The Journey to Bethlehem
Years ago one of our daughters had a school assignment to write about her family’s Christmas traditions. She didn’t know what to write … because our family never had two Christmases alike. We have never lived near family. So at least half the time when we had vacation days … we loaded up in the car and took a long trip … either to Dalhart TX or to Scottsdale AZ.
Nowadays we end up traveling to our new “Mecca” of Lincoln IL … where two of our grandkids and assorted other relatives live. But this year, we got to stay home … and Kaysha, Chris, David, and Lydia made the 18-hour drive to TEXAS!
The first Christmas required a long journey. In fact, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about 90 miles, which would take about 8 to 10 days … maybe even longer when one of the travelers was nine-months pregnant.
1. Reason for the journey
Luke 2 tells the Reason for the Journey: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. Luke 2:1-3
It’s sounds very matter-of-fact … but that’s NOT how it would have felt to Mary and Joseph. In Mary’s ninth month of pregnancy, Roman soldiers arrived in Nazareth … to announce that the emperor had commanded a census. Everyone had to travel to the town where their family owned property so Rome could levy property taxes. Joseph’s family property was located in Bethlehem, so that is where he and Mary had to go.
To Mary and Joseph, this was just one more example of Roman oppression … and it messed up all their plans. Mary probably had a mid-wife she was familiar with there in Nazareth. She surely hoped to give birth surrounded by family and friends. Now, in the very last month, she was forced to make a trip that would be
dangerous, costly, and uncomfortable at best.
We aren’t told how Mary felt, but it would be normal for Mary to think something like this: “What is going on here? The Angel appeared to me months ago, and I know this baby will be nothing less than the Messiah! But now everything is going wrong. At the worst possible time I have to head off on this dangerous trip! What is God doing?”
Have you ever felt that way toward God? Have you ever been so disappointed or afraid that all you could do was cry out, “What is God doing?” You were hoping for a promotion, but instead you get laid off. You prayed for healing, but the sickness got worse. You thought you had found a great relationship, but now you’ve been left all alone.
When we look at the circumstances of life, we often wonder, “What is God doing?” The problem is that we are looking at circumstances. We are looking at what we can SEE with our physical eyes. The truth is that reality is so much more than what is visible to the human eye. What we CAN’T see is actually the most important reality of all.
Hebrews 11:1 explains that faith is the evidence of things NOT SEEN. And 2 Corinthians 5:7 says, We walk by faith, not by sight.
I believe that is the way Mary and Joseph walked that road to Bethlehem. They walked by FAITH, not by SIGHT. They saw far beyond the dusty road because they looked with the eyes of faith. Mary and Joseph knew that God was at work behind the scenes, bringing the fulfillment of prophecy: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2
2. Route for the journey
Nothing is said about the long journey, but the most direct route Mary and Joseph might have taken went through Samaria … on a route that is called “The Way of the Patriarchs.” It has that name because so much of the history of the Old Testament took place along that route.
For example, this was route Abraham took when God promised to give the land to Abraham and his descendants forever. Along this route was the place where Jacob dreamed of Angels ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven. Mary and Joseph would have stopped to drink from a well Jacob dug over a thousand years before. They would have passed the place where Joseph was buried and the place where Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.
This was also the road that Daniel traveled when he was led away into Babylonian captivity. This was the route God’s people traveled when they returned to their homeland to rebuild the Temple.
Mary and Joseph were traveling a route that was rich with the history of God’s people. But all most people could see was a tired couple trudging along a dusty road. The miracle was what was UNSEEN. How amazing to realize that God in the flesh was actually traveling this “Road of the Patriarchs” as a baby not-yet born.
The last leg of the route would have been the hardest of all. Jericho is the lowest city on the globe, and Jerusalem and Bethlehem are situated right in the top of the hills. From Jericho’s desert to Bethlehem is an uphill hike of 3,500 feet. The beautiful Temple of Jehovah would have been visible in the far distance for many miles.
Every year people from all over the world traveled to visit the Jerusalem Temple because this Temple was the dwelling place of God on earth. Anyone who wanted to connect with God came to the Temple. People who wanted to give thanks to God or to receive forgiveness from God had to travel to the Temple.
What the travelers could see with human eyes was a magnificent, white structure representing God’s presence on earth. What was UNSEEN was the future of that Temple. Just 70 years later, that magnificent building would lie in shambles … completely demolished by the Roman army.
What was UNSEEN was that the baby Mary carried would make that Temple obsolete. Only Mary and Joseph could have known that even then God’s presence had already moved from the Temple to the body of a tiny pre-born baby. The very presence of God had already come to dwell in human flesh.
Thirty years later, Jesus told his disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Then Jesus explained, “I am with you and will be IN you.” (John 14:9, 17)
While Jesus was on earth, God’s presence resided in Him. After his death and resurrection, God took up residence --- not in a Temple --- but in every believer.
That’s why I Corinthians 6:19 says, Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?
People no longer have to travel to Jerusalem in order to connect with God. Because of Jesus, God has come to dwell with us … and in us. But no one could foresee all these things during the 10-day trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
3. Result of the journey
Luke 2:6-7 gives the Result of the Journey: While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
• What was SEEN was an exhausted young couple, forced to take shelter in a barn.
• What was SEEN was the birth of one more Jewish baby … born in less-than-ideal circumstances to poverty-stricken parents who were far away from home.
• What was UNSEEN was that God had entered time and space.
• What was UNSEEN was that God had sent his only begotten son to earth so that anyone who believes in Him could be saved.
The night Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph could not hear the Angels singing. They couldn’t see the wise men following that distant Star. That night … while they were swaddling their new baby, God was at work behind the scene.
Soon the shepherds would arrive with their amazing story about a choir of angels. The wise men would come with valuable gifts. Joseph would be warned in a dream and they would flee to Egypt in order to avoid a murderous King.
Later, Mary and Joseph would return to Nazareth --- and the next 25 or so years would be surprisingly normal and uneventful. We tend to focus on the years when Jesus was teaching and healing and performing miracles. We forget that before those years Jesus lived a quiet, normal small-town life.
As a boy, Jesus submitted to his parents and obeyed them. As a young adult, Jesus apprenticed as a carpenter, and then worked to help support his family. As far as we know, the first 30 years were mostly mundane and ordinary --- not so different from our lives. But during those years, God was working behind the scenes to set the stage for Jesus’ 3-year ministry.
If we can only see it, that’s the way life always is! It seems like our daily life is just … daily. As far as what we can see, things just go along in a normal way with nothing important happening. Maybe there is something you’ve been waiting and praying about for years … but it seems like nothing’s happening.
We need to realize that what we see with our eyes is not the end of the story. What we can SEE is not as important as what is UNSEEN. Even when we can’t see it, we need to remember that behind the scenes God is always working. I saw an example of this in my family just a few weeks ago:
My parents have prayed for my brother, Karl, for around 50 years … and the whole time it looked like nothing was happening. Years and years went by, but my brother showed no interest in God. In fact in the last 5 years things got worse, not better. His alcoholism got worse, he got with a woman that we all knew was embezzling from him --- but he couldn’t see it. Eventually he turned away from just about everyone in his family --- until eventually he was estranged from his children and grandchildren and even his parents.
• That’s what we could see ... and it looked hopeless.
• What we couldn’t see was that all the time God was setting up a miracle.
Through a series of unusual circumstances … involving a DUI and a Judge saying “rehab or jail” … Karl ended up at Teen Challenge in Spokane Washington at the age of 58.
We knew that the rehab program at Teen Challenge is nothing but God, God, and more God. So for the next 9 months, Karl spent his time reading the Bible and getting spiritual counseling.
Then, last month, Susan and I went to Scottsdale AZ to see my parents. We didn’t know it, but Karl was back home after spending 9 months at Teen Challenge. And what we saw at Thanksgiving was the answer to 50 years of prayer!
Now, the truth is that most people would see Karl’s situation as nothing but tragedy. The fact is that Karl has lost everything. As we had feared, the woman he was with had embezzled just about everything he had from a business he’d spent a life-time building.
That is the SEEN reality. But the UNSEEN reality is what really matters.
And what we saw was a miracle. In fact, the greatest miracle of all is when God transforms a human life, from the inside out!
My brother is a New Man in Christ. In spite of his losses, he has the kind of peace that I’ve never seen in him before.
He may have lost everything materially, but he’s gained everything that really matters!
When the circumstances you see around you look hopeless … remember that God is always working behind the scenes.
Remember Joseph and Mary’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Remember that the people who passed them on the road to Bethlehem saw only worn out travelers … one of them heavy with child … plodding along on a forced march because the oppressive Roman government demanded a census.
Remember that the people who passed Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem had no idea that they were walking past the Son of God! They had no idea God was doing his greatest work … behind the scenes.
2 Corinthians 4:18 says, We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Remember that God is always working … whether seen or unseen.