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Previous Message From Virtual Church

A Special Christmas Message

Journey To Bethlehem

Writer's Note: We do not know every detail of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem. We do know some of the facts as recorded in the New Testament. We do know that Mary and Joseph were human beings with thoughts and feelings. This story is about the way things might have been on that first Christmas when Jesus was born.

Joseph is in shock when he hears the news. Disbelieving, he asks a friend if it is true. Yes, his friend says, a census is being taken. Joseph thinks to himself, surely not now, with Mary expecting a baby in only a matter of days. However, as members of the tribe of Judah, Joseph and his wife Mary must register for the census in Bethlehem. The Romans are strict. Anyone not appearing at the appointed time could be fined or executed. Joseph closes the carpenter shop and rushes home to tell Mary the news. "Mary" he says, "Something dreadful has happened. The Romans have called a census of all the Jews. We must go to Bethlehem and we must leave tomorrow morning." Mary turns pale and begins to tremble in fear. "But Joseph", she says, "How can I go like this. It is near time for this child to be born. How can I ride all that way?" "Mary," says Joseph, "Our Lord will look out for us. He will not desert us. Remember what we have seen and heard." Mary smiles and draws strength and comfort from his words. "I will collect our clothing and other things for our journey." says Mary. Joseph tells Mary he must leave for a while to find a burrow for her to ride. Secretly Joseph is afraid for Mary. Although he trusts the Lord, Joseph cannot help but worry.

The shortest way south toward Jerusalem must be chosen, not the easier route through the plains of the Mediterranean, but the 3000 year old trading route that winds for 70 miles through the rocky highlands. To protect Mary, Joseph purchases a place in a caravan passing through from Mesopotamia. It will provide protection from bandits, bears, and mountain lions. Mary has collected a small bundle of clothing for the journey ahead. Joseph found a burrow from a customer for whom he had done work. The next morning they set off. The long, cumbersome caravan leaves Nazareth in a welter of dust and yapping dogs. The rich are in their chariots and wagons; the poor are on donkeys and on foot. Mary smiles and reassures Joseph but he knows she is frightened when she sees the assembled caravan. They begin the trip by descending from the high hills of Galilee. Mary observes Mount Tabor in the east. She cannot know it now, but one day that mountain will be the site of the transfiguration of the child she carries...the child who will be called Jesus. The day is long. Dust and dirt fill the air. Mary's back is aching terribly by day's end and she is exhausted. At night, she falls asleep in Joseph's arms as they lay on the ground.

They come to the lovely plain of Jezreel, the place the call Palestine's granary. The land is rich with green forests and there is fresh water to drink. Carpets of wildflowers dot the landscape. However, Mary does not seem to notice much. She does not feel well and she misses home. Sleeping on the ground beside the trail is not easy for her. Joseph is also tired. He stands on his feet all day but is not used to walking. Mary and Joseph talk little while on the road because of the noise of the caravan. At the end of the day, it begins to rain and they have no tent for a shelter. Joseph feels both angry and sad that he could not provide better for Mary. Both Joseph and Mary are caught in the rain without proper garments or any protection. Mercifully, the rain lasts only for a couple of hours but Mary and Joseph huddle together on the wet ground, their clothing and blankets soaked from the rain and they are both shivering from the cold air.

The next day in the caravan, they travel mile after weary mile, plodding along and the days seem never to end. In the caravan they talk about Megiddo, located 10 miles west, where Solomon kept his stables for 900 chariots and horses. Here, it is said, the last battle for human salvation will be waged...a battle they call Armageddon. The weather today is cloudy. It is unusual at this time of the year to have a whole day of no sunshine. Joseph worries about being caught in the rain again. He also worries about Mary. The journey is taking its toll on her already and there are many miles of travel left. As he walks, he prays for her and tries to draw courage from the dream he had.

Joseph worries because every morning Mary gets ill. Joseph must wait for her to be well enough to travel and they lose their place in the line of humanity heading out. Shortly Mary recovers and they catch up to the caravan as it climbs into the mountains. Within a few hours Mary and Joseph enter the village of Nain, famed for its flowers and climate, Jesus will restore a widow's son to life in this place.

During the journey, the Sabbath is observed. Mercifully for Mary, there is no traveling this day. Mary and Joseph are both exhausted and need this day to rest. Joseph buys some extra food and they enjoy eating together and spending time being with one another. Mary begins to look more rested at the end of the day.

They are climbing still. The trip is now getting increasingly difficult. It is slow going, yet Joseph and Mary are excited to be in the places they have learned about in synagogue. There is Mount Gilboa, where Saul and Jonathan were slain by the Philistines and where David lamented the loss of his beloved friend. The words of the scripture of 2 Samuel 1:21 fill Joseph's mind as he worries about Mary and he fights off the fatigue of the arduous journey.

Next, Mary and Joseph move through the town of Dothan. It is in the central market of Dothan, according to the Torah, that Jacob's son Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. Here, in this very place, Mary and Joseph pause to recite a psalm, a special prayer to ward off such trials as Joseph underwent. As the caravan keeps moving Mary grows ill and her backache intensifies. She feels very low in spirit today. Joseph notices that she is not smiling and seems far off in her thoughts. At the days end Mary begins crying and Joseph picks her up off the burrow and comforts her. "Mary," Joseph says, "You know our Lord would not let anything bad happen to us. We must have faith that He will protect us." Mary sighs and says, "Yes, I know he will, Joseph. It is just that sometimes the pain and weariness get to me." "I know", says Joseph, "Me too. Come on, let us eat, before we fall asleep for the evening.

The beginning of the day is always difficult. Neither Mary nor Joseph can sleep well on the ground. Thankfully, this day results in their being at the halfway point of their journey. They come to the Samarian city of Shomrom-Sebaste; an ancient walled capital, yet to Joseph it is a desecrated city. Its buildings are now more Greek than Jewish and the streets are filled with foreigners who do not believe in the god of the Jews. The crude behavior and sin of these people is repulsive to Joseph. Thankfully, the caravan is resting here for three days so merchants in the caravan can transact trade and other business. Joseph is anxious to push on but this is a trading center and the caravan merchants are too busy to leave. Ten miles to the southwest is Shechem, noted for the wealth and arrogance of its citizens who are not Jews, but who are Samaritans. Mary yearns, as do all Jews, for a cup of curative water from Jacob's well, but it is forbidden territory and leaving the caravan now might mean being killed by the Samaritans. It is at Jacob's well, that Jesus will meet a Samaritan woman and promise her eternal life.

The next day the Sabbath is observed. Fortunately for Mary, there is no traveling on the Sabbath. Mary desperately needs her rest. Joseph grows more worried for her. She is growing noticeably weaker each day. She is losing her appetite, and she eats little. Normally the journey would take only three or four days to complete, but with so many stops for the trader's to transact business, this journey could take eleven or twelve days.

The caravan is moving again. Joseph and Mary travel around the new city of Shiloh, and mourn for the old Shiloh. The old Shiloh is a sad and lonely place of broken-down buildings and shattered altars. Once it possessed the now lost Ark of the Covenant, the revered sign of God's presence. Mary trembles at the thought that she is carrying the Savior of her people, a living Ark!

As the caravan moves ahead, they come to Bethel. As devout Jews, Joseph and Mary pause for special prayers at this place. It is here that Abraham offered sacrifices to God, and Jacob dreamed of angels climbing up and down a ladder to heaven. Mary does not know it now, but the child she carries will also be offered as a sacrifice for all of humanity.

As the journey progresses, both Mary and Joseph grow wearier from being on the road hour after weary hour. The caravan next comes upon the small wayside station of Ramallah. Here, at last, they get the first glimpse of the holy city of Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph can see Jerusalem's golden pinnacles glittering in the sun, 10 miles distant. With a full view of the land below, the holy couple prays together, reciting David's Psalm 137. After Mary and Joseph say this prayer together they are greatly strengthened and a joy and peace comes over them.

As the caravan arrives at Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph see that the streets are crowded. It seems the whole city is filled with Roman soldiers. Mary and Joseph arrive at the home of Mary's first cousin, Elisabeth, and her husband Zacharias. Elisabeth is holding their son John who waves his little arms and legs in glee when Mary and Joseph appear. This six-month-old baby will be known as John the Baptist. The two couples meet in awe. Eyes filling with tears, hearts overflowing with joy, they are the only people in the world who know the world's most tremendous news, and yet they are speechless. They embrace each other. As they are finally able to speak, even in the exhaustion from the journey, the hours pass quickly as they talk excitedly about what the Lord God is doing. Of course, no one among them knows the price that John and Jesus will pay for doing God's will. The night comes too quickly. Mary and Joseph praise God that they can sleep in a place other than on the hard ground.

There are only ten more miles left before they reach Bethlehem. The next morning, as dawn breaks, Joseph busies himself in Jerusalem securing exit visas. He gawks at the paved streets, the covered shops, the Roman barracks, the five great palaces and the huge Roman fortress named for Mark Antony...and especially at the great temple, its eaves and pinnacles sheathed in pure gold. Mary is puzzled...and not for the first time...by the ways of God. Her time is near. Would it not be fitting that her holy baby to be born in that holy temple? However, at dawn they must leave...

On the trail, by midday, Mary is now beginning to have labor pains as they move closer to Bethlehem five miles ahead. As darkness settles in, the weary couple finally pass through the walls of Bethlehem, a center for sheep and cattle farming, known for the sweet water of its wells, its synagogue, and for King David's house and land.

Joseph is alarmed. Mary's birthing pains have increased and she tells Joseph the time is only within a matter of hours. Frantically, Joseph seeks lodging. However, the town is swarming with other members of David's tribe and Joseph fears no lodging will be available. Joseph runs to an inn reported to have an opening for travelers. The innkeeper opens the door and says, "I'm sorry. I'm full up tonight. We are full up because of the census you know. I just couldn't ask anyone to leave." Joseph says, "But my wife is near her time to bear a child, don't you have something?" The innkeeper looks at Mary, and realizes her time of birth is near. "All I have is a stable out back. It isn't clean, and there are sheep and cattle in it, but at least you'll be out of the weather. Sorry I couldn't help," says the innkeeper. The door is abruptly shut. Mary and Joseph leave the front of the inn and find shelter in a cave where shepherds keep their sheep. There are hayracks and mangers there. There are sheep and cattle toward the back of the cave. Joseph thinks to himself, surely this cannot be where the baby will be born. Mary is trembling and is deep in pain now. Joseph helps her down from the burrow and carries her into the cave. He makes a bed of hay for her to lie down upon. "Mary, what do I do? Let me go find help for you." "No Joseph," said Mary, "Go outside and build a fire. I will be fine. Even if I cry out, do not come to me until I call you." Joseph went outside to collect wood. His heart was breaking. Oh, how he wished things could be different. How he wished he were a rich man, so Mary would not have to go through this night alone. As Joseph built a fire, amidst the lowing of the cattle and bleating of the sheep, he heard Mary crying out in pain. Joseph began to weep and he prayed to God to keep Mary safe and watch over her.

Suddenly, everything got quiet. The sheep and cattle were silent. Even the fire did not make any noise. Then a light shone down from the sky. Joseph looked up. It was a star so bright its light illuminated the place where they were. In the stillness of that moment, Mary said, "Joseph, come here." As Joseph turned to walk to Mary, he saw that the cave was also illumined by a wonderful light. Mary said, "Look", "See the child." On this night, Mary's child, the Son of God is born.

Later that night, shepherds who were tending sheep nearby appeared at the opening of the cave, telling a story about how an angel from heaven had appeared to them. The shepherds were searching for the child. Later still there would be a massive caravan from far away lands, carrying rich wise men… men who followed the shining star, and the wise brought the child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

As Joseph and Mary huddle together in the cave with the baby Jesus, there is a stir in the world. The world has changed. The angels of God are singing. There is love, peace, and joy in the world this day.

 

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Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (RSV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Copyright © 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Shepherd's Care Ministries author and webmaster, Rev. Patrick Kelly, is affiliated through ministerial ordination with Church of God Ministries, Anderson IN 46018