Getting to Bethlehem
Let me begin this sermon by saying – don’t get any big ideas!
In 1995, I began serving as Dean of another university’s chapel, and I quickly learned that, only a few years earlier, my predecessor had nixed a Christmas Eve tradition that was loved by many (as much as it was not loved by many!). He got rid of the donkey. Their tradition had been to have the children who were portraying Mary and Joseph in the nativity pageant come down the long center aisle with a live donkey, little Joseph trying to coax it forward and little Mary trying to stay upright on its back, and if that weren’t permitted by the donkey, she would walk along beside it too. The particular donkey who played the part of the donkey each year came from a farm in nearby Indiana, and this was a donkey with attitude (but maybe every homo sapiens sapiens feels that way about every equus africanus asinus – and maybe vice versa!). Depending on its mood on any given Christmas Eve, this donkey might bray wildly and very loudly, refuse to be moved forward down the aisle even by inches, bare its teeth menacingly at those seated on the ends of the rows and, delighting all the children present, leave droppings all the way down the aisle. It all made for a service of noise, frustration, mess, and fragrance that my predecessor decided detracted from the spiritual impact of the worship and so he, as I have said, 86-ed the donkey. By the time I began serving at that institution a few years later there were still some community activists whose bumper stickers declared, “Get the ass back in Christmas!” I deflected some of these entreaties to reinstate the donkey with the news that had been shared with me – that our star donkey had since gone to his donkey reward, and that no other donkey had become known to our staff, certainly not one with the charisma and star power of our departed cast-mate who used to convey little Mary to her destiny in Bethlehem.
Like I said – don’t get any big ideas!
I am a Jersey Girl, and a suburban one at that, so I’ve never had a meaningful relationship with a donkey. I’ve only ever seen one at a petting zoo. But I imagine that there’s a kind of recalcitrance or even cantankerousness that just comes with the breed. It must have been very slow going as the real Joseph led his donkey the 80 or so miles between Nazareth and Bethlehem, all the while Mary was about to go into labor. What an uncomfortable journey! And it was cold – I checked the temperatures on line and Bethlehem’s low temperature today was 41 degrees. Some commentators say that Joseph and Mary couldn’t have traveled more than 20 miles per day, giving them a four-day journey at best. Others say that the land of the Samaritans between Nazareth and Bethlehem would have been a hostile place for them, and so they must have needed to make a significant detour, costing them much time and taking them to the far side of the Jordan River for a while. Where did they sleep each cold night? Were there guest rooms, or did they wrap themselves tightly in their cloaks and lie on the icy ground? Because the Emperor had ordered every male to his ancestral home to be registered, the roads may have been full of people, donkeys, and cargo going every which way. Perhaps this sheer volume made the journey less dangerous from bandits, but perhaps it also made the guest rooms full, as they found in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem – they got there. Joseph did his paperwork. Insidious stuff – the Roman Emperor Augustus had ordered everyone to be registered – a census to help him identify, control, and subjugate all the inhabitants of the occupied territories of Rome. Bethlehem – Mary and Joseph got there. It was a tedious journey at best, but they persisted. Bethlehem – have you gotten there yet? Have you gotten into town? It is Christmas Eve – have the journeys of this past year or so gotten you to the foot of the manger yet? The only right answer to such a question, I think, is an honest one. A really honest one. Some of us will say, “Yes! I am right there. I am at the foot of the manger – not because I am a model of faith but because life’s challenges have thrown me headlong into the arms of God’s mercy. If anyone is really ready to have the Christ of God born among us, it is I – coping with massive loss or disappointment or challenge, my spirit pried open by circumstance to receive all the blessing that is in God’s world. Bring it on! I’ve been propelled to Bethlehem by a Spirit and a Power greater than anything within me.”
Others of you may be saying, “Get to Bethlehem yet? Hmm – my donkey and I are stalled in donkey traffic near Bethlehem, PA, at best… That tedious journey of Mary and Joseph is one I know well – a moody donkey who may not want to walk – or walk in the right direction – or who may make the trip a smelly nightmare. I’ve been forced to make some lengthy detours and big decisions this year. My intentions are sincerely honorable, but I’m still out on Route 1.” Others of you may say – “I’ve never left my starting point; I don’t have a donkey. I’m so far from being spiritually present to the birth of Christ that there’s really nothing to talk about here.”
And each of these answers is okay – and infinitely more answers are also okay – whatever answer has integrity for each of you. It actually doesn’t matter how close or far you are from Bethlehem tonight, because the grace and the miracle of Christmas is that tonight Bethlehem comes to us ; wherever we are now, Bethlehem comes to us . Two thousand years ago on a very cold night in an occupied town, God broke into the human realm in a human baby’s form, and God dwells among us even now. No matter where our disparate wanderings take us, Bethlehem stays with us. There is nothing we can do, think, believe, or disbelieve that can drive away the incarnate presence of God’s love, hope, peace, and future from our very midst. Bethlehem comes to us . We are there. The stable is before us; let’s go inside. The door is propped open and the warmth pours out. Joseph has made a fire; it glows with light and heat on this cold night. He and Mary beckon us to come in, to come in from the cold. They have a beautiful baby they want us to see. Yes, he has 10 fingers and 10 toes, but moreso – he is the fulfillment of God’s promises to send us salvation – the answer to all our yearnings for justice, for equity, for true peace within and among us all.
Pondering these things in my heart in recent days has brought to my mind a poem fragment that I haven’t thought of in years – from Eliot’s Little Gidding. It goes:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Whether we’ve been struggling to get to Bethlehem or whether we’ve not, at Christmas we are reminded that we’ve been there all along, because Bethlehem has come to us. We have always been in the presence of the Messiah of God. We have always been in the presence of the Presence for which we’ve been yearning, journeying, pushing towards Bethlehem. Perhaps this Christmas is when many of us may know the place for the first time. It’s where we stand.
I began this sermon by saying “Don’t get any big ideas.” When it comes to donkeys sauntering down that aisle, forget about it. But please, I hope you will let this Christmas Eve give you some very big ideas. God becomes human in the Bethlehem child, and that same baby is the portal through which we may become more like God. Clement of Alexandria wrote 1,800 years ago. “The Logos of God has become human so that you might learn from a human being how a human being may become divine.” It is not hubris or even sin to suggest that we may become more like God; it is a fact and a future made possible for us by Christmas, God’s coming to us in all humility of circumstance: vulnerable, naked, poor. The King of Kings sleeps in a trough; he comes as the lowest of the low of all humanity so that none can exempt themselves from being like him, saying with false modesty, “I could never walk in the path of one so grand.” We have everything we need in our lives and in our spirits to become more like God. We are standing in the only place we need to be, in Bethlehem, if we will only know that place, perhaps for the first time. God has become one of us so that we may become more like God. Let’s do that this Christmas and beyond. Let us begin to inhabit the mercy of God in Christ in who we are and how we treat every person. Let us inhabit the justice of God, being tireless like Mary and her son, in lifting up the lowly and filling the poor with good things. Let us inhabit the peace of God – both the deep contentment within and an end to all violence without. And let us inhabit the love of God, the love that sent to us Emmanuel. The name means, “God is with us.” Let us embody love in all that we think and say and do and pray. “Love came down at Christmastime” says the carol. It came down indeed in Bethlehem, and Bethlehem is right here. God’s love has come down to dwell in us, if we will let it.
Let me end this sermon by saying that I hope this Christmas that you will get some very big ideas!