A Child Will Lead Them – A Christmas Message from Thomas Kemper
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I was in Bethlehem for the first time a few weeks ago to celebrate the new Methodist Liaison Office opening in the Holy Land, giving me a special experience in the place of Jesus’ birth to share with you this Christmas.
It wasn’t Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity that stirred my heart; it was the looming image of “the wall,” something that was very familiar to me as a German. I was reminded that as a German I personally, along with the German people, have a special responsibility to Israel and to the Jewish people. As a German and as a Christian, I strongly support the existence of Israel as a country with secure borders. Within this complex awareness, while walking the streets of Bethlehem, my heart was also opened to the Palestinian people and the seemingly endless violence in the region.
“What might it be like for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem today?” the Rev. Mitri Raheb of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem was asked.
“If Jesus were to be born this year, he would not be born in Bethlehem,” the pastor replied. “Mary and Joseph would not be allowed to enter from the Israeli checkpoint, and so, too, the Magi. The shepherds would be stuck inside the walls, unable to leave their little town. Jesus might be born right at the checkpoint.”
As the world talks peace, Israel continues to build the wall. While Christians sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Israel makes sure that the town stays as little as possible — a two-square-mile open-air prison surrounded by walls, fences and trenches with no future expansion possibilities.
Perhaps you may wonder why I bring politics into my Advent/Christmas letter. Why not carols of hope? Why? Because we need to remember that the Nativity has been about politics from the start – the tyranny of Herod, the angelic songs of hope for peace, the trek to Bethlehem to pay taxes.
Richard Rohr writes that the celebration of Christmas is not a sentimental time of waiting for a baby to be born. It is an occasion asking for history to be born. In Romans, we read, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23, NRSV)
In Advent we say, “Come Lord Jesus.” We recognize in these words an emptiness to be filled, and we look toward a future created by God. “Come Lord Jesus” allows us to look at a big picture of the reign of God, a big picture that keeps us from getting lost in momentary hurts and agendas. Even in the shadow of “the wall” and illegal settlements, God keeps hope alive. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that Jesus is our peace. In his flesh, he makes different people one and breaks down the dividing wall of hostility.
In 1974, I first crossed the “iron curtain” to go into East Germany to an ecumenical youth event. A heavy fence and trenches surrounded the wall. It was a shocking experience. At the Lutheran church in Rostock, we sang a popular hymn about building relationships and creating bridges to heal conflict. We were not supposed to sing a verse about tearing down walls, but we did, never imagining then that the wall dividing Germany would ever come down. Yet, 15 years later, the wall did fall, and today, the pastor of the Rostock church where we sang is now president of a united Germany. Walls can come down!
Through the promise of Jesus Christ, the small tender baby in our midst, we have hope that the impossible is possible. The wolf shall live with lamb and neither will hurt nor destroy the other. And a child shall lead them, as Isaiah says.
Come Lord Jesus come – and tear down all walls of hostility.
Blessings to you in this holy time,
General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church