1350) Joy to the World

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   A young teenager once complained to his father, a minister, that most of the hymns they sang in church were boring to him because they were too far behind the times.  His father put an end to his son’s complaints by saying, “If you think you can write better hymns, then let’s see you try.”  The boy was a brilliant student and enjoyed challenges, so he decided he would attempt it.  Looking through his Bible for ideas, he read Revelations 5:9 which said, “And they sang a new song.”  That settled it for him.  He would try writing some new songs, starting with one based on that verse.  He wrote out some words, found a melody to go with it, and his father introduced it to the congregation the very next Sunday.  The people liked it so much they asked for another one the next Sunday, and then the Sunday after that, and so on.  For 222 consecutive weeks that teen-age boy wrote a new hymn for Sunday worship.  

     The hymn-writing began in the year 1689, and that teenager was Isaac Watts.  He continued to write hymns throughout his life.  He wrote over 750 hymns, many of which by now have become old and stale, just like the music the young Isaac objected to.  Tastes do change over the years.  But many of Watts’ hymns remain popular and are still used today, such as “Jesus Shall Reign,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  He has been recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody.”  

     Later in life Watts turned to another task, metrical translations of the Psalms with a distinctly Christian perspective.  At the age of 45, he sat under a favorite tree on the estate where he lived and penned the now famous words of “Joy to the World.”  His 1719 hymnal, Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, included the words under his original title for the poetry: “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.”

     As part of his effort to bring New Testament meanings to the Old Testament psalms, Watts based “Joy to the World” on the last half of Psalm 98: “Shout for joy to the Lord all the earth… Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (vs. 4, 8).

     Psalm 98 celebrates God’s protection and restoration of his chosen people.  Watts’ carol rejoices in the same, as it expresses praise for the salvation that began when God became man.  Both the psalm and the hymn also look ahead, to Christ coming again to reign: “He will judge the world with righteousness” (v. 9).

     “Joy to the World” includes references to other Bible verses as well, including Gen. 3:17, Rom. 5:20, and Luke 2:10.  And despite its lack of reference to Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, wise men, or the manger, it has become one of the most loved Christmas carols.  As of the late 20th century, “Joy to the World” was the most-published Christmas hymn in North America.

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PSALM 98:

Sing to the Lord a new song,
    for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
    have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
    and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love
    and his faithfulness to Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
    the salvation of our God.

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
    burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
    with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
    shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
    for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples with equity.

Genesis 3:17  —  To Adam God said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  (see verse three of “Joy to the World”)

Luke 2:10  —   And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

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JOY TO THE WORLD

Text:  Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

1. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing.

2. Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ;
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy.

3. No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found.

4. He rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love.

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Watts wanted to bring hymns up to date, so I think he would approve of this up-to-date version of his famous hymns by a cappella group Pentatonix:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Xo64Q2ucQ8

1349) Christmas Insights

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When we give each other Christmas gifts in His name, let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon and the stars, and the earth with its forests and mountains and oceans; and all that lives and move upon them.  He has given us all green things and everything that blossoms and bears fruit, and all that we quarrel about and all that we have misused.  And to save us from our foolishness, from all our sins, He came down to earth and gave us Himself.  –Sigrid Unset, Norwegian novelist (1882-1949)

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When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time.  Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?  –G. K. Chesterton

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Christ was born in the first century, yet he belongs to all centuries.  He was born a Jew, yet He belongs to all races.  He was born in Bethlehem, yet He belongs to all countries.  –George W. Truett

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“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!” –Dr. Suess, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1957

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Despite the most earnest and vigorous efforts, it has proved impossible entirely to separate Christmas from Christianity.  –G. K. Chesterton  (1874-1936)

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I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys…  And so as Tiny Tim said:  “A merry Christmas to us all, my dears.  God bless us, every one.”  –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

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Ask your children two questions this Christmas.  First: “What do you want to give to others for Christmas?”  Second:  “What do you want for Christmas?”  The first fosters generosity of heart and an outward focus.  The second can breed selfishness if not tempered by the first.  –Anonymous

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And, while on the topic of selfishness:  Christmas is the time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it.  Deficits are when adults tell government what they want and their kids pay for it.  –Richard Lamm

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How many observe Christ’s birthday, how few, his precepts!  O! ’tis easier to keep Holidays than Commandments.  –Benjamin Franklin

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Let the children have their night of fun and laughter.  Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play.  Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.  –Winston Churchill’s Christmas Eve Message, 1941, in the early years of World War II 

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It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the most profound unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie.  God became man;… the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child…  The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets.  Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as this truth of the incarnation.  –James Packer

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A scientist, making a plea for exchange scholarships between nations, said “The very best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in a person.”  That was what happened at Christmas.  The idea of divine love was wrapped up in a Person.  –Halford Luccock

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A prison cell– in which one waits, hopes, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside– is not a bad picture of Advent.  –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison in WWII

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One response was given by the innkeeper when Mary and Joseph wanted to find a room where the Child could be born.  The inn-keeper was not hostile; he was not opposed to them, but his inn was crowded; his hands were full; his mind was preoccupied.  This is the answer that millions are giving today.  Like a Bethlehem innkeeper, they cannot find room for Christ.  All the accommodations in their hearts are already taken up by other crowding interests.  Their response is not atheism.  It is not defiance.  It is preoccupation and the feeling of being able to get on reasonably well without Christ.  –Billy Graham
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John 3:16-17 — For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 1:10-12 — He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

II Corinthians 5:19 —  …God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself…

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Let every heart keep Christmas within. 

Christ’s pity for sorrow,
Christ’s hatred for sin,
Christ’s care for the weakest,
Christ’s courage for right.
Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight!  

–Phillips Brooks

1348) One Thing Never Changes

     Every year brings changes into our lives, but then at the end of the year, on Christmas we are brought back to the old story that never changes: “For unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  I hear those words and my mind goes back forty-five years to Sunday School programs and Christmas Eve candlelight services.

     I can’t hear that old story without thinking about Christmases back then when things were so much simpler.  Jesus said, “Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  At Christmas we can feel a bit like little children again—hearing the familiar old story and singing the old favorite songs about a Savior born for me.  We even see that things really can be that simple again.  When I was a small child I trusted my parents for everything.  Life was simple because it was all in their hands.  And now, by faith I can trust my heavenly Father in the same way.  It is all, still, in the good hands of another.

     The questions and cares and troubles of life remain.  Things are always changing, and oftentimes it is in ways we don’t want.  I was talking to a friend of mine after a year of several heartbreaking changes in his life, and he said to me over and over again, “Why can’t things just go back to how they used to be?”  There were too many changes for him that year.  We all feel that way sometimes, perhaps even much of the time.  But in the Christmas story we learn that what really matters never changes, because in that story we find our future story with a promise of a time and place that there will be no more unpleasant changes.

     There is something about that old story that speaks right to the center of our heart and soul and all our deepest longings.  We are drawn closer to God in this season of faith.  We are drawn closer to each other in this season of peace and good will.  It is wonderful how a story can do that.  Even church can at times get to be a part of the daily grind, as we have to always be taking care of things like bills and budgets, programs and schedules, and conflicting views of what church and worship should be like.  In the midst of all that, we may find ourselves drifting farther and farther away from Jesus.  But the Christmas story has the power to draw us back to what is real and most important: “And she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

     This can be our anchor and stability amidst all the changes.  We have a Savior who will restore all that has been lost.  My friend wished things could go back to how they used to be.  The coming of Jesus opens up for us a future far better than anything we have ever experienced in our past.

     Until then, the changes will continue.  Who knows what we will yet have to endure, even in this coming year?  You and I may not even be alive to hear the story next Christmas.  But we need not live our lives in fear of change or even death, because we have a Savior, and that will not change.

     Near the end of his life Martin Luther wrote: “When I die, I shall see nothing but black darkness, except for this light; ‘To you is born this day a Savior.’  That light will remain in my eyes and will fill all heaven and earth.”

     August Stier, my great-great grandfather, experienced in 1875 an extraordinary year of change.  The biggest change was leaving his home in Germany to emigrate to Minnesota late in the summer.  From then on everything would be different.  There would be a new community of people to get to know, a new way of farming with land to clear and fields to plow, a new language to learn, and a new wife, with which to share life in his new home.  But just a few weeks after he arrived, he gathered with other Christians in a little country church to hear the same story he heard the previous Christmas on the other side of the world.  That much was still the same.  In the years to come he would go through many more changes, including that biggest change of all, death.  His death was almost 100 years ago, and now, all that August has left is the promise of that Savior of whose birth he heard each year.  God’s loving care of him has not changed.  It is still there for him.  Jesus still has a hold of my great-great grandfather, and won’t ever let him go, and will one day raise him from the dust of the earth.  Jesus stays with us.  He holds on to us.  That will never change.

     “Do not be afraid,” the angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

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Adoration of the Shepherds, Rembrandt, 1646

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Luke 2:11  —  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

I Corinthians 15:52  —   In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

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

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Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see—
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

–Henry Lyte, 1847

1347) What Are the Unchurched Thinking?

We hear much today about the hostility of unbelievers towards Christians:  don’t say ‘Merry Christmas,’ take down those Nativity Scenes from public places, make sure the children don’t sing any Christmas carols at the ‘Winter Program,’ etc.  Just yesterday I read about some customers at a restaurant who were offended by the Christmas music that was playing softly in the background.  Who are these people?

Well, according to a recent survey, they do not represent your average unchurched neighbor.  Actually, according to this survey, there is among America’s unchurched a surprising openness to conversation about religion and an invitation to church.  The following piece was taken from an article by Thom Ranier entitled “Five Surprising Insights about the Unchurched.  ( http://www.ThomRanier.com )

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     They aren’t antagonistic.

     They welcome a conversation with believers.

     They aren’t staying out of church for the reasons you may think.

     They are the unchurched.  And because many church leaders and members have such misconceptions about them, churches often fail to reach them, or even attempt to reach them.

     In one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on the unchurched, LifeWay Research, in partnership with the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism in Wheaton, Illinois, surveyed 2,000 unchurched Americans.  They defined “unchurched” as someone who has not attended a worship service in the last six months.

     One-third of the respondents were non-white.  Genders were almost equally represented (53% male), and almost half have a high school diploma or less.  Let’s look at five surprising insights about the unchurched.

  1. Most unchurched do indeed have some church background.  Contrary to some perceptions, the great majority of unchurched have a church background.  Almost two-thirds of them (62 percent) went to church regularly as a child.
  2. Most unchurched quit church because they got out of the habit of churchgoing.  For certain, a number of them did leave churches for negative reasons, but that is not true of the majority.
  3. One-third of the unchurched have plans to go to church in the future. Please read that statement carefully.  One of three unchurched Americans are actually planning to return to church.  Is your church actively inviting them?
  4. The unchurched are very open to a gospel conversation.  Nearly half (47%) would interact freely in such a conversation.  Another third (31%) would listen actively without participating.  Pause for a moment.  Look at those numbers.  Almost eight of ten unchurched Americans would welcome a gospel conversation.  Another 12% would discuss it with some discomfort, and only 11% would change the subject as soon as possible.  We can’t use the poor excuse that the unchurched really aren’t interested in gospel conversations.  In reality, church members are more likely not to be interested in initiating gospel conversations.
  5. If you invite them, they will come.  About a year ago, I received requests to provide a framework for churches to invite people to church.  We called it ‘Invite Your One.’  We are now getting responses from churches that have initiated this ministry, and we are blown away at what God is doing.  Among the unchurched, 55% said they would attend church if invited by a family member.  And 51% said they would attend church if invited by a friend or neighbor.  These numbers are staggering.  The opportunities are incredible.

     I have been involved in church research and practice for four decades, a testament to both my passion and elderly status.  These data confirm my anecdotal observations that there has never been a more opportune time to connect with the lost and unchurched.

     It’s truly an incredible opportunity.

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Numbers 10:29  —  And Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us,  and we will do good to you, for the Lord has promised good things to us.”

Mark 1:17  —  Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”

Acts 8:30-31  —  Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  And he said, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?”  And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Matthew 11:28-30  —  (Jesus said), “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Revelation 3:20  —  (Jesus said), “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with me.”

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God of love, who sent Jesus Christ to seek and save the lost, may we who have been found by him value those who do not believe, and never shun neighbors who reject you.  Remembering how our faith was given, may we preach good news with good will, trusting you to follow up your Word, so that all may hear and believe and come to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Presbyterian Hymnal, 1970, page 180.

1346) Persecution Backfiring

By David Yeghnazar.  Yeghnazar was born in Tehran, Iran.  He is the executive director for Elam Ministries, founded in 1990 by Iranian church leaders, to strengthen and expand the church in the Iran region and beyond.  Posted October 11, 2016 at:  www.thegospelcoalition.org

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     The Bible is full of stories reminding us that, whatever the opposition, God is always victorious.

     It’s the story of Joseph before Potiphar’s wife, of Moses before Pharaoh, of Daniel before the lions, of Esther before King Ahasuerus, of Peter and John before the Council.  Supremely, it is the story of the Lord Jesus, who was crucified and rose for our salvation.

     It’s also the story of the Iranian church in my lifetime.  When I was a child, persecution threatened to wipe it out.  Instead, the church in Iran has become the fastest growing evangelical church in the world today– and it’s affecting the region for Christ.

     Scripture is clear that God often uses his people’s suffering to advance his kingdom.  In his providence, the Islamic regime’s strategies to stamp out the Persian-speaking church in Iran have backfired— resulting in further church growth.  Here are five examples.

  1. Banning the Bible has backfired.

     In addition to banning the printing of the Bible in Persian, closing down the Bible society, and burning Bibles, Iranian government officials have warned citizens against reading the Bible.  Apparently, this warning has caused many Iranians, already disillusioned with their government, to become all the more eager to obtain a copy of the Bible.  And many have put their faith in Christ after finding and reading one.

     A few years ago, a government official waved one of the New Testaments printed by our ministry on national television and warned the population to avoid it.  Demand for the New Testament soared as a result.  Many who receive a copy through our street evangelism efforts say they’ve been searching for a copy.  Some say they’ve been searching for years.

  1. Closing church buildings has backfired.

     The Iranian government’s closure of churches over the past few years has forced Christians of Muslim background to meet in underground house churches.  These usually grow and multiply as friends, family, and neighbors give their lives to Christ.  Though government security agents work hard to crack down on these outlawed house churches, there are so many— and new ones are formed so regularly— that it’s impossible to find them all.

  1. Censoring television and blocking websites has backfired.

     Christian websites are routinely blocked and TV channels scrambled in Iran.  This censorship makes more people curious about what the government doesn’t want them to know.  Despite these censorship measures, blocked websites can still be accessed through VPNs (virtual private networks) and scrambled programs through satellite television.

     I know of at least 30 new house churches planted through satellite television and follow-up ministry last year alone.

  1. Killing leaders has backfired.

     Eight pastors have been martyred in Iran since 1980 because of their ministries.  Their deep affection for Christ— and their willingness to suffer for him— has made these leaders compelling examples for the rest of the church to follow.  Their martyrdom accounts are well known among Iranian Christians, many of whom desire to imitate their leaders’ deep love and courage for Christ.

     Because of their leaders’ example, many Iranian believers are increasingly willing to take risks in order to share the gospel.

  1. Imprisoning Christians has backfired.

     Persecution is intended to instill fear and paralyze the church. Instead, seeing Christians willing to suffer often draws unbelievers closer to Christ.  They ask, Who is this Jesus that people are so willing to suffer for?

     One recently baptized man began his journey to Christ when he heard on the news that Iranians Christians had been arrested for their faith.  Their willingness to go to prison for their beliefs made him curious, and so he googled “Christianity.”  The Lord used that internet search to eventually lead him to surrender his life to King Jesus.

Painful Path, Sovereign Christ

     We glorify God for how he is accomplishing his sovereign purposes in Iran.  Yet persecution remains deeply painful.  Lives have been lost; homes, businesses, and inheritances stolen; families torn apart.  Some will carry the physical and emotional scars of suffering for the rest of their lives.

     But we won’t shrink back.  As the apostle Paul declares in Romans 5:3-5:

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

     Suffering has not destroyed the church in Iran.  Rather, suffering has deepened its dependence on God, which in turn has increased its endurance, character, and hope.

     A few years ago, an interrogator admitted to an imprisoned pastor, “We know we cannot stop the church.  We can only try to slow it down.”  Two thousand years ago, Jesus promised to build his church (Matthew 16:18):  “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.”  He is doing so in Iran today.  Nothing can stand against him.  With humble confidence, then, we continue to press forward with the work we’ve been given to do.

     Please keep your Iranian brothers and sisters in prayer.  Pray for continued openness to the gospel among the Iranian people.  Pray for genuineness of faith among professing Christians.  Pray for perseverance and for the establishment of faithful churches.

     Never before have we seen such opportunity for ministry among Iranians.

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–Quote by Tertullian, Early Church Father  (160 A. D.?-220 A. D. ?)

–Photo, martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians, February 12, 2015

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John 15:18, 20  —  (Jesus said), “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first…  Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.”

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

1345) A Good Story

By Mark Howard, of Elam Ministries, an organization founded in 1990 by Iranian church leaders with a mission to strengthen and expand the church in the Iran region and beyond.  Posted July 30, 2016 at:  www.thegospelcoalition.org

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     Everyone loves a good story.  As Christians, we especially love stories that tell us how, when all seems lost, God makes a way.

     One such story is about the church in Iran— and it’s one of the greatest stories in the world today.

     It’s a simple story that can be summarized in just two sentences:  Persecution threatened to wipe out Iran’s tiny church.  Instead, the church in Iran has become the fastest growing in the world, and it is influencing the region for Christ.

     As simple as it is, such an amazing story is worth examining deeper.

Growth Amid Persecution

     The Iranian revolution of 1979 established a hard-line Islamic regime.  Over the next two decades, Christians faced increasing opposition and persecution.  All missionaries were kicked out, evangelism was outlawed, Bibles in Persian were banned and soon became scarce, and several pastors were killed.  The church came under tremendous pressure.  Many feared the small Iranian church would soon wither away and die.

     But the exact opposite has happened.  Despite continued hostility from the late 1970s until now, Iranians have become the Muslim people most open to the gospel in the Middle East.

     How did this happen?  Two factors have contributed to this openness.  First, violence in the name of Islam has caused widespread disillusionment with the regime and led many Iranians to question their beliefs.  Second, many Iranian Christians have continued to boldly and faithfully tell others about Christ, in the face of persecution.

     As a result, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran.  In 1979, there were an estimated 500 Christians from a Muslim background in Iran.  Today, there are hundreds of thousands— some say more than 1 million.  Whatever the exact number, many Iranians are turning to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

     In fact, last year the mission research organizatioOperation World named Iran as having the fastest-growing evangelical church in the world.  According to the same organization, the second-fastest growing church is in Afghanistan— and Afghans are being reached in part by Iranians, since their languages are similar.

Three Changed Lives

     The testimonies of Iranian men and women who’ve come to Christ are powerful.

     Kamran was a violent man who used to sell drugs and weapons.  One day, a friend gave him a New Testament.  After reading for five consecutive days, Kamran gave his life to Jesus.  When his family and friends saw his transformed life over the ensuing months, many of them also came to faith.  A church now meets in Kamran’s house.

     Reza was a mullah (a Muslim scholar) who hoped to become an ayatollah (a Shiite leader).  One day, while studying at an Islamic seminary in Iran, he found a New Testament that had been boldly left in the library.  Out of curiosity, he picked it up and was deeply shaken.  Over time, he fell in love with Jesus.  Today Reza is a trained church planter serving in the Iran region.

     Fatemah’s earliest memories were of being raped by her brothers.  At age 11, she was sold in marriage to a young drug addict who abused her and then divorced her when she was 17.  Upon returning home she was raped again, until she decided to leave.  On the streets she heard the gospel preached, and she trusted Jesus.  In time, she married a Christian man.  As they were receiving training in evangelism and church planting, Fatemah felt called to go back home and witness to her family.  Her entire family repented and gave their lives to the Lord.  The first church Fatemah and her husband planted was in her childhood home.

Story God Is Writing

     We’re living in a time when many Christians are suffering for their faith, particularly in Islamic contexts.  People often react by preaching fear and hatred of the Muslim world.  Yet the apostle Paul reminds us that we are to “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12).  This is our call.

     And the story God is writing for Iran reminds us that we have every reason to rejoice and remain confident in our sovereign Lord and the power of his gospel.  Jesus will build his church.  It’s a promise (Matthew 16:18).

     I ask that you would keep the people and nation of Iran in your prayers.  Please pray for:

  • Many more Iranians to give their lives to Christ.
  • Endurance and joy for Iranian Christians suffering in prison for their ministry— many have testified to sensing the prayers of the global church while imprisoned.
  • More trained leaders to serve as evangelists, church planters, and pastors to disciple the many new Iranian believers.

     Persecution threatened to wipe out Iran’s tiny church.  Instead, by God’s mighty hand, his church is growing rapidly. Praise him!

Christians from a house church in Iran meet to worship secretly

Christians from a house church in Iran meet secretly to worship.

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Matthew 16:18  —  (Jesus said), “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.”

Romans 12:12-14  —  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.  Practice hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

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

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Sovereign God, we worship you and acknowledge that you know all of those who suffer in your name.  We remember those who are imprisoned for their faith and ask that they would join with the Apostle Paul to see that even though they remain captive, their chains have furthered the gospel, not frustrated it.   May they inspire and embolden their fellow believers to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.  Amen.

1344) Refined by Fire

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AN OLD STORY (author unknown):

     There was a group of women in a Bible study on the book of Malachi.  As they were studying chapter three they came across the third verse which says, “He will sit like a refiner and purifier of silver.”  This verse puzzled the women and they wondered what this statement meant about the character and nature of God. 

     One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible study.  That week the woman called up a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work.  She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver.

     During her visit, she watched the silversmith as he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up.  He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest so as to burn away all the impurities.

     The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot.  Then she thought about the verse, “He shall sit like a refiner and purifier of silver.”  She asked the silversmith if it were true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined.

     The man answered yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire.  For if the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.

     The woman was silent for a moment.  Then she asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?”

     He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s the easy part — when I see my image reflected in it.”

     If today you are feeling the heat of the fire, remember that God has His eye on you and will keep His hand on you and watch over you until He sees His image in you.

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Malachi 3:1a, 2-3a  —  “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…,” says the Lord Almighty.  But who can endure the day of his coming?  Who can stand when he appears?  For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.  He will sit like a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. 

Psalm 66:10  —  For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver.

Zechariah 13:9  —  I will put (them) into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.  They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’”

Proverbs 17:3  —  The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.

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Test me, O Lord, but enable me to stand the trial.

1343) Forgiveness in Politics

          Have you ever heard of Stephen Langton?  Probably not, but every time you look something up in the Bible, you benefit from his work.  More on that later.

          Langton lived in England eight hundred years ago, from 1150 to 1228.  He was a priest and he was a politician, and was usually in trouble because of his involvement in one or the other or both.  When the pope wanted to honor him by appointing him the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John of England refused to accept his authority and made life miserable for him.  Eventually, the king was forced to accept Langton, and in time King John came to appreciate his great abilities.  Later, in the performance of his duties for the king and the Church of England, Langton had to oppose the pope.  Then, the pope removed Langton from the position of archbishop, forced him to leave England, and did much to discourage Langton and make him suffer. 

          Langton was a godly man, trying to do an honest job of serving his church and nation.  But he found himself always in the middle, always being deceived and betrayed, and always getting blind-sided and brought down by his enemies.  He could have easily become bitter and vengeful, fighting fire with fire in that dog-eat-dog world.  Bishops were not above that.  Or, Langton could have become discouraged and quit. 

          But Stephen Langton never quit, because he had learned the power of forgiveness.  He was a preacher, and forgiveness was the favorite theme of his preaching.  Two verses from Matthew 18 were very influential in his tumultuous life (verses 21-22): “Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me—up to seven times?’  Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.’”  Only by such forgiveness was Langton able to keep at his work and win the respect he needed to work with so many different people, with so many different agendas, in so many significant ways.

          In 1214 the English barons were in a bad mood about the way the king was abusing his power and treating them unjustly.  They threatened to revolt and overthrow the king, but they were hesitant, fearing the inevitable bloodshed.  Langton was able to negotiate a settlement.  He talk the barons into giving up on their plans to revolt by convincing the king to accept some of their demands.  In those days, kings weren’t accustomed to backing down on anything, but Langton had the king’s respect and was able to persuade him.  After long and difficult negotiations, an agreement was reached and signed.  The resulting document turned out to be one of the most important documents in world history, the Magna Carta, which historians now view as the beginning of modern democracy.  It spoke of things like justice for all, jury trials, the rights of commoners as well as nobles, the need for legal cause to hold anyone in prison, and, limits on the power of the king, stating that no one was above the law.  We take these things for granted today, but they were not a part of English society in 1200 A. D.  For his crucial role in all this, Winston Churchill called Langton “the indomitable, unwearying builder of the rights of Englishmen.”

          Stephen Langton, empowered by the Gospel to forgive his many enemies and continue to work with them in a spirit of good will, helped the English speaking world take its first steps toward the democratic way of life we enjoy today.  We are indebted to him for his faithful obedience.

          One more thing.  In his free time, Langton divided up the entire Bible into the system of chapters that we still use today.  Other attempts had been made in that direction, but Langton’s was the best and the one that became universally used. 

          Remember that next time you look something up in the Bible.  Your task is much simpler because of Stephen Langton.

One of four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta, June 15, 1215

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“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

–Harry Truman

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Matthew 18:21-22  —  Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?  Up to seven times?”  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Hebrews 8:12  —  I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.

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Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

–Jesus

1342) Dignity and Humility (part two of two)

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Luke 1:52-53  —  “God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.  He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

     (…continued)  The last two meditations have been about the dignity of even the seemingly most insignificant people, and, the need for humility in even those who seem to be the greatest; and about how God brings down the high and mighty, but lifts up the lowly and despised.  When we look at that sort of thing in the Bible we need to ask ourselves where we fit in.  Who did you think about as you read the words above from Luke chapter one?  What does this Word from God have to say to you?  Are you the high and mighty and arrogant, needing to be brought down and humbled?  Or are you among the poor and downtrodden, in desperate need of comfort and dignity?  Were you thinking, “Yes, go get them, God; I’d like to see those big shots knocked off their high horse”?  Or, were you thinking, “Oh, oh!  I am riding pretty high now, so does that mean God is about to bring me down?”  Or, were you thinking, “Yes, Lord, I will wait for the time when you will lift me up from my lowly and despised place in life”?

          You can’t sort out people like you sort out potatoes, bad ones on one pile and good ones on the other.  People are more complex than potatoes, so we aren’t able to put all the high and mighty bad people on one pile, and all the lowly and despised good people on another pile.

          We must not simply look at the high and mighty people that we hear about on the news (especially the politicians we don’t like), and say those are the ones God is going to bring down, thinking none of this applies to us.  We must let this verse speak to each of us in both ways. 

          Certainly, in one sense, I and most of the people I know are ordinary, ‘little’ people.  I can’t think of any high and mighty big shots in my circle of friends and family.  And to us as common people, Luke 1:52 is a message of comfort and hope.  There is much in life we are powerless against—we lose loved ones, face unexpected health problems, and endure all kinds of heartaches and afflictions, much of which is out of our control.  The Bible tells us to hold on, God is on our side, there is a new day coming, and God will restore and lift up his people.  That’s good news. 

          But the verse also ought to make us shudder a bit, we who are the rich of the world.  To many people, we are the high and mighty, as even the poorest of us in America are among the wealthiest people that have ever lived.  And only a few of us sacrifice very much for those less fortunate than we are.  And we all have our problems with pride and arrogance in those things that we are better at than other people.  And though we are not among the rulers of the world, we do seek whatever power over other people we can manage, and all too often we exploit that for our own ends.  This verse is also a call to each of us to repentance as we realize God’s great reversal of everything may well also set us spinning.  We must understand that when the Bible speaks about God humbling the great and bringing down the high and mighty, that does not mean only somebody else.

          Many years ago my brother and I took a trip to Haiti to visit some Christian mission schools and medical clinics.  This was back before it was common for so many people to fly so often.  No one I knew needed to keep track of  frequent flyer miles.  It was our first time flying, and the Atlanta airport where we had a layover was filled not with college students going south for Spring break, and not with families on their way to Disney-world, but with what looked like wealthy businessmen and women, all impeccably dressed, on their way to do important things.  My brother and I felt like paupers in comparison to all these upper class people.  They were certainly the high and mighty, and we felt like the poor and lowly of the world.

          The next day we were in downtown Port-au-Prince.  When we walked past the market area, we were mobbed by people desperate to sell us a wood carving or woven basket or hand-made necklace.  We had more cash in our pockets than most of them would see in a year.  We were planning to buy a few things, and our missionary friend told us that whoever made a sale to us would be able to feed their children that night.  Many of the others would not.  The AIDS epidemic was just beginning then, and Haiti was listed as a place to avoid.  The tourist trade had declined by 90% and those who depended on it were desperate.  Our purchases would determine who would eat that day and who would go hungry.  No more did we feel like the downtrodden of the earth.  In less than 24 hours, we had become the high and mighty.

          God humbles the proud and lifts up the lowly, so what is in store for you?  Actually, these two very different messages apply to all of us all the time.  It is for us to keep looking to God, to remember Jesus, and to see our lives in light of his Word of promise and command.

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We bring before you, O Lord, the troubles and perils of people and nations, the sighing of prisoners and captives, the sorrows of the bereaved, the necessities of strangers, the helplessness of the weak, the despondency of the weary, the failing powers of the aged.  O Lord, draw near to each; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–St. Anselm  (1033-1109)

1341) Dignity and Humility (part one of two)

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     Twenty centuries after the life of Jesus Christ, we take for granted the worth and dignity of every person.  This was built into the very fabric of our American society from the beginning.  The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence declares that all people are created equal. 

     But Jesus was born into a very different world.  First of all, half of the population—all the women—were second class citizens in almost every culture.  In many places the law of the land made women the property of their fathers or husbands.  In most places, slavery was an accepted practice.  Defeated peoples were routinely captured and kept, or sold, as slaves.  Even Plato and Aristotle said that most people were best suited for lives of slavery.  And in Israel, sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors were openly despised, and good people were forbidden to even associate with them.  And everywhere, the poor and handicapped and diseased could easily be ignored and avoided. 

     Jesus changed all that.  He paid special attention to the poor and the downtrodden, he touched and healed the diseased, he would go into the homes of even the worst sinners, and he affirmed the dignity and rights of women.  His disciples followed Jesus in this, and from the beginning the Church reached out to everyone, proclaiming the dignity of each person.  In time, as Christianity extended its influence throughout the Roman Empire and around the world, life improved for millions.  The entire complicated historical case for this cannot be made here, but these positive changes can be traced back to Jesus and the Jewish tradition he fulfilled.  While some historians will focus on the Church’s many failures in this and every other area (and the process has most certainly been filled with problems, wrong turns, and setbacks), it was indeed the influence of Jesus Christ that taught Western civilization the dignity of every person (or, as we might say today– ‘All Lives Matter’).  Jesus lifted up the lowly, calling them children of God, loved and cared for by the Creator of the universe.  There is no greater dignity.

     Jesus taught dignity to the oppressed and downtrodden, AND at the same time, Jesus taught humility to the high and mighty.  This lesson, of course, was taught by many in the ancient world, and if nowhere else, the lesson was made clear by the inevitability of death.  But no one could teach, and demonstrate, humility like Jesus, the Son of the Almighty God, who left the glories of heaven to come to earth as a lowly human.  Not only that, but Jesus subjected himself to a cruel death at the hands of wicked men.  Jesus sought to win back his creation by love and mercy, not by force and overpowering might.  In God’s eyes, no human is better than any other– all will face God’s judgment and all have access to God’s mercy.  

     So it is from Jesus that we learn of our dignity, and, of our need for humility.  Both truths were expressed by Mary when Jesus was still in her womb.  After the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, Mary sang a song of praise to God which included these words: “God has brought down the rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:52).

     God brings down some and lifts up others.  We see God doing this throughout the Bible.  In the early pages of the Old Testament, the might of Pharaoh is crushed and God raises up Moses to free the Hebrew slaves.  In the book of I Samuel, the shepherd boy David defeats the giant warrior Goliath.  In the book of Judges, Gideon, with only 300 men, defeats the whole army of the Midianites that had been threatening the Hebrews.

     The entire nation of Israel went through a whole history of being raised up and then brought down.  Sometimes they are lowly and despised and praying for help.  God would then raise them up and give them the strength to defeat their enemies.  Other times, the people of Israel are the arrogant and powerful ones who need to be humbled and brought low so they can return to the Lord.  And then, when they would return, the Lord was always willing to lift them up again.  This rising and falling is the story of God’s people in the Old Testament.

     When the people were brought down by God, their defeat became the opportunity for their salvation because it brought them back to God.  What good is even a whole lifetime of happiness, power, and wealth if it blinds you and turns you away from God’s eternal salvation?  Or as Jesus put it, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul.”  For the Israelites, it was only the defeat and destruction of their nation reawakened their faith in God.  They were humbled, but in their humility, God did not forget their dignity,and God restored them.  (continued…)

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It has been often said, very truly, that  (the Christian) religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary.  –G. K. Chesterton

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Luke 2:34-35a  —  Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, Jesus’ mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”

Deuteronomy 32:39a  —  (God says), “See now that I myself am He.  There is no god besides me.  I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal.”

Hosea 6:1  —  Come, let us return to the Lord.  He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us; he has injured us, but he will bind up our wounds.

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

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PSALM 18:2a, 6, 16, 27, 49a:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge…

In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears…

He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters…

You save the humble
    but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.

Therefore I will praise you, Lord…