House Of Bread
Someone once accused me of having a rural mentality. I can't imagine why, because I grew up in the city of Noxapater, Mississippi, population five hundred. I lived on Commerce Street right next door to City Hall. You can't get more up town than that.
And we were one of the prominent families of our city. As a matter of fact, at one time, our telephone number was #1, but no one ever used our number because our telephone system worked like this:
My father would pick up the receiver, turn the crank to get the operator, and say, "Mrs. Triplett, ring me Mamma." She would get my Grandmother Boswell on the phone. Then my mother would pick up the receiver, turn the crank, and say, "Mrs. Triplett, ring me Mamma." And, knowing she meant my Grandmother Caperton, she would say, "Pauline, Miss Neppie is not at home right now. She's over at Cora Barnes' stringing beans, I'll ring her over there."
I remember as a small boy climbing up in a chair to reach the phone, picking up the receiver, and turning the crank. I heard a voice that said, "number please." I did not know what to say because I had no idea that numbers had anything to do with making a phone call. I hesitated not knowing what to say. There was a second or two of static and then the voice of Mrs. Tripplett roared, "Ronnie Boswell, you get off that telephone." I must have been eight years old before you could convince me that that woman did not live in the box on our wall.
There are some wonderful and incredible things that happen in small towns, and I want to speak for a few minutes about one of the small towns of the Bible.
In 1994, I was traveling in Israel with my uncle's family. One afternoon, we stopped at a bakery to buy bread for the evening meal. Behind the counter in the bakery were two large ovens. I watched the baker take a tray on which there were lumps of dough for one of the ovens. I fully expected him to open the door and place the tray on a rack inside.
But when he opened the oven door, there were no racks inside. He began to do a most unusual thing. He took each lump of dough and threw it against the side of the hot oven where it stuck. I was told that they would know when the bread was done when they heard it falling off the side of the oven wall.
I thought, "What a strange way to bake bread!"
We made our purchases, and I stepped out the door of the bakery to look on another amazing site. I was looking out on a valley with patches of winter grass—the kind of fields in which shepherds might have kept watch over their flocks by night. And on the hill to my right stood the Church of the Nativity.
There, surrounded by the aroma of fresh baked bread, I remembered that I was in Bethlehem; that name in the Hebrew language means, "house of bread."
The memory of that moment has caused me to go back through the Bible to recall other incredible events that took place in that small and almost forgotten place.
When the Bible first pauses near Bethlehem, a man and his wife are on a journey. The woman is expecting a child, and, indeed, she gives birth to a son, perhaps in one of the nearby caves that are sometimes used as stables. But the couple is not Joseph and Mary as we might expect. Rather, it is Jacob and Rachel who journey there, and the birth of the child is not good news of great joy, for Rachel dies in giving birth to the child.
Her last request of her husband was to name the child, Ben Oni, which means "son of my sorrow." Now you would think that Jacob, whose love for Rachel is renown, would gladly be obedient to the voice of his dying wife. But, things happen differently than we expect in Bethlehem and Jacob seems to heed a greater voice when he says, call the boy, Benjamin, which means, "my right hand." In the love and mercy of God a little boy does not have to grow up thinking he is someone's sorrow, but rather that he is his father's right hand man.
They do bread differently in Bethlehem.
Then there was the day that the old widow Naomi limped back into town from Moab, only to be added to the welfare rolls of the county. What's more, she brought an illegal alien with her, her widowed daughter-in-law, who would also require public assistance. What good could ever come of the two of them. But unexpected things happen in Bethlehem and that old woman cooks up schemes that only God could have devised and her foreign daughter-in-law ends up marrying the richest man in town, and they have a son who has a son who has a son who became the greatest King Israel ever had.
They do bread differently in Bethlehem.
Then there was the day old Samuel snuck into town to anoint a King of a country that already had a King. He goes over to the house of Jesse where all but one of Jesse's boys are lined up for inspection. Samuel sees the oldest who looks so regal and fine. He lifts his oil skin to do his anointing when God stops him and says, "Wait a minute Samuel, we do things differently in Bethlehem. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart." And old Samuel goes down the line until he runs out of Jessesons, and someone happens to remember that little David is out tending the sheep. They go get him, and God says to Samuel, "he's the one." The one you'd least expect. Now get on with your anointing.
They do bread differently in Bethlehem.
Before changing testaments, the Bible pauses with the prophet Micah in that house of bread to pass on a precious promise to the Christian heart. We are too attached to Jesus to believe other than that Micah is talking about the coming Savior. But he was also talking about the need for a Savior in his own day. The northern Kingdom of Israel had been taken away to captivity, and the land of Judah was just one more siege away from devastation. And worse than the political situation, was the moral corruption in society. Thousands thought that there was no hope. But Micah's message was different.
"But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting" (Micah 5:2).
We usually interpret these words to mean that the little town of Bethlehem was so small and insignificant that it had missed most maps of Judea. I know what it is like to call a place like that home. The Bethlehems and Noxapaters are not found on the atlases that guide the masses of the world. They are found on only the most detailed of maps. But, I hardly think that being able to name one of the thousands of villages in Judea gave Micah much concern.
The great tragedy, to the mind of Micah was not that Bethlehem had missed the geographical maps that guided travelers, but that it had ceased being listed on the spiritual maps that guided the people of God. It was not the thousands of unforgotten villages that Micah mourned, but that the saving acts of God that happened at Bethlehem had been forgotten by thousands of people in Judah. They had forgotten what God had done in wonderful and powerful ways and the faith to be found in the house of bread. Bethlehem was little in their minds because they had forgotten the God of Bethlehem who does things so differently than we expect and expects things so differently than we imagine.
Never was that difference so evident as on the night God sent hisonly begotten Son into the world—to, of all places, that same little town in Judea—the house of bread. God sent him, not to the palaces of kings but to a manger in a stable in a forgotten town. It was there, God chose peasants, not potentates, to be his parents. There, God lifted the hearts of lowly shepherds on a hillside by the voices of a heavenly host, and there men of wealth and wisdom bowed down in the muck of a stable before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords…. It was there that God offered salvation, not to the righteous, but to the repentant. There in the little town of Bethlehem.
They do bread differently there.
There are those today who might belittle Bethlehem, but not so for believers. For us, this house of bread offers nourishment for our souls. Like the boy, Benjamin, we find our acceptance and affirmation as individuals as we experience a new life in relationship with Christ. Like Naomi and Ruth, we find our place in God's redemptive purposes for the world as God directs our life's journeys in feast and famine—sorrow and joy. We find ourselves chosen, as David was chosen, by this God who looks beyond the outward appearance for meaningful places of service that seem impossible. And, in the direst straits of sin or circumstance, God hears our call, and sends the Son to redeem us in ways that are truly remarkable. The Bethlehem of faith is yet regarded as small and insignificant among the tribes of this world who prefer their own way of baking bread—their own way of doing life. But we are pleased to dwell in this house, for it is here, and here alone, that we feed on the bread of life done so differently than we ever expect.
I want to suggest to you that, when it comes to faith, we all have rural mentalities. We are all from places and experiences that the world considers to be small and insignificant. But each of us called Christians can go back in our memories to our times and places where God has done things differently than we, or anyone else might ever have expected.
For me it was when God invited a seven-year-old boy to a personal relationship, and called a seventeen year old to preach, and comforted a twenty-seven year old at the death of his father.
These are our Bethlehems. They may be spurned or scorned by the society in which we live. Yet, it is in just such places that, by faith, we renew our strength and courage for the challenges that life brings each day. This is our house of bread. So little in the minds of many, but for us, the birthplace of our salvation. The place where we do bread differently.
Let us pray.
Take us back, dear God, to our own little villages of faith, our forgotten Bethlehems, where you have touched our lives in different and unexpected ways. And let us draw courage and strength and wisdom for the challenges of today.
Calvary Baptist Church