Fourth Sunday in Advent: Mic. 5:2-5a, Heb. 10:5-10, Mt 2:1-12
How could the chief priests and scribes know that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem and still reject Jesus? How could Herod so dramatically misunderstand the mission of Jesus? We commonly describe the answer as sin and pride, but what is it more specifically that allows people to know Scripture that well and miss God standing right in front of them (e.g. Jn. 5:39)?
Notice that Micah’s prophecy is not exactly explicit. Bethlehem is clearly named as one of the small clans of Judah (Mic. 5:2). But it has some historical significance, being the home of Boaz and David (Ruth, 1 Sam. 16:1). So it might be understood as a poetic way of describing the Davidic royal line. The prophecy then addresses a woman in labor (Mic. 5:3), but who exactly is in labor? Other prophecies describe Israel as a nation in labor (e.g. Is. 13:8), and Micah has already described Israel going into exile like a woman in labor (Mic. 4:10). It sounds like Micah is continuing that image in exile as though the birth is the return to land (Mic. 5:3). The description of a shepherd who stands and feeds the flock is a rich Hebrew image for kings – again think of David in particular (cf. Ps. 23, 80). The prophecy continues by picturing this great Davidic shepherd conquering Assyria and Babylon (Mic. 5:5-6). What all of this underlines is the fact that when the wise men from the east showed up in Jerusalem, it is pretty astounding that the Jews understood this to be a prophecy of the birth of the “king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:4-8). They had studied this carefully. Why didn’t the Jews go with the wise men immediately? Or even if they only found out later, why wasn’t it a clincher? We sometimes think that if we had lived then we would have recognized Jesus, but it’s clearly not that simple.
Jesus says that the Jews didn’t recognize Him because they did not have the love of God within them (Jn. 5:42). He explains that this is tied to glory: they received glory from one another and did not seek the glory that comes from God (Jn. 5:44). This can seem sort of esoteric, but it actually isn’t much different than the way things work today. Everyone lives by a story that tries to make sense of the world and our experiences. We call this a “worldview,” a mental/spiritual framework that consciously and unconsciously helps us interpret what’s happening around us. And worldviews are stories of glory. For the Jews, a big part of their story was the intense persecution they had faced in the centuries just prior to the arrival of Jesus. Not only had they been conquered and driven into exile, but even after they returned to the land, they were repeatedly harassed and oppressed by the nations around them. Under Antiochus Epiphanes in the mid-2nd century B.C. it became law that “all should give up their particular customs” (1 Macc. 1:42). This meant that the Jews were commanded to sacrifice to the Greek gods, profane the Sabbath and feasts, eat unclean food, cease circumcision, and openly profane the holy covenant. Copies of the Torah were confiscated and torn to pieces and burned, and mothers who had their sons circumcised were put to death with their infants hung from their necks (1 Macc. 1:56-61). It was under these circumstances that a man named Mattathias and his five sons revolted. His son Judas became known as “Maccabeus” from the Hebrew word for “hammer” for his military exploits that culminated in the retaking and rededication of the temple celebrated in the feast of Hanukkah (1 Macc. 4:36-59). Nietzsche said that the “Jews are the most remarkable people in the history of the world for when they were confronted with the question, to be or not to be, they chose, with perfectly unearthly deliberation, to be at any price…” (The Anti-Christ, 24). While Nietzsche had a great deal of disdain for the Jewish religion, he had a great deal of admiration for any people who found their identities in their courage to survive, in their will to power. And this dichotomy between the strong and the weak that Nietzsche sees running through human history relates back to the glory theme. Every worldview is a story of glory; it explains where glory comes from and how to get it. What Nietzsche noticed and history bears out is that most people tend to derive their glory from their endurance of hardships, their overcoming of obstacles, their strength in weakness. What was the glory of the Jews? It was their courage and endurance and tenacity as a nation. This is the “glory” they gave to one another. And Jesus says that’s why they couldn’t recognize Him. He didn’t honor their heritage, their identifying marks of their courage and glory.
From Days of Eternity
In the early church, Micah’s prophecy became one of the rallying calls for people like Athanasius who noticed that the prophecy of Jesus said that his “coming forth is from of old and from ancient days” (Mic. 5:2). Literally, that last phrase is “from days of eternity.” So the fathers pointed to this passage as an explicit defense that Jesus did not begin to exist when He was born in Bethlehem, but rather He had existed from of old and from eternity as God. This doctrine of the incarnation, that the eternal Son of God took flesh and became a true man, highlights God’s great humility and love. God humbled himself and became a man like us (Phil. 2:7), and He took a body in order to offer that body as the perfect sacrifice for sin, once for all (Heb. 10:10). But this also highlights the folly of Herod and the Jews. What arrogance it was for Herod to think He understood the way the world works. What arrogance for the Jews to think they were the guardians of God’s glory. The One whose “coming forth is from of old and from ancient days” is born of Mary. He is born to shepherd His flock (Mic. 5:4), and He can shepherd His flock however He sees fit.
What are the most defining things in your life? What is your glory? Frequently it can be some experience that has tested you, pushed you beyond what seems reasonable, and somehow you have pulled through. But be careful. Even people who “believe in God” can unconsciously embrace a worldview that has a very narrow view of how God’s glory works. If the Jews could miss Jesus, we are not immune. This is why the most defining thing for a Christian is the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is one of the ways the gospel creates freedom and unity. In Jesus, all of our identifying marks are reoriented and this unites us to one another. May you not merely think about Jesus this Christmas. May you know Him as your glory.