A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  The temperature has been bouncing all over the place.  We had a white Thanksgiving and then two more snowstorms came through.  Saturday, it topped 50 degrees even though there are still about three inches of snow on the ground.  Tomorrow, it’s not supposed to get above 18.  The cold days got me thinking back to the year Andy and Pamela Wilson moved to Mount William.

That was long enough ago that real estate was down right inexpensive.  The Wilsons moved to Mount William after the family farm in Ohio went bust.  For three generations, Wilsons had owned and run a small but profitable farm – until Andy took over.  It was the year he bought a new tractor and planted soy instead of wheat and the rains didn’t come and … and the house and land had to be auctioned off.

So the Wilsons took what little they had and moved to Mount William.  They rented a tiny cottage owned by a second-cousin-once-removed of one of Pamela’s high school friends.  They figured Andy could get a job in New Hampshire and they could start over and build a family and … and it was tight that first year, really tight.  The only job Andy could find was as a night watchman in the Manchester Jordan Marsh, and that didn’t pay very well.

That year, he volunteered to work on Christmas Eve.  He really didn’t want to go home empty handed.  Pam would have understood.  In fact, she probably would have insisted on it.  She was upset if Andy spent money on anything other than food, and even there, they scrimped.  Whoever heard of a hungry farmer?  But Andy wasn’t a farmer any more.  He was a night watchman – blue uniform, holster and gun on one hip, a flashlight the size of a baseball bat on the other.  He thought the revolver was a silly part of his uniform.  His father had stopped taking him hunting when he was 15.  “You couldn’t hit a bullet with the side of a barn,” his father told him, “let alone the other way around.”

Well, the boss paid double time for Christmas Eve and between that and not wanting to face his wife without some sort of gift, Andy jumped at the chance to work.  The store closed at 3:00, so it was going to be a long shift.  The sun set by 4:30.  By 6:00, Andy was on his third cup of coffee in the quiet, empty, cavernous building.  He turned on a radio and found a station playing Christmas music – carols, not “Santa Claus is coming to town” – the Christmas music he liked, the Christmas music that reminded him of his childhood.  “That’s what Christmas is all about,” he thought.  “Jesus being born in a barn – and it wasn’t one that belonged to his daddy either.”

Not that Andy was blaming God or anything.  He figured it was his fault, and he started rehearsing his long list of “if onlys.”  But truth be told, Andy wasn’t so big on God that year.  Back before they lost the farm, Andy had done a lot of praying.  He couldn’t believe God wanted for them to lose the land, but that’s what happened.  And Andy could see it coming.  Like watching a car accident in slow motion, you can see that the cars are going to hit and there was nothing he could do to stop it.  All he could do was pray.  So that’s what he did.

First, he prayed for rain.  It didn’t.  Barely any rain for two years.  Then he prayed that the John Deere dealer would buy back the tractor.  He wouldn’t, not even for half of what Andy had paid for it.  Then he prayed for the price of soy to go up.  It seemed as if the bottom fell out of the market.  Then he stopped praying for a solution he could design and just prayed for a miracle.  “Just gimme a doggone miracle!”

And here he was, walking around the store, listening to “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night,” thinking about when he had to sell of his small herd of sheep.  Maybe it was a mistake to start the sheep herd.  His father wouldn’t have sheep; too dumb for him.  But Andy liked the sheep.  He liked the face of some old ewe as she looked at him worshipfully, trusting him with her whole silly life.  Andy could still go for a miracle.  It’d only need to be big enough that he could keep a few sheep.  “How about it, God?  How about a miracle?” he said out loud.  His prayer echoed through the department store.

The only other sound was the pinging and groaning of the heating system as it came on and turned off during the night.  His first night on watch, he darn near peed himself the first time the furnace turned on.  By December, he had figured out where most of the sounds came from, though figuring out the clicking of the flaps on the vents in the ladies room took a while.

Sometime in the wee hours of that early Christmas morning, Andy heard a sound that was different, new.  It came and went, but it made him turn off the radio and prick up his ears.  When it came again, he started hunting for it.  It sounded like it was coming from the back of the building, a weird sound.  Maybe it was the hymns, but it reminded him of a lamb bleating for its mama.  Or maybe he wanted an image that would calm his nerves.

Shaking his head to make sure it wasn’t cobwebs, he started out in the direction of the noise.  The lights in the store over night are low and spooky.  They cast strange shadows, and as Andy walked toward the back of the store, he noticed he was sweating.  “Pull your gun,” he thought to himself.  “Don’t walk toward any strange sound with your gun in the holster.  You won’t have time later.”  He was quoting his training instructor without realizing it – not that the training amounted to much: a half-day seminar and then a couple nights shadowing another night watchman.

He pulled the gun out.  The noise was louder now, coming from the loading area, where crates were piled.  Anybody could hide there.  As he started imagining possible dangers, he had to wipe his face so he could see where he was stepping.

“Probably a cat,” he thought.  “Please be a cat!”  He knew there were cats behind the A & P grocery store, digging through the garbage most nights.  All they had on the loading dock at Jordan Marsh was cardboard boxes from items that had been put out on display, but what does a cat know.  He pushed the door out gently and sneaked through, gun in one hand, flashlight in the other.  Then boom! he was sprawled out on the loading dock, flashlight rolling off in one direction, the gun skittering in another.  Luckily, the gun didn’t go off; Andy had forgotten to release the safety.

“Who’s there?” he yelled as he tried to regain his footing.  Then the box under his legs started to squawl.  Andy knew it was no lamb.  After gathering up his gun and flashlight, he looked into the Zenith AM-FM stereo carton and saw the pinched-up, bright red face of a baby – a little baby, probably not even a month old.

“Hey you,” he yelled at the refrigerator cartons.  “You come back here and get this kid!”  The refrigerator cartons didn’t answer.  Nor did the stove boxes or the dishwasher crates.  “I mean it!” he yelled, shining the beam around.  “You can’t just walk off and leave your kid like this.  It’s against the law!”  He wasn’t sure about the “against the law” part, but it sounded good in the moment.

Andy kept shining his flashlight around the loading dock, looking for some sign of life, but everything was still – everything except the Zenith AM-FM Stereo box, which had started squawling and shaking so hard the Zenith logo looked like real lighting.  He gave up shouting at the empty loading dock and took the box inside.

In the movies, when somebody leaves a baby on a doorstep, there’s a note.  So he poked around in the box for a note.  All he found was a bottle, about half full, and one extra diaper.  Not what you’d call long-range planning, but hopefully enough to get Andy through until 6:00, when his shift ended.

Once they got inside, Andy’s nose told him he’s have to use that lone extra diaper right away.  That’s how he found out the baby was a boy.  It got Andy thinking about his father and their relationship – how difficult it had been. “Maybe the men in my family don’t do so good with sons,” he thought.  But there was this little guy, legs churning like a fullback’s and yelling his little head off.  And Andy could feel something in his throat the size of a baseball.

The bottle was ice cold, of course, so he put the bottle in the Mr. Coffee pot, which still had a couple inches of coffee in it, to warm up the bottle.  It didn’t take too long and after testing it on his wrist (maybe bottle feeding those lambs prepared him for this moment), he gave what was left of the bottle to the little boy.

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Why didn’t he call the cops?”  I asked him that once.  He said he could have given me a bunch of reasons, but the real reasons was pretty simple:  it never occurred to him.

The last few hours of his shift flew past, and at 6:00 it was time to punch out.  No one was there to open the store, of course; it was Christmas, after all.  Management didn’t think the store needed a day watchman on Christmas day, so Andy made sure all was secure and headed home.

After a 15 hour shift, you’d have thought Andy would have been bone tired, but as he opened the door to his home, Andy was feeling the same type of excitement he felt about Christmas morning when he was a little boy.  The little home was dark and he didn’t want to wake up Pamela, so he went to the rag box and pulled out some retired undershirts.  They would suffice as diapers for the day.  And the patchwork laprobe Pam’s mother made for them when they were first married would be the baby blanket.  Once the baby was swaddled up, Andy tiptoed into the bedroom.

Pam stirred.  “What time is it?”  She always asked that when Andy got home.

“Merry Christmas.  Look what I brought you.”

Pam groggily rolled in the bed, looked at the baby, and sat bolt upright in bed, eyes as wide as a flying saucer.  “What in the …?”

“I was praying for a miracle,” Andy said, “and here comes this baby.”

She made him explain what had happened.  “Why didn’t you call the police?”

Andy didn’t want to admit it never occurred to him, so he said, “Why?  The kid didn’t do anything wrong.”

“You know what I mean,” she said as Andy placed the baby in her arms.  “Andy, you know we can’t feed a baby.  We can barely feed ourselves.”  But she wasn’t looking at Andy.  And Andy watched her fall in love.

Andy didn’t know how they were going to do it, but they were going to make it legal, and they were going to figure out how to feed him.  And he was going to figure out how to be a better father to this boy and his father had been to him.

But all that would wait for another day.  That morning, as the sun rose and began to pour light into their bedroom, Andy felt close to knowing what it’s all about for the first time in his life.  “I prayed for a miracle and God sent me a baby,” Andy thought as he stroked the little boys head.  “I guess that makes sense.  Isn’t that what God did that other time?  Isn’t that what all the cheering has been about all these year?”

That’s the news from Mount William, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] This story is based on “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night,” by Katherine Paterson, printed in an anthology of her Christmas stories, A Midnight Clear (New York: Lodestar Books, 1995), 42-52.  Following the lead of Garrison Keillor, I have created my own fictitious hometown of “Mount William, New Hampshire.”