Sunday, December 7, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 2 - Week of Dec 7, Isaiah 40.1-11

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…its penalty is paid…make straight in the desert a highway…

Isaiah proclaims a promise: that Jerusalem has paid the penalty for her sins and God will come in glory, and the people will see it together—together….Israeli and Palestinian? God’s arms will gather the lambs…the Lord will gently lead the mother sheep. A consolation for the people of Bethlehem, a vision holding their hope for peace in a land long under siege. It’s been sixty years since the “Nakba,” the “catastrophe.” Sixty years of living under military rule, soldiers free to break into their homes at any time of the day or night, arresting their sons and daughters and hauling them off to prison, converting their homes to rubble with their bulldozers.

Today Bethlehem feels like a suburb of Jerusalem. Standing in the cafeteria of a kibbutz in Jerusalem we could see the hills of Bethlehem in the distance. It’s about a fifteen-minute drive from Jerusalem, but a world apart.

You can tell Israelis from Palestinians by their license plates—green for Palestinians and yellow for Israelis. Palestinian cars are not allowed in Israel and they are not allowed to drive on Israeli-only highways, even the ones in Palestine. In recent years, as Israelis have built more settlements in the West Bank, sandwiched between Arab towns, they have built a system of Israeli-only roads to get them safely to Jerusalem—modern, straight highways like
the one that tunnels under the Arab town of Beit Jala which sits on a hilltop. This highway is protected by a long wall, which prevents anyone from throwing rocks down on the cars below.

Highways for the Palestinians, however, are anything but straight. No matter where they travel, they must go in a circuitous route because they are never allowed to drive on any road near the Israeli settlements. On our last night in Israel we ate at a restaurant in Bethlehem. When it was time to leave, our tour bus drove up to the checkpoint. The soldiers would not let us through, even with our American passports. Bedil, our Palestinian driver, who lives in Israel in Cana and was an Israeli citizen, had picked up a box of tile for his bathroom and because of the tile, the soldiers would not let the bus leave Bethlehem.

As he turned the bus around, I sat there wondering where we were going to spend the night, and how we were going to get to our early morning flight, since our hotel was in Jerusalem. Bedil was unperturbed however, because he was a driver; he knew the roads and he knew all the routes to Jerusalem. The fifteen-minute ride to our hotel took us 45 minutes and many miles out of our way, but we finally arrived at another checkpoint. I’d been wondering how we were going to get through, but there was no need for worry—there were no soldiers here, only cement barricades to maneuver the bus around. Our driver and tour guide just shrugged—this is the way life is for Palestinians.

The Israelis say the wall is for security, to keep the terrorist bombers off their buses and away from their children. But this night, although we and our box of ceramic tile were turned away from one of the checkpoints, other checkpoints were left unguarded. What is the purpose of the checkpoints?

O Lord our God, gentle shepherd, of your people, speak tenderly to your servants who live daily in uncertainty and fear. As we go about our daily lives in comfort and security, make us ambassadors of your peace. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

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