Sunday, December 29, 2019

Bethlehem Salvation: A Christmas Message

One final groan. One final push. One first breath. One first cry, piercing the stillness of a holy silent night. An umbilical cord, the free flow of blood between maiden mom and God Incarnate, snipped and tied. Exhaustion. But in a moment, the sweat and tears are forgotten as, wrapped tightly in the nearest cloths, the Holy Infant rests first in his mother's adoring arms before the feed-trough. The room is crowded – the women rest from their aid, the livestock lighten their lowing. And in those moments, Bethlehem stands at attention, stands in awe, stands in hospitable greeting of its newborn King... a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Joseph and Mary have had their journeys in life, measured in years or decades, to prepare them for this moment and what it means. But Bethlehem has had a longer journey, measured in centuries. We've followed that road through the Advent season. From Bethlehem's birth as a Canaanite city, we saw its conversion when Canaanite idolatry gave way to the true faith, as it welcomed the children of Israel who buried his wife on the road leading to Bethlehem. Bethlehem came to treasure these new people and the faith they brought, sought to nurture them, and whenever anyone left town, Bethlehem longed to see them come home, to be redeemed and restored. First there was Jonathan the descendant of Moses, striking out to trade his heritage for a fortune – his departure from Bethlehem set in motion the eventual ruin of a kingdom. Then there was a nameless woman, concubine of a Levite – she left, she came, she left sadly again, and Bethlehem was helpless as her tale ended not in redemption but in gruesome woe that sparked a civil war. And then there was that famine family, Elimelech and his Naomi and their sons. But though the men died in a foreign land, Bethlehem saw Naomi come back to stay, bringing a girl named Ruth. And when Ruth moved in, Bethlehem was thrilled to see them find redemption through Boaz, and the birth of a son Obed. A few more generations, and Bethlehem was in awe when the first prophet came to visit – Samuel, come to sacrifice to the Lord, come to celebrate. But Bethlehem had little inkling at first what Samuel meant to celebrate. Bethlehem was in awe when Samuel unplugged a horn and poured oil all over the youth David, whispering that he would become the anointed king of God's people. And Bethlehem felt the rush as the Spirit of the Almighty rushed down on David, whirling through Bethlehem's streets.

Bethlehem cheered through the years for its hometown son. Even when David moved away. Even when many people moved away, chased by the invaders, the pirates, the people of Goliath. But then Bethlehem saw the daring act, the quest of three men to break through the enemy lines in the valley and come to Bethlehem's well to get water for their chief, and carry it back to him. Braving their lives, they poured their souls into that water, made it a living sacrifice. And Bethlehem learned, by watching it, what love looks like, what devotion truly is. In time, the Philistines left. David conquered nearby Jerusalem, just six miles away, and made it his capital there. His family fell into turmoil – he had to flee his own son Absalom's rebellion. And Bethlehem was sad. But David returned, and Bethlehem was glad! And David rewarded his host-in-exile Barzillai by giving his son Chimham some of David's family lands in the pastures of Bethlehem.

Down through the years, Bethlehem watched as David's sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, and so on reigned in Jerusalem. Some were happy times. But in most, Bethlehem grappled with disappointment. These sons of David ruled badly. They flirted with the darkness. The voice of God came, and they disobeyed. During the time of Hezekiah, the days when the Assyrian king Sennacherib invaded and devastated the land, bringing much ruin to Bethlehem and the other villages in the land, a prophet from a destroyed village stood up and proclaimed hope in God's name, hope by a strong king who'd hail from David's roots:

Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops! Siege is laid against us – with a rod, they strike Israel on the cheek. But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah: from you shall come forth for me One who is to be Ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd the flock in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace. (Micah 5:1-5a)

A promise! A promise! Bethlehem has heard a promise! And through the coming centuries, that promise was to sustain Bethlehem's own hopes, help Bethlehem weather the discouraging ruin of the Davidic kings. Oh, some would yet do well – Hezekiah's great-grandson Josiah, for instance – but most would still disappoint. At last, his sons one by one failed, until his son Zedekiah lost the kingdom. Bethlehem watched in horror from the horizon at the smoke of the burning temple. And when a chance to find a new peace came, Bethlehem lamented when yet once more son of David, that zealous captain Ishmael, assassinated Judah's governor. Were it not for that promise, were it not for that hope, Bethlehem would by this point regret the day of David's birth.

Brokenhearted but carrying a promise, Bethlehem watched as a ragtag remnant encamped at Geruth Chimham for days, deliberating on where to go and what to do. Should they stay and risk a chance of Babylon's fourth and final wrath? Or should they reverse the exodus and seek shelter in Egypt? Just as the prophet Samuel had once walked Bethlehem's streets and fields, now so too did the prophet Jeremiah, and he delivered the word of the Lord, telling the people to stand firm. Bethlehem waited with bated breath for their decision. Would they finally listen, as they'd promised they would? No. No, Bethlehem's heart fell as the people rejected God's word and rejected the authority of the man God had appointed to minister to them. They ran away. Bethlehem sadly saw them go. And for decades, life mustered on as best as it could, in a desolated land.

But then came the day. Exile was over. Only a portion came back – many stayed in Babylon and its lands – but now there was a new chance to build, with Yehud as a Persian province. And the descendants of David were given authority to govern, at least at first. Zerubbabel, with support from the priest Joshua and prophets like Haggai and Zechariah, rebuilt the temple – Bethlehem could almost see its gleam. Zerubbabel died, and his son-in-law Elnathan became governor, and then other men would follow. The descendants of David had no especial authority or influence in the province. So they went about ordinary lives, as best as they could. And some of Zerubbabel's family, from the royal line, thought it time to go back to their roots. And Bethlehem saw them walk through its gates. And Bethlehem welcomed them home. Bethlehem knew this was the way, the hope of the promise (cf. Matthew 2:5-6).

Years came, and years went. Some of David's descendants stayed. Others moved around. Sometimes Judah had a measure of independence, and sometimes not. But through all the changing shifts of politics, through all the ups and downs of history, Bethlehem clung to the promise. To outsiders, it was still Bethlehem, 'house of bread.' But to those who lived there, Bethlehem boasted another name: 'City of David' (cf. Luke 2:4).

And one day, Bethlehem heard, there was going to be a census. And because of the census, people would have to return to their places of origin. Some newer residents went on a trip, away from town. Other hometown sons came home to Bethlehem, with their families. How little did Bethlehem expect anything special. Bethlehem was excited, sure – for what amounted to a David family reunion, all the moved-away descendants of David's lineage and house. Those who still lived in town opened their guest rooms for their moved-away cousins as they returned. With so many needing to return for the census, guest rooms filled up quickly. Space was taken. And so when one more hometown son came back to Bethlehem, he found the guest room full. But for he and his wife, space was found in the lower part of the house, by the door, the place where the animals would be brought in at night to share their heat and to be protected. To us, the equivalent might be the garage. But space was found – not in the guest room, but with the family livestock.

This hometown son was Joseph, whose parents had gone as settlers to found the Galilean village of Nazareth. And with him he'd brought his new bride Mary, nine months pregnant. Did their hosts have any questions about how long they'd been married? Was there any awkward math? Or was all that set aside? Little did they know that the Holy Spirit who'd rushed upon David in Bethlehem had overshadowed this teenage woman, that she might conceive a Holy Son with no man's involvement at all. But even so, could Bethlehem have even dreamed that, with this census-induced family reunion, God had arrived personally in its midst? For make no mistake: the fetus carried by Mary, nine months developed, was fully human but not merely human. The instant of conception was not the beginning of this child's life – it stretched into eternity past, to 'before' the first moment of time and space. For the child in Mary's womb, the child at the other end of her umbilical cord, is the Deity.

And while they were there” – sometime during those days – “the days came for [Mary] to give birth” (Luke 2:6). One evening, Mary's water broke. She went into labor. The men stepped out of the house into the night air, running to fetch the village midwife. And the work began – the pains, inherited by Mary from Eve, were all that stood between her and the joy. Around her, what women were there gathered in support and assistance, to ensure that mother and child both survived the ordeal. Had Bethlehem by now discerned what was going on – what a miracle was taking shape? Did Bethlehem realize that God himself, the Eternal Word of the Father, was being born, the Lord of Lords coming forth in human vesture, in flesh and bone and blood?

There's the head. And with one last anguished push, Mary's work is done. Midwife cuts the cord. Cleans and wraps the crying Creator. The women welcome the men back in. In that cramped space, trampled down with old hay, as the animals watch, Joseph kneels next to Mary as she cradles this Son. All around them, Bethlehem is transfixed. God breathes deep in Bethlehem's air. Outside town, in the outlying fields where once David tended his father's flock, a flash of the Father's glory surrounds the armies of heaven as they appear (Luke 2:9-10, 13). And by the time Mary, in order to rest, has tucked her newborn Son snugly into the feed-trough as any peasant mother might, the shepherds – awestruck, dazed, and determined – are racing through the night streets, asking where the midwife has been. And they find the house. They come to the door. They see Mary. They see Joseph next to her (Luke 2:15-16). And they see, in that feed-trough, the One the angels announced: a Savior, a Rescuer, the Lord Messiah come to deliver not from Roman oppression as they'd always thought, but from the deeper oppression of the darkness within, their own sins (Luke 2:11-12; cf. Matthew 1:21). And the shepherds could hardly believe it – a house just like theirs, the house of one of their neighbors, was the house where the Deliverer came. Not a grand palace. Not a royal manor. Not a wealthy gated community. But there, in a home like theirs, with a familiar face, dressed like one of their own babies, is the Savior-King. There is the good news, promising great joy for every faction, great joy for every nation (Luke 2:10).

When they tell their story, does Bethlehem get it now? Does Bethlehem realize what a privilege of privileges is for it, given to it? Does Bethlehem see God's plan unfolding? Does Bethlehem itself come and worship Christ the newborn King? Does Bethlehem recognize this sign of peace on earth, this mercy mild, the hope of God and sinners finally reconciled? Can Bethlehem see the Godhead veiled in flesh? Does Bethlehem understand that in its manger rests the Incarnate Deity? And does Bethlehem bask in the light of the Sun of Righteousness, risen from womb to earth with healing in his wings?

Or did those first glimmers awareness come the next morning? Because surely, if even one of those shepherds in the nearby fields was a Bethlehem resident, you can imagine he'd come home the next morning from his night's work and tell his family. And you'd best believe their neighbors would hear a tale of angels in the fields and the birth of the Messiah. And in short order, all of Bethlehem might know. Joseph and Mary would be the talk of the town. Everyone would stop by to catch a glimpse of this baby. Everyone wondering, “Could it be true? Could Messiah ben David be born at last in royal David's city? Is this time, this family reunion of the sons of David, not the perfect time for the Son of David to be born? But can it really be?” Perhaps they came, believing. Or perhaps few put much stock in shepherd stories. But we do.

If the shepherds failed to convince, I wonder if Joseph and Mary – when they took this infant Messiah for the purification ceremony in Jerusalem at the temple – brought back any word of the prophecies of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-38). I wonder if the people of Bethlehem heard. But back to Bethlehem they went. They began to settle in, settle down. But if somehow none of these things caught Bethlehem's attention, perhaps a troupe of foreign diplomats, bearing valuable stores of gold and frankincense and myrrh, on a mission from Persia to express congratulations on the birth of a promised king – well, maybe that will shock people awake, make them realize something of what's happened! For foreign diplomats hardly show up in the village every day. And they aren't exactly inconspicuous. One wonders what sort of local disturbance ensued. There could be no more denying it – not by anybody in town – that there was a King among them (Matthew 2:8-11).

For all these weeks and months, Bethlehem was in wonder of the miracle. God inhaled Bethlehem's air, and as he exhaled, Bethlehem was filled with molecules that had been in the lungs of the Eternal. Mary drank water from the well of Bethlehem, the very well visited by David's mighty men, and that water went into the milk that the Lord drank. It was from Bethlehem's own local resources that the swaddling clothes had been woven. And as Bethlehem became more and more alert to the Incarnation, Bethlehem could look back on its own old story and see how it all led up to this. Here was born a Redeemer greater than Boaz, a Redeemer who could unwind all the tangled stories of the past. Here was born the Anointed One, not just the Son of David but his Lord. Here was born the One who would one day pour out his blood like water – this was the One to whom David offered Bethlehem's water poured out as though blood, a living sacrifice. And here was born the very Word of God whom Johanan and the remnant decided against when Jeremiah spoke in his name. But in spite of all that sordid past, the Word had decided – a decision made public in Bethlehem – to be for us anyway. Great joy!

Here was born the Light who came as the Life of all people (John 1:4). “The True Light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). And “he came to his own,” his own creation, his own people (John 1:11). The Light had come. “The Light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5). And although the darkness would not be able to overcome it... that wasn't going to stop the darkness from trying. Ever since that night in Bethlehem, the night of the Savior's first breath, the darkness has been madly raging – impotently but painfully – against the Everlasting Light (Revelation 12:11-17). Not long after the diplomats and their entourage withdrew, Joseph had a dream – a dream that he was to follow the same path as rebellious Johanan and the remnant. But this time it was the direction of obedience, not disobedience. And obediently, Joseph obeyed – in the dead of the night, he woke Mary, and they carried the Holy Infant and the magi's gifts, and they set off on the long journey to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). They escaped just in time before Herod's soldiers came to Bethlehem. And as they butchered, Bethlehem – grief-stricken by the lash of darkness – understood why the Holy Family left. God seemed to disappear over the horizon. Many tears were shed (Matthew 2:16-18).

Time passed. Even after Herod died, heaven advised Joseph against going to Bethlehem again – he was to turn to Nazareth and raise the Messiah there (Matthew 2:19-23). So Bethlehem saw him no more. Instead, Bethlehem's residents wept over the cruelty of the infants stolen by Herodian violence. Parents had new children – none could replace the lost, but life could begin again, albeit under a long shadow. A new generation came, and an old one left. Some from Bethlehem no doubt went to see this new preacher – John, baptizing at the Jordan River. And perhaps a few from Bethlehem were there when Jesus was baptized. But Jesus did not follow them back to Bethlehem. His ministry was carried out up north in Galilee. We aren't told that he ever went back to Bethlehem. Maybe some from Bethlehem were in the “great multitude of people from all Judea” who heard him preach and saw him heal (Luke 6:17). And surely Bethlehem saw and felt the darkness over the land when, just a two-hour walk away, Jesus was nailed to a cross – fulfilling his promised destiny to save his people from their sins. For it was just a two-hour hike from Bethlehem that Jesus died, a two-hour hike from Bethlehem that Jesus rose in victory – the Sun of Righteousness, risen from death with healing in his wings!

And then he rose to heaven. The news began to spread. Was anyone from Bethlehem in the crowd on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out, not just on one shepherd boy but on the whole church? As the apostles ministered first in Judea, did any of them come to announce the good news in Bethlehem – that the very Baby once born there had become the Firstborn from the Dead, had proven himself to be the Resurrection and the Life? Did the children and grandchildren of the shepherds hear this word of God sealing their family tales with the certitude of the gospel? How many in Bethlehem became followers of this Bethlehem-born Messiah? How many Bethlehemite hearts presented themselves a living sacrifice to a life-giving Savior, crucified and risen?

As for Bethlehem, the decades passed. It watched the Romans destroy the temple – a replay of Babylon all over again. It watched rebellion after rebellion. Emperors built pagan shrines in Bethlehem to spite the name of the Savior. But the good tidings of great joy slowly, steadily caught the world by storm, until one day emperors would tear down the pagan shrines and extol the name of Jesus Christ. Churches would be built, destroyed, and built again. The winds of the world would change, the complicated and tragic dance of a fallen world wrestling with its redemption. Bethlehem would see the shadow of an Arabian path twist the land. Bethlehem would witness the treacherous violence of the Crusaders. Amidst its worship, Bethlehem would dance in darkness.

One Christmas day, Bethlehem would be the place where the Crusader knight Baldwin would be crowned king of Jerusalem. By then, the unity of Christ's seamless garment – the Church – had been ripped in two, and Bethlehem would have to live through the years with the bickering and squabbling of riotous Latin and Greek Christians. Bethlehem would be handed back and forth between ruling powers, and under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, the town was crippled, and many inhabitants left. Even today, Bethlehem lives under the shadow of the darkness. The city is closed in by a wall. Homes are bulldozed. The Church of the Navitity has been made a political pawn and placed under siege. Every year, tight security controls block many local Christians from going to Bethlehem on Christmas to worship their Savior. Residents even now describe a place demoralized, with high unemployment, a broken economy, and a town whose main gift left by tourists consists of piles of their garbage. Some in Bethlehem describe their general feeling as one of suffocation.

The darkness rages against the Light. And though the darkness cannot overcome, the darkness can hurt – hurt like Herod's soldiers hurt, hurt like conquest and division hurt. Over two thousand years since good news of great joy filled its streets, those streets of Bethlehem still cry out. Because freedom is not yet complete. Joy is not yet full. Salvation is still unfolding. Peace on earth has begun in Christ, but is not yet fully implemented. The darkness has been beaten by the Light, but the darkness is still loath to admit it. So the darkness rages on, even after the victory of the Savior. And Bethlehem knows these things. Bethlehem knows that the darkness still rages against the light. Bethlehem knows that the darkness may come from corners we don't expect. And Bethlehem sees how the darkness may suddenly surge, may abruptly obscure our view of the heavens. The house of bread is no stranger to our hunger for a day without want. Bethlehem is not surprised any longer when there are shadows over Christmas. But Bethlehem learns to grieve with hope. Bethlehem defies the dark with a memory – a memory of when the brightness of the future cried out from a feed-trough, a memory of God on earth in our skin and our blood. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). In spite of all the dark's raging, in spite of all the dark's shadow, in spite of all the grief and all the pain that still goes on, nevertheless the Savior has already been born, and the darkness can do nothing to rewind the times. Salvation has appeared, and salvation will roll on until the world has been rescued from every dark – the darkness in our hearts, and the darkness over the land!

The Savior has come. The Savior will come again. Even now, in his earthly corporate body the Church, this Savior walks the streets of Bethlehem, as he walks the aisles and sits in the pews of this church. And in the face of all the grief that darkness can inflict, all the obscurity that darkness can muster, Bethlehem clings to the age-old promise, and longs for the day when the Savior, in a risen body, will walk her streets again, radiant in his beauty. And the darkness will find no more place. Only then will Bethlehem's voyage be done. Only then will Bethlehem, and every place, reach its destiny. Only then will Bethlehem's cup of salvation run over. Only then will there at last be, in the truest sense of the words, peace on earth. But the Savior's day will come. Rescue, already begun but with more to come, will bear its abundant fruit. And that is good news, a cause for great joy.

As we wrestle the darkness and gaze toward the Light, we know that we are covered with wounds. We may be scarred and weighed down. We may be divided, like the bickering in Bethlehem's streets. We may be hurting, like the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem. We may be passed back and forth between worldly powers, bounced around by an uncaring world. We may feel hemmed in and suffocated. And yet there is a Savior. There is a Light. And it's precisely in the darkness – the dark streets of Bethlehem, the dark streets of our lives, the dark alleys of our hearts – that the Light has come to shine. And so, even scarred and even wounded, we will still defy the dark. We will still stand for the ultimate victory of the unconquerable Light. We will still cry out for the Savior we already know, “born that we no more may die.” We will still speak good news on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere. We will still travel again and again to the salvation God sent down to us. And however dark seem the shadows, we still defiantly echo back the song: “Joy, joy, joy! Joy, joy, joy!” Go tell it!

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