1231) One Woman’s Mid-Life Changes

Maggie Gobran (1949- ): The Mother Teresa of Cairo

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By Eric Metaxas, March 11, 2015 blog at:  www.breakpoint.org

     Next to the Bible itself, perhaps the best source of spiritually nourishing reading material is what many call “the lives of the saints.”  That is, stories of fellow believers in ages past whose extraordinary lives convict us, inspire us, and draw us closer to Jesus.

     Perhaps you have read Augustine’s Confessions.  Or maybe Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place.  Or Elisabeth Elliot’s books about her missionary husband Jim Elliot, who found martyrdom in the Amazon.  And dare I add Bonhoeffer?

     While it’s great reading about the lives of the faithful who have gone before us, I find it especially inspiring to read about those who still walk among us.

     And inspired is what you’ll be if you pick up a copy of a new book released just this week by Maggie Gobran, the so-called “Mother Teresa of Egypt.”  The book is called Mama Maggie: The Untold Story of One Woman’s Mission to Love the Forgotten Children of Egypt’s Garbage Slums.

     In this sense, Mama Maggie is very much like Mother Teresa:  She has given her life to serve Christ by loving the poorest of the poor.  And like Mother Teresa, she has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times, including this year.  We’ll see what happens.

     But there the comparisons should end.  Mama Maggie is Egyptian, a Coptic Christian.  Married with two children, Mama Maggie was never a nun; in fact, she came from a wealthy Egyptian family, was a very successful businesswoman and university professor, and had a love for fine jewelry, cars, and clothing.

     But as detailed in the book, all that changed with a visit with some church friends to one of Cairo’s garbage slums.  In the midst of unbelievable filth, stench, and depravity— scenes we cannot imagine here in the U.S.— lived thousands of men, women, and children, many of whom are Coptic Christians like Maggie.  And Maggie was instantly drawn to them.  Especially to the children.

     After repeated visits, Maggie reached a decision point.  She could remain a professor and continue to enjoy the material fruits of her labor.  But, as is told in the book, the thought hit her:  “We don’t choose where or when to be born.  We don’t choose where or when to die.  But we can choose either to help others or turn away.”

     “God wanted to promote me,” she relates.  “He said ‘leave the best, the smartest, and go to the poorest of the poor.’”

     And that is what she has done with the determination and savvy of a top-flight businesswoman— and with the profound, tender, and intensely personal love of Jesus.  The organization she founded, Stephen’s Children, builds schools and vocational centers, runs free medical clinics, houses orphans, and teaches children about Jesus.  Because of her obedience, loving heart, and humbleness, Stephen’s Children now has over 1,500 workers and volunteers, and has helped over 25,000 families.

     In fact, what the authors Marty Makary and Ellen Vaughn convey so powerfully in Mama Maggie is Maggie’s serenity, her deep prayer life, and her trust in God, even when dealing with the brokenness, the child abuse, the disease, the catastrophic injuries she and the staff and volunteers of Stephen’s Children encounter every day in the garbage slums.

     This is a remarkable book about a remarkable sister in the Lord.  The majority of the book’s proceeds will go to Stephen’s Children, to help Mama Maggie continue her work to bring real hope and help in Jesus’ name to the children who live in the slums of Cairo.

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“I liked to be elegant.  But I found to be elegant comes from the inside, to love.  With God’s grace I left everything and found Him shining, waiting for me with a crown of love.”

“We don’t choose where to be born, but we do choose either to be sinners or saints; to be nobodies, or the heroes.  If you want to be a hero, do what God wants you to do.”

–Mother Maggie

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I Samuel 12:24  —  Be sure to fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you.

Romans 12:10-13  —  Be devoted to one another in love.  Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.  Practice hospitality.

Matthew 23:11  —  (Jesus said), “The greatest among you will be your servant.”

Mark 10:45a  —  (Jesus said), “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”

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O Lord, let my life by useful, and my death be happy; let me live according to thy laws, and die with confidence in thy mercy.  Amen.

–Samuel Johnson  (1709-1784)

1230) What is God Waiting For?

Isaiah 6:11a  —   Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

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By Randy Alcorn, in 90 Days of God’s Goodness.

     For many, the most difficult problem with evil is its persistence.  God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice” (Acts 17:31).  But why a future day of judgment?

     Barbara Brown Taylor phrased it, “What kind of God allows the innocent to suffer while the wicked pop their champagne corks and sing loud songs?”

     We may say, “Yes, Lord, we accept your wisdom in permitting evil and suffering for a season— but enough is enough.  Why do you let it continue?

     The Bible echoes the same sentiment.  Jeremiah said, “You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before you.  Yet I would speak with you about your justice:  Why does the way of the wicked prosper?  Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (12:1).

     Why doesn’t God simply reward each good and punish each evil as it happens?  Because God’s justice is not a vending machine in which a coin of righteousness immediately produces reward or a coin of evil yields swift retribution.  Scripture assures us justice is coming.  Everything in God’s plan has a proper time; the gap between the present and that proper time tests and incubates our faith.  When reward and punishment are immediate, no faith in God is required or cultivated.

     The wheels of justice may seem to turn slowly, but they turn surely.  Some rewards of goodness and punishments of evil come in this life.  And though ultimate rewards and punishments await the final judgment, considerable justice— both reward and retribution— is dispensed upon death, when God’s children immediately experience the joy of his presence, and the unrepentant suffer the first justice of Hell (see Luke 16:19–31).  This means that the maximum duration of injustice experienced by any person cannot exceed his life span.

     Don’t we give thanks for God’s patience with Saul, the self-righteous killer who became Paul?  Or John Newton, the evil slave trader who accepted God’s amazing grace and wrote the song that countless millions have sung?

     God drew me to Himself in 1969.  But what if Christ had answered the prayers of many in those days and had returned and brought final judgment in 1968?  Or in 1953, the year before I was born?  Where would I be for eternity?  Where would you be?

     I’m grateful God was patient enough with fallen humanity to allow the world to continue until I was created, and then continue further until I became part of his family.

     Aren’t you grateful for the same?  If God answered our prayers to return today, who might be lost that he plans to save tomorrow?

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Jeremiah 12:1  —  You are always righteous, Lordwhen I bring a case before you.  Yet I would speak with you about your justice:  Why does the way of the wicked prosper?  Why do all the faithless live at ease?

Psalm 90:13  —  Relent, Lord!  How long will it be?  Have compassion on your servants.

Habakkuk 1:2-4  —  How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?  Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.  Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.  The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.

Revelation 6:9-11  —  When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.  They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”  Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.

II Peter 3:8-9  —  But do not forget this one thing, dear friends:  With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

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PSALM 13:1-3, 5-6:

How long, Lord?  Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death…

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

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Lord, you are the potter; we are the clay.  You have the right to do what you choose.  But if we look carefully at what you choose, we may see wisdom and purpose and mercy even in what we don’t fully understand.  Thanks for not answering the prayers for Christ’s immediate return offered by the generations that preceded me and my family.  I’d hate to think of us not existing, of not being able to love you and serve you and glorify you forever.  Amen.

–Randy Alcorn

1229) Afraid of the Dark

By Jonathan Parnell, posted February 9, 2013 at:  www.desringgod.org

     My oldest daughter isn’t sleeping well.  It’s the dark.  From fear of what might be under her bed, to who might be looking through her window, she has her reasons for preferring the lights on.

     In fact, she has started a new nightly routine.  After the house is settled and her parents are quiet, presumably asleep, she secretly slips out of her room to flip on the nearby hallway light and then returns to bed.  Somehow she finds a measure of comfort from the crease of light between the floor and the bottom of her door.

     But she shouldn’t be doing this.  The rule is to stay in bed.  And a few nights ago I caught her red-handed.

     I was standing quietly in the dark hall and heard her scurrying around behind her door.  She didn’t know I was there, and I suspected she was going to pull the hall light stunt.  Sure enough, the door slowly cracked open.  I have her, I thought.  But she didn’t move.  She didn’t come turn on the light.  She was frozen.  There, inside the frame of her door, she peered in silence at me, a black silhouette of a stranger for all she knew.  Then she started to cry.  I quickly flipped the light switch.  “Sweetie, it’s me,” I said, picking her up in my arms.  And just like that, she was fine.  The light was on.  She saw who I was.  I hugged her with love.

     The whole scene transformed when the light came on.  That light uncovered my identity.  Once blinded by darkness, she soon discovered that the figure in the hallway, appearing bigger and stronger than her, was actually her dad who loves her and would spend his every conceivable resource to protect her.

     Revelation was the key.  She had to see who I was.

     Do you remember what it is like to be in the dark with God?

     So much of our lives — and the entire lives of some — are spent hauntingly aware of some strange presence down a pitch-black hallway.  We know he is there.  We recognize some silhouette of deity.  We see some figure of a being our conscience says is bigger and stronger.  But we don’t truly know him.  And we won’t truly know him unless he turns on the light.  Unless he reveals himself.

     The prophets of Baal know what it’s like to be in the dark.  In one of the saddest scenes in all of Scripture, 1 Kings 18:28–29, hundreds of these prophets gathered to see their god.  It was a historic showdown between Elijah, the Lord’s prophet, and 450 “spokesmen” for the false god Baal.  The petition was simple: send fire from heaven.  Whoever answers is the true God (1 Kings 18:24).  And so the prophets of Baal stepped up to the plate.

And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. (1 Kings 18:26)

     That’s not a good start.  So they tried harder.  The Bible tells us that they cried aloud and cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out (1 Kings 18:28).  Until the middle of the day, they limped around bleeding and crying out for their god to hear them, to say something.  Imagine that scene: 450 wounded, weeping prophets sliced up their flesh in hopes of receiving the slightest gesture from their god.

“But there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:29).

     They were stuck in the dark.  There was nothing to see.  There is no light to reveal a no-god.  The abiding darkness answers itself.

     But there’s no such darkness between the Christian and his Lord.  That’s not our story.  In fact, it’s the reverse.  Rather than 450 prophets with wounds all over their bodies and their blood gushing out, we see our God hanging on a cross with wounds all over his body, his blood gushing out.  Rather than the horrific scene of fools seeking to hear from a false god, we see the most preeminent display of love when the real God spoke to a world of fools.

     We were in the dark.  We deserved nothing more.  And then, in unspeakable grace, the sovereign God of the universe reached up to turn on the light.

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  (Romans 5:8).

     His voice intruded the defeated darkness.  He reached down and picked us up in his arms.  “It’s me,” he said.  And then we learn that this God, bigger and stronger than we could ever imagine, hasn’t spared his greatest resource to not only protect us but ensure our everlasting joy (Romans 8:32).

     The light is on.  We see who he is.  We don’t have to be afraid.

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Have courage for the great sorrows, and patience for the small ones.  And when you have laboriously done your tasks, go to sleep in peace.  God is awake.

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John 8:12  —  When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

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A THREE-HUNDRED YEAR-OLD BEDTIME PRAYER:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

And if I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.  Amen.

1228) God Wants Us to Be Good– For Our Own Sake

     God wants us to be good.  When we obey his commands, life is better for ourselves and those around us.  That is why God gives the commandments in the first place.  

     In the Bible, as in the home, there are a variety of motivators described to encourage our obedience.  There are threats and promises, there are blessings given and blessings denied, and there are punishments and rewards.  But most of all, there is Jesus, who has come down from heaven to be with us in this life.  In getting to know Jesus not only as our God, but also as our friend, we can begin to trust that his commands for us are good.

     In the book of Acts there is a miraculous healing of a man who had been crippled from birth.  Peter and John healed this man in the name of Jesus, but that healing came by way of a command.  Peter said to the man, “I do not have any money to give you, but I’ll give you what I have; I tell you, in the name of Jesus Christ, walk.”  That was a command, and it is commands that we often do not like.  We don’t like to be told what to do, and that lame man could have just said, “No, I won’t,” or he could have complained and said, “Do I have to?” or, he could have sarcastically said, “What do mean walk, are you blind; can’t you see that my legs are no good?”  Obedience was just one of several responses that man could have made.  But the man chose to obey, and verse seven says “Instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong” and he stood up.  Soon, the man was not only standing, but he was walking and even jumping around.  But first, he had to obey the command.  The healing came by faith that in the name of Jesus he could be healed, and then by obedience to the command.

     Jesus gave a command to the women at the tomb on that first Easter morning.  He said, “Go and tell my disciples what you have seen, and tell them that I will meet all of you in Galilee.”  There again is a command– two commands in fact.  Go and tell the disciples, and then, all of you meet me in Galilee.  Do you think there were any objections, any discussions about whether or not to obey this command, whether or not they had to do that?  Of course not.  Any opportunity to see Jesus, who they saw dead and now was alive, would be a blessing, even if commanded.  

     There have always been debates about how much we have to do to be saved, and what sins God will and will not forgive, and how much preachers should emphasize the Law and God’s commands, and how much they should emphasize God’s love and freely given grace.  But it is only because of our sinful blindness that we imagine a conflict between God’s love and God’s commands.  Throughout the Bible there is such a blending of the two that one can hardly tell the difference.  Even the punishments, when given, are not merely because commands were broken, but because the people were turning away from God’s love and bringing upon themselves all sorts of miseries.

     So for all those reasons, God wants us to be good– for our own sake. 

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Deuteronomy 28:1a…2a  —  If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today… all these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…

Deuteronomy 28:15  —  However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you…

I John 2:5  —  If anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them.  This is how we know we are in him.

Acts 3:6  —  Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

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O Lord, let my life by useful, and my death be happy; let me live according to thy laws, and die with confidence in thy mercy.  Amen.

–Samuel Johnson  (1709-1784)

1227) Caiaphas

tissot-annas-and-caiaphas

Caiaphas, James Tissot  (1836-1902)

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     The Episcopal church is in trouble these days.  Most Episcopalians are on the liberal end of the theological spectrum, and many Episcopalians have gone so far to the left of traditional Christianity that they can hardly be considered Christian anymore.  An Episcopal bishop can deny the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ, publicly ridicule the authority of the Bible, question the existence of God, or marry another man– and still remain a bishop in good standing in the Episcopal church.  One might well wonder what is left of Christianity if not even those basic doctrines and ethical standards are upheld.

     But there is, in fact, something left in this Episcopal church, something on which they are strong and solid and firm and uncompromising.  This is the church power structure which has shown its willingness to spend millions of dollars, given in the offerings of faithful parishioners, for legal expenses to flex its muscles and rule over local congregations and pastors.

     Why is all that money needed for legal expenses?  There are still many good, solid, Bible-believing, Episcopal pastors, lay people, and congregations, but they do not know what to do.  They feel their national church, and in many cases their own bishops, have abandoned them, and they cannot live in a church that has gone so far from the truth.  So they have sought leadership and fellowship elsewhere, usually in Africa.  The Episcopal church is the Anglican church in America, and the Anglican church in Africa is very different.  It still has a strong and solid Biblical foundation, and it is to those bishops that many American congregations want to transfer their membership, allegiance, and mission offerings.  But the American powers that be tell them they cannot do that, because it is against their Anglican traditions.

     Imagine that.  The same bishops who have abandoned and even ridicule every Biblical truth and tradition, now, in the name of church tradition, will remove pastors from their pulpits, take congregations to court, and even seek to confiscate a congregation’s hard earned property and assets.

     There are similarities between the present conflict in the Episcopal church and the conflict that sent Jesus to the cross.  In both, we see an entrenched religious institutional authority trying to hang on to power.  In both, there are religious leaders who will use any and all legal power to get their way.  The presiding American Episcopal bishop took congregations to court to confiscate their property, thus preventing them from getting out from under their authority.  Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest at the time of Jesus, wanted to get rid of Jesus in order to maintain his established authority.  Caiaphas, therefore, forced Pilate’s hand and sought to influence the crowd to get an order of execution.  In both is a challenge to that earthly church authority and power by appealing to an even higher authority.  Biblical Episcopalians are appealing to the clear testimony of the Bible.  Jesus appealed to his heavenly Father and his own claim to be the promised Messiah, the truth of which was made evident to many people by his powerful words and miraculous deeds.  Both conflicts resulted in deep divisions.

     Caiaphas saw himself in the role of the protector of the old-time religion.  That was made particularly difficult with pagan Romans all over the place, desecrating the whole country, including the temple itself.  I am big on protecting the old-time religion myself, so I would be with him on that.  But for Caiaphas and the religious establishment of Jesus day, the protections around that old-time religion had grown into an endless list of laws and rules and obligations that was not protecting, but stifling the life, spirit, and truth of the old time religion.  Therefore, some of Jesus’ harshest words were directed at these chief priest and other religious leaders.

     The central hope of the old-time religion was that someday God would send a Messiah to save the people from their sins.  Many people believed that Jesus was the one that the Jews had been anticipating for centuries.  But Caiaphas would not even consider the possibility.  Not even after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead would Caiaphas open his heart and mind to the possibility that Jesus was the Messiah.

     Caiaphas’s goal was to have Jesus killed in order to protect the religious establishment.  Matthew 26:3 makes it clear that this was their intention:  “Then the chief priest and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.”  Of the many people that played a part in the last week of Jesus’ life, it is only Caiaphas’s agenda that is completely followed.

      In God’s almighty providence, it turned out that Caiaphas’s agenda also accomplished God’s agenda.  In John 11, right after the report reached Caiaphas that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd, several of the chief priests asked:  “What shall we do?  If we let Jesus go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away our nation.”  Romans or no Romans, it was indeed God’s intention that everyone believe in Jesus.  Caiaphas then said, “You know nothing at all.  Don’t you realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish?”  And that’s just what God had in mind– that one man should die for all the people.

     Peter, who loved Jesus as much as anyone, wanted to protect him.  But Peter had to have his will opposed in order for Jesus to accomplish God’s will.  But Caiaphas, the most wicked of all Jesus opponents, and the one most responsible for his death (humanly speaking), got just what he wanted.  As a result of the wicked scheming of Caiaphas, God’s most perfect plan reached its fulfillment.  This proves how difficult it is for us to know what is really best.  I wonder how God is working in our churches and our world today.

     One last thing.  There is a caution here for the current members of the religious establishment– and that includes me, and perhaps you also.  There is nothing wrong with being part of the religious establishment.  Right after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples and their followers began organizing themselves into communities that could worship and serve together.  This organized and established church has accomplished great things over the centuries.  But it has also taken some wrong turns and done some very bad things.  Therefore, we should look at Caiaphas not with disdain and arrogance, but with humility and caution.  We must not make the mistake he made, and let our church institution kill and bury the truth and spirit of its Lord and Savior.

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Matthew 23:27-28  —  (Jesus said), “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

John 11:47-53  —  Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  “What are we accomplishing?” they asked.  “Here is this man performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”  Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all!  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”  He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.  So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

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Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth; in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

–William Laud, English bishop  (1573-1645)

1226) The First Saint Nick (b)

photograph of a stained glass window of Saint Nicodemus learning from Jesus, Saint Joseph's Cathedral, Macon, Georgia, USA; artist unknown; photographed by the author, summer 2003

Saint Nicodemus, with Jesus

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     (…continued)  John records no further questions or comments by Nicodemus in this conversation, but I think we can safely assume that Nicodemus liked what he heard from Jesus.  His name appears two more times in the Gospel of John.  In chapter seven, the Jewish ruling council wants to arrest Jesus, and only Nicodemus speaks up in his favor, saying, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”  Then, in John 19, after Jesus is crucified, Nicodemus, along Joseph of Arimathea, arrange for the burial of Jesus.  The Bible says Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of spices for the burial.  That, according to scholars, is far more than the normal amount.  It is what would be used for the burial of a king– which is an indication of what Nicodemus thought of Jesus.  Nicodemus, despite the way Jesus confronted him at first, did apparently become a friend of and believer in Jesus.

     In many ways, Jesus challenged and contradicted the understanding of grace and faith that Nicodemus had been taught, but Nicodemus saw in Jesus something special, something true and good and miraculous.  Despite the difficulties in understanding and following Jesus, Nicodemus hung in there, stayed in touch, and kept looking to Jesus.  These three references in John are the only times we read of Nicodemus in the Bible.  There is some evidence in other early sources that Nicodemus joined the early church, and was then executed for his faith in Jesus in the early Roman persecution of the Christians.  The Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church list Nicodemus among their saints.

     Nicodemus perhaps saw in Jesus a word of God’s grace that was lacking in his Pharisaic beliefs.  Their brand of Judaism had expanded the simple and direct Ten Commandments into 613 rules.  Perfectionists that they were, they wanted to make sure everything was covered.  For example, “Remember the Sabbath Day” was a commandment, and the Bible said you were not to do any work on the Sabbath.  But what exactly did that mean?  They wanted to know.  You had to eat, didn’t you?  Could you prepare food?  So they made this rule:  you may warm up food, but you shall not prepare it on the Sabbath Day.  Do the preparation on the day before so all you have to do on the Sabbath is put it in the microwave.  There was a rule about having to give thanks before a meal, but that led to more rules.  What constituted a meal?  If you have a donut with your coffee break do you have to say a prayer of thanks for that?  The rule they came up with was if what you eat is bigger than an olive, then yes, you have to say a prayer before you eat it.  One more example.  Is it walking considered working, and if so, how far can you walk on the Sabbath day?  Well, there was a rule on precisely how many steps you could take.  Therefore, if you wanted to go somewhere on the Sabbath, you needed to step it off ahead of time to make sure you were not going too far.  This went on and on.  

     We might be tempted to look down on these Pharisees for this foolish legalism, but they would look down on us for our far too careless and indifferent approach to God’s law.  They most certainly went overboard, and Jesus told them so on more than one occasion.  He criticized them for their hypocrisy, lack of love and mercy, self-righteous pride, spiritual blindness, and so many other things that they had wrong.  But Jesus never criticized them for their obedience.  Jesus did say one time that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (though not all the additional laws the Pharisees had invented).

     The Pharisees had many things wrong, but they were faithful about saying their prayers, every day and at every meal.  How about you?  Do you see every bit of food as a gift of God and give thanks at every meal?  The Pharisees were faithful about obeying God’s command to worship each and every week.  How about you?  And they were faithful about obeying God’s command to rest one day a week.  Are you?  Or is your Sabbath Day just as hectic as the work week?  The Pharisees thought only about obedience, all the time, and had no time to remember God’s grace.  They went overboard one way.  But to never consider God and his commands for us in our decisions and our daily life is certainly to go overboard the other way.

     As a young monk, Martin Luther saw only the judging and condemning face of God, much like the Pharisees.  Then one night as Luther was digging into the Scriptures, he noticed something in Romans chapter four. He saw there that the blessings of God come not from obeying the Law, but that ‘the promise comes by faith.’  But even though Luther was led to a renewed understanding of grace, he also continued to teach that our response to such grace must always be diligent and faithful obedience.

     We must not, like the Pharisees, see only the commanding and judging side of God.  But neither should we forget about that.  We should, like Nicodemus, keep our hearts and minds open to all that the Bible says about God– His promises for us and His expectations of us.

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John 7:50-51  —  Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked (the ruling council), “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

Matthew 5:17  —  (Jesus said),  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Romans 4:14-15a…16a  —  For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath…  Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace.

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 O Almighty Lord and everlasting God, we beseech thee to direct, sanctify, and govern, both our hearts and bodies, in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments; that through thy most mighty protection, both here and forever, we may be preserved in body and soul, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

Book of Common Prayer

1225) The First Saint Nick (a)

nicodemus

Nicodemus Came to Jesus by Night…

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     When I was a child I watched a lot of cowboys and Indians movies, and it was the same thing every time.  The cowboys were always the good guys and the Indians were always the bad guys. Simple.  Then there was a change of mood in Hollywood, and for a while the good guys were always the Indians and the bad guys were always the cowboys (or the soldiers or whoever was against the Indians).  Again, simple.  But in both types of movies it was too simple.  Reality is seldom like that, and the best movies show more of life’s complexities.  There might still be those characters who are mostly good or mostly bad, but in those better movies we are shown the motivations, confusions, and failings, along with the goodness and humanity of those on both side of a conflict.

     Sometimes the Bible is read with a simplistic good guy-bad guy approach.  In the Gospels, for example, Jesus and his disciples are the good guys, and the Romans and the Pharisees are the bad guys.  Simple.  But a closer reading of the Bible shows it to be more complex than that.

     The Pharisees are often opposed to Jesus, so a casual reader could get the impression that they are his enemies, and therefore, the bad guys.  However, the Pharisees usually call Jesus ‘Rabbi’ which is a sign of respect and honor.  They engage him in conversation, sometimes to trap him, but usually just to learn from him.  And there were times when a Pharisee even invited Jesus into his home for a meal.  Pharisees were serious about their faith, and they wanted to understand this brilliant and popular new teacher.

     The Pharisees were the most meticulous of all Jews about obeying the Law.  This oftentimes made them unbearably self-righteous.  If you made even the smallest mistake, they were the first to judge you and look down on you.  But they were determined to obey God, and were therefore honest and upright and loyal and generous.  They were good citizens and neighbors.  You could trust them.  They paid their bills.  If they borrowed your lawn mower, they’d return it, in good working order and full of gas.  That’s the kind of people they were.  They were perfectionists, with all the blessings and annoyances that come with being perfect.  They’d be the type who would drive you crazy if you had to work with them on anything, but you could trust them to get a job done and done right.

     The third chapter of John tells the story of when a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to talk to Jesus.  Nicodemus was also a member of the Jewish ruling council, Jesus’ worst enemies.  It was this ruling council that condemned Jesus to death.  But this was early in Jesus’ ministry, and Nicodemus wanted to get to know him better.  So he came to Jesus for a personal conversation, apart from the crowd.  But he did come at night, indicating that the tension was building and it was no longer prudent for a Pharisee to be seen having a friendly chat with Jesus.

     Nicodemus, therefore, was an honest seeker after truth, and he wanted to know the truth about Jesus.  He began with a simple statement, one that pays Jesus the highest respect.  “Rabbi,” Nicodemus said respectfully, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you are doing if God were not with him.”

     His words were a simple observation about what he had observed about Jesus.  But Jesus responded with a rather difficult statement:  “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus clearly did not understand what Jesus meant, and the conversation seemed to go downhill for a while.  One would think Jesus would be happy with a friendly visit from one of the opposition, but Jesus made it difficult for Nicodemus.

     I don’t know why Jesus responded with such confusing language.  I am sure he had a good reason.  I do know from talking to people who might be trying to understand who Jesus is, that the search for religious truth can be difficult and confusing.  You will probably not comprehend it all in just one sitting.

     Nicodemus, despite his confusion, kept listening for the rest of what Jesus had to say.  His patience was rewarded.  After several perplexing statements about being ‘born again’ and ‘spirit giving birth to spirit’ and ‘the spirit blowing like the wind,’ Jesus did get around to some of the simplest, most basic, and best loved words in the whole Bible.  Jesus said to Nicodemus those wonderful words we know as John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  

     In this conversation, as in many of Jesus teachings, he went back and forth between tough and tender, and between judgment and grace.  He could challenge even the most brilliant scholars, and then, speak in words so simple even a child could understand.  (continued…)

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John 3:1-4  —  Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked.  “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

John 3:16-17  —  (Jesus said), “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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Merciful God, whose servant Nicodemus was a secret disciple of Christ, meeting him by night to avoid the wrath of the other members of the Sanhedrin, and eventually spoke out to that body to remind them that Jesus had a right to a hearing:  Grant to us, your faithful people, grace and courage to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  (source unknown)

1224) The Greater the Persecution, the Greater the Revival

By Eric Metaxas, at http://www.breakpoint.org, August 15, 2016.

The greater the persecution, the greater the revival.  It’s a phrase Chinese Christians are using these days, and with good reason.

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     You’ve probably heard a lot about China in the news lately:  How it’s threatening peace in the Pacific by building military bases on artificial islands.  You’ve heard presidential candidates warn that China may soon overtake the U. S. as the leading global economic power.  But what you probably didn’t realize is that China is ready to overtake the U. S. in another area:  the size of its Christian population!

     You see, despite years of often savage oppression, the church in China is growing by leaps and bounds.

     Yu Jie, a writer and dissident from China, tells the story powerfully in the August issue of First Things magazine.  Yu reports that since 1949, when the communists took over and Christian missionaries were expelled, the number of Christians in China has multiplied from half a million to more than 60 million today.  If current growth rates continue, “by 2030, Christians in China will exceed 200 million . . . making China the country with the largest Christian population in the world.”

     And Yu, who became disillusioned with communism after the Tiananmen Square massacre, might very well be a little bit cautious in his estimates.  The respected Operation World prayer guide counts not 60 million but 105 million Christians of all kinds in the country, far outstripping the 70 million or so members of the Communist Party!

     Either way, it’s easy to see that the Chinese Church has been unbroken by decades of communist opposition.  These days few Chinese outside the Party believe in communism, and the Church has begun to fill the resulting spiritual and worldview vacuums.

     “Groups of young, well-educated, active professionals have gathered in urban churches,” Yu says, “smashing the stereotype in many Chinese people’s minds of Christians as elderly, infirm, sick, or disabled.  These churches … are a first step toward Christians assuming leadership in the development of a Chinese civil society independent of government control.”

     Perhaps that’s why the regime has begun cracking down on Christians of late.  According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Over the past year, the Chinese government has stepped up its persecution of religious groups deemed a threat to the state’s supremacy and maintenance of a socialist society.  Christian communities have borne a significant brunt of the oppression, with numerous churches bulldozed and crosses torn down.”  Yet as Yu reports, “Chinese Christians have refused to give in.”  In fact, Yu says, “One of the phrases I have heard most often among them is:  ‘The greater the persecution, the greater the revival.’”

     I am thrilled to tell you that many Christians in China are finding inspiration from one of my personal heroes— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who stood against and was executed by the Nazis.  Yu says, “Chinese Christians also see in Bonhoeffer a man who dared wage war as an ant on an elephant.  He found wisdom and courage in Jesus, knowing that Jesus exists for others, and those who follow him should do the same.”

     And that’s what Chinese Christians, unbroken by this latest round of persecution, are doing— living for others, no matter what.   The churches have a large and growing presence in serving their non-Christian neighbors in the name of Christ, Operation World reports.  They’re also active in evangelism, both at home and abroad.

     And folks, they deserve our prayers.

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SEE ALSO:

China’s Christian Future
Yu Jie | First Things | August 2016

God Is Moving in China: Filling a Peoples’ Spiritual Void
Eric Metaxas | BreakPoint.org | June 11, 2015

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Matthew 5:10-12  —  (Jesus said), “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

John 15:19-21  —  (Jesus said), “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember what I told you:  ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name,for they do not know the one who sent me.

I Corinthians 4:12b-13a  —  When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted,we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.

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Almighty God, you have taught us through your Son Jesus Christ that those who follow Him may be persecuted.  Strengthen, comfort, and encourage all those who suffer harassment, violence, imprisonment, and even death for being followers of Jesus.  We pray also for those who persecute your people.  May their hearts be turned towards you through the faithful witness of those they persecute.  Protect members of the families and church communities of those who are persecuted, and bless the work and ministry of the organizations that support them.  We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

1223) If God Could…

By Dallas Willard in The Allure of Gentleness

     The classical argument from antiquity is, “If God could and is good, he would” prevent the death of this child (or whatever situation is at hand).  This is the only argument of status against the existence of the Christian God.  As with pain, many insist that if God were both all-good and all-powerful, he would not permit the evil things that do happen to occur at all.  In the face of this problem, one is prone to think the deadliest of thoughts, namely, that God is not good or that he is not able.  But if moral evil exists, aren’t we forced to let go of one or the other?

     To deal with this effectively, we need to understand the level of God’s daily interaction in the realm of human affairs.  Does God do everything there?  Did He butter your toast this morning, drive your kids to school, write checks to pay your bills?  No.  Of course not!  Human beings act too, and nature moves along in some degree on its own.  All of this must be taken into consideration.  So what we must look at is the question:  Did God do well to create a world in which there is free personality and natural law, such that it includes the possibility of a kingdom of God as well as the possibility of evil?

     Can we agree that many things ought not to be, without holding that the general framework that permits them to exist was a mistake on God’s part?  This returns us to our discussion of God’s purpose within human history, which is to create for himself a living abode— a community of free, conscious, living beings.  Could God have done this in a better way?

     The world that contains the possibility of evil is the one that also contains the greatest possibility of good.  And the question of why God allows evil to happen has to be put against the question of what a world where evil could not happen would be like.  It’s by working on those questions that people can come to some resolution in their minds about the reality of evil and what it means.

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Isaiah 29:16  —  You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay.  Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me”?  Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?

Ezekiel 18:25  —   (God says)  “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’  Hear, you Israelites: Is my way unjust?  Is it not your ways that are unjust?”

Isaiah 45:9…11b-12  —  (This is what the Lord says), “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground.  Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’  Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?…  Do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands?  It is I who made the earth and created mankind on it.  My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts.

Jeremiah 18:1-6  —  This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel.  But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.  Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord.

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You, Lord, are our Father.
    We are the clay, you are the potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.

–Isaiah 64:8

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Gracious God, I know that you are my potter.  You made me.  You redeemed me…   I thank you, dear Lord, for not giving up on me when I’m less than you intend.  Thank you for your patience and mercy.  Thank you for continuing to shape me even when I resist you and your work.  Help me to live each moment of each day for you and your purposes.  May I acknowledge you as my potter, not only through my words, but also through my works…  All praise be to you, O God, Sovereign Lord, my potter.  Amen. 

–Mark D. Roberts

1222) Which Way?

   

Many people have chosen the following poem (or a variation of it) for the epitaph on their gravestone.  

This one was found in a cemetery in Waynesville, North Carolina:

Effie Jean Robinson  1897-1922

Behold and see, as you pass by ,

And on these lines do cast an eye.

As you are now, so once was I;

As I am now, so must you be;

Prepare for death and follow me.

Underneath, someone added:

To follow you;

I am not content,

Unless I know

Which way you went.

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James 4:13-15  —  Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Joshua 24:14-15  —  (Joshua said to the people), “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.  Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Philippians 3:10-14  —  I want to know Christ– yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do:  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

 Hebrews 9:27-28  —  Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

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O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed; and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.  Then, Lord, in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  –Book of Common Prayer