Praise the Lord, Emmanuel, God with us. I am thrilled to be back at North Hills and greet you for my entire family, thanking you for your faithful support for many years, as Allan said. You’ve been with us through a lot of thick and thin. Several years ago, maybe close to ten years ago now, without us even asking or sort of floating a need, this church gave a significant amount of money for a project we had. And without going into all the details, that has just continued to multiply like the loaves and fishes. God has just continued to use that. So, thank you for that and then just for your constancy and your love and prayers and support.
Just really quickly, I do have some prayer cards. I think they should be in the back. Several years ago, we went with a “buy in bulk and you get them for cheaper” idea. And so, we have too many of these around our house. So, if you can help us, it’s a picture of our family, several years old now, but also flags of three nations. You heard me in Albanian a little earlier. I did that about a month ago and I was like, “who’s speaking in Albanian? Oh, that’s me.” Albanian is the language of three countries officially. It’s Albania, obviously, where I first started ministry when there were no churches at all. And now praise the Lord for what he’s done, there are churches in almost every city and many, many towns and villages of Albania. Kosovo — some of you remember the Kosovo crisis back in the late 1990s — and that’s now an independent country, 95% Albanian, and the official language is Albanian. And then the Republic of North Macedonia, where there’s a significant Albanian population and just had Albanian admitted as one of their national languages. And that’s the country with the fewest laborers for the gospel. And actually, we don’t know of any Albanian believers of North Macedonia right now. And so, that’s heavy on my heart, and it’s been a focus of our ministry recently is really reaching this unreached people group. I mean, they’re tied for first among the most unreached. There’s probably some other group that doesn’t have one believer. And so, we’re praying for them. You can read a little bit about that with our prayer card.
But thank you very much. I was thrilled to be invited to speak at the launch of the Christmas season. And I’m also happy when Allan sort of gave me the passage of the topic that will be the focus over the next four years [weeks], because I love this story. I mean, it is the Christmas story, and its focus is joy. Great, great joy. A baby is born. I remember the joy of some of my children being born. I say some because we had some by adoption, and some were born that I got to witness in the hospital, and it was joyful. Joyful events, whether it was a hospital or whether in the judge’s chambers where we were given, the adoption was approved. It was a joy to our family. I have to say, a lot of people show me the pictures of their new babies or grandkids or whatever. And when it’s not your own baby, it’s like, “Yeah, he’s really cute-ish. Sort of.” So, there’s joy, especially when it’s your own. But the birth of Jesus, he is the baby for everyone, for all over the world, for all of history. I mean, the calendar resets when he’s born. So, we’re here to celebrate the joy of Jesus.
And then the shepherds get informed in the most dramatic fashion by the angels. That’s fear and joy, as we’ll see in the in the text. And then in the next several minutes, as we consider the story, I’ve been praying over the past few weeks that the Lord will just renew my joy in the gospel, in the birth of Christ. Because we’re all going to be teaching our children, our grandchildren these stories. And that’s so important. But it can get a little bit old. It shouldn’t, but it can. And so, I want to be renewed by the surprise of the gospel. The gospel, when you think about it … Emmanuel. We just sang that. God with us. The incarnation of Jesus Christ, God coming in the flesh, it’s so inconceivable that some religions, especially the religion of the majority of the people I work with, which are Muslims, they say this is impossible. God can’t become man. And when you think about it, it is. It’s mind boggling. To them it’s almost blasphemous. It is. So, usually before we even get to that, when I’m talking to Muslims now, I try to just agree that can God, mighty God, do anything? The Almighty, can he do anything he wants to do? Oh, yes, yes. So, then when we get to the part of “Oh, no, God couldn’t have become a man.” Well, wait. Didn’t you just say that God could do anything? And so, this is the only solution to the sin problem where love and mercy can meet together with justice. And they don’t have a solution to that. Nobody does. It’s only in the gospel. It’s only in Emmanuel. I want to have a revival of joy in that.
So, the story starts in Bethlehem. Or we can go back further and say … I mean, we could go back all the way and say it starts in heaven. But you go back to Rome, where Caesar says all the world is going to be registered. And of course, behind that is his need to get more taxes. It’s politics, it’s taxation, it’s census. These are not new concepts. And so, all throughout Judea, you know what’s happening. Every home, every marketplace, every inn, they’re talking politics. And they’re talking about their frustration with not just the government, but a foreign government, a government that’s oppressive to them. When you get taxed more, and you’re already being oppressed, my guess is that when they were talking about the Messiah and waiting and longing for the Messiah, they’re not looking for that Savior from their sin as much as they were looking for some political solution to their felt needs, mostly economic. And, of course, Jesus is going to come, and in his ministry, he’s actually going to be rejected, because he’s not on their timetable. He’s on his own timetable. And the most important thing was offering himself as the Good Shepherd, but also as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world.
So, Joseph had the need to go to his own town, and Luke makes it very clear that he was from the town of David, the city of David called Bethlehem. And this is going to be very clear. Matthew, in his gospel, in the very first sentence of Matthew’s gospel, Matthew makes it clear it’s the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David. The lineage from David is so important.
So, I’m in Albania and when I first went, I didn’t know how important things like genealogies were and where are you from and all of that. People would ask me where I’m from and I’d say, “I’m from America.” And I’d ask him where is he from? And he said, “Well, I’m from Dibra.” And I would say, “Oh, Dibra, yeah, I’ve been there. It’s way up in the mountains.” And I said, “Well, when did you move here?” And he’d say, “Oh, I was born here.” And I was like, “Well, didn’t you just say you’re from there?” “Oh, yeah, yeah.” “So, your dad was there.” “No, no. My dad was born here, too. But my grandfather and my great grandfather, they’re from Dibra.” They’re not thinking so temporal like we do. Then he keeps asking me, “So, you’re from America. But I know that nobody in America is actually from America except those people with feathers on their head and that kind of thing.” They know more about our history. “Where are you from?” And I’m just like, “Well, yeah …” I’m going back to the memory banks. Hosaflook, that’s kind of German Dutchish. And he’s like, “You don’t know where you’re from?!” I don’t know! It’s hundreds of years ago. I’m American. We don’t know these things. You guys know. I don’t know.
Very important because the foreshadowing here is that we’re establishing who Jesus is. You can’t be the Messiah if you don’t come from that unique lineage that’s prophesied in the Old Testament. And so, there had actually been a prophecy in Ezekiel 34:23 that says, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David …” Well, David had died. Most people understood this isn’t resurrection of David, but this is the Messiah who’s going to be from David’s heritage.
“… and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.”
David is the shepherd and the prince. David was a shepherd; he became a king. And Jesus the Good Shepherd, the Prince of Peace. And how we need a shepherd to feed us and a Prince of Peace to lead us.
So, someone from David’s line was coming, but the question was, when would he arrive. In the first verses of chapter 2, Luke chapter 2, we read the story that Jesus is born. In verse 7 he is here. We find him in swaddling clothes in a manger in a feeding trough. And today, I don’t want to ruin anybody’s Christmas or anybody who just spent hours setting up your nativity scenes or anything like that, but I am going to tell you, it’s probably a lot different than your nativity scene, what happened, a lot different than the children’s books. Probably so much more incredible than you could have ever thought.
My dad wanted to go on a trip with me. He wanted to go to Alaska. He’s never been to Alaska. He said, “Hey, we could go to Alaska.” And we looked at how far does it take to fly from Washington, D.C. Area to Alaska? It’s a long way. Well, Iceland is just a five hour flight from D.C., and it’s pretty and white, cold, I think. So, we started talking about going to Iceland. It was just really fun. I’ve traveled all over the world, but never been there before. I’m starting to look at the map and trying to find these places that are kind of off the beaten path, even for Iceland, that we could find some treasure. And I kind of got thinking about heaven. When we get there, is there going to be this map and some cove way up north, that’s where the shepherds (these shepherds) are. And we’re going to be able to go and say, “Hey, can you tell us what happened?” “Oh, yeah. Come to the reenactment booth, and we can reenact.” Do you think about that stuff? I think about that stuff. I think that would be great. There’s got to be something like that. I’m not going to be sitting on clouds with little harps, I don’t think.
The shepherds hear this story and now that the baby is born, and all of these prophecies are fulfilled in this little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and crying. There’s another one — that Christmas carol, “no crying he makes.” I think he cried. Again, I’m blowing everybody’s Christmas up. I’m sorry. But he’s fully human. I mean, how does he not cry? I’d cry if I’d come from there and ended up in the trough. This is the One who was promised from the beginning to crush Satan’s head. This is the One who would be prophesied in Isaiah to open the eyes of the blind and open the ears, unstop the ears of the deaf and to make the lame to leap. The streams in the desert. This is that One preaching righteousness, setting captives free, bringing a new covenant, bringing an eternal throne. Zechariah had prophesied,
“Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you.”
And then he was here. And he wasn’t just here for the people of Israel. He was here so that all the nations of the world would be blessed. Thank you, Lord, for that. He would draw other peoples to himself. What would happen next? What would happen next? That was the question. And this is always the question when the gospel is revealed to us. What are we going to do with this? What would happen? What we see is that the very next thing is the first recipients of this news would be the shepherds. Now, I hope to meet them someday, again in that little reenactment booth. I don’t know exactly what they were like. I’ve read a lot about them. And to be honest, I’m a little more confused than when I started. Because you read all the stories, and the narrative is these were the absolute worst of the worst outcasts and everything. I did a lot of reading and I’m not exactly sure how much they were actually considered outcasts. They did seem to be forbidden to take part in a lot of the traditions under the Rabbinic law because even their lifestyle didn’t lend to having the time to be able to take care of all the ceremonies. They were probably ordinary shepherds. Maybe they were a kind of a unique group of shepherds that were managing the sheep that would be brought in from the fields further afield and brought in for the Passover. Which would bring a whole new element of symbolism, wouldn’t it, if they are the ones who see the ultimate Lamb of God.
Allan and I were talking this week about shepherds and our experiences — him in Ethiopia, me in Albania — and we were just commenting how so many shepherds are really young people, young kids. I’ve seen 8-year-old shepherds. I’ve seen 80-year-old shepherds, too. David was the youngest brother and was given the responsibility of the sheep. What if we get to heaven and figure out that these shepherds were all young children, and they’re the ones who go witness the story? I don’t know. I think it’s going to be very, very interesting. Also, even though shepherds were not typically well educated in the elite or anything like that, they were intelligent people. Some of the most intelligent people I know in Albania are shepherds. Several of our pastors are shepherds. Several of the ladies in our church have been shepherdesses, and they tell these great stories. And I’ve walked the mountains with shepherds. And the stories they tell are just incredible. And the way that their experiences shed so much light on my life from Washington, D.C. where I know nothing about shepherds, is just phenomenal.
I remember we were in the mountains over Rugova, Albania, and we were doing an evangelistic outreach. It was actually door-to-door invitations to a meeting — when I say door-to-door, between doors is like a 30-minute hike because you’re in the mountains — inviting people to come and most of them were farmers and shepherds. And they all came. At first the Albanian pastor said, “Why don’t you speak because it’s kind of weird. We don’t have many Americans who can speak Albanian so well.” And, of course, everybody in those regions would think I’m CIA because an American in the mountains of Kosovo. Why is that happening? I convinced him to preach and he said okay, reluctantly. But he’s preaching as a shepherd to shepherds and the illustrations illustrating the gospel, using the birthing of cows and all these things that are way out of my realm of experience. And I’m just going, “Amen. Preach that brother!” But he was connecting with all of those men on this level that I couldn’t even understand.
God chose shepherds — not unintelligent men, but simple people, people that were not considered in the elite. And God does that so often, doesn’t he? He uses the simple things to confound the complex and the base things to confound the wise. So, all of this is happening, and God is choosing to tell the shepherds. What happens in verses 8-13 is so rich with theology and missiology, and it’s just incredible. The angels come, and immediately the glory of the Lord shines round about them. It becomes daytime in the middle of the night. Now later at the cross, we’re going to have nighttime in the middle of the day. But here we have the start of it, and the angels are telling. And absolutely expected, the shepherds are terrified. And the answer is, “Fear not.” This is such a great picture of the gospel. “Amazing Grace” — “T’was grace that caused my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” And how we should be thankful when the Lord brings upon a sinner a shame and a guilt and a fear of God so that he can be led to the Savior who eliminates the guilt and the shame and the fear.
And that’s what the angel says. “Fear not, I’m bringing you good news.” The word in Greek is gospel. I’m bringing you — this is the first proclamation of the gospel after Jesus is born — good news, great joy. That’s what the gospel is, in essence. It’s a message of joy, and it’s for all people. So, this is the missiological part of this.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David [and he’s connected in that lineage] a Savior, [this is the salvation part of the message that they’re hearing] who is Christ [the Messiah] the Lord.”
There’s the deity. It’s everything in this one thing. And then they give the shepherds a sign. And then there’s “Glory to God in the highest,” because in the end, all of our mission and all of our salvation, it just goes to the glory of God. It’s the perfect picture.
I often think about the angels. First of all, sometimes I’ve thought, and I remember early in my ministry, I’m thinking, alright, I’m sharing the gospel, but there was this time where angels spoke. And even in the end times, there’s a moment where the Bible says that the angels will speak and proclaim the gospel from the sky. And I’m thinking that would be very effective. I would think that be really effective to give people’s attention. But for some reason, God hasn’t done it that way. God hasn’t planned it that way. God has chosen to use saved people to tell other people how they may be saved. And I always wondered if the angels were disappointed in that. But in this moment, God allows the angels to get it started. It’s like lighting the first beacon that’s going to be passed on and passed on and passed on to North Hills Church as we keep going and keep spreading the good news.
So, they go back to heaven, and I wonder if … Again, I want to hear their conversation, the angels. They’re beings. They’re different than us, but they’re probably a lot like us in a lot of ways. They’ve got to be talking to each other. “That was awesome. Did you see the look on that one guy’s face? That was great.” High five, high wing, I don’t know what they do. But they must have been full of joy as they’re going back. And then the shepherds then begin to respond, and their response is, “Let’s go.” Now, they weren’t told, “Go now.” They were just given the sign. So, it was almost an implied command, and I think that’s really important. I think the Lord speaks to our hearts sometimes in things that aren’t direct commands, but they’re implied commands. Like, “You ought to be doing this.” And when you feel in your heart that you maybe ought to be sharing the gospel with somebody, don’t say, “Was that from God?” If it’s biblical, it’s not of the devil. It’s from the Lord. It’s the Holy Spirit talking to you.
They go immediately to see what’s happened. And I also like this because, yes, they had seen that and had that incredible experience, but they also wanted to see the sign. And I love this, because even after the resurrection, Peter and John, they hear the lady say, “Hey, he’s not there,” but they go, and they run, and they want to see it. So, they’re verifying their faith. Their faith isn’t blind. They’re going to verify it. They see that this child was born. They go with haste, and they’re there, and they tell everybody that’s present what had happened. I’m looking at this and I think, well, first of all, obviously, they heard the message and they just immediately wanted to tell people. But in this context, they’re actually telling the people who were there. If our nativity scenes are right, really the first people to get there are the shepherds. So, really all that would be there would be Joseph and Mary and the shepherds and some animals as the wise men are still making their way. Well, maybe there’s another part to the story. They’re not just telling Mary and Joseph. I think they’re telling other people.
So, I did a little study. What’s this inn? Why the word “inn”? It’s very interesting. “Inn” is used in the Bible again in Luke for the Good Samaritan. But the word for “inn” (little con or a hotel thing) is different than this. This word is actually used as guest chambers. And in the book of Mark, it’s actually used as guest chambers. Poor Joseph, I feel like he gets a really bad rap sometimes because in this chapter you have this. He gets there and doesn’t find a place for his very pregnant wife. And then 12 years later, the next thing we see is leaving Jesus. And they go a day’s journey. And at some point, Mary says, “Honey, have you seen Jesus?” And he’s like, “Yeah, sure. I think …” They’d gone a day’s journey. It’s like leaving a kid in McDonalds and driving in your minivan halfway down the road. If looks could kill, I would love to see Mary’s look. In fact, this is the last time we see Joseph in the Bible. I’m sorry, I’m blowing up everybody’s Christmas, and that’s terrible.
But I don’t think Joseph was that bad of a husband and father. They had relatives in the hill country of Judea. Now, it’s very possible that they lived in a home, and some of the homes for some poorer families, they would have a big family room and a lower room for animals, maybe just a few animals. And they dig into the floor, they dig a feeding trough. And then some of them actually had an extra guest house, and family wouldn’t be there. So, if they were actually with some distant family members in that area, and the guest room was full, which it would have been in a census, it could be that she gave birth in the family room of a home. I don’t know for sure. But what I’m saying is, it’s very possible that there were lots of people there who had heard Mary and Joseph’s story but we’re still kind of unconvinced, because it was so crazy, her virgin birth.
So, they told, and it gave this confirmation. And then they left, and they left, and they went praising God. They went telling other people. And how many times do you think they told that story throughout their lives? I think it was a lot of times. I hear stories about me when I was a little kid. My parents and my grandparents, they’ve told the story over and over again. And it’s not like they’re totally lost their minds and don’t know that they’ve told this story before. A lot of times they’ll say, “Now, I know you’ve probably heard this before, but when you were five, you said this.” Why do they tell the story over and over again? They tell it because it gives them joy to tell the story, to repeat it over and over again. And that’s the joy I want to feel every day about the gospel. To have so much joy in it that I’m going to tell it over and over again.
In fact, in the Bible, you had times when Jesus would heal someone — cleanse a leper, give sight to the blind, give hearing to the deaf — and he would actually tell them (for purposes known to him related to his ministry and when he wanted to declare himself more publicly), he would tell them, “Don’t tell. Don’t spread what happened to you around.” And the more he would say it, the more they would spread it. It was just something that was natural to them. Or Jesus talking to the woman at the well in John 4. And here this woman who has a checkered past, she goes to the well alone, she’s probably doesn’t want to be with crowds because of the way they talk about her. Jesus reveals himself to her as the Messiah, and immediately she goes right back into the center of the crowds and says, “Come, you have got to hear this story.” Nobody discipled her, nobody told her this is what you’ve got to do. This is just a supernaturally natural response. And the more that we allow ourselves to be surprised and moved and joyed in the story, the more our telling of the story won’t be some mission or some duty that we feel we have to do and we’re not doing such a good job, but something that we really want to do and love doing.
If you talk to my kids and ask them what’s some interesting things nobody would know about your dad, they might say, “He cries in movies.” I cry in dumb movies. Not dumb movies, but I cry in movies that men shouldn’t cry in, like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Tangled.” I’m sitting there, because I know when it starts getting a little bit sad or the music comes in, some snarky kid is going to say, “Dad are you crying?” “No!” And usually that happens when some element of the movie connects with me personally. It triggers some memory that I have, some difficulty that I’ve been going through, something that happened — anything has to do with adoption or anything like that. And it just triggers some kind of a memory. Could be unrelated completely, so they have no idea why I’m crying. It just works that way.
Not too long ago, I began hearing this phrase, “You should preach the gospel to yourself more.” And I understand the merits of it. But as I thought that through, I thought, well, you know, whenever I’m sharing the gospel with somebody else, I’m asking them questions about their worldview and seeing the difficulties they are going through and how the gospel will meet them. As I’m telling the story to them, I’m simultaneously telling it to myself and I become very emotional as I’m telling it to them about how it has saved me and affected me. And that’s the joy that we can have, or C.S. Lewis calls it “arrows of joy” that God shoots at him regularly.
There’s so much to say about this joy. I’m going to end with one little story from kind of a cool thing that’s happened recently in Albania. I’m going to show you a picture if we can get it up of an Albanian preacher. His name is Geraseem Cheriasi. He’s wearing a very masculine outfit. I can tell you that. He is wearing a traditional costume from the Albanian mountains. This man was born actually in North Macedonia, the country that I said we’re really trying to reach. He was Albanian. I never knew about him for the first ten years of my ministry in Albania because his story was buried, buried by the government of his time, the Ottoman Empire, buried by other nations that came in on Macedonia, and then buried by communism that didn’t want any narrative that some Albanian heroes were strong believers and preachers of the gospel. So, it was buried and buried and buried. This man wrote hymns, preached sermons, published gospel tracts, started schools for children, especially for girls, started churches. This is before the 1900s. I thought I was the first guy to go to Albania since Paul, so he kind of burst my bubble. But actually, I was very happy that I found him because he connects with Albanians in a very unique way, like Abel, who from the grave yet speaketh. Well, we didn’t know where he was buried. We didn’t know where his remains were or his gravestone. And in a country like Albania, stones and bones are really important for historical reasons, just like the genealogies and everything.
Well, through a long story, God allowed us to find his gravestone. There it is. And it was broken in four pieces, and parts of it are completely missing. But recently they’ve been put back together, and there was a big ceremony on the anniversary of his starting the first church. Pastors came and ambassadors and government figures, and it was amazing, televised. His grave is one of the first graves in the Albanian language, in this beautiful script. And it says, “The first preacher in Albania.” And then, there’s a part of a verse that has remained, and it’s 1 John 1:7,
“The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.”
He died at 35 years old. He died brokenhearted because he knew his life was coming to an end, and like Paul he wanted to go to be with Jesus. But at the same time, there were so few workers, there were so few preachers, and he wanted to get the gospel out to his people. He was translating books like the “The Pilgrims Progress,” saying, “I want my fellow men to travel this road.” And then recently we found (recently, as in last week), I found this little brochure. And what’s circled there is a Bible verse. It’s the same Bible verse. “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin.” He wrote six gospel brochures, and this was the last one. This is his last sermon. So, his last sermon is published. And you can even see the Ottoman writing on the top, because they had to have permission from the Ottoman Empire government to just even publish them. And in his last sermon, which is on his gravestone and published, is this sermon on the blood of Jesus Christ cleansing us from all sin. Let me just read the last paragraph, the last paragraph of the sermon written from him, translated.
“If there is someone who feels the burden of his sin and the uncleanness of his heart and seeks to be safe from both, the means of healing comes from God, who with all his heart, gives them without requiring silver or honor. [And again, Albania is a big honor-and-shame culture, so honor is a big thing. So, even if you don’t feel yourself an honorable person, without honor, God will give you these things.] The blood of Jesus Christ poured out on the Christ can remove the burden and cleanse the guilt. It remains for you to seek and ask to be forgiven and to be cleansed in the name of Christ, and you will receive both. So, what will you do? Will you cast off this gift of salvation or will you receive it with joy?”
And that’s the last word of the last sermon of this dear man’s life. This number 1 is an invitation to anyone here who is not sure, doesn’t understand, doesn’t know for sure. Are you forgiven? God is giving a gift. It’s through Jesus Christ, through his blood, and it will usher you into joy. Amidst the trials of this life, there will be deep, deep joy. And then for us who have received it, the response is, “I have believed; therefore, I speak.” And we can be like Peter and John, that even if we were commanded not to speak, we would say, “I can’t. I can’t not speak of this amazing joy.” Praise the Lord for his joy. And like the little clip said, “Yes, people must know.” Let’s pray.
Thank you, Lord, for your goodness and your Word and this beautiful story of the shepherds getting this message and the beautiful story of giving the message to us and allowing us the joy to do your service, to spread the news, and be joyful in it. And I pray this would be a season of great joy at the end of a very difficult year, and that our joy would overflow to those around us and to the nations. In Jesus’ name, amen.