December 21, 2008
11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 14He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
About 10 years ago, my wife and I went on a cruise in the Caribbean, and one port of call was on the coast of Haiti. You may know that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; some people say that it is the most god-forsaken place on the planet. But the cruise line had established a resort on the coast where they put us ashore. It was a typical set-up for the American tourist. It was pleasant and clean and new. They were selling t-shirts and crafts. There was lots of “authentic Haitian music.” And I thought, this is pretty nice, this is fine. I walked around the resort a little bit, and then I came to the wall. It was a red brick wall about 30 feet high. It ran all around the resort.
The function of the wall was immediately apparent. It was to isolate the rich American tourists from any unsupervised contact with poverty-stricken Haitians. And I felt like God spoke to me.
I felt this as much as if the Angel Gabriel had appeared with a choir of angels. I felt like God spoke, and God said to me: “What are you doing over here? Why aren’t you over there?”
Let us think about walls tonight. Tawfiq Salsaa is a woodcarver in the city of Bethlehem; one of the craftsmen who carve those beautiful olive wood nativity sets that are sold to the tourists who are able to trickle into the ancient city and visit the Church of the Nativity. Like other Nativity sets, Tawfiq’s scenes of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and the wise men are arranged in a familiar tableau — Mary and Joseph looking lovingly down at the manger, the shepherds peeking in the door and the magi leading their camels toward the open stable.
But Tawfiq’s work has one glaring difference that you notice immediately. There is a wall between Jesus and the magi. “I wanted to give the world an idea of how we live in the Holy Land,” the 65-year-old Palestinian carpenter said in his workshop, his sweater speckled with sawdust. “I was inspired by our own wall.”
The wall he is talking about is the 25-foot concrete security barrier that now rings the city of Jesus’ birth. Begun in 2002, the Israeli government built the wall to keep potential suicide bombers from entering Israel through Palestinian territory. The Israeli government and its supporters view the wall as necessary to their security and safety, while Palestinians and their supporters see it as a form of segregation. The bottom line is that if the magi were trying to get to Bethlehem today, they would have to go through some serious security screening. [Harrison, Rebecca. “Three wise men hit a barrier in Bethlehem.” Reuters News, December 12, 2007. alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L10261075.htm. Viewed June 11, 2008.]
As you approach the wall from the Israeli side, you see a large, colorful sign painted on it near one of the guard towers saying, in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, “Peace Be With You.” Approach it from the Palestinian side and you see darker images — those of a snake curling its way down the wall toward the checkpoint, a picture of a dove of peace wearing a flak jacket and signs spray-painted in English and Arabic saying, “God will tear down this wall.” The Bethlehem wall is a place of deep sadness and contrast for people on both sides, most of whom would rather simply live in peace.
The wall’s construction has left Bethlehem struggling economically. Unemployment is high and people often wait in lines hours long to be cleared to cross the barrier for jobs on the Israeli side. Perhaps the basic lesson here is that whenever walls are erected for whatever reason, suffering and a lack of hope soon follow for everyone involved.
When we read the Christmas story and when we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” this is not what we picture. We love the Christmas-card image of a sleepy little town with open streets and gentle, rustic stables. But even in the first century that image was not so. In the first century, no concrete wall surrounded Bethlehem, but there was no less stark a contrast between the poor hovels of this little village and the palaces of the powerful who held court in Jerusalem and, even more so, in Rome. The emperor, Augustus, ruled over most of the Mediterranean world. Augustus was called “a man of peace,” but his definition of peace was that of every empire that has ever moved across the face of the world. For Rome, for Augustus, peace was about victory — about military and economic security. Augustus killed the opposition, occupied foreign lands, and called it peace. He taxed those conquered peoples heavily in order to fund his military, his building projects, his personal needs, and called it prosperity. Under Augustus, Rome erected a virtual wall of separation between those who were in and those who were out, those who were rich and those who were poor, those who lived and those who died. Peace was the luxury of the powerful.
Jesus was born on the wrong side of the wall. The powerful, the privileged, they were over there. Jesus was born over here—with the peons and the outcasts. The emperor Augustus never heard about his birth. If he had heard anything about it, he probably would have simply acknowledged that another taxpayer from the working class had been born to help fill the treasury. No one of consequence, none of the movers and shakers of the world, was paying attention to the other side of the wall. They did not care about another peasant kid from backwoods Palestine. They were too busy enjoying all the benefits that the kind of peace and prosperity the empire provided.
But we observe that the angels did not appear in Rome, or even in the temple in Jerusalem. They did not perform a concert for the emperor or have a special conversation with the Jewish high court. When the angels came, they came to Bethlehem — on that side of the wall. And they gave their performance for a group of shepherds, which has a special significance because among the poor people of Palestine, the shepherds were the poorest of the poor. It was to them, the lowest of the low, the insignificant and forgotten people of the empire, that God chose to reveal his grand plan for the world.
The plan that God was announcing through the overture of the angel choir was a plan of peace, but a peace radically different from that so often trumpeted by human empires. God’s plan of “peace on earth” would not come through the power and might of conquering armies and vanquished enemies. It was not peace through victory, but peace through God’s love.
That is the kind of peace described in Isaiah 9 — where the yoke of oppression is shattered and where the implements of war are “burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5). It’s the kind of peace that Mary sings about in the gospel of Luke when she learns that she will be the mother of God incarnate. She sings: “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).
This vision of peace is familiar to us as we approach Christmas. We like to sing of “peace” on earth, along with the angels, but when the angels retreat into heaven we put away that vision for another year, leaving world peace to be the subject of posturing politicians—and beauty queens. It is a joke that in beauty contests, the judges ask the contestants what they want most and what they are willing to devote their lives to. The contestants are coached to reply, “peace on earth.” It sounds great, but no one really believes that they are serious.
We all say we want peace on earth, but no one really believes it is going to happen. Maybe we feel that way because we live on the other side of the wall from Bethlehem. We live in a place where we can spend our money on recreation instead of wondering where our next meal is coming from. We have the luxury of looking at places like the Middle East, Darfur, Haiti, and other locations around the world through our television screens instead of seeing war, genocide, injustice, and poverty on our street, at our door.
During the Christmas season, most people come to church expecting to hear a message about a smiling baby, gentle shepherds, adoring parents and lowing cattle; or maybe some precious memories of childhood or a sentimental story about Christmases past. After all, we are supposed to feel good at Christmas, right?
The problem is, though, that the story of Christmas is not about any of those things. In very real terms, Luke and the other gospel writers want to take us through the gates of our own security and comfort to the other side of the wall.
Jesus may have left Bethlehem, but he lived his life fully on that side of the wall. The baby born in a stable, in a manger, grew up preaching and embodying a message of the coming kingdom of God — God’s reign and rule on the earth, a kingdom that would bring justice and well-being to the whole world. He healed the sick, touched the untouchable, called people to share their wealth, fed the hungry. He spent his time with outcasts, loved the unlovable, and washed the feet of his disciples like the lowliest servant.
His mission and message made enemies. People in power felt very endangered by Jesus. Their basic ideas, their whole view of life, which was based on comfort and security, was threatened by his teaching of love and mercy. Rather than vanquish his enemies, though, he forgave them — even as he was nailed to a Roman cross. The cross was the ultimate symbol of the empire’s ability to kill and destroy. After his death, the empire walled him in a stone tomb and sealed the door shut. That’s what empires do to those who challenge the status quo.
But what the empire failed to realize was that Jesus breaks down walls — walls of violence and injustice, walls that define who’s worthy and who’s not, walls of sin and death that prevent us from knowing the love, peace and mercy of God. In Jesus, God showed that empires cannot and will not have the last word. That word belongs to the true King, the one for whom the angels sing, the true Prince of Peace.
To celebrate Christmas, then, is to celebrate hope; not the kind of hope that is printed in a Christmas card but the kind of hope that challenges empires and changes lives. It is not a hope that ignores the pain of the world. Instead, this hope we find through Jesus inspires us to follow Jesus in a mission to break down the walls of this world and make God’s kingdom a reality.
Our verses from Titus may be the best summary of them all. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all .…” (Titus 2:11). Salvation is offered to rich and poor, Israeli and Palestinian, Haitian peasant and American tourist. Our task is to live out that salvation by doing the things that will make “Peace Be With You” not just a wish but a reality. Every time we serve the poor, fight injustice, speak for those who are voiceless, serve a meal to a hungry person, we break down walls of separation. Do that enough and even brick walls can begin to come down.
That is what Christmas is about: peace on earth — a peace with no more walls—not in Haiti, not in Bethlehem, not in York.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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