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Travels and Travails

A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar. December 29, 2013

Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23

If you’ve ever done much traveling, you know it can be fraught with all kinds of difficulties. Just recently, one of our church members told me of the time she and her family were bumped from the flight that would bring them home at the end of their trip. Of course, if you’re going to be stranded overnight, Rome’s not exactly a bad place to be! And did you see the picture in the newspaper – it was either Tuesday or Wednesday, I think – of the couple sleeping on the airport floor? A lot of flights were cancelled or delayed over Christmas because of bad weather.

My guess is, if you’ve done much traveling at all, you can recount similar experiences. Have you got a minute? Let me tell you a couple of things that happened to me…

It was Christmas Day 1995. Twenty-four of us from Janet’s family were spending a week or so in England to commemorate her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Leaving from Memphis, we arrived early enough to grab some breakfast at the airport before catching an initial flight that would take us to Minneapolis, and then to London. Unfortunately, about thirty minutes into the flight I began realizing I had food poisoning and was sick – I’ll spare you the details – all the way to London.

Ten years ago, when we were about to return from our time in Scotland, Janet and I turned in our rental car. They said they found some scratches and dents that weren’t there when we first took possession of the car. So they said. To cover the damage, we were told, they would keep our 300 pound deposit. They would send us the balance after the repairs were made. Guess what? We never heard from them again.

Traveling isn’t easy sometimes. My guess is that most of you would say that the occasional difficulty related to travel is worth it, however, because of the positive experiences you have along the way. And I would agree completely with that.

I wonder if the Magi, the mysterious visitors to the Christ child, would feel the same way. My guess is they would, even though it was, no doubt, far from an easy trip.

And think about Joseph and Mary. They’ve made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem where their son was born. They can’t say it was a quick trip, nor unexpected. When the word came out that the census was required, there was sufficient notice for Joseph to make his travel plans. What he didn’t anticipate, it would seem, was that he would have company on his trip. At the time the census was first announced, he was a single man… betrothed, of course, but still single. He and Mary figured it would be best to wait until all this settled down before they married. They could make their final vows upon his return.

Imagine, then, how the “news” changed things. Mary is with child. Angels come to call. Tongues begin to wag. Joseph’s head starts spinning. What are they to do?

We all know his first instinct was to divorce Mary quietly. Another angelic visitation put an end to that idea. There was nothing else for them to do but pack up and go. Time was of the essence. Just get out of town, go to Bethlehem where there’s extended family. The relatives don’t have to be told all the gritty details. As far as they know, when Joseph and Mary – a very pregnant Mary – hit town, they’re husband and wife and nobody else is any the wiser.

Totally unexpected, of course, was the visit by the Wise Men. The visitors told Joseph and Mary they had stopped in Jerusalem to get counsel from Herod. Besides, it was their duty, as foreign dignitaries, to check in with the authorities and make sure it was all right for them to travel in those parts. You didn’t just go barging into someone else’s territory without making your presence known. It was indeed the right thing to do.

But there was something about Herod’s demeanor that troubled them. He said he wanted them to report back to them of the child’s whereabouts so he could then go and worship him. But he didn’t come across to them as very sincere. In fact, there was something quite sinister about the king. They couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but it made their blood run cold.

And when they told Joseph about all this, his face went as white as a sheet. If Herod suspected their son was who they were told he was, they could expect nothing but trouble. Herod didn’t love nor trust anyone, even his own sons. There was nothing he would do that didn’t have blood smeared all over it.

Just before they left, the Magi made one last visit to see the child. It was then they told Joseph and Mary that they had been visited by an angel as well, in a dream. They were warned not to go back through Jerusalem, to avoid Herod at any and all costs. So their suspicions had been right all along. Herod’s motivation was treachery, not worship. They would go back home another way.

Then, the leader of the group, took the child in his arms one last time, looked at the boy’s parents, and said, “Be careful. Be very careful.” And with these ominous words still ringing in their ears, their visitors were gone.

Joseph couldn’t sleep that night. He tossed and turned until finally he drifted off to sleep. In his slumber he felt a presence. It wasn’t the first time. He remembers when the angel had come to him in Nazareth telling him that God had this fantastic plan in mind, and he, Joseph, was at the center of it. Yes, Mary was with child, but it wasn’t what he thought. He was to take Mary and go to Bethlehem. There the child would be born, the child who would save his people from their sins.

Now, on that sleepless night in Bethlehem when Joseph felt that angelic presence yet again, it was the very same feeling he had had some time before. The very same. “Joseph,” the voice said to him, “Joseph, get up, get up now. Take the child and his mother, and flee. Go to Egypt. The gifts brought by the Magi will provide you the means to do so. Go, go now, and stay there until I return to you and tell you when it is safe to return home. Herod is on his way. He wants to destroy your son. Go, go now, and don’t look back.”

Those of you who have had problems before, associated with your various and sundry travels, this story kind of puts all that in perspective, doesn’t it? There are always travails when it comes to our travel, but nothing like this.

Everywhere you went in first-century Palestine, there were soldiers. Imagine how frightened they must have been at the sight of them, wondering if they might be Herod’s brigade looking for their son. The wonderful and poetic story of Jesus’ birth suddenly takes a dramatic turn and twist into this story of slaughter and mayhem. It didn’t take long for Herod to realize that the Magi were not coming back to make their report. Maybe he had tipped his hand to his bloody plan, and they saw through him. They were known as “wise” men, after all. Infuriated by how this has transpired, he sets in motion what has come to be known as “the slaughter of the innocents.”

A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled,

because they are no more.

I have mentioned to you before – it’s been awhile – that when our first child, Emily, was born in 1973, I purchased a book by Fitzhugh Dodson entitled Fatherhood. I gave it to Tim three years ago when Charley, our grandson, was born. It’s a large volume, which provides the hint that being a daddy ain’t easy! I hardly remember all of it, to be sure, but one thing I do recall – in addition to Dr. Dodson’s counsel that potty talk is inevitable and parents should not be too alarmed about it – is that when it comes to emotional and mental development, the first five years of a child’s life are the most important and formative. And of those first five years, the first year is the most crucial.

I’ve never forgotten that.

We don’t know exactly how old Jesus might have been when Herod died and Joseph and his young family were then able to return to Palestine. But think about this… it is quite likely that Jesus spent the better part of his first five years – those formative years, remember – and perhaps most of his first year in Egypt as a refugee! Do you think that might have had something to do with what he said years later? “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). What a profound impact this experience must have had on him.

When we were living in Baltimore back in the mid-80’s, a sculptor created quite a controversy in nearby Washington, D.C. He depicted the holy family, not in the relatively warm confines of a stable, but as homeless, trying to take comfort from the warmth of a sewer grate in one of the city’s streets. Many people thought it unseemly to portray Jesus and his family that way. But it was probably more realistic than you might think.

It just goes to show that traveling isn’t easy, especially when you have no home to which you might return. It just goes to show that there’s a dark side to Christmas because, despite all the Christmases that have come and gone, there is still not enough peace on earth.

But there is also a note of good news in all this. God has come in human flesh. What does that mean? Apart from our theological explanations – limited as they might be – as to the meaning of incarnation, what does all this mean? I would encourage you to think this way… Because, as John Claypool says, “flesh is a uniform God is not afraid to wear,” the Herods of this world do not have the final say. The cross of Golgotha does not have the final say. And the difficulties we experience and the darkness we know, even at Christmas, is not the last word. The final resounding word is “Emmanuel – God with us.”

The story is told of a man who died. He had not lived the most worthy of lives, to be honest about it. In fact, he was quite a scoundrel. Therefore, upon his death, he found himself in hell.

His friends – yes, he did have a few friends – were concerned about his fate, though they knew it was well-deserved. Yet, they went down to hell, and moved by the man’s misery rattled the iron gates, calling out to the gatekeeper to let their friend out. But they were met with silence. The great iron doors remained locked tight.

They appealed to their congressmen. Perhaps those in power would have more authority. Together, they all stood at the gate and tried to reason with the authorities in hell that this man, though he admittedly deserved what he had gotten, ought to be granted a reprieve, given another chance and be released from this place of lonely torment. Is there not a sense of fair play and compassion even in hell?

But the iron gates stayed shut.

The man’s pastor was summoned. “Let him out!” the minister demanded of Satan as he waved his Bible around. Surely the devil would listen to a man of the cloth. After all, this man who has been sentenced to everlasting torment had once contributed to the building fund… once. He came to church… occasionally. He didn’t deserve this eternal fate, did he?

Still, the gates of hell stood fast.

The man’s friends, his elected officials, his pastor… they all finally gave up hope that the man would be released from his terrible judgment. Then, after they had left, the man’s aged mother appeared at the gates of hell. She stood there, stooped and weak, and finally, in a soft whisper said quietly, “Let me in. Please, let me in.”

And immediately the gates of hell swung open and the condemned man was set free.1

If you’ve ever had a difficult trip, try that one. And then realize… it’s the journey God made in his Son, and he did it for you and me.

Lord, when we travel and we fall, lift us up that we might be found moving in your direction. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

Notes

1Adapted from a story told by William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 32, No. 4, Years C&A, October-December, 2004, p. 59.