Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
Major upheavals in human history sometimes begin with small steps, steps so small we do not see them when they happen. And most of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves so caught up in day-to-day events, so bound by circumstances and even our prejudices, that we do not recognize history in the making. How many people noticed a new baby in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago? And if they did, how many realized it was the birth of the Son of God? We know what happened and why. But suppose one Pharisee did not. This might have been his story, told at the foot of Calvary.
So hangs the carpenter! I’m not surprised at all, not when I think of how he began. Low born, he was, almost as if he’d been born for a cross.
I come from a good family myself, a Pharisee by birth and by choice. People knew when I was young that I’d join the Sanhedrin one day, and I did last year. And that’s where I first heard reports of the Nazarene, and even some fanciful tales of how he was born a king. Hardly! Not if he’s the baby I saw in Bethlehem that night, more than 30 years ago.
I had long before left Bethlehem for Jerusalem, but when Caesar Augustus called his census, I was required to go back to my home town to be numbered. It was my duty as a good citizen, at least until the real Messiah comes and routs the rascal Romans out.
The city was unusually crowded, swelled by hundreds of people streaming into and clogging the narrow streets and alleys, raising dust and noise and stink. I was fortunate to get the last room in the town, at the inn, and that cost me dearly, thanks to the greedy innkeeper with his hand out. But others, less fortunate, were setting up camp outside the city, and a few were even bedding down in the straw with the animals. I had to stable my horse elsewhere because that dratted innkeeper had even let one couple stay in the manger behind the inn. Disgusting! The woman was pregnant, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had charged her double.
The census was the next day, and since I had to be in the city anyway, I thought to combine duty with profit, so I spent the rest of the day conducting business. I didn’t head back to the inn until fairly late that night, when most sane people were asleep and the streets almost deserted. It was chilly for that time of year, so I walked briskly toward the inn. It was odd — I can remember the sky was unusually well-lit for a moonless night.
Suddenly, I heard all these voices echoing off the hillsides outside the city, singing very loudly like someone celebrating. I figured it was some of the camping crowd who had taken leave of their “census” a bit early. But a few minutes later, a crowd of unruly shepherds came stumbling into the city, half walking, half running, laughing and shouting and pointing at the inn. I recoiled as they went by and slowed to let them pass downwind as quickly as possible. I have no use for drunkards, especially foul-smelling ones.
There was light showing in the stable, and I could hear the restless disturbed animals as I came closer to the inn. But when the shepherds, by then several paces ahead of me, went inside the stable, suddenly all grew very quiet — unnaturally quiet.
That made me curious, so rather than going to bed as I should have done, I wasted a few more minutes looking in the manger door. And there were the shepherds, even viler looking in the light, standing awestruck in front of that same woman I had seen earlier, who was now holding a baby. Apparently she had chosen that cold night to bear her child. She looked peaceful enough, and the baby, for all I could see, looked like any other baby: wrinkled, red, small and wrapped up in some clean rags they had found. Her husband just looked tired.
Well, it all seemed kind of silly to me, a bunch of sheepherders standing there with foolish grins on their faces and looking like they’d never seen a baby before. So I went to bed.
Actually, I didn’t quite make it. Just as I started to go in the front door, a group of strangely dressed men, leading what looked like a hunchbacked donkey, called out to me from the end of the street.
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked in thick accents as they came closer. “For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
Mind you, I have little use for foreigners and even less use for fortune-telling stargazers with blasphemy in their methods and mush in their heads. But that puzzled me. I knew Herod, and he was in Jerusalem. But no, they insisted, they had already talked with Herod. They were looking for a child.
And some star was overhead.
So what, I thought, there are thousands of stars overhead. Perhaps it wasn’t very nice of me — that couple in the manger had done nothing to me — but I couldn’t resist the temptation.
“Go to the manger,” I pointed. “Your king is in there.”
And they went in there, I swear they did, and soon were making all kinds of commotion inside. I didn’t bother waiting around. On my way to bed, I passed an angry innkeeper going out.
And that’s the only king I ever saw in Bethlehem that night.
I’ve heard the crowds in the streets talking this week about the “heavenly” origins of this Jesus of Nazareth — and about angels on the hillside singing praise to God while shepherds watched, wise men from the East bearing precious gifts, the baby itself somehow conceived by God without a human father.
And I’ve heard of the other miracles this carpenter is supposed to have done — how he’s healed the sick, cured the lame, given sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. I heard how God “spoke” when he was baptized by that locust-eating John. I’ve heard others say he’s raised the dead and preached God’s forgiveness and kingdom to the crowds. And I’ve heard how he preached to the crowds that we Pharisees are hypocrites and “blind guides.”
Who is blind, I ask you? I saw him that night as a baby, and he was human like the rest of us, and he’s human now. Human in life, and human enough to die today for his pretensions and his blasphemy!
A king, indeed! Everyone knows the Messiah will come in glory, with the flash of swords and the blast of trumpets, not in the manger of a stable to the chorus of shepherds.
And the Messiah, I know in my heart, would never let himself be put to death.
The Messiah will conquer death.
Ken Ripley is editor-publisher emeritus of the Enterprise. This story was written for an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship Christmas party in 1974. It was published in His Magazine in 1975 and later in Christianity Today.