Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
December 24, 2011 Christmas Eve Service
HOW FAR IS IT TO BETHLEHEM?
Text: Luke 2:1-7
When Mary and Joseph took off for Bethlehem from Nazareth it was a three day journey on foot. Mary rode a donkey, but given her condition – great with child – it could not have been an easy trip.
Bethlehem was the town where David was born, then later anointed king. It was where the Jewish people dreamed the Messiah would be born, the long-awaited ultimate king, ultimate “Anointed One” - - which is what Messiah means. So when the Wise Men asked Herod where the child born to be king would be born the priests whispered in Herod’s ear: Bethlehem.
How far had the Wise Men traveled? From Persia probably, what is now Iran, a three-week journey across desert sands.
If we travel to Bethlehem today we’ll take a plane to Jerusalem, then travel by car the four miles to Bethlehem. About six thousand miles. You’ll probably enter from the north as did Mary and Joseph, and you’ll come to a church called the Church of the Nativity. It was first built by Emperor Constantine out of his new found zeal as a Christian convert. 326 AD. It sits on the site of a shepherd’s cave where tradition says Jesus was born. In the early 200's Origen, a famous theologian, traveled from Alexandria, Egypt to Bethlehem and discovered that believers and non-believers alike identified that spot, a grotto, a cave-like place, as the place when Jesus was born. In 130 C.E. the pagan emperor Hadrian desecrated all the Jewish and Christian holy places in the Holy Land. On the site of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was thought to be buried he erected a temple to Venus. On the site of the shepherd’s cave when Jesus was thought to be born he built a garden to Adonis. So maybe this was the place. We need not just holy words, and holy people, but holy places, too.
If you go to the Church of the Nativity today you must stoop to enter the front door; only children can enter upright. It seems right, doesn’t it, that we must stoop, must bow to enter there? To go to the place where Jesus was born you walk down a staircase to a room underneath the chancel. It is 13 x 33 feet. On the marble floor there is a silver star marking the spot. Who would not want to kneel and touch it, may even place your lips upon it?
What is the meaning of this holy night, this holy story, this holy place called Bethlehem? Bonhoeffer said that only as we ask our most important questions of the Bible will it open itself to us, offer itself to us. What are your questions tonight as you imagine that night in Bethlehem? Where is Christ today? Or what is his meaning for my life, my truest deepest life?
From my own seeking and wonderment here are things that are crucial to my life.
Jesus was born into a family poor by our standards, born in a shepherd’s cave because there was no room in the inn. God’s son was born not in an emperor’s palace but in a shepherd’s cave, a stable for animals. So God Emmanuel comes anywhere, everywhere, into any room of our house, our heart, no matter the state of it. He said it himself: He waits for us in the least of these. Which may be someone you’d rather not see.
And this. Early church theologians were careful to say that God took on the flesh not just of one man but of all humanity. God assumed our human nature, not just one person’s nature. Here is the universality of the gospel: God has taken in Jewish flesh, Christian flesh, Muslim flesh, Buddhist flesh, native religion flesh, druid flesh, agnostic flesh, doubting flesh, all flesh!
Thomas Merton, the famous American monk, had an epiphany one day at the corner of 4th and Walnut streets in Louisville, KY. (Walnut Street is now Muhammad Ali Blvd.) He saw as in a vision himself connected with every person walking along the street:
I have the immense joy of being human, a member of the race in which God himself became incarnate . . . . If only people could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of convincing people that they are walking around shining like the sun!
Here is another place of wonder for me: that on this night God became small enough for us to love. Small enough for us to hold, to rock, to feel his tiny hand suddenly grip your finger.
Perhaps here is where we first began to follow the great commandment of both Jewish and Christian faith: Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Maybe we start there with this child, or any child, and then that love grows and matures and extends not only to God but to all the world. Is there a deeper peace than holding a child in your arms? A sleeping child! We start with a child.
Perhaps also this is where you begin to love yourself as God loves you, you beloved daughter, son of God, as Jesus was God’s beloved. You are that holy child adored, which then opens your eyes to a world where every child is holy, beloved of God.
Bethlehem is what Celtic Christians call a “thin place,” a place where the veil separating the material and spiritual grows so thin as to disappear and you feel at one with God.
This child Jesus will grow, make adult demands on adult followers, heal the sick, challenge the powers that be, befriend the poor and despised and ask us to do the same. All this is to come. But for now, we simply adore. We can do that, you know, simply adore.
How far is it to Bethlehem? Six thousand miles, a three weeks’ journey across the sands, three day journey by foot? How about sixteen inches, the distance between your head and your heart, sometimes the longest journey of all, but one you can travel in an instant of time. It is that spiritual moment when the mind descends into the heart.
Here is one of any favorite carols. Perhaps you heard it coming:
How far is it to Bethlehem
Not very far
Shall we find a stable-room
Lit by a star?
Can we see the little child
Is he within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?
If we touch his tiny hand
Will he awake?
Will he know we’ve come this far
Just for his sake?
His sake, and our own too of course, and the world’s who in the darkened night need a small light, who in a world troubled and afraid need to believe.