Bethlehem – Part 2

In Sermon Series by Rachel Schultz

From Here to There

Photo: Sergey Galushko

Have you ever wondered if perhaps we’re actually alone in this universe, and that there’s just empty sky above us? A few years ago pop star Don Henley, formerly lead singer of the Eagles, composed a pessimistic hit entitled They’re Not Here, They’re Not Coming. It was about UFOs; little green men in flying saucers. Are there intelligent beings out there billions of light years away, and if so, are they planning to show up here any time soon? What do we have here that they could possibly want? Would extraterrestrials travel all that way just to stand in line at Disney World in Orlando? One line went: “Go screaming through the universe, just to get McNuggets?” And his conclusion: there’s nothing out there. We’re here all by ourselves. Which, of course, is the antithesis, the cynical opposite, of the Christmas message.

There are days when all of us struggle with this possibility. We’re all alone. We Adventists were raised in a culture that bought this theory about heaven out there somewhere in the far reaches of a fully inhabited universe. But on the days when doubts hit us in the face, we begin to think: You know, maybe not. Maybe when our parents die, they simply lie in the ground, in the darkness. And when we die, that’s what we’ll do too. And since there’s no way for someone to come back from there and tell us there’s something – or nothing – out there, churches will keep hanging in there and Christians will keep hanging in there, until finally one generation in the distant future will just give it all up.

Some of you may have the opportunity to attend or even sing in a Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah. A couple of lines from a bass solo give us food for thought today. There are several recitatives that are frankly kind of boring, and which we all endure, waiting for the more lively mass choir parts to come around again. But the bass sings this dirge from Haggai 2:6, 7: Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts: Yet once a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations.

And then, in his next solo part, the bass stands up again and sings this line from Isaiah 9:2:The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. And while the mall and TV commercials try to remind us about a man in a red suit, in the Bible all things center on one Baby who is born in a manger. Everything hinges on Him. Baby Jesus is the great light. Will He succeed in His mission? Will He destroy evil? Will He survive the cross? Will He go to the cross?

As you and I face a new year together, here is our question: are we prepared to fully believe in this story? To separate the fiction on our televisions and in the children’s stories from the life-saving reality in our Bibles? I ask again: do you believe today that Baby Jesus can save your family from eternal death?

We’re studying together in Luke chapter 2, and I mentioned last week the humbleness of this great story. Verse 7: [Mary] wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a manger. All parents here have spent some time in the maternity ward, and we know for a fact that mommies don’t usually have to wrap up their own babies. There are doctors and nurses and specialists who look after the newborns and who bathe and clean and diaper them. But Mary had nobody. No one was there to give her an episiotomy or stitch her up. Whatever got done, Mary and Joseph were the only ones to do it, because this was as lonely a birth as there has ever been.

Here’s the second half of verse seven: Because there was no room for them in the inn. Have you ever been on the road in a distant land and faced the gloom of night without a hotel reservation? Where will you stay? Who will provide you with some shelter and a warm cup of cocoa? Then it begins to rain. It is a lonely thing to not have a hotel room for the night, even if you’re not experiencing labor pangs every two minutes.

Tradition suggests that this might have been a cave Joseph and Mary stayed in, or at best a small, unused house where animals were kept. The Bible doesn’t say, “Born in a stable,” but a stable is the only place where there’s a manger or feeding trough, so this is what we infer.

I heard a cute story about a kindergarten play at a Christian school. Joseph and Mary, little five-year-olds, came up to the door of the inn, knocked, and had a fellow student come to the door dressed as the innkeeper. “I am sorry,” he said, reciting from the script. “We have no room for you.” And the girl playing Mary was such a good little actress, with a quivering lip and tears in her eyes, the kid inadvertently blurted out: “But would you like to come in for a drink?”

But what a lesson there is for us right here! This innkeeper, whose name will never be known, didn’t know that the Savior of the world was going to be born that night. Or that he could have been the host of the pivotal birth in our world’s history. But he didn’t have room for Jesus that night.

And I don’t ask you this question; I ask myself this question. Have I fully made room for Jesus in my life here in this soon-concluding year? How often have I spent time doing good stuff, busy stuff, important stuff . . . but not really experiencing the presence of Jesus in my thoughts? How many Sabbaths have I spent here at church where I did a lot of things and checked off many tasks and drove home with many future priorities crowding my mind . . . but didn’t really stop and just let the reality of Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior fill me with peace and hope?

We have all fretted with some hard realities about the difficulty in keeping a church alive and thriving. What policies will help us? What nimble plans might take us in a new direction? Well, I know one thing is true and always true: we need to have room for Jesus in this place. If we have music without Jesus, and sermons without Jesus, and social times without Jesus, and potluck conversations without Jesus, we will have masterminded a failure as colossal and sad as the one this innkeeper had. There was no room in the inn.

Let me put it to you another way. It is a wonderful thing when you open up your hearts and invite new people to join our wonderful family. Nothing moves me to tears like stepping into the waters of baptism with a new friend. Sometimes we have a guest enter who looks or sounds different from the rest of us. They live in a different neighborhood; perhaps their economic status is not quite up to the average we enjoy here. But they come in. We baptize them, they join us, and now week by week they sit here in our presence. They share our dinner tables; they own a membership here as true as your own. They are, in a sense, the visiting Christ to us, because we are told that the strangers all about are as Jesus Himself. Matthew 25:40: Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.

Now, in the coming year with its 52 Sabbaths, is there room in the inn for five more? Or ten more? Or for as many more as God may bless us with? On that cold winter night, Mary looked like an unwed mother to the manager of that Motel 6, who was decidedly not leaving the light on for her. Will we have room here next year for the unwed mother, the out-of-work mother, the welfare mother, the single mother with her ragtag kids? This is one of the greatest tests of a church and its purity: does it obey Matthew 25 and make room for those in our neighborhood who are hurting?

Every December, you understand, the pastor and his wife receive some Christmas cards and phone messages from people who are grateful for our church’s hospitality. Those kind words belong to all of you, of course, and I am proud of this church and its generosity. Next year I pray that our generosity will grow, that it will take in more than our credit cards and our recipes, but will also include our time and our own dining room tables and our personal friendships. Do we have room for Mary and her baby at our Sunday birthday parties as well as our Sabbath potlucks?

Back to Luke 2, verse 8: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. We have sometimes assumed that December 25 as a Christmas date is probably way off; in fact, sometimes we connect it with pagan rituals and ceremonies. There are various sects which do not celebrate the day for that very reason; I’m glad our church is not in that camp. But it’s observed that shepherds would not have been out in the fields at night during the cold winter months. However, I was just reading the other day that near Bethlehem, grazing flocks which were reserved for temple sacrifices actually were in the fields, both day and night, on a year-round basis. So it’s possible that December is the true Christmas month after all. 

But who does this glorious news come to? Who gets the great announcement? It’s not the preachers and it’s not the General Conference officials or the Pharisees. It’s not the wealthy doctors and lawyers. Instead, it’s the shepherds in the fields. In fact, the humility of this moment is deeper than we realize. One commentary points out that “shepherds were a despised class; their work kept them from observing all of the ceremonial law.” That’s ironic, since they might have been raising the very lambs used in those ceremonies. 

What’s more, shepherds were often considered to be thieves by nature. “They confused ‘mine’ with ‘thine,’” one writer complains. “They were precluded from giving testimony in law courts” – so they were not a particularly trustworthy bunch.

And yet, verse 9: An angel of the Lord appeared to THEM. And the glory of the Lord shone around THEM.”  God bypasses all of the successful people who govern on the church board and gives this great news to the people who attend the church’s soup kitchen instead.

And how do the shepherds react? Three words. They were terrified. Of course. In the King James, they were sore afraid. An angel appears to you at midnight, and almost always, that is going to be a scary and possibly unwelcome situation. Angel messages tend to involve some lifestyle upheaval. Your girlfriend’s going to give birth to the King of the universe. Go to Ninevah and tell them their city’s going to be destroyed in 40 days. The hour of judgment has come. Things like that. Plus, this blinding glory was just plain scary in and of itself. Going back to Luke 1, we find that this angel is Gabriel himself, the highest of all created beings, the archangel who stands in the very presence of God.

And what happens next is so wonderful. Verse 10: “Do not be afraid,” said the angel.

For four thousand years people had been afraid of God and terrified of religion. False religions had people burning up their own babies; appeasing the gods. Offering blood sacrifices. Even the true religion of Jehovah had elements which were intended to teach the beauty of Calvary, but which made people afraid and apprehensive instead. At Mount Sinai, everybody was terrified of that thundering voice in the mountain; they said to Moses, “You go up and talk with God; we’re too scared. Find out what He wants and then come tell us.”

If you ever have a chance to visit the country of Thailand, you will pass many stores that are filled with ornate spirit houses. A good Buddhist will have a little mini-temple / house on his property for the evil spirits to park themselves in. (Better in the backyard than in the living room.) Once in a while the owner will go out and put an orchid there or a bit of rice. Now, who eats the food offerings, I don’t know . . . but there’s an element of fear to their faith. Will their next reincarnation be kind to them? Will the gods forgive them for some of their bad karma?

Some of you have attended Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University in Michigan, and back when Pastor Dwight Nelson did a global TV event called “Net ‘98,” he used as his tag line: “God is not someone to be afraid of, but someone to be a friend of.” Jesus says to His disciples in John 15: I have called you friends. In the Adventist Church, we believe in the tragic necessity of a cleansing hellfire, but not an eternal hellfire, because God is not someone we have to be afraid of. I want with all of my heart for God to have enough fire to someday burn Lucifer into nonexistence and then I want those fires to go out, because God is our strong but gentle Friend. I cherish the fact that Jesus spent the last night of His life with His 12 best friends, and that He even loved the Judas who sat there among them.

Here’s the rest of verse 10: I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. The Christmas story is supposed to be good news of great joy for all the people. The Living Bible says it this way: The most joyful news ever announced, and it is for everyone! I go without shame on mission trips to share Jesus in foreign countries because the story of Jesus is intended for those people. It’s good news for those people. I wrestle with the reality that we ask young people to convert, to do something which hurts the feelings of their Buddhist or Hindu parents. It feels like a betrayal of their national heritage. And I want to say in response, “No, you are still a loving child. But this is good news of great joy. It will make your life vastly better and, in the long run, perhaps give your entire family, including your parents, eternal life.”

Close your eyes for a moment and think of great headlines. The war in Iraq is over. Your child is given a full scholarship to Harvard. You just won the California lottery. You thought you had cancer, but the doctors call to tell you the tests are negative. You and I should get dressed each Sabbath morning and come to church with a feeling that we have news greater than all of that rolled up into one headline. “Jesus has come; we have eternal life. We have a home in heaven with God’s family for all eternity.” That should be what colors our attitude as we pull into the parking lot of this church. We have pledged, in our new church board, that in all our discussions and interactions this coming year, we are going to be in a hope-filled, celebratory mode for these next twelve months. Why? Because the angel announcement – good news of great joy – is still intact here in December. Nothing has changed. The offer hasn’t expired. After 40 centuries of discouragement and doubt and despair, we get the same Redeemer the shepherds did. They sang Christmas carols; we sing Christmas carols. They got eternal life; we get it as well. They received hope for their children; that’s our inheritance also.

Verse 11: Today in the town of David a Savior has been born TO YOU; He is Christ the Lord.These may be two of the most wonderful words in all the Bible. A Savior born TO YOU. Jesus is God’s gift to the human race. This is not a sterile salvation transaction; Jesus is born to us. I and my loved ones deserve death; we deserve to be wiped out. But God, aware of me and my needs, says: Here is a Christmas gift for YOU, Pastor X. My Son. I give My own Son to be born and live and die and sacrifice His life FOR YOU.

Again borrowing from Handel’s Messiah, there is a beloved song that comes from Isaiah 9:6. In fact, 15 of the songs in this oratorio come from that prophetic Old Testament book. But here is what we sing together: For UNTO US a Child is born; UNTO US a Son is given. And this King, who shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace . . . is ours. He is heaven’s gift to you and to me. UNTO US this Christmas miracle is offered.

I found a couple of encouraging insights in our Adventist archives that I would like to share with each of you today. As we carefully tell our children that Santa’s workshop at the North Pole is a fun figment of our imaginations, I’m afraid that we perhaps think of heaven as being almost fictional, perhaps fictional, and many trillions of miles from this lonely planet. Sometimes people drop out of church for various reasons – and this is one of them. The Christmas story is just too remote.

But here in Luke 2, there are shepherds in the fields. Real men, living their spartan lives, doing their thing, earning the few copper coins that are in their pockets. And suddenly there’s an angel standing in their presence. Gabriel comes all the way from the inner throne room of heaven and stands among them in a field outside Bethlehem. So it’s not really that far away after all. The book of Daniel chapter 9 has a story where Daniel is deeply troubled and praying through tears about a confusing prophetic vision he’s had. And before he even says amen and gets up from his knees, Gabriel is there to give him encouragement and explanations.

And the author of The Desire of Ages makes this observation: “Heaven and earth are no wider apart today than when shepherds listened to the angels’ song. Humanity is still as much the object of heaven’s solicitude as when common men of common occupations met angels at noonday, and talked with the heavenly messengers in the vineyards and the fields. To us in the common walks of life, heaven may be very near.”

I know we surmise that heaven is close because of the miracle of prayer. Today you can travel around the globe and then pick up a phone and converse back to those you love virtually for free using something called Skype and an Internet connection. But heaven is also near when we bring heavenly values into the lives of others here, when we extend grace to those who wrong us, when we are a faithful part of this spiritual community, when we pray for one another. In fact, Jesus once said to His disciples: The kingdom of heaven is among you. It’s here now; it’s already begun. It’s not in limbo until the Second Coming. True, the streets of gold are a ways down the road; the pearly gates haven’t yet come into view. But angels travel from heaven to earth quickly and easily, and when you call someone who is discouraged and say, “Hang in there; I love you; I’m praying for you,” you help to bridge the gulf between this cold world and the waiting Paradise.

Verses 13 and 14: Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.” In the King James: Good will toward men. When we sing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” that’s from the Latin Vulgate for this expression: “Glory to God in the Highest.”

I mentioned earlier that this church does not exist to make ourselves happy or socially fulfilled, although it can have that blessed side effect. But we are here, as we sang in “O Come All Ye Faithful,” to adore Jesus. To worship Him and give Him glory. “Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning.” Our corporate worship is for the purpose of bringing glory to Jesus and to the Father who sent and sacrificed Him. All other benefits are frankly incidental.

But notice that this song ends with what God gives to us. After four thousand years of mistrust and fear, God not only proclaims His good will through a baby but also through a sky-filling choir. Every angel heaven has comes down to Judea and helps sing this song: Peace to men on whom His favor rests. God sends the entire population of heaven to say to us: “I like you. I really, really like you. I’m not your enemy; I’m your Rescuer.”

And on earth . . . peace. We don’t live in a world of peace, but peace is God’s gift to us. Someone remarked about the irony that most armies bring turmoil and death, but here in the skies there is an army of angels and they bring us the gift of peace. An army of peacemakers, armed with nothing but good news about God’s plan to bring peace to planet earth.

Sometimes people who belong to a church are anxious about its future. Jesus brings peace. Sometimes we have a trace of animosity with another person; someone told me recently about a church quarrel they had had and how they had acted to get past it. Through the influence of Jesus, we have peace. There are those sitting here today who have deep concerns about their ability to survive financially during these holidays. Jesus, working through His church, helps to bring peace. Married couples go through times of tense communication and misunderstanding; the influence of Jesus brings peace. Many of you work in high-voltage jobs where one wrong move can mean substantial financial loss; the promises of Jesus and His guarantee of security bring you peace as you face the new year.

Let’s prayerfully look around us at the babies we are blessed to have in our family. They don’t seem to know that we’re struggling mightily with a conflict in Iraq and that the Middle East is a cauldron of controversy and that we don’t trust Vladimir Putin very much. They doesn’t know that some Adventists disagree with other Adventists about what happens at the end of the 2,300 years mentioned in Daniel chapter eight. 

But I’m glad these precious, innocent infants live in homes which have embraced Jesus being the Savior who brings peace to our world and to our lives. I’m thankful that Mommy and Daddy are teaching them that Baby Jesus can save us from our sins and bring us peace. Shall we pray?

Lord, in a season where myths abound and where the man in a red suit seems more real than the Baby in swaddling clothes, help us to keep on believing. Thank You that heaven is both real and near. Thank You that heaven’s gift to us is personal and that You love us enough to give us peace. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen. 


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