Not only did the king like being king, but his people throughout the kingdom praised him for ruling so benevolently and wisely. The people knew they could trust their king to do the right thing for them and for the kingdom, and they were right. Because of the king’s wisdom, the kingdom was prosperous and peaceful.

When the king’s son was born, the people put on a great celebration. Now there was an heir! The people knew the king would be a good father and that his son would some day be as great and wise as his father. The king loved his son more than his own life. His greatest joy was to spend time with his son. Each evening after the day’s duties were accomplished, the king would go out into the formal gardens behind the castle and play with his son. The thought of those times with his son often made the hard task of ruling a little easier. Sometimes when he faced a difficult decision or had to settle a dispute or complete a project, the king would think, When this is over, I can be with my son, and he would smile.

One day the king’s son got lost. It was one of the most tragic days that had ever passed in the kingdom. He didn’t mean to get lost. He loved his father as much as his father loved him.

But one day his father had a particularly busy day and was late for their daily meeting in the castle gardens. So the boy decided to explore. There was certainly nothing wrong with that, except this boy was very little and very young, and nobody had told him how easy it is for a little boy to get lost.

It happened before the boy knew it. He was just walking and thinking about his father when, looking up, he found himself in the forest behind the castle. Nothing looked familiar! At first he was calm because his father would come soon and find him, but, as he waited, he began to panic. Then he began to run away from the castle. His clothes caught on broken limbs and tore. A couple of times he fell in mud holes, and once he cut himself on a jagged rock.

Eventually the little boy wandered into one of the villages of the kingdom. To be perfectly honest, by that time he looked more like a little beggar than a prince. The little boy would go up behind someone, grab his coat, pull on it and say, “Mister, I’m the king’s son. Would you help me get home?”

“Sure you are, kid.”

“But you don’t understand,” the little boy would say to another. “I got lost, and I can’t find my father.”

Most folks simply ignored the little boy, and those who didn’t ignore him laughed at him. Pretty soon the little boy was forced to beg for pennies just so he could buy bread to keep from starving.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, the king spent a sleepless night looking for his son. He looked everywhere he knew to look, but the boy was nowhere to be found. By morning the king suspected that someone had kidnapped his son and feared that he would never see the boy again.

The king called all his armies together, told them what had happened, and sent them into the kingdom looking for his son. He offered great rewards to anyone who could give him information leading to the discovery of his son. But to the king’s great sorrow, the little boy was not found.

Hours blended into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. The little boy was no longer a little boy; he had grown into a strong young man.

At first he really had thought he was the king’s son, but so many adults had told him differently that he began to think maybe it had been a dream. After all, adults knew those kinds of things. As the years passed he forgot about the castle and about his heritage. It didn’t take so many years to forget about the dream altogether.

Then the young man began to run with the wrong crowd. Murder, stealing, rape—nothing was beneath them. But he was still a prince. If you are a prince (even when you don’t know it), it shows. Eventually the young man became the leader of the gang. He surpassed all of his friends in his unlawful acts and spurred them on to even greater acts of lawlessness. Years after he had left the castle and his father, the king’s son had become the most wanted criminal in the kingdom.

Then one day, through a rather complicated set of circumstances, the king found out that his own son was the kingdom’s most wanted criminal. At first he couldn’t believe it, but the more he checked, the more it became clear that he had found his beloved son, and in finding him, the king faced a terrible dilemma.

The king loved his son, but he was also fair and just. He knew if he released his own son who had committed terrible crimes, he would need to release all the others who had committed crimes. That was unacceptable.

And so the king’s son was arrested and brought before a judge who condemned him to be executed for his crimes. The verdict was just. The king’s son was thrown in a dungeon beneath the castle where he had once lived to wait for his execution.

On the night before the young man was to die, the king made his way to the prison beneath the castle. Opening his son’s cell, he walked in and sat on the bunk across from his son. The king sat there a long time looking at his son before he spoke.

“You are my son.”

“Someone told me.”

“Have you ever wondered, over these years, about your parents?”

“Sometimes, but I had a good life, and it wasn’t that important.”

“Well, I have never stopped wondering about you, where you were and what had become of you. You have never been out of my mind and heart.”

The king continued, his voice trembling with emotion and the tears running down the age lines in his face, “My son, I loved you with a great love, but you became lost. I did everything I knew to do. I sent out my soldiers; I offered a great reward; I have never ceased to search for you. But now it has come to this and tomorrow you are to die. But, son, I have decided to allow you to go free.”

With those words, the old king got up and walked out of his son’s cell into the crisp night air.

The young man went over to the cell door and tested it. Well, what do you know? he thought, that old man left it open.

The king’s son grabbed his coat, threw it over his shoulder, and with a cynical smile spoke aloud: “That stupid, old man! He thinks because he has set me free I will come back to his castle and be his lackey. Well, he is more senile than I thought.” And with that, the young man ran up the stairs and disappeared.

Some two weeks later the king’s son found out what price his freedom had cost. On the day of his scheduled execution, the requirements of the law had been met. His own father had taken his place before the executioner and had literally died that he might be free. It was sobering news.

You probably have some questions:

What did the son do? Did he return to the castle and become king? Did he accept his heritage? Did he even care about the price his father had paid for his freedom? Did he decide to obey the law?

I’m not sure because, you see, you are the son and I am the son.

At the very heart of the Incarnation, at the very heart of God himself lies a cross. That is the true meaning of Christmas: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:2,6). “And they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23).

For us, God took on flesh, coming to earth as a baby so as not to scare us. But the baby didn’t stay that way. For us, the wood of the cradle became the wood of the cross…because of God’s great love.