Many of you have been part of a Christmas program here. You have sung songs and read parts of the Christmas story and dressed up as shepherds or sheep or angels. This year, I want to share a story with you about a Christmas program in a little town in the Midwest that’s many miles that direction (point west) from here. In that town, whenever Christmas pageants are talked about, someone is sure to say the name of Wallace Purling.
It had been many years since Wallace Purling had been part of the town Christmas play, but the older people still remembered him. Wally was nine years old and in the third grade. He should have been in fourth grade. He had struggled with his school lessons, so his teachers thought it would be best for him to repeat a year to help him catch up.
Besides being a year older, Wally was big for his age. Sometimes he tripped over his own feet and he dropped things, so the boys didn’t want him on their team for ball games. But Wally was always smiling and he would do anything for anyone. He would protect the smaller children when bullies would pick on them, so most of the other boys and girls liked him.
When it came time for the Christmas pageant, Wally wanted a part in it. He had seen a picture in a story book of a shepherd boy playing a flute. That’s what Wally wanted to be. But the director, Mrs. Lumbard, remembered Wally had never done very well playing the recorder in music class.
She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so Mrs. Lumbard told Wally she had a very important role for him. He could be the Inn Keeper in Bethlehem. The Inn Keeper didn’t have too much to say and Wally’s size would really be impressive when he told Mary and Joseph there was no room for them in the Inn.
As always, Mrs. Lumbard had made a place for as many boys and girls who wanted a role in the play or could be talked into taking a part. So there were shepherds and sheep, angels and wise men, town’s people and roles you never heard of in a Christmas pageant. With all those children, of course parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins filled the hall.
No one on stage or off was more excited with the magic of the night than Wallace Purling. He stood in the wings watching the performance with such fascination that from time to time Mrs. Lumbard had to make sure Wally didn’t wander on stage before his cue.
The story began. The shepherds were already on the hillside, tending their sheep, awaiting the angel chorus that would bring them the good news of great joy. An angel came to Mary in her little home with the message that she would have a baby who would be the Son of God. Joseph was lying on his sleeping mat when in a dream, an angel told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
The soldier came to their town to announce the emperor’s decree that all must go to their home town to be registered to pay the taxes. Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem.
Mary and Joseph were preparing for their journey, and so the scene could be changed, everyone was invited to join in singing the Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem.
(Sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”)
(Mary and Joseph enter toward the center steps)
(Mary) Joseph, are we there yet?
(Joseph) Almost Mary, Bethlehem is just over the next hill and around the bend in the road.
(Mary) This trip has been so long—especially with this baby. I’m so afraid he’s going to come right here in the road, before we get to a bed for the night.
(Joseph) We’re almost there, Mary. It’s just a little further.
(Mary) I don’t care how much further it is, I can’t go another step. (Mary sits)
(Joseph) We can rest a little while. I know this has been hard for you.
(Mary) You know. How do you know? You haven’t been carrying this baby. How could you know? This whole thing about having this baby has been hard. I wasn’t ready to have a child. Who am I to be the mother of the child that will bring God’s love into the world?
(Joseph) I do know about that Mary. I was so heartbroken when I thought this baby was going to upset our plans to be married.
(Mary) I was really shaken when that angel came to me. The angel said I had nothing to fear; that God had a surprise for me. Did God ever have a surprise for me—a baby, I was going to have a baby.
(Joseph) That was a big surprise to me, too.
(Mary) But when the angel said that nothing is impossible with God, what I could I say? I am the Lord’s, ready to serve.
(Joseph) After you told me about the baby, I couldn’t sleep at night worrying about what I was going to do. I was ready to just walk away. But then when I did get to sleep, I had this dream that an angel came to me. That angel told me that we should get married and I should be dad to this child. He told me we were to name this baby, Jesus, because he will save his people from the sins that make life so terrible away from God.
(Mary) How can I have God’s baby? I’m just an ordinary girl. I’m not a princess or a queen.
(Joseph) And I’m no king. I’m just a carpenter.
(Mary) I’ll be so glad when this baby is born. The world surely needs a Savior. But what will he be like. Will our friends accept him? Will other kids? Will he want to make things with wood like you? I’ll just be so glad when you can carry him some of the time.
(Joseph) We need to be going on, Mary. We need to get to Bethlehem before it gets dark. (Joseph helps Mary get up)
(Mary) There are so many people travelling toward the town. I hope we can find a place to stay when we get there. This child needs a decent place to be born. He is so important to the world.
(Mary and Joseph) He is so important to the world!
(They walk on as the carol begins.)
(Sing “What Child Is This”)
Wally knew it was almost time for his part. He came in from the side curtain to his place, waiting behind the door of the Inn. Joseph, helping Mary, came near and knocked on the inn door.
“What do you want?” said Wally, swinging the door open.
“We seek a place to stay,” said Joseph.
“Seek it elsewhere,” said Wally. “This Inn is filled.”
“Sir, we have asked everywhere and there is no place. We have traveled far and are very tired,” said Joseph.
Looking properly serious, Wally said his line: “There is no room in this Inn for you.”
Mrs. Lumbard sighed in quiet relief. Wally had gotten all his lines right. He was almost done.
“Please, good Innkeeper, my wife is about to have a baby and needs a place to rest. You must have some small corner where she can rest.”
The Innkeeper’s stern look softened as he looked down at Mary. There was a long pause; a long embarrassing pause.
“No. Be gone.” Mrs. Lumbard whispered from the wings.
“No!” Wally repeated automatically. “Be gone!”
Sadly, Joseph and Mary started to move away. But the innkeeper didn’t go back inside the inn and close the door. Wally stood there in the open doorway, watching the couple leave. His mouth open, his eyes filling with unmistakable tears. And then this Christmas play became different from all others.
“Don’t go, Joseph,” Wally cried out. “Bring Mary back.” Wallace Purling’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room.”
Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and angels didn’t know what to do next. Oh, Wallace Purling, what have you done? The pianist started to play the next carol, “Away in a Manger” to signal that Mary and Joseph were supposed to go to the stable.
(Sing “Away in a Manger”)
Some of the people in the audience thought this Christmas play had been ruined. Mrs. Lumbard wished she had made Wally a sheep, even though he was too big for any of the lamb costumes. Yet there were others, many, many, many others who thought this was the most Christmas of all Christmas plays they had ever seen.
Oh, Wally, you discovered what Christmas is about!