The Book of Micah, named for a prophet from Moresheth in the land of Judah, begins with prophecies of doom directed toward Israel and Judah. Because the leaders of the people “abhor justice and pervert all equity,” Micah says that “Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins” (Mic 3:9, 12). But the book also promises restoration, and the fifth chapter speaks of a shepherd-king who will come forth to rule Judah. Micah anticipates a new ruler from the little town of Bethlehem, a rural savior who is not a part of the wealthy Jerusalem establishment. “Micah accents the rapacious economic practices of the landed community that exploits the vulnerable,” notes Walter Brueggemann — landowners who violate the will of God “for economic justice in the community.”
But what is the particular significance of Bethlehem, described by Micah as “one of the little clans of Judah” (Mic 5:2). In short, it is a “thin place,” where the reality of heaven comes very close to earth. In The New York Times, writer Eric Weiner recalls the Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, “but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” A thin place is a “locale where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine.
Off the west coast of Scotland is a thin place called the Isle of Iona, settled by St. Columba in the year 563. This rugged and rocky island became the cradle of Christianity in Scotland, and a Celtic Christian community has existed there in various forms for the past 1500 years. On this rocky island, the power of God is felt in the wind that reminds of you of the story of creation, in which “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The rough water around the island makes you think of the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea (Exodus 14:5-31), and the rebirth that comes through Christian baptism. A visit to Iona puts you in touch with the elemental and the eternal.
In similar manner, the little town of Bethlehem is a thin place. Micah says: “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, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic 5:2). Bethlehem is a small place, like the rocky Isle of Iona. It is the home of David, the greatest of the kings of Israel. And it is, of course, the biblical birthplace of Jesus. Two questions appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine before Christmas one year: “Who was Jesus?” and “Why Bethlehem?” Inside the magazine, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman explored the historical truth of the early life of Jesus. He wrote that the story of the Christ-child “can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen.” Specifically, what really does happen in the lives of those who believe that the Christmas story conveys a greater truth? What really does happen when we see Bethlehem as a thin place, with very little distance between heaven and earth?
Bethlehem is a place we can experience the eternal and see God at work in the world. Ruth was a Moabite woman in Bethlehem who became the ancestor of King David. He was “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam 13:14), a person who was as flawed as any of us, but who had a passion for God. David became the ancestor of Jesus, the one who brings heaven and earth together. His “origin is from old, from ancient days” (Mic 5:2), like the rocks of the Isle of Iona. Jesus was born in a thin place where God’s activity becomes visible, where we can catch a glimpse of the divine. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!” says the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” so “God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of his heaven.”
Another truth of Bethlehem is that Jesus comes to rule with a unique kind of strength. He is “one who is to rule in Israel,” says Micah. “He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD” (Mic 5:2, 4). Jesus is a king who rules like a good shepherd, keeping his flock well-fed and secure. Coming from Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” he nourishes us with his teachings, his example, and his gifts of forgiveness and new life. Bethlehem also teaches us that Jesus “shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace” (Mic 5:4-5). Jesus shall be great, but he achieves this not by being a political leader or a conquering general. Instead, Jesus is “the one of peace,” the one who continues to challenge us, in the words of Micah, to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Mic 6:8).
Bethlehem is a thin place where heaven and earth come together. Jesus enters human life in this particular spot, to show us that God is at work in the world. He reveals the kind of God we serve, and then grows up to rule over us as a man of peace, justice, kindness, and humility. This passage from Micah is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it reveals that the barrier between heaven and earth is really very thin, in the place called Bethlehem and the person named Jesus. The town whose name means “house of bread” is a fitting birthplace for Jesus, the one who is “the bread of life” (John 6:35).
1. What is a “thin place” in your life, where heaven and earth come together?
2. When you think of Bethlehem, what important images come to mind?
3. Where are the distinctive strengths of a leader who is a shepherd-king?
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