Sermon: Because of Bethlehem: We Can See God
Scripture: Luke 2:19
Date: November 26, 2017
I love the way that Luke really ends his account of the birth of Jesus. After nine months of angelic visitations, and rejection in her hometown. After experiencing the angst over how Joseph, her betrothed was going to react. After all the physical changes brought about by a child growing inside of her. After that long and perilous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, about 100 miles in what normally takes 8 to ten days on foot but for one nine months pregnant probably longer, only to arrive in Bethlehem and find there was no room for them as they had counted on in the guest room of Joseph’s family. Just a cave, a stable for the animals, a pen for the sheep, to serve as the place to bring her baby into the world. Relative strangers though they were Joseph’s family, to tend to her. No fine clothes to put on her baby boy. Only some rags to wrap him in. Holding God in her arms. Looking in God’s face. Laying her new born baby in a manger, a feeding trough for cows and donkeys and sheep. And then there had been the strange visitations. Shepherds from the hill sides. Why did they come? And Gabriel’s angel friends, singing for her and worshipping her baby. And then they were gone. And she was left only to ponder. But there was so much to ponder. Wasn’t there? What does it all mean.
It’s perfectly natural isn’t it. When a baby is born, it’s only natural to spend time – just pondering.
After feeding her new born and laying him in the manger, after the shepherds went back to their flocks and the angels returned to their heavenly realms, and it was just a bewildered Joseph, who was little more than a stranger to her himself and her new born, it was only natural that Mary would her self lay down on a bed of hay, exhausted but with no sleep coming, and ponder all these things in her heart. I wonder how many times she glanced at the manger, to ponder her babies face. I wonder if she thought in those moments of pondering, “so that’s what God looks like.”
In these years of ministry, I have had the joy and privilege of visiting with many new parents in the hospital, in the hours following the birth of their baby. And there are certain things that inevitably happen during those visits. Someone, often the father, picks up the baby, usually wrapped from head to toe in more than just rags, and holds the baby so I can see his or her face, and then introduces me to the new born. And as expected I say something about how beautiful the baby is, and then the inevitable question is asked,
(Inevitably someone asks) “Who do you think the child looks like, it’s mother or it’s father? It is always one of the questions we ponder. I am always afraid someone will ask me that because I never know the right answer. I’m no good at that kind of speculation. Because to me, all new born babies look alike.
They are to me a mixture of an angelic face that speaks of peace and contentment of the womb and Winston Churchill, when they are hungry or uncomfortable, momentarily at least unhappy with their entrance into the world. And ready to take on anyone that keeps them from food, or rest or warmth. Anyone who has had much experience knows that look – the scrunched up eyes, the pug nose, the quivering jaw, the fierce look of determination that says, “I’m hungry and I’ll never give up until I’m fed.” But I know that nobody would want me to say that their baby looks like Winston Churchill. So I hate the question, but it is always one that we are asked to ponder – and so finally I hit on the best answer and I took my cue from Mary.
You see I think a new born baby looks like God. The Christmas story tells us that Because of Bethlehem, Mary came face to face with God and so can we. And we’re going to ponder that for a few minutes this morning.
Seeing is such an important part of the Christmas story. Since the beginning of time human beings have wanted to see God. And that continues with Bethlehem. Mary sees an angel and when she tells the miraculous story to Joseph, what the angel had told her was about to happen, I suspect that Joseph thought to himself – “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And so he did see. And then there were the rumors about her cousin Elizabeth being with child at her advanced age. She was known in her village as “the barren one.” And Mary still dealing with the shock of her own pregnancy had to make the trip to see for herself.
The Angels who come to the Shepherds tell them to go and see the “sign” – see a baby in a manger. And when the angels leave, the shepherds say: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see what has happened.” And eight days after His birth, Mary and Joseph, take Jesus to the Temple and find the old man Simeon waiting for them. And the old man takes the baby in his arms and looking in His face proclaims, “I can now die in peace because I have seen our salvation.” Simeon knew the prophecies but somewhere along the line he must of said: “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And for many years he waited in the Temple in order to see God. Simeon represents centuries of humanity wanting to look in the face of God. And, of course, thirty years after Bethlehem, Jesus, Himself, said: “When you see Me, you see God.” You see, up until Bethlehem we could only see Him in shadows. What Paul called dim reflections in a mirror. It was in a fiery bush that Moses saw God. Others in thunder and Lightning. But the fulfillment of humanity’s longing came when Mary took her new born, held Him in her arms, and for the first time looked into the face of God. Because of Bethlehem, we can finally see God face to face. And Mary pondered it all in her heart. In that stable cave, gazing into the face of her new born, Mary pondered. Why me? Why am I so blessed among all human beings? I wonder if someone asked the Shepherds and the wise men the dreaded question. Who do you think the baby looks like? His mother or His father? This morning we are going to start the story of Christmas at the end, after Jesus’ birth as we think about what Mary might have seen as she looked on the face of her baby, Jesus. Let’s go to Bethlehem and see and ponder and rejoice.
First I think that Mary saw the innocence of creation in the face of God.. Now in Jesus day, innocence would have had at least three meanings. First, it meant without sin. When we look into a face of a new born, we do not see any guilt or sin. I believe that every new born is a creation of God, called back to the innocence and perfection of the Garden of creation. When the prophets spoke through the centuries of the coming Messiah, they almost always did so in the context of the people suffering the consequences of their sin. Famine, hardships, exile. And the prophets promised a Messiah who would be untainted by the sins of the world. There would be “no sin in Him” they said. In fact, He would die to save humanity from our sins. And by taking our sins to the Cross, restore humanity to the innocence of creation. And so when Mary looked at the face of Jesus, she saw the innocence of creation before it was tainted by sin.
And then innocence also meant obedience to the first century Jew. Often times the words innocence and obedience were used interchangeably because innocence was brought about by obedience to God. And so, the circumstances of Jesus birth, spoke of obedience. It was obedience to God that led Joseph to ignore the world and not reject Mary. And it was through obedience that Mary became involved in God’s plan in the first place. And it was because of their desire to obey God, that Joseph and Mary made the journey to Bethlehem and found themselves in a stable cave on the night that Jesus was born. And the cave itself was a place of obedience. During certain times of the year it would have also served as a sheep fold where the shepherds would have brought the sheep to at night to protect them from the predators that sought to devour them. Sheep were such helpless creatures that their survival depended on their obedience to the shepherd. And the manger was also a symbol of obedience. Often times stables that housed multiple animals would have several mangers or feeding troughs and each animal would be taught to use the same trough every time so they would not interfere with the feeding of the other animals. The manger was a place of obedience for the animals, and because they were obedient, all of the animals were able to dwell together in innocence.
So three times, Luke tells us that they laid the baby in a manger, a place of obedience. Now here’s the thing. In Jesus’ day, when something was stated three times, it did not just mean three times. Three meant continually. The number three implied that there were many more incidents of whatever the writer was referring to but rather than continuing to count, they would stop at three times, signaling to the reader that there were many incidents. The use of three in the story to refer to the number of times that Jesus was placed in the manger implies a continuous action. In other words, Jesus was continually obedient to God, as were Mary and Joseph.
One of the first things that new born babies learn is obedience. Just like the sheep, there is safety in being obedient. We teach them so many things. Don’t touch hot stoves. Don’t stick your fingers in light sockets. So Because of Bethlehem we too can live in innocence and obedience.
And then innocence meant forgiveness. Because of Bethlehem we can be restored to innocence. It is the concept of being born again. In a sense, Jesus was born so that we can be born again. When Mary looked at the face of God in the manger, she saw the face of forgiveness and restoration. Because of Bethlehem, because Jesus was born, we can begin again. We can experience the innocence of the stable and the manger. The innocence of new birth.
And then when Mary looked at God for the first time she saw hope in the midst of chaos. When the Angel first came to Mary to share with her God’s plan, her life was plunged into chaos. Her home town turned on her. Her family rejected her. Joseph nearly divorced her even before he officially married her. Then the long hard journey to Bethlehem. Instead of being the quiet little peaceful village that we like to picture, Bethlehem probably had at least twice it’s normal population because of the Census. And this was not a peace time census. The count was being taken to identify all possible tax payers in order to continue to build the Roman military because the Romans knew a revolt was coming and they wanted to be ready. So in essence the people were being asked to finance their own captivity. And when they arrived in Bethlehem they were told there was no room for them to stay with Joseph’s family. Only the shelter of a cave. A manger filled with straw instead of a crib. No hot meal to eat. It was a dangerous and chaotic time for Mary and Joseph.
Once the baby came, the frenzied visit of the shepherds. Mary must have pondered why they had come. Shepherds were dangerous people. There was no peace in Bethlehem or in Judah for that matter. Census time was a dangerous time. An oppressed people brought together with rumors of war permeating every conversation.
And so into the chaos come this poor, pitiful couple who for all intents and purposes, didn’t count with anyone, to be counted. The birth of a baby is always surrounded by chaos. A Greek play-wright once wrote: In developing a good play, never introduce a god into the story unless the world has become so hopelessly chaotic that only a god can fix it. So into a world of political and personal chaos, to a helpless and hopeless people, and a young girl caught up in it all, God came as a new born baby. And because of Bethlehem, when Mary looked into the face of her new born baby, God become man, the chaos melted away into the hope of the world. God’s face, the baby Jesus’s face, reflected the hope of the world that no matter what chaos may exist, hope had come. And so Because of Bethlehem, hope comes in the midst of our chaos. James Moore, in his study entitled “Let Us Go Over To Bethlehem”, shares the story of an elementary school somewhere in the Midwest that was caught up in a terrible storm. The storms had already cut a path of destruction across a wide area, and the tornado warning sirens were blaring. It was too late to send the children home, and so they took them all into the basement and had them line the walls where students and teachers alike huddled in fear. The principal tried his best to divert their attention from the storm that was raging outside. They tried playing games and singing but nothing could calm their fears. And then one of the teachers, whose faith taught her that God could rise above all the chaos going on around them, whispered to the child next to her who was sobbing in fear: Janie, I know you are scared. I am too, but aren’t we forgetting something? There is a power greater than any storm. God will protect us. Just keep saying to yourself, ‘God is with us’, then pass the words to your friend next to you and tell her to pass it on.” And Moore says that: Suddenly that dark basement became a sacred place, as each child in turn whispered to the next, “God is with us. God is with us.” And peace and calm settled over the group. Chaos was replaced by hope. One of the teachers commented after the storm had passed: “I could hear the wind outside still blowing with such strength that it literally shook the building, but it did not seem to matter now, Inside the fears subsided; and tears faded away. Through the years I have remembered those calming words. In times of stress and trouble, I’ve been able again and again to find release from fear or tension by repeating those calming words: ‘God is with us! God is with us!’ In the face of her newborn Mary saw the assurance that God is with us and had come to bring hope into the midst of chaos. We live in an often dark, troubled, chaotic world. Sometimes it’s hard for us to find hope in our circumstances. But because of Bethlehem, hope has come to bring order and peace in the midst of the chaos. God is with us and we call Him Emmanuel.
And then finally, when Mary saw God in her new born, she looked into the face of joy where before there had been only sorrow. When the prophets talked of the coming Messiah, their words were addressed to a Jewish nation that was oppressed, or in exile, or under siege. As Isaiah spoke of the son that would be born from the root of Jesse’s tree, the Assyrian army was moving through the northern Kingdom, which included Galilee, and the unnamed village that was on the site where Nazareth would be built 600 years later. One by one the lights of the towns of Israel were going out. So Isaiah spoke of a great light emerging out of the darkness. The destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 700 BC was so complete that the light would not come back for 600 years and it was another 100 years before King Herod began to rebuild the Temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonians about 600 BC. It was the tears of the Jewish people that paved the path for the Messiah, the Savior. And for many of us, it is the same this Christmas. The terror in Egypt on Friday reminds us once again that unspeakable sorrow is everywhere in our world today.
For Mary, ever since the announcement that she was pregnant, it had been a time of hardship, and sorrow and rejection and loneliness. And it had all culminated in the darkness of a cave. But when Mary looked into God’s face, she didn’t see the sorrow and pain and isolation. God looked like joy in the place of sorrow and light instead of darkness. Many years after Mary saw God for the first time, James wrote these words to the church in Jerusalem that was once again facing great persecution: Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind. Jesus was born to be the joy of the world. Because of Bethlehem we experience joy in the midst of our deepest sorrows and light where there is seemingly only darkness. Max Lucado relates this story:
In 1926, Dr. George Harley and his wife went as medical missionaries among the Mano tribe of Liberia. They immediately began to construct both a clinic to treat tribe members and a chapel where they could lead worship. And in the first five years, the Harleys treated more than 10,000 patients, but none of the natives ever visited the chapel. Soon after the Harley’s arrived in Liberia, their first son, Robert was born. The child spent his first five years among the Mano people. But when he was five years old, the boy contracted a high fever and though Dr. Harley tried every treatment he could, the boy died. The Harleys were devastated and Dr. Harley retreated to his workshop to build a casket, and he placed the boy in it and started out for a clearing in the jungle to bury his son. One of the older men in the village saw Dr. Harley and asked about the box. Dr. Harley told him that his son had died and he was taking him to the clearing to bury him. And the man took one end of the casket and started to help carry it. This is how Harley tells the story:
The old man took one end of the coffin and I took the other. Eventually we came to the clearing. He helped me dig a grave and we laid the casket in it. After we covered up the grave, I couldn’t stand it any longer . . . I was overcome with sorrow and fell on my knees and began to sob uncontrollably. My beloved son was dead, and there I was in the middle of an African jungle 8000 miles form home and relatives. I felt so alone.
But when the old man saw me crying, he cocked his head in stunned amazement. He squatted down and looked at me so intently. It was as though he was seeing my face for the first time. For a long time, he sat there listening to me cry. Then suddenly, he leaped to his feet and went running back up the trail, screaming over and over as loud as he could, “white man, white man, he cries like one of us.”
That evening the natives established a silent vigil on the front yard of the missionary’s house, Out front was the tribal chief and nearly every man, woman and child in the tribe. And the next Sunday, for the first time, they all came to Chapel to learn more about Jesus, who brings joy from the midst of our sorrow and tears.
When Mary gazed upon the face of Jesus, she saw a God who cries just like us, and all of her sorrow and disappointment faded away. And all she could see was the joy of God with us. Because of Bethlehem our sorrows fade away and all that is left is joy. And we see God with us.
And Mary pondered it all in her heart, and because of Bethlehem, son can we.