(Twenty years or more ago during the week before Christmas Eve I was pondering what it was about the baby Jesus that led the shepherds to recognize Him for who He was. From those meandering thoughts arose this story that I used as a sermon, I think. Now, twenty-plus years later, the images of walls and armies have taken on new, bitter overtones. I hope they don’t spoil the story for you.)
The Christmas King
There once was a great and loving king, whose people loved him almost as much as he did them. The seasons passed in contentment, because the people trusted the king.
Though everyone seemed to be happy with the king, the day came when some of the people asked to be granted a favor. They wished to be given a plot of land for themselves, a place where they could try to make their own way, without the king’s help.
This saddened the king, as he took great joy in caring for his people, but he granted them their wish. They were given a beautiful land, a lush, fertile land, where they might test their newfound independence.
As they departed for the new land, the king asked one thing of them. “Please remember me, my people,” he asked, “and remember my love for you. If ever you need me, you have only to ask for my help. Please remember, and be sure to tell your children, and your children’s children.”
The people departed in great joy, celebrating the new, wonderful land to which they were going, and the love of the king that they took with them. When they arrived, they built a beautiful city, where everyone had a home. They divided the lands equally among the families, so that each could raise enough food for themselves, with much left for others.
And they remembered the king, and the king’s words. They gathered regularly to recite what the king had told them as they departed, and they taught the words to their children.
Years passed, however, and the people’s memory dimmed. They sometimes gathered to recite the old words, but the people no longer remembered the love that had bloomed when they were first given by the King. They began to feel afraid, unprotected, unloved.
Then one day, in the market place, a man and his wife were talking. He said to her, “I wonder what would happen if anyone ever came from a far place, and they wanted to take away our land, or our city. I wonder if the king would even know, if he would even be able to help us.”
She answered, “I have wondered the very same thing. The king is so far away. I don’t think he would be able to help us, even if he wanted to.”
Now, one of the leaders of the people overheard this conversation, and it frightened him. He called together many of the other leaders, and he told them what he had heard, and they too began to be afraid. They looked around at their wonderful city, and at the beautiful fields of many grains around it, and they wondered if the king would ever come to help them.
“Let us build a wall!” said one of them. We can build a wall around the city, and store up food inside, so that if another people ever comes, we can be safe inside!”
“A wonderful idea!” said another of the leaders. “And perhaps we should raise an army, like the king’s, so that we can drive the invaders away, if they ever come!”
“Yes, yes!” answered the others. “This land is ours, it was given to us by our king! We have a responsibility to protect it!” The excitement grew as they realized that they had found an answer to their fears.
Almost all of the leaders agreed, though a few still wondered if the king might not be able to help them instead. A few others wondered about how they would do all this wall-building, and army-raising. But the fear in the people was so strong that they did not say anything. They nodded with the rest.
And so the wall-building began. A great, high stone wall was erected around the city. It took years to build, and everyone had to help. Each person was required to spend a certain number of weeks each year, building the wall.
The army-raising had also begun. Certain of the younger men and women of the people were required to leave their families and farms and to serve for a year, or two, in the new army.
Soon the wall began to take shape, and the army began to look like an army, but something had changed about the land. The time spent building, and the time spent serving, meant less time for the land, and for the farms.
The crops had started to suffer. They did not grow as well without the same care, and when it came time to harvest, there were often too few people to do it. Some of the produce of the rich fields was lost each season.
For the first time in memory, there were people who did not have enough to eat, or enough extra to trade for clothes or for work on their homes. A new fear grew in the hearts of the people, the fear of scarcity, and each person began to cling to what was his, or hers. The abundance, and the simple sharing that had once been the rule of the land, vanished.
Word of the people’s plight reached the great king. His heart was broken to hear of the fear and the neediness of his people. He began to send them letters, asking them to remember his love for them, and their love for one another. He reminded them of the ways that they had once cared for each other, and he asked them to care again in that way. He asked them not to fear, but to trust in his love.
The people rejoiced to receive these letters from the king, but in their fear, they could not read the love that filled each word. Each request seemed to be a condemnation, each reminder of the way that they could love one another, and share with one another, seemed to be a stern command. The leaders forced the people to try to live by these new rules, but in their fear they could not keep them. The walls continued to grow, while the poverty of the people grew worse. Some people even sold their lands, their homes, in order to buy food for their children. More and more people were seen in the streets, begging.
The king heard about the increasing desperation of his people, and so he sent a messenger, someone who could explain the letters of love, who could lead the people back to their earlier life of abundance and love.
This messenger he sent alone. As he approached the wall that surrounded the city, he heard a cry go up. “A stranger, a stranger!” He was the first stranger ever to approach these walls, and his arrival caused much worry. At last, the great door was opened to him, and he was escorted inside by several members of the army.
He was given a time to speak, to speak to the leaders of the people. He explained that he had come from the great king, bearing good news. There was no reason to fear. The king’s love for the people was as strong as ever, and he would allow nothing to harm them. They could stop spending so much time on the wall and the army, and return to their earlier ways. The letters, he explained, were only written to help them remember what they had known before.
The leaders listened to him, but none too politely. Some laughed out loud when he said that they could stop working on the wall. Others groaned when he said that they needed no army.
When he had finished, they gathered together to talk for a few moments, then one of them spoke. “We know that you are not from the king. The king would not want us to stop building our wall. We are building it for him, to protect what he has given to us. He would be glad that we have raised an army to protect his gift to us. You are not from the king, so you must be from the enemy. Perhaps you have come to try to talk us into being weak, so that your own people could come and take away our precious land!”
With that, the threw him from the chamber, and had him led to the walls of the city. He was put out of the great door, and no matter how he called, they would not listen or answer.
He returned, embarrassed and sad, to tell the king. When the king heard what had happened, he comforted his messenger, and then called for another. Perhaps they had not believed that he was from the king, because he had traveled alone, without royal escort.
Another messenger was sent out, but this time, he had a great royal company to go with him. Many men on many horses, bearing bright standards and dressed in wonderful colors, rode alongside him. Surely this would convince the people that this messenger spoke for the king!
When the people in the city saw the great company cresting the horizon, a cry went up from the wall. “Strangers! Many strangers! An army approaches!”
The leaders of the people gathered to speak. “Surely we were right,” they said. “Here is the enemy we feared. It is good that we have not disbanded our army, or weakened our walls!”
They plotted and they planned as the king’s company approached across the broad plain. At last it was decided. There were not enough stores in the city to try to hide behind the great wall. They would send the army out to meet the invaders before they could destroy the farms and the crops.
Gathered at the huge oaken door, the leaders spoke to the army of heroism and of sacrifice. The army lifted a great shout as the doors swung open, and hundreds of soldiers poured out onto the plain. They ran as a great mob toward the approaching band, screaming and yelling.
The messenger and his company did not understand what all the noise was about. Perhaps these people were coming to greet him, having seen the royal colors. By the time that they saw the gleaming weapons, it was too late. The royal cohort carried no weapons. They could not defend themselves, nor would they harm one of the king’s people, even if they could.
All but one of the lesser members of the party were killed. When the last had died, another great shout of victory rose up from the victorious army. The young boy who had escaped shivered as he cried, running and running back to his king to tell the news.
When he arrived, bloody and broken, he shared the tale and the king wept. How could his people have become so afraid? How could they ever be led back? They had rejected a man alone, and they had killed his royal escort. What else could he do? Others urged him to strike back, to send a great army to destroy the city, but his love was too great. He could not.
At last, he came upon a plan. He would send his son, his infant son. He would not make them afraid, not a baby. And when he had grown up with them, perhaps they would listen to him. Perhaps he would be able to remind them of the love they had once known. Perhaps they would see, in the gift of his son, the love they had forgotten.
And so the king approached the baby’s mother. “It is a great thing that I ask of you, dearest. The people are dying, and yet they are so afraid. I must send our son, and I ask you to take him. I cannot send another royal escort with him, or with you, the people will be too frightened. You must travel alone, and you must travel as one who is poor. Only in this way will you be allowed into the city, where our son can grow up and try convince them of my love.
The mother’s love for the king, and for the king’s people was great, and so she agreed, though she was afraid for her son. She was dressed in a widow’s rags, and sent alone to the city.
“Another stranger! Another stranger!” yelled the man at the top of the wall when the woman had come into sight. As she drew slowly nearer, the people wondered about her, about who she might be, what she might want. When at last they could see her, they saw that she appeared to be nothing more than a poor widow with her child. It was decided that she would be allowed to enter, and to stay, as long as she caused no problems.
The huge door to the city was pushed open just a tiny bit, just enough for her to enter, in case there was some surprise. She stepped in, thanking the people who greeted her for their hospitality. She would work, she told them, and her son would cause no harm.
And as she walked through the city, looking for a place to stay, a strange thing happened. The poor and the powerful came out of their doors to speak to her, to look at the baby. The poor because she seemed to be one of them, and the powerful out of curiosity.
But when they looked at her, and at her baby, things began to change.
You know the way that a baby has it’s mother’s eyes, or it’s father’s chin? Well, this baby was clearly his father’s child. When each of the people looked into that tiny face, even though they did not know why, they felt loved. Something in the baby’s eyes reminded them of the love they had known in the king’s eyes. Something in the baby’s smile spoke to them of the joy they had once known.
And so, that night, for the first time in many years, there was a celebration in the city. The poor and the powerful gathered in the streets to sing the old songs. The wall didn’t come down. The army wasn’t disbanded, but something of the fear that was the foundation for both began to crumble.