264) New Year’s Eve/Day Prayers

By Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

     Almighty and most merciful God, who hast not yet suffered me to fall into the Grave, grant that I may remember my past life, as to repent of the days and years which I have spent in forgetfulness of thy mercy, and neglect of my own salvation, and so use the time which thou shalt yet allow me, (to) become every day more diligent in the duties which in thy Providence shall be assigned me, and that when at last I shall be called to Judgment I may be received as a good and faithful servant unto everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ…  Amen. (1747/8)

——————————–

     Almighty and everlasting God, in whose hands are life and death, by whose will all things were created, and by whose providence they are sustained; I return thee thanks that thou hast given me life, and that thou hast continued it to this time, that thou hast hitherto forborne to snatch me away in the midst of Sin and Folly, and hast permitted me still to enjoy the means of Grace and (time) to Repent.  Grant, O merciful Lord, that thy Call may not be in vain, that my life may not be continued to the increase of my Guilt, and that thy Gracious Forbearance may not harden my heart in wickedness.  Let me remember, O my God, that as Days and Years pass over me I approach nearer to the Grave, where there is no repentance, and grant, that by the assistance of thy Holy Spirit, I may so pass through this Life, that I may obtain Life everlasting…  Amen. (1744/5)

———————————–

     Almighty God, by whose will I was created, and by whose Providence I have been sustained, and by whose mercy I have been called to the knowledge of my Redeemer,…  grant, O Lord, that in reviewing my past life, I may recollect thy mercies to my preservation…  In affliction may I remember how often I have been (assisted), and in Prosperity may I know and confess from whose hand the blessing is received.  Let me, O Lord, so remember my sins, that I may abolish them by true repentance, and so improve the year to which thou hast graciously extended my life, and all the years which thou shalt yet allow me, that I may hourly become purer in thy sight; so that I may live in thy fear, and die in thy favor, and find mercy at the last day, for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Amen.  (1749/50)

———————————–

     Almighty God, by whose mercy my life has been yet prolonged to another year, grant that thy mercy may not be in vain.  Let not my years be multiplied to increase my guilt, but as (I grow older), let me become more pure in my thoughts, less desirous of sinful pleasures, more obedient to thy laws, and more careful of eternal happiness.  Let not the cares of the world distract me, nor the evils of age overwhelm me.  Enable me to use all enjoyments with due temperance, and run with diligence the race that is set before me.  Let not sin prevail on the remaining part of my life, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me, but as every day brings me nearer to my end, let every day contribute to make my end holy and happy.  As age comes upon me, let my mind be more withdrawn from vanity and folly, more enlightened with the knowledge of thy will, and more invigorated with resolution to obey it.  O Lord, calm my thoughts, direct my desires, and fortify my purposes.  Continue and increase thy lovingkindness to me, and, if it shall please thee, give quiet to my latter days.  And then, after the troubles of this life, when thou shalt call me hence, may I die in thy favor, for the sake of Jesus Christ…  Amen.  (A combination of phrases from the prayers of 1767, 1769, and 1773)

************************************

Psalm 90:10, 12  —  The length of our days is seventy years, or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away…  Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. 

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.”

Philippians 3:13-14  —  Brothers, 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.

***********************************
Almighty God, by whose mercy I am permitted to behold the beginning of another year, bless me with thy help and favor.  Mitigate, if it shall seem best unto thee, the diseases of my body, and (calm) the disorders of my mind.  Dispel my terrors, and grant that the time which thou shalt yet allow me, may not pass unprofitably away.  Let not pleasure seduce me, idleness lull me, or misery depress me.  Let me perform to thy glory, and the good of my fellow creatures, the work which thou shalt yet appoint me.  And grant that as I draw nearer to my dissolution, I may, by the help of thy Holy Spirit, feel my knowledge of thee increased, my hope exalted, and my faith strengthened, that, when the hour which is coming shall come, I may pass by a holy death to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  (1770)

263) Forgiveness is Costly

By William Barclay (1907-1978), The Daily Study Bible:

     Here is the eternal principle: Forgiveness is a costly thing.

     Human forgiveness is costly.  A son or a daughter may go wrong; a father or a mother may forgive; but that forgiveness has brought tears; it has brought whiteness to the hair, lines to the faces, a cutting anguish, and then a long dull ache to the heart.  It did not cost nothing.  There was the price of a broken heart to pay.

     Divine forgiveness is costly.  God is love, but God is holiness.  God, least of all, can break the great moral laws on which the universe is built.  Sin must have its punishment or the very structure of life disintegrates.  And God alone can pay the terrible price that is necessary before men can be forgiven.  Forgiveness is never a matter of saying:  “It’s all right; it doesn’t matter.”  Forgiveness is the most costly thing in the world.  Without the shedding of heart’s blood there can be no remission and forgiveness of sins.  There is nothing which brings the effect of his sin on someone with such arresting violence as to see the effect of his sin on someone who loves him in this world, or on the God who loves him forever, and to say to himself:  “It cost that to forgive my sin.”  Where there is forgiveness, someone must be crucified on a cross.

************************************

Genesis 6:5-6  —  The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.  The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 

Hosea 11:1-4…7a  —  (The Lord said), “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  But the more they were called, the more they went away from me.  They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.  It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.  To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them…  (But) my people are determined to turn from me.”

Romans 3:21-26  —   But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.   God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood– to be received by faith.  He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished– he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

************************************

Fix Thou our steps, O Lord, that we stagger not at the uneven motions of the world, but steadily go on to our glorious home; neither censuring our journey by the weather we meet with, nor turning out of the way for anything that befalls us.  The winds are often rough, and our own weight presses us downwards.  Reach forth, O Lord, thy hand, thy saving hand, and speedily deliver us.  Teach us, O Lord, to use this transitory life as pilgrims returning to their beloved home; that we may take what our journey requires, and not think of settling in a foreign country.  Amen.

–Author unknown; quoted in Eerdman’s Book of Famous Prayers, page 64, compiled by Veronica Zundel, Wm. B. Eerdman Publishing Co. 1983.

262) Who Am I?

By Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1939), Letters and Papers from Prison, pages 346-7, edited by Eberhard Bethge, copyright 1953, SCM Press, Ltd. 

     Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young theologian of great promise.  He became active in the Confessing Church movement in Germany which took a stand against the Nazi government in the 1930’s.  His activities made him an enemy of the Nazis, and friends encouraged him to flee for his safety.  He accepted an invitation to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, but soon came to regret it.  He stayed only a short time, and then returned to Germany.  He wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr:  “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America.  I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany.  I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…  Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization.  I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer auf einer Briefmarke der D...

Dietrich Bonhoeffer honored on a 1995 German postage stamp

     Bonhoeffer was arrested in April of 1943 by the Nazis for his participation in a plot against the life of Adolf Hitler.  He spent the last two years of his life in prison and was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before American soldiers liberated his prison.

     This poem was enclosed with a letter from prison to his good friend Eberhard Bethge in July of 1944.

————————————

WHO AM I?

Who am I?  They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I?  They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I?  They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I?  This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once?  A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I?  They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!

*********************************

Psalm 139:1-4…23-24  —  O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord…  Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Romans 7:15a  —  I do not understand what I do…

I Corinthians 4:2-4  —  Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.  I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.  My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.  It is the Lord who judges me.

John 10:27-28  —  (Jesus said), “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” 

*******************************

Lord Jesus, misery and misfortune annoy and oppress me.  I long to be relieved of them.  You have said, ‘Ask, and you shall receive.’  Lord, I am asking…  But Lord, my longing is so great that I cannot express it in words.  I don’t even know how to ask.  You, O Lord, can see into my heart.  What can I say?  My suffering is greater than my complaint can be.  I cannot counsel myself with my own reason, nor comfort myself with my own courage.  Comfortless, helpless, and forsaken, I am altogether undone.  My God, I know you will not leave me hopeless.  You will hear my prayer and comfort me.  It is for me to pray and await your grace.  It is for you to hear me and give me hope.  Amen.  –Martin Luther

261) Irish Blessings and Biblical Benedictions

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm on your face,
The rain fall softly on your fields;
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

———————–

The Lord give us peace in our going out and our coming in, in our lying down and in our rising up, in our labor and in our leisure, in our laughter and in our tears; until we come to stand before him on that day to which there is no sunset and no dawn, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

———————–

The peace of God be with you;
The peace of Christ be with you;
The peace of the Spirit be with you;
And with your children;
From the day that we have here today,
Until the day of the end of your lives.

———————–

Always remember to forget
The things that made you sad.
But never forget to remember
The things that made you glad.

Always remember to forget
The friends that proved untrue.
But never forget to remember
Those that have stuck by you.

Always remember to forget
The troubles that passed away.
But never forget to remember
The blessings that come each day.

———————

May you always have work for your hands to do.
May your pockets hold always a coin or two.
May the sun shine bright on your windowpane.
May the rainbow be certain to follow each rain.
May the hand of a friend always be near you.
And may God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.

***********************************

Numbers 6:24-26  —  The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.  

John 14:27  —  Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you…  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” 

Romans 15:13  —  May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

II Corinthians 13:14  —  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.  Amen.  

II Thessalonians 2:16,17…3:16  —  May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word…  And, may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way…  

I Peter 5:10,11…14b  —  The God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.  To him be the power for ever and ever…  Peace to all of you who are in Christ.  Amen.  

***********************************

May the eternal God bless us and keep us, guard our bodies, save our souls, direct our thoughts, and bring us safe to the heavenly country, our eternal home, where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ever reign, one God for ever and ever.  Amen.   –Sarum Breviary

As you go on your way, may the Lord Jesus Christ go with you.  May he be near you to defend you; may he go before you to show you the way; behind you to encourage you; beside you to befriend you; above you to watch over you; and within you to give you peace.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God forevermore.  Amen.   –Based on 10th century blessing

260) Child-like Faith

(See Mark 10:13-16)

     When I was a child I was often told that children were to be seen and not heard.  The disciples would have agreed.  In Mark 10:13 they are rebuking the parents who were trying to bring their children to Jesus.  The disciples no doubt thought that the Savior of the world surely had more important things to do than baby-sit a bunch of noisy brats.  But once again, the disciples had it all wrong.  Jesus had to rebuke them, and then Jesus welcomed the little children to himself and held them on his lap and blessed them.  And then Jesus paid the children the highest of compliments, holding them up as examples and models of the kind of faith everyone should have.  Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to the likes of these, and if you don’t all become like them, none of you will get in.”

     That could have angered the disciples, these men who with great faith had left everything to follow Jesus.  They had given up so much, but now they were being told by Jesus that if they wanted to have real faith they would have to be like these bawling, burping, mischievous children.  We too might wonder what Jesus is saying here.  Yes, kids are cute, but they are kids and they need to be taught.  Adults are supposed to be models for children, not imitate them.  What does Jesus mean?

     As with any question we need to look at all of what the Bible has to say on the subject, and the Bible does have much more to say about adults and children.  The book of Proverbs has a great deal to say about raising children properly, as in 22:6 which says, “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”  The best known verse of all on the subject is the fourth commandment which says “Honor your father and your mother.”  In both verses it is children who look to parents for instruction and not the other way around.  In Ephesians 6 Paul has instructions for both generations, telling children to obey their parents and telling parents not to provoke their children.  The Bible gives authority in the home to parents, but it is not unlimited authority.  Parents must also obey– they must obey God.  So Jesus can point to child-like trust and faith and say we should be like that; and at the same time the Bible can teach that children must be taught so that faith can be passed on.

     This verse from Mark 10 does not mean that children are smarter than adults.  Jesus doesn’t say that.  What he does imply is that there is something about the trusting nature of children that adults can learn from.  As adults know, the older you get, the more you have seen; and once you have seen enough of this sad life and this wicked world, you can start to get cynical and suspicious and skeptical, and all of that can get in the way of faith.  Or, perhaps things have gone very well for you and you have become very comfortable in this ‘happy’ world.  Then you can get proud and arrogant and smug, and faith in God can be replaced by faith in yourself.  Or perhaps you just grow tired of everything, and you are depressed and down on yourself and bitter about life; and that too can be an obstacle to faith.  All of these attitudes and emotions that adults might ‘grow into’ can work against faith.  We can be drawn in on ourselves, either to focus on our own strength and importance, or, on our own problems and failures.  And by drawing the focus in on ourselves, we are taking the focus off of God.

     Children have their own problems, but they still do know that they are under the care and protection of someone bigger than themselves.  And so they still trust in and have faith in their parents, and it is this aspect of faith that Jesus is pointing to here.  He is reminding us that we are all still children, children of our heavenly Father, who is still a whole lot bigger than we are and can still care for and protect us.  God, like a good parent, will not shield us from every bump and bruise, or even from every tragedy.  But he has promised that in the end we will all arrive home and be quite safe.  Therefore, we ought not get cynical or skeptical, proud or arrogant, depressed or hopeless.  We can, like children, live knowing that we are being watched over and cared for, and we can be hopeful for a future when our heavenly father can and will make everything right.  Jesus reinforces this message with his favorite name for God which is ‘Father.’  When he taught us to pray, he said we should begin by saying ‘Our Father,’ so that every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we remind ourselves that we are children.  Think of that when you say the Lord’s Prayer.  We still have someone bigger than us watching over us and taking care of us– now and forever.

     I once sat with a grief-stricken old man whose adult son had just committed suicide.  This son was recently divorced and had no children.  His mother was dead.  His father was his closest loved one, even though they lived far apart.  The son left a note for his father in which he told him how his many troubles had become too much for him to bear.  And then the note said this:  “Dad, so many times I have wished I could go back in time to when I was a little boy and you and mom took care of me.”  This was a man in his 30’s, now alone and sad and confused; looking back to a time in his life when he had the perfect security of being cared for by someone bigger than himself, someone who he still believed could handle everything.  It was a heartbreaking letter of despair and hopelessness.  It was sad that he did not know, or could not believe, that his heavenly Father could still take care of him; in a very different way, yes, but in a deeper and more profound way than his earthly father ever could.  This is the kind of child-like faith and trust I believe Jesus is calling on us to imitate; a faith and trust that can feel safe and secure in the Father’s care.

***************************

Mark 10:14-15  —  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom like a little child, will never enter it.”

Isaiah 49:14-15  —  (God said), “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’  Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?  Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”

I Peter 5:7  —  Cast all your anxiety on God because he cares for you.

***************************

Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled.  My Lord, fill it.  I am weak in the faith; strengthen me.  I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent that my love may go out to my neighbor.  I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you at all.  O Lord, help me.  Strengthen my faith and trust in you.  In you I have sealed all the treasures I have.  I am poor, you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor.  I am a sinner, you are upright.  With me there is an abundance of sin, in you is the fullness of righteousness.  Therefore, I will remain with you.  –Martin Luther

259) What I Believe About God

By Danny Dutton, Chula Vista, California, when he was eight years old

      One of God’s main jobs is making people.  He makes them to take care of things here on earth. He doesn’t make grownups, just babies.  I think that’s because they are smaller and easier to make.  That way he doesn’t have to take up his valuable time teaching them to talk and walk.  He can just leave that up to mothers and fathers.

     God’s second most important job is listening to prayers.  An awful lot of this goes on.  Some people, like preachers and things, pray other times than just before bedtime.  God doesn’t have time to listen to the radio or TV on account of this.

     Jesus is God’s son.  He used to do all the hard work, like walking on water and doing miracles, and trying to teach people about God who really didn’t want to learn.  They finally got tired of him preaching to them and they crucified him.  But he was good and kind like his Father, and he told his Father that they didn’t know what they were doing, and to forgive them.  And, God said, “Okay!”  His Dad appreciated everything he had done and all his hard work on earth, so he told him he didn’t have to go out on the road anymore.  He could stay, in heaven.  So, he did.

     You should always go to Sunday School because it makes God happy, and if there’s anyone you want to make happy, it’s God.  Don’t skip Sunday School to do something you think would be more fun, like going to the beach.  This is wrong!  And besides, the sun doesn’t come out on the beach until noon, anyway.

     If you don’t believe in God, besides being an atheist, you also will be very lonely, because your parents can’t go everywhere with you– like to camp– but God can.

     It’s good to know that he’s around when you’re scared of the dark or when you can’t swim very good and you get thrown in real deep water by big kids.  But, you shouldn’t just always think of what God can do for you.  I figure God put me here and he can take me back anytime he pleases.

     And that’s what I believe about God.

***************************************

Isaiah 11:6  —  The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.

Matthew 11:25  —  At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

Matthew 18:1-4  —  At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child and had him stand among them.  And he said:  “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Mark 9:13-16  —  People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant.  He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.

*************************************

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding:  Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer

258) God’s Perspective on the First Christmas

From ‘ Sermon for Christmas Day’; Text: Luke 2:1-14; by Martin Luther (1483-1546) 

     …Behold how very ordinary and common things are to us that transpire on earth, and yet how high they are regarded in heaven.  On earth it occurs in this way:  Here is a poor young woman, Mary of Nazareth; she is not highly esteemed, but is of the humblest citizens of the village.  No one is conscious of the great wonder she bears.  She is silent, keeps her own counsel, and regards herself as the lowliest in the town.  She starts out with her husband Joseph, obliged to leave their home.  They probably owned a donkey, upon which Mary rode, although the Gospel does not mention it, and so it is possible that they went on foot.  Imagine how she was despised at the inns along on the way, although she was worthy to ride in a chariot of gold.  There were, no doubt, many wives and daughters of prominent men at that time who lived in fine apartments and great splendor, while the mother of God takes a journey in mid-winter under most trying circumstances.  What distinctions there are in the world!

     When they arrived at Bethlehem, they were the most insignificant and despised, and had to take refuge in a stable.  They had to share lodging, table, and bed with the cattle, while many a wicked man sat at the head in the hotels and was honored as lord.  No one noticed or was aware of what God was doing in that stable.  See how God shows that he utterly disregards what the world is, has, or desires; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has, and does.  This shows that the world’s greatest wisdom is foolishness, its best actions are wrong, and its greatest treasures are misfortunes.  What did Bethlehem have when it did not have Christ?  What have they now who at that time had enough?  What do Joseph and Mary lack now, although at that time they had no room to sleep comfortably?

     But the birth itself is still more pitiful.  There was no one to take pity on this young wife who was for the first time to give birth to a child; no one to take to heart her condition that she, a stranger, did not have the least thing a mother needs in a birth-night.  There she is without any preparation, without either light or fire, alone in the darkness, without any one offering her service as is customary for women to do at such times.  Every thing is in a commotion in the inn, there is a swarming of guests from all parts of the country, and no one thinks of this poor woman.  Is it not strange that the birth of Christ occurs in cold winter, in a strange land, and in such a poor and despicable manner?

     Behold how very richly God honors those who are despised by men.  The angels did not find princes or valiant men to whom to communicate the good news, but the most humble people upon earth.  Could they not have addressed the high priests who supposedly knew so much concerning God and the angels?  No, God chose poor shepherds, who, though they were of low esteem in the sight of men, were in heaven regarded as worthy of such great grace and honor.  And yet we rage and rant for nothing but this empty worldly honor, as if we had no honor to seek in heaven.

     Every one should ponder this for himself.  As we see, it is the purpose of the divine Word to teach us to know God and his work, and to see that this life is nothing.  For Jesus did not have possessions, nor temporal honor and power.  He shows no interest in them, but he works in opposition to these temporal things, and looks with favor upon that which the world despises.  He goes to that from which the world flees and takes up that which it discards.  And although we may not want to receive blessings, honor, and life in this way, God does not change his purposes or ways.  We must adapt ourselves to him, he will not adapt himself to us.  In what more lovely manner could he have shown his grace to the humble and despised of earth than through this birth in poverty, over which the angels made known to none but to poor shepherds?

——————————-

As I read the birth stories about Jesus I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog.  –Philip Yancey

*************************************

Luke 1:52 — He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.

Luke 2:6-7 — And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Philippians 2:5-7  —  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

*********************************

A CHRISTMAS PRAYER:  The day of joy returns, Father in Heaven, and crowns another year with peace and good will.  Help us rightly to remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of the angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wisemen.  Close the doors of hate and open the doors of love all over the world.  Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.  Deliver us from evil, by the blessing that Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.  May the Christmas morning make us happy to be thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our bed with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.   –Henry van Dyke (1852-1933)

257) For You (part two)

     (continued…)  There is another word in the Christmas story that can serve as an illustration of the meaning in the words ‘for you.’  The word ‘manger’ is used in the story three times: first in verse seven when Luke describes where Mary laid the newborn infant; and in verse twelve when the angel is giving instructions to the shepherds on where they could find this newborn Savior of the world– “This will be a sign for you,” the angel said, “You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger;” and in verse 16 where we read that the shepherds did indeed find the baby in a manger.  From those three references, it is assumed that Jesus was born in a stable and there were animals around.  Stables had mangers in which to put feed for the animals.

     To an animal, a stable is like a prison.  In a stable you have pens, you have gates, you have stanchions, you might have chains or ropes– you have whatever it takes to keep the animals from getting away.  I’m not saying the animals are bothered by not having the freedom to wander all over the world.  They probably don’t mind it as long as they are fed and watered and warm.  A cow probably wouldn’t get much out of a trip to the Grand Canyon anyway.  And an old sow probably doesn’t care if she never gets to the Mall of America– all the people there and all that noise would just make her nervous.  I don’t think animals mind being restricted to pens or pastures.  That’s all they have ever known.  But think about that– those animals are confined like that for you— so that you can have milk to drink, and butter on your bread, and a slice of ham on Christmas day.  Those animals are confined to those places for youfor your sake.

     This is an illustration of what Christmas is all about.  Unlike your average cow or sow, Jesus was not used to being confined.  Jesus was used to being God, ruler over all things, seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven.  And the message of Christmas is that Jesus chose to allow himself to be born, and thus to be confined to a human body, living a life on this small speck of dust we call earth, in one small corner of the universe he created and rules over.  And not only would his birth here confine him to a very small place, but he would also be confined to a limited amount of time.  The eternal God would submit himself to the limits of a human life, to suffer, and then, to even die.  And why?  FOR YOU, said the angels to the shepherds.  “For you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”  “And,” said the angel, “you will find this baby in a manger.”  What a wonderful image that is.  God, in Jesus, came to earth and was confined to a life like we are confined to, being born among animals, in their place of confinement.  Jesus, born for us, in a place where animals are kept for us.  It would be hard to imagine a more humble birth, and all for you.

File:Kempele Church Paintings 2006 07 24 B.JPG

Painting on the wall of the Kempele Old Church, Kempele, Finland, by Mikael Toppelius (1734-1821)

**************************************

Luke 2:10-11 — The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Luke 2:7  —    And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

*************************************

A WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS CAROL

SIX LINES TO TELL THE STORY; SIX LINES TO SAY A PRAYER TO JESUS: 

Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.

256) For You (part one)

     The angel said, “Today… there has been born for you a Savior” (Luke 2:11).  The Christmas story is, of course, a very nice story.  A young couple named Mary and Joseph are far from home and down on their luck.  They can’t find a room for the night, and have to stay in a barn.  Not only that, but it becomes the very night that Mary goes into labor and her first child is born.  But then everything works out just fine.  It turns out they are not alone, but shepherds come into the barn with the news that a sky full of angels told them about the birth, and that this child was to be someone very special.  This is indeed a nice story with a happy ending.

     But it is not only a nice story.  The story of The Three Little Pigs is also a nice story.  There are some tense moments with the big bad wolf huffing and puffing and blowing everybody’s house down, but then it all works out, and, like the Christmas story, it has a happy ending.  But the Christmas story, unlike the story of the three little pigs, is a true story.

     C. S. Lewis was an expert on stories.  He was a Professor of Literature at Cambridge and Oxford Universities.  He knew what made a story great, he knew how a good short story or a good novel should be structured, he knew about character development and dialog and styles of writing, and he knew about symbolism and hidden meanings.  He was a recognized authority on fictional stories.  And, he was a writer of stories– children’s stories, science fiction, religious fiction– all kinds of stories.  Today, over 50 years after his death, all of his works are still in print and selling very well.  Lewis did not become a Christian until he was in his thirties, and when he did, he told a friend, “The thing I finally came to realize about the story of Jesus is that it is true”– from beginning to end, he said, it is not the sort of thing one would make up, nor is it told like a made up story.  It is told like a story that really happened, and “Once I realized that,” Lewis said, “I had to become a Christian — because there is no other true story like it in all of human history.”  Not only is the Christmas story a nice story, it is a true story.

     And yet, even at that, this story is still no big deal.  There are many wonderful and true stories in the world.  What IS a big deal about the Christmas story and what makes it the most important true story of all time, is that it was all FOR YOU.  God became a man, born as a little baby in those most humble circumstances, FOR YOU, said the angel.  You see, the Christmas story was just the beginning of the story of what God would do for you while he was on earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus would first have to grow up, as babies must do.  And then, even after he was grown, he would, for a while, live a life and work a job just like anyone else.  But then, at age 30 he would begin a three year ministry that would change the whole world.  And then, most importantly, he would give his life as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of all the sins ever committed in all the world, and by that forgiveness, offer the gift of salvation; and by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus would offer eternal life to you and to all who would believe in him.  Of all the stories ever told about all the things that ever happened, only this story contains a wonderful promise that can help you even after you die.  As Lewis said, “There is no other story like it.”

     This is what God’s Word tells us, not only in this story at the beginning of Jesus’ life, but also throughout Jesus’ ministry, and then, also, at the end of his life.  In words you have heard many times, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and gave thanks; broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, ‘take and eat; this is my body, given for you…”  And then, “Take this cup…it is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people, for the forgiveness of sin.”  This is reason and purpose and central point of the story– from the announcement of the angels at the birth of Jesus, to his last will and testament to the disciples just before his death, in the whole story, it is made clear that it is all for you.  The story of Christmas and the entire story of Jesus life on earth is, from beginning to end, the story of God’s grace.  It is certainly not anything we could have managed on our own, and it is simply by hearing that story and believing in that story that it becomes our own story.  It is all by God’s action, all by his grace, grace given freely to you and for you.    (continued…)

*****************************

II Peter 1:16  —  We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

Luke 2:10-11 — The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Luke 22:19-20 — And Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

******************************
Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your Son to earth as a baby so many years ago, for me.   Thank you that He paid the punishment for my sins by dying on the cross.   And thank you that He rose again to prove that death was truly defeated.  I place my trust in You to be my Savior.  Guide me through the dark times of my life and give me courage to live for you.  Amen.   –Max Lucado

255) Ben Hur

By Don Sweeting, from his December 19, 2013 blog at http://www.donsweeting.wordpress.com    Sweeting serves as the president of Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, Florida)

     It always intrigues me that the best Christmas stories are filled with traces of the gospel.  That’s true of A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, the story of St. Nicholas, and even How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  One of my favorite stories is Ben Hur, written in 1880 by George Wallace, and made into an epic film in 1959.

Ben Hur

     This movie received 12 Oscar nominations and won 11 academy awards!  That’s only been equaled two other times in cinema history– in 1997 with Titanic and 2003 with The Lord of the Rings.  The film had some 25,000 roles, 300 sets, and constructed the largest set ever built for a motion picture– used for one of the greatest action scenes in film history (the chariot race).

     Some people don’t consider Ben Hur a Christmas film.  I contend it is– for three reasons.  First, it opens with a scene of the nativity.  That alone should put it in the category of Christmas films.  Second, a central character appearing throughout the film is a man named Balthasar– one of the magi.  In this story, he returns to Palestine and helps narrate the cohesiveness of Jesus’ life.  He’s there after his birth, observes Jesus’ public ministry, and even appears at the crucifixion.

     Third, it is Balthasar whom the author uses to creatively connect the dots in the life of Christ.  Observing Jesus’ death, Balthasar says, “He has taken the world of our sins onto Himself.  To this end He said he was born in that stable, where I first saw him.  For this cause He came into the world.”

     Of course, this is poetic license, but it is effective and helps the viewer catch the wider point– Jesus’ birth and death are tied together by a divine purpose!

     The book and film tell the story of a man named Judah Ben Hur (played in the film by Charlton Heston).  He is a Judean nobleman who is betrayed by his boyhood friend– Messala, who grows up to become the Roman Tribune of Judah.  When Ben Hur refuses to submit to Roman rule, Messala condemns his old friend to a Roman slave galley.  Along the way, Ben Hur tells God that if he is allowed to live, he wants to take vengeance on the man who wronged him.  The story then is about Ben Hur’s descent into hatred because of the injustices committed against him and his people by Messala and the Romans.  Ben Hur’s wife Esther complains “You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy, giving evil for evil!  Hatred is turning you to stone.  It is as though you had become Messala!”

     In his story, Ben Hur has three encounters with Jesus.  As a Roman captive, he encounters Jesus while being dragged on the highway that passes near Nazareth.  As Ben Hur cries to God for help, Jesus, who is observing the procession of slaves, offers him water to drink.  Ben Hur has no idea who Jesus is, but realizes he has just met someone special.

     As a prisoner of Rome, Ben Hur is condemned to brutal service as a slave rowing on a Roman ship.  When the Roman ship is destroyed in battle, Ben Hur saves the life of a general and gains the favor of Rome.  Eventually Ben Hur is able to return to Judah to search for his mother and sister, who were also condemned to slavery.

     In Judah he encounters Jesus a second time, but from a distance.  He observes Jesus’ ministry with skepticism.  Only when he encounters Jesus for a third time, on the way to the cross, do things start to change.  

ben-hur-jesus

     At the crucifixion, we come to the height of irony in the story.  There stands Ben Hur who has been falsely accused of a crime of which he was innocent.  But he has devoted his life to revenge.  But now he sees another man who has been falsely accused, but instead of pursuing revenge, this man pleads for the forgiveness of those who have accused him.

     Ben Hur says, “Almost at the moment He died, I heard him say, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ and I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand.”

     This is not just a story of personal redemption.  The gospel integrity of the story comes because his moment of personal redemption coincides with the wider redemptive death of Jesus.  Both are affirmed in the story.  Jesus has taken the world of our sins onto himself.  Ben Hur learns that it is only through the power of being forgiven that we can forgo hatred and revenge and offer forgiveness to others.  In other words, Ben Hur’s transformation is rooted in the cross of Christ.

     Lots of Christmas movies have transformation stories.  Think of Scrooge, George Baily, and even the Grinch!  But the transformation of Judah Ben Hur takes place because of Jesus himself.

*************************************

Luke 23:34a  —  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

John 1:9-12  —   The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

Romans 12:2a  —  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…

*************************************

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life:  Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.  

Book of Common Prayer