HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Micah 5:2-5a
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 2:1-7
SERMON: “Characters of Christmas - Bethlehem”
Once upon a time, (don’t all good stories begin that way?) a church school class was presenting a nativity play and four children were designated to hold letters to a song about the Star of Bethlehem. Unfortunately, the first child, carrying the letter "S," went stage left instead of right, and the others of course followed. The children sang beautifully, as the parents roared with laughter as the children's letters spelled: R-A-T-S.
I remember when my children were little, going up for children’s messages in worship, never quite knowing what they might say. Those of you with children and grandchildren that age . .. . I feel your pain. I do. But the rest of us just love the things that come out of children’s mouths. Trust me, no one can fracture a Christmas carol better than a kid.
Here are some of my favorites:
Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly
On the first day of Christmas my tulip gave to me
Later on we'll perspire, as we dream by the fire.
He's makin’ a list, chicken and rice.
Rudolph: Olive, the other reindeer. . . . . You'll go down in Listerine!
Frosty the Snowman is a ferret elf, I say . .
In the meadow we can build a snowman, Then pretend that he is sparse and brown.
Oh, what fun it is to ride with one horse, soap and hay . .
We three kings of porridge and tar
O come, froggy faithful.
Noel. Noel, Barney's the king of Israel.
With the jelly toast proclaim . . .
Sleep in heavenly peas . . .
While shepherds washed their socks by night . . .
“O Little Town of Bethlehem is absolutely one of my favorite carols. And Bethlehem is a major piece of the Christmas story. Remember Mary lived in Nazareth; Joseph was from Bethlehem. It is likely that Mary’s pregnancy sped up the wedding plans, and probable that the wedding itself took place in her home town of Nazareth. But while they are there the Romans issue a call for everyone to be registered – in order for the Romans to collect taxes from everyone, and not miss anyone.
I don’t know why they couldn’t just count people where they were, but the Romans required everyone to register in their home town, which meant that Mary, now just a few days away from her due date had to travel with Joseph back to his home town of Bethlehem.
Can you just imagine what must have been going through Mary’s mind? What her prayers to God might have sounded like? “God, you know I have always tried to do what you want from me. I said I am your servant and I meant it. I agreed to bear the child you gave me and the shame and humiliation that went right along with it. Now, when this baby is due any day, you want me to make a ten-day journey to Bethlehem, leaving my mother and my mid-wife here and bearing this child on a trip in a strange place, with people I don’t know? Why God? Why would you make me do that? What have I done to deserve this? What have I done to displease you?”
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt that you have tried your best to do what God requires of you and still he makes you take your own trip to Bethlehem? In the midst of Mary and Joseph’s hardship, God was working to redeem the world. God didn’t require the Roman census, but God used it to put everything in place for the birth of the Messiah, God’s own Son, the Hope of the world. Whatever trip to Bethlehem you are facing, whatever hardship you are dealing with, whatever disappointment, grief or trouble – God did not cause your difficulties. But if you, like Mary and Joseph, trust him, God will use your circumstances for something better than you ever imagined.
I am embarrassed on behalf of all pastors when one minister says something like what one said in reference to the tragedy in Connecticut that we should not be surprised that schools would become a place of carnage because we have systematically removed God from our schools. God did not cause that murderous shooting spree as retaliation. God did not choose 20 young children and six adults to die as some sacrifice. The places for Christian faith to be taught are in Christian churches and homes. And if you think prayer never happens in schools, you haven’t seen a class of teenagers about to begin an algebra test. God did not cause this tragedy, but God can use it to work more good than we ever thought of. . .if we, like Mary, are willing to walk the road God calls us to travel.
And which road did the couple travel to Bethlehem. According to scholars there are two most likely routes they could have taken. The first would be to travel east from Nazareth, cross the Jordan and south along the Jordan River, crossing back towards Jericho and on to Bethlehem. The disadvantage to that route is that it would take about two extra days. Still, many travelers would choose that route, because the river valley would be mostly flat terrain, and more importantly because that route would avoid travel through Samaria.
Traveling the route through Samaria would have been rougher terrain, but a two critical days shorter trip. Traveling the route through Samaria would retrace sixteen hundred years of history from the time of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha in preparation for an entirely new chapter in human history.
Keep in mind that the Jewish people considered Samaritans unclean, if not outright heretics. So choosing the longer route along the Jordan valley was common. But is that the way Jesus was raised to feel about the Samaritans? Remember Jesus offering “living water” to the Samaritan woman he met at the well? a woman who had been divorced five times and was now living with yet another man. Remember Jesus’ scandalous (to the scholars and lawyers of his time) story about the “Good Samaritan?” Jesus used that story to teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves. I like to think that Jesus’ parents raised him to be accepting of the Samaritan people and all people.
Who are your Samaritans? Who are the people you would cross a river to avoid? In other words, whom do you have an aversion towards? Rich people or poor people? Atheists or devoutly religious people? Young or old people? People whose skin is a different color or whose heritage is from another country – or continent? Someone you feel has wronged you, or hurt you? As you travel towards Christmas, it’s worth pondering whether God would have you open your heart and seek reconciliation with your Samaritans.
Part of the nativity story every year includes a somewhat critical view of a rather insensitive inn keeper who can’t or won’t find room for a mother-to-be, just about ready to give birth. If you were here two weeks ago, you may remember I spoke about Joseph’s family home being in Bethlehem. If that was the case, then why couldn’t they just stay with his parents.
This is where a little Greek translation scholarship helps. The word generally translated in Luke as “inn” is kataluma. Adam Hamilton points out that the only other use of this word in the Gospels “comes when Jesus sends his disciples ahead to find a room they can use for their Last Supper together. That room, as you’ll recall, was not a room in an inn, but a guest room in a house. This is the more accurate translation of kataluma -- it is a guest room.”1
We who are accustomed to homes with two, three, four, or more bedrooms, perhaps a family room with a hide-a-bed and a living room besides, need to shift thinking a minute to the layout of a typical home in Joseph and Mary’s time. There would be a kitchen/dining/common area, a sleeping area, and an “upper room” that could be used for guests. That’s the kataluma. And behind the house there would be a barn or stable – think of it as a detached garage. With a whole lot of family arriving at Joseph’s family’s home, a number of people would have been occupying the upper room. The garage would likely have been the only place affording Mary any privacy.
It most certainly was not a silent night. I doubt all was calm and bright. In reality it was a messy, noisy, smelly place, certainly not what Mary would have planned. But we will never let go of the inn keeper who failed to find room, nor of lovely, reassuring carols like Silent Night and Away in a Manger, and we don’t need to . . . because the beauty of the nativity story is that God comes to us in the midst of our messy, noisy, smelly lives, ready to bring more good than we ever hoped for.
Natalie Cole had a big hit with a Christmas song called "My Grown-up Christmas List." Have you heard this? In the song, Natalie Cole reminisces about how when she was young, she sat on Santa's knee and told him about her childhood fantasies. And then she sings about how she's all grown up now, but she still has dreams... things she would like for Christmas, not just for herself but for our needy world. Then she sings her "Grown-up Christmas List." Here are the things she wants for Christmas now:
No more lives torn apart
And wars will never start,
And time will heal all hearts.
Everyone will have a friend
And right will always win,
And love will never end.
This is my lifelong dream,
My Grown-up Christmas List."
Do you know what Natalie Cole is longing for in that song? She is longing for the peace of Christmas... and the place to find that is in the miracle of Bethlehem. When we go back to Bethlehem, may we discover that real peace means being set right in all our relationships. It means being... right with God, right with ourselves, and right with other people. Amen.
1Hamilton, Adam The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, Abingdon Press, 2011, pp 96-99.