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Main Street Community Church, Frodsham

: Practice faithful presence

Following the King: The Mayor’s Story

Sunday Morning talk given by Richard Spilman on .

The total length is . It has been encoded from cassette tape and is presented here in four sections:

  1. A brief introduction to the presentation (audio: ).
  2. The first part of The Mayor’s Story (audio: ).
  3. Text of the short section missing in audio as the cassette tape was turned over.
  4. The final part of The Mayor’s Story (audio: ).

Introduction

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Stories … are a way that people used to pass on details of events before they came to writing things down and before pictures and often that's the way historical knowledge was kept alive. Stories are still used to stimulate thought and discover new insights into things we think we know all about.

Stories are often remembered. Who remembers the [mimes story character] from last week? Who remembers the sermon from last week? Great, but don't the stories help?

When I finished the reading, the story, last week the congregation, you lot, applauded. So what's happening this week is your fault because you encouraged me.

I'm going to tell another story instead of the sermon. It will be 25 minutes to 30 minutes long, so it's not quite as short. But remember it is a story. I'm not saying it's all true, but some of it is. I hope it will make you think and get new insights and perhaps even open new truths to you.

As a bit of fun, I've included lines from several well-known Christmas songs. So if you get bored you can just count how many songs there are and let me know at the end.

When I come to deliver it I won't introduce it any more. I won't even tell you what the title is. The idea for this came to me some years ago but I never really got round to doing much about it until after Martin agreed I could do something different. So that's what it's going to be. It's going to be a story and it's not a short one.

First part of The Mayor’s Story

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Everyone has something they choose to follow. For some it’s religion, but then men disagree about who is ‘the true God’. For some it’s nationalism; for others it is less idealistic — women, alcohol, all sorts of things. But for me, always, deep inside, I knew I had to follow the king.

I wasn’t interested in the Roman emperor — the ruler, he wasn’t a king. He may have ruled our lands, but he certainly didn’t rule in our hearts, and that’s what a king should do. A king should always be in your mind, always in your soul, forever in your heart.

I’ve always believed that in a strange way the king is the right man, perhaps even God’s man, to rule a country. Emperors come and go, but kings remain, at least in the memory, they are all remembered. The king does good things, he makes his people feel good. He is there as the figurehead of the nation, like a father figure, someone to inspire and guide his people.

Herod, the son of Antipater, now he was a king. I know he was only designated as a king by the Roman senate, but at least he was a king, our King. He set about winning the hearts and minds of his people.

‘Building for the future’, that was his big project, and what buildings they were. The port out at Caesarea with the rebuilt docks and the warehousing and the new breakwater giving safety for ships. What a place that was. It secured the trading routes. We have never had that before. All along our coast the storms would come, the ships would get blown away, some would get sunk. But not anymore. The port is a safe haven. That’s what kings do.

Then there’s new Royal palace on the hillside, overlooking the port. A big, imposing, impressive residence, letting everyone know the King is there — watching over them. Some might not like that, but after all he is the King, and if you follow the King, you accept his rule in every part of your lives.

Another big building is the King’s palace actually built into the walls of Jerusalem, signifying a sort of contract between the king and the people. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was, of course, the temple. It was the King who arranged the rebuilding of the great temple at Jerusalem. It’s the largest building in our country, one of the biggest in the Roman Empire. Thirty years it took to build, the priests involved at every step, but the king organizing everything personally. Now that’s a King anyone would be proud to follow. No wonder we call him Herod, ‘The Great!’

I think it’s my enthusiasm, that’s what got me noticed. One day I was at home when I heard the heavy tramp of feet and the unmistakable sound of armour, it clinks a bit, I knew there were soldiers about. I have to admit I was fearful [knock] when the knock came at the door. What a relief to see they were the King’s soldiers in ceremonial armour bringing a message.

That’s how I ended up as mayor of Bethlehem. If you follow a king he notices, kings always look after and reward their followers.

Bethlehem is only small; not a lot happens; some people don’t think much to the place. It’s up in the Judean hill country a bit off the main roads. When I was given the job my friends kept saying, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” It’s not very far — from Jerusalem. I think that’s why it is a small town, it’s easy for people to leave — so they do. People are born there, and then move to the city just as soon as they can.

But I liked it, I was proud to be given the job, the King’s man in the town.

Bethlehem is a place that keeps coming up in the history and traditions of our people and of our nation. Abraham’s grandson Jacob came here on his travels, before his name was changed to Israel. His wife Rachel died whilst giving birth to their youngest son, Benjamin. She’s buried just to the north, there’s a shrine by the roadside.

Some people come to Bethlehem as a sort of ‘historical pilgrimage’. They come to see the shrine, and of course to remember that this is the place our greatest ever king, King David, came from. You remember the story how David was still out in the fields when the priest Samuel came looking to anoint the man chosen by God. David’s father presented all his other sons and all were rejected by Samuel before David was brought in from those fields. Samuel recognized David as God’s choice to be King and anointed him right there and then, here, in Bethlehem.

The fields seem important round here; it was a valley to the east where Ruth of Moab foraged for scraps of grain, before coming into town with Naomi.

So this place has history. For religious pilgrimages people go to the new temple at Jerusalem, as the priests require them to do. But those looking for history will always come up here into the hills, to Bethlehem. That’s why we have a big inn here, the King David, far bigger than usual for a town of this size.

But when I got here it nothing seemed to happen, nothing ever seemed to happen in Bethlehem. It was my first job for the king, I just wanted something to put it on the map, I just wanted something to happen once, in Royal David’s city. I threw myself into promoting tourism, but then something happened that changed everything, for me at least.

The Romans said it was because the emperor wanted to know how many people he ruled over. But we knew the real reason was to make sure they taxed everyone. A tax on every head of the population taking no account of circumstances. They always said taxes paid for security, for trade, for better prospects, but somehow the gap between rich and poor just got bigger and bigger, and the census was only going to make things worse.

And whoever thought of having a census in the middle of winter? Obviously someone who had never been in the Southern Judean Mountains in the bleak mid-winter. We are two and a half thousand feet above sea level here and it was a bitter winter. Frosty winds moaned through the valleys, the earth, where Ruth had gleaned, was hard as iron, and the water, well, that froze.

In the coldness of that year, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, the order was made. Everyone had to go to his home town to register. All the people who had family from Bethlehem would be coming home. Everyone who had left for the city, everyone who had run away, everyone who had been disgraced and cut family links; everyone who had left debt, heartbreak, unrequited love, unsettled feuds; everyone who wanted to deny their origins; they would all be coming home. Everyone: merchants, farmers, priests, soldiers, oddballs and shepherds, they would all be coming.

The town would be full. Most people would be staying with family, filling every room in their houses, but however big the King David was, it wouldn’t be big enough.

The days of the census drew near and the town started to get busier. The local merchants all went off to the big city to get supplies; they were going to make money from this sudden influx of people.

I don’t like the unexpected, the census was bad enough and I wanted to make sure there was no trouble, so took on watchmen. We don’t usually need them here, I sort out any local disputes, or if it’s a family matter I try to involve the priests. But I took them on, I was glad to have got them on side early. That’s what is expected of a Kings man, see the problems coming and do something about it. The King would like that, but would he ever know?

The first problems were returning family. People usually stayed with relatives in the family home, but some were causing arguments. Some who had left home to find their fortune in the city expected to walk straight back into the old family home. It often happens when someone has moved to the big city, they don’t appreciate how different they have become. They come back with an attitude, almost as if they expected a robe, a ring and a fatted calf! Domestic disputes broke out, the watchmen calm most and direct the problem cases to me. I laid down the law.

I was quite enjoying being the King’s man, enjoying respect from the citizens, enjoying problem solving and looking after the people, all on behalf of the King.

Then there were the shepherds. Usually shepherds keep themselves to themselves. They want grazing for their flocks, so just keep moving away from other people, including other shepherds. They are usually solitary men who don’t get on with others, loners who want to be outside away from other people.

The census forced two, three and four generations of shepherds all together. They aren’t very sociable, frankly they smell — they smell a lot, and when there are a lot of shepherds smelling a lot, well … it’s not pleasant. I’m sure they never wash their socks by night or at any other time.

They arrived town with their flocks. No one would offer them accommodation and the streets were full of sheep. No one could move or carry on their business. Then they discovered wine. The singing wasn’t pretty, no tune and it didn’t make sense. They were like cave dwellers or Samaritans, intimidating the whole town.

This was unexpected, but I was the King’s man, it was up to me to do something. Some were already calling the nightly disturbances the ‘shepherds riots’. I had to do something before news got back to the King. So I negotiated with the shepherds. They agreed to stay out of the town on the hillsides. They were here for the census, but they weren’t filling the town and causing problems. I was really pleased with the way my negotiations had gone.

Missing in the audio due to tape turn-over

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I provided a small, daily allowance of cheap wine and they would stay on the hills. Of course I didn’t let everyone know about the wine, but it was a good result!

Final part of The Mayor’s Story

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Even with the shepherds out of the way, the town filled. It was more like a city with people always on the streets, always moving around, always seeming to want to go one better than the neighbours, always bragging, always arguing. The atmosphere was OK during the day, but as it went dark it became more threatening. This wasn’t a festival or a celebration, it was a census imposed by an occupying army. Any smiles were forced. In the end I wanted to calm things, so I used the King’s authority and made a curfew order. ‘No one allowed on the streets after dark except the watchmen.’

What a difference that made. As it got dark it got busier as everyone hurried to their homes, or wherever they were staying, we called it the rush hour. Then, as the sun dipped and darkness came there were a few stragglers, then peace. Empty streets — apart from the watchmen. It took a few days to settle down, but then there was total compliance. That’s the Kings authority for you, bringing peace where there had been conflict.

One clear cold night I stood outside and looked at the town. How still it seemed to lie. Whilst above the deep and dreamless streets the silent stars went by.

It was just before census day, most have arrived in town by now. Soon we would have a busy day with registration, then people would be leaving again. The town was calm, not much chance of the unexpected now.

I was inside and was about to eat my supper when there’s [knock] a knock at the door. As I opened the door a travel-weary man, a late arrival, pleaded for help in finding somewhere to stay. There was someone behind him, holding tightly onto a donkey for support.

“This is your home town, the place your family come from?” “Yes,” said the man, “My home town, not hers.”

“Well go and stay with family, that’s what most people are doing. Enjoy the opportunity to get together and see the relatives.”

He breathed deeply before replying, “They are my relatives, but they didn’t agree to the marriage, said they never want to see us, said I had disgraced the family. Please, it’s been a difficult journey, we haven’t been able to get food with the prices round here.”

Now, I’m not medically trained, but even I could tell that the girl, holding herself up by the donkey, was pregnant. That loose blue robe can’t hide the fact, not only is she pregnant, but it won’t be long until she isn’t pregnant any more.

What do they expect me to do? They are breaking the curfew, and they’re actually knocking on my door, the door of the King’s man. Are they challenging my authority? Are they making fun of me? Are they challenging the King’s authority? Or do they expect me to conjure up a bed for them. I knew I had to do something, but what could I do?

I saw the man’s hungry eyes looking past me to my table. I turned, thrust my supper into his hands and mumbled, “Try the inn, the ’King David’, it’s a big one, far bigger than in most towns of this size, they’ll help, they always seem to find somewhere. You’ve got to get off the streets I have to enforce the curfew.“

The man smiled, thanked me for the bread and wine I’d given him and told me it was a feast fit for a King. He bit off some bread and took a drink before passing it on to share with his wife. Then they turned and led the donkey down the street.

All seemed quiet that night in Bethlehem. Nothing unexpected. My plans to keep the peace were working and I smiled to myself.

But then suddenly all was turmoil again. An astronomical oddity occurred. A single bright star lit the streets. It seemed to come from the east and settled in the night sky right overhead. People started appearing, firstly in windows and on rooftops, but then doors opened and out onto the curfewed streets they came, everyone staring upwards at the stars in the bright sky looking down.

Why hadn’t I been told? The stargazers know about this sort of thing, they know when these oddities are going to happen, I should have been told. It’s public knowledge these oddities can cause problems; it’s like a full moon, all the crazies come out. We need to plan for things like that and there we were in the middle of the census-crowded city with the night streets lit up.

As the streets fill people seem overawed, then the gossiping starts — “it’s a sign”, “there is some deep meaning”, “it’s a message from God”. Everyone has an opinion and is willing to share it with everyone else. But tonight, even though some have been drinking, there is no trouble, it’s strangely quiet as heavens brightness looks down.

Then I heard singing. It wasn’t pretty, no tune and it didn’t make sense — the shepherds were coming! Boldly walking into town ignoring the curfew, singing loudly. Where did they learn that song? Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis — what’s that about and where did they learn the words? As they came into the bright starlit streets they greeted people in a friendly way, “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men from heaven’s all-gracious King.” I didn’t really understand. They seem really excitable telling everyone about angels of the Lord appearing and glory shining around them, and how they had been afraid with a mighty dread seizing their troubled minds. Not at all like shepherds, who don’t usually admit to any fear.

I wondered if someone had spiked the wine we’d been sending, so they were all having some sort of mass drug-induced experience. But at least they came in peace. They said they were going to see a baby, visit the parents. They should have been watching their flocks by night, all seated on the ground, not leaving their flocks whilst they wander into town.

I let the shepherds go, I couldn’t have stopped them anyway. But I followed, at a safe distance, to see where they went. At first they were on the main streets, places I knew well, but then they turned off into some of the narrow streets, the places where danger could lurk in the shadows, where dark corners hid the dangerous and the down and outs, the homeless and the drunks. But not tonight, the darkness was gone, destroyed by that light from heaven.

On I followed as they went through the brightly-lit dark places I’d usually avoid, until I realised where I was. Behind the King David — the inn. In a jumbled mess of rooms, lean-tos and stables, well away from the finer guests, we had come to the back of the inn.

There were hushed people all around in these narrow lanes, not seeming to bother about the curfew and certainly not hiding in shadows. I couldn’t hide either, no one could hide in that light from heaven. There were groups of people near an open door. Some were sitting, talking quietly. Others staring up at the star. Some were singing softly the words the shepherds had taught them — but far better than the shepherds could ever sing them.

Everyone must have known they were breaking the curfew, but it seemed in that bright light night nothing mattered. In that light from heaven there was no earthly power, no authority, no status, no nationalities; and none were needed. For that moment it seemed as if no conflict could exist.

I moved towards that open door as if it was an open invitation. No orderly line, no hustling crowd, just a door open to anyone who wanted to go in. The smell told me it was an animal house, I stepped in. I saw a corridor and stalls, for the animals. Some had animals in them, but others had been pressed into use as extra rooms by the innkeeper. In several of the stalls people were sitting or lying on the cold floor or wrapped in blankets.

I walked down the gutter kicking away soiled straw and excrement from the animals (I hope it was only the animals). Then, with just a blanket on the floor of a vacant cattle stall, I saw the man and woman who had been at my door. The baby had been born. He was laid in a manger; with no crib for his bed. Was that the best place they could find to lay the baby, in the squalor of a borrowed stable?

Despite being inside now, the light from heaven seemed just as bright. The man saw me and motioned me to come into the stall, to gaze at the baby. “It’s a boy,” he smiles, “Jesus.” His mother said nothing, she smiled and in her maiden bliss, worshipped her beloved with a kiss.

The man offered me some food — bread and wine. It seemed everyone here, the people society wants to forget, are happy to share what they have. I just take a small piece of bread and a quick sip of wine, so as not to offend. It will be a strange day when this is a meal fit for a king. As I walked away I thought of that baby I’d just seen; His shelter was a stable, His cradle was a stall. He’d been born surrounded by the poor and mean and lowly. What would his future be? Soon I’d have to register him on the census, Jesus.

Days later, Bethlehem was almost back to normal. After the census most people had moved on, back to their own lives. The shepherds had gone as well. Though they never seemed to recover from whatever it was that had happened to them on the hillside in the starlight. The star had seemed to come to rest over Bethlehem, continuing in view both day and night. Then when it wasn’t a novelty anymore it disappeared.

Then, again without any warning from stargazers, it reappeared in the same place in the sky. The next day I had some more unexpected visitors. They came on camels from the east, three of them. They were different. Different coloured skin, different features, different clothing, different language — though one could speak some of our tongue. They said they had come to worship the King and would then go home. Well I told them the king would be in Jerusalem, or at Caesarea, but they just said they had seen that king, and he wasn’t the true king. That was dangerous talk, and I told them so, they needed to know that they had to respect our King. I think something was lost in translation, they kept pointing at the star in the sky.

They were only in the town a few hours, then they left on the road to the north, further into the hills. That seemed wrong as they were clearly from the east, and north isn’t the way to the east, except in a roundabout way.

The census was over, the returns had been sent off to the Roman governor’s staff, nothing unexpected had happened since the three men from the east had headed north. Life had returned to normal.

One day I was at home when I heard the tramp of heavy feet and the unmistakable sound of armour, it clinks a bit, I knew there were soldiers about. I have to admit I was fearful [knock] when I heard the knock. They were the King’s soldiers; but they weren’t in ceremonial armour and they were well armed.

The senior man questioned me. “How many children are living in the town?” “How many babies were born during the census?” “Did you see the star?” “Were any babies born in Bethlehem whilst the star was in the sky?” “Do you study the prophets?” “Did three eastern mystics come this way after the census?” “Did they find what they were looking for?”

I had nothing to hide. I just answered truthfully. The soldiers searched the town before leaving for Jerusalem, to report to the King.

When the soldiers returned with the new orders from the king, I started to worry. The order had come from the King — not from the Romans. It was the king who ordered the execution of children and babies, I saw the papers myself with the King’s seal. I was instructed to provide the details of all the children from the census copies.

I knew it was wrong and I would have no part in it. I collected the records, walked out the back door and kept walking. I knew the king would not forget, that I would be a marked man. I would be a refugee even in my own country.

I still know, deep in my heart, that following the king is right. Following someone who inspires, a sort of father figure who demands obedience through his strength drawing people to him, rather than obedience demanded at the point of a knife. A king who truly cares for his people, a King who would give his life for his people, not take their lives from them.

It would be wonderful to have a counsellor King, always there to advise and show the right way. A mighty King, afraid of no one, who puts fear itself to flight. A King who is not just an advocate for peace, but is a true overcomer, a prince of peace.

That’s what I always wanted to see, that’s the sort of king I wanted to follow, that’s what I was looking for.

But now, wherever I look I’m never going to see a King like that, not in my lifetime — am I?

[Followed by The Servant King by Graham Kendrick.]

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