12/19/2006

Remember Bethlehem

I've been writing a post that is too long. It's an early reflection on Christmas that opens up a can of worms first, then settles down a little bit. You'll need a few minutes to read "Remember Bethlehem."

Dee Mullins, a singer who achieved no particular fame in the 60's, released an entertaining and catchy Christmas record around 1970 called 'Remember Bethlehem." It's hard to find nowadays, but the tune floats through my head every holiday season.

Remember Bethlehem.

When I think of Bethlehem I think of crowded streets, full houses and inns, animals all over the place and somewhere off the beaten path a stable or other room where the animals stayed. I see a couple with a newborn. It doesn't look exactly like the nativity scenes we see at Christmas, but it looks similar. That's how I remember Bethlehem.

But didn't the people know about Bethlehem before it was time to experience it or remember it?
Prophecy: the foretelling or prediction of what is to come.

Researching the "prophecies Jesus fulfilled" in books and the Internet yields results that claim more than 360 prophecies -- or predictions -- that have been fulfilled by Jesus. I've read in many places that Jesus had to fulfil these prophecies in order to be the anointed one or God -- or the Messiah -- or the Christ. (Messiah and Christ mean "anointed one.")

What happens when someone comes along -- a scholar or non-scholarly skeptic, and asks questions whether the prophecies and their fulfillment are legitimate?

Is it possible to have discussion about such a sensitive topic? Is it possible to think that a fulfillment like "Jesus will be the seed of a woman" that originates from Genesis 3:15 -- God's words to the serpent:

I'm declaring war between you and the Woman, between your offspring and hers. He'll wound your head, you'll wound his heel."

Doesn't really relate to the words of the Apostle Paul when he writes in Galatians 4:4:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,

At most, I think it's a stretch in terms of relating to Jesus at all.

How about the groans David in agony -- feeling abandoned by God and seeking comfort in Psalm 22:1: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

Those words are quoted by Jesus on the cross before he died: Matthew 27:46:

And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Does Jesus quoting a Psalm in a time of terrible anguish make it into a prophecy? Is it OK to discuss questions like this?

If it is, is it OK to discuss things that are even more difficult? How about Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

In some Bible translations the phrase "Young woman" is translated "Virgin." In Matthew 1:23 the Isaiah passage is quoted -- saying: Matthew 1:23:

"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

Is it possible to question whether the writer of Matthew misunderstood the Isaiah passage? Is it possible that the Isaiah passage doesn't talk about a virgin -- but rather a young woman giving birth to one who would change things forever? Do you remember a verse I quoted earlier from Galatians?
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,

Is it possible that Paul had no interest or knowledge of Jesus being born of a virgin? Is it possible that Paul thought Jesus birth was pretty ordinary?

Discussions about prophecies can be dangerous -- especially in church. This morning's scripture reading from Micah 5:2-5 is another prophetic text that could be dangerous to discuss. In it we find "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."
When we see this verse quoted prophetically in Matthew 2 (by the Magi from Persia -- followers of another religion entirely. . . more about them on January 7!) it says this -- Matthew 2:6: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

Bible Scholars have debated this one for a long time. They wonder if the Magi misunderstood what was going on. (Or the writer of Matthew misunderstood or simply misquoted) Some say that Bethlehem of Ephrathah refers to a person instead of a town. Others say that saying Bethlehem of Ephrathah distinguishes the Bethlehem in Judah (the southern part of a once unified, but at the time divided Israel) instead of the Bethlehem in the North. Others would say that it could be both and that this prophecy -- and many others relating to Jesus -- had a fulfillment before Jesus and with Jesus.

We could spend a long time studying and debating and seeking what these verses really mean and what they really meant and we'd probably still end up the way Bible scholars end up -- with unanswered yet discussible questions.

What happens when we question what people have written? What happens when we question the way people have understood the Bible and prophecy for a long, long time? Is it time to circle the wagons and protect what must be protected or is it time to fight to protect what must be protected?

Is it possible that sometimes the words become more sacred than the truth? Is it possible that sometimes the desire to get to the truth becomes more sacred than the truth?

Soon we'll arive at Christmas -- the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus -- the anointed one of God. We'll read the Christmas story from the Bible. We'll open presents. We'll share the joy of family and the love of all who are around us. I don't think we'll be debating prophecy or Biblical interpretation or whether it's OK to ask hard questions.

Here's what John Thomas, President of the United Church of Christ said in his 2006 Christmas address to the church:
If Christmas teaches us anything, it is that the world is redeemed not by our moral certainties, our ideological truths, or even our steadfast claims for justice. It is redeemed by the power and the moral beauty of forgiveness revealed in the Manger.

To that I'd like to add

Christmas, the day and the time to celebrate the coming of the Christ child, teaches us to remember, to celebrate and to anticipate the two greatest commandments. Love God -- and love one another.

But you already knew about that.

2 comments:

KJV said...

Thank you!...God Bless

Kirk said...

Right back atcha James!