It was called “Bethlehem 2000.”
It was the largest public works project ever inaugurated in the “Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Starting in March, 1997, over 250 million dollars was invested in improving Bethlehem’s public buildings, roads, and utilities.
Millions more were spent on advertising and public relations.
It was all part of the preparations for the turn of the Millenium: 2000 years since the Birth of Jesus Christ.
Two million pilgrims and visitors were expected between Christmas 1999 and Easter 2001—but that turned out to be a serious miscalculation.
Over twice that many people came!
Even after 2000 years, Bethlehem was still a small town with a population of less than 20,000.
It was still a rest-stop on the road to Jerusalem.
With slightly more than 1000 hotel rooms, there was still a shortage of available rooms.
Visitors still had to be turned away—because there was “no room in the inn!”
Mayor Hanna Nasser best summed up the importance of Bethlehem when he said:
“Despite its small size, Bethlehem proves today that it is the most important of all cities in the world at this unique point in time.
“None other has what God gave us:
“The Birthplace of Jesus Christ.”
And it is that Birth—in Bethlehem—the most important Birth in all of history—that we celebrate tonight!
According to the accepted chronology, this is the 2016th Anniversary of the Nativity of Our Lord.
While it is certain that the Birth took place in Bethlehem, the date has been questioned by scholars.
It now seems that there may be a discrepancy of 4 or 5 years.
So, maybe—this is actually the 2021st or 2022nd Anniversary of Christ’s Birth!
Likewise—it now seems that there is another discrepancy.
The cover of tonight’s bulletin proclaims that this is the 64th Annual Christmas Eve Service at All Saints’ Episcopal Church.
But it has been brought to my attention that the first Christmas Eve Service in this church building—and the first service ever held by All Saints’ Church—was celebrated on December 24, 1952.
If that is true—then tonight is actually the 65th Annual Christmas Eve Service.
The only living persons who can verify that are Marcia Addison and Mike Turner—and maybe Harry Sullivan--for they were there!
So here’s the question:
Do the discrepancies matter?
The answer—in both cases—is not really.
The important thing is that Christ was born in Bethlehem—and that we are here tonight to celebrate that earth-shaking and life-changing event!
But that’s not all!
There is yet another anniversary that I need to acknowledge.
On December 24, 2006—ten years ago—I celebrated my first Christmas Eve Service at All Saints’.
It was one of my first services here.
And tonight I celebrate my last Christmas Eve Service—and my final service at All Saints’.
(Believe-it-or-not, I am the longest-serving priest in the history of All Saints’!)
So this Christmas Eve is a special one.
There is no discrepancy about that!
It marks a transition for me—into a blessed retirement;
And a transition for you—into a New Beginning for this parish—with a new priest that God will bring here.
For you and for me, then—God’s promise of New Birth and New Life will be fulfilled this Christmas.
Like any transition—including the Great Divide between B.C. and A.D. that took place on the First Christmas—this one is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty.
The Future—and the changes it will bring—may seem frightening.
But the angels’ song that we hear tonight herald’s God’s promise of “Peace on Earth, Good Will towards all.”
And we know we can trust that promise!
But—back to Bethlehem for a moment. Elizabeth and I have enduring memories from our visit to Bethlehem in 2008.
To see the Birthplace of Jesus, we left Jerusalem and traveled by bus to what is called “Manger Square.”
There, the Church of the Nativity is built over the grotto that is believed to be the exact spot of Christ’s Birth.
The Empress Helena—mother of Constantine the Great—built the first church on that location in the fourth century.
In that church, St. Jerome lived as he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into the Latin Vulgate.
Then, in the sixth century, that church was destroyed—and re-built in its present form by the Emperor Justinian.
The curious thing about the Church of the Nativity is its entrance—which is less than four feet high!
It is called “The Door of Humility”—because one must literally “bow down” in order to get in.
And that is what Elizabeth and I did.
Once inside, the visitor descends one of two staircases that lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity—a rough cave that is about 10 feet by 35 feet in area.
A silver star on the floor before the altar bears a Latin inscription which reads:
“Here—Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”
Through the centuries, pilgrims have worn the stone of the cave’s floor smooth—by kneeling to kiss the exact spot where the Savior became Incarnate.
“The Door of Humility” that I mentioned originally served a practical purpose.
It was intended to prevent horsemen from riding into the church—and thereby desecrating it.
But it also has a spiritual meaning.
As I said—it is necessary for one to bow down—almost upon one’s knees—in order to enter the church.
That is fitting and proper—because bowing down—in humility and awe—is the only way we can approach the Incarnate Lord.
On bended knee is the only way we can celebrate his Nativity.
Entering through “The Door of Humility” is
the only way we can “worship Christ, the New-Born King” tonight!
And while I’m on the subject of worshipping Christ the New-Born King, allow me say a word about incense.
Frankincense was present on the First Christmas—as one of the gifts of the Magi—and it has been used at Christmas celebrations ever since.
As the hymn “We Three Kings” correctly points out--incense points to the deity of Christ.
Incense has been used in virtually every culture and every religion to worship the Deity—however the Deity has been conceived.
The Old Testament, for example, asserts that God enjoys “sweet-smelling odors”—just as his human creations do—and it actually provides a recipe for making the scent that God prefers.
The New Testament Book of Revelation says that the prayers of the faithful rise up to God’s throne in Heaven—like the fragrant smoke of incense wafting heavenward.
So incense is symbolic of prayer and worship—and that is why the Church uses incense—especially at Christmas and Easter.
This year—for the first time—I decided to refrain from using incense on Christmas Eve.
I don’t know why, exactly.
Maybe I just didn’t want to mess with it.
Or maybe I didn’t want to hear the comments I always get.
In any case, many of us do have allergies.
So you can consider it my Christmas gift to you tonight!
But in so doing —I hope we will all remember the meaning behind the incense—and worship Jesus Christ as our God and King.
Finally—as I bid you all a fond farewell on this—my 11th Christmas Eve with you—let me remind you one last time of the most familiar—and perhaps the most important verse in all of Scripture: John 3:16.
Now let me un-pack that for you:
John 3:16 is the real “Good Tidings of Great Joy”—the “Gospel in miniature”—as Martin Luther said.
It’s the only reason we celebrate Christmas.
John 3:16 has been the key-stone of my ministry for 40 years--and I leave it with you tonight—as my final word.
(Say it again.)
It had been a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem—and Mary and Joseph were both exhausted as they pulled into the parking lot of the Motel Six.
Joseph went inside to get a room—just as the “No Vacancy” sign lit up.
The innkeeper said:
“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no room here.”
“No room?” Joseph replied, “But my wife is pregnant!”
“I’m sorry again, sir,” said the innkeeper, “but that’s not my fault.”
“It’s not my fault either,” Joseph replied.
Today’s Gospel reading makes it clear that Mary’s pregnancy was not Joseph’s fault.
The child within her womb was “conceived by the Holy Spirit”—without male DNA.
And Joseph had no idea—until he was shocked into reality by an angelic visitor!
We can only guess what Joseph’s thoughts might have been before he had this revealing dream.
But we are told that Joseph was a “righteous man”—and wanted to avoid exposing Mary to the “public disgrace” of an adultery investigation.
Imagine his surprise--his utter amazement—to discover that Mary’s son would be the long-awaited Messiah!
Today is the fourth—and last—Sunday of the Advent Season.
Up until now—the Scripture readings have concentrated on the future coming of Christ.
But today the focus shifts—to the promises fulfilled in the first coming of Our Lord.
Those ancient promises include the fact that the Messiah would be a “son”—a “descendant”—of the great King David.
He would be “descended from David according to the flesh”—as Saint Paul would later put it.
Joseph was responsible for the fulfillment of this prophecy—since he was a direct descendant of David.
According to the Law—he was Jesus’ father—since he was married to Jesus’ mother—and that was considered more important than biology.
The other promise is what theologians call the Virgin Birth—or sometimes the Virginal Conception—of Christ (not to be confused with the “Immaculate Conception of Mary”—which is something entirely different!)
The Prophet Isaiah—living in the eighth century B.C.—had foretold that a “young maiden”--a virgin—would conceive and bear a son.
In Isaiah’s prophecy too—the child would be a member of the “House of David.”
This royal child would be called by a special name--Emmanuel—which (in Hebrew) means God with us.
Eight hundred years later—Mary’s son was born.
Although he was given the name Jesus—he would also be called Emmanuel—God with us in—human form.
As Saint Paul says—he “was declared to be Son of God”—with divine powers—shown most clearly in his “Resurrection from the dead.”
We are specifically told that Joseph took Mary as his wife--“but had no marital relations with her” until after the child was born.
Some wise person—a church-goer himself, no doubt—has said that the attentiveness of a congregation during a sermon is inversely proportional to the number of Greek and Hebrew words the preacher explains.
So I’ll give you a break—and leave it at this:
The name Jesus—given by the angel in Joseph’s dream—also has a meaning.
In Hebrew, “Jesus” means: God will save.
The child was given a name that said what he was destined to do:
Jesus—son of Mary—Son of David—Son of God—who was called Emmanuel—“God with us”—was born to be the Messiah—through whom “God will save.”
That is the Good News in today’s Scripture readings!
But what about Joseph?
I’ve always felt a little bit sorry for him.
Joseph seems to get the short end of the stick in this story.
He doesn’t get nearly the recognition—nor the adoration—that the Virgin Mary does.
As Jesus’ foster father—Joseph was also his protector—and presumably his teacher.
But—unlike Mary—he disappears quickly from the biblical narrative.
Tradition says that Joseph was much older than Mary—and that he died when Jesus was still a child.
Joseph must have felt somewhat humiliated by the events that unfolded in today’s Gospel—especially since it soon became publicly known that Jesus was not his biological son.
One of my favorite Christmas carols portrays Joseph’s humiliation very poignantly.
It’s a 15th Century English ballad—called The Cherry Tree Carol.
I won’t embarrass myself by trying to sing it to you—but the lyrics go like this:
When Joseph was an old man—and old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary—the Queen of Galilee.
Then Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard green,
There were berries and cherries—as fair as might be seen.
Then Mary spoke to Joseph—so meek and so mild,
“Joseph, gather me some cherries—for I am with child.
Then Joseph flew in anger—in anger flew he,
“Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.”
In this version of the story—Joseph is portrayed as ignorant of his wife’s pregnancy—until Mary reveals it to him—under the guise of a sudden craving for cherries.
Joseph’s immediate reaction is anger—and an implicit threat to terminate their marital relationship.
However—the Holy Child intervenes:
Then up spoke Baby Jesus—from in Mary’s womb,
“Bend down, thou tallest branches—that my mother might have some.”
The branches obey their Incarnate Creator’s voice—and bend down to drop cherries into Mary’s hand:
“Now look thou my Joseph (she says)—I have cherries by command!”
At this development—Joseph immediately recognizes his error—and repents.
In some versions of the song—the last verse says:
Then Joseph said to Mary—from down on bended knee,
“May the Lord have mercy—have mercy on me.”
It is interesting that the story told by this fanciful carol has the same basic elements as our Gospel reading:
Joseph is miraculously informed of the truth about Mary’s pregnancy--not by an angelic visitation—but by a cherry tree that is obedient to its Master’s voice.
As a result Joseph reconsiders his intention to end the marriage—and comes to accept his divinely-ordained role as foster-father and protector of the Messiah.
And so today—our Advent journey comes to an end.
The stage is set for the next act in the drama of redemption:
Our hearts and minds have been prepared for the Coming of the promised Messiah—whose birth was long-ago foretold.
I will give British poet—and fellow Episcopalian—W.H. Auden—the final word.
Auden says that dogmas—such as the Virgin Birth—should be understood “neither as logical propositions—nor as poetic utterances.
“They are to be taken, rather, as ‘shaggy-dog stories.’
“They have a point—but whoever tries too hard to get the point—will miss it.”
The point for us is about saying “yes” to God.
Both Joseph and Mary said “yes” to God—with a courage that makes the rest of us look spineless by comparison!
And because they did—they became part of the greatest miracle of all:
The en-flesh-ment of God as one of us!
What happened to Joseph and Mary must also happen to us.
Through our faith—Christ can be born into the world today—and become incarnate once again—in our flesh and blood.
All it takes is for you and me to do what Joseph and Mary did—and say “yes” to God!
Now let us pray.
You so loved the world that you gave your Only-Begotten Son—that whoever believes in him might not perish—but have Everlasting Life.
Open our hearts by the Grace of your Holy Spirit—that Jesus—Son of Mary—Son of David—Son of God;
Messiah—Savior—Emmanuel—may be born in us this Holy Season;
And that we may be born again in him.
Many of us have had the good fortune to visit the Great Smoky Mountains.
The area can best be described as breathtaking!
To walk the trails, and drive the roads, is to view mile-after-mile of spectacular vistas that literally cause one to gasp in awe.
And if you happen to be a person who views God as the earth’s creator, you cannot help but be impressed by this particular part of God’s handiwork, and stand in awe and wonder at God’s creativity.
The Great Smokies, like the many mountain ranges that are scattered over our planet, can cause one to feel as if she is standing on holy ground.
So it is disturbing to hear of the recent devastating fires which have so severely disrupted life in those mountains.
I find I am hesitant to consider returning there, in light of the destruction to property and the loss of life—both human and wild!
Because of this tragic fire, some things and some people who can never be replaced have been lost.
This is true of all tragedies that erupt on earth and interrupt our lives!
Yes, I know the beauty will return.
I know life will return!
But this is little consolation for those who are now suffering.
This is when people of faith wait for words of comfort, consolation and assurance.
This is when we expect to hear from God.
Perhaps some of you have heard one of the more poignant stories to reach us after the fires.
It’s about a young man named Isaac McCord.
As an employee of Dollywood, McCord was assigned the task of helping with the clean-up effort in the park after the fire.
As he was picking up burned material from the fires in the area, he noticed a page from a book floating in a puddle of water.
As he lifted the paper from the water, he discovered he was holding a page from the Bible that had survived the fire.
When he looked more carefully at these charred remains, his eyes landed on a verse he later identified as Joel 1:19:
O Lord, to thee will I cry:
For the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness,
And the flame hath burned all the trees of the field.
What Isaac McCord discovered in the rubble was a sign—that even in our modern and jaded age cannot be dismissed:
God is present, even in the suffering after a devastating fire.
I, for one, wish God were always so direct with his message.
But more often, God is more subtle when speaking to us.
While the images of fire in the mountains are difficult to witness in the news, the message of the Advent season comes through clearly in this story.
The residents of Gatlinburg must now wait for their lives to be restored and rebuilt.
In some respects, all of us are like that: People who must wait for our lives to be rebuilt after a disaster.
Advent reminds us that we are always waiting for God to act in our lives.
Today’s Gospel brings the issue of waiting into clear focus for us as well.
We fast-forward about thirty years from the birth of Jesus.
King Herod has thrown John the Baptist into prison.
In prison, John finds time to reflect on his situation, and he begins to ask questions—questions we might ask in similar circumstances:
“If I am on God’s side, why am I suffering this punishment?
“Does my life matter?
“Was I right about Jesus?”
It isn’t difficult to imagine John’s feelings as he ponders his situation in his imprisonment.
In prison we find a John the Baptist we can sympathize with—much more than the wild preacher in the wilderness.
But true to his nature as a man of action,
John sends a message to Jesus asking for an answer to his question.
Jesus responds simply:
“Look at the signs—the blind see; the lame walk; the deaf hear; the mute begin to speak.”
All these signs point to the truth that God’s Kingdom is being made real.
These signs represent God’s ongoing presence in the world.
The message to John is that God is present in all that is happening.
Jesus says, “Go tell John that God has not forsaken him, even in his dire circumstances.”
God’s signs are still here.
God’s message has not changed.
Maybe after the changes of the last 2000 years, we have grown more skeptical.
If you are among those skeptics, take heart. God is still active in our world.
And the story from Dollywood is one small indication of God’s action!
When Mr. McCord found his message from God, he shared it in the modern way—by posting it on his Facebook page.
Within hours, 50,000 reposts of his page had been generated.
A few days later, Dolly Parton herself announced that she would be donating $1000 a month to all the families in the county who had lost their homes in the fires—as an expression of her faith in God and her unwavering commitment to the community of her birth.
What we must remember is that what seems to be the end of the world has never yet been the end of the world!
We just figure out what to do next, and get on with it—while trusting in the God who speaks even in the midst of earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, and floods.
The world is not coming to an end.
The Apocalypse is not here until the Apocalypse is actually here!
There is still work to be done.
Many problems still need to be solved.
Injustices abound around the world. Conflicts continue.
People need to be fed.
The urgent needs of the world demand to be met.
Signs of God’s presence need to be interpreted for unbelieving and doubting audiences.
In some respects, we live in exactly the situation John faced.
We don’t yet know how impending changes will affect us.
It is easy when fears overtake us to question or to doubt, just as John did.
We should remember that even the last of God’s prophets, John the Baptist, experienced fears and doubts.
Even he needed a word of assurance from God.
To me, that is the real strength of this story.
Waiting is not easy.
Many difficulties arise.
Effectively, our entire lives are tied up in this task of expectantly waiting—and striving to live in faithfulness.
But the signs continue.
One other thing about Isaac McCord.
He freely stated that he didn’t see himself as particularly religious.
He did report that he read the Bible from time to time.
But after he found that page of Scripture, he said that he realized it was such a powerful sign from God that he made the commitment to turn his life around.
The page in the water became the turning point for his life.
I guess time will tell.
John’s questions were answered directly by Jesus.
And few of us have had so clear an answer as Mr. McCord received.
As I said before, God often answers in more subtle ways.
And so—may we seek and find assurances of God’s presence with us!
May we glimpse the signs of God’s presence in our lives—that our spirits, like John’s, may be re-kindled;
And—like Mary the Mother of our Lord—may our spirits rejoice in the God who is faithful to his promises!
A few years ago, I came across a Christmas card featuring John the Baptist.
You can imagine my surprise—since John isn't a character usually featured on greeting cards.
I can still remember the comical drawing on the cover—of John in his camel hair toga arriving at a Christmas party, casserole of locusts and wild honey in hand.
The locusts were trying to escape the dish, and the host was frowning with displeasure—at both John and his culinary offering.
Of course, I had to buy those cards, and I sent them too—mostly to Episcopal clergy, because I knew they would see the humor.
Recently, I read about a pastor who is toying with the idea of creating a "John the Baptist" line of Christmas cards.
So far, here is what he has produced:
Outside card reads: "From our house to yours this holiday season."
Inside reads: "Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers!”
Outside card: "Let's all pass the cup as we gather round the Yule log."
Inside: "which will burn like the unquenchable fire of hell that is soon going to consume you for all eternity.”
Outside card: "Season's greeting to you from across the miles.”
Inside: "Hey, who told you to flee from the wrath to come?"
These are not exactly tidings of “Comfort and Joy!”
And while they may not exactly put the receiver in the Christmas spirit, the words and sentiments are straight out of Scripture—from John’s lips to our ears!
John the Baptist is a perplexing figure at any time, but especially so when he insists on entering into the Christmas story—as he always does during the season of Advent.
He comes out of the desert to point us to Bethlehem.
He comes to make certain we know how important it is that the Son of God has been born.
Yet, John’s message collides with the thoughts Christmas generally brings to our minds.
John himself is the most unlikely character in the entire Nativity cast.
My hunch is that no one ever really wants to be bothered with John—given his wild appearance, his sharp words of admonishment, and his appalling manners.
Of this I am absolutely certain:
John is not an Episcopalian!
No one is ever tempted to place him in the Christmas pageant—or in the manger scene.
But come he will—each Advent—and we are required to deal with him.
We may want to shake our heads, and say, “Bless his heart.”
But we cannot be so dismissive of him, because he has come for our reclamation.
He is here for our good.
I mean this in a figurative sense.
John the Baptist is here to remind us why Christmas matters!
He points us to the reason for the celebration we are making ready—by reminding us that the coming of Jesus is nothing less than the central event of history, and the crucial act of God.
In Christ—God is with us.
He has come to his people.
He has sent a savior to reclaim us—from all those things that threaten us!
God has sent Jesus to live as one of us—and to die for all of us—and in doing so, give us lives that are purposeful and fulfilling.
John tells us that everything has been changed by the Christ event.
He puts Christmas into perspective.
He also brings us into the drama.
Well, if Christmas is as we say we believe, about God taking on flesh and coming to live among us humans, then John reminds us of our need to turn our lives toward the One who is coming—and follow him.
If, as we say we believe, Christmas is about God assuming the vulnerable form of a human infant, then John reminds us that being vulnerable to the promptings of the Holy Spirit—and open to the weak and vulnerable among us—is how we embrace this infant being born into our lives.
If Christmas is wise men traveling from afar, angels singing, and shepherds being astonished and afraid, then John reminds us that joining the cosmic celebration means confessing our failures, owning our weaknesses and seeking healing for our wounds.
He calls us to repent, and be baptized in Jesus, with the Holy Spirit and its refining fire.
If Christmas is about renewing our hope in the idea of peace on earth and goodwill among all people, then John reminds us that we are to be an integral part of bringing such an idea to fruition.
What John does for us during this Advent season is to focus our attention on what the most important item is—on our list of things to do to get ready for Christmas.
With laser precision, John calls us to look at our own lives, our relationship with God, and the ways that relationship impacts how we live.
For, you see—if Christmas is to happen for us this year, it will not happen in a far-away and long-ago stable.
No—if Christmas is to happen, it will happen in the lives of people—young and old—who invite and embrace the birth of a renewed experience of God in their lives.
A few minutes ago I suggested that John the Baptist is the most unlikely character to find at the manger.
But that is not quite so.
The most unlikely characters are us!
All of us!
How amazing is it that God has called us to be part of his plan?!
How amazing is it that God has blessed us through his son—giving us wonderful intangible gifts, including the gift of “peace that passes understanding?!”
God wants us in the Christmas drama!
John comes early to tell us, “Whatever you are doing, stop it—and get ready to receive the greatest gift ever given!
“Make a place for Jesus in your life!
“Receive the gift God has prepared for you!
Christmas will come.
What John wants to know—is whether or not Christmas will happen in you.
Are you getting ready?
“If not”—he says—“time’s a wasting!”