There was once a boy called Jacob. His family were all shepherds, and they lived not far from Bethlehem. Jacob wanted to be a shepherd too when he grew up, like his father and older brothers, staying out on the hillside at night, watching the stars come out and talking round the camp-fire, but for now, though he helped in the day, he was always sent home at night. He hated that.
Next year, his mother said, he would be big enough, but for now it was too cold, too dangerous for a young boy, and anyway, she said, she needed him, because each morning she would send him up the hill with breakfast for his father and brothers – who would go if he didn’t?
One morning Jacob woke up early, before it was light, and went to his mother as usual to collect the food. He put it all in his bag, and put on his sheepskin jacket, and set off. He hurried up the hillside as fast as he could to the family’s camp. As he got closer he could see the golden glow of dawn up ahead of him, but there was something strange, because that golden glow wasn’t where he expected it to be. The sun rose on the other side of the sky – whatever this light was, it wasn’t the sun.
As he got nearer he could see that actually this glow was a lot of separate lights, circling in the sky. And his father and brothers were nowhere to be seen; the sheep were just wandering aimlessly, all on their own. One of the lights swooped down towards Jacob. He was terrified. Perhaps his family had been right. The hillside at night really was a dangerous place. The light landed on the ground, and inside it Jacob could see a winged figure, tall and golden. “Don’t be afraid, Jacob…” said the figure. How did it know his name? Jacob was so puzzled he forgot his fear. “Who are you, and where are my father and brothers?” he asked. “They have gone to Bethlehem to see the baby,” said the figure. Gone to Bethlehem to see a baby? Jacob was even more puzzled. His father and brothers weren’t usually interested in babies. “What baby?” he asked. “The baby born to be king,” said the figure, “the Messiah God promised, the one who will bring in God’s kingdom of justice.” Now Jacob understood. He knew about the Messiah, the one God had promised to send to help his people. Everyone knew about the Messiah, and everyone longed to see the day he would come. No wonder his father and brothers were excited, so eager to be gone.
“But what about me?” said Jacob. “Why can’t I see the Messiah?” “You can, “said the figure. “if you are allowed to go to Bethlehem on your own. You’ll find him lying in a manger.” Jacob often went to Bethlehem running errands for the family, so this was no problem at all. “I’m off then! “ he shouted “Thanks!”. The figure swooped back up into the sky and Jacob set off running across the fields.
After a while though, Jacob stopped. If he was going to see this baby, shouldn’t he take something to give him? His mother always took a present when she went to see a new baby. But what did he have? He thought for a while, and opened his bag. What was there in it? A lot of food, but that would be no use to a new-born child. What else? Down at the bottom of the bag he felt something familiar. He pulled it out. It was smooth round wooden ball. His father had made it for him when he was small, and it had been his favourite toy. It was polished after years of play. But now he was growing up, surely he didn’t need it any more. That would do – the baby Messiah could have it to play with now. Good. That was settled. On went Jacob, clutching the ball in his hand.
The hills around Bethlehem are steep, and full of ravines, but Jacob knew the landscape well. He ran happily along the narrow mountain paths, not thinking twice about the steep drop to one side, cut by the mountain stream below. Whistling happily to himself, he tossed the ball in the air and caught it, tossed it in the air and caught it, tossed it in the air and…and, oh dear! He missed it, and down it fell, down and down into the river far beneath, where it was swept away by the swift flow of the water. It was gone. His precious ball. His gift for the Messiah. He tried hard not to cry, but he felt so sad, and so stupid – how could he have been so careless?
And what could he give the baby now?
He looked again in his bag. There was the food; but that was still no use to a baby, so Jacob sat down and ate it himself to cheer himself up. And as the bag emptied and his stomach filled he realised there was something else in the bag which he’d forgotten about. A small reed pipe, which Jacob had learned to play, as all proper shepherds did so they could while away the night watch, and signal to each other across the hillside.. Perhaps he could give that to the baby? He’d be too small to play it now, but Jacob could play it to him, and then as he grew up he could learn to play it himself. Jacob picked up the pipe and played a lullaby for a new baby. That would do! He was sad about the ball, but perhaps this would be even better?
He put the pipe safely in the bag – he wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice – and he went on his way, and soon he could see Bethlehem, down the hill below him. He quickened his steps down the mountain path. He was nearly there. But all of a sudden Jacob’s feet went from under him on a slippery patch of gravel. He began to slide, and then to tumble, over and over, until finally, he landed in a bush and came to a painful stop nearly at the bottom of the hill. He lay still for a moment, sure he must have broken something, but his arms were all right and his legs, and slowly he got his breath back and sat up. He was covered in grazes and bruises, but he seemed to be all right. But if he hadn’t broken any limbs, what was that crunching sound he could hear when he moved, coming from his bag? He opened it. There was the pipe, all crushed to pieces. There was no way it could play a tune now, no way he could give it to the baby Messiah.
Poor Jacob! The bag was empty, except for the splinters of wood from his pipe. He had nothing to give the baby now. Shaken by his fall, and shivering a bit, he pulled his sheepskin jacket closer around him. His sheepskin jacket! What about that as a gift for the baby? Surely that was perfect, especially for a baby lying in a manger. This was a much better gift than a ball or a reed pipe, something really useful to keep him warm. Thank goodness he’d put it on that morning!
Now he was right on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Surely nothing else could go wrong. He set off to walk the last short distance – carefully! But as he walked along he realised what a mess he was. That fall down the hill had left him covered in dust and mud. He couldn’t go to see the Messiah looking like this – he looked like a scarecrow. At the bottom of the hill there was a small river, so Jacob decided to have a wash. He took off the sheepskin jacket so it wouldn’t get wet and laid it on the river bank. He waded out into the water. He splashed the water on his face and washed his arms and legs. There were a few people around – groups of children like him, and others coming and going, but he took no notice of them. All he could think of was finding that baby and giving him his present. When he was clean he waded back to the bank to pick up the sheepskin. But where was it? It was gone. Jacob looked up the river and down the river. Far off in the distance he saw those children he had heard. They were running away as fast as they could, and they were carrying Jacob’s sheepskin jacket with them, throwing it to each other and laughing. There was no way he could catch them. The sheepskin was gone.
Jacob stood there in the field by the river, shivering a bit in his thin tunic, looking around. There wasn’t even a flower growing in the field he could pick and take with him. Just mud, and grass and an old rickety shed in one corner. He went over to it, sat down with his back against it and howled. It had all gone wrong. Now he had nothing to give the baby – what was the point of even looking for him?
As he sat there sobbing, the door of the shed creaked open and a man came out. “Shh, you’ll wake the baby,“ he said. “The baby?” said Jacob. “Is he in there? Is he lying in a manger?” Yes, that’s right,” said the man. Jacob started crying even more. “Then that’s the baby I came to see, but now I can’t”
“Why ever not?” said the man.
“Because I’ve got nothing to give him!” Jacob told the man what had happened to his gifts. “You see, it’s all gone wrong!”
“You can say that again!”, said the man. “This isn’t what I hoped for Mary and the baby at all. Do you know what I am? I’m a carpenter, that’s what I am, Joseph the carpenter. So when I knew this child was on the way I started making him a crib. It was the best crib you’ve ever seen. I used the best bits of wood I had, and I carved leaves and flowers on it and painted it in bright colours. I put it all together beautifully so it would be safe and solid for him.”
“It sounds wonderful,” said Jacob, “so what’s the problem?”
“The problem? The problem is that it’s in Nazareth, where we come from, and we’re here in Bethlehem! And all because Caesar Augustus decided to make everyone traipse from one end of the country to the other to be registered. We don’t know anyone here and there’s nowhere to stay but here in this shed. So instead of sleeping in his beautiful crib, our son is lying in an animals’ feeding trough! A couple of planks nailed together, and not very well nailed at that. It’s a wonder it hasn’t collapsed. And it’s full of splinters. If only I had thought to bring some sandpaper… Fine carpenter I turned out to be!” Joseph sighed, and Jacob sighed with him. “And yet…” said Joseph…
“Wait here a minute”, he said to the boy. He went into the shed and a few moments later, he came out, carrying the baby, who had begun to stir.
“The strange thing is,” said Joseph, as he looked down at the child, “ever since he’s been born I’ve been wondering whether any of those things I’ve been worrying about really matter. The angel told me that he was God’s Messiah,”
“– “me too!” said Jacob –
“and isn’t he the one God said he would send to help us when we couldn’t help ourselves? Perhaps it doesn’t matter that we have nothing to give him. Perhaps the message is that he is the gift that God gives to us when we need it most. Here, you hold him and see what you think.” And he put him into Jacob’s arms. And the baby opened his eyes and looked up at him. And Jacob knew that Joseph was right. It didn’t matter that he had nothing to give – this baby was the gift God gave to him. And suddenly Jacob was glad that he had come empty-handed, so that his arms could be open to receive this wonderful child. And he went home that day with his heart full of joy.