My wife, Vanessa, and I like to get away to L. A. as often as we can. No, I’m not talking about Lost Angeles. I’m talking about lower Alabama. Driving across southern Mississippi when we go we go through a lot of little towns on Highway 49. One in particular is Mt. Olive, Mississippi. Driving into town there is a prominent sign that says “Birthplace of Steve McNair.” Steve McNair was a professional football player who played quarterback, and spent most of his career with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans. A little further down Highway 49, you enter Collins, Mississippi, and again, at the entrance of town there’s a sign that says “Birthplace of Gerald McRaney.” Gerald McRaney is an actor who played in series such as Simon & Simon, House of Cards and currently, This Is Us. I don’t know how many of you have driven through Mt. Olive or Collins, Mississippi, but there isn’t much happening in either of those places. They are simply little towns nestled between the bigger cities of Jackson and Hattiesburg. Their claim to fame is who was born there.
An Ancient Journey
Now, picture in your mind, riding your camel across the Judean desert southward out of Jerusalem in the first century. About five miles out of Jerusalem, you start to enter a sleepy little town called Bethlehem, and as your camel glides into town you see a sign that says, “Birthplace of King David.” Bethlehem’s claim to fame was that it was the birthplace of the nation’s most famous and popular king. One scholar says, “’At the beginning of the first century AD, Bethlehem was a village with not more than a thousand inhabitants: a small set of houses scattered along the side of a ridge and protected by a wall that was in a bad state of repair.” We sing the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem with the emphasis on “little.” It was not where anyone was expecting anything special to happen. It certainly wasn’t where anyone was expecting God to show up. Sure, there had been this prophecy from Micah that said,
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel,
whose origins are in the distant past,
will come from you on my behalf.” (Micah 5:2 NLT),
but that prophecy was long since buried in the recesses of the nation’s mind. Even the nation’s king, Herod, had to call on the experts to be reminded of Micah’s prophecy when the wise men showed up looking for this “new” king that was born.
Nobody really expected God to show up, or for God to do anything special in Bethlehem. If God was going to show up, God was going to show up in Jerusalem. That was the happening place for the nation of Israel. Of course, God might show up in Rome, or even Athens, Greece. Those places were the center of first century culture, politics and power. If something is going to happen, it would surely happen in one of those places, not sleepy little Bethlehem.
That’s what we expect, too, and we have the benefit of bible stories and an annual celebration to remind us that God shows up in unexpected places. What do I mean? God is a big God, and if God is going to make a difference, it’s because He’s going to do it in a big way. Right? Sure, like in New York City or Washington, D. C., or maybe even Paris or London. Those are the seats of power. We certainly don’t expect God to show up in Monroe. But, He does, and isn’t that Good News? Sure, it is preacher…sort of…
God Gets Close
If God shows up in Monroe, that brings Him awfully close to home, and we’re just not sure we want God that close. We like having a little space between God and us. You know how we like our space. Don’t get too close. Don’t believe it? Notice what you do next time you’re waiting on the elevator and the doors open and it’s got more than four people on it. Most of us will wait on the next one. And, let’s face it, there’s more than a little discomfort here tonight. We’re a lot closer than many of us really like, but I suppose we can endure it for an hour once a year. Let me tell you, Bethlehem is evidence that God doesn’t really respect our space, and we don’t quite know what to do with a God like that.
What do we do with a God like that? What do we do with a God who shows up in the most unexpected places? I tell you what we do—we build places where we will COME and meet God. We’ll come, sit down, listen for an hour or so, get our God fix, talk a little bit about how it’s been going for the last week, be reminded of the things we need to work on, resolve to do better and ask God to help us out. Most of the time we’ll leave saying, “Hey, this has been a good session. We’ll do this again.” We leave and we expect that God stays, but…that’s not the evidence of Bethlehem. That’s not Emmanuel—God with us. That’s not the point of Christmas at all!
The point of Christmas is that God is with us in all the unexpected ways and all the unexpected places of our lives. That’s what we sing in the words to the third verse of the song Phillips Brooks wrote in O Little Town of Bethlehem:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
Born in Us
God imparts to human hearts. God is born in us. Christmas is God being born in us—you and me! And, that is an even more unexpected place than Bethlehem. Christmas means that God goes with us to work. When we’re standing on Monday morning at that blasted copy machine that never works the way it was designed to work. God is with us at home with our families, around the dinner table, and God is with us when we’re living at the homeless shelter. God is with us when we’re going through the divorce and when we’re battling the addiction. God is with us when we’re shopping at Wal-Mart and when we’re driving our cars. God goes with us on vacation. God is right there with us when we’re confronted with choices that challenge our values, and God is right there when our co-workers, or friends, or children make lifestyle choices that challenge our sensibilities, and who don’t understand who Christ is because we’re the only definition of him they see.
Yes, God is with us in the great, high and holy moments of our lives, but God is also with us when we’re struggling with the difficulties of life. Christmas is God giving Himself to us, to be with us, to invade our time and space for one purpose and one purpose only—to have a relationship with us, to save us from our sin, and to give us life through His Son, Jesus Christ. That’s the evidence of Bethlehem. That’s the point of Christmas!
That only leaves one question: Will we allow Him to be born in us tonight? The last verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem becomes our prayer this Christmas and every Christmas. Listen to Brooks’ prayer again:
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel! Amen.
Until next time, keep looking up…