The Bethlehem Challenge

Christmas 2010

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Last month, I traveled to Hollywood to participate in a wedding. I went at the request of the bride, a former member of our parish who is now a television producer. She was marrying a successful documentary filmmaker, and the ceremony and reception took place in the spacious garden of the filmmaker’s home in the Hollywood Hills. The liturgy combined elements of both Anglican and Jewish marriage rites and a local rabbi and I shared the service. One of Hollywood’s leading “event planners” organized a spectacular dinner following the wedding.

Not surprisingly, many of those in attendance worked in film and fashion. Also not surprisingly, in that secular city, many of those in attendance weren’t religious; after the ceremony was over, people came up to me and questioned me about my faith. One person asked me: “What do you think religion does for people today?”

I could see what the man was getting at. The beautifully-dressed models and actors and movie executives sipping cocktails around us seemed to be functioning quite well as they were. Why would they need to go to church?

They were making money and spending it; they had lots of social connections; they were enjoying the pleasures of fame. What were they missing? What would religion add to their lives?

What would the wedding guests gain if they took to heart the words of the angel in the Christmas story, when the angel said to the shepherds in the fields: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” How are lives changed by the journey to Bethlehem to meet the Christ Child?

At the wedding reception, I said that I believed that religion brings people closer to God and makes them happier and better people.

Admittedly, that is a very short answer! A more complete answer would have to describe all the ways that religion enriches life. Since each person is unique, the spiritual takes many diverse forms as it enters the individual soul. So too, God works in such mysterious ways that we can’t always predict the real-life effects of religion. Sometimes we don’t get what we pray for. Sometimes worship is more drudge than inspiration.

Even so, religion offers rewards that can be found nowhere else. Maybe, like many of us, you have problems that are like shadows in the depth of your soul. You might have tried therapy or the advice of friends or various kinds of self-discipline – but still, your problems remain.

Well, that may be a sign that it’s time for you to look for God’s help. Here’s a proposition for you on this Christmas Eve. Take the Bethlehem Challenge. Make a spiritual journey to Bethlehem and see if Christ can do for you what you can’t do for yourself.

In the past, you may have looked for inner peace and failed to find it. Never mind, look for peace now. Tonight.

There might be one specific worry that seems always lurking in the back of your mind. Whatever you do, it’s always there: a concern about your family or your career or your health that sometimes seems to go away – but then returns with a vengeance.

Or maybe it’s a relationship, a friendship that hasn’t gone the way you think it should. You put your best efforts into it, but you and your friend still don’t seem to connect as you wish you could.

Or perhaps you have an annoying pattern of behavior that you can’t stop. Maybe you have a habit of acting in an arrogant way. You regret it – then, not long afterwards, you find yourself feeling superior again towards someone else.

Whatever your shadows, your own efforts don’t get rid of them. Self-help doesn’t bring the inner peace that the angel promised. Now, looking at ourselves in this way – what Christians call “self-examination” – is sobering. But it’s necessary if we are going to see what we need God to do for us.

By an interesting coincidence, after I had written the final draft of this sermon, I went to make my confession. During the confession, I mentioned my regret that I often don’t see problems that arise in my own soul. My confessor replied, “Why don’t you ask God to help you see them?”

Good point! I need to take the Bethlehem Challenge myself!

For the message of the angels is that Christ is a savior – a savior who saves us from the worst parts of ourselves. That’s what religion does for people. God can renew the souls even of those of us who have practiced religion for a long time. Indeed, that’s why we talk of “practicing” religion. As the best violinist in the world has to practice, so the most devout saint needs to say her prayers.

As we hear the message of the angels, then, let’s ask God to help us become happier people – even if we are pretty happy already. Let’s ask God to help us become better persons, even if we think we’re pretty good persons already.

For then we can follow in the steps of the shepherds – we can walk out of the hills of confusion and doubt and fear and travel in our hearts to Bethlehem. That is the challenge Christ brings to all of us. That’s his Christmas gift, to me and to you.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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