Over at least the past twenty years, I have written a story to read to the children in church on Christmas Day. This year, my story was read in an empty building, but with children watching live online.

Here is this morning’s offering:

A Pile of Stones

Gaius was twelve years old. He lived with his family in the ancient city of Jerusalem in a luxurious palace surrounded by important Roman officials, mighty soldiers and lowly slaves. Gaius was named after his father’s friend the Roman poet, Gaius Valgius Rufus. It seemed strange to young Gaius that his father should have a friend who was a poet. His father had no time for poetry.

Gaius’ father Quirinius was the Roman Governor of Syria. He was in charge of all the Jews of the region which is why Gaius and his family lived in Jerusalem. Gaius knew that his father used his violent Roman soldiers to rule with an iron fist over the Jewish people.

And Gaius knew that the Jews hated his father. They hated him because he forced them to pay huge sums of money to finance his rich lifestyle and to support the troops that kept him safe in the foreign land he ruled. If the Jews failed to pay, the Roman soldiers would come and take away the Jews’ goats and sheep. Sometimes they would even capture the young Jewish girls and boys and take them away from their parents to serve as Roman slaves.

But, even worse the Jews believed that all Romans hated God. You see, the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus was even more powerful than Gaius’ father, Quirinius. Caesar was so powerful that the Romans believed he was the greatest power on earth. They even worshiped the Emperor as if he were a god. But for Jews there is only one God and to make anyone more powerful than God is a terrible thing.

For as long as he could remember, Gaius had felt he didn’t fit in his family. Unlike the other boys, Gaius did not love to play with swords and dress up like a soldier. All his friends knew the names of the great Roman Generals. They followed the battles their soldiers fought and whenever there was a Roman victory, they all cheered and celebrated. Gaius was not interested in war or soldiers.

Gaius liked to go for long walks by himself. He especially loved to walk out in the wilderness around Jerusalem. In the wide-open spaces where the land was bare and empty, there was no shouting, and no one playing violent war games; no one bothered Gaius when he was alone in the hill country.  He could go wherever he wanted or just sit in the silence and stillness for hours looking out over the empty landscape. Sometimes he would lie on his back watching the shifting pattern of the clouds or crouch on the ground watching a small animal scurrying after food or looking for shelter.

Lately Gaius had been away from home for longer and longer periods. No one seemed to care when he was missing. They were all so busy rushing about with their important duties and Gaius was so quiet when he was at home, that no one noticed when he was missing.

One evening, as the cold dark days of winter took hold, Gaius wandered further than usual from Jerusalem. As the sun began to dip below the hills, he realized he was going to have to wait for morning to find his way home. Gaius gathered a few sticks and some brush and made a small fire and a rough bed on the ground with the blanket he always carried when he was away from home. He had enough water for the next day and he always packed lots of food. So, even though it was dark and he was alone, Gaius wasn’t really frightened.

Gaius settled under his blanket with the embers of his fire glowing warm on his face; everything was silent. Then he heard an unfamiliar sound. It didn’t sound like an animal and it was too gentle to be a dangerous bandit. He peered into the dark. Gaius could not see anything unusual, but the sound continued. After a while, Gaius decided it was a child crying, just below the rise of the next hill.

Cautiously, Gaius got up from beside his fire and slowly made his way towards the sound. When he reached the top of the next little hill, he looked down into the shallow gully. Gaius could not believe what he saw. It was a small boy sitting in the dirt by a bush, with his knees pulled up to his chin, rocking back and forth and crying. Gaius thought the child might belong to one of the roaming bands of shepherds who grazed their flocks in the hills.

Gaius was a bit nervous of shepherds; they had a reputation for being thieves and they were mostly a pretty rough bunch.

Slowly Gaius inched closer. Suddenly, the child looked up. Gaius was close enough now to see the fear in the little boy’s eyes. The child pulled back further under the scrubby bush he had been using to try to get a little shelter. But there was nowhere to hide and he was obviously too small to outrun Gaius, so he stayed where he was quietly sobbing and shaking.

Gaius lowered himself to the ground and sat in the dirt with the frightened boy. Gaius was glad that, unlike most Romans in Jerusalem, he had learned to speak the Aramaic language that was common in the area. So, he knew he could speak to the boy.

Gaius said, “Don’t be afraid”. Then he asked, “What’s wrong?” He waited; there was no answer.

He tried again, “Are you hurt?” When there was still no reply, Gaius inched a little closer. The child watched with fearful eyes, but did not run. Then, suddenly, he stopped crying. Even, if he was unsure who Gaius might be, the child seemed comforted by the presence of another person.

“Can I help you?” Gaius asked. “Are you hungry?” A glimmer of light came into the boy’s eyes. Gaius went on, “I have food back at my fire. I will share it with you; come with me.”  Gaius got up, turned slowly and walked towards his fire. He stopped and looked back. The little boy still sat on the ground, but he was no longer cowering under the pitiful shelter of the little bush.

Gaius turned back towards his fire and walked slowly away from the boy. After a moment, he heard footsteps and knew he was being followed. Gaius sat down and stirred the fire. He pulled his blanket around him. The boy stopped a little distance away. Gaius took some food from his bag; he held out his water container to the boy who seized it and drank deeply. Then the boy took bread and goat cheese, a few olives and finally some dried figs. He ate hungrily and gradually moved closer to the warmth of the fire.

Gaius asked, “What is your name?”

Hesitantly the boy replied, “My name is Jagur”. Gaius recognized the name. It means “pile of stones”. It comes from the custom of leaving a pile of stones in the wilderness to mark where the shepherds have been.

Gaius knew that these piles of stones were erected by shepherds as small altars to remind them of the mysterious presence they experienced out in the wilderness. So, Gaius knew that Jagur’s people must be people of faith, who believed in some force or power greater even than the mighty Roman Emperor. The idea that there might be a power greater than the Emperor had always tugged at Gaius’ heart, although he never spoke of it. It was dangerous for a Roman to believe in anything stronger than Caesar.

“Why are you alone?” Gaius asked.

Jagur was silent. Then slowly he began to speak. “My people are shepherds,” he said. “We graze our flocks out in these hills. We don’t harm anyone. We are not the kind of shepherds who steal things from the local villages”. Jagur stopped. He seemed uncertain about saying anything more.

Gaius waited.

Finally, Jagur went on, “Last night something strange happened, just as we were getting ready to sleep. In the western sky, we saw a great light. It wasn’t the moon; it wasn’t a star; it certainly wasn’t the sun. It was like no light I have ever seen. And there was a shimmering sound, like singing; it was beautiful. There were words I couldn’t really understand. The oldest shepherd said that the voices announced that a saviour had been born in the village of Bethlehem.

“When the sky went dark and silent again, the men decided to go into the village to see what had been spoken about. They went so quickly, I couldn’t keep up. I got left behind where you found me and I don’t know the way to find the saviour.”

Jagur was silent. He looked frightened, wondering if Gaius would think his story was crazy.

But, as Jagur had been speaking, Gaius felt something warm in his heart. He felt in a strange way as if he could hear those voices that had sung in the night sky. It was as if the voices were still singing. But there was no light on the horizon. The night sky was black. The two boys huddled closer to the fire.

Finally, in a hushed voice, Gaius said, “I know the way to Bethlehem. I will take you in the morning. We will find your friends. Maybe we will even find a saviour. Let’s sleep now. We can go in the morning.”

Jagur lay on the ground and, within minutes, was breathing peacefully fast asleep. Gaius lay his blanket over Jagur as he slept. Then Gaius sat looking out into the dark night sky wondering about the mysterious story the boy had told. Finally, Gaius could not keep his eyes open any longer and drifted off to sleep.

Early the next morning before the sun had risen over the hills, Gaius and Jagur shared the last of the food Gaius had brought and set out walking west towards Bethlehem. Jagur had Gaius’ blanket wrapped tightly around his shoulders against the cold.

It wasn’t far to Bethlehem and before anyone else was stirring, the boys found their way to the village. They had no idea where they should look for this baby whose birth had been announced. They stood for a moment on the edge of the village. Then Gaius started to walk again. Something seemed to draw him down one narrow lane after another until they stood before the door of a rough shed.

Gaius was sure there must be some mistake. No saviour would be born in such a run-down desolate place. But as they stood before the door, Gaius felt the same warm glow he had experienced when Jagur was telling his strange tale of seeing a mysterious light and hearing voices in the hills. Cautiously, Gaius pushed the door open. Jagur followed close behind still clutching his new friend’s blanket.

When the two boys got inside, they saw shepherds sitting on the ground around a cattle manger where a baby lay. A man and a woman stood gazing fondly down at the infant.

The woman looked up and saw Gaius and Jagur standing awkwardly just inside the door. She beckoned to them. “Come”, she said. “This is Jesus.”

The two boys moved toward the couple. They looked down into the manger where the baby lay. Gaius felt the warm glow inside grow even stronger.

Jagur felt more bold now. He tugged on the sleeve of Gaius’ robe. “This is him”, Jagur whispered. “This is the saviour we heard about in the hills. He is the one who is going to show us the way to life. Don’t you feel it?”

Gaius had to admit he felt something. He didn’t quite know how to describe the unfamiliar feeling. It was as if something stirred deep in his heart. It was not something he ever experienced in the grand palace where he lived in Jerusalem. It was the opposite to anything he felt when he was around the boys and their war games.

At this moment, in this rundown shed, Gaius did not want to be anywhere else in the world. The grand villa filled with powerful important people where Gaius lived seemed like a shabby hut compared to this poor shed inhabited by humble peasants and a baby. There was an air of purity and peacefulness here; Gaius felt something strong stir in his heart.

After a while, the shepherds began to move. Jagur rejoined his friends. They filed quietly out the door, leaving Gaius alone with the little family. The woman looked gently at the young Roman boy peering at her son. She reached out and softly touched Gaius’ face.

She said, “Child, please know that what you have found here today is the strongest force on earth. It is the power of gentleness and love. It will last longer than all the soldiers and all the emperors who ever live. This power lives in your heart; it is who you truly are. Always remember.”

Gaius turned towards the door and walked silently out into the early morning as the sun was beginning to peak over the hills.

As the door creaked shut behind him, Gaius saw Jagur running back towards him. “Wait” Jagur called. Holding the blanket out to Gaius, he said, “I’m sorry
I didn’t mean to take your blanket. I’m not the kind of shepherd who steals things.”

Gaius answered, “No please keep it. I want you to have it.”

“Thank you”, Jagur said, shyly. Then, reaching into a rough bag hanging over his shoulder, Jagur pulled out twelve flat stones and stacked them on the ground in a small pile.

Jagur looked up at Gaius, “A pile of stones,” he said, “It’s a reminder that God is in this place and we have seen the beauty that we share, even though we come from such different worlds”. Then Jagur put his arms around Gaius. He hugged him and said, “Thank you for showing me the way here.” Then Jagur ran to join the other shepherds.

Gaius was left standing alone wondering if perhaps it wasn’t Jagur who had actually showed him the way.