The Three Roads to Bethlehem

December 23, 2001




The Three Roads to Bethlehem

Gary Cox, University Congregational Church

Wichita, KS (12/23/01)

Last week, as we embraced the mystery and wonder of the season through the choir’s outstanding performance of Rutter’s Gloria, we reflected on the story of our faith. We considered how our story is a beautiful combination of poetry and history, from the moving creation myths which bear the startling truth that our God created everything that is out of nothingness, to the historical account of Israel’s struggles through the millennium leading up to the birth of Jesus.

And we concluded our reflections by acknowledging that everything in our story revolves around and is anchored upon Jesus Christ. We Congregationalists have a tendency to analyze everything, including the elements of our faith. We don’t like to accept something as the gospel truth just because somebody tells us it is the gospel truth. We put it out on the table, shine a light on it, and make an honest attempt to see if it really deserves to be a part of our belief system. After all, if our faith is going to be the foundation of our lives, that foundation should be comprised of rock-solid ideas on which we feel confident to build our lives.

At this time of year, the theological journals to which I subscribe always go into great scholarly detail about what we can and what we cannot truly know about the birth of Jesus. After years of wrestling with all that scholarship, I have come to a conclusion. The stories surrounding the birth of Jesus have a justifiable place at the heart of our faith. I realize that there are only two accounts of Jesus’ birth among the 27 books of the New Testament, and that those two accounts—one in Matthew and one in Luke—have very different recollections about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.

But that doesn’t bother me. Sometimes we don’t recognize the significance of certain events until hindsight grants us a more perfect vision. For those of us who believe that in some mysterious way Jesus Christ is the Son of God, it doesn’t matter so much whether a star miraculously hovered in the sky, or angels made proclamations to shepherds, or wise men came from the East. Looking back we believe the arrival of Jesus into this world was the most significant event in human history, and celebrating the arrival of Christ in our traditional way reveals at least a glimmer of the wonder and joy we feel in our hearts.

For the birth of Jesus to evoke such joy, one has to believe he was something more than a great teacher. I would never take anything away from his teaching, and I think the world would be a much better place if humanity would give real credence to what he taught, and to how he lived. But many Christians believe Jesus was much more than a great teacher. We believe we can call him the incarnation.
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Now, this is where theology can get a little messy. To say that Jesus is the incarnation is to say that in some way Jesus embodied the divinity of God. In other words, incarnation is the idea that God came to live among us in this world, and that through Jesus, God experienced what it is like to have a body like ours, and a mind like ours, and all the other little things that make us human. For me, this is not a proposition at which we can arrive through our normal analytical methods. It is a mystery. It is illogical. It is irrational.

True to my Congregational foundation, I reject all the explicit creeds that attempt to explain away this mystery. Over the centuries the church has developed many creeds–written formulas–explaining the relationship between God and Jesus. Most seem to say that Jesus and God are the same thing, which I believe entirely misses the point, since when Jesus walked the earth God was still everywhere in all of creation, holding everything that is in being. Jesus wasn’t everything God is. But in some mysterious way Jesus was a reflection of God’s divinity. To say more than that on the subject, for me, is to speak of things we cannot understand.

The idea of the incarnation is something heartfelt. Trying to logically explain it only makes it sound more absurd. So I won’t try to convince you of the truth behind the incarnation. I saw a sign in a friend’s church office a few weeks back that said, “Faith is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.” Perhaps that’s the only way to approach the incarnation.

But the idea of the incarnation is so important to me. I have come to the conclusion that to arrive at the heart of the Christian faith we have to go through Bethlehem. Because Bethlehem is the place God came to us through the birth of a child. The Bethlehem I’m talking about is not only the little town that existed two-thousand years ago in ancient Israel. It is also a place that exists just as surely today in the heart of the Christian. It is found deep inside each of us—that place we usually keep hidden from the world, where mystery and wonder both gnaw at the often mindless way we go through our daily routines, and at the same time offer us hope, even in the midst of a suffering world, that somehow, someway, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

In that hidden place, that secret heart, the ancient world of Jesus mingles with our own, and the border between Jesus’ world and the world we live in today is hard to distinguish. In both worlds there are oppressive governments and unfair social practices; there are downtrodden people crying out for a chance at happiness; there is disease and famine and cruelty that make the world seem shamefully unjust. But in the depths of our hearts where those two worlds meet, we find an island of tranquility, as a mother and father hover over their firstborn child lying in a manger. This is Bethlehem, and lying in that manger is the Savior of all earth, the Son of God, and in this place there are indeed angels in the skies and shepherds in the fields and wise men following a star in search of a new king.

If we have to go through Bethlehem to get to the heart of the Christian faith, the question for you and me is, “How do we get there?” Well, our traditional Christmas story points to three of the most common routes to that most important place in the Christian faith. One of those three roads is traveled by the wise men, another by the shepherds, and the third by Mary and Joseph.

Most of us, at one time or another in our lives, have found ourselves on all three of these roads. Consider the first road to Bethlehem, which is the route taken by the wise men. The wise men, or magi, take the path that is mapped out by great learning. Through diligent study they have learned to interpret the movements of the planets and stars, and it is this knowledge of the heavens that guides their journey.

Two things should be noted about the wise men. First, they are astrologers, which means in that first century context that they are scientists. Second, because Matthew’s gospel tells us they are “from the East,” they are not Jewish. These men are from somewhere beyond the borders of Israel, perhaps Arabia or Mesopotamia. And this tells us two important things about their particular road to Bethlehem. They have no knowledge of Judaism, and hence no reason to think the arrival of a new king has anything to do with the awaited Jewish Messiah. They simply have come to the conclusion that such astronomical events indicate the arrival of an earthly king. Second, there is no “awe” in their journey. There is no indication they have a sense of wonder at the appearance of the star. As scientists, they are simply investigating the phenomenon they have discovered.

Relating this to those who in the modern world take the wise men’s road to the heart of the faith—to Bethlehem—this is the scholarly route. This road is the way of study, the route filled with books on the Bible, and theology, and church history. This is not the path of blind faith. This is the path of reason, and logic, and study. And I would think that every person who seriously embraces the Christian faith, at some point in his or her journey, walks along this path for a time, even if it is not their primary path.

Compare the route taken by the wise men to a second road to Bethlehem—the road taken by the shepherds. The shepherds are ordinary people going about their everyday routines. Shepherds were among the most marginalized and poverty ridden of all working people, and these guys are just minding their own business, trying to make a living as they tended their flocks on a winter’s night. But these shepherds were surely Jewish, and they would have heard the stories about the coming Messiah, probably giving it all the consideration the average Christian today would give stories of the Second Coming of Christ.

And then, they are instantly terrified as an angel of the Lord appears and says, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” In the next instant a great company of the heavenly host appears, praising God and singing, “Glory to God on highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.

This is one of the all-time great epiphanies. These shepherds no longer harbor any sort of doubts about the glory of God. There is no way they can ever be the same. And following the instructions they receive from the heavens, they hurry into Bethlehem to discover Jesus lying in the manger.

Many have at least had a glimpse of this road to Bethlehem. Many of us have had some sort of spiritual awakening in our lives. People often experience such moments in the presence of great natural beauty, such as snow-peaked mountains, meandering brooks, or the simple quiet of a colorful sunset. These are the moments when all of creation seems perfect, and all things seem in balance, and we feel as if from the dawn of creation we were meant to see exactly what we see in that moment of perfect beauty.

For some, they find themselves on this road to Bethlehem as the result of a blinding and unexplainable experience of the divine. The Apostle Paul surely had such an experience on the Damascus Road, as he was confronted by the Risen Christ for the evils he was perpetrating against the people of the early Christian faith. And today, everywhere from homeless shelters to great mansions, from prisons to executive offices, there are people who come face to face with their own evils, and in turning to Christ find themselves in the presence of God’s unspeakable love. This is the second road to Bethlehem, very different from the first, logical road taken by the wise men, but just as real, and just as valid.

The third road to Bethlehem is the road taken by Mary and Joseph. They arrive in Bethlehem simply going about the business of daily life. They are drawn to Bethlehem not because they are in search of scientific answers, and not because of an inexplicable intrusion into their lives by a host of angels ordering them to go there. They are going to Bethlehem because the king ordered a census, and Joseph, being in the lineage of David, must register in the town of Bethlehem. Their arrival in Bethlehem comes in the midst of their everyday lives.

This is the path most of us are on, most days. We don’t spend our hours pouring over complex theological dissertations in search of a new spiritual insight, nor do we spend our days responding to an unspeakable experience of the presence of God. We just go about our daily routines, hardly aware that God is in our midst, and every now and then we slow down long enough to realize that God is performing miracles right before our eyes, even in the most mundane of circumstances. And in those rare precious moments we become radically amazed that God has created this universe, and put us on this beautiful blue and green planet, and given us people to love.

Three roads into the heart of our faith: the path of study, the path of divine intervention, and the path of everyday living. All three roads are acceptable ways of arriving in Bethlehem, because all three roads take us to the very depths of our being where Bethlehem is found. And once we arrive there, whatever route we choose to take, we must then confront what many refer to as “the scandal of the Christmas story.”

Because we are raised in a culture where the story of Christmas is common, we have a tendency to treat it as a fairy tale, turning it into something almost trite. And we sing songs about the birth of Jesus, and we feel warm all over as we imagine Mary cuddling the baby Jesus in his swaddling clothes, and that is okay. It should make us feel warm all over. But we have to be careful that we are really hearing this story—not the sanitized version of the story as told in popular culture, but the story as it is understood in Bethlehem.

This is a scandalous story, this idea that in some mysterious way God came into human history as a helpless infant, whose parents had no place to lay him other than a manger—a feeding trough. This scandalous story does not have God entering the world with bright lights and wild fury and majestic thunder as he is placed upon the highest throne while earthly kings bow humbly at his feet. Instead, God slips unobtrusively into human history, as a helpless newborn, lying in a feeding trough, in a little-known province, far from the centers of earthly power, loved only by his unwed or newlywed young parents.

When we travel the road to Bethlehem, we find a God who is radically different than the one we were expecting. Remember the life of Jesus with all its ups and downs: from that night in the manger to his baptism in the Jordan River; from the miracle at the wedding in Cana where the water is changed to wine, to the walking on the water in the Sea of Galilee; from the feeding of the five thousand with the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, to his transfiguration in front of Peter, James and John; from the thought provoking parables he told his followers to the often witty and stinging aphorisms he aimed at his detractors; from the Last Supper and his betrayal, to his violent death upon the cross.

Through it all, Jesus was at his most divine when he was at his most human. I love reading all the stories about the amazing things the gospels say Jesus did. But in my eyes it is not the miraculous feedings, or catches of fish, or healings, or any of the other great miracles attributed to Jesus that reveal his divinity. Rather it is his helplessness in the manger; his love of the disciples; his pain at his betrayal; his tears shed in the Garden of Gethsemane; his ultimate surrender to death; these were the times when the true divinity of Jesus was revealed. Jesus proved he was divine by fully entering into his humanity. It was when he was at his most humble that he was most fully human, and it was when he was most fully human that he was most fully divine.

And that is the lesson we take from this season, from this day: that we ourselves walk through life as Christ did so long ago; that it is in our own weakest moments that we are called most fully into the presence of God; that God exalts us finally when we learn to humble ourselves; that it is when we ourselves are most humble that we are most human; and that it is when we enter into the depths of our humanity that we become divine, and our true nature is revealed—children, born in the image of God, capable of great love, and journeying always closer and closer to Bethlehem.

And now we go forth, journeying together on the road God has given us to travel, with our feet moving ever closer to God’s kingdom, and our hearts moving ever closer to Bethlehem. In the name of the holy child whose birth we celebrate in this season, we pray, Amen.