O Little Town

For this year’s series of Christmas sermons, I’ve been preaching the opening chapters of the book of Matthew. One notable feature of those early chapters is Matthew’s insistence that Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy.

Multiple times, Matthew says that some event or another in Jesus’s early life “was done to fulfill what was said through the prophet.” Clearly, Matthew is writing his Gospel for the benefit of those who take the Old Testament seriously. Most likely, he is writing for a Jewish audience, seeking to convince them that Jesus of Nazareth is their promised Messiah.

One of the fulfillment passages occurs at the opening of chapter 2. There, we read of the wise men who come from the east. The appearance of some kind of astronomical phenomenon has alerted them to the birth of the Jewish king. When they arrive at Jerusalem, they ask where this king was to be born.

Interestingly, the Jewish priests and scribes know the correct answer. However, they seem far less interested in the birth of their Messiah than do these foreigners. They tell Herod that the king is to be born in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem plays a very interesting role in this passage, one that is full of irony. Both Matthew and Micah (the Old Testament passage quoted) emphasize the relative insignificance of the town. At the same time, any Jew of that day would have readily identified Bethlehem as the birthplace of Israel’s greatest king, David.

And both aspects were important to Matthew. On the one hand, he wants us to know that Jesus is of nearly trivial origins. At the same time, Matthew is connecting Jesus to David, giving us clues that He belongs to David’s royal line.

This is both a running theme of Scripture and a running theme of Jesus’s life. Throughout the Bible, God makes it clear that he is rarely seen in the lives of the powerful and influential of this world. Instead, God is working in the lives of those that the world would overlook.

And this is just what we see in Jesus’s Incarnation. He’s born in a nothing town, and grows up in an even more nothing town. His family flees persecution. He’s the son of a tradesman. He is baptized in identification with the sins of his people. His earthly ministry, though marked by signs and wonders, is never received by the powerful people in religion or government. And he often made ministry choices that drove away the crowds who were there only for the displays of the spectacular.

And ultimately, he is given a criminal’s death, seemingly under the condemnation of God.

And yet, in God’s kingdom, all this world’s values are ultimately reversed. Paul tells us that because Jesus went through this humiliation, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”