2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5and he shall be the one of peace.
A long time ago, people roamed and wandered throughout the land–sometimes alone, sometimes in tribes and families–but always roaming, never resting more than a short while in one place. That was before they came to us. Before they came to settle in cities, towns and villages.
I say “before they came to us” but perhaps I really should say, “before they created us.” For we, the cities, towns, and villages of the world, we are the creations of those who dwell within our walls. With their hands, my inhabitants formed my strong buildings; with their feet, they hardened my winding roads. With their laughter and their tears, their conflicts and their commerce, they gave me energy and vitality. Through their toils and their travels, they gave me a reputation and a name: I am called Beth’lehem. It means “house of bread.”
And for thousands of years, my houses provided shelter for my people; my tables provided them with bread, and I was content. I was quiet. I am a peaceful city, a passive city, a little, unimportant city. I have no desire to be like Jerusalem with her mighty kings, like Jericho with her proud walls, or like Nineveh with her crowded marketplaces. I am a peaceful city. I am content just to watch in silence…to sleep…and to watch some more.
As I have watched, I have seen many things.
I watched Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham pass near my gates so long ago. His beloved wife, Rachel, was great with child, and Jacob was happy. I watched as Rachel gave birth to a son, Benjamin, the youngest of the twelve who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. I watched as Rachel gave birth there on the outskirts of my fields, and I watched as Jacob’s happiness suddenly faltered, his wife taken from him in childbirth, too soon, too beloved. Jacob buried Rachel just over there, and I wept with him that day. Silently, from afar.
Years later, I watched as an old widow returned to me, bringing with her a young girl, also a widow. So sad were Naomi and Ruth when they came to me and dwelt within my walls. But in time, Ruth met a young man named Boaz. I watched their love for each other grow. I rejoiced with them on their wedding day, and quietly wished them many years of peace together.
I watched their son, and their grandson, and their great-grandson. A precocious little boy named David, who was born here among my people. Red hair, twinkling eyes, and a mischievous grin–how I loved that little boy, David. I watched him tend his father’s sheep; I listened to him sing and play melodies on his harp. I watched him grow strong and brave…but he never lost that mischievous grin! I watched as the prophet Samuel came one day and anointed David with oil. He said David would someday be King over all Israel. I saw David less and less after that day, though I often heard of his achievements and was proud. He came to me one more time–once when he longed for a drink of water from the city of his birth. It was good to see him again. Now they call Jerusalem the “City of David” but before he belonged to Jerusalem, he belonged to me. I miss David.
I did not know or watch David’s sons and his grandsons. They belonged to other cities. But I have watched kings and peasants pass among my buildings and peaceful homes on their way to less peaceful places. Sometimes they run. Sometimes they march.
I watched Nebuchadnezzar and his armies march through my quiet streets. He marched against Jerusalem, but stopped long enough to take the best of my children as his slaves. I did nothing to stop him…what could I do? I have no high walls, no fortified towers. I am a peaceful city. I watched him take my children…my vitality…my life. Those were dark years, but still I watched. Often I slept.
One day some of my long lost children came home. They brought with them strange languages and customs, but still they were my children, and I was happy. Their hands rebuilt my ruined buildings. Their feet renewed my abandoned streets. Their voices spoke my name, and once again I was Beth’lehem, the house of bread.
I watched the people, and I listened to the voices that called my name. One voice belonged to Micah, the prophet. He said: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel. He shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.
Micah spoke of a ruler yet to come, a ruler clothed in majesty, greatness, and peace. But those things don’t interest me much. I thought only of my simple shepherd King, David. I missed David.
For many years after that, I slept. I watched. I waited. Four hundred years passed. And then…they began to come. David’s children, from all over the land of Israel. They came to the city of David’s birth, to be gathered, to be counted. I watched them come…and come, until my houses and buildings were swollen, bursting with people.
I was happy. At least, I thought I was happy.
I saw him first, the husband leading a donkey, looking tired and excited and afraid, all at once. Then I saw his wife, riding on the donkey, so young, so obviously pregnant, and yet…so…peaceful. She smiled at him reassuringly, and I thought of Ruth and Boaz, of the love they had shared so long ago. I watched the husband and his wife closely after that, as they rode into town that afternoon.
I watched house after house turn them away. I watched the sun slip below the horizon, and I watched them pull their clothes more tightly about themselves in the cool night air. I watched his anxiety grow, and I watched her reassuring smile begin to fade. I watched her breath become shorter, and I watched her hands tremble in his, knowing that their time was running out.
I wanted to proclaim their plight loudly until someone heard and could help them. I wanted to reach out to them and guide them safely to shelter. Instead, I watched, silently. I am a peaceful, passive city. Watching is all that I do.
When they had crossed my length and my breadth, and still could find no shelter, they began to leave. I watched David’s child, leaving me again. And I thought Jacob and Rachel…of mother and child saying goodbye before they had a chance to say hello. I remembered all of my children lost to Nebuchadnezzar, of my joy at those who returned. I heard the words Micah, of the child who would come to shepherd his people again. A child. David’s child, here at my door again.
What would you do…you who watch silently today? Would you let them go? Will you leave them to the cold night and the cruelty of fate?
I am a peaceful city; I cannot rise to fight. I am a quiet city; I cannot speak out. I am the least of all cities–to whom can I turn?
God of Israel, hear my prayer tonight: Speak through me, and I will proclaim your child boldly to the world. Use me, and I will welcome him with open arms. Come, world, to Bethlehem and worship the newborn King!
A stable for his palace! A manger for his crib! We may be a small city; we may be an insignificant city…but the city of David has not lost its mischievous grin!
Come Shepherds! Come Kings! Come Choirs of Angels, singing Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth and goodwill to all!
Last of all, great God of Israel, show us the way to your son. Place your light high above our heads for all to see; put it deep within our hearts as well. Lift our eyes to heaven, and lead us home.
May the star of Bethlehem…shine bright.