Easter is nearly here and I wonder about Christ’s journey from nativity to crucifixion; Christ’s sojourn from grotto to tomb. Yep, that’s my word of the day: sojourn. Maybe ‘grotto’ or ‘tomb’ should be the word, because they feature strongly below, but their job at this moment is to emphasize my point that Jesus was a sojourner on earth, and so are we. Scripture strongly evokes the unnatural nature of Christ’s life by juxtaposing birth and death; by highlighting features of discomfort and opposition; of releasing friction into Christ’s life from the beginning. Why do I know my God understands and sympathizes with me when death and life mingle in my world, pushing from both sides as though to expel me like a marshmallow from a homemade shooter? Just follow Him from His first days, through His ministry, then to the crucifixion. Jesus is never allowed to feel as though He belongs anywhere, so I should never be surprised when I feel out of place either.
Birth in the Tomb
That sweet story in Luke where Mary and Joseph must have their baby in a stable because there was no room at the inn, and Jesus being laid in a manger, plus lambs and a drummer boy and shepherds and angels and wise men: how charming. What a fantastic idea; fantastic being the operative word here. If you believe in this sort of saccharine-sweet, Lysol-clean, rhyming narrative that glows with greeting-card softness, you might want to search for fairies in your rose bushes too.
Here’s the real deal: in Bethlehem, a gruelling 90 miles from their home in Nazareth, Mary and Joseph satisfied the command of Caesar to take part in a census. They were forced to walk or sit on a donkey until finding rest in a stable which was no more than a cave; a hole in the rock; a grotto. At some point the baby was born and, without a homier place for the infant to rest, he was laid inside a coffin-like structure, a stone feeding trough otherwise known as a manger. There was no drummer boy. Wise men came later. Shepherds attended, sweaty and coarse, with all of their animals and no gifts save worship and obedience: the noise must have been as deafening as the aroma was thick. That heavenly host of angels was absent, having performed their glorious duties over the shepherds’ fields. They were probably too enormous to fit inside the already-crowded cave. Mary probably couldn’t wait to get back on the road to Nazareth.
Birth and Death
Mary went into labour in a space resembling a tomb, readers; a tomb. Mary laid the infant Jesus in a cold, hard sarcophagus. I argued unsuccessfully against a hospital birth for my first child, afraid of the clinical setting and how it reminded me of my mother’s death earlier that year. If Mary felt confused and sometimes morbid about her child’s chances of survival I would understand. My bed was soft and my daughter rested in a comfortable crib, but only months before I had been mopping my mother’s brow as she died of cancer. Once home from the maternity ward, I kept closing my eyes and seeing her die. I would wake up in the night believing my daughter was dead too. Intrusive images wrecked velvety ideas of early parenthood.
I wonder if terrible pictures flashed before Mary’s eyes when she blinked sweat away between contractions. This was a teenaged girl who knew scripture, after all: ‘he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53:5, ESV) She knew his ministry was not going to end with a bouquet of flowers on a podium but with the shedding of her son’s blood. No mother wants to think about death in those moments, but how could she have been spared from such imagery as her own blood spilled? Birth and death are so opposite they shouldn’t even share a blog, let alone a paragraph.
Christ would always be different. Joseph was ancestrally linked to Bethlehem, home of King David who was part of Joseph’s lineage; yet, neither Joseph nor Mary called this town ‘home’. They were strangers transported by Roman decree to fulfill prophecy. The people of Nazareth would have pushed Jesus off of a cliff. They were afraid, even xenophobic. Xeno is Greek for ‘other’, ‘foreigner’, or sometimes ‘sojourner’ (Strong’s Greek, Biblehub.com). Xenophobes fear anyone who is strange, different, or foreign. No one was more different from the people around him than Jesus in spite of His superficial familiarity. Our pastor spoke about how Jesus’ ministry was a marvel to the people who were accustomed to hearing rabbis, but not what THIS rabbi was saying and doing. Tempted by Satan after 40 days without food? I would probably have caved after 40 hours for a single bar of chocolate and a cup of coffee.
I believe one reason Jesus had to enter the world in a place which was foreign to Mary and Joseph was to highlight his sojourner-nature. His home was – and is – in heaven with the Father, just as ours is. Our lives feel unnatural and uncomfortable too because the earth is not as it was meant to be. We already have a better home, but we don’t get to inhabit it now. ‘So the kingdom has come […] and the coming of the kingdom is still future […]. This is puzzling.’ (John Piper, Desiring God, ‘Is the Kingdom Present or Future?’, February 4, 1990). Scripture’s birth-death juxtaposition highlights how we live mid-journey where we expect home to appear around every corner, yet it never gets any closer. Like driving towards the moon and wondering why it still seems so far away. ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst’ says Jesus (Luke 17:20-21, NIV). Much hope inhabits this statement even as we experience the frustration of waiting.
I go back to the grotto over and over: he was born away from home in more ways than one, and would never be treated as ‘one of us’ by anyone. Jesus was either reviled or revered. The Pharisees constantly criticized and tested Jesus while Gentiles relied upon and followed Him, leaving their regular homes and becoming Disciples. They chose to sojourn in order to find a home with the Father found in a mobile Messiah. He didn’t claim a permanent place on this sin-wrecked earth and neither do we.
When the Sojourner Stays
‘Sojourner’ is more precisely defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as someone who stays in a place temporarily or is passing through. Sometimes, society scorns the foreigner who wants to stay, such as the refugee for example. Certain groups would prefer for aliens either to stay out of their country altogether or just stop by for a little while, take a breather, then move on. Jewish leaders knew the Messiah had to come according to prophecy, but they would have preferred if he came somewhere else, at a different time.
Jesus, like David, earned the common people’s regard because of the Lord’s favour; Pharisees were appalled and threatened. Christ taught that redemption was more important than religion which put their jobs at stake. King Saul wanted David dead in 1 Samuel 18:7 when ‘the women sang […] “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”’ (ESV) David threatened Saul’s power, his position as king, and also rubbed in the fact that Saul did not have God’s favour. David had to run. Like his ancestor, Jesus found himself on the move with ‘nowhere to lay his head’ (Luke 9:58). The average guy preferred Jesus over the usual rabbi with his lofty teaching and distant demeanor. Jesus brought the Father close and taught Jew and Gentile alike something brand new: what the presence of God felt like; the experience of coming home.
I want to revisit Christ’s earthly parents and explore one more element of Mary’s experience which emphasizes the sojourner’s experience. Several sources indicate that a woman in labour would have been aided by her mother, mother-in-law, sister, aunt, or at least two or more females she trusted. These women would hold her and make her as comfortable as possible. Instead of finding herself in the midst of family and friends, Mary probably had to rely on midwives she did not know. Nothing is said of these women; of how they were found, if they were paid, or if they had also come from Nazareth. I don’t imagine Mary’s mother was part of this crew because Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home, not Mary’s. The absence of family must have accentuated the feeling that she did not belong in Bethlehem.
Again, I relate to Mary in this sense, having given birth to my first child in England with my entire family in Canada. Bethlehem is closer to Nazareth, but it didn’t feel closer in Mary’s time. Whom did Mary rely on? The answer is obvious when I think about it; ‘God’ should be the answer in any situation. I just wish I would remember to rely on God when home comforts, familiar people, and welcome amenities are absent. When I’m a sojourner – just passing through a place or a temporary situation – it’s as though I forget that God is everywhere at all times and He inhabits me in the form of His Spirit. In this sense, I take my home on the road. I don’t think Mary ever forgot to rest in the Lord she celebrated, but she was sorely challenged.
Resting Place for Later
Israel was waiting for a Saviour because they had lost their homeland due to constant disobedience. God had established a place for them, but Israel continued to put their fingers in their ears and sing ‘la-la-la can’t hear you!’ Even when God said ‘here we are, home sweet home. You can unpack now,’ David said this radical thing: ‘For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.’ (2Chronicles 29:15). His statement might have made sense at one time, while Israel searched for a homeland, but they were about to dig into the ground and lay foundations for the temple which would house the Ark of the Covenant. Israel was going to establish roots. Why were they still sojourners?
David’s comment foreshadows a Christian’s experience. We should not become too comfortable in the world. As followers of Jesus, ‘when we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.’ (2Cor 5:6). Set apart by God, this is not our home. Christians should appear and feel alien among unbelievers. Our neighbours might not try to throw us off of a cliff, but they will oppose us and feel threatened by our radical faith. When we seek to be different by accepting Christ we remain ‘sojourners’, gathered into God’s family. So, if you ever feel like the culture around you is closing in like a tomb or trying to force you out, take heart: you’re in good company.