1725) Year-end Prayers

To neglect at any time preparation for death, is to sleep on our post at a siege, but to omit it in old age, is to sleep at an attack.  - Samuel Johnson

By Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

     Almighty and most merciful God, who hast not yet suffered me to fall into the Grave, grant that I may remember my past life, as to repent of the days and years which I have spent in forgetfulness of thy mercy, and neglect of my own salvation, and so use the time which thou shalt yet allow me, (to) become every day more diligent in the duties which in thy Providence shall be assigned me, and that when at last I shall be called to Judgment I may be received as a good and faithful servant unto everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ…  Amen. (1747/8)

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     Almighty and everlasting God, in whose hands are life and death, by whose will all things were created, and by whose providence they are sustained; I return thee thanks that thou hast given me life, and that thou hast continued it to this time, that thou hast hitherto forborne to snatch me away in the midst of Sin and Folly, and hast permitted me still to enjoy the means of Grace and (time) to Repent.  Grant, O merciful Lord, that thy Call may not be in vain, that my life may not be continued to the increase of my Guilt, and that thy Gracious Forbearance may not harden my heart in wickedness.  Let me remember, O my God, that as Days and Years pass over me I approach nearer to the Grave, where there is no repentance, and grant, that by the assistance of thy Holy Spirit, I may so pass through this Life, that I may obtain Life everlasting…  Amen. (1744/5)

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     Almighty God, by whose will I was created, and by whose Providence I have been sustained, and by whose mercy I have been called to the knowledge of my Redeemer,…  grant, O Lord, that in reviewing my past life, I may recollect thy mercies to my preservation…  In affliction may I remember how often I have been (assisted), and in Prosperity may I know and confess from whose hand the blessing is received.  Let me, O Lord, so remember my sins, that I may abolish them by true repentance, and so improve the year to which thou hast graciously extended my life, and all the years which thou shalt yet allow me, that I may hourly become purer in thy sight; so that I may live in thy fear, and die in thy favor, and find mercy at the last day, for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Amen.  (1749/50)

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     Almighty God, by whose mercy my life has been yet prolonged to another year, grant that thy mercy may not be in vain.  Let not my years be multiplied to increase my guilt, but as (I grow older), let me become more pure in my thoughts, less desirous of sinful pleasures, more obedient to thy laws, and more careful of eternal happiness.  Let not the cares of the world distract me, nor the evils of age overwhelm me.  Enable me to use all enjoyments with due temperance, and run with diligence the race that is set before me.  Let not sin prevail on the remaining part of my life, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me, but as every day brings me nearer to my end, let every day contribute to make my end holy and happy.  As age comes upon me, let my mind be more withdrawn from vanity and folly, more enlightened with the knowledge of thy will, and more invigorated with resolution to obey it.  O Lord, calm my thoughts, direct my desires, and fortify my purposes.  Continue and increase thy lovingkindness to me, and, if it shall please thee, give quiet to my latter days.  And then, after the troubles of this life, when thou shalt call me hence, may I die in thy favor, for the sake of Jesus Christ…  Amen.  (A combination of phrases from the prayers of 1767, 1769, and 1773)

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Psalm 90:10, 12  —  The length of our days is seventy years, or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away…  Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. 

James 4:13-15  —  Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Philippians 3:13-14  —  Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do:  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

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Almighty God, by whose mercy I am permitted to behold the beginning of another year, bless me with thy help and favor.  Mitigate, if it shall seem best unto thee, the diseases of my body, and (calm) the disorders of my mind.  Dispel my terrors, and grant that the time which thou shalt yet allow me, may not pass unprofitably away.  Let not pleasure seduce me, idleness lull me, or misery depress me.  Let me perform to thy glory, and the good of my fellow creatures, the work which thou shalt yet appoint me.  And grant that as I draw nearer to my dissolution, I may, by the help of thy Holy Spirit, feel my knowledge of thee increased, my hope exalted, and my faith strengthened, that, when the hour which is coming shall come, I may pass by a holy death to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  (1770)

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1724) “Explain Yourself, God!”

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Adapted from Randy Alcorn’s December 29, 2017 bolg athttp://www.epm.org

     Sometimes we make the foolish assumption that our heavenly Father has no right to our trust unless He makes everything he does or allows completely understandable to us.  But if God offered us constant explanations for the circumstances we face, our lives would not be free or normal, and would not allow for faith or trust.

     I think of my friend John Franklin, who was playing softball when he was then a healthy thirty-nine-year-old.  John developed a headache and neck pain, so he took himself out of the game.  By the time the game finished, he needed help walking.

     Taken to the hospital, John became completely paralyzed and unable to speak.  Soon he was breathing with a ventilator.  John spent seven weeks in ICU and another four months in the hospital.  He underwent speech therapy, then a few years of occupational and physical therapy.  Now, over twenty years later, John remains restricted to a wheelchair.  Doctors never discovered why it happened.

     John’s youngest son, six years old when his father became disabled, wrote me, “I remember always being so mad that God did this to him.  One day I asked my dad why he wasn’t angry.  He said, ‘Why should I accept good from God and not evil?’  I think my jaw dropped and at the time I was angry at him for saying that.  But that experience has forever shaped my view of God and evil.”

     This wonderful family has certainly seen God at work.  But they still have no clear explanation of his purpose for John’s disability.

     Consider what our lives would be like if God regularly explained to us why He allows everything that disappoints us:

     Suppose you’re a teenage girl, sick on prom day. God could whisper, “I let you get pneumonia so you wouldn’t bond with that young man who wouldn’t be right for you, and so your parents would go get you your favorite dessert, where they’ll see a help-wanted poster and tell you so you apply and get the job, and meet the girl who will become your best friend and help you twenty years from now when your husband gets cancer, and…”

     “Whoa!” you say, “My husband?  What’s he like?  And why would you let him get cancer?”

     God replies, “In order to make you more Christlike and help you become more of a servant and…”

     You say, “But I don’t want to be a servant. And cancer terrifies me!”

      And God goes on, “…and teach your husband to depend on me, and draw your children and grandchildren closer to you, and…”

      And you say, “I’ll have children and grandchildren?  How many?  Girls or boys?  But how will they deal with their father’s cancer?”

     Do you see where this is going?  And it’s just one “simple” event.  How could God explain His purposes without revealing to us the life He intends for us to live later, not now?  And without imparting the grace that He will give us just when we need it, not in advance?

     The God of providence weaves millions of details into our lives and into all the lives around us.  Maybe He doesn’t have one big reason for bringing a certain person or success or failure or disease or accident into our lives; in fact, He may have hundreds of little reasons.  In order to understand God’s explanations, we would have to be God.

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Job 2:9-10  —  (Job’s) wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity?  Curse God and die!”   He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman.  Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

Isaiah 55:8-9  —  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Romans 8:28  —  We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

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O Lord, we know not what is good for us.  Thou knowest what it is.  For it we pray.

–Prayer of the Khonds in North India

1723) “Give Your Son to Your Enemy”

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This story is from the Open Doors USA magazine.

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     It was the greatest miracle that ever happened to Brother Duan, and he would not have experienced it had his bus not broken down.

     En route from a northern to a southern province of China in December, he happened to be passing through Henan province when the engine of the bus expired in its futile battle with the cold.

     On a whim, Duan trudged off through the fields, leaving the other passengers huddled inside the bus.  He was a house church leader in northern China.  Now 77 years of age, he still had no home to call his own.

     Truth is, he was deeply depressed.  He was on his way to mediate a dispute among some leaders and was weary of all the infighting that seemed to be harming the house churches.  And he was lonely.

     As he crossed the frozen field, Duan thought longingly of his beloved wife, who died long ago. And then the thought came into his tired mind of his little son, and an even darker cloud settled over his heart.

     He found a village and knocked on a door.  A little cross was notched on the doorpost.

     “Is there anyone here who loves the Lord?” he asked.  “I would love some fellowship tonight.”

     The door was opened by a man in his fifties, and Duan was warmly welcomed.  His feet were washed in a basin — the custom of welcoming a stranger among the house church movement — and was fed hot congee (rice porridge) and steaming vegetables.

     He noticed that the people were all excited.  It turned out that they would be traveling to a neighboring town to hear a dynamic Bible teacher from one of the bigger cities; a man named Brother Wang.

     As they made their way to the meeting, they told him some of the stories about Brother Wang.  It was clear they loved him dearly, and one of the men explained why.

     “We were once holding a training seminar here and heard the police were coming.  Brother Wang got everyone out, except our main pastor.  When the police arrived, Wang dared to bargain with them.  He would go to jail if our pastor — whose wife was eight months pregnant – could go free.  The policeman accepted his terms, and Brother Wang spent three years in prison.”

     “How old is Brother Wang?” Duan asked.  When told he was in his early 40s, Duan’s face showed great pain.

     “What’s the matter?” he was asked.  “Are you ill from the cart trip?”

     “No, I’m not ill,” he replied, “just very sad.  I once had a son, whom I knew for just two months.  He’s dead now, but if alive he would have been 42 today.  My wife called him the ‘Christmas Child,’ since he was born at Christmas time.  I called him ‘Isaac,’ because we had despaired for so long of having a child.”

     There was silence as they rode in the open cart under the stars.  Brother Duan told the incredible story of how he and his wife had been evangelists in the 1950s.  They refused to join the Three Self church, and Wu, an old school bully, kept accusing them of political and criminal offenses.  It was only a matter of time before they were jailed or killed, but what would happen to their boy?

     One night, Duan’s wife heard a strong voice in a vision, saying, “Give your son to your enemy.”  Knowing nothing about this, Duan read Genesis 22:2 the following morning: “Go get Isaac, your only son, the one you dearly love and sacrifice him to me.”

     Sharing their impressions, the couple decided on a course of action that caused Duan to wince in pain every day since.  They gave their boy to Wu and his wife — who were childless — even as Wu was arranging for the couple’s arrest.  Duan and his wife were arrested and sent to prison.

     It wasn’t until 1978, when Duan was released from jail, that he learned what happened to his wife and son.  She had died in the terrible famine of 1958, and his son had disappeared along with the Wu family under the rubble of a devastating earthquake in 1975.  Said Duan sadly as the little cart approached the meeting place, “God judged me for being so irresponsible with my little son.”

     As they arrived where the evangelist was to speak, a crowd of 200 people was already packed into the house.  Like many others, Duan had to sit in the courtyard and listen to the teacher through the open window.

     When Brother Wang began preaching, Duan felt a terrible shock.  It was like hearing himself!  He began to tremble with fear.  What did this mean?  Even the phrases the teacher used sounded familiar.

     Confused, Duan staggered up to the window to see the preacher, causing a commotion as he fell over people.  The preacher stopped and there was a moment of shocked silence as the men looked at each other.  The crowd was hushed as they realized the amazing physical likeness.

     “I’m sorry for interrupting your excellent message,” Duan began.  “You see, I had a son who would be your age right now.  If he had lived, he would have looked and sounded just like you.”

     Brother Wang began to tremble violently.  Suddenly, his legs buckled under him and he had to be caught before he fell.  Clutching his pounding chest, he sobbed, “Are you Daddy Duan?”

     Everyone wept as father and son were reunited.  The preacher told how he had indeed been brought up by Wu, who was so impressed by Duan’s act of giving that he had become a strong Christian.

     “I’m not your real father,” Wu used to say to him.  “He’s a great man of God, full of grace and love.  He gave you to me, and I give you all my love and the encouragement to put God first, just like your real father.”

     Wang’s adopted parents had moved away from the earthquake zone before the tragedy, but both died of cancer in their 60s.  Wang became an evangelist and tried to find his real father, but Duan had changed his name so many times to avoid arrest that he had proved untraceable.

     As father and son continued to hug and weep, the elder of the church stood up and declared, “It’s December.  We have seen our sermon tonight: Christ came into the world to save sinners — that is Christmas.  Just as Duan handed his only son to the care of his enemy, so God handed over His own Son to us sinners.  Let us rejoice in their reconciliation and ours too.”

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Genesis 22:2  —  God said (to Abraham), “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” 

Romans 5:8…10  —  God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us…  For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

I John 4:9-10  —  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.

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

–Ancient Jesus prayer

1722) The Best Christmas Gift Ever– Eternal Life

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Rick Warren has been called ‘America’s Pastor.’  He is the founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, the eighth largest church in the United States.  His book The Purpose-Driven Life is one of the top Christian best-sellers of all time.  His Daily Hope devotional and other resources are available at his websitehttp://www.pastorrick.com

The following are his Christmas devotional readings for December 24 and 25 of this year.

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     God wants to share eternity with you.

     That’s what Christmas is all about.  You weren’t created just to live 80 or 90 years on Earth and then die.  You’re far more valuable than that to God.  God has some long-range plans for you.  He made you to live forever.

     One day your heart will stop.  That’ll be the end of your heart, but it won’t be the end of you.  You’ll last for eternity — trillions of years.  And God wants you to be a part of his family.

     He sent Jesus to Earth as a baby so one day he could die for your sins, and then you can spend forever with him.

     That’s the great news of Christmas.  This offer is available to anyone.  The Bible says of Jesus, “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 NLT).

     God wants to spend eternity with you, so he made the way to him simple:  You believe, and you receive.  You believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins, and you receive him into your life.  God sent his Son to Earth 2017 years ago to die for you.  That’s God’s very first Christmas gift, sent to you thousands of years before you were even born.

     If you celebrate Christmas without receiving the number one gift God has for you, you’re missing the point entirely.  Acts 10:35 says, “It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from — if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open” (The Message).

     No matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been, you’ve got a place in God’s forever family ready and waiting for you.  The invitation is wide open.  Just believe and receive.

     Are you ready? Here’s a prayer you can start with:

Dear God, I know that when I die I’m going to give an account of my life to you directly.  I confess I have ignored you.  I know I have sinned against you, and I have lived by my plan, not yours.  I want that to change, starting right now.  I want to turn away from my sins toward you.

Thank you for sending Jesus to die for all that I’ve done wrong so that I don’t have to pay the penalty.  I know that I don’t deserve your forgiveness.  I know that only your grace can save me, Lord.  I could never be good enough to get into a perfect place.

Jesus, thank you for loving me so much that you took all my guilt on yourself.  You made me acceptable for heaven, and I humbly ask you to save me. I ask you to save me from the sins and the habits that are messing up my life right now.  I believe in you, Jesus.  And I believe that you will keep your promise to save me instantly and certainly and completely and eternally.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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     God knew before you were born that you would be reading this in this moment.  He planned to get your attention for just a few seconds so he could say this to you:  “I’ve seen every hurt in your life, and I’ve never stopped loving you.  You matter to me. I love you more than you will ever know.  I made you to love you, and I’ve been waiting for you to love me back.”

     If you gave me a Christmas gift and I never opened it, you would be disappointed.  And it would be a worthless gift, because I don’t receive the benefit of a gift I never opened.

     Jesus Christ is God’s Christmas gift to you. Yet some of us have gone Christmas after Christmas and never opened the best gift of all: God’s gift of salvation.  Why even celebrate Christmas if you’re not going to open the biggest gift?  It doesn’t make sense to leave unwrapped the gift of your past forgiven, a purpose for living, and a home in Heaven.

     God has made a way for you this Christmas to be right with him, and all you have to do is receive his gift of salvation.  The Bible says, “By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us — set us right with him, make us fit for him — we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus” (Romans 5:1 The Message).

     Below is a prayer I prayed years ago when I stepped across the line and accepted Jesus.  It’s a simple prayer.  If these words express the desire in your heart, then pray them.

Dear God, I’m scared, but I want to get to know you.  I don’t understand it all, but I thank you that you love me.  I thank you that you were with me even when I didn’t recognize it.  I thank you that you are for me; that you didn’t send Jesus to condemn me but to save me.

Today I want to receive the Christmas gift of your Son.  I ask you to save me from my past, my regrets, my mistakes, my sins, my habits, my hurts, and my hang-ups. Save me from myself.

I ask you to save me for your purpose.  I want to know why you put me on this planet.  And I want to fulfill what you made me to do.  I want to learn to love you and trust you and have a relationship with you.

I need peace with you, God, and I need you to put your peace in my heart.  I need you to take away the stress and fill me with your love.  Help me be a peacemaker and help others find peace with you and each other.  In your name I pray.  Amen.

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Rick Warren adds:  “If you prayed the prayer above, please write and tell me at Rick@PastorRick.com.  I’d love to send you some materials as you begin your journey with Jesus.”

1721) “Who Was That God?”

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Chinese village

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From the Open Doors Daily Devotional, December 24, 2017, at: http://www.opendoorsusa.org

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     Chinese evangelist, Brother Xi, was travelling one very cold Christmas Eve in the rugged province of Gansu.  As he came to the next village he sensed something was wrong.  He introduced himself as a bearer of good news.  A small man interrupted, “Well we have only bad news here right now.  A couple has just had their baby stolen.”  In the poorer areas of China, where couples are restricted to one child, it is not uncommon to have ‘child snatching,’ stealing babies for wealthy childless couples in the cities.

     He stepped inside the house to find both husband and wife staring quietly at him.  The couple’s grief hung heavy in the air.  He said, “I’m so sorry to hear about your plight, but I know someone who may help… God.  Let me pray to Him.”

     There was no reaction on the couple’s faces, so he went into prayer, feeling very uncomfortable indeed.  “Dear Father, many years ago at this same time of year you sent a child into the world and rescued us all; we ask today that you will send back this child to us, and deliver this village from the sadness which grips it.  Amen.”

     Suddenly the young husband spoke, “Shut up and go away.  We have prayed to our gods and nothing has happened.  Why should yours be any different?”  He was grabbed from behind by the other villagers and propelled out of the village.  “Don’t you dare come here again!” they bawled.

     Brother Xi wandered the hills in a daze of humiliation, tears, and crying to God.  Then he thought, “I went to that village expecting a hero’s welcome, or at the very least, I relied on being a curiosity, quizzed and entertained by people who live very dull and isolated lives.  Instead, I had only been treated a little like Christ was treated.”

     Kneeling there in the snow, he knew what he had to do— go back to that village, knowing for sure he would be despised.  This was to follow in the Master’s footsteps.  With a pounding heart he turned and began to walk slowly back towards the village.  Suddenly, across the still late afternoon air, he heard a baby’s cry coming from what appeared to be an old well shaft.

     Sure enough six feet down was a little baby, wrapped in a thick blanket, lying at the bottom of the dry-well.  He climbed down to hug some warmth back into it.  It was a baby girl.  Those who snatched it did not know it was a girl, and finding later that it was, left it in this old well to die.

     He walked back to the village with the precious bundle of life.  The villagers came running.  They were amazed and overjoyed as they led him to the cottage of the poor couple, and the smile on the mother’s face as he placed her baby into her lap was unforgettable.  “Come, warm yourself by the fire” said the husband.  They drew up a chair for him, and as the other villagers crowded round, he asked, “Who was that God you prayed to?”

     What an invitation.  Here he was, the honored guest, looking at thirty eager people, waiting with bated breath to hear the gospel.  “Well,” he began, “He came to earth in the form of a little baby, just about this time 2000 years ago…”

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Luke 2:10-12  —  The angel said unto them, “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Matthew 28:18-20  —  Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Psalm 77:13b-14  —  What god is as great as our God?  You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples.

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O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

–Book of Common Prayer

1720) God’s Christmas Surprise for Us (part two of two)

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       (continued…)  When I was a child, it never would have occurred to me to be afraid of God.  After all, every week at Sunday School in the old church basement we sang “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  But the more I have seen of the world and of myself, the better I understand that we might well be afraid of God.  The familiar catechism phrase says “we should fear and love God,” and it is important to think about what fear might have to do with Christmas.

            As I said, as a child I did not understand why the catechism said I should fear God; but I did know what it meant to fear my father.  He was not mean to my siblings and me, nor was he unreasonably harsh in his discipline.  But when we pushed our more lenient mother too far, and she said she would tell Dad, we knew it was time to back off.  We feared getting in trouble with Dad, who always said he was from ‘the old school’ and proud of it.  And his anger and strict discipline was not because he did not love us.  Rather it was because he loved us all equally—and he did not want us older and stronger kids beating up on, or taking advantage of, the smaller and weaker ones, even if they were pests.  Nor did he want us growing up without respect for authority, be it his own, or my mother’s, or the schoolteachers.  Nor did he want us neglecting our responsibilities.  So, for all sorts of good and loving reasons, he could get very angry, and his wrath was to be feared.  Every little sinner needs someone like that to fear in that way.

            With that in mind, just think of how anger must rise within God as he looks at what humankind has done to the good world God created and gave to us; and when he sees what his children do to each other.  Imagine God’s wrath as he looks around the world and sees not one country, not one home, not one heart in the entire world that is not corrupted by sin.  Think of all the wars past, present, and in the making, about to erupt any time.  Think of all the countries where religious freedom is denied, and Christians are persecuted and killed for proclaiming the name of Jesus.  Think of the victims of crime, abused spouses, neglected children, the hungry, and the homeless.  The more we understand this, the more we might well be afraid of the wrath of God.  Christmas is the story of God coming to earth.  We have many reasons to fear such a coming and not welcome it.

            This does not just involve all the disturbing stories on the news, but also each one of us.  It is not only ‘someone else’ who makes God angry, but you and me.  How angry it must make God to see us squabble and bicker in our homes over trivialities, when he has given us so much.  How angry it must make God to see us, who have been blessed more than anyone on earth, still not be satisfied, but envy those who have more or better.  How angry it must make God to see so many who call themselves His children ignore him, approaching their faith so half-heartedly, and seeing God as an intrusion in their important lives.  How angry it must make God to see how miserable we make things for each other.  The more one thinks about it, the more we might well fear the wrath of an angry God.  We are so used to hearing of forgiveness and love and grace and all the other pleasant thoughts that we don’t even think about the wrath of God.  Both are in God’s Word, and we must remember to ‘fear and love God.’

            At Christmas time we celebrate God’s coming to us, but all common sense and logic would tell us that meeting God should be a thing to be feared and dreaded.  The high standards for life God has set forth or us in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount bear no resemblance to life as it is on this planet, and God has every right and reason to come in anger and violence.

          But the angel comes to Mary to tell her that God is coming, not in anger or wrath, but as a baby– a tiny, helpless, vulnerable, little baby, who cannot hurt anyone.  The prophet Isaiah had foretold it when he said, “Unto us a son is given; unto us a child is born, and his name shall be (among other things) the Prince of Peace.”  Years later, the angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid.  You will give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus, and he will be great and he will be called the Son of the most high, and his kingdom will never end.”

            The Christmas story is so familiar that if we don’t pay close attention, we can miss all of its most important lessons.  And one the most important lessons, and biggest surprises, is that when God comes into this fallen and wicked world, he does not come in wrath, but says to Mary and to the shepherds and 363 other times in the Bible, “Do not be afraid.”

            This does mean that God is no longer angry about our sin.  There is as much of the wrath of God in the New Testament as in the Old Testament.  But in the New Testament we see it all dealt with on a single afternoon, on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  It happened 33 years after that ‘silent, holy night’ of Jesus’s birth; when Jesus, the grown man, was crucified and put to death.  There was even more reason for God to be angry.  But there and then, somehow, the justice and mercy of God came together, and the forgiveness of sins was won for all people, all who would receive it, all who would look to Jesus in faith. 

            And on the third day, when the tomb burst open and Jesus rose from the dead, there was again, great fear all around.  But once again, the first words of the angel were, “Do not be afraid.  He is risen.”  God comes not in anger, but rather submits himself to the anger of men, and dies, and then he rises.  And he says to you, “I have come so that you may believe in me and be saved.”

1719) God’s Christmas Surprise For Us (part one of two)

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Clarence Oddbody, George Bailey’s guardian angel

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          In Luke 1:26-38 an angel of the Lord appeared to Mary to tell her that she, a virgin, would be giving birth to Jesus, the Son of God, whose ‘kingdom will never end.’  In verse thirty, the angel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid.”  Those words are also in the next chapter.  When the angel appeared to the shepherds out in the fields tending their flocks by night, the first thing the angel said to them was, “Do not be afraid;” or, in many translations, “Fear not.”

            Why do angels always have to say “Fear not”?  When I come up to someone to talk to them, I don’t start out by saying “Fear not,” so why should an angel?  Angels are nice, aren’t they?  After all, in the movies, angels are always friendly and kind and want to help you.  So why do angels in the Bible always start out with “Do not be afraid?”  They did have to say that because verse 29 says that Mary was greatly troubled, and in the next chapter, it says the shepherds were terrified by the angels. (I like how the old King James Version put it.  It says the disciples were ‘sore afraid’— so afraid that it hurt.)  But why?  Clarence Oddbody, the guardian angel second class in the 1946 movie classic It’s a Wonderful Life, didn’t look scary at all.  He was a cheerful, funny angel, and he didn’t say to “Fear not” when he appeared to Jimmy Stewart.  So why all the fear in the Bible?

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            Well, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were too poor to go to movies, so they just had to rely on what the Bible itself said about angels—and there we find a somewhat different picture.  They did not yet have the New Testament, but they did have all of what we now call the Old Testament, and there, angels brought the wrath and punishment of God just as often as they brought the love of God.  It was an angel with a flaming sword that stood at the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were cast out to make sure no one would ever get back in.  It was an angel of death what passed through Egypt in the tenth plague, taking the life of the first born in every family.  And, it was an angel that swept through the camp of King Sennacherib just as he was about to invade Jerusalem, killing all 185,000 soldiers.   In the Old Testament, you did not want to be ‘Touched by An Angel,’ like in that old television series, because that usually meant ending up dead.  And that did not happen only in the Old Testament.  Acts chapter 12:23  says: “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.”  That’s what can happen when you get ‘touched by an angel’ in the Bible.

            So maybe Mary and Joseph and the shepherds had a good reason to be terrified at the sight of an angel, and the angels had a good reason to begin their visits by saying, “Do not be afraid; because I am bringing you good news of a great joy that will be for all people.”  Do not be afraid.  I am not here to kill you, but to tell you some good news.

            What is that good news?  Well, it had to do with birth, not death.  In Luke 1:30-31 the angel said to Mary, “You have found favor with God, and you will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”  And to the shepherds in chapter two the angel says, “Today, in the city of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord; and this will be a sign to you.  You will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”  A baby, said the angel.

            This story is so familiar that we might miss the main point.  But think about it, the story of Christmas is the story of God coming to earth, which He created and rules, and He comes as a baby.  Of all the ways God could appear to us, who would have expected he would come as a baby?  In the Old Testament, God makes his appearances in ways we might expect—in earthquakes, whirlwinds, clouds of fire, burning bushes that do not burn up, bolts of fire coming out of heaven to ignite Elijah’s water soaked altar, and so forth.  God appears with unmistakable power and overwhelming strength—just as one might expect.  No surprises there.  So what does it mean that here, in this story, in God’s most important appearance in all human history, that he comes as a baby?

            The message of the angels to the shepherds on that very first Christmas Eve spoke of peace.  Now while a baby is not always quiet, a baby is certainly not threatening.  Therefore, at least a part of the meaning of God’s coming to earth as a baby has to do with this absence of threat or violence in the story.  “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given” we sing.  Silent.  Peaceful.  Non-threatening.  Think about holding an infant in your arms.  They are so small and vulnerable and helpless.  It makes some people (including me) nervous to even hold a baby because they are afraid of hurting them.  We want to be very careful.  But we know that a baby cannot hurt us.

            One of the blessed truths of the Christmas story is that God does not want to hurt us.  He wants us to receive him, and believe in him, and trust in him, and not be afraid.  God comes to us as a baby, in peace and in love.  “Do not be afraid.”  (continued…)

1718) Christmas Traditions (part three of three)

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“Silent Night”  1891, Viggo Johansen (Denmark, 1851-1935) 

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     (…continued)  Whether or not an evergreen tree ever grew on the spot where Boniface cut down the sacred Oak of Thor, the connection of the Christmas tree to that legend is a reminder that the birth of Jesus in that lonely stable led to a worldwide movement.  The angels’ announcement to the shepherds on that first Christmas night was that a Savior was born, and that this was good news of a great joy to all people.  That baby would grow up, and as a young man gather some disciples around himself.  He would teach them for three years, and then send them to the ends of the earth with the Gospel message of salvation in Him.  They would not get all around the world in that first generation, and some places, like the most remote areas of Germany, had to wait for seven centuries; and some are still waiting.  The shepherds were the first to spread the good news, and from then on it was people like Boniface that carried out the work, often at the cost of their own lives.

     In spite of the uncertain origin of the tradition of the Christmas tree, it has come to symbolize many different things.  There is often a star at the top, symbolizing the star in the story of the Magi.  There are the lights on the tree– electric bulbs, or, candles in the old days, symbolizing Christ as the light of the world.  And the ornaments, especially on church Christmas trees, have often been symbols of the Christian faith.

     There is one other symbolic use of the tree that is not as often remembered.  This was from the days before artificial trees.  Back then, in some churches the trunk of the Christmas tree was stripped of all its branches, and then that wood would be used to make the cross to be put in the front of the church during Lent the next year.  This would serve as a reminder that this child in the wooden manger was born to suffer and to die, years later, on a wooden cross.  This is what old Simeon declared when Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus into the temple for the first time a few days after his birth.  “A sword will pierce your soul,” he said to the baby’s mother, and we who know the rest of the story can already picture her grieving at the foot of the cross.  But Simeon also said that this child would mean the promise of salvation for all people.  Although Mary’s heart would be pierced with grief by the sight of her son’s death on the cross, the empty cross would become the symbol of our eternal salvation.  The use of a tree as a Christmas tree in a home always means the death of that tree, just as the birth of the Son of God as a human would mean that he would die a death like every other human being ever born.

     But then would come the most important part of the whole story, the main event of all history, which was when Jesus Christ would rise from the dead.  The birth of Jesus at Christmas is just beginning of the greatest story ever told. It is the story of God who became a man, entered our lives, and then suffered and died; in order that we might be forgiven and live eternally with him, in his home.

     Believe it, and you will be saved, for “Unto you,” said the angels, “a Savior has been born.”

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Luke 2:8-12  —  There were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:16-18  —  So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

Luke 2:34-35  —    Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his 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.  And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

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O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How sturdy God hath made thee!
Thou bidd’st us all place faithfully
Our trust in God, unchangingly!
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How sturdy God hath made thee!

–verse added in early 20th century to the 1824 German Christmas carol O Tannenbaum

1717) Christmas Traditions (part two of three)

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Iraqi Christians and Christmas tree

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     (…continued)  One of the most universal of Christmas traditions is the Christmas tree.  Putting up a Christmas tree in a public area is much safer than putting up a nativity scene; but even the tree has in many places become controversial.  To make sure no one is offended, many have taken to calling them simply ‘holiday tree,’ but even that is now offensive to the hyper-sensitive.  Actually, the history of the Christmas tree indicates that it may have had its beginning in a similar controversy between Christian belief and opponents of that belief.

     The first reliable historical evidence of the use of Christmas trees can be found in Germany in the 1500’s.  In the early part of that century there is some informal mention in letters and personal papers of the use of a live tree as an indoor Christmas decoration.  In the year 1539 there is the first official record of a Christmas tree being set up in a church for Christmas worship. By late 1500’s, there are Christmas songs appearing that sing of the tree as a part of the traditional celebration.  

     In the first half of that century Martin Luther was alive and changing the world.  This has led to speculation that Luther was the one who invented the Christmas tree.  One story is that on a clear winter night Luther was walking outside and he saw the bright stars in the sky shining through the branches if an evergreen tree.  It was so beautiful that it gave him the idea to bring a tree into the house, and put some candles on it.  This makes for a nice story, but scholars, who have for centuries been going over Martin Luther’s life and writings with a fine tooth comb, have never found anything to indicate this legend is true.  But the rest of the story about the Christmas tree originating is Germany in the 1500’s is a matter of historical record.

     To go back any farther, however, we have to read between the lines of history a bit, along with getting the help of a few old legends which may not be reliable.  First, you have to know a little bit about St. Boniface.  Just as St. Patrick is the patron saint of Irish Christianity, St. Boniface is the patron saint of German Christianity.  Both Patrick and Boniface were born in England, and both left England to spend their lives as missionaries among the pagan barbarians; Patrick in Ireland and Boniface among the German peoples.  Boniface served in what is now Germany for forty years.  In his late 70’s he was still pushing the frontier, entering new areas to proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Christ Jesus.  Though the church was by then well established in some areas, he was still unknown, or, known and opposed, in many places.  In his 80th year, during a confirmation service, Boniface and everyone with him were massacred by a mob from a hostile tribe.

     Boniface had originally gained the respect of the German people by fearlessly tackling their heathen superstitions head-on.  The most famous story from his life was when he met with hostile tribesman at their most holy site, the Sacred Oak Tree of Thor.  Thor was their God, after whom our day Thursday was named.  Boniface threatened to cut down that sacred tree.  The tribesmen said they would kill him if he did.  Boniface said that if Thor was any kind of God he should be able to protect himself and his tree.  Boniface also told them that he trusted in the true God, and did not fear Thor, and was not afraid to cut the tree down.  The people could then watch and see whose God was greater.  Admiring his courageous willingness to take on who they believed to be God; and, quite sure that Thor himself would strike Boniface dead on the spot, the tribesman allowed the test to continue.  Boniface cut the tree down, and the people saw that Thor did not intervene.  Boniface then used the wood from that tree to build a chapel.  Having won their respect and admiration, the Germans were willing to hear him preach about his obviously more powerful God, and Boniface was off to a very good start.

     The basic outline of that story is pretty well established, but the details are told in differing ways in different accounts.  There is not much of a written record, and there is probably a bit of a blend of history and legend in the story as it is now told.

     The next part, the Christmas tree part of the story, has but the flimsiest historical evidence.   Legend has it that on the spot where Boniface cut down the Sacred Oak of Thor, an evergreen tree began to grow.  In his preaching, Boniface would point to that new tree, referring to the triangular shape of the tree as an illustration of the three persons of the Holy Trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One would not want to stake too much on the historical accuracy of that story, but even as an old legend, it may have influenced someone somewhere along the line to get the idea of using a tree to celebrate Christ’s birth.  Wherever the idea of the Christmas tree came from, it certainly did catch on.  (continued…)

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A challenge similar to the one made by St. Boniface:

I Kings 18:21-24  —  Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”  But the people said nothing.  Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.  Get two bulls for us.  Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord.  The god who answers by fire—he is God.”  Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

For the rest of the story, read all of I Kings 18 (spoiler alert: Elijah wins).

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BLESSING OF A CHRISTMAS TREE:

Dear God, two thousand years ago, you brought your son, Jesus into this world to teach us the power of love and sacrifice.  As we raise this tree, we remember his birth and the meaning of his life for us.  Bless this tree as a symbol of our celebration of Jesus’ birth and our gratitude for his sacrifice.  May the joy this tree brings and the gifts we place under it remind us of the many gifts you have given us.  We ask your blessings upon our loved ones, this day and always.  Amen.

–From Catholic On-line at: http://www.catholic.org

1716) Christmas Traditions (part one of three)

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(Belated)

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    Two old girl-friends from high school ran into each other as they were going into a high priced restaurant.  They introduced their husbands, chatted a bit about school days, and then each said they had to leave.  They were meeting some others inside for dinner.  “We are here for our wedding anniversary,” said one, and then asked, “Are you here for anything special?”  “Oh yes,” said the other, “we are here to celebrate our little boy’s third birthday.”  “Oh,” said the friend, obviously puzzled; “but where is he?”  “Well, we left him at home with the babysitter,” said the other, “he is too little to bring to a place like this.”  And the two couples went their separate ways.  “Isn’t that odd?” said the one lady to her husband; “Imagine that, not even including the little fellow in his own birthday celebration.”

     Indeed, who could ever imagine such a thing; that is, unless you count the way Christmas is celebrated by many people.  The Christmas story, of course, has always had something to do with the birthday of a very special child, but many will decorate for the holidays, buy gifts, and make many other elaborate plans and arrangements for their celebration; but at no time in any of it will the birth of the Son of God enter into their mind.  We’ve come a long way from the early days of our country, when in some colonies it was against the law to celebrate Christmas with any kind of outward celebration other than going to church (in order to prevent any distractions from the real purpose of the day).  That kind of legalism may not be necessary, but there is indeed something quite odd about the new legalism of today, which has come to mean that in many settings it is against the law to even mention the true meaning of Christmas (though no one objects to the day off).

      Historically, there have been a several interesting twists and turns in the way this day has been observed.  December 25th actually started out as a pagan holiday in the ancient Roman Empire, celebrating the birth of the ‘sun god,’ and having something to do with the winter solstice, the days starting to get longer, and all of that.  In the fourth century A.D., the Roman Empire was in the process of changing gods.  After his own conversion to Christ in 312 A.D., Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the official religion of the entire Roman Empire.  This reflected not only his own new found faith, but also the fact that for many years Christianity had been growing, and was now the most widespread and influential religion in the empire.  The Christian Church could now serve as a tool to unify the widespread and diverse empire; so perhaps Constantine’s religious zeal was motivated by politics (if you can imagine that).

            No longer needing a day to worship the largely forgotten sun god, Constantine encouraged the making of December 25th the day to remember the birth of the Son of God, one who brings another kind of ‘light into the world.’  The New Testament does not tell us actual date of the birth of Jesus, and before Constantine, it was not celebrated on December 25th.  But ever since Constantine, this date has been firmly set as the day to remember the birth of Christ.  It is ironic that for many people in the world, December 25th has now again become completely emptied of any Christian meaning.  (continued…)

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John 1:1-14  —  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  There was a man sent from God whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.  The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.  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 did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

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O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.

–O Come, O Come, Immanuel, verse 3, 12th century antiphon, translated by John Mason Neale, 1851

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