The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem!
After four weeks of studying this story, we finally come to the part that most people call “the Christmas story.” They might say that everything before this was setting the stage. In musical terms, they might say that all that came before was prelude.
They may be right, because even as Mary and Joseph travel this road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the whole story of God’s acting for humanity is laid out before us.
I was taught that Mary and Joseph likely took an eastern route from Nazareth along the Jordan River to Bethlehem. This would have been the safer route, skirting the territory of the Samaritans and it would have been an easier route in some ways.
Adam Hamilton along with some scholars suggests that they would have taken the more direct route because, even though it went through the heart of Samaritan territory, with Mary 9 months pregnant they would have taken the shortest route possible.
If that is correct, the journey would have headed south from Nazareth. As they left Nazareth by the south way and descended from the hills, how could they not admire the beauty of God’s creation? The valley is called the Jezreel valley. Jezreel comes from the Hebrew word that means “God sows” reminding us that God has in his wonderful power sowed the seeds of creation. God in his wonderful grace planted humanity in this creation to flourish and take care of it.
During these first two days of the journey, they would have walked through the valley that was at the heart of many great Biblical events. The valley is bound on the East by the Jordan River-- on the other side is the wilderness in which the Israelites wondered for 40 years. On the West, it was bordered by Mount Carmel the sight of Elisha’s famous showdown with the priest’s of Baal. On the south was Mount Gilboa, the sight of King Saul’s death.
The Jezreel valley was the site of many battles fought as the Israelites moved into the Promised Land. The Bible tells us that this is the site of the victory of Gideon, against the Midianites, the Amalekiltes, and the Children of the East. Later it was the location at which the Israelites, led by King Saul, were defeated by the Philistines. It is the area that Jehu confrontation with Jezebel which ended with Jezebel being thrown out the window and eaten by dogs.
Through this valley of wars, Mary bears the child that we will know as the prince of peace. As they journeyed through Jezreel, they may have passed Megiddo, also called Armageddon. Armageddon is the expected location for the final battle at which this child, the prince of peace, will destroy the prince of darkness and establish God’s rule forever.
As they ascended the Mountains of Gilboa, they would have passed thousands of olive trees. From which came the oils of anointing used by the high priest to anoint every king in Israel’s history. This olive oil would later be used by the disciples to heal the sick, by Mary Magdalene to anoint Jesus’ feet, and was brought by the women on Easter morning to anoint the body of Jesus. In fact, Messiah means, “Anointed one.”
Passing through the mountains would have been a slow, difficult 2-3day trip. They would probably have spent the night near the spring that provided water for the father of the faith, Abraham.
Another night was probably near Sychar and the ancient city of Shechem the location of Jacob’s well where Jacob settled after making up with his brother Esau. This is also the well where Jesus would meet the Samaritan woman and offer her “living water.”
Finally, as they head toward Jerusalem they encounter the most difficult part of the journey. The hills get steeper. The fertile valleys are gone. You can imagine Mary saying, “I don’t think I can go any further.” And Joseph reassuring her, “We’re almost there dear. Just a little further.”
On the 9th or 10th day, they would have crested a hill and seen Jerusalem laid out before them. This was the city of David, and it was dominated by the temple the symbol of God’s very presence in Israel. Of course, this would not be the last journey to Jerusalem. There would be others and of course. There would be one very bad one when Mary would come to stand at the foot of the cross, as the child she carried on this journey, would hang as a grown man for the sins of the world.
From Jerusalem, it was only 6 miles, another hour and a half, to Bethlehem. The last leg of the trip went through the arid and rocky hills of the Judean countryside. Until on the 10th day, they arrived in Bethlehem.
For Mary and Joseph the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was a hardship and a nuisance. They were just enduring the hardship of living in an occupied country, pushed around by the whims of by the Caesars and the Governors. They could not see what was to come of it.
They couldn’t yet see the angel choir singing “Glory to God.”
They couldn’t imagine the shepherds rushing to the stable to see the baby.
They did not know that the Magi were already beginning their journey to pay homage to the little king.
They couldn’t imagine the crowds thronging around him, the sick pressing him for healing, the crowds calling out, and “Jesus save us?“
If they had known of the journey Jesus would take on the other end of his life; the journey to Jerusalem and the journey to the cross, then the journey of the first Christmas would have been too much to bear.
They certainly could not imagine that 2000 years later we would spend 5 weeks studying their story and seeking to make it our own story.
They couldn’t see any of that. Yet they made the journey. Step by dusty step they faithfully made their way to Bethlehem. Why, because Caesar said they had to? Maybe. But did you ever think that maybe Caesar was part of a bigger plan too. Just like Abraham, and Moses, and Joshua and David and Jeremiah and Elisha and Mary and Joseph and you and me.
The Christmas story is not about what happened 2100 years ago on a silent night in the little town of Bethlehem. The story of God’s incarnation does not begin with the angel’s annunciation to Mary. The story of Emmanuel does not begin with Joseph’s faithfulness.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the climax of the saga God’s continuing efforts to be in relationship with people. Coming to be with us as a baby is the absolute clearest way God could say “I am with you” which is what God has been telling his people through all of history. Abraham, “have faith, for I am with you.” Isaac, “have faith, for I am with you.” Jacob, “have faith, for I am with you.” Moses, “have faith, for I am with you.” Wonderers through the wilderness, “have faith, for I am with you.” Joshua and Samuel, “have faith, for I am with you.” Saul and David, “have faith, for I am with you.” Isaiah, Jeremiah, Haggai and Zechariah, “have faith, for I am with you.”
Mary and Joseph- even though I am asking you to believe the almost impossible. Even though you will have to sacrifice everything. Even though you can’t see how this is going to end, “have faith, for I am with you.”
Peter, Paul, and all the Christians through the ages, “have faith, for I am with you.”
People of Reinbeck, even when the world is filled with school shootings, and suicide bombers, and lunatic dictators, even as we know Christian brothers and sisters gather in Palestinian held Bethlehem under the watchful eye of Arab guards with machine guns, the Christmas message is, “have faith, for I am with you.”
Even as Christians around the world are forbidden to worship on Christmas Eve, Christians in Nigeria are killed, and the faithful in China are imprisoned for their faith, the Christmas message is, “have faith, for I am with you.”
Even as the nation faces the so-called fiscal cliff, and our trusted leaders demonstrate abject selfishness and failure of vision and leadership, the Christmas message is, “have faith, for I am with you.”
Even as the doctors say “it is cancer,” or MS, macular degeneration, or diabetes, or heart failure, or depression… the Christmas message is, “have faith, for I am with you.”
Even as your aging parents say hurtful things to you, your spouse betrays you, your children's lives swirl around the proverbial drain, the Christmas message is, “have faith, for I am with you.”
Even as your finances are a mess, your job is less secure, and your future is far from certain, the Christmas message is, “have faith, for I am with you.”
Jesus did not come to this earth in a vacuum. He came to an underage girl from a poor family, in an occupied corner of the world, under the weight of brutal taxation in a stable among those who would fear him and try to kill him. And in the midst of that, the Christmas message was still, “have faith, for I am with you.”
It is not a new message. It is not the kind of message that gets put up in lights or is tweeted and retweeted but is the most fundamental message of God’s work in history. It is the most fundamental message of the Christmas story. It is the most important message we could hear and share this Christmas.
“Have faith, for God is with you.” Immanuel.