Bethlehem: house of bread

There’s only one problem with the nativity set. Do you notice? All the characters are in place and accounted-for. 

But no stable. No barn. No shelter for the Christ-child, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and Magi. Not to mention all the animals.

I think in the nativity set around the altar we accounted for this obvious ‘missing piece’ by placing all the matching pieces right beside a figure of a church building. There’s something that feels right about doing that, despite the historical disconnect between modern church building and the first century birth we celebrate this holy season of Christmas.

Because Jesus needs a house. Significant, isn’t it, that Bethlehem in Hebrew means, “house of bread”? Bethlehem, the town of David (Luke 2:4), was foretold by the prophets of old: “But you, Bethlehem, too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times” –Micah 5:1. Bethlehem was the ‘house’ into which Jesus was born. And Jesus, then became the house wherein all who sought God would find comfort and rest.

Is this not what we celebrate at Christmas? Our homes, places of comfort, places where we find our roots, our grounding, places where we meet and live with those beloved to us. These nativity scenes adorning the altar normally form part of our Christmas decorations in our homes. They, in a sense, bring Jesus — the house of all people — into our houses, our homes. Into our lives.

At Christmas we sing for Jesus to come into our lives. But do we think of what it would mean for us to make room for the Christ? And welcoming the stranger?

In a verse from the hymn, “Christ Be our Light” we sing —

Longing for shelter, many are homeless. Longing for warmth, many are cold. Make us your building, sheltering others, walls made of living stone. 

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today. (1)

Many times in the Gospels, Jesus describes the “kingdom of God”. One of my favourite images is from Mark (4:32), where Jesus compares God’s reign to a small seed that ” … becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
This image gives an all-encompassing, expansive vision of what God intends: a home for all creatures great and small.

Of course, the problem is, that so many people don’t have this shelter, this safety, this home. And it’s not just a spiritual reality. It’s also a material, earth-bound reality.

After all, Jesus himself, was a refugee. After his birth, Jesus’ parents Joseph and Mary had to flee the threat of persecution in their home country. In Matthew (2:13) we read: “… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Jesus, Christians believe, is the Son of God. And this God we worship experienced, on earth, what it means to be a refugee and to be homeless.

Jesus, the comforting house and home for all — like the giant tree housing all the creatures of the earth — knew what it was to be without home, without shelter.

Elsewhere in Matthew (8:20) as Jesus exercises his ministry of compassion, healing and grace to the downtrodden, he reminds those who listen: “Foxes have holes and birds of air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

We are called, therefore, to care precisely for those who are homeless, who are refugees today as if we are loving God. Sri Lanken theologian D.T. Niles stated: “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” (2).

Where do we find this ‘bread’ today? Because we will not travel to Bethlehem to find Jesus, like the Shepherds and the Magi did over two thousand y ears ago. Today we may ask God as the righteous did of old: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to least of these … you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

And, in so doing, we reveal the truth that the author of the last book of the Bible expressed: “See, the home of God is among mortals!”(Revelation 21:3). God’s home in Christ Jesus is here on earth, among those who need the “bread of life” (John 6:35). 

Our job this Christmas as all year round is to feed the hungry and house the homeless. Because Jesus has come into this world. He is out there. And he calls to us. Waiting for us to respond. To be and make home for us all.

(1) “Christ Be Our Light” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006 #715

(2) Joseph R. Jeter in David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor & Kimberley Bracken Long, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.65

The Falling and the Rising

It is the first Sunday after Christmas. How do you navigate this ‘hangover’ time? Are you wandering now into the proverbial ‘deep valley’ after having experienced the ‘mountaintop’ of festive frivolity?

For some, the reality of the cost of gift giving has begun to sink in. Perhaps for you, your expectations were high coming into the season, only now to discover it was not what you thought it would be. For others still, the toys unwrapped on Christmas morn are already a tiresome bore, left on the shelf somewhere.

There is good reason to suggest that choristers ought to visit the nursing home with joyous carols, not before Christmas Day, but in the dog-days of late December and early January. It is this time that many of us may need a pick-me-up, more than ever. I am grateful some of you thought to organize a congregation meal together for Epiphany rather than when things are crazy in mid-December, when we are at the height of all expectation and activity.

We read in the Gospel text today, “Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many …” (Luke 2:34)

Notice the backward order of the words in the scripture — “falling and rising”. In the world, as it may be how we feel at this time of year, it’s ‘rise and fall’: The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of a business tycoon, the rise and fall of a celebrity.

In Macleans magazine, they evaluate 2014 newsmakers in terms of “winners and losers” — and include the likes of famous Canadian radio host, Jian Ghomeshi, who “fell from grace”, we say, whose stardom rapidly disintegrated this Fall (Dec 8/15, Vol.127, Nos.48/49). This is the way we see the rhythm of history and what the world notices. First, one rises; then, once on top, the only way is the way down.

But with Jesus it’s the other way around. With Jesus, it’s fall and rise. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Anna fasts “night and day”, not ‘day and night’. Jesus did not fly directly up into heaven once danger flared. He suffered and died, and then was raised to glory. The movement is down, then up (Philippians 2:5-11). We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise.

You may just fall. But if you rise, it is because you have first fallen. Rising doesn’t come without falling.

If you have arisen, you would have done so rising from the ashes of defeat, failure, having come through some of the worst time of your life. If you have arisen, you would know what it means to be at ground zero. There is spiritual power and great wisdom in embracing your own vulnerability, your own limitation, your own shame, anger and fear.

There is inherent value in being open and honest about your pain — not denying it, not pretending it away, not hiding it, nor distracting ourselves from it. Because it is in facing our own ‘stuff’, even our own mortality, that we will experience the turn.

Simeon, the elder, can now be hospitable to his impending death after encountering the vulnerable, infant Jesus (Luke 2:22-40). There is no rising without first falling. Ironically, this is also the message of Easter. And this is how Christmas and Easter are indivisible: We can see it from the perspective of Mary …

Mary must have shuddered at Simeon’s words. Mysteriously he speaks of a “sword piercing her soul” (v.35). It is moving to think of Mary, feeling Jesus kick in her womb, hearing his first cry, nursing him, watching his first steps. After all, she will witness thirty years, which is telescoped into a single verse: “The child grew and became strong” (v.40). Jesus leaves home and marshals a following.

But wicked men turn against her son — who is pure, good, all love. Mary has to watch as Simeon’s prophecy is fulfilled. Her heart breaks as she sees the lifeblood she had given him drain out of his beautiful body on the Cross. The fall.

But then the rise, on Easter morn. Who, among all who witnessed Jesus risen from the dead, was more joyful to see him alive than his own mother? (thanks to James C. Howell, “Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.168, for his words and thoughts on ‘falling and rising’).

So, when we are at the bottom, how do we cope when “in the Fall”, and when we still await “the Rise”?

As I reflect about looking back over unhappy times in my own life, as I reflect on dashed expectations, disappointments and unfulfilled ‘wants’ — I wonder. I wonder if crying out for the Lord is a cry of despair, or a cry of hope? (thanks, Rev. Doug Reble, for this insight). For me, I have to confess: I would not give up on hope.

Because of Jesus. Mary and Joseph, in this part of the Christmas story, take Jesus to the temple in order to fulfill the letter of the Jewish law (Luke 2:22-24). Their diligence may raise questions for Christians who feel no obligation to the Old Testament’s laws. What is the purpose of the ‘sacrifice’ for their purification?

From a Christian faith perspective, we would say this child was in no need of any such purification. Jesus did not need to be purified. Karl Barth wonderfully wrote about Jesus’ baptism — which we shall read in a couple of weeks — that Jesus needed to be washed of sin; but not his sin, but our sin: “No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He” (cited in ibid., p.164).

No one ever came to the temple for purification as laden with sin — not his, but our sin. Jesus took it all on him. Jesus was purified, for our sake. Jesus takes it all on him — whatever burden we carry — so that we can have a new start, a fresh beginning. Therefore, we can hope.

In this coming new year, 2015, may you be blessed with hope. A hope which carries you through the weeks, months, or even years of “lonely exile” and into the peace, love, and joy promised in Jesus Christ. May your falling turn into a glorious rising, “soon and very soon”.