In 1963, at the height of the Cold War, then-President John F. Kennedy delivered one of history’s most remembered speeches. In Berlin, a city surrounded by communist-controlled East Germany, Kennedy said, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” (“I am a Berliner.”)
With those words, Kennedy aligned himself and the United States with the beleaguered and anxious citizens of Berlin. Whatever they would endure, he and our nation would endure with them.
Identification is a powerful emotion. The moment we realize we have something in common with the leading character is the moment the movie or book becomes unforgettable. When a team realizes they will win together or lose together, but either way, they’ll be together, unites them like nothing else.
Identification is why we remember the Christmas stories as well as we do. We connect with the characters. Sometimes we’re the shepherds and we’re overwhelmed with the glory of God and the wonder of the Christmas news. Sometimes we’re the wise men, bringing our best gifts to this child-born king. Other times we’re Mary and Joseph, doing our best to understand all God is up to in the moment. Although he’s never mentioned in the story, we feel the anxiety of the innkeeper trying to find a place for a very pregnant Mary in a town that is overrun by tax-paying tourists.
And sometimes we’re Herod, troubled and angry, a child with a legitimate claim to our throne has been announced.
And sometimes we’re Bethlehem, the little town whose only claim to fame is that David lived there a long time ago.
Even now, Bethlehem isn’t much to look at. It’s a very small town. When I toured the Holy Land several years ago, we couldn’t even stay overnight there. We drove in from Tiberias, toured the sites, and returned to our hotel. In the time of Jesus’ birth, no one expected God to do anything in Bethlehem. Sure, there were the biblical promises about God giving honor to King David by bringing a new future from Bethlehem. Yet, when the scholars tell Herod about the prophecy in Micah, you get the feeling they had found some overlooked and ancient texts everyone had forgotten about.
Let’s face it. If God was going to do something big, you would think He would start in a bigger city. Rome was the center of the world with all of the empire’s power and connectedness. Jerusalem was the center of Israel’s faith. Everyone longed for the day when the Messiah would come riding into the Holy City. Notice, the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem. He wouldn’t be born there. If God was going to change the world, He wouldn’t start in Bethlehem.
And He wouldn’t start with us. God would start with somebody more famous, better known. You know, someone with great “branding” and a lot of followers on social media. God would look for an “influencer” to get His message out.
Yet, Paul would remind the Corinthians that not many of them were wise or strong, but that God had chosen the foolish and the weak to overcome the wise and strong of the world. The very fact that they were nobodies was evidence that their spiritual success came from God and not from their own strength.
Throughout the Bible, God chose the most unlikely people to be His heroes. Moses didn’t speak well in front of people and, when God called him, Moses had done nothing to distinguish himself. David was so insignificant that his own father forgot about him. When the prophet Samuel asked Jesse if he had any more sons, Jesse had to think about it. Certainly, an average child like that would never amount to much.
I always laugh a little when someone tells me they have “found Jesus.” I remind them that Jesus wasn’t lost. We were. The good news of the gospel isn’t that we can get to God, but that in Christ, God has come to us.
Moses wasn’t anybody until God came to him in the burning bush. Paul wasn’t anyone until Christ confronted him on the Damascus Road.
And the only reason anyone would travel halfway around the world to walk in the crowded streets of Bethlehem is that God came there. In an earthy stable behind an overcrowded inn, God showed up. The only reason Bethlehem is famous is because that’s where God came to His world in the birth of Jesus.
We’ve never been the same.
So, at the end of 2021 when you’re going through the list of all of the things you didn’t get done this year — you didn’t write your novel or climb Mount Everest or start the next big thing in tech– remember, no one who’s famous in the Bible was famous before God showed up in their lives.
Christmas is the moment we long for — God coming into the world. The first time, Christ was born in Bethlehem. Who knows? Maybe this year, He’ll be born in us.