Advent: Get Set

Advent: Get Set
A Message on Luke 2:1-7
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Dec. 15, 2019
By Doug Wintermute

Luke 2:1-7 (NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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.

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In track and field competitions, each race begins with the person called the starter giving three announcements. The first is “Runners to your marks.” There actually are marks on the track for the runners to line up behind. Then the starter says, “Get set,” or just “Set.” And then the third announcement isn’t actually an announcement, but the firing of a starter’s pistol (which shoots blanks, of course).

When we would go to track meets when I was in Junior High I always thought it would be funny to be in the infield right before a race begins, and when the starter pistol goes off clutch my chest and fall to the ground. Luckily, I never did that. Doesn’t sound as funny now that I’m an adult.

As kids we used to shorten that process by saying, “Ready, set, go!”

This advent season we will be looking at the scriptures through that mindset of “Ready, set, go.” Two weeks ago we looked at the first chapter of Luke and explored what it means to “get ready” for the birth of Jesus during the season of Advent. Today we will look at the second chapter of Luke and what it means to “Get Set,” and then on Christmas Eve we will get ready to “go.”

Now in track terminology the term “get set” means for the runners to be still, to be prepared for the next thing, which is to “go.” During “get set,” there is no moving around, no more stretching, no more warming up. It’s time to be still.

Likewise during this period of Advent in our modern world it is important for us to take time to be still, to listen to the still, small voice of God, to escape from the hustle and bustle to remind ourselves the real reason for the season.

In the scripture we read today Mary and Joseph are trying to get still, but having a hard time doing so. Word comes out about a census that is to be taken. This came from the Roman government that occupied the area.

Now when we hear the word “census” we think about that time that happens once every ten years when we get paperwork to fill out that asks all kinds of questions. We think about census workers, some of whose jobs is to go door-to-door getting information on the people that live in the houses. Some of you may have even worked for the census bureau.

But for the Jews in the first century a census meant something that was much different. First of all the Jews considered it against their laws. Also add to that the fact that it was also a method of taxation by the Romans. Each person not only had to be registered but had to pay a tax of sorts as well. This was a way the Roman government got funds to rule over the area.

There was also a rule that each male (sorry women) had to go to the “hometown” of sorts of his family’s lineage so he and his family could not only be counted but also would pay the census tax.

In the scripture we read today we find that the census being called causes difficulties for Joseph and Mary. They are living in Nazareth, way up north in the region of Galilee. But since Joseph is a descendent of the lineage of King David (remember David, the one who gave Goliath a splitting headache?), he is required to travel to a small town south of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. David was born there, and so that’s where he has to go.

The trouble is that Bethlehem is about 70 miles away as the crow flies. That’s not that big a deal for us for us today with automobiles, but that was a long way to walk in the First Century. It is especially a long way to travel if you are pregnant.

Not only that but the Jewish people at the time didn’t travel as the crow flies. Living between Nazareth and Jerusalem were the dreaded and hated Samaritans. (Everybody say “boooooo!) There was such bad blood between the Jews and Samaritans that the Jews would travel out of the way just to keep from having to travel through Samaria. So this added an additional 20 miles to the trip, making it a 90 mile journey one way.

Guesses are that they probably only traveled about 10 miles a day, since Mary was with child. Unless my math is wrong that makes it a 9-day trip. And there were no Dairy Queens, or Buccee’s travel stops on the way. They had to carry all their food and water with them (although they probably replenished their water on the way).

Here’s some Advent trivia for you: nowhere in the Bible does it say anything about Mary riding a donkey. Nope. It only says that Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Now donkeys were common beasts of burden at the time, and the scriptures do not exclude the possibility of Mary riding a donkey, but they don’t specifically say it either. If you are like me and appreciate the aches, pains, swelling, and the need for frequent bathroom stops that pregnant women experience, then maybe we want to believe there was a donkey rather than think of Mary walking the entire distance.

I often wonder if Joseph felt like the world was against him. He finds out his to-be wife is “with child” and that he isn’t the father, he has givev up his work so he can travel a long distance on foot, with his pregnant wife, only to have to pay money once he gets to his destination.

It kind of reminds me of that scene from the movie “Young Frankenstein” when Igor (pronounced “EYE-gore”), after experiencing a series of misfortunes with his employer, Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced “FRAHKEN-stine”) , turns to his boss and says, “It could be worse.” “How?” the doctor responds. Igor responds, “It could be raining.” And just as he finishes saying it, you see a flash of lightning and hear a peal of thunder and, of course, it starts raining.

Joseph was probably thinking things couldn’t get worse, but they did. Odds are that it did, indeed rain on them, according to many scholars to point out that their route often has rain along it during that time of year. And then they finally get to Bethlehem and wouldn’t you know it, they don’t have a place to stay.

The Gospel of Luke is the only gospel to tell of the census and the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Luke is also the only gospel to talk about not having any room in the inn. Matthew just says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, nothing about the journey or the inn being full.

Mark and John tell us nothing about the birth of Jesus.

Luke gives us the most information about the original Christmas. Luke gives us the scripture we read today about the journey to Bethlehem and Jesus being born, not in a house, but in a stable, a barn, a place for livestock.

Advent has double meaning. It is a period of preparation, a time for us to prepare our hearts and souls for the birth of the Christ child. But it is also a time to prepare our hearts and souls for Jesus second coming, when heaven comes to earth and Jesus returns in glory.

What are you doing to “get set” not only for Christmas, but the triumphant return of Jesus?

Bethlehem connects with Calvary. The cradle connects with the cross. One leads to the other.

Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem. It wasn’t a straight path, it wasn’t an easy path. It took time, patience, and perseverance, and hope.

Joseph and Mary’s trip reminds me of what Paul wrote in the fifth chapter of Romans: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Our journey through life is metaphorically similar to Mary and Joseph’s. I don’t know of anyone who has had a straight path in life. Everyone has difficulties at different periods that keep it from being an easy path. Everyone has to, at some point, take a detour.

It may be physical health. It may be mental health. It may be the death of a loved one. It may be financial difficulties. It may be broken relationships. It may be job or career related. It may be trying to find your identity or trying to find your place in the world.

Raise your hand if you have had a straight and easy path as you have journeyed through your life. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

I didn’t think so.

Journeying through life takes patience, perseverance, and hope. It takes faith, knowing that even though you can’t see the future you have the assurance that everything will be okay. Even when we have to detour, even when those plans we make and dream of aren’t what comes to pass, it will still be okay. And it will be okay, because of Jesus.

Jesus birth was extraordinary for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that God puts on skin and comes and lives among us. And God arrives not in a fancy palace, but in a humble stable.

And then that person that is fully God and fully human grows up and gives his life on the cross, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And he does so out of love. And it is that love, that grace, that reminds us that no matter what happens to us in this world, something better is coming.

Christmas is coming. And Jesus’ return is coming.

So my challenge to you today, this third Sunday of Advent, is to prepare not only for the birth of the Christ child, but for Jesus return. Don’t become discouraged by life’s detours, but with faith continue to persevere, knowing that indeed, something better is coming.

Get ready. Get set.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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