Modern Day Bethlehems
Its Christmas Eve. and we’ve got all the makings for most incredible night
Stars in the sky Holy hush Celestial choirs Good tidings of great joy for the whole world.
But I want to talk about things less lofty Things more earthly than holy.
I am caught by Luke’s description of Jesus’ birth.
In just three verses practically the whole Christmas story—
Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, Mary’s pregnancy,
The birth of Jesus, And where they stayed while they were in Bethlehem.
What usually takes the majority of a Christmas pageant was done here in the economy of 3 sentences.
I don’t know about you, but I would have thought Luke would have written more.
After all we’ve imagined it a thousand times over In story books, in carols and song, in the contemplation of our prayer life. We want to get close to this old familiar story
To hear it again with fresh ears And see if there is still a message for us. Because despite the canned quality of this story, told so many times We sense there is something much deeper going on here. We want to know what it is.
So tonight I invite you to put on 1st century shoes with me, And imagine that night of Jesus’ birth so long ago.
Bethlehem was a small town, paling in comparison to the great metropolis of Jerusalem,
5 miles to the north. It might have been a forgotten town, if it had not been the birth of the famous King David. But that was long ago, and now it was town of farmers and shepherds. Simple people lived there. People who worked the land, and paid tribute both to landowners whose fields they worked And to Rome, the imperial nationstate.
Mary and Joseph were making their way to this town, Joseph’s ancestral home.
The picture I have in my mind of this scene comes from art:
Joseph on foot, and Mary great with child, seated on a donkey.
While it’s probably accurate that they made the journey on foot
It isn’t likely that Mary and Joseph were traveling alone.
In the middle eastern culture of their day, there was no such thing as the nuclear family.
Eastern culture is based on the extended family Which lives together, works together and raises children together. Mary and Joseph would have been traveling as a part of larger contingent of Joseph’s family who needed to register in Bethlehem too.
And they would have been heading to the home of relatives that still lived in Bethlehem,
Not the ‘inn’ that we normally imagine.
But what about Jesus being born in a stable? Scripture does say that that Jesus was ‘laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’
The word that is translated as ‘inn’ is really better translated as ‘guest area.’
The guest area at the relatives’ home was likely already full of other family members
Who had traveled to Bethlehem. So Mary and Joseph stayed on the first floor of the house, which was a multi-purpose area, commonly the place where animals were brought in at night. Kind of changes the mental image, doesn’t it?
We’re so used to seeing it in glossy pages of the storybook, Acted out by children in bathrobes, Or portrayed by painted porcelain crèches. But the real nativity was more like a gathering in many parts of the world today Crowded, noisy and full of life
Jesus was born into a world Where extended families sleep in the same house
Where animals are nearby Where the dirty fingernails and sweat of the brow are part of every day life. In short, Jesus was born into a peasant’s world With family and traditions and hard labor All part of the package. But why go through all of this rearranging of our mental picture? Why re-imagine it all? I think there is an important reason. B/c when God became human, God had a choice about what kind of environment to be born into.
God could have chosen any time, any place. God could have been born to King Herod’s house or a wealthy landowner’s manor. God could have been born in 21st century America, with all the conveniences of modern technology and benefits of health care and sanitation. But God chose the meager conditions of a peasant family in Palestine. God chose teenage parents, disgraced by an out of wedlock pregnancy.
In the words of Saint Paul, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”
God chose to identify with humanity, and the majority of the people in the world, even today, live closer to the environment described by Luke than depicted by our pageants, carols, or crèches.
This came home to me in a clear way through a newsletter I received from a young adult Named Shari who worked as a missionary with street children in Peru a few years back. Next to a picture of shacks on stilts and what look like canals, she wrote: “Iquitos, Peru, situated along the Amazon River. The picture below doesn’t quite capture the utter filth and odor that resonates over the poor town of Belen. As we canoed through sewage and walked on rickety wooden planks praying they wouldn’t break and land us in the muck of excrement and garbage, little children happily played in surroundings all too familiar to them. Belen translates into Bethlehem.” She went on to write:
“Never before did the reality of what Bethlehem was really like, what Jesus was born into, hit me, as it did as I tried to walk through the streets of Belen, unable to breathe.
Jesus wasn’t born in a neat little barn with clean, sweet smelling hay as his bed in the manger.
He was born into conditions just like these children are born into here in present-day Bethlehem. Jesus saw each child’s face and felt the pain and placed himself in the midst of this suffering to take their hopelessness away.” There are many modern day Bethlehems From places as far away as Belen And as near as our own hearts
Places of danger or despair Places of failure or loneliness Places of deep human need
As we hear the story of Bethlehem so many years ago, We see all the Bethlehems of our world And we pray for the hope of the Messiah.
Where do we find ourselves in that old story? Its hard to think of ourselves as Mary, or Joseph, the holy family. Sometimes we think of ourselves as the shepherds,
in wonder and excitement running to see the Christ child. But tonight I’d like to suggest a different role. I’d like to suggest that we are members of the extended family who surrounded Mary and Joseph. Who traveled along side them to support them
Who attended Mary at the birth of Jesus and acted as her midwife And who ultimately helped bring to birth hope for the world in the baby in a manger.
Tonight is a night of celebration For hope is born for all the world. The Messiah has come with healing and wholeness and life. God has entered our Bethlehems to save us. Brothers and sisters, You have a pivotal role in bringing Christ into the world.
For you are not the shepherds who simply go and see You are the ones who are present at the birth You get the hands on experience You roll up your sleeves and get messy You touch this new hope, see it take its first breath, and hear its piercing cry.
There will be tears and blood and pain, but it is nothing next to the miracle this new life
this hope this healing this peace this shalom of Jesus Christ that you bring to the world.
For you are God’s holy midwives, And the Holy Spirit is working in you
to bring Christ to birth in Bethlehems of our day.