The Christmas season is upon us, and my family is starting a new tradition this year of unwrapping a new Christmas book each day leading up to Christmas. We owned several winter/Christmas themed books already, but we needed to add to our collection, so I began searching for some old favorites. After sharing some of these stories with my daughter, I realized that some of them were fairly dark:
“The Small One” by Charles Tazewell, is about a donkey who is too small and too old to do the heavy work required, and must be sold, but nobody will buy this sorry creature except the tanner. Just when the young owner has given up hope of saving his beloved donkey’s life, a man comes along. He doesn’t have much money, but he has a pregnant wife, and a long journey ahead of him to a little town called Bethlehem…
“A Tale of Three Trees” is a folk tale about one tree who hopes to be made into a treasure chest, another who dreams of being a great sailing ship for kings, and a third who longs to remain on the hilltop forever, pointing proudly to the heavens. All three are cut down, and the first is turned into a feedbox for animals, the second into a humble fishing boat, and the third is hewn into rough beams and left in a lumber yard. Years pass as the trees each mourn their dreams. But one day, the feedbox is surprised when it is used to hold a baby, the fishing boat carries a man who can calm a storm, and the third is made into a cross.
In “the Other Wise Man,” by Henry Van Dyke, Artaban plans to join his fellow Magi to give gifts to a newborn king. On his way to meet his companions, he is delayed when he stops to help a dying man on the road. When he gets to Bethlehem, he is too late: the holy family has fled to Egypt. Herod’s soldiers arrive to kill all the baby boys, and he saves a child by bribing the soldier who comes for him. He spends the next 33 years searching to no avail, gradually giving away all of the wealth he had brought for Jesus except for one pearl. He finally arrives in Jerusalem only to discover that the King for whom he has been searching is about to be crucified. As he rushes to see, he encounters a girl who is to be sold into slavery to pay off her father’s debts. He buys her freedom with his final treasure, just as Jesus dies on the cross. He is injured during the earthquake, and is ushered into heaven with words from Matthew 25:40 “Inasmuch as you have done to the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me.”
Why do I love these stories so much? These are tales of broken dreams: A worthless donkey destined for the glue factory; Trees filled with hopes for great purpose, being used in lowly, demeaning ways; A Magi who spent his whole life searching for the King, but arrives empty-handed only to find him dying.
But more than that, these are tales of redemption: The worthless donkey carries Mary to Bethlehem and is present at the birth of the Christ child. The manger tree holds the greatest treasure in the world, the fishing boat tree carries the King of Kings, and the final tree stands high on its hilltop, pointing the world to Heaven. Artaban’s life goal was to meet Jesus and give him the finest gifts money could buy, and though he thought his mission a failure, he learns in the end that every act of kindness, every generous gift was given to God, and his faithful seeking came to an end when he met the King face to face in His glorious kingdom.
These are not just stories, they are our stories. How many of us feel, like the donkey, that we have nothing to offer anyone? How many of us dreamed like the trees of a perfect job and grand life, only to find ourselves working for low-wages outside our chosen field just to pay off our student loans? How many of us feel like our whole life has been wasted on a failed mission? We all need redemption.
The donkey wasn’t chosen because he was special, he became special because he was chosen. The roughly hewn trees held no intrinsic beauty or worth of their own, but they became timeless symbols of the greatest story ever told because of who they held. Artaban spent his whole life hoping to pay tribute to the new King, without realizing that he already was serving him everywhere he went. Jesus made them beautiful. Jesus made them treasures. Jesus fulfilled their dreams in ways they never could have guessed.
So friends, if you question your value, know that Christ has deemed you precious enough to die for. If you feel unworthy, remember that Jesus has offered himself to be judged in your place, so that when God looks at you, he doesn’t see the crude vessel, he sees his perfect Son. If you feel lost and searching, God will meet you where you are. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21