In the midst of the Christmas chaos this year, I’ve been pondering the scene on the road to Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. The story is so familiar to so many of us that it can lose much of its potency. The dusty figures of Mary and Joseph were making their way to the little town of Bethlehem and navigating through large numbers of fellow travelers along the way.
I’ve been pondering what Mary, Joseph, and the other travelers must have been thinking and feeling as they traveled.
At that time in history, the land of Israel was occupied by a brutal foreign power. This occupation had disrupted and destroyed much of their Jewish society and culture. Thousands had been killed over the previous several hundred years through uprisings, occupations, famines, and conquests. Economically the region was merely a funnel to channel wealth back to Rome. Corrupt taxmen were collaborating with the occupiers and enriching themselves in the process. Jewish religious customs were being closely managed and manipulated by puppet rulers and priests. There was fear, violence, danger, and oppression on all sides. Even the imperial order to assemble for a census was another act of aggression and oppression. For those who complied with the decree, it must have felt like partnering with the very embodiment of evil.
On that dusty road to Bethlehem, minds and hearts would have been heavy with these sad thoughts.
Bethlehem would have felt like the place where hopes and dreams go to die.
As I think about Christmas this year, my heart is also heavy with many sad thoughts.
This past year I’ve walked with so many of you through really rough experiences. There are a crushing number of cases of cancer, struggles with children, divorces and marital strife, addictions, miscarriages, depression, anxiety, and suicide. Our nation is divided into angry partisan battles. Social media is often a wasteland of bitterness and bragging. Our digital devices keep promising more community, yet we’ve all drifted further apart.
Worldwide there is also great pain and hardship. There is war in Yemen, South Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan. The Chinese government is closing churches. Many have suffered through earthquakes, civil unrest, disease, and tsunamis. Corrupt governments enrich the leaders and steal from the poor and vulnerable. There are millions who are refugees and millions who are working as slaves. Where I work in East Africa I meet too many people who tell me stories of suffering from AIDS, extreme poverty, corrupt leaders, and war. Injustice is rampant. Christianity in western nations is crumbling into forms of paganism and atheism. Authoritarian dictators are consolidating powers and violently oppressing their citizens.
For many of us the road to Christmas and Bethlehem this year can also feel like the place where hopes and dreams go to die.
But stop for a minute. Think about the promise and hope that Mary carried within her. I imagine her traveling down that dusty road with a small, peaceful smile on her face. The road was long, the oppression great, and the pregnancy uncomfortable. Yet hope was alive and growing within her womb. In the midst of the chaos, their was a firm belief and trust in the radical love and pursuing heart of the one who was called “Emmanuel” or “God with us.”
God had promised that divine salvation was coming through the tiny human kicking inside of her. The Messiah was about to be revealed. Sins would be forgiven, warring peoples and families would be reconciled, injustice would be reversed, tears would be wiped away, hope and peace would be offered to all humanity.
In this moment, Mary had to trust in a God who had promised – but had not yet delivered.
And as Mary delivered, God delivered. Jesus of Nazareth went on to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. He healed the sick, raised the dead, fed the hungry, comforted the oppressed, and forgave sins. He then died and rose again from the dead. He conquered over death, the devil, and the stain of our sins. He reversed the curse.
But this was only the beginning of the exciting new chapter.
God was at work. God is at work. And God will continue his good work throughout eternity.
Today you and I have real problems. We face sickness, tragedies, violence, injustice, darkness, sins, addictions, oppression, and setbacks. But God has promised to be the fulfillment of all our truest hopes and dreams. Deliverance might not come in the manner or time we desire. But deliverance is coming.
2000 years ago, the travelers on the dusty road must have thought that Bethlehem was the place where hopes and dreams went to die.
That was not the case.
In fact, Bethlehem was to be the place where hopes and dreams were to be fully fulfilled.
I pray that as you ponder the path to Bethlehem this Christmas, that you will hold on to the promises of God and that he will nourish those struggling hopes and dreams deep within your heart. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Bethlehem tonight.