Picture of Pastor David Cook

Sermon delivered December 20, 2008 by Pastor David Cook

McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church

McDonald, Tennessee

Biblical quotations are from the New Inductive Study Bible NISB unless otherwise noted. Divine pronouns and titles are capitalized.

The Christmas Sign

Luke 2:10-12

(RealAudio Version available)

The text we’re looking at today is Luke 2, starting in verse 8 and ending in verse 20.

You know, sometimes, the most amazing things happen to the most ordinary people. 

Traveling to register in the city of their fathers, Mary must have been troubled.  How is this going to work out?  She knew the Baby inside of her was special.  That was for sure.  He had no human father.  And besides, the angel had told them, both of them.  But things just didn’t match up.  She was thrilled to be chosen, but she really didn’t feel like she fit the bill.  The Messiah was to come in power and glory and in wealth and magnificence, and they certainly didn’t have much of that.  Well certainly, they were of the lineage of David.  They fit that part.  They were poor! They had no wealthy relatives in Bethlehem.  They’d likely have to rent someone’s small, little apartment.  It would likely be the cheapest place in town.  Would the Messiah be born in a roach-infested hovel?   

Perhaps Mary and Joseph fantasized about how God would change all this.  Turn it around.  Maybe when they reached Bethlehem they would be greeted by an entourage of the priestly and the powerful.  Yes, of course!  An angel appeared to both her and Joseph, why not to them?  Why couldn’t an angel announce to the priests, “Here, the Messiah. The Messiah’s being born, right here in Bethlehem.”

She imagined High Priest Joazar[1] taking her hand and helping her down from the donkey.  She saw children waving palm branches and throwing down their clothes and singing songs as they walked down into the gates of the city.  And perhaps some of the wealthy people would come out and kneel down before them.  “Please, please, come stay at my house.  I have a massage therapist on staff, and hot rocks, and..  Oh, it’s just wonderful.”  And somebody else saying,  “No! Ma’am!  I have many more servants and I have plenty of food for you and your husband.”

What a relief it would be.  They were so poor, they hadn’t even been able to buy proper clothes for the child.  Perhaps someone would provide them with silk baby wrappings trimmed with gold.[2]  Mary shuddered to think of the alternative.  In those days, when you traveled, you carried your grave clothes with you, just in case.  Just in case something were to happen, like robbers or disease or whatever.  She brought them along, and she really hated to have to wrap her Baby in grave clothes, but maybe that’s what she’d have to do.  The Messiah wrapped like a dead person.  No!  God would not allow it. 

And as she’s fantasizing, suddenly she’s jolted back to reality.  Joseph has stopped the donkey and he’s looking at something.  “Mary!  Mary!  The tower!  Migdal Eder.  The Tower of the Flock!”  On a nearby hill she sees a  stone tower.  And now a memory catches up with her.  The Tower of the Flock!  Of course.  The Rabbis were always talking about that.  They were always quoting the Mishna and the scripture:

As for you, tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you it will come. Even the former dominion will come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.[3]

Of course, the Messiah, the Messiah was supposed to manifest Himself here at this tower, The Tower of the Flock.

And now a new image fills their fantasies.  Would they see this tower again soon?  Would they be escorted here after the Baby was born?  Maybe they’d be greeted again by priests or by a royal ambassador.

Once again Mary's thoughts are interrupted.  This time the donkey stumbles and she feels her stomach tighten and contract.  The contractions are coming closer and closer.  She knows it’s going to be soon.  She’s concerned.  They’ve got to get there soon.  Thankfully, the tower is just outside of Bethlehem, right along the road, and they’ll be there in a few minutes.

And as they continue, Joseph tries to distract her by playing tour guide.  “Look Mary.  Sheep!  Do you realize,  Mary, do you realize what those sheep are?”  At this point she doesn’t really care.  But he continues.  “Mary, all of the sheep between Bethlehem and Jerusalem are the sheep that are used for the Passover.  For the temple sacrifices.  Mary.  Look.  See that shepherd.  That shepherd is considered clean.  He’s not ceremonially defiled like the other shepherds.  The other shepherds, they get dirty from taking care of animals and ceremonially defiled by helping the sheep to have their babies.  Mary, these shepherds, they’re considered clean because they have to provide the lambs for the Passover.”  All Mary can think is, “Ohhh, don’t talk about birthing.”  Now another contraction is coming on. 

By this time the traffic is getting thick.  Many other travelers are there to register.  They’re all converging on the city at the same time, and as they approach the gates, Mary’s heart sinks because it’s not like she imagined..  There’s no royal entourage.  No guards.  No wealthy people.  No celebration.  Everybody’s focused on getting into the city and getting a place to stay, just like them.  And nobody is concerned that she’s pregnant. 

As they come to the first inn they realize that they might as well keep going.  A couple of families are even now headed back up the street trying to find someplace else.  So they continue on.  Up the street they go.  One inn after the next.  “Please. Please, can’t you help us?”  “I’m sorry.  We’re full.  We’ve just registered our last person.  Please, just keep on going.  Keep going.  Keep going.”

Finally they get down to the last inn on the street, in the eastern most part of the city.  “Please sir!  Please. You’re our only hope.  You’ve got to help us.  Look, my wife!  She’s pregnant!  Please!”  “Well, I didn’t really want to offer you the stable.”  “No, we’ll take it.  We’ll take it.  Please.”  “Follow me.” 

And now, they’re walking around behind the inn, and the inn-keeper finds some clean hay for them and Joseph piles it up in the cleanest part of the stall that he can find.  Now he’s unpacking the donkey and places a blanket down on the hay and lowers Mary very gently down into it.

The night is hard.  Mary tries to be brave, but she’s so disappointed.  This is far worse than she ever imagined it would be.  Now she’d give anything for a roach infested hovel.  Mary and Joseph are not prepared for this.  Joseph’s first wife had had midwives and relatives to attend her.  And Mary was very young.  Barely out of her teens, perhaps.  She hadn’t helped with too many deliveries, and so they’re scared.  They’re not sure exactly what to do, and they’re shaking.  And Joseph, his heart is just ripped apart by her screams.  He doesn’t know.  “Is this too much?  Maybe there’s something wrong.  I don’t know what to do.”

And finally, it’s all over and Joseph finds himself holding a squirming, sticky, dark-haired little creature.  And he’s stunned.  He can’t take his eyes off of Him.  His heart is thrilled with more love than perhaps even for his own children. 

The Baby is crying as hard as He can but it’s not that loud because He’s so small.  Joseph knows that that’s going to change soon.  And he looks up and he sees Mary looking at him with tears streaming down her face, and she’s grinning and she says, “May I hold the Baby?”  “Well, of course!  Here!”  Awkwardly he hands the slippery little creature to her, and she takes Him in her arms.  “Joseph.  Can you get the grave clothes?”  “Aw! Is that all they had?”  Soon the deed is done and it’s not that bad.  At least the Child is warm. 

By this time they’re both exhausted.  They need to sleep, but they don’t know what to do because they have the Baby and they don’t want to hurt the Baby if they sleep with Him there on the hay.  And they’re looking around and Joseph sees a feeding trough.  “Aw, what a shame.  This is ridiculous.  What have we come to?”  But it’s all they have, so he finds a clean portion of the hay and he lays it down into the feeding trough, places the little sleeping bundle into the hay and soon all 3 of them are sleeping soundly.

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.[4]

As they sat next to their little fires, the shepherds must have looked out over the valley toward the tower.  Once again their thoughts turn toward the Messiah.  “Oh.  When would He ever come?”  They longed for Him.  They wanted to see Him.  The signs were everywhere.  They knew it’d be soon.  Oh, and Caesar.  Caesar was causing so much trouble.  Now with this tax that he was bringing on them, and bringing all sorts of strangers to their town, and trouble always comes with strangers.

As they look out over the field they look longingly at that tower. The Tower of the Flock.  The place where they stand and look out and watch for the sheep that are going astray.  The place where, at the base of it, they deliver the baby lambs.

But it’s not just nostalgia that they feel.  It’s hope.  Ever since they could remember, they’ve repeated the words of the prophet. 

As for you, tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you it will come.

They might be dirty shepherds, but they are living and working in the shadow of the Messiah.  For hundreds of years Bethlehem shepherds had hoped to be the ones.  Perhaps it would be them.  What a privilege. 

What would it be like when He came?  Would there be a shining angel?  Would He stand at the base of the tower while thousands of the most important people in the area came to see Him?  Would He march out of here surrounded by a new army up to Jerusalem?  Perhaps while He was going by they could stand off in the distance and just catch a glimpse of Him.  Maybe they could stand in the place where He’d go by and He’d smile at them.  Who knew?  They were just shepherds but maybe they’d be found worthy to see the Messiah.

And then the lights went on.  The shepherds fell back in terror.  They could hardly SEE it was so bright.  And with that brightness was power.  It was like the light itself was knocking them down.  Now some of them were begging for mercy. 

“Please! We didn’t mean it!  I know we’re just shepherds but we just wanted to talk about the Messiah.”

And then, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;”

Was this the Messiah?  Are their dreams coming true?

For today in the city of David there has been born for you a (D)Savior, who is [a](E)Christ (F)the Lord.

Oh!  This must be His angel.  “Please, where can we find Him?  Please, don’t go away.  Tell us where to find Him.”

"(G)This will be a sign for you: you will find a Baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Now I need to step aside for a second and mention that’s it a very good chance that what the shepherds heard when the angel said “wrapped in clothes” was “You’ll find a Baby wrapped in grave clothes”, because that’s the word that Luke uses.  “You will find a Baby wrapped in grave clothes.”

Grave clothes??  Lying in a manger, a feeding trough?  How could this POSSIBLY be?

But they didn’t have time to be confused. 

If they thought it was bright before, it was really, really bright now.  It was like the sun had moved a little closer.   The Tower of the Flock was rimmed with fire.  The hills were blazing.  Never had noon been so bright.  And now the sky is filled with fantastically colorful and moving beings.  And they’re singing.  But not like any choir in the temple. 

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men [b](I)with whom He is pleased."

As the lights and music fade, the shepherds find themselves once again in their dark little field.  But it doesn’t seem as dark anymore.  At least their hearts are filled with light. 

Who knows what they did with the sheep.  I presume they left them there.  Maybe for the first time a Passover lamb escaped because of the Lamb of God. 

Now they’re running down Bethlehem’s main street.  This is an easy assignment.  They know the city well.  There aren’t very many stables.  There certainly aren’t very many women having babies in stables.  They’re going to find Him.  Finally, at the end of the street, they see a lantern, a light in a stable.  I can imagine them hesitating at the door.  They see a peasant couple sleeping there in the hay.  They’re certainly not royalty.  But  the angel said . . .

Then they see a manger pushed up close to the hay, and a small bundle lying there in the manger, wrapped just like the angel said.

As they look, a thought strikes them.  As He’s lying there in a manger, a feeding trough that looks an awful lot like an ossuary that you would bury your dead people in.  That wrapped Child looks an awful lot like a corpse!   But this is it.  This is the sign. A Baby wrapped  in grave clothes and lying in a manger.

At this moment Mary and Joseph start to wake up, and Joseph, ever the protector, jumps up and says, “Hey! What’s going on here? What are you doing?”  “Oh.  Sorry!  Sorry.  No.  No, you don’t understand.  We’ve come to worship the King.  The Baby King.  The King.” 

“How did they know?” 

And now the Baby is crying and Joseph hands Him over to His mother, and the shepherds and Joseph step around the corner so she can have her privacy while she feeds the Child.

And now the shepherds are telling their story and they’re so excited, and he begins to get excited with them.


Mary listens closely as they tell their story, and deep down she begins to fight a terrible disappointment.  Shepherds?!  Shepherds?!  The angels appeared to shepherds? No priest?  No royal ambassador?  Shepherds.

“Did you hear that, Mary?” Joseph exclaims.  “An angel visited them too!”  “I heard.  That’s wonderful.”

Now they all come back into the stall and Mary is rocking the Baby while they gather around.  And this time, the shepherds kneel down before her, and before the Baby, and their leader lifts up gnarled, kind hands as if to say, “May I hold Him?”  And her first reaction is to hesitate and pull back.  Dirty shepherds?  Won’t they defile this Holy Child?  But wait!  They are clean shepherds!  And now she feels guilty, because she realizes that the only person in that room that would defile the Child would be herself.  She was the ceremonially unclean one.  And now she’s filled with love and amazement that God would allow her to defile His Son with her own blood.  What a mystery.  “Of course you can hold Him.  Here.”

The chief shepherd lovingly takes the Baby in his arms.  He’s awestruck.  Not by the baby’s glory; but by His humility.  And as he rocks the baby He begins to confess,  “You know, I really thought, I really thought that you’d be a lot richer than this.  I just did not imagine, well, sorry, but poor people like me.”

And now light is shining into the stable.  It’s morning, and in so many ways. 

And then one shepherd looks at another and says, “Gentlemen!  Gentlemen, what are we doing?”  “Oh, no.  The sheep.”  “No, no, no, no.  Not the sheep.  The people. We’ve got to tell everybody!  We’ve got to tell them that the Messiah is here, right now.”  “Of course!  Let’s go.”  And now they’re out and they’re running down the street.  “The Messiah’s here!  The Messiah’s here!  We’ve seen Him!”  “Ah, be quiet old man.  You’ve been drinking again.”  “No! You’ve got to believe me!  He’s in a stable.”  “Uh-huh.”

But Mary, Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.


Once again she’s left with her thoughts.  Where are the priests?  Where is the king?  Why haven’t they come?  Why didn’t the angel appear to them?  Why did God send His angel to the shepherds?

And for that matter,  why did He choose her?  Why did He choose Joseph?  And what about the angel’s words “Joy to all the people”?  Even shepherds?  “Peace on earth, good will toward men?  Toward mankind?”  To even gentiles?  Romans!?  Never!  Her Son would rule them with a rod of iron.  Wouldn’t he? 

And the sign.  What did it mean?  “Wrapped in grave clothes and lying in a manger?”  What was this all about?  Would her Son experience sorrow and poverty and suffering?  

At any rate, God had certainly done some strange things that day.  He had connected Himself with some very unlikely people.   He had sent His angels to shepherds, not to priests.  His Holy One was born to peasants, not to kings. 

And now we remove the telescope and we come back to our time, but the truth of that story is just as powerful today as it always was. 

God reveals Himself to people, unlikely people, who seek Him.  God makes Himself known to ordinary people, who seek Him.  God shows Himself to unworthy people who are longing for Him. God reveals Himself to unlikely seekers.

And isn’t it true?  You look down through Bible history and Christian history.  Think of all the super-heroes that we’ve had.  The Bible’s super-heroes.  Spiritual super-heroes.  They were all unlikely, it seems like, most of them were.

Jacob the liar

Moses the slave

Rahab the prostitute

Ruth the gentile

David the shepherd

Peter the fisherman

Mary the prostitute

Matthew the IRS agent

Paul the murderer

Timothy the teen

John Huss the peasant

Martin Luther the monk

John Newton, the man who wrote Amazing Grace, a slave trader

Ellen White the weak

James White who was at one time cross-eyed

God reveals Himself to unlikely people who seek Him.

If you want to find God, go down to the homeless shelter and ask around.  I’ve talked to some beautiful Christians in homeless shelters, I tell you.  God reveals Himself to unlikely seekers.  If you’re seeking Jesus, talk to a kindergartner.  She’ll tell you were to find Him.  If you want to find the Messiah, ask the high school geek, the Emo kid or the Goth.  As long as they’re looking for Him, He’s going to reveal Himself to them.  If you want to hang out with Jesus, ask the prostitute or the tax agent.  God reveals himself to unlikely seekers.

Don’t look first in a church.  Don’t look first in the Conference office.  Don’t look first in one of our institutions.  You’ll find Him in a barn with the farmer or in the shop with a cabinetmaker.  With people who are seeking Him.  God reveals himself to unlikely seekers.

Now I’m not saying you won’t find Him in a church, because there are plenty of unlikely people in churches, as well.  In this room, there are people who feel unlikely, and I would suggest that there are some people in this room that are unlikely.  A whole lot of us.

Were you voted most unlikely to succeed in academy?  Some of us are unlikely to be spiritual giants.  Others are unlikely to gain victory over sin.  Or we’re unlikely to hold church office.  Unlikely, perhaps, to be saved.  Unlikely to be a great witness.

If you’ve ever felt like that then you are just the person God is looking for.  He has chosen you to tell the good news.  He has chosen you to show Himself to.  He’s chosen you over the Conference official, the Seminary professor, the pastor.  And in case you happen to be one of those, like I am, I have good news for you.  I think there’s something like 30 retired ministers in our church.  People who worked in the Conference, Union level. If you’ve ever felt like if people knew who you really were, you might not have a  job, you qualify.  Whew!  Maybe you’re a member of the church who’s in high regard.  A leader, an elder.  Same thing.  God can use a pastor as likely as He can a prostitute.  God can manifest Himself to a professor as easily as He can a five-year-old.

You know, after I graduated from Southern with my Theology degree, I had an opportunity to work as the assistant chaplain there at Southern, and one of my duties at the time was to organize Lawn Concerts.  Now a Lawn Concert was basically when people who thought they had a lot of talent would sing songs for people who were sitting on the lawn, and smile, and it was a fun time. 

And so one year, one semester, we decided to have a Lawn Concert for Christmas, which meant it would be at night and in the pavilion over in the student park.  We were going to have hot chocolate and donuts.  Oh, it was going to be great.  It became my job as the assistant chaplain to screen all the contestants, we’ll call them.  People who wanted to sing for the Lawn Concert.

And wouldn’t you know it, my worst nightmare came true.  There was this friend of mine whose name was Jeff, and I’ll call him Jeff because I can’t remember his real name. 

Jeff was one of those forgettable people who people just really didn’t like to be around.  He looked funny.  He talked funny.  He was awkward.  Sometimes he smelled funny.  You have to understand that college people are generally nicer than they are in academy, but this guy was to such an extreme that it was very difficult to be around him.

And Jeff came to me wanting to try out to sing Silent Night for the Christmas Lawn Concert.  And I didn’t know what to do.  I knew he couldn’t sing.  I’d heard him sing before.  I’d sat next to him in chapel.  And sure enough, he didn’t disappoint me.  He sang his song and it was terrible. It was off key and off rhythm, and I said, “Listen Jeff, you know, I’m not sure this is going to work.”

He pleaded with me.  “Please.  Please let me sing.  I really think God wants me to sing this song.”  “Ok.  I’ll let you sing.”  And since I had a little bit of self-righteous kindness in my heart, I decided to go ahead and let him sing, but I didn’t feel good about it at all.  I knew he was going to embarrass himself and embarrass me and mess up this wonderful Lawn Concert.

Finally the night came and I still had this sick feeling in my stomach, and I knew he was going to mess it up.  And the Lawn Concert began and as the people were gathered around, I realized that we had a tough crowd.  They weren’t your spiritual giants, you know, theology majors or whatever, people that I was used to being with.  These were the party animals, and they were there for a good time, and they wanted to hear songs like “Grandma got ran over by a Reindeer”, and I was worried.

But the Lawn Concert started and we didn’t disappoint them.  We had some fun songs and everybody was clapping and cheering and having a great time.  And then we moved into the more spiritual songs and we got into that Christmasy mood, and I was feeling good.

And then it came time for Jeff, and I got that old sick feeling in my stomach once again.  And he awkwardly stepped up there onto the stage.  And they couldn’t find his song at first, and it was embarrassing, and he’s standing up there in the silence, and somebody says, “Go Jeff.” clearly making fun of him.

And he just stood there and didn’t respond, and I’m about ready to put my head down like this, and I’m embarrassed.  And then the music starts and he begins to sing just as bad as he sang before.

And at first people were giggling and snickering and making fun of him, and then, it was like they got very uncomfortable, and they became quiet.  They began to watch as Jeff sang this song with all the passion he could muster.  You could just tell that he loved the Baby that he was singing about.  I’ll never forget the face of at least one person.  I looked over and she had tears just streaming down her face.  And when he finished that song, it was just silent.  Quiet!

And then the audience broke out into this cheer.  Just screaming and clapping, and when he came off the stage they were patting him on the back.  And I realized at that moment that God had passed all of us by and manifested Himself to the nerdiest one of us all, because God reveals Himself to unlikely people who are seeking Him.

And if you’re feeling like that today, if you’re feeling unlikely, I want to give you an opportunity to respond to God and just say, “God, I feel unlikely.  I don’t feel like I’m a person that’s worthy to see You.  Please show Yourself to me.”  I’m going to give you a chance to do that during the prayer.  I’m just going to give you an opportunity just to raise your hand, just tell God that.  I’m not asking for everybody to raise their hands.  This is just for people who, seriously, they’ve reached bottom, or whatever, and you’d like to just tell God you want to see Him.

At this time we’ll sing our closing hymn and then we’ll go into the prayer.

Dear heavenly Father.  We just praise You for sending Your Son, Your only Son, to come down and join our family and to bring us up to You.  Lord, we thank You for showing Yourself to unlikely people like us.  Lord, right now, if there’s somebody here who’s really feeling low, who’s feeling like they’re just some of the unlikeliest person around, unlikely to know You, unlikely to be saved.  Nobody’s opening their eyes.  No pastor, nobody.  I just want to give them the opportunity to raise their hand and tell You, tell You that they want to see You.  Just raise their hand.  Say, “Lord, show Yourself to me.  I’m unlikely.  I’m unworthy, but You’ve done it in the past and You can do it again.”  Lord, You see those hands.  You know who we are, and I just ask for a special manifestation.  Something where we can say, “Yes! God has shown Himself to me this week.”  I thank You for answering our prayers.  I thank You that we will get to see You in person someday and very soon.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

[1] http://www.giveshare.org/library/sanhedrin/1.3.html

[2] Gugliato

[3] Micah 4:8, NASB

[4] Luke 2:8 NASB

Hymn of Praise: #125, Joy to the World
Scripture: Luke 2:10-12
Hymn of Response: #122, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

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McDonald Road Sermon transcribed by Steve Foster 12/27/08.