Sermon: A Savior From The Crossroads Of Like
Scripture: Micah 5: 2, 4-5
Date: December 18, 2016
When I became the Superintendent in the Ashland District, one of the things I learned rather quickly was that there were a lot of towns in Northeast Kentucky that were not really on the map and so didn’t register on the GPS systems. But as I traveled from church to church, I soon learned that nearly every place where there was a crossroads had a name. Hillsboro, Goddard, Argillite and dozens more. All there was to most of these towns now was the road sign and a Methodist Church. Sometimes there were some boarded up buildings that had once been a general store or a school that had been swallowed up by the “big city” supermarkets and consolidated schools. Somehow the church had resisted such consolidation. And so at many of the crossroads there was a church that just had a handful of members who fiercely resisted any talk of consolidating with a bigger church or even the next church 1/2 mile down the road at the next named crossroads. They may drive the 10-15 miles to the city to shop and for school and nearly everything else, but their identity remained in that small church which reflected the town that was once more than just a crossroads.
Well, the story of Jesus begins in two places that were little more than named crossroads in the countryside of Israel. First there was Nazareth.A village that was so small that it is never mentioned in the Old Testament at all. We are not sure what the population was when Jesus was born. One source listed it at around 1800 people. But another source indicated that there were probably only 150-200 living there. The assumption is that it was built on the ruins of a town that had been destroyed by the Assyrians when they invaded in the 7th Century BC. But around 100 B.C., the Hasmonean Jews led the revolt against the Greeks and reestablished Jewish rule in Israel. And their strategy to protect the Temple was to build settlements in the Northern region of Galilee that had essentially lay barren for 6 centuries as a buffer against future invaders before they could reach the south and Jerusalem and the Temple. So people, pioneers, were relocated from Judah in the south to Galillee in the north. Nazareth was one of those settlements. Now, of course, they didn’t send the cream of Israel society to the settlements in the north. The first Nazarenes were probably the poorest of the poor. The outcasts. Even exiles. The expendables of Jewish Society. In Jesus’ day, the only thing that distinguished Nazareth at all was that the Romans had established their northern military outpost there. That, and the very humble origins of the original settlers, had earned the inhabitants of Nazareth a very bad reputation. They were looked on with disdain. Poor. Roman collaborators. Hated, rejected elsewhere in Israel, especially in Jerusalem and Judea. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” They asked.In fact the name “Nazarene” became the slang name given to those in society who were the hated ones, whether you were from Nazareth or not. We have hateful names like that today. And so, naturally God’s plan to send a Savior, would begin with a young woman (and women in general were of low status) who was a Nazarene, one of the outcasts, the exiles, in a named crossroads like Nazareth. What a strange way to save the world.
And then there was Bethlehem. Now through the centuries we have romanticized Bethlehem in the telling of the story of Jesus birth. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” But the truth is that Bethlehem was little more than a crossroads on the edge Wilderness of Judea when Jesus was born. The population was less than 1000. The chief occupation was Shepherding and because Shepherds themselves had a pretty poor reputation, the town itself was held in low esteem. It’s only claim to fame was to be the birth place of King David, the branch of Jesse’s tree, even though Jesse and his family were themselves lowly Shepherds. And so in God’s plan, Mary and Joseph, the outcasts of Nazareth, from the middle of nowhere made the long journey to Bethlehem (a journey which would have taken them through, or at least near Jerusalem), to another place in the middle of nowhere. Two towns that were little more than named crossroads in God’s plan to save the world.
So why Nazareth? Why Bethlehem? Of course the Gospel writers do their best to elevate the importance of these towns by placing them in the minds of the Old Testament prophets. And certainly a couple of prophets had referred to Bethlehem. The Messiah would come from the city of David. Micah even called Bethlehem by name. But despite what Matthew had said about Jesus being from Nazareth to fulfill the prophecy, there were not any prophets that had specifically named Nazareth as a part of the plan. The only connection appears to be in the prophecy of the Messiah being “hated and rejected by men” which by inference refers to Nazarenes more so than Nazareth. So if we are looking for the answer to Why these two places by finding them in Scripture, I don’t think we’ll find it there, no matter how hard we try. So let me suggest for your consideration that God sent the Messiah, conceived in Nazareth and born in Bethlehem because His plan was to bring unity to a people who were deeply (even hopelessly) divided. You see, by promising a Messiah that was in the lineage of King David, God had placed the hope of a reunited Kingdom in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. Because one of the things that they revered about David, even after all the centuries that had passed, was that he had, if only for a brief time managed to unite the Kingdom of Israel. Under David the Kingdom had been one. And there had been strength in that unity. But after David’s death, the old divisions had once again started to take hold and in just a few hundred years the promised land was once again divided into a northern and southern kingdom that were both too weak to resist foreign invaders. First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Greeks, and in Jesus day the Romans conquered both Kingdoms. And so the prophets began to point to a Messiah in the line of David who would once again unite the Kingdom. He would come from the north and ride into Jerusalem which was the capitol of the Southern Kingdom, like a conquering general, a great King. But the problem was that in recalling David as the great uniter, they had forgotten his origins. David was a shepherd boy when God called him to be king and the powerful were incredulous that God would elevate a lowly Shepherd boy to be their King. And David’s power did not come from leading a mighty army, but rather his unwavering faith in God. In fact, he arose in the midst of the failure of the mighty King Saul and his army. What the great warriors of Israel could not do, David had done with a stone and a sling shot and the power of God. But when the people looked for a Messiah in the line of David who would once again unite the Kingdom, they had forgotten the humble origins of David’s lineage. And so by sending a Messiah conceived in the obscure village of Nazareth in the north and born in the tiny crossroads town of Bethlehem in the south, God was signaling that the Messiah was indeed going to unite the Kingdom, but in a completely different way. The Messiah was going to be for all people, not just Kings and generals. And the weapon he would use to unite the people was His unwavering faith in God. The journey that Mary and Joseph made from Nazareth to Bethlehem was in a sense a journey of unification, the Messiah coming from the North but not on a great white horse, but rather, at least as the tradition goes, in a mother’s womb on a donkey’s back. It was surely a foreshadowing of the journey that the adult Jesus would make from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south, riding a donkey through the gates of the city with the outcasts, the expendables, proclaiming Him King, and then on to the cross of Calvary.Where this Nazarene – this outcast, poor, humble, even hated Messiah, this Shepherd King, expendable in the eyes of the priests in order to keep the peace – conquered evil and death once and for all – and opened the door for every one of us – rich and poor, beloved and hated, weak and powerful – to enter into God’s Kingdom. No army to unite the Kingdom. Only Himself. And a cross. And His story began among outcasts and exiles, those of no stature in earthly realms – in two insignificant, crossroads kinds of places, so that along the way, on His victory journey He could embrace us all – so no one would be left out of His Kingdom. To say to all that I am not just the Savior of the world – I am your Savior. It makes no difference if you are a Nazarene, or a lowly shepherd or a great king – I came for you. It’s the message of Christmas. It’s the message of Nazareth. And Bethlehem. What a Strange Way to Save the World.But how could it have been any other way – if it was going to include all of us as part of the plan?