619) Away in a Manger

  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)

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     The word ‘manger’ is used three in the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke chapter two:  in verse seven which tells us that is where Mary laid the newborn infant, in verse twelve where the angel tells the shepherds they will find this newborn Savior of the world lying in a manger, and in verse sixteen when the shepherds do indeed find the baby Jesus, lying in a manger.  Mangers are wooden troughs in stables from which animals eat; so from those three references it is assumed that Jesus was born in a stable, and, that animals were present .

     A stable is like a prison for an animal.  In stables (or barns) there are pens, gates, stanchions, and ropes– whatever it takes to keep the animals from getting away.  The animals are probably not bothered by this confinement, 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.  She wouldn’t know how to act there, and all those people and all that noise would just make her nervous.  I don’t think animals mind being penned up, as long as they have a little room to move around.  That is all they have ever known.  So the purpose of a stable is to confine animals.  And why are they confined like that?  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 you.

    With this in mind, the animals in every nativity scene become 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 with the God the Father Almighty in heaven.  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 vast universe that He created.  Not only would his birth here confine him to a very small place, but he would also be confined to limited amount of time.  What a prison that would be for one who was used to being the ruler of the universe!  With Jesus’ birth in that stable, the eternal God confined himself to the limits of a human life, and in the end, would allow himself even to die.  And why?  FOR YOU, said the angel to the shepherds.  The angel said, “For you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”  

     Then the angel said, “You will find this baby in a manger.”  Here is an accurate and wonderful symbol of the incarnation.  God, in Jesus, came to earth, confining himself to a life like we are confined to; and he was born among animals, in their place of confinement.  Jesus, born for you, in a place where animals are kept for you.

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In the Christian story God descends to reascend.  He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down to the very roots of the Nature he has created.  But he goes down to come up again, and bring the whole ruined world up with him.  One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself under some great complicated burden.  He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.

–C. S. Lewis, Miracles

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Luke 2:7  —  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.

Luke 2:12  —  This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Luke 2:16  —  And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

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

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.

Away in a Manger, verses 1-2

618) A Savior Has Been Born For You

    

     Martin Luther once preached an entire sermon on just two words from the Christmas story– the words FOR YOU.  These words appear in the angel’s words to the shepherds in Luke 2:11 in the old German translation.  The NIV (below) reads ‘to you.’  The old, familiar King James Version reads, “unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior which is Christ the Lord.”  Other translations vary it even more, one saying “Your Savior has been born,” and another one says, “a Savior has been born for everyone.”  They all communicate the same message; saying the same thing in different ways, but still true to the original text.  My favorite is Luther’s: a Savior has been born, said the angel, FOR YOU.

    The Christmas story, Luther said, is a nice story.  A young couple, far from home and down on their luck, can’t find a room for the night, and have to stay in a barn.  That is the very night that Mary goes into labor and gives birth to her first child, a son.  But everything works out just fine, and soon they find that they are not alone, but shepherds arrive with the news that a sky full of angels had told them about this birth, and that this child was to be someone very special.  That is indeed a nice story with a happy ending.

     But Luther is quick to add that this is not only a nice story.  The story of Hansel and Gretel is also a nice story.  At first there are some tense moments with the wicked old woman threatening to bake and eat the two little children; but then it all works out, and, just like the Christmas story, it has a happy ending.  However, Luther says, the Christmas story is also a true story.   This is the first thing we need to remember.

     C. S. Lewis was an expert on stories.  He was a professor of Literature at Cambridge and Oxford, and part of his job was to teach about the stories in civilization’s greatest literature.  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 world authority on fictional stories.  He was also a writer of stories; children’s stories, science fiction, and religious fiction.  Today, over 50 years after his death, all Lewis’s works are still in print and selling very well, and his Narnia Chronicle series is being made into several movies.  Lewis knew about stories and inventing stories and writing stories.  Lewis did not become a Christian until he was in his thirties, and when he did, he said to 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.  Once he realized that, Lewis said, “I had to become a Christian, because there is no other true story like it in all of human history.”  So said C. S. Lewis, whose writings convinced me of the truth of the story after two years of doubt and uncertainty.  So also said Luther: not only is the Christmas story a nice story, it is a true story.

     And yet, said Luther, that is still no big deal.  But, he said, 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.

     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 grow up, as children do, and go on to live a life and work a job just like anyone else.  Then, at age 30 he would begin a three year ministry that would change the world.  And then, most importantly of all, he would die on a cross, giving his life as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of all the sins ever committed in all the world.  By that forgiveness, God offered to all who would believe in Jesus the gift of eternal life in his heavenly kingdom.  Jesus’ birth would not only change the whole world for the time being, but it would, in the end, offer YOU the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life.

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Luke 2:11  —   Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

I Corinthians 11:23b-24  —  The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Acts 3:19-20  —  Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus.

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Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask you to stay

Close by me forever and love me, I pray.

Bless all the dear children in your tender care,

 And fit us to heaven to live with you there.

Away in a Manger, verse 3

617) Live for the Line

     By Randy Alcorn’s December 17, 2014 blog at:  www.epm.org

     Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body.  If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22-23).  He makes it clear that our vision is faulty.  We need His help to see our life through different eyes—eyes focused on the eternal.  Physical vision is used here as a metaphor for spiritual vision, or perspective—the way we look at life.

     As believers in Christ, our faith gives us perspective.  It tells us that this life is the preface—not the book.  It’s the preliminaries—not the main event.  It’s the tune-up—not the concert.

     Just prior to this, in Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus speaks about storing up treasures in Heaven, not earth… something that requires an eternal perspective.  I think of our lives in terms of a dot and a line, signifying two phases.  Our present life on earth is the dot.  It begins.  It ends.  It’s brief.  However, from the dot, a line extends that goes on forever.  That line is eternity, which Christians will spend in heaven.  Right now we’re living in the dot.  But what are we living for?  The shortsighted person lives for the dot.  The person with perspective lives for the line.

     That’s the heart behind Eternal Perspective Ministries:  investing in the things that will last for eternity. To learn more about living for the line, not the dot, watch this 90 second video:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/112192201″>Live for the Line</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/randyalcorn”>Randy Alcorn</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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Matthew 6:19-21  —  (Jesus said), “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

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 will snatch them out of my hand.”

II Corinthians 4:16-18  —   Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Galatians 6:7-9  —  Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Let us not become weary in doing good,for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

I John 5:13  —  I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

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O Thou Creator of all things that are, I lift up my heart in gratitude to Thee for this day’s happiness:

For the mere joy of living;
For all the sights and sounds around me;
For the sweet peace of the country and the pleasant bustle of the town;
For all things bright and beautiful and happy;
For friendship and good company;
For work to perform and the skill and strength to perform it;
For a time to play when the day’s work was done, and for health and a glad heart to enjoy it.

Yet let me never think, O eternal Father, that I am here to stay.  Let me still remember that I am a stranger and pilgrim on the earth.  For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  Preserve me by Thy grace, good Lord, from so losing myself in the joys of earth that I may have no longing left for the purer joys of heaven.  Let not the happiness of this day become a snare to my too worldly heart.  And if, instead of happiness, I have to-day suffered any disappointment or defeat, if there has been any sorrow where I had hoped for joy, or sickness where I had looked for health, give me grace to accept it from Thy hand as a loving reminder that this is not my home.

I thank Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast so set eternity within my heart that no earthly thing can ever, satisfy me wholly.  I thank Thee that every present joy is so mixed with sadness and unrest as to lead my mind upwards to the contemplation of a more perfect blessedness.  And above all I thank Thee for the sure hope and promise of an endless life which Thou hast given me in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

–John Baillie, Diary of Private Prayer, Day 21/Evening

616) Faithful Sports Stars

By Eric Metaxas, December 16, 2014 blog at:  www.breakpoint.org

     2014 is the year that America learned more about its athletes than it cared to know.  Much of the off-the-field news made it clear that sports is not necessarily the place we should look for role models.

     There are exceptions of course, and this past week saw two athletes who could serve as role models honored for their accomplishments.

     Sports Illustrated has named San Francisco Giants southpaw Madison Bumgarner its “Sportsman of the Year.”

     It is not and exaggeration to say that the North Carolina native had an October for the ages.  In the postseason, he “pitched 52 ⅔ innings, threw two shutouts, and saved a game while posting a 1.03 ERA.”  Believe me, folks, this a huge deal.

     The save alone catapulted Bumgarner into “legend” status.  After winning games one and five of the World Series as starter, he came out of the bullpen in game seven to lead the Giants to their third World Series title in five years.  As his teammates put it, Bumgarner put the team on his back and carried them to the championship.

     Note, his teammates say that– you’ll never hear it from Bumgarner.  Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci marveled at Bumgarner’s humility.  As Verducci put it, “He wants success without spoils, achievement without attention, and the ball without excuses,” traits that are “rare in an era when self-promotion defines too many athletes.”

     That’s because Bumgarner is interested in promoting something else.  He told Verducci that, “My short-term goal as a person is to witness an activity of Jesus in my life, and my long-term goal is for people when they look at me to see something in me about Jesus.”

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     The second athlete honored last week, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, shares a similar goal.  As he told the Fellowship of Christian Athletes magazine, “With [Christ’s] power, we are able to pursue and play for His glory.  We want to go out and show the world that Christ lives.”

     While the Heisman is awarded for Mariota’s on-the-field accomplishments, which are considerable, his off-the-field record is what makes him most worthy of admiration.

     His Oregon teammates have nicknamed him “St. Mark.”  Whatever else that means, it’s says something about how they view his character.  In an age of numerous academic scandals involving football and basketball players, Mariota graduated in 3½ years with a degree in science.

     There are, as USA Today puts it, Marcus’s “weekly unannounced visits to the Boys and Girls Club” and daily stops to pass out food and water to the homeless.  As one of his coaches put it, “He’s done absolutely everything right since he’s been here.”

     Ironically, his character is sometimes held against him.  According to Sports Illustrated, some NFL teams worry about whether he is “too nice.”

     That’s a rap that’s often applied to Christian athletes.  It’s untrue, and, in an age when saying that an athlete is in a “lineup” can carry several meanings, more than a little shortsighted.

     So, congratulations to Madison Bumgarner and Marcus Mariota, and thank you both for your witness to Jesus.

See also:

2014 Sportsman of the Year: Madison Bumgarner
Tom Verducci | Sports Illustrated | December 9, 2014

In His Own Words: Marcus Mariota
Fellowship of Christian Athletes | December 12, 2014

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Colossians 3:17  —  Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

James 3:13  —  Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

Proverbs 11:2  —  When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.

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O God, who resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble: grant us the virtue of true humility, which your only begotten Son himself gave us the perfect example; that we may never offend you by our pride, and be rejected by our self-assertion; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Leonine Sacramentary

615) Courageous Children

From the NEW YORK POST, December 12, 2014:

     Four Christian children were beheaded by ISIS militants in Iraq for refusing to denounce Jesus and convert to Islam, according to the leader of the Anglican church in Baghdad.  Canon Andrew White, know as the “Vicar of Baghdad,” fled Iraq in October for Israel and recounted how brutal the country has become for Christians.

     “ISIS turned up and said to the children, ‘You say the words that you will follow Mohammed,'” White said in a video posted on the Christian Broadcasting Network Web site.  “The children, four of them, all under 15, said, ‘No, we love Yeshua (Jesus), we have always loved Yeshua.’  They chopped all their heads off.  How do you respond to that?  You just cry.”

See also:  Emailmeditation #370)  The Vicar of Baghdad; ( https://emailmeditations.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/370-the-vicar-of-baghdad/ )

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From The Voice of the Martyrs (website:  http://www.persecution.com/  ):

     Little 3-year-old “Joel” was on his way home from Sunday school when Islamic terrorists ripped his children’s Bible from his hands and tossed it onto a burning pile.  Joel ran after his Bible and tried to scoot it out of the flames with a stick.  When one of the insurgents saw him, he shoved Joel’s head into the fire and held it down with his boot.  “You stubborn infidel,” the man hissed.

Joel

Joel

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From The Persecution Blog, by Dr. Jason Peters, on The Voice of the Martyrs website: 

     In July of 2013, two young girls in Pakistan received a copy of The Story of Jesus in their native language of Urdu.  The Christians who distributed the booklets happily reported that these girls trusted Christ after reading these engaging booklets.  Two more sisters were added to our Christian family!

Peshawar Victims

     Just a couple of months later, on a sunny Sunday morning, two suicide bombers entered the All Saints Church compound in Peshawar, Pakistan.  These Islamists waited until the services were over and the nearly 500 worshipers began to gather for a meal together.  At 11:45, they detonated their suicide vests and killed 78 people and injured another 130.  It was the deadliest attack on the Christian minority in the history of Pakistan.

     In October, I received word that the two young sisters who received The Story of Jesus during the July distribution, and began to follow Jesus, were killed in the attack on that bright Sunday morning.

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Matthew 5:10  —  (Jesus said), “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 10:38-39  —  (Jesus said), “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew 18:6  —  (Jesus said), “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

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Almighty God, who has taught us through your Son Jesus Christ that those who follow Him may be persecuted; strengthen, comfort and encourage all those who suffer harassment, violence, imprisonment and even death for being followers of Jesus.   We pray for those who persecute your people; may their hearts be turned towards you through the faithful witness of those they persecute.   Protect those who are persecuted and bless their ministries.   Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

614) Martin the Cobbler

     Based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy

     There lived in the city of Marseilles, a hundred years ago, an old shoemaker, loved and honored by all his neighbors, who affectionately called him ‘Father Martin.’

     One Christmas he sat alone in his little shop, reading of the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus, and of the gifts they brought, and he said to himself, “If tomorrow were the first Christmas, and if Jesus were to be born in Marseilles this night, I know what I would give him!”  He arose and took from a shelf two little shoes of softest snow-white leather, with bright silver buckles.  “I would give him these, my finest work.  How pleased his mother would be!  But I’m a foolish old man,” he thought, smiling.  “The Master has no need of my poor gifts.”

     Replacing the shoes, he blew out the candle and retired to rest.  Hardly had he closed his eyes, it seemed, when he heard a voice call his name.  “Martin!”  Intuitively, he felt aware of the identity of the speaker.  “Martin, you have longed to see me.  Tomorrow I shall pass by your window.  If you see me and bid me enter, I shall be your guest and sit at your table.”

     He did not sleep that night for joy.  Before it was yet dawn, he arose and tidied up his little shop.  Fresh sand he spread on the floor, and green boughs of fir he wreathed along the rafters.  On the table he placed a loaf of white bread, a jar of honey, a pitcher of milk; and over the fire he hung a hot drink.  His simple preparations were complete.

     When all was in readiness, he took up his vigil at the window.  He was sure he would know the Master.  As he watched the driving sleet and rain in the cold, deserted street, he thought of the joy that would be his when he sat down and broke bread with his guest.

     Presently, he saw an old street sweeper pass by, blowing upon his thin, gnarled hands to warm them.  Poor fellow!  He must be half frozen, thought Martin.  Opening the door, he called out to him, “Come in, my friend, and get warm, and drink something hot.”  No further urging was needed, and the man gratefully accepted the invitation.

     An hour passed, and Martin next saw a poor, miserably clothed woman carrying a baby.  She paused, wearily, to rest in the shelter of his doorway.  Quickly, he flung open the door.  “Come in and get warm while you rest,” he said to her.  “You are not well?” he asked.

     “I am going to the hospital.  I hope they will take me and my baby in,” she explained.  “My husband is at sea, and I am ill, without a soul to whom I can go.”

     “Poor child!” cried the old man.  “You must eat something while you are getting warm.  No?  Let me give a cup of milk to the little one.  Ah!  What a bright, pretty little fellow he is!  Why, you have no shoes on him!”

     “I have no shoes for him,” sighed the mother.

     “Then he shall have this lovely pair I finished yesterday.”  Martin took down the soft little snow-white shoes he had looked at the evening before, and slipped them on the child’s feet.  They fit perfectly.  Shortly, the young mother went her way full of gratitude, and Martin went back to his post at the window.

     Hour after hour went by, and many needy souls shared the meager hospitality of the old cobbler, but the expected guest did not appear.

     At last, when night had fallen, Father Martin retired to his cot with a heavy heart.  “It was only a dream,” he sighed.  “I did hope and believe, but he has not come.”

     Suddenly, so it seemed to his weary eyes, the room was flooded with a glorious light; and to the cobbler’s astonished vision there appeared before him, one by one, the poor street sweeper, the sick mother and her baby, and all the people whom he had aided during the day.  Each one smiled at him and said, “Have you not seen me?  Did I not sit at your table?” and vanished.

     Then softly out of the silence he heard again the gentle voice, repeating the old, familiar words:  “Whosoever shall receive one such little child in my name receives me…  For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in…  Truly I say unto you, inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”

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Read on-line the entire short story Where Love Is, God Is by Leo Tolstoy (1885):

http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2892/

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Working Shoemaker, Pytor Konchalovsky, 1926

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Matthew 18:5  —  (Jesus said), “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Matthew 25:35, 40  —  (Jesus said), “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 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 13:2  —  Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

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Thou art never weary, O Lord, of doing us good. 

Let us never be weary of doing Thee service.  Amen.

–John Wesley  (1703-1791)

613) Hear the Word of the Lord

     A sermon is supposed to explain and proclaim God’s whole Word, whether we like it or not.  If you like everything the preacher says all the time, the preacher is probably not doing his or her job– and pastors need to be careful about that.  They must resist the temptation to be only pleasant in their preaching and overlook God’s hard words.  I want to be a nice guy and well-liked by my church members, but that is a dangerous temptation for a preacher.  There are too many things in God’s word that are true and must be said, but may not appeal to anyone.  Someone once summarized the simplistic message of much modern preaching with these words: “God is nice; we should all try to be nice; isn’t that nice?”  Well, I do have to admit, that’s nice; but God’s word has more to say than pleasing thoughts.  A preacher has to be careful of being only cheerful and affirming and uplifting, and parishioners have to be careful of expecting that in a preacher.  Of course, a sermon should give comfort and hope and forgiveness, and proclaim grace and peace.  That is all in God’s Word.  But a sermon should also at times irritate and aggravate and challenge, it should at times produce guilt and discomfort, and even the fear of the Lord.  That is, unless you think that you are already, completely and fully, the kind of person God wants you to be.  I know I am not, and I am sure you aren’t either, so expect that sometimes God’s word will provoke you.  Why should anyone assume that God would never have an unpleasant word to say to sinners like us?  If you read the Bible, you will encounter God not only as a loving Father, but also as a fierce and demanding Law-giver and judge.

     C. S. Lewis’s children’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a wonderful story, and filled with Christian symbolism.  Four normal children from England enter into a magic land called Narnia where animals talk, and where witches and fairies and all sorts of other magical creatures come and go.  The Christ-figure in Narnia is the great lion Aslan, who is all-powerful, but must save the people from the evil one by dying for them (spoiler alert:  he rises from the dead).  Sound familiar?  When the children first hear the lion roar they are very afraid, because it made such a loud and frightening sound.  They ask one of the animals what that was.  Oh, they are told, that was The Great Aslan, a huge lion, the ruler of all of Narnia.  “A Lion?,” Lucy, the littlest child asks fearfully, “Is it a tame lion?”  Mr. Tumnus, a talking fawn, looked at her incredulously and said, “Aslan?  Tame?  Of course he’s not tame.  He is ferocious.  But he is good.”  There are seven books in the Narnia Chronicles, and as the story continues the children get to know Aslan very well, and they learn to love him deeply.  But they also learn Aslan was not one to be fooled with, and they are not eager to face him when they do wrong.  This is a wonderfully Biblical picture of God.  For me as a preacher, and for you as listeners, we have to be careful about creating a false image of a tame and manageable God.  God is a ferocious God, but he is good.  The catechism says we should fear and love God, and that is a good Biblical balance to maintain.

     I am reminded of Dr. Stensvaag, a professor I had in seminary.  He also was ferocious, but he was good.  He was nearing retirement when I was a student.  He was a crabby old Norwegian who had, by that time, put up with enough nonsense, pranks, laziness, and excuses by students; and he wasn’t in the mood to put up with anything, anymore.  I don’t think he liked dumb kids, and even though we were all graduate students in our middle 20’s, we were all dumb kids to him.  And we were afraid of him.  We did not go to class late (the door would be locked), we did not turn papers in late (there would be no mercy), and we did not talk, chew gum, or bring coffee into class.  Dr. Stensvaag was definitely from the old school, and we feared his wrath.  But he did know and love God’s Word, and he wanted us future pastors also to know and love that Word.  He could make the Old Testament come alive for us, and taught us much about how to use it in our ministry.  He was a great teacher, and I registered for every class I could get from him.  He was ferocious, indeed, but he was good.

     If we love and trust God, we can believe that even his harsh and ferocious words are intended only for our good.  Therefore, hear the Word of the Lord.

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Jeremiah 22:29  —  O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!

Jeremiah 6:10  —  To whom can I speak and give warning?  Who will listen to me?  Their ears are closed so they cannot hear.  The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.

Hebrews 12:12-13  —  For the word of God is alive and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

II Timothy 4:1-4  —  In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage– with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

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PRAYER BASED ON THE THIRD COMMANDMENT AND MARTIN LUTHER’S CATECHISM EXPLANATION:

O God, you command us to keep the Lord’s Day holy.  May we so fear and love you, that we do not neglect your Word and the preaching of it, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

612) Obeying God in All Things

     The pastor and the church council were locked in a heated debate.  The council wanted to spend $7,000 to re-carpet the entire church.  The pastor said the old carpet was good enough, and if they had $7,000 extra dollars laying around, they should use it to catch up on their commitments to the global mission of the church.  The pastor quoted Bible verses to the council, and, the members of the council took the pastor on a walk around the church to show him where the carpet was wearing thin.  Back and forth they went, but no minds were changed.  Finally, the council president called for a vote.  The results came as a surprise to no one.  TEN were in favor of the new carpet, and only ONE, the pastor, was opposed.  “Well,” said the president to the pastor with glee, “that takes care of that: 10-1, you lose.”  The pastor replied, “I may have lost the vote, but I know I am right, and I am sure this is not God’s will, and I just pray that somehow God would open your eyes to the truth.”

     Immediately after the words left his mouth, there was a tremendous noise and a blinding flash of light.  A bolt of lightening came out of nowhere, crashed through the roof of the meeting room and hit right in the center of the table around which all were gathered.  The table was shattered into a thousand pieces and all ten members of the council were blown off their chairs and onto the floor.  Miraculously, none were hurt, but all were blackened by soot and their hair was singed.  As they picked themselves up off the floor, they were surprised to see the pastor sitting there as if nothing happened.  His portion of the table was not damaged, he was not blown off his chair, he was not black with soot, and not one hair was singed or even out of place.

     “Well,” said the council president, “I guess your prayers were answered.  God certainly did give us a sign as to what his will is on this matter, and it looks like God agrees with you.  But that still only makes the vote 10-2, so you still lose.

     What makes that story funny is that you would think that once God had spoken in such a clear and powerful way, that would settle the matter.  You would not think that God would get only one vote at a council meeting.  In our disagreements within the church, and, in our inner struggles as we try to figure out God’s will for our own lives and decisions; in all those areas, the problem is usually disagreeing about, or, not knowing what God wants from us.  His Word is open to different interpretations, and, His guidance on a particular matter may not be clear.  But when we do know what God wants, and God’s Word is indeed clear on many things, we should then certainly do what God wants us to do.

     Deuteronomy 11:1 says, “Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws, and his commands ALWAYS.”  In Matthew 28:20 Jesus told the disciples to go into all nations, baptizing and “teaching them to obey EVERYTHING I have commanded you.”  God expects to be obeyed.  What he commands is good and just, and for our own good and the good of our neighbor, and God expects our obedience.  We are right in assuming that God should get more than one vote at a council meeting.  The God of the Bible takes no votes.  God issues commands and expects obedience.

     But how seriously do you take that?  Do you really even want to know what God expects of you in every area of your life?  In the use of your money?  In the content of your conversation?  In what it means when the Bible says to be always forgiving, always patient, always kind, always content?  Is your attitude filled with the kind of gratitude that the Bible calls us to have, or do you have too many thoughts of envy or jealousy, which God always warns against?  God has much to say about coming to him often in prayer.  Are you satisfied with your prayer life and habits?  When you do pray, is it ever to thank God, or is it always to ask for more yet?  Are you quick to ask ‘why me God?’ when things go wrong, but seldom ask ‘why me God?’ when all is well?  When you make a decision, is your first and foremost concern to find out what God’s will and command would be for you in the situation, and how you might please God?  Have you ever intentionally done something you knew was wrong, presuming on God’s easy forgiveness rather than fearing his wrath?  Do you really want Christ as your Lord, or do you want to be Lord of your own life?  

     There was clearly something wrong in that story at the beginning where the council president gave God only one vote, but at least God’s presence had been felt and his opinion had been acknowledged.  Does God get that consideration from you?

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Leviticus 18:4  —  You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees.  I am the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 13:4  —  It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere.  Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.

John 14:23a  —  Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.”

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PRAYER BASED ON MARTIN LUTHER’S CATECHISM EXPLANATION TO ARTICLE ONE OF THE APOSTLE’S CREED:

O God, you created me and all that exists.  You have given and still preserve my body and soul with all their powers.  You provide me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all that I need from day to day.  You also protect me in time of danger, and guard me from every evil.  Help me to remember that all this is done out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, though I do not deserve it.  I surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey you.  Help me to do this through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.  Amen. 

611) Praying for All Children

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on 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.  Truly I tell you, 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, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

–Mark 10:13-16

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We Pray for Children

A poem/prayer by Ina Hughs, from the 1995 book by the same title, William Morrow Publishers.

We pray for children
Who put chocolate fingers everywhere,
Who like to be tickled,
Who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants,
Who sneak Popsicles before supper,
Who erase holes in math workbooks,
Who can never find their shoes.

And we pray for those
Who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
Who can’t bound down the street in new sneakers,
Who never “counted potatoes,”
Who are born in places we wouldn’t be caught dead in,
Who never go to the circus,
Who live in an X-rated world.

We pray for children
Who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
Who sleep with the cat and bury goldfish,
Who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money,
Who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink,
Who slurp their soup.

And we pray for those
Who never get dessert,
Who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
Who can’t find any bread to steal,
Who don’t have any rooms to clean up,
Whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
Whose monsters are real.

We pray for children
Who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
Who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
Who like ghost stories,
Who shove dirty clothes under the bed,
Who get visits from the tooth fairy,
Who don’t like to be kissed in front of the car pool,
Who squirm in church and scream on the phone,
Whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry.

And we pray for those
Whose nightmares come in the daytime,
Who will eat anything,
Who have never seen a dentist,
Who are never spoiled by anyone,
Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep.

We pray for children
Who want to be carried
And for those who must,
For those we never give up on
And for those who never get a second chance,
For those we smother.
And for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind
enough to offer it.

We pray for children.  Amen.

610) The Greatest Gift (part two)

Before his conversion to Christianity, Lee Strobel had been a journalist for fourteen years.  He was also an atheist.  Here is the story of how Strobel got started on his spiritual journey to faith in Jesus.  This article (second of two parts) is adapted from his book The Case for Christmas.  Strobel has written several books explaining and defending the truths of Christianity.  His website is:   http://www.leestrobel.com

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     (…continued)  I was pondering this as I drove back toward Tribune Tower.  Suddenly, though, my thoughts were interrupted by the crackle of the car’s two-way radio.  It was my boss, sending me out on another assignment.  Jarred back to reality, I let the emotions I felt in the Delgado apartment dissipate.  And that, I figured at the time, was probably a good thing.

     As I would caution myself whenever the Delgados would come to mind from time to time over the ensuing years, I’m not the sort of person who’s driven by feelings.  As a journalist, I was far more interested in facts, evidence, data and concrete reality.  Virgins don’t get pregnant; there is no God who became a baby; and Christmas is little more than an annual orgy of consumption driven by the greed of corporate America.  Or so I thought.

     As a youngster, I listened with rapt fascination to the annual Bible story about Christmas.  But as I matured, skepticism set in.  I concluded that not only is Santa Claus merely a feel-good fable, but that the entire Christmas tale was itself built on a flimsy foundation of wishful thinking.

     Sure, believing in Jesus could provide solace to sincere but simple folks like the Delgados; yes, it could spark feelings of hope and faith for people who prefer fantasy over reality.  But as a law-trained newspaperman, I dealt in the currency of facts; and I was convinced the facts supported my atheism rather than Christianity.

     All of that changed several years later, however, when I took a cue from one of the most famous Bible passages about Christmas.  The story describes how an angel announced to a ragtag group of shepherds that “a Savior who is Messiah and Master” had been born in David’s town.  Was this a hoax?  A hallucination?  Or could it actually be the pivotal event of human history– the incarnation of the Living God?

     The shepherds were determined to get to the bottom of the matter.  Like first-century investigative reporters being dispatched to the scene of an earth-shattering story, they declared:  “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can, and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.”  They left, running, to personally check out the evidence for themselves. 

     Essentially, that’s what I did for a living as a Tribune reporter:  investigate claims to see if they’re true, separate rumors from reality, and determine facts from fiction.  So prompted by my agnostic wife’s conversion to Christianity, and still intrigued by memories of the Delgados, I decided to get to the bottom of what I now consider to be the most crucial issue of history:  who was in the manger on that first Christmas morning?

     Can we really trust the biographies of Jesus to tell us the true story of his birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, and ultimate resurrection from the dead?  Did the Christmas child ultimately embody the attributes of God?  And did the baby in Bethlehem miraculously match the prophetic “fingerprint” of the long-awaited Messiah?

     I ended up spending nearly two years investigating the identity of the Christmas child; you can read what I discovered in my book The Case for Christmas.  At the conclusion, I found the evidence to be clear and compelling.

     Yes, Christmas is a holiday overlaid with all sorts of fanciful beliefs, from flying reindeer to Santa Claus sliding down chimneys.  But I became convinced that if you drill to its core, Christmas is based on a historical reality– the Incarnation:  God becoming man, spirit taking on flesh, the infinite entering the finite, the eternal becoming time-bound.  It’s a mystery backed up by facts that I now believed were simply too strong to ignore.

     I had come to the point where I was ready for the Christmas gift that Perfecta Delgado had told me about years earlier:  the Christ child, whose love and grace is offered freely to everyone who receives him in repentance and faith.  Even someone like me.

     So I talked with God in a heartfelt and unedited prayer, admitting and turning from my wrongdoing, and receiving his offer of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus.  I told him that with his help I wanted to follow him and his ways from here on out.

     As I have endeavored to follow Jesus’ teachings and open myself to his transforming power, my priorities, values, character, worldview, attitudes, and relationships have been changing– for the better.  It has been a humbling affirmation of 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.”

     And now, what about you?  Perhaps, like the first-century shepherds, your next step should be to further investigate the evidence for yourself.  If any of my books can be helpful, great.  But I hope you’ll promise yourself at the outset that when the facts are in, you’ll reach your own verdict in the case for Christmas.

     Or maybe you’re more like the magi.  Through a series of circumstances, you’ve maneuvered your way through the hoopla, glitter, and distractions of the holiday season, and now you’ve finally come into the presence of the baby who was born to change your life and rewrite your eternal destination.

     Go ahead, talk to him.  Offer your worship and your life. And let him give you what Perfecta Delgado called the greatest gift of all: Himself.

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Luke 2:15  —  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Luke 2:16-17  —  So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.

Luke 2:19  —  Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

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Simeon took Jesus up in his arms, and blessed God, and said:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.

–Luke 2:28-30

The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1622, Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656)