Road Trip

“Road Trip”
A Message on Luke 2:1-7

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Dec. 16, 2018

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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When I was a teenager one of the fun things to do was to go on a “road trip.” A group of people would load into a car  or vehicle and drive somewhere.


Our science club even took a road trip when I was in high school. After a football game one Friday night the club members and a couple of our teachers loaded up in a school bus and left in the middle of the night to head to NASA in Houston and then also Galveston. We drove all night (it is about a 5 and a half hour trip) and got to Houston the next morning.


We went to NASA and saw lots of things there, then drove on down to Galveston and explored the beach for a few hours. After just a couple of hours, we loaded up the bus and drove back home. It was a short but great road trip. I just remember being so tired when I got home, but I still had to get up the next morning, do my chores, and then go to Sunday School and church.


It was a big deal for our little school. It was such a big deal that a photo of our group at the beach in Galveston was featured on the cover of our high school yearbook, The Growl, that year.


In the scripture we read today Luke tells us of a first century road trip. This road trip was a lot different from the one I just described.


I got on Google maps and looked to see how far Bethlehem was from Nazareth. Turns out that if you are driving it’s about 157 kilometers, which is about 97.5 miles. Now as the crow flies it’s only about 70 miles but there are no roads straight there. So 97.5 miles it is driving, taking a little over two hours.


The distance was the same in the first century, but there was a difference. You see Samaria was between Nazareth, up in Galilee, and Bethlehem, which is south of Jerusalem. There was bad blood at the time between the Jewish people and the Samaritans, so much so that the Jews would travel on routes that added extra miles to the trip just to keep from going through Samaria. (That’s why Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is so powerful.)


Now it wasn’t a pleasure trip for Mary and Joseph. The Romans, who ruled the area with a fierce military presence, sent out notices that they were going to take a census. When we think of a census we think of counting people and demographic information and that’s pretty much it. But at the time a census meant no only did you have to get counted, but you had to pay money similar to a tax as well.


So even though it was a Roman tax, they let the Jewish people conduct it in a Jewish way. That meant that all adult males were expected to travel to their tribal ancestral home (remember the 12 tribes of Israel?) in order to be counted and pay the census tax.


So word comes to the town of Nazareth that this census is coming down. Joseph had to make a big ol’ sigh when he heard it because he knew it meant going on a long road trip. Not only that but his wife-to-be was with child.


Now we often think of Mary as riding on a donkey on the trip to Bethlehem but we really don’t know. There is no mention of it in the scriptures, just that they made the trip. Donkeys were used as beasts of burden in that day so it is certainly possible. Whether she walked or whether she rode on a donkey, either way it could not have been easy for a pregnant Mary to make the trip.


The 70-mile straight-line distance probably ended up being closer to 80 or 90 miles by the route Mary and Joseph used which, as mentioned, went around Samaria.


Historians and scholars speculate about how long it took the couple to make it to Bethlehem. One article I read said that the longest documented trip in one day during that era was about 20 miles under good conditions. Mary and Joseph’s route wasn’t flat, but through part of a desert and up and down hills. They probably only made about 10 miles a day.


There were hazards along the trip as well. The part of the route went along the Jordan River, which had forests that had lions, bears, and even wild boars. Plus there were two-legged animals to fear as well. Bandits often struck travelers along the route, robbing them (remember that Joseph had money on him to pay the census tax) and even beating or killing them.


So 10 miles a day, along a dangerous 90-mile route, meant that the couple would be traveling for about nine days. And there were no Motel 6s to leave the light on for them. I’m sure there were nights when they found shelter wherever they could, kind of the equivalent of camping out.


So you can imagine how tired they must have been when they finally got to Bethlehem. And then to find out that there was no place for them to stay must have really been disappointing. Extremely disappointing. And then Mary goes into labor. Oh boy…


Now we don’t know exactly what was going through the minds of Mary and Joseph but if it was me I’d probably be having some stern conversations with God. “Really, God? Seriously? Can’t you cut us a break? I mean we’re doing this for you, you know. How about at least a decent place to stay?”


Sometimes during this time of year it’s not unusual for us to have some bumps in our lives. Our “Road to Bethlehem” looks a lot different than Mary and Joseph’s, yet the the pressure to buy Christmas presents for others creates financial angst in our lives. There are also decorations to put up and parties to attend. And then there is the scheduling, figuring out how we are going to able to go visit relatives in such a way that nobody feels like they aren’t loved..


When I do premarital counseling with couples one of the things I strongly encourage them to do is to establish and publish a holiday schedule. I suggest that they have Thanksgiving day with one family, say the groom’s family, and then Christmas day with the other family, say the bride’s. And then I try to convince them to create a specific calendar for that on Google Calendar and then share that will all the family members involved. That way everyone knows when the couple will spend the holidays where and can see that everyone is treated equitably.


Our road to Bethlehem may not have the physical challenges but it does have challenges. All of the advertisements make it easy to fall into the sin of covetousness, wishing we had what others have or what we see advertised. Last year shoppers in the US racked up an average of $1,054 in debt during last year’s Christmas holiday.


The sin of gluttony also rears its head during this time of year. (Santa is big for a reason, you know.)


We sin in many other ways. When families get together personalities can sometimes clash. I think we all have a family member that loves to get into debates about politics during the holidays. Add alcohol to the mix and people can often say mean and hateful things they normally wouldn’t. The police will tell you that it’s not unusual for them to be called to homes during family gatherings when disagreements turn physical. Not exactly peace on earth and goodwill toward others.


Sometimes the obstacles in the road to Bethlehem may something other than sins. Grief is an example as we miss loved ones who have passed, and the season brings backs memories that are painful.


The season of Advent is about the journey to Bethlehem. Like the season of Lent, it is a season of preparation, of getting our hearts and souls ready for the event that changes everything: the birth of Jesus the Christ Child.


How are you preparing? As we travel the road to Bethlehem is there anything different about you, about your spiritual practices, about your faith life, that is different from how you normally are? Are you traveling to Bethlehem or just staying in the same place?


After all, this isn’t just a holiday special we are preparing for, is it? Christmas is when God puts on flesh and comes to earth in the form of a baby, a baby that will grow up to save the world through his sacrifice on the cross.


Unfortunately the true meaning of Christmas gets covered over by the commercial glitter and tinsel.


The world tells us to view Jesus like the character Ricky Bobby, the racecar driver in the movie, “Talladega Nights.” (Which is NOT a family friendly movie, by the way.)


“Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent. We’d just like to thank you for all the races ‘ve won and the $21.2 million, LOVE THAT MONEY! That I have accrued over this past season. Also due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention PowerAde at each grace, I just wanna say that PowerAde is delicious and it cools you off on a hot summer day and we look forward to Powerade’s release of mystic mountain blueberry. Thank you, for all your power and your grace, Dear Baby God, Amen.”


No. The road to Bethlehem is not a racetrack filled with who can go the fastest to purchase or receive the most presents. It is a slow, unpaved path with obstacles to overcome, keeping us humble and keeping our focus on the real reason for the season.


So my challenge to you this week is to take the correct road to Bethlehem. During this season of Advent as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus let us journey the ancient path that Mary and Joseph travelled, one of humble obedience. Let us repent of our sins and turn to the one who saves us from our sins. Let us focus on the Christ in Christmas.


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

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