Over one million people visit Bethlehem each year. Many of them travel thousands of miles to see the birthplace of Jesus. You could say that Jesus put Bethlehem on the map, figuratively speaking. Just because he was born there, Bethlehem is a major tourist attraction.
If he had been born in Nazareth or Jerusalem or Bunkie, Bethlehem would be fly-over territory. Aside from Jesus showing up there, there’s not much about Bethlehem that will draw the crowds.
And yet Jesus was drawn there. That’s where God himself decided to be born. He even announced his intentions through the prophets. Like parents today who choose the birthing place for their babies, God already had in mind where his baby boy would be born.
Now you might think that God being God and all, he would want his son born in a significant spot. Maybe a place of palatial splendor like Rome or at least a place that could offer some dazzling show tunes for the occasion like Vegas.
But there was nothing about Bethlehem to recommend it. No Olympic Nativity Planning Committee would give Bethlehem a second look. Highway planners would not have even given Bethlehem its own exit ramp.
Face it! Bethlehem was a dump: the sort of place people dream of leaving when they grow up. Bethlehem was so plain and ordinary that outsiders usually ignored it.
And it was among those ordinary, quiet, dark streets that the King of Kings came into this world. God’s choice of birthplace tells us everything about who God is and how who he is makes our lives infinitely and eternally significant. Because God is who he is, our lives matter. We count.
Let’s turn to the story of Jesus’ birth to explain how this is so.
Luke tells us from the very beginning that Jesus’ birth is about what makes people count.
The Emperor Augustus has ordered a census. People must return to their hometown to be counted for tax purposes. That’s the earthly reason that Joseph dragged a very pregnant Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the middle of winter.
From the perspective of Caesar, you’re only going to count if you get somewhere first. You will only be counted when you arrive. This was literally so when it came to the census he was taking. But the world teaches us that this is figuratively so about the significance of our lives.
We count only when we arrive. Our significance derives from our achievements. We have to be at the top of our class or on the highest rung of our career ladder; in the winner’s circle or on the victor’s stand to be recognized.
And here’s the key. That’s what drives us. We yearn to be recognized. That’s what makes us count.
We don’t want to be a number or a faceless name on a ledger. We want to matter to somebody; to know that the world would be a different place, a dimmer place had we never been here; that someone’s heart would ache at our absence and rejoice in our presence.
The world teaches us that we’ll get just that if our achievements are grand and glossy enough. But the world never urges us to read the fine print on the worldly contract.
In that fine print there’s a crushing clause. The recognition that we win with our achievements is temporary because no achievement lasts forever. And every achievement is eventually surpassed by someone else’s achievement, so anonymity and invisibility lurk just around the corner for everybody.
It’s a little bit like life is one of those Where’s Waldo? books and it’s not so clear that we will ever be Waldo.
Maybe you’re familiar with the Where’s Waldo? series. Each page is filled with illustrated characters. Among that sea of faces and caps and scarves and jackets Waldo waves back at the reader. The challenge for the reader of course is to find him. Where’s Waldo?
Waldo is a visibly happy guy. Why wouldn’t he be? Everybody is always looking for him. Waldo is somebody. In a sea of nobodies and Waldo-want-to-bes.
Imagine for just a minute being one of the other characters. The reader’s eyes skim over you. Maybe every now and again those eyes hover over you for just long enough for you to see the disappointment in them when they recognize that you are not the one they’re looking for. But mostly they just don’t see you at all.
You want those eyes to stop. You want to see them gleam with, “I’ve found him! At last! The one I’ve been looking for all along!”
Sometimes we get to be Waldo. But then that attention passes off to somebody else whose Waldo fifteen minutes have come. And so off we charge for the next achievement that will make us stand out from the crowd; that will make us count.
But life does not have to be like this. Remember that Jesus chose Bethlehem before it was, well, Bethlehem. Before it had it’s own entry in the Lonely Planet or Let’s Go travel guides.
We don’t have to do something special to catch God’s attention. He seeks us out relentlessly.
He finds us wherever we may be. And precisely because he does, every moment of our lives is imbued with infinite significance. That’s because we can say about each moment, “That’s where God showed up in my life.”
The birth of Jesus assures us that we count—not because of what we have done—but because we count to someone. To God himself.
We know that we count to somebody—that we matter to somebody—when he or she shows up.
We know that we matter to our parents because they came to our rooms when we cried out from nightmares and sicknesses, they pushed us on the backyard swing for just one more time again and again, and they dutifully chauffeured us to a numbing series of childhood engagements.
We know that we matter to our friends when they call just to say hi or to have a cup of coffee or tell us a lame joke.
We know that we matter to our spouse when we wash the dishes together or sit down to morning coffee together for the thousandth time.
We know that we count when we are woven together with somebody. Yes, we are grateful when someone comes through for in a crisis. But we are especially aware of how much we count to someone when they are there in our daily comings and goings, in things so routine that most people wouldn’t even take notice of them.
This is the point of the manger. God shows up with such regularity that we are tempted to take no notice. Our ordinary life is where God shows up. What may seem not to matter is infinitely important.
God is not just showing up for the reward banquet or the championship game. He is there in all those ordinary times. God does not show up to see how we do on the final exam or check our grades on the report card. He’s the one who stays up late at night with us getting ready for just another ordinary day.
Think about Bethlehem long ago. To human eyes the dark streets are empty and quiet. And yet the shepherds at the edge of town get a glimpse of heaven. All the angels of heaven are rejoicing at what we mere humans see as just another day.
And in one manner of speaking, it is an ordinary day. Ordinary people were doing what people do. Traveling. Eating. Sleeping. Having babies.
But the angels know what we too often fail to see. Those ordinary things, those ordinary places, are beyond extraordinary. Because that is when and where God shows up.
This sermon was preached Christmas 2011 at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, Louisiana.