Vale of Leven from the air with Bonhill Bridge crossing the River Leven and Dumbarton in the distance. Picture by Craig Jump of Turkey Red Media.
The birth of a child can be a catalyst to change the world …
By the Rev Ian Miller, of the Church of Scotland
Once upon a time there was a commotion in Roaring Camp. Cherokee Sal, the only woman in this rough, tough mining settlement, was dead after giving birth to a son whose father was unknown. Around the crude cabin where the child lay helpless and crying, the hundred or so hard-bitten miners gathered in curiosity. Death was so common here, but birth – this was something else.
Stumpy, a fugitive from justice, had taken charge, by agreement, of the wee. He allowed the miners to view the child, suggesting that it would be appropriate to make a contribution for the orphan. So they came filing in, taking off their hats in the presence of this miracle of life and putting their gifts at his side – a revolver, a diamond ring, a silver spoon. But now what to do? The next day they met in serious deliberation, and without the usual fighting and cursing they decided that by working together they would all help raise this child. Stumpy was designated chief guardian. Strange to say, the child thrived, and equally strange was the effect on the Camp. His cabin, a filthy mess before he had been born there, was scrupulously cleaned, whitewashed and fixed up.
A cradle was brought in, and the whole place got a make over. Then the local gambling joint and bar, and town shop had to be spruced up to be in keeping with the kid’s cabin, and before long, the rest of the settlement followed suit.
This, and Stumpy’ s remarkable but understandable refusal to let anybody hold the child unless he was spotlessly clean produced miracles in the miners’ appearances. And equally amazing was the change in their behaviour. Shouting within sound of his cabin was forbidden, in case be wakened up, and pretty soon the usual verbal obscenities were given up as not quite right for the boy to hear.” There was talk of even inviting some decent families to live there to benefit the bairn with their presence. Word soon got around to the outside world of this miracle of change. It was said “They’ve got flowers round their cabins, and they wash themselves twice a day.”
The birth of a child – even one in a stable – can be a catalyst for good in the world.
A baby – a baby who changed life! Bret Harte’s memorable short story was never intended to be a Christmas story, but it is nonetheless a parable that can help us understand God’s dealing with us in Jesus.
It has been said that when a wrong wants righting, or a truth wants presenting, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. People may think that the course of the world is ultimately changed by the important people and by the big battalions. I am not so sure. I believe that all the while God is setting it, quietly, in littleness and in weakness, through the birth of a child.
Way back in 1809, Napoleon stood over much of the western world. From Spain to the Near East, kings and popes did his bidding or suffered the consequences. Nations and peoples trembled at his might. People were impressed with his power.
He was a world shaper of his time. No one paid any attention to the cries of newborn babies amidst the cries of battle and the noise of war.
But in the same year there was born in a cabin in Kentucky a child who was named Abraham Lincoln. In Liverpool another baby was born by the name of William Gladstone, while in Somersby, Alfred Tennyson was coming to birth. In Germany, Felix Mendelssohn was born that year, and in Poland, Louis Braille. And so they came into the world from the hand of God, these and countless other babies, including Cyrus McCormick and Charles Darwin.
Within six years, Napoleon was through and his empire shattered, but Lincoln’s words, Tennyson’s poetry, and Braille’s humanitarianism, McCormick’ s invention, Gladstone’s vision and Darwin’s ideas are still reaching more lives than ever before. “When a wrong wants righting, or a truth wants presenting, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it.” God chose what is unimportant in the world to change things. This One who began life on earth as the baby of Bethlehem changed life so that it has never been the same since. It is Jesus who has brought healing and wholeness, forgiveness and restoration to us all. Having started with a story let me leave you with a story.
Pete Richards was the loneliest man in the town on the day wee Jean opened the door of his shop. The shop window was filled with a whole selection of old-fashioned things: bracelets and lockets, gold rings and silver boxes, images of jade and ivory porcelain figurines. On this winter’s afternoon just before Christmas, wee Jean had spent a long time with her forehead pressed against the glass, looking for something special. Finally, with a satisfied air, she entered the shop. “Mister,” she began, “could I have the blue beads in the window?” Pete brought them out. She looked at them and said, “They’re perfect! Wrap them up for me, really nicely please?” Pete studied her with a stony air. “Are you buying these for someone?” “They’re for my big sister. She takes care of me. This will be the first Christmas since my mum died and I want to do something special for my sister.” “How much money do you have?” asked Pete.
Wee Jean opened a handkerchief and poured out a pile of pennies on the counter. “I emptied my bank,” she explained simply. “It’s everything I have.” Pete Richards looked at the child thoughtfully. How could he tell her that it cost many times what she had in money to buy it? And as he looked at the little girl with the trusting look in her blue eyes, something deep within Pete Richards began to come back to life. He looked at her wheat colored hair and her sea blue eyes, and remembered another woman with that same yellow in her hair and with eyes just as blue. The turquoise necklace had been hers. But there had come a rainy night – a ‘truck skidding on a slippery’ road – and that life was crushed out of his dream. Since then, Pete Richards had lived with grief and bitterness and an emptiness in his soul.
The blue eyes of this child jolted him into acute awareness of what he had lost. Carefully he wrapped the blue beads in scarlet paper and tied the package with a bright green ribbon. “There you are,” he said. “Don’t lose it on the way home.”
The next few days were busy ones for Pete as many customers finished their Christmas shopping. He was just about to lock the door of his shop on Christmas Eve when a woman hurried in. With an inexplicable start, Pete realised she looked familiar, yet he could not imagine having seen her before. Her hair was golden and her eyes were blue. Without speaking, she drew a package from her handbag and asked, “Did this necklace come from your shop?” “Yes,” said Pete, “they came from this shop.” “Then I must return them, because I am sure my little sister did not have enough money to pay for them.”
The little girl who purchased this necklace paid the biggest price anyone can ever pay.
Pete Richards looked at the woman for a long time and then said, “The price is always confidential between the seller and the customer. The little girl who purchased this necklace paid the biggest price anyone can ever pay. She gave all she had. What’s more, she helped me remember the One who gave his life, so that we might all live.”
The One who changes all things can change you and me for the best, if we will open our hearts to meet him. This is the deliverance foretold so long ago by the prophet Isaiah in the coming of Emmanuel, God with us now!
“0 holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray, Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;0 come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” Amen.