Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sermon: "Did Jesus Ever Go Home to Bethlehem?"

(I wrote this story after returning from a trip to the Holy Land in 1997. While in Bethlehem, I wondered if Jesus and his family had ever returned there while Jesus was young to hear the story of his birth.)

Luke 2:1-7
Dec. 25, 2011
Christmas Day

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Joseph, Mary, and the young Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem for their annual Passover pilgrimage to the holy city. Every time they came to Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary remembered a previous journey, just a few short years before, when a census, and not a holy day, had caused them to travel from their home in Nazareth to Jerusalem and the extraordinary events that had surrounded that trip.

Jesus had begun to express some curiosity about the circumstances surrounding his birth, so Mary proposed a side trip to Joseph. “Do you suppose we could spend an extra day here and go to Bethlehem?” she asked. “We haven’t been back since we had to leave in such a hurry for Egypt when King Herod was hunting for all the baby boys. It’s just a few miles to Bethlehem and our son might enjoy seeing where he was born. I think I would like to see it again myself.”

“I suppose it would be all right,” said Joseph. “Jesus is getting old enough to begin to understand what a special birth it was. And everyone should have the chance to see where they were born.”

As they left the gates of Jerusalem the next morning and began to walk the few short miles to Bethlehem, known as the city of David, Joseph started telling Jesus the story.

“Your mother and I were living in Nazareth. We had not been engaged for very long. I had paid the bride’s price to your grandfather and we had begun to plan the wedding feast that would make us husband and wife. I was happier than I had ever been and looking forward to spending the rest of my life with her, when something happened that almost ended us before we had even begun.

“One of my brothers came to my carpenter’s shop one day and told me some very disturbing news; he had heard from a reliable source that your mother, my beloved Mary, was expecting a baby! I couldn’t believe my ears. There was no way it could be true, since we had not yet come together as husband and wife.

“While the Word of God was clear that an unfaithful fiancĂ©e was to be punished severely, I couldn’t think of such a thing. My only thought was for your mother’s reputation. So I decided to divorce her quietly and not bring shame on either of our families.

“But that very night I had a dream that changed my plans completely. An angel appeared to me and told me that the Holy Spirit was the Father of the baby Mary was expecting, which, of course, was you, and that I should go through the marriage.

As we have tried to teach you, son, we should always follow God’s wishes. So I resolved to marry your mother, though I felt unworthy to be the earthly father of such a special child.

The angel also told me that we were to name you Jesus, which as you know, means “Yahweh is salvation,” because you would save your people from their sins. I couldn’t begin to comprehend what all of that meant, but somehow it was all in fulfillment of what the prophet Isaiah had foretold: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God with us.’ ”

Mary continued the story. “I didn’t know what your father would think when he found out I was expecting you, since it had all happened so quickly. One moment I was planning a nice quiet life with my new husband and looking forward to raising a family, when out of the blue an angel appeared to me and told me that I had found favor with God and that I had been chosen to give birth to a child who would be called Jesus and the Son of the Most High God.

“I asked the angel how that was possible, since your father and I weren’t married yet, and he told me that Joseph wasn’t going to be the father -- the Holy Spirit was. I almost fainted from shock. The angel reminded me that with God nothing was impossible. I thought, if that’s what God has planned for me how can I say no. So I told the angel I was God’s willing servant.

“I wouldn’t have blamed your father if he’d thought I was crazy or lying when I told him that story. But he said an angel had told him the same thing in a dream and that we would go ahead with the wedding. I knew then that God couldn’t have blessed me with a kinder or more understanding husband, or you with a wiser or better father.”

“But why was I born in Bethlehem?” asked the young Jesus. “You haven’t told me that part of the story yet.”

“I was just getting there, son.” Joseph said, as they approached the outskirts of the village of Bethlehem.” “Your mother and I were beginning to get used to the idea of having a baby, even though some people still talked about us behind our backs. We made plans for our wedding, which we had set for shortly before you were to be born. But Caesar Augustus had other plans.

“He was getting ready to raise taxes and wanted to make sure he didn’t miss anyone in the remotest corner of the world of his vast Roman Empire, so he ordered that every person had to go to their hometown to be counted. That meant that I would have to come all the way here to Bethlehem from Nazareth, since I am of David’s line, and as you know, Bethlehem was the home of our ancestor, King David. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, with your mother getting ready to have you any day. I couldn’t leave her home alone, since she had to be counted with me, so like good citizens we set out for Bethlehem, following the same route we have just traveled.”

“It was the worst trip of my life,” said Mary. “Your father bought a donkey for me to ride, but there was no way I could get comfortable on those rough roads.

“We had hoped we could make the journey to Bethlehem, be counted, and get back home to Nazareth before you were born. But it wasn’t to be. You just couldn’t wait. Bouncing up and down on the back of that donkey probably didn’t help matters either.”

About that time the three of them stopped in front of a building that from its appearance and the people coming and going was clearly an inn for travelers.

“The trip here had been so hurried that we didn’t have time to make arrangements to stay with relatives,” said Mary. “So we stopped here at this inn in hopes that they would have a room. I had begun to feel the labor pains and knew that the time for your arrival had come.

“The innkeeper was kind to us, but he explained that his inn was full because of all the out-of –town visitors from the census. But he told us that if we were willing, we could sleep in the stable behind the inn with all his guest’s animals.”

The family had walked around behind the inn and were now standing outside the entrance of a cave that served as a stable.

“At first I wouldn’t even think of such a thing,” said Joseph. “How could my wife give birth and my son be born in a stable full of animals? But your mother soon convinced me that there was no time to search for other lodging. The pains were coming more often now. If the straw was clean and a warm fire could be built, a stable might be the best we could hope for.”

“This is where you were born, Jesus. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could in this small cave, and before long, you entered the world,” said Mary. “I was worn out from the journey and the donkey and labor, but as soon as I laid eyes on you, I knew it was all worth it. You were truly a blessing from the Lord. We wrapped you in swaddling cloths and laid you right here in this manger. This feed trough was your very first bed. I promise you, because you had entered our lives, this stable seemed like a palace.”

“And while you and your mother slept,” said Joseph, “I had a lot of time to think. I realized that even our coming to Bethlehem had been part of God’s plan. I thought of the promises of the Messiah that have sustained our people for hundreds of years. And of that one promise in particular spoken by the prophet Micah: ‘But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who is one of the little clans of Judah, from you, shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, who origin is from old, from ancient days. Therefore, he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall be one of peace.’

“Even though we don’t understand it all completely yet, my son, we know that God has very special plans for you. We knew it from before you were born and we knew it when on the night you were born shepherds invaded our peaceful cave telling us that an angel had announced to them while they were watching their flocks that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem, and that they would find him wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in this very manger.”

Mary said, “Ever since that very special night in this humble stable, I have treasured the words the angels spoke to the shepherds and pondered them in my heart: ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’”

“Now that you have come back here to Bethlehem, which is your home like Nazareth is your home, and you have seen the inn and the stable and the manger, you will understand even more what a special child you are and what grand and glorious plans your heavenly Father has for You. You are still so young, and you have a lot of growing up to do, but don’t ever forget that you have a mother and father who love you very much, and a heavenly Father who loves you even more.”

“We’d better get started back to Jerusalem,” said Joseph. “We have a long journey ahead of us tomorrow, and I am anxious to get back home.”

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