Make the journey

Dec. 24, 2014

Is. 9.2-7; Tit. 2.11-14; Lk. 2.1-20

I've been to Bethlehem...I was more than a little disappointed. Not because there were no shepherds, or a guiding star, or wise fact, the place today looks more like a war zone than the city of David we read about in the Bible. I suppose it is a battlefield. There are no rolling hills or pastoral scenes, just poverty, groups of unemployed men standing around, and old dirty broken down cars parked all over the place--either they're broken down or there's no gasoline to drive them any place. They just sit.

Bethlehem is only 8 miles from the center of Jerusalem. To get there you have to pass from Israel into the Palestinian Authority's territory. The final stop before entering Bethlehem is to exit your vehicle and pass through a turnstile that's a lot like those your see at a stadium. You know, the kind that allow you to go in, but not back out again...they only turn one way. This security door is overseen by an Israeli soldier who sits behind a bulletproof window, a lot like the teller's window at our Hancock Bank. AND the security door won't turn unless the soldier decides it will turn. That door is the only opening in the 15 foot-tall concrete wall that is topped with razor wire. And the only way to pass over that wall without hurting if you have wings.

A short drive away from there is the Church of the Nativity...the legendary birthplace of Jesus. The site was identified as such well over a thousand years ago, but the church, despite being very old, is not that old. There's a big five pointed star atop the tower next to the church, but it's a crude, cold metal skeleton of a star outlined with incandescent light bulbs. It looks more gaudy than godly. To get into the church you have to pass through a low, wide door. I was told this door was so unusually proportioned because for many, many years Christians were allowed into the church only occasionally and the primary occupants who passed that way were more likely to say "Moo" than a "Hello"! The interior of the church is filled with dusty, and unlighted glass oil burning lamps suspended by wires from the ceiling...which makes the place ironically dark and dismal. There's a small place at the back of the church that has been identified as the very spot where our Christ Child was born.

As I looked at all this, I wondered to myself, "Why am I here?" But then I closed my eyes and I could feel the presence of what the Episcopal Bishop Phillips Brooks wrote about in his beloved Christmas carol, "O Little Town of Bethlehem". He wrote, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." I felt that. So, tonight, I encourage you to make your own pilgrimage to Bethlehem. If not on an airplane, then to make your journey in heart to find the presence of the living Christ who is with us now. Many still seek this holy Child.

The NYTimes, this week (Dec. 21, 2014) reported that according to surveys made by polling organizations, attendance at churches all over the United States is "down, membership is down, even the number of people willing to define themselves as religious is down." A 2012 Gallup poll from 39 countries (from Asia to Africa) found a "notable decline across the globe" of those who define themselves as religious, and the percentage is down 9 percent in just last seven years.

However, there are still huge numbers of devout seekers after religious truth, who have made trips to find their own answers. People have traveled the globe on religious quests seeking answers. In September, the United Nations released a study finding that for every three tourists who traveled worldwide, one out of three, one-third, are religious pilgrims seeking answers. That's more than 330 million people a year who are seeking. This figure includes people from all religious faiths and descriptions who are traveling to holy places to experience a close encounter with God. These special places could be churches, or some other holy site where, like the Celtic saints described them, these are "thin" places...meaning places where the separation between God and ourselves is very, very thin.

Going on pilgrimage is an effort to accomplish just that, of finding a closer walk with God. That's something that any and all of us can do...and often feel impelled to do. The Times article said, "In a world in which more and more things are artificial and ephemeral, a sacred journey gives the pilgrim the chance to experience something both physical and real. And it provides seekers with an opportunity they may never have had: to confront their doubts and decide for themselves what they really believe." There's only one way to achieve this and that is: to get up off the couch and go. You have already taken that step by being here tonight! Then, and only then will the truth about our hopes in Bethlehem's promise be answered. In the words of the hymn about the little town of Bethlehem, we pray this holy night, "O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel." Amen.

The Reverend Wayne Ray St Thomas Church Diamondhead, MS 12/24/14