Christmas in Bethlehem

Matthew 2:1-18

Have you seen the movie “The Nativity?” It is the story of Jesus’ birth – much as you will remember it from your childhood days of flannel-graph Bible classes with the cast of characters who played a part in the birth of the Son of God. It made the characters come to life, though. It helped me to see what a noble man Joseph was – what a scandal Mary’s pregnancy must have been.

And it also brought Bethlehem to life. That little backwater town so close and yet so far from Jerusalem.

NPR carried a story some time back about plans to spruce up Bethlehem, the dusty little Palestinian town of Jesus’ birth. Normally, tourists take the bus from Jerusalem, get off the bus, go into the Church of the Nativity, take photographs, and then get back on the bus and return to Jerusalem without spending much money. Well, we can’t have that!

So the city authorities have plans to spruce up Bethlehem – to turn the dingy parking lot in front of the Church of the Nativity into a swanky shopping center with boutiques, shops, and a luxury hotel. International donations of $40 million are helping with the project. The story went on to say there are charges of political corruption, of money lining the pockets of Palestinian politicians, and the whole project is taking twice as long and is twice as expensive as they thought. The whole thing is bogged down in administrative red tape. So what else is new?

Poor Bethlehem – a grimy, politically corrupt little town caught on the border between two warring peoples. It is hardly a place for a celebration of Christmas…. Well actually, it is Christmas. In a way, everything meant in Christmas can be said in that one name: Bethlehem. This morning’s scripture takes place in Bethlehem. It is the story after the story of the birth of Jesus – After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matt. 2:1-18)

We sing “Silent night, holy night…,” “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie….” Our Christmas cards have pleasant pictures of Nativity scenes with Joseph, Mary and Jesus surrounded by a cast of adoring characters, or a snow covered cabin with smoke coming out of the chimney and warm lights in the windows inviting us to come in and join in a quiet of evening of friends and family. In spite of the crowded malls, and the long lines at Wal-Mart, and the stress of cooking a Christmas feast for 30, we still think of Christmas as a quiet and peaceful time, and of that first Christmas as a serene moment of quiet wonder.

But don’t forget – this is Bethlehem. The angels are gone now, the shepherds are back up in the hills, the Magi have slipped out of Judea by the back roads, and trouble is brewing.

An angel comes to Joseph and tells him to take his family and flee from Bethlehem, flee to Egypt.

Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch weren’t the only ones who hated Christmas. A fellow named Herod got wind of a possible threat to his throne and suddenly Bethlehem becomes the target of a midnight massacre. Herod is no fool. He’d been in power long enough to be able to tell a political rival when he saw one. What those ignorant shepherds might see is just a little baby. But Herod knew that the angels were right. He was a threat. He was a threat to everything that Herod had built his kingdom upon. And so, King Herod the Great, threatened by talk of a new king of the Jews that might threaten his political career, decided to stand up and act like a king. He sends his soldiers to little backwoods Bethlehem and has every baby boy, two years and younger slaughtered.

It’s no longer “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie” – it’s blood flowing in the streets, mothers wailing long, heart-wrenching cries as they hold their babies’ lifeless bodies. It’s funerals and empty cribs and misery.

We don’t like this Christmas story. Let us have back the peaceful stable and the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.

But even though this is not the Christmas story we want, it may be the Christmas story we need, because any God who is unwilling to come to Bethlehem won’t do us much good. If God is going to save us, God will have to come down – down to where we are – because we can never get up to God. He’s going to have to come down to where we live – and we live in Bethlehem – an inhospitable place, where there isn’t room and certainly no welcome – an unsavory place, where there is corruption and political gamesmanship – a deceptive place, which promises peace, but then stabs you in the back. That’s our world.

John’s glorious opening words to his Gospel begin: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Matthew calls it Bethlehem.

Bethlehem tells us that Jesus isn’t going to be an occasion of celebration for everyone.
· There will be those who oppose him, and despise him.
· There will be those who seek to trick him and tempt him.
· There will be those who plot and plan against him.
· There will be the crowds who, when the loaves stop multiplying and the reality of discipleship sets in, turn and leave him.
· There will be those who deny him and one who will betray him.
Bethlehem wipes away any fantasy we might hold about Jesus’ reception in a world that doesn’t have any room for another king.

At Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take place later at a spot about twelve miles up the road, called Golgotha. This one, called the King of the Jews, goes head to head with our kings and our kingdoms, our politics and our power; and there is pain and violence, and there is again bloodshed and weeping. At last, Herod will get his way.

Are we really that much different from Herod – whether it is Herod the Great who ordered the massacre at Bethlehem or Herod Antipas who sanctioned Jesus’ death at Golgotha?

The world, for the most part, loves babies. And they are sweet and loveable – (well, there are dirty diapers and late nights and early mornings and middle of the nights with croupy coughs. But all that kind of gets lost in the wash.) They’re cute and cuddly (even ugly babies). Nobody can hold a baby and not go, “Ahhhh!” That’s part of the charm of the story of Jesus’ birth – we love babies – they’re not threatening, they’re harmless, they’re innocent.

But babies have a way of growing up, and when this baby grows up, he makes demands the world wants no part of. The world may love a baby, but when Jesus grows up, he calls us to come and die to ourselves and take up our cross and follow him – and we didn’t bargain for that. The world says, “Wait a minute, we thought the angel said, ‘Unto you a Savior is born.’” But this Savior is also King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and he insists on absolute obedience.

The baby Jesus of the nativity story we love and adore, but the Jesus who confronts us with our sin and calls us to obedience – (demands that we die to self and follow him)
· we say ‘no’ to his demands,
· we push him out of our lives for other priorities,
· we relegate him to a place of unimportance in our lives.
And if we had been there that day, would we have joined in with the crowd in the frenzied cry of “Crucify him! Crucify him!”?

When the angel announced, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Immanuel’ – which means, ‘God with us.” …. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sin,’” he was setting in motion a sequence of events that would begin with bloodshed and death in Bethlehem and end with bloodshed and death in Jerusalem.

Bethlehem tells us that there will be a struggle for the hearts of men – that there will be a war that is fought for our hearts. And it tells us that there is not any price God is not willing to pay, there is no length to which God is not willing to go to save us from our sins – even if it means sending his son to an obscure little town like Bethlehem to begin life as a human being among the poor and the outcast. And to end that life a few miles away with the suffering and crucifixion and death of his own Son on the cross at Golgotha. And Matthew says all of this was for us and our salvation.

The question this morning is, who will win the struggle for your heart? God sent his Son – not for the nameless, faceless masses of humanity – but for you. Will you let Jesus be your King and your Lord?

The late columnist Mike Royko writes about a conversation he had with Slats Grobnik, a man who sold Christmas trees. Slats remembered one young couple on the hunt for a Christmas tree. He had seen them around the neighborhood. The guy was skinny and awkward, and she was kind of pretty. Both wore clothes from the bottom of the bin of the Salvation Army store.

After finding only trees they couldn’t afford, they found a Scotch pine that was okay on one side, but pretty bare on the other. Then they picked up another tree that wasn’t any better—full on one side, scraggly on the other. She whispered something, and he asked if $3 would be okay. Slats figured neither of the trees would ever sell, so he said, “sure”.

A few days later Slats was walking down the street and saw a beautiful tree in the window of the young couple's apartment. It was thick and beautiful. He knocked on their door and asked about the tree, and they told him how they worked the two trees close together where the branches were thin. Then they tied the trunks together. The branches overlapped and formed a tree so thick you couldn't see the wire. Slats described it as "a tiny forest of its own."

"So that's the secret," Slats observed. "You take two trees that aren't perfect, that have flaws, that might even be homely, that maybe nobody else would want. If you put them together just right, you can come up with something really beautiful."

Isn’t that really the story of Christmas? That God takes those things that are ugly and outcast and through his love and grace makes something beautiful.

(I want to acknowledge indebtedness to William Willimon for some of the thoughts in this sermon.)