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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

From Nazareth to Bethlehem - A Journey Together

2012-12-16 The Journey - From Nazareth to Bethlehem
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
James McTyre (loosely based upon Adam Hamilton's The Journey)

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Contemporary English Version (CEV)

A Song of Celebration

14 Everyone in Jerusalem and Judah,
celebrate and shout
   with all your heart!
15 Zion, your punishment is over.
The Lord has forced your enemies
   to turn and retreat.
Your Lord is King of Israel
   and stands at your side;
you don't have to worry
   about any more troubles.
16 Jerusalem, the time is coming,
   when it will be said to you:
"Don't be discouraged
   or grow weak from fear!
17 The Lord your God
wins victory after victory
   and is always with you.
He celebrates and sings
   because of you,
and he will refresh your life
   with his love."[a]

The Lord's Promise to His People

18 The Lord has promised:
Your sorrow has ended,
   and you can celebrate.[b]
19 I will punish those
   who mistreat you.
I will bring together the lame
   and the outcasts,
then they will be praised,
instead of despised,
   in every country on earth.
20 I will lead you home,
   and with your own eyes
you will see me bless you
   with all you once owned.
Then you will be famous
   everywhere on this earth.
I, the Lord, have spoken!

The Birth of Jesus

2 About that time Emperor Augustus gave orders for the names of all the people to be listed in record books. 2 These first records were made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3 Everyone had to go to their own hometown to be listed. 4 So Joseph had to leave Nazareth in Galilee and go to Bethlehem in Judea. Long ago Bethlehem had been King David's hometown, and Joseph went there because he was from David's family.
5 Mary was engaged to Joseph and traveled with him to Bethlehem. She was soon going to have a baby, 6 and while they were there, 7 she gave birth to her first-born son. She dressed him in baby clothes and laid him on a bed of hay, because there was no room for them in the inn.


So, we're in a series called, "The Journey." It's loosely based on Adam Hamilton's very good book by the same name. I would encourage you to read the book or its devotional companion, and I mean that in a way that might keep him from suing me.

("That's not what my book says!"
Good thing God doesn't do that.)

We also have a Sunday School class going in tandem with the messages in worship. So to avoid duplication, I tend to veer down some roads less traveled. At least, that's what I tell myself.

Do you ever do that? You set out on a journey and you end up somewhere completely off the map? You're standing in the kitchen for no apparent reason? Holding a lamp and a box of cat treats. And you don't even own a cat. And you tell yourself, "I know I came in here for a reason." Of course you did.

We're doing this series called, "The Journey." A journey is purposeful. A journey has a reason for showing up at Point B. If there were no reason, it wouldn't be a journey. It would be wandering around the building. It would be getting in the car and driving until you hit the Atlantic Ocean. And then swimming. Not that any of us have ever felt like doing that. That's not a journey; that's a low-speed escape.

What the church calls Advent and the rest of the world calls The Christmas Shopping Season is a journey. And it's not a journey to Wal-Mart or to Grandmother's house we go. Advent's a journey of faith. It's a journey of hope, peace, joy, and love. That's why we light those candles every week. To guide our way. To remind us that we're not wandering aimlessly. We're intentionally moving to Point B. We're heading toward that tall candle in the middle of everything.

(During the Children's Sermon a couple of years ago, I asked, "What do we call that tall, white candle in the middle?" One little guy shouts out, "The Santa Candle!"

It's the Christ Candle. And you made Baby Jesus cry.)

We're on a journey to Christmas. We're on a journey TO Christmas. But most of the time, we talk about it the opposite way. Christmas is coming. It's coming fast. It's coming at us. It's coming at YOU.

Did you ever think about how much of our language is about escaping, avoiding... the rush, the traffic, the stress, the anxiety of Christmas? And it's very violent. "Beat" the rush. We got "tied up" at the Mall. Dad was "detained" by Security. (That didn't really happen.) We don't talk like Christmas is a journey. It's an oncoming collision.

Christmas is a journey. Everybody smiles and nods at the preacher when we say things like that. It sounds so nice at church. But when you're in line at Honey Baked Ham, that journey's not moving anywhere.

When you're a kid, you know the destination. You know  the payoff if you watch out, don't cry, and don't pout. But when we get older we wonder, is it all really worth it? I mean, what's the point of racing down the same old road, every same old year? If it's really a journey, where's it getting us? I mean, are we really sure we want to take it?


Mary and Joseph didn't want to take that journey, either.

Mary didn't want that journey. Mary was nine months pregnant. Way beyond when your doctor says, "I don't want you traveling anywhere." Will they even let you ON an airplane if you're nine months pregnant? Not unless you bring your own obstetrician. How 'bout a... donkey ride... through the West Bank? ("Oh. I may have to consult my medical books on that one.") Mary did not want that journey.

Joseph didn't want that journey. The occupying Roman government was trying to avoid a fiscal cliff. So everybody had to go back to their hometown to be "enrolled." That's a nice word for being conscripted into extortion. Can you imagine all the caravans of happy campers on their way to sign up for more taxes? You think Kingston Pike is depressing.

From Nazareth to Bethlehem was about a 10-day journey on foot. The scenic valleys of olive trees turn to craggy cliffs of Mordor. And those turn to what Bibles call, "wilderness," but was really more like Death Valley. The Bible doesn't say what they penalty was for not showing up. But it had to be pretty severe to motivate Joseph (and Mary) along this route, at this time. I can't imagine a more joy-LESS journey.

Joseph did not want that journey. Mary did not want that journey. No one along the route from Nazareth to Bethlehem wanted to take that journey.


Some of you here today. Some of you joining us from home. Some of you are on very uncomfortable journeys. The energy it takes just to get out of bed and to put one foot in front of the other puts the rest of us to shame. Physically, you're on a hard journey. Or maybe emotionally, you're on a hard journey. You wonder why you stay on the road when it doesn't look like the scenery's ever going to change.

You're walking with Mary. You're walking with Joseph.

Some of you here today. Some of you at home. You're carrying a heavy heart. You're quietly dragging the weight of absences. You're painfully aware of distance. You're wondering if there even is a Point B, if there even IS a goal, an end. You wonder why the road doesn't turn. You're doubting it ever will.

You're walking with Mary. You're walking with Joseph.

And who were they walking with?

What the Bible doesn't tell us in this short passage is that Mary and Joseph were walking a road called, "The Way of the Patriarchs." You see, this was a road that had been traveled throughout sixteen hundred years of Bible history.

The road from Nazareth to Bethlehem led through the place where God appeared to Abraham, and promised to give the land to his descendants. It led through the place where Jacob used a rock for pillow, and dreamed of seeing angels ascending and descending from heaven. It was the place where Joseph of the Coat of Many Colors was buried after his bones were brought back from Egypt. Where Joshua set up the Tent of Meeting and the ark of the covenant. This was the land where the prophets Samuel, and Elijah, and Elisha preached. Mary and Joseph walked where the armies of Babylon marched as they invaded Jerusalem and marched its people into captivity. And Mary and Joseph walked where the exiles returned, singing praises unto Zion, when the exile was over.#

Mary and Joseph walked in the footsteps of the fathers and mothers of faith. And in a sense, they walked with them. Mary and Joseph, and all the history of faith, walked that journey. Together.

You see, that's the thing about journeys. We can get so absorbed in watching our one foot move in front of the other that we forget. We forget that there are people ahead of us. We forget there are people behind us. Even if we don't know them, they're on the same road. We can get so absorbed in our journeys that we think we're the first ones, the only ones, who've ever taken these steps. We forget to look up from the path. We forget to look around.

And sometimes, we even stop looking ahead. Sometimes we forget why we ever got on the road in the first place.

You could think of God's book, the Bible, as a collection of people going from one place to another. A lot of the time, maybe even most of the time, they weren't on a road they'd have chosen. There's that wonderful line from the Bible that says God will make the crooked paths straight.

Luke 3:5 says, Every valley shall be filled,
  and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
  and the rough ways made smooth

You know who said that? John the Baptist. You know what his sole purpose was? Getting everybody ready... for Christ.

God knows we can't see around the corners. God knows we're walking paths we didn't choose. God knows we end up taking journeys we might not even want to be on. Wondering, how in the world did I get here?

We're walking with Mary. We're walking with Joseph. We're walking with a whole Bible full of people.

But even more, we're walking with a whole church full of people. And even though it may seem so hard, so far away, there is a Bethlehem.


We are "A Church in the Community, Serving the Community of God."

The community that is our nation is sharing a deep and very dark grief. Friday, the gunman in Newtown, Connecticut broke our nation's heart. One man's act of inhumanity has sent all our communities down a journey we do not want to take. But I believe it's a journey we, collectively, as a nation, must take.

Almost immediately, on Friday, people took to the media to proclaim, "See, I told you so." It's because of this. It's because of that. It's as if all the people with all the answers had been waiting for this moment for their unique wisdom to shine. Opinions are like noses. And you can stick your nose up in the air and into other people's business. Or you can bury it in your hands, and let your tears flow around it.

This is not the time for quick, arrogant arguments. This is the time for our national community to come together. This is the time for all our communities in the community to confess that something is broken in our nation. But for the sake of all our communities, we're going walk together to fix it. This is time to confess and to promise one another that we're not sure where this road is going to lead us, but for the love of God and neighbor, we're going to walk it together.

It's a long, difficult journey to Bethlehem. The good news of Christ is born, but after people who are suffering, laboring, go far out of their way for each other.

If you look around this room, we've got all the ingredients for a community. We've got stay-at-home parents. We've got teachers. We've got nurses. We've got doctors. We've got police officers. We've got home-builders, and home sellers. Counselors and lawyers and bankers.

And we've got kids. Lots and lots of beautiful kids.

It's time. It's time for all of us to lower our hopes that someone else will fix our communities for us, and raise our expectations, that we will strengthen them ourselves. It's time we raise our expectations in ourselves, raise our expectations of our abilities in our community.

For Mary and Joseph, salvation started with a problem. And a totally unrelated national problem sent them, and a whole lot of other people, on a journey they didn't want to take, but did.

And what came out of that journey?

A child.

A child born in Bethlehem. Who out of darkness brought the light of life, the light of the world. And the darkness could not overcome it. The light of Christ shines even now, wherever there is hope, wherever there is peace, wherever there is joy, wherever there is love.

Let us all make a confession and a promise that from this day forward, we will carry that light for the good of everyone in the community of God. Wherever it takes us. However long it takes.

To God be the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Prayers for today's tragedy in Connecticut

In our church, we have so many children, so many parents, so many teachers, school leaders, police officers, nurses, doctors, and other helpers. 

But no matter our role in the community, all of us are touched and all of us are shaken by the tragedy of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Danbury, CT. Let us come together as a church and as families to hold each other close, whether near or far, in body and in spirit.

We rely so much on scripture's words, when our own fail:

Jeremiah 31:15

New International Version (NIV)

15 This is what the Lord says:

"A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more."

May God wipe away the tears of those who mourn today. May our prayers help heal their spirits. May God protect our hearts and minds as we struggle to understand that which has no understanding.

Dr. Brenae Brown, whose work I greatly admire and have quoted in sermons, has published a list of recommended resources for talking to children. Her blog address is:


She closes her article by quoting this statement from Mr. Rogers:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

No matter how experienced the helpers, their lives will be changed today. Thank them. Pray for them.