Recently I was in one of those family restaurants where they have place mats which allow you to doodle with your pencil or to do some kind of quiz or to discuss things with the people at your table. This particular place mat had a Christmas theme, and one of its questions was “What would you rather do?” Under that question it listed eight different things to think about. For example, “Would you rather spend a day watching Christmas movies or would you rather spend a day Christmas shopping at the mall? Or, “Would you rather be at home and not get many presents or would you rather go on a special faraway trip and not get any presents?” Or, “Would you rather be given $100 to buy gifts for yourself or $1,000 to buy presents for others?” I thought all eight of the questions on that place mat were kind of interesting things to think about, but the one question that struck me the most was the one that got to the heart of Christmas. The question was, “Would you rather visit the North Pole or would you rather go to Bethlehem?”
Now I know that the person who wrote that question probably didn’t have some deep religious thought in mind, and I also know that actually literally visiting the North Pole might be a pretty awesome, if not a freezing cold, thing to do, and I also know that the things represented by the North Pole in terms of Christmas presents and special times with our families are of course truly wonderful. But I have to admit that the question really haunted me for a bit from a spiritual standpoint, especially when a week later I heard about a survey taken by a leading religious research firm in our country which stated that the amount of people in the United States who view Christmas as a religious holiday rather than a cultural holiday is now down to fifty-five percent – and that, of course does not take into consideration those among that fifty-five percent who may believe it is a religious holiday, but who don’t really believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God or that he came to forgive our sins. It made me wonder what kind of discussion I could have had with everyone at that restaurant if I had decided to get a microphone and to ask everyone, “What do you all think about question #7? Can we talk about that a bit?” I imagine that it’s pretty likely like there may have been quite a few people who would have said they would rather go to the North Pole.
But today – What about you and me? Let’s confirm in our hearts from God’s Word through the apostle Paul in these few verses from his letter to the Romans that, even with all the other very wonderful things to do and enjoy at Christmas, Bethlehem Is Where We Would Rather Go!
So why is that? Or what could you or I say if we were in a restaurant discussion and someone either challenged us or honestly wondered why Bethlehem would be such a great place to go? What is there about Bethlehem that leads us to take a spiritual trip there every single Advent season in preparation for our Christmas worship, which, the way the calendar falls this year, we will do this afternoon and this evening and tomorrow morning!
Besides worshiping our Lord tonight and tomorrow, I also assume that most of us here this morning will be opening some Christmas gifts later tonight or early tomorrow. Some of you may know what you are getting for Christmas, and some of you may have a guess about what you are getting for Christmas, but for many of us what we are going to get for Christmas is a total mystery. We won’t know what we are getting until the wrapping paper is removed and the gift is revealed.
The main gift we get to unwrap in our worship is the one wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger. But if God had not worked the faith in our hearts to believe who that little baby was and what that little baby came to do for us. he would remain a total mystery to us. We would be like everyone else who wonders what is so great about going to Bethlehem. What are those shepherds so excited about? Why were there angels singing in the sky? And how can it possibly be true that young Mary was able to have a baby in the first place when she was a virgin? In our lesson the apostle Paul begins his prayer of praise in the opening verse by commenting on one of the great reasons we celebrate Christmas by wanting to go to Bethlehem. Look again at what he said: “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God…”
One of those many prophetic writings of the Bible which unwrap the gift and reveal the mystery of what is inside the manger is the Old Testament lesson which Pastor Casmer read from the book of 2 Samuel. In those words God promised King David many, many years ago that after him would come a son of whom God said this: “When your days are over (David)…, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you…, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” When you look inside that manger you see the one of the house and line of David, born one thousand years later, born to rule for uncountable thousands of years more, just as he had already reigned for uncountable thousands of years before that – born the King of Israel and Lord of all, because he is the Savior of all. That is why we would rather go to Bethlehem. There God reveals the mystery of how much he loves us – sending his own Son, who was not like us, to become flesh and blood just like us, so that we could be united with other flesh and blood brothers and sisters like us as part of a spiritual kingdom – a family – a church – something that will never end, unlike every single gift that we will have the joy of unwrapping tonight or tomorrow.
But there is more than just getting to see someone special that makes us rather go to Bethlehem. We also get to go to Bethlehem to thank him for doing something special. In the last verse of our lesson in that last line the apostle Paul says, “To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ.” In other words, “Thank you, Jesus!” And the reason we thank him and give glory to him goes back to the first line again, where St. Paul said, “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”
To “establish” someone means to make that person able to stand – to stand firm – to be stable and to not be in danger of falling over. Isn’t that the ultimate miracle of Christmas? The holy one came down from heaven for people who were not holy and therefore could not stand on their own. Every day you and I fall down. Every day you and I do not join the apostle Paul in saying “Thank you” to Jesus by giving glory to him. Every day in some way you and I complain about the Christmas gifts Jesus came to give, thinking that it’s not practical for everyday life to think about God-things, that it won’t help us make a living to think about God’s riches, that it won’t help us relate to people to constantly be thinking about heaven. Every day you and I show how true the Bible is when it says that by ourselves we are totally ignorant of what is good, because by nature we only want what is bad, even though we may think we are so smart. Time and time again we are not “established,” since time and time again we fall flat on our faces — time and time again forced, thankfully, to realize that the only way to have a truly stable life is to look inside the stable and see the divine mystery in the flesh who came to do the miraculous thing of saving all flesh.
That’s the message of what Paul calls “the gospel of the proclamation of Jesus Christ.” That’s what we go to Bethlehem to hear and to see every single day of the year. Jesus – the one already established over all things – came to the earth to allow himself to fall down before all people, since he was loaded with sin’s weight of all people – all so that he could be lifted up on the pole of the cross so that people from all over the world – people from “all nations,” as St. Paul here says — could look up at him, believe in him and obey him – people like you and me who — not because we are so smart, but because God is so great — people like you and me who know what Christmas truly is all about: Jesus Christ came to earth to do the work of forgiving all my sins so that I can live in heaven after I die. In Bethlehem God revealed the mystery of who it was who would do that, and in Bethlehem God gave the reason to give him the glory for doing so. And that is why, even while enjoying many of the other wonderful things that Christmas offers, we would rather go to Bethlehem. Let’s pray that more people in more restaurants every day will be able to answer the same way! Amen.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell. Oh, come to us, Abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel.