Bethlehem & Bread
Micah 5:1-4 Matthew 1:18-25 & 2:1-6
O Little Town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by….
Such peaceful imagery! But Bethlehem did not always have that reputation. Throughout the Old Testament, before the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem conjured up other images. Images of death and brutality, of famine and warfare.
- Birth & Death
The little town is first mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Jacob is traveling from Syria to his ancestral home in Palestine. When they arrive close to Bethlehem, Rachel his wife goes into labour. In Bethlehem, Benjamin is born, but it is at that birthing that Rachel dies in childbirth. She is buried on the road leading to Bethlehem. The little town of Bethlehem was a place of birth and a place of death at the very same moment. (Genesis 35:19, 48:7)
- The Dark Ages
The town of Bethlehem is not mentioned again for several hundred years. But in the dark ages of Israel’s history, described in the book of Judges, when anarchy dominated life, the town of Bethlehem resurfaces to our attention. The Book of Judges drops a phrase repeatedly to explain the times “In those days there was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And then it tells the story of a renegade Levite from Bethlehem. This Levite hires himself out as priest to the highest bidder. (17:6-9) The story is told to describe the collapse of faith in the religious leaders of the age. The priesthood was an embarrassment, religion was bankrupt, and a story about a man from Bethlehem is used to illustrate the point.
- Violence & Civil War
The Book of Judges tells another Bethlehem story. It is introduced with the same words, “In those days when there was no king in Israel, a Levite took a concubine from Bethlehem. (19:1) And because the story is so ugly it is hardly readable at a season such as this, I will not retell the story. But the story ends up with gang rape, and mutilation and civil war and the decimation of an entire tribe. Bethlehem is painted as a place of pain and evil. It is a microcosm of the nation as a whole. Bethlehem in its first one thousand years is only associated with tragedy, spiritual decline, and physical debauchery.
- The Book of Ruth
The next time the town is mentioned is in the book of Ruth. That little book begins with the fateful words, “in the days when the Judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem went away to Moab to live.”
Bethlehem was undergoing a famine. How strange. For the word Bethlehem means “The house of bread.” Bethlehem was surrounded by fields where grain was grown, which was then ground to make flour, with which to make bread. There was probably a major grindstone in the village that was used by the surrounding farms and other nearby villages, and received its name from its central significance. And in this place where bread was normally provided, there was a famine. And the family described in the book of Ruth became refugees fleeing from Bethlehem because it could not sustain life. What a sad image.
- The Turn Around
But wait. That is not the end of the story. In its beginning, it is the story of death. But in its ending it is the story of life. For the story places focus upon the birth of a child in Bethlehem to Ruth and Boaz. That child proves to be the beginning of a change of fortune for the whole nation. A baby is born in Bethlehem who will be the grandfather of King David. And Bethlehem begins to shake off its terrible past, and becomes known as the place where the Kingdom of David and the rebirth of a nation began again.
- The Birth of Christ
Then for a thousand years nothing; until another child is born. It too was a turning point. But this time not only for a village, not only for a nation, but for the entire planet.
In Bethlehem another child was born. Born into a world of Roman occupation, of terrible and cruel taxation, of violent and debauching evil. The Caesars tyrannized the world by force of arms, the Herods governed in the political arena with cruelty and greed, and the Pharisees ruled in a religion which was “always Winter but never got to Christmas.”
There was a famine, in the land, of truth and virtue and compassion. Religious leaders caused a famine of the bread that nourishes faith. The nation was on the verge of a civil war erupting all over Palestine. The whole world was a Bethlehem. “In those days there was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That is, there was no true King. Only Caesars and Herods who did not guide their subjects, but plundered them.
And then a baby is born in the village of Bethlehem. And the world begins to change.
The nights got shorter and the light stayed longer.
Faith in the few became faith in the many.
The age old hunger began to be fed with fresh bread.
Conquest turned into compassion,
and love replaced lust as the dominating force in life’s relationships.
And this is the reason as we enter the season of Advent we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ. For he is the bread of life born in Bethlehem, the house of bread.
And when, during this advent season, we take Holy Communion, we will take bread and wine, asking God to nourish our lives for the days ahead
Further Communion reflections upon Bread
- Bread: A kernel of grain dies
The bread that looks so beautiful to us, is also a symbol of suffering, if the whole truth about bread were known. Each spring kernels of grain are planted in the soil and they die. Grain for the making of our bread comes only from the death of the seeds that were sown.
Jesus referred to himself as a corn of wheat, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone. But if it die it brings forth plentifully.” And because he came and died and was buried, there has risen new life for the world. This bread is the reminder of the high cost of the new life that we have received. It is why we eat with faith and with thanksgiving.
- Bread: Stone ground flour
Bread is bit deceptive. It looks beautiful and white and fluffy. But to get bread something has taken place that is not pretty. Not only does the seed corn have to die, but bread is made from flour, which comes from grain that has been crushed and ground until it has lost its original appearance all together. In the ancient world grain was stone ground, crushed between the nether and the upper stones that made powder out of kernels of whole grain.
This bread that we eat this day is the symbol of the body of Jesus Christ that was broken for us. This bread reminds us of his suffering and death. As we eat this bread together, we are partakers and beneficiaries of his suffering. So let us eat with faith and with thanksgiving.
- Bread: From the oven
I said that bread is bit deceptive. It looks beautiful. When we receive it on the tables of our homes it is white on the inside and a beautiful golden brown on the outside. Dry as dust flour is made into a gooey mess; not very edible. But when baked in the heat of the oven it becomes wholesome and delightful food for us. But the heat of the oven was necessary for the making of the bread. The heat of the oven is not unlike the furnace of affliction that Daniel’s friends went through.
And Jesus the bread of life, became bread for us, only because he suffered on our behalf. In his death, we find life. So let us eat with faith and with thanksgiving.
- Bread: That is a divided loaf
Bread is beautiful. It tastes wonderful when fresh. But it is bread that has come from out of the death of the seed, come from the grinding of the mill, come through the heat of the oven. But it is also bread that has been divided, torn apart, sliced and diced, so that the one loaf lies before us in fragments. The whole loaf has a beauty about it. It looks too nice to slice and eat. But if it is to be food for us, the fracturing and fragmenting of it is necessary.
The broken body of our Lord was also necessary for our feeding upon him by faith in our hearts. The one who was born in Bethlehem, the house of bread, was whole in every way. But our lives are nourished only because that bread was broken. So let us eat together with faith and with thanksgiving.
- Bread: That is eaten
Bread and suffering go hand in hand. The seed dies in the ground. The grain is ground to make flour. The flour is baked in the oven to make bread. The bread is fragmented so that we may eat. That we may eat? And there is the note of suffering once more. The bread to do its true work must be devoured and taken into our bodies if it is to accomplish its purpose. And in feeding us it loses its own identity.
And when Jesus came among us, we leapt upon him and devoured him. We gnashed upon him with our teeth and our cruel words, and he died. We became consumers. But in the wonderful working of God, what we intended for evil, God intended for our good. And in the devouring of his life, we find His life within our life. And as eaters of this bread, we take to ourselves the resurrected life of the Son of God. So let us eat with faith and with thanksgiving.
- Bread: Bread that is fresh
There are few delights like homemade bread fresh from the oven. There is a flavour and a fragrance that day-old bread cannot carry. But stale bread, dried up bread, moldy bread is not only unappealing, but is positively unhealthy.
The Lord’s prayer says, “Give us this day our daily bread” It is a prayer for fresh bread for a new day. It is God’s intention to be giving us fresh bread for each day. We do not feed on mere memories this morning. God is present to give us fresh empowerment from his grace, enough to nourish our lives. So let us eat this bread this day with faith and with thanksgiving.
- Bread: Manna in the wilderness
The people of Israel had just been delivered from Egypt. But there was a wilderness between them and the land promised to them. A wilderness provides little food for wayfarers. They would all starve to death, unless God provided food for them. God did intervene and provided Manna every day of their journey through the desert. That Manna was the bread of life.
Life today can be a wilderness where there is little to be found that nourishes faith in our lives. As we eat this morsel of bread it serves as a token of the presence of God Himself who is the true solution to the deepest hunger of our lives, so let us eat with faith and thanksgiving. Amen
- Bread: Miracle in the wilderness
We know well the story of Jesus being surrounded by 5,000 people in a deserted place. It is towards evening, and the people have wandered far away from their homes. They are starting to faint with hunger. Jesus asks, “do you have any food,” and the answer is, “nothing more than a young boy’s lunch.” The crowds are seated and Jesus takes that lunch of loaves of bread and the small fish, and prays over it. Before that meal is over 5,000 people are satisfied with food left over.
During this communion service this little cube of bread is not sufficient to feed any of us. But because God is present in these moments, he can bring a satisfaction of the deepest hunger of your life through this act of eating bread together. So let us eat this bread with faith and with thanksgiving. Amen.
During the season of advent we light candles. Three are purple, one is pink & one is white.
3 purple: the color of suffering, of penitence, of sadness. For we are reminding ourselves as we prepare for the Christmas season that Christmas in not simply a fun time, but a reflective time. A time to be grateful to God and hopeful for our world and ourselves.
But one is pink, the symbol of Joy, though a solemn joy, because hope has been offered in a dark time.
And the center one is white, the symbol of the sinless Son of God, who is the light of the world.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray:
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas Angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmauel.