Off-Road in Bethlehem

Five years ago I was in Bethlehem. Five years isn’t that long, but it’s odd how the memory works. Or doesn’t work! I remember touring the church they say is built over where Jesus was born. I remember the Lutheran Centre where we heard speakers and bought some crosses and shared worship. But from the actual streets of Bethlehem I remember little.

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My strongest recollections are NOT of the official streets, the paths we should have taken. My strongest memories of Bethlehem are of the very few times – two, I think – of going off-road. Leaving the group. Abandoning the security of our guide and just exploring.

There was one main street that led from a drop-off point downhill to the Church of the Nativity. We had walked up and down that street a couple of times and frankly, to me, it got kind of touristy and boring. There were so many other streets to explore. So I asked my friend DL, whom I knew would have the same urge, if she’d like to try the side-street. Off we went.

It looked like it should run parallel, but you know the old saying about looks. Soon there was a left turn, and a right turn, and then a whole warren of little alleyways.

As we walked we were both getting quieter and quieter. I didn’t want to say anything to DL, and I suspect she didn’t want to say anything to me. It had only taken maybe ten minutes.

We were lost.           

A voice says: Cry out! And I said: “What shall I cry?” Did you hear that from Isaiah this morning? Get thee to the desert, it says, to the wilderness. And there prepare the way of the Lord, a highway for our God.

For whatever complicated historical and economic reasons, we live in a society that, more and more, wants to train the unpredictability out of us. We live in a world of systems. Computer systems. Communication and transportation and economic systems. Everything is a system. We’re told to behave in a certain way. Not only do most of us more or less successfully behave like that, but we get VERY upset with those who don’t. Or can’t. We put them into institutions. If John the Baptist were around now he’d be in a hospital or on the street. Or on meds. The only times we allow ourselves to see our wildernesses, our wild places, is up on the movie screens, where we can safely walk out of the theatre and tell each other that that’s nice, but it’s not real life.

We’ve become slaves in so many ways, and the worst kind of slaves – slaves that actually WANT to be where we are. We’re like the ancient Hebrews who told Moses: “why did you bring us out here into the desert where there’s no food? Weren’t we happier to be well-fed – even if we were in bondage”?

Today’s lessons, each in their own way, are about EXODUS, which is a word that doesn’t mean all that much in our world right now. But liberation, which is what Exodus leads to, DOES mean something. Or it should.

Advent is about preparing for liberation. And however much we decorate the church or our houses, Advent is ultimately about how well we prepare ourselves and our communities for justice, and truth, for incarnation and for the risk of being out there, maybe a bit lost, preparing for a new way in the world.

This last week some of us at the university got free passes for the movie “The Exodus”. It was a big Hollywood production, with absolutely fantastic costumes and sets and 3-D effects. It must have cost millions, maybe tens of millions, to make.

But the point, for all that, was simple: there is captivity, and there is freedom. And sometimes we make ourselves captives even while we think that we’re free. Where does liberation await us? Almost always, the movie seemed to imply, it’s off the beaten track. In the “wilderness”, wherever that is.

Our churches are failing. Not all of them, but many. We’re closing buildings, shutting down congregations, bemoaning the fact that there is so much grey hair in the pews.

In one sense, that’s sad. But I wonder if what’s really happening is that we Jesus-believers are being forced out to where it all began: in the wilderness. It’s in the wilderness of NOT knowing what a building should be, in the wilderness of NOT knowing who should be part of our group, and in the wilderness of NOT having big budgets and buildings and programs that we can do what the prophet says we should be doing:

Cry out, says God. Cry out that the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice – and how are we supposed to lift it up? – Lift it up, without fear, and say“Behold! The advent of your God!”

It starts, I believe, with allowing ourselves, every day, in our homes and work, to be less safe, and more spontaneous. It means forgiving ourselves, and others, for failure, because only by doing that can we learn to try again to succeed. It means relying on others, for only in community can a person survive the wilderness.

And it also starts by seeking justice, however imperfectly, and by keeping our eyes open. By so doing, says the prophet, we will be preparing our hearts for the Christ child. And if we don’t spend some time in the wilderness, it won’t matter how many lights we’ve hung or how Christmassy our houses look, we won’t be ready for Jesus no matter what.

If it sounds unsafe, it should. Can you imagine a crazier-looking character than John the Baptist? But every year he is our model of preparing a way for the Lord.

Lift up your voice with strength O Judah. Do not fear. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. And all people will see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

At one point in our wilderness way to the Church of the Nativity, we stumbled into an open square. It was a market. Spices, meats, nuts, dates….everything seemed to be there. There were lots and lots of people. But as far as I could see, not a single other face that looked like mine. They were all locals.

We went left. No exit. Right. Again, no exit. Down a stair…dead end.

Eventually, we found our way to another street, and from there to another street, and emerged, eventually, via a series of lanes and stairs, back onto the main thoroughfare that we had left behind.

Was it a bit frightening? Yes, at least to me. Was it interesting? A thousand times more than the other way.

Prepare the way of the Lord. How? By being less afraid, by being more human, by being willing to act a bit crazy and look a bit lost. By loving, seeking justice, and by embracing the life we’ve been given and not worrying quite so much about the opinions of others. Maybe it was a risk going off-road on the way to the Nativity. But five years later, that’s the only street I remember. May we each, in our own ways, hear God’s call to go “off road”, and learn what it is to be out there, preparing a way through our homes and through our lives.

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