994) The Slaughter of the Innocents

 

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Massacre of the Innocents, 1612

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     The most familiar day on the church year calendar is December 25th, Christmas Day, the commemoration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Most people in the world of any religion or even no religion know that.  One of the least familiar days on the church year calendar is December 28th.  Most Christians do not even know what is commemorated on that day.  December 28th is designated in the church year as the day to remember the “Holy Innocents, Martyrs.”  Who were these Holy Innocents?

     Their story is told in Matthew 2:13-18.  King Herod feared that his reign was going to be threatened by the birth of a new king, foretold many centuries before by the ancient prophets.  A visit by three astrologers, or Magi, from the East reinforced his fears.  They had told them that they also had read all the signs in the stars and determined that a new king had indeed recently been born in Bethlehem, just outside Jerusalem.  They said they were on their way to see him.  When the Magi did not return to tell King Herod where they had found the new king, he had ALL the little boys under two years old in Bethlehem taken from their mothers and slaughtered by his soldiers.  Herod did not know which one was born to be king so he had them all killed, thinking he could over-rule the prophecy and eliminate the threat.

     Herod was the first of many rulers throughout history who would not welcome the rule of this new king, and the little boys who died that day were only the first of millions who would die because of the opposition of wicked rulers to this Savoir and King of the world.  From the earliest times, the church would call them martyrs.

     The dictionary has three definitions for martyr.  First of all, a martyr is someone who chooses to die rather than give up their religious beliefs.  Second, a martyr is someone who endures great sacrifices for a cause; and third, a martyr is one who suffers greatly.  The first definition includes the other two, and that has been the fate of millions of Christians over the past twenty centuries.  When we think about Christian martyrs, we usually think of the earliest Christians who suffered at the hands of the Romans.  Thousands died in the arenas, killed by lions and other wild beasts for the entertainment of the Romans in the sporadic persecutions in those early centuries of the Christian Church.

     But no century has had more martyrs than the 20th century, with more Christians dying for their faith in that century than in all the nineteen previous centuries of church history.  And the 21st century is starting out even worse.  Christians are targeted for persecution in many countries of the world.  I’ll remind you of just two examples of what we have been hearing about all year.  On February 15 the ISIS released a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, accused of being “people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.”  And on April 5 gunmen targeted Christian students at the Garrisa University in Kenya, killing 148 and injuring 79 more.

     Christians are often told to deny Christ or die and many choose death.  I do believe God would forgive threatened captives for telling a lie to save their lives and return to their families.  But then their persecutors would be able to tell all the world about the weak the faith of the Christians.  But those who choose to die show the whole world how faith in Christ allows them to die with courage and hope.  Those who hear about this have often desired that same that kind of faith, and look for someone to tell them about Jesus.  From one perspective, what these martyrs do might look insane.  But from the perspective of eternity, their courageous deaths will be seen as wise and obedient and courageous.  It has been because of acts like that that the church has grown and spread around the world.  The word martyr itself comes from another word which means ‘witness’– a martyr ‘bears witness’ to his or her faith.  Many years ago someone said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

     I am of German heritage.  Jesus was not born in Germany, so the Gospel had to be taken there by missionaries.  St. Boniface was the man God used to establish the church in Germany, and he faced much violent opposition.  The opposition lasted throughout his life, and in the end, he too became a martyr.  He was killed right after a worship service in which he confirmed several new converts.

     The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

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One of the twenty-one men who were beheaded by ISIS was not a Christian– that is, he wasn’t a Christian until he saw the faith of the men who refused to deny Jesus and died for it.  He was from Chad (the darker skinned man in the photos below).  The terrorists told all the men to reject their faith in Christ or die.  When the man from Chad was asked about his faith, he looked at his Christian friends and said, “Their God is my God,” and so he also was beheaded.

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Matthew 2:16  —  When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Luke 12:4-5  —  (Jesus said),  “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear:  Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell.  Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

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

I Peter 4:16  —  If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

Romans 1:16a  —  For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.

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We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents in Bethlehem by the order of King Herod.  Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims, and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship,1978, Prayer for December 28, page 31.

993) Sawing Off the Branch We are Sitting On

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Although Western cultural elites deny it, non-Westerners know full well that the key to the West’s success over the centuries is Christianity.  Eric Metaxas writes, “It never ceases to amaze me how modern western secularists are doing all in their power to purge Christianity from public life.  As would say, ‘They’re sawing off the branch they’re sitting on.’”  Today’s reading is from the June 29, 2006 BreakPoint broadcast in which Chuck Colson explains the fact that the freedoms and scientific progress we enjoy in the West are due to the West’s embrace of Christianity.  (www.breakpoint.com)

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     When you hear the word “globalization,” you probably think of Chinese factories or customer service centers in India.  What you probably don’t think about is Christianity.  Yet globalization and Christianity are linked in ways you may never have imagined.

     Globalization is about more than markets and technology.  It’s also about the spread across national boundaries of ideas and values— in other words, culture.  While the spread and exchange of culture flows in many different directions, the ideas and values most associated with globalization are those of the West.

     And this is where Christianity comes in.  In his marvelous book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, Rodney Stark writes that “Christianity created Western Civilization.”  Without Christianity’s commitment to “reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800.”

     This would be a world “with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists.  A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos.”  The “modern world,” to which globalization aspires, “arose only in Christian societies.  Not in Islam.  Not in Asia.  Not in a ‘secular’ society— there having been none.”

     Needless to say, Stark’s conclusions aren’t popular with academics and other intellectuals and have been savaged by liberal reviewers.  These folks are all too happy to blame Christianity for some of the darker episodes in Western history, but they’re not about to give the faith credit for Western success.

     No matter.  Non-westerners see the connection.  For example, Chinese scholars were asked to “look into what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.”  After considering possible military, economic, political and cultural explanations, they concluded that the answer lay in what the Chinese scholars saw as the “heart” of the West’s pre-eminent culture:  Christianity.

     These non-Christian and non-western scholars had “no doubt” that “the Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and the successful transition to democratic politics.”

     Apparently, many of their countrymen agree.  Whereas there were approximately 2 million Christians in China when Mao came to power in 1949, today there are upwards of 100 million.  What’s more, Christianity is especially popular among the “best-educated” and most modern Chinese.

     Why?  Because like people everywhere, except, ironically, in the West, they see Christianity as “intrinsic to becoming modern.”  For them, Christianity is an alternative to a way of life that bred misery and oppression.  They understand Christianity’s role in the rise of the West, even as Western elites deny the connection.

     Of course, this isn’t the primary reason that Christianity is “becoming globalized far more rapidly than is democracy, capitalism or modernity.”  That is due to the proclamation of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit.

     Still, it’s a powerful reminder of how Christianity transforms not only individual lives but entire societies as well.

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Psalm 11:3  —  When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?

Revelation 21:5  —  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.”

Romans 12:2  —  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

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God of ages, eternal Father: in your sight nations rise and fall, and pass through times of peril.  Now when our land is troubled, be near to judge and save.  May leaders be led by your wisdom; may they search your will and see it clearly.  If we have turned from your way, reverse our ways and help us to repent.  Give us your light and your truth; let them guide us; through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of this world, and our Savior.  Amen.

–1970 Presbyterian Hymnal, page 180.

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For more on this topic see:

http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/china_705/interview/xiao.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjntXYDPw44

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6JYk5aCB4A

http://www.lcmc.net/event-presentations/mr-chuck-bentley/a484.html

992) Christmas Every Day (2/2)

     (…continued)  And so that new truth also has a great deal to say about our next holiday, New Year’s Day, later on this week.  Each New Year’s Day, as each birthday, brings with it the unsettling reminder that another year is gone.  I would guess that everyone (after a certain age, anyway) thinks about that at least a little bit.  We get only so many years here, and its not all that many when you think about it.  Not only that, but these annual reminders seem to come around faster every year.

     Therefore, New Year’s Day, as much as Christmas Day, should be a time to think about Jesus, who said, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me will live again.”  Believing that changes one’s whole perspective on the passage of years.  No one or nothing else can do anything about the way the years keep getting away on us, but Jesus has done something.  Jesus can give us years without end.

     Samuel Johnson lived for 75 years, from 1709 until 1784.  He was a journalist and a linguist.  In just three years, he produced the most comprehensive English dictionary published up to that point.  It was a huge task and a tremendous accomplishment.  Samuel Johnson was also a deeply religious man, and had a profound sense of the presence of God.  Every year, on New Years Day, he had a special awareness of the presence of God in his life, and he would think about what it meant to live one’s life for God.  As he considered that, being a writer, he would write a prayer to God, putting before God his meditations and requests and confessions as the old year ended and a new year began.

     The focus of Johnson’s prayers is on God.  Samuel Johnson’s faith was centered on God and not on himself.  Of course, we do come to God out of a sense of our own needs and weaknesses, but as we do so, we must keep the focus on God and not on ourselves.  Faith must consist of more than asking the ME questions; ‘Why is this happening to me, why don’t you do this for me, Lord, why haven’t you answered my prayers, how can I believe in a God that is not there for me,’ and so on.  That approach to faith is like what I saw one time imprinted on the back of a little girl’s school bag.  It said in cute pink letters, “It’s all about me.”

     We might not put that on our school bag, but we need to be careful of the danger of approaching faith that way.  God certainly encourages us to bring all our needs and request to Him, but I must look at more than how God is fitting into what I want.  The problem with that self-centered approach is that if God doesn’t do what I think He should do, I may decide not to believe in or pay any attention to God anymore.

     This was not Samuel Johnson’s approach to God, as you will see in his prayers.  For him, it was all about God and not little Sam; God, who is far bigger than you or me or Samuel Johnson.  So the main question then becomes how does little me fit in with what the great God Almighty says about me and life and the whole world and all of eternity?  The prayers of Samuel Johnson can open our hearts and minds to this deeper, more solid, faith.  The prayer below contains passages gathered from several of the prayers Samuel Johnson wrote at the end of one year and the beginning of a new year.  Praying this prayer is a good way to remember Jesus at the end of this old year and the beginning of a new year.

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Psalm 8:3-4a  —  When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?…

Psalm 90:10  —  Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

Psalm 90:12  —  Teach us to number our days, O Lord, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

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Almighty God, by whose mercy I am permitted to behold the beginning of another year, and by whose forbearance I have not yet fallen into the grave, bless me with thy help and favor.  Grant that I may remember my past life, and repent of the times I have spent in forgetfulness of thy mercy and in neglect of my own salvation.  I give you thanks that you have so far been patient and have not snatched me away in the midst of sin and folly, but permit me still to enjoy the means of grace and the time to repent.  Grant, O Lord, that your patience may not be in vain, and that the days of my life may not be continued to the increase of my guilt, and that your grace may not harden my heart in wickedness.  O Lord, as I remember my past life, may I recollect the many ways you have sustained and preserved my life.  In affliction may I remember how often in the past I have been assisted, and in prosperity may I remember from whose hand the blessing is received.  Let not the cares of the world distract me, nor the evils of this age overwhelm me.  Enable me to use all enjoyments with due temperance, and run with diligence the race that is set before me.  Calm my thoughts, direct my desires, and fortify my purposes.  Let me remember, O my God, that as the days and years pass over me I approach nearer to the grave, where there is no opportunity for repentance; and so grant, that by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, I may so pass through this life, that I may obtain life everlasting.  In the course of my life protect me, and in the hour of my death sustain me; so that I may lie down in humble hope and die in the confidence of your mercy.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen.

991) Christmas Every Day (1/2)

        On Christmas morning in 1892 a little girl finished opening all her presents and then said to her father, “Wouldn’t it be great if it could be Christmas every day of the year?”  Her father looked at her without saying anything for a few moments, and then finally said softly, “Do you really think so?”  “Oh yes, Daddy,” she said, “that would be just wonderful!”

     The little girl’s father was William Dean Howells (1837-1920) who is not so well known today, but in the late 1800’s he was a famous writer and magazine editor.  His little daughter’s question gave him an idea for a short story, and he wrote a little piece he called simply “Christmas Every Day.”  In the story a fairy godmother appears to a little girl on Christmas Day, offering to grant any wish.  The little girl’s wish is that it could be Christmas every day for a whole year.  The wish is granted and the very next morning it is Christmas again, with the house full of presents, the table full of food, and the relatives all at the door.  Of course, the children are delighted, and the adults don’t mind having another day off, so it is a pleasant little surprise for everyone.  By the third day, things begin to change a bit.  The kids are still having fun, but some of the adults are not so anxious for another day of festivities.  You can guess the rest.  Howells, the writer, has some fun describing all the problems that begin to arise when every day becomes a special day, and nobody works and nothing gets done.  Not only that, but the presents pile up and there is no place to put them all, everyone gets sick of seeing each other every day, and people desperately desire to get back to their normal lives.  Before long even the children are sick of it all and grow increasingly irritable, even crying, “Oh no, not more presents!”

     After he finished writing the story, William Howells read it to his daughter.  Even though she was not very old, she understood completely.  And while some children might share the wish of that little girl, most adults are, by the 26th of December, ready to get back to the routine.  Holidays and vacation days are something to look forward to and enjoy, but what makes those kinds of days special is that they come only once in a while. So we can enjoy the special days when they are here, but we do also like the normal routine of our day to day lives, and are glad to get back to it.  In the same way, when you ask someone about their vacation, one of the most common responses, after even the very best vacations, is “Well, you know, it is good to go and good to come home.”  We enjoy the special days and times, but we also long for the routine and the normal.

     Now of course, if we get too much of the routine and the normal, we might well complain then, too, about life just being the same old thing day after day.  There is a restlessness within us that can, at times, be hard to please, so there is a need for balance in our lives.  No one would want Christmas every day, but neither would we want a life with no special days, nothing to celebrate, and no special reasons for taking the day off and getting together.  The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes says it best in chapter 3 which begins with the words, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the sun.”

     I have not yet said anything about the true meaning of Christmas, that story that has changed all our stories.  That story itself contains an interesting balance between the normal and routine, and, the extraordinary and special.  There is this normal young couple on a normal night in a normal little village and normal shepherds out in the field in their regular routine.  But there is also an extraordinary sky full of angels announcing that this birth is good news for everyone who has ever lived.  The child born in Bethlehem is to be the Savior of the whole world.

     The Christmas story itself is an annual reminder that something way out of the ordinary has happened, something that changes the normal routine of everything and everyone.  The normal big routine is that the generations come and go, people are born, they live, they get sick, and then they die.  That is the most basic routine of all, and there is nothing anyone else has ever done to break out of that rut.  But as the rest of this story that began on Christmas would unfold, the world would learn that the baby in the manger would have something to say and do about changing even that most basic routine.  That baby who was born would grow to be a man, live a life, and then die a death, just like everyone else who has ever been born.  Same old thing.  But then, that man would rise again from the dead and would say to all, “I am the resurrection and the life, whosoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live again.” That man Jesus, grown up from that baby in the manger, broke into and changed the world’s most inevitable, and depressing, routine.  (continued…)

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Isaiah 48:6b  —  (God says), “From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you.”

Revelation 21:5a  —  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

John 11:25  —  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

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O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

–Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

990) Joseph (part two of two)

Father and Son, by Corbert Gauthier

Father and Son, 2002, Corbet Gauthier (prints available at http://www.artbarbarians.com)

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     (…continued)  It was at that point that the angel appeared to Joseph and said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins.”

     On one level, this was very helpful and Joseph, without hesitation, did the right thing and obeyed God.  He decided to take Mary as his wife and be the earthly father of this child.  But on another level, this still wasn’t going to be easy because the angel’s story, while convincing enough to Joseph, might have been a little hard to explain to the guys at work.  In those days, as well as today, people could count up the number of months from the wedding day to the birth of the first child, and the angel probably did not appear to everyone in town to explain the whole situation.  Can you imagine Joseph at the cafe eating a donut and saying, “Look guys, it’s not what you think.  Mary is a good girl, and it wasn’t me; but there was this angel that appeared to Mary, and then the angel appeared to me, and it was a miraculous conception– you see?…”  My guess is Joseph didn’t even try to explain.  He and Mary probably just bore the embarrassment quietly until… Until what?

     This is another place you need to read between the lines.  WE have the entire New Testament ahead of us.  We have always known the whole story from beginning to end, from the birth to the childhood to the manhood of Jesus, including the miracles, his crucifixion, and his resurrection from the dead.  We have the whole miraculous story to see and believe in.  But think about it.  That did not happen all at once, but took thirty-three years to unfold.

     The angel spoke to Joseph on four different occasions.  Mary told him of the angel’s message to her.  The shepherds appeared after the birth of Jesus with their news of a sky full of angels, singing and proclaiming that a Savior had been born.  And the Wise men were led to this child by a star in the sky.  But then, that was it for Joseph.  There were no more signs from God, and what followed were many years in which nothing at all happened out of the ordinary.  Joseph was there yet when Jesus was twelve years old, but then is not mentioned anymore.  Mary is mentioned often during the public ministry of Jesus and in the days leading up to his crucifixion, but Joseph is not there.

     It is assumed that Joseph died sometime between Jesus’ twelfth and thirtieth year.  That is to say he died before any of Jesus’ public work, before any miracles, before any public talk of Jesus being the Messiah, and before the conclusive proof of Jesus divinity came in his resurrection from the dead.  Joseph died before there was any further validation of the angel’s message.  That Jesus had, in fact, a normal childhood without any fanfare is clearly shown in Luke four when Jesus, as an adult, went back to his hometown.  He read an Old Testament prophecy in the synagogue, and then Jesus said it applied to himself, saying he was the one promised by God in Isaiah to come and save his people.  But the people were shocked at this, and accused him of blasphemy, saying, “This is just the son of Joseph, the carpenter! Who does he think he is?”  There had been nothing that special about Jesus as a child or young man in Nazareth.

     Therefore, it looks like Joseph lived out his entire earthly life without any further validation of the angel’s message, and therefore without any vindication of his honor before his neighbors.  Joseph always treated Mary honorably, he obeyed God without hesitation, and throughout the story of Jesus’ birth Joseph acted righteously.  He served God in a most amazing way by providing an earthly home to Jesus, God’s own son.  He was a good and godly man.  But in the eyes of all the world he had acted dishonorably and shamed himself, and there was no way to ever undo the inevitable misunderstanding.  Yet, he was obedient.

     God chose a good man to be the earthly father of Jesus.  Joseph deserves our respect and our admiration.  His job was not an easy one, but he acted well his part in God’s plan.  His life can be an example for us.  It is an example of obedience to God’s Word in difficult circumstances.  Have you ever found obedience difficult?  Joseph’s life is an example of enduring misunderstanding nobly and graciously.  Have you ever been misunderstood?  And, his life is an example of quietly and patiently accepting the silence of God.  Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t seem to come through for you?

     When we hear the Christmas story we hear of many miracles.  When we read between the lines in the rest of the story, we see long periods of time with no miracles and no vindication by God.  We see, in fact, the same silence of God that we often, even most of the time, experience.  God gave Joseph a few words from angels, in the early days of his relationship with Mary, and that was all Joseph had to go on from then until the end.  It was certainly not all he could have wanted.  God must have seemed to him to be silent for a very long time.

     We too have been given a word, God’s Word, in the Bible.  But it is still only words for now.  Oftentimes we will want more.  Sometimes, even when we study God’s word, it raises more questions then it answers.  God doesn’t give us all the knowledge and all the answers and all the proof that we want.  But God gives us all that we need for life and for salvation.  He gives us enough, as he did for Joseph.  He gives us His Word, and, His promise of a most wonderful eternity.

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Luke 4:22b  —  …“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

Mark 6:3  —  (They asked), “Isn’t this the carpenter?  Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?  Aren’t his sisters here with us?”  And they took offense at him.

Micah 7:7-8  —  …As for me, I watch in hope for the LordI wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me.  Do not gloat over me, my enemy.  Though I have fallen, I will rise.  Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light.

II Corinthians 5:7  —  For we live by faith, not by sight.

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I ask not to see; I ask not to know; I ask only to be used.

J. H. Newman  (1801-1890)

989) Joseph (part one of two)

File:Rembrandt Dream of Joseph.jpg

Joseph’s Dream in the Stable, 1645, Rembrandt van Rijn  (1606-1669)

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     There are four Gospels in the New Testament, four accounts of the life of Jesus Christ by four different men.  But only two of the four tell the story of Christmas.  The Gospels of Mark and John don’t even mention it.  Only Luke and Matthew tell of the birth of Jesus, and they, from two very different perspectives.  Matthew and Luke do not contradict each other, but they do tell different parts of the story.  For example, Matthew tells us all about the visit of the three Magi, whereas they do not even appear in Luke.  Luke, on the other hand, tells us all about the shepherds and the angels in the sky and the baby lying in a manger, and not a word of any of this appears in Matthew.  But the primary difference I want to describe is the different personal perspective each takes in the telling of the story.

     Luke tells the story of Jesus’ conception and birth entirely from Mary’s perspective, and Matthew tells the story entirely from the perspective of Joseph.  It is Luke that describes the visit of the angel to Mary, and Luke records Mary’s words of obedience, and Luke tells the story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.  When the shepherds appear in Luke, it is Mary who ‘ponders all these things in her heart.’  Twelve years later, when the boy Jesus, who was missing, is found in the temple, it is Mary who does all the talking, and Mary who again, ‘treasures all these things in her heart.”  Throughout the first three chapters of Luke the focus is on Mary, and Joseph is in the background.  Even the other characters in the story seem to ignore Joseph.  When Mary and Joseph take the 8-day old Jesus to the temple, the old man Simeon takes Jesus into his arms and blesses him and then turns and speaks to Mary.

     Not so in Matthew, where the focus is on Joseph.  In Matthew, Mary has the baby, but that’s about it.  Matthew 1:18-25 tells of the same incredible situation as in Luke:  Mary is found to be with child even though she is still a virgin.  This needs some explanation, and so an angel appears to Joseph.  Luke tells about when the angel appeared to Mary and how she obeyed.  Matthew tells about when the angel appeared to Joseph and how he obeyed, agreeing to take the pregnant Mary as his wife.  In Matthew, Joseph is the one given the responsibility to give Jesus his name.

     Then comes the visit by the Magi, followed by the threat of Herod, seeking to kill all the newborn boys in Bethlehem.  God warns the Holy Family to flee, and he does so through a dream in which an angel appears to Joseph.  So Joseph protected the family by taking them and fleeing to Egypt.  After two years there, Herod died, and they are finally allowed to return home.  Again, it is Joseph who is informed of this in a dream, and Joseph who leads his family home, and Joseph who receives yet another dream warning him of dangers along the way.  None of this is mentioned by Luke.

     Let’s look closer at the story from the perspective of Joseph as described by Matthew.  Sometimes the Bible will give more details than most people are looking for, as in the descriptions of Old Testament ceremonial laws and long lists of family histories.  Other times, it would be nice to be told a bit more.  The story of Joseph is one of those times.  He was clearly a godly and noble man who obeyed God in a difficult situation.  But there is not a single word spoken by Joseph in any of the Gospels, not even in Matthew.  We can only wonder what he thought about all what happened to him.  Let’s read between the lines a little bit and imagine Joseph’s situation.

     Joseph was no doubt a respected man in the local synagogue.  The Bible notes how carefully he observed all the ritual laws for temple sacrifice and ritual purification, and, the circumcision and naming of Jesus on the prescribed eighth day.  In fact, Matthew calls him a “righteous man.”

     Then, through no fault of his own, Joseph finds himself in a very difficult and painful situation.  The woman to whom he is engaged to be married tells him that she is pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father.  In those days, the man’s word and authority were absolute and so he, by law, could have had Mary stoned to death for adultery.  But Joseph did not want to expose her to public disgrace, much less execution.  However, to continue the relationship under those circumstances was unthinkable for an upright Jew, so he decided to divorce her quietly.  They were at this point still only engaged, but in those days, an engagement was also a legally binding pledge, and the same word, divorce, was used when even this pledge to be married was broken.  And so Joseph would simply end the relationship quietly.  Joseph was wronged and deeply hurt and he could have said much around Nazareth, increasing the difficulty for Mary and to her family.  But he chose to say nothing and do nothing to harm anyone.  That was the kindest and most gracious thing that a good man could do in that situation.  Joseph was a good man, kind and forgiving.  (continued…)

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Matthew 1:19  —  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

Matthew 1:20-21…24  —  But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins…”  When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

Matthew 2:13  —   When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.  Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

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Lord, let your glory by my goal, your word my rule, and then your will be done.

Charles I, King of England,  (1600-1649)

988) The Visit

     The legends of most ancient people tell of gods and goddesses visiting the earth.  They come and go capriciously, sometimes showing favor, sometimes visiting disaster.  They were of little comfort.  More often than not their appearances were feared.  It may not be unfair to say that people worshiped them, sacrificed to them, largely to keep them at bay.  A god was much like a nasty landlord who, if you didn’t pay your rent on time, would show up to give trouble.  So you paid your rent.  Your worshiped, not because you hoped the gods would appear, but for fear that they might.  To be unnoticed by the gods was a profound relief.  Gods and goddesses never became a part of the sufferings of men; they hovered off at the side.

     How different the God of the Bible.  He came to us, and comes to us, in Jesus Christ.  He became one of us, and remains one of us.  Nor did he come simply to find out how we lived.  His was more than a visit.  He came to suffer and to die for the sins of the world.  He came to bring the blessings of heaven to earth.  He came to reclaim us for the Father’s kingdom.

     This is quite different from a Zeus or an Apollo or an Odin.  These are characters from myths and legends.  Jesus is the Word made flesh, come to live among us.  He is God of God, Light of Light— who became man.  He is as much man as Peter and John, as Socrates, as Luther, and as any one of us.  He belongs to heaven and he belongs to earth.  He is more than legend; he is history.

     Because he suffered and died as a human being, he could be the “second Adam,” the Adam who recovered all the first Adam had lost.  Because he was raised from the dead, as God he could raise up that which is human to be fully human again, as God intended us to be from the beginning.

     The pivotal event in the history of the world is this visit!  It is not the rise and fall of’ a civilization, the discovery of the wheel, or the breakthrough into space travel.  It is infinitely more.  We are born, we live, we die.  This is true of people and of nations.  This melancholy sequence is broken by the visit of Jesus.  Death is not the end for us.  Forgiven and restored, we shall live with him forever.

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Jeremiah 10:11  —  “Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.’”

John 17:3  —  Now this is eternal life:  that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

Galatians 4:4-5  —  But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

Romans 5:17  —  For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

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PRAYER FOR CHRISTMAS MORNING by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894):

Loving Father, help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men.  Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world.  Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.  May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

987) Where is Bethlehem?

From The Word for Every Day, by Alvin Rogness, Augsburg Publishing House, 1981, page 365.

     Bethlehem can be in our hearts.  Jesus came to this little village.  He can come to us too.

     His coming to the earth centuries ago was a part of Gods gigantic maneuver to get into our hearts.  In fact, if people are not captured for him, there is a sense in which Bethlehem and Calvary will have failed.  God’s objective is not the conquest of nations, but of people, you and me, one by one.  It stretches the imaginations to their limits to believe that God would bother with this tiny planet and with us who despoil it and who too often ignore him and one another.

     He did not come because great hosts of people awaited him.  On that first Christmas night only a few scattered shepherds took note.  The rest of the world, and even the little village itself, carried on as if nothing eventful had occurred.  Even during Jesus 33 years on earth, there was no surge of interest and loyalty.  At Calvary virtually everyone had deserted him.

     Only in the wake of the Easter resurrection did things happen, and even then rather quietly.  Not until three centuries later did he find a place in the courts of the empire.  But since that time the name of Jesus has become the most honored name in the world.  Hundreds of millions have acclaimed him King and Lord and Savior.

     God’s objective remains the same as that Bethlehem night.  Not nations, not civilizations, not cultures, not the planet itself (all these are passing away), but people, one by one, are in his eye.  And he wants to take up residence within us, to hold and keep us now and forever.  We are his Bethlehem, as Phillips Brooks says in his beloved hymn:

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous Gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O Little Town of Bethlehem, verse 3

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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.”

Matthew 22:37-38  —  Jesus replied:  “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’   This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Romans 10:9  —  If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Philippians 4:7  —  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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Come Into My Heart, Lord Jesus  by Harry Clarke (1888-1957)

Come into my heart, O Lord Jesus,
Come into my heart, I pray;
My soul is so troubled and weary,
Come into my heart, today.

Refrain:  Into my heart, into my heart,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus;
Come in today, come in to stay,
  Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

Come into my heart, O Lord Jesus,
I need Thee through life’s dreary way;
The burden of sin is so heavy,
Come into my heart to stay.  Refrain.

Come into my heart, O Lord Jesus,
Now cleanse and illumine my soul;
Fill me with Thy wonderful Spirit,
Come in and take full control.  Refrain.

Listen at:

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

986) Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

     I remember the excitement of watching our children, and then our grandchildren, learn to walk.  It’s great to watch the little ones take those first few steps.  But you know what happens then, don’t you?  They are then able to get all over the place, but they do not yet know all the ‘dos and don’ts.’  So they enter that age where you can’t let them out of your sight.  It’s the same when they learn to talk.  It is not long after those first few highly anticipated words come out that you are having to teach them they are not supposed to be talking all the time.  Everyone recognizes that there is at least a little bit of truth in the old line about raising kids that says, “You spend three years teaching a child to walk and talk, and then you have to spend the next ten years teaching them to sit down and shut up.”  That overstates the case, because we certainly do want the little ones to keep walking and talking.  But children do need to learn that there is a time and a place for everything– for walking and talking, and for sitting down and being quiet.

     There is much in the Bible about getting busy and doing God’s work, and there is much about sitting still and listening.  Both parts are present in Luke chapter ten.  Get busy, Jesus says in the first thirty-seven verses, there is much work to do.   Sit down and shut up and listen, Jesus implies in his words to Martha in the last two verses of the chapter.

     The chapter begins with Jesus sending out 72 evangelists to go ahead of him into the towns that he will visit to prepare the way for him.  “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” Jesus says, and then gives the workers a long list of things to do as they enter the villages to proclaim God’s Word and announce the coming of His kingdom.  The next section of the chapter contains the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The hero of that story is a man who does something,  who stops and helps another man who had been beaten and robbed and left for dead.  Jesus then concludes the text with the words, “Go and do likewise.”  Don’t just sit there, don’t just pass by on the other side and ignore someone in need– do something to serve your neighbor who is in need.

     Immediately following that is the story of Jesus visiting at the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha.  In this story, it is Martha who seems to be doing what is right in line with what Jesus said in the previous two stories.  It was Martha, says verse 40, who was busy with all the preparations that had to be made, and that probably included getting something prepared for a meal for their guest.  Everyone has to eat, so one would think that would be a good way to serve your neighbor.  Mary, however, was just “sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to what he said” (verse 39).  Martha strongly objects to Mary’s inactivity and says to Jesus “Tell her to help me!”  Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”  Or in other words, “Sit down and be quiet, Martha.  What I am saying is important, and you need to pay attention.”

     This is the lesson little children need to learn.  There is a time and a place for everything; a time for running and loud talking and playing, and a time for sitting and being quiet and listening.  In Luke chapter ten, Jesus is applying this to our life as God’s children.  There is a time to be busy, working and serving in obedience to God’s commands; and, there is a time to be stop and be quiet and listen to Jesus, also in obedience to God’s command.  One would think a good time to stop and listen to Jesus would be if you had him right in your own home.  That would be a good time to just have a pizza delivered and not busy oneself with making a big meal.  And if you aren’t expecting a visit by Jesus in person to your home anytime soon, the next best thing is to do what the people of God have always done, and set aside a day a week to hear God’s Word and to worship.  “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy,” says the third commandment, and Deuteronomy chapter five goes on to say, “Six days you should labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is to be observed as a Sabbath unto the Lord.”  There is a time to be busy, and there is a time to set aside for the Lord.

    II Peter 1:19 says, “We have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place.”  If someone believes in God at all, it would be only logical for that person to wonder what it is that God expects of us; what God wants us to do or to believe.  Well, says Peter, what God wants from us first of all is our attention.  God wants us to pay attention to Him and His word for us.  It is just like parents who have to often insist that their children pay attention, and find it extremely annoying when they do not.

     The Bible doesn’t just say, ‘Have faith!’ and leave it at that.  Peter has a word of hope for those who find faith difficult.  Just pay attention, Peter says, just find ways to pay attention to God, and, says the rest of the Bible, and the Holy Spirit will take care of the rest.  The little story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha is an illustration of how that is done.  Don’t be so busy, said Jesus, that you don’t have time for the one thing needful, that one thing that is of eternal importance.  Yes, says Jesus in the rest of the chapter, keep busy and do what needs to be done.  But do take the time, like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to His Word.

     Don’t just do something; sometimes just sit there, be quiet, and listen.

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Ecclesiastes 3:1  —  There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…

John 9:4  —  (Jesus said), “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”

Psalm 46:10a  —  He says, “Be still, and know that I am God…”

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Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

–I Samuel 3:10b

985) The Gift of the Magi (part two of two)

     (…continued)  At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

     Jim was never late.  Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered.  Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment.  She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered:  “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.” 

     The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it.  He looked thin and very serious.  Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two— and to be burdened with a family!  He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

     Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail.  His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her.  It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for.  He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

     Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

     “Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way.  I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present.  It’ll grow out again— you won’t mind, will you?  I just had to do it.  My hair grows awfully fast.  Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy.  You don’t know what a nice— what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

     “You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

     “Cut it off and sold it,” said Della.  “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow?  I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

     Jim looked about the room curiously.

     “You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

     “You needn’t look for it,” said Della.  “It’s sold, I tell you— sold and gone, too.  It’s Christmas Eve, boy.  Be good to me, for it went for you.  Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you.  Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

     Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake.  He enfolded his Della…  (Then) Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

     “Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me.  I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less.  But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

     White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper.  And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

     For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshiped long in a Broadway window.  Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jeweled rims— just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair.  They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession.  And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

     But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say:  “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

     And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

     Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present.  She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm.  The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

     “Isn’t it a dandy, Jim?  I hunted all over town to find it.  You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now.  Give me your watch.  I want to see how it looks on it.”

     Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

   “Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while.  They’re too nice to use just at present.  I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs.  And now suppose you put the chops on.”

     The magi, as you know, were wise men— wonderfully wise men— who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.  They invented the art of giving Christmas presents.  Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication.  And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.  But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.  O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest.  Everywhere they are wisest.  They are the magi.

The Gift of the Magi (shortened a bit), O. Henry, 1905 

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I Corinthians 13:4-7…13  —  Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…  And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

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SPOUSES’ PRAYER FOR EACH OTHER:

Lord Jesus, grant that I and my spouse may have a true and understanding love for each other. Grant that we may both be filled with faith and trust.  Give us the grace to live with each other in peace and harmony.  May we always bear with one another’s weaknesses and grow from each other’s strengths.  Help us to forgive one another’s failings and grant us patience, kindness, cheerfulness and the spirit of placing the well-being of one another ahead of self.  May the love that brought us together grow and mature with each passing year.  Bring us both ever closer to You through our love for each other.  Let our love grow to perfection.  Amen.

–www.catholic.org/prayers