Pray for the peace of Bethlehem: 20 December

Bethlehem has always been a little place that people and armies blunder into. Jacob was just passing through after the disaster of allowing his sons to murder the Shechemites, looking for somewhere else to live. Genesis tells us that God had just left him. In Bethlehem Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. When David was fleeing from Saul, Bethlehem had a Philistine garrison. Then there were the Romans blundering around, not understanding the chaos their census rules would create in this culture and these people. The magi blundered in having alerted Herod. To their own understanding, asking the way seemed just sensible. It turned out to be a disaster.

I have some sympathy with the not so wise magi. In January 1997 my wife, daughters and I were in Israel for a family reunion. My father was a refugee to Britain from Nazi Germany. His brothers and sisters settled in Israel and America so the main way for us to know our cousins has been occasional grand reunions. While in Israel we decided to visit Bethlehem, just as we had visited other towns with great Cathedrals. We had an Israeli hire car. I drove out of Jerusalem, ‘knowing’ it was a short straight journey and it wouldn’t be hard to find Manger Square in a small place like Bethlehem. It was probably the most stupid thing I have ever done in my life.

We blundered into the outskirts of Bethlehem. From the European order of Israel, we were plunged in the Third World bustle of Palestine. There were no road signs, just minor roads that all looked the same. One wrong turn and we were lost in the back streets, assailed by shouting smiling lads who each wanted us to use their parking place. In desperation I decided the only thing I could do was trust one of them, pay him well, ask someone to walk us to Manger Square and hope that the car was still there, not too defaced, when we returned. We had a wonderful welcome, thank God, and were perfectly safe. Today the same journey would be probably be suicide. At the time I didn’t realise that in Bethlehem everyone arrives by coach and organised tour. I was just blundering in, following my own European understanding of what you do when you are a tourist, which was of no use in Bethlehem.

Armies have blundered into Bethlehem less innocently, – Herod’s massacring soldiers, the Moslem and then Crusader armies, now the Israeli troops of the Occupation. It is ironic that 2000 years after the Romans, today’s army of occupation is Jewish. They may have allowed a Palestinian Authority, but the Israelis still send in their troops whenever they deem it necessary. All the armies have cared little for the people of the town, concerned only about how Bethlehem fits into their own strategic understanding.

For years Bethlehem has been a Christian majority town. In more recent years radical Palestinian Moslems have been targeting it, partly as a base to attack Israel. We were there on a Friday and Manger Square was filled with the blaring of the loudspeakers from the Mosque. The pervasive noise felt intimidating. Israeli soldiers respond to terrorist threats with harsh security. They too think not of the ordinary local people and only of their enemies. Today there is a section of the Separation Wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. There is no peace.

Some people are working and calling for peace, thank God. Some of the strongest critics of the Israeli Occupation are Jewish. This is not just that for every three Jews there are always four opinions. Many Jewish critics see the Occupation as both deeply immoral and working against the long term security both of Israel and of Jews across the world. (Jews for Justice for Palestinians jfjfp.com Independent Jewish Voices ijv.org.uk) There are still prophets in Israel calling those in authority back to morality and justice. Some of the critics of the way that the Palestinian leadership has failed to stand against their own violent radicals are themselves Palestinian.

These courageous people give us pointers as to how we can pray. “Thank you Father God for your prophets of peace and justice today. Please give them persistence, the support of friends, boldness, imaginative ways of bringing the critical message of peace. Please send the Holy Spirit to the leaders of Israel, Palestine, America and Britain to confirm in their hearts the message of the prophets.”

God speaks in the hearts and dreams of people like magi, blundering pagans caught up in their own ways, ways which just lead to more violence. It is not too hard to believe that the same God will give to those in authority today dreams that will guide them in the paths of peace.

But the magi didn’t hear God speaking to them until after they had seen Jesus. I think all along God must have been saying “No! Not Jerusalem! Please not Jerusalem. Just follow the star won’t you? Let me guide you, not your own understanding.” They couldn’t hear God speaking then. It was only after they had seen Jesus and recognised Him as King, that they were able to hear God in their dreams.

We pray that leaders today will also see Jesus. This is hard for them after centuries of Crusaders both military and evangelistic. My own liberal Jewish family don’t want to talk about Jesus; they see him instinctively as their enemy. “Father God, please forgive us for our violent ways which have hindered people from seeing Jesus. Please open the eyes of the leaders to see Jesus, to recognise Him for who He is and, like the Magi, to see the way that leads to peace. For He is the Prince of Peace, now and for ever.” Amen?

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