December 24, 2017
Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-20, Luke 2:1-20
I’ve only been to Bethlehem once, in August 1973, the summer after I graduated from the University of Georgia. My girlfriend and I made the 6 mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and the 4th century Church of the Nativity. Now I only remember a few things: I remember the low doorway and the steps that go down to the cave where it is believed Jesus was born. On our way down I realized we’d have to wait because the grotto was filled with a bus load of Evangelicals from Ohio, listening to their preacher drone on and then they sang a carol. It struck me as somehow wrong—it made me angry that I had to wait on these people: loud American tourists dropping in on the holy sites, as if Israel were a Disney theme park.
But the Holy Land is no theme park—there are armed Israeli soldiers everywhere and oppressed Palestinians and their children looking for handouts everywhere. In Jesus’ day, it was Roman soldiers and oppressed Jews everywhere. Same song, different verse.
I was feeling pretty self-righteous until I realize I dislike these Americans for doing pretty much what I was doing: trying to find a Jesus that would fit nicely into my upper-middle class world, where I am not oppressed by anyone because I belong to the white American male tribe that’s on top of the heap. I wanted a lovely experience to add to all the other lovely experiences I’ve had in my fortunate life. I wanted to take this experience back to my home in Atlanta, where all was calm, all was bright, and where I always got pretty much what I wanted.
I had not yet met the darkness that I needed to be saved from.
The story Luke tells is not from the point of view of the successful and powerful, but from the point of view of the last, the least, and the lost. He begins with the Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, but only to show how he orders his conquered people to travel to their ancestral homes, so he can count them and tax them, and keep them too poor and hungry to mount any opposition to his power.
The couple arrives in Bethlehem and then darkness settles and probably the cold, too. The only light is from the moon and stars, but you can’t see them when you’re in the back of a cave. Joseph can’t hit the flashlight app on his iPhone. So the young teenage girl named Mary has her baby—in the dark. The literal dark of the cave and the spiritual dark of oppressed people having to raise children that the powers that be will abuse and one day kill.
This isn’t Disney’s BibleWorld, but raw life filled uncertainty, danger, and fear. And notice, there are no angels in that cave.
2000 years ago this was a common story for the poor, just as it was in the Middle Ages and even in many parts of the world today, where billions of people suffer under governments, who don’t care about them, except at election time and when they need to fill their armies to fight wars to protect their wealth.
When the church group finishes singing, they climb up the stairs and into their air-conditioned bus to rush off to the next holy site. My friend and I descend down to the rock onto which it is said Mary birthed Jesus into a cold, dark world.
I could imagine the darkness of that night, but I could not feel it–then. It would be years before parents, brother, and brother-in-law would get sick and die. Before relationships faded and jobs fell apart. It would be years before I could call the poor in the city or inmates in prison by their names.
I know I don’t have to tell you the details of my story, because you are living the same story or something worse.
Carlyle Marney, famous preacher at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte in the 1960s, said he finally told the story of his darkness to his therapist who said: “why didn’t you tell me your story sooner—you might have died in there and we would have missed you.”
Marney said, “Doctor, I didn’t tell you because I was ashamed.”
Luke told his story 2000 years ago and here we are in the dark telling it again, because it is in the dark that the Divine Radiance comes. (A traditional theme—recently heard again on Deconstructionists Podcast with Alexander Shaia).
Look at the shepherds–at that time they are social outcasts doing a nasty job no one else will do. They carried the stink of the sheep on them, so civilized people will avoid them when they come to town. It is to these people that the angels come and say: “”Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”
We focus on the baby, and rightfully so, for he carries the hopes and dreams of the world. But why this baby, born to this couple? How do we explain the success of any child? A father says my son’s got my love of words. A mother says, my daughter’s got my facility with numbers. It’s in our genes, we say, proudly.
So Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy, tracing back almost two thousand years to Abraham. And there we see the same story where in the dark night the divine light comes:
If you have time look up the back story of the four women—women—listed in Matthew’s genealogy: +There’s Tamar, who becomes pregnant after seducing her father-in-law, Judah, who had mistreated her.
+Rahab, a sex-worker in Jericho, who hides some Jewish spies.
+Ruth, a Palestinian, and not a Jew, who seduces Boaz so she won’t starve to death, thereby becoming King David’s great grandmother.
+Finally, Bathsheba, listed as Uriah’s wife, who is forced to sleep with King David, who then has Bathsheba’s husband murdered. (First heard this in talk by Carlyle Marney in 1976.)
Plenty of skeletons in Jesus’ family closet, revealing over and over that even the most painful story is not beyond the redemption of God.
Luke’s genealogy goes all the way to son of Adam, ”son of God”. But John goes back further still: to before time and space.
John says, “In the beginning was the Word”.
But “Word” sounds too passive, something that just sits there on a page.
So let’s experiment with “Voice” instead: “In the beginning was the Voice, and the Voice was with God, and the Voice was God…. All things came into being through the Voice, and what has come into being in the Voice was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Then the climax: “And the Voice became a human being, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”
From the beginning of creation God has been saying to us: “I love you and forgive you. I carried your shame and darkness with me onto the cross. The Creator of the Universe says, “Tonight I invite you to realize you have always been part of my story: the story where I became a Jew named Jesus so I can go to “the far country to bring you back to your true home” in my heart, where you always are. Paraphrase of Karl Barth
I now think that if I go back to Bethlehem, I will go down into the grotto and sing a verse of “O Come, all ye Faithful” to thank Triune God for showing up in our darkness, where we most need the Christ.