Isaiah 62: 1-5
Psalm 89: 4-5, 16-17, 27, 29
Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25
Matt 1: 18-25
A few years back, when I was in graduate school, I was invited to a Christmas party at the home of a professor. My intention, as with most parties, was to get in and out as quickly as possible, but this time I found myself having a pleasant conversation with another student, a young woman named Rose. We chatted politely about classes and teachers and current events, but then we found a common passion in music. Rose played a number of instruments, such as the trumpet and the cornet, and she knew a lot about jazz, so we had a spirited, enjoyable discussion. By chance, there was a magazine on the coffee table that had Elvis Presley on the cover. I pointed to it and said, “Isn’t it remarkable that decades after his death, he is still so popular that he’s on the cover of a magazine?” We talked about his songs and his life, the brilliance of his music and the sadness of his final years, and how his home, Graceland, has become a sort of shrine, a place of pilgrimage to which hundreds of thousands of people journey each year. I asked, “What do you think accounts for all these people who claim to see Elvis alive? Is it grief that they just can’t let go because he meant so much to them? Or does an employee of his record company dress up like him to keep the rumors flowing and the records selling?” To my amazement, this intelligent, well-spoken, accomplished woman said the last thing I expected to hear: “Well, there’s another possibility. Maybe he’s really not dead. Maybe he is alive.”
I froze, and considered my options. I had read that crazy people could sometimes look and sound quite sane, but had never knowingly encountered an example. Was she making a joke, a jesting commentary on cultural absurdities? Or was she the sort of person who had an entire room devoted to Elvis dolls? I decided it was better to play it safe, so I kept smiling, didn’t make any sudden movements, and just slowly...backed...out...of the room.
Of course, she was kidding - but as I drove home that night, I thought about the phenomenon of Elvis sightings. Did the crowds who heard Peter and James and John think they were crazy, with their claims about a crucified criminal back from the dead and appearing to his followers? Was it as easy to dismiss reports of the Resurrection, as it is to reject claims that Elvis lives?
There are other similarities between Jesus and Elvis. Both achieved their greatest popularity after their deaths; both of their images are seen in refrigerator rust stains, strangely shaped vegetables, and weather-beaten billboards; they are both called “the King.” But the ways in which they are most alike is where, and to whom, they appear after their deaths. You would think that if Elvis Presley were still alive, he might show up on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, or at the Las Vegas Hilton, or in the office of the president of Sony. But no, Elvis shows up in a Burger King parking lot at 3:00 a.m., witnessed by guys named Earl and Steve who’ve had a bit too much to drink. Elvis is never seen at Macy’s, but has been known to shop for radial tires at Wal-Mart. With all his money, all his fame, and the legions of fans devoted to his memory, why does Elvis prefer to be seen buying donuts at a Krispy Kreme in Kenosha?
We must ask similar questions of Jesus. Why would God show up in a stable? Why would God rest in a manger? Why would the Lord of heaven and earth consent to be born of a poor woman, cared for by a lowly carpenter, raised in an insignificant town? Why isn’t he born in Jerusalem, in the midst of the people with money and power and status? For that matter, why bother with Israel at all? If God is going to become a man, why not become a Roman, someone educated and well-to-do? Why become a man in the middle of nowhere, a peasant in a land far from the bright center of the empire?
Yet what happens today starts a pattern in Jesus’ life. Already at Christmas, we see in the child Jesus what we will see in the man Jesus. When Christ sets out upon his ministry, people will ask the same sort of questions. “Why do you eat with tax collectors? Why do you let sinners touch you? Why aren’t your disciples law-abiding? Why aren’t you seeking support from the better people in the richer houses in the nicer parts of town?”
Why would the Messiah sleep outdoors, walk the roads of Galilee and Judea, and share his days with poor, sick, and sinful people?
After his death, the pattern continues. The risen Lord does not come again to the Temple in Jerusalem, he does not appear to Pontius Pilate, he does manifest himself in Rome. He discloses himself to mourning women and frightened men, in locked rooms and graveyards, on roads and lakesides and mountaintops, far from the strongholds of wealth and influence. Simply put, when the Son of God rises from the dead, he appears in the first century equivalent of the parking lot of a Burger King at 3:00 a.m.
But this is just what Jesus told us to expect. He who was born in a stable and laid in a trough promised us he could be found with the ragged people in the raw places, in all the unromantic rooms of this fallen world: the cell of the prisoner, the bedroom of the sick, the house of the grieving, the tomb of the dead.
It all starts today. “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” How? How will Christ save us from our sins? Not through an edict, not through an ambassador, not through an envoy or agent or proxy. Instead, the Lord of heaven and earth, once born in a distant land, frees us from sin by making us his new Bethlehem.
Today, Christ is born in this house of sinners, this refuge of the fallen. We are his new Bethlehem.
Today, our souls, poor in virtue, can be his birthplace; our hearts, rough with sin, can be his manger; our lives, wrapped tight in greed and anger and lust, can become the swaddling-strips of his newborn life. We are his new Bethlehem.
Today, the merciful love of our Savior is handed over in bread and wine, consumed by sinful men and women. We are his new Bethlehem, far less worthy than his first Bethlehem, far less ready to welcome a king. His first birthplace was only poor, rough, and plain; his new birthplace is vengeful, proud, and envious. The stable was simple, we are sinful; the manger was crude, we are cruel; the bare night was cold, we are cold-hearted. And still, and still, Christ is born. Today, he shows up once again in a most unlikely place. We are his new Bethlehem.
This day, we are made eternal. Christ is born, and so we will not die. Long after every earthly city falls to ash, we will be his eternal Bethlehem. But only if we take care to honor this day as Christ commands. Nothing is gained if we sing with the angels, but do not confess our sins, comfort the sorrowing, and pray for the dead. Nothing is gained if we hasten with the shepherds, but fail to visit the sick, to shelter the homeless, to feed the hungry. Nothing is gained if we worship with the magi, but leave unbroken the idols of our hearts: the injuries we do not forgive, the vows we do not keep, the anger we do not lay down. Nothing is gained if we eat his body and drink his blood, but do not starve our lust and envy. Christ is born, but we must give him welcome. Nothing is gained if the Child seeks rest in these walls and in our hearts but finds no shelter. So let this holy season find us in unexpected places. Befriend the brokenhearted, and sing with the angels; visit the nursing home, and run with the shepherds; forgive your spouse, your child, your parent, and kneel with the magi. For in the desolate waste of a heart without mercy, even the Messiah laid in a manger can find no place to lay his head.
So do not be afraid to take Christ into your hearts. Mary welcomed him, a manger received him, the stars broke their course to mark his coming, cold darkness accepted the light of angels, bread and wine now pour themselves out to welcome him once more. Let us, too, become the unexpected house of God, unseasonable springs of his manifold grace, a new Bethlehem where the sinful and the sick, the exile and the outcast, the family member, friend, neighbor, and classmate, can be sure to find the astounding gift of God’s merciful love.