Bethlehem Transcript

Exile in Babylon exposed a vicious vortex that further fractured the already fragmented relationship between the human and divine. Freedom led to Idolatry, which led to Injustice, which led to Slavery, which led to Remembering, which led to Cries for Liberation….

It was in the hearing of their own cries that the people understood that even in their external freedom, they were enslaved to sin, violence, and death.  It was in Babylon where the people first understood that the chains around their wrists were nothing compared to the deeper, more insidious kind of chains that had warped their heart.

In response, the prophets foretold of a new exodus that would result in a once-and-for-all freedom from powerful chains unseen.  They foretold of a new, better, more holistic kind of return…yes to the land…but more importantly to relationship with the Creator.

In the streets of Babylon, God spoke through the prophets of a new exodus led by a new Moses, a son of David, whose blood would liberate humanity once and for all.

…and then…God was silent for 400 years.

After a generation of exile, 70 years of chains, the community of Israel returned to the land of Promise still under the thumb of Babylon.  Upon their return they immediately rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls and constructed a new Temple.  Only this time, rather than building with the blood equity of slaves, they rebuilt their own walls…they rebuilt their own Temple…but both were mere shadows of what they once were.  Israel was home…but it wasn’t like it once was.

About that time, a new Empire emerged.  The iron fist of Rome came down hard and fast on Israel and gripped them with an oppressive occupation.  This time, rather than being hauled away in chains, the conquerors came to them, marched through their villages, abused power within their homes, and demanded excessive taxes to expand their military might.

A new kind of slavery for a new generation of Israel.

…a new generation of Israel who was quick to resurrect an old religion that looked deceptively like faithfulness.

…a new generation of Israel with a land and a building and a religion that meant they didn’t need God.

…a new generation of Israel who watched the blood of innocent animals be spilt for their sin while they knowingly lived lives characterized by idolatry and injustice.

…a new generation of Israel who couldn’t hear the cries of the powerless because they were preoccupied with their own survival.

…a new generation of Israel who hadn’t heard from God in generations.

…so they continued to recite an old story about a God and His Promise, sealed in Blood.

…they recited the prophecies of Babylon…the ones about a new bigger, better exodus led by a new Moses…a new King David.

…they sang songs about victory and the power of God…songs about one day when all the nations, including the hated Rome, would bend the knee to their God.

…they sang those songs even while Rome dipped their people in tar, crucified them, and lit them on fire to light the streets of their own villages.

It was a new kind of slavery for a new generation of Israel…a people who frequently had to explain to their children what the Romans were doing in their village…a new kind of slavery for a generation who storytold and sang songs about their God while their God remained silent.

Occupation, oppression, shame, and humiliation were the words that described Israel’s experience at the beginning of the first century.

“Why is this happening again?” and  “Why are we still in chains?” were the questions that plagued their consciousness.

During the reign of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, the harsh national dictatorship of Herod the Great, and the powerless guidance of the first century Jewish Sanhedrin,  the Author inserted Himself into the Story unlike He had ever done so before.  The God of Israel who had been silent for 400 years broke His silence…but He did so unlike anyone could have ever imagined.  Rather than through the voice of the prophets, God’s voice emerged in the form of an infant’s cries.

Which brings us back to the prophet Isaiah who foretold of the Messiah’s birth…God was going to put flesh on and enter into the Story as a helpless, vulnerable child...born of a virgin.  God was going to take an embryonic form within the womb humanity. (Isaiah 7:14)

Which brings us to the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel who foretold of the Davidic lineage of the Messiah.  God’s Savior would be born divine (Son of God), human (Son of Man), but also king (Son of David). (Jeremiah 23:5)

Which brings us to the prophet Micah who, with astonishing specificity, foretold the exact location of the Messiah’s birth: a tiny village just south of Jerusalem named Bethlehem. (Micah 5:1-2)

For those with ears to hear, eyes to see, and minds to understand, The New Moses who was to lead a new, bigger, better exodus, would be God, Himself, with flesh on…born of a virgin, in Bethlehem, the City of David.

For those who heard and believed the Stories of God’s faithfulness passed down through the generations, Bethlehem would be the birthplace of Hope and Salvation personified.  So those who believed kept their eyes on Bethlehem.

Meanwhile, God’s eyes were focused on a young couple in a northern village named Nazareth.

Nazareth was a simple, impoverished village near the Sea of Galilee that consisted primarily of small white-stoned homes, a synagogue, and a marketplace.  100-or-so people lived there, mostly farmers, but some were skilled craftsmen who had shops in the marketplace…a potter, a weaver, a dyer, a blacksmith, a carpenter…

The Nazarene carpenter carried the namesake of the “little-dreamer” who, once upon a time, had been sold by his brothers into the slave trade.  He carried the namesake of the one who found himself resting in God’s favor in an unthinkable scenario in Egypt.  The Nazarene carpenter’s name was Joseph.

Joseph came from a royal line…the bloodline of King David…but he didn’t live like a king.  Rather, he eeked out an existence like his father and his father’s fathers had before him.  Like his forefathers, Joseph’s hands were calloused by years of stone-fitting and wood-working just like his heart was calloused by years of Roman occupation and oppression.  While he made his living building familial additions to the homes of his friends, the Story finds Joseph preparing a place for his young bride…a girl who carried the namesake of Moses’ sister Miriam, the one who celebrated the liberation of Israel from Egyptian captivity.  Mary was her name…and, like her friends, she waited, in the home of her father, for the day when her husband would come and take her as his bride.

It was in the waiting that Mary was found, not by her husband-to-be, though, but by the God who had been looking for her…the same God who had remained silent for so many years.

The presence of the angel Gabriel was horrifying.  In the moment of his arrival, the future became obsolete for Mary…she wasn’t sure that she would live beyond the present moment. To terrified to look at Gabriel, much less speak to him, Mary made herself as invisible as possible, willing herself, a mortal, to disappear from the sight of the immortal.

But when he spoke, rather than hearing the death sentence that she expected, she listened as words of affirmation, favor, and grace poured out.

“Fear not, sweet child…God approves of you…not because of who you are or what you’ve done…He approves of you…because He wants to.  And because He approves of you, God is going to do something He’s never done before.  He’s going to become both Creator and created…He’s going to enter in to the created order…and He’s going to do it through His design for new life: God is going to be born.”

“He’s chosen you, Mary, to bear Him.  He’s chosen you to become inhabited by Him.  He’s chosen your life, Mary, to be disrupted by His life.  He’s chosen you to carry within you the greatest grace, the Son of the Most High, the eternal King.  (Luke 1:30-33)

How was one so young to understand a message so complicated, so dangerous, so Divine?  How was one who had protected her purity with her life going to find herself pregnant?  What would happen to her when others found out?  Did she have any idea that, in that moment, that God was beginning to make good on a Promise that He had sealed in blood?

“How can this be?” she managed, even though her mouth and throat were as dry as the dirt floor that she found herself lying on. (Luke 1:34)

“Nothing is impossible with the Author…the One who speaks existence into being.  His Presence that gives life to the inanimate will become alive in you.”

And then it was decision time.  Not surprisingly, this young, inadequate, ill-prepared, unqualified heroine responded just like all of the other inadequate, ill-prepared, unqualified heroes of the Story.

“Here am I!” she said.  “Let it be to me just as you say.” (Luke 1:38)

It’s hard to imagine the extent of Joseph’s grief when, after twelve months of hard work in preparation for his bride, he returned for her, only to find her pregnant.  Being merciful, just, and probably in love, Joseph was not about to have her stoned to death, nor was he willing to leave her publically humiliated.  Consequently, he was contemplating a quiet divorce when, he too, was visited by an angel of God Most High who told him to proceed with the marriage.

“Mary hadn’t been unfaithful…on the contrary, God’s favor rested on and within her.”

The angel told Joseph that the Holy Spirit had conceived within Mary the One who was to free humanity from the powerful chains unseen: the chains of sin, violence, and death.  He told Joseph that Mary was to give birth to the new Moses who would lead a new, bigger, better exodus: she was to give birth to the Messiah.  (Matthew 1:21).  As a man who followed the Jewish law, Joseph understood well that blood was the cost of the kind of freedom the angel spoke of…he knew that, in order to save humanity from their sins, this child was destined to bring a sacrifice…or to become one.

Like Mary, Joseph obeyed…together, they trusted God and entered into a marriage that was shrouded in the gossip of conspiracy and scandal.  Joseph lived with her, cared for her, and provider for – possibly for as long as six to eight months – yet refrained from sexual intimacy with her.

In her ninth month, The Emperor, Caesar Augustus, issued a decree that all of the known world should be registered. (Luke 2:1-5).  Since both were from the house and lineage of David and because they had no choice but to obey, Joseph and Mary made the four-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem where they were to be listed for taxation with the Roman Empire.

There, in the privacy of a humble, soot-stained cave, blood was shed that gave way to life.  While Bethlehem slept, profound trauma gave way to profound beauty as God entered through the birth canal into the muck of humanity and, for the first time, looked the mess of the world in the eyes…literally.  For generations, God had been reaching down into creation…but now, God had arms.

With the hills of Bethlehem as the backdrop and with an audience of bewildered parents, inconvenienced animals, and shivering shepherds, the entire world was engaged in a conspiracy of love.  This newborn child was a sign to Israel that God had not forsaken His people but had remembered His own promise marked by a back-and-forth journey through a bloodpath.  This newborn child was a sign that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  In that cave, on that night, the tapestry of heaven and earth were, once again, woven together.