Saturday, December 15, 2007

You Just Had to Be There

(My Version of Luke 2:1-19)

We’ve heard the “Christmas Story” all our lives - from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to “homegrown” pageants and plays in our own churches. In fact, we’ve heard it so many times that we “think” we know what happened.

But now, clear your mind, and prepare a “clean slate”. Allow yourself to experience the story - like a friend relating to you the fact that, “you just had to be there!”

Along about 3:00pm, Mary and Joseph were passing through Bethany. They still had about 3 miles to go to reach Jerusalem, and then another 5 miles on to Bethlehem. It would be dark by the time they reached Bethlehem, and they were both already so tired, but Joseph knew, and Mary’s eyes told him that they needed to reach Bethlehem tonight.

It had been nearly a week since they left Galilee. It was a hard 80-90 mile trek to Jerusalem. They had to travel east from Nazareth to the caravan route that led south down the Jordan River valley to Jericho. Then once they got to Jericho, they headed back west, winding up the arduous Jericho Road toward Jerusalem.

Since Caesar Augustus had declared that a census was to be taken of the entire Roman Empire, and that everyone must be registered in the town of his ancestors, the roads were packed with people traveling to their hometowns. A quicker route, of course, would have been to go directly through Samaria - but no Jew would travel through Samaria…

As they traveled, Mary thought about the last time she made this trip - almost exactly 9 months ago when she came to see Elizabeth… my, oh my, how much had happened since then.

Up until the census decree had been announced, it had never crossed Joseph or Mary’s mind to make such a trip. Of course they knew the prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, but they could ill afford such a trip to “make” the prophecy fit their lives. No, they would stay in Nazareth, close to home… even if it meant enduring the glances and the whispers.

They knew what people thought - but they alone knew what had really happened, and so they carried on with life as best they could. Then word of the decree came, and traveling to Bethlehem became, not a choice, but a mandate, for Joseph was, well, they both were, of the “house” of David and had to be registered in Bethlehem. And so they set out - fearful, yes; but confident, too. After all, this was God’s Son. And He would see that they made it safely.

As they topped the hill overlooking Jerusalem, they both caught their breath. With the late afternoon sun shining on the Temple and reflecting off the golden columns with the massive carvings all along the walls, it was an impressive sight, to be sure. There were no words magnificent enough to describe it. Mary was secretly glad that she hadn’t come to Jerusalem when she visited Elizabeth and Zachariah. To view it for the first time, together with Joseph, filled her with such joy that for a few minutes she forgot about her aching back.

Then, as if someone snapped their fingers, they both realized that the sun was quickly setting and they still had over 5 miles to travel to Bethlehem. It would be dark by the time they got there, and with all the people… they were unsure about finding a place to stay.

As they headed south west from Jerusalem, they passed by the hillsides covered with sheep. This late in the day, the shepherds were calling the sheep together to prepare for the night. The shepherds were an interesting lot. On the one hand they were shunned by the pious Jewish leadership for their unorthodox lifestyle, and their inability to keep the multitude of laws and ordinances. But, on the other hand, without their careful tending of the sheep, there would be no animals for the sacrifices. Mary smiled as she remembered that their greatest ancestors, Abraham and David, were both shepherds…She knew that Abraham was called a “friend of God” and David was “a man after God’s own heart…” so, there must be something good about them, she mused.

As they were nearing Bethlehem, Joseph began to feel a growing dread in the pit of his stomach. There were so many people… “maybe they aren’t all going to Bethlehem” he told himself. But deep down, he knew. Yes, they were all going to Bethlehem…

It was dark as they came into Bethlehem. Joseph was as disappointed over the size of Bethlehem as he was awed over the Temple. “Surely”, he thought, “it would be larger than this!” But it wasn’t, and the little city was packed with people. They seemed to be everywhere - from makeshift campsites along the way, to some men just sleeping by the side of the road. How would he ever find a place for them to stay?

Finally he located the one and only inn. He left Mary for a moment to talk to the innkeeper. “Please”, he begged. “My wife is about to have a child. Don’t you have any place we can stay?

The innkeeper was not a bad man - it was just, when there were no more places, there were no more places! There wasn’t anything he could do about it. But he saw the fear and a hint of moisture in Joseph’s eyes and his heart softened.

“Well,” he said, “There is the stable area, back in the cave behind the inn… I suppose we could move the animals around and make a little spot for your misses. It is rather cold and damp to be having a baby out in the open air.” He tried to lighten the conversation a little to ease Joseph’s heart. “Don’t worry, son. You’ll have some privacy there.”

No sooner had they prepared a place than Mary let Joseph know that it was time. And the Child was born. Mary took “swaddling” that is, strips of cloths that she had brought along for this very reason, and wrapped the Child and laid Him in a makeshift cradle, which just a few hours before had been the feeding trough.

At that very moment, as the shepherds on the hillsides around Bethlehem were beginning to settle in for the night, keeping the watch over their sheep, something happened that would change their lives forever!

Suddenly an angel appeared before them with a glory of light that lit up the whole night sky. The shepherds were too afraid to look, but too amazed to look away!

“Do not be afraid” the angel said. “For I bring to you such good news and a great joy which shall be to all peoples, all over the world. This day - right now - a Saviour has been born in Bethlehem; a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord.

And this is how you will know; you will find him, wrapped in the normal swaddling, but He will be lying in a manger.”

No sooner had the angel said this, than the sky was just filled with angels praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace to those with whom He is pleased!”

Slowly the sound faded away as the angels disappeared from their sight.“Whoa!” said the shepherds, “We gotta see this!” So they quickly headed off toward Bethlehem.

As they came into the city they expected to see a great celebration going on, but instead all they found were sleeping pilgrims. They asked a few people where they might find the Christ, but the weary travelers, simply asked “What Messiah?” That is, if they answered at all. Most just turned away in disgust, muttering under their breath something about “the shepherds having too much wine…”

Finally they found the innkeeper. Surely he would know. But in his exhaustion he merely gestured toward the back of the inn toward the cavern where he kept his animals.

The shepherds approached quietly. Could this really be the Christ - the Messiah? Did He really come as a baby?

Mary and Joseph were preparing to get some sleep. It had been an awfully long day. But when the shepherds told them about the angels, and how they wanted to worship Him, Mary told Joseph to let them come in. What mother doesn’t want everyone to see her perfect baby? And this one really was Perfect!

The shepherds timidly came into the stall area and peered at the baby. There He was - just as the angel had said He would be, lying in a manger. Almost without thought, they fell to their knees. This really… was… God! They were torn between amazement and absolute delight. God! It really was God! But at the same time, it was a beautiful newborn baby. And what man’s heart is so calloused that the sight of a newborn doesn’t just melt it.

After a few moments of etching this scene into their memories, they rose, and not being able to contain themselves, began telling everyone they saw that the Christ had been born! But all the masses could do was wonder about what these shepherds were saying.

Mary could hear them going down the street telling everyone what they’d just seen, but she just smiled, and snuggled her baby a little closer, it had been an exhausting day. And as she settled down into the straw to get some sleep, she knew, she would treasure, and remember this day, for as long as she lived…

Have a Wonderful and Merry Christmas!

Betty J. Newman
December 2007



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