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“Immanuel in the Manger”

Matthew 1:18-23
Bob DeGray
December 25, 2005

Key Sentence

I wanted my son to grow up among his people.


Matthew 1:18-23
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." 22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us."

        “Why, father? Why do we have to move again?” Javan looked down at his son and sighed. In their previous moves Theodore had been too small to question things, but now, at age 13, he wanted to know what was going on, and Javan knew the time had come to tell him his own story. Javan laid aside the fabric he was finishing for a customer. “Let’s walk out to the seawall and talk.”

        Javan and Theodore sat on one of the benches overlooking the ocean. The sun was bright, and the tall ships moved back and forth across the harbor of Pontus. This was not Javan’s original home town, nor that of his wife Elena, but it had been a good home to their small family these past six years. But the increasing vigilance of Hexstasis and his spies meant a move was necessary. Javan wondered how much Theodore knew of his own history. The time had come for him to know it all.

        Long ago when the world was young the High King ruled in distant lands across the sea, and our land of Maritania was a wilderness, populated only by the beasts and birds. Then the High King decided to plant a colony here on these nearer shores, bringing with him some of the Dunatoi who rule across the sea, and many of our people, to give us a new land in which to love and serve him. And it was so. The High King’s fleet sailed the Great Sea, and the High King himself made landfall on the island we call ‘First Landing’, several hundred miles offshore. Then the fleet sailed through the Gulf of Nisia to found Great Harbor, the capital and chief port of our realm. On the high ground the King and the Dunatoi crafted the castle and fortress of Irenia, the citadel of peace, from which the Dunatoi would guide this land with compassion and justice and power. For the High King knew he himself would not always stay, but would live here for a season and at other times be in his distant kingdom.

        So Maritania was established, and men and women spread out along the shores, founding Pontus and Lymena and Thallasos, moving in along the rivers to found agricultural cities like Euphora, and eventually outposts like Poymane beyond the mountains. For centuries peace, happiness and prosperity grew. The bond of the people to the High King never wavered, and their bond to the land grew strong, so that it was said that the love of the king and the life of the land flowed in their veins. The High King himself sanctioned this belief, and declared that forever there would be men and women in Maritania in whom his love lived, and that the very life of the land itself would be bound up into the hearts of his people, so that if the people were ever destroyed the land itself would rise in torment and founder beneath the waves. In every generation there were a few among the people, often less than a dozen, in whom this love and this life were focused, and they were called the Chosen of Maritania, and were it’s natural caretakers and guardians.

        Though the High King continued to guide through the Dunatoi, the Council of the Chosen was soon convened. Meeting in the great Council Chamber of Irenia, they consulted with the Dunatoi in the crafting of laws and decrees, oversaw the collection of taxes, distributed aid and compassion to the needy, and pronounced the just punishment of the few who took advantage of others.

        But the happiness was not to last. About four hundred years after Maritania was founded, one mighty among the Dunatoi came from across the sea. During this time the High King was not in residence in Maritania, but had for some years been away across the Great Ocean. All assumed that this Hexstatis came from the High King, though many have since doubted this. He soon became the chief voice of the Dunatoi. He pushed for progress and growth for Maritania, and was always at the forefront, using his powers to influence events, people, and even at times nature itself.

        Soon Hexstatis began to exert a disturbing level of control even over the Council. He appointed to it men and women who did not appear to be Chosen, and greatly expanded their numbers. The people of Maritania had always trusted the Dunatoi to correctly discern those who had the love of the High King and the life of the land within them. But these new appointees gave no evidence of those qualities, as the Council approved measure after measure that placed unjust burdens on both the land and the people. Taxes, which had been fair and equitable began to burden the poor, while care for their needs was eliminated. Building projects were multiplied, and slave labor was used for the building. Altars began to appear throughout the land, ostensibly places to gather and extol the High King, but soon filled with priests and images of Hexstatis. Many served him, but others learned to hate the Council and the Dunatoi and served from fear rather than love for the High King’s advisors.

        Finally, some years later, a day came when Hexstatis felt his power secure. The Council by this time was a deeply divided body, with the Faithful, the true Chosen a minority, and the traitors in firm command. And yet the Love of the King and the Life of the Land still rested in those truly Chosen, and there was nothing Hexstasis could do about it, since this was by the decree of the High King himself. So on the day we call Blood and Darkness, Hexstasis openly declared himself Tyran, and sent his followers and priests to seize the Chosen, and to chain them to the walls of the Council Chamber as blood hostages. Each of the Chosen was guarded day and night, with a knife pointed straight at his heart. For the High King, knowing of this revolt as he knows all things, is yet unwilling to come and retake the land by force. He has established the law and will not change it, that if the Chosen in whom flows the life of the land are destroyed, Maritania itself will rise in torment and sink under the sea. So Hexstasis finds the Chosen in each generation and from their 33rd year he holds them hostage, so that if the High King sets foot in Maritania, the priests will plunge their daggers and the land and the people the High King loves will die.

        Not content with this evil, Hexstatis from time to time offers one of the chosen as a human sacrifice. For he knows, in the greatness of his malice, hat he can kill some Chosen in each generation without arousing the wrath of the land. And he does so, for he covets their blood, and consumes it to add to his power and to buy worship and to daunt the faithful and rebellious among the people. Yet there is so much love and life in the Chosen that often, at the moment of these sacrifices, the very land itself shudders and groans, as if it’s hold on the earth has been momentarily weakened.

        So evil has triumphed for three hundred years. And yet the faithful are not left without hope. From time to time the voices of the Chosen are raised in the land. Prior to their 33rd year the Chosen often elude the Tyran’s capture and give us prophecies against him. They foretell the return of the High King to this land from which he is exiled. They say that a day will come when the life of the land and the love of the High King will be focused not in a few Chosen, but in One Chosen, so that only one blood hostage will be bound in the council chamber. Another prophet has told us that the One Chosen will be the High King’s son and that through Him a way will be made so that the High King can return to Maritania. These prophecies are recorded in a carefully guarded book we call the Book of the Faithful.

        And all these prophecies are important to us, Theodore, to your mother and I and to you. You know that I grew up, along with my older brother Eli, in the outpost town of Poymane, beyond the mountains. As boys we cared for my father’s flocks, but as a young man I learned the art of weaving, and settled in town. I married your mother Elena when we were in our twenties, and for a number of years we were, sadly, childless. But your uncle Eli lived nearby and we were as close as men as we had been as boys, and life was good.

        You never got to meet Eli - because he was one of the Chosen. There is no doubt the love of the King and the life of the Land were strong in my brother. As a youngster this wasn’t obvious to anyone, but as he grew into adulthood we began to see that he had the gift of prophesy. He began to tell us that the day of our rescue by the One Chosen was near. We feared that Hexstatis would soon discover Eli’s chosenness, and that Eli would be taken to Great Harbor to live out his life as a blood hostage, but we vaguely hoped this horrible fate could be avoided or delayed because our town was so remote. But even as an outpost we had many of Tyran’s spies inour town. There never was much hope Eli could escape detection.

        As he entered his 33rd year, Eli’s prophecies became more pointed. I won’t share them now; soon you’ll read them in the book. It was only his last prophecy that changed everything, and it was given to your mother and me. He came to our house one evening in the fall, about fourteen years ago. He said the High King was speaking to him about us, that while not Chosen, we had been chosen to receive a trust from the High King. We asked what that meant and he couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us.

        Instead he told us we must set out immediately to the west and find our way to First Landing, where we would receive the High King’s trust. Your mother and I were in shock. While we longed for the return of the High King to our land, we had never pictured ourselves playing any role in his work. If the prophecy had come from anybody but Eli we would have dismissed it immediately, for a journey to First Landing was nearly impossible. A previous Chosen named Micaiah had prophesied that the One Chosen would be given to Maritania on that island. The Tyran took such things seriously, and had quickly established a blockade to prevent anyone from reaching it. And even to try we would have to first reach Great Harbor, far over the Pansoros mountains. The passes over the mountains would be dangerous with the approach of winter, and soon blocked entirely by snow.

        So I delayed, Theodore, hoping at least to wait until spring. Eli’s command could not have been clearer, but I delayed, and I often wonder how things would have gone if I hadn’t. Eli and I began to argue, almost for the only time in our lives, and Eli’s sense of urgency was so strong he began to be reckless about where and when he spoke to me in the High King’s name. He even went so far as to take hold of me in the town square and proclaim to several there that I was defying the High King’s command. I’m sure that incident, if not others, was noticed by the Tyran’s spies.

        This went on for almost a month, with winter coming on. Then one night Eli’s message was confirmed. I was asleep and into my dream came first a great fear which I couldn’t account for, then a great light. When I turned I saw one of the Dunatoi, standing in radiance above the silhouette of the Pansoros mountains. He spoke with a voice of thunder: ‘Javan, why have you not answered the summons given through Eli. Be strong, Javan, and do not fear. Bring your wife Elena and come over the mountains; go to the island as you were commanded. Thus says the High King.’ When I woke the vision was still clear. I shared it with Elena and she said she’d been ready to go for weeks; that we could leave by morning.

        But even as I had been receiving the High King’s summons in my sleep, my brother’s house nearby was surrounded and assailed by the Tyran’s militia; as Elena and I prepared to depart, a friend came to tell us Eli had been taken and would be sent that day with the last autumn caravan to Great Harbor. There we knew he would become a blood hostage in the council chamber.

        His capture made our journey even more perilous. We had to assume we had been seen with Eli, and would soon be betrayed. We quickly left the house and went into the fields, spending that next day hiding out in a shepherd’s hut. We would have to travel at night, and by foot, and would make much slower time than the mounted caravan carrying Eli away from us. And we did. That trip over the mountains was perhaps the most miserable time of our lives. The caravan ahead avoided the worst of the snows, but though only a day behind, we were caught by the weather.

        The route was well marked, and we could see signs of the recent caravan, but even when we weren’t walking in a storm, we struggled against strong wind or drifted snow. Your mother had packed all we had, scant supplies for the seven days it normally took to cross the mountains. But on the seventh day we still had a third of the trip to go, and began to be seriously hungry. On the eighth day we finally reached the top of West Pass, but it was not until the tenth day that we found ourselves above the last long slope down into the valley of Euphora. Dazed and frostbitten we dreaded that long slog. Then your mother had one of her usual brilliant ideas. Stripping boughs from the pine trees, she made small sleds, like those used by children in Poymane. Climbing aboard, we slid down that slope. Faster and faster, we descended in minutes what would take hours to walk. When we hugged at the bottom we praised the High King for bringing us through the mountains.

        Now came a different kind of danger. The coastal plain of Maritania was then, as now, more heavily populated than the outpost areas. We had to assume that in every town along our route our names and descriptions had been published. We traveled at night, yet we had to go into towns along the way to buy food. The closest call came in one small town when a surly soldier stared hard at us as we hastily completed our purchases. When we turned to go he blew his whistle and raised the alarm. It was only by the swiftness of our flight to a well placed haystack that we escaped.

        But the greatest danger of all was in Great Harbor. Because of the slowness of our journey we reached the city nearly two weeks after the caravan bearing your uncle had arrived. He had been placed in the council chamber as a blood hostage. But your mother and I had hardly been in the city for half a day before we heard the heralds in the temple square announcing that there would be a sacrifice of the newest Chosen. Whether Hexstasis did this out of fear or simple lust for blood I can’t tell you, but I think he sensed the strength of Eli’s Chosenness and wanted to prove to himself that he was more powerful than the love of the king and the life of the land.

        Elena and I skulked in the alleyways until sunset, when the sacrifice would be performed. It was winter; sunset was early and cold, with a promise of snow. As darkness fell, bonfires blazed on the corners of the temple platform. In the flickering light we could see Hexstatis himself, dark and blazing, ascend the platform and approach the altar from the rear. Then my brother was led out, bound, chained, and supported between two burly guards. A third man, a Tyran priest, walked backward in front of him, pointing a long gleaming knife straight at his heart. Hexstatis yelled so all the crowd could hear: “Behold the blood hostage; behold the so-called Chosen in whom the love of the deposed high king and the life of my Maritania are purported to run. This man’s blood is hostage to me: his life is forfeit to me and I choose to sacrifice it. Do not waver in unbelief, but know that I am the Tyran of this land. Forget the pitiful love of the powerless High King; bow to me.”

        At this Eli was laid on the altar. Hexstasis took the gleaming knife from the priest and plunged it swiftly into my brother’s heart. Then he grabbed a jeweled chalice, caught some of the spurting blood and lifted it to his lips. The moment he did so an earthquake greater than any before felt in Great Harbor shook the very foundations of the earth. All around the square buildings cracked and lintels fell. The crowd screamed in fear, but above their voices screamed the Tyran; “Traitors, traitors in our midst. This man’s brother is here with his wife. Find and destroy them!”

        Most of the crowd was too panicked and chaotic to respond but Elena and I saw several fear stricken faces turned in our direction, and people began to point toward us and come toward us. At that moment a strong hand gripped my shoulder. I turned to fight whoever had tried to seize me, and saw a man in the uniform of a ship’s captain. “Come, Javan,” he said, “the High King has sent me to find you.” Pulling us into a doorway, he at the same time waved two men forward. They pointed away from us and yelled “they went this way.” While the crowd was distracted we entered the building and went down a set of stairs, underground, in the direction of the wharf. After descending for several minutes we hurried along a narrow tunnel which soon emerged onto the main harbor road, far below the fortress on its cliff.

        Even now the captain did not pause to answer our questions. We had to trust his mention of the High King as he led us toward a tired looking trading vessel. The name on the back said “The Good Hope”. “This is my ship,” he said “get aboard and get below. I’ll further distract the pursuit.” Elena and I glanced at each other briefly, but obeyed. What choice did we have? A sailor met us at the gangplank, and his us in the ship’s hold, showing us a hatch where we could further hide in the bilge if the pursuit came aboard. But we heard no human noises during that long night in the harbor, only the sound of the rising wind as it rocked and rattled the ships. Alone in the dark, we finally had time to cling to each other and weep. Under the High King’s rule my brother would have been one of those who guided and guarded with wisdom and compassion. In the Tyran’s perversion he was the innocent victim of hatred and blood lust. No wonder the land writhed with his death.

        Some hours later, toward dawn, when our physical and emotional exhaustion had finally forced sleep on us, we were visited by the captain. He told us his name, Matthias, and said he was faithful to the High King. One of the uncaptured Chosen had come a few days earlier, and given him our description and told him exactly where and when to find us. He had also told the captain that he must dare the blockade and take his ship to First Landing. “We leave at dawn” Matthias said, “and if I’m any judge of weather, it will be this winter storm that we worry about most.”

        We left in the grey dawn, and as soon as we did the ship began to roll and buck. Matthias brought Elena and me up to the deck. “I expect you may suffer seasickness in this weather,” he said. “Being on deck will help. Try looking out at the horizon.”

        It didn’t help. Elena was fine - I’d have to say your mother is a natural born seaman. But I’m not. I’d almost been nauseous sitting at the wharf. It was worse in the harbor, and I knew it would be even worse in the Gulf of Nisia and out in the open sea. But more than ever in my grief I was committed to this path.

        The blessing of that voyage is that never once in hundreds of miles did we see the ships that formed the blockade of First Landing. If the Good Hope had once come under their guns we would have been lost, for as a coastal trader, she carried no weapons, and had barely half the speed of a warship. The curse of that voyage is that the same weather that protected us battered us, delayed us, and almost un-masted us. Captain Matthias turned out to be an able handler of the ship under even the most extreme circumstances, and his crew braved wind, snow and ice to keep her underway. The ice and snow built up on the sails and spars, and some gave way under the weight, but the crew re-rigged and jury-rigged and kept us moving. Nonetheless it took us nearly five days to cross to First Landing, five days in which, I’m sorry to say, I was nearly incapacitated by seasickness, and your mother took the lead in consulting with the captain and preparing for the encounter.

        Old maps of the island showed only one bay, on the south-east side. On the evening of the fifth day we limped into that cove. Mercifully, the weather began to lessen as we entered, so that we could see to anchor. The cove was not a perfect harbor, but there was a flat beach at one side, now covered with snow down to the water line. Behind the beach was a ragged forest of snow covered fir trees. From one end of the vista to the other we could see no sign of life. After all we had done to get there, it would have been a horrible let down to find that the prophecies had deceived us, and that all the risk was for nothing.

        But before our minds could begin to dwell on that, a figure appeared among the trees. Walking to the edge of the beach, he waved to us. Even at this distance we could tell he was one of the Dunatoi, for he shown with a repressed light. Quickly Matthias had the ship’s boat cleared and lowered. Elena and I, along with the Captain and a couple of crewman descended and rowed ashore. I was weak enough by this point that I almost fell from the ship, but your mother was filled with an energy and anticipation I had rarely seen before. Neither one of us knew what was about to happen, but she had some foresight that had her leaning into the adventure.

        The Dunatos waited on the shore until we landed, and then turned without speaking and walked back through the trees. We climbed from the boat and began to trudge up the shore after him, slipping in the snow. I noticed that Matthias had stayed with the crew by the boat. Turning back, I gestured to him, but he shook his head, saying, “This is as far as I am to go.” As Elena and I continued into the trees, the path climbed steeply, then leveled off. Some minutes later we entered a clearing.

        The sun had broken through a gap in the clouds, and the clearing was dazzlingly white. At the far end stood a tent, it’s sides rich with color. The Dunatos bowed, pulled back the door of the tent and spoke his first word: “Enter.” My heart caught in my throat, but Elena pulled me forward. Inside, our eyes were drawn to a mature man in a simple woolen cloak, sitting beside a baby’s cradle. Elena stepped forward and dropped to her knees, pulling me down beside her. Nothing about the man revealed his identity, but with every fiber of our being we knew we were in the presence of the High King. “Welcome,” he said “thank you for coming so far in such great peril. Javan, I had intended the journey to be easier. I grieve with your for the loss of your brother, and for all who suffer and die under the impostor’s hand.”

        He rose: “It is time for me to do something about the slavery of my people. The very laws by which I established Maritania prevent me from returning as conqueror, for with the death of the Chosen the land will rise in torment and sink into this cold sea. In that, at least, Hexstasis is right. But my son, the One Chosen will do what Hexstasis can not foresee, for in him both my love and the life of the land will be perfect and complete - and you yourself, Elena, will see both his defeat and his victory.”

        “Come.” He gestured us over to the baby bed. Rising, Elena pressed forward to see, and I followed with fear. And there you were, Theodore, only days old, your tiny red face poking out among the tightly woven blankets. The High King lifted you from the bed and placed you in your mother’s arms. “Javan, I have chosen you and Elena and my people in Maritania to care for my son, and to raise him to his destiny. You will name him Theodore, for he is my gift to you. He is, as you see him, no more than a fragile babe, and I entrust him to your keeping and your care. Guard him well and guide him and raise him in peace and safety. When the time comes, share with him my words. Tell him that in him is the life of the land, and greatly though I love him, I wanted him to grow up among his own people. In his person I am now returning to my land of Maritania, and in him, the One Chosen, I will break the bondage of the blood hostages. I will not tell you more, for it would be too much for you to bear; but call him Epiphanes, for he is my presence among you, and Soterlaos, for he will save his people from the evil that has bound them.”

        “Go quickly. I cannot bear this parting. Raise him as your own. Be mother and father to him. But do not cling too tightly, for if you do your sorrow will match my own.”

        With those words the light in the tent rose to such an intensity that we had to close our eyes, and Elena instinctively covered your face. A flash without noise penetrated our closed eyelids, and when it passed, we found ourselves standing in an empty glade, into which snow was beginning again to fall. And the only proof of the reality of the encounter was you: the one entrusted to our care.