I’ll never forget my first visit to Bethlehem. In the city of Jesus’ birth, we spent the bulk of our time shopping. Sounds like Christmas, doesn’t it?
Gold jewelry set with opals and diamonds sat alongside bowls, oil lamps and other imitation artifacts. Olivewood statues filled the interior of the large establishment, coloring the whole room light brown.
Name any biblical character or animal, and there was an olivewood statue for you! Favorites included:
- Samson pushing the pillars.
- David slaying Goliath.
- And, of course, Nativity scenes of every shape, size and price—from a few bucks to a few thousand.
And the tourists fell upon the plunder.
One wooden figurine caught my eye, a bust of Elvis Presley, and I had to grin. Elvis in Israel? I called over the owner, a proprietor who can smell a tour bus a mile away, and asked him my question.
He corrected me and told me who it really was.
“That’s Joseph Smith.”
“Oh . . . I see.” I had never before noticed the resemblance between the king of rock ’n’ roll and the founder of Mormonism. I guess the upturned collar threw me. The owner could see my disappointment and promptly offered a solution.
“But if you like, it’s Elvis!”
Elvis and Jesus in the Holy Land
To those who knew Him, Jesus seemed as displaced in His day as Elvis in Israel today—odd, incompatible, almost profane.
Jesus didn’t fit their expectations of a king.
- Even the wise magi didn’t come first to Bethlehem to look for Jesus. They headed to Jerusalem, to the place where kings were supposed to live.
- Jesus’ own family thought He was crazy.
- And the religious leaders? They blamed Satan.
Jesus disappointed most everybody. Even those who walked in the footsteps of Jesus up and down the Holy Land—those He chose as His disciples—even they stumbled over their expectations of who He should be.
We all do.
Exchanging Christmas Shopping for the Christmas Story
Our group drove just east of the city to a large pasture called “The Shepherds’ Field”—the traditional site of the angels’ announcement.
A deep breath felt great; here the events of the Savior’s birth seemed more authentic. Here we exchanged Christmas shopping for the Christmas story.
- No olivewood statues—just olive trees.
- No merchants hawking trinkets—just some local Palestinian children holding lambs in their arms for us to pet. I couldn’t help but think of a young David, who kept his father’s flocks in the fields nearby.
Our Christian guide told us that the shepherds of that first Christmas guarded flocks raised for sacrifice in Jerusalem. If so, the words they heard from the herald took on new meaning:
Today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. —Luke 2:11
These words gave a glimpse of what salvation would cost: The babe in the manger would become the final sacrificial lamb. Jesus was born to die in Jerusalem only five miles up the road—just like the flocks the shepherds pastured that night.
Bethlehem—More than a Song
Since that day in the field, I’ve never been able to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” the same way. In fact, now all Christmas carols seem historical rather than just traditional.
Ever since I walked the place of their inspiration, they have become songs of worship. The change was surprising—a gift I enjoy each Christmas.
Tell me what you think: What helps you sidestep the shopping and focus on Jesus? To leave a comment, just click here.