Saturday, 26 December 2015

Sermon Christmas Eve 2015

In my imagination the distance from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is a long, long journey.   The Gospels are the account of the journey which Jesus makes from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.  Tonight Jesus is born is a lowly stable in Bethlehem—the city of David.  He will make that journey to Jerusalem which will culminate on Palm Sunday and ultimately with the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. 
 For Jesus and for us it is a long, journey; such a long journey which will take a lifetime.  In reality the distance between that tiny insignificant village and that magic city Jerusalem is a very short one.  I discovered that some years ago when I went, with my fellow clergy in Huron to the Holy Land.  It was a wonderful, amazing, surprizing experience or I should say experiences.  One of the surprizing things was the trip by tour bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  It took only about five minutes.  Now I wanted to be sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me and I check and the distance is only 8 km.  However, it is a long journey in other ways.  Bethlehem is in the Palestinian territory and to get there we had to cross through the infamous security fence— a wall really—that Israel has erected to keep out terrorists or in Palestinian terms freedom fighters. 

There are many surprizes in our journey to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem—the place they have officially marked as the birthplace of Jesus.   Bethlehem is no longer a small, insignificant village of Jesus’ birth.  It has a population of about 30,000.  There is the church above the site.  It is shared by three Christian groups, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic—each with a separate part of the church. 

They have very different ideas of what church is and the contrast is dramatic for the visitor.  To reach the actual place, which has been designated as the site of the stable, you have to go down into a lower level—a cave really— which contains the Grotto of the Nativity. 
The Grotto is another great surprize.  It is not that wonderful nativity scene we have in our minds—a stable with cattle lowing and the star of Bethlehem shining down like a spotlight on the star of the production; the baby Jesus with lovely young mother Mary and his dotting step father Joseph standing in the background.  There are no odious smells of a stable in the winter or noises of animals wanting to be fed or dirty, smelly shepherds with their bleating, noisy lambs with a baby lying on not very comfortable straw.   The Grotto of the Nativity has also been idealized.  It is clean and warm in a setting that is appropriate for the birth of the prince of Peace. 
 The reality of that journey to Bethlehem and of the stable was very different from our idealized vision of how it was.  The great poet T. S. Eliot caught the essence of it is his poem The Journey of the Magi which has these opening lines. 
The Journey Of The Magi
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

How often does the image in our imagination not match the reality?  We celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.  And yet two thousand years later there is no peace that we can see. There seem to be conflict and war all around us.  There seems to be no possibility of peace, of real peace braking out in the world.  So was all this that we are celebrating just a fantasy, a false hope? 

I assure you it is not.  We know that with the birth of that small helpless baby in that small insignificant collection of huts in that ridiculous place meant for animals there was the truth of peace and salvation for the world.  In our darker times we can convince ourselves that there is no peace on earth and never will be.  The unbelievers can say it is only a fantasy. 
Jesus was not born in Bethlehem and if he was it was not on December the 25th.  It is all a lie and an illusion.  And yet we know in our hearts that what we celebrate tonight is true.  The details may not have happened the way they are often depicted.  We can’t know if there was an angel who brought good news to the shepherds.  We don’t know that there was a star which lit the way for the magi on their long journey.  

And yet we know where it matters—we know in our heart of hearts that the prince of peace was born that day.  The only son of God the Father came to be with us and to bring salvation to the world.  We know that the message of the angle to the shepherds was and is true—fear not I bring you tiding of great joy which will be to all people.  Peace, hope, joy and love were born in that stable in Bethlehem.

We know that peace is possible for each of us.  Our difference can be reconciled.  We have the hope of everlasting salvation which was brought to all people with the birth of that small helpless baby.  It is a long journey for us from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.  And yet we have the assurance that Jesus with us each step of that journey.  We know that Jesus Christ is born to each of us and love is born in our hearts    Hallelujah.  

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