The Christmas Story – Revisited

While radio personality Garrison Keillor has had to walk away from the public spotlight due to accusations of improprieties, his legacy as a story teller extraordinaire is what will stand the test of time.  For over 40 years he produced and hosted The Prairie Home Companion radio program, and has authored several books containing his stories. His folksy, Americana, stylings in “News from Lake Wobegone,” are so relatable and picturesque that one can not help but be drawn into his narrative.  You may completely disagree with him politically (which I do), but you have to admit, he can spin a good tale.

All that being said, I thought I would share with you my transcription of his radio broadcast retelling of the Christmas Story.  I heard this years ago, and was so captivated by the way he told the familiar Biblical account of Christ’s birth, that I started typing while listening, then listened again to make sure I got it all right.  I enjoy rereading this every year, just to get a different take on the story I know so well.

I hope you will enjoy this as much as I have.  Be sure to read the account from Luke 2:1-20 and Matthew 1:18-2:18, then come back and read this retelling.

At that time there went forth a decree from Caesar Augustus, that a census should be taken of the whole world, or at least the world that he was familiar with, which was not nearly all of it.  It was an order that was pretty much ignored in America, for example.

But in the Holy Land it was obeyed, and people went to their hometowns to be counted for the census.  Could have been done the other way, with the government sending census takers out to count the people where they were but there’s always been a lot of governments that like to see people march to their orders and like to see people follow instructions and stand in lines and so they did it that way and everybody had to travel to their home town.

And among the Jews who traveled to their hometowns were Joseph and his wife Mary who was great with child.  And they came down out of Galilee out of the town of Nazareth, down into Judea, into the city of Bethlehem, the city of David, because Joseph was of the house of David.  And while they were there, standing in line, filling out forms, the time came for Mary to be delivered of child.  Now Joseph had tried to get them a hotel room, but the clerk said that all the rooms were booked.  And when Joseph tried to explain that his wife was great with child, the clerk said “Don’t tell me I just work here.”  And so they were living in a stable.

In all of the manger scenes that we’ve ever seen that stable is always shown as being a very clean stable, and filled with clean straw, sweet smelling straw, and I certainly hope that it was, though I doubt it.  And there, Mary brought forth her first-born son, and she laid him in a manger, which is a sort of a feeding trough.

There were animals there in the stable, there were some donkeys and a few horses, and some dairy cows, and their feed had to be put in buckets for them but they still out of habit came over to their feed trough, and they put their noses down and they smelled the baby.

Now there were, round about, shepherds tending their flocks by night, lying in the field.  Actually, they were lying around the campfire, and they were smoking, and they were telling jokes, and they were passing a bottle around.  They were kind of a motley bunch those shepherds were.  It was not a profession that educated people went into, in those days.  Kind of like parking lot attendants today.  They were not looked on with esteem by other people.  They were not considered to be high-class citizens, because sheep are not high-class animals, you know.  From a distance they may be, but not up close.  Sheep are fine if they are doing what they want to do, but as soon as you try to make a sheep do what you want it to do, I tell you, all the high-class people get out of the profession at that point, and the only people left to be shepherds are the people who don’t have anything else.

And so, they were lying there around the campfire when an Angel of the Lord suddenly appeared unto them, they were sore afraid. They fell on the ground.  They didn’t just fall on it, they hugged the ground.  They pressed their faces in the ground.  They were kind of shy people, these shepherds.

And though the Angel said, “Be not afraid,” they were terrified, they were scared out of their pants.  They hid the bottle. They thought God had come to punish them for drinking.  And they lay there whimpering, and they said “No, please, no, don’t.”

And the angel said, “Be not afraid.”  But they had never seen an angel before, they had never looked at an angel or smelled an angel or heard and angel’s voice and the angel was sort of like a human form but not exactly and the voice was kind of strange and kind of distant and the smell the angel gave off was a smell of such purity that it almost hurt their noses.  So they were terrified.

The angel said, “Be not afraid, behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy which shall be for all people that unto you is born tonight in the city of David a Savior who is called Christ the King, and this shall be a sign unto you.  You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manager.  And suddenly there was a heavenly host praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the Highest and peace on earth among men of good will”.

Well, when suddenly the heavenly host ascended and left them, the shepherds all headed into Bethlehem to see what it was that they were talking about.  They followed the star in a way but the star was high in the sky so it gave them general direction but it wasn’t useful as far as finding one stable in one town. A street map might have been more useful, so they had to look around for it a little while.

Some of the shepherds believed what they had been told and other shepherds weren’t so sure.  They would stop townspeople as they looked around through the streets. They would tap somebody on the shoulder and say, “You didn’t see a heavenly host up in the sky just about 10–15 minutes ago off to the west, did you?”  The person said, “A what?”  They said, “Never mind.”  One shepherd said to another, “You know Bob, we were drinking a lot.”  “I emptied half of that wineskin myself.”

But they found the stable and they walked in and there was Mary, and there was Joseph, and there was the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger and instantly they all believed.  They all believed instantly, they had to ask no questions.  They knew it was all true what the angels had said.  And they tiptoed out of there, after worshiping the child and they were never to be the same people again.  They went back to shepherding, but they were never the same again.  They were filled with joy and happiness the rest of their lives.

Not that it made shepherding any easier or made the sheep any easier to handle.  Sheep were sheep, and they could get angry sometimes and they’d be sad sometimes, but life could never again be the same for them.  There was always a light in their hearts. And it would never be dark night for them again as long as they lived.

There were other things that happened.  There were three wise men who came from an eastern university.  There was an assistant Wiseman, and an associate Wiseman, and there was the chairman of the wisdom department.  And they came bringing gifts, and they worshipped the child, they believed instantly when they saw it.  Even though worship had not been the purpose of the grant, and it really was not the custom among wise men then to do very much worshipping at all, they were scholars, but they believed instantly.

And so did the innkeeper in a way.  He believed… at least he believed that an event had happened that had great publicity value for Bethlehem.  He fired the clerk, and sent a message to Joseph and Mary saying that it had been a mistake in the Telex system, that actually there were rooms and in fact there was a suit of rooms for them, and they were welcome, the whole family was welcome to come and to stay the whole weekend at no charge.  And he made plans that he would rename the hotel the La Fonte hotel and would raise his prices.  He would put up a plaque saying that the baby had been born there, and would have a gift shop in the lobby, selling holy nativity type items.  And in fact he had already placed a large order for hand carved sheep when the word came back from the stable that they were gone.  An Angel had come again to Joseph and Mary and told them that their lives were in danger, that the government was about to begin a program of massacring infant children in the hopes of killing the one child whom the government believed might overthrow it.  And so they had left, the stable was empty, just a bunch of hungry animals standing around inside, and outside on the street there was crowd of people who had come to see this, but they had gone.  If they were to find this child, they would have to find him elsewhere or in some other way.

The shepherds were the lucky ones when you come right down to it, and the wise men, cause they saw it all.  They were there, it all happened to them.  It didn’t have to be told to them by somebody else.  They didn’t have to sit down and study it and figure it out.  It was just given to them, as a gift.

Merry Christmas!

He Came to Die

“And this will be a sign for you…”
(Luke 2:12 (ESV))

There is a difficult truth that we are reminded of every time a child is presented for baptism:  We are born sinful and in absolute need of a savior to deliver us from our sins.  It is hard to look at a beautiful new born child and see a sinner (a little easier at three months when you aren’t sleeping at nights and have been pooped, peed, and puked on), but the teaching of Scripture stands.

The Bible says that we are born sinners and that we are sinful by nature:

  • Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”
  • Ephesians 2:2-3 says that all people who are not in Christ are “sons of disobedience,” and “by nature children of wrath.”
  • Genesis 8:21 declares, “…the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

We don’t like to dwell on this truth of scripture, but if we deny it we deny the reality of our condition apart from Christ.  We are, from birth, sinful in nature, born into a fallen state, children of wrath.  We are, from birth, sinners in need of a savior.

And so it is all the more powerful when we consider that our Savior Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate every Christmas, was born to die.

When I was at Sterling College, I had the privilege of studying under Dr. Abraham Terian, a Biblical Scholar and Archeologist who was born and raised in Jerusalem.  He shared insights on the story of the Nativity from the Gospel of Luke that were revolutionary for me.  My mind had been so shaped by the renaissance period nativity sets that I had seen growing up, that I never considered what the nativity would have looked like in 1st century Palestine.

Dr. Terian taught us that the stable would not have been a barn like we use today, but most likely a cave or grotto with a gate placed in the opening to keep the animals in.  These caves were common in that region, and had a variety of uses – including burial. 

The manger in which the Christ-child was laid to rest would not have been made of wood like the ones you see portrayed today, but rather of stone.  Wood was scarce, and easily broken, while the large stone troughs would have been more durable, holding water and straw to feed the sheltered animals. 

Even the “swaddling cloths” were a sign of the Baby’s destiny.  In the time which Jesus was born, traveling was dangerous.  Travelers knew that they could get sick, or be attacked, and it was possible they might die on their journey.  To prepare for this possibility, travelers would  take a long, thin cloth and wrap it around their waist many times. This cloth would be reserved for death. If someone died during the journey, their friends or family would remove the “swaddling cloth” and wrap them from head to toe so they could compete the journey (which sheds some light on the story of the Good Samaritan – “and he fell among robbers who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead”).  The “swaddling cloths” which Jesus was wrapped might have likely been the burial cloths that Joseph would have carried for himself.

In the Gospel of Luke, the sign given to the shepherds was that they would “find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger,” that is, they would find a child, wrapped in burial cloths, laid on a stone, buried in a cave.  Everything about this picture reminds us that the Christ Child, Immanuel, has come to die.

This isn’t the Christmas Story that we like to focus on.  Think about it, how many times do we actually sing the second verse of “What Child is This?”

Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?
God Christians, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.
Nail, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be born for me, for you;
hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.

We’d rather hear about the angels singing “Glory to God,” about the love that came down at Christmas, about peace and goodwill toward men.  And well we should.  But the angel’s song, the love, joy, peace, and goodwill, would be meaningless unless there was also a promise of deliverance and salvation from sin.

Just as we are born in sin, Jesus was born to save us from our sin.  The One born with the gift of life came for those who were born in death.  This child in the manger is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Celebrate Christmas.  Rejoice and be glad for your King has come.  But never forget that the One who came so meek and mild is the One who took the cross for our salvation.