Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
We're nearly there this morning. Our journey to Bethlehem is just about complete.
Two men were standing on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street in New York City during the Christmas rush, waiting for a red light. One of them was irritated by the traffic. "This town is totally disorganized," he growled. "Look at this traffic! It's terrible! Something ought to be done about it."
The other man was more philosophical. Thoughtfully he countered, "You know, it's astounding, the romance of it. There was a baby born of peasant parents in a little out-of-the-way place halfway around the world from here. The parents had no money or social standing, yet two thousand years later that little baby creates a traffic jam on Fifth Avenue, one of the most sophisticated streets in the world. This irritates you. Instead it should fascinate you."
I agree. It should fascinate us. A baby boy, born in an obscure village, his simple parents no more than refugees, and yet around the world during this special season of the year, millions of people are affected by his birth.
It's fascinating, as is that story we know so well in its every detail. For example, why Bethlehem? It's such an unlikely choice, a grubby little village overrun with transients and filled with folks who looked at their neighbors with suspicion and on strangers with hatred—not to mention innkeepers who charged too much.
But it is there that we go, a nowhere place where an insignificant woman gave birth to a child with a common name.
Why Bethlehem? Because it is the symbol of the greatness of God's love. The word "Bethlehem" means "place of bread" in Hebrew, and "house of meat" in Arabic. Situated in the middle of a dry and barren desert, Bethlehem was an oasis where figs, grain and olives were grown, surrounded by protecting sage brush and sand dunes. No wonder it was called "the place of bread." And how appropriate that the "Bread of Life" is born there.
On her way to this place, the young woman Mary encountered her kinswoman, Elizabeth. And with Elizabeth, a need was met in her. This young and confused woman found a mature and deep spirit of confidence and joy. She finds a way to give voice to the glory of her being chosen by God, and speaks the incredible hymn we know as the Magnificat.
And then came Mary's exhausting trip while nine months pregnant, along with Joseph, of course. Yet, when they reached their destination, they still have far to go.
Once in the city, they confronted the now familiar, but then horrifying, "no room at the inn" dead-end. It is fairly well established that rather than being born in a building, it is far more likely that Jesus was born in a small cave or grotto. I was privileged to see the place identified as the location.
In the Bethlehem of the first century, many homes and inns were built into the sides of hills, using natural caves for rooms in the larger shelter. With the rooming houses filled or unwilling to give space to Joseph and Mary, it would only be natural for them to seek shelter in one of the smaller, less-protected cave-like crevices that stand outside the security of a homemade enclosure.
The inns that used caves as part of their structure were always careful to provide only one entrance into their interior rooms—for the sake of security. But camping out in a small open-air cave, Joseph and Mary were easy prey, openly accessible from a variety of routes. And yet, it was this same precarious nature of the shelter that made it possible for both shepherds and animals to approach them openly and gaze with wonder at the newborn child.
With this odd birth, a new age begins; and plans and directions shift. The Magi who worship the child are warned in a dream to depart a different way. Joseph and Mary also take an unexpected course—fleeing to Egypt in order to preserve the fragile life of their tiny newborn son.
Like the Magi, like Mary and Joseph, we too must be willing to seek another, less familiar path once we have been to Bethlehem and opened ourselves to the Christmas miracle.
This morning we continue the journey; it is not yet complete.
George Eliot once wrote a book that many of us read while we were in school, about a bitter old miser, Silas Marner, who is preoccupied with his gold. One day his wealth is stolen. And Marner longs to find the thief. Instead, a young golden-haired child finds her way into Silas' cottage, and he grows to love her and eventually to adopt her. Suddenly, Marner discovers through this child something much more valuable than gold.
Later a friend of Marner's is commenting on the injustices that Marner has experienced. He replies in the vernacular of his time, "...that doesn't hinder. Since the time the child was sent to me and I've come to love her as myself, I've had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she'll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die."
Marner discovers what you and I may still discover if we complete our trip to find the child born in the manger of Bethlehem. We may discover that at the heart of this universe is a tender love.
Liturgically and spiritually speaking, we're on a road that leads to Bethlehem. Will we complete our journey, or will we take one of the many detours that beckon?
If and when we arrive, our lives will forever be changed-as was Silas Marner's. And as I said a moment ago, like the Magi, like Mary and Joseph, we must be willing to seek a less familiar path once we have been to Bethlehem and opened ourselves to the Christmas miracle. People who have been to Bethlehem—figuratively speaking—cannot go home the same way they came. "You cannot see the child and go back by the same road."
We can learn from the wise men. Isn't it revealing that it is outsiders who discover the Christ, while the religious establishment falls all over itself. It's the wise men, the ones who are the wrong race, the wrong color, the wrong religion, and the ones who kneel down to worship the child; while the supposedly more important folks are busy keeping the status quo. It is the outsiders-the wise men-who give lavish and generous gifts to the child.
The road to Bethlehem is full of twists, turns, surprises.
Even the songs we sing can lead in the wrong direction. Did you know that one of the well-known Christmas tunes is potentially dangerous? It's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. "Then the other reindeer loved him...," the song says. Not until Rudolph was approved by the authority figure Santa, not until Rudolph had proven that his disability could actually be useful, not until he had done something heroic was Rudolph with all his differences and disabilities accepted. [J. Sidlow Baxter in Richard Allen Bodey, "Inside the Sermon" (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990)]
It's dangerous. It takes the wrong road from Bethlehem-away from grace.
There are many such wrong roads, and wrong turns, and twists that are so confusing that we may get lost. Today, the road stands before us inviting a decision, much like a fork in the road.
Ours is much like the decision Robert Frost faces in his poem, The Road Not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how the way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
This morning our journey is not yet complete. And we have a decision to make on our way to Bethlehem. Which way will we choose?
Do we wait anxiously for Christmas time, for the journey to Bethlehem, just so that we can check it off our list of "places of interest" as if it were some tourist's itinerary? Or are we willing to take the other path to Bethlehem, knowing that far from being our destination, it is the beginning of a long journey into the mysteries of faith foreshadowed in the Magnificat.
It may be the one less traveled by, but it makes all the difference. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.