The Highway Of & To Christmas
That first drive home from college to upstate New York was not without some fear. Traveling from southern Ohio across Interstate Highway 90 and the width of New York State, through the infamous snow belt of Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester, in mid-December amid a snow storm, to say the least it was not a dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, laughing all the way, spirits light, singing Jingle Bells kind of trip. It was a white knuckle on the steering wheel, praying to God for a snow plow to follow behind kind of a trip. The passengers with me may have been having a good time, oblivious to it all and mostly catching up on sleep after mid-terms. Come to think about that trip and the trips found throughout the Nativity story, a white-knuckled drive through a snow storm is as close to the biblical trips on feet and donkey-back a car trip can get.
When I finally made it to familiar terrain, I was able to finally relax. Familiar terrain has a tendency to do that, soften the stress and the concern. I had made it home for Christmas with all my fellow sojourners entact, and all seemed okay in the world.
The story of Jesus’ birth is full of journeys. Jesus is born not in his hometown, Nazareth, but in Bethlehem. The family, because of a census requiring the head of the household to return to the town of his birth, journeys from Nazareth to Bethlehem, almost 100 miles away. Needless to say this was an arduous journey for Joseph and especially pregnant Mary in her third trimester of pregnancy. They must travel away from home in this case.
When Jesus is born and after the angels make that renowned visit, some shepherds journey to see the newly born child. It is a shorter trip for sure compared to Joseph and Mary with child. The shepherds live in the general region or province of Bethlehem, not Bethlehem itself. Luke 2:20 says, “the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’” So maybe a 10, 20, 30 mile trip which in those days in that rocky region was nothing to underestimate.
After Jesus’ birth, parents and child begin their sojourn back home to Nazareth. There is a significant detour on that journey home. The Holy Family must flee to Egypt, refugees to escape Herod’s evil plans. Yes, Jesus and his parents were refugees for some two years in Egypt. Remember Herod has decreed that all first sons under the age of two are to be executed. When Jesus turns two, and no longer in danger, they return home to Nazareth. Imagine their feelings upon returning home after their long ordeal as refugees so far from the shelter of home.
There’s another journey away from home and back. This one involves the other key characters in Nativity crèches everywhere – the magi, sometimes called “the wisemen."
It is not clear where these sages were from. It’s not even clear how many there were. In crèches and manger scenes everywhere, there are usually three. But the biblical text doesn’t indicate the number. As for where they came from, scholars believe they came from possibly Persia or India, or maybe as east as Mongolia.
They leave home, following the star to what they believe is a new hope. They are brought to Jerusalem and to King Herod who in turn sends them forth as spies to find the location of Jesus. The implication is that Herod wants to get rid of this infant threat. They are to find Jesus and then return to Jerusalem to report back to Herod the babe king’s destination.
The sages follow the star further west. They most certainly traveled via the Silk Road, the Inter-nation Highway of the day that served as a trading route going from China to Greece with stops near Jerusalem. The star eventually brings them to Jesus now in Nazareth at home. The Magi were not at the manger in Bethlehem. They visit a toddler-aged Jesus at home in Nazareth. They see the wonder and beauty and power in the Child's eyes and are somehow transformed. Transformed that they turn away from the evil plan of Herod and instead head straight back home with their hearts a bit lighter and a lot more enlightened.
In our lectionary readings, there is talk of a highway. Isaiah 35:8 says, “A highway shall be there [in God’s kingdom], and it shall be called the Holy Way.” The second lectionary reading from the gospels, from Matthew 11, which I didn’t read, Jesus in referring to John the Baptist says, John the Baptist is the promised messenger, the one who “will prepare the way” for the Messiah. That way that John the Baptist will prepare is the same way talked about in Isaiah 35, the highway, the holy way, into God’s kingdom.
We are talking about what we might call the Highway to Christmas here. The highway to Christmas is the journey that leads to home. The journey might include a leaving of home like it did for Joseph and Mary with child. It might include years of seeking refuge in a foreign place like it did for Joseph, Mary and infant Jesus in Egypt. It might be a shorter trip from one region to another like it did for the Shepherds. It might include a long, months long journey from far off lands to a small town called Nazareth like it did for the Wisemen. But the journey, the highway to Christmas is the same. What is the common denominator in these sojourns along the holy highway of God? What is the common ground in the journey to God’s realm?
The answer is found in Isaiah 7 which is quoted by an angel of the Lord announcing Jesus birth to Joseph: the young woman shall conceive and bear a son and name him ‘Immanu El, God with us.
Wherever we are, wherever we go, wherever we are going. God is with us. In the Advent Highway to Christmas, to God awaiting us at the manger, God is there in each yard and mile we progress. That is the Advent paradox. On the way to arriving at the manger away in the little town of Bethlehem, the destination is already with us. The Christmas journey and destination are one and the same.
Some of you may not know this, but I am a huge music lover. From classical music to country music, and everything in between. I often think in song lyrics, in fact. There are hundreds of songs with the theme of homesickness, a longing for home. Many Christmas songs point to this theme. I’ll be home for Christmas is a perfect example. There’s one missing home themed song that comes to mind, a rather unknown, undiscovered song by a singer named Jude Cole. The song is titled “Right There Now.” The song talks about nostalgia for his youthful days in Illinois. The hook of the song is the title, in the moment he remembers, re-calls, re-collects home, he is right there now in his mind. He is home for Christmas in his dreams.
The same applies to God. When we think about God in the time of Advent, as we wait and yearn for God’s arrival, God is there with us in our minds and hearts and thoughts. God is there in the waiting, in the journey home to God.
So, as we end the third Sunday in Advent and begin the last week of Advent, may you know that the highway to Christmas includes the truth of Christmas, that God is with us in every turn of the wheel home. May you know that in our yearning for the home of Christmas, that the home of Christmas is already here with us. So we don’t wait for God to be discovered. We awaken to what is already here with us, the God of love ever abiding, ever present, ever moving and breathing in the world and in the here and now.