A couple weeks ago Sue and I watched a very inspiring movie that we both enjoyed thoroughly entitled "Freedom Writers," and, like most inspiring films, it’s based on a true story. In the movie Hillary Swank plays a young teacher named Erin Gruwell whose first teaching job is at Wilson High School in Los Angeles. She is given the difficult task of teaching freshman English to a class full of very troubled teens. But, the word "troubled" is an understatement because the world these kids are living in is a nightmare.
You see, they live in communities that are still boiling with anger from the effects of the Rodney King riots. Drugs and gun battles, fueled by gang violence, are an every day occurrence. In fact, all of Mrs. Gruwell’s students have lost friends or family members in gang warfare. Plus, most of them have criminal records themselves. And on the first day of class, Mrs. Gruwell’s idealistic hopes of making a difference as a teacher are almost crushed. This "crushing" begins when she learns that her students do not come to class on their own, but rather have to be forced to do so every day by campus security. And the minute they reluctantly come through the door they group themselves according to gang affiliation, scooting their desks into circles, as if they were cowboys circling the wagons to repel an Indian attack.
Mrs. Gruwell scans her room and she sees groups of Asian teens, groups of Hispanic teens, groups of African American teens, etc.–each group glaring hatefully at the other groups. Tension is high, fights in class are common place, none of her students do their work, and Mrs. Gruwell almost gives up; and the straw that almost breaks the camel’s back is her discovery that the school administration has written these kids off as being hopeless and unteachable. They are even unwilling to provide any books for fear the kids will destroy them.
Well, as I said, this young idealistic teacher almost gives up, but her compassion for her students compels her to find a way to reach them–and she does. One day she tells them about a chapter of history in which there was a gang that did incredible evil, referring to the Nazi’s and what that "gang" did to the Jews in WWII. This particular "gang story" gets her student’s attention, and they want to hear more so they agree to read books from that period of history including The Diary of Ann Frank, which Mrs. Gruwell pays for out of her own pocket. They ALL read this book and are fascinated about the family that hid Ann Frank and her family from the Nazis.
Mrs. Gruwell uses their interest to motivate them to learn more, and they do. Soon her class, that meets in room 203, soon it becomes a haven for these kids. Battle lines are erased as the teens realize how VERY much they have in common. Friendships develop and camaraderie builds as they all begin to experience the thrill of learning. In fact, they all accept Mrs. Gruwell’s challenge to keep a personal journal, and she is humbled as they give her permission to read their first-hand accounts of how difficult their lives in that part of L.A. really are. It breaks her heart to read about all the hardship and heartbreak and out-and-out terror that those kids endure every single day.
As I said, it’s a great film, and Sue and I were both moved by this true story of how a brave teacher could make a difference in the lives of teens who faced hardship and injustice. In fact I want to show you my favorite clip. This scene takes place the first day of Mrs. Gruwell’s second year of teaching. Let me set it up for you. The teens are happy to be back in her class after summer break, which shows you how much they had come to value her teaching How many teens do you know who can’t wait for summer to end so they can go back to English class? Plus, remember security used to have to FORCE them to go! On this first day of the school year she challenges them to make some goals in the form of a toast to a new beginning, and one of her kids takes that opportunity to read from his journal. Now, I warn you, get the hanky’s out. What this young man has to say is very moving.
[CLIP FROM FREEDOM WRITERS 1:09:55 to 1:14:48]
Now, I’ll admit I was bawling at this point; I felt so bad for this kid whose summer was spent not lounging at the beach, but cringing in his room in fear of eviction. My heart broke for this young man whose only real HOME was room 203 at Wilson High. I thought, "That is just not RIGHT! Teenagers should be worried about acne or how to get a date for homecoming or making the football team…not the sound of a Sheriff knocking on the door to enforce a court order to kick them out on the street."
And you know, I bet many of you shed an INDIGNANT tear or two this morning as you watched this clip, because we all know that it’s not right for school administrations to give up on kids like that. In our gut we have this conviction that things like this shouldn’t happen to children.
Okay, let me ask you, where does this CONVICTION come from? Why do we have this instinctive awareness or feeling that this kind of thing is wrong? Where do we get our opinion that this is unjust? Well, according to texts like Isaiah 51:7, we know what is wrong and what is right because God has written His law on our hearts. In other words, spotting injustice is part of the programming that our holy and JUST God has given us. Theologian N. T. Wright puts it this way, "A sense of justice comes with the kit of being human." And if you doubt this, I challenge you to pick up a copy of any newspaper, whether it leans to the right or to the left. Take ten minutes and note how many articles there are that relate to humanity’s longing and aching for peace and justice. I promise you will have no trouble finding dozens of examples. This is why stories are written about murder, and child abuse, bank robberies, and drug busts, epidemics and wars. This is why things like this are considered NEWS, because we all instinctively know their presence is a bad thing. We think, "This is wrong. Someone should do something!" So we put these stories in newspapers and on TV. This is why for the next year every presidential candidate will promise to deal with these kind of things in their own way, because no matter what party they are affiliated with, they know we ALL cry out that someone has to do something, something has to be done, to deal with all the injustice in the world.
This inner voice we all hear that tells us when things aren’t right–it is the SAME VOICE we read about in the pages of the Bible–coming from God through the lips of His PROPHETS…PROPHETS who spoke out over and over again when it came to actions and attitudes they saw as being just plain wrong. As John Ortberg points out, this is why the EMOTION that most often characterizes the Prophets of Scripture is not joy or serenity, but rather ANGER. I mean, don’t the prophets of the Bible tend to strike you as being kind of CRANKY? Here’s a few examples to show you what I mean. The prophet Amos said,
"Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who oppress the poor and crush the needy!" (Amos 4:1)
"Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to Me; I cannot STAND your evil assemblies!" (Isaiah 1:13)
"Should you not know justice, you who hate good and love evil, who tear the skin from My people and the flesh from their bones, who eat My people’s flesh, strip off their skin, break their bones in pieces, chop them up like meat for the pan?" (Micah 3:1-3)
Doesn’t that sound a little CRANKY to you? Seriously, do you FEEL the anger in those words?
Abraham Heschel writes,
"The Prophet is a man who FEELS fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. Prophecy is the voice God has lent to their silent agony. God is raging in the prophet’s words."
Well, God’s prophets didn’t just angrily preach about all the injustice of the world. They didn’t just echo this inner conviction that we all have that things are out of whack on this fallen planet of ours.
No, God ALSO used these men to give us HOPE. Over the centuries He used His prophets to tell humanity that a Deliverer would come, a "wrong-righter", a "Justice-Bringer" who would one day be born; and if you’ve been with us for the past few weeks, then you know that during this Advent season we’ve been studying some of these these prophecies about the Deliverer, the Messiah, Who would be born that first Christmas night–prophecies given hundreds and even thousands of years before Jesus came into the world.
This morning we come to a "Christmas B.C. text" delivered by the prophet Micah seven centuries before Jesus’ birth. It’s recorded in Micah 5:1-5. We don’t read from this particular book of the Bible that often, so don’t be embarrassed if you have trouble finding it. Follow along now as I read this portion of Micah’s prophecy.
1 – Marshal your troops, O city of troops, for a siege is laid against us. They will strike Israel’s ruler on the cheek with a rod.
2 – "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for Me One Who will be Ruler over Israel, Whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.’"
3 – Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.
4 – He will stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will live securely, for then His greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.
5 – And He will be their peace.
Now, according to the prophet Jeremiah, Micah lived in a mid-sized town called Moresheth which was located about 25 miles south of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 26:18) In our text Micah warned the Hebrew people of his day that, because of their sin, the promised land would be invaded. Pagan armies would besiege cities, including Jerusalem. Kings would be humiliated. And yes, this is the same dark and gloomy period of history that I told you about last Sunday. So, Micah wasn’t alone in speaking for God during this dark time. Isaiah, whose CHRISTMAS B.C. text we looked at last week, was his contemporary, as were Hosea and Amos.
By the way, the Hebrew word for prophet literally means "to see." And that title fits because these guys SAW things that people tend to become blind to. The truth is, there is so MUCH injustice in the world that, if we’re not careful, after a while we get used to it. So, God gave us prophets to prod us to wake up and to keep listening to our programming. Even today, thousands of years after they preached, God has preserved their messages in His Written Word to remind us to open our eyes and ears…so we don’t get so used to injustice that we become callous and indifferent.
Micah 6:8 is a perfect example of this kind of God-given REMINDER where it says, "God has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." In other words, Micah reaches across the centuries and says to you and me, "You guys have no excuse–don’t plead ignorance–because God HAS shown you what is good and what He requires. He put it in His book and He wired it into your programming so you know better!"
And we DO all know better, so we need to guard against turning a blind eye to injustice. Nothing awakens this part of our programming, nothing makes us notice injustice, like those times when we think WE are treated unfairly. When that happens we want something done! We want justice! We want to get even! Dave Hagler, a former referee and umpire shares the following in a story he wrote for The L. A. Times:
"I was driving a little too fast in the snow in Boulder, Colorado, and a policeman pulled me over and gave me a speeding ticket. I tried to talk him out of it, telling him how worried I was about insurance, what a good driver I was, and so on; but he just callously told me that, if I didn’t like it, I could go to court. The first game of the next baseball season I was umpiring behind home plate, and the first batter up was the same policeman. I recognized him. He recognized me and he sheepishly asked, ‘How did the thing with the ticket go?’ I just looked at him and said, ‘Swing at everything.’"
Like Hagler, when we feel we have been dealt with unjustly, we get ANGRY and expect something to be done to make things right again. Well, the things Micah saw in his day not only ANGERED him, but also connected him once again with all the ancient promises of a Redeemer, a Justice-Bringer. In the midst of his anger over all the BAD he saw, God whispered into Micah’s ear and said, "Remember, Micah, Someone is coming Who will make things right. The Messiah is coming, Micah, and He will bring My peace to this fallen, fearful world."
Well, Micah responded to God’s whispers in chapter 4 verse 3. He said the coming Redeemer would be Someone Who would, "…judge between many peoples and settle disputes for strong nations far and wide." Micah said a day would dawn when, under this Person’s leadership, the nations would "…beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."
Back to this morning’s Christmas B. C. text in chapter 5: what can we learn about the promised Messiah from this part of Micah’s prophecy? I want to point out two things.
(1) Micah tells us Jesus would be born in an unexpected PLACE.
In verse 2 Micah spelled out exactly WHERE Jesus would be born, an unexpected place called Bethlehem Ephrathah, and I say EXACTLY because "Ephrathah" distinguished this particular Bethlehem from other villages with the same name. So the people who heard this or read it over the centuries knew exactly WHERE the Messiah was to be born but I imagine they thought, "Bethlehem Ephrathah? Why Bethlehem Ephrathah? They don’t even have a decent hospital. It’s nothing but a village where shepherds live, the lowest of the low! Why not a big city like Jerusalem; it’s only five miles away. Or, why not a beautiful town like Capernaum located right on the Sea of Galilee? Any place but Bethlehem!"
I’m sure they would have thought this because Bethlehem was so small it hardly showed up on the map. It would be like telling people in Mississippi that the Messiah was to be born in my dad’s home town, Tomnolen. And when I say "TOWN" I am exaggerating greatly because Tomnolen is nothing but a tiny, beat-up clapboard general store on Highway 72 with one gasoline pump. It’s just a place for cotton farmers to hang out while they drink a bottle of pop on a hot summer day. Well, Bethlehem was like that–SMALL–and by the way, the words "small" or "too little" in verse 2 literally mean, "lowly, least, weak, or despised." Bethlehem was so lowly that it was not even counted among the possessions of Judah. In fact, in the division under Joshua, it was omitted altogether. (Joshua 15:1-62) But in spite of its size–a great deal of important Jewish history happened there.
- Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, died in Bethlehem giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. I’ve visited her tomb.
- It’s one of the historic sites in the Holy Land that no one disputes as being authentic. Women have come there for thousands of years and prayed that God would bless them with a son.
- Boaz redeemed Ruth from her poverty in Bethlehem.
- Perhaps most memorable, King David was born there…and now the Messiah would be born there as well.
Well, through Micah, God said this would be the place. God circled the exact spot on the map. The Deliverer, the Justice-Bringer, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Think of it this way, Micah prophesied DEFEAT would come to MIGHTY Jerusalem, but VICTORY would come through TINY Bethlehem.
God often works this way, doesn’t He?! God uses the weak…the insignificant…the unlikely. In 1st Corinthians 1:26ff Paul reminds us of this principle when he writes,
"Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him.
Can you think of some other Biblical examples of this principle? Here’s a few.
- God chose two weak and aged childless senior adults, named Abraham and Sarah to be the source from whom an entire nation would spring.
- He used a boy named Joseph sold into slavery by his jealous brothers to rule the nation of Egypt and eventually provide a food source for His people.
- God used the tiny tear of a baby named Moses to move the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter so that Israel could have a great leader to deliver them from bondage.
- God made a shepherd boy, named David, into Israel’s greatest King.
- He used twelve uneducated men to turn the world upside down.
So you see, God delights in using the "Bethlehems" of life. He uses LITTLE things in a BIG way. As Paul reminds us, His is a power that is perfectly displayed in weakness or insignificance. Well, can you see how this principle applies to you and me? That means that there is no one too small, no one too untalented, for God to use to accomplish GREAT tasks in His kingdom. As Henry Blackaby says, "If you feel weak, limited, or ordinary, then you are the best material through which God can work." I hope whenever you sing, "O LITTLE Town of Bethlehem," you’ll remember that!
So, the Messiah would be born in a place where people would never think to look. The hinge of history was to be on the door of Bethlehem–and that leads to another vital principle I want to point out. You see, the fact that God used Micah to tell the world the unexpected location of the Messiahs’ birth 700 years prior–and then moved things around so that it happened that way–tells me that my God is in control! He is SOVEREIGN! Think of it. God moved the heart of a pagan Roman emperor, who lived 1500 miles from Israel, to declare that a census had to be taken of the entire world. And not just any census; people had to travel to their family’s hometown in order to be counted. But that’s not all. Mary was close to her delivery date; so Joseph decided to bring her along on the 80-mile journey when technically he could have gone by himself. When they finally arrived, Mary is ready to give birth so Jesus is born in that unlikely place that Micah had foretold. God orchestrated this perfectly. He made sure they were in the right place at the right time. This tells us that NOTHING can thwart God’s purposes. Even when the world seems to go wild, GOD is still in total control. Look at history and you will see that nothing has been able to stop His message of love for His creation from getting out–His truth from marching on. Nothing stops God’s purposes from coming to fruition. And that mean’s nothing can stop God’s sovereign plans for YOUR life–MY life. In the midst of perplexing times–difficult times–times when WE face injustice and hardship–we need to remember that God is in control, and He won’t allow anything into our lives that doesn’t make us better Christians, or that He can’t use to further His kingdom. Jerry Bridges puts it this way, "Because you and I are IN Christ Jesus, HIS glory and OUR good are linked together. Because we are united with Christ, whatever is for His glory is also for our good. And whatever is for our good is for His glory." The "train" of your life may seem out of control and you may have sighted Dead Man’s Curve right ahead, but the Engineer, capital E, has not abandoned the train of your life. Remember that!
During the terrible days of WW II when Germany was bombing England, a father holding his small son by the hand, ran from a building that had been stricken by a bomb. In the front yard of his home was a shell hole. Seeking shelter as soon as possible, the father jumped into the hole and held up his arms for his son to jump to him. The son was terrified. He could hear his father’s voice telling him to jump, but the boy cried, "Father, I can’t see you. I don’t know where to jump." The father looking up into the sky tinted red by the burning buildings, called to the silhouette of his son, "But I can see you! Jump!" The boy jumped because he trusted his father, even though he couldn’t see him.
Well, in the discouragement and the despair of your life, there may be times that you may not be able to see your heavenly Father; but He sees you. You can trust Him! He is Sovereign! God is moving you toward a greater goal that He has planned for you so, if you are a child of God, never live in pessimism and despair. Never. God knows where He is taking your life. God knows where He is taking your children’s lives. God has a design. You may not SEE Him, but He never takes His eyes off you.
So, God’s Son was born in an unlikely PLACE, and that shows us He can use unlikely PEOPLE; and the fact that He set all this up shows us He is in absolute control. We can learn these two vital principles thanks to Micah’s prophecy. But with this Christmas B.C. text, Micah tells us something else.
(2) It tells us the Messiah would bring Justice and Peace in an unexpected WAY.
Jesus would come, but not to sit on earthly thrones and police the world, righting wrong with a sword; but as Micah said, instead He would "Shepherd His flock…HE would be their peace." As we have learned over the past couple of weeks, our problems, both as individuals and as a society, stem from the fact that we are fallen beings living in opposition to our Creator. With that in mind, we need to realize that the Being Who has experienced the MOST injustice is our Holy God, our Creator. Our sins are an affront to Him, so for TRUE justice to be done, someone has to pay. And that’s why Jesus came. The Messiah, The Good Shepherd, came to lay down His life for His sheep. This King wore an unexpected different kind of crown. In a very real sense, the first Christmas "tree" was the one Jesus hung on–because the Christ of Christmas was born to pay for our sin so that we could get back what Adam and Eve lost–a personal relationship with God, a relationship through which He would be our peace as He forgives and begins to change us from within. You see, the Messiah came to change the world from the inside out instead of the outside in.
One of the more popular laws of physics goes like this, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Well, this law of physics applies not just to physical objects but also applies to the problems we find in our unjust, peace-less world. Here’s how it works. One person, changed by a relationship with Jesus Christ, who acknowledges the Messiah as His or Her Shepherd, can change his or her world like Erin Gruwell did at Wilson High in Los Angeles. And when that happens, like dominoes beginning to fall, the world gets better for other people. By the way, in most of the families of Mrs. Gruwell’s students, these kids were the first to graduate from high school. Many of them went on to college. In fact, they all banded together to start the Freedom Writers Foundation, dedicated to recreating the success of room 203 in classrooms across the US. Do you see the dominoes falling, the ripple effect that one teacher made?
This past Wednesday as we went out to sing Christmas carols for our shut-ins, we all crowded into Bessie Clemments’ room to share a little Christmas cheer. As you may or may not know, Bessie recently had to have most of her left leg amputated because of the ravages of diabetes, and Bessie has understandably been sad about all this. Well, I think she really enjoyed our coming. I think our singing carols about the birth of Christ changed her world a bit and made it brighter. She even sang with us on the last couple of songs. Bobby and Kim’s boys, Braden and Graham, went along and sang with us. Kim told me later that she and Bobby had told their sons they sang carols with Bessie as a way of sharing God’s love. Graham responded by saying, "A piece of our hearts came out of us and hooked on to her, and now she will feel much better." Well, Graham is wise beyond his years. He GETS IT because that’s how it works. When we allow God’s love to change us within–then He loves others through us–and changes the world one heart at a time.
Well, Jesus frequently referred to this kind of impact that a Christian can have on the world. In the Sermon on the Mount He taught that Christians can be as influential as salt on a flavorless meal or light in a dark room. Then a few chapters later, in Matthew 13, He alluded to this again when He said, "The kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough." And just as Jesus says here, people who acknowledge Him as Lord can have an incredibly POSITIVE impact on our society. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Philippians, "…we can shine like stars in the universe…" And, as I said, what is truly amazing is that this influence can begin with just one person! When even ONE individual is changed by the power of God, then the world can change. It may seem odd; it may seem like an unlikely "Bethlehem" kind of way to change our world, but that’s the way it works! You see, nations as a whole do not follow Jesus, but nations are made up of individual; and individuals can follow Him and, when they do, nations change! The prophet Jeremiah talked about this. In Jeremiah 8:5 he refers to the nation of Israel and asks, "Why then has this nation turned away? Why does Jerusalem always turn away?" Then in verse 6 he answers his own question. He says, "Here’s why. It’s because no ONE repents of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Each pursues his OWN course, like a horse charging into battle." So you see, nations turn from injustice when individuals changed by the grace of God do. As Tony Evans put it, "If you want a better world composed of better nations, inhabited by better states, filled with better counties, made up of better cities, comprised of better neighborhoods, illuminated by better churches, populated with better families, then you have to start by becoming a better person."
LET US PRAY
Father God, Thank You for Jesus; Thank You for sending the Deliverer, the Redeemer. I humbly ask that right now–as we think of all we have learned–You would speak to each of us. Speak to those of us who have become blind and callous to the injustice that is all around us. Open our eyes such that our hearts break for the hurting co-workers, lonely neighbors.
Empower us to be Your agents of peace. Equip us from within to be Your hands and feet. Give us opportunities to share the Gospel; use us as world-changers. If there are people present who don’t know You, I ask that You would knock on their hearts door. If there are Christians present Whom You want to serve in this church, tap them on the shoulder. Lead us to respond as we sing in accordance with Your will. I ask this in Jesus’ name. AMEN
Won’t you come now as God leads? Bobby and I will be waiting here at the front to receive you.