Text: Luke 2:1-14
Traveling in the holiday season is a tradition for a lot of us. When Zoe was really little, we had an 8:30 Christmas Eve service at our church in Illinois. We loaded up the car with all of our stuff and presents before the service. As soon as it was over, we changed clothes, got the dog, and drove all night to Susan’s parents in Arkansas. It was easier traveling with a 2 year old that way. Zoe and the dog slept most of the way, but Susan and I were just wiped out on Christmas Day and in the end decided not to try that again.
A lot of you may be traveling over the holidays, or maybe someone is traveling to your house. It is wonderful to get together with loved ones, but whether you are driving or flying, the trip is not always so easy, and in this age of COVID it is even more difficult. The whole over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go routine is not always so exhilarating in real life. And that has always been the case.
Traveling is a huge part of the Christmas story. After being told by an angel that she will bear a holy child, the long-awaited messiah, Mary is told that her older relative Elizabeth, who was well past child-bearing age, was also with child. Mary decides to go and visit Elizabeth. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah lived in a small village near Jerusalem. It was at least a 5 or 6 day journey, maybe 8 or 9 days to journey from Nazareth on foot. Mary would have traveled along with others going to Jerusalem.
Elizabeth was an older, maternal figure who was not her mother – someone who would believe her, encourage her and hopefully help her make sense of what was happening.
So Mary makes this arduous journey and as soon as she walks in the door, we read that Elizabeth’s child, who was John the Baptist, leaped in her womb. Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth and Mary comforted and helped one another as they shared in this amazing work of the Holy Spirit. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then returned to Nazareth. Another long journey. And now she is 3+ months pregnant.
So Mary had already made two long journeys. And then as the arrival of her child approached, there came the announcement that everyone would have to return to their hometown for the census – in order to be taxed. Joseph and Mary were formally engaged, which meant that legally, they were married. They made the long trip to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town. Bethlehem was just a couple of miles from Ein Karem, the traditional site of Elizabeth’s home. Another long journey, but this time Mary was 9 months pregnant, which would have made it even longer. Perhaps Joseph was able to get a donkey for Mary for this trip.
It is hard for us to imagine how difficult that journey was - long, tiring, exhausting, dangerous, unpredictable. I wonder – those of you who have had children: how would you feel about a nine day journey on a donkey when you were nine months pregnant? It is almost unfathomable.
But this was not Joseph and Mary’s idea. They are not taking a vacation. Caesar Augustus has called for a census, and everyone has to go to their hometown. Joseph is living in Nazareth in Galilee, about 90 miles to the north, but Bethlehem is where he was from. Folks no doubt had to go to their family home because they might own property, or at least a share of property there, and they had to pay property tax.
And so many days of difficult travel ensue, Mary threatening to go into labor at any moment, and it is all so they can pay taxes to Rome. I am 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 who suffer under the whims of whatever Caesar happens to be in power. 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. Once there, the best Joseph can do is find a stable where they can stay - maybe because it offered more privacy than a bunch of relatives in a small home - and that is where Mary winds up having the baby. This is not at all what she had planned.
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… 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 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.
But 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 90 miles or so miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. A long, hard journey. According to Google Maps, 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, it’s really not so bad. You can leave at 8:10 AM tomorrow from Des Moines on United Airlines and after layovers in Chicago and Istanbul, arrive in Tel Aviv at 8:50 Tuesday morning local time. Another hour and a half in a vehicle and you are in Bethlehem.
We can get from Ames to Bethlehem more quickly and much more easily than Joseph and Mary did from Nazareth. If we wanted, we could make it all the way to Bethlehem and back to Ames and Mary and Joseph would still be traveling that difficult road along with others going toward Jerusalem for the census.
But 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.
Bethlehem was known as the ancestral city of David, and people hung on to that past. It had 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 whose glory days were long past.
There were a few references to Bethlehem in the scriptures, including Micah speaking of the glory of 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. Depending on how you looked at it, Bethlehem’s best days were either long past, or somewhere out in the distant future. The present 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 – 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. 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. A road filled with pain, with obstacles, with hard choices.
A journey can be 90 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 all reach the point where our own resources, our own strength and intelligience and good fortune are not enough. And when we reach that point, then maybe we are ready, maybe we are open, to the hope and the wonder to be found in Bethlehem. And we find that 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 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. Good News of Great Joy to all people.
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.
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, 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.
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.