Did any of you go away for Thanksgiving? Maybe you hosted the feast in your own homes? Some who went away are likely traveling back today. I wish them traveling mercies. I don’t envy them. My family crept along part of I-85 at a snail’s pace yesterday afternoon. Some of you may have gone to your parents’ home or your grandparents’ home. I spent a few days in the mountains of northeast Georgia, where my mom spent her childhood and her parents and grandparents spent their whole lives. I’ve been visiting this rural community for as long as I can remember- nearly 5 decades. So it’s a familiar place to me – with familiar people. It’s also a thin place for me… By that I mean a place where heaven and earth seem to meet. A place with simple beauty, wide open country spaces, a place where I’ve been inspired, comforted, challenged, and even changed. A New York Times’ article mentioned this paradox about life on earth: “God transcends time and space yet we seem to seek and/or find God in very specific times and places. God is everywhere and everywhen.” Yes, I meant to say that. The author invented the word but it’s a good word. The quotation is “God is everywhere and everywhen but seems so much closer in the thin places.” I know some of your thin places: Bald Head Island or Emerald Isle or another beach. For many of our youth, it’s Montreat, where at camp, they have figurative and literal mountain-top experiences. For dozens in this congregation, it’s Pala, Guatemala, where the beauty of the land and people takes hold of the heart and conviction and commitment to help is sealed.
For Philip Brooks, an Episcopalian clergyman who lived in the late 1800s, Bethlehem was a thin place. But before I tell you about that, let me tell you a bit about him. Brooks performed the funeral for Abraham Lincoln. The war and mourning for those killed in war, the division in the country and in his congregation brought him great sadness. So he did what any of us pastors do when we need a break- he took a sabbatical and during his sabbatical, he toured the Middle East. On Christmas day to escape the busyness of Jerusalem, Brooks borrowed a horse and rode through the country- all the way to Bethlehem. That’s about 6 miles. As he arrived and viewed the starry sky over the little village, he had a sense of great awe and he marveled that God had come and been born there. The experience of seeing Bethlehem at night and then worshiping in the place where Jesus was born amazed Brooks. And two years later he wrote the words which we sing in the popular carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. His organist wrote the music. The song became an instant hit in his church and then in all the churches in Philadelphia and now it’s sung all over the world.
The devotional book titled Why This Jubilee? explores Brooks’ lyrics and challenges us to delve deeper into their meaning:
“Let every heart prepare him room” – There is some irony in that there was no room in the inn for Jesus. Too often, over-crowding is a problem for us in the present as well. “What Jesus wants is a vacancy, an opening, some room. He can’t be crammed into our hearts if we keep everything we’ve ever accumulated.” We have to do some letting go. To say yes to Jesus we have to say no to other things.
“God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” – What are these blessings? They are certainly richer, more lasting than anything than we can buy, wrap, wear, eat or drink… The blessings include knowing that we are not alone. Being loved. Being forgiven. Having a path/ The Way set before us. Trusting in a good future.
“O come to us abide with us.” – God has COME but God’s reign is not established. Sometimes we may feel all alone but we are not. God is with us.
“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” – Jesus meets our fears and alleviates them. Jesus meets our hopes and fulfills them if they are worthy of fulfillment. All of humanities’ hopes and fears are met in Bethlehem because of the one born there- Jesus the Messiah. It is so strange to think that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came first to Bethlehem and yet today, as one poet described it, “how eerily still we see thee lie: with trenches, barbed wire, fences, walls, and military checkpoints.”
The Scripture Lesson this morning tells more about this place, Bethlehem, and the one born there. Way, way before Philip Brooks wrote about Bethlehem, Micah wrote about it. Eight centuries before a manger became a cradle for divinity, Micah, a prophet, and a contemporary with Isaiah, said, “You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the littlest clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” Bethlehem had been special to the Hebrew people for centuries: David had been born and anointed king there and his ancestors Ruth and Boaz had met and married there. Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel was buried there. But it is Jesus’ birth that cemented Bethlehem in history for us. Bethlehem was such a strange choice for this wondrous act of God. Bethlehem was small and old and poor. It had little industry or trade. It was similar to hundreds of other little villages around. Jerusalem or Rome with their impressive buildings and distinguished citizens with thriving business and seats of power were not God’s choice. Rather, the Son of God was born not simply in a lowly little town but in the lowliest of accommodations there- outside a crowded inn, possibly in a stable or most likely, in a cave where the animals were kept. “Bethlehem (does) not seem the sort of place a sensible God would choose as the pivot on which all history would turn.” But God often makes this point. Don’t ever discount what appears to be small and powerless.
Our scripture passage proclaims the message of Jesus as the promised one… Jesus is qualified to be the Messiah because of his birthplace, because he will be a shepherd-king AND he is identified as a king by those who have brought him gifts. The visitors who have journeyed from afar show that Jesus is King not only for Israel but for all. We don’t know very much about the wise men- also called magi or scholars or sometimes astrologers. We know they are from the East but no one is sure where that is- perhaps it was Persia but it could have been Babylon or Arabia. Wherever they are from, they have left that place because they believed they were given a sign – the rising of a star unlike any other -and so they have set out to find a newborn king. Most scholars believe their pilgrimage took almost two years. The scriptures don’t tell us. But we know that after Jesus was born, the magi show up in Jerusalem inquiring about him.
Matthew seems to be emphasizing that Christ’s birth is for all people…
Eugene Boring points out that “the magi are Gentiles in the extreme, characters who could not be more remote from the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem in heritage and worldview.”
Alan Culpepper, another pastor writes, “Here is a meeting of two worldviews- Jewish and Gentile, devout and pagan. The magi, seekers, could not find Christ without the guidance of those who had the Scriptures but why were those with the Scriptures NOT going to worship too? No delegation of chief priests and scribes from Jerusalem goes to Bethlehem to see Jesus.” No, there are no chief priests or scribes in our crèches. Nativity scenes are void of any powerful political or religious figures. But these guys were affected! Herod was affected. He was frightened – and all Jerusalem with him. Apparently the city of Jerusalem, including the religious leaders “cast its lot with the Roman Empire, as represented by Herod.” As will be the case at his death, even at his birth, when he is simply a lowly babe, those in power conspire and seek to end him. If you remember the story, or if you read ahead in Matthew, you know that Herod orders the execution of all children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old or younger. Jesus is safe because his family has fled to Egypt. Only after Herod’s death do they return- but not to Bethlehem. Instead they made their home in Nazareth, thus fulfilling another prophecy about Jesus. I love this footnote I found in The Interpreter’s Bible: “The contrast between Herod and his power and Jesus and his vulnerability (he’s just a baby)- and Herod with all Jerusalem while Jesus is alone, with just his lowly parents -causes us to ask ‘How does goodness survive when evil has both conspiracy and the sword?’ The answer is in the governance of history above and beyond the wit of the wicked.” God will always win!
But let us return to the story at hand…
The magi travel from far away to find Jesus and upon finding him they worship him. I have been studying this story and reading commentaries and blogs for a month now and there are 4 points I want to share- points that bring the story a bit closer to us:
#1- (Working Preacher)- “The Magi didn’t come looking for Christ through preaching, sacrament, a welcoming congregation or a vital social ministry. They came after studying the night skies. God’s call comes in many ways. We must remember that it is not limited just to those who feel comfortable in church sanctuaries on Sunday morning.”
#2- Ours is such a technological, mechanical, scientific world… yet like the magi (wise men of their time), we yearn for something greater than we know, something better. There is moral poverty in almost every political, social and economic system. We feel powerless in the face of international violence and terrorism. The world sometimes feels out of control and sometimes following Christ might be a bit like following a star… it seems like a crazy idea, it takes us out of comfort zones; (it puts us in judgment zones) and it requires us to have an imagination, a dream, and a persistent faith…
#3 – (Eugene Boring) “One of the tasks of the church is to continue Matthew’s witness that the yearnings even of those who do not know fully what they seek are met in the act of God at Bethlehem.
We must be prepared to welcome the magi in our mist, people from other places, ethnically and spiritually, so they too may know the One whom they seek.” Jesus is not just for some, but for all- for us and for them, for insider and outsider alike, for those who believe like we do and for those who believe differently. Jesus has come even for those who struggle to believe in God at all.
And finally, point #4- The wise men found God and then they worshiped him. This reminds me of the first question in the Westminster Catechism, a teaching tool that many of you perhaps memorized- “What is the chief end of man?” In modern language it would be “What is the purpose of humanity?” The answer- “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Yes, but that can be harder than it sounds. An Episcopal priest asked “After the shimmering splendor of the star’s light and the wonder and mystery (of seeing the Christ child) did it make a difference back home on the mundane Monday Morning of taking out the garbage, of changing the diapers, balancing the checkbook, paying the bills,” attending the meeting, driving the carpool, calling on clients, going to the dentist, figuring out what to do about the stain on the carpet and what to do about the grinding noise the car makes when you take a corner too sharply?
What was life like for the magi after they found Jesus? We do not know.
What is life like for us after we have seen Jesus?
W.H. Auden sums it up – “To those who have seen the child, however dimly, however incredulously, the time being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.”
It is far too easy for us to lose our sense of wonder and mystery. It is far too easy for us to lose the capacity to hope and dream. It is far too easy for us to lose the joy… It is far too easy for us to follow the Powers that Be. It is hard to follow Jesus.
And so we sing and we pray: “Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us… Be born in us today.” Jesus doesn’t just come to Bethlehem. He comes to us, to our hearts, by the Spirit.
I invite you now to reflect on some questions. In the silence and space of this sanctuary, I ask-
Where is a place you have seen Jesus?
How did you get there?
What was the encounter like?
Did anything change back at home? Why or why not?
Has there been a recent sign in your life that could be from God?
What do you have that you can offer to God?
Let us pray:
(Adapted from Evan Drake Howard’s Rekindling the Hope of the Manger)
O God of manger and mystery, we receive this Advent season as a gift from you.
Let us follow you again to Bethlehem, where our hearts can be filled with wonder at the Christmas miracle. And may that miracle convict us and shape us. Amidst the stresses and uncertainties of our lives, lead us to you, that we might rejoice in your presence. Help us look for you not just in places and among people where we would expect to find you, but also where your presence takes us by surprise and forces us to reexamine our values and faith. Thank you that you go with us wherever we go. You are with us in our times of celebration and our times of desperation. Help us to persevere in our journey of faith, that fear may give way to confidence and hope. Enter our thinking, our dreaming, our coming and our going, our doubting and our believing, that we might find the discipline and commitment to always seek your Light. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
You’re going to be busy, I know it. Busy buying and wrapping. Busy decorating and baking and partying. Busy taking family photos and sending cards and well wishes for the Christmas season. Busy getting ready to go to Grandma’s house or making other travel plans. But don’t neglect to go to Bethlehem. Go to Bethlehem and behold the King, Jesus our Lord.
The Blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with us this day, this season and always. Alleluia, Amen!