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December 24, 2005 (Christmas Eve)—“Building Bridges of Peace—Not Walls”

Pastor David Barber

Luke 2:1-21; Isaiah 9:2-7

Sisters and brothers, on this most holy night, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior, the babe of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

This Christmas LCH received a most special gift. It’s the gift of communion ware that you see on the altar this evening. This communion ware will also be used in our celebration of the Eucharist on Christmas Day.

Palestinian artisans crafted these communion vessels at the International Center of Bethlehem, which is a ministry of Christmas Lutheran Church also in Bethlehem. Unfortunately, this is not a permanent gift but a gift that’s shared with all the congregations within our synod.

We were just fortunate to have these vessels for our Christmas worship. As we rejoice in the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, how meaningful and significant it is to receive communion from vessels created by fellow Christians in the place where Jesus was born.

However, all is not well in Bethlehem. We often sing, “O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie!” As you sing these words and as you receive the body and blood of our Lord from this special communion set, know for sure that Bethlehem is anything but calm and still at this time.

The people in Bethlehem as well as those in other parts of the West Bank are held hostage by a great concrete wall as high as 25 feet. Cut off from farmland, water resources, schools, hospitals, and family by this barrier, many in Bethlehem and the surrounding area feel as if they are prisoners or like animals in a zoo.

The government of Israel believes that this security wall is necessary to protect its citizens from violent attacks such as suicide bombings. Indeed, even Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, after a recent visit to the area, pontificated that the wall is not against Palestinians...it’s against terrorists.

The pastor at Christmas Lutheran Church responded to Senator Clinton by saying “that the Wall is affecting the daily life of every Palestinian...The wall is less about security than it is about colonizing land and controlling its indigenous population. Please do not try to gain political support at the expense of the Palestinian people.”

Like many things in our modern context, this is a complex and complicated matter, and perhaps, for some of you, it’s not even appropriate material for a Christmas Eve sermon.

I would like to suggest that it’s very appropriate. The Christmas story itself is a political story—crafted from the context of an oppressive Roman government and a persecuted and a destitute people forced to render tribute to an emperor known as the savior of the world.

There’s a lot of similarity between our cultural celebration of Christmas and the great festival that took place in ancient Rome celebrating the gospel of Caesar as savior of the earth.

Like Jesus Christ, Caesar was seen as the very manifestation of God. He, too, was proclaimed as the one who fulfilled the “hopes and the fears of all the years.” “Not only was the annual calendar arranged to begin with his [Caesar’s] birth, but a new historical era began with his birth [as well].”

The good news of great joy for all the people and the good news that we celebrate on this night stand in sharp contrast to an imperial savior. This Gospel about a Savior is proclaimed in opposition to governments and empires and to all who are oppressed and persecuted by their rule.

It’s proclaimed to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds, and to all who are desperate and held in physical and economic bondage because of Caesar and the demands of his empire.

That’s why this Gospel is a political story, and it’s important that we see it in this light, so that it doesn’t become domesticated by our cultural trappings. But don’t tell the IRS! Otherwise they might threaten to take away our tax-exempt status if we continue to tell this political story!

Within this story about the birth of a Savior for all people, we also hear the proclamation of peace. Jesus is our “Prince of Peace”—born not only in Bethlehem but also in every dark corner of the earth, wherever people are bound or persecuted because of their color or class or whatever excuse we use to destroy and to hurt one another.

Because Jesus, our prince of peace, yearns to be born in every heart on this night, we, too, are called to be instruments of peace. We, too, are called to tear down walls whether it be the wall in Bethlehem, or the immigration wall on the southern border of the mainland, or the wall around your heart, or wherever walls keep us from understanding, from justice, and from living compassionately toward one another.

We build far too many walls in our world and we feel justified in doing so. We build walls of hatred and prejudice. We build walls out of violence and revenge. We build walls to make us secure and to keep the terrors of life away from us. We build walls of judgment.

I recently read about a congregation that built a wall—a wall of rejection. This congregation refused to forgive and to welcome a young man back into their fellowship.

This young man was his father’s pride and joy. He was headed for a great career in architecture. But he became involved with a promiscuous young woman, and in spite of her reputation, he married her.

The father, who was a widower for a dozen years, was admired, loved, and respected in the congregation. He was not aware of his son’s marriage to this woman. The son didn’t want to hurt his father so he kept it a secret.

Like most secrets, eventually the father learned the truth. When he did, the father had a heart attack and died right in the living room. The congregation blamed the son for his father’s untimely death, never forgave him, and in messages spoken and unspoken, told him, “There’s no room for you here.”

It’s amazing how this can happen in a Christian congregation, isn’t it? And it happens far too many times. It even happens in those times when we gather together and sing with great feeling and intensity:

“Just as I am; thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now to be thine, yea, thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

The Book of Ephesians encourages us: “For Christ himself has brought us peace by making us one people. With his own body he broke down the hostility and the dividing wall that separated us and kept us enemies.”

Sometimes we read and hear magnificent stories where this has become a reality. Very recently I read about Ahmed Ismail Khatib in the Honolulu Advertiser. He was a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers when they mistook his play gun for a real one.

But that’s not the end of the story. The boy’s parents donated their son’s organs, and they were transplanted into five Israeli children and a 58-year-old Israeli woman. The boy’s father said, “I feel that my son has entered the heart of every Israeli.”

The great God of the universe—the One who is born in wonder and mystery on this night in the city of David—the one who was born in a feed trough—wants to be born in each of our lives.

As he is born there, he also calls us and invites us to tear down the walls that separate us and to make room for all those who are born and live in the mangers of life.

He wants us to grow in the awareness that in Jesus there is neither Jew nor Muslim nor Christian. There is neither male nor female nor straight or gay. There is neither rich nor poor. We are all one in Jesus Christ.

We are all one, meant to build bridges of peace—not walls—with those who are different than we are

  • with those whom we find it difficult to forgive
  • with those whom we quickly judge and discard because they don’t fit our standard of morality or our political leanings
  • with those who are homeless, those who are refugees and economically displaced like Mary and Joseph, and those who continue to live on the margins of life because of their poverty, and all those things that keep them from sitting down at the table of life.

This becomes a way of life for us because the babe of Bethlehem has broken down the dividing walls that separate us and has built a bridge of peace to every single one of us. He gives every person here a place to stand, a place to belong, and a place to be a part of his mission and ministry in the world.

To every individual who has come this evening to worship the mystery of God made flesh, God says:

“Come now, for through my love, I have, indeed, broken every barrier down.
“You have a place at my table.
“There’s room for all of you to gather here.
“You’re welcome to receive my presence.
“You’re welcome to receive my forgiveness, my healing, and my peace.
“You’re welcome to receive that everlasting place that has been set for you in my kingdom.”

And most certainly, God says, “I welcome you and I invite you to be bearers of peace and good will and to tear down the walls of hostility and strife wherever you find them.”

Amen.


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