When the prophet Micah wrote, sometime around 750 BC, King David had been gone for nearly 250 years, and the slow decline of Israel from its glory days was about to start moving faster.
When Micah writes, the Assyrians are putting Jerusalem under prolonged siege.
And so the first reading we heard this morning is a dream of peace—a dream where those who are coming to Jerusalem from all around the world are not nations coming to make war, but rather people of all backgrounds coming to Jerusalem to worship God.
Micah writes during days when the sight of figures coming over the horizon had grown ominous, indeed, but he dreams of a different day, when figures on the horizon will be a welcome sight—weary pilgrims rather than angry warriors—nothing to be afraid of, and even cause for celebration.
The second reading gives us a look at the actual scene.
He records God’s own words, saying, “Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they shall strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek” (5:1).
There is a hunkered down quality to it—and he talks about the wall in a funny way, leaving it decidedly unclear if the people of Jerusalem are keeping the enemy walled out, or if it’s more accurate to say that the enemy has them walled in.
But here again, Micah speaks words of comfort. Surprising words, really, because he begins to speak to Bethlehem, saying, “…from you shall come forth…one is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (v. 2).
That is, help will come, the stalemate at the walls of Jerusalem will end, but surprisingly, not because the beleaguered people of the city will somehow think of something they hadn’t thought of before.
And not because they will think up some new military tactic or construct some new potent weapon of mass destruction.
The stalemate will end because God will raise up a leader from somewhere outside the walls, outside the expected channels or the obvious answers, and in that leader, the promise of God’s people that had been slowly slipping away since the days of David, will be reclaimed.
It’s not very Christmasy, is it?
And yet it’s the little passage about Bethlehem that Matthew will quote in his version of first Christmas.
You’ll remember that one.
The magi come to Jerusalem from the east and ask Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”(Matthew 2:2)
And Herod calls in every religious expert he can find in the city and asks them where the tradition says that the Messiah is to be born, and they respond, “In Bethlehem in Judea…for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel” (v. 6).
Of course, the prophet they are mostly quoting there is Micah.
And so there is something in this passage that’s worth pausing over.
The prophet’s words would have been 750 years old by the time Herod heard them—I mean, no wonder he needed his lawyers and his theologians to look them up.
The siege about which Micah wrote was long over by then. The walls of Jerusalem had been reinforced and destroyed and rebuilt and then rebuilt again.
Such antiquity, notwithstanding, Herod, as we know, was not one to take chances with prophecies, and particularly prophecies about future kings of the Jews. As the present King of the Jews, he cared immensely about such things.
That sets a whole series of things in motion for Jesus and his parents.
But I think Micah was actually making a larger point, and Herod in his literalism misses that point. And the story, in its eagerness to show Jesus as the one who had been predicted in ancient prophecy, which is its own kind of literalism, almost misses it, too.
But I think it’s very important.
Because I think what Micah was trying to say is that there is something fundamentally unpredictable about God.
Remember what Micah says. He says that rescue is not going to come from inside the walls of the city, but from outside—from some unknown figure raised up by God outside the predictable channels, and outside the parade of the usual suspects, and from outside the ones we are accustomed to look toward for answers and for help.
It’s ironic, of course, that this will become the basis of a prophecy, because it confounds the notion of predicting in such a fundamental way.
And yet what would it be like–how might our sense of Christmas be different–if what we celebrated on Christmas Day was the God whose love can strike as abruptly and powerfully and randomly as a bolt of summer lightning?
What if Christmas were more explicitly about God’s infinite capacity to surprise us?
That’s not all that far away from Christmas as we tell it.
Because after all, what is Scrooge if he’s not surprised? What is the Grinch if not surprised?
The shepherds were surprised.
Luke tells us that when they arrive at the manger, “…they spread the word concerning what they had been told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:17-18).
Even Mary, who got the word first and has been closest to it in every way all along, is said to have “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (v. 19).
This cloud of witnesses around the manger has astonished her.
These people are all surprised.
Don’t get me wrong: I look to this season to remind and reaffirm a lot for me.
I love Christmas and its traditions.
The other morning I came into the sanctuary and lit the Christmas trees myself and made a point of letting it soak in. I try to do that every year. I say “try” because believe it or not, even though I work only about 100 steps away from this spot, it can be hard to get here.
But it’s my experience that if I do, and if I give that kind of moment long enough, I’ll think of it when you need it down the line.
I’ll think of it when I’m waiting for Easter. I’ll think of it on those busy days at the end of another school year. I’ll think of it in July when the air-conditioning in my car isn’t working, and I need to drive somewhere in Friday 95 traffic.
Likewise, I look forward to visiting the inflatables on the Mead House lawn every night with the girls, who have particular cloaks they have appropriated for December. And every fall as the weather turns cooler I think to myself that it won’t be long now, and that lifts me.
Those parts of Christmas lift a lot of us.
But a little bit, I worry.
I worry that all our anticipation, all our relying on that kind of lift, can turn Christmas into a festival for a God who comes on cue.
I worry that it makes Christmas about a God who comes at the stroke of midnight on December 25th, and with all the familiar trappings: as steady and reliable and surely worth visiting as Old Faithful.
But as Micah reminds us, the wondrous thing about this God, about our God, is that God doesn’t necessarily come on cue at all.
The thing about His love is that it constantly surprises us. It catches off guard. It breaks into the world. That’s how it grabs us…how it gets our attention.
Have you ever gone downstairs in the middle of the night for a drink of water or something, or maybe to turn down the thermostat, and realized that somehow somebody left your front door wide open?
There’s a reason that the angel always has to say, “Fear not!” when it appears.
Because the love of God surprises us like that. It makes us suddenly aware of our own vulnerability. Sensitive to the vulnerability of every living thing.
It’s a little fearsome, especially at first. But quickly enough, it warms us, too. And it teaches us to look for God in the situations when and where we least expect.
That’s what Micah tells us. That’s what the Christmas story tells us.
It’s not that “God is everywhere” in some general, pleasant sort of way. It’s that God could be anywhere, at work in anyone, in a way that changes everything.
God could even be at work in you or me.
When was the last time God surprised you?
If it was not so long ago, then you know. You remember.
If it’s been awhile, or if it’s never really seemed to work like that for you, then Christmas has one message for you: hang on to your hat.
God says, “Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek. 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 old, from ancient days….And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth, and he shall be the one of peace” (Micah 5:1-2, 4-5).
May Christmas always remind us of God’s power to surprise.
With all that lifts us in these days, may we remember that it is surprise that truly gives us our wings.