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Bethlehem, a Birth and a Baby

What happened on Christmas Eve

Written By Robert Hansel

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25

On this very night, two thousand years ago, a strange thing happened…The Bible tells us that ANGELS SANG A SONG TO A BUNCH OF SHEPHERDS ABOUT THE BIRTH OF A CHILD.

Now, I am well aware that, despite the honor this night has been accorded in poetry and song, in carol and creche, it's message still remains stange, a mystery, something illogical and beyond comprehension. For the literal-minded, those who can't bring themselves to believe in angels, the whole story seems awfully far-fetched. For the purely scientific in viewpoint, it completely defies human reason. Even for many who seriously study religious belief systems and traditions, it seems like a curve ball that comes at us from somewhere totally off the playing field. Problems, illogical, irrational, incomprehensible: these are just a few of the responses that cluster around this wonderful and strange occasion called "Christmas Eve."

I'd like to invite all of you—literalists, skeptics, scientists, theologians, whatever—to approach this particular Christmas Eve by laying aside all your very legitimate and understandable concerns. Instead, let's borrow a page from those Shepherds in the Christmas story. Remember how the story goes? When the angels had finished telling them about the birth of Jesus, they didn't get into a big discussion. They didn't raise all sorts of questions and argue about whether the whole experience really happened—whether it might have been some sort of mass hallucination. These shepherds were simple, straightforward, practical men who took things at face value. What they immediately said to each other was this: "Let's go over there to Bethlehem and take a look at things. Let's see for ourselves if it all might be true."

That's the attitude I think it would be good for us to embrace tonight, just as they did that first Christmas night. At least in our mind's eye, let's go, you and I, "unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known unto us."

When we do this—when we go back and take a closer look at this strange story from St. Luke, we notice some very striking things—things that all of us might just find worth singing about.

The first thing might be the place we're going to, the City of David, a tiny little town called Bethlehem. The fact that this child is being born in Bethlehem is absolutely critical. Bethlehem is not a famous place, not the center of anything, just an out-of-the-way obscure no place. And yet, Bethlehem had for centuries been named by prophets as THE location—a place of hope that would confound and confuse all the wisdom of the world. A great King, the Lord of Lords, our Savior, the Prince of Peace—it had been foretold—would not come out of the great cultures and
civilizations, those places of false hope—not Rome, or Athens, or Babylon. The angels tell us that all those empty years of earthly hope were at an end, the fulfillment of authentic hope—the hope that comes only from God—has arrived. Because the place is Bethlehem, we know immediately that this is a night like no other—the night that REAL HOPE was born.

The second thing worth singing about is when we see the baby. Babies, I guess, are always worth singing about, once again, we remember the message of the angels.This is a special baby—this baby is a physical expression of God, the appearance of complete love in the form of a beautiful child. Now all of the facts and theories that the world has ever known can neither prove or disprove that claim. It's a matter of recognition. We see in that innocence and vulnerability the nature of the God who loves us so much that all of God's "Omni's" are laid aside. No longer omniscient, omnipresent, all-powerful, our God is humble enough to come into our hands and hearts as a helpless, defenseless, utterly dependent infant. The angels, you see, have it right: "the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes is a sign to us"—an unmistakable sign that this is the night that faith was born.

The third thing worth noticing—beyond the place and the child—is the birth itself. Births, again, are always worth singing about, especially two thousand years ago. There were none of the medical safeguards we know today. Every childbirth was a time of crisis, a huge risk. The leading cause of death among women was childbirth and infant mortality was commonplace. But here's the thing: wherever there is risk there is usually also a lot of opportunity for love. That's exactly the case this very first Christmas night. Here we have the Creator of every person in this whole earth becoming a person too. This night God was born into an ordinary human family and, to that monumental miracle, who was it that God invited to be the first witnesses? God's love reached out to embrace and include ordinary shepherds—folks just like us. No wonder those angels sang that night—the night when love was born.

So what did you see? I saw three things: Bethlehem, a baby, and a birth. All the clues provided by ancient seers and prophets. These are the clues to a truth that, if you let it, will absolutely take your breath away—which, of course, makes it very hard for us human beings to sing. Maybe that's why these songs require angels.

So, here we are celebrating a strange and wonderful night: the night that hope was born, the night that faith was born, the night that love was born. All of that is what we celebrate this evening. This is the night when angels sing and we are invited, once again, to join them, to go with the Shepherd so that hope, faith, and love can be born right here inside each one of us—in every heart and mind.

"Let us go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord has made known unto us."

Copyright 2003 Calvary Episcopal Church