The Great Invitation
One of our very first stops on our Israel adventure in September 2019 brought us to the crystal waters of the Mediterranean Sea in the old city of Jaffa. The anticipation of the week and a half ahead had our group of pastors and their wives electric. Taking deep breaths of the salty air and running our hands against the ancient stones engaged all of our senses and any jet lag we may have felt the day before was wearing off. We wove through narrow city paths and found ourselves at a door that I will never forget. It was a door that made the rushing hope of the Gospel run through my veins again, and reminds me of an electric moment that preceded my own by several thousand years.
“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” -Luke 2:10 ESV
The glorious news that God became man in the form of a helpless, needy infant came to shepherds in the wilderness of Israel deep in the night. I imagine their bodies still carried the sweat from a day’s work in the heat of the Israeli sun, and the odor of those who find their life spent alongside farm animals. These men were well-acquainted with nature—often defending their flocks against wild lions or bears—and navigated treacherous cliff edges to find the one sheep who found itself away from the herd. These men were not highly exalted in their society. They were looked down upon and considered unclean by Jewish purity laws.
It was to this rag-tag group of smelly men that the host of heavenly beings declared:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.” -Luke 2:14 NLT
Did the angels not think the priests—the men working day and night at the temple—worthy of this incredible news? Why not the Pharisees—the experts on their Scriptures? Why not the rebels—those who believed in the promise of Zion and were actively revolting against Rome’s oppression of the Jewish people? These groups of devout, religious men were not to whom God chose to declare His glorious proclamation.
The hosts of heaven declared the glory of God to dirty, smelly, unclean men.
And the question we have to grapple with is why?
Could it perhaps have been because the priests who had grown too accustomed to relating to God through the sacrificial system, they forgot what it was all meant to point to? Hebrews makes it clear that “the blood of bulls and goats” was not sufficient to take away our sins “but our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time” (Hebrews 10:4, 12 NLT).
Could it perhaps have been because the Pharisees who knew the law inside and out were so absorbed with their own understanding that they failed to remember to whom every word of that Law pointed? Israel spent years in exile away from the promises of God because of their choices despite God’s presence and blessing. The prophets describe them as such:
“The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.” -Isaiah 59:8-9 ESV
Could it perhaps have been because the zealots who longed for freedom from oppression did not realize their greatest oppressor was within themselves? This is the word the Lord gave His prophet Ezekiel about the exiles’ greatest need:
“‘I, the Sovereign Lord, will gather [them] back from the nations where [they] have been scattered, and I will give [them] the land of Israel once again.’ [...] And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, so they will obey my decrees and regulations. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God.” -Ezekiel 11:17-20 NLT
Jesus came in the quiet and humility of a Hebrew stable because He was after more than self-made righteousness, human understanding and political power. So God sought out the lowest of their society to declare His miraculous birth. All people. There was no place God was not willing to go to bring the needy to His incredible heart so that they would understand that “God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT). Throughout Jesus’ life here on earth, He had conversations with men from each of those group—priests, Pharisees and zealots. But Jesus found His place among the unwanted in their society. His entire life was spent among the unclean, poor, unqualified and surprising. This was purposeful. All people.
We are the all people.
“And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ.” -2 Corinthians 5:18 NLT
No matter who you are, the angels declaring Jesus’ birth to the shepherds is good news for you too. It means He is after your heart. His story has collided with your story because He wants you to see His heart. And His heart is for you. No religious experience? Not necessary. No biblical knowledge? Not a pre-requisite. Not a warrior for cultural Christianity? Great. Jesus tore down how religious institutions operated in that time. He offered a backward kingdom... come weary, poor, oppressed, downcast, hungry, thirsty, weak and needy.
At each of the sites in Israel, our hosts let the pastors give a devotion. The devotion given at Simon the Tanner’s door sunk down deep in my heart (you can find the story of this house in Acts 10). Before that day, I took my faith for granted. It had been passed down to me through several generations in my family, and it was my right, right? It was my right to be given the hope of God. My parents believed, and their parents, and their parents and so on. Our family earned a place in God’s family for several generations of devotion, right? What our dear pastor friend reminded us at that door in Joppa was that we—from America, ambassadors for the hope of promise given by our Lord—only received the Gospel in the first place because God’s story was for all people from the beginning of time. I am not Jewish. Had God not had gentiles—non-Jews—in mind when Jesus lived sinlessly, suffered, died and rose again, I would not have been on a trip to Israel as a pastor’s wife born and raised in America two thousand years after the vision God gave the apostle Peter. Send the gospel out. And out it came.
It has stood the test of thousands of years, numerous cultures, nations, governments and languages. His good news announced to the shepherds that night has rung out like an incessant gong through time and space to come to our hearts today. January 2021. If you have stuck with reading this post, it has struck your heart too. No matter who you have been, where you have been, how you have succeeded or failed. Regardless of your spiritual understanding or background. His gospel has come to your front door. All people.
And like the shepherds, we have a choice. Seek out the Jesus about whom the angel’s invitation was given. Or continue on—ignore the extraordinary and live in the ordinary. Before you decide, let me remind you that in the midst of the pressures of life—the wild animals, elements and ordinary—Jesus offers Himself.
“Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.’” -Matthew 11:28-30 NLT