Micah doesn’t like being a minor prophet. He hates the designation, has a size complex, wishes he were earlier in the Old Testament, rubbing shoulders with the big boys, Isaiah and Jeremiah, the ones who wrote so much that people are convinced they were three or four guys, Isaiah and sons incorporated or something. But instead, Micah has to hang out with Obadiah and Nahum and Habakkuk and that goofball Jonah; no wonder no one takes him seriously. It’s just seven short chapters with verse counts in the teens instead of the twenties or thirties like those other guys. It’s not that he didn’t have anything to say; it’s just that he got to the point. He didn’t like beating around the bush, hinting at his subject. He just told it like it is. “The Lord’s coming and the mountains will melt.” He said, “the valleys will burst open like wax near the fire, like waters poured down a steep place” (Micah 1:4). A steep place? Best you can do, Micah? Yeah, well, the mountains melted, remember?! That’s just chapter one. It goes downhill from there (pardon the pun).
And it’s not that he’s just an old curmudgeon either. He’s got one of those beautiful images, beating swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. Beautiful, but wait, wasn’t that from Isaiah? Micah swears under his breath, stole it from me, he mumbles. And Isaiah left out the part about sitting under the vines and the fig trees and no one will make them afraid. But no, everyone thinks it was that fancy-schmancy Isaiah who’s the real poet, the real songwriter, instead of him. Micah wishes someone had invented plagiarism during his time.
Then maybe he’d get credit for remembering that Bethlehem had two names. He blamed that preacher, Philips Brooks, who couldn’t get the full name to fit in the song so just dropped off the Eprathah part. But at least he got the little town part right. O little town of Bethlehem Eprathah. It could have worked. Then everyone wouldn’t snicker at Micah, who they think got it wrong. But no, it was real. Oh, some think Eprathah referred to the region, that’s why the translators wrote “Bethlehem of Eprathah.” But it was definitely, Micah mutters, the name of the town. The little town. The minor town. The good for nothing much kind of town, like a prophet stuck away in the back of the Old Testament. And yet, God can use you. Even you. Bethlehem – which everyone knows is translated as house of bread. But did you know it was sometimes translated as house of war? It’s like there’s a choice to be made: feed or kill; tend or destroy. And Eprathah translates as fruitful. Sometimes, however, it meant barren or worthless. The little town of worthless war or the little town of fruitful bread. Think about that, will ya! Isaiah won’t tell you that, will he? No indeed. Isaiah won’t tell you that the one who comes will stand strong like one who is going to war, but instead will feed his flock like a shepherd. He’ll be more concerned with fruitfulness than with the emptiness of death and killing. And through him, we’ll know peace and will sit secure.
And because of that security, because of trusting in that peace, even in warlike times, even in unsettled times, being fed the bread of fruitfulness, we can do amazing things, incredible things, unimaginable things – like saying yes to a fruitfulness almost incomprehensible in our world. (Like when an angel appears in your living room and asks if you’d be willing to give birth to God.)
Now that, smiles Micah to himself, is something for us little ones, us minor ones to celebrate. God chooses a no place like Bethlehem Eprathah to be a significant someplace. God chooses a nobody to be a significant somebody whom the whole world knows. A young woman, a little girl really, from a backwater town like B-E. Mary is her name. Even her name is common. How many Marys do you know? Thousands. It’s not a fancy name like Cleopatra or Jezebel; just plain old Mary. Ordinary young Mary. Except she isn’t. Ordinary or plain. She is as beautiful as all of creation. She is as exceptional as is each person made in God’s image. And Mary is made even more exceptional, even more beautiful by her obedience to the invitation from God. Her acceptance of the gift and the calling and the joy that is planted deep within her. And so she runs through the hill country, the region of Eprathah, the place of fruitfulness because she is a part of the fruitfulness of God. She runs to share the joy. She runs to be in relationship. She runs. “In those days Mary set out and went with haste . . .” (Luke 1:39).
“Blessed is the fruit,” says Elizabeth, from her own fecundity. She who was called barren, worthless; that’s what the angelic visitor told Mary. That’s how the angel described Elizabeth. Eprathah. Fruitful and barren, opposites contained in one place, one being. Elizabeth, like Mary, is one of the beautiful ones, one of the exceptional ones who said yes, who said, “thank God,” who said, “let this joy be to me.” No wonder Mary ran to be with Elizabeth. Luke says she stayed there three months. Three months! Long enough to see the impossible birth come to be possible. Long enough to hear the naming. Long enough to feel the blessing. Long enough to breathe the fruitfulness of God.
Do we sometimes give up too soon? Despair too soon? Feel inadequate, insignificant too long? Are we unable to wait for blessing, for fruitfulness? And you, O Bethlehem Eprathah, one of the little clans, one of the nothing places, where the bypass passes by and the vibrancy wanes and the lights dim to shine on other towns far away. And you, O little person of your place who feels like life has passed you by and like no one knows or cares if you even are. From you shall come . . . what? Something. Something beautiful, something exceptional. Maybe it already has taken root within you; maybe it is bursting forth from you even now. Maybe it is a love that shines like a star that draws someone from a far place. Maybe it is a grace that blesses those around you in ways that just might surprise you if you stopped long enough to see. Maybe it is a wisdom that someone longs for, someone needs to work around an obstacle in his/her life. Maybe it is a friendship that saves, literally saves, a life. What’s within you that makes the children of God leap for joy upon hearing your voice? What are you giving birth to even now as you make your way in the world today?
The all-too-human tragedy is feeling that we are worthless, we are barren, when God has placed within us a fruitfulness that would stagger our own imagination, let alone the imaginations of those around us – especially those who thought us small, insignificant. The call of the prophets prefigures the call of the one who comes to love us with a fierce and frightening passion, a transforming presence and healing grace. The prophets rage because they carry the wounds of a hurting world almost as profoundly as the one who felt the sharp tips of the straw in a manger as harshly as the nails on a cross.
Micah stirs from under his fig tree and wipes away a non-existent tear from his eye, one he’ll gruffly deny ever shedding, even as he straightens his mantle and shuffles off to see what Obadiah and Nahum are up to. He’ll let Habakkuk deal the next hand and pray that Jonah doesn’t serve sushi again. Maybe it’s not so bad being a minor prophet. When you’re not wrapped up in so much editing, there’s time to hope. And maybe this time, he can get the gang to sing his rewrite of “O Little Town.” Merry Christmas, he smiles to himself and to the world he still loves.