Welcome to Christmas; Sermon, Dec 24, 2016
THERE IS A CHURCH on the other side of the world, in a town around the size of Hastings, where 4 different faiths have daily worship and each maintain monasteries. In this small church, the Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic faiths all claim ownership.
It isn’t the oldest church ever built, but it is the oldest surviving church in this region. It was built in the year 327 of the Common Era. Legend has it that when the Persian Army swept through the area destroying all the other landmarks, the commanding General was touched by a depiction of the Magi, or the 3 wise men, dressed as Persian, and ordered the church to be spared.
In an area of the world where several different languages are spoken, and where some of those languages are ancient, this town is known as House of Bread, House of Flesh, or House of Fertility.
I’m speaking of the Church of the Nativity, in the city of Bethlehem – which is in the state of Israel but is actually located in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank. I had the privilege to learn about this area in 2013 on a Seminary-hosted trip to help us understand the Middle East. 2000 years ago, in the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem held 300-900 people. Now, it holds 28000 people – 20% of those Arab Christians who trace their lineage back to the time of Christ - and is surrounded by a 20-foot cement wall of division from Israel. But it is swarmed year-round with Christian pilgrims passionate about seeing the place where Christ was born.
In the belly of this this church, for Pilgrims who journey to the birthplace of Christ, there are more surprises in store. Inside the Church of the Nativity, the décor matches the no-frills story of Jesus’ birth. It’s largely empty. The walls are bare and the floor is pockmarked, reflecting the centuries of empires that have clashed across the region. There are no royal velvet curtains or majestic windows or even pews! The altar is sparsely hung with incense lamps of the Orthodox tradition. Pilgrims like me are certain to be surprised at the lackluster appearance of such a significant place. And then we descend a narrow, cramped flight of stairs – actually struggle with other pilgrims to be allowed to descend the stairs. When I was there, I found myself thinking, “Why are we going down? Shouldn’t we be going outside?” But we stopped at a lower level and were directed toward a still smaller staircase going even further down that was even more cramped with seekers. In that small space, far below the ground level, where all of us had to stoop rather than stand, a large star of silver set in a marble floor is recognized as the exact spot of Jesus’ birth.
This was most unexpected - Jesus was born in a cave! For Americans like us, who are so used to listening to scripture with far away names and places and employing our imaginations - and especially for those of us from farm country, we naturally assume the translations for ‘manger’ look like our stables, with dirt floors and thatched roofs. But this was explained by Iyad, a Palestinian Christian whose family had historically been shepherds in Palestine for generations, that they had no trouble understanding what was meant in the scripture when Jesus was “laid in a manger”.
He said, "When you are a shepherd in the desert, you keep your animals in caves at night. There isn't much in the way of building materials for stables in the desert, but caves are plentiful and cool. Over time, shepherd families came to build rooms outside the caves, where the animals would walk through the front door and directly into the cave, and the family would stay off the to side. But these were often small rooms with 7, 10, or 12 people in the extended family. So when a woman is pregnant, does she give birth in the middle of all that cloistered company? No, she goes down into the cave for some privacy, and gives birth near the animals. They understood what it meant to ‘lay him in a manger’ because all their women gave birth in caves.
We’ve been talking about how we follow a God who is unexpected, a God who surprises us. When we were expecting a king of might and victory, we got an infant born of poverty amongst animals. When the people were expecting to be returned to their rightful status in their society, the Star led to a person of no status – immigrant refugees actually – caught between titans of power and on the run in a hostile middle-eastern world. When we were expecting wrath, judgment and fury, we got love, service and sacrifice.
And yet, still, this little baby was a threat. Today, if wealthy foreigners of royal descent tried to travel to Bethlehem today, or wise sages with notable background, they’d likely be brought for interrogation by Israeli authorities. Much like the magi were called before Herod. They’d want to know the reason for their travel – their destination and the time when they expect to visit this important person. God’s breaking into our world with this gift of love is precarious for a world based on power and might.
That’s because love is the most powerful force in the world. Where love is planted, it takes root. From an old dead stump like the stump of Jesse, love branches out. Through Jesus, God would give us a new understanding of authority based on love for each other.
Through Jesus, God would show us a remedy of healing for the powerful and the poor.
Through Jesus, God would show us an example of service for the least of these.
Through Jesus, God would show us a display of love that extended all the way to the grave and beyond.
Once love blankets the world, it brings warmth for all. Like swaddling clothes, love wraps humanity in caring.
Once love is lit in someone’s heart, it cannot be dimmed. Like the advent candle in a dark window, love shines through us as the warmth of welcome and safety.
Once love is followed, like the star, it leads us to treasures beyond our expectations.
Tonight we celebrate love incarnate. Tonight celebrate God’s love breaking into the world as flesh, as a human like us. Like the Magi, we journey to find the love, and recognize it in our hearts.
Welcome to Christmas. Welcome to a world ruled by love, which cannot be dimmed.