A few years back I read an article about the Episcopal priest, Phillips Brooks, and his moving experience in Bethlehem which led to his writing the well-loved hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” On a trip to Israel in 1865 he had the opportunity to attend a five-hour Christmas service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He writes this about his experience:
“I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem close to the spot where Jesus was born. The whole church was bursting with the songs and music of Christmas. I was moved to tears from the sheer emotion of the moment.” ~Phillips Brooks
Three years later, moved again at the memory of that experience... he wrote the five stanzas of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for the children’s choir at his church.
As I read his story, I thought to myself, 'Wait. Did we go to the same Bethlehem?" My experience of Bethlehem in 2010 was QUITE different, to say the least.
Our group had been happily touring Israel with our bus driver and tour guide who were both from Jerusalem. Once we got to Bethlehem, however, we had to get a new driver and guide because Bethlehem is under Palestinian authority and they were not allowed to go in.
As soon as we arrived we waited on our bus for what seemed like an eternity to go through border patrol until our bus was finally searched by 19 year-olds in full military uniform carrying AK 47s.
As I stared out the bus window I could see clearly the wall separating Palestinian territory from Israeli territory. The wall is covered in graffiti that displays in art form the tension that exists between these two groups.
Once we finally got into Bethlehem, the streets were cramped and crowded with other tourists, traffic, and street vendors with their high-pressure sales.
When we finally reached the church of the Nativity, we waited in a small, crowded space for our turn to head down to the cave that is believed to be the birthplace of Christ. Once there, our group hurried in and attempted to appreciate where we were and what it meant, but we felt rushed by a large group behind us, and so we rolled our eyes and grumbled.
There was nothing still... or silent...or peaceful... about Bethlehem for me.
It was tense and stressful from the beginning. I left on edge and nervous, just ready to be reunited with our bus driver and guide we had come to trust and feel safe with. As I sat on the bus waiting to go back through the gate, I was stressed and frazzled...
disappointed with the experience,
disappointed with rude people,
disappointed that I didn’t sense God there.
I thought to myself, “Bethlehem. What a dump!” Immediately I sensed God say to me, “And this is where I chose to enter.”
As I sat there—still in the tension and chaos of trying to get our driver and guide back on the bus...
As I sat there and stared at the graffiti on that wall that represented the hostility that would divide and segregate groups of people, and remind everyone who would see it of the anger and bitterness that existed there...
And as I sat in the midst of my own personal stress, anxiety, and disappointment, and simultaneously realized that it was into THIS kind of mess that God chose to enter....I was overwhelmed...
overwhelmed at the thought of a God who would do that...
...and overwhelmed at my own capacity to so easily write off Bethlehem, and even the people I experienced there, only to be jarred from my sour attitude by God entering into MY MESS in that moment, and gently reminding me that those are just the places where He chooses to enter.
Into the stress...
the bitterness of life...
Into the darkness of all that would separate us from Him in order to break the power that any of it would have over us.
One of the phrases in “O Little Town of Bethlehem” says, “O come to us abide with us, our Lord, Immanuel.” We need Jesus to come and abide with us in our Bethlehems -- in the dark places of addiction, lust, anger, bitterness, greed, apathy, jealousy.
And if we ever have the idea that God is too pure, too clean, too holy, to ever come near and dwell in the midst of the deepest, blackest, most obscene areas of our hearts, then we have greatly misunderstood the gospel message, because that is EXACTLY what Christ came to do. He came to dwell, not just among us, but WITHIN us —in the dark places of sin and rebellion—in order to heal, cleanse, and redeem.
It is so comforting to know that we have a God who draws near to our messes... not a God who stays distant.
We have a Savior who got his hands dirty from the pain of our sickness and brokenness.
We have a Savior whose name was smeared through the mud because of how he extended himself to the worst and least of us.
We have a Savior who took the brunt of what the worst version of ourselves could dish out, yet continued to love us to the point of sacrificing Himself on our behalf, so we could become the best version of ourselves.
And to think, it all started in a messy place like Bethlehem.