Isaiah 9:2-7 Psalm 96 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-20
May these words and our thoughts be acceptable to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
A long time ago in a land far, far away, a man and his pregnant fiancée were uprooted by officials of the Empire told to go on a long journey to the man’s ancestral hometown. It was from there that he got his ties to the ancient king David. The man, Joseph by name, was a descendant of the great king. To the officials it didn’t matter that the woman, Mary, was pregnant, or what the discomforts might be, they had to go on pain of reprisals. So they packed their things and bought a donkey and set off on the hard journey of many days. It was Fall but still they had to cross hot arid land during the day, yet the nights were cold, and like the shepherds who stayed in the hills guarding their flocks from thieves and wolves, they gathered around a fire at night trying to keep warm. Part of the way they shared with others but they were painfully slow, because of Mary’s condition, and they often found themselves alone, when they could easily be attacked by robbers on the way. The hills were good places for bandits to hide in on the odd occasion that they were chased there by soldiers who tried to keep things under control but with little success. A couple of nights they stayed in the homes of villagers. The villages were often almost empty because everyone had to go to the city they came from, but even there in the villages they had to be careful that they wouldn’t be robbed or murdered by their host – donkeys were valuable animals and there was hardly anyone around to help them if they ran into trouble. Thankfully the journey though arduous was safely done.
It’s funny how things come together. At this same time some other travellers, Arabs by birth, were making their way across the land, towards Mary and Joseph’s destination, Bethlehem. Though they really didn’t know where they were going they were just following a route they got from reading the stars, and from the puppet king Herod’s priests and scribes. They told them that the person they were looking for, a New King, would be born in Bethlehem. At last they had a real destination to find. These travellers were better equipped with camels and a retinue of servants to pitch their tents and light their fires and bring them food, when they were hungry. No such luck for Mary and Joseph there was no time for them to stop and prepare their food, they had to buy it all and the locals charged a steep price for even simple food like flat bread and a few onions.
When they got to Bethlehem it was bustling with people. In the centuries after the return from the Exile in Babylon as the population of Israel grew the people moved outside the cities’ walls, then to the countryside and many went abroad not to seek fame and fortune but to make at least a modest living. They all came back from wherever they were in the Roman Empire; from Syria, Greece, Italy, Britain, France, Spain, North Africa and Egypt. The place was jam packed. Mary and Joseph looked for a room, none was to be found. One inn keeper, as a bit of a joke, offered to let them stay in his barn along with the cows, sheep and his donkey. He thought it was ok for them to sleep in the dung, these people were trash from Nazareth – can anything good come out of Nazareth – he thought !
But Mary and Joseph were in no position to refuse. Mary’s pains had started and she just couldn’t give birth in the street, so the foul smelling stable it was. As they got there her waters broke Joseph found new hay and helped her to lie down. There was no clean water, just what was in the trough, water for the animals to drink. There were no nice towels, just trodden down straw. There was no midwife. And breathing exercises – forget them. The couple did the best they could. Joseph was a carpenter he had no experience about helping an animal give birth let alone a woman, let alone his own wife and son ! And Mary was a virgin this was to be her firstborn child. Her mother had told her about childbirth and she had been with her cousin Elizabeth when she delivered her son John but this was different this was her own.
Mary rested between pains and Joseph tried to look busy. He hadn’t a clue about what was next. But he knew enough to comfort her and be with her while she did the heroic task of birthing her child, the Son of God, Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace.
Late that night, early next morning with one enormous contraction the baby boy was born. They named Him Jesus as an angel had told them to do. Joseph took him up, cut the cord with his teeth, tied the lifesaving knot, wrapped the newborn in a piece of cloth and gave Him to His mother. This was the first time she cradled Him in her arms but a day would come when she would hold His dead body in her arms and a centurion would say “Truly this was God’s Son !”
Just as things were settling down into the stable came a gang of the roughest people you have ever seen. Joseph jumped up and prepared to defend his family although he had no weapon and was hugely outnumbered. But these men as they came in fell on their knees telling a crazy story that the sky had lit up when they were in the hills and an Heavenly Host began singing and praising God, and they were told by one of the angels to go to Bethlehem to see the New King, the Messiah, the Christ. The shepherds worshipped the Baby and after a long time left for their flocks rejoicing – singing songs, joking and drinking strong drink. The ancient prophecies had come true ! A new King, like David who would overthrow Rome, and liberate the people from oppression and poverty had been born. This indeed was a great day !
Exhausted Mary, Joseph and Jesus slept until the baby awoke wanting feeding, Mary did.
They rested for a few days, Mary was not strong enough yet to face the return journey so they looked around for a better place to stay. They found one. A modest room, but clean, a fireplace where Mary could cook and a bed of straw for the family to rest in, it was just like home. Joseph went and registered and got a scrip to prove he had done it. Then they made plans to return to Nazareth to start a proper family life.
But first as Mary and Joseph, who were observant Jews, they went to the Temple to purify Mary and to consecrate Jesus. They bought two pigeons and did all things necessary. The Temple as usual was busy, but strangely they were sought out by two people. Simeon an old man upon seeing Jesus came forward and blessed Him and prophesied over Him. Mary and Joseph were astounded what were these strange sayings from this old man, who even said that Mary would be heartbroken over the Child. And then Anna, an old woman who had lived most of her life within the Temple in constant prayer, came out of the crowd and praised and blessed God for the birth of the Child.
There were many strangers in Bethlehem, as I said, at the time and most of them were Jews. But there was a bit of a stir going around because some Arabian travellers had arrived. That in itself was unusual but even more remarkable was that they were looking for a king, a newborn king. Now Bethlehem was a bit of a dump. Nothing like Jerusalem or the new cities built by the Romans like Capernaum or Tiberias or Caesarea this was the last place foreigners would seek out, and it was almost laughable that a king would be born there, for foreigners that is, but not for Jews who knew the ancient texts prophesying such a king. But these travellers had travelled a thousand miles they weren’t going to give up their quest, even if it looked implausible to them. So they started asking around to find out if there had been any children born recently. Yes, of course, children are being born all the time, and they die just as quickly. They visited a few of the local families but nothing seemed right to them. Then someone told them of a couple, visitors, who had just had a baby and were getting ready to leave for Nazareth.
The Arabian visitors found the place where Mary and Joseph were staying, and indeed found them packing. It was hard to explain. These men had travelled many, many miles because they had read in the stars that The King of the Jews would be born and that they were divinely bidden to bring gifts to the King. The gifts were to be Gold and Frankincense and Myrrh, and so they had brought them after many months of travel, along the King’s Highway only to arrive here in Bethlehem. They tried to explain their quest but they really couldn’t, so with due reverence and homage to the Babe Who would change the world, they gave their gifts to the Newborn King and left to tell Herod where the New King could be found. Mary and Joseph were speechless. These gifts were strange. There was more gold here than they had ever seen – a King’s Ransom. In those days Frankincense was burnt when prayers were said so that the prayers would rise to heaven with it and be pleasing to God. Were these travellers praying for the New King with this gift ? And Myrrh is a sweet smelling substance meant to ease pain. What did they mean by this, was the Child to Suffer ?
It’s funny how things come together. It was late so the visitors had their servants set up their tents for the night just outside town. When things were done they sat down and thought about all they had done and the things they had seen, especially the Temple in Jerusalem the grandest building ever built. They had travelled farther than they had ever travelled before, they had been guided to the New King, first by the stars, then by Herod’s wise men and last by a single bright star and they had found Him. Finding a needle in an haystack would have been easier. Now they were satisfied that they had done what they had set out to do. Tomorrow they would go to Herod and tell him where to find the New King and then leave for home. Fed and watered and warm they retired to what for them was the end of the story; except when they awoke in the morning as they were organizing their stuff one told of a strange dream he had had. Another looked up in shock and said he had had the same dream and then another said he had had the same dream too – not to go back to Herod because they saw him murdering the Child. They knew Herod had killed most members of his own family to protect his throne – Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus would be massacred. So now the most difficult part of their journey lay ahead, far from being over it was really just beginning. To get home they would have to cross the Arabian Desert, the unforgiving desert, weeks of waterless desert, unbearable heat, sandstorms and the ever present danger of losing their way, but they must do it for the sake of the New King.
Mary and Joseph made up their minds to leave for home the next day too. Mary was feeling stronger and the Baby was healthy and whole, kicking and crying the way all babies do – God is gracious. They packed most of their things so they could get an early start and they slept the sleep of the just.
But Joseph had a dream and was told by an angel that Herod was coming to kill Jesus. When he woke he told Mary of the dream. This was a terrible portent ! Was it that what was new was to be destroyed already ? Was this the heartache Simeon had warned of ? What could they do ? Staying in Israel, anywhere in Israel, would be dangerous, going to Nazareth would be certain death. So instead of travelling home to Nazareth as they had wanted they left for Egypt out of the Evil King Herod’s grasp. They would be there for years until Herod died. Then as foretold long ago God called His Son out of Egypt to begin His life of Redemption, for you, for me, for everyone, for ever. Thanks be to God.
Copyright Derek Perry 2017