Our Advent journey began last Sunday. In the message, we considered two of the important people of Christmas - Mary, a young woman, and Joseph, a man to whom Mary was promised to a marriage that was scheduled to happen in a few months.
Mary and Joseph had hopes. Not great, pompous hopes, probably, but hopes for at least a comfortable life. A quiet life in their small town of Nazareth in the northern part of Israel. A life that would probably include some children of their own.
Mary and Joseph had hopes. However, God had other hopes. Other plans for them. His hopes included that Mary would conceive in a supernatural way, that happening before she and Joseph were married, that Mary would then give birth to a son, who was to be named Jesus, a son who would grow up to be the Savior of the world, and that Joseph, who would not be the father of the baby, would stay with Mary to provide a complete and steady family experience for the one who would become the Savior.
God’s hopes were way different than Mary and Joseph’s hopes. However, both Mary and Joseph agreed to what God hoped for them. They were willing to change what they planned for themselves so they could fit into God’s hopes for them.
Today, our Advent journey continues as we concentrate on a trip Mary and Joseph took shortly before Mary’s baby was born. The baby that had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. A conception, as announced by the angel Gabriel, that happened as God overshadowed her. As mentioned last week, no one knows - at least I do not know - what that means. How the conception happened. But it did happen.
Today, a trip Mary and Joseph took shortly before the baby to be named Jesus was born.
Being right before Jesus’ birth, the idea of taking a trip would seem unwise. At least inconvenient. But the trip was made. It was a requirement, as we learn in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Luke. The trip was a requirement according to a decree from Caesar Augustus, the ruler of the Roman Empire. Israel was, at the time, part of that empire. The Jewish people did not want to be part of the Roman Empire, but they were.
The decree from Caesar Augustus was for a count of the people in the empire he ruled. The count included finding out how many people were in each of the areas of his empire. He wanted that information so he would know where people were. He needed to know to make sure where potential soldiers lived. The knowledge would also help in determining proper taxation within the empire.
Interestingly, Jewish men were not required to serve in the Roman army. But they were required to pay Roman taxes. So the Jewish people were included in the count of the population.
The decree was that everyone in the Roman Empire, at a certain time, would report to their ancestral hometowns. As it is recorded, all went to be counted - to be enrolled - including the Jewish people. Including Joseph.
By the way, it is my understanding that everyone applied to men. That only men were required to travel to their ancestral hometowns, yet it is clear from Luke’s account that Mary went with Joseph from Nazareth, in northern Israel, to Bethlehem, in the south. Bethlehem is about five or six miles south of the capital city of Jerusalem. Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral hometown.
Mary went with Joseph. She went, despite the fact she might not have been required to travel. Despite the fact her pregnancy was about complete. She was just days away from giving birth to Jesus. Despite those two things, Mary went with Joseph.
Why did she go with Joseph? I suspect it was because of the social problems Mary had in Nazareth. Problems mentioned last week. Problems Mary faced when it was discovered she was pregnant before she and Joseph were married. Mary’s parents would at least have been disappointed she had apparently not stayed pure. They may have gone so far as to kick her out of their house. Mary’s friends most certainly rejected her for what appeared to them to have been impurity on her part. Mary’s only explanation to family and friends was that the baby had been conceived supernaturally, but who could be expected to believe that?
Things were socially difficult for Mary in Nazareth. It was not likely to get any better when her baby was born. In fact, the only one still kind to her was Joseph. So it was that when he had to travel to Bethlehem, 75 miles to the south, Mary went with him.
A journey of 75 miles. How long would that have taken? I have read people could make up to 20 miles a day, walking, as was likely the case for Joseph, or on a donkey, which was likely the case for Mary. But remember Mary was very pregnant. Just a few days from delivering her baby. So the distance traveled per day was likely less.
It might have taken a week or a bit more for Mary and Joseph to make the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. At first, there were likely not alone. Remember every man had to return to his ancestral hometown. There were many towns along the way, including Nain, Sychar, Ephraim, Jericho, Bethany, and yes, Jerusalem, among others. So there were no doubt fellow travelers with Mary and Joseph when they started the trip.
But Mary and Joseph were slow. I doubt others would have wanted to be slowed down. They would have gone on ahead. Mary and Joseph would have come across other groups. But they, too, would have wanted to travel faster.
That means Mary and Joseph would have had very little steady company. That was a social problem. There were other problems as well. Other problems that at least would have threatened them. The route from Nazareth to Bethlehem did not have a system of paved roads. Some of the route was through wilderness, home to wild animals. There were areas that harbored robbers. In addition, there were no grocery stores along the way. The only sources of food were what Mary, Joseph, or the donkey would have been able to carry or hunt for along the way or hope to receive from other travelers. What about rain? What about at least cool temperatures at night? Wood would have been needed for fires to cook or to help stay warm. It may have been difficult to find wood with so many others traveling.
It was a long, lonely, difficult, uncomfortable, potentially dangerous trip Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But they made it, eventually arriving at Bethlehem. Imagine how relieved Mary was. Imagine how happy Joseph was that he had got himself and Mary to their destination safely.
However, then another problem became evident. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, there was no place for them to stay. No room in Bethlehem’s inn in which to stay.
Of course there was no way back then to call ahead to reserve a room. And remember Joseph would not have been the only one traveling to Bethlehem for the counting of the population. Some other men also had Bethlehem as their ancestral hometown. Others might have used Bethlehem as a rest stop before going further south to places like Hebron or Lachish.
When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, there was no place - no room - for them. Not in the town’s inn. Apparently not even any spare rooms in private homes. Many large family houses at that time had family quarters on the ground floor and guest rooms on the upper stories or on the roof, but apparently even those were all taken.
The result was that Mary and Joseph took lodging in a barn. Likely a cave used as a barn. It was there Mary and Joseph, among animals, spent the night.
By the way, I recently read that sometimes families had their animals close by at night. The animals’ body heat helped warm houses on chilly nights. In that way, the animals were very beneficial that night
It was there, that night, Mary gave birth to her first-born son, likely only Joseph to help her. After which she wrapped her baby in swaddling cloths.
Something else I recently read is that swaddling cloths, which wrapped tightly around a baby’s body and arms and legs, were thought to help the baby gain strength as he or she pushed against the cloth. It is strange that Jesus, who we know would grow up to be the Savior, did not have as His first clothes wonderful robes, but right away His mother helped Him be strong.
She then laid Jesus in a manger. A manger was a feeding trough for animals. That was the best thing there was in the cave for Jesus’ first bed.
There may have been some other people in the same cave barn that night. Others who also had found no rooms in the inn or a private home. But in essence, Mary and Joseph were alone that night in Bethlehem. They had each made the choice to follow God’s hopes for them. As mentioned, for Mary to give birth to the Savior, which she had just done, and for Joseph to stay with Mary and help raise Jesus, which he was about to start doing. But that night they were alone. Just them - and the Son of God.
* * * * *
Our Advent journey will continue in the weeks to come. The journey will include news that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, did not remain alone. They were visited, first by a group of shepherds. We will talk about them next Sunday. Then by some Wise Men. We will talk about them later this season.
But for now, three things. One a Biblical point, another a story that challenges us about how we are to respond to Jesus, then a review of the closing carol for today’s service.
The Biblical point features an interesting spiritual explanation of the trip Mary and Joseph took to Bethlehem. An explanation rooted in an Old Testament prophecy about the Savior.
The prophecy is recorded in Micah 5:2. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah…” That second part of the name is important. There was at least one other Bethlehem in Israel, that one close to Nazareth. But Bethlehem Ephrathah, where Jesus was born, is the one in the south. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel.”
To fulfill that prophecy - to be a proof Jesus is the Savior - He had to be come from the Bethlehem in southern Israel. What better way for Him to come from that town than to be born there. But Joseph would have had no reason to travel to that town except to obey the decree from Caesar Augustus and Mary would have had no reason to go with Joseph except that she was rejected in Nazareth.
Did Caesar Augustus realize his decree helped prophecy be fulfilled? Did Mary’s family and former friends realize they helped prophecy be fulfilled? I doubt the Roman ruler or the family and former friends had a clue they were part of God’s plan, but that is how it worked out. How wonderful that even where Jesus was born is proof He is the Savior.
So, how will we react to Jesus? That leads us to a story. I have shared this before in earlier Christmas seasons, but maybe you missed it. If you remember it, I hope you want to hear it again.
The story centers on a boy named Wallace Purling, who turned out to be the star of the Christian pageant one year.
Wally was nine years old that year and in second grade, though he should have been in fourth grade. Most people in town knew he had difficulty keeping up in his studies. He was big and awkward, slow in movement and mind.
Still, Wally was well liked by the other children in his class, all of whom were smaller than he, though the boys had trouble hiding their irritation when Wally asked to play ball with them, or any other game in which winning was important.
The other boys would find a way to keep him out, but Wally would hang around anyway, never sulking, just hoping. He was a helpful boy, always willing and smiling, and, interestingly, the protector of the underdog. If the older boys chased the younger ones away, it would be Wally who would say, "Can't they stay? They're no bother."
Wally wanted to be a shepherd in the Christmas pageant that year, but the play's director, Miss Lumbard, assigned him to the role of innkeeper. She reasoned that the innkeeper did not have too many lines, and Wally's size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph more forceful.
So it happened that the usual large audience gathered for the town's yearly extravaganza of crooks and creches, beards, crowns, halos, and a whole stageful of squeaky voices.
No one on stage or off was more caught up in the magic of the night than Wally. He stood in the wings of the stage and watched the performance with such fascination that Miss Lumbard had to make sure he did not wander onstage before his cue.
Then the time came when Joseph appeared, slowly, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door set into the painted backdrop. Wally the innkeeper was there, waiting.
Wally swung the door open with a brusque gesture and said, ”What do you want?”
"We seek lodging."
"Seek it elsewhere." Wally spoke vigorously. "The inn is filled."
"Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary."
"There is no room in this inn for you." Wally looked properly stern.
"Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife, Mary. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.”
The innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. With that, there was a long pause. Long enough to make the audience a bit tense with embarrassment.
"No! Begone!" the prompter whispered.
"No!" Wally repeated automatically. “Begone!"
Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary. Mary laid her head on her husband's shoulder. The two of them started to move away.
However, the innkeeper did not return inside the inn, as the script called for. Wally stood in the doorway, watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open. His brow creased with concern. His eyes started to fill with tears.
Suddenly that Christmas pageant became different from all others.
Wally called out, ”Don't go, Joseph. Bring Mary back." Then Wallace Purling's face grew into a bright smile. "You can have my room.”
Some people in town thought the pageant had been ruined. Yet there were others - many, many others - who considered it the most Christmas of all Christmas pageants they had ever seen.
Will we give room to Jesus? Room in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls? When we do, we can be as joyful as Wally’s smile that night.
Let’s make room for Jesus in our lives. What a wonderful gift that will be for the Lord.
The theme for today’s Advent message is peace. I am convinced the kind of peace represented in Christmas is not peace between nations or even peace with other people.
Instead, the peace of Christmas is what comes from knowing Jesus is the Savior, and from letting Jesus into our lives, and from seeing how God does and will work things out just as they are supposed to so His purposes can be fulfilled. The peace that is a gift to all who accept Jesus as the Savior He became. The peace of having a good relationship with God, which brings blessings now and Heaven later.
Sometimes - hopefully - the peace Christmas represents will bring international and interpersonal peace, but Jesus is the source of spiritual peace with God.
Let’s sing about that to close today’s service. The carol is Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus. Listen to the rewards proclaimed in the carol. The rewards for having the peace of Jesus in our lives. In verse 1, spiritual freedom, being released from sins and fear, being able to rest. In verse 2, the privilege of having Jesus in us to rule us for our good, for the good of others, and for God’s glory.
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of ev’ry nation,
Joy of ev’ry longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious Kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Lord, thank You for being our hope for peace.
To receive it, we must make room for You. For any who have not yet done that, continue to draw them to You.
For those of us who already are Christians, help us to continue to have You reign in us so we can continue to have and appreciate true peace. The peace that comes from You .