Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2013

2013.12.24 “The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem – The Manger” – Luke 2: 1 – 20

Central United Methodist Church

The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem
The Manger

Pastor David L. Haley

December 24th, 2013

Christmas Eve

Luke 2: 1 – 20


In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.   

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

Luke 2: 1 – 7, The New Revised Standard Version


Each year, I am deeply appreciative all of you who come to church on Christmas Eve. I assume this means you have your celebration of Christmas well in hand, at least enough to take time to come to church to worship the Christ Child, whose birthday we celebrate tonight.  Congratulations on a job well done!

The other assumption – of course – is that you have given up, and have come to church to plead to God for mercy; the family you will deal with later.  So, for about an hour, let it go, and, as the opening words of the Call to Worship invited us, “Let us go in heart and mind to Bethlehem, to see this thing which has taken place.”

But which Bethlehem? It seems there are two Bethlehems. One is the one in our imagination, which we imagine every Christmas Eve. This Bethlehem is a magical, fairytale place. As sweet Mary effortlessly and painlessly gives birth to the baby Jesus in a barn, cattle are lowing in the background, while the little drummer boy looks on. There are shepherds and flying angels, and soon the three wise men show up, bearing gifts. Before everyone leaves, someone pulls out an iPhone, and they pose for an unforgettable picture, posted on Facebook, which has served as the inspiration for crèche scenes ever since.  (Mary, Joseph: Can you get Jesus to look this way, please?)

But even as we imagine this Bethlehem, somewhere in the back of our mind we know there is a real Bethlehem, that exists today. It is in Israel, more specifically in the Palestinian West Bank, a town of some 25,000 people, the majority of whom are Muslim, with a shrinking Christian minority. All live behind a huge security wall erected by the Israelis, from time to time gunfire breaks out, sometimes even at Christmas.

In some ways these two Bethlehems are typical of the way we think about faith: Faith is a fairytale place, where angels fly and shepherds are clean and people are miraculously healed, a place where people live together in peace. We live, on the other hand, in the real Bethlehem, where infant and maternal mortality is high, where children live in poverty, the good die young and differently religious people sometimes stare at each other through gun sights. Which is it? Is there any connection between the two?  Which Bethlehem was Jesus REALLY born in? 

For those of you who are our guests tonight, this Advent and Christmas, we’ve been looking at the Christmas story through a sermon series developed by Pastor Adam Hamilton, of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection near Kansas City. The series is called The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem. Using history, geography, archaeology, and the technology, we have been visiting the Holy Land to see the places we are talking about, as we will this evening.

As we have done so, we have asked three questions: What does what we learn tell us about the character of God; what does it tell us about Jesus whose birth we celebrate, and what does it tell us about ourselves?

There are two especially interesting details in the Christmas story as Luke tells it, which we will explore tonight: First, was born in a cave? Secondly, why were shepherds – of all people – the first to know of Jesus’ birth? In just a moment, through video, we’ll go with Adam Hamilton to Bethlehem, but here are the issues.

Was Jesus was born in a cave?  And if so, what does it tell us about him? It was quite common in the Holy Land for people to build houses over caves, which they then used as a stable. And of the particular cave in Bethlehem, in the year 135 AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian erected a temple to Adonis over the site to keep pilgrims from visiting, evidence that it was associated very early in Christian tradition as the birthplace of Jesus.

Why might Jesus have been born there? When Luke says “there was no room in the inn,” the Greek word used (kataluma) really means “room” rather than “inn.” So don’t picture a mean innkeeper turning Joseph and Mary away, heartlessly; picture Joseph’s parents house, a small house with one guest room, filled with relatives. If Mary has the baby there, according to Jewish law, everybody will be ritually unclean. So out of consideration for the others, and – perhaps for privacy’s sake – Joseph and Mary go to the only place left to have the baby, the stable, in the cave under the house. What in our times, we would call the garage. Once again, as she’s having that baby, don’t you think Mary was saying, “God, this is not what I had in mind.”

Secondly, what’s with the shepherds? Shepherds were the lowest rung of the social ladder, illiterate, dirty, of low reputation. And these in particular were the “night shift” shepherds, the lowest of the low. Of what of the angels, who appeared to them?  The word “angel” literally means “messenger,” it doesn’t say anything about wings. In fact, throughout the Bible angels mostly show up as mysterious strangers. So when someone strolls up the shepherds in the middle of the night, even to bring “good news,” no wonder they were terrified; I would be, wouldn’t you? And then, as for an angelic chorus; I don’t know, maybe others showed up; think ancient flash mob. What does it say about God, that the greatest news in the history of the world is first made to shepherds?  What does it say about Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, that he should be born in a cave, a stable?

All through the years – 39 Christmas sermons – I’ve had the imaginary Bethlehem in mind, along with Christmas Eve congregations like you. Finally, this summer, I finally went to real Bethlehem, the place where it happened.

Michele and Anna and I took the public bus to Bethlehem, the way Joseph and Mary might have traveled. Bethlehem is behind the security wall, in Palestinian territory, sober reminders of the “real Bethlehem,” the world they live in. When we arrived at the Bethlehem bus stop, being cheap, I waved away all the taxi drivers who besieged us, determined to walk to Manger Square, even though I didn’t know for sure where I was going (although I didn’t tell Michele that.) Hey, Church of the Nativity has to be obvious, right? So we walked past the Arab markets, past the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, (who wouldn’t let me use the restroom), down the hill, and there it was: Manger Square, the place I’ve heard of all my life. Let’s go there now with Adam Hamilton, to learn more about why it was likely a cave, to the Church of the Nativity, and to talk to a real Shepherd.


What do you think? Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built over the site of Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb, the Church of the Nativity is appropriate for Jesus. It’s not a shiny, immaculate cathedral, it’s an ugly, rambling building, always in need of work, as it has been ever since it was built some 1300 years ago. It’s got a funky door to enter, is decorated with icons and Christmas ornaments, almost always filled with pilgrims, bowing to put their hand through the Star marking the spot, to kiss it, to say a quick prayer to the One born there, perhaps like those shepherds so long ago. I think Jesus would be pleased.

I believe what the humble circumstances of the Christmas Story tells us, is that this is the kind of God we have.  A God who overturns the Caesars, the Herods, and the high and mighty of the world, to use a humble Joseph and Mary, through a baby born in a stable, to change the world.

It tells us the kind of person Jesus was, what he may have learned from his faithful, handyman, father, Joseph, and his mother Mary, full of grace.  Perhaps it was the knowledge of how he was born that led Jesus to spend his earthly life with humble people: such as fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners; the people others – especially the religious – had written off, but whom Jesus loved. Now, because he humbled himself not only to born in a stable, but to die on a cross, God has exalted him to the highest place, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, where he invites us to dwell with him someday.

My prayer is that as we have traveled The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, that as we have seen the people and places that shaped Jesus’ life, it has drawn us closer to God and made us more desirous of following Jesus, and being more like him. Because the way he taught us may be the only way the real Bethlehems of the world have any chance of becoming more like the Bethlehem that exists in our dreams, where all God’s creatures live in peace. Amen.


Note to Reader:  This series, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, was originally preached by Pastor Adam Hamilton at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, in 2010. 

It was made available as a series for other churches by Abingdon Press, and is available through them, (here), through Cokesbury, our denominational bookstore, (here) or (here). 

Adam Hamilton’s most complete presentation of each segment may be found in his book, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem. Note that it is available in multiple formats: hardback, Kindle, etc.

My sermons are my version, intended to go with the video presentation

watched in worship, which my sermon supplements, which you may view here: (Video)

Finally, here is a Vimeo of Adam Hamilton’s original sermon (sermon)




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