How far is it to Bethlehem?

The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord  – December 24, 2018 – Luke 2:1-20 – Trinity Church, Winchester

Last year a group from my home parish journeyed to the Holy Land to see many of the storied sites of the Bible: Jerusalem, Galilee, Nazareth, Jericho, and of course, Bethlehem. 

Bethlehem is one of the most famous cities in the region because of its place in the gospel story we just heard. The Church of the Nativity there boasts the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. I remember the day we took the short bus ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. My friend Collin shouted from the back of the bus, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately. “How far is it to Bethlehem?” Collin was surely not the first person to ask this question. Think about the biblical Christmas narratives. 

It’s census time. Caesar has spoken and Joseph has to get Bethlehem. Imagine a very pregnant Mary turning to him to ask with weary eyes, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” 

While watching their sheep on a Judean hillside, a group of shepherds hear a heavenly noise. It’s like nothing they have ever experienced before. The angel tells them good news of great joy. “Go to Bethlehem and see.” After the angels depart, imagine a group of startled shepherds looking at each other and asking, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

The magi observe a star in the east and make their way to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born?” “In Bethlehem of Judea,” the prophets have written. Imagine the three tired travelers meeting eyes and simultaneously asking, “How far is it to Bethlehem? 

It’s a question older than even the birth narratives.

The Book of Ruth tells us that Naomi moves with her family from Bethlehem to Moab. Soon tragedy befalls her. Her husband and sons die, and she prepares to move back to her hometown with her daughters-in-law. Imagine her gathering what’s left of her life and trying to remember, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

The question is still alive and well in the present age. 

Frances Chesterton wrote a poem entitled, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” It became a well-known English carol, set to various musical arrangements. You can hear both St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir in Dublin and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing it on YouTube. 

“How far is it to Bethlehem? / Not very far. / Shall we find the stable-room / Lit by a star?”

Others have phrased the question slightly differently. There is a children’s book with the title, “How Many Miles to Bethlehem?” (There’s also a sing-along song and a stage play with the same name.)

The question has been on the minds of those past and present. It’s no surprise then that tonight we still come wondering, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

As Christians of the twenty-first century we are well-versed in the Christmas story. We ask, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” knowing well what we will find there—Jesus Christ. God made man. 

At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation. God made flesh. The incarnation tells us that God came to dwell with God’s people as one of them. Once and for all God became flesh to tell us that flesh matters. People matter. You matter. 

Through Advent we heard tell of the one who is coming. Now he is here. Jesus breaks into a world of fear, of uncertainty, and of division and offers us saving grace. It’s a good thing, too, because we need him now more than ever. 

This world needs Jesus. What else can we count on? The government? No, it’s shut down. Our political parties? All they do is argue. The stock market? I wouldn’t bet on it. 

We need the one who promises to deliver us from this unpredictable and divisive world. We need Jesus. The good news is, Jesus is here. In our brokenness, grief, sadness, stress, anxiety, loneliness, and anger God is with us. Emmanuel. 

Wherever you are in your humanity, the incarnation promises you that Jesus is right there with you. Bethlehem is right here among us and in us: holy people, fed with holy food, made in God’s holy image. 

So, how far is it to Bethlehem? 

Last year my friend Collin asked a simple question on a bus in Palestine, but what I remember better now is the reply yelled back from the front. “Not very far!”  

No, it’s not very far at all.

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