DRIVING along a winding way out West we suddenly came to a road sign pointing to Roaring Camp. What memories that awakened! "So Roaring Camp was a real place after all," we remarked. Up till that moment it had been little more than a fictional name. Bret Harte had written about it years ago: but the story he tells is grim and cruel, except for one thing—a baby was born there, and that changed everything. The spot was well named, for it had an unenviable reputation even among the lawless miners of those Wild West days. "To die a natural death at Roaring Camp was to die at pistol's point," is the way someone expressed it.
There was only one woman in the camp, Cherokee Sal, and Harte adds this: "The less said about her the better." Anyway, she died, poor thing, although Stumpy, who in earlier and better days had been a medical student, did his best to save her. But Sal was beyond his skill. He did manage to save the baby, who at once became a mascot among that rough and bearded group.
No layette awaited that wee mite. A bundle of rags and a box in the corner was the crib. It was not a soapbox, for "soap was a negligible quantity at Roaring Camp." Soon, however, that box seemed out of place, so one of their number was sent eighty miles on muleback to Sacramento (now the capital of California) to get the best cradle possible. He was no sooner back than all felt they needed more than carved rosewood. They must have other things. So back went the purchaser to buy lace and filigree and frills. Nothing was too good for the little pink-cheeked baby.
How wonderful it all looked as they placed the cradle in the center of the room. Then they noticed something else—the floor. It was filthy. Strange that until now it had evaded their notice. But the fact is, it had never been washed since the shed had been built. Soon those horny-handed men began to scrub until those boards almost matched the rosewood cradle. Next the walls were cleaned and the ceiling whitewashed. Even the windows were mended and drapes hung.
More wonderful still, the men themselves began to change. In Tuttle's Store mirrors and other things were sold, and it was not long before razors, soap, and even suits were finding their way into camp. The whole place took on a new look. Men whose only interest had been gold, whose selfishness was proverbial, began to laugh and coo as sparkling little eyes turned their way. Yes, the baby transformed everything.
That happened, of course, more than a century ago, but the story has meaning for us today. The late Dr. Frank W. Boreham, the preacher-essayist of Melbourne, Australia, calls this story "a Christmas allegory," and it truly is. "The world itself was Roaring Camp two thousand years ago," he says. And then he quotes a stanza from Matthew Arnold's Obermann:
On that hard pagan world disgust
And secret loathing fell;
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life a hell.
And what a hell it was! Men were either slaves or slaveowners. Three fifths of the populace of Rome were cringing victims, lorded over by pitiless tyrants; chattels with a voice, but no voice in their government or their future. Women were either the playthings of the rich or the burden-bearers of the poor. Unwanted children were strangled or drowned, and nobody cared. Human rights were unknown. If a man killed his neighbor's ox he might suffer the death penalty. But if he killed his own slave there was no penalty. Yet into that world God sent His Son, a helpless and dependent baby. But that Baby transformed everything.
God's Gift as Wide as the World
The prophet Isaiah stated a tremendous truth in the words, "Unto us a child is born"; a truth that would transform the world. That Child was born not merely to a Jewish family but to the families of all the nations. The sovereign fact of all time is the incarnation of the Son of God. This is indeed the cornerstone of the Christian faith and the beginning of a new era.
The Gospel writer and historian, Luke, gives us the setting for that great event. He says, "In those days . . . there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus." Those were the days when liberty was unknown and life was cheap; poverty was regarded with contempt, and inhumanity was looked upon as the hallmark of progress. But in those days and into that world God sent His Son. How low He stooped when He took humanity! Veiling Himself in human flesh, He became a Man among men that He might raise the sons of earth.
The coming of that Baby, cradled among cattle in the unpretentious town of Bethlehem, brought a change into the whole life pattern of human relationships. Like the rough men at Roaring Camp, who discovered the tragic condition of their surroundings and began at once to change their environment, so the world in the light of the beam that shone from the Bethlehem manger began to see things in a new perspective. The sob of the slave could not harmonize with the song of the angels, so slavery was doomed. Motherhood was vested with a new glory, and woman was no longer the drudge, crouching at the feet of her lordly superior, but was now seated by his side as his companion and counselor. Childhood, too, became a sacred thing as the evils of centuries were swept away. Sin and vice melted like icebergs in the warm rays of the Sun of Righteousness.
That night in Bethlehem a new sense of values was born. Even the common things of life took on uncommon charm. The laborer and even the slave were given places of honor. The Christmas broadcast of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 reflects the spirit that came to earth with the coming of the Christ child. She said: "I want thisChristmas to send a special message of encouragement and good cheer to those whose lot is cast in dull and unenvied surroundings, to those whose names will never be household words, but to whose work and loyalty we owe so much." Never did Her Majesty appear in more queenly grace than when paying homage to the unknown and unrecognized. The virgin Mary in her Magnificat said, "He hath . . . exalted them of low degree" (Luke 1:52). That sentence embraces the whole purpose of God in sending His Son in human flesh.
In Luke 3:1 and 2 appears a list of names, important names, powerful personalities, whose word meant life or death in that generation. Think of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas. What pomp and circumstance were represented by such as these! The world trembled at their command. But today their names mean nothing. Like foam on the hurrying stream of life they have been borne away into oblivion; in fact, they would not even be mentioned in this scripture except that they happened to be on the scene when God in human flesh entered world history.
Come With Me to Bethlehem
Have you ever been to the place where Jesus was born? Have you ever heard the bells of Bethlehem ringing from the old tower of the Church of the Nativity? This church stands on the traditional site of our Lord's birthplace and was built by Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. With the poet we can say,
Ring out ye ancient steeples
With all earth's scattered peoples,
Rejoice with one accord,
For on this wondrous Christmas morn
A little child to us is born,
A Saviour, Christ the Lord.
Approaching this ancient town, we see shepherds and their flocks just as they were nineteen centuries ago. Over there is the Shepherds' Field, where the angel of the Lord made his startling announcement. It was not to pomp and pageantry that the message of Heaven came, but to simple, hard-working men of childlike faith. Those shepherds lived in a God-filled world, for the sheep had not obliterated the stars. Their minds were not absorbed with bank balances, budgets, plans, programs, councils, and committees. They were ready for the announcement; in fact, they had been praying that God would fulfill His promise and send the long-looked-for Saviour.
The Christmas story is the loveliest in all the world, for it reveals that Heaven's blessings are not bound up with class or creed, and that often great hearts are found beneath rough exteriors. Those men were used to sheep and straw and stables. They were not shocked by the announcement of swaddling clothes, nor did they scorn the idea of the Child lying in a manger. They believed what the angel said. They could not explain the incarnation physiologically, nor can we. But they knew, as we can know, that when the God of eternity-wanted to reveal Himself fully to men, He wrapped Himself in a little bundle of human flesh.
No sooner had the angel given the news than the heavens were radiant with the glory of the angelic choir. In a burst of song these shepherds heard: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men"; or as many translators from Wycliffe to Phillips render it: "Peace on earth among men of good will." The shepherds listened, then said to one another, "Let us go and see." There was no doubt in their minds about what had happened. They did not seek counsel from others to ascertain if they should obey. They did not begin a research project. They simply believed. But belief in itself is not enough. They must act. And so we read, "They came with haste." They left their flocks, for the claims of the Saviour were greater than the claims of the sheep. And in that there is a lesson for us. All of us have our flocks of cares, but the claims of the Christ are more urgent than the claims of the sheep. Step with them into the stable, for here "they found . . . the babe lying in a manger." Yes, God had wrapped Himself in human flesh. Again we cull the thought from Dr. Boreham, who observes that while Christopher Wren expressed himself in granite, and Turner traced his thoughts in color on canvas, and Michelangelo chiseled his marble, and Shakespeare wrote with pen and ink, yet when God expressed Himself it was in flesh and blood, because that is the only way we humans can know Him. Flesh became the supreme vehicle for His self-revelation. While God reveals His power in the manifold universe, He reveals His love in the God-Man we call Jesus.
Shepherds Become Witnesses
When those watchful shepherds reached the place, they found more than a stable; they found a sanctuary. They came; they worshiped. Then they returned; but they returned "glorifying and praising God." They came back to their cares, but ever after they were more than shepherds; they were witnesses. Their lives had been enriched. Poor in this world's goods and low in social status, they were rich with the blessings of Heaven, and ready to repeat the story with confidence.
How true it is that busy laymen often catch the message of God that even preachers miss. The priests, the religious leaders of that day, seemed utterly unaware of these events, whereas those anonymous workmen hewed a path in the darkness up which men of good will have made their way to the Christ child. These men were humble enough to see God. As one thinker has said, "It is only by being little that we can ever discover anything big." Yes, only humble hearts discover God. Simple faith is always the basis of true wisdom. It takes the eye of faith to discern Omnipotence sheathed in that Babe's arm. Who would have thought that that plaintive cry in the stable would yet become the shout that will shake open everv grave of every child of God!
But something else: Those shepherds found the Lord because their hearts were right. What a contrast they were with the innkeeper! He too was a busy man. In fact, business was his life. He was one of those "practical men." On another night he would have been the very soul of kindness. But this was no ordinary night. The little town was crowded. Heated arguments, impatience, men yelling at stupid beasts, others cursing the government; surely it' was a motley crowd. Excited parents, defiant children, crying babies! What a night! Sometimes we sing, "Silent night, holy night," but that night was neither silent nor holy, at least for the innkeeper. Ribald songs and coarse laughter had turned the night into a nightmare. Paper streamers, Chinese lanterns, evergreens, and Christmas cards—these were all lacking. It was no Christmas-card affair. And who cared about what was going on in the stable? Everywhere was frustration, irritation, squalor, and sin. When the Prince of Peace came to this world the lamp of hope was burning very dim. That practical innkeeper naturally gave the best rooms to special guests. Yet of all the many who staved with him that night, the only names we know are Mary and Joseph. But there was no room for them in the inn.
Let us. not judge the innkeeper too harshly. We like him may be putting unworthy guests in the best rooms of our hearts. Malice, greed, selfishness, and pride are all too often sheltered, while the Lord is sent to the stable. Think of that little innkeeper shutting the door, taking his lantern, and going to bed! Poor man. He missed the greatest event of history! He remains anonymous. In fact, his sole claim to fame is that he sent the mother of our Lord to keep company with cattle. But lest we miss the point, we should remind ourselves that Christmas is more than a date on a calendar; it is a state of mind. It is not merely a season of the year; it is an attitude of heart. Only those who wait and listen can hear the angels' song.
But with the woes of sin and strife,
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
* Oh! hush your noise ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
Building Bridges of Love
We repeat that Christmas is more than a date on a calendar; it is a spirit. Once a year we are reminded anew that God so loved that He gave. And only as we give can we be like Him. Let us encourage the spirit of good will in our communities. Let us help our members to build bridges of love that can reach those who through misunderstanding have separated themselves from our company. What possibilities there could be in our world if only men would permit the Lord to be reborn in their hearts. In that little town of Bethlehem, sun-baked, drab, and dusty, a torch was lighted that lights the way of every man to the kingdom of God. Because of that, Bethlehem holds a place in the thoughts of men greater than all the capitals of all the nations of all time. Life takes on new meaning in the light that shines from that stable.
Don Vinson, of Oklahoma City, caught a vision of a need. He thought of thousands of boys and girls who never receive a Christmas gift. An idea gripped him. "Let us do something for these children," he said. So he solicited the help of friends and began collecting toys. That was back in 1943. Since then he has been sending out more than a million toys each year. People in all walks of life—businessmen, professional men, working men and women, give their money and their time to the project. This kind-spirited man visits and corresponds with thousands of convicts and wardens each year. Imprisoned fathers are sent a list of twenty-one toys from which they can make a selection. Then volunteers pour in by thousands to package the selections and mail them to these unfortunate fathers, who in turn address the packages and send them home with their love. Vinson says, "A kid wants a Christmas present from somebody he loves." His philosophy is expressed in these compelling words: "A man never stands so straight as when he stoops to help a child."
While reaching out to the community, let us take time to worship God, to thank Him for His "unspeakable gift"—Jesus Christ—through whose wonderful love the world was changed.
* This is how Sears wrote the line. It was changed about a century ago under the influence of certain theologians who thought that wars were a thing of the past. In fact, this stanza is usually omitted these days.