I want to thank my faithful readers and wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. To close out 2014, I want to share a very special story with you.
That night the trek had been arduous and demanding up the rocky slope to the winding Roman road. I had spent most of the day tending the tenants in my inn but the streets of Bethlehem were so crowded, I couldn’t take it anymore. Leaving Lydia behind to tend to the last few customers, I decided it was time to take my annual walk up the mountain.
The road on the mountain side wound its way past Bethlehem toward the distant city of Jerusalem. They say the Roman roads connected every city in the empire to Rome. All roads led to Rome. And, they say the Romans brought us a more civilized, advanced way of living. But, the cost of that way of life was at the expense of their terrible cruelty. They had given power to our “king”, Herod. And, there were times his cruelty surpassed even that of the Romans.
I paused at the top of the winding walking path and stared at the road before me. Rocks were carefully pressed together to make a smooth surface over which the Romans could bring their chariots, wagons, and marching hordes of soldiers. I stepped out onto its surface. The sky was afire with a million stars. One in particular was unusually bright and seemed closer than any star I had ever seen. It cast its light on the empty road. I stood in the middle of this instrument of civilization, this gift to our “backward” people.
I looked out over the small village of Bethlehem. I could see my inn near the edge and for a moment, I thought I heard the distant cry of a baby. Had the woman given birth? The couple had been so desperate, looking for a room. But, the hoards of pilgrims journeying to their home city for the Roman census had swollen the streets of Bethlehem and filled my rooms. I had sent them to the manger. At least there, they would be out of the elements.
I turned back to the road and crossed to the far side. In the meager star light, I searched the ground. Where was it? Each year, I came. Each year, I sought it. Each year, it became harder to find. Ah! There it was!
I squatted beside a cluster of rocks and reached out to touch the rough decaying wooden stump shoved deeply into the earth. I ran my hand over the splinters and drew a deep breath as one of them pierced my skin. My blood dripped onto the timber, joining the blood of my brother. This is where they had crucified him. This is where the Romans had made an “example” of dozens of my friends including my hot headed zealot of a brother years ago.
“Why?” I studied the blood dripping from my finger. “Why did you have to die? Why did you have to shed your blood for our people? Don’t you see how useless it was?” My hand formed a fist and I stood up as anger surged through my mind. I turned and howled at the empty sky.
“Why, Yahweh, why? Why have you forsaken your people? Why did you let Samuel die on this cruel cross at the hands of these Gentiles? When will you come? When will you send your Messiah to rescue us?” Tears ran down my cheek as my shouts echoed through the canyons and died out in the night.
And then, I heard it. The voices were ethereal, unearthly and musical without being music. I whirled and looked through the empty space where once my brother had hung on a cross along with his rebel friends. From the hilltop came the sound and light began to grow beyond its apex. I stepped over the stump of my brother’s cross and made my way up the rocky slope. As I grew nearer to the top of the hill, the voices grew louder washing over me, filling my mind and my heart with awe. What was this?
The light seemed fluid, flowing around me like a gentle stream in a soft rainstorm. I topped the hill with my breath tearing through my lungs, my heart pounding and gazed down in wonder at the shepherds standing on the hill beneath me. Their gaze was turned upward even as mine had been when I had shouted angrily at my God. But, what they saw!
The sky was filled with them; thousands and thousands of beings of pure light and wings and glistening robes and faces filled with wonder and, yes, joy! The song filled the air like perfume. I inhaled it. I bathed in it. I longed for it.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The words filled my mind. And with them, came a peace, a joy that flooded my wounded heart. The depression and despair that just moments ago had swathed me in a cloud of smothering darkness was blown away like dust by the song of the angels. I fell to my knees. Peace? Could such a thing come? Joy? Would I feel joy again? Good will toward men? Did that mean even the Romans? Even Herod?
One of the beings of light descended to the shepherds. The angel was with them, but it was suddenly with me, standing before me in all of its glory. I drank in the celestial light and love. I sobbed with the joy of the touch of the divine. The angel’s face beamed and it spoke without speaking.
“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” The angel leaned toward me. “In a manger.”
I fell back and covered my face in shame. In a manger? Could it be? Had the Messiah indeed come to us? But, in my manger? Born among animals and filth? My animals? My filth? I rolled onto my stomach and sobbed into the dry earth. What had I done? I had cursed God! I had shaken my fist at Him! I had demanded He do something to relieve me of my suffering. But, it was not supposed to be like this. The Messiah was a king, a conqueror who should have been born in the palace of the high king. Instead, he was born in a manger! In MY manger!
I rolled over and the night had once again darkened. I heard a scraping, scratching sound and suddenly the sheep from the hillside were all about me, running, jumping, leaping in joy as they tore over the hill top and descended toward Bethlehem. The shepherds followed. One stopped and reached out a hand.
“Will you join us? Will you come and see this thing which has come to pass that the Lord has made known to us.” His face was bright with joy.
I looked at his rough, calloused hand. I grimaced at his odor of night and sweat and sheep. I reached out and took his hand.
“Yes. I know where this thing has taken place. In a manger.”
The shepherd smiled. “Yes. The Lamb of God would only be born in a manger.”
He walked past me, leaving me standing alone on the hilltop as he followed the other shepherds and their sheep down into the sleeping town of Bethlehem. He had come that night. He had come in a way I could never anticipate. God worked in ways I could not understand!
I felt the blood trickle down my hand from the wound in my finger. For a moment, my depression lifted; my despair vanished in the realization that the Messiah had come! My brother would be avenged.
And then, a creeping oppression fell over me. I looked long and hard at the blood on my hand. I felt the splinters of the cross. In a flash, I saw the future, a vision that could only come from God and realized that as painful as it was to have seen my brother die on a cross, it was nothing compared with the pain God would feel when his Son would do the same to save us all. This king was born to die!
I made my way down the hill side and stepping over my bother’s cross, stepping over the past which I could no longer change; I embraced God’s future for us all.