December 24, 2016
Many of you know that I had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land in October with a group of 17 other Christians. As soon as I knew I was going, I began looking forward to basing my Christmas Eve sermon on my experiences in the little town of Bethlehem. While I I really enjoyed all I saw and learned in Bethlehem, somehow when sermon-writing time rolled around, the Holy Spirit refused to cooperate with my plan.
All I really needed to do was reread the Biblical story to see that nothing about Christ’s arrival among mortals has ever gone the way people anticipated or dreamed it would. Certainly Mary, an unwed teenager, had not planned to give birth to God’s child, nor had Joseph imagined that he’d be marrying someone who was already pregnant, and not by him. The little town of Bethlehem had not anticipated Jesus’ arrival, or surely someone would have prepared a room where his little family could spend the night. The shepherds in their fields had not expected to be called upon to bear witness to what they saw and heard; in their society they were considered too unreliable and dirty even to give testimony in court! The wise men in the Middle East who set out on their journey that night programmed their camels’ GPS systems to head for Herod’s palace, not a hovel in an insignificant town. And yet, the hopes and fears of all the years was determined to show up where God was most needed, not where God was expected.
And so I abandoned the Bethlehem sermon plan and prayed about the plight of our world today: about Berlin and Cairo and Aleppo and Flint, about Dylan Roof and the KKK, about human trafficking and global warming and overcrowded prisons, about the zika virus and way, way too many funerals in 2016. I waited for God to show me how to connect the dots between the story of the long-ago birth of Jesus with our present experience. Still, I was surprised when the story that kept surfacing was not from Bethlehem, that cradle of Christianity, nor from Jerusalem, that nexus of world religions, but from the humble home of a Palestinian Muslim olive farmer in the village of Burqin, outside of Jenin. See what I mean? Not what I had planned at all.
As part of our Holy Land pilgrimage, our group picked olives and spent a night with local farmers in Canaan, getting an up-close view of their lives. Abu and Shafaq Jarar hosted me and three other women from our group. Their family has an olive grove of centuries-old trees and is part of a co-op that produces and sells their olive oil. After an afternoon of olive harvesting, we spent much of the evening listening to Shafaq’s stories and looking at her photos.
Shafaq told us about how, shortly after she learned that she was expecting their first child, Abu was arrested and imprisoned by the Israeli government for a year and a half. Shafaq was not allowed to bring baby Mahmoud to the prison for Abu to see his newborn child. We saw a picture of lovely two story house with an ancient olive press on the ground floor and living quarters above. “That was our house before,” she told us. It was demolished by the Israeli government while Abu was in prison; Shafaq stood outside in cold rain, holding her baby.
The Jarar’s house today is designed as a a two-story abode, but with only one floor completed right now. Though no one spelled it out, I suspect the reason for this lies in another family crisis. Baby Mahmoud, who is now in his twenties, studying to be a doctor, told us that a few years ago he posted something on Facebook criticizing the Israeli government. He was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. After three years of incarceration, during which he was repeated tortured, his family bought their son’s freedom at an exorbitant price—my guess is it was the house money.
Shafaq’s pain about all these events is still raw. Tears ran down her face as she related her family’s stories. Tears were in our eyes, too, as we listened to her pain. Finally I decided it was time for me to go to bed, because I wasn’t sure how much more I could bear to hear. But just when I was about to suggest it, Shafaq stood up, and announced: “And now, we dance!”
Immediately, her teenage daughters Mayar and Mara hooked up their iPod to some speakers and put on what I can only describe as Arab house music. They brought out scarves for each of us that they thought matched our personalities. Mine is green (I’m not sure what that means). And then, Shafaq and we four older white Americans danced. The girls didn’t join us in the dancing, preferring to point and laugh, which seems only right for teenage girls. It was wild and hopeful and ridiculous and delicious. It was a cry of the triumph of existence as resistance. It was the solidarity of sisters who weep and celebrate God’s presence in all of our messy humanity. It was an ordinary moment made holy, of knowing we belong to each other, across language and geography, and cultural barriers. It was. It was nothing less that light in the darkness.
That is my Christmas story this year. Isaiah foretold it: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” The gospel is this: When the fullness of time came, the time for God’s love to be incarnated in human form, God did not choose a marble temple in Rome staffed with medical professionals and religious leaders and domestic servants for Christ’s birth; he chose a barn in occupied Bethlehem. He chose to come as one of those oppressed and terrorized. He came where he was most needed and least expected.
Pastor Mitri Raheb of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem puts it this way, “God chose to encounter this world with all its might and terror. He chose to challenge Herod with the face of an innocent child. God did not leave this world to its misery and pain but embraced it with both hands and pulled it to his heart.” That’s what Shafaq and Abu’s family taught me. To look into the face of pain and find God there, dancing with me.
The angels who announced Jesus’ arrival to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds didn’t promise his coming would eliminate conflict on earth. Jesus was the Prince of Peace, and his life was filled with conflict! The angels did not promise that good deeds would always be rewarded and evil deeds would always be punished. They did not promise that there would be no tears once Christ arrived. Even Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, cried when his friend died.
Instead, what the angels sang was of a peace that Jesus embodies: the assurance that, whatever else happens, and wherever it happens, God is right here with us in the middle of it. God sees our hearts breaking, and assures us that life will come out of death, that faith will come out of despair, and that strength will come out of vulnerability. This is a peace no sword can create. When the Baby Jesus grew up, he didn’t reinforce his leadership with the tramping boots of warriors or garments rolled in blood. Instead, Jesus brought good news to the poor, sight to the blind, forgiveness to the guilty, and hope to the hopeless.
This Christmas Jesus comes among mortals again. He comes to bind up the brokenhearted, to whisper about new possibilities in the ears of those who abuse and those who are abused. He comes to soothe those who strive for perfection but need empathy. He comes to bring rest to those who are weary of oppression and injustice, who work to do what is right, but see no fruit from their labor.
Let’s not forget that Jesus comes to the places one least expects to find God but where God is most needed. And in those dark places, God shines the light of love over all the weary world. And because of this, because the peace of God blankets us and God’s whole beautiful, messy world, tonight and always—now we dance! Merry Christmas!
~Pastor Susan Schneider