Genesis 35:16-21; 1 Samuel 16:1-5; Matthew 2:1-6; Luke 2:1-7
December 19, 2021
- Advent 4
One of the hardest questions that people pose to me is “whence do I come”. Or to put it in the less grammatically correct but far easier to understand – “where do I come from?”. This question is so difficult for me because I am not at all sure how to answer it. I was born one place and briefly lived there as a baby but spent most of my childhood in another state and region of America but have spent the vast majority of my life in yet another state. Born in Ohio, raised in South Carolina, and lived in VA since 1985 except for 3 years. I genuinely do not know what to consider home. Don’t even get into where I might want my burial ceremony to happen.
Others of you have a good handle on home. You know where your home is, where your origin began, where you would return for a big reunion, or where the homeplace is located. You are blessed to have those roots. Cherie is going home later today for good or for at least the foreseeable future. Christiansburg is her home. Home was big in the Jewish scriptures, as well. The people were given a home by God that they lost, then found, again, and lost, and found again. One of those places that was a pillar in their story of home was the town of Bethlehem. It has had a place in their story of places from the very beginning, and it is crucial to their life as a people.
Long before Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, Bethlehem was important to the people of God. You heard some of the history that I read a moment ago. Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel was buried there. He was the father of the 12 tribes, and she was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin (with whom she died giving birth), but the real significance of Bethlehem is that it was the home of David. Do not be surprised that the home of the greatest Jewish king is venerated. Do not be surprised that the line of kings would be forever tied to Bethlehem. Do not be surprised if Bethlehem is the backdrop for the birth of the greatest king of all time – Jesus the Christ.
That is what the readings I shared are supposed to illustrate – how Bethlehem played such a pivotal role in the shaping of the Jewish kingly tradition. To look to Bethlehem was to look for God’s help, God’s salvation. Where else would you look for the agent of God’s power and deliverance? To have the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem is a statement to the world that this king is real and that the king is here with us.
I have actually been to Bethlehem. It is a great town so full of ancient awareness. It is also in Palestinian control. Israel gave Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority in 1995 as a precursor or condition of the Two State Solution. Even though that has yet to go anywhere, Bethlehem has stayed in Palestinian hands since then. I visited with a school there, like a college, that was educating young adults and preparing them for professional lives. Many people don’t realize that Bethlehem is where you will find the biggest population of native Christians in Israel. There is a sizeable population of Christians among the Palestinian people, and Bethlehem is a hub of their activity. I have also been to the church situated on the site where Jesus was supposedly born. It is a very old church, one of the oldest. It carries weight, gravitas, and a witness to the people of the world. God came to us; Emmanuel was his name; God is with us.
Really, Bethlehem symbolizes much about Christmas. In my devotional to the Farmville Herald this coming week, I expressed something of my frustration or confusion or bewilderment about the fact that Christmas is such a strange time of the year. It is full of both looking forward and looking behind, eagerly thinking about what is coming but also appreciating what we have made it through to get where we are today. It is about remembering and dreaming. Now, it is difficult for me to do both forward gazing and behind looking at the same time, but that is what Christmas does. That is what Bethlehem also does for us: “realize what has come before and prepare to meet what is still to come.” Yes, all of tomorrow is built on the foundation of yesterday – I know that, but Christmas is intensely both looking backward and forward. When Christmas is rightly observed, it is really anticipating God’s coming faithfulness which we have already experienced and lived over the course of our lives.
But there are also situations in which Christmas might not work so well. I’m thinking of all of the countless refugees across the world today, millions of people displaced because of war and violence and human greed. We know of some of these refugees right down 460 between Blackstone and Petersburg. So many people without a home and maybe without much hope. They will most likely never be able to go home. Immigration policies aside for a moment, there are far too many people wandering the earth looking for a safe place to simply exist, a new place to call home in which to build a new future.
My sister Anne has been “adopting” children from China who come here in late middle school, early high school to come to school and attend college and even embark on a career over here in America. Now, this is not like boarding school. Sure, they may get to see families over the summer (though COVID prevented that the last two years), but this is sending your children off to another country to be raised and to find a home in a foreign place. I believe she is now up to her fourth child. I cannot get my head around what it must be like at home where a family is willing to send away a child to a new life for potentially the rest of their life. Home for them must be so difficult that they see an alien home better than the one they have. It is striking what people will do to find a home, if they are able.
We need a home. Everyone needs a home. While I personally might not be able to identify one place as a physical home, I have always found a home so-to-speak in the family of God. From my earliest memories, I have been at home at church and among the worshipping community. I think this is what Bethlehem really means to us today. This is what it has to mean to us today. It is really not as much about geography, though that can be meaningful to see home and walk around home. Really, though, this is about living home which can be physical but is even more emotional and spiritual.
Everyone has a place here. Everyone has a place among God’s people. Everyone has a place if we will honor it and guard it. Everyone has a place among us in which to dwell and grow and seek a future in our Lord.
This week, I challenge you to think about how you have found a home among God’s people and even more who is not among us who needs a home. So many people are out there literally wandering and spiritually wandering. Jesus and his family did a lot of wandering, too. This is Christmas when all people deserve a home and a future. We are God’s Christmas people. We need to honor our home with all of God’s children, especially those who need a home this very day. To God be the glory. Amen.