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The Truest Miracle of Christmas

Christmas Eve 2018

Isaiah 9: 2-7

Titus 2: 11-14

Luke 2: 1-20

During my most recent trip to the Holy Land, our group’s local guide was a Palestinian Christian named Iyad. Iyad was a handsome man in his forties, and a very good guide. He also became a friend to our misfit group of Tarrant County pastors, and we shared more than a few drinks together during the trip. We found out that Iyad lives in Bethlehem, which is these days a northwestern suburb of the city of Jerusalem. But it is Palestinian territory, not Israeli, and so Iyad lives on the other side of the Wall from Jerusalem.

He told us his own version of the nativity story, the birth of his first child. They planned to have the baby at a hospital in Jerusalem, which after all is where the nearest hospitals are. It was night, of course, when the contractions started. To top it off, there was increased security, both at the border and in Jerusalem—this was during the Intifada, when Palestinians were protesting and there were terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. No cab is allowed to travel from Bethlehem across the checkpoint, and no car with Palestinian plates can enter Israel, so they had to drive to the checkpoint, park in the lot there, wait in line for three hours while Iyad’s wife’s contractions worsened, and then at the border catch a cab to take them to the hospital. Streets were blockaded and there were roadblocks and police checkpoints throughout the city. It took them hours to travel from the checkpoint to the hospital—a trip that should have taken 20 minutes at most. The cabbie was in a panic that they might have the baby in the cab, and so were Iyad and his wife. But they made it safely, and their first child, now an adult, was born.

During that same Intifada, perhaps at the same time at the same hospital even, Israeli author Etgar Keret was sitting in a waiting room awaiting the birth of his first child. The hospital was a mass of confusion; there has been a terrorist attack with a lot of victims. A reporter recognized Keret as a well-known writer and tried to get a quote from him, thinking he was also a victim of the attack. He was disappointed when Keret tells him he wasn’t in the attack, he’s only there because his wife is having a baby. “Too bad you weren’t there,” the reporter says. “A reaction from a writer would’ve been good for my article. Someone original, someone with a little vision.”

“Attacks are always the same,” Keret replies. “What kind of original thing can you say about an explosion and senseless death?”

Six hours later their son is born, and Keret writes that the baby “immediately starts to cry.”

I try to calm him down, to convince him that there’s nothing to worry about. That by the time he grows up, everything here in the Middle East will be settled: peace will come, there won’t be any more terrorist attacks, and even if once in a blue moon there is one, there will always be someone original, someone with a little vision, around to describe it perfectly. He quiets down and then considers his next move. He’s supposed to be naïve—seeing as how he’s a newborn—but even he doesn’t quite buy it, and after a second’s hesitation and a small hiccup, he goes back to crying. (Keret, Etgar. The Seven Good Years: A Memoir. New York: riverhead Books, 2015. Pp. 5-6.)

Sometimes people say, “I don’t know if we should have children. I’m not sure if I want to bring a child into this world. There’s so much trouble and violence.” That is a quite rational decision, and I respect that point of view; but I will say that if people living in the Middle East had operated by that principle, there would be no population there at all, and there wouldn’t have been for thousands of years. For four thousand years, the boots of tramping warriors have been heard in the Ayalon and Jezreel Valleys. Egyptian, Canaanite, Israelite, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Crusader, Mamluk, Turkish, British, Israeli, Syrian, Jordanian and Palestinian soldiers and civilians both have thrown garments rolled in blood onto the fire. Yet they keep on having children, every child born an act of defiance of the way things are and a sign of hope for the way things will be.

Our Lord Jesus was one of those children. Born under the yoke of Roman burden, his parents Mary and Joseph bearing the Imperial bar across their shoulders, under the rod of their oppressor Herod the Great. Somehow this child, who, the Gospel of Matthew tells us, will be so much a threat to Herod the Great that Herod will try to kill him while still an infant, will be the one who breaks the Roman burden, the imperial bar, and Herod’s oppressive rod. It’s hard to imagine. But this is the miracle of Jesus. He is God in person, the Word made flesh, very God of very God—but here he is, born under not simply humble circumstances but difficult circumstances—oppression, occupation, poverty, at a time and in a place as dark and grim as any in history. And born not to privilege or elite status, but to humble, poor, hard-working parents from the miserable Galilean backwater of Nazareth. He whom we will call Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, not only meets us in the reality of the world we live in, but comes among us like the least of us, the most humble of humble mortal beings, a baby born to poor working class parents.

Having been to Israel and Palestine so many times now, I often reflect on the irony that we call that area “The Holy Land”. When you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, for instance, you enter a place that has been a theological and territorial battleground for two thousand years—and that’s just between sects of Christianity! It was a dispute over the Church of the Nativity between Greek Orthodox priests and the Franciscans that led to the Crimean War in 1854. Christians, Muslims, and Jews have battled over so-called “holy sites” for two thousand years with no sign of an end in sight. How can we possibly call this place holy when sometimes its very “holiness” is the cause of so much bloodshed and destruction and greed and cruelty and heartache? And how could God be in any way associated with such a place and such behavior? What is holy about any of it?

But God is associated with such a place and such behavior—because this is Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” who meets us where we are. This is God who is not disdainful of even the worst in human nature. This is God in the world as it really is.

But notice that in Jesus, God enters the world not as a King or Queen or President or Prime Minister, not as a general or rebel leader, not as a person of power or wealth—not, in short as one of the people whose boots trample the innocent: In Jesus God meets us as one of the innocents that the boots are trampling on. He is Iyad’s child who has nothing to do with craziness around him that almost makes him born in a cab. He is Etgar Keret’s child whose birth seems unimportant compared to the bombing victims around him. Baby Jesus could fit in easily among the nameless tens of thousands of civilians killed during and after the Iraq War; or one of the nearly 7000 civilians killed this year alone in Syria. Born during the Roman census that Augustus ordered, Jesus could have become just another nameless number in a bureaucrat’s accounting books, Item: one Jewish Child, male. Born: Bethlehem in Judea, home: Nazareth in the Galilee. The very fact that Jesus comes not as a conqueror but as one of the conquered is God’s act of defiance against the world as it is.

But it is also a sign of God’s intention for the world as it’s supposed to be: a place where every child matters; a place where the poor and the humble are as valued as the rich and the powerful; a place where simple, faithful people of humble origins, a carpenter and his teenage wife, shepherds watching flocks by night, where these people of simple standing can herald the dawn of a new and better world, a world of peace, joy, and oneness between human and human and human and God. A holy place, where war is no more, where there aren’t any more battles over territory because sharing has become the law of our hearts, a place where the humble are honored, not neglected or demeaned; a place where Iyad’s child and Etgar Keret’s son can grow up to live together in harmony. A holy place. A place of hope.

What makes the Holy Land holy isn’t so much its past but what it stands for—what it symbolizes—through the religious traditions born there. Yes, it’s a place of turmoil and the worst of human behavior—but nonetheless, it stands for hope. Oneness between human and human, oneness between God and humanity, peace on earth and goodwill to people, salvation to all, the meek shall inherit the earth, the rod of the oppressor will be broken, justice that rolls like a river and righteousness like a mighty stream. This hope lives on in defiance of the reality it was born in, and this hope is what makes the Holy Land holy.

And that’s true for us, as well. We may look at ourselves, we may look at our lives, and think, “How can there be anything holy about me? How can I be made in the image of God? How can the divine have anything to do with me?” and the answer is: It is while you are the you that you are that the Christ child enters your heart; it is in defiance of the worst in us that Jesus enters our hearts and gives us hope—hope to be better than we are—hope to leave the world a better place than when we entered it—hope that God can do more in us and through us than we could ask or imagine—hope that is based on the firm foundation that God loves us and in the midst of our need sent his Son for us. When we are at our worst, when we feel we are the least holy, remember this: Christ is born to us at our least holy time, in the least holy place, and so makes us holy; and Christ is growing in us, shaping us into what we hope to be. And so, by the grace and love of God, you and I are holy.

That is the truest miracle of Christmas.