Road to Bethlehem: A Christmas Mini-Series

Bethlehem

by Leslie Crouse

Mary’s time in Ein Karem had come to a close. Father would be here soon to escort her back to Nazareth. This little Judean town had been a sanctuary for her. Elizabeth had been the only friend who rejoiced at the miracle she carried. And Elizabeth had given birth to a beautiful son! Zechariah and Elizabeth named him John, causing quite the scandal at the synagogue. But it had earned Zechariah his voice back.

Gabriel. Mary still had a hard time equating the kind, joyful angel she had met in the stable as being the same angel responsible for Zechariah’s missing voice. She did, however, know that years without children had made Zechariah cynical toward God. She wondered if there was more to the story than Zechariah was telling. Mary remembered her father’s voice saying, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”

As Mary washed John’s baby clothes her thoughts turned toward her father. He had visited her a month into her visit, delivering Joseph’s letter. Her father, Hezekiah, had asked forgiveness for his actions, anger and accusations. Yet, tears still filled her eyes at the memory of him slapping her. She had always been Hezekiah’s little girl. They’d had a special relationship and his rejection had hurt more than any physical pain in that moment. She had forgiven him, but trust came harder.    

Joseph had believed in her more than her father had. The incident had both given her an unshakable confidence in the LORD’s faithfulness while fracturing her childlike confidence in people. Humanity was broken. Even those who were godly made serious mistakes only the LORD could heal and make right. Would her son – God’s Son – heal this broken world? Would Jesus be the key to finding peace amidst the storm?

Best gird your loins, she thought to herself. You have yet to face those in Nazareth. Mary lifted her chin. God had made a way for her. It would not be easy, but it would be safe. Joseph had written they would marry upon her arrival. But, he would not consummate the marriage until after the birth. Her cheeks burned with the thought. He had gone on to explain that to the world, they would appear married. By law they would still only be betrothed. She knew his intent was to protect her and Jesus.

Suddenly, she was very grateful for her betrothal to Joseph.

~Sixth Months Later~

Joseph could not believe the injustice of Caesar. The man’s greed had no end. Apparently, Caesar needed money to pay for the expansion of his kingdom and maintain the Roman roads he was so proud of. So, in true form, Caesar cunningly mandated a census. All people were forced to travel and register in their hometown. Then, Caesar charged them a toll to travel the roads. It is extortion! He thought angrily to himself.

Joseph packed three day’s worth of supplies planning to leave in the morning. Mary could give birth any day now. It was a two day journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth, but he must be prepared for every possibility. He prayed the trip would not be too taxing for her.

His father, had encouraged him to take Balaam. He would have to fight that cursed creature the whole way. Balaam only responded to a whip and Mary would never allow it. Jospeh smiled. It seems I am to struggle with a stubborn beast and stubborn woman the whole way. It was worth it. He would not ask her to walk so far at this stage. They would take the cart he hauled his furniture in. Mary had a touch with animals. Perhaps she could tame Balaam’s cantankerous spirit.

At sunrise, Joseph held Mary’s hand and helped her up. They set out and turned onto the main road. Outside the city, Joseph paid their first toll. When would there be justice in the world? Joseph was a black and white kind of man. He did not live in grey. Romans lived in the grey area. It allowed them to justify every false action.

Joseph hungered for a new kingdom. A King that defended the weak and governed with righteousness and justice. Would his adopted son, Jesus, share his passion for injustice too? What would he do when he found the temple charging worshippers triple for sacrifices? Lost in his thoughts of the Messianic kingdom, he did not realize his worst nightmare had begun.

Over halfway to Bethlehem, Mary’s pains began. He had thought pains gradually increased, but Mary’s were hard and fast with longer breaks in between. But what do I know?! What can I do? Mary decided she wanted to walk for a bit. They rested when the intensity started building and walked once the pains relaxed. This was the progression of their trip. Joseph was desperate as he watched his wife and thought, There are lions in Judea. We cannot risk her giving birth out here in the open.

Joseph prayed.  LORD! My God! This is beyond me. I am useless to her. Be our strength, be our shield! Joseph looked over and saw Mary was ready to start walking again. “Mary, you are doing so well. We are almost there,” he encouraged. Mary seemed to be handling the affair with a cool head. Maybe that midwife she had assisted was more than a gossip after all, Joseph thought wryly.

Joseph looked up to see lights in the distance. “Mary! We have made it! We will find help soon.” Mary gave him a nod, and he caught the words of her favorite psalm.

During her time back in Nazareth, Mary had clung to the scriptures and found much comfort in the Psalms. As a married couple, they had read them together every morning. It had been awkward as they found their footing together being pseudo-married and pregnant, but their shared love for the Word of the Lord bound them together in spirit.

Once in the town of Bethlehem Joseph knocked on every door. Every. Single. Door. Did no one have compassion? Finally, when he knocked on the last door a huge man stepped out into the evening.

“Shalom! Sir, I beg of you, I must find a place to stay tonight. My wife’s pains have begun. I fear we do not have long. I have asked everywhere. Please say there is a place for us.” Joseph said.

“Shalom my friend. I see you are in need of… much.” The large man took in Mary’s dilemma. Joseph watched several emotions cross his face. But unlike the others, he did not turn them away. At least, not completely. He introduced himself as Hananiah and led them toward his stable.

Look for the next story in my Christmas Mini-Series, The Birth of Christ.

The Shepherd’s Sword: A Christmas Mini-Series

The Shepherd’s Sword

by Leslie Crouse

…continued from The Shepherd.

Belial had not been informed of Heaven’s plan. But Darkness heard the angel’s announcement. All of creation did. He quickly rallied the powers of Darkness for a counter attack. If it was war Heaven wanted, war it would get. This invasion was not to be tolerated. Darkness would not release its hold on earth so easily and this shepherd with his spindly sword was standing in his way.

Shammah took his hand off the door handle. Glanced to the inn. Did no one else sense the Darkness pressing in? Were they all sleeping peacefully while Darkness invaded their city? Jehovah! I am no soldier! A lion or bear here and there, but never this! And why the sword? It’s useless against such… things! Another shepherd, in another time, with another inadequate weapon. The irony.

Or was it? What had David done? Then, like a song on the wind an idea formed. Shammah thrust the sword tip into the ground. Not wishing to attract the attention of the Roman soldiers around the corner, he began to speak in a barely audible voice:

I come in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel… the LORD saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the LORD’s.

Menacing snarls rose from all around him as they paused in their approach. But it did not last. Darkness wanted the baby inside. Shammah dragged his sword tip through the sandy dirt leaving a line behind him as he spoke aloud the only words his mind could form.

” ‘He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty...’ ”

Shammah rounded the first corner of the stable and proceeded toward the back as the guttural sounds grew in number. Muscles solid with tension, Shammah punctuated each step with the words scrolling through his mind:

“…you will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness…

He turned the third corner of the stable. Almost there. One shadow gnashed his fangs and Shammah’s heart crashed into his ribs. A rancid odor overpowered his thoughts for a moment as he locked eyes with those that glowed red.

“…For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways…”

Shammah was finishing the last words of the psalm just as he was completing the circle around the stable. Lifting the tip of his sword from the sand he noticed a stiff wind began to blow. Over the growls and snarls he heard the ringing of a multitude of swords being unsheathed. Deadly silence reigned for the span of a heartbeat.

Then, a bone-shattering thunder crashed and the earth shook with the force of it. Shammah collapsed with exhaustion.

Thwarted! Belial snarled at his defeat. He would come again. Later. But next time he would use men. Men were proud and pride was his greatest weapon. “Yes,” he hissed. Perhaps that buffoon sitting on the throne would be useful. He was already a promising vessel of Darkness. As his plan formed a low, guttural sound escaped into the night. But for now, he would remind that shepherd of his worth. Belial signaled to Rejection and nodded to the sleeping shepherd.

~~~~

Shammah fell into a deep sleep. He floated above as he watched his father approach an infant. Himself he perceived. Eli laid his hand on Shammah’s head and said, “Son, I love you, but from this day forward I cannot look at you for all of my sorrows are upon your head.” Shammah awakened to the familiar weight bearing down on his soul. He sat up rubbing his beard and focused on a huge man who whistled as he went about his morning chores.

“Shalom, my friend! What a glorious morning! Such a silent, holy night last night. Wouldn’t you say? Don’t believe I ever slept better. May write a song about it.” The man laughed with his entire body it seemed. “My name is Hananiah and I am the innkeeper here. Are you ready to meet the Savior of the world? Is that why you have come?”

Shammah sat staring at the jovial man when the other shepherds appeared. Shammah blinked. Did last night happen? Shammah looked around for confirmation and saw it. The line in the sand. He unsheathed his sword and looked at the newly engraved words, THE BATTLE IS THE LORDS. He turned it over. WORD OF GOD glinted in the morning light. Chills spread over his arms and legs making every hair stand on end.

“Best not let the Romans see that sword. May get the wrong idea. Come!” Hananiah led the way to the stable undaunted by Shammah’s mute astonishment.

A baby’s cry penetrated his heavy thoughts as he followed Hananiah in. Finally! The stable he had set out for hours ago. Shammah approached the couple and the woman held out the baby to him. “His name is Jesus.” she said with a smile.

Shammah looked into the eyes of baby Jesus and felt a deeper connection with this child than any other person before. A tear escaped. He could not explain it, but somehow he knew he was looking into the face of another scapegoat.

Baby Jesus’ tiny hand gripped his thumb and in that moment, Shammah wept. Peace flooded his soul. Where darkness had been, light now penetrated every corner and the burdens he had carried for a lifetime were gone.

Then he wept for the boy. He understood what this boy would face. This boy would grow to be a man of many of sorrows. Rejected by men. Acquainted with grief. This tiny boy would trade his peace for the weight of another’s sin and sorrow. Would there also come a day when his father cannot bear to look him and forsakes him as well? As Shammah wept, a tear slipped down the young woman’s face.

Who was this baby? Why had Darkness attacked so forcefully? Would he set the captives of Darkness free too? “Good news of great joy that will be for all people,” the angel had said. “…On earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” Was God pleased with Shammah? Is faith all that was needed? It was all so much to take in.

Of this he was certain: never had he felt such light. Love, peace and joy flooded his heart. Overwhelmed, Shammah bowed his head and worshipped.

~~~~~

Thank you for reading my Christmas Mini-Series! If you like what you read please share the stories with your friends! To continue reading, look for Mary’s Hiding Place next!

-Leslie

The Shepherd: A Christmas Mini-Series

The Shepherd

by Leslie Crouse

…continued from The Innkeeper’s Wife.

Shammah slid loaves of bread, raisin cakes and dried figs into his pack. Strapping on his canteen and bed roll he was almost ready. He just needed his staff, his rod and his sword. He did not usually carry a sword, but he had a niggling feeling he would need it. Judea was treacherous.

This week they would move the flocks into the Judean mountains near Bethlehem. David’s home town. He had been a shepherd too. Shammah smiled to himself. Perhaps I could learn to master the sling like David. Then father may take notice.

Eli, his father, stared at the fire refusing to look up. Shammah informed him he was leaving and was granted no more than a grunt in response. Shammah was a blight on the family. Death and ruination had visited them the day he was born and Eli had never forgotten.

Father lost everything when the caravan had been raided. After limping home with only his life spared, Eli discovered Shammah’s mother had died in childbirth as well. Two blows in the span of one day. Grief was indelibly printed onto the fabric of their family.

Eli held Shammah personally responsible. Ruin he had named him. From the moment he entered the world Shammah had become the family scapegoat bearing the grief, sorrow and sin of others. Thus, father had rejected him and assigned him to shepherding duties. Out of sight. Out of mind. Out of trouble.

Shammah did not mind. He was no one’s prize. Shepherding was a dirty business, but he liked to use the oil found on the wool for his beard. He smelled like an animal, but the sheep liked him. Followed him. Knew his voice. Trusted him without question. And he liked the solitude. Better the Judean mountains with their wild animals than my cold father. Resolute in his decision, Shammah refused to look back at the campfire. It was time to move out.

Five days later, Shammah and the other shepherds found what they had been searching for. Green pastures. Quiet waters gliding through the ravines sourced from the higher mountain regions. It had been a grueling journey and everyone was ready to find rest in the meadows. It was no wonder David wrote psalms of worship here. Truly, these remote places restored the soul and brought one closer to Jehovah.

Eli had not been a man of faith. But Rachel, their aged servant who raised him, had taught him the words of Jehovah. As a boy, Shammah had hungered for the steadfast love of a father described in the sacred scriptures. As a man, he was not convinced of the reality. But, out here he felt closer to the Presence of Jehovah. Less distraction.

As evening drew near one of the shepherd boys began to play his flute. Music quieted the sheep and the soul while also keeping predators at bay. It was Shammah’s favorite time. In honor of the city of David, the boy was playing one of David’s psalms. Or, at least it sounded like one of David’s.

Shammah gazed at the unusually bright stars and began humming along trying to remember the words:

“Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars!”

He shut his eyes and hummed the verses he did not remember and picked up again at the end:

“He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for…

The reedy notes abruptly ceased and Shammah opened his eyes. A giant stood before him! He was so big and shone so bright they all cowered in unmanly fear. And then he spoke,

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto 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 baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” As suddenly as he appeared with the message he was gone.

Then, a cacophony of singing erupted like he had never heard before. All the heavens. Praise from the highest heights. All his angels. All the hosts. All the shining stars. Jehovah’s word is true! Shammah marveled. The horn of salvation! He is here? Tonight?

Bursting with excitement, Shammah shouted, “We must go see!” But no one answered him. The others lay on the ground, passed out with fear. He did not blame them, but would not wait. He started running down the path to Bethlehem when he forgot his sword. Why did he care?! He wouldn’t need it! Ah! It is like my feet are frozen to the ground! I must get it first.

Forty minutes later they began their descent into the far side of the city. That was when he heard it. A feral, blood-chilling snarl. Judean lions? So close to the city? Hand on his sword he peered into the darkness and once his eyes focused, he froze. Not. Lions. Shammah looked to the hills again. What once had been covered in angels’ songs of praise now had writhing, dark figures coming from all directions slinking toward the stable in the hillside.

Nearby two pairs of red, glowing eyes intent upon the stable door. In the light of the moon Shammah saw the glint of unnaturally long fangs. A musky, unclean smell permeated the suddenly very cold air. At the soft cry of a baby from inside, righteous anger welled up within Shammah. He planted his feet and drew his sword.

…to be continued as The Shepherd’s Sword on December 14, 2020.

All quotes taken from The ESV Bible by Crossway Publishers.

The Innkeeper’s Wife: A Christmas Mini-Series

The Innkeeper’s Wife

by Leslie Crouse

…continued from The Innkeeper.

“That MAN! What was he thinking?!” Outside Evie took a deep breath and then another. She knew what Hananiah had been thinking. That infuriating, practical, wonderful man of hers was thinking of her. She saw that look in his eye at dinner. For twenty, long years they had weathered barrenness together but the pain never really lost its edge. When had her pain become so crippling that her husband felt he needed to protect her even at the cost of compassion?

Eve. What had her parents been thinking? Eve meant life. Mother of the living. Thirty-seven years with nothing to show but two heartbreaking miscarriages. Her name added irony to her pain. Expectations never met. A daily reminder of shriveled dreams. But not tonight. She refused to be swallowed up by self-pity. El Roi saw her. Heard her. She and Hananiah had the LORD and each other. Besides, tonight was not about her. And what better way to step out from one’s own pain than by serving another?

Evie looked up at the stars. She always felt closer to the God of Israel when she saw them. Strange. Tonight the stars looked extraordinarily bright. Glorious even. Like they were singing. Though the ever present pain remained a powerful peace entered her soul.

Quietly she slipped toward the barn door and listened. The tell-tale sound of a tiny mewling cry escalated into gusty wails that only a newborn could make. Time to move. She was none too early with these cloths. At least they were clean! She held back a smile at the look on Hananiah’s face when she ripped them up. Serves him right for putting business before compassion.

The young man looked up at her, wild eyed with hair sticking up in every direction. Relief flooding his face, he ran to her and said “I have no idea how to do this! I have wrapped him up four times but his arms keep escaping! Every time he just screams louder and louder.”

Evie smiled. This she could do. Gently she approached the young girl, who was trembling from exhaustion. Compassion overwhelmed her. Vaguely she heard the barn door open and close as Hananiah sheepishly came in with more hot water, blankets and a earthen bowl of warm broth for the young woman. He flicked a glance at Evie as he approached. His face guarded, unsure of where they stood at the moment. Evie knew he would nurse his pride for a bit, but he was a good sort and she loved him.

Finishing a perfect swaddle she glanced up at Hananiah and smiled as a peace offering. Surveying her handy work and the now content baby, she picked up the sweet boy and with Joseph’s permission and cooed to him. She walked over to Hananiah and together they looked into the most amazing dark, grey eyes they had ever seen.  

As she locked eyes with the infant, something broke inside of her. A flood of tears. Sobbing she could feel the healing take place. Deep within her heart all the names she had been called, the accusations that had been launched, the scars she had lived with for so long melted powerless. A warmth began to grow inside her. Beginning in her belly, the heat spread like a fire throughout her entire body. Shaking with the power she felt surging through her, she handed the little boy to Hananiah who was also weeping – with joy it seemed.

Eagerly he took the baby. Holding him high, laughing and weeping at the same time. A glow she had never seen in him shone from his eyes. In this singular moment, she saw Hananiah changed. The anger and bitterness he tried so hard to hide was gone. Replaced with unspeakable joy. Peace. In awe, Hananiah again looked into the face of this little child and Evie knew that he knew. They glanced at each other and again at the baby. It made no sense, but with absolute certainty Evie knew this tiny, red face was the face of God.

Sensitive to the sacred moment taking place between man and wife, Joseph gently reached for the child and said, “His name is Joshua. Or – Jesus, as Caesar’s register will say. For he will save us from our sin.”

Evie watched Joseph as he laid the boy in a feeding trough beside Mary so that he could spoon feed the broth to her. Jesus. What miracles had just taken place! Marveling at the baby in the trough, and the heat that still vibrated through her body, Evie turned to Hananiah as he put his arm around her and led her back to the house.

When they entered all was still. The guests had retired and the lamps burned low. Had hours passed? As they prepared for bed on this silent, holy night they discussed in excited whispers all they had witnessed. Each had experienced the overwhelming power of God’s love when they held little Jesus.

“How can the full strength of God’s love dwell in a tiny baby?” Hananiah asked.

“And how God’s love burns like fire! I am hot all over.” Evie said excitedly while rubbing her tingling fingertips. Hananiah laughed with her.

“It is a miracle! I could not decide if I wanted to shout for joy or fall to my knees in worship! Evie, there is immeasurable treasure in our stable right now. Why us? Why our stable? I was prepared to move them inside, but somehow, I sensed that is where El Shaddai wanted them.” Hananiah said.

That night, Hananiah and Evie fell asleep as he held her close. A once brokenhearted couple basking in God’s overwhelming love.

Almost one year later…

Evie smiled at the sound of her baby’s cries. Hananiah’s eyes were so full of pride and joy as he looked at his first born and then Evie. In a look they shared their remembrance of Jesus, the child who changed their world with one powerful encounter of love. Then Hananiah addressed their family and friends saying, “His name is Samuel because the LORD God has heard.”

…continue reading my Christmas Mini-Series with The Shepherd on December 14, 2020.