Saturday, December 15, 2007

Not that far from Bethlehem

Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, December 16, 2007:

Back in the 1930s, the legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn thought movies should be entertaining, not preachy or heavy-handed. He once said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” This thought came to mind as I’ve been reflecting on our Advent Scriptures so far. Throughout these weeks of Advent, God has been sending us a message, and of course, He hasn’t used Western Union. Instead, He’s used John the Baptist.

The first week of Advent, the message was “Stay awake!” Be alert. Change is in the air. Last week, the message was “Repent!” Make yourself ready. Prepare the way of the Lord. This week, we find John the Baptist in prison, but he sends his followers with a message. They ask Jesus: Are you the one who is to come? Or should we wait for another?

Every Sunday these last weeks, scripture has drawn us closer and closer to Christ – until this week, we meet Him face-to-face and finally hear His own words. And they are words full of another recurring message of Advent – hope. Jesus tells us: The lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, the dead are raised. Yes. This is the one we have been waiting for.

It’s a breakthrough moment in the gospels – among other things, it’s the first time that Jesus tells a group of people directly to go and spread the good news: “Go and tell what you see and hear.” They do – and it’s never stopped. His followers have been spreading that good news ever since and 2,000 years later, we are their beneficiaries.

But it is a moment also of relief, and joy. Everything that we have been waiting for and hoping for is about to be realized. This is a Sunday to rejoice. The introductory rite for today says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near!” The Latin for rejoice is “Gaudete,” which is why we call this “Gaudete Sunday.” And we mark today with the bright rose color to signify that our journey is nearing its end.

This is a season of journeying. I found myself on a journey this time last week to Maine for a family funeral. During my four and a half hour trip north, I was listening to a lot of Christmas music – which I love. I thought I knew all the Christmas songs out there, but I heard one I’ve never heard before. It was a beautiful song that described Mary and Joseph’s journey before Jesus was born. It was called “Not That Far From Bethlehem.”

Well, today, my brothers and sisters, on this Third Sunday of Advent, we’re not that far from Bethlehem – and I’m not talking about Bethlehem, CT. We are almost there. In geographic terms, Bethlehem is about 70 miles from Nazareth. To put that in context, it’s about the same distance from New Milford to New York City. If Mary and Joseph had taken a train, they’d have been there in about 90 minutes. But they weren’t so lucky. It may have taken them up to a week to get there, traveling on foot and donkey. We can only imagine their relief as they got closer and closer to their destination, and they realized the trip was almost over.

And that’s what the song is about -- Joseph encouraging Mary, and reassuring her. We’re almost there. “We’re Not That Far From Bethlehem.” But for us today, I think, the sentiment behind the song is about more than just geography, more than a date on the calendar. Bethlehem is not just as a point on the map, or a place in history. It is where Jesus Christ comes into our world; God enters our reality. It is the crossroads of the human heart. It is where hope is born. It is a place of eternal possibility. And we’re closer to it than we may realize.

In these last weeks of Advent, we need to remember that. These are weeks that will be crazy, with parties to attend and gifts to wrap and cards to send, snow to shovel. There will be decorations to hang and notes to write and meals to prepare and cookies to bake and bags to pack and planes to catch. But take time to pause, and to give thanks. Take stock. Take heed of all the messages God has sent us this Advent – to stay awake, to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord, to seek Him in the quiet.

And take time to pinpoint the Bethlehem of your own heart. That place that calls to each of us. Bethlehem is waiting for us – even as we are waiting for it. Even as we are waiting for Christ. It is the destination at the end of our Advent wanderings – where we were always meant to be. Spend these weeks quietly, hopefully, joyfully anticipating it. Because we will be there before we know it.

The lyrics of the song I mentioned put it so simply, and so beautifully. The words of Joseph to Mary are also God’s words to us …as He accompanies us on our journey:

Though it seems the road is long,
We’re not that far from Bethlehem,
Where all our hope and joy begins.
For in our arms we’ll cherish him.
We’re not that far from Bethlehem.

May God give you peace.

(Adapted from http://deacbench.blogspot.com/)

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