December 22, 2019
Luke 2: 1-7
Nazareth to Bethlehem: Perseverance
Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
Last week when Carla was sharing about how she and her husband were expecting a baby 14 years ago this week, I found myself thinking it’s a good thing the two of us weren’t in team ministry back, then because 14 years ago this week, my partner and I were also expecting a baby. Thankfully, our firstborn, Nathan, whose due date was December 29th waited until New Year’s day to begin to make his presence known to us in earnest.
Brenda went into serious labour just before midnight that day. By about 7:30 the next morning, our doula decided we should call the doctor to come and check on things. When the doctor arrived at the house, she quickly determined that Brenda was more than ready to deliver this baby. But because we hadn’t planned on a home birth, suddenly we were rushing into the car to make our way to the hospital. As I climbed into the driver’s seat the doctor yelled over to me “I’ll be right behind you in case you have to pull over.” As I fumbled around trying to get the key in the ignition reality started to sink in. The doctor was trying to tell me that there was a good possibility Brenda was going to have this baby in the backseat of the car.
The 25 minutes it took to drive from our house to Women’s hospital was possibly the longest journey of my life. And yet that journey had nothing on the one Mary and Joseph had to take to Bethlehem when Mary was nine months pregnant and suddenly and edict came declaring that everyone must return to their hometown to be counted for a census. Imagine Mary, once pregnant out of wedlock, now married and finally getting ready to give birth to her baby in the comfort of her parent’s home, her mother and the local midwife close at hand, suddenly discovering that because some governor wanted to count his subjects to make sure he was getting all the taxes he was due, she was now going to have to get on a donkey and take a 10-day journey from her hometown of Nazareth all the way to her husband’s hometown of Bethlehem.
When Mary and Joseph wrapped their heads around this reality, Adam Hamilton* says that of the three possible route they could have taken from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the one they most likely chose led them through Samaria because it was the most direct route.
What’s interesting about this particular passageway is that this is the path on which pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem for the Passover each year would have used for centuries. Having Mary and Joseph follow this route through Samaria, would have meant they were retracing sixteen hundred years of biblical history. This was where God came close to Abraham and promised to give the land to his descendants. This was where another Joseph, the son of Jacob was buried. This was where the early prophets ministered and where the armies of Babylon marched when they came to destroy Judea and carry away its’ people into exile. And this was also the path by which the exiles returned back home.
We can imagine that step by step as Mary and Joseph persevered on their arduous journey, they would have been looking back and remembering the way God had been faithful to their people throughout the centuries on both wanted and unwanted journeys. This journey was a pilgrimage of sorts.
If you have ever been on an unwanted journey in your own life, you will know that it’s often not until you have crossed the barren desert that you can look back and see that God was with you all the time, even in those moments you thought you had been completely abandoned.
A favourite quote from my own unwanted journey through cancer last year says that “going through cancer treatment is a lot like walking on a rope bridge. You’re so intent on getting to the other side, you have no idea over what you have just crossed.”** It’s often only in retrospect we can look back and see how we have been carried through life’s most challenging circumstances. Which is why recalling those journeys is so important in our lives.
Anyone who has traveled the actual route that some suggest Mary and Joseph would have taken through the Holy Land to get to Bethlehem, knows that at one point on the journey they would have found themselves walking past miles and miles of olive trees. Olive oil was used in ancient Israel for the anointing of kings; in fact the word Messiah means “Annointed One.” Olive oil was also used by Jesus and his followers in healing prayer to anoint the sick.
The other thing Mary and Joseph would have come across were springs or wells where they could pause and refresh themselves. One of these springs is said to be an oasis that provided water for Abraham and his descendants on their journey. Another is the well in Sychar, where Jesus met the Samaritan woman.
Think about the unwanted journeys you have had no choice but to take in your own life. Maybe you are on one of those journeys now. What has helped you persevere? What good has come out of the adversity of your past? Where are the places you have found healing? Who or what has been a source of life-giving refreshment?
I’d like to think that as Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, they had sufficient time to overcome their disappointment at having to take the journey in the first place. I’d like to think that by the time they arrived their trust in the call that had been placed within them to bring to life the child who would lead his people in the way of peace had been renewed.
The story says that when they did arrive in Bethlehem there were a few more challenges they had to face. A lot has been said over the centuries about the lack of room in the inn when Mary and Joseph finally reached their destination. Most of us have grown up with a version of the story in which Mary and Joseph go from inn to inn looking for a place to stay until finally a kindly innkeeper offers them space in the stable.
You might wonder, if Joseph was from Bethlehem why would they have even needed to stay at an inn? Why didn’t they stay with Joseph’s family?
The Greek word that is translated in most versions of Luke’s Gospel as “inn” is the word kataluma. The more accurate translation of this word is guest room. And so a more likely scenario is that by the time Mary and Joseph arrived at his parent’s home, the place where guests would have slept was already full with other members of Joseph’s family. It could also be that because Mary was pregnant Joseph’s family set up a place in the stable because Mary would have been considered ritually unclean after giving birth and her presence in the main part of the house would have made it unclean. In ancient Palestine the animals were actually brought into part of the house at night and carved into the room where they stayed there would have been a feeding trough.
The details really don’t matter. What matters is that one of the central messages of the Christmas story is that when God enters the world, it happens in the lowliest of places, in challenging circumstances and in situations in which no one wants to find themselves.
And that leads us to the final journey Mary takes. The journey that leads us all back home, back to the place where we all begin. Only three words are used in the scriptures to describe this journey “she gave birth.”
Now anyone who has given birth knows that it takes a whole lot more than three words to describe that journey.
Imagine now, young Mary, there on the birthing stool in the place where animals are fed, a long, long way from home, labouring to bring her baby into the world. Imagine her reaching her limits and being encouraged and pushed beyond them by those around her, a midwife, Joseph’s mother, other women who know how to call out her strength and coax new life to emerge.
Who have those people been in your life, the ones who have gathered around you and supported you and called forth your strength when you thought you had none left to draw on? I’m not talking about actual labour and birth here, although it could that’s what you are thinking about. Who I’m really inviting you to consider are those who have upheld you on those journeys you’ve been on when you had no idea how you were going to deliver what was being asked of you and how they helped you to somehow find the strength to do so.
This time of year, we put so much effort into making everything look perfect and beautiful. We do it here at the church. We do it in our homes. We do it throughout the city.
Kind of like the way in our day and age we put a great deal of effort into preparing for the perfect and most beautiful birth with our designer nurseries, gender reveal parties, labour coaches and birth plans.
But is there anything more beautiful than Emmanuel, God who is with us, being born in the midst of nothing going according to plan, into the blood, sweat, tears and grueling agony, disappointment and joy, exhaustion and I can’t do this anymore of real life?
When we finally arrived at the hospital on January 2nd 14 years ago at 8 am in the morning after having driven through the streets of Vancouver like the most careful maniac ever because the doctor, who I assumed actually knew what she was talking about, told us our baby might be born at the side of the road, Brenda laboured for an additional 10 hours and 46 minutes before Nathan finally appeared.
Despite our best laid plans, life is full of unexpected, often disappointing and discouraging journeys that call forth from us great perseverance. But if the Christmas story has anything to teach us, perhaps it’s that those are the very places we can always count on God to show up bringing forth new life, birthing hope, bearing love and calling us home.
*Adam Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the road to Bethlehem, Abingdon Press, 2011.
** Debra Jarvis, It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Certainties of Life and Cancer,