Modern Day Bethlehems

It’s Christmas Eve, and we’ve got all the makings for a most incredible night. Stars in the sky. Celestial choirs. Good tidings of great joy for the whole world.

But I want to talk about things less lofty, things more earthly than holy. I am caught by Luke’s description of Jesus’ birth. In just three verses practically the whole Christmas story—Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, Mary’s pregnancy, the birth of Jesus, and where they stayed while they were in Bethlehem. What usually takes the majority of a Christmas pageant was done here in the economy of 3 sentences.

I don’t know about you, but I would have thought Luke would have written more. After all, we’ve imagined it a thousand times over. In story books, in carols and song, in the contemplation of our prayer life. We want to get close to this old familiar story, to hear it again with fresh ears and see if there is still a message for us. Because despite the canned quality of this story, told so many times, we sense there is something much deeper going on here. We want to know what it is.

So tonight I invite you to put on first century shoes with me and imagine that night of Jesus’ birth so long ago.

Bethlehem was a small town, paling in comparison to the great metropolis of Jerusalem, 5 miles to the north. It might have been a forgotten town if it had not been the birthplace of the famous King David. But that was long ago, and now it was a town of farmers and shepherds. Simple people lived there—people who worked the land and paid tribute both to landowners whose fields they worked and to Rome, the occupying nation state.

Mary and Joseph were making their way to this town, Joseph’s ancestral home. The picture I have in my mind of this scene comes from art: Joseph on foot, and Mary great with child, seated on a donkey. While it’s probably accurate that they made the journey on foot, it isn’t likely that Mary and Joseph were traveling alone. In the middle eastern culture of their day, there was no such thing as a nuclear family. Eastern culture is based on the extended family which lives together, works together, and raises children together. Mary and Joseph would have been traveling as a part of larger contingent of Joseph’s family who needed to register in Bethlehem too.

But what about Jesus being born in a stable? Scripture does say that that Jesus was ‘laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’ The word translated as ‘inn’ is really better translated as ‘guest area.’ Mary and Joseph probably were headed to the home of relatives that lived in Bethlehem. The guest area at the relatives’ home was likely already full of other family members who had done the same thing. So Mary and Joseph stayed on the first floor of the house, which was a multi-purpose area, commonly the place where animals were brought in at night.

And what about the reason for their travel? The journey to Bethlehem seems like a quaint trip to grandma’s house for the holidays. But in reality it was a display of imperial power, compelling everyone to make a dangerous journey that could take weeks and cost you lost earnings and travel expenses. Not to mention that the purpose of collecting the data was to impose greater taxes on the local population, to be sent to Rome. Mary and Joseph were travelling under duress, and they could ill afford it.

Kind of changes the mental image, doesn’t it? We’re so used to seeing it in glossy pages of the storybook, acted out by children in bathrobes, or portrayed by painted porcelain crèches.

But the real nativity was more like a gathering in many parts of the world today—crowded, noisy, and full of life; and yet, precarious. Jesus was born into a world where extended families sleep in the same house, where dirty fingernails and sweat of the brow are part of everyday life, and where it could be upended in a moments’ notice with changeable political winds or unpredictable weather patterns.

But why go through all of this rearranging of our mental picture? Why re-imagine it all?

I think there is an important reason. Because when God became human, God had a choice about what kind of environment to be born into. God could have chosen any time, any place. God could have been born to King Herod’s house or a wealthy landowner. God could have been born in 21st century America, with all the conveniences of modern technology and benefits of health care and sanitation.

But God chose the meager conditions of a peasant family in Palestine. God chose poor teenage parents, who lived in an occupied land where Roman soldiers could compel you to carry their packs, harass and imprison you with impunity. God chose the political context of an imperial census and taxation and chose to be born among those with few resources and little power.

Saint Paul put it this way in his first letter to the Corinthians: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” In other words, in the incarnation, God chose to identify with humanity. God came to join us in our human lives. And the truth is, many of the people in the world, even today, live closer to the environment described by Luke than depicted by our pageants, carols, or crèches.

This came home to me as I viewed a photo on social media from one of our sister churches, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, in modern day Palestine. Instead of the usual creche set up in a stable, the pastor placed the infant Jesus in the midst of rubble. For the Palestinian Christians who attend this church in the West Bank, the baby symbolizes Jesus’ presence in the midst of war in the children who suffer and die and in the lives buried under by trauma, grief, and hunger. It communicates Jesus’ solidarity with those on the underside: born into similar conditions, Jesus sees each face and feels their pain. This is why Jesus came into the world: to take this suffering away.

There are many modern day Bethlehems, as far away as Palestine and Israel, Ukraine and Russia, Yemen and Sudan, and as near as our own hearts—places of danger or despair, places of failure or loneliness, places of deep human need.
The story we hear of Bethlehem so many years ago is the story for all the Bethlehems of our world who live in the hope of the Messiah.

So where do we find ourselves in that old story? Perhaps we can identify with the hopes and perils of Mary and Joseph. Sometimes we think of ourselves as the shepherds, running to see the Christ child in wonder and excitement.

But tonight I’d like to suggest a different role. I’d like to suggest that we are members of the extended family who surrounded Mary and Joseph, who traveled alongside them to support them, who attended Mary at the birth of Jesus and acted as her midwife, and who ultimately helped bring to birth hope for the world in the baby in a manger.

For tonight is a night of celebration: hope is born for all the world. The Messiah has come with healing and wholeness and life. God has entered our Bethlehems to save us. We have a role to play in this divine drama: we are called to bring Christ into the world. We are not merely shepherds who go and see. We are the ones who are present at the birth. We get the hands-on experience. We roll up our sleeves and get messy. We touch this new hope, see it take its first breath, and hear its piercing cry.

There will be tears and blood and pain, but it is nothing next to the miracle this new life, this hope, this healing, this peace, this shalom of Jesus Christ that we bring to the world. For we are God’s holy midwives, and the Holy Spirit is working in and through us to bring Christ to birth in Bethlehems of our hearts, homes, and world today.

Leave a Reply