Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bethlehem, Christmas Eve, 2013

Christmas Eve, Luke
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. 

His grandmother told Ahmed that their family has lived on this farm in Amin, West Bank, for more than 500 years. He is discouraged that he has not been able to stop the settlements and the wall from taking his land. Fighting the demolition order on his home was expensive. "It broke my future, my son's future," he said. In the photo Ahmed Yousef introduces us to one of his 150-year-old olive trees.

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. 

Ahmed shows us the papers he must now carry— including a permit to go through the checkpoint to farm his land. The checkpoint is open a couple of hours most days. The road in the background is the Israeli "wall"—here a barrier, flanked with razor wire, cutting Ahmed off from his land on the far hillside, where he used to graze the family's sheep and goats in the summer. The hillside is now part of an Israeli settlement. He says, "This is our problem…the wall."

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 Saviour, 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.’ 

In the photo, one of the sons in our host family in Bi'lin shows us his sheep, housed in an underground room under their house. In the morning I wanted to go outside and look at the landscape—we had arrived in the village the evening before—it was November and darkness comes early.

He wanted to show me around their yard and especially his sheep. He posed for the photo with his sheep, who are eagerly eating the grain in the manger. Bi'lin holds weekly non-violent protests against Israel's wall, which is being built on their land, where they used to graze sheep and tend their olive trees, which have been uprooted. Bi'lin is the village where the Oscar-nominated film, Five Broken Cameras was filmed.

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.

Tonight in Bethlehem, worshipers are gathering to celebrate the birth of a baby in their town—an event that would shape the lives of the people of their town for more than two millennia. A baby who brought a message of peace to a conflicted world and hope to a people oppressed by an occupying army. Today the occupying army still controls the land and sea and the people of Bethlehem are still spreading Jesus' gospel message of hope and reconciliation. They are teaching peace to their children and providing the education that equips them for a future without walls and checkpoints. The people of Christmas Lutheran Church are equipping leaders for a future they can only imagine. The artwork in the photo is part of an art exhibit by students at Dar Al-Kalima College, a ministry of Christmas Lutheran Church.

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 he favours!’

Tonight I praise God for all I have seen and heard in Bethlehem—the steadfast hope the Palestinians carry for their future, their reconciling work and their witness to me of the power of God's love to sustain hope and transform lives.

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