Well - Christmas has come, ready or not! I hope you have done all you needed to do because - it has arrived! And here we are in church on Christmas morning, setting off on our journey to Bethlehem.
Back in 1937, H.V. Morton produced a book called "In the Steps of the Master" - a special kind of travel book set in the Holy Land. His account of the road to Bethlehem seems so apt to our Australian Christmas.
"The road was like any other road in the Holy Land. The sky was a hot lid above it. The snapping of grasshoppers in the olive groves was a steady rhythm in the heat.
"The road was white with the dust of powdered limestone, a floury dust which the heels of the donkeys kicked up in clouds; but the soft feet of the camels hardly moved it, as they passed silent as shadows. White stone walls lay on either side, and behind them the stony terraces, planted with olive trees, lifted themselves in sharp white ridges against the darkness of the sky. They would come out to lie in the sun, still as the stones, except for the quick beating in their throats...
"The heat was a nervous tension enclosing the world. All sounds were an invasion, except that of the grasshoppers, which was the palpitating voice of the heat. A shepherd boy piped somewhere on the hill, playing a maddening little tune without beginning or end, a little stumbling progress up and down a scale, like the ghost of a waterfall. And the white road led on under the sun.
"It was, as I have said, just like any other road in the Holy Land. But there was one thing that marked it out from all other roads in the world. It was the road to Bethlehem..."
The prophet Samuel had returned sadly to his home in Ramah. King Saul, their first king, had started out full of promise, but under pressure he did not trust and obey the Lord's command.
But now the Lord was saying to Samuel, "Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king" (1 Samuel 16.1b).
What, Lord? Me go to Bethlehem? You've got to be joking! Well... Samuel didn't quite put it that way, but he said, "How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me"
So Samuel went down from his home in Ramah, to the town of Bethlehem, about 50 kilometres to the south-east. His real mission was to anoint a replacement king, but that purpose had to be covered by a sacrifice with the town leaders and Jesse's family.
One by one Jesse brought his sons to meet Samuel. But for the prophet it wasn't simple socialising. One of these must be the coming king - but which one? They were all fine young men, but one by one Samuel experienced a God-given conviction that this wasn't the one the Lord had chosen. Had God let him down? Had he come on a "wild goose chase"?
"Have you any more sons?" Nobody had thought it was important for David to be there. After all, he was the youngest - and someone had to look after the sheep!
So David came - "He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features." The Lord said to Samuel, "Rise and anoint him; he is the one." So Samuel anointed David in the presence of his brothers. I wonder how much they understood about all that - and how the information was kept from King Saul!
A couple of hundred years later the prophet Micah could see that dark times were ahead for the southern kingdom of Judah - "because of Jacobís transgression, because of the sins of the house of Israel" (Micah 1.5). But the time of restoration would come and the Lord's people would return from exile.
Against that background the Lord gave a very special promise - "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times... He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace" (5.2,4,5).
It came to be generally understood that this prophecy pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah. This general expectation is reported in the Jewish Talmud where, in an imaginary conversation between an Arab and a Jew, Bethlehem is positively named as Messiah's birthplace.
Now, eight hundred years later, Mary and Joseph were up in Nazareth, over a hundred kilometres to the north. In the angelic announcements to them both, no mention had been made of "Messiah" as such. They knew that the one who had been conceived in such an extraordinary way was himself someone extraordinary. As devout Jews, they would have hesitated to repeat some of the words used of the coming child, especially to call him "the Son of the Most High God".
They had faced all the personal difficulties of the virginal conception and had been married. Nazareth was their home and the place where Joseph conducted his carpentry business. Aside, of course, from the local gossips, there was no reason to leave Nazareth.
But then the Roman Emperor Augustus ordered a census. His chief purpose was to set a basis for levying taxes. So everyone was to go to be registered, "to his own town."
For taxation purposes I am sure that to have people go to the local town would have given the Roman authorities the real figures they needed. But, of course, the Jews had never been counted that way. For them, such a count had to be by tribes and families. So people were moving all over the place - to their ancestral homes. It would have made the figures less than accurate for taxation purposes!
That was the reason why, in spite of imminent childbirth, Joseph and Mary set off down the road to Bethlehem. The Bible gives no hint of their means of transport. Tradition has kindly supplied Mary with a donkey. Even so, the journey would have been slow and wearying. Any others who claimed connections with King David had long since passed them on the way. Little wonder there was no room for them in the inn when they finally arrived!
The baby was born in Bethlehem. The ancient prophecy was fulfilled. But there was no special welcome for him. The very circumstance that had brought them down from Nazareth left them only with a stable for shelter and a cattle feeding-trough for the baby's bed!
"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night." Even though the shepherd boy David had become king, the task of shepherding was not particularly highly rated. That is what makes it so amazing...
"An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified..." And wouldn't we all have been?
But the angel said, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
The Saviour! The Messiah (Christ)! The Lord! Wow! That is good news! Centuries of divine promise had come and gone. The Lord's people had sometimes followed, sometimes wandered away from him. But now at last he has come - the Saviour, Christ the Lord! But - in a manger?
The angelic announcement is followed by a whole chorus of angels singing praises to God - "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests."
Yes, indeed. Here is good news. If the Messiah has come, we certainly will praise God in the highest, and all who welcome him will know his peace! But - in a manger?
"Letís go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
The shepherds believed the message and set off to Bethlehem, where they confirmed all that they had been told. Yes, the Saviour Christ the Lord had been born - and laid in a manger!
It's Christmas! The decorations, the tinsel and the flashing lights are up! The presents are being opened! Once more the "Happy Christmas" greetings are being exchanged!
It's Christmas! The families are gathering. The Christmas dinner is well on the way. Soon food and stories will be shared all over again.
It's Christmas! And we are singing the old carols and getting nostalgic about this happiest time of the year!
It's Christmas! Let's go to Bethlehem! Allow ourselves to be grabbed by what happened nearly two thousand years go! Welcome into our lives the Saviour - Jesus Christ the Lord!
Too often our Christmas is just Christmas Day! If we will receive Jesus into our life, his presence will transform every day and all of our life! For he did not come to give us Christmas, but to give himself and to become our Saviour and our Lord!