629) Fear Not

     I once heard of a church called the “Community Church of Joy.”  Churches used to be named after saints, like St. John’s or St. Paul’s; or, after our Lord, like Christ Lutheran, or Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.  But it’s a relatively recent development to name a church after an emotion.  There is nothing bad about the word joy, and nothing wrong with being joyful.  One would hope that there would be a certain amount of joy in being a Christian.  And we all love that old Christmas carol ‘Joy to the World.’  And,  joy is a good Biblical word, appearing in one form or another 63 times in the pages of the Bible.

     But I don’t think I would want to join a church called the Community Church of Joy.  That would be a tough name to live up to.  I don’t know anything about the people in that town where the Community Church of Joy is located, but in all of the towns I’ve lived in, the people were not always joyful, and I know that I’m not always joyful.  And I don’t know how it goes in your church, but in all the congregations I have ever been in, some people could even get a little crabby once in a while, and I get crabby sometimes, too.  Emotions come and go, changing back and forth, for all of us; so naming a church after just one emotional state seems to me to be a little dangerous.  I have heard that in marketing it is best to “under-promise and over-deliver.”  Advertising yourself as a community church of JOY might be promising a little more than any church can deliver on a regular basis.

    Not only that, but if you look through the Bible you will find that the emotion of joy, though mentioned 63 times, is not the predominant emotion.  Actually, people in the Bible are far more often described as fearful than as joyful.  Whereas the words joy or joyful or joyous appear 63 times, the words fear or fearful or afraid appear over 500 times.  And in many of those times that people are experiencing the emotion of fear, it is because GOD, or an angel of God, has appeared to them.  Good old God, our friend and heavenly Father, our shepherd, guide and protector; God, or his angels, are always scaring the daylights out of someone.  That is what happens almost every time God appears to anyone in the Bible.

     Think about that.  Church is the place where we gather each week to worship God and come into his presence.  God is always with us, of course, but there is something special about the weekly service when we gather before him to hear his Word and offer our prayers.  And in the Bible, whenever people find themselves in the presence of God, the very first thing they feel is fear.  So really, if you were going to name a church after an emotion, it would be more accurate to name it the Community Church of Fear (though from a marketing standpoint that would probably not be a very good name for a church either).

     Consider just two examples of such fear, from two of the most important Bible stories of them all.  The first is from the story of the birth of Jesus in Luke two where it says: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”  The glory of the Lord shines all around them, and they are afraid.  How afraid are they?  They were ‘sore’ afraid, says the King James Version– so afraid that it hurt.

     The second story is the Easter morning resurrection of Christ.  The women went to the tomb to prepare the crucified body of Jesus for a proper burial.  But instead of a corpse, they found an angel of God announcing that their friend and Master Jesus was not dead but was risen from the dead and alive and would soon be meeting them.  So are they then filled with joy?  No.  The Gospels tell us they are afraid, filled with fear, bewildered, and trembling.

     But there is always more to the story.  The God whose very appearing elicits such fear, quickly speaks to calm that fear.  To the shepherds who are ‘sore afraid,’ the first words of the angel is “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of a great joy.”  The words of the angels to the women at the empty tomb are, “Be not afraid.  Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is risen.”

     In neither of these stories are the people told to be afraid.  Fear was a logical response in those situations, and fear is a reasonable response to our own situation as we live in this uncertain world.  Whether or not God or his angels are appearing to you, there is much to be afraid of.  The doctor comes in after your physical and says, “There’s a problem and we need to take some tests; I am concerned about something we saw on your X-ray.”  What do you feel?  You feel fear, and that fear comes from an unexpected, unwanted disruption in your routine, in your way of seeing things.  You are used to living day after day.  That has been your routine.  You are used to seeing things from the perspective of life.  But now all of a sudden, there is a chance that the routine may be broken, and that there may not be any life; and you are afraid.  Fear is a reasonable response to many situations, and that fear can be a good thing if it moves you to put your faith in the One who can help you.

     Little children have to be taught to be afraid of going out into the street.  Parents tell their small children in the firmest possible language, “The street is a dangerous place.  Do not even think about crossing it unless I am with you and holding your hand.  The street and the cars in it are very dangerous.”  Fear of going out into the street is a good kind of fear for a small child to have.  You have to worry about a child who has no fear of anything.  Far better is it when the child knows enough to fear what needs to be feared, and knows enough at those times to trust in the care and leading of someone bigger than himself.

     “Do not be afraid,” Jesus would say to his disciples, oftentimes adding, “For I will be with you.”  A child crossing the street will be all right if holding on to the hand of someone big enough and wise enough to know what to do in traffic.  And we too will be all right, no matter what we must face, even if it is crossing from over from this life to the next.  We will be all right, if we hold on to and trust in the one who can handle even death.

     Tomorrow we begin a new year.  We have many reasons to be afraid, but God says, “Fear not.”

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Isaiah 41:10  —  So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Luke 12:32  —  (Jesus said), “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Psalm 46:1-2  —  God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.

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Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for You are with me.

–Psalm 23:4

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628) Blaming the Crusades for Jihad

by Ryan Mauro, September 23, 2013, Front Page magazine

     The cultural relativists on the Left and apologists for radical Islam like to blame the Crusades for almost everything.  “The Muslim extremists are only responding to the deeds of Christian extremists,” the argument goes.  In his new book, Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies, former Muslim Ibn Warraq takes on this misleading theme intended to blame the West for the Muslim world’s troubles.

     The claim that the Crusades are the starting point of Islamic jihad is basically the political application of, “For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction.”  It equates the Christian beliefs driving the Crusades with the Islamic beliefs driving jihad.

     Ibn Warraq’s book tackles this misconception.  Islamic atrocities were not provoked by the Crusaders’ own reprehensible acts, but preceded them.  Islamic jihad was not triggered by the Crusades; it preceded them.

     In fact, as explained by Warraq, (and in books like The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and What’s So Great About Christianity), the Christian world was reduced to about one-third of what it was by the sword of jihad.  The Crusades were launched with the objective of, without any exaggeration, saving Europe and Western civilization from Sharia.

     My personal experience in school is that the opposite was taught.  The Crusaders were framed as offensive and the jihads as defensive.  The Crusaders were depicted as barbarians, particularly to Jews.  I cannot recall hearing about a single Islamic atrocity before or during these wars.

     This is a common phenomenon, Warraq explains, and it’s part of an overall trend when it comes to education about the history of Islam.

     “What are seen as positive aspects of Islamic Civilization are ecstatically praised, even exaggerated, and all the negative aspects are imputed to the arrival of the Westerners, and where the Arabs, Persians and Muslims in general are seen as passive victims,” Warraq said in an interview.

     As proof, Warraq, and the other authors, mention the countless mass killings and persecutions of Christians and Jews before the Crusades.  The destruction of over 30,000 churches during a 10-year period starting in 1004 AD is little-known.  So is the burning of crosses, the beheading of converts to Christianity from Islam, the destruction of Christian holy sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the forced tax for non-Muslims, and the list goes on and on…

      As Dinesh D’Souza explains, “The Crusades can be seen as a belated, clumsy, and unsuccessful effort to defeat Islamic imperialism.”

     One of the most interesting claims made in Waraq’s book is that the Crusades did not have a permanent impact on the Muslim psychology.  Part of the reason is because the Muslim world viewed the wars as an overall victory.

     “Many believe that modern Muslims have inherited from their medieval ancestors memories of crusader violence and destruction.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  By the fourteenth century, in the Islamic world the Crusades had almost passed out of mind,” Warraq said.

     So what revived the relevancy of the Crusades in how the Muslim world views the West?  Warraq says that the Crusades were reentered into the discourse by Europe.  Imperialism was purposely framed as a continuation of the Crusades; something particularly agitating for the growing Arab nationalist movement.

     “Nineteenth, and even early twentieth century Europeans unashamedly used crusader rhetoric and a tendentious reading of crusader history to justify their imperial dreams of conquest,” according to Warraq…

     The Arab world’s insecurities over its falling behind were blamed on the European colonists that were viewed as Crusaders.  This theme “eases the guilty consciences of the Arabs themselves: their failures are not their fault,” is the argument, but “are all the fault of the Crusaders.”  In addition, attributing the backwardness of the Muslim world to the “Crusaders” allowed Sharia Law to escape responsibility…

        However, Warraq emphasizes that his point isn’t to blame the West for its use of Crusader rhetoric.  The jihad existed before the Crusades and during the period when they “had almost passed out of mind” in the Muslim world.

     “My point is that Islamic jihad did not end with the defeat of the Crusaders.  On the contrary, in Islamic doctrine all the later Islamic conquests were seen as a part of the religious duty of carrying out jihad until the entire world submits to Islam,” he said.

     Blaming everything on the Christians in the Crusades is a way of denying the Islamic supremacist ideology that has driven the conflict from the beginning.

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Were the Christians without blame in the Crusades?  Of course not.  Terrible atrocities were committed by both sides.  But the way the story is often told today, even by many Christians, is an outrageous fallacy.  Centuries of violent Islamic aggression preceded the Crusades, and  it did not end with the Crusades.

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The use of violent force in Islam goes back to its very beginning and to its founder.  No one would deny that Mohammed himself was a warrior.  But everyone knows that Jesus willingly submitted to death on the cross, refusing to respond with any violence.  Jesus even told Peter to put his sword away when Peter attempted to prevent his arrest; and then Jesus healed the man Peter had wounded.  

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Matthew 26:50-54  —  Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”  Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.  With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.  Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

Luke 22:49-51  —  When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?”  And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.  But Jesus answered, “No more of this!”  And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

Christ Healing the Ear of Malchus, James Tissot  (1836-1902)

Matthew 5:9  —  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

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Lord Jesus, when you came among us as a man, you bore the name Prince of Peace.   Guide us in the way of peace.  May peace reign in our hearts, and may we be witnesses to the peace you give to all the world.  Amen.

627) You Have Faith in WHAT?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation just unveiled a series of billboards.  Here is one from Chicago:

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A response based on Nathaniel Torrey at: http://www.juicyecumenism.com :

“Let me get this straight.  You, a finite being, with limited knowledge; constantly walking on a knife’s edge between life and death, at the mercy of something as small as a germ or as common as the many distracted drivers you meet on the road; shaped, and then tossed to and fro by the equally frail and insignificant people who happen to be around you, and the confused culture you happen to be born into– you really believe you should have faith in yourself?  Good luck with that.”

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Every man labors to conceal his insignificance from himself. –source lost

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How good is it to remember one’s insignificance: you are a man among billions of men, an animal amid billions of animals; and one’s abode, the earth, is a little grain of sand in comparison with the vast universe; and one’s life span is a mere moment in comparison with billions on billions of ages.  

–Leo Tolstoy

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No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for one can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditation and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalog.

 –Samuel Johnson

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Psalm 53:1a  —  The fool says in his heart, “There is no God…”

James 4:14b  —  …What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Psalm 103:15-16  —  The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.

Psalm 103:17-18  —  But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children; with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.

Psalm 8:3-5  —  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?  Yet, you have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.

Proverbs 3:5-6  —  Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

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PRAYER FROM PSALM 25:

In you, Lord my God, I put my trust.

I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame...

Show me your ways, Lordteach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.
Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me, for you, Lord, are good.

Good and upright is the Lordtherefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way...
For the sake of your name, Lordforgive my iniquity, though it is great…

 Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.

Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish.
Look on my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins…
Guard my life and rescue me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.

626) The Wise(?) Men (part two of two)

     

     (…continued)  Years later, the little baby that the three Magi were seeking, would say, “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened unto you.”  I wonder if, when Jesus said that, he thought about these men who so mysteriously showed up after he was born.  Mary and Joseph most certainly would have told him all about them.  During Jesus ministry, many more would seek him, just like the Magi, and, many would try to oppose and destroy him, just like Herod.  To those who were seeking him, Jesus was more than ready and willing to be found, responding to even the weakest indications of interest.

     The story of the Magi’s unusual search reminds me of the woman who sought healing from Jesus, not for any apparent spiritual reasons, but simply because she wanted to be well (Luke 8:42-48).  She was in the crowd following Jesus, but not because she wanted to be a follower, and not for the sermon, and not for salvation.  She just wanted to push her way to the front and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, believing that in that garment would be a magical power that could heal her.  She did receive the healing; and then she received Jesus.  Jesus stopped for her and honored her search, not only with his miracle of healing, but also with his word of promise.  

     We can come to Jesus for all the wrong reasons.   We all probably do.  But the important thing is that we do come to him.  The old hymn says it best, “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, Oh Lamb of God, I come.”

     What did these ‘magicians’ want from Jesus?  Matthew 2:2 says that the Magi came to worship Jesus.  We don’t know much about the Magi, and what we do know seems to indicate that they were wrong about a few things.  But they were right about the most important thing.  They were right to be seeking Jesus, for whatever reason.  “Seek and you shall find,” Jesus said, and it would very much in line with the rest of what Jesus taught to finish that sentence like this:  “Seek, and you shall find that you have already been found.”  As you recall, Jesus often used the illustration of shepherds and their sheep, and who is it that is always finding who?  It is the good shepherd, Jesus, who is always seeking, and finding, the lost sheep.

     It is like that old illustration of the little boy who ran away from home.  His father watched him go, and then, in order to protect his son, followed him at a distance from which he could see the boy, but the boy could not see him.  After a while, the sky began to darken and the little boy became afraid.  When he turned to go back home, he realized he was lost, and became frightened.  He started to cry, and immediately his father came to him.  The little boy was overjoyed, and said, “Daddy, I found you!”  Who found who?

     That is how we find Jesus.  He is there, all the while, waiting for us.  And that is how the Magi found him.  How else would following the stars lead you to just the right place and just the right baby?  Looking at the stars can tell you which way is North, and if you know something about the stars and the constellations, they might even tell you more than that.  But if I want to give you directions to my house, I better tell you what roads to take, and not what stars to follow.  And I better tell you my house number, not what star is directly over my house; that might be a little hard to determine.  However, when it is God who is giving the directions and leading the way, he can move the stars around if he wants to, and that is what he did for the Magi.  Matthew 2:9 tells us that “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.”  They found Jesus, but it was like the little boy found his daddy– with a lot of help.  They were, in fact, the ones who had been found and were being led.

     I hope I’m not ruining anyone’s Christmas story with this less than flattering picture of these ‘not-very’ wise men.  They probably look very wise and very dignified in your nativity scene at home.  We’ve been more used to that more positive picture of them.  But there has been a whole stream of Biblical interpretation over the years that has seen them as well-meaning bumblers at best, or at worst, devious wizards who only in the end change their wicked hearts when they see and truly worship the Christ-child.  Actually, there is not enough in the Bible to know very much for sure, except that they really did need a lot of help from God, as do we all.  Praise God that he is always there for us, ready to be found and ready to help.  And keep asking, seeking, and knocking.

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Matthew 7:7 — (Jesus said), “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Matthew 2:11 — On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

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O God and Father of all, whom the whole heavens adore:  Let the whole earth also worship thee, all nations obey thee, all tongues confess and bless thee, and men and women everywhere love thee and serve thee in peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

625) The Wise(?) Men (part one of two)

 The Magi in the House of Herod by James Tissot    

     The Wise Men and Herod, James Tissot  (1836-1902)

     Matthew 2:1-12 tells the story of the Wise Men’s visit to the Holy Family after the birth of Jesus.  This is one of the most familiar of all Bible stories.  We hear it every year.  We see three Wise Men in front yard Christmas displays, we receive pictures of their visit on Christmas cards, and many of us were Wise Men in long ago Christmas programs.  The story seems not odd or strange at all, but very familiar.

     But to anyone hearing this story for the first time in the first century, the appearance of these men would have seemed very odd indeed.  Upon hearing that these three characters had come to see the newborn Savior, those early readers would have asked, “What are they doing in the story?  Who invited them?”  It was God, of course, who invited them, and, who saw to it that they found their way to the right place, leading them by that bright star and all.  But the average Jew of that day, for whom Matthew was primarily writing, would certainly be wondering why God would have included them.  When it came to religion, the Jews at that time were very careful about who was in and who was out, and those men were about as far out as anyone could get.

     First of all, they were foreigners– ‘from the East,’ says verse one.  Secondly, they were not ‘wise’ men.  That is an awful translation, so far from the original that it is hard to imagine how the word ‘wise’ ever got connected to this story.  They were, in the Greek, ‘Magi,’ from which we get our word magician, and there is nothing in the rest of New Testament to indicate they were anything more dignified than that.  And they certainly were not kings, as in ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are.’  They weren’t wise and they weren’t kings and nothing in the text indicates that they were.  There are Greek words for wise men and for kings, but those are not the words used here.  The word used is ‘magi,’ and in the two other places in the New Testament where the word magi appears, it is used in an unfavorable way.  In Acts 8, it is Simon the Magi (there translated sorcerer) who opposes the ministry of the Apostles; and in Acts 13 there is Elymas the Magi, and there the word is often translated ‘false prophet.’  Nowadays, a magician may have a respectable job as an entertainer, and children can do magic tricks for fun.  But in the New Testament world, magic was more in the realm of black magic; sorcery, fortune telling, astrology, and the like, the kinds of things God had forbidden, and not the sort of thing any respectable Jew would be interested in.

     Not only that, these men were not wise, but very naive– at least when it came to politics.  Who, after all, would go to the current king in power and ask him where the new king could be found?  Certainly, no one would have asked this of jealous King Herod who already had two sons and a wife killed because he had some suspicions that they might be thinking about replacing him as king.  Herod, of course, would want more information about this new competitor for his throne, and when the Magi did not return to tell him what they found, Herod had all the baby boys in Bethlehem under two years old killed.  If the Magi had not gone to the King in the first place, this slaughter would not have happened.

     These men from the east, whatever we might call them, are not Jews, they are not in a respectable profession, and they do not seem to be very wise at all in the ways of the world.  So the first readers of this story would have seen them not as a natural part of an old familiar story, as we now see them.  Rather, they would seem to be as out of place as Rush Limbaugh at a fundraiser for Nancy Pelosi.

     But these Magi had one big thing going for them.  They were on a search, the most important search of all, and they were taking great pains to seek and find this newborn King.  They had been looking in the wrong place, the stars, but they did see something there, God knows what– and I do mean God.  It would probably be more accurate to say God saw something in their desire to seek out this King, and then God honored their search by leading them to the right place.  (continued…)

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Matthew 2:1-2  —  Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him?”

Matthew 2:3  —  When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

Isaiah 60:1-3  —  Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.  See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.  Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

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O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:  Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

624) Bessie’s Last, and Best, Christmas

By Chuck Colson (1931-2012), for the Breakpoint radio program, December 25, 1995.

Chuck Colson served as special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973.  He spent nine months in prison (1974-75) after pleading guilty to charges of obstruction of justice.  Colson’s life fell apart during the Watergate investigation, and during that time gave his life to Christ.  While serving time in prison, he vowed that after he was released he would do what he could to minister in the name of Jesus to prisoners.  He started Prison Fellowship Ministries, now an international organization working with tens of thousands of prisoners in hundreds of jails and prisons around the world.  For the rest of his life, Colson spent every Easter and many Christmases preaching in prisons and visiting prisoners.  See:  www.prisonfellowship.org

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     Bessie Shipp was spending Christmas in jail.  A slender black woman, Bessie was watching her life slip rapidly away.  Though she had not been sentenced to death by the state, she was under a different death sentence:  Bessie had AIDS.

     I met Bessie that Christmas Day in a North Carolina prison for women.  I had come to give a Christmas message to the inmates there.

     The atmosphere was glum.  The small crowd that gathered to hear me preach was somber and subdued.

     After the service, a prison official said, “Do you have time to visit Bessie Shipp?”

     “Who’s Bessie Shipp?” I asked.  When they told me, I confess, I was taken aback.  This was several years ago, and I had never visited an AIDS patient.

     And yet, just the night before, I had seen a television story about Mother Teresa and the AIDS patients she was caring for.  How could I do anything less?

     “I’ll go,” I said.

     We walked down a narrow corridor, and a heavy door was opened to reveal a small, dark cell.  There, sitting in a hard-backed chair was this tiny woman, wrapped in a bathrobe, shivering in the cold.  To my surprise, I saw a Bible on her lap.

     After chatting a few minutes, I came right to the point.  “Bessie,” I said, “Do you know the Lord?”

     “I want to,” she replied softly.  “But I don’t always feel like He’s there.”  And her voice trailed off.

     “Would you like to pray with me to know Christ as your Savior?” I asked.

     Bessie looked down, twisted a Kleenex in her thin hands, and finally whispered, “Yes, I would.”

     So we prayed together in that cold, concrete cell.  And Bessie made a decision that would change the rest of her short life:  She gave it to Jesus Christ.

     Only days later Bessie was paroled.  Friends and prison officials had been trying to get her released for a long time.  But the timing was providential.  She stayed long enough to meet Christ, and then she went to her home as a new Christian.

     A short three weeks after her release, Bessie contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized.  A Prison Fellowship area director visited her and found her spirit strong to the end.

     “These are the happiest days of my life,” she whispered.  “Because now I know Jesus loves me, and you all love me, too.  I’m in the Lord’s hands.”

     Two days later Bessie died.  She went to meet the Savior she had accepted only a short time before, on Christmas Day, in a cold prison cell.

     When Jesus came to earth, He wasn’t born in a grand palace.  He was born in a dirty stable that reeked of animals, with mice scurrying underfoot.

     And Jesus still comes to us wherever we are.  Not only to warm, well-lit homes, but also to run-down tenement buildings and gray prison cells.

     So wherever you are, why don’t you ask Him to come to you?  He will do it.  Just like He came to a young woman dying of AIDS in a North Carolina prison one cold Christmas Day.

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Revelation 3:20  —  (Jesus said), “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

Matthew 25:36…40  —  (Jesus said),  “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…   Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Hebrews 13:3  —  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

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Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal.  Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment.  Remember all prisoners and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future.  When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us and teach us to improve our justice.  Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous.  And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, lead us to improve their lot.  All this we ask for your mercy’s sake.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship (#186)

623) Getting Together for Christmas

     One of the first things that the coming of Jesus did was that it brought people together.  When Joseph first heard the news of Mary’s out of wedlock pregnancy, he had decided to break off the engagement.  The angel’s message to Joseph of how God was going to work in their lives brought them back together.  Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, got together to discuss the ways God was working in both of their lives.  Shepherds and Wisemen, who had come to the knowledge of this special birth in very different ways, all gathered together with this holy family to worship the new born king.  And later, old Simeon and Anna were drawn to this child and his parents, bringing to them yet more special words from God.  The birth of Jesus brought many different people together.

     Even today this story of Jesus’ birth and the way we celebrate it is still bringing people together.  Most families try to get together sometime during the Christmas season, and if they cannot or will not get together, the separation is felt most keenly at this time.  Friends, neighbors, and co-workers gather; and, Christians the world over gather together at Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  After all, Jesus came to earth, the home that God created for us, in order to invite us to his home in heaven, that place beyond death where believers of every time and place will be gathered together by God for all eternity.

     There is something about the Christmas story that allows us to lighten up a bit, to be more open to others, to be more generous and helpful and forgiving.  At this time of year magazine articles, TV specials, and movies often include stories of people coming together, of being reconciled, or of going out of their way to help others.  This ‘spirit’ of Christmas comes from the example of God Himself who came to us on that first Christmas as a newborn infant, helpless and dependent; vulnerable to pain, rejection, and even death.   God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, not to overwhelm us with his power and might, but to win our hearts by his love.  If God in all his might and power can do that for us, with whom he has every reason and right to be angry; then perhaps we can gather together with each other in a spirit of peace and good will.

     Exactly one hundred years ago today, this spirit of ‘peace and good will’ brought some men together in a most unlikely setting.  It was 1914 in the terrible trenches at the front lines of the first World War.  British and German troops were dug into their miles long trenches across the rocky French countryside.  From those trenches they would attack and counter-attack, going back and forth over just a few miles of land, fighting viciously, oftentimes in hand to hand combat.  Month after month, tens of thousands of young men would die, with neither army making any progress.  The insanity was just beginning, and would go on for four long years.

     It was Christmas morning.  In the rows of trenches on both sides, cold and shivering men thought about their families back home.  Between the trenches lay a barren no-man’s land, a zone of craters and shattered trees.  It was an area where anything that moved was instantly fired upon.  So narrow was the strip that whenever there was a lull in the roar of guns, each side could hear the clanging of cooking gear from the other side.  There was such a lull on Christmas morning because the two sides had agreed to a cease fire, and in the early morning hours all was quiet.

      It was still dark, and the British soldier on guard heard a different kind of sound drifting across the no-man’s land.  It was a sound he was not used to hearing at the front.  Over in the other trench, in the middle of this Holy Night, a German soldier was singing.  ‘Stille nacht, heilige nacht,’, he sung.  The British soldier did not know German, but easily recognized the tune of ‘Silent Night.’  He began to hum along with the melody.  Then, louder, he chimed in with English words, thus singing an unusual duet with his enemy beyond the barbed-wire.

     “Heilige nacht…  Holy Night;” on and on they sang, neither one wanting to stop.  Before long, a second British soldier crawled to the guard station and joined in.  Soon there were others on both sides, picking up on the song, blending their rough voices across the devastated land.  Then, the Germans started with a second carol, “Oh Tannenbaum,” to which the British replied with, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”  On and on the singing went.  Then, one of the German soldiers hoisted over the sandbags a ragged evergreen tree, with lighted candles on the branches.  As the dawn broke on Christmas day, signs appeared on both sides, in two languages, saying “Merry Christmas.”

     Then, pulled by a force stronger than fear, one of the soldiers slowly crawled out of the trench, unarmed and carrying a white flag.  He stepped up and out into no-man’s land and walked toward the center.  No one fired.  One by one, other soldiers left their guns and ventured out.  First, it was only a few, and then more, until dozens of British and German soldiers met together in the first light of Christmas day.  They brought out photographs of families and wives and girlfriends.  They exchanged candy and cigarettes.  Someone threw out a soccer ball, and several of the men played a little game of it on a few yards of crater-free ground.

     Later on that morning a high ranking officer on one of the sides discovered the unusual gathering and ordered his men back to the trenches, and the unusual Christmas gathering was over.  In a few days, the guns were blasting away again.  But for those men who came out of the trenches that Christmas day, it could never be the same again.  The enemy was no longer an impersonal, faceless army.  Now, the soldiers could picture in their mind an acquaintance with whom they had shared a candy bar or played a game of soccer.  Now, when those men looked down the barrels of their guns at the opposition, they also saw the smiling faces of those whose family pictures were shared on that silent holy day.  Those two groups of men could not have been more divided.  In the days before and after they were killing each other.  But for a few hours, the birth of Jesus brought those weary soldiers together, and they had a taste of the peace and good will that the Christ child meant to bring.

     One of the accounts of this story ends with these words:  “That war, as history tragically records, destroyed almost an entire generation of young men on both sides.  But there was an indelible memory in the minds of those who lived to recall that Christmas at the front lines; the memory of a few hours when their master was not King or Kaiser, but the Prince of Peace.”

     What a Savior!  And what a way for him to come, as a baby, to soften our hard hearts with a story that can be loved by everyone.  Once again this year, that birth brings people together, as it has always done, and will do for all eternity.

British and German troops meeting in No Man's Land, Christmas 1914.

British and German troops mingle in No-Mans Land, Christmas 1914

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Every year, Sainsbury’s, Britain’s third-largest supermarket chain, airs a special Christmas ad.  While the ads are often memorable, this year’s went viral as soon as it appeared.   The ad reinacts that memorable Christmas Truce of 1914, and it is tremendous.  You will want to view it at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM

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Luke 2:8-14  —  And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

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622) Emmanuel

     

     Several years ago my brother and I traveled to Haiti to visit the work of a missionary in Port au Prince.  Before leaving, we collected school supplies, clothing, and toys to bring to the children at a school we would be visiting.  It was fun giving so many things to children who had so little.  Every toy, every notebook, every pencil, and even each piece of gum was appreciated.  The pastor of the church that sponsored the school said to us, “We are so grateful for all that you have brought us.  It will be put to good use.  But we are even more grateful that you came to be with us.  Our work here can be difficult and lonely.  It means so much to us that you brought these things to us in person.  We do not get many visitors here.”

     Gilbert and Harriet were an elderly home-bound couple that I visited in a previous congregation.  One time when I visited right after Christmas there was a brand new television in the corner.  “What a nice TV,” I said.  “Yes,” said Harriet, “our son had it sent to us for Christmas.  And look at that wonderful bouquet of flowers on the table.  He had those delivered to us also.  And that nice big recliner that Gilbert is always sitting in is also a gift from our son.  Our son lives in California, you know, and he ordered that chair over his computer, and just like that, it was here for Gil’s birthday.”

     “Your son buys you nice gifts,” I said.

     “Yes he does,” said Gil gruffly, “but for my part he could forget the gifts and use the money to buy a plane ticket and visit us sometime.  There is no gift that would mean more to his mother and me than that.  He calls once in a while, but he hasn’t been here for over three years.  It would be so nice to have him here with us again sometime, even for short visit, but it doesn’t happen.”

     In both stories gifts were given and were appreciated.  This is the season for gift giving.  You may receive some wonderful gifts, and you may be excited about surprising someone with a nice gift.  But we all know that the best gift is the gift of ourselves to each other.  To be present with those we love is indeed the greatest present.  How disappointing it is when loved ones cannot be together at this time of year.  In my visit to Haiti, it was the gift of being there in person that was most appreciated; and for Gil and Harriet, that was the gift that was wished for more than anything.

     Our God is the giver of so many good gifts.  Everything we have is from Him.  Our lives, our families, our homes, our food; we owe everything to this generous God.  And at Christmas-time we gather at church (another gift of God) to celebrate God’s greatest gift– the gift of himself, the gift of his own personal presence here with us, in our world.

     John’s Gospel begins with these words:   “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” referring to Jesus as the Word.  Then, says verse 14, “This Word took on human flesh and lived among us for a while, and we have seen him.”  Verse ten tells us that He was in the world that ‘was made through him.’  In the past, God had sent prophets and angels.  But in the birth of Jesus, God himself came to be with us.  In doing so, says the book of Hebrews, God saw and felt firsthand what it was like to live a human life, to be tempted, to suffer in both body and spirit, to laugh, to cry, and even to die.  This is the miracle we celebrate at Christmas.  “Oh come, Oh come Emmanuel,” we sing.  Emmanuel  means ‘God with us.’

     I love to read.  Reading can transport me to long ago times and faraway places– even to Haiti.  But reading about Haiti and visiting Haiti are two very different things.  To be in Haiti, to visit those desperately poor slums, to walk the muddy streets, to see and smell the filth that accumulates in a place with no city services for sanitation or sewage; to meet the people who are stuck living there, and yet, see their faith and joy and humor– this all means so much more.  By being there you learn things and feel things that you could never get from a book.  The Haitians know that, and so they are grateful for those who come to see, and to feel, and to be with them.

     The Bible portrays an Almighty God who knows everything and can do anything.  But still, as implied in Hebrews chapter four, there were things God could feel only by being here in person.  Hebrews four says that Jesus is able to “empathize with us in our weakness, because he was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet he did not sin,” and the next chapter says “he is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself was subject to weakness;” and, it says, “he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears… and he too learned obedience by what he suffered.” Think about that!  God, in Christ, had to learn what it was like to be human, and he learned it by being here, by visiting us, by being one of us.  There’s comfort in that, just like the people in Haiti are comforted by those who came to share their burdens.  God becoming a man in Jesus is something like that, but infinitely deeper and more wonderful.  For this is the all-powerful, all-knowing God; learning about suffering, about being weak, and about being tempted– learning about being human.

      That is the miracle and the wonder of that life which began on Christmas.  

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Matthew 1:22-23  —  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

II Corinthians 5:19a  —  …God was in Christ…

Hebrews 4:14-16  —  Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

James 1:17  —  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

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O God, our Father, we remember at this Christmas time how the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
We thank you that Jesus took our human body upon him, so that we can never again dare to despise or neglect or misuse the body, since you made it your dwelling-place.
We thank you that Jesus did a day’s work like any working-man, that he knew the problem of living together in a family, that he knew the frustration and irritation of serving the public, that he had to earn a living, and had to face all the wearing routine of everyday work and life and living, and so clothed each common task with glory.
We thank you that he shared in all happy social occasions, that he was at home at weddings and at dinners and at festivals in the homes of simple ordinary people like ourselves.  Grant that we may ever remember that in his unseen presence he is a guest in every home.
We thank you that he knew what friendship means, that he had his own circle of those whom he wanted to be with him; that he knew too what it means to be let down, to suffer from disloyalty and from the failure of love.
We thank you that he too had to bear unfair criticism, prejudiced opposition, malicious and deliberate misunderstanding.
We thank you that whatever happens to us, he has been there before, and that, because he himself has gone through things, he is able to help those who are going through them.
Help us never to forget that Jesus knows life because he lived a life, and that he is with us at all times to enable us to live with confidence and hope.
This we ask in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

A Barclay Prayer Book, William Barclay, pages 16-17

621) Racism: The Real Problem and the Only Solution

     

     When Benjamin Watson, a New Orleans Saints’ tight end, heard the news of the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, the professional football player crafted a powerful response.  In his Facebook post Watson cited sin, and not skin, as the root of the problem in Ferguson and elsewhere.  He wrote:

I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem.  SIN is the reason we rebel against authority.  SIN is the reason we abuse our authority.  SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced, and lie to cover for our own.  SIN is the reason we riot, loot, and burn.  BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind.  One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being.  The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure.  It’s the Gospel.  So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.

     For Watson, the solution is not protests.  It is sharing the Gospel.

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P. S.:     The Christian football player’s comments went viral.  After receiving over 750,000 post likes, Watson joined CNN’s Brooke Baldwin to comment on Ferguson’s unrest.  But when the interview took a turn CNN didn’t expect—namely, Watson’s mention of Jesus Christ—the satellite feed of Watson suddenly cut off.   This incident left many people questioning whether it was a ‘technical difficulty,’ or, censorship of Watson’s Christian faith.  You can watch and decide for yourself at:

 youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Ei3g97-tH8

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Romans 3:22-24  —  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.

Acts 13:38-39a  —  Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.  Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin…

Romans 5:10-11  —   For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!  Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

II Corinthians 5:16-20  —  So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view…  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:  The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God,who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

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Good and gracious God,

Who loves and delights in all people, we stand in awe before You,

Knowing that the spark of life within each person on earth is the spark of your divine life.

Differences among cultures and races are multicolored manifestations of Your Light, and

You invite us to recognize and reverence your divine image and likeness in our neighbor.

May our hearts and minds be open to celebrate similarities and differences among our sisters and brothers.

May all peoples live in Peace.  AMEN.

–www.sistersofmercy.org

620) Christmas is Undefeatable

By Mark Tooley at:  www.juicyecumenism.com

     A new Pew survey shows overwhelming majorities of Americans believe in the historical actuality of the Christmas story, including the Virgin Birth, the angels appearing to shepherds and the Wise Men following the star to Bethlehem.  These majorities include young and old, Catholic and Protestant, black and white, male and female, even large numbers of the religiously unaffiliated.

     The Christmas Pew poll might surprise many secularists and religious alike, both of whom too often subscribe to the myth, peddled by popular and high culture, that America is more and more secular as part of an arc of historical inevitability.  The truth is more complicated.  Church attendance has remained roughly the same for 80 years, according to Gallup.  Americans were never as wholly pious in the past as often imagined, nor are they forsaking religion whole-scale now.

     Chronic attempts to secularize/neutralize Christmas keep failing.  The Christmas message is irrepressible, and Christmas is almost certainly celebrated by more billions now globally than at any other time in history.  Many celebrants of course don’t realize fully Whose birthday they’re celebrating, but they are unconsciously, providentially perpetuating the remembrance and themes of good will rooted in divine incarnation.

     Christmas is the eternal, undefeated counter narrative to tyranny, hatred, poverty, prejudice, chicanery, peevishness and pessimism.  When FDR and Churchill worshiped on Christmas Day 1941 in Washington at Foundry Methodist Church in the gloom of WWII, they robustly sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” with the affirmation and promise that “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

     In his radio address to America the night before Churchill foreshadowed this hymn by urging that on Christmas Eve “each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace,” in anticipation of “a free and decent world.”

     The Christmas story is the promise of ongoing and ultimate redemption for the whole world from all tragedy and evil.  That promise is winsomely irresistible and will be celebrated forever, long after the skeptics, scoffers and scolds are long forgotten.

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“And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Luke 2:13-14  —  Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Philippians 2:9-11  —  God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Revelation 21:5-6  —  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”  Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  He said to me:  “It is done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”

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O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sins and enter in,
Be born to us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell:
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

–O Little Town of Bethlehem, 1867,  verse four

Phillips Brooks  (1835-1893)