In January, I had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land with a group from our church. It was an amazing experience that I cannot begin to describe to you this morning. Today I want to talk about our journey to Bethlehem. This was my second visit to Israel and each trip offered me a different perspective on “the little town of Bethlehem” and the role it has played in the history of our faith. Modern-day Bethlehem is a Palestinian city located in the central part of The West Bank, approximately 6 miles from Jerusalem. For more than 2,000 years this town of about 25,000 people has been celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus. I am not sure what I expected to see here; I can only say that what I saw stirred feelings of great joy and deep sadness. As we approached Bethlehem we could look out the bus windows and see shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside. Just like the Bible story we know so well, there were shepherds in the fields, guarding their sheep. It was like looking at a Christmas card and thinking of that first “Silent Night”. Looking out the same bus windows into the foreground, however, exposes images of the Wall of Separation, barbed wire, armed guards, and political unrest. The ugly reality of life in this part of the world glares back at you and the pastoral images of shepherds, stars, and angels fade away. Getting off the bus you are thrust into bedlam – crowded streets, tourists, vendors hawking souvenirs, and the sounds of modern traffic. This is not the Bethlehem I imagined; this was not the scene I wanted to visit. This was the reality of chaos in the modern world that seems so different from what it must have been like, that night when Jesus was born here. Ah, but is it really so different?
2,000 years ago this little town was not as idyllic as we want to think. The nation was living under oppressive Roman occupation. People lived in fear every day, not knowing what they might be asked to give up or what new struggle might bubble over into violence. The reason Mary and Joseph are even here on this night is because of a Roman edict designed to assert power and control over the people. If not for the inherent bedlam that existed throughout the region, Jesus would have been born peacefully at home, in sleepy little Nazareth.
As I took in the sights and sounds of Bethlehem as it is now, I began to realize something. Christmas has always come to us in the middle of the chaos and confusion of this world. When I came to Bethlehem I wanted to find the baby Jesus, not a tourist trap. I hoped for a respite here – something protected from the reality of the world. What I found was Bethlehem in the middle of the chaos and confusion that is the modern Middle East. I realized how similar Bethlehem now is with Bethlehem then and finding Bethlehem in the midst of bedlam is exactly what those shepherds did. Bethlehem and bedlam – They go together and they always have. When Joseph and Mary arrived, the inns were crowded, the town was full of tourists, and there was political intrigue surrounding the Roman occupation. People were shoving and jostling each other in the crowded streets, soldiers were everywhere watching for unrest, and yet – Christmas came to Bethlehem. You see, that is the Good News of Christmas…God comes into our chaos and meets us where we are. No matter how busy or frustrated or frantic we are…No matter how dark or confused or sad we may feel…God comes to us in the form of Jesus born in Bethlehem. The one of whom Isaiah spoke: “and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This child brings light, grace, and peace into whatever circumstance he finds us.
This year we have talked a lot about God’s kingdom and how we understand who God is. It is when we discover who God is and what God is like that we find Bethlehem. Christmas clears up a lot of the confusion over what God is like because Jesus’ birth gives God a face. William Barclay says this: “Jesus is the one person who can tell us who God is…In him alone, we see what God is like and what God means us to be…we see what we ought to be.” In Jesus we see the love, the compassion, the mercy, the seeking heart, and the purity of God in a unique and powerful way. Jesus breaks through our bedlam to show us the truth about God and the truth about ourselves. The angels speak to us just as they spoke to those shepherds: “Don’t be afraid. This is unexpected and wonderful news. God is here in the middle of your mess.” This may be the best Christmas gift ever – “Don’t be afraid!” Every now and then, in the midst of bedlam, we are reminded that God loves us and we are able to keep going.
We also find Bethlehem when we discover how we are supposed to relate to one another. It seems to me that, too often, the bedlam that is our contemporary culture gets in the way of seeing each other as fellow human beings. We forget that people are more important than possessions, politics, and power. People are not objects to be manipulated to gain advantage; they are persons who are to be loved and appreciated. Jesus comes to us in Bethlehem and clears up any ethical confusion and reminds us to love our neighbors. When we find Bethlehem we gain a new respect for other people and begin to understand what God expects from us.
As most of you know, I have recently been going through some eye surgeries and they have given me a new perspective on vision. Our eyes are invaluable to us, but they are not perfect. Sometimes our vision weakens or gets cloudy and we are unable to see things clearly. Jesus is, in some ways, like a medical procedure that helps to sharpen the image for us. He clears things up by showing us not only what God is like, but also what God wants us to be like. Jesus brings clarity to the vision that shows us the best way to show our love for God is to love God’s children. As we look at the chaos and confusion that surrounds us, we must notice the examples of people who do not treat other people in the way Jesus modeled for us. Jesus reached out to the sick, the homeless, the outcast, and the undesirable. And what we notice is that Jesus didn’t just give a little extra money to the local food bank; he actually met the hungry and fed them himself. Jesus interacted directly with those in need. It’s a wonderful thing for us to support Restore Hope and Sand Springs Community Services and John 3:16 Mission and the countless other agencies we help. Our financial gifts to these groups are absolutely necessary to help them keep doing what they do. However, the piece that we often forget about is the real people who are behind the need. These people need to be treated as persons who are loved and valued and appreciated. A hot meal for a hungry person is a great gift, but add to that gift the warmth of a smile and friendly conversation and you have wrapped up the best Christmas gift ever for that person. Sometimes people really need personal contact; they need to feel important and loved. Sometimes that means way more than a meal. What God really wants is for us to be merciful, kind, forgiving, thoughtful, and loving to one another. When we find Bethlehem we realize that Jesus came to show us how to care, to teach us how to love, and to remind us that we are family. In this Bethlehem there is no room for prejudice or exclusion or hatred or failure to reach out to someone who needs you. In this Bethlehem there is only love.
Finally, we find Bethlehem when we discover what really matters. That means we recognize that Jesus comes to clear up any confusion there might be about our priorities. One thing that really causes bedlam in our culture is the whole Christmas shopping season thing. It seems that “Black Friday” arrives earlier each year, the shopping season gets longer, and the stores want more and more of our money. Christmas has become about things that really do not matter. We get so busy with the chaos that surrounds Christmas that we forget what really happened that night. There were no Christmas trees, reindeer, or brightly wrapped gifts in that stable. There was Joseph, a man whose life was turned upside down with the news that his fiancé was to be the mother of the Messiah. There was Mary, a frightened young girl, away from home for the first time, about to become the Mother of God. AND, there was Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, lying in a manger just beginning a life that would change the world forever.
On my first visit to the Holy Land in 2011, we had the opportunity to visit The Shepherd’s Field. It is the place where people commemorate the angels’ announcement to the shepherds that night. We can’t know if the location is completely accurate, but it really doesn’t matter. The setting gives you an idea of what type of shelter Joseph was really able to find for his family. It was most likely a cave, not a wooden stable as we often imagine. Coming to this place you can imagine a time when it was quiet and peaceful here. You can imagine the shepherds guarding their sheep out here on that silent night. You can imagine their surprise at the amazing arrival of the angels with their unexpected news. Sitting in that cave I had a sense of peace. At last I was able to find Bethlehem in the midst of the tourists and commercialism. Finally, I could get a sense of Bethlehem in spite of the chaos that is our modern culture. For those few moments I could just be still and sense that God found a way to come to us in spite of us. Finding Bethlehem means discovering the good news that, in the birth of Jesus Christ, God meets us where we are, even in the midst of bedlam.
Let us pray:
God, you offer yourself to us in all of life, even in the bedlam, confusion, and chaos that often surrounds us. Thank you. Help us to find Bethlehem, to see Jesus, and to trust that you are with us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN