A PILGRIMAGE TO BETHLEHEM ON CHRISTMAS EVE
John 6:35, 40 and Mark 10:46-52
Today as we look at the sixth chapter of the gospel of John and at the tenth chapter of the gospel of Mark, we’ll be examining the meaning of Christ’s coming into the world in terms of new life, abundant life, and spiritual enlightenment. We’re going to begin with a look at today’s Bethlehem and we’ll relate what we find to the story of the blind man Bartimaeus, who had both his physical sight restored and his spiritual eyes opened by the Savior Jesus Christ.
Some years ago, I came across an article in the London Times that carried this headline: “Bethlehem gets a wall for Christmas.” The story opened with these words: “The birthplace of Christ was this week sealed off from Jerusalem – just in time for Christmas – by a 25 foot wall and huge iron gate resembling a nuclear shelter.”
The wall that was being erected is part of a hugely controversial 423-mile barrier that Israel has been building through Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. As the wall at Bethlehem was nearing completion, the mayor of the city said it had created “a big prison for its citizens; it is living one of history’s darkest chapters.” Today, the city of 22,000 is only one-third Christian as Palestinian believers have been quietly abandoning the place.
According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, about 35,000 pilgrims are expected to cross Israel’s checkpoint into Bethlehem during the next few weeks [Source: PRI]. While the Western churches observe Christmas on Dec. 24-25, the Eastern churches, due to the discrepancies between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, observe Jan. 7. The Armenian Apostolic Church observes Jan. 6, marking both Christmas and the Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi and the baptism of Jesus Christ.
Except for a few roundabouts, sporadically policed routes, access to Bethlehem is from Jerusalem and requires crossing a 27-foot-high checkpoint manned by Israeli security authorities. Popularly known as “Checkpoint 300,” it is part of the separation wall Israel began building during the second intifada in 2002.
Bethlehem, the city of David, lies five miles south of Jerusalem to the west of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. It was here that Rachel was buried. It was here that Ruth gathered grain in Boaz’ field and it was here that David was anointed king. But, most significantly, Bethlehem, which translates from the Hebrew “House of Bread,” was the birthplace of the One who was to be revealed as the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Come with me in the next moments in your imagination; let us make a pilgrimage together to Bethlehem.
Once we make it past the new wall, we can visit the place that most authorities believe was the site of Christ’s nativity – a grotto or cave now located under the Church of the Nativity. The gospels make no mention of a cave but Justin – a reliable source – writing around 2 A.D. does speak of the “cave” in which Jesus was born. And, in fact, many dwellings of the period were built in front of caves and the cave part would have been used to shelter animals in inclement weather.
About 325 years after the birth of Jesus, the emperor Constantine built a large basilica over this hillside grotto and this Church of the Nativity remains today among the oldest of the well-known churches around the world.
The grotto is under the chancel and is approached by steps leading down from each side of the choir. In a crypt at the front of the grotto is the place where Jesus is believed to have been born. A silver star on the marble floor at the east end of the crypt is inscribed with these words in Latin: “Here, of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born.” And fifteen lamps burn day and night around this star.
Some time ago, I read an article by Charles N. Barnard, which recorded his journey to Bethlehem over the days preceding Christmas. I recall it again here.
On the afternoon of December 23, he made his first visit to Manger Square. His express purpose in this timing was the beating out of the Christmas crowds.
He entered the Church of the Nativity through a small, low door and was quite surprised to find that the limestone Grotto of the Nativity is a close, cluttered space with many lights, stars, mosaics, lanterns, canopies and jewel-like ornaments hanging from a blackened ceiling. After a brief look-see, he headed back to his hotel, where he watched the televised news with its frightening reports of street violence in the West Bank towns all around him.
On Christmas Eve, he returned to Manger Square but his guide warned him he wouldn’t want to stay. “You’ll see,” Raphael said. “It’s the same every year. A sideshow.”
Picture these images: roadblocks, rows of tire-puncturing spikes stretched across the pavement like shark’s teeth; barricades of stones; squads of soldiers.
The streets decorated with strings of red, yellow and white lights. Random spurts of fireworks. Checkpoints. Businesses — restaurants, beauty parlors, retail shops – inviting folks in off the path. Distraction upon distraction.
Then English-language Christmas carols coming from a public address system. Then another checkpoint. Finally, Manger Square. With all the lights and flags, it could easily have been a used car lot on a rainy night.
A few hundred people are milling about near the souvenir shops, the street vendors, a Barclay’s Bank open until midnight and the Christmas Tree Café. A movie screen carries the images of Western movies with Hebrew and Aramaic subtitles. One group of young American Baptists holds an impromptu sing-along, “Jesus is Coming, Sing Hallelujah.” By 10 o’clock, the streets fill with larger crowds – thousands now. By 11, the crowd is becoming conspicuously drunk in some places and music from the many visiting choirs is nearly drowned out. There is a distinct odor of marijuana in the air.
In front of the Church of the Nativity, long lines of ticket holders are forming. Many have held reservations for a very long time and they will still pass through five checkpoints before they get in.
Then, suddenly, the first chanted phrases of the Latin Mass – clear, pure and strong – take possession of the square. A new image flickers on the TV screen and the crowd is silenced. Choir voices, broadcasting from within the basilica, now accompany the picture. “In excelsis deo . . .” The traveler looks at his watch. It is midnight. Christmas has broken in upon the scene.
This story – which I’ve abridged for presentation to you – appeared in a secular magazine but there are many, many images within it that inform our understanding of the Christian experience. Here is a pilgrim wandering along streets of darkness trying to make his way to the place of Christ’s birth. What does he find along the way? The distractions of life within the body: food, drugs, various kinds of amusements, all manner of diversions. Then there are the walls, the barricades, the checkpoints, the misguided masses oblivious to what lies in their midst. Then there are the voices of truth crying out, trying to be heard, only to be drowned – if only momentarily – by the noise and clatter of the crowd. Then there are the few glimpses of light and finally the ticket holders are in line walking the last few steps toward their goal.
“I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus said. “I am the Way, the Truth and The Life” – the very life. No one will go hungry. No one will thirst if only they will come to me. He feeds and waters our spirits. For, He said, it is the Father’s will that everyone who looks to Him and believes in what He is, in who He is, believes in what He has done – will have eternal life, raised at the last day, welcomed in, if you will, as one of the ticket holders, one of the faithful who has walked the path and remained true. The ticket holders, keeping their eyes on the goal of Jesus Christ – growing more determined with each step not to yield to the distractions, the temptations – determined to make it past the barricades to reach the place of Christ and enter in.
The blind man Bartimaeus was one who was determined to reach Jesus. Jesus and His disciples met this son of Timaeus as they were traveling on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside as they approached. When he heard whom it was who was passing, he called out for the Lord’s help. This man then became one of the first of those, outside of the ranks of the apostles, who is recorded as having proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah – the divine One promised by God. You’ll note that in verse 47, he called Jesus “Son of David,” a term specifically Messianic and, further, Bartimaeus turned to Jesus as Savior.
Bartimaeus shouted to this Jesus: “Have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” Bartimaeus came running to the Savior’s side and Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“I want to see,” he said.
Bartimaeus may have believed in Jesus’ power to heal perhaps because he was familiar with Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would enable the blind to see. His faith led to healing. And his healing was not only of physical blindness but of spiritual blindness as well for we are told that he received his sight and followed Jesus.
There are many references to spiritual blindness throughout Scripture. The prophet Isaiah speaks of those who are like the blind groping along the wall, feeling their way like men without eyes.
The gospel writer, Matthew – again referring to spiritual blindness – says that if a blind man leads another blind man both fall into a pit.
In the fourth chapter of 2nd Corinthians, Paul writes: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
And, in Ephesians, Paul writes: “They (unrepentant, unredeemed sinners) are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of their ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.”
Jesus did not just cure Bartimaeus’ physical blindness, he – more importantly – lifted the darkness from the man’s soul so that he could walk in spiritual light.
At times, I’ve been asked by those who are searching: “Why is there this darkness? Why is there this wall?”
One needs to take in all of Scripture to get a whole picture but a beginning of an answer comes from the 28th chapter of Ezekiel. There we find a recounting of the beginning of humankind: You were a model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden. You were blameless from the day you were created until wickedness was found in you. You were filled with violence and you sinned. Your heart became proud and you corrupted your wisdom.
In those verses, the writer goes on to record the Lord speaking of inflicting punishment but also of gathering up His people. Elsewhere in scripture, we learn that He will provide the means of forgiveness for sins – a Savior – a Messiah – Christ the Lord – God Himself who would come in human form to suffer the punishment for our rebellion.
In Ephesians, chapter 2, we read about a dividing wall. The wall of hostility discussed in verses 11 and following, refers to the distance between Jews and Gentiles in biblical times. It also refers to the wall that exists between non-believers and God. The One who is able to take down those barriers is the One who has made believing Jew and believing Gentile one. Jesus is the One who has brought reconciliation through the cross. He is the One who has given us access to the Father through the Holy Spirit.
Someone told Bartimaeus that Jesus Christ – the promised Savior – was passing by and that simple witness led to the man’s redemption.
He cried, “Have mercy on me!” He looked to the right person for the right thing at the right time.
In Acts 4, verse 13, we read: “Salvation is found in no one else for there is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved.”
And in the second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 6, Paul writes: “In the time of my favor, I heard you, and in the day of salvation, I helped you. I tell you now is the time of the Lord’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”
Jesus loved Bartimaeus. Jesus loves each one of us. Jesus loves you – He loves you so much that He gave His life that you might have eternal life. He came to save those who were lost – lost in spiritual darkness. There are various cures and no cures for physical blindness. There is only one cure for spiritual blindness and that cure is Jesus Christ.
As we approach Christmas, let us not be shy in celebrating our Lord’s birth. Let us pray that the Lord may tear down any walls of hostility that we have built or maintained in our personal lives. Let us not get sidetracked by all the distractions. Let us not be found guilty of removing Christ from Christmas. Let us seek a closer walk with God in the light of His Holy Spirit, in the light of His Holy Word.
Let us give thanks for the Lord’s mercy upon us, for His healing and for the gift of spiritual sight. Let us follow Him in faithfulness and in truth. Let us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, get past the barricades and make our way to the Child of Christmas. Let us love and encourage one another and seek to bring others into a relationship of faith with the Lord. Let us faithfully share the message of Christmas.