“Returning to Bethlehem”
We wonder as we wander through life about where God is. Perhaps we wondered as we wandered through the sanctuary door, “Why bother to come to church, there’s lots of other stuff going on.”
Something has brought us here tonight. Whether a family member, a friend, a tradition, a longing.
Like the shepherds who said, “Let us go now to Bethlehem,” we have come to church on Christmas Eve for the timeless story of Christ’s birth. Experiencing that story at Christmas feeds us, gives us spiritual sustenance, and can renew our faith.
We return to Bethlehem at Christmas because God finds us right here. And right here (heart).
Let us pray. Gracious God, on this magical night when love came to call in the cry of a baby, open our hearts to the music, the mystery, the marvelous word of hope, as you and we find each other in the manger. Amen.
From a small town in the north, a woman, nine months pregnant, and her fiancé, head toward Bethlehem, his family’s town, to be counted. It is a hard journey. He walks and she rides on a donkey. Finally they arrive in Bethlehem. The inn is full. Accommodations for travelers weren’t fancy then anyway, mostly stalls off courtyards. The innkeeper gives Mary the stable out back.
They make themselves as comfortable as they can. That night, her labor begins. The baby comes. They wrap their infant son in bands of cloth.
At the end of it all, they place the baby in the manger.
The story invites us in. And we are changed by our encounter with it. God entering the world in such an unlikely way.
The city of Bethlehem is located about six miles outside the capital, Jerusalem. Google Maps tells us Bethesda is just over 6 miles from downtown Washington D.C.
Mary and Joseph needed 85 miles to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Many have analyzed their trip. No grand preparations were made for Jesus birth. He was born on the road. Family advocates argue Mary and Joseph were homeless and needed help. Rush Limbaugh has argued they were just unprepared business travelers who forgot to make a reservation.
In a way, a little of both is true. As many contemporary couples do, Mary and Joseph struggled with work life balance. They had to get to Bethlehem to be registered to pay taxes and they were having a baby.
Bethlehem was the city where the prophet Micah said the messiah would be born. Bethlehem was the city of David, in whose line the messiah was to arrive. They were there as Joseph had to take his family to register because he was in the line of David. So Joseph was returning to Bethlehem, the place of his family origin.
Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem to register for taxes and her time had come to deliver. In another sense, though, they were in Bethlehem to find the sustenance for life. Mary’s unplanned pregnancy, with all its physical, social and emotional challenges, had shaken both parents. Engagement was serious business in their day. If a fiancé died, the survivor was considered a widow. The penalty for Mary’s “situation” could be death. That reality and the trip took a toll. But both Mary and Joseph had been visited in dreams by angels telling them their destiny was to deliver and raise the special child born in Bethlehem.
They came to Bethlehem to find their purpose, their meaning, their sustenance. That is what Bethlehem does.
The name Bethlehem means “house of bread.” It is the place where one is fed. Located near Jerusalem, several temples and a transportation route, it was a good stopping place for food for weary, hungry, travelers. That is in part why the Inn was full.
Mary placed the baby Jesus in a manger. A manger is a feeding trough for cows.
Jesus was born in and to be a place of sustenance.
We return to Bethlehem each Christmas to be fed. To hear the story of the bread of life coming into the world. Isaiah predicted that the one to come “will feed his flock like a shepherd.” Jesus would grow up to feed 5,000. He would dine with sinners, the poor, and the dejected. Mary laid him in a manger because he came to feed us when we truly hunger.
We return to Bethlehem each Christmas Eve to imagine ourselves in the place God had chosen to come into the world. And if, like Mary and Joseph that night, this is our first encounter with the story of Jesus birth in Bethlehem, that might make this night all the more special.
If you have been with us throughout Advent, you know we have been talking about lessons we learned from losing things. Last August, we where driving back from New York and stopped in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for dinner. We were there the same night as a ZZ Top concert so couldn’t go into the area we wanted and ended up at Sweet Indulgence Café on Broad Street. We had a nice meal after a long day.
I had taken my computer bag, with computer and lots of papers, in rather than leaving them in the car. It was important. I placed it in a corner by our table for the meal. Bad idea. After eating we got back in the car and began driving to our hotel a few hours away. It was well after dark by this point and we had a nice drive. Until I realized my computer bag with computer was still sitting by the table in Bethlehem.
So we turned around and returned to Bethlehem. The first thing we did was call the Café, which was still open. They found the bag, put it aside, and as we returned they stayed on the phone to direct me around the rock concert traffic. They gave me the bag and even a snack.
What was lost was found. I was able to rest. I was sustained.
Our returning to Bethlehem this night may be a time of reconnecting with something important to us. Something we have lost which needs to be found. Something that reconnects us with our childhood traditions. Something that lets us appreciate that God is open late and always available in prayer. Something which lets us know God is longing to sustain us when we need it most.
For Bethlehem has had its share of pain and loss. Shortly after the birth, Herod began his massacre of the innocents around it. As the Washington Post details this morning, Bethlehem today remains embroiled in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After a year of fear-inducing terrorist attacks, anxiety from gun violence and our own personal challenges, we return to church tonight because we need the sustenance of knowing God came to Bethlehem in the birth of Jesus Christ to show us the reality of eternal love.
At Christmas we are invited back to Bethlehem. Called to the stable. Called to peer over the heads of the animals. To brush back the straw. To find a space between the parents. To look into the manger. Into the eyes of the newborn baby. To hear the music of the cuing child. To see the gaze of the Word made flesh. To catch a glimpse of the eyes that would look out from the cross.
For at Christmas, the music, the Word, the cross amidst the stars, remind us of who we are and whose we are. That God cares enough to come for us. To show us that God’s love is breathing, cuing, even singing, in this room. And for someone here, the arrival of Jesus Christ into their lives tonight will be a surprise, as it was for Mary and Joseph when the angels visited them. But perhaps, amidst the candlelight, God will find us here.
The key is will we then open our hearts to it. Will we make room in our lives for the Christ child?
Of course, like Jesus, like the wise men, like the shepherds, we don’t stay in Bethlehem. Christmas comes and goes, but we take the experience home with us.
The shepherds were cyclical in their routines. They didn’t stay in one stop but moved the sheep around Bethlehem from place to place when the grass was gone.
Maybe you come to church once a year and this is your cycle. It could be like Joseph, you are coming to Bethlehem as part of a family tradition. Maybe you pass Bradley Hills every day on your commute and tonight you are stopping by. Or perhaps this is your church home and you come each week because you find God here.
We hope God finds you here tonight. That you will return. That you consider making Bradley Hills your weekly church home. Most of all that you connect this night with God’s love for you.
This past weekend I went back to Ohio for a wedding. It was the first wedding I officiated at the church where I was baptized and confirmed. As I perused the walls of old pictures, I came across one of me playing David in the 1982 church play of David and Goliath. It was the first production done at the church by a young music director who is still there and played the music for last Saturday’s wedding.
I have vivid memories of the church pageant that same year. I was some sort of minor character, no lines, perhaps held a star.
One of my friends who also held a star, loved sleepovers. We used to stay up late in his basement playing video games and having flashlight wrestling matches and talking.
As the Christmas pageant was rolling around that year, we were planning a holiday sleep over for winter break.
The pageant began. The characters of Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem. The narrator told the story. All the families were there. The narrator announced that Mary and Joseph had to go to stay in the manger because there was no room for them in the Inn. All of a sudden my friend blurted out, “They could come to the sleep over, we have room there.”
Christ is born in us when we make room for God in our lives. When the everlasting light in our hearts shines as we love others.
Christ is born when lives are transformed by wondering love, proving that God is alive in the world.
Christmas comes in our wandering and calls us into its story. To return to the place where “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thy tonight.” To take in all the sustenance the house of bread and the bread of life, offer.
That night in Bethlehem the incarnation answered the question of “where is God?” God came to our world, to be among us.
Because of what happened in the little town of Bethlehem, God is here. And God is here (heart). God “imparts to human hearts the blessings of God’s heaven.”
So this night, let each of our hearts be open. For “Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” Come to Bethlehem and see…Christ the Lord the new born king! May it be so. Amen.