ALBANY -- It was a sermon few probably expected, but even fewer likely came away disappointed after hearing it.
Former Arkansas governor and 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee kept his word about preaching a sermon instead of dispensing politics.
"It's a joy to share in worship with you here today," he said early in his talk. "If you came here to hear a political speech, you're in the wrong place."
Huckabee, who previously pastored churches, dissected, simplified and personalized the birth of Jesus Christ in his 34-minute message to more than 3,000 at Sherwood Baptist Church Sunday morning.
The popular FOX News host demonstrated his comfort with theology as he told the story of the birth of Christ through the eyes of Mary. Huckabee dismantled the long held notion of the Nativity scene being silent, aroma-free and ideal.
"We've sanitized it, glorified it and have 'pageantized' it with what we've done with it," he said of the Bethlehem manger in which Jesus was born in more than 2,000 years ago. "This would be more like a Jerry Springer show than Oprah Winfrey. ... The manger was what animals ate in. There's nothing pretty about it. Swaddling clothes, it was just rags. It was whatever they could find because she came into labor on the trip. This is the ultimate premature birth."
Huckabee then imagined the likely thoughts the teenage, unwed Mary had as she was about to give birth in a barn with Joseph surrounded by animals.
"If you were Mary everything went wrong," he said. "Mary (likely) was thinking, 'Is this it?' Smelly animals, shepherds and a boy that couldn't boil water. But it was there in that place that God showed up. In that bad beginning, God gave the greatest beginning. If God can bring the greatest miracle in a place like that, there's no place that God can't go. I know when things fall apart and things couldn't go more worse, that's when God will show up."
From there, Huckabee personalized the story with his life. He told the crowd he married his wife, Janet, when both were 18 years old.
"Of course, it shouldn't have lasted, but here we are at 36 years," he said.
A couple years later, his wife would be diagnosed with cancerous tumor in her spine and would need surgery.
"It was not the way we planned it to be," he said. "I'll never forget (after the surgery) her moving her foot just a little bit. It was just a little thing, but it was a big thing."
She would later need six weeks of chemotherapy, but would survive. In the Huckabee household in 1975, neither received any gifts.
"All the gold and diamonds of the world wouldn't have meant anything if God wasn't there," Huckabee said.
He went on to say that God shows up when things are believed to be at their worst.
"God could've been born in any circumstance he wanted and he choose the lowest place," Huckabee said.
He further illustrated his point by using the example of Sherwood's unlikely movie ministry that has spawned hit Christ-centered films seen throughout the world.
"Lord, you're with us in our worst, most painful, difficult moments," Huckabee prayed at the conclusion of his sermon. "Right there in that filth of that barn you burst in that barn and gave hope."
Huckabee surprised many in the crowd when he joined Sherwood's worship band and played bass guitar with the group to the popular contemporary Christian song "Everlasting God." He followed the performance by signing copies of his books.
Steve Williams, who played the wheelchair-bound father in "Facing the Giants," liked seeing Huckabee in a different light than he's often seen on television.
"His message connected with people in desperate times," said Williams, who is not disabled in real life. "He was seeking to reach people, not their political position but where they were in life. He offered a message of encouragement and he could've given a political message and he choose a message of eternal hope."
Valdosta State University sophomore Jordan Russell appreciated Huckabee's message.
"I like how it was simple and down-to-earth, so it was easier for everyone to relate to him," said Russell, a 2008 Lee County High School graduate. "It wasn't political or what he does, it was just to spread the word of God."
Lynn Miller liked how Huckabee's message reminded her that God doesn't always do things that make sense. Miller was there with her husband, Eric, and their 11-year-old daughter, Madison. Huckabee signed two copies of books for the family.
"I liked how he reminded us that the Christmas story isn't as glamorous as we make it," Lynn Miller said. "God could've made it glamorous, but he didn't. It just reminds me God doesn't always do things the way we wish it could be done."