Sermon transcript for December 24, 2012
The Promise in Bethlehem
Belmont UMC—Christmas Eve 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
I’ve always liked small towns. I grew up in a town of less than 10,000 people—a place where everybody knew everybody or was just a couple of steps from knowing them. When my older sons were in high school we went to a small, county seat town east of Nashville for a street fair. I loved the quaint feeling of the town and I kept saying, “Wouldn’t it be great to live here. I could pastor the United Methodist Church and we could walk to the drug store, post office and the barber shop.” My sons were not thrilled with the idea. My oldest said, “Feel free to make that move once I’m in college.” The other son said, “Dad, I love you, but you do need to get a life.”
Small towns have character and small towns have characters. They have s strong sense of community and identity. Bethlehem was a small town, a quiet place, the Mayberry of the Middle East. It was know as a good place to raise grain. Hence, its name means “House of Bread.” But in any real appraisal of the area, Bethlehem was a quiet and insignificant place.
But it was in this sleepy little town that David was born and chosen to rule over Israel. And David loved his home town. He had fond memories of being a shepherd boy, of cool drinks of thirst quenching water at the well at Bethlehem’s gate.
In David’s adult years, as King of Israel and a leader of soldiers, he would once again come near Bethlehem. This time the town was under siege, taken over by the Philistines. He looked longingly toward the town of his youth, and thinking aloud, he shared his wish to once again be refreshed by the water at the Bethlehem well.
His soldiers, who loved him and were extremely loyal, overheard his longing and made their way through the enemy lines and filled a container with water and brought it to David. David was deeply moved by their actions and the risks they took on his behalf. He did what seems to us a peculiar thing. He said, “I cannot drink this; it is not water but the blood of the men who risked their lives for me.” He poured the water out as an offering to God. (2 Samuel 23:15ff)
Micah, the prophet, points to another time, a future time, when God would visit Bethlehem. At this visit God again would break through the enemy lines of our resistance and bring us water that would spring up into everlasting life, water that would forever quench our spiritual thirsts. God would do this wonderful thing in Bethlehem, in a person we call the Son of David.
On this night Bethlehem is a small town with big news--wonderful, joyous news that came first to a band of shepherds minding their flocks and their own business on a nearby hillside. But this news if for all people, for you and me: “a savior has been born in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you. You will find the baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” On this night we, too, go to straight to Bethlehem to see this thing that God has done!
Sermon transcript for December 23, 2012
The Promise of a Child
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55
Belmont UMC—December 23, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
I suspect that most of us have specific mental images of the nativity and most of those were born in our childhood and those early crèches that were unboxed during the Christmas season. We opened the boxes of those store bought nativities with ceramic figures bearing fixed expressions. Every year we pull them out of the attic and there they are, Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, magi and a few animals—deluxe sets come with angels.
The crèche of my childhood still finds its way to a side table in my parent’s living room each year. It was purchased at the local five and dime over 50 years ago. It is a cardboard stable with straw glued to the roof and floor. Inside the stable are the main characters, mother, father, infant in a manger. It actually folds our when unboxed and glued to the now outer setting are the shepherds, sheep and wise men.
In my childhood fake snow in aerosol cans hit the market and my mother bought several cans and sprayed everything in the house with it, including the nativity. We all thought the Bethlehem stable looked more Christmassy with snow on top. She hit the wise men and shepherds from the side so the fake snow made them look like they were sporting lopsided white beards. There is still some residue of fake snow on that nativity.
I have mystical memories of driving to Nashville and viewing the Centennial Park nativity. It was one of the most fantastic things I’d ever seen. Set up against the backdrop of the Parthenon it was wonderful and mysterious at the same time.
A number of years ago I went to Israel in early December. It was a wonderful trip that I would like to repeat some day. I had looked forward to my trip to Bethlehem. I knew what it looked like because I’d seen it in Christmas cards. I pictured it nestled inside a huge snow globe that only God could shake. I knew there would shepherds somewhere on a hillside watching their sheep.
On our trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, our tour bus spent some moments at a check point. Israeli soldiers were there, with rifles strapped over their shoulders. Our first stop was at a gift shop which sold olive wood carvings of crèches, crosses and menorahs. Along the way there were more shops and merchants in the streets selling t-shirts and postcards. Bethlehem square was filled with people, more merchants, people stringing Christmas lights outside the church, children begging for our dollars. We were warned to watch for pickpockets.
The ancient Church of the Nativity is built over the traditional site of the Jesus’ birth. We made our way into a lower area near the altar. There, in a cave-like setting is a metal star imbedded in the floor. The star marks the sacred spot of the birth of Jesus. There was no manger, no crying baby, no angels hovering overhead, no fake snow, no spot lights. And yet, it felt sacred to me.
Outside in the courtyard, as we were leaving, I was drawn toward a loud demonstration. Two days after our visit, Bethlehem would be turned over to Palestinian control. The people were rallying and demonstrating—a man was yelling something in Arabic into a microphone. Israeli armed personnel carriers arrived all around me and soldiers spilled out carrying rifles. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was our tour guide and he was saying, “You should not be here; this is dangerous.” (That was not the only time he had to chastise me on that trip.)
Bethlehem was not how I had pictured it but that is where Jesus was born, in a town crowded with people, so crowded that there were no extra rooms for the holy family. When crowds like that show up so do the merchants hawking their wares, people just trying to make ends meet. It was loud and uncomfortable and Roman soldiers wandered the streets carrying weapons.
Into that setting, full of people, uncertainty, danger, poverty, God placed a child, God’s child. It was a real world—the real world we encounter every day. “Unto us a child is born, he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Why did God do this? The answer sounds simple--because God loves us. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son. . .” Those familiar words sum up the why of this holy season.
Barbara Brown Taylor imagines God saying something like this, “I’m so crazy in love with you that I will come all the way to where you are to be flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone. I will do it all—and all you have to do is believe me—believe that I love you the way you are, love you enough to become one of you.” (Mixed Blessings, p. 50)
Why did God do this? Why did God send a child into this world? God sent this child to reveal God’s self to us in ways that we could not understand otherwise.
Kathryn and I were at a District Christmas gathering a few years ago. The party was held at a church I had once served and the youth from that church were our hosts and waiters that night. The teenage boy who brought food and drinks to our table had a familiar face. I asked, “Do you by any chance know a man named Bill Smith? (not his real name)”
The boy replied, “Bill Smith is my father.” And then he added, “I get that a lot.”
I said, “I bet you do. You are the spitting image of your father.”
Jesus is the spitting image of God. Later in his ministry he would say, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Unto us a child is born to reveal God’s self to us.
Why did God do this? To identify with our humanity and to say, “I’m not a God who is aloof and living way off in some heavenly place. I am here, among you, to know you, to understand you. I am Emmanuel.” God is with us!
Donald Miller relates a story that was shared by a former Navy SEAL from a covert operation to rescue American hostages from some dark place in our world. The team flew by helicopter to the compound where the hostages were held and “stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The room . . . was filthy and dark. The hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified. When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, telling them that they were Americans. The SEALs asked the hostages to follow them, but they wouldn’t. They sat there on the floor and hid their eyes in fear. They were not of healthy mind and didn’t believe their rescuers were really Americans.
The SEALs stood there, not knowing what to do. They couldn’t possibly carry everybody out. One of the SEALs . . . got an idea. He put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the other hostages, getting so close his body was touching some of theirs. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around them. He was trying to show them he was one of them. None of the prison guards would have done this. He stayed there for a little while until some of the hostages started to look at him, finally meeting his eyes. The Navy SEAL whispered that they were Americans and were there to rescue them. ‘Will you follow us?’ he said. The hero stood to his feet and one of the hostages did the same, then another, until all of them were willing to go.” (Blue Like Jazz)
In Jesus God became one of us, God came along side of us, God looked us in the eye and said, “I love you. You can follow me to freedom and to new life.” We have a word for this: “incarnation” (in the flesh) God became our flesh and lived among us.
This is why we are here, why we have Christmas, why we get so excited and over decorate our houses, sing carols, throw parties and celebrate with music and light. This is an event that deserves to be celebrated.
And we believe that we are called to honor this gift of the Christ Child by making God real (flesh) in our lives so that when people see us they will see something of this God who loves the world so much. In and through us may they experience and know the God who loves them enough to send God’s own child.