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On This Holy Night: The Heart of Christmas

On This Holy Night: The Heart of Christmas

by Rick Warren
Max Lucado

Learn More | Meet Rick Warren | Meet Max Lucado
The actress Helen Hayes once told a story
about cooking her first Thanksgiving turkey.
She explained that she wasn’t a very good cook,
but after several years of marriage, she decided to try
preparing a turkey on her own. She sat her husband
and son down before the meal and said, “This may not
come out exactly the way you want it to. If it’s not a
good turkey, don’t say a thing. Without any comment,
just stand up from the table, and we’ll go to the nearest
restaurant and eat.”
A few moments later, Helen walked into the dining
room with the turkey. Her husband and son were
already standing with their coats and hats on!
Our expectations definitely control our conduct.
We conduct our lives and our daily affairs based
on what we expect from them. Kids provide a classic
example. I would imagine that if you have grade school
children in your house, you have no problem getting
them up on Christmas morning. If you’re like my wife,
Margaret, and me, before you go to bed on Christmas
Eve you pray, “Oh, God, let them sleep!” But the day
after New Year’s, when those same kids have to go
back to school, it’s an entirely different matter. Why?
Because their conduct is controlled and influenced by
their expectations.

What If You Follow a Star
and Find a Stable?

In Matthew chapter 2, we read the story of the wise
men following the star. And, based on that scripture,
the question that I have for you is this: What happens
when you’ve been following a star, and it leads you to
a stable? What happens when all of a sudden, after
thinking that something grand and glorious would
be at the other end, you end up in the backyard of
a barn? And there, instead of a palace and a king on
a throne, you find a little baby held by his mother.
It’s nothing like what you had anticipated. How do
you react when you follow the star and find a stable?
How is your conduct affected by the outcome of your

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea
in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east
arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who
has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His
star in the east, and have come to worship Him.”
And when Herod the king heard this, he was
troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering
together all the chief priests and scribes of the
people, he inquired of them where the Messiah
was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem
of Judea; for this is what has been written by the
prophet, ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are
by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
for out of you shall come forth a Ruler who will
shepherd My people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly
called the magi and determined from them the
exact time the star appeared. And he sent them
to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully
for the Child; and when you have found Him,
report to me, so that I too may come and worship
Him.” And having heard the king, they went their
way; and the star, which they had seen in the east,
went on before them, until it came and stood over
where the Child was. When they saw the star, they
rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming
into the house they saw the Child with Mary His
mother; and they fell down to the ground and
worshiped Him. Then opening their treasures,
they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense,
and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a
dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their
own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1–12 nasb)

Can you imagine the disappointment the Magi
must have felt when they finally ended up in Bethlehem?
We know that they were expecting a mansion or a
royal court. They even stopped at King Herod’s palace
to find out about this star and this child who was to
be born.
Every one of us has had times in life when we’ve
followed a star. Everything looked so promising, but
we were to find out at the end that we were in a stable.
Margaret’s nephew Troy was a promising young athlete
with a great mind. He was a good student in his
second year in college. Troy was very handsome, and it
seemed that he had everything at his fingertips. Then
one night he was in a terrible automobile accident,
thrown over one hundred feet from a car. He ended up
in intensive care in a Columbus, Ohio, hospital. If you
had looked at Troy just hours before his accident, you
would have said, “There’s a kid following a star. His
future is unlimited.” Afterward, we could only wonder
if he had a future.
Go back to your high school graduation pictures
and look at some of the kids whom you graduated with.
Some of them started off with such promise. Perhaps
you look at the things they wrote in your yearbook and
think back—you were sure they would someday be a
star. But now, as you look at them, you can see that life
has been a disappointment.
College kids graduate with their diplomas tucked
under their arms, ready to go out and win the world.
But they find out that the jobs they wanted are not the
ones that they got.
So many times I have stood before an altar and
married a couple, so promising, so gorgeous. Everybody
thought their marriage had tremendous possibilities,
only to find out a few years later it was lying in ruin in
divorce court.
Maybe it’s your job, where you’ve been expecting
a promotion. Finally the boss calls you into the office.
As you sit there expectantly, you find out that you’ve
been passed over—someone else got that position. You
walk out of the office in a daze, realizing that even
though you’ve been following a star, you ended up in
a stable.
Maybe Mom and Pop are going to start a business.
All their life together, they’ve regularly set aside a little
bit of money for it. Finally the day comes when they can
go down to the bank and leverage a loan, and off they
go. They have such excitement as they open the doors,
only to find out that they are a lot more excited than
the potential customers outside on the street. They’ve
been following a star—but one day they wake up and
find themselves in a stable.
I’ve seen many people come to retirement age,
and they can hardly wait to get away from the grind
of work. All their lives they’ve worked so hard, and
they finally get their gold watch. But they find out a
couple of months later that retirement isn’t really what
they thought it was going to be. They get restless and
unsettled. What happened? Well, they thought that
they were following the star, but when they got to their
destination, it was a stable.
There’s a message that I preach to pastors at conferences
called “Flops, Failures, and Fumbles.” It’s kind
of my life story. In it I describe all the stupid things
I’ve done in the ministry. It makes other pastors feel
wonderful. I especially like to preach this message at
the end of a conference when all they’ve heard about is
success. It just kind of lets them know that everybody
makes mistakes. Sometimes when you follow the star,
it doesn’t lead you where you want to go.

Strong Christians see god in
both the good and the bad. the
mature believer sees god not only
in pleasures and palaces, but also
in the barnyards and stables of life.
—John M a xwell

I read something the other day written by a pastor
who had obviously visited a few stables along the way.
He said:

My counselor has finally forced me to face the fact
that I’m a failure in my ministry. Permit me to list
my evangelical demerits: I’ve never been to the
Holy Land. I mean, not even as a visitor, let alone
as a tour guide. I wince whenever I see those ads
that say “Go to the Holy Land” in a religious magazine.
My wife even stopped buying Kosher wieners
because they make me feel convicted. Every program
I’ve ever started has failed. Our evangelism
explosion didn’t explode; it gave an embarrassed
pop and rolled over and died. I attended a Church
Growth Seminar, and while I was gone six families
left the church. A refugee family that we tried
to sponsor refused to come—the last I heard they
were seeking asylum in a Chinese restaurant in
St. Louis. Whenever I try Dial-A-Prayer I get the
wrong number, usually a funeral home or a chicken
carry-out place. I tried to Dial-A-Meditation, and
the tape broke after the first sentence, which was,
“So things aren’t going well today.” Our church
teams never win any games. Baseball, basketball,
volleyball, shuffleboard . . . you name it, we’ve
lost it. The town Little League champs challenged
us and won. I am thinking of sharing all of this
with our denominational leaders, but they’re never
around when I phone, and all their letters to me
are addressed to occupant. I’ve been told that failure
can be the back door to success, but the door
seems to be locked and I can’t find the key. Any

That is the picture of a man who followed a star
but found only a stable.
In Peanuts, Lucy sometimes feels like being the
psychiatrist. One day, she puts up her little sign:
“Psychiatric Help 5¢.” As usual, her first customer is
Charlie Brown. But this time she’s so frustrated with
him that she says, “Charlie Brown, sometimes I feel
we are not communicating. You, Charlie Brown, are
a foul ball in the line drive of life. You’re often in the
shadow of your goalpost. You’re a miscue. You’re three
putts on the eighteenth green. You’re a seven-ten split
in the tenth frame. You are a dropped rod and reel in
the lake of life. You’re a missed free throw. You’re a
shanked nine iron. You’re a called third strike. You’re
a bug on the windshield of life. Do you understand?
Do I make myself clear?”
The beautiful part of the Christmas story of the
wise men is what they do when they come to that stable.
Through their actions, they teach us three things.
I believe that all wise men throughout the ages have
done these three things when they come upon a stable—
to a place or situation that isn’t exactly what they
were expecting.

When Wise Men Find a Stable,
They Look for God

Wise men of every age, when handed a difficult situation,
don’t panic about the problem, but hold steady
and say, “God is somewhere in this stable of life.
There’s something I can learn. I’ll hold steady because
God is somewhere in this.”
One of the things I like about the Bible is that the
writers never try to make the Bible characters better
than they really were. They just tell it like it was.
Look at Joseph, who was a very wise man. He
understood how to find the good in the bad. Remember
all the things that he went through? He was sold into
slavery, lied to by his brothers. In a new land, in slavery,
he was lied to again while working in Potiphar’s
house. He went through one setback after another.
But finally God raised him up to be prime minister of
Egypt. When his brothers came back, they apologized.
What did Joseph say? He said, “You meant it for evil,
but God meant it for good.” Joseph had the ability to
see God in the stable.
Look at Job, who found himself sitting on an ash
heap. He was a good man who never did anything
wrong. Yet there he was, going through persecution,
loss of family, loss of fortune, friends standing around
telling him to curse God and die. But Job didn’t listen
to their advice. Instead, he said, “The Lord gives, and
the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Job was able to see God in the stable of life.
Look at David, writing the Twenty-third Psalm in
a cave while fleeing from his own son who wanted to
take over his throne. David had the ability to follow
the star, yet when he found the stable, he somehow saw
God in it.
Look at the apostle Paul. Even while he was in
prison, he was writing to the church at Philippi, offering
an uplifting message and telling them to cheer up.
When he came to a stable in his life, Paul was able to
see God in it.
The difference between a weak Christian and a
strong Christian is right here:
Weak Christians see God in only the good. When good
things come along, the weak and immature Christian
says, “Well, it must be from God, since everything
good is happening.” I always cringe when I hear somebody
say, “Well, it’s just working out so well, I know
God must be in it.” Not necessarily.
Strong Christians see God in both the good and the
The mature believer sees God not only in pleasures
and palaces, but also in the barnyards and stables
of life.
When Margaret and I lived in Ohio, we were in the
process of trying to adopt our second child. We already
had Elizabeth, and we were working with a wonderful
Christian agency from Oklahoma City. We’d flown
out and been interviewed once. And they were excited
because they thought they had a boy for us.
When they called us, I was holding a conference
in southern Ohio, and Margaret and I were together
in a resort area with some other pastors. With great
excitement, they told us that in three or four days we
would have a boy. But the next day they called again
and said, “We’re sorry, but the state of Ohio won’t
let us bring the boy in because they found out that
we only allow Christian parents to adopt children.
They say we are not giving equal rights.” The state
had interfered.
Margaret and I sat in a room by ourselves realizing
that the boy we had been expecting in a couple of
days would not be our boy. We literally heard that bad
news fifteen minutes before I was to go out and speak
to pastors again. So we cried, trusted, and said, “God,
Your ways are higher than ours. We don’t understand
this, but that’s all right.” Disappointed as I was, I went
out and spoke.
That was in January. Two months later, Joel Porter
was born. Little did we realize that God, in His sovereignty,
had already chosen the boy we were to have,
the boy who brings incredible delight to me, in all of
his orneriness. His orneriness delights me because I was
just like him.
In 1980, we left Lancaster, and I went to Marion,
Indiana, for a year and a half to oversee evangelism for
the denomination. It was the most miserable year and a
half that Margaret and I have ever spent. I was traveling
all the time, and she was staying home. In Lancaster,
we’d left a beautiful home right next door to my brother,
out in the country in the woods. We’d bought another
home in Marion. In the year and a half we were there, a
real estate depression hit, and houses went down in price.
By the time we made the shift to come to pastor Skyline,
we had lost over twenty thousand dollars on our house.
But think of it—if I hadn’t gone to Marion, Indiana, I
wouldn’t have come to San Diego. When I was following
a star, I came into a stable. But God was there.
Here’s the point. You may be walking into a stable
period in your life. You’ve been following that star, and
it looks so good. Then all of a sudden you say, “Is this
it?” Remember, wise men have the ability to see God in
the stables of their lives.

When Wise Men Find a Stable, They
Offer Their VERY BEST to God

Wise men also give their best when they come to a
stable. But that isn’t our natural inclination. You see,
instead of offering gold and frankincense and myrrh in
the stable of life that we didn’t expect, our temptation
is to hold back. In fact, when we find a stable instead
of a palace, we’re often tempted to refuse to give anything,
much less our very best.
The marriage isn’t what it should be, and all of a
sudden we say, “Well, maybe I want to hold back.” We
begin to stifle our feelings and to withdraw. When we
come to a stable of life, to a time when we need to give
our very best, that’s when we’re tempted not to offer the
best we have. I think all of us need to go through what
I call the “mirror test.” Every day when I get up and
look in the mirror, I need to ask myself, “Am I giving
my very best in the situation that I’m in?” That situation
may be one of many problems, or it may be one of
great prosperity.
When the wise men came to the stable, they didn’t
withhold anything. They didn’t look at one another
and say, “You know, if we didn’t leave anything here,
we’d have this gold and frankincense for Herod. Maybe
we should give it to him and his family. This is just a
kid in a backyard stable. Certainly we don’t need to
give Him all of this expensive stuff.”
The difference between the average and above average
person lies in just three words: And Then Some.
Great men of God, and great men of society, give their
very best, and then some. They forgive people, and then
some. They’re always walking the extra mile. They’re
always taking the extra step. It’s an effort.
Winston Churchill said, “The world is being run
by tired men.” He meant that those who really make a
mark for God or for history cannot afford to function
without sufficient energy. Those who make a difference
are those who take the extra step, walk the second
mile, give their very best to a situation, even when it
doesn’t look promising.
It’s a joy to share this truth at Christmastime,
because people can grab it. But sometimes average folks
don’t quite live up to it. A couple of years ago we took the
kids to the Washington Monument. There was a two hour
wait to get on the elevator to go to the top. In my
impatience, I walked up to the guy by the elevator and
asked, “Is there any way we can make it up faster?” He
looked at me and said, “You can go up now, if you’re
willing to take the stairs.” I went back to the line.
Powerful, isn’t it? “You can go up now, if you’re willing
to take the stairs.”

You see, the average person in life wants to ride
elevators. Average people want to get by doing the
least, not the best. They’re always saying, “How can
I cut a couple of hours off work and do my least?”
In America, this mind-set has given us shoddiness
and a haphazard workforce, which has allowed other
countries to dominate and become more powerful in
industry. Why? Because we lost that extra effort that
brings excellence.
Whether it’s in preaching, or working in a factory,
or at your own business, or within your own family, the
mark of a Christian is that he will walk the second mile
and turn the other cheek. A wise man or woman gives
the extra effort, all for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When Wise Men Find a Stable,
They Change Their Direction

Have you ever had a stable experience that changed
your life? I’ve had many. In my first year at my first
pastorate, I made a hospital visit to a fellow who wasn’t
a Christian. I never witnessed to him, and I saw him
five times. I was a “nice guy.” Oh, I would pray a little
prayer, maybe quote a little scripture, but I never talked
to him about his soul. Then one Friday afternoon after
I left him in the hospital, by the time I got to my car in
the parking lot, he had died.
When I got home, my wife was on the phone
talking to one of his sisters, saying, “Yes, I’m sure my
husband would be glad to do the funeral.”
I flippantly said, “Sure, I’ll do the funeral. After
all, pastors do funerals.”
It wasn’t until we were at the funeral home with
his two sisters at my side, looking into that casket, that
it hit me. I saw a man I’d had a conversation with three
days earlier, and I realized that he was lost for eternity,
with no hope of salvation, forever without God,
because John Maxwell did not have the spiritual power
and anointing to witness in the name of Jesus Christ. It
was a stable in my life.
I remember weeping with those two sisters. They
were moved to see that I was moved. They thought I
was weeping over the loss of a friend. But I was weeping
because God was showing me myself, and the
picture was not good. It was a picture of a person who
walks into a stable and says, “Hey, so what?” instead of
giving it his best shot, instead of looking for God. For
the next six months I sought God. I sought the anointing.
I was miserable. I made my wife miserable. But it
was in that stable of life that my life changed direction,
never to be the same again.
Besides my Bible, there are two books that have
changed my life’s direction. One of them is Here I
by Roland Bainton. It’s about the life of Martin
Luther. I read it when I was twenty years of age. It was
a paperback book, but I had my mother put a hardback
on it to keep it intact because it changed my life.
Martin Luther had the guts to stand up against all
odds. He risked his life and said, “Here I stand; I can
do nothing else.” It changed me.
I also read Spiritual Leadership by Oswald Sanders.
When I read about what was important in being a spiritual
man of God, that changed me too. When you’ve
come upon the stables of life, have you ever sensed that
God wanted you to change directions?
Henry David Thoreau decided to get into Walden
Pond one day and sink down until the water was at eye
level, so he could see the world through the eyes of a
frog. I always thought, How stupid; and really, who cares?
But I began to think about Henry David Thoreau this
week. I began to think about Christmas, and I began
to think about God. Do you realize that’s what God
did? The God of the universe, with no limitations,
allowed Himself to be born of the Virgin Mary. He
looked through human eyes and grew up like you and
me, so that He would understand us and know how
to relate to us. If Christmas is anything, Christmas is
the story of God changing worlds and putting limitations
upon Himself. It’s the story of a baby born in
Bethlehem, who was more powerful than the Roman
Empire that existed that day.
Let me share something with you that I think is
very important. Read carefully.

A century ago, men were following with bated
breath the march of Napoleon and waiting feverishly
for news of the war. And all the while in
their own homes, babies were being born. But
who could think about babies? Everybody was
thinking about battles. In one year, there stole
into a world a host of heroes. Gladstone was
born in Liverpool, England, and Tennyson at
Somersby. Oliver Wendell Holmes was born
in Massachusetts. The very same day of that
same year, Charles Darwin made his debut at
Shrewsbury. Abraham Lincoln drew his first
breath in Old Kentucky, and music was enriched
by the birth of Felix Mendelssohn in Hamburg.
But nobody thought about babies. Everybody
was thinking about battles. Yet, which of the
battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies
that were born in 1809? We fancy that God can
only manage His world through the big battalions
of life, when all the while He is doing it through
the beautiful babies that are being born into the
world. When a wrong wants righting, or a truth
wants preaching, or a continent wants opening,
God sends a baby into the world to do it. And
where do you find God on Christmas? In a manger.
A baby was born at the heart of the Roman
Empire, that when the Roman Empire would
crumble and fall, that baby, who would become
a man, would also become a Savior of the world.

When the wise men found the stable, they also
found a baby. When people ask me about the future,
I tell them one thing: “The greatest men of God are
not world-class preachers. They aren’t famous, and
they aren’t media idols. The greatest man of God is
not the pastor of a church. The greatest man of God
is a baby.”
You know, we see so many babies all around us—
maybe one of them is the next John Wesley. Do you
realize as you gather around the Christmas tree and
open presents, that one of your own little kids may be
the next Billy Graham? Oh, the hands, the feet, the
minds, and the souls that we have the privilege of guiding!
Our children are watching us. They are seeing our
Christian example, our commitment to the Lord, our
faithful witness. They are storing all that away in their
hearts, and someday they’ll become great men and
women of God.
If Christmas is about anything, it’s about a baby—
God’s baby, born in a stable, who changed the world
forever. When we come to the stables in our lives, let
us be wise and remember to look for God. Let us bring
Him the best we have to offer. And let us allow Him
to change the direction of our lives, enabling us to
become the great men and women of God He wants
us to be.

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