself had conferred on him, because He had bidden him thenceforth be called, not “angel” nor “Oshea,” but “Joshua.” Thus, therefore, each name is appropriate to the Christ of God-that He should be called Jesus as well (as Christ).

The Apostle Paul himself said that Christ was in the wilderness with the people, and that they tempted Christ (I Cor. 10:4,9).

It was God the Son who appeared to Gideon in Judges 6: 12-23:  

And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him, and said unto him, The LORD is with thee, thou mighty man of valour.   And Gideon said unto him, Oh my Lord, if the LORD be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt? but now the LORD hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.   And the LORD looked upon him, and said, Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee?   And he said unto him, Oh my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.   And the LORD said unto him, Surely I will be with thee, and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man.   And he said unto him, If now I have found grace in thy sight, then shew me a sign that thou talkest with me.   Depart not hence, I pray thee, until I come unto thee, and bring forth my present, and set it before thee. And he said, I will tarry until thou come again.   And Gideon went in, and made ready a kid, and unleavened cakes of an ephah of flour: the flesh he put in a basket, and he put the broth in a pot, and brought it out unto him under the oak, and presented it.   And the angel of God said unto him, Take the flesh and the unleavened cakes, and lay them upon this rock, and pour out the broth. And he did so. Then the angel of the LORD put forth the end of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the flesh and the unleavened cakes; and there rose up fire out of the rock, and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes. Then the angel of the LORD departed out of his sight.   And when Gideon perceived that he was an angel of the LORD, Gideon said, Alas, O Lord GOD! for because I have seen an angel of the LORD face to face.   And the LORD said unto him, Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die.

 

You will notice in all these passages how the narrator switches from calling this person the “angel of the Lord,” to “the Lord.”  Again, we have here the Son of God, for this angel receives a sacrifice, and offerings are not made to angels, only to God.  So, this angel of the Lord here is the Lord, and Gideon thinks he should die because he has seen the Lord. 

            The more modern commentators on Scripture are very hesitant to say that these are pre-incarnate appearances of our Lord, but earlier commentators had no such difficulty.  As an example, I offer a section here from Matthew Henry, the 18th century scholar, commenting on this passage concerning Gideon: 

The person that gave him the commission was an angel of the Lord; it should seem not a created angel, but the Son of God himself, the eternal Word, the Lord of the angels, who then appeared upon some great occasions in human shape, as a prelude (says the learned bishop Patrick) to what he intended in the fullness of time, when he would take our nature upon him, as we say, for good and all.  This angel is here called Jehovah, the incommunicable name of God (v. 14, 16), and he said, I will be with thee. 

As you can see, Matthew Henry saw Jesus here.  But we can go back further in Church history and see that the early Church fathers saw this angel of the Lord as none other than the Son of God.   Irenaeus (?-202), in his Against Heresies, Book Four, Chapter 10, wrote: 

For if ye had believed Moses, ye would also have believed Me; for he wrote of Me;” [saying this,] no doubt, because the Son of God is implanted everywhere throughout his writings: at one time, indeed, speaking with Abraham, when about to eat with him; at another time with Noah, giving to him the dimensions [of the ark]; at another; inquiring after Adam; at another, bringing down judgment upon the Sodomites; and again, when He becomes visible, and directs Jacob on his journey, and speaks with Moses from the bush.

For the early Church Fathers, when people see God in the Old Testament, that is actually an appearance of the Son of God.

 

It was the Son of God who appeared to Manoah, the father of Samson in Judges 13: 15-23:

 And Manoah said unto the angel of the LORD, I pray thee, let us detain thee, until we shall have made ready a kid for thee.   And the angel of the LORD said unto Manoah, Though thou detain me, I will not eat of thy bread: and if thou wilt offer a burnt offering, thou must offer it unto the LORD. For Manoah knew not that he was an angel of the LORD.   And Manoah said unto the angel of the LORD, What is thy name, that when thy sayings come to pass we may do thee honour?   And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?   So Manoah took a kid with a meat offering, and offered it upon a rock unto the LORD: and the angel did wondrously; and Manoah and his wife looked on.   For it came to pass, when the flame went up toward heaven from off the altar, that the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar. And Manoah and his wife looked on it, and fell on their faces to the ground.   But the angel of the LORD did no more appear to Manoah and to his wife. Then Manoah knew that he was an angel of the LORD.   And Manoah said unto his wife, We shall surely die, because we have seen God.   But his wife said unto him, If the LORD were pleased to kill us, he would not have received a burnt offering and a meat offering at our hands, neither would he have shewed us all these things, nor would as at this time have told us such things as these.

Who was this angel of the Lord?  Who was this angel who received a sacrifice?  Who was this angel who ascended in the fire and smoke of the sacrifice?  Manoah’s wife knew who it was.  She said, “We shall surely die, because we have seen God.” This was not merely a created angel, but God himself.

Each of these instances  were manifestations of the Son of God, sometimes in the form of an angel, sometimes in the form of a man, not that he was actually man at these times, because he did not become man until he was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary. These were the old times when he was going forth into the world, even then.

            And now in Matthew 1 and 2, we see another time he went forth, this time in the most astonishing way of all.  He went forth to be conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary.  This one who whose goings forth have been of old, this one whose goings forth have been from everlasting, goes forth one more time.  This time, he becomes flesh, and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.  Justin Martyr (100-165), in his First Apology,  put it like this:

From the writings of Moses also this will be manifest; for thus it is written in them, “And the Angel of God spake to Moses, in a flame of fire out of the bush, and said, I am that I am, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of thy fathers; go down into Egypt, and bring forth My people.”  And if you wish to learn what follows, you can do so from the same writings; for it is impossible to relate the whole here. But so much is written for the sake of proving that Jesus the Christ is the Son of God and His Apostle, being of old the Word, and appearing sometimes in the form of fire, and sometimes in the likeness of angels; but now, by the will of God, having become man for the human race, He endured all the sufferings which the devils instigated the senseless Jews to inflict upon Him; who, though they have it expressly affirmed in the writings of Moses, “And the angel of God spake to Moses in a flame of fire in a bush, and said, I am that I am, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” yet maintain that He who said this was the Father and Creator of the universe. 

Justin Martyr is arguing that Christ came forth many times in various forms in the Old Testament, but when he was born in Bethlehem, be came forth as flesh and blood.

            What a wonderful going forth this is!  Had he not gone forth in this way, we would have been lost and doomed forever.  Each time He went forth it was important—to comfort Hagar, to tell Abraham he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, to guide Israel, to encourage Gideon.  These were very important reasons for him to go forth.  But none was so important as the reason he went forth this time.  Why did He go forth this time?  The reason we celebrate this going forth at this time of year is found in Matthew 1:20-21:   “But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.   And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.”  This time he goes forth to save his people from their sins.  The Apostle Paul put it like this in Galatians 4:4-5:   “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” We were under the curse of the law, for we are all breakers of the law of God.  We would have been condemned to hell forever and ever, but God sent forth his Son to redeem us from the curse of the law, becoming a curse for us.  There was no other way to redeem us from the curse of the law.  He had to be born, had to be made flesh, and give his life as a substitute.  He came to redeem.  The word redeem means “to release by the payment of a price.”  The ultimate price had to be paid for our redemption—His life in the place of ours.  As we remember the baby, the manger, let us not forget the cross, for even here at this sweet nativity scene, the shadow of the cross falls over his manger cradle.  He was born to die so that we might be saved, redeemed, released, and be adopted as God’s sons.  “The Son of God became the Son of man that the sons of men might become the sons of God.”   This was the only way, and the one whose goings forth have been of old, from everlasting, came forth to die so that we might receive the adoption of sons.

            It may be difficult to grasp the Son of God as he eternally proceeds from the Father.  It may be difficult to understand the appearances of Christ in the Old Testament before he was born.  But come now to Bethlehem, to this going forth, and see this eternal Son in human flesh.  Grasp this man, Christ Jesus, and know that you are also clinging to God.  Martin Luther put it like this:

If you want to know this Child aright, go first to Bethlehem, that is, learn that this Child is born of the Virgin Mary, true man, flesh, blood, and bone like yours and mine, yet without sin, with a mission to fulfill and discharge in this world, namely, as Micah says, to be a Ruler who would redeem His people from sin and eternal death. Then, after these things are well learned and the Child is found, seen, and touched in the manger, the light will dawn, too, that this son of Mary is also the Son of God, born of God before time and from everlasting. He has two goings forth or births, and yet is only one person. Consequently, when you lay hold of this Man, Christ, you have laid hold of God. (CompleteSermons of Martin Luther, vol. 5, 213,4)

            Before we leave this scene, let me remind you that this one whose goings forth have been of old, from everlasting, will one day go forth once more.  He will descend once more.  Every morning, throughout the Advent season we pray this prayer: 

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

The one who went forth to Bethlehem will one day go forth from his throne.  St. Paul put it like this:  

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.   For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.   For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (I Thess. 4:14-17)

What a difference there will be between this coming and His coming to Bethlehem!  At this time of year, when we celebrate his coming as a babe in Bethlehem, we also need to remind ourselves and others that this babe will come again, not as a babe lying in a manger, but as a king coming to judge heaven and earth, to display his wrath, and to carry his people home.

As we celebrate the Christmas season, what happens to your festive attitude when you think of Christ coming in the clouds of glory?  For those who know Christ, their hearts beat with greater joy and excitement, for we are living in great expectation of this going forth, looking forward to it just as much as those Jewish people awaited his birth in Bethlehem.  But if you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, this next going forth of Christ should strike fear to your hearts.  The Christian should be the only one celebrating Christmas, for we are the only ones who have anything to celebrate.  All those outside of Christ should be weeping and wailing at this time of year, for the thoughts of this coming to Bethlehem should remind them of this second coming when he arrives for judgment.

But even to the person outside of Christ, there is hope.  He went forth to Bethlehem, and thank God, he still goes forth today by the power and might of the Holy Spirit.  How we pray that he would go forth this very day, that he would go forth to conquer the proud hearts of those who refuse to believe and obey him, to subdue hearts that have been hardened by sin, to break the iron gates that bar the sinner’s heart, to cut the iron chains of sin that bind men.  Let us thank God that He still goes forth.  Trust him and He will go forth abide in your heart forever.

You may be a Christian, but you are depressed, you are weary, tired, sad, distressed, broken-hearted, wounded.  He still goes forth.  He still goes forth to heal the broken-hearted.  He still goes forth to preach deliverance to the captives.  He still goes forth to give sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to give rest to those who are weary and heavy-laden. Christ has not stopped going forth.  He may go forth to you this day.  You can experience his going forth now.  He is going forth to you as I preach the word to you and the truths of Christ are applied to your hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He will go forth to you today in this sacrament of Holy Communion as he once again comes to us in the bread and wine to preserve our bodies and souls to everlasting life. 

            Our prayer at this Christmas season is that he would go forth in powerful ways.  You might receive many presents this year, but the greatest gift you could receive would be if Christ, the one whose goings forth have been from everlasting, came forth now, and revealed  His love and presence to you at this special time of year.

 

 

 

 

Amen.

 

For an audio version of the sermon being preached, as well as a text html version, go to our web site’s address at:

 St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church

Preached on Lord’s Day Morning, December 21, 2008 by

The Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

 

www.stpaulsbr.org

gloryofthelambBut 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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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christrulerBut 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)

            Whenever a new king comes to a throne, whenever a new leader of a country is elected, whenever any political candidate is chosen to represent his constituency, the people look to the future with a mixture of optimism and fear.  There is always the hope that the new leader will be a person of integrity, honesty, and diligence.  On the other hand, there is always the fear that the new leader may be corrupt, self-serving, inadequate to the task, or even unjust and cruel.    In our country, at the present time, a new administration is coming to power, and the people in our nation have different attitudes toward the prospects for the future.  Some are optimistic and others are quite anxious.   As we look back through the history of kings and political leaders, we see that people do have the right to be fearful in regard to what their leaders might do.  Nebuchadnezzar, Xerxes, Cyrus, Alexander, Caligula, Nero, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, despite what they may have accomplished in some areas of life and culture, are most often associated with warfare, bloodshed, torture, cruelty and death.  So, if a prophet predicted that a new ruler would come to reign over a nation, that prophecy, in and of itself, would not necessarily be a cause for celebration.  The people might say, “That’s just what we need—another ruler.  What have rulers ever done except send men to death in wars that were usually for nothing other than a certain ruler’s desire for fame, power, glory, and wealth.  What have rulers ever done except taken things away from people to lavish the spoils on themselves.”  Whenever Israel asked for a king, God told Samuel to tell the people what a king would do.  We have this warning and the response of the people in I Samuel 8:11-19:

 

And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.   And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.   And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.   And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.   And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.   And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.   He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.   And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.   Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us.

 

After that description of a king, who would want one, and why would it be good news if someone prophesied that a new king was on the way?

            In the book of Micah there is a prophecy that one day, a great ruler over Israel would be born Bethlehem.  During this time of year when we celebrate the birth of Christ with nativity scenes and images of the holy family, with the infant Jesus lying in a manger, we must never lose sight of the fact that this infant was born a king, a ruler.  I know that this is a great mystery, and we don’t fully understand it, but that baby did not become God at some later time, at age twelve, or at His baptism, or at His, or at the ascension.  That little baby is God in the flesh.  He was born a king.

            When the wise men came to visit the Christ child, they asked the question, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him” (Matthew 2:6).  He was born king of the Jews and was worthy of their worship even as a child.  On the day our Lord was born, the angel announced to the shepherds, “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” (Luke 2:10-11).  He was born Christ, the Messiah, the Lord.”  As Spurgeon said,

The moment he came on earth he was a king.  He did not wait till his majority that he might take his empire; but as soon as his eye greeted the sunshine, He was king; from the moment His little hands grasped anything, they grasped a scepter.  As soon as his pulse beat and His blood began to flow, his heart beat royally, and his pulse beat an imperial measure, and his blood flowed in a kingly current.

Let us never forget what the song writer expressed in the carol that we hear so often at this time of year, “There’s a Song in the Air”:

            There’s a tumult of joy o’er the wonderful birth

            For the virgin’s sweet boy is the Lord of the earth

            Aye the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing

            For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a king.

That little baby, lying in the manger, is the Lord of the earth.  In “O Come All Ye Faithful, “we sing, “Come and behold him, born the king of Angels.”

            The first truth that we must accept concerning our Lord Jesus Christ is that he is King of kings, Lord of lords.  He is God in the flesh.  He is God of light, light of light, very God of very God.  Have you recognized Jesus Christ as your Lord and Ruler?  Have you submitted to the Sovereign Lordship of Jesus Christ?  Is he the ruler of your heart and life, or not?    During our worship services we kneel many times in prayer.  Today as you kneel, truly kneel before Christ the Lord and swear your supreme allegiance to him for the remainder of your days.

            For some people, bowing before a monarch is an act of forced submission, and they do so with regret and loathing, but this is not the attitude of our hearts when we bow before our sovereign Lord, for this prophecy tells us that he will not only be ruler over Israel, but he will also shepherd them.  Matthew’s version of this Old Testament passage reads, “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel” (Matt. 2:6).  Now, I would like to read this verse from the New International Version, because it does bring out the sense better:  “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.”  The King James Version has “rule” instead of “shepherd”, but “shepherd” is probably a better translation.  The word means to care for as a shepherd.  It means to feed, protect, guide, and yes, to exercise authority as a shepherd.  It is the same word used in John 21:16 when our Lord, after his resurrection is commissioning Simon Peter:  “He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.”  This governor, this ruler, will be a shepherd over Israel. 

This would have been a very comforting thought to the Jewish people because this would remind them of David, the greatest of the kings of Israel.  This is the way that David was described in II Sam. 5: 1-3:

 Then came all the tribes of Israel to David unto Hebron, and spake, saying, Behold, we are thy bone and thy flesh.   Also in time past, when Saul was king over us, thou wast he that leddest out and broughtest in Israel: and the LORD said to thee, Thou shalt feed my people Israel, and thou shalt be a captain over Israel.  So all the elders of Israel came to the king to Hebron; and king David made a league with them in Hebron before the LORD: and they anointed David king over Israel.

When all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, they wanted to unite the kingdom and make him the ruler over them all.  To convince him that they wanted his leadership, and that it was his duty to be ruler over all the nation of Israel, they spoke to him these words we find in verse 2.  This time, let me read verse two from the New International Version once again:  “In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns.  And the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’”   Notice again that David is a ruler who will shepherd; and,  the ruler who would one day be born in Bethlehem, would also be one who would shepherd Israel, just as David had done.  When Christ was born 2,000 years ago, he was born a ruler and a shepherd.

            We need not fear to submit to, or live under the reign of a shepherd.  What a gracious ruler our Lord is!  Many men have been kings, but how many were kings and shepherds.  Most kings, let’s face it, have been cruel, selfish, arrogant, and bloodthirsty men.  You have a good example of such a ruler right here in Matthew 2 in the case of Herod, a lying, treacherous, paranoid, butcher of babies.  Last week, we received the current issue of National Geographic, a magazine that never seems to tire of disagreeing with the Bible.  The feature article this month is on King Herod.  The article tells of how the only thing most people remember about Herod is the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, and the writer says that this is a crime of which Herod is almost certainly innocent.  The reasoning of the writer is that since no other historical documents tell us of this event, Matthew made it up.  Of course, in the Reformed Episcopal Church we believe that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant word of God.  If all the historical documents in the whole world disagreed with the Bible, then they are wrong, and on the day of judgment it will be revealed that they were wrong.  We start with the assumption that the Bible is true, no matter what any other scholar may tell us.  But the interesting thing about this article is that it goes on to describe how Herod murdered some of his own sons, murdered his wife, and all the other treacherous and evil things he did.  If a man would slaughter his own children to protect his throne, why is it so difficult to believe that he would slaughter the infants of strangers to protect his monarchy?

With people such as Herod in mind, the prophecy,  “Out of you shall come forth a ruler,” might not have been comforting.   The Jewish people knew all about rulers. They knew about Ahab who stole vineyards and killed to get them.  They knew about Manasseh who filled Jerusalem with blood from one end to the other.  “Out of you shall come a ruler.”  That statement might not have been comforting.  The comfort is there in the next phrase—“who will shepherd my people Israel.”

            He will not be  a ruler who will take away what they have and use it for his own selfish purposes, but one who will feed.  He will not be one who will butcher every child under two years of age to ensure that they will not be a threat to his power, but one who will guard and protect them.  He will not be a king who will trick them, deceive them, and cause them to fall into sin as Jeroboam did, but someone who will guide them to the truth.  What a blessing that a ruler would come who would not be a tyrant, but who would be a shepherd!

            Is the Lord Jesus Christ your ruler and shepherd?  Something, or someone is ruler in your heart.  Either Christ rules there or something else, and if  someone or something other than the Lord Jesus Christ rules in your heart, it is a reign of tyranny.  If you are living for self, if you are living for someone else, if you are living for money, pleasure, the good life, whatever it is, it is a reign of tyranny and ultimately of terror.   It will rob you, use you, discard you, and deceive you, and leave you nothing but emptiness, pain, and sorrow in the end, because all those  things are just puppet kings, just as Herod was a puppet for Caesar Augustus.  All those things I have mentioned are just puppet kings.  The real king behind them all is Satan himself, and if Christ is not ruler in your heart, Satan is.  He may come to you and rule over you in the form of money, pleasure, self, or something else, but behind the mask is Satan.  He rules you, and his reign is a reign of tyranny and terror, and in the end he will murder you, for Jesus said that he was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44).   If Christ does not rule in your heart, flee to Him, and receive him as your Ruler and Shepherd.  Will you have the devil, who is a ruler and tyrant, or Christ who is a ruler and shepherd? There is no comparison.  He is our ruler, and we bow before him, but how sweet it is to be ruled by Christ, for He is ruler and shepherd.  Why should you withhold yourself, your allegiance from a king who is such a kind and gentle shepherd? 

One of the most popular passages of Scripture we read during this advent season is from Isaiah 40, which begins,

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:  And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.  

But in verses 10 and  11 of this chapter we find the following words: “Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”  Once again we have the combination of ruling and shepherding.  But notice how beautifully this ruler is portrayed as one who feeds his flock, gathers his lambs in his arms, and carries them in his bosom.  Don’t you want a ruler like that?  Won’t you submit to one who promises you that through all the difficult trials and circumstances of your life, he will carry you as a lamb and give you the nourishment you need?  You need a king that loves you so much, that when you go astray, he will go out to find you and bring you home.  Isn’t Christ the good shepherd  who goes after that one sheep that is lost until he finds it, and lays it on his shoulders, and brings it home (Luke 15:4-6)?  How many of us, so many times, have strayed, found ourselves in terrible spiritual danger, only to feel the kind hand of the gentle shepherd clasp us to himself and brings us home?  Jesus is our sovereign Lord and Ruler, but he loves us so much, he describes himself in this way, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).   Whenever we look at our Lord Jesus Christ, we see him as our sovereign Lord, but not one who has come to destroy us.  We see this Ruler wearing a crown of thorns, giving his life for us, so that we might have eternal fellowship with him. What a wonderful fellowship and communion it is!  To have Christ as our ruler and shepherd means   that we lack nothing.  For the good shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures.  He leads us beside the still waters.  He restores our souls.  He leads us in the paths of righteousness.  Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, for he is with us and will never forsake us.  His rod and staff comfort us.  He prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies.  Our cups run over with blessings, joy, and happiness.  Goodness and mercy follow us all the day of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

            No matter what ruler may come to the throne, no matter who is king, president, or governor, the ultimate ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords is Jesus Christ.  Therefore, we rejoice and take comfort, for our ruler is also the good shepherd. 

Amen.

For an audio version of the sermon being preached, as well as a text html version, go to our web site’s address at:

St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church

www.stpaulsbr.org

(c) Copyright 2008

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Bethlehem

Preached on Lord’s Day Morning, November 30, 2008, by 
 The Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
 At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

 

bethlehm 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)

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. (Matthew 2:1-6)

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) (Luke 2:1-4).

            There are many villages, towns, and cities in the Holy Land with which we are very unfamiliar.  We have trouble just pronouncing the names of most these cities and towns, much less knowing their location and history.  I could say the names of many cities in Israel and most people could not tell you if these cities were in Israel, Persia, Babylon, Greece, or some other ancient kingdom.  I never realized how ignorant I was of these places until I took a course at seminary in Biblical archeology, and on every test the professor would give us a list of cities and towns in Israel, and we would have to put them on a blank map at their proper location.

            But there is the name of one town in Israel that we recognize immediately—Bethlehem.  Perhaps it is because children grow up singing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” that almost everyone in our culture at least recognizes the name.  Even the people outside of the Church usually recognize that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem.  Though people may know very little about the cities and towns in the Middle East, Bethlehem is familiar because it is the place where our Lord Jesus Christ was born.

            Most cities take great delight if a famous person was born in their city.  We have a town in Louisiana that was the home of several famous people.  If you ever go to Ferriday, Louisiana you will see a sign that says that Ferriday was the home of Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, Jimmy Swaggart, and Howard K. Smith.  Cities take great delight in saying such things as, “Abraham Lincoln was born here,” or, “This is the birthplace of George Washington.”  But take the greatest of names and the proudest of cities, and they pale into insignificance when compared to a little city in Judah called Bethlehem, for it was there that the King of kings and Lord of lords was born.

            As we see in Micah 5, it was prophesied that our Lord would be born in Bethlehem.  The book of Micah was written 700 years before the birth of our Lord, and here it is, clearly foretold,  that he would be born in Bethlehem.  I sometimes wonder if this little town lived in constant excitement that the next child born in Bethlehem might be the Messiah, or if they were so blind that they never thought of it anymore.  Not everyone had forgotten this prophecy, for you remember when Herod asked the chief priests and scribes where the Christ was to be born, they said, “In Bethlehem of Judea,” and then they quoted this passage of Scripture in Micah.  As you can see, it was a well-established fact that the Lord Jesus Christ would be born in Bethlehem.

            This morning I want us to look at the mercy, power, and wisdom of God in ordaining that Christ would be born in Bethlehem.  It should actually thrill our hearts to think that our Lord born in this little city.  You may ask, “What is so special about Bethlehem?  Wasn’t it just mere chance or accident that Christ was born there?  Even if God did plan it this way, that Christ would born in Bethlehem, did God have any real purpose in it?  Would any other city or town have done just as well as Bethlehem?  What is so special about the fact that He was born there?”   After this morning, I hope that you will never ask such questions again, for the fact that Christ was born in Bethlehem should provide much comfort and assurance to all believers, and even hope to those who diligently seek him.

            First, it was appropriate that Christ should be born in Bethlehem, for Bethlehem was a city of great joy and sorrow.  As a matter of fact, the first time we read of Bethlehem in the Scriptures, there is great joy and sorrow mingled together.  The first time we read of this town is in connection with the birth of Benjamin in Genesis 35: 16-20:

And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour. And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also.  And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Ben-oni: but his father called him Benjamin. And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.

The birth of Benjamin was a joyful occasion, but it was also an occasion of great bitterness and sorrow, for Rachel died when Benjamin was born.   Just before she died, Rachel named him Ben Oni, which means “son of my sorrow.”  But Jacob wouldn’t have it that way.  He named him, Benjamin, which means, “son of my right hand.”  In the first mention of Bethlehem, we see joy and sorrow mingled together.

            The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ was so much like the birth of Benjamin.  Mary could have very well named him, Ben Oni, son of my sorrow.  The circumstances surrounding his birth had brought a great deal of sorrow to Mary.  The pregnancy itself caused her the sorrow of being thought of as an adultereress, and to be temporarily rejected by her betrothed.  Then, during the last stages of pregnancy she had to go to Bethlehem, and her son was born in a cave, a common cattle stall.  We don’t know exactly how much Mary knew at this time about the path of suffering that lay ahead of her son, but you remember what Simeon told Mary later  in Luke 2:34-35:

“And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”  No doubt that sword of sorrow did pierce Mary’s heart when she saw her son crucified, having to suffer the way that he did.  Yes, she could have said named him “son of my sorrow.”

Here we have a message for those who are empty, for those who have found that the things of this world do not satisfy and leave them with that hollow feeling: Come to the house of bread, partake of the bread of life.  Only then will you be full and satisfied.

            But God, his Father, would have been like Jacob and named him Benjamin, son of my right hand, for truly he was the son of God’s right hand.  From eternity past, and throughout eternity future, our Lord Jesus Christ will have the honor and privilege of being seated at the right hand of the Father.  During our Lord’s trial, just before he went to the cross, the council asked him if he was the Christ.  He replied, “Hereafter shall the Son of man sit on the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69).  He would, in a few moments, be the son of sorrow, suffering on a cross, but not long afterward he would be the son of God’s right hand.  As the apostle Peter put it on the day of Pentecost:   “Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Until I make thy foes thy footstool.  Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:33-36). During the days of his earthly ministry, he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  As God, as the second person of the blessed Holy Trinity, he is Benjamin, the son of God’s right hand, clothed with majesty and power to reign forever and ever.   So, Bethlehem was a town where joy and sorrow were mingled.  How appropriate that our Lord was born in such a place, for we live a world where joy and sorrow are experienced together throughout our lives.  Being a Christian does not exempt us from feeling great sorrows when tragedies and trials come our way.  But in the midst of all our tribulations, we have joy, because we can look to heaven and see the son of God’s right hand, sitting at the right hand of the Father, everliving to make intercession for us.  What a comfort to know that in all our sadness we can go to our Advocate, the son of God’s right hand!

            Secondly, it was appropriate that our Lord was born in Bethlehem, for it was there, not for the first time, but certainly a significant time, that Hebrew and Gentile blood united to ultimately bring forth a Savior into the world who would be the Savior of both Jews and Gentiles.  You remember that it was here in Bethlehem that Ruth and Boaz were married.  Ruth, a Gentile Moabitess, married Boaz, who was from Bethlehemjudah.   In Ruth 4:11-17 we read the account of their marriage:

And all the people that were in the gate, and the elders, said, We are witnesses. The LORD make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel: and do thou worthily in Ephratah, and be famous in Bethlehem: And let thy house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah, of the seed which the LORD shall give thee of this young woman. So Boaz took Ruth, and she was his wife: and when he went in unto her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bare a son. And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the LORD, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel. And he shall be unto thee a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age: for thy daughter in law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath born him. And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it.] And the women her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi; and they called his name Obed: he is the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Notice how it is said by the elders, “Be famous in Bethlehem.”  Of course, Boaz, Ruth, and Bethlehem are famous, for from this union of an Israelite and a Gentile Moabitess, would come Obed, Jesse, David, and eventually, the Lord Jesus Christ himself.  From this union of Israelite and Gentile came the Savior of Jew and Gentile. 

Christ was born in Bethlehem, an insignificant place as far as the rest of the world was concerned.  But these insignificant things are the very things that God decrees to exalt and magnify.

            As I just mentioned, it was in this place, Bethlehem, that David was born.  After David had killed Goliath, we have recorded this conversation between Saul and David:  And Saul said to him, “Whose son art thou, thou young man? And David answered, I am the son of thy servant Jesse the Bethlehemite” (I Samuel 17:58).  It was only fitting that Christ, since he was King of kings and Lord of lords, should be born in a place where the greatest of the kings of Israel had been born.  After all, the angel Gabriel told Mary: “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.   And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:30-33).  Jesus, born in Bethlehem, would receive the throne of his father, David, also born in Bethlehem.

            Then, we can say that the birth of Christ in Bethlehem was appropriate because of the very meaning of the word “Bethlehem.”  The word “Bethlehem” means “house of bread.”  Spurgeon said, “Ought not Jesus Christ to be born in the house of bread.  He is the bread of His people on which they feed.  Bethlehem, thou house of bread, rightly wast thou called; for there the bread of life was first handed down for men to eat.”   We read in John 6 :47-58, the account of how our Lord described himself as the bread of life:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.

Whenever we kneel here for Holy Communion today, think of Bethlehem, the house of bread, where the bread of life was born.   By eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we are preserved body and soul unto everlasting life.  How appropriate that the bread of life would be born in the house of bread!

            Here we have a message for those who are empty, for those who have found that the things of this world do not satisfy and leave them with that hollow feeling: Come to the house of bread, partake of the bread of life.  Only then will you be full and satisfied.  Those of us who are Christians have found this to be true.  Some of us have tried and tried to feed ourselves on the things of this world, but found they could not satisfy.  If you are someone who is weak and in a state of spiritual depression, nothing will revive you except gaining nourishment from the bread of heaven.  Go to Bethlehem, the house of bread.  Remember that it was there that the true bread came from heaven and was given to men.

            There is also significance to the word “Ephratah,” which was the old name for Bethlehem.  The Jews loved this name for the town so much that when it was renamed Bethlehem, they refused to drop the old name of Ephratah, as you can see in Micah 5:2, as it is called “Bethlehem Ephratah.”  The word Ephratah means “fruitfulness,” or “abundance.”  As we know, it is the will of our Lord Jesus Christ that we should bear much fruit.  We must bear the fruit of the spirit, and  we must bear the fruit of a holy life.  But we cannot bear fruit apart from our Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus said in John 15:1-8:   

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.] Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.

Our Lord Jesus was born in the place of fruitfulness for he is the true vine that gives his people the ability to be fruitful.  Had it not been for Christ coming into this world, our hearts would have produced nothing  but thorns and thistles.  But now we are like trees planted by the rivers of water, which bring forth their fruit in its season.

            Now, there is another wonderful reason why Christ was born in Bethlehem.  The prophecy in Micah said that Bethlehem was little among the thousands of Judah.  This word “thousands” refers to the villages of Judah.  The average village consisted of 1000 people, so “thousands” and “village” are the same thing.  The prophecy is stating that among the thousands, among these villages, Bethlehem was insignificant.  Even during the time of David, when Palestine was well-populated, Bethlehem was insignificant among the villages of Judah.  Why is this fact so important?  This fact shows us that once again, God is concerned with the small and the insignificant.  He is not exalting the mighty.  Christ was born in Bethlehem, an insignificant place as far as the rest of the world was concerned.  But these insignificant things are the very things that God decrees to exalt and magnify.

            According to human wisdom, the most likely place for the king of Israel to be born would have been Jerusalem.  It would have been expected that the Messiah would have been born in a palace, or in the temple, perhaps.    Since Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for him to be born in the capital of the whole world at that time, Rome?  Wouldn’t it have been better for him to have been born there with all the pomp and ceremony of a royal birth, where the news of his arrival could have traveled all around the world with the stamp of an official proclamation?  Couldn’t God have waited until the present time to have sent his son?  He could have been born in Washington D. C., or New York City, and satellites, cell phones, and the internet would have instantly flashed the news of his birth around the world in a matter of seconds.    But no, he was born in the insignificant place—Bethlehem; not a capital city or even a prominent village.  Bethlehem, the least among the villages of Judah. 

            I know what it is like to come from one of these small, insignificant places.  Whenever people ask me where I am from, the next question is always, “Where is that?”  It is a strange thing that people who come from small, insignificant places, have a tendency to think of themselves as small and insignificant.

Isn’t this a word of encouragement for the most insignificant of people?  Some of us feel just like Bethlehem–insignificant, small, unimportant, as far as the world is concerned.  But it was to poor, insignificant Bethlehem that our Lord came, and forever, the name of Bethlehem has become glorious.  Our Lord has always come to the poor and forgotten, and no matter small and unimportant you may be, Christ does not hesitate to come to such.  As a matter of fact, that is the only kind of people to whom he does come.  Christ does not come to the proud, the rich, and the mighty in spirit.  He comes only to the humble, the broken-hearted, the poor in spirit.  As St. Paul put it, in I Cor. 1:26-29:

For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.

This is also a word of encouragement to our small church.  We may be few in number, but God often uses the small and powerless to accomplish great things.  In this way, God receives all of the glory, for it could never be said that our church accomplished great things because we were numerous and well-respected in the eyes of the world.  God uses the least to achieve the greatest.

            So, if you feel small and insignificant in the eyes of God, and feel as though God could not use someone as worthless and unimportant as you, take heart.  You are the very kind the King of kings and Lord of lords uses.  Here in Bethlehem, he came to the least of the thousands of Judah.  He always comes to those who see themselves as the least.   In Isaiah57:15, we read, “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”

As we enter the Advent season, we celebrate the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This is a time of preparation, as we contemplate the first coming of our Lord and look forward to  his second coming.    But let us ask ourselves the question:  To whom does he come?  He comes to the least, the smallest, the most insignificant.  Take that posture during this Advent season.  Be humble, contrite, and this ruler who comes to shepherd his people will come to you, just as he came to Bethlehem.

Amen

 For an audio version of the sermon being preached, as well as a text html version, go to our web site’s address at:

 St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church
www.stpaulsbr.org

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