Trip to Bethlehem

 

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As I reread the passages of scripture about the birth of Christ and try to imagine living in that time, I am reminded of how many gaps in the story leave me wondering what was happening.

 

I know about Gabriel’s visit to Mary as well as the angel’s visit to Joseph. I know that soon after Gabriel’s visit Mary made her way to her cousin, Elizabeth, and that she spent three months there. If my imagining were accurate, Mary would have been about three months pregnant when she returned home.

 

Joseph’s dream and the angel means they are going forward to be husband and wife, but exactly when that happened scripture is silent. To be betrothed in that time and culture was as sacred and binding as the marriage which is why Joseph could have asked for a divorce when he heard Mary was pregnant. Sources tell us that betrothal could be from six months to a year in length. Did Mary and Joseph go on to be married right after she returned from seeing Elizabeth?

 

Scripture does not tell me that. The next thing I see clearly is that Caesar Augustus demands the entire world is to be taxed or some translations say, “registered”. This requires a trip to your hometown to be registered.

 

For Mary and Joseph, it means they need to make preparations to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of David, in Judea. The trip of about seventy miles or so would certainly not be easy given Mary’s pregnancy. How many miles could Mary manage to travel on foot in a day? How long did the trip really take the couple since Mary may likely have been eight months pregnant?

 

Pictures in books and Christmas plays portray Mary riding a donkey with Joseph leading the donkey. Usually they are seen alone and yet scripture does not say she rode on a donkey. The least expensive mode of travel in those days was walking and most people would likely have walked, but perhaps a donkey was made available for Mary given her pregnancy. We do not know.

 

Her pregnancy seemed to be advanced by then which would make traveling uncomfortable no matter how she made the trip. Walking would be exhausting even if she were used to walking great distances. Riding a donkey (if that occurred) would not be easy either even though donkeys were considered to be strong and sure-footed.

 

If I consider the time and culture, it is likely a group of people traveled together to Bethlehem since the entire world was to be taxed or registered. Neighbors, friends, or family would possibly travel together. This would have provided safety and companionship for the long journey.

 

Can you imagine the challenge Mary faced?

 

I read about their search of a place to stay in Bethlehem, but what about the nights when they were traveling on the trip to Bethlehem?

 

I see often in the Old Testament the importance of hospitality to the Jewish people. A prime example was Abraham. During feast times when the people often traveled to Jerusalem, Jews were expected to take into their homes as many guests as possible to provide shelter, safety and food. Despite all the potential travelers to register, who provided for Mary and Joseph on their long journey?

 

Scripture does not tell us the route they took. A check of resources suggests there could be two possible routes. The shortest was the trade route through the center of the region, but it was also more demanding. The flatter route was through the Jordan River Valley, but it was longer.

 

nt-11Imagine Mary, perhaps only 14 years old, making this trip during her first pregnancy. It would be reasonable to think it might feel scary.

 

So many unknowns would have faced her about the trip itself and then there were all those nagging questions about what labor and delivery would really be like. No matter who tells you about it, nothing can quite prepare you for such an experience.

 

We don’t know how many weeks it was until she was to be delivered. Would she feel concern that she might go into labor and delivery on the trip there?

 

Visitors to the area can still follow the trek between Nazareth and Bethlehem today and it is known as The Nativity Trail. I think that would be a fascinating walk. This is a photo of the area.

 

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Scripture picks up the story as they reach Bethlehem. We do not know how long Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem before the time came for her to give birth to Jesus. We sometimes get the impression Mary delivered soon after their arrival, but in truth we do not know.

 

The trip would be a challenge for Joseph as well as he sought to care for Mary, provide as much comfort and assurance as he could. I wonder if Joseph reassured Mary with the stories they both knew well about God’s provision for His chosen people throughout all the generations to that point.

 

Undoubtedly, they traveled on this incredible journey with many questions, but there were certainties as well. God had chosen them and the Son of God was carried by them to be born in Bethlehem.

 

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Son of a Carpenter

 

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Before we ever arrive at a manger in Bethlehem, we must first stop in a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. The shop we are looking for is Jacob’s. Even though we have no scriptural reference to him except in Matthew 1, it would seem he had a significant role in the story of the birth and life of Jesus.

 

Jacob was the father who would shape the heart, soul, and character of Joseph, the earthly father Jesus would grow up with.

 

If I let my imagination consider this part of the story, my thoughts take me inside the shop with Jacob carefully training Joseph in his trade and craft as a carpenter. Jacob might well have been known in the village as a quality craftsman. Wood might be stacked in the corner to be available for the next project. Wood was not always readily available so Jacob knew it was important to be a good steward of what he had.

 

Jacob had been working with Joseph since he had been a boy. He wanted him to learn how the wood could yield to his tools and the vision and plan for each item he made. He wanted him to understand the grain of each kind of wood and what it would be best suited for as well as how to smooth it to a perfect finish.

 

Along the way as they worked side by side, Jacob also had time to talk with Joseph about other things. Joseph learned family stories and the history of the generations before him, but he also learned about their faith, the way of the men of his family. He was taught about the value of keeping his word, honesty, kindness, courage, strength, and the importance of prayer and the Torah.

 

Little by little as Joseph grew, so did his skill with the wood and the tools that represented the trade of his father. People of the village began to recognize the fine character of Joseph as much as they acknowledged his skill as a carpenter.

 

Jacob knew that he needed to seek out a young woman for Joseph that would compliment his son, a young woman of gentle qualities and unblemished character. The young woman he chose was Mary and soon the engagement between Joseph and Mary was announced. Everyone agreed it seemed like a good match.

 

Joseph continued to work with his father at his carpentry so he would become skilled enough to provide for a wife and family. The time was quickly approaching when they would be married. He wanted to be ready and was becoming increasingly eager for their wedding day.

 

Everything seemed to be going along just as he planned and hoped until the day Mary came to the shop and asked to speak with him privately. Joseph could tell by Mary’s tone and intensity this was not a casual visit even though she seemed very serene as they slipped outside the shop.

 

He could not have known or guessed the news she was about to share with him. He knew Mary’s reputation and her character as well as the good home she had been raised in. Now here she stood telling him that she was pregnant. Pregnant? He knew the child was not his own. How could she have betrayed his trust? A myriad of feelings welled up in him as the news sank to the bottom of his heart.

 

And the story Mary was telling him sounded like such a fable. An angel appearing saying the Holy Spirit would hover over her, a child would be conceived in this virgin and would be the Son of God? Was this madness? Whatever had happened, he knew he had every right to divorce her publicly for disgracing him. But for some reason, he just couldn’t bring himself to do that. Somehow his heart could not turn on her in that moment and he agreed instead to quietly go about the business of the divorce to save her humiliation.

 

After Mary left, Joseph kept reviewing everything Mary had said as well as everything he had come to know about her during their courtship. Nothing made sense to him. He knew he had to act as he had told Mary he would, but he decided he would sleep on it and handle it all the next day. News like this could wait until tomorrow and Mary was already on her way to see her cousin, Elizabeth.

 

That night as he slept, an angel appeared to him in a dream saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

 

When Joseph awoke the next morning, he remembered the dream. He knew now Mary had been telling him the truth. He marveled that God had sent a heavenly messenger to reassure him it was his will for him to not break the engagement to Mary. He could not imagine what this would be like. He was being called to provide and care for not only Mary, but also a baby boy who would be seen as his son and yet was the Son of God.

 

How do you train up a child who is the Son of God?

 

He would need to let Mary know.

 

The gospel of Matthew tells us Joseph was a “righteous man”.

 

A man who yielded to God’s will and chose to obey Him became the earthly father of the Son of God.

 

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The Gift of an Older Woman

 

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As I moved through different seasons of my life as an adult, each season increased my desire for older women to be a part of my life and I often sought them out for their wisdom and knowledge. An extra bonus was the patience they demonstrated as they listened to my questions or ramblings about my own life.

 

Even though we live in a culture where age does not tend to be valued as highly as youth. One thing seems evident. There are some seasons and circumstances that seem to naturally nudge us to look to an older person. It is especially true when we are facing something totally new and perhaps scary. We look for someone who has experienced it and can give us the information we seek as well as model the courage we need to face it ourselves.

 

One common time for us as women is when we become pregnant with our first child. Oh, yes, we like hearing how our friends have experienced it and what they can share. They know all the latest things we need for the nursery and where the best places are to buy them. But sooner or later, we will invariably seek out an older woman whom we trust and respect for the type of knowledge no one else can impart.

 

Nothing can replace the lived experience of someone who has traveled the path that now lies ahead of us.

 

 As I continue reading the passages in Luke and Matthew journeying toward Bethlehem and Christmas Eve, what Mary chooses to do after the news Gabriel delivers to her makes a great deal of sense. In addition to learning she, a virgin, would bear a child who would be the Son of God, Gabriel tells her that her cousin Elizabeth is now in the sixth month of her own pregnancy despite being old and barren. Gabriel adds that “nothing will be impossible with God” not only to point to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, but perhaps also as an encouragement to Mary about what is about to happen to her.

 

Scripture does not say when or how she told her parents the news. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be. Her news might mean Joseph would divorce her or that she might be stoned. There is no precise information about when or how she told Joseph the news either.

 

One thing is certain.

 

The Lord had entrusted a great deal on His call on this young teen’s life!

 

What scripture does tell us is that she “made haste” to go visit Elizabeth. I resonate with that decision. There was another older woman who had a special call on her life and was pregnant despite having been old and barren. Gabriel had spoken to her as well so Mary probably felt sure Elizabeth would understand and be able to possibly give her wise counsel.

 

I think it’s unlikely Mary would head out on this trip without her parents approval and knowledge. I might also think she would have an escort since it would not be wise or safe for a virgin to travel unaccompanied. Maybe this was also space for Mary’s parents to come to grips with what she had told them and let her get out of the village for awhile as they considered what to do next.

 

What scripture is clear about is Mary quickly left Nazareth and headed for the hill country to an unnamed town in Judah to see Elizabeth. As soon as they saw each other, the Lord confirmed to both women that each was carrying a very special son because the baby inside Elizabeth leapt as soon as he heard Mary’s voice and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

 

We also know from that same passage that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months. What a special time that must have been for both women! I would have loved to hear more about the conversations they must have had about God’s election of each of them and how they would be forever linked more powerfully than through their biologic relationship.

 

As a woman, I am sure there were some practical things being discussed between these two women. What would labor and delivery be like? How would they go about mothering these babies whose lives would change the world? What was going to happen when Mary returned to Nazareth? Would Joseph still marry her?

 

Elizabeth and Mary had both been favored by God to be chosen. I might think they would be filled with wonder and talk with each other about why they might have been chosen. Neither could yet know the pain that would pierce their hearts, as each would have her son die far too early in life.

 

What a gift for God to give Mary! An older woman with whom she could share this unique journey!

 

 Elizabeth demonstrated what Paul describes as a Titus 2 woman, “teaching what is good so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.”

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Making Yourself Available

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As we start the journey toward Christmas and begin the Advent season, we see many symbols and images related to the birth of Jesus. Most are very familiar to us.  Sometimes they are so familiar we forget some of the details that do not appear as they were in the real living scene in the story.

 

For example, most images of the manager scene give us a glimpse of Mary as a young woman who might be in her early twenties. Living manager scenes in many churches this season usually have a young adult woman in the role, but if we look at what we know of the culture and times we see those images do not capture the truth.

 

We need to remember that Mary was engaged to Joseph and in her time and culture; she would likely have become engaged at about 12 or 13 years of age.

 

Our times and culture are so much different, but as I look at my youngest granddaughter I have begun to reflect a bit differently on the opening scene where Gabriel comes to Mary.

 

Imagine Mary going about her day wondering what it was going to be like to marry Joseph soon. They had known each other for some time and he seemed nice enough, but she still enjoyed helping her mother around the house rather than being the one responsible to handle and manage all the household chores. She really had not mastered all of the ways her mother made every dish special with this or that spice or seasoning. She still loved playing with the other girls in the village any chance she had, but she knew those days would soon be behind her.

 

Mary had not begun to wrap her mind around what it would be like to live with Joseph and see to all his needs. He seemed kind and gentle enough, but there was so much she didn’t know. Somehow she had to trust that God would be with her as He had her mother when she married her father.

 

On the day the angel Gabriel appeared to her, her world crashed into a different _convertToPNG 3dimension. She had heard others speak of angels and heavenly messengers, but she had never seen or heard one and yet she could not mistake this being of light in front of her, speaking so clearly and with such authority was just such a messenger. She could hardly grasp the message he brought. How could she give birth to a child?

 

She had never been with Joseph or any other man. She was a virgin and not even sure she was ready for that relationship with Joseph.  What would Joseph think? Would he believe her when she told him what the angel said? Would her parents believe her?

 

Yet here she was being told God favored her! She was to carry and give birth to a son. The angel even told her his name. Jesus. Even more astounding was to hear that He would be called the Son of God and was the long-awaited Messiah.

 

Her lips mouthed the question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

 

The angel told her it would be by the Holy Spirit, but she could not imagine what that meant. And now to hear Elizabeth was pregnant as well when everyone knew she was old and barren? What was happening?

 

Her mind could not take it all in, but her heart responded even if her mind had not caught up.

 

She agreed in one significant split second in time to be available to God for what He wanted to do. She did not hesitate. She did not doubt.  She obeyed.

 

She was possibly only 13 and yet without hesitation she yielded to God’s call upon her life.

 

Consider that.

 

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It causes me to pause.

 

Have I made myself available to Him and to whatever He has asked me to be or do?

 

Have I yielded without fully understanding what it would cost or mean?

 

Have I resisted out of fear, doubt, uncertainty, or unbelief?

 

As I journey toward Bethlehem and the familiar story, I wonder if I or even you should read Luke’s telling of the story in Luke 1:38 more closely and consider Mary’s response as we ponder our own.

 

“And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word….”

 

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My Favorite Shopping Trip

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I remember it as if it were yesterday even though it was probably almost 40 years ago.

 

I received a phone call from our church administrator. He asked me if I could be children-toys-christmas-decorations-close-up-836040available to do something for him. He went on to share there was a single mother with two small children (a boy and a girl) who were likely not going to have any Christmas gifts that year. He said I came to mind for what he had in mind and wondered if I would go shopping for the children and wrap the gifts as well. He told me I could pick up $100 cash at the office and noted the ages of the children as well.

 

We were not wealthy, but there had always been presents under the tree.

 

My immediate response was “yes!” Even though there was a great deal of other shopping to be done, this idea excited me and I hoped the Lord would show me what to buy for each child even though I knew nothing about the children except their ages.

 

So many years ago others had sought for the kind of gift to give the Christ-child. It was baggage-blur-bokeh-714915not the same and yet I felt a little closer to that story as I considered the shopping trip ahead.

 

I invited our daughter to go along with me on the adventure and shared with her what we would be doing. I knew she would be a great help and likely have some incredible ideas. As we drove to the store, we both agreed that we wanted to find as many things as we could since these might be the only part of Christmas these children would have. I reminded our daughter we would look for good sales, but also things we would like if we were the one receiving these things.

 

Up and down the aisles we went pausing and thinking about an array of options including fun and practical items. The Lord must have smiled on us that afternoon because it seemed our shopping cart was nearly full even though we did not have a great deal to spend.

 

Perhaps that was one of the lessons to learn from this unexpected opportunity. Limited nathan-lemon-170106-unsplashcash and not knowing the persons caused us to seek the Lord’s direction, put more thought into the process, and consider what gifts would most bless. So often shopping for a gift becomes just another task on the list and we hope to get it done as soon as we can. This was different and I think it impacted my gift shopping to the present as a result.

 

As we were reaching the end of our budget, our daughter had another idea that brought tears to my eyes when she suggested it. She said, “I think we need to get something for their mom too, even if it is something small.” The church administrator had not suggested that, but I couldn’t have agreed more. It would surprise and delight the children as well as the mom. There was no question this mother rarely had anyone do something special for her.

 

Off we went in search of something for the mother and soon we found a soft, warm, cozy robe that had been marked down to an amount that was exactly what we had left in the budget.

 

As we stepped outside into the snowy afternoon with our shopping bags filled, warmth filled our hearts for this special outing. As we later wrapped the gifts, we wondered what they would think when they opened them. We knew we would never know, but that was part of what made it special as well.

 

Sometimes it can be easier to write a check or drop money in a red kettle if we think of boxes-card-celebration-688016blessing someone in need, but nothing can compare to the assignment we received and how honored we felt to be asked.

 

It reminded me as well of how my mother shared that when she was a very little girl growing up near the end of WW I, the most special gift she and her two sisters received one year was a fresh orange.

 

As we consider our shopping and the gifts we want to buy, how can we capture the essence of the Lord as the Giver of the very BEST Gift?

 

Can we be more like Him this year…no matter what our budget?

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