The Mess of the Church

I made it to Bethlehem, Palestine, twice this year. I was on sabbatical and thinking about the main streets of the Christian faith. Now I’m preparing for my Christmas Eve sermon and I find myself thinking about my visit to the site at which Christians have gathered for millenia to commemorate the birth of Jesus. I was first in that church Twenty years ago, while traveling during seminary. I was surprised, then, by what I saw during my visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I expected it to be like many other churches I saw while in Israel: well kept, clean, and vibrant. I didn’t, however, find what I expected.

The church is old, dark, and not particularly well-maintained. Visitors must duck to enter, passing through the “Door of Humility,” the one door that remains of three former entrances. It was reduced in size to stop mounted horsemen from the Ottoman Empire from rushing in. Even the shortest of visitors must stoop low to enter in.

Walking toward the front of the church, this spring, my eye was drawn to the sanctuary. It was decorated with old lamps that need to be polished. None were lit. No warm light spilled into the sanctuary. Instead, a few bright and bare compact fluorescent bulbs blazed their cold harsh light onto worn and tired worship furnishings. The realities of Bethlehem’s harsh life were very apparent. The neglected basilica reflected the strain of people living in uncertainty.

The grotto of the nativity is beneath the sanctuary. We waited our turn at the top of steps worn with signs of the millions of descending pilgrims. The cave-stable around which the church was built was small and adorned with worn fabrics and sanctuary lamps. Under the altar, a silver star surrounded by lit sanctuary lamps marked the place of the nativity. Pilgrims knelt in prayer and kissed the hallowed ground. It too, was dingy and dark. I wanted grandeur, but found a place worn and wearied. It was a bit off-putting, even as it was thrilling to be a going where others have because of their faith in Jesus.

Truthfully, I’m not sure a grand sanctuary would be appropriate. The poverty of Mary and Joseph is somehow present in the rough basilica that honors our Lord’s birth. It stands in the middle of a city that bears the burdens of people in conflict.  In its ravaged state it is a sign of how God chooses to come into the world.

Jesus was not born in “humble estate” by accident. God chose to come this way. Divine decision led Him to be born in the vulnerability of poverty. And in this decision we see God’s determination to make right all those things that are not as God intends them to be. God enters in to the world to bring life. He does not do it from afar, but becomes one with those for whom he is concerned. The Bible always reminds us that God’s love is especially poured out in concern for the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed.

Sometimes we think we have to get ourselves and our churches “right” in order for God to be among us. We clean and we organize, hoping that this will help us return to a vibrancy that for many churches remains elusive in this day and age. Sometimes we get so busy in tending to the beauty of our building and the orderliness of our community, that we miss the good news of the Gospel. God, chooses to come to those in need chooses to enter into those areas that are seemingly the opposite of what we’d expect.

Jesus was born in a cave that housed animals. It was rank with the odor of animal droppings. Jesus was born in this way because God is determined to redeem those who live in the messes of this world.

The church’s hope is not found in the right ordering of its life. Tidy constitutions and perfectly ordered programs do not bring the new life of Jesus to the church and the community around it. God does. The church’s future is not found in its ability to balance administrative tasks with programmatic activity. Our future depends on God’s willingness to come into the messy places of our lives.

Bethlehem reminds us that we don’t have to have everything figured out. God chooses to come where life is messy, where there is need, where there is uncertainty. The strongest image of this is the cross of Jesus. Jesus is God entering into the deepest suffering of the world. He dies in the way of shame, by a perversion of justice, fully engaging the messiest affairs of the world. Then comes Easter. New life emerges from the grave. And we are reminded that there is no mess great enough–in our lives or in our churches–to keep God’s loving presence away.

Creative Commons License
Jabbok’s Edge by Lindsay Paul Jordan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.jabboksedge.com.

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