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Sermon #166: The Cross at Christmas

Sermon #166 St. James the Less #73 1/5/20

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Matthew 2:1-12

Christmas Lights

If you are ever in the western part of Rutherford County heading towards Franklin, then you might as well stop by my parents’ house for a few minutes. Over 35 years ago when my dad bought his little plot of land, he had a neighbor on each side and the rest was wide open fields. Now what used to be a farm has turned into a subdivision that is home to over a hundred families.

There are always a few houses that will decorate for Christmas, and while growing up we did it pretty big at the Arning household, but my Puerto Rican neighbors, the Rivera’s, went full on commercial. Their Christmas lights can pretty much light up the whole subdivision.

But if you’re ever out in that part of the county and are tempted to visit my parents, drive past the Rivera’s Christmas lights and take a left on Heather Court. At the end of that road another neighbor has a very simple decoration for the Christmas season. Every Christmas they will put out a plain, white cross with lights around it in their front yard.

They’ve been doing it for years now, and every time I look down the street and see it, I feel a little uncomfortable. It’s just odd and out of place.

I’ve seen some Christmas cards recently that do something similar. It will show the manger, which is one of the great symbols of Christmas, and there will be a shadow of a cross hanging over it.

Can’t we leave some space between the baby Jesus, and what we know is to come later in his life? Christmas could really do without a cross.

Watershed Ridge Route

Christmas and the crucifixion on Good Friday just don’t go together. It doesn’t matter if it’s lawn decorations or seasonal cards, they just don’t mix well.

It’s a pretty depressing thing to think about how a baby will one day die. It kind of ruins the joyous innocence of the whole season.

But even though there seems to be a perceived theological and cultural difference between Christmas and Good Friday, especially in the way we celebrate it, in reality the two events are only seven miles away from each other. That’s a little shorter of a distance than from here to the state capitol.

And it’s a straight shot south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and to get from one to the other you have to use an ancient road that was used by Abraham, Jacob, King David, and even the wise men from our gospel today. This road is known as the Watershed Ridge Route, and it has this name for a particular reason.

Jerusalem is built on a mountain and the area around it leading to Bethlehem is so hilly that this road was built on a ridge. There are valleys on both sides of this road, and when rainfall hits this ridge it’ll either go in one valley that will head towards the Mediterranean or go down the other that drains into the Dead Sea.

A few days before I left Jerusalem after spending a semester there studying in college, I decided to walk a majority of this road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It is still the major road connecting the two cities.

When looking to the west it is green and beautiful, but just on the other side of the ridge in the east, all you will see is barren wilderness: nothing but rolling brown hills with little grass and even fewer trees.

This stark difference happens because the rain clouds off the Mediterranean will rise as the land rises in elevation near Jerusalem, the rain then falls when it reaches the top of the mountain, and little to no rain is left once the clouds pass the east side of this ridge route.

This stark difference would have even been seen by the great characters of the Old Testament who walked this ancient road. And there’s no doubt the wise men from the East would have seen this as they made their way along this road to visit the newborn king of the Jews after having met with King Herod in Jerusalem.

This is the seven-mile road that Mary and Joseph would’ve walked to present their son at the Temple. This is the seven-mile road that Herod’s soldiers would use on their way to kill all the two-year-old boys of Bethlehem.

The gospels never mention Jesus ever returning to the place of his birth. In fact, he spent most of his earthly life to the north, around the Sea of Galilee. But it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t at least walk the seven-mile journey at least a time or two.

And even if he didn’t the point can still be made that there is an important link between the events of Christmas and events of Good Friday. They are closer than one would think not only theologically, but geographically as well.

Seven crucial miles that separate life and death, incarnation and crucifixion, of being laid in a manger to then people laid in a tomb.

The great theologians of the church need not lock themselves in their offices, pondering the profound differences of Jesus’ birth and death. Rather it would be much more beneficial for them to walk the seven miles that separate God’s two greatest actions in human history: incarnation and redemption on the cross.

The Journey

When I talk about the Christian journey, the hills and valleys that we all go through in life, I normally picture in my mind the road that links Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

On this road there are literal hills and valleys, but there are also the stark pictures of life and death: one valley that is beautiful and green and the other that is lifeless and brown.

The Christian journey has its struggles and its trials. We cannot hide from those, and in many ways, we grow from those tough experiences.

The real danger is when we feel like we are walking this spiritual journey alone. Separated not only from those we love, but also isolated from the love of God-of not having felt his presence and peace in ages. That is when we have gone off course and entered the dry and lifeless side of the valley.

But just because we journey through that doesn’t mean the road isn’t still there. Sometimes we just need to find our way back to higher ground where the road is.

Sometimes we are guided back by a dear friend, and other times it is God nudging us that gets us going in the right direction again.

But others have walked this road so long that it doesn’t feel like it is going anywhere in particular. Maybe they have lost hope in the journey, or lost trust in the directions they have been given.

I think nowadays that’s how many of our teenagers and young adults feel about the church and the Christian journey. They have either lost hope in the journey, or lost trust in the directions that the church has given them. And when they look at the direction that this road is going, it seems have a lot of suffering and loss involved. It seems to be harder to walk rather than easier.

What they see is a seven-mile journey that still leads to the ultimate end: to death. I mean that’s what we’ve said right, seven miles separating life and death?

But what they may forget from time to time, and what we must never forget is that the road that leads to death is also the one that leads to something much more. In fact, it leads to resurrection…for you see Jesus didn’t just die in Jerusalem, he also was resurrected in Jerusalem.

The end of the road isn’t at the cross and at death, but at the empty tomb. The Christian story, unlike any other story the world wants to tell us, is one of birth, death, and then resurrection. And all that begins at Christmas.

As odd as it may seem, I think my parents’ neighbor was making a profound theological point, whether they realized it or not.

Christmas can’t help but have a cross because the journey that we begin at Christmas will led us to the cross and then on to the tomb.

So my only recommendation for those of you who are planning to put out a cross next Christmas is to find a way to put lights on an empty tomb as well, because if you’re gonna try to tell the Christian story through yard decorations, you might as well include best part.

Second Sunday after Christmas. All Years.

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