Tuesday, December 24, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
How far is it to Bethlehem? This question, the title of the song the children sang at our pageant on Sunday and tonight, has lingered on my heart. I’m sure it was the question the young expectant mother Mary, asked Joseph many times as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for that unplanned trip. If you’ve ever traveled by airplane, train, bus, or any other mode of transportation you know that schedules can often be delayed without any notice due to a number of circumstances. Your plans can quickly change leaving you worried and filled with anxiety on arriving to your destination. Instead of arriving on time you’re now delayed. The journey is out of your hands.
The story of the first Christmas was a similar journey. It was an unexpected and difficult one. Joseph and Mary who were engaged and waiting to be married all of a sudden found all their plans changed. Mary, the young teenage bride-to-be was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Both Joseph and Mary were caught off guard by this strange and unbelievable news. Yet they listened to God. They said yes to God. And they trusted in God though the direction of their lives drastically changed.
While they prepared for the coming of this special child, the government made them leave the safety and security of their home in Nazareth to register in another city for a census for tax purposes. This was another unexpected and unwanted change of plans. By that time Mary was doing the usual nesting and making their home ready for the arrival of the baby. She didn’t want to travel, especially on foot, to a city far away – over 90 miles away to be more exact. This was not an easy journey, especially for a pregnant woman ready to give birth. As much as they wanted to stay home, they were forced to leave. It’s estimated that it took them between 7- 10 days walking depending on whether they walked 10 or 20 miles per day.
The most direct route would have been directly south across the Jezreel Valley and through the hills of Samaria. But that was a physically demanding route with many hills. Most likely Mary and Joseph traveled southeast across the Jezreel Valley, through the Jordan Valley, all the way to Jericho, up through the Judean desert to Jerusalem and then south to Bethlehem. The last part of the journey was the worst. The walk from Jericho’s desert, which is below sea level to Bethlehem is an uphill hike of 3500 feet! It’s exhausting just thinking about this and let’s not forget…Mary was pregnant! Their plans for staying at home and preparing for the birth were long gone. They weren’t even sure where Jesus was going to be born. Can you hear Mary say to Joseph, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”
In the midst of the Roman occupation of Israel over 2000 years ago, despite the hard and dangerous journey of Mary and Joseph, God arrived. The armies couldn’t stop God’s arrival. The government authorities couldn’t stop God’s arrival. The treacherous roads didn’t stop God’s arrival. The people who didn’t make room for Mary and Joseph at any of their houses couldn’t stop God’s arrival. God showed up in an unexpected and surprising way – as a tiny baby in a stable. Despite all the unbelievable obstacles, nothing could stop God from showing up that first Christmas, and nothing will stop God from showing up today.
God arrives, God comes to us even when things don’t go as we planned. Even when we find ourselves in situations we’d rather not be in, even when the news we receive seems bleak and hopeless, even when we feel lost and along, even when what we’re up against seems insurmountable, God’s comes to us. It may not be the estimated arrival time according to our schedule, but God arrives. It may be in the form of angels or messengers from God. It may be the words they speak to us, or the kindness they show to us that points to God right in our midst. We just need to keep walking the journey of faith, and trust in God who always shows up.
And we don’t have to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in a census. God comes to us because we count – we matter – to God. You are important to God. God travelled all the way from the glories of heaven to earth and became human just for you in order to save you. God arrives and comes to us in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, and sometimes through unexpected people. God is hidden in the faces and the hands of the people you see every day. You count to God, and God will never leave you.
Be not afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David, A Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.” These words spoken by the angel are for each and every one of us tonight. To us is born a Savior. The sign for us is the child – the Savior -wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger hidden in a stable. The sign for us is the Savior who came to show us how to live and gave his life for us. The sign for us is the Savior hidden in the bread and the wine of the Holy Meal we are fed by tonight. Bethlehem, which means house of bread, was the birthplace of the One who is bread for the world.
This is the good news the angels speak to us tonight. We don’t have to travel to Bethlehem; Bethlehem comes to us this night. Nothing stopped God from coming that first Christmas, and nothing will stop God from coming today. God shows up, time and time again, not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is – faithful, generous, gracious, loving, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father prince of Peace. What a gift! What a Savior! What a reason to celebrate this night and every day! How far is it to Bethlehem? Not very far! Amen!