Bethlehem was, is, and likely always will be, just a small town — a small town steeped in ancient history.
In the first century, the historical marker at the center of town — if they posted such historical markers — would have commemorated it as the birthplace of the mighty giant killer, King David. The cherished son of Bethlehem put the town on the map 1,000 years earlier, and perhaps, perhaps, one day the village on top of the quiet hill will pull off the feat again. Dusty scrolls left by ancient prophets told of such a thing (Micah 5:2).
But tonight, silence.
The prophecies are distant memories. All is now hushed and quiet, the hope of a king only a memory muffled by the pressing priorities of life: raising grain, raising sheep, raising children, and paying taxes.
But this night the town finally sleeps, though crowded. The hustle and bustle of census travelers, returned home to be counted, now has dissipated.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
So quiet and still and peaceful is the town, it’s hard to capture on a blog, a place where most of us read so quickly. So imagine for a moment a slower pace and quieter place. No iPods, no headphones, no surround sound. No jets, no traffic, no trains, no ambulances racing down streets. In perfect stillness, we witness a silent invasion, like a storm of chicken-feather snowflakes twisting silently to the ground, carpeting the dirty world in brilliant holiness.
And so during Advent, we slow our pace to his pace, and we read the holy story more slowly. We don’t skim. We watch the new King of Bethlehem enter into a barn-like cave to rest softly in a rough feeding furrow. In the quietness of night, the new King enters into the hay and manure of a broken world in desperate need of fixing.
This is the Christ child, who will one day die in daylight that becomes darkness. But right now he rests in Mary’s arms in a dark night that becomes starlit day. Stars and angels pierce the night’s silence.
This same Christ enters lives like he entered this barn. He enters the mess of sin, and it catches us off guard. You’re surprised? You’re not ready for him? It all seems so sudden. This is the best place to be — taken by surprise, like the little town of Bethlehem.
Advent means Christ invades where the preparations are incomplete. You’ll be tempted to first warm up the barn with space heaters. Don’t. You’ll want to sweep out the soiled hay and mouse droppings. Don’t. Don’t roll out a comfort controlled mattress or fluff a pair of feather pillows. Don’t disinfect the walls and floor with an aerosol fog of Lysol or Febreze. Don’t set out a crib with fluffy dolls and cotton onesies and baby powder. Don’t fill the bathtub with warm water and soft suds.
When the Savior draws close, there’s no time to clean up the mess of sin. He comes, not to place crisply wrapped boxes around a cleanly decorated tree. No. The Holy One lands unexpected in the middle of the stench of our lives.
It is with this thought that we are prepared to sing the final verse of the famous hymn. We cringe a bit. Maybe the lines are too individualized or too cheesy.
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 glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Immanuel.
But this is the message of Christmas. Here on the second Sunday of Advent, we praise Christ who broke into the stillness of a little town to descend to sinful humanity. We implore Christ to break into our lives and cast out the sin that cannot be bleached white by self-cleaning.