"The Sleeping Tourists of Bethlehem"

Meditation for December 24, 2013, Christmas Eve
Text: Luke 2:8-19
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

As far as I can tell, there are two general strategies for trying to catch Santa Claus in the act. You can, if you choose, set up a kind of elaborate surveillance system. I never got quite this ambitious as a kid, but given the upgrades in technology I can only imagine what you could put together with a basic video camera, a motion detector, maybe something as simple as a tripwire or one of those invisible laser beams that provide security in all the heist movies. At some point Santa will enter the living room and either by tripwire or laser beam or motion capture he will close a circuit that will turn on a camera that will provide the best kind of documentary evidence of Santa’s activities. We can do this. We have the technology. Or, for the less ambitious, or at least for the less techno-savvy, or even I suppose for those who would be less satisfied by video evidence and much more satisfied with an eyewitness experience, you could, I suppose, just stay up tonight and wait.

Now, I never tried this with much success. The Christmas Eve dictum in my parents’ home was always that we had to go to sleep so that Santa could come, that the lyric of him knowing when we’re sleeping and when we’re awake applies less to his evaluation of our behavior through the year and more to his uncanny ability to wait on present delivery until we have exhausted ourselves and collapsed. He apparently shows up with such laser-like precision that if you but drift off for just a few minutes, somehow, he’ll know, and so the order of the night must be: Vigilance! Stay awake! If you really want to see for yourself, stay awake at all costs! But of course at some point our bodies just give out; at some point we just give out, we can’t keep our eyes open, we drift off hiding in the downstairs closet and wake up again in our own beds with gifts from Santa under the tree, and I don’t know, is there in that first light of Christmas morning a glimpse of disappointment, like “I wanted to stay awake and see this for myself! This was going to be the year! But instead, yet again, I’ve slept through Christmas and I’ve missed it. Next year I swear I’m setting up laser beams.”

What if you sleep through the most important part of Christmas? What if you miss it? I ask because for all the richness of Luke’s account of the nativity, we rarely acknowledge that most of the people in Bethlehem are asleep the whole time. Mary and Joseph descend upon the town alongside hundreds of other travelers, tourists drawn by the occasion of the imperial census. How many artists and painters have imagined the look and feel of that manger, isolated, quiet, nobody around but the Holy Family and those first few visitors? And then how easy it is to forget that just out of frame is the city bursting at its seams with tourists, and every one of them, apparently, asleep? They must be asleep, because just to get an audience the Angels have to go way out of town, way out to the fields where the shepherds are the only ones up late. And we know their story well enough: shepherds working the night shift, dropping everything to come see this newborn King. We know their story well enough. But what about everybody else? What about Bethlehem? I challenge you to find a creche set with a bunch of sleeping tourists in the background. But they’re still part of the story. So what about the people who slept through the whole thing?

I ask because so much of the scripture we read and hear during the Advent season is about the imperative of staying awake. “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house comes!,” Jesus warns his disciples late in the Gospel of Matthew, a text we read in this pulpit less than a month ago. Get ready! Stay awake! The order of the season must be vigilance! Because God is coming into the world and we’ve got to be ready! For the better part of a month – longer if you’re really into advance planning – for the better part of a month we’ve all been in this chorus of getting ready and staying awake. We put on the right Christmas music. We watch all the right Christmas specials. We get all the decorations hung in place, we think about all the right presents and all the right gifts, convinced that if Christmas is going to happen it’s going to happen because we’ve stayed awake to make it happen, that we will through the sheer exertion of our own vigilance will this thing into existence. And we get around to this night, Christmas Eve, emotionally over-caffeinated and spiritually under-slept, like we’ve been prying open our own eyelids, desperate not to miss the miracle and exhausted from all the work of trying to make it happen. All in the hope that we might be with the shepherds, awake and ready when the moment comes, ready to meet this newborn King in the flesh.

But the problem is that of course it never quite works; at some point our bodies just give out; at some point we just give out. At some point come Christmas Eve it’s quite clear that we’re not with the shepherds at all, but just another handful of the sleeping tourists of Bethlehem. I suspect that most of us have been sleepwalking for more of this journey than we even realize. Maybe you’ve knocked yourself out with the exertion of getting ready, or maybe this year it just felt better to stay asleep the whole time. Maybe you didn’t want to open your eyes in the first place, not when you know perfectly well what you’d see: the pain and darkness and heartache of the world, the pain and darkness and heartache of our own lives, always so much more fragile at Christmas, always so much more vulnerable to the shadows of the past and to the spectre of some Christmas in our imagination. Wouldn’t it just be easier to close your eyes and shut off the music and pull the covers over your head and wake up sometime in January? Couldn’t you just close your eyes with all the rest of us, the other sleeping tourists of Bethlehem? But then, what if you miss it? What then? What becomes of us?

Part of the problem is that we spend so much of Advent trying to keep ourselves awake that by time we read this passage from Luke the shepherds seem like moral heroes; they’re up and at the ready while the crowds in Bethlehem sleep through the whole thing. But there’s no evidence in this text that the shepherd’s nighttime schedule as anything but a marker of their socioeconomic status. They’re working the graveyard shift in an unregarded profession, and that the angels visit them says nothing about their strength of character but rather everything about the unexpected places in which the Gospel shows up. By contrast, the same is true for Bethlehem. There’s no evidence in this text that the good news of Jesus Christ spreads to anyone based on their strength of character or vigilance, or even based on the amount of caffeine shooting through their veins. And then the carol we just heard speaks of Bethlehem in its “deep and dreamless sleep,” a line that has long caught my curiosity. Why isn’t Bethlehem dreaming? Isn’t the promise of the Messiah a live promise for the Jews of Jesus’s time? And yet no dream, no promise, no expectation or vigilance could prepare them for the gift given in that manger. And as the angel herself says to those shepherds awake in the fields, “I am bringing good news of great joy for all people” — not just for the shepherds and the Magi, not just for the dreamers; not just for the ones awake and ready; not just those lying wait in the closet to see this thing in the flesh, but even and especially to Bethlehem, even and especially to those lying dreamless, even and especially to all of us who have long since fallen asleep.

Friends, this is the Gospel of Christmas Eve: that God came into the world not because Bethlehem was ready but rather despite Bethlehem having long since gone to bed. That God comes into the world not because we have so prepared the way but rather despite us having long since fallen asleep. That there is hope in this world, hope for this world, dependent not on our preparation and vigilance but rather on the unrelenting love of God, God who worked for us before the foundations of the earth, God who dreams for us in the longest nights of exile and despair, God who who sees for us when we have closed our eyes to the brokenness of the world, God who longs for us when have long since given up on ourselves, God who keeps watch over us when we have long since drifted off to sleep. This is the miracle of Christmas: that Jesus Christ comes into the world not to find those ready and waiting, but even and especially to love those lost in dreamless sleep.

So tomorrow morning when you wake up; Thursday morning when you wake up; the day after, the week after, the month after, if you wake up with that glimmer of disappointment thinking “Oh! I wanted to stay awake, but I’ve slept through Christmas, I’ve missed it, yet again,” remember that this miracle is not ours to create or ours to miss. This miracle, as true for the shepherds in their fields as for the Magi half a country away as for all the tourists of Bethlehem sleeping comfortably in their beds, this miracle is good news of great joy for for all people. A child has been born, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

As for tonight, go home and get some rest. Close your eyes and let sleep take you. Grace always comes in the darkest hour of the night; may it find a path into your sleeping heart, into all of our sleeping hearts, in the most joyous and unexpected of ways. And for what it's worth, if God needs to wake you up, a newborn will do the trick.