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December 20th, 2010

Move toward your pain this Christmas, not away from it.

Luke 2:4

Candlelighting Meditation – December 19, 2010

O Bethlehem

“Back to Bethlehem?”  Why would anyone want to go there?

Pastor Paul Cummings said this morning in his sermon that Rocky Mount, North Carolina, is a great place to be from.  It’s not a great place to be.  Jesus could probably say the same thing about Bethlehem.

Christians have been emigrating from Bethlehem for the past sixty years.  In 1948, Christians made up 85% of Bethlehem’s population.  Today only about 20% of the town’s 30,000 residents are Christian.  For centuries, Bethlehem’s bread and butter has been tourism, with the Christian population commercializing the birthplace of Jesus.

But tourism is way down since the Second Intifada almost a decade ago.  During that conflict 200 Palestinian militants took refuge from the Israeli army in the Church of the Nativity, the world’s oldest church.  The church’s bellringer and nine militants died in the hostage drama.  Who wants to risk your life to go back to Bethlehem?

The entire history of Bethlehem is littered with conflict:  Christians vs. Muslims, Muslims vs. Jews, Greek Orthodox Christians vs. Catholic Christians, Samaritans vs. Jews, Canaanites vs. Israelites.

Even at the time of Bethlehem’s most celebrated labor and delivery, it was considered “little among the clans of Judah” (Micah 5:2) – the long-forgotten hometown of King David.  Jesus’ birth went virtually unnoticed because it happened in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem never was, and still isn’t, a place you would expect to find Christmas.  Then again, Christmas has a way of showing up in unexpected places.

Kinsman-Redeemer

Today’s meditation was inspired by my mother, who published an original Christmas meditation card this year titled “Back to Bethlehem.”  My mother has always loved Christmas, trying to make it special for us kids a half-century ago in Pakistan where she and Dad serving as missionaries.  Mom would have to plan ahead and pack Christmas gifts and decorations for five kids five years ahead of time.

Mom’s love for Christmas is based on her love for the Bible and the story of Jesus, and that’s what Mom writes about in “Back to Bethlehem.”  You wouldn’t expect to find Christmas in a Bible story about a grieving widow and her widowed foreign daughter-in-law, but my mother found Jesus in the story of Naomi and Ruth.

The background of the story is that Naomi and her husband had moved from Bethlehem to Moab because of a famine.  Their two sons married Moabite women and all seemed happy.  Then Naomi’s husband and both sons died, causing the widow to go back to Bethlehem accompanied by one young widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth.  The only possibility for a promising future would be if a close relative claimed the right to the “property” left behind by Naomi’s dead husband and sons, including the women.  My mother writes,

Naomi’s bitterness was turned into hope when Boaz, a wealthy Bethlehemite, bought Naomi’s property, became her kinsman-redeemer, and married Ruth.  A joyful Naomi was able to hold her grandson, Ruth’s tiny baby Obed, the ancestor of both King David and Jesus.

Bethlehem is important because God set the stage there.  Boaz is a beautiful picture of the great Kinsman of humanity, the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.  Without a Kinsman-Redeemer, we, like Naomi, will lose everything God offers us.  Jesus paid the ultimate price.  As our Kinsman-Redeemer, he gained the right to take us for His own, just as Boaz did for Naomi and Ruth….

Those who, like Naomi, feel emotionally spent and pained because of some difficult circumstance can look back to Bethlehem this Christmas.  They will find the Savior Who came to “buy back His property” and give new life to all who believe in Him.

Overcoming fear

Emotional exhaustion, pain, difficult circumstances – that’s not where we expect to find Christmas.  The message we hear all around us in December is to forget about your troubles for a few weeks, smooth over your conflicts long enough to enjoy Christmas dinner at Grandma’s, place your financial challenges on hold and buy more stuff than you can afford anyway, wear a smile even if you don’t feel like it.

Then we hear, “Why can’t we have Christmas all year long?”  The answer is because it’s not real.  Much of our Christmas observance is about pretending to be good, pretending to get along, pretending to be Christian by going to church, pretending to be happy, pretending to be Super Mom or Super Dad, trying to fulfill everyone’s expectations.

I’m not suggesting that you become Mr. Grinch, spoiling the festivities by stealing Christmas, literally or figuratively.  I’m not suggesting conscientious objection to Christmas.  I am suggesting that we go back to Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is an unexpected place to find Christmas, because Bethlehem represents grief, pain, obscurity, and conflict – everything we think we need to avoid to enjoy Christmas. 

This Christmas move toward your pain, not away from it.

Choose to believe the good news of Christmas, that God redeems us though Jesus when we admit our sin and need. 

Name your disappointments and fears so that you can find comfort and strength remembering the rejection and frustration Mary and Joseph must have felt when there was no room in the inn.

Identify those people in your life with whom you have conflict.  Christmas may not be the time to resolve everything, but spend time with them, listen to them, pray for them.

Look around you the Naomis of our world, the bitter, grieving, lonely, poor, and hopeless.  Choose to love them for Christ’s sake.

That would be the best way to go back to Bethlehem.  Amen.

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