Longing for Acceptance
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Acceptance by some group of people is a basic human need – perhaps the most important human need outside of the obvious needs – food, water, shelter, clothing, and safety.
As small children, that group is our family, but as we grow older, we start looking for other groups to find acceptance as we prepare to leave the nest.
And there are often painful moments along the way. Some of us know what it felt like to always be picked last for sports. Some of us know what it felt like to have a friend pick a new group and leave us behind. Some of us know what it feels like to be rejected even by our own family members.
And that need doesn’t go away as an adult, does it? Everyone needs a tribe.
I have a friend who, as a teenager, was involved in a gang, but a police officer started to pursue him – not as a criminal, but as a young man. He helped my friend get to college and now his job is working with Gang Prevention Units at various police departments.
His goal is not to get them to leave the gang, because he knows that won’t work. Instead, he helps them make better choices and find other influences. According to my friend, it is this basic need – the need for acceptance, for a tribe – that draws young men into gangs. In his words, “It could have been a youth pastor or any other adult male, but when I most needed guidance, as a 13-year-old boy, it was a gangster that took me under his wing.”
This was a long introduction to make a simple point. Everyone wants to feel accepted. Everyone wants to belong. But why are we talking about this the Sunday before Christmas?
There are two reasons: First, if you don’t feel like you have good community – if you don’t feel like you have a tribe, then the holidays are especially difficult. It seems like everyone else has people and you might be feeling acutely alone. But second, and more importantly, all of us have this deep longing for acceptance – and this is actually an important theme in the Bible. The Advent of Jesus Christ is a direct response to that longing.
Our text this morning is a Messianic prophecy from a minor prophet. Micah 5:1
1 Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops;
siege is laid against us;
That first sentence in Hebrew is a play on words. The writer is mocking the fact that God’s people did not have a strong enough army to defeat the enemy at their gates.
This is probably Sennacherib’s siege in 701BC when Hezekiah was king. You can read about that siege in 2 Chronicles 32. Sennacherib was the king of Assyria, the most powerful nation in the world at that time. The Assyrians were known for their brutality. Israel, in contrast, was always a small nation compared to the giant empires rising and falling all around it. Let’s keep reading.
with a rod they strike the judge of Israel
on the cheek.
This is a way of saying that the enemy is humiliating the king. The idea is that he is so defenseless he cannot even protect his face. And according to 2 Chronicles, Sennacherib did in fact send messages to Jerusalem to mock and humiliate Hezekiah during the siege.
The historical records of this event are very interesting. The Assyrian records claim that Sennacherib destroyed 46 cities in Israel and that his army had Hezekiah trapped in Jerusalem like a caged bird. But mysteriously, the siege ended, and the army retreated – even though Assyria had a much larger and much more advanced military.
Greek historian Herodotus claimed that the army was overrun by field mice, which may have been a reference to the plague.
But according to the Bible, God protected His people by sending an angel to rout the Assyrian army. 2 Chronicles says that Sennacherib went home with “shame of face” and was killed by his own sons. Several years after the siege, that’s exactly what happened. He was assassinated by his own sons.
I’m telling you all of this because I think the history is an important backdrop to the prophecy in verse 2. It says this:
2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Bethlehem was a small town in Ephrathah, similar to how we write a city and state. Horn Lake, Mississippi. Bethlehem Ephrathah. The town’s name means “fruitful house of bread”.
But in Hebrew, the sentence says that the town was “insignificant with regards to its existence among the clans of Judah”. The adjective “little” relates to quality not quantity. It is the “least” or the “weakest” of all the towns.
In other words, God was planning from ancient days for the most insignificant place to give birth to the most important person in history.
The town of Bethlehem is famous to us because of the birth of Jesus – the nativity story. But in the context of Micah 5, Bethlehem was a small, insignificant town. This is like saying that the greatest player in the history of football will come from the Detroit Lions.
If you’re not a football fan, all you need to know is that the Detroit Lions are almost always the worst team in the league. When I tell people I’m a Lions fan, they usually chuckle – because they know the Lions are terrible.
When this prophecy was written, the only significant thing about Bethlehem was a bit of history – it was the hometown of David. Otherwise, no one had thought about Bethlehem in several hundred years. But now, the prophet Micah is introducing the town of David as the birthplace of the Messiah, in the middle of a great conflict between powerful nations. Verse 3:
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
This basically means that Israel will be insignificant for the next several hundred years until Jesus is born. And that’s what happened. Israel was used and abused by other nations and empires.
4 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
5 And he shall be their peace.
Imagine how important this prophecy would have been to God’s people, while they were conquered over and over again between the time it was written and the birth of Jesus. And because of prophecies like this, most people were expecting the Messiah to be a great military leader – like David. They were not expecting someone like Jesus.
But if you remember, David was not born an obvious choice to be king either. He was a shepherd boy – the youngest son of Jesse. Everyone was shocked when Samuel anointed David. And this prophecy makes that connection by calling the Messiah a shepherd.
Jesus was not the obvious choice, but he was the right choice. One of my favorite episodes of The Office is the one when the office employees play basketball against the warehouse employees. When Michael Scott, who is the boss in the show, chooses his team for the game, he picks the players he assumes will be good at the sport based on stereotypes and most of them were actually terrible at basketball.
One of the things we have learned about God from our study of Judges, Ruth, and Samuel is that He absolutely delights in choosing the weak and the small to demonstrate his power. It should not have surprised God’s people that the Messiah would be like that.
Think about the ministry and life of Jesus. He began his ministry by choosing to get baptized by his cousin, a strange man wearing camel skins. Instead of choosing normal rabbinical students as followers, he chose fishermen and tax collectors. Instead of building friendships and alliances with the other religious leaders, he had dinner parties attended by prostitutes and he called the religious leaders “snakes”.
It’s almost like Jesus was trying to get Himself killed. He accepted all the wrong people and rejected all the right people. And in the end, His own people rejected Him.
You could categorize so much of the ministry of Jesus as a ministry of acceptance and rejection – his acceptance of the least and the weak and the marginalized. His rejection by the people who should have known better.
Even the birth of Jesus fits this theme. God used a teenage girl, not yet married, to carry His Son! God led her fiancé to accept her in spite of the potentially shameful circumstances. Baby Jesus was accepted and worshipped by dirty shepherds and foreign Gentiles, but the king of Israel tried to have him murdered.
And that’s the Christmas story. That is God’s story of how He was able to embrace and accept sinners into His family through the rejection of His only Son – Jesus Christ. It’s a beautiful story and best of all, it is a true story.
Our acceptance by God is a free offer through the work of Jesus on the cross – He was rejected so that we could be accepted into the kingdom by faith.
And this is where most sermons typically end. But I want to take it a step further today.
It is important to sometimes say, this is not a blanket acceptance being offered by God. God is not overlooking our sin. He’s punishing it at the cross and if we do not experience His renewing grace in our lives, then we will face the wrath of God alone – without the cross. Repentance is not optional.
I need to say this, because we live in the age of tolerance and inclusion, as long as you accept the cultural definition of those words. The culture wants us to believe that anything goes – that none of our choices is a problem – that nothing about us needs to change. There’s nothing we really need to repent of.
But the God of the Bible is not offering us blanket acceptance. It is important that we not do not cheapen God’s grace by preaching acceptance without repentance.
Listen to how Micah 5 ends. Verses 9-15.
9 Your hand shall be lifted up over your adversaries,
and all your enemies shall be cut off.
That’s the good news. God will provide victory over the enemies. But look what comes next:
10 And in that day, declares the LORD,
I will cut off your horses from among you
and will destroy your chariots;
11 and I will cut off the cities of your land
and throw down all your strongholds; *
12 and I will cut off sorceries from your hand,
and you shall have no more tellers of fortunes;
13 and I will cut off your carved images
and your pillars from among you,
and you shall bow down no more
to the work of your hands; *
14 and I will root out your Asherah images from among you
and destroy your cities.
15 And in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance
on the nations that did not obey.
In other words, God says, “I’m going to save you, but I’m also going to destroy all this other stuff you’ve been depending on. I’m accepting you, but I am not accepting your sin. The idols have to go.”
God will bring victory, but victory doesn’t mean that God will tolerate our sin. Victory, according to God, is victory over sin and death. That’s what Jesus accomplished for us and for the glory of God.
The simplest way I can say it is this: God takes us the way He finds us, but He never leaves us the way He found us.
This is not the blanket tolerance of the world. This is much better… much more authentically human. In Christ we are new creations. The old has gone. The new has come. Listen to how Peter describes the people of God:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Brothers and sisters, that is the acceptance we long for. That’s it. And in Christ Jesus, this is who we are. Repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand.