Journeying to Bethlehem
Hymn Come and join our celebration
During advent, we have been following the idea of a journey to Bethlehem. So Far, we have lit a candle that reminds us of the prophets; those who gave us a map. And then we lit one to remind us of the message that Jesus is coming, the promises that John passed on. Now we come to week 3
Usually, at this point, we build another part of our nativity scene. But today, we will do that later. Today, we are going to think together about all those who made that first journey to Bethlehem and what it was like. Our service will tell the story of how everybody came together for the birth of Jesus; we will hear stories, see actions, sing carols, and together make the journey to Bethlehem to worship at the crib. So – come with us.
The Birth of Jesus
2 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them
I’ve never moved so far outside my home. It was a bit scary. But the lady needed me, and the man looked so worried, so I was brave and did what they asked. We left the town where we all lived – it’s called Nazareth – set off on the road. It’s about 80 miles – it took us four days. And a hard walk it was – for me at least. But she needed to be carried, and he needed to know she was safe, and so I did it. Amazing what you can do when somebody is depending on you.
I’m not used to people depending on me; I’m just a donkey. I do what I am told, and get ignored the rest of the time. But there and then, I was what was needed. That felt quite nice really. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening – I’m still not sure what it was all about even now. But I ad my part to play, and that’s enough,. They needed me, and I was there. Even if I did get very tired.
And when we got there – well, the town was so busy, and there was nowhere to stay. Turned out all sorts of other people were making the same journey. Of course, nobody explained to me what was going on, so I just wandered around a bit. IT was quite fun. There were all sorts of others to meet; the horses were a bit snooty, but there were a few other donkeys and we had some time to talk. But I didn't let my lady down. Even when he was off leaving us, while he tried to find somebody to sort it all out, I stayed with her, and made sure she was ok. I couldn’t really do much, but I like to think that I made her feel better with my broad back, and my comforting hee-haw.
I didn’t know what else to do. But it turned out I didn’t need to do anything else. Somebody else sorted it all out. I don’t know who or how, but they found a place to stay, and I was allowed in too. It turned out to be quite a busy night – all sorts of people kept turning up – including the baby. I welcomed him as best I could; they wouldn’t let me very near, but I hee-hawed enthusiastically, just to reassure him he wouldn’t need to walk until he was ready, I had carried the lady and I would carry him too.
Quite a night, all in all. And after 4 days hard walking. But I was glad I had done it, glad to help. And – I learned two things – no, three; firstly, when somebody needs you, you can do it; secondly, when it’s not your job, somebody else does it and thirdly – I know the road to Bethlehem! That might come in useful in the future.
Hymn O little town
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
We had all settled down for the night; cuddled up to keep warm and avoid the wolves, and trusting the shepherds, cos they’ve never let us down yet. And it was quiet – so lovely and quiet. It had been a busy day; well, there’s lots of grass round here on the hills, and you never know what tomorrow will bring, so we had eaten well, and wandered far, and were quite ready to snuggle down in a warm heap and snore.
So, there we were, and it was very lovely – and then the heavens opened.
And I don’t mean rain!
Such noise, such light, - such confusion. Well, we were all startled, and you know what sheep are like when they get a fright. OK, maybe you don’t, but let me tell you, they don’t all stay quietly in neat rows and wait to be told what to do. We were off and running and scampering – and some of us were falling, who knows what all.
And the shepherds weren’t much use. I mean – they are supposed to look after us, that’s their whole purpose and job. Why else do we have them? But they just sat there, wide-eyed and open-mouthed and stared at the sky. Paralysed, the lot of them. Not a thought for us. So we ran about a bit, and made a bit of a noise, and generally got in each other’s way….and they just ignored us. You’d have thought we didn’t exist.
It all calmed down eventually – but even then they didn’t get on with their work, and sort us out and quieten us down. Oh no; they just grabbed their cloaks and hats and went haring off down the hill.
They paid for it the next day though. We were all over the place, and they had to round us all up, and sort us all out, and mend a few broken hides. Well, serves them right – going off and leaving us like that. And for what.
Actually, I’m not sure for what, but it can’t have been that important. Not important enough to leave us in that state.
Later I did hear tell of a baby – but so what. There are all the babies they could want here in the flocks. We specialise in them. Must have been a pretty special baby is all I can say.
Hymn While shepherd’s watched their flocks
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
I love it when we are sent out on a mission – the chance to go and communicate news, tell people what’s going on behind what they can see.
But it’s very odd. No matter how careful we are, no matter how much we dim our glory and contain our joy – people are always terrified when they see us. So we always have to do the “don’t be afraid” bit. And it never really works. But we go on doing it, in the hope that eventually, finally, ultimately, folk will get the message that it is about good news, it is about hope and joy and so on.
That night with the shepherds is a case in point. There we were, with the biggest news we had ever had to communicate. I admit I was a bit disappointed that it was to shepherds, but there you go, you can’t have everything. And I could see a certain logic in it, and after a bit of a talking to from Gabriel, I can even say I understand the privilege of being the ones to take the news of the All-Loving to the people who usually get shut out by all these rules and regulations the people have developed.
But even they were terrified.
I suppose it’s understandable – but really! What’s an angel supposed to do. We didn’t even unleash the heavenly choir to start with – and that was hard, let me tell you. We were so excited, so delighted over what we were announcing that we just wanted to sing and dance and laugh and shout. But, so that we didn’t terrify them too much, there was just one of us to start with – but even then, don’t be afraid was the first thing to be said.
It seems to me that humans spend a lot of time being afraid. And that they are just as afraid of the possibility that the All-Loving will actually come and love them as they are of anything else. Can’t understand it myself, but that’s what it looks like. As if its too good to be true, so they don’t dare believe, and when it is stood right in front of them, they run away in terror.
So, we did the don’t be afraid bit, and passed on the message – and then we couldn’t restrain ourselves any more. After all – when you get o announce that the All-Loving is changing everything, is here and now doing the unimaginable, and making it all alright – well, you’ve got to sing a bit. And so we did. All of us. Loudly. They did look scared. But they got the message. The last I saw of them they were dashing down the hill – I hope it wasn’t just to get away form us. I really hope it was to go and see what the All-Loving has done.
Angels from the realms of glory
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
We are the mysterious bearers of messages a lot of the time. People stare at us through their telescopes in the mystery of the night, and try to interpret our code. They attach great meaning and power to us – most of which is totally nonsense. We are lights and we do mark times. But that’s all.
At least, that is normally all.
Occasionally – really only once as far as I know – the All-Merciful invites us to be part of something unusual. After all, as creator, that is the All-merciful’s prerogative; to take us out of our normal role and give us something special, just for a moment.
And I was the one chosen.
Instead of simply giving light and marking seasons, I had a place in marking the changing of the ages, the one unrepeatable event which was the All-merciful’s coming to the people.
I can’t explain how it happened. The science is beyond me, and I am infinitely more powerful than you, so you will not understand either. And the science is not what is important. What matters is that I was given the task of helping them find the stable, the baby, the meaning.
And make no mistake, it was the meaning that mattered. They were men who were accustomed to looking to the sky for meaning. They knew about the movements and patterns that we make, our dance of delight across the heavens. And so this was the obvious and clearest way to get the message to them. Angels would not have worked; that was not their language. Written words in a book of prophecy would only go so far – that was where they were accustomed to argue and doubt. But in the sky, in the stars where they were used to looking for truth and beauty and hope – that was the place to tell them of the truth and beauty and hope that would change their lives and the life of the world.
And so I was asked to leave my normal path, let go of what I always did, for just a short time, just a few days, and hep them find the hope they were always looking for.
And they did. It got a bit confused at one point, when they tried to work it out using their own ideas of what was right and proper – ended up in Jerusalem, and nearly getting killed, so help me. But we got that straightened out, and in a few days more, there we were, in Bethlehem, at the outhouse, filling the sky with light, and the stable with some very surprised visitors. Mind you, I think Mary and Joseph were pretty surprised too! But, nobody said the coming of truth and beauty and hope would be commonplace and predictable. So, I left them there, trying to make sense of it, all of them; visitors and family alike. And I retired to my dance in the heavens. But I know that, just for a moment, in a way I never expected, I helped somebody find something that mattered. And I will always be grateful.
Every star shall sing a carol
Hymn Away in a manger
Supplementary, if we need them
It was a long road, and we had a lot to carry. I don't mind carrying the scholars – but when they decide to take gifts as well…. They always think they need to take gifts. I’m not sure why. When I go somewhere, I am enough. Who could need more than me. But they seem to need to take things to give to each other. Just makes life complicated if you ask me – somebody has got to carry it there – and some body has got to carry it home. And they never stop to think about that, do they.
Ah well, I suppose with their little minds and little concerns, it just never occurs to them. And so we set off with the scholars, and the gifts – and no idea of where we were going, as far as I can make out.
It took quite some time, and there was a lot of discussion about directions on the way; typically, they were not keen to ask for help. Something about a star and being guided. I don[t understand. But eventually, we arrived at the place, and I was relived. Here I could putdown the gifts and rest for a few days. And the stables there were lovely; cool and smart, and plenty of space.
But we didn’t stay. I’m not sure what went on, but I heard a lot of rushing about, and people being summoned, and more and more scholars appeared…. Did you know camels have very good hearing? Well, of course we do, being the superior beings that we are . And of course we listened in – well, wouldn’t you. There was at least one secret meeting, in one of those little rooms the puny ones think nobody knows about – but we do. And so I heard that kinglet – Herod he called himself – getting all heated and worried about another kinglet. As if any of it mattered. They go out the old books, and they consulted the wise men, and he got very worried. And then he summoned our scholars and told them to go and find this new king – and then come back and tell him, so he too could pay his respects – and take gifts I have no doubt. Why do they do it. Anyway, I knew that wasn’t what he planned, and I did try to tell our scholars. But they didn’t listen/. For such supposedly intelligent people, they are very thick!
And so we set off again – more walking, more carrying…. But it didn’t take too long this time, and we arrived at a stable. But what a stable. Not the lovely, cool and elegant place we had left, but run down, scruffy – and full. There were shepherds and people, and animals – and a baby.
And – if you can believe it – the scholars got themselves down on their knees – and that is no mean feat after riding a camel for several weeks – presented these dratted gifts. Gold and frankincense and myrrh. To a baby. In a stable.
Well, I ask you.
I turned away.
But then I turned back. After all – they are supposed to be wise – and the truly wise, like us, we never dismiss anything quite out of hand. So I turned back. And took a good look and listen. And now I am pondering. Never does to hurry these tings.
All the others went rushing off, but I stayed where I was. I was so scared, so shaky, I thought I’d just stay in the crack I was hiding in till the noise stopped and light went away. I’m only little, and it was all a bit overwhelming.
And all the others disappeared and then suddenly it was quiet and I was really scared.
I stayed as still as I could, which wasn’t very, cos I was shaking so much. But the darkness was really scary after all that light.
I was relieved when one of the shepherds took a hold of me. He was shouting something to the others about going down to the town to see whatever it was they thought they were going to see, and then I realised he was taking me too.
I didn’t know whether to be scared because I was being taken off the hill, or relieved that I wasn’t going to be by myself.
So I decided just to sit very still where I was – wrapped up in his cloak – and see what happened! What happened was a mad dash down the hills – with lots of stumbling and rattling of stones, and then a scamper through the town.
That was odd. The shepherds didn’t usually come into town, being a bit – well, smelly the people said, though I could see – sniff – it myself. But nothing was going to stop them now it seemed
And then we were at a kind of shed thing, and there people and that noise again, and I was scared. And then he put me down beside somebody even smaller than me. He smelled very nice, and seemed very soft. So, I just snuggled down beside him, and let the rest of them get on with it. I though, if I stayed very still, they might not notice me. And the little one and I could just be there, and be quiet, and be still. So that’s what I did.