Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Journey ~ From Nazareth to Bethlehem

For the past three weeks we have been looking at the unusual journey that brought Mary and Joseph together and eventually led them to Bethlehem and what I have appreciated is a new perspective on an old and familiar story. For example, a few weeks ago we heard how Joseph may not have been from Nazareth where Mary lived but from Bethlehem which was about 80 miles away. Arranged marriages over long distances were not uncommon in those days so it’s possible that Joseph was from Bethlehem because as we heard today, that is where they travel at the time of the census when people were called to return to their hometowns. If Joseph was from Bethlehem, he most likely heard that Mary was pregnant while she was visiting with her cousin Elizabeth who lived in Ein Karem, which was a small town just a few miles from Bethlehem.

Last week we heard that Mary spent the first 3 months of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth and then we assume Mary and Joseph travelled back to Nazareth where they quickly got married and waited for Mary to give birth. Now the custom in those days was for a young couple to return to the groom’s home where a room would be set aside or built onto the house for the newlyweds to live until they saved enough money to move out on their own, but because Mary was pregnant we assume they planned to stay in Nazareth at least until the baby was born so that Mary’s family could help her at the time of the delivery. While that may have been their plan, that plan changed when a Roman Centurion arrived with the news that the Emperor Augustus had called for a census which meant that all men had to return to their hometowns to be counted. Joseph, being from Bethlehem, now had to return home so he and Mary were forced to take the long and difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Before we look at the actual road that Mary and Joseph would have travelled, let’s stop and consider the census for a moment. In those days a census was called for one reason, to levy taxes. By including this detail in the story, Luke is making a point of reminding those who are reading this that when Jesus was born God’s people were living in an occupied land. The people of Israel were not free – they were being ruled over by Rome and the people hated that and they longed for the day when they would be free. In fact, the Jewish people were looking forward to the day when the Messiah would come and it was this Messiah that the angel said would be born to Mary, look at Luke 1:32-33.

This is the kind of Messiah the people were looking for, someone who would sit on the throne of David and overthrow the Roman government so the people could be free. While Jesus didn’t come to be that kind of Messiah, he did set people free from bondage – from the spiritual bondage of sin and death. So today when we hear about the Emperor Augustus and Quirinius the governor of Syria it reminds us that at times we also live in bondage and look for a Messiah to set us free. The apostle Paul talks about the bondage we live in, in the bondage of sin, in Romans 7:15, 19-20.

It is the power of sin which compels us to do those things we know we shouldn’t do and it is the power of sin which keeps us from doing what we know God wants us to do. This is the bondage and oppression that Jesus was born to take away. When we accept Christ and allow the power of God’s Holy Spirit to work in our lives, we begin to experience freedom from this kind of sin and bondage and we begin to experience the joy of new life. This freedom and new life is available to all of us today if we are willing to accept the power of God and allow God’s spirit to work in us. One of the carols we sang today said, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. Freedom and life can be born in us by simply accepting Jesus as our Savior and allowing God to begin to develop new life within us. That’s a spiritual journey that can begin today by simply asking Jesus to be born in us, it won’t mean everything will suddenly be perfect and easy – it wasn’t easy for Mary and Joseph, but when invite Christ into our lives we begin a journey where we will experience the fullness of life.

For Mary and Joseph, their journey took them to Bethlehem and there are two roads they could have taken. 

 The road on the eastern side of the Jordan River would have been the easiest road to take. Literally, it was an easy road to travel because it was flat and followed the river which meant there would be food and water, and this road also passed through areas that were much more acceptable and friendly to the Jewish people, but this road was longer so it would have taken Mary and Joseph more time to get to Bethlehem which meant they ran the risk of having their child along the way.

The other road, which lies to the west of the Jordan River, ran through a much more difficult terrain. There were sections of this road that went through the mountains and it was very dry and having enough water was always a concern on trips in those days, so the physical journey would be difficult for anyone, let alone a woman 9 months pregnant. The western road also travelled through Samaria which was considered an unclean land by the Jewish people. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews and because many Jews considered the Samaritans ritually impure and unclean, the region was often avoided by many faithful Jews, but this road would have been the fastest way to Bethlehem and so most scholars believe that this was the road travelled by Mary and Joseph.

What is interesting about this road through Samaria is that it is called the Way of the Patriarchs because it is in this region that much of the history of the Old Testament took place. For example, this was the land where Abraham was shown the land God was going to give him and his descendants forever. It was in this land that Joseph was buried and it was here that Joshua set up the Ark of the Covenant. This was also the road that Israel would have travelled when they were led away into captivity, travelling from Jerusalem to the land of Babylon in the northeast, and this would have been the road God’s people would travelled when they returned to their homeland to rebuild the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. This road was rich with history and in many ways it was a road God was very familiar with because he had travelled it with his people for generations. How interesting to think that now God was going to travel this road in the flesh, in the womb of Mary.

Mary and Joseph’s decision to take this road to Bethlehem also reveals something to us about their heart and character. Because they were travelling through Samaria, Mary and Joseph must have been ok interacting with people that others considered unclean and impure. When we consider the life of Jesus and remember all the times he reached out to those others considered unclean, we begin to see just how his heart and life were shaped by his earthly parents.

As an adult, Jesus would travel through Samaria and not just pass through like other Jews would, but actually stop and engage in ministry. In fact, a well that Mary and Joseph would have stopped at for the night was the same well where Jesus stopped and asked a Samaritan woman to draw him some water. Jesus shocked his followers by not just reaching out to speak to Samaritans but he offered them forgiveness and salvation. While this was shocking to many people in Jesus day, it makes sense that Jesus might be like this when we think about his parents. They were compassionate people who also may have been willing to reach out and embrace people who were different than they were.

All of this makes us stop and ask ourselves if our own hearts are open to all people? Do we really believe that God’s love and forgiveness is available to everyone regardless of who they are and what they have done in life? Do we believe that God’s grace is deep enough to forgive and wide enough to receive everyone? We have been wrestling with this very issue in our community recently as we have had to come face to face with the reality of child abuse. We have had to ask ourselves if we believe that God’s grace is for all people, even those who are accused or found guilty of crimes. This doesn’t mean there isn’t justice for criminals and consequences for sin, but is God’s grace big enough to forgive everyone? May and Joseph were willing to open themselves to everyone, to all people – the angels told the shepherds on the night that Jesus was born that a savior had come for all the people - Jesus offered God’s grace and life to all people – will we offer God’s grace and love to all people?

So we believe that Mary and Joseph travelled through Samaria and arrived in Bethlehem where it says in Luke 2 that Jesus was born and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. So now we come the question many of you have been thinking about for the last couple of weeks, if Joseph was from Bethlehem, then why did Mary and Joseph have to go to an Inn instead of to Joseph’s home? That’s a great question and one possible answer is that maybe they did go to Joseph’s home.

If we look at Luke 2:7 it just says that they laid Jesus in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Now the word inn here is the Greek word kataluma and the only other place this word is used in the Bible is in Luke 22 where Jesus tells his disciples to prepare the Passover meal in the kataluma or the guest room of a home. Luke 22 translates kataluma as guestroom and if we read Luke 2 that way, it changes the whole tone of the passage. She wrapped him cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them in the guest room. Another reason we might want to read it this way is because in the story of the good Samaritan when Jesus talks about an actual Inn, Luke uses a different word, so if Luke wanted us to see this as an actual Inn, then he might have used a different word. So if we read Luke 2 and see it as a guest room that was full, we would assume the guest room was in Joseph’s home and it would make sense that the guest room was full because the census would have brought everyone home.

But, you may ask, why wouldn’t the family have given the guest room to Mary and Joseph since she was pregnant and in such need? Another good question; according to Jewish law, when a woman gave birth – because of the blood involved in the process of childbirth – the woman and all that she touched and all that the blood came into contact with would be considered unclean for a period of time which meant that if Mary had given birth in the guest room, the room would have been off limits to the entire family and most homes didn’t have more than one guest room, which meant that most of Joseph’s family would have been displaced, so it makes more sense to send Mary and Joseph to the stable to give birth and not disrupt the entire family.

Now while we may think this stable would not have been a good place to have a child, in many ways it was ideal. Stables were often built onto the back or side of the house which means that they were protected from both the weather and wild beasts, and the location could have been close to Joseph’s family, which means that they would have been there to help if and when needed.

I have to say that this new way of looking at the story was a challenge for me; after all, when I was in 5th grade I played the part of the Innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away, but did you notice that there is no innkeeper in Luke? While this new perspective might change your image of what took place on the night Jesus was born and while it might change how we write and present Christmas pageants, here’s what I like about it. It comforts me to know that Jesus didn’t enter the world in a strange location all alone, but in the stable of Joseph’s family. Think about it, if the feeding trough was made of wood, maybe it was something Joseph built with his father when he was a child. The stable would have been a familiar place for Joseph, maybe a place of happy memories, and his family would have been close by so in the city of Bethlehem there may not have been a better place for Jesus to be born – God provided what was best.

I think that is what encourages me the most when I look at the stable from this perspective, maybe Mary and Joseph weren’t as alone as we picture them on that night. It encourages me to know that God provided a good place for Mary and Joseph to deliver their child because that tells me that when we are in need, God will provide. If you are on a long difficult journey and if like Mary and Joseph you are asking God why things are so hard and why things aren’t turning out the way you thought they should and if you asking why God’s will is so hard to see, then I hope you will take home this one important lesson from Mary and Joseph – God will provide. God provided for Mary and Joseph all along their journey to Bethlehem and God provided for them in Bethlehem and God was going to continue to provide for them in the future because their journey wasn’t over. God never abandon them, and God does not and will not abandon us.

As faithful Jews, Mary and Joseph would have known their scripture and I wonder if the words of the prophet Isaiah rang in their hearts and minds as they travelled the road to Bethlehem or faced an uncertain future in a stable:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

On our journey today, I hope we will hear this promise of God? God loves us so much that He will not only be with us, but in love and grace and in power – He will provide.

Next Steps:
Jesus came to “cast out our sin” and set us free. What sin do you need to confess to God so that God’s forgiveness and grace and set you free? Confess that sin to God this week and allow God’s grace to bring you the gift of freedom and true life.

By travelling through Samaria on their way to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph remind us that the gift of Jesus and God’s salvation and grace is for all people. What person (or groups of people) do you struggle to love? How can you reach out to them in love in the coming year?

The stable (or cave) where Jesus was born may have been attached to Joseph’s home and the Inn that was full may have been the guest room in Joseph’s family home, so when you see Nativity scenes this week thank God that He sent Jesus to your home and to touch the hearts and lives of your family.

Invite someone who is “hungry for God” to worship with you this Christmas Eve at 4:00, 7:00 or 9:30 PM.