Episode 1. A Lonely Journey
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Over the last thirty years I’ve done quite a bit of travelling. Its hard work, the wear and tear on your body is quite a thing but it’s even harder when you’re not fit and well. And …
Over the last thirty years I’ve done quite a bit of travelling. Its hard work, the wear and tear on your body is quite a thing but it’s even harder when you’re not fit and well. And that is the very journey that Mary had, almost full term in her pregnancy, heading into that first Christmas.
Now I know that this is not going to come as any great surprise to you but I have never been pregnant. Something (by the way) that I’ve often given thanks for because I’m your typical male – the idea of going through childbirth is something I can’t comprehend. Which is why, I guess, God didn’t leave it up to men to be mother’s – wise move God, wise move.
Anyway, back to Christmas, I’m trying to imagine what it was like for Mary who was pretty much full term to travel from Nazareth the Bethlehem for the census. We don’t think too much about it because these days the drive from A to B would take, umm, two to three hours I’m guessing; maybe four, if you took it slowly and you had a break for lunch along the way. You’d probably do it in a comfortable air-conditioned car although even then, let’s say a three to four-hour car ride wouldn’t be particularly the most delightful experience for a woman who was close to full term, would it now? But back then it was a one to two-week journey.
Tradition has it … if you believe all the paintings and drawings that Mary rode on the back of a donkey, of course, there’s no Biblical evidence for that, we’re not told how she got from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But for her sake, I’m hoping she was on a back of a donkey or riding in the back of a cart somewhere rather than walking the whole way because one thing’s for certain she wasn’t riding in an air-conditioned car.
My point is this … we often look back on the old, old Christmas story as though it’s a fable or a pantomime or, I don’t know what. It was so long ago and we’ve heard it so many times that we just have this two-dimensional view of what went on. Yeah, yeah Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, Bethlehem, manger, yeah all that jazz. And when we look at Christmas that way, it’s almost as though we’re closing our hearts off to the wonderful real, gritty, here and now things that God’s wanting to speak into our lives.
Mary and Joseph didn’t have an easy run of it. It was time for a census. The Roman emperor had decreed that it was time to do a people stocktake. And the way they did it back then (before marks sensing, computer readable census forms distributed to each household) was that you had to head back to your ancestral home and for Joseph that meant Bethlehem.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea to the city of David called Bethlehem because he was descended from the house and the family of David. He went to be registered with Mary to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. (Luke 2: 1-5)
See, the Romans were nothing if not efficient administrators. They, in fact, had a huge impact on the distribution of the Gospel after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension because of the road and port infrastructure that they’d built and the relatively peaceful and homogenous Roman Empire that dominated the known world at the time.
But on this occasion, as far as Mary and Joseph were concerned, they were being a right proper pain in the backside. Quite literally for Mary if she was fortunate enough to have travelled the journey on the back of a donkey. I imagine that if you or I had been Mary or Joseph, we would have had a few choice words and thoughts about the timing of this rotten, lousy census. Why now? What a pain! How inconvenient!
Mary is almost full term and she and Jo are travelling with a sea of humanity in all different directions heading for their ancestral homes, in their case that was Bethlehem.
Isn’t that how it feels when circumstances and events beyond us seem to dictate the course of our lives? Pretty frustrating, isn’t it? – inconvenient and sometimes, downright dangerous and hurtful.
But this census wasn’t just some random event. It wasn’t a happen chance thing. As with everything, God was in it because centuries before through the Prophet Micah, He had spoken to His people about their Messiah whom He would send who would be born in, yeah you guessed it, Bethlehem. Let’s take a look, Micah 5: 2-3:
But you O Bethlehem of Ephratah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel whose origin is of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has brought forth, then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.
See, God had a plan. His plan was that Jesus, the bread of life as He later referred to Himself as, would be born in the town of Bethlehem, a word which literally means ‘the house of bread’. God’s plan was to speak powerfully to His people through the Words of Micah’s prophecy and through the fulfilment of that prophecy in the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.
My point is this … events are never random. Events that seem to roll over the top of your plans and your hopes and your dreams even never just happen by chance. Sometimes the most difficult and devastating events are the most powerful moves of God in our lives and through our lives and into the lives of other people around us. Of course, it never feels like it at the time. And rarely (if ever) does God give us the big picture if you will to explain what’s going on and what He’s up to when He’s doing that and letting these things happen to us.
But that doesn’t change the fact that God’s sovereign will is playing out right there and then. Psalm 135 verse 6 says:
Whatever the Lord pleases he does in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all the deeps.
So whatever that looks like in your life right now, remember your God is up to something good. I mean really good just as He was with Mary and Joseph even if they didn’t have the full picture.
I’ve called this series of messages leading up to Christmas – ‘Old Story, New Twist’. I did that for a reason because I know that this Christmas story, far from being some distant archaic tale of which pantomimes are born, is a gritty, real story of the journey of the Creator of the universe into the lives of men and women, into the lives of you and me.
And when we look at that old, old story from His perspective (from the vantage point of heaven’s balcony if you will), when we allow God by His Spirit and through His Word to guide us on that journey over the dusty trails that Mary and Joseph trod, we discover a God who is on that same dusty, difficult journey with you and me today.
Peter the Apostle in 1 Peter 5 and verse 7 said that we should:
Cast all our anxieties on God because he cares for us.
So whatever anxieties and discomforts and fears and disappointments you happen to be carrying around on your rocky road towards this Christmas – this God who is above all your circumstances, this God who is in all your circumstances, this God who sent you His Son to lighten your load wants to take your burdens from you.
So how about it? Is it time to hand all that stuff over to Him and to get on the journey and head towards Christmas with joy and anticipation and excitement in your heart? Because Jesus came for you, He came to set you free, He came to bring you forgiveness and a future and a certain hope and an eternity with Him.
That’s what He ushered in on that very first Christmas. And that, I reckon, is something definitely worth celebrating – Christmas.