This was the title of my sermon on Christmas eve, at 3 and 5. The Senior Pastor preached at 10:00 p.m.. Usually, I just get the 3:00 family service, but he graciously offered me the opportunity to preach at two of them this year. I'm just posting a few excerpts, as well as a reflection about something that happened after 5:00.
"How far is it to Bethlehem?" I imagine the shepherds saying to one another, after they heard the heavenly host. "Not very far," they might have replied – and it probably wasn’t, from out in the fields where they were staying. They were probably the closest of all of the visitors to the stable on that night. They were even closer than Jerusalem, the capital city – only five miles away, and always bustling with activity. Nowadays it’s even closer. In some ways Bethlehem seems like a suburb of Jerusalem. They are right next to each other. According to someone who knows these things, you can tell the difference between Jerusalem and Bethlehem because on the Jerusalem side are Israeli soldiers, and on the Bethlehem side stand Palestinian police wearing red berets and carrying pistols. "How far is it to Bethlehem?" "Not very far ...." if all you are measuring is distance. In some ways it seems very far away, impossible to get there.
"How far is it to Bethlehem?" I imagine Mary saying to Joseph, when she got the news that they would have to travel for a census demanded by the Roman government. From Nazareth, it’s about 60 miles to Bethlehem, I’ve heard – not very far, by our standards, but perhaps a long way if you are traveling by donkey, or on foot, and you are 9 months pregnant. Perhaps she sounded weary – it was a long journey, and probably neither of them really wanted to take it. And it was a journey forced on them by an occupying army.
"How far is it to Bethlehem? – not very far" are the words of an old carol, written especially for children. It sounds reassuring, doesn’t it?
Here is a little of how it sounds:
How far is it to Bethlehem? – not very far
Shall we find the stable room lit by a star?
Can we see the little child, is he within?
If we lift the wooden latch, may we go in?
"Not very far," sing the words of the carol.
It’s as if the children are trying to reassure each other, so that they will keep going on their journey, and will finally get to see the baby Jesus, their destination. Keep going, keep going, they say to one another. It’s not really very far. But sometimes Bethlehem seems very far away.
How far is it to Bethlehem, anyway? It’s five miles away from Jerusalem, and it’s 60 miles away from Nazareth, whereever that is, but how far is it away from US, from you an me, this evening? Because that is our destination, isn’t it? That is where our hearts want to be, on this Christmas eve. We want to be where Jesus was born -- where we can see the face of God's love so clearly. Some people literally do make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem at this time of year. We can watch their celebrations on television; in this way, it seems that Bethlehem has come near to us, through the miracle of technology. But it’s not really that close, is it?
"Not very far," sing the words of the carol, but it’s not true. Bethlehem is really very far away. It’s a city in a country across the world – it looked it up and it’s 6624 miles away – in a culture very different from our own. Even if we were to go to Bethlehem, we might still feel that it is far away, because its culture and its people and its language would be so different from/than our own. How far is it to Bethlehem? 6,624 miles to go to Bethlehem from right here, if you want to go with the children and see the baby Jesus, with the shepherds and the angels and the animals. 6,624 miles. And we’ve barely begun, haven’t we? How can we ever get there?
After the 5:00 service, one of the worshippers -- a woman I didn't know -- said that the sermon was particularly meaningful to her son that evening. He had just been to Jerusalem recently, and he was struck at that time by how close Jerusalem and Bethlehem were to each other, but how literally you could not get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, because of soldiers and roadblocks, and fear. In a little while, I was also shaking hands with her son, who told me the same thing -- how he has this image of the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in his mind so near, and yet, impossible to get to.
And I thought about all of the unhappiness, the injustice, the evil in the world. The situation in the Middle East is just one sign of it. Sometimes God seems very close, and sometimes very far away -- not in miles, but in righteousness and justice. Because of human sin, the world is not a place fit for God. And we can think of human sin in terms of personal choices and morality, or in terms of system of oppression and injustice. To me, it's not an either/or. It's a both/and. We make choices that separate us from God. It's as if we are in Jerusalem and Jesus is in Bethlehem, so close -- but impossible to get to.
And yet -- God chooses to be among us, in our hearts, in our lives, in our communities. He's not just in Bethlehem. He's in Jerusalem, and in Kenya, and in Pakistan, and in all of the places where people are suffering. God chooses to make his home among sinners, and on the cross bridges the gap, crosses the line that divides us.
The question is: will we follow him?