Sandals reading: Luke 2:1-5
Joseph and Mary have to go on a journey. They are not traveling for pleasure. And it isn’t the best time for them to be on the road.
Mary is in her eighth month of pregnancy. But the Roman government doesn’t care about such things. They care about rules, taxes, and order. Cesar Augustus has sent out a decree and EVERYONE is expected to obey it. Everyone is to go to their hometown to be counted. This counting will determine how resources will be allocated for some time.
Honestly, this is probably a good thing for our little family. Joseph hurriedly married Mary after finding out that she was pregnant AND that the child was the Lord’s. But that was at least three months into her pregnancy. If she delivered in their home town of Nazareth people might begin to talk. There is no way they could get away with saying the Baby came early if He wasn’t small. Mary, Joseph and Jesus would ALL have to contend with questions of impropriety between His parents for His whole life. Leaving town before the Baby comes eliminates this problem. But they will also have to stay away for a time. Coming back right away would still raise questions they would rather not answer.
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Joseph and Mary retire each night with their hearts full of wonder and concern. Wonder at the fact that the Lord chose them of ALL people to bring His precious gift into the world. Joseph imagines the things he will teach the Son of God. He is determined to treat Him as his own. NO ONE will be able to tell by his actions that Jesus isn’t as He the product of his and Mary’s love. For He TRULY is. Not their physical love but of their hearts towards one another and their Lord.
As Mary sleeps Joseph ponders the problems that they still have to face. He rushed to take Mary as his wife because of her condition. He had to protect her reputation and that of the Child. He, Mary, Elizabeth and Zachariah are the only ones who know the actual date and details of this pregnancy. God commands that he not lie but how will he deal with the date of their marriage and the date of the Child’s birth? People will talk!
He is getting nowhere with this worrying. The only thing he can think to do is turn it over to the Lord. “God of my fathers, thank You for choosing me to be the father of You Son. Protect His mother from shame. You chose her for this task. I trust You will see her through it. Protect Your Son from ridicule. You know my heart in this matter. I will do whatever You command.”
After laying his heart before the Lord Joseph drifts off into a peaceful sleep. Morning dawns and Joseph goes about his normal business. He heads into town to sell the items he has made this week and to see what orders await him.
Joseph sets up his market stall and was in the process of laying out his new pieces when a commotion arose near the gate to the city. He looks up to see what is happening. Assembled at the gate is a contingent of soldiers. Not an unusual sign with the Romans but this one is even bearing an imperial banner. This is significant.
One of the soldiers steps forward and blows his trumpet for the people to assemble. Joseph joins the gathering group and waits to hear what this is all about.
“Hear ye one and all! By order of Cesar Augustus all persons are to be registered in a census. To do so all will be required to appear on the 15th day of the upcoming month in the town of their birth or heritage. To ensure that all hear this command, this word will be delivered each day at this time for the next two weeks. Anyone found NOT complying with this order will be thrown in prison and forced to serve for life!”
The soldier steps back in formation and they move off to the inn. They will have lodging there so they can make their proclamation for the next two weeks. The crowd disperses and people begin talking about the order of Cesar. Joseph goes back to his booth and continues setting it up. He doesn’t have time to think about what this means to him and Mary right now. He has customers to attend to.
Joseph packs up this week’s orders and his tools as the sun is sinking in the sky. It has been a good day for business. The orders are enough to keep him busy all week but still have a little time to work on his Son’s cradle.
Mary is waiting with dinner when Joseph arrives. He quickly washes up and joins her in the house. Mary greets him with a kiss and they sit near the fire as they share the evening meal.
“How was your day?” Mary asks.
“I received a lot of orders for the new cupboard I made. You were right about putting movable shelves in it. I was able to demonstrate how it could be made to hold larger and smaller items with a simple change of shelf height.”
“I’m pleased others saw the value in your work. You put so much of your heart into everything you make.”
“Something else happened today.”
Mary waits patiently as Joseph thinks about how to share the edict with Mary. He has been thinking about it in-between his customers.
“A proclamation was read in the gate today. Cesar Augustus has called for a census. He has commanded everyone to return to the place of their birth to be registered. ALL are required to participate or face prison for life.”
“What does this mean for us?”
“I was born here in Nazareth but the edict specifically said ‘place of birth or heritage’. We would be within our legal right to remain here.”
Mary can feel a ‘but’ coming so decides to wait it out. She absently rubs her hand over her stomach while she waits.
Joseph takes her other hand in his before continuing. “I am of the line of David so we could also travel to Bethlehem to register.”
Seeing the question in Mary’s eyes he rushes on. He practiced this portion in his mind all day. He hopes it comes out the right way.
“You know of my fears concerning our Child and the dates of significance. I am wondering if God has not made this decree so that we can protect both you and His Son from scorn. Everyone has to register for the census one month from now. If we were to register in Bethlehem, the city of my heritage, we would have time also to arrange housing there for us before the Babe is due. We could start life with Him in Bethlehem and protect you both. We would return to Nazareth after a few years and raise Him with our families.”
Mary still remains quiet. Her heart is turning over Joseph’s words. Now it is his turn to wait.
Mary reaches a hand up to stroke Joseph’s cheek. “You are a wise man my husband. We should sleep on this tonight and let the Lord speak to our hearts. But know this; I will follow wherever you lead.”
Joseph smiles and hugs Mary to him. She is wise in suggesting they sleep on the matter. He finds the Lord often speaks to him in his dreams.
Morning breaks and Joseph’s heart has settled on their course of action. Mary has already risen to make their morning meal. Joseph joins her by the cook fire.
“Good morning my husband. How was your sleep?”
“It was very good and profitable. My heart is at rest now because of your counsel.”
“And where is your heart leading us?”
“It is leading us to Bethlehem.”
“Tell me then what I need to do to help make us ready for this journey.”
Joseph heart swells inside his chest at her answer. She is truly a wonderful wife. One who allows her husband to lead the family in the way he believes the Lord would want.
They begin making plans for the next chapter in their lives. Mary will use the next two weeks preparing meals they will need while traveling. Joseph plans two full weeks for their journey. He wants to give Mary a slower pace because of her condition. She is in the middle of her seventh month right now. He estimates she will have another two weeks before the Babe is due once they reach Bethlehem.
Joseph will be working on getting as many orders as he can completed during the time they have left. The cradle he was making is almost finished but it isn’t something they will be able to carry with them. He will have to make another when they get to Bethlehem. Two weeks is plenty of time when he doesn’t have any other orders. He could make it in a day if it were not for the detail carvings he planned out for it. He only has a small portion left to finish on this one. He also has to choose which tools to take with them to start his business again, which to leave for their eventual return, and which to sell for money that will be needed to establish a new home.
Joseph rubs his hand lovingly over the bow of the cradle he has been working on. He is wrestling with the idea of selling it. It carries his heart in its carvings but it would also sell for a good sum. Maybe enough to pay for lodging until they find a home.
Mary and Joseph go about their separate tasks of preparing for their journey. They have decided not to inform their families until it is time to leave. They don’t want to risk an argument or pleas to stay.
The two weeks pass quickly. On the last day of the month Joseph takes the last of his orders and the cradle into town. Joseph says a short prayer as he puts the cradle on display. “Lord I leave the sale of this item of love in Your hands.”
Business is good on this day. Joseph feels pangs of guilt as he turns new orders away. “I am sorry, but with the census coming I won’t be able to complete this in time. You may try Ebrehem in the next lane. He does excellent work.” As the day marches on, many people look at the cradle and marvel at its beauty but none offer to buy it. Joseph’s heart aches for the right buyer to come. He knows the Lord has selected someone that will be blessed by his work.
Booths are beginning to close as they run out of wares for the day. Joseph’s orders have all been picked up and the extra pieces he brought sold. All that remains is the cradle. He isn’t sure what he should do. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe the Lord wants him to save it for one of his future children.
The shoppers have dwindled to only a few people. Joseph shakes his head and picks up the cradle. As he turns toward his cart he nearly bumps into a couple. The wife is very pregnant. And they are obviously poor. Joseph stops short.
The wife’s eyes glisten with unshed tears as she looks longingly at the cradle in Joseph’s arms. She tentatively reaches her hand towards the cradle but then snatches it back. He cheeks burn with sham at her boldness. Her husband wraps his arm around her shoulder and gathers him to her. “My wife saw your cradle earlier and wanted me to see it. It is beautiful! Thank you for letting us look at it.” As they turn and walk away he whispers to his wife, “It must be expensive, especially since he hasn’t sold it yet.”
Joseph’s heart lurches within his chest and he feels propelled to call out to them. “Wait please!”
The couple turns back towards him not knowing what to expect. Have they done something wrong? Is he angry with them for delaying him?
Joseph quickly closes the distance between them and gently asks; “Have you a cradle for your babe?”
The husband answers in a voice tinged with sorrow. “No, we have not.”
“Would you like to have this one?”
The wife’s hands fly to cover her mouth. She dare not speak the truth of her desire for it would break her husband’s heart. He longs to please her but she knows there is no way they can afford this cradle. Her husband speaks his sorrow. “It is beautiful but we cannot afford such a work of beauty.”
“I ask nothing in return. It is a gift from one expectant father to another.”
“But why? If you are expecting why not use it for your child?”
“I intended to but we have to go on a long journey and cannot take it with us. I will construct another for my child but this one needs a child of its own from Nazareth. Will you give it that child?”
The couple look at one another in astonishment then back to Joseph. “Are you certain”, asks the wife.
“With all my heart; yes” replies Joseph. He then extends the cradle towards the husband and waits.
The husband looks at his wife and she nods her head. He then reaches out and tenderly takes the cradle from Joseph. His wife reaches up and strokes the wood and then runs her finger in the lines of the carvings as tears flow silently down her cheeks.
Joseph quietly backs up and goes to his cart. He is on his way home before the couple peels their eyes away from his gift. Joseph knows that the Lord has answered his prayer; not exactly like he expected, but like He planned. His smile doesn’t falter for even a moment the whole way home or through retelling of the events to Mary.
Bright and early the next morning Mary and Joseph prepare their donkey with their belongings. The last stops will be at the homes of their parents. They want to say a proper farewell. The story they have agreed upon is that the census gave them an opportunity to grow Joseph’s business in a larger town. They promise to return after Joseph has made a name for himself and his customers become loyal enough to transport his pieces longer distances.
Mary’s sister cries on her shoulder when she hears the news. She expected to be the one to help Mary with the birth of the Baby. Mary’s mother is proud of her for following her husband wherever he leads. Joseph’s parents are sad to see them go but trust that his skills will provide well for his family wherever they roam.
The journey is slow for Mary and Joseph. They set out much earlier than most because they had planned a more moderate pace. Mary walks as much of the way as she can. Riding the donkey means that Joseph has to carry several of the bundles to lighten the load. He tells her it is no trouble for him but she still is reluctant to put the burden on him. Their meals are simple but filling. Their first few nights are spent alone in secluded and safe spaces. As more people join on the journey they spend their nights with different groups who encounter them along the way. Those groups are traveling much faster so they have a new supply of travelers each night.
It is only two days until they HAVE to register for the census. Their pace has been slower than Joseph expected but he does not want to hurry Mary. They still have more than a day and a half of travel ahead at their current pace. Joseph is afraid they won’t make it in time if they don’t change something.
“Mary, I can see the toll this journey is taking on you. You must ride the donkey. You are exhausted.”
“But you will exhaust yourself by carrying the donkey’s burden.”
“It has lightened considerably during our travels as we have used our food supplies. If we don’t get to Bethlehem soon our stomachs will be lighter too! You cannot afford to be without while you are carrying the Babe.” Joseph doesn’t say it out loud but he knows they will be able to move faster too if Mary rides the donkey. She won’t need so many rest breaks.
“All right. I will ride the donkey but let him carry as much of the bundles as possible. I can use them as a saddle that way. Just not the sharp tools” chides Mary.
Joseph laughs and then begins reorganizing their bundles. He is used to carrying his carpentry tools so this shouldn’t pose any problem for him. Once all is ready he lifts Mary up onto the back of the donkey and resumes their trek towards Bethlehem.
Mary is thankful for the padding of the bundles of clothes and blankets. The donkey’s swaying and bumping are not comfortable for her tired and swollen body but she makes no protest. She recognizes Joseph’s quickened pace and realizes why he asked her to ride, at least in part.
Joseph stops to rest every three hours so Mary can walk around, relieve herself and refresh herself with water. He hopes to make Bethlehem by nightfall and at the pace he is setting they should be able to accomplish it.
Mary begins to experience sharp pains in her back and abdomen about midday. She believes it is due to her tiredness from riding. She remains quiet about her discomfort. It only shows when Joseph stops and helps her down for a rest. She winces and bends over as a sharp pain stabs her right after her feet touch ground.
Joseph’s brow furrows with concern. “What is it Mary?”
“Just a muscle cramp from sitting so long I suppose. I’ll be fine in a moment.” The pain passes and she stands up straighter. “How much longer do you think it will be?”
“Not more than three hours. We should be able to make it in our next leg. We can slow down a little if you need to.”
“No. We need to make it to town before nightfall. I will be alright.” Another pain shoots through her abdomen and she winces again.
“Mary, are you alright?” Joseph quickly supports her until it passes.
“I think it may be the Babe. He may be trying to make an early entrance into the world.”
“He isn’t due for another two weeks” cries Joseph. “What should we do?”
“The best thing would be for us to get to Bethlehem and get some help. Unless you want to deliver Him on your own.”
Joseph’s face pales at the thought. “I’ll get you there in time.” He quickly puts Mary back on the donkey and steps up the pace even faster.
“Slow down please Joseph. Rushing is making it worse. I’m sure I can hold out a bit longer if the ride is smoother.”
Joseph nods and slows back down to their original pace. He checks in with Mary frequently to see how she is doing. He doesn’t want to stop unless he HAS to because there is no one around to lend a hand.
Mary disguises her discomfort as best she can but she is praying the Babe waits a little longer.
As darkness falls they reach the gates of Bethlehem. The gates are being closed as they approach.
“Please”, pleads Joseph. “I have to find lodging and a midwife for my wife.”
The guard looks at Joseph with a scowl and is ready to refuse him until Mary cries out in pain. It is a quiet cry but enough to get his attention when he sees the sweat on her brow.
“The inns are all full but you could try the one in the street by the back wall. I hear they are being creative and finding accommodations for those in need.”
“Thank you for your kindness. I will inquire immediately.”
Joseph leads the donkey on to the inn recommended. He knocks on the door. The noise coming from inside drowns out his knock. He waits a polite moment then knocks harder. On his third try Joseph pounds upon the door. That got the attention of the inn keeper. As soon as the door opens the inn keeper shares his answer.
“We’ve got NO ROOM! Look somewhere else.”
“But the gatekeeper said all the inns were full and yours was our only hope.”
“Then I guess you’re out of ‘hope’ cause I got nothing. You should have come earlier.”
“Please sir, my wife is heavy with child and in labor even now. We came as quickly as we could with her condition. Isn’t there somewhere we could stay?”
The inn keeper looks up at Mary for the first time and sees the sweat covering her nearly white face. She is biting her bottom lip to prevent herself from crying out. “Follow me” says the inn keeper. He leads them through a small gate in the wall and over to a nearby cave. It is where he stables his own animals. “The stable for the inn is overflowing. This is my stable. It’s not much but it is all I have to offer.”
“Thank you! It is much appreciated.”
As the inn keeper retreats, Joseph begins arranging hay in a corner for a comfortable place for Mary. He helps her down from the donkey and gets her settled. Joseph turns to ask the inn keeper if he could send someone to help his wife with the birth but he is already gone.
Mary sees the concern in Joseph’s eyes. “It will be alright Joseph. I’m certain the Lord will take care of us. This is His Son after all.”
Joseph smiles and sits down beside Mary. Both of them have seen animals giving birth before but never attended a human birth. How different could it be?
(to be continued)
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Father God, You ALWAYS provide for Your children. Not always in the way or timing we want but in what is best for us. This night Mary and Joseph had to rely fully on You.
I’m relying on You to give me the answer to my prayer. I will trust You with whatever that answer is. I will not rush You either, even though I would like my answer right now. I put myself in Your hands just like Mary did that night.