Texts: Micah 4:2-3; 5:2-5b
The first carol I can ever remember singing as a child is “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” At that young age, I had never been to Bethlehem. I didn’t even know where it was, but I loved the word pictures it painted as I sang. Not until many years later did I learn that Phillips Brooks wrote this carol for children at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia after he returned from a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1865.
Even prior to the Covid pandemic, travel to Bethlehem was difficult. Just months before I came to Cove, Jennell and I joined a group of Muslims, Jews, and Christians on a trip to Israel. When she and I went to renew our passports, we learned that the State Department had assigned Gaza, the West Bank, Bethlehem a Level 2 travel advisory, asking all travelers to exercise extreme caution while in these locations, a far cry from the idyllic image of Brooks’ carol, “Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.”
If I have ever stood at the intersection of “the hopes and fears of all the years” it was in the little town of Bethlehem in 2016. I saw no shepherds and I heard no angels singing, but I did stand beside a tall and oppressive wall with armed guards stationed atop the wall. While in Bethlehem, Jennell and I met with numerous Palestinian Christians who daily, along with their Muslim kin, stood in long and arbitrary lines to cross into Jerusalem to go to work in the morning and then followed the same exhausting routine each evening on their return trip home.
When I returned from my pilgrimage, I did not write a carol set in Bethlehem, but I did bring back a creche from Bethlehem. The olive wood craftwork is beautiful. For some reason, it reminds me of a carol sung long before Brooks’ wrote his.
When the Hebrew prophet Micah sang his Magnificat, the glory days of King David were long over. The mighty Assyrians were breathing down the necks of the divided kingdoms of Israel to the north and Judah to the south. And, within the land, there was deep and systemic corruption. Leaders were seizing fields and pushing small farmers off their land. Bribes were a daily part of the market landscape and those with the least simply did not survive.
Facing insurmountable force from outside and toxic corruption inside, Micah sings of God’s coming reality when weapons of war will be melted down just like a Civil War statue in Charlottesville will soon be melted down. He sings of one who will come from Bethlehem to bring peace, real peace, lasting peace to the ends of the earth.
Micah’s song goes like this: [Read Micah 4:3; 5:2b-5]
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore . . . 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. Therefore, he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 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.
Those who first heard Micah sing must have thought him mad to put “Bethlehem” and “peace” in the same song. Long before Bethlehem was a 21st century occupied Palestinian territory or a first century locale for Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, it was an 8th century B.C.E. war zone. It was unimaginable to conceive of Bethlehem as a place of peace then or at the time of Jesus’ birth or today.
And yet, Micah sings of a new leader on the way who will anticipate what the abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker and later the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would state is true: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Micah’s song promises the day when: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (4:3) Facing a violent world far out control, Micah sings of God’s promise of peace.
Years later, when Mary learns that she is about to give birth to the hope of this violent world, she doesn’t start looking through baby books for possible names; she sings, but she does not sing a lullaby. Like Micah, Mary sings of One who is coming who will not settle for what we mislabel as peace, who will not settle for the church to be a hiding place from life where we collectively pretend that the world is okay and we are okay and life is okay, but a church that sings of God’s truth, sings of God’s mercy, sings of God’s peace.
Mary knew. Micah knew. Brooks knew. You and I know that sometimes we are called to sing God’s peace-filled future into the violent present. For several months preceding the fall of the Berlin wall, the citizens of Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church – the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas. They gathered to sing and over a two-month period their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world. Later, when someone asked an officer of the Stasi, the East German secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others, the officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”! (insights from David Lose, ...in the Meantime, Advent 4C Singing as an Act of Resistance).
A few days after 9/11, I was pastoring a congregation in Alexandria and one morning I found myself at Arlington National Cemetery. I was early for the funeral service, so I walked for a while on that awe-inspiring holy ground. As I stopped at the grave of Robert F. Kennedy, I thought back to an interview that David Frost had with RFK soon before he was shot. In that interview, Kennedy told Frost, “I think back to what Camus wrote about the fact that perhaps this world is a world in which children suffer, but we can lessen the number of suffering children, and if you do not do this, then who will do this? I'd like to feel that I'd done something to lessen that suffering.” Now, those arewords worthy to add to Micah’s Magnificat or Mary’s Magnificat or to any Magnificat.
In a few days, when the light breaks on Christmas morning, may God’s Spirit, “give us the courage to [sing of] the one who came to us as a child . . . and has been to every dark place . . . and grieves over every violent death . . . and reveals himself in the least and risks everything for the lost. May we learn from him how to be with one another, as God has promised to be with us . . . until that great day when every belly is full, [every weapon is silenced], every injustice made right, every child loved, then every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than
death . . . that the God of Love is sovereign over all the earth [and the light still shines and there is no darkness dark enough to extinguish it].” [words of a prayer by the Rev. Emily Proctor Church]
Every year on the last Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of love. It is not the candle of romantic love or sentimental love. No, it is the candle of God’s love that was sung about by an ancient prophet and was born into the world by a faithful young girl in dark, dark times. It is love that took on human flesh in the person of Jesus, as he was baptized in the Jordan, healed in Galilee, taught in the Temple, and as he cast out the most hateful and demonic within us and about us. The world has no contingency plan to stop his song. The world has no power to stop his song.
So, on this last Sunday of Advent of 2021, I give thanks for Micah’s Magnificat, for Mary’s Magnificat, for the living Magnificat born in Bethlehem, the one in whom “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met. And may God forgive me on the final Sunday of Advent of 2021 if I fail to give thanks for the mighty Magnificat you sang with generous voices and loving hearts during a dark, dark time this year when I could not sing, during tenuous times throughout the years when you have made a home for people who never felt that they would find a home in any church, much less this tiny one on the hill, during discouraging times when you rallied around members and friends in despair until they had no doubt that they were not alone.
So, if you do nothing else as we enter 2022, keep singing. Keep singing of God’s hope, God’s peace, God’s joy, God’s love, because the world has no contingency plan to stop that song, a song that was born, of all places, in the little town of Bethlehem.
Keep singing, my friends, keep singing!