For a few minutes you can leave the hustle of the season behind, while we take you to Bethlehem, a place we’ve spent much time. Come on an armchair journey.
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Maurine and Scot Proctor have spent extensive time in the Holy Land, researching the life of Christ. They have taught the New Testament in the Institute program for many years and have written books and numerous articles on the life of the Savior.
Join our study group and let’s delve into the scriptures in a way that is inspiring, expanding and joyful.
For a few minutes you can leave the hustle of the season behind, while we take you to Bethlehem, a place we’ve spent much time. Come on an armchair journey.
Hello, we are Scot and Maurine Proctor and this is Meridian Magazine’s Come Follow Me podcast. Today we are celebrating Christmas and the title of the lesson is “Good Tidings of Great Joy.”
Scot, we have eleven children and so Christmas Eve for us when they were young could be daunting. After they went to sleep, our Christmas work was just beginning and it was such a big job. I remember being exhausted and looking at the instructions for toys that needed some assembly, seeing that there were 37 steps and thinking how could we ever do it?
Yes, I remember that on the circle where we lived, lights would be on in every house where parents were working away, and then one by one they would go out as parents finished their jobs, but not for us with the extensive work we had to do. Our light was always the last on. 1:00 am, 2:00 am. So tired we almost hurt. When we were finished all eleven children had a spread of presents that looked like Santa’s sleigh had over turned.
But one Christmas morning, I remember, made all that work especially worth it. Our daughter Rachel, who was still little, had asked for a doll for Christmas. She entered the room on Christmas morning, eyes shining, and saw that much-anticipated gift by her stocking and went rushing there with great glee. She hugged the doll and noticed every detail, and immediately became absorbed in play.
After a while, observing that she hadn’t even glanced at any other Christmas present, we asked, “Rachel, look at all these other presents for you.” She turned with astonishment in her voice and said, “Are these all for me?”
Those words are what I feel when I think of the gifts Jesus Christ has given us from Bethlehem to Gethsemane. Are these all for me? How could anyone want more?
He, the Creator, of worlds without number and more stars than we can imagine or count, came as Immanuel, to be with us and share most intimately the heartaches of earth. A God condescending. “I know the thoughts I think toward you,” he said. (Jeremiah 29:11). Is this all for me?
He, who cares for billions of souls, said to “Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find.” Is this personal, generous invitation all for me? For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” 9(Matthew 7:7,8). There is always room at his inn for us. These good gifts from Him are all for me?
When I kneel at the very limits of my endurance, He is there with comfort and assurance. “Peace I give unto you,” (John 14:27) He says. Is this gift all for me?
When I am confused and uncertain how to solve a problem I face, He, who says, “I am more intelligent than they all” (Abraham 3:19) is my counselor and guide. I have access to the source of all wisdom who can see the end from the beginning to help me. Is this all for me?
When I have blundered or been weak and have fallen short, He offers His grace and forgiveness, and then lends me His strength to help me grow. Is this all for me?
I am amazed and astonished that He offers priesthood power, His power, to bless our lives and allow us to bless others. Can His covenant children go forth and serve with priesthood power? Is this all for me?
And does the Lord offer the opportunity for me to make covenants with Him with promises that my finite mind cannot comprehend, but He never forgets? How can I have such blessings offered to me–eternal family, a place with my Father, protection, and a way that is prospered. How overwhelming. Is this all for me?
Can it be that the Savior Himself said that I can be a joint heir with Him, inheriting His characteristics? “Beloved, now we are the sons [and daughters] of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3: 2). Are these promises all for me?
And it delights and overwhelms me that God not only opens a way for me to see His face again and to sup with Him, but He supplies the route, the guide, and the strength to make this journey. Can this be all for me?
We simply stagger at the magnitude of His gifts, and as mortals can scarcely take them in. But each of us can know that the Christmas message is that this is all for us.
Jesus was born a babe in Bethlehem to tell us so.
Ever since I was a child I had this Christmas Eve wish. The night, the lights, the anticipation, ignited a yearning in me, a longing that was beautiful in itself. It was a sense of holiness like a memory.
I had seen nativity scenes acted out, children with crooked halos, shepherds in bathrobes, a mother holding this year’s newest infant—but, in my child’s eye view, I hoped for something more. I thought that on Christmas Eve, somewhere, in some magical way, I could be there at the manger and see Jesus. Maybe I could be in Bethlehem a half a world away, where reality might be counted differently than at home Maybe if you just rounded a corner, your eyes would clear for a moment and there He’d be, all glowing in his mother’s arms.
The whole scene would be complete, donkeys and lambs, sweet-smelling straw, shepherds and wise men—and me. He was a little infant, tender and fragile, and I was a little child, tender and fragile, too, so we’d have an understanding. I could come right up to him with nobody noticing and say how I felt and not be at all embarrassed: “I love you, Jesus. I miss not seeing you”
That sense is why we’ve always loved the movie Mr. Krueger’s Christmas produced by the Church. Remember, Mr. Krueger, played by Jimmy Stewart, is a custodian for a building and a widower, and lives alone in the basement in a shabby apartment. At Christmas, he is unnoticed as all are festive and singing around him. In his imagination we are taken to scenes where he is laughing with children, decorating a grand tree, and even leading the Tabernacle Choir. Finally, he sees the stable, where Mary gazes adoringly at the new Christ child and shepherds surround the manger. He walks into the scene, and no one can see him. In fact, all are frozen in the scene as if Mr. Krueger has broken a time barrier and stopped everything in its place.
But one can see him. It is the baby Jesus who looks at Mr. Krueger, the only One who has clearly seen him and his loneliness. Given the opportunity to talk to the baby for a few moments in private, this is what Mr. Krueger has to say.”
[Scene from Mr. Krueger’s Christmas].
If I could have such a moment with the baby, here’s a little of what I would say, “Every thing that is good in my life has come from you. I can tell you know me—which is a lot because I don’t know myself too well. You smile at me with this eternal reassurance; that gives me hope. It feels as if you’ve surveyed the whole world, and still picked me out to smile at. I think all of us feel that way. But you were with me that time I was so scared when I thought something terrible was about to happen, and you sent a friend to tell me a story about hope. I knew it was you who had sent that friend, because nobody in the world knew how my life was caving in but you.
You held my hand when our daughter died, and I never knew it was possible to feel that much pain so that every cell in my body was agonized. I just wanted to holler out and say it’s not fair. But if I looked up just a second from my pain, I could feel you saying, “I’ve got this one. Trust me.” I did, and you did. I know that I can count on you and it changes everything in my life.” Thank you for coming to earth.
And I think I would be speechless, but if I could utter a word I would say, “Oh dear One—how could I be so blessed to know you—and to feel your love for me personally on a daily basis. I feel your steadying hand in my life. I feel your guidance and your care. My wounds and suffering are healed because of your wounds and suffering. You have been so close at hand this past week as I have lost my precious Mother. With every fiber of my being I thank you, oh Thou Holy One of Israel.
You know, Scot, how I said I had wished as a child to be right at that nativity scene. Well, I did grow up and get to spend lots of time in Bethlehem. You and I have led tours to Israel for years and years, and we have created photographic books. We have been there on those rocky hillsides with shepherds herding their sheep in wandering pathways. We have imagined the angel of the Lord and the chorus that joined singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.” We have learned something about sheep in the process which opens up to our minds one of the names by which the Lord is referred. He is the good shepherd.
Maybe this is one of the reasons the shepherds were chosen to be among the first witnesses. They would be a living metaphor for Him.
The first thing to know about being a shepherd is that it is a very tough job. Sheep have no way to defend themselves from predators, like wolves in the night. They don’t bite. They aren’t camouflaged. They have no poison, no claws. They are completely vulnerable—like us without the Lord’s help. He tells us “without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). That’s true.
Because of that vulnerability, sheep must be guarded day and night. You can tell the difference between sheep who have had a good shepherd and one who doesn’t care. The sheep of the fold of a good shepherd will be healthy, have energy and vibrant fleece. Those sheep of a shepherd who is not constantly vigilant will become scraggly and weak. Many will die.
It’s ironic that being a good shepherd requires such vigilance because nobody in class-conscious Jerusalem would have regarded a shepherd as being of any account. This hard work did not bring prestige. But the Lord defines what a good shepherd is like in John 10.
12 But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and aleaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.
13 The ahireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.
The predators of a sheep are fierce and can tear them apart easily because they are so defenseless. Thieves can steal them. However exhausted the good shepherd is, however much he might want to do something else, he cannot leave his sheep. He will give his life for them, as of course Jesus did. No hireling will do this, but will flee at the first sign of a lion or a wolf.
Then the Lord tells us something else about what a good shepherd is. He knows his sheep and they know his voice and trust it.
To understand this better, you have to see how sheep are folded at night. All over these hills of Bethlehem are caves where shepherds put their sheep at night. Or they might build a sheepfold of stone or wood to keep them in. At any rate, there is only one door to these sheepfold, the place where a good shepherd will guard his flock.
Now sometimes more than one flock is kept together at night, with more than one shepherd responsible. In the morning, when the shepherd calls his flock, only his sheep respond to his voice. The other sheep will not move, even if he calls them. The sheep of a flock only respond to the voice of their own shepherd. Thus, it is easy to separate flocks of sheep after they have bedded together in a fold. The voice of their shepherd is what they will hear and respond to. “My sheep hear my voice,” the Lord says, “and I know them, and they follow me.”
There is a difference between a shepherd and a sheepherder. Shepherds lead their sheep because they know his voice, while shepherds drive the flock. Sheep don’t know the voice of strangers.
I remember your trying desperately to get a photo of a lamb in Israel. We begged it to come and it wouldn’t budge, but then the shepherd came over, the sheep responded immediately and then sat on his lap.
This thinking about good shepherds reminds me of Psalm 23, where the narrator is speaking as if he were a lamb to depict the irreplaceable job of the good shepherd. It captures the idea,“He who watches over you does not slumber or sleep” (Psalm 121:4) because he is a good shepherd.
Some of these ideas we are about to share come from a book by W. Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 The Psalm begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
You can trust in this shepherd because he has such fondness for his sheep. “He is the shepherd for whom no trouble is too great as he cares for his flock. He will go to no end of trouble and labor to supply them with the finest grazing, the richest pasturage, ample winter feed, and clean water. He will spare Himself no pains to provide shelter from storms, protection from ruthless enemies and the diseases and parasites to which sheep are so susceptible.
“From early dawn and until late at night this utterly selfless Shepherd is alert to the welfare of His flock. For the diligent sheepman rises early and goes out first thing every morning without fail to look over his flock. It is the initial, intimate contact of the day. With a practiced searching, sympathetic eye he examines the sheep to see that the are fit and content and able to be on their feet.
In an instant he can tell if they have been molested during the night—whether any are ill or if there are some which require special attention…He sleeps as it were with one eye open.”
So then in Psalm 23, the narrator who is us, who are sheep, also tells us, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Because we are not around sheep very often, we do not realize what a major pronouncement this is. Though they need to rest very much, they don’t lie down unless certain requirements are met.
First, owing to their timidity they don’t lie down readily because of fear. Any little thing can spook them and then they start to run. Do you remember when we were in the midst of a herd of sheep in England, and suddenly something spooked them and they started to run? We called it a lambpede, which I thought was one of our better jokes, but the fact is sheep stand ready to flee for their lives at the least disturbance—a dog, a cat, the slamming of a car door. They are terrorized, so you can see why lying down in green pastures is an unusual state for them.
It takes a good shepherd to quiet and reassure them. His very presence changes their confidence. “His presence in the picture throws a different light on the whole scene. Suddenly things are not half so black nor nearly so terrifying.” When the Lord maketh us to lie down in green pastures, he is strengthening us against fear and giving us a sound mind.
The second reason that sheep won’t lie down, is like many other animals, they have a dominance issue going on. There is among them competition, tension and rivalry. With chickens you call it a pecking order, but sheep do the same thing.
“Generally an arrogant, cunning, and domineering old ewe will be boss of any bunch of sheep. She maintains her position of prestige by butting and driving other ewes or lambs away from the best grazing or favorite bedgrounds. Succeeding her in precise order the other sheep all establish and maintain their exact position in the flock by using the same tactics of butting…at those below and around them.
“Because of this rivalry, tension and competition for status and self-assertion, there is friction in the flock. The sheep cannot lie down and rest in contentment…Almost they must stand up and defend their rights and contest the challenge of the intruder. “
Of course, this is detrimental to the flock, but as soon as the good shepherd comes on the scene this competition and fighting stops. In contrast to this, the sheep of the Good Shepherd can lie before the still waters. Such competition and tension disappears in His presence.
“I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8 NIV).
Of course, only well-fed sheep can lie down, that is why it must be in green pastures. Sheep grazing areas in Israel are not usually green, but dry and rocky. It takes a diligent, self-sacrificing shepherd who would find green pastures to lead his sheep.
How fitting that the birth of the Good Shepherd would be announced to those on a hillside herding sheep. This metaphor unfolds so much about our relationship with Him, but He is also the lamb.
We chose to spend much of the day in Bethlehem one year on April 6. We, of course, went to celebrate the birth of Christ. In the evening as the sun was getting low in the sky we sat on a winding rock wall that separated us from a hillside dotted with sheep, the sun outlining each one with light, like they had golden fleece.
Our eyes scanned the hillside for the shepherd, finally fixing on a bearded man in a flowing robe carrying a lamb tenderly close to his chest, his arms wrapped around the little creature. We watched the lamb with some affection and wondered: Had this lamb strayed, been lost? The man picked his way with sandaled feet carefully across the stony hillside, down a slope and back up again, past the tent of his family to the wall where we sat. Here, we thought was an image of what a good shepherd looks like.
Then in an instant the image changed. Now we were no longer being taught about the Good Shepherd. He was gone. Instead, we were shown why Christ was the Lamb.
The Bedouin shepherd tenderly brought the submissive lamb, laid it gently on a rock on the stone wall not far from where we were sitting, and then with a swift stroke, he slit its throat. Tonight was their holy feast, and a lamb was needed.
It was a shocking moment completely unexpected, the reality of sacrifice suddenly vivid and graphic before us, no longer comfortably removed into a clean and sterile abstraction.
The lamb’s blood spurted and splattered and then flowed freely. Then when the little creature had squalled and struggled its last, the Bedouin tied the body to the stone wall just a few hundred feet from us. Poor little lamb. We were drawn to look and to turn away, but turning away conquered as the wall became flooded and stained red
Here was a lamb that had gone willingly to the slaughter. For us, it had become more than a little animal. It had become the Lamb who had also gone willingly, who had suffered for our sins, “Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup and shrink” (D&C 19:18).
Would we ever be able to think about the atonement the same way again? Could we comfortably distance ourselves from it? We couldn’t take a picture of the scene before us. Something about it was much too sacred.
So there Jesus is, the Good Shepherd who cares endlessly without slumber or sleep for his flock. And there Jesus is the Lamb who makes the ultimate sacrifice for us renting the veil between us and God. All that waited in store for that little baby born that night in Bethlehem.
How could he make that kind of sacrifice? Is this all for me? And for you?
No wonder there is such a spirit of good will at Christmas. We feel light penetrating the darkness we too often experience in this world. We know that if we were in that manger, the baby would look at us as someone He knew and give us a smile of eternal reassurance. We know that we are valued and remembered and purchased with the dearest price.
We had a sweet experience once at Christmas that made us feel known and loved. We had just moved from Utah to Virginia, feeling somewhat like the baby eagles who are pushed from their cliff-high nests to try their wings.
Leaving Utah had been like leaving a nest for me, because there I had a lifetime of friends and family, a network of support that cushioned every blow. Grocery shopping at Macy’s always took much longer than I planned, because around each new aisle I ran into a friend, whose eyes lit with recognition, and we’d catch up.
It was all such sweet familiarity. Wherever we went, we ran into old college chums, second cousins, fellow writers. But most of all, around our kitchen table still sat eight of our children and we would only be taking four of them when we moved. The rest would be staying home in Utah for college.
“Dinner is my favorite time of the day,” our son, Andy, regularly told us. It was a time of connection. He had been the sophomore class president in Utah , but now in a school of 4600, he was just the oddball from someplace in the West, whose standards were a little squeaky clean.
We had moved just before school started, and now with Christmas coming, I was eager to find some new seasonal traditions that would tie us to our Virginia home. One day, I picked up the local Fairfax newspaper and scanned the listings for the upcoming Christmas events. I landed on one I thought would be memorable. It seemed the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band joined with several church choirs for a Holiday Sing-A-Long at Wolf Trap, the National Park for the Performing Arts. It was on Sunday after church, and it was free.
Here it was. A possibility for starting a new tradition in this place that still felt so foreign, and I presented the idea to the family, who thought it sounded fun.
The day came, and we piled in our car after church still in our Sunday clothes. Staying in our Sunday clothes had long been the Sabbath tradition in our family, and so this day as we drove to Wolf Trap, Maurine had on a thin, wool jacket she’d worn to church; and I had only my suit coat> Our sons had on only light coats, and our little girls had bare, thin legs sticking out of their Sunday dresses.
It was a bitterly cold day, but we envisioned finding a park, scurrying into the auditorium, and being warmed. It was the ignorance of a newcomer.
We drove into the massive parking lot, jammed with cars, and as we looked around at other families, we could see immediately that something was wrong. They were bundled up like Arctic trappers. Woolen hats pulled over their ears; tasseled, knitted scarves around their necks, quilts and blankets bundled around them. They wore gloves and carried steaming jugs of hot chocolate. They stamped across the parking lot in fur-lined boots.
We followed the trail of people toward the sounds of the U.S. Marine band playing Christmas carols with a growing suspicion that we had badly miscalculated
What I hadn’t known and didn’t entirely realize until we were right at the entrance was that Wolf Trap was an outdoor pavilion. It had a beautiful stage festooned with 10-foot wreathes, a roof that sloped up covering the rows of seats, but it was unheated and the sides were open so the chilling breeze came through, ruddying up the cheeks of the singers and quickly numbing any exposed fingers until they ached.
Virginia can have some temperate days in the winter, but this wasn’t one of those. In all the years we have since gone to Wolf Trap, no year has seen such a biting temperature that gnawed at our warm flesh, freezing our extremities, stiffening our arms and legs.
You’d think at that point we’d wise up and leave, but the band in their bright, red uniforms and brass buttons were playing a piece of the Nutcracker, that delighted the senses. We’d been given a book with the words to the carols that the audience would soon be joining in to sing. We had looked forward to this Christmas outing to have a new tradition in our family, so needy to connect in our new community.
We sat down on ice-cold metal chairs and hoped that the warmth of those several thousand bodies around us would lessen the impact of the freezing weather that we were already experiencing as pain.
We were part way through singing, “Joy to the World”, singing at the top of our lungs, because in the mass of singers in the audience, no one could hear our mistakes or faltering voices. We were singing like a concourse of angels, singing like our voices could roll across the entire earth, inviting the rocks and stones to arise and join us. We were people of all faiths, but we loved why we had come to sing.
Joy to the world
The Lord is come
Let earth receive her king.
Suddenly the people two rows in front of us passed up a blanket. “We see you’re cold,” they said. How could they have noticed? Did they have eyes in the back of their heads? Was this icy night a good time to give up an extra blanket? They did more.
“Our gloves have liners. It makes it like two pairs of gloves.” They passed up their glove liners and then our hands were warmed.
Others chipped in. All around us people were passing “extra” hats and scarves our direction. “You might need this,” they said. “Does this help?” Before the next song, we were bundled up with donations from people all around us.
“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” we all joined together like the original chorus that came to the shepherds, “Glory to the newborn king.”
We all stood together for the chorus from Handel’s Messiah. “Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” I felt as one with everyone around me. There were no more strangers. All these people I didn’t know were shouting the same praises I felt, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah. For the Lord, God, omnipotent reigneth.” Bundled up in our nearest neighbors’ blankets and hats, I felt as warm as I ever had.
The last song was “Silent Night” and the Wolf Trap tradition is for each person to light a candle on the last verse and exit in a reverent recessional, the pool of candles a glow against the early darkness of a winter night. As we passed back our borrowed things with our gratitude, everyone around us was lighting their candle.
Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light.
We joined the sea of people exiting the arena and moving out on to the lawn, shorn back to our thin coats. I carried our five-year-old, Michaela, her pale, thin legs sticking out from her dress, exposed now to even colder air. She has always been a wisp, who in years to come would make as her New Year’s resolution with little conviction, “Eat more, maybe.” This night her legs looked and felt like scrawny icicles.
Suddenly out of the darkness as we walked along, a woman came up and wrapped a green blanket around those naked legs. Warmth made her snuggle closer to me and he said to the kind woman, “Thank you so much. We’ll follow you to your car, and return your blanket.”
“Oh no,” she said, “That’s for her. I’m a grandmother.”
In the darkness, I didn’t see her face clearly. I didn’t get her name, before she moved back into the flowing crowd.
Michaela stayed bundled in the blanket all the way home. She slept with it that night and gave it a name. It became her “kindness blanket.” She slept with it for years to come, and the funny thing was, so did I. So did all of us. We slept each night and rose each day with the memory of the kindness of strangers whose faces we don’t know and names we didn’t learn who wanted to keep us warm against an icy night.
The woman was a true follower of the Good Shepherd, and she was a good shepherd herself, watching out for our little lamb who was shivering in the cold. All the people who passed their gloves and blankets and scarves to us that night were good shepherds, watching out for the vulnerable in their midst.
Merry Christmas. Maybe one of the best things we can do is help to bring the light of that star and that child to each other during this season. Thanks to Paul Cardall for the music that began and ended this podcast. We’re Scot and Maurine Proctor and this has been Meridian Magazine’s Come Follow Me podcast. See you next week to study the rest of the book of Revelation.