1694) Christ the King (part three of three)

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            (…continued)  Keller reminds his listeners that they grew up in a culture that has for centuries been grounded in and shaped by Christianity, and whether they know it or not, their idea of a God of love comes from the old, old story of Jesus and his love.  Such an idea is found nowhere else.  They may think they have rejected the Christian faith, even as they cling to its most basic precept: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  No one or no other book has ever told such a story.

            What is that story of God’s love?  It is the story of God himself, who left his perfect home in heaven, in order to join us in the messiness and sadness of life in this world, made wicked by our sin.  Jesus chose to be born in the most humble of circumstances, grow up as a normal child, and then for three years teach his message to the world.  Jesus spent his time with the poor and downtrodden and sinners of every kind.  Young and idealistic New Yorkers like that.  And then would get Jesus in trouble with the both the religious and political establishment.  They like that too.  But Jesus would not back down; they like that too.  And so Jesus went to the cross, and his first words from the cross were words of reconciliation and peace, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And Jesus turned to the repentant thief on the cross next to him, another outcast, and said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

          Jesus was inclusive of all, and welcoming to all.  And Keller’s 20-something New Yorkers like that too.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus was open to those of every age and race and nationality.  But to everyone he said, “Come to me.”  He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  He said, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in me should not perish but have everlasting life.”  And then Keller tells them how Jesus rose from the dead, and why they can believe that really happened, and how that validates everything Jesus said and did.  And he tells them that is why we should listen to everything Jesus says, whether we like it or not.  If Jesus is God, we should listen up; and they do.

          You are right, Keller says, God is love.  But we’ve heard that from Jesus and from no one else.  In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we see the suffering, sacrificing love of God.

          Forgiveness always has a cost.  There is always pain when someone must be forgiven.  You know that if you have ever had to forgive someone who has hurt you.  In the agony of Jesus on the cross we see made visible the suffering that is always in the heart of God over the unfaithfulness of the people he created.

          Keller invites his cynical, young New Yorkers to let him know if they can find such love of God anywhere else.  They can’t, and they come by the thousands to find and worship Jesus in that congregation that still proclaims that truth.

          Christ is the King, for all time and in all places, even in New York.  Believe in Jesus and you will be saved.

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I John 4:7-19  —  Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.  This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God,God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.  God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.  There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.  We love because he first loved us.

Matthew 11:28  —  (Jesus said), “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

John 14:6  —  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.

Philippians 2:5b-11 —  Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

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Jesus loves me this I know,

For the Bible tells me so.

1693) Christ the King (part two of three)

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Timothy Keller  (1950- )

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            (…continued)  Timothy Keller is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America, the more conservative of the two largest Presbyterian denominations.  In 1987, he moved to Manhattan to try and start a new church for a largely non-churchgoing population.  During the research phase of the new church start, he was told by almost everyone that it was a foolish attempt.  Keller was moderately conservative, New Yorkers were liberal and edgy.  Church meant traditional families, the city was filled with singles and ‘non-traditional’ families.  Church meant belief, but Manhattan was the land of skeptics, critics, and cynics.  The middle class, the usual market for the church, was fleeing the city because of rising costs.  That left the wealthy, the sophisticated, and the hip, most of whom just laughed at the idea of church.  The congregations that were in the city were dwindling, most barely able to even maintain their buildings.

            People also told Keller that the few congregations that were hanging on had done so by adapting their message to a more modern crowd.  He was told that he must not tell New Yorkers they have to believe in Jesus, because that is considered narrow-minded there.  Church consultants were convinced Keller was a fool when he told them he was going preach traditional, historic, orthodox Christianity.  He was going to teach the infallibility of the Bible, the deity of Christ, and the necessity of conversion to faith in Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior—all doctrines considered hopelessly outdated by the majority of New Yorkers.  He was also told by the experts that he would need to liven up the worship service with a contemporary music and an informal order of service; and, a few dancing bears, magicians, strobe lights, and other gimmicks wouldn’t hurt.  Keller said he planned to do the traditional liturgy with organ music and old hymns.  New Yorkers said, “fuggedaboutit.”

            Nevertheless, Keller started Redeemer Presbyterian Church from scratch, and within 20 years it had grown to more than 5,000 attendees, along with spawning more than a dozen satellite congregations in the immediate metropolitan area.  The churches are multi-ethnic, diverse, young (average age 30), and two-thirds of the members are single.  The church in America is not dead, and that old-time religion can still speak and change hearts.

            One of the things Keller does is he engages in conversation with his young and cynical attenders.  He takes their questions seriously, and then he responds with questions of his own.  Let me give you an example relating to this morning’s theme.  Many young New Yorkers would consider offensive the very idea of Christ as King.  First of all, the image of a King is too authoritarian for them, too much like the establishment.  Second of all, it is too male-oriented; as is the rest of the Bible, they say, seeing no room for their strident feminism.  And why all this emphasis on Christ in the first place?  Sure, Jesus might have been a good guy, but what about all the other religious leaders?  They say Christians act like they are the only ones who have the truth.  And what about this dying on the cross business?  If God wanted to forgive everyone, why didn’t he just say, “Okay, you are off the hook,” and leave it at that?  And what does one man’s death on a cross 2,000 years ago have to do with me today?  Besides, there are too many rules in Christianity.  Why can’t it just be me and God?  I have God in my heart and God is love and isn’t that enough?  Oftentimes someone will say ‘God is Love,’ as if that settles it once and for all.

            Keller will commend them for their questions and their interest, and then continues the conversation with questions of his own.  He will ask, for example, “What makes you think God is a God of love?  Where have you heard that?  On what do you base that belief?”  Then the conversation slows down a bit.  Responses do not come as quickly as the questions, and the best he usually gets is something like, “Well, it’s just true, God is love—everyone knows that.”

            Keller will then say, “No, not everyone does know that or believes that at all.  What makes you think so?  Is it obvious from the world around you that God is love?  It doesn’t look that way to me– not without the Bible to explain a few things.  Should we trust what the ‘God in our heart?’ tells us?  The God in some people’s hearts tell them to kill other people.  In what religion of the world do you see a God of love?  Buddhism teaches a way of life, but not a god of love.  Hinduism says the universe is god and god is the universe, so again, no god of love.  Islam proclaims an all-powerful, all-knowing god that gives everything and determines everything, but definitely not a personal god of love.  Where do you get the idea that God is love?  Liberal New Yorkers might be all for that, but most people in the world don’t see God that way at all.

            And then Keller reminds his listeners that they grew up in a culture that has for centuries been grounded in and shaped by Christianity, and whether they know it or not, their idea of a God of love comes from the old, old story of Jesus and his love.  Such an idea is found nowhere else.  They may think they have rejected the Christian faith, even as they cling to its most basic precept: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  No one or no other book has ever told such a story. (continued…)

–Tim Keller tells the story of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in his 2008 book The Reason for God:  Belief in an Age of Skepticism.  His conversations about how we can know God is a God of love can be found in chapter five of that book.

1692) Christ the King (part one of three)

Christ the King Sunday sermon, November 26,2017.

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John 18:33-37  —  Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  …  “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” …  “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”  …  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”  …  “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.  Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

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            In Matthew 20 there is this story: “The mother of Zebedee’s sons (James and John) came to Jesus with her sons, and kneeling down, asked Jesus for a favor.  ‘What is it you want?’ Jesus asked.  She said, ‘Grant that my two sons may sit at your left and at your right when you come into your kingdom.’  (It was clear by then that Jesus was going to be a king of some sort, and she wanted her sons to be at the highest places of authority, in the seats right next to the king.)  And Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking.”

          Remember that line.  I will be coming back to it.

            From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, many people had high expectations of him.  It is not surprising that they looked for him to be some kind of earthly king.  They hated Roman rule, and they hated the cruel King Herod who the Romans had put over them.  They had heard about the glory days of good King David, and the prophets seemed to have foretold the return of such a kingdom of peace and justice, free from foreign rule.  And when Jesus arrived, the first thing he said was, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”  The people’s plans for Jesus are made clear in John 6:15 where it says, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”  Jesus had something else in mind.

            Those words are near the beginning of John’s Gospel.  This morning’s text (above) is from near the end.  Pilate is questioning Jesus about this very thing.  The Jewish leaders, who want Jesus out of the way, accuse him of claiming to be a king.  That would be treason, and if guilty of that, Pilate would have to have him executed.  So Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king.  Jesus, unconcerned about the power this Roman governor has over his life, gives Pilate the run-around and never does give him a direct answer.  But what Jesus does say, and what was at the heart of his message, is in verse 36; “My kingdom is NOT of this world; my kingdom is from another place.”

            The conversation continues.  Pilate, the most powerful man in the region, seems weak and confused before Jesus, the handcuffed prisoner.  Pilate first declares Jesus innocent; but then caves into the pressure of the crowd and the religious leaders to have him killed.  And that very afternoon, Jesus is sent out to be executed by crucifixion, and, to be named the King of the Jews.  John 19:19 says Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross.  The notice read; “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” It was written in three languages so everyone could read it.  Today is Christ the King Sunday.  It was on the cross that Jesus was first declared king.

        Think back now to the words of Jesus to James and John, whose mother wanted them to be at Jesus right and left when he became king.  Jesus had said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking.” Well, it is here that Jesus was proclaimed king.  The sign said so; that sign posted over his broken and bleeding body, hands and feet nailed to a cross.  And who was on the right and left of Jesus?  Not James and John, (lucky for them), but two thieves, also nailed to crosses, bloody and battered, with the life draining out of them.  I wonder if the brothers were then thinking back to their mother’s request, a request they were in full agreement with.  They might have thought it was a good idea at the time, but not anymore.

            We don’t know what prompted Pilate to put that sign over Jesus head, declaring him King of the Jews.  It was probably just to irritate the Jewish leaders.  They were irritated and asked Pilate to change it.  He refused.  Or perhaps it was just in scornful derision of the whole business, declaring a dying man king over a people he despised.  But then again, Pilate really did seem intrigued by Jesus, and perhaps putting up that sign was a statement of Pilate’s respect for this good and courageous and noble man, with whom he had one powerful conversation.

            But for whatever reason the sign was put there, it did proclaim the truth.  Jesus was, and still is, the king of the Jews– and the Romans, the Africans, the Americans, the Russians, the North Koreans, the Arabs, and everyone else has ever lived.  We now know what those at the cross that day did not yet know, that Jesus, though dying, was only beginning his rule, and would rise from the dead triumphant over death and over all creation.  And somehow, by that death on that cross, we are forgiven or our sins, made right with God, and promised eternal life in heaven; all, if only we will believe it.  The cross was not the end of the story, but only the beginning of all what it would mean that Christ is King.  I’ll get back to that.  (continued…)

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1691) No More Chains

From:  http://www.opendoorsusa.org

     El Gasim, an African Muslim, saw the sign of the cross one day while praying the usual five times a day in the prison where he was incarcerated.  He changed positions but the cross wouldn’t go away.  This went on for seven days.  He had no explanation for it, except that Christ was calling him to give his life to Him.  A Christian pastor, also in that prison, explained that living for Christ would not be without suffering.  They prayed together.
 
     Other Muslim inmates saw El Gasim praying one day with another Christian prisoner and reported them to the authorities.  When summoned to the superintendent’s office, they openly declared their faith in Christ and received twenty-five lashes each.  The other prisoner denied his new faith, but El Gasim confessed Christ and said he would face the consequence, no matter what.  This enraged the authorities.  He was beaten, shackled in chains weighing over fifty pounds and put on death row to be hanged. 

     The imprisoned pastor had great compassion for El Gasim, knowing that if God did not intervene, he was surely staring death in the eye.  He told him the story of Paul and Silas in prison, reminding him that he wasn’t the first to be beaten and chained for the sake of Christ.  The important thing to remember was that Paul and Silas prayed and praised God, and their chains fell off and the prison doors opened.  The pastor confirmed that it could still happen today, because the power that worked then, was still at work today.  They prayed together, earnestly seeking God’s will.
 
     The pastor retired to his room and continued praying.  In the meantime, El Gasim, who then felt encouraged by the sharing, took a first step and to his surprise, the unexpected happened—the chain broke loose and fell from one of his legs.  Bystanders, whose attention were drawn by the sound of the falling chain, watched in amazement as he took the second step—the same thing happened.   A miracle had happened right before him and his other inmates.  El Gasim went to the warder and told him, “Your chains are in the chapel; go and collect them.”
 
     Trembling and confused the warder informed his superiors of this strange occurrence.  An emergency meeting was convened.  The incident could not be ignored or laughed off as nonsense.  There were too many witnesses.  They decided that it would be best to let El Gasim go free, because if he stayed he would certainly convert others to Christianity.  Sending him to another prison wouldn’t help either, because even there they couldn’t stop Christ from doing miracles.  

     El Gasim was released.

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Acts 16:22-34  —  The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods.  After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully.  When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.  About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.  Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken.  At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.  The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.  But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”  The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas.  He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”  Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.  At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.  The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

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 PRAYER FOR PRISONERS:

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal.  Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment.  Remember all prisoners and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future.  When any are held injustly, bring them release…  Remember those who work in these institutions;  protect them, keep them human and compassionate, and save them from becoming brutal or callous…  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg Publishing House, 1978 (#186).

1690) Getting and Giving (part two of two)

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   (…continued)  An hour later I sat in the sanctuary at the morning worship service.  I tried to concentrate, but my mind kept flashing back to the scene downstairs at senior breakfast.  What had happened on that cold, drizzly Sunday morning?

     Normally, I had to act as a kind of police force.  I watched for the street people who stuffed extra packets of sugar in their pockets and sneaked Styrofoam cups inside their coats.  I warned my kitchen volunteers not to leave anything unattended, as some of them had lost umbrellas, jackets, or purses.  I even patrolled the restrooms to make sure paper towels and toilet paper rolls were not stolen.

     The day of Charles’s visit was different.  Those same people, even the most indigent among them, were digging around in their purses and pockets for money to give away.  I saw their instincts reverse:  they emptied their pockets, instead of stuffing them full.  In the end, the senior citizens left the room much happier than when they had entered.  And so did I.

     As I mulled it over, I could come up with only one reason:  the joy of giving.  For once the seniors had an opportunity to give, not receive.  Are people somehow incomplete and unsatisfied unless they find a way to give to others?  Watching my seniors, I could not avoid that conclusion.  For most of them, living on small Social Security checks in public housing, society doesn’t offer much opportunity to give.  To live always on the receiving end must foster a peculiar kind of shame.  I saw before me the dramatic change that took place when they, too, had an opportunity to give.

     An intriguing verse in the book of Hebrews says, without much explanation, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”  Who knows, we might have entertained five angels in the basement of LaSalle Street Church that day.  They left with full stomachs, and smiles on their faces.  And they also helped 50 seniors learn about a joy they don’t get to experience much—the joy of giving.

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Hebrews 13:1-2  —  Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.  Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

Acts 20:35  —  In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

Proverbs 22:9  —  The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.

II Corinthians 9:6-7  —  Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.  Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Matthew 25:40  —  (Jesus said), “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

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Lord Jesus, who came not to be served by to serve, help us live useful lives.

Help us always to encourage, and never to discourage others; to be more ready to praise than to criticize; to sympathize rather than condemn.

Help us always to help, and never to hinder others.  Help us to make the work of others easier and not harder.  Help us to not find fault with the efforts of others unless it is our job to do so, or unless we are prepared to do the thing better ourselves.  Make us more ready to co-operate than object, and more ready to say yes than to say no when our help is needed.

Help us always to be a good example, and never a bad example.  Help us always to make it easier for others to do the right thing, and never make it easier for them to go wrong.  Help us always to take our stand beside anyone who is standing for the right.

Grant that our lives may be lights shining for you in this dark world.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

A Barclay Prayer Book, by William Barclay (1907-1978), page 244-245, (adapted).

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1689) Getting and Giving (part one of two)

Posted November 22, 2017, at http://www.philipyancey.com.  Philip Yancey is a best-selling Christian author.  This story is written by his wife Janet who, as a social worker in Chicago, “learned a lasting lesson about gratitude and giving.”

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     When the alarm went off at 7:00 a.m. that dreary Chicago morning, I had to fight the temptation to roll over and ignore it.  I could hear the rain coming down in sheets outside.  But my senior citizens’ program provided a free breakfast for needy seniors, so I got dressed and headed toward my assignment at LaSalle Street Church.

     On Sundays a contingent of homeless and street people joined our regular group of neighborhood residents.  We welcomed all who came, and for some our breakfast was the best meal they’d have all week.  The heavy rain must have deterred some seniors that day, because only about 50, instead of our usual 60 or 70, showed up for breakfast.

     I had been cooking Sunday breakfast for four years, long enough for the magical glow of “doing something good for the needy” to have faded.  Rainy days presented additional problems.  Soaking wet, the street people smelled even worse than usual and tramped mud on the floor, which upset the neighborhood seniors.

     Within a few minutes, other volunteers from the church arrived to lend a hand in the cooking process.  We had 100 eggs to crack, 50 muffins to butter, gallons of coffee to make, and silverware and plates to set out.  The cramped kitchen soon came alive with the clatter of dishes and the enticing smells of breakfast.  Buoyed by the volunteers’ enthusiasm, I felt my morning depression begin to fade.

     Right at our busiest moment, however, someone called my name.  “Janet, someone out here wants to see you.  Says he needs help.”

     That was the last thing I wanted to hear.  As a social worker I heard that line at least once a day.  Street people stopped by the church office to ask for help, spinning fantastic tales of hardship and bad luck.  When I checked out their stories, I found that very few held up.  Sadly, I learned that most were really after money for alcohol.

     I wiped my hands on my apron and went out to meet the new arrival.  He was a slender African-American, slight and stooped, with hair just beginning to turn gray.  He wore neat, though well-worn clothes, and held a hat in his hands.  As he spoke in a very soft voice, he looked down toward the floor rather than directly at me.

     “My name’s Charles,” he said.  “I’ve been driving up and down Chicago streets looking for a church that’s open this early,” he said.  “Yours was the only one with a light on.  I wonder if we could talk.”

     Charles didn’t show the typical signs of shiftiness.  He seemed sincere, and humble.  After a glance toward the kitchen to check the crew’s progress, I steered Charles to a hallway out of the traffic pattern, and nodded for him to go ahead.

     He had come from Madison, Wisconsin, he said.  He had no job, and lived on a public assistance check.  His wife had been committed to a mental institution, so he was trying to raise his four children alone.  He had driven to Chicago to visit a diabetic sister, hospitalized for a leg amputation.

     “To tell you the truth,” he said hesitantly, “I need some gas money.  I thought I had enough, but then my car broke down.”  He had found a junkyard and bought a used starter, which he installed himself, using up his money.

     Charles glanced at the food piled high on the kitchen counter.  “Maybe you can’t help me with the gas,” he said.  “But I’m worried about my kids.  We been sleepin’ in the car, and they haven’t eaten in a few days.  Do you think there’d be enough food left over to give them a bite?”

     My skepticism melted as he talked.  Charles’s story was far less preposterous than most, and even his body language seemed trustworthy.  I had taken this job to help people with true needs, and something told me I had met one in Charles.

     “Sure—we have a smaller crowd today, and plenty of food,” I told him.  “Bring your children in.  You’re welcome here.”

     The seniors fell silent and watched as Charles brought his children.  First he carried in a three year old, wrapped in his dad’s heavy coat.  Then a five year old, likewise carried in his arms.  The older two, seven and nine, trailed behind, looking around wide-eyed at the room full of senior citizens.  Despite the cold weather outside, all wore short-sleeve shirts, and were shoeless.

     I asked the seniors if they would make room for some visitors.  They seemed to brighten up at the prospect of children joining them.  “You just sit right here and make yourself at home,” said Bertha, a 75-year-old black woman, as she pulled the three year old onto her lap.

     The children sat quietly and seemed extremely shy—until food appeared.  Even before we served the hot plates, seniors were already offering them bananas and muffins smeared with jam.  In the next few minutes, those five visitors ate enough eggs and ham and muffins to feed the Chicago Bears.

     I was dashing in and out of the kitchen, carrying platters of food, yet I could sense a different atmosphere settling in, like a change of weather.  Many seniors had started the day grouchy, just as I had.  Soon the room was filled with the hum of conversation, and the musical sounds of laughter.

     “We ought to invite some children every Sunday morning!” one of the volunteers said to me.  She was right; their presence transformed the mood.  Older women fussed over the kids’ clothes and hair.  Some of the gruffest of the men entertained them with coin tricks.  Instead of hoarding extra food, the seniors collected leftovers to pack in a lunch bag for the visitors’ trip back home.

   It dawned on me that most of our regulars, tucked away in “senior housing,” had little or no contact with children.  They were coming alive, taking to the youngsters like—well, like grandparents.

     Prayer time centered on Charles and his family.  And then I asked the seniors if they wanted to help out.   Could we donate that morning’s offering toward their journey back to Madison?  They nodded an enthusiastic yes.

     Each week we set out a blue saucer on each table, and the seniors deposited their nickels and dimes and quarters to help with breakfast.  The offering averaged about seven dollars.  Occasionally, I heard reports that a few seniors, pretending to make change, took out more than they put in.

     Not that morning.  Wang, the mostly-blind Chinese man renowned for his stinginess, dug around in his pocket for an extra quarter.  Gertie, a toughened spinster, fumbled in her purse for a dollar bill.  The morning devotional speaker slipped me a ten-dollar bill for Charles and his kids.  Two kitchen volunteers contributed five dollars.  When all the money got pooled together, we counted more than forty dollars for our drop-in guests.  I took the money to Charles in a plastic Baggie.  “What you don’t use for gas is yours to keep,” I told him.

     Charles couldn’t keep still any longer.  He asked to say a few words to the group.  Unaccustomed to public speaking, he gripped the back of a chair fiercely as he spoke.  “I just want you to know you’re beautiful people…and I appreciate this…and just know that my kids and I thank you very very much.”  He ran out of words and sat down, and I didn’t see a dry eye in the entire church basement.

     When a battered old station wagon finally pulled away from the church, it passed through a line of senior citizens, waving and calling goodbyes to a middle-aged man and four grinning children.  (continued…)

1688) Reminders to Be Grateful (pt. two of two)

     (…continued)  This story of Isak is not from the Bible, but it is certainly consistent with what the Bible says about thankfulness.  Isak is a man who deeply appreciates what he has received.  He not only expresses his thanks in words, but he lets his gratitude shape his whole life, including his obedience to his king.  When King Olaf tested his servants in the first half of the story, Isak dramatically showed that nothing would get in the way of his obedience to the word of his king.  In the second half of the story, we learn the source of that obedience.  Isak lives in gratitude for all that the king has done for him.  “All that I have is a gift from you,” he declares.  That thankfulness leads not only to obedience, but also to trust, wisdom, and even love for and forgiveness of his enemies, those who are jealously trying to get rid of him.

     Thankfulness, obedience, trust, wisdom, love, and forgiveness—all are Biblical virtues and all are present in this good man Isak, and the source of all of them is his gratitude.   But the story has yet another lesson for us.  At the heart of Isak’s gratitude is yet another quality, and that is remembrance.    Isak was thankful because he remembered where he came from, remembered what he was without the king, and took time every day to do that remembering.

     The others in the king’s court were not like Isak.  They were not loving, kind, forgiving, wise, and obedient.  They were mean-spirited, bitter, hateful, jealous, and self-serving.  They were perhaps at one time deeply thankful to the king for giving them such a high position.  And even now, if asked, they would probably say, yes, they were grateful to the king.  But their lives did not reflect this.  They took their blessings for granted, they were proud, and they wanted more.  They resented Isak’s favored position and wanted him out of their way so they could be closer to the king; and, they greedily rushed into the secret chamber thinking of all the gold that they thought would be theirs.

     Isak was not that way, but remained as humble and grateful as the king found him in that field, tending sheep.  Why did he remain thankful?  Because he remembered where he came from.  Every day he went to look at that old tattered coat and the old homemade boots, and he was reminded to be thankful.  That is the moral of the story, and that is the purpose of Thanksgiving Day.  It is a day to remember to be thankful.

   It is so easy to forget.  It is so easy to forget the big picture of how things really are, and where we would be without God.  The temptation is to see only the little picture, only the person across the street, and say, “Why does my neighbor work fewer hours and make more money than me?”  Or, “How come she is always able to buy new clothes, and I can’t?”  Or, “Why do all my friends get to spend their retirement traveling, and I can hardly get out of bed without help?”  We don’t remember the ten million good things God has given us.  We don’t remember that he has given us life itself.  We don’t remember that he has given us Jesus Christ, in whom we have the promise of eternal life in his perfect home.  When we forget all that we can become bitter, and not thankful; and such bitterness can eat away at our relationships with others and with God.  We can’t be thankful when we don’t remember.

     God knew how important such remembering would be for us.  It is so important that God made it one of the Ten Commandments.  “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy,” says the commandment.  What is it do we do on the Sabbath Day?  We keep it holy by worshipping God that day, and that reminds us of the big picture.  We are reminded that we are nothing without God.  We are reminded that as the Bible tells us, “every good and perfect gift is from above.”  We are reminded again of the old, old story of Jesus and his love; and all of that builds into us a spirit of thankfulness.

     Isak remembered the goodness of King Olaf by going up to that secret room every day, and looking at those old boots and that old coat.   We remember our King and Lord and Savior by worshiping Him at church, by giving thanks to Him in prayer, and by reading his Word.

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     Without such reminders, we will forget to be thankful.  It is remembering that leads to gratitude.

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Psalm 77:11  —  I will remember the deeds of the Lordyes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

Deuteronomy 5:12  —  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

II Timothy 2:8a  —  Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.

I Corinthians 11:23-25  —  For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you:  The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

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PSALM 103:1-2:

Praise the Lord, my soul;
    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Praise the Lord, my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits.

1687) Reminders to Be Grateful (pt. one of two)

From Stories for Telling, a collection of folk tales by William White, 1986, Augsburg Publishing House, pages 96-100.

     Isak was King Olaf’s most trusted friend and advisor.  When the royal court was in session, Isak always stood at the king’s right hand.  Very few people realized that only a few years before this, the king had discovered Isak tending sheep, dressed in a tattered sheepskin jacket and a crude pair of homemade boots.  The king had been so impressed with the wisdom and honesty of this simple man, that he gave him a job in the royal court.  In a matter of only a few months, Isak became the chief servant and treasurer of the king.

     Each month Isak brought his master an accounting of all the gold and precious jewels stored in the palace vaults; and he also kept track of the value of all the furnishings of every room in the entire palace. 

     There was one exception to this careful accounting.  Nothing was ever mentioned about the chamber in the top-most tower, the room where Isak spent an hour in the middle of each day.  No none knew what was inside the thick doors of that mysterious room, for Isak was the only one who possessed a key; and he made no account of what was in there to anyone—not even to the king.

     One day the king decided to put all the members of his royal court to a test.  He entered the hall where they all were assembled.  The king was carrying a large, beautiful pearl.  Calling the first servant, King Olaf asked, “What do you think this pearl is worth?”

     The man replied with great emotion.  “More than 100 wagonloads of gold,” he said.”

     “Break it,” commanded the king, setting the pearl on a stone table and pointing to a large hammer by the wall.

     “Impossible, my Lord,” the servant cried.  “This pearl is too valuable to destroy.”

     “That is an interesting answer,” the king said thoughtfully.

     King Olaf turned next to the second servant.  “Do you also judge this jewel to be valuable?” he asked.

     “I certainly do, my Lord,” the second servant replied.  “It is surely worth half a kingdom.”

     “Break it,” commanded the king.

     “I cannot,” the servant humbly declared, “for to destroy such a thing of beauty would bring dishonor to my king.”

     “Thank you for your response,” the king said softly.

     One by one the servants refused to break the magnificent pearl, and with each refusal, the king became quieter.

Finally, the king turned to Isak and asked, “What do you think this pearl is worth?”

          The king’s most trusted servant answered like the others, saying, “More than all the gold I have ever seen.”

          “Break it,” commanded the king.

          Quickly Isak moved to pick up the large hammer.  He raised it over his head, and then pounded the precious gem into a pile of worthless dust.

         A storm of protest arose from all the other servants.  “Isak is a madman,” they shouted.

     Isak raised his arm and asked to speak.  The king nodded to give his permission, and Isak said, “What is more precious, a pearl, or, our king’s command?  Anyone who would put a mere stone before the word of the king lacks true loyalty.”

     When he finished speaking, the other members of the court bowed their heads in shame, and they began to be afraid.  “We have allowed our good sense to be swayed by a piece of stone,” they said, and feared for their lives.

     King Olaf was pleased that Isak had exposed the foolishness and lack of loyalty in all the other members of the court.  He signaled for the executioner to draw his sword. 

     Immediately, Isak fell to his knees before the king.  He said, “I beg you to spare the lives of your servants.  Use this as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of forgiveness.”

     Deeply moved, the king pardoned all his servants, who pledged him their eternal loyalty.  And then, though the servants were grateful to the king, they were angry with Isak for making them look bad.  They vowed to find some way to get him in trouble with the king.

     Soon the attention of those jealous servants was drawn to Isak’s daily trips to the secret chamber.  One servant began to question what Isak had hidden in his secret room.   Another pointed out that only Isak had a key to that room.  Finally, one said, “Isak must be stealing from the King and storing it all in his secret chamber!”

     The servants grew more and more suspicious, and finally decided to tell the King what they thought was in the room, declaring their belief that Isak was not as trustworthy as he appears.

     The King said, “I have never asked Isak about his trips to this secret room.  You have my permission to search it and whatever you find is yours to keep.”

   The servants rushed up the stairs, broke the iron lock, and swarmed into the room greedily, looking all around for the hidden treasure.  But what they saw confused them.  The room was empty, except for a dusty sheepskin jacket and a tattered old pair of boots.  

     Then, King Olaf entered the room, followed by Isak.  The king said with a smirk, “By this time you must all be rich men.  Quick, show me all the gold.”

     “Forgive us, great king,” they said. “We found nothing but this old jacket and these old boots.”

     Turning to Isak, the king said with a chuckle, “This is indeed a strange treasure that you are hiding.  Could you explain to us why these items are so valuable.

     And Isak bowed his head and said, “Oh great king, when you chose to lift me up to my position in the royal court I had nothing in the world.  Without your grace, what am I?”

     “Nothing but a shepherd,” sneered all the other servants.

     “A shepherd who wore a sheepskin jacket and a homemade pair of boots,” said Isak.  “Each day I return to this room to remember who I am and where I came from.  The jacket reminds me not to take my present position too seriously.  The boots point to the lowliness of my birth.   I remember, and I am thankful for your trust in me.” 

     The King smiled and said, “I am pleased that you have continued to serve me with a humble heart.  I never doubted your faithfulness.  The room will remain as it has been.  These simple objects are of far more value than gold or jewels.”  (continued…)

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1686) The Danger of Drifting

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By John Piper at: www:desiringgod.org

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Hebrews 2:1  —  Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.

     We all know people that this has happened to.  There is no urgency.  No vigilance.  No focused listening or considering or fixing of their eyes on Jesus.  And the result has not been a standing still, but a drifting away.

     That is the point here: there is no standing still.  The life of this world is not a lake.  It is a river.  And it is flowing downward to destruction.  If you do not listen earnestly to Jesus and consider him daily and fix your eyes on him hourly, then you will not stand still, you will go backward.  You will float by.

     Drifting is a deadly thing in the Christian life.  And the remedy to it, according to Hebrews 2:1, “Pay close attention to what you have heard.”  That is, consider what God is saying in his Son Jesus.  Fix your eyes on what God is saying and doing in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

     This is not a hard stroke to learn so that we can swim against the stream of sin and indifference.  The only thing that keeps us from swimming like this is our sinful desire to float with other interests.

     But let us not complain that God has given us a hard job.  Listen, consider, fix the eyes — this is not what you would call a hard job description.  It is not a job description.  It is a solemn invitation to keep looking to Jesus so that we do not get lured downstream by deceitful desires.

     If you are drifting today, one of the signs of hope that you are born again is that you feel pricked for this, and there is a rising desire in your heart to turn your eyes on Jesus and consider him and listen to him in the days and months and years to come.

Keep your eyes on Jesus.

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Jeremiah 7:23-24  —  I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people.  Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.  But they did not listen or pay attention.  Instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts.  They went backward and not forward.

Hebrews 2:1  —  Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.

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Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly, day by day.  Amen.

–St. Richard of Chichester, English Bishop   (1197-1253)

1685) Make Up Your Mind to Be Thankful– and Happy

Image result for lincoln quotes images as happy as they make up their minds

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It is not the happy people who are thankful; it is the thankful people who are happy.

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Things turn out best for the people who make the best of how things turn out. –Art Linkletter

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     It was early morning in the big airport.  The weather was very bad.  Passengers were waiting to find out whether their flights would be delayed, or even cancelled.  Ahead of me in the line was a little gray-haired lady.  Ahead of her was a man, red-eyed and rumpled, who evidently had just flown in from the West Coast.  He was giving the agent a hard time.  His flight had been very rough.  He hadn’t slept.  His plane had been stacked up over the airport for an hour.  There hadn’t been enough coffee on board for breakfast; some passengers had to do without.  He thought this was disgraceful.  He said so, loudly.

     The agent looked tired himself, but he was patient and polite.  He apologized for the weather and for the plane’s late arrival.

     “But the coffee!” snapped the man irately.  “There’s no excuse!  How do you account for that?”

     Before the agent could attempt a reply, the old lady reached out and tapped the man on the shoulder.  She said mildly, “Do you mind if I say something to you?”

      The man turned, looking surprised.

     “Sir,” said the old lady, “you have just traveled across an entire continent in five or six hours.  You were lifted above the clouds and drawn here through the skies where you saw the dawn rushing to meet you.  You have just experienced a miracle that mankind could only dream about for thousands of years.  And you stand there complaining about having no coffee!”

     There was quite a long pause.  Finally the man said, “Madam, you are quite right.  Thanks for setting me straight.  It will be a long time before I forget what you just said.”  As he turned away, I was told that my flight would be two hours late.  I found that I didn’t mind.  

–Arthur Gordon, Guideposts, July 1989

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     I remember when I was a seminarian many years ago.  I had a head-cold and went up to the infirmary to get some medicine.  While I was waiting in the corridor of the infirmary, I saw one of the Brothers saying goodnight to two bedridden priests in his care.  As he tucked the blanket of the first man under his chin, the old priest snarled, “Get your face out of mine.  What do you think this is?”

     When the Brother went into the next room and did the same thing for the other priest, the old man said, “Oh, Brother, you are really good to us, and before I go to sleep tonight, I am going to say a very special prayer of gratitude just for you.”  As I was standing out there in the darkened corridor, the thought struck me like thunder:  “Some day I am going to be one of those two priests.  Which one?”

     Then it came to me that I wouldn’t make that decision in old age.  You don’t make decisions like that when you are old, and, contrary to the rumor, not everyone mellows with age.  I realized then that I am making the decision right now.  I am choosing a vision of life.

     The present moment is the most important moment in my life.  I am deciding my future and my old age right now.  I must be acting on all the insights that l am getting now because one day, when I am the age of those two men in the infirmary, the habits of thinking that I have cultivated throughout my younger life will take over in me.  And I will either say, “Get your face out of mine” or “Thank you, you are very kind, and I am going to say a special prayer of gratitude for you before I fall asleep.”  I will be one of those two old people and so will you.  And you and I are making our decisions right now in terms of this vision, in terms of the way we are looking at ourselves, at other people and at life.

–John Powell, Free to Be Me, © 1978, Argus Press

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Romans 1:21 — For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 

I Thessalonians 5:16-18 — Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I Timothy 4:4-5 — For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. 

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Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, — a grateful heart… 
–George Herbert  (1593-1633)