“Are you going to the West Bank?”

I got that nervous question a lot the weeks before heading over to the Holy Land. The West Bank is named that because it technically sits on the western bank of the Jordan River. But, of course, that’s not why people were concerned I might go there. The West Bank is a part of the Holy Land that is heavily disputed territory. The Israeli government oversees a lot of it, while the Palestinian Liberation Organization administers the rest. And yet all of the West Bank is under Israeli military occupation. That means guns. When we traveled there on our trip, we had to pass through a military checkpoint, and when we got out to shop and enjoy lunch (falafel!), we watched armed Israeli guards train their rifles on us. I admit that was a new experience for me.

But, Jesus was born in the West Bank — in Bethlehem, to be exact. So was King David. So was Jesse, his dad. (Remember that passage from Isaiah 11 we read every Christmas? “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.”) And just like the West Bank today, Bethlehem’s story is the story of a people who are on the outside looking in.

A partial view of the West Bank focused on Bethlehem. Click HERE for a larger version.

That story begins with Ruth the Moabite. “Do not press me to leave you,” she told Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.” What an amazing expression of love! And yet, it meant Ruth would become an outsider. When she and Naomi left Moab and traveled to Bethlehem, they left not only a famine but everything Ruth had once known, and they settled in a foreign land. 

Some fields in the vicinity of Bethlehem, where Ruth might have gleaned behind Boaz’s farmers after she fled the famine in Moab, her homeland. 

Ruth’s story, of course, ends with her becoming an insider again. She marries a wealthy Jew named Boaz, and together they become the great grandparents of King David. But David doesn’t start out as king. His story is that of an outsider, too. The youngest of eight sons, David would never have been considered royal material. He was small and young and way down on the totem pole — a shepherd shepherding the sheep of more important people. But as God said when he chose him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Bethlehem’s Church of the Shepherds

Speaking of shepherds, Bethlehem is known for them. They’re famously the ones who heard a chorus of angels sing about a “great joy for all the people — to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Christ the Lord!” If you go to Bethlehem now, you’ll find a small chapel dedicated to these very shepherds and their unexpected role paying witness to the promised Messiah.

A mural of the angelic annunciation inside the Church of the Shepherds

It would seem, then, that God knew what he was doing when he decided to be born in Bethlehem. The town’s name is literally “House of Bread” or “House of Meat” (the Hebrew can mean either). Bethlehem was a key source in Jesus’ day of the sacrificial animals used at the Temple in Jerusalem. If you needed a sheep or goat to take to worship, you could pick it up when passing through Bethlehem. Where better for the Lamb of God to be born than alongside all the other sheep and goats ready for sacrifice!

Bethlehem’s sacrificial meat

It may seem strange to think of Jesus as an outsider, but he was never part of “the establishment” in his day. Jesus constantly found himself driven to the outskirts, whether that meant spending most of his time in the backwaters of Galilee or in the homes of “sinners and tax collectors.” Even his eventual hometown of Nazareth tried to chuck him off a cliff when he reminded them that it was the foreign outsiders instead of the established insiders who could often be expected to receive the grace of God (see Luke 4:16-30).

The story of Jesus, of course, is one where outsiders are intentionally made insiders. Consider the famous tale of Jesus and the Canaanite woman:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that moment.

Matthew 15:21-28

The Canaanites were the traditional enemies of Israel, and yet Jesus welcomes her with wide open arms — albeit after some really awkward back and forth!

At the birthplace of Jesus underneath the Church of the Nativity

All of this outsider/insider storytelling really came home to me when we visited the Church of the Nativity that day in the West Bank. After I finished kneeling down to see the stone upon which Jesus’ manger sat, a young boy came in behind me and began to pray fervently in Spanish. He was only one of many pilgrims there that day from all over the world — all of us outsiders made insiders through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. That’s when the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians struck me as particularly relevant: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” To this day, I can’t think of a better expression of the inclusive hope of the gospel than that day in Bethlehem and the West Bank…and yet it’s also a sign — guns and all — of just how far we still have to go. – Pastor Jason