Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Nativity of Our Lord 2007

Nativity of Our Lord — Christmas Eve
December 24, 2007
Luke 2.1-14 [15-20]
Thomas Arth

The hills are bare at Bethlehem,
No future for the world they show;
Yet here new life begins to grow,
From earth's old dust a greenwood stem.

The hills are cold at Bethlehem,
No warmth for those beneath the sky;
Yet here the radiant angels fly,
And joy burns new, a fiery gem.

The heart is tired at Bethlehem,
No human dream unbroken stands;
Yet here God comes to mortal hands,
And hope renewed cries out: "Amen!"
Royce J. Sherf

Many of you know, but some may not know,
that a couple of months ago I participated in a tour
called a Bible Lands Discovery Tour.
We were a group of 25 people from B.C., Alberta,
Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario and
we started our tour in Egypt, traveling on to Jordan,
and ending up in Israel.
While in Israel we visited some of the sites
where some of the events in the life of Jesus took place,
or may have taken place,
and one of those places was Bethlehem.

I was looking forward to visiting Bethlehem.
I wanted to see Christmas Town.
Not the place up at the North Pole
where Santa and his elves make preparations for tonight's deliveries.
I was looking forward to seeing the first Christmas town.
The place where Mary delivered to us a Saviour.
The place where shepherds heard the angels' hymn of praise
and a message of good news of great joy for all people.
Someone on the tour who had been to the Holy Land 10 years ago
warned me that I'd probably be disappointed,
but I didn't want to hear that so I ignored it
and continued to look forward to visiting Bethlehem.

Well, it wasn't what I expected.
Oh, I knew I wouldn't be seeing the Bethlehem
of our Christmas Greeting Cards.
I knew it wouldn't be a tiny village
that had a few inns with stables out back.
Maybe if I'd done a bit more research
I would have known what to expect.
What I found was a big city, a fairly busy city,
with lots of traffic in the streets.
It was also a somewhat poor looking place.
It was quite a contrast to the parts of Jerusalem
that we had come through on our way to Bethlehem.
The impression of Bethlehem that stays in my mind the most
is the wall.
You see, Bethlehem is in the West Bank, that portion of Israel
that had been a part of the country of Jordan from 1948 to 1967.
The population of the West Bank is mostly Palestinian
and the Israeli government
has approved the construction of a barrier.
The name of the barrier depends on who you're asking.
The Israeli government calls it a "security fence"
and Palestinians call it an "apartheid wall."
To avoid either of these political connotations the BBC, for one,
uses the terms "barrier," "separation barrier,"
or "West Bank barrier" as generic descriptions.
The total length when finished will be about 700 kilometres,
90% of which will be a network of fences and trenches
and 10 % of which will be 8 metre high concrete walls.
I'm not going to get into the pros and cons and the politics of the barrier.
The reason I'm making mention of it
is that I was rather disturbed by it when I was there.
To get into Bethlehem from Jerusalem,
our tour bus had to pass through a check-point on the way in
and again on the way out,
and the barrier in this place is the concrete wall,
a huge imposing wall, 8 metres high (that's 26 feet).
Just on the outskirts of Bethlehem we looked down into a quiet valley
that could have been the kind of place
where the shepherds might have watched their flocks
on the night of Jesus' birth,
and we were told that the barrier wall
will go down the centre of that valley.

It was disturbing to me because it's so unfamiliar to me.
We live in a relatively peaceful part of the world.
We don't see soldiers standing on every street corner.
My travels didn't take me anywhere near any current conflict
but the evidence was there.
The wall, the check-points,
the metal detectors on the way into every hotel and mall.
As we drove up in the Golan Heights we passed fields that were fenced
and signs on the fences that warned of landmines in those fields.
We saw soldiers all over the place.
Military service is required there and I saw young women,
to me they were still girls,
in uniform with rifles slung over their shoulders.
Some tourist areas and hotels had soldiers stationed out front.
It was disturbing and it was sad
that there isn't peace in the birthplace of the Prince of Peace.
But then I had to think that it's nothing new.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem
the land was under occupation by Rome.
Beginning during the reign of Augustus Caesar
there was a relative peace in the Roman Empire
but it was a peace enforced by the military,
a peace filled with tension and resentment.
Israel was a place where uprisings
had to frequently be put down by force.
It would be easy to understand how someone might express
the sentiment described in the hymn I sang.
The hills are bare at Bethlehem,
No future for the world they show;

But into that place and time of unrest and seeming hopelessness
a couple of poor travelers make a journey
from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
And they know something the rest of the world hasn't yet heard.
Yet here new life begins to grow,
From earth's old dust a greenwood stem.

Mary had received the promise.
"Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.
And now, you will conceive in your womb
and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne
of his ancestor David.
He will reign over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end."
Joseph also received the promise.
"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus,
for he will save his people from their sins."

In the Egyptian portion of our Bible Lands Tour we visited Mount Sinai,
the place where tradition says Moses brought the liberated Israelites
and received the Ten Commandments.
We were given the opportunity to climb the mountain.
We started out at 12:30 in the middle of the night
so that we would be at the top to watch the sunrise.
As we headed toward our climb
we could pick out the small fires of Bedouin guides in the cold night.
Some of them would be our guides as we climbed.
As I saw the men huddled around their fires
with their camels lying nearby
I could imagine the shepherds
on the hillsides around Bethlehem
trying to find some warmth
as they kept watch over their sheep.
The hills are cold at Bethlehem,
No warmth for those beneath the sky;

But out in those fields on the sides of those hills
they would hear God's words of promise as well.
They would hear a choir concert like no one had ever heard
or has heard since.
Those shepherds on the hills outside of Bethlehem
weren't in any position to afford expensive concert tickets.
They were the working poor.
But then an angel appeared.
"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 Saviour,
who is the Messiah, the Lord.
This will be a sign for you:
you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth
and lying in a manger."
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,
praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!"
Yet here the radiant angels fly,
And joy burns new, a fiery gem.

The shepherds went to see for themselves what the angel had told them
and returned, glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Who was that good news for?
We hear the readings for this night,
especially the Gospel reading, the familiar story of Jesus' birth.
"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus ..."
and right away our minds go into history mode.
Emperor Augustus ... the first registration ...
while Quirinius was governor of Syria ...."
We think of quaint pastoral scenes,
the way I might have been imagining Bethlehem
before I actually went there.
But the promises that Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds heard
were not only given to them,
and they were not only given for that time and that place.
This night when we gather here
and sing some favourite carols and hear some familiar stories
is not only about those days.
The promises are for us and for our time and place
just as much as they were for those people way back when.
And this night isn't only about those days
but for these days as well.
The heart is tired at Bethlehem,
No human dream unbroken stands;

We need to hear the words of the angels
as much as Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds,
or anyone else who heard them
and witnessed the miracles of that night did.
The promises come for a tired heart
that is disturbed by the violence, the tension, the un-peace.
The promises come for the broken human dreams
that leave us without hope.
Yet here God comes to mortal hands,
And hope renewed cries out: "Amen!"

More than taking us to Bethlehem,
the Word of this night comes to where we are.
Without these angelic words of promise
we'd be better off somewhere else doing something else tonight.
But I believe we are better off here, doing this, worshiping God
and hearing these words that are meant for us.

God came to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds so long ago and so far away.
But God comes to us tonight, right here.
In a few moments we will hear the words
"given for you ... shed for you."
Christ was born all those years ago and the promises came true
that Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds heard.
Christ comes again to us tonight,
not in some historic words about something that happened long ago,
but in a real way in this holy moment.
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined."
"The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it."
May the light of Christ shine in your heart this night and always,
and may we bear that divine light to all the world.
Yet here God comes to mortal hands,
And hope renewed cries out: "Amen!

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