Isaiah 9:2-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Luke 2: 1 – 7: 8 – 20
Going on a journey
Carol Service Christ Church 16th December 2018
Is anyone here going on a journey this Christmas? How are you travelling? Car, Train, Bus, Boat Bicycle or are you walking…………For many people Christmas is about travelling, back to where our friends or relatives live and especially for those with small children, travelling to visit grandparents.
In the news every day we hear of the journeys of people across the world – what journeys have you heard of this week? – space for feedback – Many journeys are not happy. People fleeing from famine, violence and war…the ‘caravan’ of people walking to the south of the United States of America, tired hungry and thirsty; people coming by boat to the Kent coast… the migration of people will only increase as we suffer the impact of climate change. Today as we continue through Advent and look toward Christmas we think of those who are making journeys. We think of those purpose of returning to family, in many cases back to our cultural roots…to the place we call home – whether that is a geographical place or where our family now live.
In our readings today we have heard about a number of journeys – that of the angels who appeared to the shepherds, the shepherds who may have been grumpy like the shepherds in our nativity – in the middle of the night, and of course Mary and Joseph and the unborn baby from Nazareth to Judea.
Let’s think for a moment about that journey. Mary and Joseph had a very long walk from Judea to Nazareth, between these points lay the dangerous hill country of Samaria, Mary and Joseph chose a safer and ‘more comfortable’ route that took them southeast through the Jezreel Valley and further east to the Jordan Valley. From Nazareth they would have crossed over the mountains through Cana to the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee. We always see Mary and Joseph alone and with a donkey but in fact they would probably have met up with others going south. Many people travelled these routes in groups to avoid robbers. Usually a self-appointed guide/protector was paid a fee in order to go along with his group. All the nativity stories mention a donkey for Mary to ride, but the Bible account has no donkey.
Has anyone ever tried riding a donkey?
Walking may have been much easier for a woman nine months pregnant than riding a donkey. Mary would have been a teenager, put your hand up if you are a teenager… (some teenagers with us today) We think Mary was about 15 years of age, at this time, young and flexible and hardy, as most people of the time had to be to survive. Their route would have started on the west shores of the Jordan River. The route was easier and safer from there to Jericho where they crossed back. The temperature in this fertile green valley would have been milder than would be found on the mountains around Bethlehem.
How far do you think Mary and Joseph travelled? – various suggestions – Continuing south to Jericho, they probably went up through the Judean Desert to Jerusalem and onward to Bethlehem. By the end of their difficult trek, the couple would have walked more than 90 miles; much of that distance across difficult terrain.
That is a very long way…
How long did it take them? – Opinions differ on how many days it took Mary and Joseph to complete their epic journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The received wisdom suggests that the trek could have lasted anything from 4 to 10 days. So they would have had to shelter on the way.
Joseph was going back to his home town to his roots – because he was of the line of David – which was important for Jesus birth and heritage. Now the mountains around Bethlehem are porous providing many caves. Some of these caves were used to shelter livestock. Often a cave would have more than one chamber. The animals were kept in the outer chamber and provided warmth for the family deeper within. This is similar to what I think Eskimos do with their dogs in their igloos. Such caves were called mangers.
There was no innkeeper in our readings today but maybe this would have been the person who was in charge and found a place so that Mary and Joseph could use the manger. It would have been private but easily accessible to visitors.
Let us focus in for a moment on Mary – This Sunday we lit the third advent candle which shines a light on the story of Mary – Mary an ordinary teenager, an unmarried woman – with an unexplained pregnancy. Mary full of courage, strength and hope travelling with her man through hostile territory to a place she did not know with no accommodation booked. Joseph (who does not have a candle in our wreath but maybe he should) is an ordinary man who has extraordinary courage and strength – he stands alongside Mary willingly (we think) embarking on this journey to Bethlehem, and also on a journey where he is to become a surrogate father – a nurturer, a healer – the scriptures we have are written in a patriarchal way, and we live in what is still largely a patriarchal society, yet God chose to come to us in and through a young woman, a teenager who may have faced criticism and whose family may have felt shame – it is right today that we focus on Mary.
The whole story of the nativity is one of learning how God engages with us. And how God has been engaging with creation and with human kind since way before our birth in human form.
I would suggest we are all on a journey this Christmas – a journey of learning a journey of becoming a journey of knowing and a journey of courage…
We are becoming the people of God, growing in knowledge and strength – we are ordinary people like Mary, like Joseph, like the shepherds – and I dare to say like the angels (messengers) and we are asked to take a risk – to have courage to journey sometimes through hostile territory, to support one another in our journey with Jesus, whatever that means to each of us – standing alongside the shamed, the hurt, those without hope, the ordinary people that are part of our lives.
As we journey, Jesus is with us – not quite in the same way as he was with Mary but every bit as real within and without us. On our journey we will have many encounters – like the shepherds in our drama earlier, like the angels, like the innkeeper and the people bustling about in the town.
As we travel we bear witness to our faith, knowing that we are called to live lives of courage love and reconciliation there will be times for each of us when we have a clear revelation of God-with-us Just as Isaiah did many centuries ago, just as Mary, Joseph, the angels and shepherds did in our story did with Jesus human birth.
Hands up everyone who is perfect – none of us are but…
The love of God will shine through the cracks in our lives – shine through our mistakes and messes and chaos – just like Jesus did that night in the stable – breaking through shame, rejection and poverty – and lives will be transformed.
As we draw closer to Christmas 2018 …….just over one week away – in all our preparations, as we shop and spend money on food and presents, as we write cards to our neighbours and to people we have not seen for years, just to keep in touch. As we encounter each other to share the joy and pain of Christmas, as we cook and clean and play – let us take time like Mary to watch and keep all these things in our hearts. Let us consider how Jesus is with us and how our lives are transformed as we journey in faith, ordinary people journeying with an extraordinary God.