O Little Town of Bethlehem
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Micah 5: 2-5a • Luke 2: 1-20
You may not know this, but Bethlehem is one of the three Palestinian cities that constitute what is known as the West Bank of Jerusalem. All three of these cities are divided from Jerusalem by the Israeli security wall. It may surprise many of us that Bethlehem has always been so close to Jerusalem that it could be a suburb today. Nearly three thousand years ago a young shepherd boy named David watched his flocks by night in Bethlehem. He would have seen the watch fires on the hill on which sat the fortress capital of the Jebusites. That boy shepherd would one day be ordained king of Israel by the prophet Samuel and conquer that fortress and claim it as Israel’s capital, naming the city Jerusalem.
In Bethlehem today, there is a shepherd’s field where tourists are taken. We are told this is the same field that David’s ancestor Ruth worked gathering grain when she was seeking to win the love and protection of the landowner Boaz; the same field where David guarded his father Jesse’s sheep against bears and lions with his sling; the same field where on this very night about two thousand and twenty years ago, shepherds were watching their flocks by night. The field is wide open and golden, and you can easily imagine it bathed in unearthly light as shepherds, gathered on the hill above in a cave where the scorched ceiling indicates that regular fires were lit, would have covered their faces in the sudden glare and stepped out to see what was causing it. In the sky, they would have beheld, of all things, angels, telling them the good news of Jesus’ birth and wishing “Peace on earth among those whom God favors!”
The Church of the Nativity has stood at the traditional site of the birth of Jesus since the year 339 CE. It has suffered disrepair but has never been destroyed, which is something of a miracle in itself. The birthplace inside the church is a cave off to one side of the sanctuary. It is very nondescript. Like many of the Christian holy sites, this one is marked by rancorous posturing between the three Christian sects that supposedly manage it. Tensions over the Church of the Nativity actually led to the Crimean War in 1854. To us today, probably the only thing we know about the Crimean War is Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and the fact that this was the war where Florence Nightingale first practiced modern nursing.
A couple of decades ago, the mysterious street artist Banksy became sensitized to the plight of the Palestinians and bought a closed-down hotel right up against the Security Wall and named it “The Walled Off Hotel.” It boasts “The worst view in the world” because it looks right out on the graffiti-covered wall and its observation towers. Inside Banksy displays art by Palestinian creatives, nearly all of which is protest art. One that particularly stands out is an array of security cameras arranged like animal heads on display.
Banksy has opened a new installation that depicts the Nativity, the birth of Jesus, with Mary and Joseph and a couple of animals, directly under the Security Wall. The graffiti on the wall says “Love, Peace, and Freedom.” Above them in the wall is a what looks like an artillery shell hole with wall damage radiating out from it, as if it is the star above the birth of Christ.
“Peace on earth, good will to all.” That the angels convey this glorious message in any part of the Middle East is deeply ironic. But then, so much about Christmas story drips with irony.
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little lands of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
God chooses Bethlehem, the prophet Micah tells us, because of how unimportant it is. Bethlehem was and remains small, really in many ways unimportant, often under siege. That the greatest king of Israel, King David, came from Bethlehem, was ironic, almost humorous; and to top it off he was a shepherd, which seems like the only thing Bethlehemites are good for! And then the savior that Micah predicts will be a shepherd, too, one who compares himself to a shepherd come to leave the ninety-nine and rescue the one who was lost, who claims that his mission is to rescue the lost sheep of Israel. A shepherd king, such an unlikely figure; and yet that is what both David and Jesus are heralded as, just as the God they served was called the Shepherd God. Not a warrior, not a hero, not a despot as were the rulers of other countries, but a shepherd.
Bethlehem in many ways is a city of the downtrodden and is the symbol for all such cities, a place trampled by the boots of warriors from all over the world, a place nobody thinks twice about, really. It isn’t a threat and its people are unimportant, poor, continuing even today in professions that are considered humble and menial. Places like Bethlehem often end up being the worst affected by the grandiose schemes of great rulers and great empires precisely because they aren’t important. The great just march right through like the towns aren’t even there, leaving disaster in their wake. It is in places like Bethlehem that peace really matters, and it is to places like Bethlehem that peace hardly ever comes.
But from this place, in God’s great sense of poetic irony, God has chosen to raise up the world’s hope. The Prince of Peace, the Savior of all humanity, the Repairer of the Breach, wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, is born here. God often couches hope and salvation in irony. In a way, God has no choice, because the world is so flawed and needy that for hope to appear anywhere in the world seems incongruous—unlikely—ironic. But it is a hallmark of God’s gracious work that it’s exactly in such places that God makes hope happen. In a poor, tiny conquered village under the pressure of a Roman Empire demanding taxation, while rude and thoughtless innkeepers are turning away a pregnant mother and her husband—that’s where God chooses that the Savior is to be born.
The hope we have in Jesus is not a hope that we can escape this world and its troubles. It is a hope that is born within this world of troubles, promising that the world can change. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the Gospel of John says. God doesn’t save us by pulling us out of the world but by putting God’s self in the world. The very fact that the savior can be born in the lowliest of circumstances is proof that God intends something better, that God is doing something better, that evil cannot defeat good, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it.
This past weekend my family went to the Bishop Theater in Dallas to see “The Black Nativity,” a retelling of the birth of Jesus from an African American perspective. In the second scene, a black church is joyously sharing this gospel good news but a young man gets angry and demands to know where God is. “We live in a world where we get shot in our own living rooms,” he pointedly says. “Where is this God you are singing about?”
In response, the church gathers around him and gently tells him about the God inside of him, the God who can transcend those troubles by bearing up under them and refusing to give up hope, the God who can be a light to the world by shining bright in his life. And that God, they tell him, is not just in him; God is in us—the people of God, maintaining hope and faith even in all the struggles they face. It was a beautiful message.
To it, I suggest we add one thing: not only is God in you and me, not only is God in us, but God is among us. God dwells with us, in this world. God chooses to live in the real world, the world as it is, suffering with us and rejoicing with us. This world is God’s neighborhood. God dwells with us, is part of our human existence. Jesus born in Bethlehem, lives with those whom the world sees as unimportant and non-descript, as a footnote to history. Jesus born in Bethlehem lives in the middle of wars and racial tension and oppression and poverty and sadness and loneliness and fear. No matter how bad this world can get, nothing can overcome the fact that in Christ, God has chosen to dwell among us, and so the world always has hope. In very real terms, it is precisely in the midst of the troubles of our very real world that Jesus comes among us and does not leave.
And by choosing to live here, in those places and in the hearts and hopes of people who know they are in need, Jesus gives us hope that those places will be redeemed, those people will know joy, and those problems will be solved. The desert will blossom, and heaven will come to earth. Where is this God you’re singing about? God is among us. And because of that we know that what’s wrong in the world cannot last, and that good will triumph. Because of that we know that we can keep hoping for and working for the good and it makes a difference. Because God is here, we know “here” can change. Because here, on earth, on this planet, in our communities, in our lives, here is the place that God chose to call home.
In the Bethlehems of the world, and in the Bethlehem of our hearts, is the dwelling place of the holy.