Many years ago, when the late Dr. James Cleland was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, he preached a sermon entitled "Bedlam in Bethlehem." You have to wonder, how could there ever have been anything even approaching bedlam in a sleepy little out-of-the-way community like Bethlehem? Jerusalem, yes. That was the big city. The capital. The center of politics, finance, and religion. I live in New York City. It bustles with activity all the time...from the good activities of tourism and Broadway and Madison Square Garden to the occasionally frightening activities associated with sirens and violence, with social injustice and discontent. Every December, our streets are seas of humanity, with visitors from all over America and all over the world, inching their ways down 5th Avenue and Madison, standing in mass outside the windows at Bloomingdales or Lord and Taylor's or before the tree at Rockefeller Center. Simply walking outside my office in Manhattan in December, I experience an ancient Jerusalem kind of moment--a busy, vital city teeming with people and all the hustle bustle movement and electricity in the air. But Bethlehem, as Micah put it, was "small among the clans of Judah." It was more Mayberry than Manhattan. Not many people in Bethlehem--and not much mischief to get into.
I grew up in a small Southern town like that. It had blue laws, preventing the sale of anything considered non-essential on Sundays. You could go to a drug store on Sunday, but only for a prescription. If you wanted makeup or toothpaste or a new hairbrush, you had to come back on Monday for that. In the entire county where I was reared, you couldn't even buy a beer, let alone anything stronger. When I was a teenager, my mother used to say to me: "Son, you are a good boy for lack of opportunity." And that's how it must have felt in Bethlehem, that little ancient Mayberry a few miles down the road from the big city of Jerusalem. There wasn't much trouble to get into in Bethlehem. So, how could there have been bedlam?
There was bedlam at that particular moment in history because the population of little Bethlehem had swelled way past its capacity to house the people. Descendants from "the house and lineage of David" had been forced to return to Bethlehem from all over the country in order to be registered. That was somewhat like taking a census, except the point of it was to make certain no one escaped paying taxes. And those taxes were paid to Caesar--to the occupying forces that had invaded their land and were not merely unwelcome but actually were despised by the people. And with good reason. Because Rome and its soldiers liked to flex their muscles, they dominated the lives of the people who called Israel "home." For the most part, those Roman invaders were oppressive and often abusive. And now hordes of people had been forced to come to little Bethlehem to register so that Caesar could find them and force them to pay homage and to pay taxes to an insufferable enemy. Strangers were everywhere. Soldiers were everywhere. Degradation and denigration were everywhere. And so, not just physically, but psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, there was bedlam in Bethlehem.
Many long years before, in a similar epoch of oppression, a Hebrew prophet had said, "How can we sing peace when there is no peace?" Well, there was no peace in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. But then, isn't that when a Prince of Peace is needed most of all, when there is no peace? That's the kind of world the Prince of Peace was born into then, and the kind of world He is born into even still.
In the midst of another presidential campaign, you and I are bombarded every day with statements from candidates who say they long to be public servants, but who spend precious little time talking about how they would serve the public and most of their time, instead, primarily expressing anger and acrimony against other candidates from across the aisle. Gridlock in Washington. Partisanship that usurps patriotism. And that's just among the folks we hope will help us--like Herod and Caiaphas of old. Then we turn the news to the next page, and what do we find? Threats and violence and fear about ISIS and al Qaeda and North Korea and Yemen and Iran and thousands of Syrian refugees seeking asylum from the terrors of their own nation. We see Russia taking giant strides backward toward its Cold War philosophy of oppression. In our own country we observe frightening gaps between blacks, whites, and Latinos, between minorities and law enforcement, between the straight community and the LGBT community, between the haves and the have nots. We see widespread abuse of the vulnerable, both the very young and the very old. "How can we sing peace when there is no peace?"
When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he understood the kind of world I just described. He knew that his friends in Philippi would soon face, and even then were facing, persecutions and rejection because of their faith. Paul wrote that letter to them while himself confined to a Roman prison cell under the sentence of death because of his faith. He knew about bad times and bedlam. He was also wise enough not to try and peddle empty hope or a Pollyanna type of religion to people who were too wise to swallow that and too worn and weary to waste time listening to fairy tales. Instead, in his dire situation writing to people in their own, he said this: "The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." He was not writing about a sense of peace that denied the painful realities of life, but instead a peace that existed in the midst of them. It was a sense of peace that was not based on logic, but rather on relationship...not based on the environment around you, but rather on the Friend beside you: a peace "that passes understanding--guarding your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus," who has been born to us, for us, to be with us in our times of bedlam.
Certainly, the principles of our Christian Faith do have the potential, if heard and embraced, to change the world. There is no doubt about that, since those principles replace hatred with grace and violence with the statement, "This is My commandment, that you love one another." But, until the world begins to hear and embrace those truths and until it changes, even amid the ongoing bedlam of our Bethlehem existence--there is still another kind of peace available to us, one that passes understanding, one that is more personal than political, and one that gives us the strength to survive whatever the world throws our way.
Some years ago a man was in a bed in Cardiac ICU in a major hospital in the city where I live. He had just undergone radical and experimental surgery designed to save his life. As he lay in ICU, he was in crisis. There were serious post-surgical complications. Later he reported about that night when he lay awake, fearing that his life was about to end, and reflecting on what it had and had not been, reflecting on all the things he had gotten any way he could and all the things he had lost, all the pain he had suffered and all the pain he had unfairly inflicted upon others. He said he lay there asking himself, amid all his accomplishments and acquisitions, what had been the one thing in his life he had always sought but could never find. "The answer," he said, "was easy. The one thing I had never been able to locate was Peace."
The next morning a chaplain visited his room, making rounds from patient to patient. He only stayed a few moments, chatting in almost perfunctory fashion. Prior to leaving he said, "Let me read a brief passage from the Bible to you, and then we will say a prayer." The chaplain proceeded to open his Bible and almost randomly read the words from Christ: "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you. Not as the world gives, do I give it to you." The man said, "The words struck me like a spiritual hammer. That chaplain did not know me. He did not know my story. He did not know what I had wrestled with all night long. But there was no way his visit could have been a mere coincidence. Without even knowing that he did so, he showed me how to find what I had needed and could not locate all my life. I suddenly got it--that if I could find Jesus, if I could really get to know him, I would find peace. And that," he said, "turned out to be the case for me."
There are those who say that's too easy, too personal, that it doesn't address the bedlam that is the daily fare of the global masses. But then, as Christians, maybe the path to public peace begins with the individual--with a Prince of Peace who takes our hearts and our hands one at a time and guides us toward our neighbors, in D. T. Niles' words, like "beggars showing other beggars where to find bread." Maybe if I get to know this Messiah amid the bedlam of my own Bethlehem, I will be able to share him with another who will share him with another and another until somehow all their Bethlehems begin to change, too. That's what we sing, isn't it?
"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."
I think Christmas is about that--about Someone who comes in the bedlam of Bethlehem and helps you and me find "a peace that passes understanding" and also helps us pass that peace along, little by little, person by person, encounter by encounter, until at last this old world may well become new. Amen.