Getting Past the Barricades to Christmas

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.

 

 

The Wexford Carol

Good people all, this Christmas-time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done,
In sending His beloved Son.
With Mary holy we should pray
To God with love this Christmas Day:
In Bethlehem upon that morn
There was a blessed Messiah born.

Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep;
To whom God’s angels did appear,
Which put the shepherds in great fear.
“Prepare and go,” the angels said,
“To Bethlehem, be not afraid;
For there you’ll find, this happy morn,
A princely Babe, sweet Jesus born.”

The shepherds went the Babe to find,
And as God’s angel had foretold,
They did our Saviour Christ behold.
Within a manger He was laid,
And by his side the Virgin Maid,
Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife.

Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done,
In sending His beloved Son.
With Mary holy we should pray
To God with love this Christmas Day:
In Bethlehem upon that morn
There was a blessed Messiah born.

The Wexford Carol (Carúl Loch Garman, Carúl Inis Córthaidh) is believed to be the oldest extant European Christmas carol, originating in County Wexford (Enniscorthy), and dating to the 12th century. Following is a link to an exquisite version by Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss.

The Light

From 40 years ago comes a story about the power of light. Darrel Dore was working on an oil rig one day in the Gulf of Mexico when suddenly it began to wobble. Before too long it tipped to one side and crashed into the water. Darrel found himself trapped inside a room on the rig. As the rig sank deeper and deeper into the sea, the lights went out and the room where Darrel was trapped began filling with water. Thrashing about in the darkness, Darrel made a life-saving discovery: a huge air bubble was forming in the corner of the room. He kept his head inside that bubble of air and prayed that someone would find him.

As he prayed, Darrel knew he wasn’t alone; he felt the presence of Christ there with him. For 22 hours, the presence of the Lord comforted Darrel, but at the same time Darrel knew that the oxygen supply inside the bubble was slowly giving out. Soon he would be dead.

Then Darrel saw a tiny star of light shimmering in the pitch‑black water. Was it real or, after 22 hours, was he beginning to hallucinate? Darrel squinted to see. The light seemed to grow brighter. He squinted again. He wasn’t hallucinating. The light was real. It was coming from the helmet of a diver who was coming to rescue him. His long nightmare was over. His rescue was at hand.

This true story helps us understand Christmas. Sin had wobbled our world, tipped it to one side, and sent it crashing into the waters of spiritual disaster.  Darkness was everywhere.  The human race was drowning in sin, facing certain spiritual death. Then people turned to God.  They prayed in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “O Lord, you are angry and we are sinful, all of us have become unclean…Save and deliver us.”

They prayed.

And they waited for the One promised to them: The Messiah. Then, when the night seemed darkest, something remarkable happened: a star appeared in the sky heralding the arrival of the Light of the world.

Into the darkness came the Light. The Savior appeared, Jesus, the Light of the world.

Perhaps we all have stories of how precious is light when all is dark about us. Luci Swindoll tells about a friend who, along with six strangers, was caught in a stalled elevator during a power failure. Fear was quickly turning to panic. But then Luci’s friend remembered that she had a tiny flashlight in her purse. When she turned it on, the fear in the elevator dissipated. For forty‑five minutes, these strangers sat around the light and talked, laughed, and even sang. The light brought comfort when they needed it the most.

And just when the world most needed God’s light, a baby was born in Bethlehem, translated from the Hebrew (House of Bread). And this child, Jesus (whose name means Savior) was wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger (a feeding trough). The Bread of Life. The Light of the World.

The great truth of Christmas, the great message of Christmas, the great promise of Christmas, the great joy of Christmas, is all wrapped up in one word, Emmanuel… which means God with us God is always with us! The true Light is with us. The Light of Bethlehem is with us and, as we have received Christ, that Light is in us and shines through us.

Let’s recall again, as folks do this time each year, the events that occurred in Bethlehem when the Messiah—the Light—came into the world.

A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all people should take part in a census. Everyone returned to his or her own hometown to be registered. Joseph and Mary went from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. Joseph was from that town, the city of David, and while they were there, Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Luke tells us there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks. Luke writes, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

You can visit the place where it is believed the shepherds were that night. It is a vast pasture area still today where shepherds still take their sheep there to feed. You can stand in those fields and see Bethlehem in the distance. In that place, the shepherds were surprised and terrified as “the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

But in Psalm 27, we read that, The LORD is our light and our salvation — so why should we be afraid? The Lord is our stronghold of our lives so we need not be afraid. In Isaiah 41 we are urged not to be afraid, for He is with us. He is our God. He will strengthen us. He will help us. He will uphold us with His victorious right hand. And in Isaiah 51, we are told that sorrow and mourning will disappear, and that those who follow the Lord will be overcome with joy and gladness.

The light of Bethlehem still shines on us.

One of my prayers this season is that we might all be surprised again by the light, surprised by the joy, surprised by the blessings, surprised by Christmas! That we might not just let the passages sit on us and fall off us but that we might take them in and be illuminated by them in a new way, in a startling way, in a joy-filled, light-filled way. I pray also that we might carry Christmas with us all through the year.

Some years ago, when I was pastoring a church in Pennsylvania, I suggested that folks leave out or up some reminder of Christmas all year round. One woman told me that she and her family had decided to leave out their nativity scene—I think it was probably a Fisher Price set. Her little daughter, Lilah, called the figures in the set her “guys” and she would often walk around carrying her Jesus. She spent so much time holding on to him that a lot of his features rubbed off. Would that we all would keep Jesus so close, that we would all hold Him so tight, that lots of Jesus would rub off on us!

We can learn so much from children in their simple, yet profound, expressions of faith. Sometimes, in the rush of the world, we forget to hold on to Jesus. Each year at Christmas, the church in Pennsylvania had a live nativity on the property, complete with barn animals. Then one year, I suggested we put that display on a flatbed truck and take it on the road for the city’s Christmas parade. We gathered all our folks and lined up at the starting point, but then it dawned on us: we were missing the baby Jesus. We came up with the last-ditch idea of using my knitted gloves bundled up under the swaddling clothes as stand in for Jesus, but then one father of young children [bless his heart!) saved the day—running home and arriving back in the nick of time with a baby doll. In all our careful preparations, it wasn’t until we looked at the empty manger, until we looked at our Mary’s empty arms, that we realized how desperately we needed our Jesus. How’s that for profundity? Too often, we do the very same thing at Christmas – leaving Jesus behind.

I must note that our presence in the parade—our nativity scene—turned out to be the only true Christmas presence in the sea of marching bands; beauty queens; antique cars; politicians; clowns; storybook, movie and TV characters; floats advertising local businesses; and—of course—Santa. I must say, however, our nativity scene rivaled Santa in popularity. People all along the route literally squealed with delight when they saw us…and old and young yelled, “Look, it’s Jesus!! It’s the baby Jesus!!”

A dear friend, Tom Graffagnino, who is an author, poet and visual artist, wrote a lament that aptly summarizes what’s happened to many contemporary celebrations of Christmas:

Christmas now means TV Specials,
Hopeful Fridays in the black.
Sleighs and reindeer on the rooftops…
Santas with their bulging sacks.

We’ve got busy elves and grinches,
We hear workshop “Ho-Ho-Ho’s!”
Deca-dancing through the malls, sir…
Where there’s more wind yet to sow.

Huge parades in front of Macy’s
Have a Hollywoodish spin.
Talking heads all reading prompters,
Pantomiming stars with grins.

Giant Garfields floating by us…
Frosty blow-ups on the lawn.
Nonsense from the Tow’r of Babel,
That just babbles on and on.

There are bowl games in the offing,
And, O, my!…They bring us Joy!
Celebrations in the end zone…
Barbie dolls and tinker toys.

Yes, we covet Golden Calves, son,
That our neighbors bought this year.
In the meantime, we’re quite certain
That there is no God to fear.

* * *

Is it really any wonder
That, my friend, we’ve lost our way?
We’ve lost sight, and now we wander
Blind in fog of 50 Grays.

* * *

Truth appeared in flesh before us,
True Light dwelt in time and space.
Now we scoff our way through Target…
And ignore Amazing Grace.

Ah, but still, the Light shines. The light of Christ never stops shining. Our parents and grandparents saw the Light’s glow in the darkest hours of the depression. Our soldiers have seen the Light’s glow even on distant battlefields. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The Light shines in prison camps. The Light shines in hospital rooms and funeral parlors. The Light shines amidst poverty and the Light shines into sunken rooms on oil rigs. The Light shines in every manner of heartache and hardship. Nothing can stop the Light of God’s love for humankind from penetrating the darkness.

As John declares so beautifully in verses 4 and 5 in the first chapter of his gospel, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of humankind. The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Jesus is the Light of the world. That Light cannot be extinguished.

Let this light of joy give you courage. This was the message of the angel for the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people.”

Do not be afraid. Why? Because of this good news of great joy. What is the antidote to fear? The opposite of fear, the antidote to fear, the cure of fear, is joy. The joy of Christmas will keep you from being afraid. A deep, profound trust in the gift of Bethlehem will keep you from being afraid.

Armed with the joy of Christmas, this light of joy shining around you, you can stand against anything and everything that would threaten you. Courage means we know who we are, in spite of everything we face, and we can face even those things which threaten to destroy us.

In December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the German army surrounded some Americans in the village of Bastogne. The German commander sent a message ordering the Americans to surrender. The American commander sent back a one-word message, “Nuts!” It was one of the greatest responses of military history.

That is the message of Christmas for every Herod and every heartache and every hatred and every hardship and everything that would destroy you — Nuts! Or, as the angel put it, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people.”

Let the light of Christmas give you courage. The Savior—the Light of the World, the Author of Joy, is your best gift at Christmas. He has come to save the world and He has come to save you.

As you travel about in this season, look at all the lights strung to illuminate the darkness and ponder the beauty of it all, ponder what the world would be without Light and remember that we have the privilege of sharing the Light. That’s our job when we leave this place. Let the light of Christ shine through you. Let this light give you courage. This was the message of the angel for the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy!”

Prepare Him room and receive the joy that illuminates the world.

Perhaps you might wish to lift this prayer:

Gracious God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we come to You, the faithful One, who stands with us in and through all things. We rejoice this Advent season in the sure and steadfast hope that is ours in Jesus the Lord. As we draw closer to Christmas, keep us growing ever stronger in mind and spirit. Enable us to walk each day in holiness and purity. May our lives express such devotion to the faith that has claimed us that there would be about us no wavering testimony but instead a witness of love that will be clearly understood by all we encounter. Lord, make us shine like the stars. May we do everything without complaining or arguing as we hold out the Word of Life. May we be glad and rejoice in You.

May we hold on tight to you, Jesus, and may Your Holy Spirit fill us to the brim. May we rejoice in your Presence and walk in Your Light. In the name of the Savior we pray. Amen

In closing, I’d like to share one more poem by Tom Graffagnino:

He’s the Reason for the season,
He’s the Reason for them all…
He’s the Truth, the Living Water,
Spring of Hope beyond The Fall.

He’s the Reason there’s a harvest,
He’s the Firstfruit, He’s the Seed,
He’s the Word the Father’s sowing
Through the Bride…the Bread we need.

He’s the Light of dawn we long for,
Justice truly…and the Scale.
He’s the Shepherd by still water,
He’s the Truth beyond the veil.

He’s the Reason there is reason,
And the Reason there is Good,
He’s the Reason why you ought not,
And the Reason why you should.

He’s the Reason for amazement,
He’s the Reason why there’s awe….
He’s the Reason why we trembled
At the sunset that we saw.

He’s the Reason that now Heaven
Is a place that we may be…
And the reason, friend, is simple:
It’s a place called Calvary.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And now unto Him, who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you without blemish before the presence of His glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord before all time, now, and for evermore. Amen.