Where are you heading this Christmas? When you consider that ancient travel involved walking or straining to stay atop a donkey or camel, you realize the First Christmas involved a lot of travel. So tonight, I wonder about our travels. Where are we headed this Christmas? What do you seek?
Luke’s Gospel begins with Zechariah traveling to the Jerusalem Temple from the hills of Judea. There, surrounded by people praying, Zechariah made an incense offering to God and heard the angel’s good news that he and Elizabeth would have a son named John, who would bring rejoicing, joy and gladness. John came to prepare our hearts for our Lord’s rule, preaching “Repent, prepare the way for the Lord, make the path straight, smooth out the rough places, and get ready.” Tonight, does your daily path lead towards our Lord?
The angel comes to Mary announcing that she will bear Jesus, the very son of God, who will save us from our sins. An uncertain Mary asks, “how can this be?” for the road God calls Mary to embrace involves danger and suffering. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; for nothing is impossible with God.” Mary takes the road few travel saying, “Here am I, the hand maid of the Lord; let it be with me according to God’s word.” The angel departs and a pregnant teenage Mary walks away from her father’s village in Nazareth, finding shelter from judgment and stoning with her godly Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah. Mary’s Christmas road is not easy.
Joseph planned to dismiss his pregnant fiancé until he dreamed of angels saying, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife for the child…” Joseph travels to get Mary and shelters her as his wife. Joseph’s Christmas road embraces the vulnerable, defends the defenseless, and shoulders burdens. Joseph walks alongside Mary and her child. Love is a joyous but never easy trail.
Pregnancy comes as a kind of physical, emotional, and spiritual travel. The Biblical time line indicates Mary traveled for miles on foot or in Joseph’s carpenter’s cart in each of her three trimesters. Caesar Augustus’ desire to collect taxes forces Joseph and a very pregnant Mary to travel some 80 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Arriving at their destination, they find no room in the inn. They must walk around back to the stable. Tonight, dear friends, if your heart feels heavy, consider the road God placed Mary and Joseph upon.
We do not know the distance the angels traveled to fill the night sky with “Good News of Great Joy for all people” or how their heavenly glory drove back the night and their heavenly praise shattered the silent night. The angel will depart returning to heaven’s sanctuary, but Jesus will remain nestled in a feedbox cradle with us sinful human beings. How far will God travel to save us? How deep, how wide, how vast, and how high is the love of God is for us? God’s Christmas road is a rescue mission.
Shepherds leave their fields and flocks guided by moonlight, they search the local barns for “one wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger.”
Magi will soon leave Babylon, Turkey, Afghanistan or maybe even China traveling perhaps thousands of miles with what seems like the scantest of hope. They know some ancient, maybe pagan prophecy, and they chase a star. They traverse long dangerous trade routes across deserts and mountains, dodging robbers and tricking an evil king. The Wise Ones do not even know the name of the city they seek, needing to ask the hapless Bible teachers and theologians who know nothing of the star or Jesus’ birth. They carry precious treasures for the newborn Prince of Peace. The Magi come from outside the world of the Bible to kneel and worship our Lord! The Magi’s Christmas road is uncertain, mysterious, costly and long! They travel so far to worship and give!
How far will you travel this Christmas? Will your Christmas journey cost you anything?
Tonight, the angels’ song rings out “Do not be 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. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those dwelling in God.”
Did you notice that the army of angels filling the night sky with heaven’s reflective radiance and breaking the silent night with glorious loud praise do not command the shepherds to go to the manger? The angels announce “Good News of great Joy- and the possibility of deep inner peace” and then quickly depart back to heaven! They leave it up to us to decide what to do with our time, energy, and effort. The carol reminds us, “the Silent Word is pleading” The Good News of great joy for all people lies silently in the manger waiting for our worship and discipleship! What will we do? Most of ancient Bethlehem and modern Tullahoma will miss the love of God, seeking lesser holiday pleasures. Will you travel towards the manger to kneel before the One who can save our souls and bring deep abiding love, peace, joy and hope? Will we comprehend the love of God wrapped in bands of cloth and laid incarnate before us? Will we rise up as shepherds and follow Jesus?
God sends the Message, but does not force us to march to the manger. Indeed the angels fail to give an exact address, sending the shepherds searching among the stables saying, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” God often fails to give us an exact map- but beckons us to move out in faith towards love, justice and forgiveness. The Shepherds get a sign, the Magi travel guided by an inexact prophecy and a sometimes fading star. Like Abraham and Sara, the faithful travel not always knowing where we are going. Will this marriage survive? Does this homeless couple really need a room? Are these foreigners safe? Will my effort make a difference? Can we make peace? By definition faith requires our traveling with some uncertainty.
The word “Israel” means to strive after God- to wrestle or to seek God. Jesus preaches, “Strive first for the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). We can trust ourselves, follow the crowd, or walk the Christmas road.
I fear the great tragedy of our consumer-infested easy-to-follow Christianity is our loss of a sense of striving, struggling, seeking, and yearning to follow God’s inexact path. Let us remember to travel with the Magi to unnamed cities, let us leave our fields with the shepherds and search for God’s love wrapped in swaddling clothes, let us find courage and compassion to join Joseph in following our God-given dreams, and let us say with Mary, “here am I Lord, your handmaiden” just after we whisper “how can this be, Lord?”
Tonight the angels sang of “Good News of Great joy for all people”! I wonder after the angels retreated safely to heaven did the shepherds look up at the stars and ask, “what just happened?” I do not know, but the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Mary, Joseph, the Magi, the shepherd and perhaps all of us who long to know Christmas’ deep peace and joy must make a costly uncertain journey. Did not our Lord say to us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to preserve their life will lose it, and those who give away their life for God will find it. For what will it profit anyone to gain the whole world but forfeit their soul? (Matthew 16:24)”
Oh Come let us adore our Lord, born humbly in a stable, quickly fleeing to Egypt, teaching nothing but perfect love, stretching out his arms to be crucified with the sins of the world, rising to eternal life, and offering to lead us into eternal life with him! Oh come let us travel this Christmas road, dreaming with Joseph, serving with Mary, singing with the angels, finding the Holy Child with the shepherds and offering our treasures with the Magi. The Magi only “rejoice with exceedingly great joy” once they have arrived at the place where Jesus is! For when we walk this not-always-certain and costly Christmas road we will see Jesus, and our strides will stretch into leaps of joy, and we will dance with glad tidings, and find songs of praise in our throat’s, for Jesus has come to guide us along life’s uncertain and dangerous roads and to lead us into life eternal! Amen and Merry Christmas!