It is 101 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. According to Google Maps, it would take 33 hours to make the journey on foot. That is just walking time, not counting meals and rest stops. Of course, if you had to walk for 33 hours, you might be walking more slowly by the time you got close to your destination. And of course, to arrive at 33 hours, Google is counting on paved roads, bridges and other improvements in infrastructure that would not have existed in the first century. Google does not account for such contingencies as marauding bandits hiding along the route, deep rain-washed gullies cutting through the path, or lack of available rooms at the inn. And if you are 9 months pregnant as you travel, you can throw the estimated travel time that you get from Google Maps right out the window.
It is hard to imagine how difficult that journey was - long, tiring, exhausting, dangerous, unpredictable. And you might add inadvisable and foolhardy. But it wasn’t Joseph and Mary’s idea. They are not taking a vacation; they are not heading south for the winter. Caesar Augustus has called for a census, and everyone has to go to their ancestral home. Joseph lives in Nazareth in Galilee, 100 miles to the north, but his family roots are in Bethlehem and that is where they go. Many days of difficult travel ensue, Mary threatening to go into labor at any moment, and it is all to sign some government forms so that they can be taxed.
I’m sure this did nothing to add to Caesar’s popularity; it is stuff like this that can really make you really hate an invading, occupying power.
Count Mary and Joseph among the countless people down through the ages who have suffered under some soulless bureaucracy. They represent all of the poor, powerless, defenseless people everywhere, in all times, who suffer under the whims of whatever Caesar happens to be in power at the moment. They represent all of those who are disrespected, oppressed, put down, and feel out of control.
Joseph and Mary go on this long, arduous journey at the worst possible time. Why? Because they have to. It is not up to them. And even though Bethlehem is his ancestral city, either family ties are not that close or most of the family has by now moved away, because the best Joseph can do is find a barn where they can stay, and that is where Mary winds up having the baby.
They go to Bethlehem so that they can be counted, but the irony is, they really don’t count – not to Rome. They are nobodies. Their only hope, if they have any hope, is not in Caesar Augustus, not in the power of Rome or the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but in the God of Israel, who is with them through this long journey.
Tom Long points out that as American power and influence grew over the last century, hope became a casualty.
We became more confident of our strength and promise, and we began to imagine ourselves as those who need no hope. Who needs hope when you have unfettered progress? Instead, we began to express our longings for the future as “hope nots”: I hope the stock market doesn’t crash again. I hope my children don’t get hooked on drugs. I hope I don’t [have to go to a nursing home] – all expressions of the fact that we were steaming along complacently, simply hoping that no icebergs lay in our path.A lot of folks come to the point where they feel they really don’t need anything beyond their own resources. If you have arrived, if you have it all together, if you have caring friends and a supportive family, if you have health and a good job and relatively few worries, then you don’t really need to hope. If you are in such a place, as Long points out, “hopes” can become “hope nots”: we hope not to lose the good thing we’ve got going.
As a nation, we have at times been in such a place. We are America, for goodness sakes. Life is getting better and better. But look around us. Glaciers are melting, terrorists are striking, predators prey on children, economies are faltering, seemingly endless wars go on and on; various corporate entities, North Korean hackers, and our own government apparently have access to our personal information; and our culture becomes harsher, more polarized, more angry, less compassionate. Our 21st century world is not completely hunky-dory.
Considering this from a more personal level, while we can sometimes believe we are self-sufficient, that we can handle whatever comes our way, life can change our minds pretty quickly. Losing a job, facing illness, losing a loved one, going through divorce, struggling with addiction, worrying about your children, watching someone you care about make terrible choices – we can quickly be disabused of the idea that we don’t need hope beyond ourselves. At some point, we all become Marys and Josephs, traveling a weary road that we did not necessarily choose.
It is 101 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. A long, hard journey. It is 6393 miles from Ames to Bethlehem – that is in straight-line travel, although if we were to go to Bethlehem, we would certainly not travel in a straight line. It is a long way, but with modern travel, we could leave right after church this morning and arrive in Bethlehem more quickly than Joseph and Mary would have gotten there by walking from Nazareth.
For us, the road to Bethlehem is more a journey of the heart, a journey toward hope, a journey toward the wonder and promise and love that God sends into our world and into our lives, so often in unexpected times and places and ways.
The Ames Area Religious Leaders Association (that’s AARLA for short) met a couple of weeks ago. There were newer folks and guests present, so we began by introducing ourselves. We were to give our name and what church we served, and then in this season of Advent we were to share something we were hopeful about.
Well, that is a tough question – sharing our favorite pizza topping would have been easier. Something you are hopeful about… Nobody really wanted to go first, but finally one person, who works with a Hispanic community, spoke of the hope so many in his community were feeling about changes in immigration policy – they were less fearful of their families being separated by deportation. Another spoke of hopes for those suffering from mental illness. Another spoke of hopes for a more civil society. People talked about cultural and political and big-picture hopes.
Then some spoke more personally. Our guest that day spoke of so many outstanding young police officers that he works with, and how this gave him hope for the future.
And then some of us spoke about our own lives. There were personal losses in families and the pain was fresh. There were friends and parishioners who had been diagnosed with cancer or were facing very trying situations. And the hopes we had were for healing, for peace, for strength. Sometimes we get to a place where when it comes to hope, the best we can do is hope to have hope.
Joseph and Mary made this long, hard journey to Bethlehem. Not yet married, subject to public ridicule, wondering perhaps if the angelic visions they had received were for real or maybe just strange hallucinations, the hard journey no doubt matched their emotional state. They were hopeful, but maybe afraid even to hope.
For the most part, Palestine consisted of dangerously rugged expanses of land. Arid temperatures scorched the soil. The earth was parched; vegetation was scarce – as was water. Joseph and Mary trudged along through this mostly harsh, bleak landscape.
But as they approached Bethlehem, things began to change. Bethlehem was different. The name itself means “house of bread.” Travelers approaching Bethlehem would be excited to see wheat fields and vineyards. In the middle of this desolate environment, a fertile land appeared. Figs and olives abounded. Bethlehem was a place of promise.
Bethlehem was not at all known as a religious city; before the birth of Jesus, nobody thought of Bethlehem as a holy place. Jerusalem was the Holy City. It was just six miles away, but in terms of culture and sensibility, it was a lot farther than that. Though a small place, Bethlehem was a governmental and political center. Herod lived in Bethlehem. Tax collectors and census takers worked there. By no stretch of the imagination was a trip to Bethlehem a spiritual pilgrimage.
Bethlehem was known as the ancestral city of David, and people hung on to that past. It had now been hundreds of years since the time of King David, but for a lot of people, that was still what came to mind when they heard Bethlehem. A small town near Jerusalem whose glory days were long past.
There were a few references to Bethlehem in the scriptures – we read one this morning, as Micah spoke of coming glory for Bethlehem. But these hopes seemed like a quaint idea, or something that was still yet a long way off. There were prophecies and dreams about a messiah coming from Bethlehem, but it is not as though anyone really expected anything to happen anytime soon – there was no evidence to support such an expectation. Depending on how you looked at it, Bethlehem’s best days were either long past, or somewhere out in the distant future. The present certainly did not offer much promise.
But in a time of foreign occupation, when the nation was at a low point, and in this place with a glorious past and a possible future but not much of a present, Jesus was born. He was born not just in Bethlehem, but at a particular place in this town. There was no room at the inn, and the best that Mary and Joseph could do was to find a stable, a place for animals, a most humble, inauspicious place, and that is where Mary gave birth.
Luke tells the story of that night. The child was born in a stable and placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. We have head this story so many times that we have romanticized it, but I doubt that many of you would want to have a baby in a barn and then finally set that baby in a feeding trough because that is the only option you had. It wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t sterile or hygienic, it wasn’t easy.
That night, angels announced the birth – not to religious leaders, not to leading citizens, not to world leaders, but to shepherds – lowly shepherds, out working in the fields.
This was an unexpected birth in an unexpected place, announced to unexpected people. A common, humble birth. And it was a birth that brought great joy and great hope. It still brings joy and hope, because if the birth of Christ was celebrated by rough shepherds, then what the angels said was true: this really was good news of great joy for all people.
This season, some of us find ourselves, like Mary and Joseph, traveling a hard road that we may not have chosen. Sometimes it can be a literal road. A couple of weeks ago, Susan’s father died unexpectedly. We had to make plans to travel to Arkansas. We had to decide whether to bring our dog Rudy – which can make traveling that much more difficult. (Some of you have been there.) We had to make arrangements for Zoe, who was in the last week of classes, to fly from Indianapolis to Little Rock. Emotionally as much as physically, it was a hard journey.
And I know that there are those of you who are in the midst of hard journeys, sometimes journeys that do not involve any actual travel but are difficult nonetheless. A journey can be 101 miles or 6393 miles, but sometimes the journeys that take place in our hearts and souls can be the longest and hardest ones.
We can reach the place where we are no longer confident in that idea of continual progress. We can come to the point where the empty promises of Caesar no longer ring true. We can get to the point where our own resources, our own strength and intelligience and good looks and good fortune are not enough.
We all reach that point. And when we do, then maybe we are ready, maybe we are open, to the hope and the wonder to be found in Bethlehem.
God does not force God’s will and ways upon us. More often than not, God does not show up with pyrotechnic displays. Sometimes God arrives in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, even in the midst of our difficult journeys.
In Christmas, we celebrate the love of God that reaches out to us even in the midst of those hard journeys, the love of a God who came to us in all the weakness and vulnerability of a baby born in an out of the way place in an out of the way country to young, poor, parents. A birth announced by angels to lowly shepherds.
Kate Compston offered a prayer which speaks to the joy that may found on the road the Bethlehem:
Thank you, Scandalous God, for giving yourself to the world, not in the powerful and extraordinary, but in weakness and the familiar: in a newborn baby.It can be a long and arduous road to Bethlehem. But at the end of that road, we find hope and joy. Love came to us in Bethlehem, and that Love is with us, even here, even now. Amen.
Thank you for offering, at journey’s end, a new beginning; for setting, in the poverty of a stable, the richest jewel of your love; for revealing, in a particular place, your light for all nations.
Thank you for bringing us to Bethlehem, House of Bread,
where the empty are filled, and the filled are emptied; where the poor find riches, and the rich recognize their poverty; where all who kneel and hold out their hands are unstintingly fed.