Text: Luke 21:20-33
We step off the bus after a short ride from the Bethlehem Star Hotel where we’d stayed our first three nights of the trip. Off to our right is the entrance to the Aida refugee camp, one of three Palestinian refugee camps in Bethlehem. In front of us is the Lajee Center, a community center working with Palestinian youth and families who’ve been living in Aida their whole lives. We are met by Salah Ajarma, a guy who looks to be about my age. He is the Director of the Lajee Center and will be our guide for the morning. His wife is pregnant and they’re expecting their fourth child any day, so Salah begins by noting that he is keeping his cell phone turned on.
Before leading us on a walking tour through Aida and introducing us to the Center, Salah leads us off to the left. This used to be a main business street in Bethlehem, he notes. But now it looks awful. Buildings are in poor repair, and nobody’s shopping or selling. The street and sidewalk are littered with debris. We walk slowly up the slope of the road, but we can’t go very far this direction. Just ahead of us, about 100 yards from the Center, stands a 25 foot tall concrete wall, with a guard tower where Israeli soldiers are stationed. Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory, but the wall snakes all around Bethlehem, isolating places like Aida and creating separation zones for the 22 Israeli settlements being built in the area.
Our first day in Bethlehem we had been just on the other side of that wall, meeting with an Israeli woman explaining to us why Rachel’s Tomb was so important to her and observant Jews – Rachel, the second wife of the patriarch Jacob, who had been barren, eventually becoming the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. This is now where religious Jewish women go to pray that they too can successfully mother children. This is where orthodox men go to pray and study. From where we’re now standing we can actually see the backside of the structure built around Rachel’s tomb, but now we’re on the Palestinian side of the wall, and it’s as inaccessible to us as it is to them.
On that dead end street in the shadow of that wall just outside Aida, Salah starts picking up items in the street and describing them to us. This is the remains of a sound bomb, he explains, which Israeli soldiers shoot into the camp. He shows us two kinds of rubber bullets – one softer and round, the other stiff and small, with a flat front end. He shows us how this second kind can be deadly if it hits you the wrong way. A 13 year old Palestinian boy was killed one month earlier right by where our bus is parked. Salah picks up something else, an empty canister of tear gas. There are several varieties. He notes that these have been more frequent in the last few weeks. Once you know what they look like, you see them all over. On the side of the canister he is holding it says in plain English: Made in Jamestown, Pennsylvania.
When you grow up in the rural Midwest, you learn to identify flowers and trees and insects. When you grow up in a refugee camp under military occupation, you learn to identify rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.
Salah assures us that it is our presence around him that is keeping the soldiers from firing at him right now – one of many times we’re confronted with our power and privilege as Americans in this place.
Luke 21: 20-24: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.* 21Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. 23Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations.”
I’m always a little shocked that the Advent season begins with passages like this. We are moving toward a celebration of the birth of Christ, but the journey begins with talk of war, and refugees fleeing, and a remembrance of the ones for whom the plight is all the more arduous: “those who are pregnant, and those who are nursing infants.”
These are the words of Jesus toward the end of his ministry. He speaks specifically of the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman army in the year 70, a generation after his own death. This catastrophe resulted in the temple being leveled and Jews being scattered throughout the ancient world, a painful echo of what had happened 600 years earlier, when the Babylonians had destroyed the first temple, built by Solomon, and carried the Jews away into exile.
Once you know what to look for, the trauma of exile and the experience of refugees shows up everywhere throughout Scripture. It has its more obvious forms, like the famous Psalm 137, where the exiles sit down and weep by the rivers of Babylon and lament, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” It serves as a backdrop to favorite stories like Daniel in the lion’s den and Queen Esther in the court of the Persian king. It’s woven throughout the words of the prophets, either warning the people that they will soon be displaced from their land, giving instruction of how to live faithfully as refugees in a foreign land, speaking comfort and hope that soon, very soon, the trials will be over and the people will be restored to their land. This is the hope behind the prophet Jeremiah’s words in today’s call to worship: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Justice! Righteousness! These beautiful words, imagined but not yet fully realized, would one day wield their power and come to define life for the people.
Salah tosses the debris aside and leads us back down the street, into the refugee camp. Each family here used to live within the borders of what is now Israel, and were some of the 750,000 Palestinians forced out of their villages and homes during the war of 1948 which established Israel as a modern nation state. These families come from 27 different villages and this camp started as 800 people living in a collection of tents. Now there are 5,000 people living on the same small parcel of land. The tents have become permanent concrete structures.
Salah grew up here and when he was 14 soldiers caught him playing in a neighbor’s home after curfew. For this crime he spent three months in prison. In traditional cultures it’s common for parents to consider baby boys more desirable, but Salah notes that expectant parents in Aida hope for a girl. Girls have a much better chance of contributing to the family their whole lives. Boys are more likely to be jailed or killed. Salah and his wife have three girls, but they’re expecting a boy.
Luke 21:25 – “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
The signs of distress we see aren’t so much in the sun or moon as they are written on the walls around Aida. A wall of a residence has a mural of a butterfly, with the caption “Here only butterflies and birds are free.” The long stretch of the separation wall is covered with various messages and images providing their own set of signs. But looking back up that hill toward the wall and guard tower we can see other signs of distress. Israeli society lives with an existential fear for its own existence. The Babylonian exile and defeat at the hands of the Romans was followed by 2000 years which held brilliant cultural achievements for Jews around the world, but also included periods of major persecutions, the Holocaust of the 20th century being a recent horrific example. The massive walls and always present 18 year old soldiers with automatic weapons slung around their necks is another kind of sign.
The nation of Israel was born as a political solution to Jewish identity and Jewish oppression, and the nation continues to be defined by past traumas. But Israel’s quest for security has led to the traumatization of a whole other population, the Palestinians, some of whom can trace their ancestry in the land all the way back to the time of Jesus. To outsiders like us the trauma of the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Christians and Muslims looks similar enough that it seems like the groups should be able to understand each other’s perspectives perfectly. They are all intimately familiar with sitting down and weeping, wondering how they can sing the Lord’s praises as refugees. Salah and his wife want the same things for their child on the way as the women and men praying for healthy children at Rachel’s tomb on the other side of that wall. But on the streets of Aida, an embrace of a common humanity feels a long way off. The signs of distress are everywhere.
Luke 21:27-31 – “Then they will see the Human One coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when you see these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Then Jesus told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kin-dom of God is near.’”
This part of the gospel is the reason it’s included as the first reading of Advent. In this season when we look for the coming of Christ, this passage speaks of the coming of a Human One who brings redemption. This Human Being, the one who brings humanity into an inhumane place, is the cause for hope. We are not to get consumed by signs of distress, Jesus says. Rather, we are to look for other kinds of signs. Like looking at a fig tree at the end of winter, when it starts to sprout leaves. Everything around us is barren, but there is an energy and power behind those leaves that is about to transform the tree into something bursting with life. “When you see these things taking place,” Jesus says, “you know that the kin-dom of God is near.”
Looking for the kin-dom of God in a walled in refugee camp is an exercise of faith if ever there was one. The picture on the front of the bulletin comes from one of the streets of Aida. The residents are former farmers and this family planted a grape vine in their home, cutting a hole through the wall to allow it to grow up to the sun, using their roof as a trellis. It is perhaps a tiny incarnation of Jeremiah’s prophecy: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” It’s not much, but the difference between something and nothing is immeasurable.
After touring the camp Salah led us into the main room of Lajee Center. A youth dance troupe performed for us to an Arabic pop song that got even a group of Mennonite pastors tapping their feet and swaying their hips – as sure a sign as any that the kingdom of God is upon us. We ate lunch in that room and sat down in another classroom, hearing about the different programs that happen through Lajee – rooftop gardens in Aida, creative arts and media projects, and trauma counseling for kids. Mennonite Central Committee is one of the sponsoring organizations, so when you give to MCC this is part of where your money goes.
Advent is about welcoming the coming of the Human One, the Christ who breaks into our world with flashes of what it means to be truly human. Christians have always believed that this coming of the Human One is also the very coming of God among us. Wherever the fig tree is sprouting leaves, that is where the Divine is breaking through to us. It’s up to us to pay attention and to welcome it with open arms, like partners welcoming a newborn child.
I’d love to end with an upbeat picture of Lajee and leave it at that, but here’s the truth of it. We had to leave Lajee ahead of schedule because the young soldiers just up the street were firing tear gas into the camp and one of the canisters landed right by our bus. On Monday, six days ago, two days after we returned home, we read news that the soldiers had actually come down the street and shut down Lajee, now using the roof of the community center as a post for snipers to look over the camp. This is life in Aida refugee camp today, in Bethlehem, the same city where Jesus was born under military occupation.
Advent hope rests in the remarkable claim that even when the stars are falling and the heavens are shaking, the fig tree is still about to bloom. A righteous Branch will spring up, and there will be justice and righteousness in the land. There are 1000 ways to welcome the Human One who is coming to live among us. The signs of the coming are all around us. The kin-dom of God is near.