Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44
True story. One time a couple of years ago, I walked to Bethlehem. Not the one in Pennsylvania and not the road that intersects with Staples Mill. The original Bethlehem.
I was staying by myself just south of Jerusalem, and it was a Saturday morning and I had made no plans for the day. Since it was the Jewish Sabbath day, there were no buses running. I checked my map, looking for an interesting destination within walking distance. Turns out, the city center of Bethlehem is less than 10 kilometers from where I was staying. Easy enough. I packed a backpack with plenty of water and set out. I followed the main road, excited and proud of myself for having such an adventurous spirit. In hindsight, this may not have been the wisest decision I’ve ever made, and so I now give you my official caveat: If you ever find yourself in the Holy Land, and I hope you do, I don’t recommend that you do what I did. I was a young, unaccompanied Western woman entering the Palestinian Territories on foot. Not smart.
Still, it was one of the best spontaneous decisions I have ever made, and I will tell you all about it. As I was walking along, I started to get the sense that people do not regularly walk to Bethlehem these days. For one thing, there were no sidewalks. In order to follow the road but not get hit by cars or tour buses, I walked through the beautiful olive tree groves that dominated the landscape. It dawned on me that there were a lot of tour buses going past me, and that normal foreigners who want to see Bethlehem do so by signing up for a guided tour. Eh, whatever.
As I walked closer, I began to see the massive and imposing separation wall that Israel has built around the section of the Palestinian Territories known as the West Bank. In order to get past that wall to Bethlehem, I would need to make it through a checkpoint. I hoped that I had all the documentation needed to get through the checkpoint on foot. I will admit I found it very scary, looking up at the watchtowers above with machine guns pointed out of the windows. Yet getting through turned out to be relatively easy for me. Possessing an American passport and looking rather innocent seemed to be the golden ticket. After I crossed the border into the West Bank, I found myself at the foot of a very large hill. All of the sites that Christian pilgrims come to Bethlehem to see are at the top of this hill. I was already tired from my journey, but with no other options, I started walking up the hill.
Just a little ways up, I heard a voice calling, “Miss!” “Miss!” I looked to my left and there was a Palestinian man with kind eyes beckoning to me. He said, “Miss, come into my shop and have a cup of tea.” My face must have given away my doubt, fear, and skepticism. He said to me, “It’s ok. You look tired. Come into my shop and have some tea. You don’t have to buy anything. Just come rest for a while.” At that moment, all of my misgivings vanished and I swear to you, I felt this deep sense of peace and I heard a voice saying, “Trust him.” So I trusted him.
I went into his shop, met his family, and proceeded to enjoy the most amazing cup of mint tea of my life. His name was Majdi and his family has run this little knickknack shop in Bethlehem forever. He ended up taking me himself to the Church of the Nativity and other Bethlehem attractions, and before he dropped me off at the checkpoint to begin my walk back, we stopped at his favorite falafel restaurant and he bought me lunch. As I was leaving, I tried to offer him a tip, but he refused it. I asked him why he showed such kindness to a complete stranger. He said, “I want people to know that Palestinians and Americans can be friends. I hope you will tell people that we are nice and welcoming.” I promised I would.
I walked back through those olive groves, and at one point on my walk home, I witnessed a back-up of all those tour buses. They were stopped in a long line. At first I couldn’t tell what had caused the traffic jam. but when I walked a little further, I saw the culprits. Sheep. I am not kidding—some young boys were herding a flock of sheep (hundreds) right across the main road out of Bethlehem. It was too perfect. I pinched myself, snapped a few photos, and kept walking.
Now, that was a long story with a short point and the point is this. The walk to Bethlehem is unpredictable. And I didn’t even start from 80 miles away in Nazareth, like Mary and Joseph. But regardless of who you are or where you start, the walk to Bethlehem is unpredictable. There will be scary things, and there will be beautiful things. There will be unexpected hospitality, and there will be sheep. Oh, just wait ‘til our Christmas pageant in two weeks. There will be sheep and they will be cute.
Today, we begin a new season and a new church year. This is the first Sunday of Advent, and we are beginning our figurative journey toward Bethlehem. As a faith community, we will spend the next 24 days preparing for Jesus—for his birth in a messy barn and for his future return to a messy world. In the Forums today and for the next few weeks, we will learn about a movement called the Advent Conspiracy, which offers some guidance on how this metaphorical walk to Bethlehem can be more meaningful for us in the midst of a busy society that tries to tell us we’ll be happier if we own more toys. But the journey toward Bethlehem begins today with some of the scarier bits, about the future. Even though we know that there will be beauty and unexpected hospitality and adorable sheep later on, today we confront the uncertainty and unpredictability of God’s future and our future.
The word “advent” means “the coming”, and as Christians, we believe God is what is coming, coming to be human and coming to redeem humanity. As a people of faith, God informs, and influences our future. But it is still uncertain.
The gospel lesson for today, from Matthew, demonstrates the uncertainty and unpredictability of God’s future. In the preceding verses, the disciples have asked Jesus, “What will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” And today’s passage is part of how Jesus responds. It’s a long, apocalyptic rant about potential signs, but the key phrase is, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Uncertainty. But we humans don’t really care for uncertain futures. We try to tame them with insurance policies, And we try to be as ready as possible. We try to be prepared, but the only certainty about the future is that God will be in the midst of it. And so we walk toward Bethlehem.
The Old Testament lesson for today from Isaiah also speaks about the future. What insights about the future does this prophet have for us?He wrote: “In days to come, Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ […] They shall beat their swords into plowshares, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war any more.”
Most of you probably know what a plow is, but for the sake of clarity, I will give you the definition. A plow is a farm implement used for breaking up soil. But do you know what a plowshare is? This ignorant 21st century city-dwelling preacher did not. I had always sort of assumed it was a plow that a group of farmers co-owned and took turns using. Like a timeshare. But that’s not it. I looked it up. A plowshare is, quite simply, the cutting blade of a plow. In Isaiah’s vision, it is a blade that used to be a sword but has been remolded and refashioned for a new purpose. It was a sword that was used to cut others. And now it is a sword that cuts its way through fields, bramble, soil.
A plowshare is an instrument of violence that has been repurposed. These words about swords being turned into plowshares were uttered a long time ago. So when exactly is Isaiah’s vision of international harmony supposed to happen? I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that a world in which nations are lifting up swords against each other with some regularity is a world in desperate need of God.And so we walk toward Bethlehem.
A final thought for you today: The prophet Isaiah predicted that someday instruments of violence would be repurposed and given new meaning. Now, we’re still waiting for his full vision to be realized. But Isaiah was right. This beautiful cross I am wearing around my neck is a symbol of what was once an instrument of violence. The Roman Empire used crucifixion as a weapon of torture and death. But now the cross symbolizes love. It symbolizes God’s love for us—a love so deep, so wide, so strong that God’s own son became one of us and eventually gave his life for us. For the next 24 days, we will watch and wait for Jesus to arrive and once again bring his message of love to us. But I encourage you not to wait passively!
Don’t just sit there. Set out on a journey toward Bethlehem and meet him there. Together, let’s journey through Advent with the unwed pregnant teenager who became the mother of God. Together, let’s journey through Advent toward the innkeeper who has the no vacancy light on, but offers a warm, dry shelter for a woman in labor. Together, let’s journey through Advent toward the barn that became an impromptu maternity ward. Together, let’s journey through Advent toward the shepherds that became sheep. Together, let’s journey through Advent toward the baby that became the shepherd, the Good Shepherd. Let’s walk together to Bethlehem, toward our uncertain, yet God-filled future.