That which we want to view as just a reflection in a distant mirror comes to us as reality. There was a time when we only knew in part, but now there comes a promise to be fully known. A promise made by the prophets. A promise that the angels declared.
He comes to heal the broken and free the captives. He brings with him joy and gladness. Can you feel it? He is coming. Can you hear it? Hope approaches. Listen to the sound. Lift up your eyes. --Jesus hope for all.
Last Sunday night in Las Vegas, a young woman had her hopes dashed before her eyes. It was the Miss Universe contest. I only caught the news the next day. When they crowned a young lady from Colombia, and she enjoyed it for a moment and had the crown removed from her head and placed on the real winner on the cue card. And that was Miss Philippines.
That young woman from Colombia, her hopes were dashed. She wasn't the only one. There were 80 contestants all together. Only one won. So 79 people didn't get what they wanted. Their hopes were dashed.
Throughout the Old Testament, candles of hope were lit by the prophets as they predicted the coming one, the Deliverer, the Messiah, the Savior. He went by so many different titles.
And when the New Testament comes, some leaders had their hopes dashed. When John the Baptist came on the scene and they said, are you the one that we've been waiting for and looking for? And he said, no. He wasn't the one.
But the prophets had made predictions. They lit those candles, those lights of hope. For 700 years and beyond people had been waiting. Isaiah, 700 years before, as we had been studying the last several weekends, predicted Jesus' birth, and his life, and his death, and even his resurrection.
And then finally, at last, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. As Paul writes in Galatians 4, "When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the law." It was just the right moment. And at that moment, on that day, he came.
Of course there were others who had predictions well before the event happened. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was told by an angel from heaven that she had become impregnated by the Holy Spirit. That which is conceived in you is of the Lord, the angel said. You will call his name Jesus for he will be great.
Then Joseph had to have a special visit from an angel. I understand that. He had nothing to do with the pregnancy, and he has questions going through his mind like crazy. So he needed a special visitation from heaven. And it was a prediction.
"That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. You will name that child Jesus for he will save his people from their sin." Those candles of hope that were lit for Mary and for Joseph and by the prophets go all the way back to the book of Genesis, the earliest parts of the Bible when we are told that the seed of the woman would come and crush the head of the serpent. And he would one day perpetually be out of business.
And so there in Bethlehem, on the straw, in that manger, was a child that personified all those hopes. Like the Christmas carol, "Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem," the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.
Oh what hope resided in that little baby. The hopes that all God's promises would be fulfilled. The hope that sins would be forgiven. The hope that a kingdom would come. A hope that a society, a righteous society, would eventually come.
In Christmases past, we have looked at every conceivable text of scripture having to deal with the issue, both in the Old and the New Testament. Tonight we return to the familiar, the most famous story, in the gospel of Luke. I'm reading out of Luke 2.
You know the story. It's familiar. I bet if you closed your eyes you could see the print right before you. I'll read it to you.
In Luke 2-- I'm beginning in the fourth verse-- "Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the City of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and the lineage of David, to be registered with Mary his betrothed, or engaged, wife, who was with child. And so it was, while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were, in the same country, shepherds living out in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them. And the glory of the Lord shone round about them. And they were greatly afraid.
And then the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
And this will be the sign to you. You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying 'glory to God in the highest. And on Earth peace, good will toward men.'
So it was when the angels had gone away from them into heaven that the shepherd said to one another, let us go now to Bethlehem to see this thing that has come to pass which the Lord has made known to us."
That's the story. It's a familiar story. But there's a few remarkable things about this familiar story. And the first is that where it took place. It did not take place in a major city. It did not take place in Rome, or Athens, or in Jerusalem.
It took place out in the fields, out in the countryside. That's where the angels were dispatched, away from the town. I would understand if the Savior was born in Rome, or Athens, or Jerusalem. Those were more hubs, religiously, politically. But he was born in the backwaters of the Roman Empire, in Bethlehem. And these shepherds are on the outskirts of town.
It's a familiar story, as I said. But though it's familiar, most of us don't quite understand it because we must peek over the shoulders of Jewish rabbis to really understand what is happening. We read that everyone went to be registered. The Roman government had mandated a census be taken of the people in the empire.
Now, typically a census was done for one of two reasons. Either to get a count of those who were fit to serve in the military, in case they wanted to go to war. Or number two, to levy taxes to get more money. And that's probably why it was being done.
They had people registered in this census so that they could take money from them, take taxes from them. And people could pay for the perks afforded them by the great Roman Empire, the Pax Romano, the Roman peace. An enforced, ensured peace, where soldiers were stationed throughout the Roman world making sure that the roads were safe and that problems didn't surface.
That had to be paid for. And so a census was enacted. We're told-- even though I didn't read the verse. I shall now in verse three-- "so all went to be registered, everyone to his own city." That's why Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem. Because they're of the lineage of David.
Now this probably was not a Roman requirement. It was probably a Jewish requirement. The Romans just wanted the money. It's all about the economics. They wanted the money to fund their programs.
But it was probably a Jewish requirement that people go back to their place of origin, their family origin. Because the Jews were big on genealogies and making sure that the tribal allotments were accounted for. And so they, cooperating with the Romans, ensured that masses of populations would be moving around at this time.
But what we must see is that, behind the Romans and behind the Jews, there was a sovereign God in heaven really pulling all the strings. Caesar may be in charge, but God really is the one in charge.
Caesar is a pawn on God's chess board. Herod, the Great, is a pawn on God's chess board. The prophet Micah had predicted years before that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judea-- Micah 5:2.
Then here in verse seven we read, "She brought forth her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn."
I know at your house you probably have a nice little stable, wood kind of a cut out, with a little wooden place where there is straw and the baby Jesus. But you really need to throw that out of your mind. Not out of your house, I don't want you to have to be deprived of that beautiful, beautiful setting.
There was no room in the inn. Most people think that Jesus was born in a cave because that was more readily available than wooden structures. Or he was born in a home. When sometimes animals were kept on the lowest level, and people slept on upper levels. But it mentions an inn. And when you read the word inn, don't think in your mind Holiday Inn, or Ramada Inn, or Days Inn. It was anything but a holiday.
The ancient inns were called caravansaries. They were square structures where people would sleep on the periphery of that square. And in the middle was an open court yard.
The animals were kept in the open court yard. Animals were fed in the open courtyard. That was an ancient caravansary. Caravans gathered there. --an ancient inn.
So there were no rooms in the sleeping quarters around the periphery of that structure. The only place for the birth to take place was out in the public square where the animals were kept and the animals were fed. And there in a stone feeding trough, a manger, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, was born.
There is one thing I think we can agree on. That for Joseph and Mary, it was anything but a silent night. I think if we were to be accurate though, nobody would dare sing it. It would be, (SINGING) noisy night, crazy night. All is harsh. All is bright.
That's really what it was like for them. But alas, that wouldn't make it over in most of our churches. So where this took place is noteworthy.
The second is who was the first ones to hear this anthem of praise. And they were the shepherds. They were the ones that were not part of the mainstream society in any town. They were given to the outskirts of the town. And that is because, by occupation as shepherds, it rendered them ceremonially unclean. And so they were usually the ones that were overlooked by the society.
If you go to Israel today on a tour, you will see these tents around Judea. They're called Bedouin tents. A group called Bedouins live in them. And Bedouins are nomads. They travel. They're mobile.
And they're neat to see because they remind us of the ancient biblical stories. But nobody visits the Bedouins. Even the local folks just sort of see them as outcasts.
In every culture, there are shepherds. In every culture, there are outcasts, there are marginalized people that are just overlooked by us. When is the last time you took a cab somewhere and you asked the cab driver his name and about his family. Most people don't do that. He's just the cab driver.
Or the boy that bags groceries at the store. Or the person that collects trash once a week in your neighborhood. There's always shepherds in every society. But what I love is that when God had really, really, really important news to tell the world, he didn't go to the blue bloods in Rome. He went to shepherds, the overlooked people, the outskirt people, the people out of town, the poor people, the marginalized people. He wanted to tell them.
So why? Why is it that the world's best news-- it happened in Bethlehem. It happened in an open square where animals are fed-- and why was the announcement made to shepherds? I'll give you one word that sums it all up-- accessibility.
Anybody can come to a manger. It's not intimidating. You don't have to flash your ID card. You don't have to go through security. There's nothing intimidating about going to a caravansary.
And so these shepherds, they got up and they went. Even those marginalized had access to where Jesus was. So that is the who.
There's something else to notice. And that is, what was the message that they heard? It's a very simple message actually. The angel was praising God. And he said, "Unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
Before that, the angel said, "Do not be afraid. For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy." I want you to get this. "Which will be to all people." All people, yes even to the outskirt people, even to the marginalized people, even to the overlooked people. It will be to all people-- not just one people, not just Jewish people, not just American people-- to all people.
This is hope for all. That manger, that inn, it's public stuff. It's open to anyone and everyone.
His birth previewed his life. His life was lived that way. People approached him. One time the disciples tried to keep the children away from him. And Jesus rebuked them, and he said, let those children come unto me. For such is the kingdom of heaven.
On another occasion, a woman who had a medical issue for 12 years, pushed through the crowd and grabbed ahold of Jesus' garment, grabbing the hem. And he made time for her. And he healed her. Or the Centurion who had a servant that was sick at home.
The manger was a preview of his whole life. And the manger was a preview of his death on the cross. That's open to all. It still is. That sacrifice is open to anyone and everyone who will believe that his death was for them and would take away their sin if they would put their trust in him.
That's why the writer of Hebrews says, we have boldness to enter the holy place because of the blood of Jesus Christ. Something else, some scholars believe that the shepherds of Bethlehem were watching a very particular kind of flock. And those were the flocks that would raise the sacrificial lambs that would be sacrificed in Jerusalem during Passover. Isn't that interesting?
The ones, perhaps, that were raising the lambs for sacrifice were about to meet, and did meet, the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world. They would see the one who would come to put an end to all of the animal sacrifices that that religion espoused on a yearly basis.
And then, when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us. And they came with haste. That means in a hurry. And they found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in the manger.
Now when they had seen him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning the child. I see what the shepherds did after they heard the announcement, when they heard the announcement, as a good example for all of us.
First of all, they received the message of the angels by faith. They didn't stand around with their arms folded and go, I don't know. I don't know if that angel can be trusted. When is the last time you saw an angel? I don't think-- that's fake.
So they took by faith what the angel said. Number two, they did it quickly. They ran quickly. They heard the news, and they responded immediately. And third, once they saw and they found Christ, they told other people. It's a really good example for us.
Question, does Jesus occupy the place of prominence in your life? Does he occupy the place of prominence during this Christmas season? And are there people in your life that you have marginalized, and cast aside, and pushed aside, and regarded as such?
Remember, this is a story of angels coming to shepherds and the shepherds hearing, and responding, and receiving. There was a legend that 40 years after this event some of those shepherds got together. And they were discussing that night's events.
And as they were discussing that night's events, one of the grandsons of one of the shepherds said, granddaddy was it really like that? Did the angels come? Did you see it? And did you go to Bethlehem? And what was it like when you went there?
And the grandfather just didn't pay attention. But he kept talking and kept describing it. And the little boy kept saying, what was it like, Grandpa? What was that little baby like?
And finally the grandpa had to admit, as he hung his head low, I don't know. I was one of the shepherds that didn't go see. I think there's a lot of people that hear messages in churches, some only once a year at Christmas, or twice a year at Christmas and Easter. And they hear the gospel, but they don't personally respond to the message of hope for all.
Young Pastor Torgenson, resplendent in his new three-piece charcoal gray suit that his wife had given to him especially for this Christmas Eve service, mounted the platform. An ocean of faces looked at him. They were the faces of the Red Ridge Community Church, holiday excited and ruddy from the cold outside.
The pastor smiled at his wife, who beamed from the first row. And then he began. Before the choir sings our first anthem he said, "Angels We Have Heard on High," let me tell you a scripture about angels. It's from Hebrews 13:2. Would you turn in your bibles to that, he said.
A tissue-thin shuffle of Bible pages went through the whole sanctuary. Then it stopped. And as the pastor was about to read Hebrews 13:2, a murmur rose from the back few rows near the door. To the consternation of some of the older members, a strange couple had entered.
The man was a tall, blond, bushy-bearded skeleton of a man in a grimy navy pea coat. The girl was very, very pregnant. And she was swathed in a shapeless beige peasant dress and a dingy sweater. A kerchief failed to conceal her black hair.
I wonder if they're married, murmured a woman in the back row. I've never seen the like of this, especially in this church, grumbled a man. Old Mizzy Everett just squinted at the strangers, apparently as confused as ever before.
Young Pastor Torgenson smelled trouble, and so he paused. Another battle of the old against the new, he thought. Some of those older members look ready to throw their hymnals at that young couple. And the teenagers on the other side are ready to bean their elders back. Will it never end?
Welcome, he finally said to the beleaguered strangers. Please, come in. You're welcome here. Have a seat.
That was easier said than done, for the young couple had to wind their way through the whole crowd to the front of the church, where the only vacant seats were. A few hundred curious eyes watched.
Now as I was saying, young Pastor Torgenson continued, Hebrews 13:2. He cleared his throat. It says here in the Bible, be careful that you show hospitality to strangers. Because some thereby have entertained angels without knowing it. The pastor gulped at the sudden aptness of the passage he was reading.
And he said, uh, well, um, you probably all read about Christmas visitations of angels. And many have been written, most of them pure fiction. But let's remember that the Lord himself was not recognized when he came. And let's make sure there's room in our inn tonight.
A nod to the choir, and the pastor sat down. The music billowed behind him. He tried not to stare at the young couple, but he couldn't help it. Who were they? Why were they here? Then suddenly it came to him, why.
Christmas Eve, a bearded young man, a pregnant young woman, seeking shelter. Did they have a donkey parked outside? He smiled to himself. Angels unaware, well, one never knows.
The choir's last "Gloria in excelsis Deo" faded. And the pastor got up to his feet. He had an idea.
According to our bulletin, he said, the order of service calls for a pastoral prayer. Before I lead us, let's discover what we have to pray for. Jack, he signaled to an usher, get the movable microphone. Let's have a brief time of sharing our needs.
So, the microphone was distributed. Young Pastor Torgenson hoped that the young couple would share their obvious needs. He didn't want to keep staring. But again, he couldn't help it. This was an opportunity for them to show hospitality to these strangers.
Just a brief time, he said a second time, unconsciously nodding at Mizzy Everett in the back. Mizzy loved sharing times. First click of the microphone, and Mizzy would stand up as quickly as her arthritis would allow. And she would drone on and on about some long-forgotten event or person.
The whole congregation would hang their heads and look at the floor, embarrassed, as she tried to remember a Bible verse or sing some song in her squealy voice. It was beginning to put a damper on the services, some people were saying. So the microphone went out.
The pastor's hopes grew as the young man with the beard began to get to his feet and come toward the stage. But Mizzy Everett got up first and grabbed the microphone from the reluctant usher. An almost audible groan went through the auditorium.
Uh, thank you, Mizzy, the pastor said after about a minute of her rambling on. But she kept droning on and on. Can't she get a clue, he thought to himself. Poor Mizzy Everett, that's what people called her.
She was starting to lose her mind. And she was still peddling that three-wheeled bicycle all over town, making a spectacle of herself. Even some of the older members were shaking their heads about it. Finally she surrendered the microphone.
Thank you, Mizzy, we'll be sure to pray about that. And then he signaled to the young man with a beard. He came up and he said, well you know, I'm not good at speaking to church or nothing. But me and my wife here, we need a place to stay for the night. We saw the lights and we decided to come in.
The pastor said, we'd love to put you up for the night. Somebody has a house for you. But first, tell us your name. The young man looked away shyly. My name's Joe, he said. And this here is Mary.
A murmur went through the congregation. I know how it sounds, he said. But it's really true. Indeed it is, said the pastor. And he thought again, angels unaware. And so he prayed for the young couple's need, and for the needs of the families in the congregation, and the war weary world's longing for peace.
The music never sounded better. The passage from the gospel of Luke was never more poignant. The atmosphere was rarer and closer to heaven than ever before. And then after the service, everyone streamed below into the fellowship hall for a cookie, and punch, and coffee.
The young couple was surrounded. You can stay at our house, Joe and Mary. We have a bed. Another couple said, we were about to say the same thing. The pastor hugged his wife.
Over in the corner, by the coffee percolator, sitting alone was Mizzy Everett. She was just squinting at all the ocean of faces, apparently confused by all the noise. Both her hands were around a cup of punch, and she put it down. And suddenly, as if on schedule, looking at her watch, she picked up her purse, made her way to the door along the edge of the crowd. No one saw her leave.
The night was cold. Setting her jaw determinedly, she struggled to get on that three-wheeled bicycle with her arthritis. Such frail human bodies, she thought as she put her purse in the bike's basket. Her legs struggled against the pedals, and ice puddles broke underneath her wheels all the way out of town.
The city limits light flashed by. The highway was deserted. Wheezing, she knew she could go no further. Slowing, she parked by the side of the road. A dog barked in the distance. Only the stars in heaven watched as she slowly climbed up the slope on the side of the road.
Christmas Eve, she thought, looking up at the stars. Just like that first Christmas Eve when she had sung with the others. But that was easy compared to this assignment. This time she had to take on a body for so long. It was good to be going home.
She stretched and felt a pain. Ah, going home, she thought. Looking up at the stars, she stretched heavenward. Closing her eyes, she smiled as the creases on her face slowly began to vanish. Going home, she thought.
Her face grew brighter, and brighter. And her old coat was transformed into a robe the color of the sun. It was an angel's robe. At last, she thought, at last. A flash of light in the night, and Mizzy Everett was gone.
I always loved that story because we never know who's sitting next to us. I like to say I'd never really met an angel. I met one, and I married her. And that's the only one that I know of.
But the Bible talks about that, does it not? And as representatives of the Lord, we have the opportunity to extend love to the least of these, to the Mizzy Everetts, the people we marginalize.
But how about you? What have you done with the Savior? It's nice to be in church and to commemorate Christmas Eve and enjoy the festivities, and the music, and the production. But just on a real personal level, do you know that your sins are forgiven? Do you know that when you die you will be in heaven?
If you don't, if you're not sure, it's an opportunity for you to ask Jesus personally to be your Savior. We always like to make that as an option, as an offer, as a possibility, if you don't know the Lord.
In just a moment, our group's going to come out and sing one final song, and we'll stand. But let's pray first, right where we are. Father, we love to read and hear of the story. We love the fact that angelic messengers were sent out of town, to the countryside, out of the fray, to common people. And Jesus was born in such an open place, where he was accessible to all who had a yearning to come and see him.
I pray we would not be like that shepherd who never went to check it out, but, Father, that we would personally investigate. As the Bible says, taste and see that the Lord is good. If you're here tonight and you don't know the Lord. You've come with friends or family, you're a guest, you've come from out of town, maybe you know right now, you need to get right with God.
Right where you are, you could just ask him to come in your life. It's that simple. He's done all the work, all the heavy lifting. Would you just say, Lord, I know I'm a sinner. I admit it. I need you. I need forgiveness.
I believe Jesus came to this Earth to die on a cross for me and to rise from the dead for me. And so I repent. I turn.
From my sin, I turn to my Savior. I place my life in his hands. I want to follow him. I want a new start, a new beginning.
Help me to live for you. In Jesus' name, Amen.
For more teachings from Calvary Albuquerque and Skip Heitzig, visit calvaryabq.org.