“Setting Out for Bethlehem”

The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer, The First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo

Isaiah 9:2-7, 40:10-11; Luke 2:1-20

December 24, 2023 – Christmas Eve

How many angels did shepherds hear singing? Was Jesus born where a gold star embeds stone in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity? More than literal details long ago, Luke writes poetic literature to convey deep faith in any time and place. Caesar Augustus, Governor Quirinius—imagine them lounging in gilded throne rooms surrounded by servants, but the mighty power of Holy Love becomes human in a grimy stable as a helpless baby lies in a manger surrounded by cows, sheep, and shepherds. You see, beyond a historical time stamp it’s a statement of power – how Sacred Grace works in our world. Isaiah and Luke invite us to feel Divine love, goodness, hope, peace in our real lives. Maybe it’s like a brilliant shaft of light piercing dark depths of night, as Donald Jackson expresses artfully in the frontispiece on our bulletin. Maybe it’s more gradual dawn as we trudge step by step on our pilgrim journey of life. As the holy story sinks in again, I yearn to hear the angel song, to feel that light, to go to Bethlehem and find the babe. Maybe you do too.

Recently on Tuesdays at noon, some of us noodled together some Wendell Berry poetry. We savored how he conveys through particulars of his place and experiences, life and faith we all share in our way. He imagines himself (a Mad Farmer), like all of us, into Luke’s gospel story. He writes:

As a child, the Mad Farmer saw easily

the vision of Heaven’s Christ born in a stable,

the brilliant star stopped in the high dark,

the sheltered beast standing silently by.

He knows the beast, he is himself a shepherd,

and still, more clearly, by the gift of a moment,

he sees the shepherds on their cold hill by night,

the sky flying suddenly open over their heads,

the light of very Heaven falling upon them,

the angels descending, slowly as snow, their singing

filling far and wide the dark: “On earth

peace, good will.” The vision, the gift

only of moments, he has kept in his eyes, in his heart.[i]

Friends, I wonder what gifts of moments we keep in our hearts and memory this night. Visions of Christmas past or expectations for how we’ll gather and celebrate this season. This past Wednesday in noon prayer, we shared memories—stillness of snow falling and nature-walking under a starry sky. Singing in the chancel on Christmas Eve as a child seeing peoples’ faces from a place she never got to be … “really being part of it all.” He recalled growing up in Guam, singing in the church choir. On Christmas from 10 am to 5 pm they’d drive around the village in Jeeps singing carols at every home, sampling goodies families offered to keep them going. That reminded another person of caroling in a hospice facility here a few years ago; even people seemingly unresponsive started mouthing words, if not carrying the tune. Maybe one day our church kids will remember how they were part of it all this morning singing “Hallelujahs” every time we heard “angel,” and “Yo, sheep!” every time we heard “shepherd.” Chrissy said every kid gets to choose what part they want to play. No one chose the star, Mary or Joseph; everyone wanted to be a donkey, because that’s how they’ve heard the story taught in recent weeks. I wonder what moments arise in our hearts, memories, hopes … family, friends, neighborly kin with whom we’ll bring a dish, maybe gifts, to exchange life and love.

About the same time as our Wednesday prayer, Chrissy and Amber shared communion with some who can’t make it here. Toward the end, one friend recited from memory a carol, a poem, a promise really:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
Mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on Earth, good will …

The bells are ringing … Like a choir they’re singing …
And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on Earth, ” I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on Earth, good will …

The bells are ringing … Does anybody hear them?

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on Earth, good will …

The bells, they’re ringing (peace on Earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on Earth)
And with our hearts, we’ll hear them …

Do you hear the bells … Open up your heart and hear them …

Peace on Earth, good will …

I recall warmly sentimentally it was one of my grandmother’s favorites. And I get the sadder sentiment, too. We know, friends, as we keep beautiful moments in our hearts, we also face hard moments even at Christmas. Bethlehem in Palestine is closed, all festivities cancelled this year. We’re reminded of bloody, horrific realities in what can seem such an unholy land. Where missiles scream, bombs blast, and keening wails of loss fill the air instead of angels song. Not unlike Roman threats in Luke’s time—that’s the real background for the gospel. And maybe it expresses how we may feel about life in other ways tonight—just can’t get into the spirit of Christmas as one person remarked. Grieving a loved one lost. Facing a first holiday separated from others once so close. Hard relationships. Hurts carried and hurts caused. Cultural biases and inequity that angers us. Personal diagnoses and struggles that scare us. Maybe we watch at home because whatever reason of health, circumstance, or distance keeps us from being here. Maybe we’re here, but the holy promise seems a long way off as the eyes of hearts scan the news and the mirror. I believe we’re all, in some way, wanting to get to Bethlehem, ever looking for new life. To be as fully alive, as baby Jesus, as God wants us to be.

Friends, maybe, amid the news and our poignant needs, we might ask something like: is God even real? For centuries, back to Luke, Isaiah, and before people have pondered variations on that question, that skepticism, that disappointed / angry / disbelief. Causes never seem to cease. If earthquakes, cancer, Gaza … how then a powerful loving God? Still, we come here tonight. Maybe tagging along with family. Maybe to feel the beauty more than to affirm any dogma. To sense the mystical just for a moment amid the all too present practical. If God exists, what difference does it make in my life, in our world? It’s a fair question – one I’ve ask over the years. Still do. As shepherds heard the angels, set out on their journey, I wonder what questions, what facial expressions were enough for them to hear: do not be afraid. How in that moment they felt compelled, heart yearning beyond all heady explanation. What keeps them going to Bethlehem—without answers, ever with companions. So maybe we come—all ye faithful—tonight hoping that in some way even beyond our capacity to plan or understand, just maybe the promise is true. Holy Love is with us. That love will heal hurts, even accepting our own imperfections, claiming who we most truly are, though we all still limp through life. That love will comfort and encourage us as we keep caring for a beloved who is ill. That love will nurture creation not kill it. That love will lead Israelis and Palestinians, Azerbaijanis and Armenians, Saudis and Houthis, Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians, Russians and Ukrainians, gangs or government officials in our country and so many others to talk and hug and dream of turning guns and tanks into hammers and tractors.

Angels descend, singing “on earth peace, good will …” a vision, a gift of beautiful moments we feel and yearn for. And Berry writes:

[The Mad Farmer shepherd] knows how [that moment] passes, how it fades,

how it stays, how far we get drawn away.

He thinks of distance, the hard hungry journey

of a foolish man, a pilgrim in the foreshadow

of apocalypse, toward the almost forgotten

light far beyond the polluted river,

the blasted mountains, the killed children, the bombed

villages haunted already by the hurting bodies

of their dead. Some of the past he dreads as if

it has not yet happened. From present portent

he fears the time to come. Beyond and beyond

is the shepherd-startling, ever-staying light.

… He sets out.[ii]

However daunting our fears, friends, set out this night. Set out for Bethlehem seeking Christ who shows time after time how God is real. Set out nature-walking under a starry sky, singing in a chancel or outside people’s homes, seeing the divine in people’s faces … finding our way to be part of it all. Go now to Bethlehem, friends, to know what’s taken place so we may trust the promise of what peace will come. Set out to find Holy Love and our purpose to live it, just maybe like shepherds and our Good Shepherd Jesus in ways of sacrificial service guarding, nurturing vulnerable sheep, seeking life and goodness and peace for others more than personal success. Set out to find, to feel the ever-staying light as we kindle candles, sing Silent Night, and opening eyes of our hearts to see a bright beam piercing or gradual dawn arising. Set out for this table – to nurture in our hearts through every stumbling step this vision for grace in our world. All are welcome. All have enough. All can go to flourish abundantly. Savor this moment and keep going to Bethlehem, dear friends—without all answers, ever with companions, even as the road will again get hard, and hearing angel voices—however many the shepherds heard and we will hear on our way.

It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old

from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold …

And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,

who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,

look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing:

O, rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

And then set out again.

Thanks be to God. Amen.



















[i] Wendell Berry, “XXI” from This Day: Sabbath Poems Collected and New, 1979-2013 (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2013), 397.

[ii] Ibid.