Christmas in Roaring Camp

Galatians 4:4-9

Bret Harte was one of America’s great Novelists 150 years ago.  He was the writer of some of the original Westerns.  His most famous story was entitled The Luck of Roaring Camp.  Many years later Frank W. Boreham picked up the story and retold it.  This morning, I would like to pick up that old story again and retell it as we move through this Advent season.

It was December in Roaring Camp.  It was winter in Roaring Camp.  But it was not yet Christmas, because peace and goodwill were unknown there.  Unknown, that is, until a baby was born into the middle of the chaos.

Even among the mining camps of the lawless west, Roaring Camp had a sinister reputation.  It was the wildest of spots in a very wild west.  In Roaring Camp, when men differed in opinion over a game of cards, to settle the dispute, guns were drawn, bullets were fired and card players dropped dead, while the gamblers at the other tables merely nodded and calmly went on with their games.  To die a natural death at Roaring Camp was to die at pistol point.

There was just one woman in the entire camp. Her name was Sal – and as Bret Harte says on the very first page of the story, “the less said of her the better.”  But as the story begins, she has come to the close of her life.  In fact, she dies giving birth to her child before we get a chance to meet her.  Stumpy, who claimed to have been a medical student, or something of the sort, did his best for her.  He managed to save the baby she was carrying, but the plight of poor Sal was beyond his skill.

Because of Sal’s lifestyle, no one could guess who the father might be.  Very few tried to guess.  No one volunteered.  So the baby belonged to the entire camp, and the camp resolved to do its duty bravely.  The baby started its life lying on some dirty rags in a wooden box.  It was not a soap box. Soap was a commodity not easily found in Roaring Camp.   It was a box that had been used to transport candles.  (I wonder if they had been advent candles?   Probably not.)

But it was soon very obvious to everyone that the box they had, would not do; so a man was sent 80 miles on a mule to get a cradle, the best that money could buy – a beautiful Rosewood cradle.

The cradle was brought into the camp; The baby was placed into the cradle wrapped in his rough little blanket.  But it was noticed that the rags seemed out of place in the rosewood cradle. So the messenger had to return to Sacramento for something more fitting.

He returned some days later with the daintiest and softest lace he could find.  When it was arranged in the cradle, it was a cloud of the finest filigree and frills.  But when the pink little baby, lying in its froth of snowy white-work, in the rosewood cradle, was placed in the middle of that room, the men noticed with dismay a thing they had never noticed before.  The floor was positively filthy.  It had not been cleaned in years.  So they grabbed brooms, and then water and scrub brushes, and scrubbed the floor, as only heavy-handed miners could. They made it almost as clean as the day on which the boards were first laid.

But then they made a new discovery.  For they saw that in order to match the floor, and the cradle and the lace work and the still pink baby, the walls would have to be cleaned too.   They went about the task with vim and vigor, making the most of a bad situation, until the walls were cleaner and brighter than they had been in years.

Then someone looked up and noticed the ceiling, begrimed with soot and dust and dirt from years of smoking stoves and reeking cigars.  And so they began the cleaning of the ceiling, and then applying whitewash to it all.

But then the miners noticed the windows were cracked in places, the window casements needed fixing, and the glass needed washing inside and out. And then some nostalgic miner remembering his distant childhood home.  He suggested that it would be nice to get some curtains for the bare windows.  So off someone went to Sacramento, to make the necessary purchase.

But there was more than the renovation of a room in the air.  It was soon realized that there would need to be long periods of quietness to allow the baby to sleep.  The roaring in Roaring Camp had to cease.   Burly men began to tip-toe past the newly decorated shack whenever they knew the baby was sleeping.  The conversations became less boisterous giving way to words expressed in normal tones.

The men had to work for a living of course, and no one could stay home long with the baby, so each day when the weather was fitting, they carried the rosewood cradle out to the mine shaft.  But the mining environment was dusty and dreary and looked more like a moonscape than an artist’s landscape.  There was nothing there to catch a baby’s eye or provide him with entertainment.  So the men began to transplant flowers that they found in the surrounding area at the entrance to the mine shaft. They surrounded the cradle with floral beauty and began to take pains in arranging them for maximum effect.  Pretty soon there was a garden in the midst of the bleak landscape.

As the men worked in the mines they noticed pretty stones, glittering bits of quartz, coloured pebbles, flakes of mica, and others things that glistened. They made some of them into playthings for the baby.

The interior of the cabin was changed.  The environment around the cabin was changed.  But best of all a change came over the appearance of the men themselves.  Up at Tuttle’s general store, the astute proprietor seeing which way the wind was blowing down at the camp, placed mirrors about the places where the men lounged and spent their leisure moments.   Soon there was as extraordinary demand for soap and shaving materials, then collars, ties and even suits.

As Bret Hart tells the story, he takes time to tell us of one of the most important events.   For some months, the baby has been called “the Kid“, or “the Little Cuss” or some other rather indelicate names.   There was the feeling that such names would not do.  Now miners looking for gold are as superstitious as Baseball players.  They had noticed that ever since the baby had come among them their luck had changed.  There were fewer fights and far fewer deaths.  Someone suggested they call the baby “Luck“.   His name became “Luck of Roaring Camp.”

Some were confused as to whether it was his first name, his last name or his only name.  It was decided to give him the name Thomas as well.  Thomas Luck.  Then with nostalgia and memory working overtime on these not-so-hard miners, it was decided that they must properly christen the baby.   They decided to have a Christening.  A congregation was called together.   The men were not of the church going variety, and some wanted to have a mock service that could be just hilarious. But more sober minds won the day, and Stumpy the so-called-surgeon, turned baby sitter, took the little one up in his arms and said “I proclaim you Thomas Luck, according to the laws of the United States and the state of California, so help me God.”  It was the first time that the name of God had been used in anything other than blasphemy for years.

By the time the story is fully told, that baby had transformed everything in Roaring Camp.   Soon the decision was made to invite decent families to set up home in Roaring Camp.   The reputation of the camp began to change, and soon people began to say that it was as nice a place as there was in California.

The regeneration of Roaring Camp was well begun.
The coming of a baby had transformed everything.

The Baby of Bethlehem

Of course all of this speaks to me of allegories or parables.  2,000 years ago the world was a darkened place.  It was a world that had lost its trust in God or the gods.  The gods were to be feared, but never to be loved.  They were to be obeyed but not to be cherished.  It was a world where violence and greed were central.  It was a world that knew much of despair. Matthew Arnold writes about that world into which the baby of Bethlehem was born:
        On that hard pagan world, disgust and secret loathing fell.
       Deep weariness and sated lust made human life a hell.

  • Humanity everywhere was either a slave owner or a slave,
  • Either a tyrant or a cringing victim.
  • Common people lived much of their lives in constant fear.
  • Womanhood was debased and dishonoured.
  • Childhood was destitute of dignity or protection.

Nobody tried to stop it.  Nobody seemed to care.

Then a baby was born in Bethlehem.

And there is a wisdom in God that is amazing.  He sent a child into the world, for it takes a child to change and transform deep despondency and mean spirits. He came not as a warrior, priest, prophet or King, but as a child.

So Isaiah the prophet writes “unto us a child is born, unto us, a son is given.”

In the presence of that little child, people began to hope, as they had never dared hope before, they began to understand:

  • that life desperately needed to be transformed.
  • that religion needed serious renovation,
  • that villainy had to cease,
  • that moral values needed to be brought back into life.

Paul writes to the recent Christians converts in Galatia,

  • In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son.” It could just as well have read;
  • “Into the emptiness of time, God sent His son.”
  • “Into a violent time, God sent His Son.”
  • Just in time, God sent his Son.”
  • In the nick of time, God sent his Son, to be born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem us and adopt us as His children!”

Thanks be to God!  And very soon after the coming of that child, the people of the Roman Empire began to realize that

  • the cry of the slave would not harmonize with the song of the angels. So slavery had to go.
  • The degradation of womanhood was put to shame by the grace and glory of a Virgin mother.
  • Childhood was increasingly enhanced as a protected thing.
  • the poor and the wealthy could eat meals together.
  • The Jew and Samaritan and the Gentile found the walls of ancient hostilities dropping, as they kneeled together to blend their prayers.

2,000 years ago a baby was born, and with His coming the world was given a brand new start.  And this is the message of Advent. 

May I introduce us to a fitting Hymn written long ago by Christopher Smart (1722-1771) but has slipped out of use?   It is entitled, “Where is this stupendous Stranger?” It can be sung to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”

Where is this stupendous stranger?

Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise.

Lead me to my Master’s manger,

show me where my Savior lies.

O Most Mighty! O Most Holy!

Far beyond the seraph’s thought:

art thou then so weak and lowly
as unheeded prophets taught?

O the magnitude of meekness!

Worth from worth immortal sprung;

O the strength of infant weakness,

if eternal is so young!

God all-bounteous, all-creative,

whom no ills from good dissuade,

is incarnate, and a native

of the very world he made.