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Author:Pastor Keith Davis
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Congregation:Bethel United Reformed Church
 Calgary, Alberta
 www.bethelurc.org
 
Title:O Little Town of Bethlehem
Text:Luke 2:1-7 (View)
Occasion:Christmas Day
Topic:God's Providence
 
Preached:2021-12-19
Added:2021-12-22
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Welcome and Silent Prayer

* Call to Worship

* Declaration of our Dependence upon God

* God’s Greeting

*Song of Praise: “Now with Joyful Exultation” # 95C

Reading of the Law Assurance of Pardon

Song of Response: “How Blest Is He Whose Trespass” # 32B

Congregational Prayer

* Song of Preparation: “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” # 311

Service of God’s Holy Word

Scripture Reading: Micah 5:2; Luke 2:1-5 Sermon: “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Prayer of Application

* Song of Response: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” # 323

Offering

* Benediction

* Doxology: Sing Hallelujah! Praise the LORD!” # 150C “Sing hallelujah! Praise the LORD! Praise God within his sacred courts! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Praise, praise him in his heav’nly height! Praise, praise him for his deeds of might! O praise him! O praise him! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


O Little Town of Bethlehem

Luke 2: 1-5

People called and loved by our Lord Jesus Christ, a very simple and beautiful way of describing what Christmas is all about is to say: Love Came Down at Christmas. There’s even a Christmas anthem by that same title. Jesus, God’s Son, is God’s Love Incarnate - God’s love in flesh appearing. Jesus is the physical embodiment of John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son! Love came down at Christmas.

 

Christmas demonstrates the radical, relentless love of God for his people. But I want you to notice, Jesus did not just come at Christmas. Jesus came down at Christmas. The word down is key. It isn’t so much a direction as it is a description. I say that because we tend to think of heaven as being up there somewhere – above the earth, above the universe. We tend to think that Jesus came from up there somewhere -- where God lives –to down here where we live.

 

But that’s not what the word down refers to. To say ‘Jesus came down’ describes the process or the stages of the humiliation of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The eternal, divine, almighty God humbled himself. Which is to say, Jesus the Son of God set aside the glory he had with the Father, and without changing who He was as God, without compromising or sacrificing his deity, Jesus took to himself a truly human nature. True God became true man while remaining true God.

 

And in Christ’s “coming down” it means he took on himself our humanity, Jesus took to himself all our weakness and frailty and mortality. He took on our pain and sickness and suffering. He took on our hunger, thirst, fatigue, sadness, and all the emotional and psychological anguish that comes with living life in this veil of tears, surrounded by misery, feeling the curse of sin.

 

All this -- and so much more – is contained in the idea of Jesus coming down. This is something that we must keep at the forefront of our minds when we consider the Christmas story. Certainly, when Luke wrote his account of the birth of Christ, he recognized this. Luke knew what it meant that Love came down at Christmas. It was evident as Luke tells us when Jesus was born, and in what city He was born, and to whom He was born, down to the very city and circumstances of his birth. Everything in this account reveals to us the meekness, the humility, the ‘coming down’ of Christ our Savior! This morning we are going to look at the first 5 verses of Luke 2 and consider what it means that Christ our Savior was born in Bethlehem.

  1. In the City Appointed by God
  2. In the World Ruled by God     

 

1) In the City Appointed by God

The first verse of the song O Little Town of Bethlehem goes like this: Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light; The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

 

Those lyrics describe something amazing, something miraculous, something divine happening in Bethlehem – while the city sleeps. There is an intentional, even strategic secrecy and hiddenness to the birth of Christ isn’t there. The city is wrapped in darkness and quiet – its sleeping citizens are unaware that in that very place, on that very night, the Savior of the world was born!

 

But of all places, why Bethlehem? Why not the city that lay 11 miles north, Jerusalem, the capitol city? Or, why not Rome, the heart of the empire? Remember, this was the Messiah we’re talking about! The Savior and King! Why not be born in a city fit for a king?   

 

What was so special, so significant about Bethlehem? Nothing, really. That was the whole point. Bethlehem was a small, modest, insignificant, unimportant town with a speckled past. We read about Bethlehem first in Genesis 35:16-20. That’s where Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel gave birth to their youngest son Benjamin. But that it also the place where Rachel died in child-birth.

 

Supposedly, one can still go to Bethlehem today to visit Rachel’s tomb. Who knows if it is really Rachel’s tomb, but she did indeed die there according to the Scriptures. So then from Jacob’s perspective, Bethlehem was a city of heartache. It was a city acquainted with grief and sorrow and loss. And, when you look at it from that viewpoint, it was fitting that Jesus would be born there, for as the prophet Isaiah said, Jesus our Savior was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  

And we know from what happened shortly after Christ’s birth, Bethlehem would once again be a city of sorrow and grief and sadness. The cries of grieving mothers would once again be heard in her streets as king Herod was determined to kill baby Jesus. Having been told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Herod sent soldiers to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and in the surrounding vicinity who were two years old and younger.

 

Matthew 2:18 records that tragic event and he quotes what Jeremiah the prophet foretold of that moment. The mothers of Bethlehem are the daughters of Rachel, who are weeping and mourning: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.

 

So Bethlehem was a city acquainted with grief. But there’s more to her history than that. There’s also the story of Elimelech and his wife Naomi. This was before the days when there was a king in Israel. There was a great famine in the land, so Elimelech took his wife Naomi and their two sons and they left Bethlehem for Moab.

 

But hardship and heartache only followed them to Moab. Naomi lost her husband Elimelech and her two sons while living in Moab. She returned to Bethlehem in grief and sadness -- with only her daughter-in-law Ruth in tow. She came back empty, or so she claimed.

 

But in time, God made her full once more – as God blessed Naomi through Ruth, of all people. And through her kinsman-redeemer Boaz. So in that story, Bethlehem was a place of redemption, of deliverance and grace, of unexpected kindness and favor and blessing.

 

And as God had planned it, it was through Boaz and Ruth, the Moabitess, that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of its next famous citizen. Ruth gave birth to Obed, and Obed would become the father of Jesse, and Jesse would become the father of David – and do you boys and girls know who would eventually come from the house and line of David? Joseph and Mary – but also baby Jesus.   

 

So that is how Bethlehem came to be known as the city of David. Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, and it was the city where God sent the prophet Samuel to anoint David as king. David was the youngest of the 8 sons of Jesse, a young, inexperienced shepherd boy. From the outside, he’d be the last son that Samuel would choose to be king. But God looks on the inside. God knew. And chose David.

 

So, that is a short Biblical history of the town of Bethlehem. There is more to it – but this is how Bethlehem came to be known as the city of David. And as cities go, it wasn’t much of a city. We’d call it a small farm town; a sheep town in the hill country of the region of Ephrathah. Yet, Micah foretold of the greatness of this small city: 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.

 

Jesus the Messiah, the eternal Son of God, had to be born in Bethlehem, for God had so ordained it. And yes, it is true, Bethlehem was known as the city of David. And Jesus would be of the house and line of David, born in the same city as David. But the origins of Christ – like the decrees and plans of God are of old; they are ancient and eternal – before David, before Bethlehem, before the foundations of the earth!

 

So, in that regard, we should not say that Christ was born in Bethlehem because David was born there. But rather, we should say, David was born in Bethlehem because that’s where God ordained that the Christ child would be born!   

 

And all of her history as a city, from Jacob and Rachel, down to Naomi, Ruth and Boaz and David -- it was all arranged and ordained by God. Just like God chose David – the least of the sons of Jesse, so God chose the little town of Bethlehem, the least among the clans of Judah, to be the birthplace of very Son of God. Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light; The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.  

 

2. In the World Ruled by God    

Christ our Savior was born in Bethlehem, the city appointed by God. Notice secondly, Christ our Savior was born in Bethlehem in the world ruled by God. Luke 2 begins with what appears to be historical details which surrounded the birth of the Christ child.  These are very important, and very interesting details to say the least. They tell us about the time and the world into which Jesus was born. In those days, the Roman Empire ruled the world – at least the Mediterranean world of Northern Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor and Italy and Greece and southeast Europe.

 

Caesar Augustus, who was also known as Octavian, took over as Caesar in 44 BC. It was Octavian who succeeded Julius Caesar (the man Shakespeare wrote about in his play). Julius Caesar was the Caesar who was famously assassinated on the Ideas of March, March 15, by his own Roman Senators. Octavian (the man mentioned here in Luke 2) was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar and supposedly he was the sole heir of Julius Caesar and was appointed to succeed him when he died.

 

Historians tell us that it was under Octavian’s reign that Rome’s power was consolidated and solidified – as Octavian led successful military campaigns against all those within Rome who challenged his power. This was also when the title of Emperor was first given to Caesar along with godlike status. So, those two things coincided when Caesar Augustus reigned. Rome grew in power, and the Roman Caesar became a divine, godlike emperor.

 

And as Rome grew in power it needed money to pay the bills. It costs a lot of money to rule the world. It costs a lot of money to build modern cities, to pave roads, to pay soldiers to go and fight wars and conquer more kingdoms for Rome. And the way Rome raised revenue was by taxing the nations and the people it conquered. That is what Luke is describing in verse 1-3.

 

In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And to this, Luke adds: This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. The fact that Luke is so specific, naming names and identifying which census this was, lends credence to the fact that what Luke is recording here is historical. It is factual.

 

I say that because if you look up what Wikipedia says – it points out what many text critics say, Luke’s account is erroneous. There was no record of a census at this time, and there is no documentation that Rome ever required people to return to their hometown to register for the tax.

 

I find that ironic, because here’s documentation from a historian, from someone who was there, an eyewitness. But because people are so biased against the Bible, they discount the Bible for its historical value and content as well as for its spiritual value and content – which makes them doubly ignorant and doubly lost. They not only ignore history, but they blind themselves to the salvation that God has revealed to us in His Word, the very Gospel account that Luke is recording.     

 

And so, each one of us should believe what Luke writes here – not only because Luke is a historian who is recording the facts; but also, and especially, because this is God’s Word. And God’s Word is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It contains no errors, no inconsistencies, no oversights, no misremembrances. It is inerrant and it is infallible.

 

The Bible tells us that this is the world into which Jesus was born. From a human perspective, to the untrained eye, this was Caesar’s world. The mighty hand of Caesar reached far and wide. It reached far beyond Rome. It reached all the way across the Mediterranean Sea, and it affected the lives of a young man and a young woman both living in a small town in Galilee called Nazareth.

 

That young man was named Joseph, a carpenter by trade. Joseph had a fiancé -- a simple peasant girl named Mary. Both of them were of the house and line of David, so both had to travel from Nazareth, south to Bethlehem, to the city of David. A trip of about 90 miles, or 156 kilometers. It was not an easy trip by any stretch of the imagination – it would have been difficult and dangerous under any circumstances.      

 

But it would have been especially difficult and dangerous for a woman in Mary’s present condition. As we learned from Luke 1, Mary had an interesting story to tell. She was pledged to be married to Joseph, but by the miraculous overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit, Mary conceived a child. She carried in her womb a very precious cargo: the promised Messiah; Jesus, the Son of the Most High God. And as she and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem, her ‘due date’ is very close.

 

So, this is the way Luke begins what we call “the Christmas story”. On the surface, it might seem like a tale of two powerless people caught up in political intrigue, in the midst of an evil Empire’s greedy clutches. Rome snaps its mighty fingers and the lives of puny people like Joseph and Mary are turned upside down. They are sent scrambling – traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

 

But is that really the case? Is that what is happening here? No. Boys and girls, even you know who rules the world, don’t you? God does. That was true even back when baby Jesus was born. Rome didn’t rule the world. And Caesar Augustus, the Roman king, he was not God or even a god.

 

What is really happening here is that God is setting His plans in motion. God rules the world. God is the Creator and the sovereign King over all kings and nations and that goes for Caesar as well. Caesar could only do and decree what God gave him to decree. And here in Luke 2, God is showing us, God is telling us how everything that He had planned, how everything He foretold hundreds (even thousands) of years earlier concerning the birth of the Messiah was going to take place.

 

See, Luke is not recording the history of the world. No. He is recording the history of salvation. He is recording the fulfillment of prophecy. This is what God did in the world to bring about the fulfillment of the Scriptures.

 

As we talked about in the first point -- Jesus the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem. This was the Biblical credentials and qualifications of the Messiah. So, Luke is showing how that came to pass. This is not about what Caesar did; this is not about what Caesar decreed in order to bring his plans to fruition, in order to advance his cause and build his earthly empire and kingdom.

 

No, Luke is showing us what God did. He is showing us what God decreed in order to bring His divine plans to fruition; in order to advance His cause, and to build Christ’s heavenly and eternal kingdom! So you see, Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus are not moving to Bethlehem at the whim and fancy of some cold, ruthless emperor, Caesar Augustus.

 

No! Instead, they, are being led and directed and guided by the loving hand of a sovereign God who has the salvation of all mankind on his heart. So God used Caesar’s decree to fulfill the Scriptures and to bring about the salvation of His people -- just as in earlier days God used Pharaoh’s hardheartedness to display His great power and glory to Israel and Egypt. Just as God used Cyrus, the king of Persia to authorize Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; just as God used Xerxes to deliver Esther and the Jews from the hand of wicked Haman. 

 

Here’s what one commentator said about this:  Although Caesar would never know it, he unleashed a chain of events that would turn the whole world upside down, for among the millions who had to register was a man named Joseph, with his fiancée Mary.

 

This one little family, seemingly swept up in the tide of earthly power, gave birth to a son who would rule the world. Mary’s song was starting to come true: ‘He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate’.

 

And beloved, don’t think for a moment that God has stopped ruling this world. Don’t think for a moment that God has stopped ruling and reigning over kings and Prime Ministers and Presidents.

We tend to look back at the days of Joseph and Mary and we think: those were the days of fulfillment. Those were the days when God was at work in the everyday lives of his people.

 

But don’t forget, these are also days of fulfillment. God has plans for us as well – for you and me; for His church and people in this world. God’s work, Christ’s mission in the world is not accomplished yet, otherwise Christ would have returned already and we’d be in heaven.

 

So, his work is ongoing, which means, OUR work is ongoing. And just as we see in the Christmas story -- God is pleased to use ordinary people from no name towns to fulfill His grand and glorious purposes. We don’t know where God may lead, or how God will use us. But we do know, and we must believe that God has a part, a role, for each one of us to play.

 

We also have to have faith and trust that God reigns over the whole world – over ever nation, king and circumstance. God reigns over COVID. COVID may ruin our plans, but not God’s. God uses COVID just as easily as God used Caesar. This is an invaluable comfort and assurance, come what may! Yes, Christ has come down, but remember, Christ has also gone up. The Christ child who was born in the little town of Bethlehem has been lifted up and has been exalted at the right hand of God. Right now, today, Christ reigns as King over heaven and earth and all kings and kingdoms on earth. So come what may, do not be afraid. And do not doubt the absolute power and sovereignty of God to bringing about his grace and glorious purposes. Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Pastor Keith Davis

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