A Sign For You
Another day. Caleb had seen so many in his more than 80 years of life. It wasn’t the early hour, for he had been awake for a while now. It just seemed to take so long to convince his bones to move anymore.
But, there were sheep to watch, and for more than 70 years he had gone out with the men of Bethlehem to shepherd the flocks. Oh, his responsibilities had changed in these latter years. In fact, he had come to notice that he wasn’t really needed:
When he closed the gate on the last sheep, one of the younger men came after him to check it. When he covered a particular corner of the flock, one of the younger men came along to work with him. When he went to raise the buckets of water from the well, one of the younger men offered help to speed up the process.
Sometimes it seemed like even the dogs followed him around to check on what he was doing!
The only time he was left alone was when he went up on the knoll to take his afternoon nap. This privilege for the older shepherds in Bethlehem had been handed down for centuries. He daily took advantage of the custom.
But today, sleep did not come quickly. He wondered, from deep within his heart, why the Lord had allowed him to live so long. He even prayed for a sign, some guidance, as to the reason he was alive.
“Oh!” he thought, “If only God would give me a sign … a sign that I might know why I am still on this earth for so long.” Caleb fell asleep even as he prayed, and slept well into supper time.
That night, he was helping with the first watch of the sheep, since he wasn’t sleepy at all.
Of course, he was with one of the younger men, but after some time, that one began to get a bit groggy, and to kind of doze off just a bit.
The sheep began to stir, and Caleb was up quickly with his staff at the ready!
Whether a bear, lion, or wolf, he had fought them all, and was ready to do so again. But, much to his surprise, the threat was not from below, but above. Caleb cried out in amazement and fear, “It’s an angel!”
The others stirred. A few laughed, until they found themselves surrounded by light as if it were mid-day.
And sure enough, an angel had appeared, and said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you; you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
All the shepherds were shocked, and were left standing around with their mouths wide open. But Caleb kept hearing the words of the angel, “this will be a sign for you.” “A sign” thought Caleb, “a sign!”
The shepherds were still standing in shock, looking into the heavens, when they heard the voice of Caleb break into the stillness of the wilderness:
“Well, let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
And all the shepherds heard the wisdom and enthusiasm in the voice of this elder shepherd, and they followed him to Bethlehem. What an exciting search it was, for there were many mangers in even that little town.
Then, they arrived at the stable of the inn, and found the young couple with the little baby boy in the manger.
Caleb was the first to speak with Mary and Joseph, and he was the only one to hold the baby. Caleb was the one to tell the child’s parents about the angels, and their message that this little baby was the Christ. Caleb was the one to decide when the visit was over, and that it was time to return to their sheep. And, Caleb was at the center of all the excited discussion as they took the road back out into the wilderness.
But, when they reached the sheep, Caleb went back up onto the hill where he had napped earlier in the day – where he could be quite alone.
All through the wonder of that night – the trip to Bethlehem; the search through numerous stables; the discovery of the manger with the beautiful newborn baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths, just as they had heard; and even, amidst the excited talk that took place on their trip back to the sheep – that phrase kept echoing deep in Caleb’s heart, “this will be a sign … for you!”
His prayer had been answered even more miraculously than he could have possibly imagined. Caleb had lived to see the Christ, the Savior. He had even held him in his arms!
It had been so difficult to live these many years for he had begun to feel useless. But, God had had a greater plan.
And so, Caleb knelt down on that hill outside of Bethlehem, and he gave thanks to the Lord that he had been privileged to live these many years and experience this night.
A Modern Noel
They were a young couple from a small, hill-town called Baker, West Virginia. He was Joe – a talented carpenter, but currently out of work. He was a God-fearing, kindly man with a serious and responsible focus to life. She was Mary – young and significantly pregnant. She was a woman of strong faith and purpose. Anyone who talked with her found her to have this calming gentleness about her nature. One’s soul was a little more peaceful from any brief encounter. They were engaged to be married. Their powerful story starts a little earlier in the year.
Some months ago, Mary had experienced an amazing vision. An angel appeared to her, suddenly, in the quiet of an afternoon. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” the angel had said. She was shaken.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” The angel explained that this child would be great, would carry the authority of kingly ancestors from long ago and his reign would have everlasting significance.
This made no sense to Mary. It was all so overwhelming. Even the most basic question was a mystery: “How could it be when she was still a virgin?” But, the angel explained that the power of the Holy Spirit would come upon her and that the child would be holy and called the Son of God.
Unbelievable! Yet, this angel was before her. There was no denying that. This was real. Her normal response to most situations would be to ponder and wonder and pray. But, there was not time for the normal here. In faith, she knew that there was but one way to respond to what she had just heard.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And then, just as suddenly, the angel was gone.
Not knowing what to make of all of this, she did not reveal this angelic visit to anyone in Baker. Within a month and more she knew that she was with child. Mary went for a visit with her cousin, Elizabeth, who lived in Elkins. Her time with Elizabeth was a comfort and affirmed all that she had experienced. When she got back, Mary knew that Joe had to be told. But, what would he do? How would he respond? Would he believe her? Would anyone?
The initial conversation was awkward. He was quiet. She could tell he was struggling, but she could also see that he loved her.
Joe was overwhelmed. This was just so unbelievable. Yet, everything he knew of Mary backed this incredible story rather than the other options that were rolling across his mind. She was so open and firm about what had taken place.
He told her that he would not take any actions yet. He would sleep on it. But, he was likely to just dismiss her from their engagement quietly and not bring her any more public shame than was already likely to come.
Sleep did not come easily for Joe. He loved her he knew. But, this was outrageous. Wrestling with so many thoughts for hours, he finally fell off to sleep just before daybreak. Of all things, in that short time of rest, an angel appeared to Joe in a dream. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
And, with that, Joe’s decision was made. The way ahead was still murky, but the path to be trod was clear enough. Their engagement was still on.
Time passed. Very little carpentry work was coming Joe’s way in Baker. Word came through some trade papers that there was work available in Alexandria, Virginia, a town just outside Washington, D.C.
The atmosphere in Baker was less than perfect. And so, Joe and Mary packed up Joe’s pickup with what little they owned and set off for Alexandria.
They arrived late in the evening. Snow had been falling for an hour or more. There were no vacancies anywhere at any of the motels. They tried a Red Roof. They tried a Budgetel. They tried a Best Western. No one had a room. A Shriners convention had every room taken all over the Washington area.
They stopped at a Holiday Inn in Alexandria, just off the beltway. Mary was visibly pregnant. The woman at the desk could easily see this and knew there were no rooms available anywhere. She even called around a bit to make sure. She wanted to help this couple – actually, for some reason it felt more important than just personal pity for their circumstance. She had certainly seen her share of travelers in need. Yet, this couple seemed special and softened her heart.
It occurred to her that their bus garage behind the inn would be out of the weather and there would be room enough there for them at least to make it through the night. She offered to make them as comfortable as possible there – no charge – and they accepted.
As they settled in, it wasn’t long until Mary’s water broke and the baby was on its way at a speed neither had anticipated. Joe’s first response was to get her to the nearest hospital, but she said that it was too late. The baby was on its way!
Mary was struggling and yet responding to instincts she did not know that she had. Joe was scared, but trying to be as helpful as he knew how. The baby came. It was a boy!
The afterbirth came. The cord was cut. Joe found some of their towels. The garage had a sink with both warm and cold water. He ran the water to a comfortable temperature and dampened a few of the towels. Mother and baby were cleaned up and made comfortable.
There was a soft car blanket in the truck and he cleaned out an old oil pan for changing the oil that he had somehow left in the back of the truck when they packed. The baby settled in there, nestled in the blanket, and fell asleep. Mary had seen to her needs and began to rest. Joe, also exhausted, just wondered what to do next.
Meanwhile, it continued to snow. The road crews were out plowing and salting and keeping up as best as they could. Two trucks met up on a side road as they were transitioning for their next run.
Just then, an angel appeared to them with a heavenly glory that awestruck these hardened workmen. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said. “For see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of Alexandria a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in a car blanket in a garage behind the Holiday Inn and lying in an oil drainage pan.”
Just as the crews thought they had seen and heard everything, a multitude of angels gathered and this angelic choir began to sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” And then, as quickly as this amazing scene had developed, it all went away.
“What do you think we should do?” said one workman. One of the truck drivers said, “Are you &^%#$%^ing me? We’ve gotta go down to the Holiday Inn and see this for ourselves! I mean, God has sent angels to tell us? What the hell else would we do?” Another said, “What about the snow?” The driver said, “It’s slowing down and we won’t stay long. But, we have to see this!”
So, the two trucks and their teams traveled down the road into Alexandria, just off the I-495 beltway. There they found Joe and Mary in a garage behind the Holiday Inn. Sure enough, the little baby was wrapped in a car blanket and lying in an oil drainage pan – peaceful as could be!
The road crews began to tell their story of all that they had heard and seen. They emphasized that the angel said that the child would be a Savior, the Messiah. All of this was again amazing to Joe and Mary even as they knew it was consistent with their own angelic experiences of these last months.
When all had been seen, shared and celebrated, the men started to head for their trucks when they heard the voice of their boss from their radios, “Where are you guys? Shepherd, you’re supposed to be finishing up Elmwood Drive! And, Crooks, you are supposed to be making sure Burgundy is open all the way to the Day School. I better not have found out you were at Dunkin Donuts or something!”
As she heard the trucks start up and drive away, Mary marveled at all that had taken place and pondered what might be in store for them and this child in the years ahead.
And thus, just a modern twist on the treasured Noel. Modernized because we have so easily made a journey, an inn, a stable, a manger and shepherds to be a quaint, beautiful context for the arrival of God’s Son. But, part of the wonder of the incarnation is in the ordinary nature of what God risked – a first birth to an inexperienced couple, no mid-wife, no hospital, little sanitation, and a context of the mode of travel of the day. Yet, the Savior was born and the world would never be the same! For, it was truly amazing and good news of great joy for you and for all the people – Christ, the Savior, was born!