Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Jamaal the Camel

     Mary and Joseph were on their way to Bethlehem because Joseph was of the house of David, and their main city was Bethlehem.  This wasn't just a friendly visit to relatives.  They had to go because the Romans were doing a census.  (Suddenly a plush Camel appears next to me behind the pulpit.)

     The main reason Romans did a census was they wanted to know how many people they could tax.  And Mary was just about to give birth to Jesus.  About sixty-three years before, the Romans had conquered Israel.  It was part of their plan to control all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

(Finally, I notice camel.)  What are you doing here?  I thought I told you to stay home.  Folks, I'm sorry for the interruption, this is Jamaal, a friend of mine… as you can see he's a camel.  Jamaal is a special camel – he was there when Jesus was born.  He was kind of helping me out with my sermon, giving me details about that night.  But he tells me he's decided he'd rather give the sermon himself.  (Camel nods.)  All right, we'll do it your way.  What do you want to say to these folks tonight?  (Camel whispers in my ear.)  What?  Oh, and Jamaal wants you to know that his name, which is also the Arabic word for camel, means "beauty"  (Camel preens for the congregation.)

      (Camel whispers in my ear again.)  Jamal says the most important thing to know about that holy night is… he was lost.  You see, he was just a young camel back then, and he had wandered away from his mom and dad in the caravan.  He had seen some particularly appetizing thorn bushes at the top of a ridge, and had munched his way from the top clear down the other side the whole afternoon.  By the time he paid attention again, it was getting dark, and he was getting scared.  He raced to the top of the ridge, but the caravan with his family was nowhere in sight.  He had never traveled alone at night, but he started down the hill hoping desperately to find them.

     He had gone a long way and was getting tired, when he came upon a whole flock of sheep and some shepherds.  The sheep pretty much ignored him – sheep tend to be cliquish.  But the shepherds could see he was just a young camel and was lost.  They spoke kindly to him, petted him, and shared a few of their sweet ripe dates with him.  They even let him lie down with the sheep to get some rest.  The sheep at first were horrified to have a camel sleeping with them – have I mentioned how cliquish sheep are?  But after a while, even cliquish sheep get sleepy, and they realized Jamaal was fluffy and warm – so eventually, they cuddled up all around him.

     Jamaal was just dozing off when there was a burst of light from overhead.  The shepherds fell to their knees and covered their eyes.  It was an angel!  His mom had told him about angels!  And Jamaal knew just what to do... when angels appear, everyone hits the dirt.  Jamaal was already on his knees, but you should've seen the shepherds drop!  He always thought kneeling when angels appear was just a kind of rule, like always looking both ways before crossing a caravan route.  But it wasn't a rule… it was just you couldn't help but drop to your knees when an angel appears because they're both the most beautiful thing you've ever seen… and also the most terrifying.

     The Angel seemed to radiate love captured in the light of a thousand blue-white stars, and when Jamaal dared to peek, he saw, on the angel's face, a look of indescribable joy!  And the whole night had gone silent… the shepherds shook and hid their faces.  And even the sheep, who even in their sleep tend to mutter about how much better their flock is than other flocks – have I mentioned sheep are cliquish? – even the sheep were completely silent for once.  Then the angel spoke, and his voice was like deep organs and trumpets and drums and silver flutes, and yet at the same time, it somehow sounded like your best friend laughing and whispering a joyful secret in your ear.  Jamaal didn't understand everything the angel was talking about: Something about a baby, and going down into the town, and how much God loved everyone.  When he finished, there suddenly appeared thousands and thousands and thousands of other angels singing in million-part harmony about God's glory and love for everyone.  It was like all of a sudden every star in the dark desert sky had come down and was exploding right overhead. 

     When they finished their song, and the last note was sounded, it seemed all that light and music and glory was drawn back up into heaven in a moment, and the night was dark and the silence echoed… and the stars glinted overhead as they had for millions of years.  Slowly, the shepherds got to their feet.  Finally, one of them said they should do what the angel said to do – go find the baby.  So the shepherds started walking toward the town, leaving the sheep… and then they began to run.  And Jamaal, who always loved adventures like all camels, got up and began running after them.  The sheep stayed put and tried to get back to sleep.  You see, in addition to being cliquish, sheep don't care much for adventures.  They prefer just to stay home, chat about how much better their flock was than other flocks, and get to bed on time after a good supper.

     But the shepherds raced toward the town, with Jamaal in hot pursuit.  The sound of the shepherds’ sandals and their labored breathing along with the clatter of Jamaal's hooves echoed off the empty narrow streets of the town.  But the strangest thing was, the shepherds were not looking in normal places for human babies like people's houses.  Instead, as they ran, they checked each barn and shed and stable.  Jamaal thought that was odd.  Why would a baby be in the place where people kept their cows and horses and camels?

     Exhausted, they finally turned the corner of the last street in the town a little after midnight.  At the end of that street, was a small inn, and above the inn but a little to the left there was a star lighting up the night, just hovering there like it had lost its way.  To the left of the inn, was the last stable in town, and it was glowing with the light of the star overhead.  And the stable was lit from within by the flickering of the small wood fire.  Jamaal could smell the usual smells of all the donkeys and cows that people who were staying in the inn owned, but he could also smell on the cold night air the wood smoke and the smell of freshly baking flatbread...   there were humans staying in the stable!  Listening, Jamaal heard the sound of a woman's voice quietly singing… ♪♫  "Hush, little baby, don't you cry.  Mama's gonna sing you a lullaby…" ♫♪  Or something that sounded like that.

     The shepherds came to a halt so suddenly, that a couple of them in the back ran into the ones in front of them.  Then, quietly as they could, they walked forward into the stable.  Around the small fire, there was a man standing, and sitting next to the fire, a young woman holding a baby in one arm, and carefully turning over the bread on the flat stone in the fire to bake on the other side.  The man looked tired and a little scared, but the young mother looked up from her beautiful baby and her cooking, and smiled a smile so full of love and welcome, that one by one the shepherds knelt before her and the tiny baby boy.  They began to tell the man and his wife about the angels who had appeared to them.  The man, who was named Joseph, seemed amazed by the story of the shepherds, but the mother who was named Mary just nodded and smiled in complete understanding, almost as if… she had dealt with angels before.  The baby slept on.

     Jamaal was hungry and after a while he couldn't stand it any longer, so he leaned his long neck over to where Mary had made a small stack of freshly baked flatbread, and helped himself to a piece – like all camels, Jamaal loves freshly baked flatbread.  The shepherds yelled at him, but Mary just laughed, handed him another warm piece of bread, and said there was plenty for everyone.  And Mary began to tear off big chunks of the savory bread and hand them out to the shepherds and Joseph, and then she mixed more bread and spread it on the flat stone to bake. 

     And so they talked through the long, cold night, sharing warm freshly baked bread, and spoke of Angels and God's love for everyone.  Mary had long since fallen asleep with the baby in her arms... even Joseph was nodding – and the shepherds knew it was time to leave.  One by one, they knelt again before the baby, and he opened his eyes, but he didn't cry.  He just smiled and looked at each shepherd as though he knew each one of them by name, and it was like all of God's love was shining through his eyes.  Last of all, Jamaal knelt down before him too...  and the baby smiled even more than before and reached out a pudgy little hand to pat Jamaal's soft nose… and the baby giggled.

     A light, gentle snow had begun to fall, as they returned to the sheep on the hillside, exhausted.  They slept through most of the next day.  The sheep spent most of that day munching grass and griping about how such an incredible flock as they, deserved to have more attentive shepherds.  Jamaal spent a lot of that day dozing, but when he woke he couldn't help but wonder why all this had happened.

     From all of the words of the Angels and the talk of the shepherds with Mary and Joseph, he finally figured it out.  You see, camels never forget how much God loves them, but humans do.  Camels remember God loves them every time they can cross the desert without having hardly any water.  Camels remember God loves them when their thick shaggy coat reflects the sunlight and insulates them from the heat of the desert sand.  Camels can see how much God loves them because of their long legs that keep them high off the hot ground and their wide feet that let them travel the desert without sinking into the sand.

     No, camels never forget that God loves them, but Jamaal finally realized that humans had forgotten how much God loves them.  God had to do something incredible and special to remind them… and so God sent all of his love wrapped up in one little tiny package.  God sent all of his love in one small baby, so they could see it right in front of them, and never ever forget again.

     Jamaal says he has never forgotten that night, and he learned four important lessons: 

     First, if you're feeling lost and alone, the kindness of strangers can surprise you.
     Second, always watch for angels… they tend to show up when you least expect them.
     Third, if you ever see shepherds running, you run… follow them!
     And last, but most importantly, he learned, that God loved us so much he sent all of his love shining in the eyes of one little baby.  Who learned to walk, and loved his mom and dad, and stubbed his toes and cried… and finally grew up to become a man who had one simple message for everyone:  Whoever you are, whatever deserts you have crossed in your life, no matter how lost you may feel… Never ever forget… God loves you so much… so much.

      (Camel whispers in my ear.)  Oh… Jamaal says it's getting late, and that's his story, but I need to say one more thing… (Camel whispers in my ear.)  Oh, yes, we say… Amen.  (Camel and I nod.)

© 2011 Rick's Green Grass – May be used with permission.