Tuesday, December 16, 2014

December 14, 2014 A Spiritual Road Trip

After speaking about the same old, same old last week I felt compelled to report that when I stopped at a couple of restaurants I did, unfortunately, order the same old, old (Monday morning report – I am pleased to add that after church I did order something new.  Maybe there is hope for me!  But I was disappointed that no one seemed to notice.)

How many of you like to take a road trip?  Even though many of us spend a great deal of time in our cars, there’s still nothing quite like taking to the open road, embarking on the great American tradition of a road trip.  My first great road trip came when I was in college, when two of my friends and I set out for Florida for spring break.  It was my first visit to the beach and I was very excited.  We left after class and planned to drive through the night, with a goal of arriving in Sarasota soon after sunrise.  Three of us set out in a Chevrolet Nova, with a big sunroof that had been added.  This wasn’t a small sunroof that we find in today’s cars; this was a big, wide-open hole in the roof that had space for two people to stand up in (which, I’ll add as a safety note, is not what anyone should do, even though we often did.  But it was the 70s, and we weren’t very safety conscious back then).

We crossed the Florida state line in the middle of the night, and when we passed the Welcome to Florida sign we had to celebrate.  We put in a Beach Boys tape – 8 track, of course – and two of us stuck our heads out of the sunroof and began to sing along with the tape.  Which was, actually, a rather bad idea.  Riding along with you head sticking out of a sunroof, in the middle of the night, on a warm spring evening in Florida meant we were bombarded with all manner of bugs and flying creatures.  But it was a road trip, and a great one.

I love the idea of the road as a metaphor for life, and this morning I want us to think about that famous road trip of Mary and Joseph as they traveled to Bethlehem. 

1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.
This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David,
in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.
While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Interestingly, many of the Biblical stories take place “on the road.”  Much of the teaching Jesus offered to his disciples came about as he traveled with his disciples.  Many of the stories of the life of Jesus come from his travels, such as the powerful story of Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10).  As Jesus traveled through Jericho, Zaccheus had a life-changing experience.  One of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables is a story of people walking along a road – the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25 – 37).  Beyond the gospels, we find other great stories from the road.  Saul, in the most famous conversion in history, encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-8), where he was transformed into the great pastor/evangelist Paul.  In the Old Testament we have one of the greatest road stories – the wilderness wandering of the Hebrew people in Exodus.  It was not at all a long journey, in terms of distance, but certainly was in terms of time.  But it was on this journey that the Hebrews were forged into the people of God and became the great nation of Israel.

I want you to think about your life this morning as the ultimate road trip.  Where is God leading you?  Where has he led you?  What have you learned on the road of life?

Beyond these questions, which I hope you will consider in the days ahead, I want to offer three lessons we learn from the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. 

1.  Don’t Expect An Easy Road.
I’ve driven a lot of broken down, clunky cars throughout my life, and traveling was not easy in those vehicles.  My early cars had no air conditioning, no FM radio (certainly not satellite), and were prone to breaking down on regular occasions.  I was very excited, though, when I added an FM converter to my car, except I soon discovered I had to be within twenty miles of a station for it to work.

For those of us who grew up driving old, broken-down cars, traveling has certainly improved.  My car has far more options than I need, but I have to say, I like them.  I like cruise control, satellite radio, air conditioning, and heated seats.  I really like having GPS in my phone and no more old, paper maps to try and fold up to put back in the glove compartment.

Does all the comfort take some of the adventure out of traveling?  I don’t know, but it is certainly easier and more comfortable.  It is worth noting, I think, that we want to take all the difficulty out of travel and minimize every possible challenge, which is much like our attitude towards life.  We want to make life as easy as possible, reducing all possible difficulties and challenges.  Such a carefree life would be nice, but we don’t learn much that way, do we?  The point of life is not to take the safest, easiest route from Point A to Point B, but to follow faithfully where God leads us, which is inevitably through some adventurous times.

The distance, as the crow flies, from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 70 miles, but the path almost always taken was about 92 miles.  It was not an easy journey for Mary and Joseph.  Walking about three miles an hour they could cover, perhaps, fifteen to twenty miles a day, which would take them four or five days at the least and most likely it took them seven or eight.  It was a difficult, treacherous path, which is a great analogy for life, because life can be a difficult, uncertain, perilous journey, and somehow, we have convinced ourselves that because we live in the modern age life is supposed to be simpler and easier because of all the advantages of the modern age, such as technology and advanced medical care.  And make no doubt about it, we enjoy some great advantages over previous generations of humanity.

But people still get sick and die.  People still lose their jobs and struggle financially.  Relationships still disintegrate and fracture.  People are still afraid and anxious about life.  Some things are easier, but we still face the same difficulties that our ancestors faced generations, and centuries, and millennia ago, because life is a difficult journey.

Life is a winding, twisting, up and down journey, filled with highs and lows, some of which can be quite extreme.

But maybe those bumps in the road have a deeper meaning than we generally realize.  Maybe a detour will lead us to a greater opportunity.  Maybe some of those bumps will bring a tenderness to our hearts that cause us to reach out to someone else in their time of suffering.

2.  We Don’t Travel Alone.
I think one of the things Mary and Joseph had going for them was the presence of family and friends.  They were going home.  Bethlehem was the city of David, and Joseph was in the line of David.  I’m certain they traveled with other family members.  As they made their way to Bethlehem, I’m certain their caravan grew to include other family members and friends.  When they arrived in Bethlehem there were other family members and friends already gathered there. 

I’m not saying that made everything better, but I’m sure it lightened the stress of travel, being surrounded by people they loved and people who loved them.

Life is always better with other people, isn’t it?  I know that other people can be a challenge – although it’s never us who are the challenge, is it?  It’s always someone else.

But as challenging as others might be at times, aren’t you grateful for the people God has placed in your life?  We are not solitary creatures.  God has created us for relationships, and what a gift those relationships are to us.  Think about that fact when you face a challenge, think about that promise when you struggle, think about that gift when you wonder how you will make it through a tough stretch of life.

3.  Help Someone Along the Way.
This was not a vacation trip for Mary and Joseph.  This was a Roman-mandated trip to return to their ancestral home to be counted in a census so the Romans could levy taxes and in so doing, make their difficult lives even more difficult.  Along the way, there would be plenty of talk about the injustices placed upon the people by the Romans, and the talk would certainly have contained a great deal of bitterness and anger.  The already difficult lives of people would be made much more difficult as they had to take time out from their struggle to make a living in order to make what was, for many, a difficult, expensive, and perilous journey.

Life is very difficult for many, many people.  There are so many people who suffer from grief.  There are so many people who are lonely.  There are so many people who are sick.  There are so many people who suffer from injustice and unfairness.  There are so many people who need someone to reach out to them a helping hand in the name of Christ.

I have been helped along the way by so very many people.  I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like were it not for others, whose paths crossed mine, and the help they offered.

Christmas is a difficult time for many people, and we often provide a helping hand to others, as we should.  But there are people who struggle every day of the year, and we must remember our calling by God to reach out a hand of love and care to them.

Think about your spiritual road trip in the coming days.  Where is God leading you?  To what ministries might he be calling you?  Through what challenges has he led you?  What have you learned from the twists and turns, and the bumps and detours?  Remember, always, that God is leading you through this great adventure called life, and while it is not always an easy journey, it is one in which he always travels with you.

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