Two weeks ago NPR carried a story about plans to spruce up Bethlehem, the dusty little Palestinian town of Jesus' Nativity. Tourists take the bus from Jerusalem, get off the bus, go in the Church of the Nativity, take photographs, and then get back on the bus and go back to Jerusalem without spending much money. So the Palestinian authorities have plans to spruce up Bethlehemto turn the dingy car park in front of the Church of the Nativity into a swanky shopping center with boutiques, shops, and a luxury hotel. International donations of $40 million are helping with the project. The story went on to say there are charges of political corruption, of money lining the pockets of Palestinian politicians, and the whole project is taking twice as long and is twice as expensive as they thought. The whole thing is bogged down in administrative red tape. What else is new?
Poor Bethlehema grimy, politically corrupt little town caught on the border between two warring peoples. It is hardly a place for a celebration of Christmas. No. Bethlehem is Christmas. In a way, everything the Bible means by Christmas can be said in that one name, Bethlehem. Today's gospel, you will note, takes place in Bethlehem. It's the story after the story of the birth of Jesus:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more" (Matthew 2:1618, RSV).
Bethlehem symbolizes our corrupted reality
"I just can't believe that President Clinton has done what they said he has done," said the earnest student to me last fall.
"Really?" I replied. "I can. Of course, I'm a Christian, and I'm conditioned to believe that politicianswell, anybody in poweris capable of doing almost anything." And at that moment I realized that as a Christian I really am conditioned by a lifetime of going to church and hearing stories about politicians. After you've been to church long enough and you've listened to enough pieces like this one from Matthew, you can believe that people in power will stoop to almost anything.
Christmas is barely two days old, or in Matthew's Gospel, about 12 verses old, and already Matthew inserts the horrible story of King Herod's massacre of boy babies in Bethlehem. In a way, the church is always doing this sort of thing. We come to church on Christmas and the Sunday after Christmas, and the music is so sublime and the setting is so beautiful and you're thinking such good thoughtsuntil you get to the Scripture and the sermon. Then everything seems to collapse into ugliness and horror. The church is good at that sort of thing.
A few years ago I had to do some academic hardship duty speaking in Hawaii. We went a week early and did all the tourist things. It was our first visit to this tropical paradise. It really is a paradisewith the sun setting over the beaches, the perfect climate, and all the native plants. The tour guides said, "Here in Hawaii you have all these different ethnic groups living as one. Hawaii could be a model to the rest of America."
It was a beautiful tropical heaven on earth, and we might have believed what they said, except we spent the next week with a church. I was speaking to clergy in Hawaii, and during the sessions the pastors told about social problems in Hawaiithe racial conflict that comes out when people are together in groups. They noted that there are more working parents in Hawaii than any other state in the nation. There's more child poverty in Hawaii than any other state. Drug abuse is rampant. Alcohol abuse is a huge problem. I said, "Leave it to the church." Just when I was thinking positively about this placeif you hang out with the church long enough they start to bring out all the negative dirty laundry and air it.
Bethlehem rips away Christmas idealism
I feel a bit that same way here on this Sunday after Christmas. Christmas Eve we sang about the little town of Bethlehem. But you come to church this Sunday and hear about the rest of the Bethlehem story. King Herod the Greatthreatened by talk of a new king of the Jews that might threaten his political alliance made between the Jewish authorities and the Romansdecided to stand up and act like a king. He massacred all the boy babies around Bethlehem. Down through the ages innumerable kings, governments, dictators, parliaments have tried to solve their problem by murdering Jews. Today's gospel is a horror story about that.
And how that story contrasts with our cherished views of Christmas. "Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie." That's a lie. Oh, little town of Bethlehem made miserable by the birth of Jesus. Streets running red with blood while mothers wail for their lost children. That's the way the Bible does Bethlehem. "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me," we sing. Christmas cards are inherently sentimental, and TV tells of a winter wonderland where Christmas evokes just about the best in everybody.
Well, you will note that the first Christmas evoked the absolute worst in King Herod. Matthew's Christmas pageant ends not with tinsel covered angels proclaiming goodwill but with Rachel weeping for her slaughtered babies. Christmas in Bethlehem, and it's the real Bethlehem. Herod was no fool. He'd been in power long enough to be able to tell a political rival when he saw one. What those dumb shepherds might see is just a little baby, just a relative of King David. Herod knew that the angels were right. He was a threat. He was a threat to everything that Herod had built his kingdom upon.
Thus, Herod joins other great political leaders of this centuryHitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Maothose who didn't mind a little murder, particularly of children, in order to advance great political ideals. The world calls it Beirutwhat Ronald Reagan and the Israelis devastated in order to bring peace on earth to the Near East. Or Bosnia, where the world stood by quietly amid the genocide. Or Beijing, where we did nothing as the tanks rolled over the students because we wanted to send Pepsi to China. The world calls it Bosnia or Beirut or Belfast or Beijing; the Bible just calls it Bethlehem.
We bed down so easily with the powers that be. We say to ourselves, ~Well, peace on earth, goodwill, that's fine, but sometimes you've got to exercise a little Christian realism.~ I very well remember when a Duke professor who had been raised in China visited right after China's borders opened. He said he remembered when people were starving in China, but nobody was starving that day. What a great tribute to the Communist government. A reporter asked him, "Aren't you bothered that six or seven million Chinese were killed by Mao?" He said, "Well, six or seven million, but the point is nobody's starving today. These things sometimes hurt." That's our kind of realism. That's the way we run the world. And Doctors Without Borders say that maybe a hundred thousand Iraqi children have died from lack of food and medicine during our embargo.
We don't like this Christmas story. There's not as many of us here today as were at services in the chapel on Christmas Eve to hear the shepherds and the angels and the little baby Jesus. Christmas for us becomes an escapist fantasy. For that one day of the year everybody becomes miraculously transformed from Scrooge into one who suddenly does right by Tiny Tim. It's hard to be honest about ourselves. It's hard to be honest about our real situation in Bel Air or Birmingham or Boca Raton. But the Bible, thank God, always tells the truth, and it calls it Bethlehem.
If we will turn down the Musak in the shopping mall for just a moment, you might hear still the wails of mothers screaming, weeping for their lost babies wherever today the slaughter of the innocents is reenacted. Let us go even unto Bethlehem and let us take a look at this thing which is come to pass. We lie about this Christmas story.
A few years ago at Christmas a religious book was ~The Celestine Prophecy.~ Aside from reservations about its bad grammar and syntax, one might also wonder why such saccharine spirituality should be so greedily consumed now. It's part of the avalanche of New Age spirituality and affirmation. We are good. Amen. We are making progress, every day getting better and bigger in every way. Amen. We mean well. We are doing the best we can. Meditate. Marinate in a hot tub in California. Unleash the good in you. Unleash the God in you. Only a century that has produced Hiroshima and the Holocaust could so earnestly need to lie about us and our affinity to Herod.
At the end of perhaps the bloodiest century the world has ever known, if you count up the bodies of those killed by their own governmentsto say nothing of warand those killed on the streets of any U.S. city, including Durham, we are beckoned by the Bible to go to Bethlehem.
You don't have to call it Bethlehem. You can call it Buffalo, where this year a doctor who had aborted thousands of fetuses was gunned down in his own home by somebody who did it because he believes in the right to life. We don't know any other way to get what we really want for Christmas other than violence. Oh, we call it the right to choose, or others call it the right to life. Matthew just calls it Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is where our Savior must come
At the end of the story of the Nativity, after the angels go back to wherever they came from and after the shepherds go home and the wise men and the baby Jesus and his family head for Egypt as refugees, we hear the screams of mothers weeping for Jewish babies. And our nose gets rubbed in the politics of it all, and the blood and pain and sorrow, before the Bible will let us leave Bethlehem. And even though this is not the Christmas story we want, it may be the Christmas story we need, because any God who is unwilling to come to Bethlehem won't do us much good. If any God is going to save us, God will have to come down, down to where we are, because we can never get up to God.
On Christmas Eve we gathered in this chapel and heard those sonorous phrases from the opening of John's glorious Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory." Christians call that the Incarnation. It is our belief that God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, came here, took on our flesh, and forgave us and redeemed us and saved usthat we might be brought to God. Well, this is Matthew's way of telling the very same story. John calls it "The Word made flesh and dwelling among us." Matthew just calls it Bethlehem.
Just before Christmas a student told me about the twists and turns in his romantic relationships. I love listening to that sort of thing from students. He thought he was deeply in love with this young woman. "It was meant to be"the right relationship. It was love. It really was love. But she had given him his walking papers on Thanksgiving, and he was out, and he was crushed, heartbroken, and confused. In his misery he said, "If it's love, why does it have to hurt so much? Why does love have to be so painful? Love ought not to be that way," he said.
Oh, my dear dumb sophomore, don't you know that love, real love is always that way? Painful. Because if there's real love, there's got to be risk. And if there's risk, there is always a possibility of failure and pain. It is a risky, potentially painful thing to get your life mixed up with another human being.
Today's gospel says Christ came first to Bethlehem to real people living on this real earth. God didn't come to angels. God came to us in Bethlehem. "Love came down at Christmas," we sometimes sing. If love, God's love, is to come down to us where we live, there's going to be some pain. Yes, and there will be blood too. Somebody's going to get hurt because we are terribly hurtful in both our loves and our hates. If our allegiances are going to be dethroned, if there is going to be another King other than Herod, it's not going to be pretty because we hold on tight to our gods and we won't let them go without a fight.
At Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take place later at a place just up the road, called Calvary. The one called King of the Jews goes head to head with our kings and our kingdoms, our politics and our power; and there is pain and violence, and there is weeping and blood. At last Herod will get his way with Mary's baby. And Matthew says all of this was for us and our salvation. All in the name of love, all for us. And it began in Bethlehem.
WILLIAM WILLIMON is dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is author of 45 books and curriculum materials, including Pulpit Resource.
William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).