Updated: Feb 7
Dr. RB McFee
The way to Bethlehem; imagine it at night!
Are you a weary traveler on your way to Christmas? Is the road harder this year? Do you feel the climb more than in prior Christmases? Are you putting one foot in front of the other, praying to stay in faith, choosing to believe even when other emotions work against it? Are you walking towards the Star, trying to focus on God’s great Gift, yet often distracted, making the journey all the more difficult?
Sadly it seems the most joyous time of year also tends to magnify burdens, worries, concerns, and our spiritual fatigue, which often can be felt more acutely than even physical tiredness. And if you are fighting an illness, well the darkness is magnified, deepened.
Can any light, even His Light guide our path?
Are you, too, a weary traveler?
Truth be told, if you answered yes to any of the above questions, I shared your moccasins not long ago on my journey to Christmas.
But something happened after lots of prayer and listening to the song Weary Traveler driving home from the Blue Christmas Service at CCUMC. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect. The lyrics resonated. I’ll bet if you listen to the full song on YouTube, you may very likely remember times you were, or perhaps still are a “Weary Traveler,” too. More importantly that God can make you less weary.
Beat down from the storms that you have weathered
Feels like this road just might go on forever
“And no more searchin’
Heaven’s healing’s gonna find where all the hurt is
When Jesus calls, we’ll lay down all our heavy burdens
Carry on, oh”
Lyrics from Weary Traveler by Matthew Joseph West, Andrew Jacob Pruis, Jordan St. Cyr
Then after some more prayer, my thoughts focused on Christmas, and all the weary travelers in the Nativity Story. What could I learn from them? Each had a unique story. And as I was about to learn, well more about that later….
“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. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 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.”
Luke 2: 1 -7
How tired must Joseph and Mary have been on that long journey walking from Nazareth to Bethlehem?
But that wasn’t their only journey during those long days trekking across hills and through some pretty rugged terrain. Each of them was on a spiritual, sometimes soul wrenching journey towards a destination that would come to be known as Christmas.
Joseph was about to become the guardian, the step father, the patron protector of a child he didn’t help Mary conceive. Talk about spiritual, emotional journeys! Beyond the supernatural issues he had to address - visited by an angel of God – an encounter that alone requires significant processing on many levels, Joseph had to have a dizzying array of concerns running through his mind, pulling on his spirit and emotions well before embarking on a long trek to Bethlehem.
Going beyond the normal pre parenting jitters that every decent ‘would be’ father is consumed with – providing for, educating, protecting his family – was the notion that somehow God was entrusting a child, perhaps God’s own Child, to his care. How can a mere mortal parent a Child of God?
And let’s face it. After a long week of hard physical work – Joseph was a tradesman – the last thing he probably wanted to do was walk 90 miles.
Then there’s Mary. An adult by Jewish cultural norms, but still barely a young girl, she, too is visited by an angel of God, and has agreed to be the mother of a child God will bless her with. She, too, would have the normal concerns of a pregnant woman – her child’s wellbeing, her health, the journey, how will she and Joseph care for the baby. And she, too, would wonder, how can a mere mortal be parent to a Child of God? That’s a heavy spiritual journey for a teenager.
Did she fully embrace her mission, or grasp the sphere of influence Jesus would have, or the very Nature of her Son? To be sure she would have been protective of and concerned about her pregnancy, and the Son she was to deliver. But did she know where her journey would lead? Or did she trust God enough to stay the course, to “carry on” even if she didn’t know where her travels would end….that night, or 33 years later?
Let’s not forget the logistics of traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Roads were sketchy. Transportation was limited. No taxis, no trains, planes or automobiles to make the 90 mile journey across some pretty rugged terrain, which housed bandits and some pretty snarky critters, too. Not a walk in the park!
Anyone who has ever been to Israel can attest even in the 21st century with modern transportation, the roads remain challenging. Been there, experienced that. The Magi were on to something…bring on the camels!
Oh and be prepared for some austere rest stops. No fast food either. You eat what you kill or purchase, and then have to prep or at least heat it; all the while some predator might think you and your food were for his growling appetite. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
And just to make matters a bit more interesting, you are taking this journey with a very pregnant woman. In ideal circumstances with non pregnant, healthy walkers the journey might take five days. Likely this took at least a week. She was undoubtedly a weary traveler.
History suggests none of Joseph’s relatives were obstetricians. Not that there were labor and delivery rooms en route. Send for the midwife takes on more significance than the name of a PBS show.
Clearly Mary and Joseph were on many wearying journeys at once.
Oh and let’s not forget the last sojourn of discovery – getting to know each other as spouses.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.”
Luke 2: 8-14
Can we not imagine that the shepherds were not “weary travelers,” as well?
The angels visited them while these men were at work – looking out for sheep; one straying in the dark, or against night predators. It was tiring and dangerous work. They were farmer, vet, and body guard all wrapped up in one. To suggest it was an exhausting job is understatement.
And these are the beloved of God. Why else the angels?
Of all the people God could have revealed this marvelous miracle – the birth of His Son – He chose shepherds. Not Sadducees, Sanhedrin, Levites, the royal court, the Roman prefect or generals, but shepherds.
The significance of “shepherd” in the Bible is profound, referenced often – the omnipresent caregiver, guide, protector, and guardian. Both the Old and New Testaments, from the books of Ezekiel to Psalm 23 to the Gospel of Luke, all celebrate the role of the shepherd. Jesus even referred to Himself as “The Good Shepherd” (John 10:11 - 18). He indeed was and is the Shepherd King, not unlike his ancestor King David before Him.
Can’t think of better descriptions than that for God – The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23).
So after their angelic encounter, they travelled to Bethlehem proper. How far the journey? It would have been rugged terrain. But their journey had to be more than physical – Heavenly Hosts talk to them…what’s up with that? To suggest it gave them some spiritual and emotional travels.
What about us when we have a theophany? How long does it take to process it? That can be a piece of blessed exhaustion!
Enter the angels…..
“Suddenly a great company of the Heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest Heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”
Luke 2: 13 - 17
What about the angels? Just how far did they travel? How far “up there” is Heaven, or is it nearer than we think but invisible to mortals until God allows the veil to be lifted? Did they not travel far? Do they not mourn as God mourns when creation suffers? They were entering a dark world where human misery everywhere apparent. Do not God’s messengers get weary when the ones they are sent to protect go off course?
Enter (some time later?) the Magi
“We three kings of orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star”
Lyrics from We Three Kings written by Rev. John H. Hopkins, Jr. in 1857
For most people who think of journeys in the context of the Nativity Story, the Magi, the Three Wise Men come to mind. Historians have debated just how far and where each king came from. Let it suffice it wasn’t the next town over. They too had to traverse long stretches of dark, dangerous, perhaps unfamiliar territory.
But their most important journey was one of spirit – seeking out Someone so great that He would have His own star – imagine traveling because you believe what you are seeing will reveal Someone anointed by Great Power. What if you are wrong?
All of them, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, the Magi, you and me….the hardest journey is the one led by faith, because it is the belief in things unseen, not yet realized. It requires hope, sometimes in short supply this time of year.
What about us?
As Christians, and people of faith, don’t we take a spiritual journey, at least once a year, in terms of Advent, and our approach to Christmas? Are we not “weary travelers,” on our Christmas quest?
To be sure most of us have a lot to be grateful for. But each of us also carries a burden somewhere in our hearts, our spirit, our mind, our body. They are inextricable. To try and separate our emotions, our spirit, our psyche, from our physical, is like trying to pull the sun out of the solar system.
At some point we’re all weary travelers. Anyone who is a person of faith is on a spiritual journey of some kind.
Sometimes though there’s a good tired – when we are working towards something important….
Joseph, Mary, the angels, the shepherds, the Magi, all share something in common; their weary travels were because each was set on their journey by God! They were all on a mission. And that mission was JESUS!
Notice God didn’t make the difficulties go away; the angels didn’t offer to watch sheep as the shepherds went to Bethlehem, the Lord didn’t send Mary and Joseph a heavenly chariot, and the Magi didn’t get first class tickets on Emirates Air. Like us, they had to travel every rock and road to Christmas, to Jesus.
Some years the journey through the Holidays is easy. Other times a struggle. If your destination is Jesus, rest assured the weariness will be worth it.
Have we forgotten our Hope is Jesus? (1Timothy 1:11)
But like Psalm 30 assures us “joy comes in the morning.” For Christmas, and us, that is Jesus’ morning, His birthday.
Fellow weary traveler, if we want “joy in the morning,” our focus needs to be on Jesus, God’s Gift to us. It is through Him we can be transformed, at Christmas, and always.
“Weary traveler, restless soul
You were never meant to walk this road alone
It’ll all be worth it, so just hold on (just hold on)
Weary traveler, you won’t be weary long.”
From Weary Traveler by M. West, et al.