The Bible And Bethlehem
The Bible and Bethlehem go together.
We cannot read the Bible or celebrate Christmas without seeing that they are inseparable. Martin Luther rightly described the Bible as “the manger in which Christ is laid.” Just as shepherds and wise men in the first century encountered God’s incarnate Word in a manger in Bethlehem, so do we in the 20th century encounter that same Word, that same Christ, in the manger called Holy Scripture.
Of course, I think we need to be honest at this point. Many people today are biblically illiterate. The Bible is the all-time best seller, and yet, the truth is, the people buy it but don’t read it. A professor at the University of Chicago said recently, “Ignorance regarding the Bible on the part of otherwise intelligent people is one of the most astounding aspects of life in our culture today.” In a certain high school English class, 85% of the students could not name the four Gospels. One student said: “I only know three of them—Christianity, Hinduism, and confusion.” At the University of Denver, a student was asked on a test to tell what he knew about Moses. He answered: “Frankly, all I know about Moses is that he is dead.”
So the Bible is neither widely read nor clearly understood in our time, and that’s a shame, especially at Christmas. Because, you see, the Bible and Bethlehem deliver the same very powerful message. It is this: God seeks us out, God pursues us. We run away, but He comes to save us. We get lost, but He comes to find us. We forsake Him, but He keeps on forgiving us. We think we can make it through life without Him, but He will not let us go. The Bible is the story of God’s loving pursuit of you and of me and Bethlehem is the culmination of that quest. The Bible and Bethlehem deliver the same message. Let me capsule it for you with a couple of thoughts…
First, both the Bible and Bethlehem deliver to us God’s word of grace.
The word “grace” means “unconditional love.” It means love with no strings attached, love without limit or reserve, love freely given even when it is not earned or deserved. With the coming of Jesus Christ to Bethlehem, we see God’s grace in a human form which we can understand the imitate. The Christ of Christmas shows us that God is not some harsh tyrant watching us grudgingly, but rather He is a genuine friend watching over us graciously. God is not some angry judge who must be appeased, but rather He is a convincing advocate on our behalf. He is not a powermonger demanding His pound of flesh, but rather He is a loving Father who cares, who understands and who is deeply concerned about the welfare of His children.
Last year, the movie Home Alone was one of the biggest box office successes of all time. It’s the story of a family in the suburbs of Chicago who decide to spend Christmas in Paris, France. On the night before their scheduled departure, the electricity went off. Consequently, their alarm clock did not sound at the right time and they overslept. Because they were late, in the midst of total chaos they gathered up all the kids and the luggage and made a mad dash to the airport. Somewhere in mid-flight over the Atlantic they realize that in their hectic rush to the airport, they accidentally left one of their children, eight-year-old Kevin, at home alone. Kevin gets along amazingly well by himself, and along the way, learns some important lessons about Christmas.
However, the dimension of the story that intrigued me most of all was Kevin’s changing relationship with the older man who lived next door. The fellow was old and crotchety and all of the kids in the neighborhood were terrified of him. Well, during Kevin’s stay at home alone, one night he decided to go down to the church. It was a week-night and the choir was rehearsing their Christmas music. Kevin slipped into the church and sat on one of the pews, listening to the music. Suddenly, he looked to his right, and horror of horrors, seated just a few feet away is this scary old fellow from next door. The man turns, looks at Kevin, recognizes him, moves over beside Kevin, and befriends him. The two of them talk. Suddenly Kevin sees the man in a new light. He grows to like him and later on the man rescues Kevin from a scary situation.
That’s a parable of Christmas. You see, before Jesus came, people were afraid of God just the way Kevin was afraid of his next door neighbor. Before Bethlehem God seems remote, harsh, demanding, and vengeful. But then at Christmas God came in Jesus Christ to befriend us, to reveal His loving spirit, and to embrace us with His protective grace. Both the Bible and Bethlehem deliver to us the same message. They deliver to us God’s word of grace in Jesus Christ.
Then, both the Bible and Bethlehem deliver to us God’s word of salvation.
We are sinners, you and I. Not a one of us here measures up to the great potential God has put within us. Not a one of us here lives in complete accord with God’s law and Christ’s command. We are sinners. And we need a Savior.
Do you remember the story of Hosea in the Old Testament? Through a heartbreaking personal experience, Hosea learned something special about God. He learned the miracle of God’s saving love. Here is what happened. Hosea married a woman named Gomer. But Gomer broke Hosea’s heart. She was unfaithful to him. She left him and her life took such a downward spiral that she wound up living in slavery. But then Hosea made an astounding discovery. He realized that even though she had betrayed him and rejected him and hurt him deeply, he still loved her. So he searched for her until he found her. Then he paid the price for her release from slavery and brought her back home where she belonged. Then Hosea made a second astonishing discovery. He realized that God’s love is just like that. Even when we are unfaithful to God, even when we go chasing after the false gods of this world, even when we fall short of God’s glory, He still loves us. He comes in Jesus Christ and forgives us. He pays the price for our release from sin and brings us back home where we belong. Both the Bible and Bethlehem deliver to us the same message. They deliver to us the world of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.
Let me finish with this…
It was Christmas Eve a year ago. A minister friend of mine was visiting a hospital. He went to see a man who had suffered a stroke. The stroke had taken a heavy toll. Both legs were paralyzed; one arm was limp; most of the man’s ability to speak was gone. As my minister friend joined the family at the bedside, he was not quite certain how to communicate with this stricken man. Then he remembered something he had heard. He remembered that some stroke victims can sing even though they can’t talk. (I have a friend, Sara Smith, who confirms this. She is a stroke victim for whom speech is terribly difficult. But she tells me that while it is very hard for her to talk, it is not so hard for her to sing.) Well, my minister friend remembered hearing that and so suddenly on impulse—or better yet under the swift inspiration of the Holy Spirit—my friend began to sing: “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright.” Amazingly enough, the stricken man reached over with his good hand, took the minister’s hand and began to sing along. No stammering. No hesitation. No difficulty in forming the words. He sang clearly: “Round yon Virgin Mother and Child, Holy Infant so tender and mild.” The family joined in “Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” And for a few minutes that hospital room became a little Bethlehem. My minister friend said later: “There were angels in that room.”
This is the most marvelous night of the year. Holiness surrounds this night in such a way that all kinds of people are drawn to it. Even those who do not share our faith are drawn to the manger of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Even those who cannot sing, or because of what life has done to them, refuse to sing, will sing on Christmas Eve. This night, as no other, reminds us of God’s seeking, saving, redeeming love. This night, as no other, reminds us that God gave His only begotten Son for us. This night, as no other, reminds us that God’s grace and God’s salvation are ours through Jesus Christ. And, believe me, that is worth singing about, isn’t it?