We’ll Meet in Bethlehem (12/18/05)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The Christmas season is the best time of year. I know that as a religious leader I am supposed to decry the commercialization of Christmas, all the glitter, all the advertisements. But I have a confession to make. I love everything about Christmas. I like the way there is sparkling glitter all over the place. And until I turn on the television and see Santa Clause riding the Norelco shaver over the snowy hills, well, it just not Christmas.
I love going to the mall at this time of year. Giant candy canes and snowflakes the size of a Mack truck hang overhead. There is music everywhere, and every song triggers a special memory. The fragrance of a freshly cut Christmas tree, the way Christmas decorations light up the night, children excitedly writing Santa to tell him how good they’ve been and how much they deserve this year’s hot gift… Those aspects of the season may not be especially religious, but I cherish them all.
Of course, for those of us who are church-goers, the season has even deeper meaning. There is something about Jesus that draws us to this faith of ours week after week, month after month. But at Christmas, well, at Christmas the whole world becomes a little more sacred, a little more beautiful.
The Christian life is a life of seeking. The Christian faith has given us enough answers to our questions over the years to keep us anchored firmly in the faith, but we never reach that point where we have all the answers. God created human life to be a life of seeking. And enough answers are revealed to us along the way to keep us seeking.
At this amazing time of year, we all find ourselves drawn to Bethlehem. Not modern Bethlehem, but ancient Bethlehem. Our hearts draw us to that night so long ago when Jesus came into this world. When we analyze the gospels we see that only Luke’s gospel says Jesus was born in a manger, presumably in a stable. Luke’s birth story has Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census where there is no room at the inn, and a host of angels proclaiming the nearby birth of the savior. Matthew’s story has the wise men visiting Jesus in Bethlehem, but that visit occurs at the home of Mary and Joseph, who evidently had by then married and set up housekeeping.
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But in our imaginations we have combined these stories so that both the shepherds and the wise men were there at the birth of Jesus. And that’s fine with me. I don’t want to eliminate either the wise men or the shepherds from the way I envision the birth of Jesus, and like most of you, I have them all gathered at a stable. This nativity scene, captured in painting and sculpture countless times over the centuries, and displayed beautifully on fireplace mantels and front lawns all over the world, is the way I envision that amazing night so long ago.
And so, metaphorically speaking, we all meet in Bethlehem at this time of year. And perhaps that is the purpose of our lives—to meet in Bethlehem. After all, our theology makes the claim that it is there God came into the world. And so in that respect the Christian life can be thought of as a journey in which we seek Bethlehem.
But how do we get there? If Bethlehem represents a sort of union with God, a full understanding of the faith, what path should our journey follow? Is there only one way to get there?
It seems to me that there are three paths to Bethlehem revealed in our Christmas story. One path was traveled by the shepherds. Another path was taken by the wise men. And a third path was taken by Mary and Joseph.
Consider the path taken by the shepherds. Listen to the passage from Luke:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
That’s a pretty memorable experience. And they respond to this remarkable epiphany as we might expect. Luke writes, When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
One thing we often overlook when we think back on those shepherds is the fact that these were the most marginalized of people in the ancient world. Seriously, the sheep were much more important than the shepherds. Not only were sheep the primary animal of sacrifice in the Jewish religion, they were also a major source of meat, milk, fat, wool, skins and horns.
If a sheep was lost, people went to great lengths to find it. Remember Jesus’ famous parable of the lost sheep. But shepherds, well, shepherds were a dime a dozen. Children did not grow up thinking, “When I grow up I want to be a shepherd!” It was boring, sometimes difficult work. In the constant search for fresh pasture and water shepherds often found themselves far from home. They had to endure harsh weather, simple food, and primitive lodging. The dangers that wild animals posed to a shepherd’s flock, which included lions, bears and wolves, were exceeded only by the threat of thieves who were quick to prey on the lowly shepherds.
So why did one become a shepherd? Probably out of desperation. These were the people who owned no herds themselves; in fact, they owned no land whatsoever. They were far beneath the merchant class, who made their living selling various wares. And they were below the artisans and craftsmen, who had enough skill to forge an economic path through life. A shepherd had nothing but the staff in his hand and the clothes on his back.
And yet these were the first people invited to Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus. The angels of heaven did not appear to the wealthy men who owned the sheep, nor to the local merchants and craftsmen. They appeared to the shepherds. The lowest of the low were the first to gaze upon the incarnation of God. They forged a memorable path to Bethlehem.
Who are the shepherds in today’s world? I believe the shepherds represent the people who have a radical experience of the divine. And it happens. Many people claim that unless you can name the exact day, hour and minute you were saved, you have not really been saved. I certainly do not agree with that theology, but you can bet those shepherds remembered exactly what they were doing and what time of night it was when, in the course of watching over their flock of sheep, those angels appeared to them.
This is a recurring theme through out the Bible. God favors the lowly, the down and out. And think of the countless millions of people who, in the 2000 years since those shepherds experienced the divine, have experienced God when they were at the lowest point in their lives.
Remember, in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but rather those who are sick.” Theologically speaking, Jesus came into the world to heal, both physically and spiritually, the sick. In another of his metaphors Jesus talks about having come to seek out the lost sheep. And for 2000 years people have turned to Jesus at some crisis point in their lives, and in return have had their prayers answered. In all likelihood, more people have experienced God in the cold alleys of our cities and the dark corners of our homeless shelters than in all the churches that line our streets.
That is one of the three paths to union with God, one of the three paths to Bethlehem. At the lowest point of our lives we experience the unspeakable love, mercy and forgiveness of God.
But that is not the only path. Consider the path taken by the wise men. This is the story from the Gospel of Matthew:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Okay, let’s not get hung up on details here. Yes, Matthew says Jesus was born in a house, meaning there would have been no trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, and no need to search for lodging at the inn. And yes, the story does not say how many wise men were there. But we have our story, even if it’s not exactly biblical, and for now we’ll stick with it. There are three wise men, and they end up there at the stable with the shepherds.
Whatever the proper details, the point is that the wise men took a very distinctive path to Bethlehem. Unlike the shepherds, who were shocked into the faith by a radical epiphany of the Holy, the wise men were seekers. I envision the wise men pouring over astronomical charts, noticing an unusual light in the sky, and then following that light to see where it led them. They were in search of knowledge, in search of faith. Unlike the shepherds, they actively sought the truth.
Who are the wise men in today’s world? They represent those who diligently seek God through study. These are the men and women who eagerly delve into the Bible, who live their lives on the constant lookout for some sign that draws them nearer to God. These are the academics who study the religious writing of Christian history, hungering for those shreds of truth from which they can adjust their spiritual paths.
This is a viable path. The wise men may not be able to state the day, time and hour they first believed, but their faith journey is very real. And it pays off in a relationship with God. It pays off when they finally arrive in Bethlehem.
Of course, there is a third path to Bethlehem. That is the path taken by Mary and Joseph. I realize that according to the gospels both Mary and Joseph were recipients of visits by angels. This is how Mary knew that she would conceive a child even though she remained a virgin, and it is also how Joseph knew he could accept Mary at her word, that she was indeed a pregnant virgin destined to bring a very special child into the world.
But let us consider their journey to Bethlehem. According to the Gospel of Luke, it was not some heavenly host, some amazing epiphany that sent them to Bethlehem. Nor was it the observance of the stars or the study of scriptures. They were just going about their daily lives. The king ordered a census, and they had no choice but to journey to Bethlehem.
The path they took to Bethlehem is very much like the path most of us take to Bethlehem. We don’t spend countless hours each day pouring over detailed theological tracts and plumbing the depths of Thomas Aquinas to enter into our relationship with God. Not are we the recipients of some radical experience, where the presence of God is a surer thing to us than the ground on which we stand. We are just going along on our routines, following the rules, trying to be good people. Like Mary and Joseph, we attend religious services most weeks. And God is a big part of our lives, but for the most part we go through life one step at a time, trusting that our faith journey has real value despite the lack of intensive theological training and radical epiphanies.
That is what took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Everyday life. Following the rules. Trying to live good and ordinary lives. But notice where their journey takes them. To Bethlehem. To that amazing and magical place where God and humanity find common ground, where God is revealed in the most unexpected way.
All three of the paths to Bethlehem are represented among the faithful gathered here today. But it isn’t the path that matters so much. It is the journey. The faith journey. Because each and every one of us is on that journey to Bethlehem. If not, we would not be here this morning.
So I say to each of you, God’s blessing on your journey. It is a joy to be on this journey with you. And while we will inevitably part for a time, we’ll meet in Bethlehem. I’m sure of it. Merry Christmas.