Thursday, December 07, 2006

Jesus was one of those kids who when you ask them where they’re from, you get a long complicated answer.

Like my friend, Peter, who was a military kid. “Well, I was born in Nebraska, but we moved around a lot because my dad was in the army so I’ve actually lived across the US and in Germany…”

Or like Joy, a Missionary’s kid who was born in Jacksonville Florida, and from there moved to Texas, then to Louisville Kentucky, then to Oklahoma, then back to Louisville, then to Missouri, then to Arkansas, and then as an adult to Toronto, Buffalo, Maryland, Cyprus, Florida, and finally Austin.

Where are they from? When you ask people with backgrounds like that where they’re from, how do they answer? I guess they choose the place that feels the most like home – I would. Even I, who lived in the same town for 18 years as a kid, have lived in five different cities in three states and two countries since then.

Jesus was the same way.

“Where you from kid?”

“Well, I was born in Bethlehem, but then my parents moved to Egypt for a while and then I spent the rest of my childhood in Nazareth, where my dad was from, traveling between it and Jerusalem to visit family.”

Except his dad wasn’t in the military and his mom wasn’t a missionary.

“Why’d you travel around so much kid?”

“Well, there was a huge census and my parent’s got stuck in a cave in Bethlehem which is where I was born, then there was an edict out for my death and the murder of all other 2 year olds so we moved to Egypt and then when that King died, we returned to Judea, but my dad was still paranoid so we moved to Galilee to the town Nazareth where my dad’s shop was.”

Alrighty then.

We see them in Christmas plays, the little girl in the blue smock with a pillow stuffed under her belt and the boy with a head-dress dragging another kid in a donkey costume across the stage, and we know that they symbolize the holy family traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem to take part in the census decreed by Augustus.

And we feel bad when we think about it – a pregnant teenage girl taking a bumpy ride on a donkey– no wonder she had the baby as soon as they stopped. Not to mention that she’s a kid herself – not that that’s unusual in that time when men married girls – after all, she was already engaged when she got pregnant, but still our hearts go out to her. A poor girl, pregnant, engaged and soon to be the mother of God. What a calling.

And Joseph, how embarrassing to have your fiancée pregnant. Not exactly kosher in those times, but he sucks up the shame and stays engaged to her anyway. What a man. God’s dad.

And then Caesar puts out a decree and the whole nation’s in an upheaval as people pack up their bags, close down their shops and travel to the birthplace of their family’s heritage. Joseph was in King David’s lineage so he and Mary pack the donkey tight and head off for Bethlehem.

What an unsettling two days of travel.

I travel every Christmas to St. Joseph, Missouri with my car full of suitcases, Christmas gifts and cats. And let me tell you, it is a rough ride. Zorba cries the whole time. Actually he hardly cries – howling would be a better description. When Radley was alive, his fluffy fat belly liked to lay on my lap so I was always driving with one arm on the wheel and one on the cat while cooing at the other one to shut the hell up. Eventually I give up on music and sweet talking the cats and resort to Dramamine. I break off a small amount of powder, put it in some water and squirt it down Zorba’s throat. It’s at this point that the howling ends and foaming at the mouth begins. Cats’ saliva never mixes well with medicine, and it causes the most unpleasant mess you can imagine. Add to these joys snow, ice, rain, pit stops, hotel rooms, and McDonald’s and you’ve got a real torture trip on your hand.

So I sympathize with Mary and Joseph. Donkey’s aren’t known to be the most helpful beasts in the world although they are better than some, but I can imagine times when that donkey probably got tired of carrying all their bags and the pregnant lady and just wanted to sit down and munch on some weeds. Not to mention the unpleasant weather that they were exposed to with no roof on the donkey or even an umbrella. And Joseph being the polite man he was had to walk the whole way and poor Mary had to feel that baby bouncing around the whole time itching to come out.

Now maybe they were excited. I am when I travel to St. Joe for Christmas. But I’m going home, and they left theirs. I bring and receive presents, whereas they had to pay their taxes. I have a fat cat and a crying cat. They had a tired donkey and a crying baby. But maybe the joy of their son’s birth and the shock of singing shepherds showing up brought the holy family enough awe to escape their circumstances and revel in the awesome miracle of the moment.

But they were soon on the road again. For when the King of the Jews gets wind that your wife birthed a king herself, it’s never good news. Now he wants your kid dead and all other boys his age too. And so Joseph packs up the donkey again, and he and the holy family steal away in the night, but not to his home town, not even to Jerusalem to visit relatives, but to a whole new country, culture, language, people. And though the text doesn’t speak of it, I doubt he had a whole lot of time to make travel preparations for once they arrived. He would need a place to live for his young family, a new job, stay under the radar in case Herod had friends down there…

Oh the things we do to keep God safe.

How could such a little child cause so much turmoil?

What child is this whose family was so poor that they traveled everywhere by donkey and stayed in caves and lived in a foreign land to avoid upsetting the government?

What kind of parents go to such an extent to protect their child?

Parents who are called by God to be God’s parents.

And part of their responsibility was to travel to Bethlehem where prophecy would be fulfilled, to travel to Jerusalem where prophecy would be fulfilled, to travel to Egypt where prophecy would be fulfilled, to finally settle in Nazareth where prophecy would be fulfilled, and to raise a son who would travel so much in his adult life that foxes and birds had better places to lay their heads. And in his traveling he would heal the sick, raise the dead, forgive the sinner, love the world and die for his cause where again prophecy would be fulfilled.

And as much as we would like to parent Jesus now, keep him in a box, protect him from the Herods of our world, God is never safe. Not from our enemies and not for us.

For God calls us, as his did Mary and Joseph, to travel with him to familiar places, hard places, foreign places and home again. Jesus calls us to be as he was, a danger to society, doing good in a world where selfishness and legalism threatened every life. He calls us to love, wherever we go, however far or near we are to where we call home, we are called to go, to love, to be Christ again to the world around us.

And that may be a very difficult journey indeed.

But fortunately for us, it’s a road that’s been taken before.



Anonymous said...

This is amazing! I hope that you get to preach this some day. It is truly one of the best things you have written. We love you and safe travels this season. We will be talking to you soon.

Ann said...

I actually did get to preach this sermon last week at FBC's alternative service, Beresheth!

Anonymous said...

i'm glad there are people i know that can write something like this. i can't. so i rely on people like ann pittman to read between the lines and bring tangibility (is that even a word?...) and undeniable humanness (now, I'm pretty sure that's a word...) to a story that we think we know so well, we've stopped listening when they read those gospel verses at the annual christmas eve service we've gone to since we we're 11.

your words are so refreshing and full of life.
it is good to have re-discovered you.