How Far To Bethlehem?
Frances Chesterton has a children’s Christmas poem which poses the question: “How far is it to Bethlehem?”
If we answered that question literally, we would have to say that Bethlehem is nearly 2000 years and 7000 miles away. But I don’t want to answer the question literally. You see, I do not regard Bethlehem so much as a geographical locality as I do a spiritual reality. So the question I want to pose today is: How far does the heart have to journey in order to experience what those shepherds in Bethlehem experienced so long ago and so far away? How far would you and I have to go in our faith in order to experience for ourselves what we have read so many times from the pages of Scripture? You see, Bethlehem stands for certain attitudes of heart and life. How far are they from us?
Let me suggest, first of all, that in order to experience the spiritual reality of Bethlehem, we shall have to go as far as it takes to consecrate the commonplace.
What do I mean? Well, the fact is that nobody was looking for a Messiah in Bethlehem. Certainly not Mary and Joseph. They went there not because it was a wonderful place to have a baby, but because they were made to do it by the dictatorial taxation policy of a power-crazed Caesar who could not have cared less about them. Herod was not looking for a king to be born in Bethlehem, for in his opinion, monarchs appeared in capital cities like Jerusalem or Rome. Even the Wise Men did not know enough to go to Bethlehem—it took the miracle of a wandering star to lead them there.
Bethlehem, you see, was a place of ordinariness then, just as it is now. It is a small, remote village, like dozens of other villages in that part of the world. It is off the beaten track, atop a rock-strewn hill, surrounded by miles of barren, rugged, treeless terrain. Matthew went so far as to call it “the least of the cities of Judah.” It was obscure, unknown, and—in what may be the unkindest cut of all—it wasn’t even the only Bethlehem. There was another town called Bethlehem in the territory of Zebulon and people frequently got the two places confused. So Bethlehem was just an ordinary, out-of-the-way place. Nobody ever went to Bethlehem looking for anything. So how far is it to Bethlehem? It’s as far as you have to go to discover that something extraordinary can happen in an ordinary place, that commonplace events and people can become the messengers of God to us.
You see, Christmas came to little Bethlehem that we might know that no place is unknown to God. It came in the middle of the night to remind us that there is no moment of the day or night when God is absent from us. It came to ordinary people like Joseph and Mary to convince us that there is no human life beyond the reach of God’s love. It came in a child that we might come to understand that from the moment of our conception to the moment we draw our last breath, we are of infinite value to God. Christmas, you see, is person-centered. Christmas affirms that human lives—”even the least of these” like Joseph, Mary, and the baby born in unknown out-of-the-way Bethlehem—are the least expendable treasures in the universe.
Is it any wonder then that Christmas is especially precious to ordinary people? Or that at this season, more so than any other, we think of giving not getting, of what we can do for others, not what they can do for us? And is this not the truest reality in all of life? I know that there are those who trumpet to us the message that life is first and foremost power and prestige and possessions; that what works in life is not love but leverage, not faith but force, not compassion but coercion. But Christmas stands foursquare against that point of view in life.
In the “Peanuts” cartoon, one day Lucy was chasing Charlie Brown and she was crying out with every step: “I’ll get you Charlie Brown! And when I do, I’m going to knock your block off!” Then suddenly Charlie Brown stopped running, and he turned around and said to her: “Wait a minute, Lucy. If you and I, relatively small children with small problems, can’t love each other enough to sit down and talk through our problems in a mature and loving way, then how can we expect the nations of the world to…” Pow! She hit him in the mouth. Then she turned and said: “I had to hit him quick. He was beginning to make sense.”
That’s what I want you to grasp—that the spiritual reality of Bethlehem makes sense in this world of ours. Because God is with us in Jesus Christ, the ordinary people, events, and places of life become holy and ought to be treated as such. Therefore, let me give you a short Christmas course in human relations. This is free—it comes with the sermon—but if you are smart you will write it down. Here it is:
The SIX most important words: “I admit I made a mistake.”
The FIVE most words: “I am proud of you.”
The FOUR most important words: “What is your opinion?”
The THREE most important words: “If you please.”
The TWO most important words: “Thank you.”
The ONE most important word: “We.”
The LEAST important word: “I”
You see, the big “I” get in the way of what we could do for Christ, because we are so preoccupied with what others might do for us. Christmas says that life doesn’t work that way.
I have always loved what the nephew of Ebenezer Scrooge said in response to his uncle’s assertion that Christmas is humbug. He said: “I have always thought of Christmas time as a good time; a kind forgiving charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of other people as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. Therefore, Uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, it has done me good and will do me good, and I say, God bless it!”
Yes, God bless Christmas! For at Christmas, God came to an ordinary place called Bethlehem and to ordinary people like Mary and Joseph, and by so doing consecrated, made holy, the commonplace in life.
And let me suggest, also, that in order to experience the spiritual reality of Bethlehem, we shall have to go as far as it takes to incorporate the Incarnation.
What do I mean? Well, Bethlehem is the place where God came, not dressed in royal robes, but wrapped in swaddling clothes; not barking imperial orders, but gurgling in His mother’s arms; not hailed by multitudes, but gently stared at by a handful of shepherds. Bethlehem is where God is ultimately accessible. Bethlehem is where God says, as He says nowhere else: “Here I am, I come to you in a way you can understand and accept. I do not force myself upon you. I ask you only to take me to your heart.” To incorporate the Incarnation is to let Christ live in you.
Do you understand how incredibly powerful that is? The birth of Jesus Christ, next to His resurrection from the dead, is the single most significant event in human history. It became the focal point for the entire human story. Everything before Christ looked forward to His birth, and everything since looks back at Him. In fact, all time is measured in “B.C.”—”before Christ” and “A.D.”—”Anno Domini, the year of our Lord.” History records that no one, before, or since, has walked this earth with such dramatic appeal.
He never enjoyed a Christmas, yet if He had not lived there would never have been a Christmas for you and me. He never held political power or monetary wealth or social prestige, yet no one has ever so altered the human scene or the human understanding. He never had a business, yet the businesses of this world boom in celebration of His birth. He rarely, if ever, received a gift, yet in His name multiple millions of gifts are given. He healed a relative handful of people, yet the foundations of modern medicine bear the imprint of His name. He did not leave a single written line, and everything He spoke could be printed in one section of the morning newspaper, yet He shed more light on things human and divine than anyone who ever drew a breath. He knew nothing of architecture, yet look around you and you will see that our noblest structures were built to His glory. We have but one complete sermon from His lips, yet the words of that sermon are the cornerstone for human morality and the Magna Carta of the human spirit. He lived but thirty-three years, from Bethlehem to Calvary, but the story of that life has been translated into every language on the face of the earth, and if we were to follow His teachings then fear, poverty, and injustice would be banished from the earth and war would be no more. He has been opposed, hated, fought, censored, banned and criticized in every generation since His birth, yet His influence continues unabated and it is safe to say that not a day passes but that lives are revolutionized by the impact of His life.
You see, it is not enough just to celebrate His birth; we must take Him to our hearts. We need Him in our lives. We long for Him. How else do you explain the continuing popularity of the movie “E.T.”? E.T., more than any other character to appear in an American film in 50 years, is a Christ-figure. He comes from out of this world. Where he walks the flowers bloom. The little children cluster about him. With his touch he heals. He longs to return to his heavenly home. He dies. Then in a re-creation of the Easter motif, he comes to life again. In the climactic moment when the doors of his tomb, the truck, are thrown open, the guards fall back. He appears in shimmering white. He ascends, but before he goes, he says to those he leaves behind, not “Lo, I am with you always,” but “I will always be in your heart.” And over the years people by the millions have seen the movie and heard the story.
I believe it is because there is a God-shaped hole in every human heart. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” So I ask you publicly what is in fact a very personal question: Are you in touch with the eternal? Have you invited Jesus Christ to be born in your heart? Have you offered your life to him?
You see, it is not really far to Bethlehem, for Bethlehem is wherever you are when Jesus is born in your heart. How does the poet put it?
Though Christ in Joseph’s town,
A thousand times were born,
Till He is born in thee
Thy soul is still forlorn.
No one can make the decision for you and me. We must decide for ourselves what we are going to do about Jesus Christ. No one can decide for us. But when the Lord of glory takes up residence in us, then that is our Bethlehem. That is our Christmas. When God revealed Himself and His glory in the Incarnation—that happened in Bethlehem. But when God reveals Himself and His glory in the salvation of the human heart—that could happen right here today, to you and to me.
That’s all I know to say, except this…
When Jesus Christ is born in the manger of the human heart, He never leaves…