December 1, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE BIRTHPLACE OF JESUS
I have been to Bethlehem. Not Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The real Bethlehem. It was 1992. A Masonic organization called “Knights Templar” sends clergy to the Holy Land. All expenses paid. It was a wonderful, life-changing experience. I will be forever grateful to the “Knights Templar”.
At the time we were a family of four. We had two daughters, one not quite one and the other not quite seven. The older daughter, Kelsey, was fascinated to learn that her dad was actually going to Bethlehem. She made me promise to take a picture of the place where Jesus was born. Knowing Kelsey, I knew she would remember that promise. It was a picture I had to take.
I found out that the place where Jesus was born does not look at all like the pictures on Christmas cards. It does not resemble the manger scenes many of us have in our homes. There is a big church built right on top of the birthplace. It’s called “The Church of the Nativity”. You go downstairs in this church and you come to a 14- pointed silver star on the floor that marks the spot where Mary “gave birth to her first-born son . . . and laid him in a manger”. I’m not sure if the inn keeper was the one who had the silver star installed. Probably not.
Well, I had my camera ready. I knew what I was looking for. I would not be denied. Except when we got there, our tour guide hushed us and told us in a whisper that we wouldn’t be able to get very close. A worship service was underway. It was Eastern Orthodox as far as I could tell. Long robes. Long beards. Tall, strange looking hats. Lots of incense. From as far away as we were standing, it would not be a decent picture. But I couldn’t let Kelsey down.
Remember that old Jack Ruby film? The one that shows him breaking through the crowd of reporters, gun in hand, and approaching Lee Harvey Oswald? Well, that was me, camera in hand. No one could stop me. I got my picture. It had the feet of a few Orthodox priests in it, but it also had that 14-pointed silver star.
The truth is, we can’t be certain that Jesus was born in that particular spot. I heard the refrain a lot in the Holy Land: “This is the traditional spot . . . ” Pilgrims need a place to visit, whether it is the place where these things actually happened or not. Too much time has passed. We just can’t be sure. But there is one thing we do know for sure. Jesus really lived.
No serious historian doubts that Jesus walked this earth. You can throw out the Bible. You don’t have to rely on what it says. Historical records independent of the Bible prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the man we call Jesus was a real person and not a legend.
Albert Schweitzer wrote a book about 100 years ago called The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Just recently there has been renewed popular interest in this quest. Resa Aslan wrote Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard wrote Killing Jesus. Both released this year. Both best sellers. They aren’t devotional books. They are history books. Using the rules good historians use in separating fact from fiction, they are attempts to capture the truth about this historical figure named Jesus.
That’s one way to approach Jesus. From the perspective of history. But those of us who consider Jesus more than just an historical figure have another way of approaching Jesus. We approach him from the perspective of faith. There is one Jesus, not two. But there are two very different ways of looking at him. There is the Jesus of history and there is the Jesus of experience. There is the Jesus we can study and learn about, and there is the Jesus we can know and love and invite into our hearts.
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king . . . ” (Matthew 2:1). That is the Jesus of history. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). That is the Jesus of experience. The Jesus of history was born in Bethlehem, we think. Maybe not where the silver star marks the spot. But there is a physical location on this planet earth where his birth really took place. The Jesus of experience is born in the human heart. Your heart and my heart. More accurately, the Jesus of experience will be born in your heart and in my heart if we will allow that to happen. His physical birth on this earth is a matter of history. His spiritual birth in our hearts will be a matter of faith.
So you can see, my title today is what you might call a “double entendre”. You can take it two ways. The birthplace of Jesus is Bethlehem, yes. But the birthplace of Jesus also the human heart.
Phillips Brooks captured this double meaning in his Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It’s about Bethlehem. It’s about the physical location of the birth. But it ends with that beautiful line: “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.” There is also a popular Easter hymn that makes the same point. “I Serve a Risen Savior” ends with this: “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” And there is a much older hymn I had never heard of until I was preparing for this morning, but I fell in love with it and I have asked Helen to sing it today right after the sermon. Here is the first line: “Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, if he’s not born in thee, thy soul is still forlorn.”
Poets can express deep truth better than preachers. All three of these hymn writers tell us that it’s the Jesus of experience, not the Jesus of history that matters most. Jesus could have been born 1000 times in Bethlehem, but if he is not born once in my heart, once in your heart, once in the hearts of all his disciples down through the ages, the birth we celebrate at Christmas is pointless.
The Christmas story is told in Matthew and in Luke. We have those stories pretty well memorized. Today we read from John. John gives us a different perspective on the birth. John is not so much concerned with history as with faith. Faith mixed with philosophy. He introduces a concept we don’t talk about very much. That even before Jesus was born, he existed. There was a Jesus before Bethlehem! He is part of the eternal Trinity that is God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is the agent through whom God created all things. I don’t want to get off on that, or we’ll never get back!
John says that Jesus is light shining in the darkness. He says that sometimes we prefer the darkness. And he says that it’s our response to that light that makes all the difference. “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” We can reject Jesus or we can receive Jesus. We can let his light shine in us, or we can continue stumbling around in the darkness. We can invite him into our hearts or we can close our hearts to him. It’s that choice that makes all the difference.
Sometimes when given a clear choice, we prefer to waffle. We like to have it both ways. We put a “but” after our “yes”. We often say that to Jesus. We say that we respect Jesus. We don’t have anything against Jesus. We try to live by his teachings. “Love your neighbor”, and all that. But we’re not sure about loving Jesus. We’re not sure about giving our heart to Jesus. We don’t want to get carried away. We don’t want to be fanatics. So sometimes such people are more comfortable in Bible studies learning more about Jesus than they are in making a faith response to Jesus.
Christmas comes around once a year to remind us that we really don’t have that option. We respond to Jesus either with a “yes” or with a “no”. We don’t respond to Jesus with a, “yes, but.” That is not one of the choices we are offered.
Bill Bright was the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. He sat for an interview not long before he died. The interviewer had made appointments with as many of the top Christian leaders in our nation as were willing to take time for an interview. He was pleasantly surprised that so many of them were willing to take the time. The questions were basically the same for each interview. “What are the big challenges facing the church today? What are your priorities? What is working? What is not working? What needs to be done differently?” There would often be follow-up questions depending on how each question was answered. And then one final question. It was always the same. “What does Jesus mean to you?”
The answers to this last question were predictably the best part of the interview. Especially Bill Bright’s answer. Because Bill Bright didn’t answer the question. He couldn’t. When he was asked, “What does Jesus mean to you,” he started to answer. Then he stopped. He tried to start again but he couldn’t. He was all choked up. He started to cry. He just sat there, this big man in his big chair behind his big desk, and he wept. (Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller, page 233.)
I heard that story and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t stop asking myself, Do I love Jesus that much? Is Jesus for me more than just a name? A famous person in history? Someone I talk about more than the average person because it’s my job? Or has Jesus truly been born in my heart? So that he lives there and rules over my life? So that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”?
The Jesus of history is an interesting topic for discussion and for study, but he won’t change your life. The Jesus of experience will. The Jesus of experience refuses to stay in the history books. He refuses to stay on the pages of the Bible. Once you experience this Jesus, he will change your life and he won’t stop until he has changed it completely.
In fact, that really is what Christmas is all about. The man who was born in Bethlehem is born in the lives of his followers. Their lives make it possible for his life to continue. In fact, their lives multiply his influence many, many times. There is a limit to what one man can do. Even if that one man is Jesus. There is no limit to what millions of his followers can do, each one with Jesus living inside. I wonder if that is what Jesus meant when he said, “Those who believe in me will do the works that I do and greater works than these will they do” (John 14:12).
I’ve been struggling with a way to illustrate this. To illustrate the magnitude of the difference between what the Jesus of Bethlehem was able to do in his 33 years on this earth and what the Jesus who lives in our hearts is able to do in all the centuries since. I thought of a concert I attended a week ago last Friday.
The Boise Philharmonic and Master Chorale performed Verdi’s Requiem. My wife, Helen, by the way, was singing in the Chorale. I just had to get that in. Every single person that night, from the conductor on down, was talented and inspired and totally engaged in making the powerful beauty of Verdi’s masterpiece come alive in that auditorium.
Then I think of Verdi. He is all alone. He is writing his Requiem. He can hear the various instruments and voices in his head. He can’t hear them with his ears. He can put the notes on paper. He can add specific instructions on how it is to be performed. On how it is supposed to sound. But that’s all he can do. It is for others to take what he has done and to create his music.
The Jesus of history was a light shining in the darkness. But just one light. He impacted history in his short time on earth. But mainly he got the right notes down for others to follow. Jesus wrote the music but Jesus never heard how it would sound when it all came together. That’s our job. We are the orchestra. We are the chorus. We have Jesus living in our hearts. It’s up to us to make the Gospel come alive.
I’m glad Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We’re about to celebrate that birth with a big celebration. But I’m especially glad that Jesus is born in my heart and in yours. I’m glad that we are the ones who get to experience the Jesus who is so much more than part of history. We get to make his music come alive.
Lord Jesus, as we prepare to celebrate your birth, help us to remember your true birthplace. We sing, “let every heart prepare him room.” We want to do that. We don’t want to close our hearts to you. We want to invite you in. All the way in. So it will no longer be us who live, but you who live in us. Amen.