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Not that far from Bethlehem: Homily for December 17, 2017, Gaudete Sunday

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 12/16/17

Can you believe it?

We’re just a week away from Christmas.

For some of us, I know, that’s a cause for panic. Time to make that last trip to the mall, or hit Trader Joe’s, or see what Amazon can deliver before December 25th. Right around now is when you realize those Christmas cards you didn’t mail will have to be New Year’s cards. Drop by Walgreen’s and you’ll see small crowds of people huddled around the gift cards display, grabbing last minute cards for Buffalo Wild Wings or the Olive Garden or Starbucks. Most of them, we know, will end up unused in a dresser drawer. But it’s the thought that counts, right?<

Yet, on the Christian calendar, despite the last minute frenzy, this isn’t a time for panic.
It’s a moment for rejoicing. 

And for good reason. All the anticipation of these last weeks—the call to watch, to prepare, to straighten our path, to repent and get ready—all that is drawing to a close. Again and again, the scripture this Sunday calls us to rejoice.
“I rejoice heartily in the Lord,” Isaiah cries out. “In my God is the joy of my soul.”

“Brothers and sisters,” Paul writes, “rejoice always.”

The Latin for rejoice is “Gaudete,” which is why we call this “Gaudete Sunday.” And we mark that with the bright, joyful color we wear – rose – to signify that our Advent journey is nearing its end.

I was reminded of that recently when my wife and I found ourselves on the road, for Thanksgiving. We were in Maryland, visiting our families. You’ve probably had this experience: driving around in a rental car in a strange city trying to find a good radio station. I was looking for a station that was playing Christmas music. I found the hip hop station, the jazz station, the talk station, the Hispanic station, the country western station. Finally, I found a Christian music station that had some nice carols and some songs I hadn’t heard before. One of them stood out – a song that described Mary and Joseph’s journey before Jesus was born. It was called “Not That Far From Bethlehem.”

Well, on this third Sunday of Advent, we’re not that far from Bethlehem.

We are almost there.

In geographic terms, Bethlehem is about 70 miles from Nazareth. It’s about the same distance as from Forest Hills to Philadelphia. If Mary and Joseph had taken Amtrak, they’d have been there in about 90 minutes. But they weren’t so lucky. It may have taken them up to a week to get there, traveling on foot and donkey. We can only imagine their relief as they got closer and closer to their destination, and they realized the trip was almost over.

And that’s what the song is about — Joseph encouraging Mary, and reassuring her. We’re almost there. “We’re Not That Far From Bethlehem.”

But for us, I think, the sentiment behind the song is about more than just geography, more than a date on the calendar.

Bethlehem is not just as a point on the map, or a place in history. It is where Christ comes into our world.

It is a crossroads of the human heart. It is where hope is born.

A place of eternal possibility.

And we’re closer to it than we may realize.

In these last days of Advent, we need to remember that. These are days that will be crazy, with parties to attend and gifts to wrap and cards to send. There will be decorations to hang and notes to write and meals to prepare and cookies to bake and bags to pack and trips to make.

But take time to pause, and to give thanks. Take stock. Take heed of all the messages God has sent us this Advent – to stay awake, to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord, to seek him in the desert.

And: take time to pinpoint the Bethlehem of your own heart. That place that calls to each of us.

Bethlehem is waiting for us – even as we are waiting for it. Even as we are waiting for Christ. It is the destination at the end of our Advent wanderings – where we were always meant to be. Spend these days quietly, joyfully anticipating it.

Because we will be there before we know it.

The lyrics of the song I mentioned put it so simply, and so beautifully—and carry a message for all of us.

A message of anticipation. A message of comfort.

A message worth rejoicing over.

The imagined words of Joseph to Mary can serve as God’s words to us …as he accompanies us on our journey:

Though it seems the road is long,
We’re not that far from Bethlehem,
Where all our hope and joy begins.
We’re not that far from Bethlehem.
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