The Journey to Bethlehem

Let us put ourselves in the shoes of Mary and Joseph, as they made that 100 mile arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem while Mary was well into her pregnancy.

His beloved had just lain down to rest and he had walked a few feet away looking into the skies as the darkness overwhelmed them. Joseph pounded the air and shouted into the night, frustration and anger overwhelming his being. Where was God when he needed Him? Had He forgotten that they were doing this as a favor to Him? Had He turned His back on them?  He had obeyed God hadn’t he? But the heavens stayed silent as they suffered day and night. And yet, he was afraid for even having questioned God, for who was he before God! Mary heard her beloved’s frustration and sorrow in the silent night, and she wept deeply. There had been so many times over the past nine months when she had felt like she could not go on…..why her? It had been such an excruciatingly hard journey and she often felt like she didn’t have the faith to take another step. Weren’t there many other more religious women in Israel who already understood motherhood who would’ve done better than her in bringing forth the promised Messiah? Her heart cried that God didn’t seem to be very wise; yet, who was she to question Him? Her anguished soul felt like it was shattering into a million pieces. Darkness prevailed and their screams and sobs soon became a part of the harshness of the night. God held them through the darkness in the silence of the night! 

The long, hard journey on a donkey, food and water sparse along the way, pregnant and exhausted, on the verge of giving birth. They had had to travel for days to take the census in the city of David because of the unreasonable Roman government’s decree. Joseph and Mary had been asked, no, told by God that they would be caring for a very special child, His Son! And, did God do anything the normal way? No! She, the virgin girl Mary, had miraculously conceived a child by the Holy Spirit and he, her betrothed Joseph, had been called to trust God and marry her. They became the laughing stock of the town with people whispering and sneering at them all the time, everywhere – for God had created quite the scandal! Their families were furious at the shame that enveloped them after the scandal. They no longer fit into the good, moral, religious box that had been created by Jewish society in accordance with Scripture which was considered pleasing to God. Both Mary and Joseph had tried really hard their entire lives to be that way but somehow, the angel’s words had turned their worlds upside down and they found themselves as spiritual and moral pariahs. The past nine months had been nothing but a test of faith for someone so young. Society had laughed at them any time they tried to tell their story or explain their situation. People had already formed their opinions – Joseph and Mary had sinned! Nothing could possibly change these people’s minds, not an explanation, not even pointing out Scripture seemed to make a dent of a difference to the religious ones around them!

Joseph knew this was not his child for he did not “know” (as in having sex with) Mary even today for he had been told by God to wait until she had given birth to make her his wife. He could easily have cast Mary aside and built a new, care-free life for himself, avoiding the shame and scandal she had caused. This was well within his rights as a Jewish man. He could even have had her stoned to death. But instead, he had made a choice to surrender and implicitly obey God, stepping into the most foolish of situations by the world’s standards and boy, had this rocked his world. He wished their friends and family could at least try and understand and support their life choices (or rather God’s choices for them for they really didn’t have a choice did they??). They knew in their hearts that they were not sinners, yet who around them cared? God had pushed them into this, and they were trying really hard to trust and obey Him in faith. But the gossiping, the back stabbing, the judgments, the loneliness and the isolation were sometimes more than they could handle. There had been days when they had just wept in the privacy of their little home when people rejected them or hurt them wondering what their son’s future would be if they stayed on here in Nazareth. Everyone knew everyone, and gossip would follow them all their life. Jesus wasn’t going to be like other “good” children and would be rejected. So far, God seemed to be doing a pretty bad job of providing for their needs of love and acceptance while they seemed to be obediently serving Him at a high cost!

Mary and Joseph on a DonkeyMary, was sad and afraid as her fully pregnant body moved to and fro in abject discomfort on the little beast. What should have been one of the most beautiful times of her life, birthing her firstborn was fast turning into a nightmare. As they plodded along in the darkness, her thoughts were running a mile a minute. Her muffled sobs and dirty, tear streaked face said it all. Already she had lost the privilege of the beautiful wedding she had planned and dreamed of…..she could even now hear the giggles of her girlfriends as they whispered over the impending first night….no, she wasn’t going to let her thoughts go there and get even more discouraged. She needed to be strong in her faith for the baby for this was a mission from the very heart of God! Yet, doubts assailed her tired mind. She was just a child herself, yet God had seen fit to choose her to do something even grown women would struggle with. Why her? Why now? It had cost her her reputation, her family and friends, her wedding, and almost cost her her beloved husband too. The sneering looks or pitiful faces flashed before her eyes and she could even now hear their harsh words of judgement and condemnation which ultimately turned to cold shoulders and rejection. Tears poured down again. She had done nothing wrong and God knew that, then why? Why did they have to treat her this way? She took comfort in the fact that Joseph was a good, godly man who implicitly obeyed God. But, as they travelled further towards Bethlehem, she overwhelmingly felt the need for her mother and the comfort of home…..but sadness filled her heart for her parents had not been supportive either, they were just glad to get her off their hands when Joseph married her. And now, here she was, so far from home, with very meager resources, afraid of giving birth alone in a strange place, afraid of the pain of childbirth….and her tears continued to pour down in the darkness as she felt small, weak and alone in this big, huge world. “Lord help me” her heart cried, “help me in my unbelief, help me to trust, give me fresh faith to trust Your promises for my heart desperately fails me. I can do this only in Your supernatural power and strength but You seem far and distant from me.” Yet, she knew in her heart that she was plumb in the center of God’s will. And, God held her.

They slowly and heavily traveled on with just a mustard seed of faith. That’s all they seemed to have, trusting God, assuming that tomorrow would be a better day and that He would miraculously come through to provide a way to take care of His Son. Humanly, they were scared and struggling beyond imagination with just words from an angel to spur them on. In that bleak mid-winter, none of what they were going through was befitting a king, leave alone the Son of God! Joseph had been crying out to God for help all through this journey. He recited many a psalm in the silence of the night, begging God for help. Psalm 23, Psalm 46, Psalm 91… But his prayers seemed to be going unanswered, God seemed distant, ever so silent, on that particularly dark night. Was he doing something wrong? He quickly recited Psalm 51 as maybe God would see his heartfelt repentance and relent. But except for their footsteps in the darkness, he only heard silence. Was God angry at him? He was called by God to be the provider of his family and he was failing. He knew, for he had heard Mary’s sobs each night and there was nothing he could do to ease her pain. He felt like a failure. He looked like a failure. His thoughts were those of a failure and sadly, he knew that Mary was there right beside him. Despair overtook him.

When they finally reached Bethlehem, they needed practical help. They needed a place to stay. But looking at the crowds and at their meager savings, his broken spirit over ruled and he wondered if anyone would help them at all? He knocked on every door in the town, begging and pleading, but every single one of them had the same answer, “Sorry, no room!” Fear and worry assailed Joseph. Mary was going into labor. Her water had just broken and she could give birth any time. What was he to do? What did he know of these things? Less than a year ago, he had been a care-free young man dreaming and planning his future and now, because of his chosen obedience to God, he felt like he was drowning. Really God?

No RoomPanic was setting in. His knocking took on a new urgency as he saw Mary groan and cringe in pain. Hurling one last desperate prayer heavenward, he summoned the courage to knock one last time. “Please,” he begged, “please give us a room. We have traveled for many days and my wife is in labor. We need a midwife and we need a place to stay. “ This inn keeper gave him the same negative answer, “ No room at the inn”. “But wait”, he said, “there is a barn where the animals lived, maybe that could serve as a temporary shelter for the night?” A glimmer of hope in a desperate situation, but Joseph had no time to think. He rushed Mary to the shelter, set her down and hurriedly went about cleaning it and preparing it to give her small comfort as she labored to bring forth the Son of God into the world. Her cries were increasing, he had to hurry. The inn keeper told him that there were no midwives available at this unearthly hour but that he would give them a few blankets and some hot water. That had to do for now. He, Joseph, the impoverished, uneducated, young carpenter from Nazareth was single-handedly, going to deliver the very Son of God tonight. He laid Mary down and sent up another prayer, a cry of help. He could see the fear on her face, she was afraid and in pain, and she needed the reassurance even more than he did in her physically weakened state right now. He knelt beside his beloved wife, held her hand and prayed. A tender, worshipful moment in the trenches of despair. God was wanted, He was desperately needed and they were calling out to Him to help. And  as God always does, He held on to them in the midst of their weakness and pain!

A few hours later, the Son of God was born. He came into the world on a dark night, to exhausted parents, in a stinky stable filled with animals. No fanfare, no pomp, no circumstance – just darkness, loneliness and stench. Yet, once Jesus was born, as Mary and Joseph gazed into His precious little face in the light of that little lantern, they felt inexplicable peace and joy. They named Him “Immanuel” which means “God with us” in obedience to His Heavenly Father’s will – for He had come, giving up the glory of heaven, to enter the sin stained darkness of this world for our sake. God in that precious moment was gently reminding Joseph of the angel’s visit, ”an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the One conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you shall give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:…” Matthew 1:20-22  God was reminding them that there was far more to the story than what meets the eye. Jesus had a special reason to be on earth and the suffering surrounding His birth was just a small reflection of that lifelong mission.

Jesus was born to die! His goal in this life was never comfort, beauty, ease or happiness but it was sacrificial love, forgiveness and grace. Life was not easy for Jesus on earth. Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had predicted that He would be “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”. He was born in discomfort and hardship, lived as an ordinary, poor carpenter’s son. He had rumors and snide remarks follow Him all the days of His life, casting aspersions on His reputation (see John 9:34). He didn’t have a place to call home when He started teaching. And, at one point, even His mother Mary and his brothers thought He was crazy. He was despised, shamed, hated and rejected, and then ultimately put to death in the most horrific Roman way – crucifixion on a cross. At the time of His death, there was no tangible proof of His life having been worth living at all. Everyone turned on Him, and his best friends deserted Him. He did not leave any monument of His life behind. There was nothing beautiful or attractive about His reputation or life.

Yet, history shows that in three short years He had begun turning the world upside down. After His resurrection and ascension, His church began and grew in leaps and bounds under much suffering and persecution. And 2000 years later, His beloved church still stands strong and He is still quietly redeeming and transforming lives one person at a time. He has always promised many tribulations and trials in this life to anyone who follows Him for that is the only way to really know Him but He has also promised peace and joy when we choose to gaze into the beauty of His face in the darkness.

So, though we may be screaming into the darkness when God seems silent despite our obedience or we may be sobbing on our pillows shattered into a million pieces this Christmas, God reminds us that Mary and Joseph’s story of obedience and surrender was not pretty or beautiful like the ornamental nativity sets we like to display in our homes or cute like the kids’ nativity plays in our churches! Instead, it was a road marked with unbelievable suffering and sorrow. But, it was also a road which ended in unbelievable joy and peace and most of all the glory of heaven as they gazed into the Son of God’s face. We too can follow in His footsteps, persevering in our faith and enduring the sufferings of this life because of the eternal glory that He promises is to come! 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2

The beauty of the Christian faith is that we don’t need to deify any other human being even if they were specially chosen by God. As we have seen time and time again in the Bible, there are absolutely no human heroes – just one heroic Lord and Savior and innumerable, sinners redeemed by His grace. Every Christian will sin and fall until their last breath. That’s why every one of us desperately needs a Savior – just as Mary and Joseph did. They were human beings assaulted by every human emotion and overwhelmed by trials – but they were held! Jesus saved them and He alone can save you and me from our sins including our refusal to obey His call, our pride and failure to trust Him, our grumbling and complaining, our judging and condemning others, our spiritual pride, our selfishness, and our unbelief. We desperately need our newborn Savior! 

May Jesus, the greatest gift ever given to mankind, be the only reason to celebrate with great joy this holiday season! He was born to die! Good News for all mankind! Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!

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