1715) What is Your Name?

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By Rick Warren at:  http://www.pastorrick.org, December 15, 2017.

     God allows a crisis to get our attention, and then he uses the crisis to develop our character.  One thing that signals we’re changing for the better is when we confess that we’re the problem.  We stop blaming other people and admit, “I am the problem with my life.”  Until we understand this, there can be no major change in our lives.  This is the breakthrough God knows we need.

     In Genesis 32, God asks Jacob, “What is your name?”  This is a very strange request, because God obviously already knew Jacob’s name.  In ancient cultures, you were always named for your character — what you really were.  Your name might be Tall or Short, or your name might be Brave or Lazy.  Your given name was your label.  It wasn’t just something that sounded nice. It represented your character.

     That was a problem for Jacob, because “Jacob” means “deceiver, manipulator, liar.”  And Jacob lived up to his name!  When Jacob says, “My name is Jacob,” it is an act of confession.  He’s admitting, “I am a manipulator.”

     Whenever I read this verse, I wonder what it would be like to be named for your greatest character fault: “Hi, I’m Greedy.”  “Hi, I’m Gossip.”  What would be your name?  Bitter?  Angry?  Uncontrollable Temper?  Lustful?  Afraid?

     Here’s what we need to understand: We will never be able to change until we openly and honestly and authentically admit our sin, our weakness, our faults, our frailty, and our character defects and confess this to ourselves, to God, and to other people.

     One of the most humbling things in the world is to go, “This is who I am.  I am a __________.”  You fill in the blank.  “I am a worrier … I am a domineering person … I am a person who runs from conflict … I am an addict.”  Just admit it.  Stop making excuses.  Stop rationalizing.  Stop justifying.  Stop blaming other people.  You’ve got to come clean about what everybody else sees but you won’t admit.

     God will not be surprised when you come to God and say, “God, I want to own up to the weaknesses and the wrong in my life.  This is who I really am.”  God already knows what you are, but he needs you to confess so the work of change can begin.  God’s forgiveness and grace is bigger than anything wrong you’ve ever done or will do.

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Genesis 32:27b  —  “What is your name?”  “Jacob,” he answered.

I John 1:8-9  —  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Psalm 32:3-6a  —  When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.  I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”  And you forgave the guilt of my sin.  Therefore let all the faithful pray to you.

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PSALM 51:1-4…9-12:

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight…

Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

1714) Home for Christmas (part two of two)

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    (…continued)  It is interesting that Jesus, born to show all the world the way home, was not even born at home.  He was not born in a house at all, but in a stable, in a strange town, a long way from Joseph’s current home.  Then, because of the threat of Herod, God told Joseph to go to Egypt to protect the life of Jesus.  Only after two years there did the young family return home to Nazareth.  

     It appears that for a time Jesus had no home in his adult life either.  In Matthew 8:20 Jesus said to the crowd, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  But even such homelessness for the Son of God showed that he had another home in mind.

      So going home for Christmas is a most appropriate way to celebrate this time of year; home, that place of security and love we all desire.  There is much truth in the old cliché, “There’s no place like home.”

     But we do need to be realistic about these things.  Home is where the heart is, yes, but in this sinful world, home is also where a lot of other things are.  It’s where husband and wife can get into a bitter argument about some stupid little thing and end up saying things that should never be said.  Home is the place where a rebellious teenager can set everyone on edge and turn the whole place into a battleground for five years.  Home is the place where quarreling children can slowly drain a tired mother of her remaining energy and sanity.  Home is where insensitive and cruel parents can put their children through a daily nightmare for years.  Home is a place where all understanding can break down between in-laws, resulting in cold shoulders and tense visits (or no visits at all).  Home is fertile ground for producing guilt, and some are skilled at keeping that guilt alive for years.  Home is where old people, set in their ways, can irritate each other endlessly with their unbending stubbornness.  Home is where we are best known and therefore most capable of hurting and being hurt.  Home is where past wrongs can be forever remembered and all too often reviewed.

    We can’t get too sentimental about such a thing as “home.”  We know too well what can all go on there.  Some homes are, of course, happier than others.  But even the most perfect homes are, in the end, shattered by death.  We make our homes, yes, but it is always with a mixture of love and anxiety.  Every home is under the constant attack by those three enemies listed in the catechism, sin, death, and the power of the devil.  Life lived under those conditions always cries out for more: more love, joy, peace, contentment, harmony, and more time.  Jesus was born to bring us to a more perfect home, a home restored to all the goodness that was intended from the beginning; a home of love without anxiety, joy without frustration, harmony without discord, and gratitude without resentment.  It will be a home where all old wounds will be healed and all misunderstandings will cease.

     In this world of sin and death, our homes are never what they could or should be.  Our best attempts at love and care always fall short.  But imperfect as it is here, we know what it should be like, and we keep trying to get it.  Some keep muddling along, hoping that things will get better, and that’s often the best we can do.  Others leave one home after another, pursuing that elusive, impossible dream, while leaving a trail of broken hearts behind.  And others, it seems, have it made, a wonderful home; but even they know their near-perfect home can be ended at any time by death.  

      But God has promises for us of a home beyond all imagination.  While calling us to responsible living in our homes now, God reminds us of that home to come where we will find that perfect peace we seek.  Jesus came to show us the way there.

     In the last verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” we sing:

Yet in the dark street shineth

The everlasting light.

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

     “The hopes and fears of all the years.”  That one line covers a lot of ground.  Think of your own life— the hopes you have of things that will work out, get better, blow over, or whatever; and the fears for troubled loved ones, fears of an uncertain future, fears of a certain death.  Your hopes and fears cover a good share of what you think about in a day.  The verse speaks of the hopes and fears of all the years, of all the people who ever lived, of all the homes there ever were.  Those hopes and fears are all met “in Thee tonight.”  Jesus, the everlasting light, comes to show us the way home to that place where our deepest hopes are fulfilled, where our most frightening fears are relieved.  In his life and ministry, Jesus also shows us the way life is best lived right now, the way of forgiveness and love and contentment, that can begin to lift our homes out of their bondage to sin and into God’s light.  “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  What a great way to describe the meaning of Christ’s birth at Christmas.

     It is a great tradition that brings families home for Christmas.  It is the ultimate gift of Christmas that God himself becomes a person, like us, to draw us into His home.  Let that promise of God’s love and care and guidance calm your fearful heart as you view your earthly home with mixed emotions.  See in that Christmas gift from God the way to that home.

1713) Home for Christmas (part one of two)

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Magazine advertisement from 1945, the year World War II ended.

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     Christmas is the time of year to go home.  Or, it is the time for families to get together.  Or, you might say, those two are much the same thing.  When you are with the people you love, the people you’ve known all your life, you feel ‘at home,’ no matter what building or what city you happen to be in.  All the better, of course, if you can be in the house in which you grew up, or, raised your family in.  But that is not what is most important.  “Home is where the heart is,” says the old cliché; and our hearts reach out to those we love at Christmas.  It is the time to go home to them.

     Families can’t always get together for Christmas.  There is the old problem faced by many married couples of which home do we go to this year?  There are those who live too far away and cannot make it home.  There are those who, because of past strife and old wounds, refuse to get together with the family.  And there are those many families that have been torn apart by death, whose loved ones will never join them for another Christmas.  For whatever reason, families drift apart or are torn apart, and at no other time of year is the absence of loved ones more keenly felt than at Christmas.

     But for those who can get together, Christmas is the favorite time of year to go home.  Turn the TV on in December and you see tear-jerking stories of families reunited, at home, for Christmas.  Turn on the radio and you will hear songs of going home for Christmas.  Many of us see relatives we might not see all year except at Christmas.  And we all have our yearly traditional rituals and foods to make us feel even more ‘at home.’

     What is it about “home” that we so look forward to at Christmas?  It is, of course, love, and the opportunity to see loved ones again.  It’s the sense of belonging that comes with being a part of a family.  And it’s the sense of security that comes with being in familiar surroundings.  We go home for Christmas to find all of that, even though we may never give it a thought. 

     Actually, we look for those same things in our whole life, and ask the same things of life itself.  We seek love and a sense of security and a place to belong.  Much of what we do in life can be seen in terms of ‘making a home for ourselves;’ not only establishing a place where our physical needs are met; but having a family and finding friends that we can know and love and share our lives with.  We work to have a place we can call our own, a place of comfort and familiarity and security.  So we go home for Christmas to find a little piece of what we look for in all of life.  We try to find our place in life, that which is right for us; our home.

     There are those for whom thoughts of home bring pleasant memories and warm feelings.  There are also those for whom thoughts of home bring sadness and frustration.  There are those who have no family or home to return to.  There are those who don’t want to return.  There are those who have not yet found their place in the world, and who do not feel at home anywhere.  They have not yet found their place of security and love and comfort.  And, of course, ours is an age of broken homes, and at Christmas the brokenness is felt all the more.

     The thought of “home” does not give rise to perfectly pleasant feelings in all people.  In fact, I would suspect that the thought of “home” gives rise in all of us to a mixture of emotions— emotions of happiness and sadness, feelings of love along with frustrations, responses of gratitude and disappointment, feelings of pride and guilt, times of comfort and times of uncertainty.  It is within our relationships with our families and our search for our “home” that we feel our most intense hopes and our most crushing disappointments.

     Home— our parents’ home, the home we make for ourselves, the home we make for our children, the home we bring friends to— there in that home is the potential for some of life’s greatest joys.  But it is also where we can be hit with life’s hardest blows.

     Our habit of going home for Christmas is one tradition that fits in quite well with the spiritual, God-given, meaning and purpose of Christmas; much better than thoughts of Santa Claus, colored lights, too much food, and too many presents.  Because of government decree, Mary and Joseph made the long journey to Joseph’s home town, Bethlehem.  And Jesus come into the world to show a lost mankind the way home.

     In John 14, Jesus told the disciples about his Father’s house, in which there are many rooms.  He then told them that he would be going on ahead to prepare a place for them in that home; and, that he would one day return to take them, and all who would believe in him, back to be with him and the Father in that home.  In the beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son, the wayward son wastes his life in a far country.  But the happy ending is that he comes home to his Father’s house, and his Father welcomes him with open arms.  That’s the way it works, says Jesus,—”Believe in me and come on home.”

     In John’s wonderful vision of heaven in Revelation (in the best chapter of the whole book; chapter 21), the loud voice from the throne says, “God’s home will be with mankind, and he will live with them.”  There is much of the same in the rest of the New Testament.  The Bible often describes us as ‘sojourners’ here on earth, on our way to our real home in Heaven.  Jesus was born into the world to seek and to save the lost, taking us by the hand to bring us home.  (continued…)

1712) An Ever Expanding Perspective

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     In Isaiah 64:1 Isaiah prayed to the Lord, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.”  In the manger in Bethlehem on that first Christmas, God did.   It is for us to believe that in Jesus, God has indeed come down to us.

     “Well, that’s fine,” some might say, “but I’ve heard it all before.  But what I really want is for the cancer to be gone now; to get that job in what I have been trained for so I can get out of debt now; to be reconciled to my loved one now; for the pain to go away now,” etc.  God certainly wants us to bring all those concerns to him.  And it is difficult to understand what God is and is not doing in our world and in our lives right now.  There remains much to pray for, much to suffer, and much to wonder about.

     But we are given Jesus, God Himself who did come down from heaven to earth, as a baby.  Jesus, who lived a life like we are living, problems and all, and then died a death like we must die.  But then Jesus rose from the dead and gave us the promise that we too will rise from the dead, if we believe in Him.  In the Christmas story, God himself does come down to us, and in that story is the promise of eternal life.

     That promise, when believed and taken to heart, gives us a larger perspective that changes everything.  It is the promise of a time and place where there will be no more tears or pain.  It is the promise of a time and place where all relationships will be healed and we will be at peace.  It is the promise that even if the cancer gets the last word ‘here,’ it does not get the last word ‘there,’ because we can say with Paul in Romans, “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”  Christmas changes everything.

     This is not to make light of our day to day problems right now—some of which God takes away from us and some of which he does not.  But with this eternal perspective we can say as it says in the Bible, “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.”  We need that perspective.  We need to see all things in the context of eternity.

   Children have a much smaller perspective than adults.  They will have great anxiety about things that seem insignificant to their parents and other adults– a toy that breaks, or a broken arm during summer vacation, or not getting invited to a birthday party that everyone else is going to, or striking out in the big game, or not being able to afford clothes with the right kind of label.  These can be huge matters to a child.  “That’s okay,” parents tell them, “it’s not the end of the world; and trust me, someday you’ll forget all about this.”  From past experience, adults have a larger, lifelong perspective.  They know that broken arms heal, friends come and go, and even favorite toys are soon outgrown and forgotten.  They know that time passes, life goes on, and what seems to the child like big problems, are not really so big and bad after all.  They also know that those painful bumps and bruises are a necessary part of growing up.  The struggles they endure prepare them to be better and wiser and stronger.  Adults tell children all this, and adults are right.   They have a larger perspective on life that gives them that wisdom.  But if you have ever had such a conversation with a child, you know how hard it is for children to understand, and to see things from that larger perspective.

     In the same way, adults get anxious about other bigger, more unmanageable, and more long-lasting problems– things like debilitating illness, disappointed hopes and dreams that will never happen, old age, and death.  But God, in the Bible, opens our eyes to an even larger perspective, in much the same way.  “Trust me,” God says, “It is not so bad, and it will one day be better.”  Even if it is the end of the world for you, that’s not a problem for God, who has another place prepared for us.  Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid.  Believe in me and trust me.  I have gone on ahead to prepare a place for you.”

     One morning many years ago, Tony woke up and saw in the mirror the biggest pimple of his life, right at the end of his nose, and right in time for the prom, for which he had his dream date.  This is the sort of thing you see on television commercials.  Well, it really happened to Tony, and he was quite sure that was the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone.  He was in despair and inconsolable.  But now, whenever that record-breaking pimple is remembered, there is great laughter by all, even him.  He now has a larger perspective on such problems.

     When we get to heaven, I don’t think we will be laughing about cancer and strokes and heart attacks and unemployment and depression and dementia.  But we will certainly view them much differently from that larger perspective.

     It might be like a married couple talking about their 65 years of married life.  They faced many problems together over all those years:  Getting married and buying a business in the same year, constant financial pressure for years as they struggled to make ends meet, their first child in and out of the hospital eight times before he was a year old, raising four children of their own and two foster children, caring for their elderly parents, arguments about everything under the sun, the wife’s cancer which was cured, and then a stroke which left her in a wheel chair with her husband as her caregiver for the last 15 years, and so forth.  We can all make our own long list.  But as this couple now looks back now, it is with a peaceful contentment.  Many of those struggles and battles are behind them; and they can look back with a sense of quiet satisfaction, and even some pleasure, at all those things that at one time looked so sad and insurmountable.  Someone once said, “What was difficult to endure, can be sweet to remember.”  Things look much different from the perspective of being 86 years old, than when you are 36 years old. 

     Things will look infinitely different from our home in heaven.  Then we will understand more fully what it means that Jesus came down to be with us, and promised to bring us back with him to that heaven.  May you all know and believe in the joy of the Christ Child.

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John 14:1-3  —  (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

Revelation 21:4  —  (God) will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Romans 8:18  —  I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

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Away in a Manger, (verse three):

Be near us, Lord Jesus, we ask thee to stay,

Close by us forever and love us we pray;

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,

And take us to heaven to live with thee there.

1711) Why Be Thankful?

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By Eric Burgdorf, Pastor of Hope Free Lutheran Church, Wyoming, Minnesota

          “Not until you say you are sorry.”  Eventually the battle of wills usually ends with the child begrudgingly telling his sibling he is sorry.  But when the apology is made, it is often without the appropriate emotion— maybe even with a defiant look in the eyes.  We may have been guilty of it ourselves.  Certainly we have observed kids, friends, employers, criminals, businessmen, newscasters, politicians, etc. give apologies that just don’t ring true.

            What about our saying “Thank you”?  Is it forced?  An obligation?  Social etiquette?  Sure, we give thanks to God before we eat, but we aren’t sure the asparagus really deserves thanks.

            Oh, that our thanks be genuine! — to sound genuine to those who may hear, and more importantly, that God, who can’t be fooled, knows it is genuine.  And that can be difficult— for many reasons.

            I may not be giving thanks with sincerity because I am not satisfied.  It isn’t enough.  I want more.  I want better.  I want newer. . . .

            We could list many reasons why it is so often difficult to give thanks but instead of dwelling on them, let’s list reasons to give thanks:

                 God loves us. (That kind of says it all!)

                 God is creative.

                 God is all-powerful.

                 God is all-knowing. He knows all the ramifications of every act.

                 God is everywhere.  He is present with us in the good times and the bad.

                 God is patient.

                 God is forgiving.

                 God sees with perfect perspective.

                 God has great—eternal—plans for us.

          So, when it is hard to give thanks, or when it seems that we are forced against our wills to give thanks, let’s look to God and in faith trust His love, His power, His wisdom for what we have, His wisdom for what we don’t have, and His timing.  And thanks that this world is nothing in comparison with what He has planned for us!

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II Corinthians 9:15  —  Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Philippians 4:6-7  —  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Revelation 7:12  —  Amen!  Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.  Amen!

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O Lord, keep us sensitive to the grace that is around us.  May the familiar not become neglected.  May we see your goodness in our daily bread, and may the comforts of our home take our thoughts to your mercy.  We give you thanks.  Amen.

–J. H. Jowett  (1864-1923)

1710) Called to Witness

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     Methodist pastor William Willimon was awaiting his day in court.  He would not be the one on trial, but his presence there was required as a key witness.  There had been a car accident in his neighborhood  and Willimon saw it happen.  He has been summoned to testify, to bear witness, to what he saw.  He said:  “Even though I am sure of what I saw, I understand that there will be others there who will challenge my testimony.  Other people saw the same event from different angles.  One guy got there a few minutes after it happened and started acting like he saw the whole thing.  But I know what I saw and I plan to tell what I saw.  I am a witness, and my testimony is needed.”

       In John 1:6-8 John the Baptist is called a witness:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning the Light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The passage goes on to say what John said in his testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent investigators inquiring about him and his message , he told that that he was not the Messiah, but said (verse 23):

I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.

  This was the testimony of John, the one who was sent to bear witness to the fact that a great Light has dawned on the darkness of this sad world.

       Being a witness can be unpleasant.  I’ve known a few people who have had to serve as witnesses in criminal trials, and none of them enjoyed the experience.  Willimon said that as the trial date got closer, he became more and more nervous.  He wrote at that time: “I saw the whole thing and I am convinced of the truth of my story.  But still, to have to stand before a judge, a jury, and the whole courtroom and tell what I saw will be intimidating.  I’ve seen courtroom drama on television, and I know that the court rarely just sits there and takes what a witness says on face value.  There are cross-examinations, questions, and challenges to the testimony of even the best and clearest witnesses.”  In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the investigators ask John six questions, including the usual who, what, and why.

       But unpleasant as it all might be, witnesses are needed to get at the truth so they can then reach a verdict.  Most witnesses would probably prefer to just privately and quietly write down what they saw, and leave it at that.  But that would never work.  To bear witness is a public act, and the goal is to arrive at a verdict.  

     Testimony in court is not like gossip at the cafe, told just to have something to talk about, the truth oftentimes being optional and never established in any reliable way.  Testimony in court has the very specific goal of arriving at the truth, and then at a verdict.  It doesn’t always work that way even there, of course, but the idea of the unpleasant cross-examinations is to make one at least a bit more careful about the truth of what they say.  There can be unpleasant consequences for being careless and getting it wrong.  But even telling the truth can lead to an attack on your story and your character.  It is hardly ever easy to be a witness.

       It certainly was not easy for John the Baptist.  The religious leaders who had sent the investigators to John did not have friendly intentions, but there was nothing in John’s message that led to any trouble with them.  However, in bearing witness to Jesus who was the ‘Light,’ John also shed light on the dark sins of the people who came to hear him.  He called on them to repentance as the way to prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord.  Many people heard and responded to this message with faith and were baptized.  But this call to repentance got John in big trouble when he publicly condemned King Herod for his adulterous affair with Herod’s brother’s wife.  Herod had John arrested and imprisoned, and John was later executed without the benefit of a fair trial.  No witnesses were allowed to speak on his behalf.

       John had by then fulfilled his calling.  He had been a witness for the One who would come after him, Jesus, the Light of the world.  By the time John was arrested, Jesus had begun his ministry, and had gathered several disciples to continue on with this work of bearing witness to the truth.  The rest of the New Testament is the story of this bearing witness to Jesus Christ, ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6).

    Just like in a courtroom, the goal is to use that testimony to arrive at a verdict.  But in this case, there is no courtroom, no judge, no lawyers for and against, and no jury to hear the testimony.  The testimony about Jesus Christ given in the New Testament is for each and every individual to consider, and then to come to their own verdict, to believe or not believe in the truth of Jesus.  The whole ministry of Jesus, the event of his resurrection, and everything else written in the New Testament, and proclaimed about him ever since, has been to encourage you to make your verdict.

       And then, as soon as you do believe in Jesus, you also become a witness to him.  You may not be a witness like John the Baptist, but your every act and your every word will bear witness to your faith, positively or negatively.  We must always ask ourselves, “Am I being a good or a bad witness to what I believe?”  Here, as in court, it may not always be pleasant to be a good witness for Jesus in all that we say and do.

       It certainly wasn’t pleasant in the first century; not for John the Baptist and not for thousands of others.  In fact, so many people were killed for believing in in Jesus Christ, that the Greek word for ‘witness’ (marterion), eventually entered our language as a very different defined word, ‘martyr,’ defined as ‘one who dies for what they believe in.”  This word that in Greek simply meant witness, became in English to be redefined as the word for ‘death (or suffering) because of one’s witness.’

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“The day before I saw the accident, I was just somebody going to work, minding my own business with no story to tell.  But now that something has happened to me, something that I have seen and witnessed, well, now I am a witness.  I’ve got something to say.  The event has made me a witness.”

–William Willimon

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

–Simon Peter (II Peter 1:16)

1709) “Who’s There?”

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By William Willimon

     After a devastating hurricane, all of the power had been out for the past three days.  It was hot, humid, and miserable during the day.  But it was frightening at night.  Rumors were that there had been much looting.  Robberies had taken place because there was no electricity, no way to call the police, and no streetlights.

     Thus, when, in the darkness, there was a pounding on our front door, we were filled with great fear.  Was this a robber?  Was this a looter trying to find out if the house was empty?  There was no way to call anyone for help.

     The knocking continued.  We peered out the widow and tried to make out the figures on the front porch.

     “Hey,” a voice called out to us.  “We’ve got a big bag of ice for you, and some fresh water too!”

     We made out the faces of our next door neighbors, our friends who had come to bring us some wonderful, and much needed gifts.

     As we peer into darkness in fear, it makes all the difference in the world whose face we see.  Friend or foe?

     Advent means that when we look over the darkened and storm-filled horizon of time, we see the face of Jesus.  That makes all the difference, in the end.

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Revelation 3:20a  —  (Jesus said), “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…”

I Peter 1:13  —  Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.

John 14:3b  —  (Jesus said), “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

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Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day.

–From the 1971 musical Godspell; by Stephen Schwartz, based on a prayer by St. Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)

1708) The Whole Truth

Randy and dad

“Truth, Grace, and My Father’s Conversion at Age 84,” by Randy Alcorn, posted August 1, 2012 athttp://www.epm.org

     My father was the most resistant person to the gospel I’ve ever known.  He warned me never to talk to him again about “that religious stuff.”

     At age eighty-four, Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  One day he phoned, very upset.

     “I’ve called…to say good-bye.  I’m in terrible pain—I know the end’s coming.  I’ve got a gun to my head.  I’m sorry to leave you with a mess.”

     I begged him to hold on.  Jumping into my car, I made the thirty-minute drive in twenty, jumped out of the car, and pounded on the door.

     No answer.

     Taking a deep breath, I opened the door.  On the floor I saw a rifle and a handgun.  Calling out for my father, I turned the corner into his room, prepared for the worst.  Eyes half-closed, I bumped into him as he walked out.  I rushed him to the hospital, where they scheduled him for surgery the next morning.

     I arrived an hour before surgery, praying that in his pain and despair, with no easy way out, my dad would turn to Christ.  Standing by his bed, I opened my Bible to Romans. I began reading in chapter 3. “‘There is none righteous, no, not one….’ All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (vv. 10, 23, NKJV).

     Those weren’t easy words to read.

     My tavern-owner father had always taken hot offense at being called a sinner.  I wanted to gloss over this portion, moving quickly to the good news of God’s grace.  But I forced myself to keep reading, verse after verse, about human sin.  Why?  Because, I told myself, if I really love Dad, I have to tell him the whole truth.  If God’s going to do a miracle of conversion here, that’s His job.  My job is to say what God says.  We made it to Romans 6:  “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23).  Then Romans 10, about being saved through confessing Jesus as our risen Lord.

     Finally I looked Dad in the eyes and asked, “Have you ever confessed your sins and asked Jesus Christ to forgive you?”

     “No,” he said in a weak voice. “But… I think it’s about time I did.”

   I’ll never forget that moment.  The impossible took place right before my eyes:  My father prayed aloud, con­fessed his sins, and placed his faith in Christ, just before they wheeled him into surgery.  To me, dividing the Red Sea paled in comparison to this miracle.

     The surgery was successful.  God gave me five more precious years with my dad.  The day I held his hand as he died, I knew I would see not only my mom, but also my dad in heaven.

     That morning in the hospital I wanted to minimize the truth of human sin.  I wanted to pass truth and go directly to grace.  Yet without the bad news, there can be no good news.  Without the truth of God’s holiness and the stark reality of our sin, Christ’s grace is meaningless.

     The worst thing I could have done to my father was what I was tempted to do—water down the truth.  It would have made it easier on me for the moment.  But withhold­ing God’s truth from my dad would have been withholding from him God’s grace.

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Romans 3:23  —  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Romans 6:23  —  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I John 1:8-9  —  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

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

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PRAYER OF CONFESSION:

O Perfect Light, how can I fold these guilty hands before you?  How can I pray to you with lips that have spoken false and rude words?  

I confess to you, O Lord;

A heart hardened with vindictive feelings;

An unruly tongue;

A fretful disposition;

An unwillingness to bear the burdens of others;

An undue willingness to let others bear my burdens;

High professions but low attainments;

Fine words hiding shabby thoughts;

A friendly face masking a cold heart;

Many neglected opportunities and many uncultivated talents;

Much love and beauty unappreciated and many blessings unacknowledged.

Forgive me, Lord.

I give you thanks that in the Gospel of Jesus Christ you have given me grace, for I have no other reason to plead for mercy.  Let me now find peace of heart by fleeing from myself and taking refuge in Jesus.  Let my despair over my miserable sins give way to the joy found in your goodness.  Now, let me think not of my own self and my own affairs, or of my own hopes and fears, or even of my own sins in your sight; but only of how I might serve you.  Amen.

–John Baillie, Diary of Private Prayer

1707) Two Fathers

Image result for randy alcorn images

Randy Alcorn (1954- )

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By Randy Alcorn, posted December 11, 2017 athttp://www.epm.org

     I grew up with a dad who slept at home, but generally wasn’t there for me or my brother.  He was a good provider, and I was proud of his extraordinary physical strength, but he didn’t come to my games or any school activities.  I never had the experience of playing catch or going camping or fishing with him.  He was a skilled mechanic, but didn’t take the time to teach me how to work with my hands.  He was always off to work or when home, working on something else or reading the newspaper.  Beyond telling me to do various chores, he rarely spoke to me and I had little access to him.  While my mom was always there and approachable, it seemed my father wasn’t interested in me.

     Everyone is different, but what happened to me was that my earthly father’s absence made me all the more appreciative when I entered into a relationship with Jesus, and thereby into a relationship with my Father in Heaven.  This Father loved me unconditionally, and despite His high expectations, He never told me to do anything that He didn’t give me the strength to do, and was quick to forgive me when I failed, which I often did.

     I found God the Father 100% trustworthy, an infinitely powerful provider who created the universe itself, not only for His glory but also for my good, as His son.  I believed Him to be, and do now more than ever, personally and genuinely interested in my life.  He wired me a certain way, and when I use my gifts and abilities to serve Him, I am His apprentice, having learned at His feet, under His guidance.  It is an honor and joy when I show some resemblance to my Father in Heaven.  He means everything to me.

     I base these concepts not on wishful thinking, but on God’s revealed Word, and its blood-bought promises.  I am a child of God, born into His family:

“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”  (John 1:12-13).

     But as if being born into His family weren’t enough, Scripture says He also chose to adopt me:

“You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). 

     He’s not a distant and unapproachable Father.  I am delighted to call Him “Abba (Daddy), Father.”

     I always have access to Him, the King of the universe.  His throne room is continuously available to me, His child, and He always has time for me:

“Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

     While my earthly father often seemed impossible to please, my heavenly Father seems eager to say to me, “Well done.”  Not only is He willing to spend time with me, He’s also eager to do so, and went to incredible lengths that I might spend eternity living with Him in His place, with Him always there for me, and me always able to proudly serve under Him.  It’s my privilege to worship Him, and call Him my Father.

     I later had the privilege of leading my dad to Jesus when he was 84 years old.  For the final five years of his life, when he was failing and needed my help, at last we became close.  (Read the story in tomorrow’s EmailMeditaition).  I can’t wait to reunite with my earthly father in Heaven, transformed into the image of our mutual Father in Heaven.

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OUR FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN…  Our heavenly Father, you tenderly encourage us to believe that you are truly our Father and that we are truly your children.  Give us the faith to believe this, so that we may boldly and confidently come to you in prayer, even as beloved children come to their dear father.  Amen.
–Prayer based on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism explanation to the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer

1706) Be Careful Little Ears (part two of two)

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     (…continued)  Pastor and author Max Lucado tells the story of being on an airplane one time, when the weather was bad and the flight became very turbulent.  The excessive turbulence and bouncing up and down and from side to side made most folks more than a little nervous.  There wasn’t much moving around and not a lot of talking.  The mood became even more somber when the pilot told everyone to fasten their seatbelts and stay in their seats.  His voice sounded nervous, and the flight attendants looked nervous as they hurried around to check everyone’s belts, and then they went to their own seats to belt themselves in.

     So it was very noticeable, and then very annoying, that this one guy in the back of the plane was constantly chuckling, and sometimes laughing out loud.  Lucado listened for other voices, imagining a couple people trying to lighten the mood with a little humor.  But there was no talking by anyone, just this man laughing on and on.  Finally, Max Lucado had to know what was going on, so he unbuckled his seat belt for a moment, stood up in the aisle, turned around, and looked.  Three rows back he saw the man– who had headphones on, and was apparently listening to something really funny, and all he could do was laugh.

     Now, everyone else on that flight was sitting there, feeling the storm, hearing the pilot’s warnings, noticing the flight attendants’ anxiety, and thinking about the storm outside.   They weren’t laughing and they weren’t even talking because their minds were on the storm, thinking “what if this and what if that.’  They were, perhaps, remembering that other plane that had gone down in bad weather the previous month killing everyone on board.  So they were all tuned into thoughts like that, and they were miserable.

     But that one guy, with the headphones on, was tuned into something entirely different.  He was listening to something funny, and his mind was on the jokes, and he wasn’t miserable at all.   He was having a wonderful time.   He was feeling the turbulence like all the others, but he was not thinking about the danger, but something else occupied his thoughts, and that affected his whole outlook and disposition.

     That is a powerful illustration of life and how we approach it; and, we can go two very different directions with the story, using it to illustrate two very different approaches to life.

   On the one hand, the story illustrates how something very unimportant, jokes and funny stories, can distract a person from something of ultimate importance– that he might soon be dead.  This is a parable of our whole society, preoccupied as we are with entertainment, sports, news, celebrity gossip, and the like; and, distracted from and uninterested in matters of God and our eternal destiny.  The music is always playing, the television is always on, there are texts and snapchats and Facebook and everything else to be constantly checking.  And we can remain distracted until it is too late.  “Be careful little ears” what you are listening to all the time, and be careful of what you are missing out on.

     Many years ago, about this time of year, my next door neighbor was dying of cancer.  He was a good neighbor, and a Christmas and Easter member of my congregation.  I visited him as a friend and as his pastor, and I assumed he might want to talk about what was next.  I would have good readings from the Bible ready to share with him, and would pray with him, and even thought he might want to talk about some issues in his family that he had previously told me about that he might want to settle before he left them.  But he was not interested in any of that.  He politely listened to what I said, but then would always steer the conversation back to what he really wanted to talk about— the Minnesota Vikings, who were having a great year, and were being talked about as Super Bowl contenders.  He was in complete denial of his condition, and totally distracted by sports.  His plane was going down, but he had the headphones on and was happily tuned into something else.

     On the other hand, God does give us something different to tune into, something wonderful, powerful, and eternal.  When we tune into that, it truly can give us a different disposition and a different reaction to the tense flight of this whole life— not by distracting us, but by giving us the truth that will set us free from fear and despair and hopelessness.  With faith in the promises of God, we can face even death with courage and hope, and not denial and distraction.  When we hear the voice of God, from John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, or whoever, those truths can begin to change us and strengthen us and give us a firm foundation that can handle anything.  With that message playing in our headphones, we might not be laughing when our plane goes down, but we won’t be whimpering either.

     John’s message was to prepare yourself– prepare yourself to hear about Jesus, to know Jesus, and to listen to Jesus, so you can become the kind of person Jesus wants you to become, now and forever.

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Luke 10:41-42  —  Jesus answered and said unto her, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things.  But one thing is needful, and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Luke 8:18a  —  (Jesus said), “Therefore, consider carefully how you listen.”

Philippians 4:8  —  Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable— if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think about such things.

John 8:31b-32  —  Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

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 O God of Peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, that in quietness and confidence shall be our strength:  By the might of Thy Spirit lift us, we pray, to Thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.
Book of Common Prayer