Ladd was a famous dog. He was the son of a Hollywood legend. He was rich and famous and used to being pampered, fawned over and adored. One day, Ladd went down to the dog park to mingle with the average dogs. Nobody paid much attention to him. A little later, an elderly bulldog named Bubba with balding paws came along. all of the pother dogs rushed to greet him. "I don't get it!" said Ladd. "I'm a celebrity. He's an ugly old nobody! Why is everybody going ga-ga over HIM?"
A nearby retriever answered "because Bubba's our friend. He's one of us, and he cares about us, whereas you showed up and expected everything to be about you."
If you were to mention the town of Ayer in the middle of South Carolina, chances are, people wouldn't know what you were talking about. Mentioning Fontana in Germany will get you a room full of blank looks. Referencing Panzi in New Zeland won't communicate anything meaningful. Yet speak the name "Bethlehem" in any of these locations and you'll create an instant connection. This seems a little odd, since Bethlehem has a reputation for being a small, insignificant town. Our songs about Bethlehem use words such as "little", "lowly" and "still". So why is Bethlehem considered insignificant when it is so universally known?
To answer that question, let's start with a few few facts about the town, then go into depth on its history.
Bethlehem is a highland town which lies a few miles south of Jerusalem. The general region is called "Ephrathah", which means "fertile", a fact universally recognized by every nation who has controlled it, from Caanan to Rome to modern Philistia, who controls it today. "Beth" means "House of" and "Lehem" means Bread, though the Arabs living there more commonly use the name "Beit Lechem", meaning "House of Meat". Both ironically appropriate. In both Hebrew and early English, "meat" refers to any solid food. For many years, Bethlehem served as a larder for Israel and/or Judah.
The first known residents of Bethlehem were Elimelech and Naomi. Naomi is the mother-in-law of Ruth and mother-in-law-in-law of Boaz. Ruth is the grandmother of Jesse and great-grandmother of King David. However, that is not what she is famous for.
Ruth was a Moabite. Her people were enemies of the Hebrews. Socially, Ruth had about the same social standing as an unwanted stray. Yet today, Ruth is celebrated by Christian and Jew alike as a symbol of God's willingness to accept gentiles who love Him. Ruth was a relative "nobody" who became a celebrated person.
Four generations later, Samuel the prophet came to Bethlehem to annoint the successor to King Saul. The one God chose was a shepherd, the son Jesse and the youngest and smallest of all his brothers. David became not only the world's greatest king, but a legendary warrior and a musician whose songs are sung around the world to this day. He is also the father of Solomon and ancestor of the Messiah. David was a "nobody" who became a great man.
Even the town itself carried on this tradition of rising from obscurity to legendary status. The prophet Micah, as we read earlier, predicted that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah. The scholars of Herod's court knew this.
Bethlehem paints a clear picture of one aspect of Jesus' life. Today, billions recognize the authority and deity of Jesus, and even those who don't have to admit to His greatness. His churches dot the entire world. You can even see a giant Jesus overlooking Rio De Janiero. But this wasn't always so. Jesus was born into relative poverty. He was born to a carpenter and his wife. He wasn't wealthy, wasn't handsome, wasn't artistic... he wasn't even that ambitious. Nonbiblical accounts say that his parents were frustrated because he was supposed to be a king, yet he had no political aspirations. Isaiah teels us "He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him."
Why is this significant?
How many of you have heard of the song "What if God was one of us?" Well, God IS one of us. He was born as a human, lived as an ordinary man, and died just like one of us. There were several reasons He did this. First of all, He could not be our redeemer if he wasn't one of us. It was necessary for Him to represent the human race to the Father in order to perform the act of pennance which would cover all of us, and to do that, he had to actually BE a mortal man. That does not mean possessing a human body or temporarily taking on human form. To qualify as genuinely human, He had to be born and live as one.
But besides being our redeemer, Jesus is also our high priest. He speaks to God the Father on our behalf. While He has always known our concerns intellectually, living as a man has given Him the experience to truly relate to the human condition. He is uniquely suited to represent our concerns to the Father.
Jesus is also our example. He lived an exemplary life. A perfect life. By asking the question "What would Jesus do?" and then looking at His life for the answer, we have the pattern for our own. This would not be possible if He had never left the luxury of Heaven. He lived as an ordinary person so that ordinary people could follow Him.
Ironically, it is the lowly position to which Jesus descended which makes Him so great. It was an act of love for Jesus to live as He did, and it is that act of love which makes him worthy of honor, glory and praise.
So as we sing our hymns like "O little Town of Bethlehem", let's remember Bethlehem's lesson about hidden greatness and the loving nature of Jesus which it illustrates. And of course, as I say almost every week, if you don't have a relationship with Jesus, I hope this sermon has served to illustrate why you should. Because Jesus loves you- yes, YOU- enough to humble Himself for a lifetime to redeem your soul, represent you to the Father, and to lead you in the way of life.
Today's reading: Micah 5:1-4
5:1 Marshal your troops, O city of troops, for a siege is laid against us. They will strike Israel's ruler on the cheek with a rod.
2 "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."
3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.
4 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.