Speak to us, Lord.
Speak to us in the waiting, the watching,
the hoping, the longing,
the sorrow, the sighing, the rejoicing.
Speak to us by your Word and walk with us on our journeys. Amen.

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
the staff on their shoulders,
and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
and authority will be on his shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
establishing and sustaining it
with justice and righteousness
now and forever.

The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this.

 Luke 2:1-12 (CEB)  Jesus’ birth

2 In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Announcement to shepherds

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”

This is the word of God for us the people of God.  Thanks be to God.

Faithful: Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph – The Journey to Bethlehem

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem must have been one that neither Mary nor Joseph particularly wanted to take.  After all, Mary was uncomfortably pregnant, and it was about 80 miles from one city to another – about the distance from here to Little Rock.  So imagine us making such a journey today, without modern-day conveniences along the way.  The journey probably would have been partly on foot and partly by donkey.  It would have been physically and mentally stressful.  It would have taken several days.

But the Roman Empire required it.  You see every 14 years Rome took a census.  Not for purposes of knowing how many people lived in the Empire like we do today, but for the purposes of assessing taxes and finding out who in the Empire would be subject to required military service.  Because Jewish people were exempt from military service, the main purpose for Joseph and Mary’s journey would have been for taxation purposes.  This would have been a depressing reminder to the Jewish people, too, that they were under Roman rule.

Joseph was required to go, and Mary went along.  Adam Hamilton pointed out in his book that “in Mary’s time women died in childbirth with a frequency that led to an average life expectance of only thirty-five.”  (Hamilton, 102).  And so the trip was more than just an inconvenience – it was probably an anxious and scary time on top of being an exhausting journey.  The journey was probably one that the young couple did not want to make.

Have you ever faced a journey you didn’t want to take?

Sometimes the journeys that are our lives are painful.  We may find ourselves brokenhearted and facing despair.  Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of journeys we are forced into because of someone else’s decisions or actions like Mary and Joseph were with the Emperor’s rules.  Or we may have made wrong decisions that have led to a dreaded journey.  Or something may have just happened through no one’s fault at all.  We may face the pain of divorce, the death of a loved one, addiction, illnesses of all kinds – there are so many journeys in life that we just would rather avoid.  In fact, don’t we pray that God will spare us from these things.  Don’t we pray for relief and protection for ourselves and our families.  But some of the most remarkable people I know have survived these journeys and have amazing stories of faith because of their experiences to share with others.  Maybe there is something to gain and something to learn from these journeys that none of us would choose to take part in.

In his book, Adam Hamilton talks about the pain he experienced when his parents divorced when he was 12.  His mother remarried and then his family moved to another town.  That’s tough for a 12 year-old.  He says that while this was traumatic for him at the time, there were some amazing things that happened because of the move: he came to faith in the new city, he met his wife there, and he heard a call to ministry.  Although this was a painful time for him it also led to many blessings and gifts that he couldn’t see at 12, but that he said he sees clearly now at age 53.  He became aware of God’s presence later, looking back on the experience. (Hamilton, 98).

This week I couldn’t get my friend Heather off my mind because she is in the middle of a difficult journey.  She is a young mother of two who has been diagnosed with colon cancer.  And she has been courageous enough to share her journey on facebook so that others might be aware of the risk of colon cancer.  A few months ago, her treatment began with an actual crazy journey.  She faced a trip to St. Louis where she was scheduled to have surgery.  Heather’s husband stayed home to take care of the kids while Heather was undergoing surgery, so she and her mother set off in her minivan headed from Russellville to St. Louis for the surgery.  Somewhere along the way they had a flat tire—from the picture she posted on facebook it looked like the whole tire just kind of exploded.  Luckily, they had AAA and called for help.  However, it took some time for them to get there to fix the tire.  While they were waiting, Heather left the lights on, and the battery died, so they had to replace the batter, too.  The next picture Heather shared was of herself crawling under the van because the AAA people hadn’t tightened the spare tire down, and it was rattling away under the van.  One thing after another after another happened on this journey.  And as Heather shared her experience on facebook, I kept thinking God this is not fair.  This is so not fair – one thing after another keeps happening to Heather.  If she’s going to have cancer, and if she’s going to have to have surgery, at least she should be able to drive to St. Louis without drama.  The journey no one ever wants to take, fighting cancer, had turned into a literal insane journey to St. Louis for Heather and her mom.  But this was just the beginning of Heather’s journey.  After the surgery, she has had 3 rounds of chemo out of 6 that are scheduled for her.  I can’t imagine the difficulties that Heather has faced and continues to face during this journey, continuing to care for her children and continue on with her normal routine and duties while fighting this battle.  I can’t imagine the difficulties faced by all those affected by cancer.

But I have noticed that a lot of times part of the journey for people suffering includes a faith journey.  Sometimes when people are in pain, God shows up in the most interesting ways.  Oftentimes, one’s faith develops, as a part of the journey.  Like Adam Hamilton’s story, sometimes we look back on how our faith developed. We can see God’s presence in our journeys when we look with hindsight.  But sometimes we become aware of God’s presence with us in our struggles while we are in the middle of it.  Heather described the way her faith journey has intertwined with her life’s journey like this:

“God always give me opportunities to gain perspective.  When Charlie (her son) was born prematurely, the baby across from his was the same age and very, very sick.  When I was stressing about Charlie’s MRI when he was 18 months old, God sent me to wait in the waiting room with parents whose children were having amputations.  Today, I was tired and cranky at chemo so God sat me down across from a woman who violently vomited the entire time I was there (five hours).  I quickly gained perspective and counted my blessings.  God always shows how good my life is and how much I have to be grateful for.  And she posted this sentence:

“The presence of God will not always fix your problems, but it will clarify your perspective.”

As we live our lives, we will experience both joy and despair — but the question for each of us is — will we experience the good, the bad and the ugly in life by ourselves, ignoring the presence of God or will we lean on the power of God?

I want you to know today that God is in the journey.  God is in your journey.  God was not just with Mary and Joseph on their journey.  God is with you in your journey.

God’s presence is with us when we experience the most thrilling joy and the most crushing despair!  To me, today, that seems to be the whole Christmas message – that is the message of this season.  God is with us.  Immanuel.  God is with us.  God is with YOU.

While [Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem], the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, (simple, ordinary, blue collar shepherds), and the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.

Today we come to remind ourselves of the good news –

The wonderful, joyous good news.

Your savior is born.

God is with us.  Immanuel.  God is with us.

Let us pray.

Mighty God, there are many things troubling us today.  We face many road blocks on our journeys.  And some of us are discouraged.  In fact some of us are more than discouraged.

God we pray for Heather and all those who are facing a tough journey.  We name our friends and family silently before you who need to feel your presence and your healing in their lives.

But, God we pray for ourselves, and we just admit that we need to lean on you.

So today we come before you with all of our fear, anxiety, depression, addiction, anger, bitterness, jealousy, hatred and unforgiveness.

But we come giving you our worship and praise, too – and we thank you for the joy, love and happiness that comes in our lives.

We come before you this day, God, ready and anxious to experience your presence with us through it all.  We anticipate the birth of Christ in us – in a new way this year.  May we know Immanuel.

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