2193) Prayers for the End of the Year

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)


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)


 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)


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)


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.

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)

2192) God’s Mysterious Ways


     In 1773, English poet and hymn-writer William Cowper experienced a nervous breakdown.  He struggled with mental illness and despondency all his life, and now his mind was telling him that he was condemned to hell for all of eternity.  In his mental sickness he thought God was telling him to take his own life, so he called a taxi and asked to be taken to the Thames River where he intended to end it all.  A thick fog fell about them that evening and the taxi driver drove about lost until he finally stopped to allow Cowper out.  When Cowper stepped out of the taxi he found himself standing at his own doorstep.  He believed God had sent the fog to spare him. Sometime later he wrote the hymn that contains the phrase so often used by Christians today who seek to understand the ways of God:  God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.


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.”

Ecclesiastes 11:5  —  As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.

I Corinthians 1:25  —  The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Proverbs 3:5-6  —  Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.


GOD MOVES IN A MYSTERIOUS WAY by William Cowper  (1731-1800); listen at:


God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.
He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace.
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain.
God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.

God moves in a mysterious way that’s often not my own.
His wisdom guides each path I take, His mercy leads me home.
Help me to trust when I don’t understand
Grant me the peace of resting in your plan.

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.
He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace.
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.

2191) I Am Not in Church

 By Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  He posted this reading on May 9, 2016 at: http://www.ThomRainer.com


I am not in church.

Sure, I have visited churches several times, but I gave up.

For the most part, the people were unfriendly in the churches.  No one greeted me unless it was some contrived greeting time.  No one noticed me while they gathered in their holy huddles.  One church member sat down by me and told me I was sitting in her pew.  I decided to leave right then.

I am not in church.

But I really would like to know more about Christianity.  Unfortunately, most of the sermons I hear seem watered down.  Too many of the preachers tend to shy away from dealing with the biblical text straight on.  I want to learn, but they just seem to want to please.

I am not in church.

I could make you a list of over a hundred things churches are against.  The topics range from the serious to the ridiculous.  I sure would like to find a church that also tells me what they are for.

I am not in church.

But I need help. I know I need help.  There are times I hurt badly and seek answers.  I was hoping to find some of those answers at church.  I was hoping to meet people who cared.  I was hoping to be in place where I am treated with dignity and care.

I am not in church.

My co-worker goes to church.  I even know where he’s a member.  But he’s never invited me.  My neighbor goes to church.  My children play with her children.  I see their family go to church every Sunday.  But she’s never invited me.  I would go if she did.  I would definitely go.

I am not in church.

But church members don’t seem to care.  They seem too busy to care.  No one speaks to me.  No one invites me.  No one shows concern for me.

I am not in church.

I am not anti-church.  I am not anti-Christian.  I am really seeking answers.  I am really looking for people who care.

I am not in church.

But I think I would like to be.


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

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

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


Posted at St. Stephen’s Walbrook church, London; written by Bishop Thomas Ken  (1637-1711):

O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship; narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride, and strife.  Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling-block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power.  God make the door of this house the gateway to thine eternal kingdom.

2190) Christmas Refugees

Image result for holy family flight to egypt images

The Escape to Egypt


By Max Lucado, posted December 22, 2019 on his blog at:  < http://www.maxlucado.com >.  Lucado is a pastor and best-selling author in San Antonio, Texas.

This story does not attempt to take a political stance on any of the complex issues surrounding the world-wide refugee crisis.  It simply retells the old familiar Christmas story in a present-day setting.  Right after the birth of Jesus the Holy Family did become refugees, having to flee to Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod.


     The moonlight was their only light.  Huffing and puffing were the only sounds.  José walked in front.  The trail was narrow.  He didn’t want his wife to stumble.  She carried the baby.  He’d offered to do so, but she’d refused.

     “He’s asleep,” she’d explained.

     “Let him sleep,” he’d agreed.

     So, they hurried, José in the lead, all their earthly possessions crammed in the backpack he’d purchased from the street vendor in San Salvador.  That was weeks ago.  How many trains since then?  How many miles?  How many cold nights?

     He glanced over his shoulder.  Her eyes caught his.  Was that a smile he saw?  She’s something, this woman, he said to himself.  He turned his attention back to the trail.  Mesquites on either side scraped against their jeans.

     Behind them was a village.  Within the village was a barn.  Within that barn lay, even still, the gathered straw and abandoned feed trough that had served as a bassinet for their baby.

     José heard the child whimper.  He stopped.

     “He is fine,” Maria assured before José had time to ask.

     They continued.

     The trail emptied into a river that had long since emptied its water into a rancher’s pond.  The wide, dry riverbed allowed them to walk abreast.  No thorns.  They moved faster.  He hoisted the pack.  She secured the child.  A blacktop was near, they’d been told.

     After a dozen steps they heard the shots.

     José had been warned of the danger.  Just that morning, as the men warmed their hands over the fire in the five-gallon drum, he heard them speak of the cartel.  Take the baby and leave, they’d urged him, these men are violent.

     He’d hurried back to the barn to tell Maria, but she was sound asleep.  He decided to let her rest.  When she awoke at noon, her face was pale.  She nursed the child and dozed again.  José kept an eye toward the door.  An old cowboy knew they were using his barn for shelter.  He brought them coffee and beans and a blanket for the child.

     “Do you know about the gangs?” he asked José.

     Maria overheard and sat up from her pallet.

     “You must go,” the cowboy told them.

     But José wanted to wait.

     “Just another day, or two.  Till you find your strength,” he told Maria, though he knew she had enough strength for them both.  Nothing fazed her.  This sudden journey.  This barnyard birth.  She was the strong one.

     She nodded and stretched out on the pallet.  The sun was setting, and the chill was creeping through the walls.  He built a fire on the floor, sat next to her and pulled knees to chest.  He ventured a touch to her cheek.  She did not stir.  Her long hair was silk on her face.  So young.  Trusting.

     He stretched out and closed his eyes.  Sleep resisted, then relented.  A messenger came to him in a dream.  He was tall and light-filled.  The same messenger who had spoken to him nine months earlier when spring was in the air and a wedding in his plans.  But then came Maria’s pregnancy; her mysterious pregnancy.  Had it not been for this midnight visitor, José might have left her.

     Tonight, the messenger came again.  The boy is in danger.  Blood will be shed.  It’s time to go.

     José sat up with a start.  He knew he had no choice.

     He shook Maria awake.  “Get your things.”

     Without a word she stood.  She grabbed their few possessions and stuffed them in the pack.  José lifted the lid of an old toolbox and took out the gifts.  Strangers had brought them.  They’d traveled far to see his son.  Now, José would travel as far as necessary to protect him.  Their kindness would fund the journey.

     He placed the gifts in the pack and looked across the room.  Maria was leaning over their son.  Shhh, she assured and lifted him.  Within moments the three were out the door and scurrying down the narrow street.  Within minutes they were standing in the riverbed, listening the crack of gunfire.  A woman screamed.  A baby cried.  Maria tugged on the José’s sleeve.  “We need to go!” she told him.

     Yes, she was right.  Time was short.  Safety was within miles.  If only they could reach it.  They hurried.  The riverbed emptied onto a single lane road.  They saw approaching headlights.  José waved.  A pickup pulled to a stop.  José motioned to the truck bed.  The driver nodded.  The young family climbed in the back and squeezed together.

     At one point the baby cried.  Mary gave him milk.  José looked at the Mexican sky.  Stars sparkled like diamonds.  For a moment, he wasn’t running, he was resting.  A hacienda back home, perhaps?  A home of their own, at least?

     Maria dozed.  Her head lay motionless on his shoulder.  A pothole bumped the truck and she awoke.  They rode wordlessly for an hour.  The black sky gave way to gray, then gold.  At the first daylight, the truck came to a stop on the side of the road.

     “This is as far as I can carry you.  What you seek is over the next hill.”

     José gave the man a gracias and a coin, then helped his family climb down.  Maria’s face was chalked with road dust.  The eyes of his son were open; looking at the sky, then at his mother.  The three set out on the final segment of the escape.  One weary step after another carried them to the top of the hill.  When they reached the crest, they stopped and stared.  The river below was lined with tents, campfires, and people.

     José reached for the newborn.  “I’ll carry him the rest of the way.”

     Maria gazed at the refugees.  “Will we be safe, José?”

     He looked at her for several moments before answering.  The rising sun cast her face in orange.

     “Si Dios quire, mi amor.”

     “Yes,” she agreed, “if God wills.”

     The family turned and began the walk to the border.


Matthew 2:13-15a…18-21  — When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.  Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”  So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod…  After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”  So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.


            According to the UN Refugee agency, 70.8 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, including 25.9 million refugees. During this season when Christians celebrate the most famous of refugee families, let’s offer prayers and assistance. World Vision is one of many ways to help. Visit this link to learn more:  https://www.worldvision.org/our-work/refugees-fragile-states

2189) Get Serious

Image result for baptism lutheran images
By William Willimon, The Last Word, Abingdon Press, 2000, pages 78-80.
     Last year, on a bright summer Sunday, we worshiped with a little congregation in a fine old suburb of Berlin, Germany.  The beautiful old church was only a few blocks from the Wannsee House where, just sixty years earlier, leaders of the Third Reich met and, over coffee and strudel, planned their “final solution” for exterminating all the Jews of Europe.
     To our surprise, the small parking lot of the church was full– full of expensive cars.  When we entered the church we could see why.  There was to be a baptism.  The proud parents, grandparents, and friends had gathered toward the front of the congregation, with the baby wrapped in elegant white linen and lace.
     I doubted if the family and friends had been in church often before that bright morning; perhaps they had been there on some Christmas past, or the last time they had a child baptized.
     The pastor stepped into the chancel, welcomed the congregation warmly, and prayed an opening prayer.  At the conclusion of the prayer, as I had expected, there were three or four clicks and flashes of the assorted cameras, capturing everything for posterity.
     “Excuse me,” said the pastor, “this is not a press conference.  This is God’s church, this is a service of worship.  When we are finished, you may take all of the photos you wish, but not now.  This is what we call ‘worship.’”
      Everyone became very still.
    Then we began to worship.  After hymns, prayers, and Scripture, the pastor preached.  He began his sermon by noting that parents today face heavy responsibilities.  They must provide for the education, the safety, and the emotional well-being of their children.  Children require resources, patience, and time.
     “Unlike some previous generations,” noted the pastor, “we have the opportunity to provide generously for the material needs of our children.  We are able to buy them many things.”
     He continued, “Unfortunately, we are finding that it is much easier to give our children material gifts than to give them other gifts.  Gifts like a reason for living, and a purpose for life, and hope for eternity—where can these gifts be purchased in the stores?”
     The congregation was quiet and attentive.
     “These gifts, these gifts that matter, can only come as gifts from God.  We have a word for it– grace.  Therefore we pray that God will give our children what we can never give them—grace.  We smother our children with gifts that corrupt, that deface and deform our children into superficial, materialistic adults because we are not good at giving, because we do not have the resources to give them gifts that matter.  Therefore we must pray to God to take our children, and to give them gifts that matter.  In Baptism we offer our children back to the God who gave them to us, and dare to ask God to form them into the image of God, now and forever.
     In a number of places the Bible claims that it is a fearful thing to be brought into the presence of the living God.  A fearful thing.  Yet on Sunday, in worship, even such fear can be life-giving.  There, on a bright summer Sunday—in a church whose sad history is a grim memory of a time, just sixty years ago, when the church had not the resources to say no when no was needed—a courageous pastor enabled us to worship a free, living, demanding God.  
     That Sunday, we truly worshiped God.
Psalm 95:6-7  —  Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.  Today, if only you would hear his voice!…
Hebrews 10:31  —  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Deuteronomy 4:39-40  —   Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below.  There is no other.  Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time.
Holy Spirit, you give life; bless this our gathering, the speaker and the hearer; fresh from the heart may the words come, by your aid; and, by your aid, let them also go to the heart.  Amen.
–Soren Kierkegaard   (1813-1855)

2188) Christmas for an Atheist Chinese Communist

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Posted December 25, 2019 at  http://www.opendoorsusa.org , in the Standing Strong Through the Storm daily devotional.


A depressed Chinese communist local party boss went to a church to hear the preaching of a very sincere and learned elder he knew.  Here is his story in his own words:

     It was the first Sunday of December.  I remember the preacher talked about “The Angel’s Song.”  After the service I spoke to him, “You know, I really can’t see what all the fuss is about Jesus.  He was a man of moral ideals, and died for his belief, but lots of other religions have such men, too.” 

     This elder smiled and said, “Are you looking for God?”

     “I suppose I am,” I admitted to him. 

     He asked again, “Well, if Jesus doesn’t seem to be up to it, what sort of God would you be looking for?” 

    I answered slowly, thinking it through, “I guess a God who first of all is totally powerful, and then is also totally just or fair.”

     The elder probed again, “But how would you know a God like that was interested in you?” 

     I said, “Then he would also have to be a God of love.” 

     The elder challenged me by saying, “If you find a God who is all three: powerful, just, loving, would you trust Him?”

     “I might,” I replied “but I would need to find an event that proved he was all three.”

     “Take this Bible,” said the elder, handing me what I saw was his own copy of the Bible, “and come back to me if you find an event that shows God is supremely and uniquely all three.”

     I started reading the Bible and pretty soon I came across that verse the elder had preached on the morning I attended the church.  “Glory to God in the highest.”  What was it that made the angels so excited?  After all they had witnessed, what was so unique about the birth of Jesus?

     I had little time to brood on this because my wife was expecting our first child.  All went well with the delivery and I held the little warm bundle, gazing into his peaceful sleeping face.  What perfection the baby seemed.  As I looked, the more I was amazed by the sheer miracle of birth.

     Had I really used the word “miracle” to describe the birth of my son?  Then I thought, the miracle of the birth of Jesus had to be more than just a miracle of birth to impress those angels so much.  I read on, and the Spirit of God gave light to my eyes.  God had become a baby!

     I looked for three characteristics of the God I would trust.  Power.  This had to be a greater act than the creation of the world.  In the beginning God was merely bringing a world into being.

     Love.  God came!  If He wasn’t interested, He would not have bothered to come at all.  After all, Jesus had a very hard life, not the kind of life that anyone would wish for.

     Justice.  God loved us so much, He came.  He came Himself to redeem sinful man.  Here was the meaning and glory of Christianity—all captured in the incarnation.

    I wept and wept in my little study.  I must have stayed on my knees for hours.  When I looked at my watch, and suddenly noticed the date…it was the 25th of December…Christ’s birthday!  That Christmas was so real.  I saw in the cradle the infinite power, justice and love of God supremely and uniquely illustrated.  As long as I live, I will celebrate Christmas every day.


Luke 2:8-15  — And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

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

I Peter 3:18  —  For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.  He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.


“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (ten of fifteen verses)
by Martin Luther, 1483-1546

1. “From heaven above to earth I come
To bear good news to every home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
Whereof I now will say and sing:

2. “To you this night is born a child
Of Mary, chosen virgin mild;
This little child, of lowly birth,
Shall be the joy of all the earth.

3. “This is the Christ, our God and Lord,
Who in all need shall aid afford;
He will Himself your Savior be
From all your sins to set you free.

5. “These are the tokens ye shall mark:
The swaddling-clothes and manger dark;
There ye shall find the Infant laid
By whom the heavens and earth were made.”

6. Now let us all with gladsome cheer
Go with the shepherds and draw near
To see the precious gift of God,
Who hath His own dear Son bestowed.

8. Welcome to earth, Thou noble Guest,
Through whom the sinful world is blest!
Thou com’st to share my misery;
What thanks shall I return to Thee?

9. Ah, Lord, who hast created all,
How weak art Thou, how poor and small,
That Thou dost choose Thine infant bed
Where humble cattle lately fed!

13. Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.

14. My heart for very joy doth leap,
My lips no more can silence keep;
I, too, must sing with joyful tongue
That sweetest ancient cradle-song:

15. Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who unto us His Son hath given!
While angels sing with pious mirth
A glad new year to all the earth.

2187) Too Many Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adoration of the Shepherds, Rembrandt, 1646


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

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

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


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

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

–Henry Lyte, 1847

2186) Bessie’s Best Christmas

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By Chuck Colson (1931-2012), for the Breakpoint radio program, December 25, 1995.

Chuck Colson served as special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973. He spent nine months in prison (1974-75) after pleading guilty to charges of obstruction of justice. Colson’s life fell apart during the Watergate investigation, and during that time gave his life to Christ. While serving time in prison, he vowed that after he was released he would do what he could to minister in the name of Jesus to prisoners. He started Prison Fellowship Ministries, now an international organization working with tens of thousands of prisoners in hundreds of jails and prisons around the world. For the rest of his life, Colson spent every Easter and many Christmases preaching in prisons and visiting prisoners. See: http://www.prisonfellowship.org


     Bessie Shipp was spending Christmas in jail.  A slender black woman, Bessie was watching her life slip rapidly away.  Though she had not been sentenced to death by the state, she was under a different death sentence: Bessie had AIDS.

     I met Bessie that Christmas Day in a North Carolina prison for women.  I had come to give a Christmas message to the inmates there.

     The atmosphere was glum.  The small crowd that gathered to hear me preach was somber and subdued.

     After the service, a prison official said, “Do you have time to visit Bessie Shipp?”

     “Who’s Bessie Shipp?” I asked.  When they told me, I confess, I was taken aback.  This was several years ago, and I had never visited an AIDS patient.

     And yet, just the night before, I had seen a television story about Mother Teresa and the AIDS patients she was caring for.  How could I do anything less?

     “I’ll go,” I said.

     We walked down a narrow corridor, and a heavy door was opened to reveal a small, dark cell.  There, sitting in a hard-backed chair was this tiny woman, wrapped in a bathrobe, shivering in the cold.  To my surprise, I saw a Bible on her lap.

     After chatting a few minutes, I came right to the point.  “Bessie,” I said, “Do you know the Lord?”

     “I want to,” she replied softly.  “But I don’t always feel like He’s there.”  And her voice trailed off.

      “Would you like to pray with me to know Christ as your Savior?” I asked.

     Bessie looked down, twisted a Kleenex in her thin hands, and finally whispered, “Yes, I would.”

     So we prayed together in that cold, concrete cell.  And Bessie made a decision that would change the rest of her short life: She gave it to Jesus Christ.

     Only days later Bessie was paroled.  Friends and prison officials had been trying to get her released for a long time.  But the timing was providential.  She stayed long enough to meet Christ, and then she went to her home as a new Christian.

     A short three weeks after her release, Bessie contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized.  A Prison Fellowship area director visited her and found her spirit strong to the end.

     “These are the happiest days of my life,” she whispered.  “Because now I know Jesus loves me, and you all love me, too. I’m in the Lord’s hands.”

Two days later Bessie died.  She went to meet the Savior she had accepted only a short time before, on Christmas Day, in a cold prison cell.

     When Jesus came to earth, He wasn’t born in a grand palace.  He was born in a dirty stable that reeked of animals, with mice scurrying underfoot.

     And Jesus still comes to us wherever we are.  Not only to warm, well-lit homes, but also to run-down tenement buildings and gray prison cells.

     So wherever you are, why don’t you ask Him to come to you?  He will do it.  Just like He came to a young woman dying of AIDS in a North Carolina prison one cold Christmas Day.


Revelation 3:20 — (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 and eat with that person, and they with me.

Matthew 25:36…40 — (Jesus said), “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…  Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Hebrews 13:3 — Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.


Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal.  Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment.  Remember all prisoners and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future.  When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us and teach us to improve our justice.  Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous.  And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, lead us to improve their lot.  All this we ask for your mercy’s sake.  Amen.

—Lutheran Book of Worship (#186)

2185) Wise (?) Men (part two of two)


     (…continued)  Years later, the little baby that the three Magi were seeking, would say, “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened unto you.”  I wonder if, when Jesus said that, he thought about these men who so mysteriously showed up after he was born.  Mary and Joseph most certainly would have told him all about them.  During Jesus ministry, many more would seek him, just like the Magi, and, many would try to oppose and destroy him, just like Herod.  To those who were seeking him, Jesus was more than ready and willing to be found, responding to even the weakest indications of interest.

     The story of the Magi’s unusual search reminds me of the woman who sought healing from Jesus, not for any apparent spiritual reasons, but simply because she wanted to be well (Luke 8:42-48).  She was in the crowd following Jesus, but not because she wanted to be a follower, and not for the sermon, and not for salvation.  She just wanted to push her way to the front and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, believing that in that garment would be a magical power that could heal her.  She did receive the healing; and then she received Jesus.  Jesus stopped for her and honored her search, not only with his miracle of healing, but also with his word of promise.  

     We can come to Jesus for all the wrong reasons.   We all probably do.  But the important thing is that we do come to him.  The old hymn says it best, “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, Oh Lamb of God, I come.”

     What did these ‘magicians’ want from Jesus?  Matthew 2:2 says that the Magi came to worship Jesus.  We don’t know much about the Magi, and what we do know seems to indicate that they were wrong about a few things.  But they were right about the most important thing.  They were right to be seeking Jesus, for whatever reason.  “Seek and you shall find,” Jesus said, and it would very much in line with the rest of what Jesus taught to finish that sentence like this:  “Seek, and you shall find that you have already been found.”  As you recall, Jesus often used the illustration of shepherds and their sheep, and who is it that is always finding who?  It is the good shepherd, Jesus, who is always seeking, and finding, the lost sheep.

     It is like that old illustration of the little boy who ran away from home.  His father watched him go, and then, in order to protect his son, followed him at a distance from which he could see the boy, but the boy could not see him.  After a while, the sky began to darken and the little boy became afraid.  When he turned to go back home, he realized he was lost, and became frightened.  He started to cry, and immediately his father came to him.  The little boy was overjoyed, and said, “Daddy, I found you!”  Who found who?

     That is how we find Jesus.  He is there, all the while, waiting for us.  And that is how the Magi found him.  How else would following the stars lead you to just the right place and just the right baby?  Looking at the stars can tell you which way is North, and if you know something about the stars and the constellations, they might even tell you more than that.  But if I want to give you directions to my house, I better tell you what roads to take, and not what stars to follow.  And I better tell you my house number, not what star is directly over my house; that might be a little hard to determine.  However, when it is God who is giving the directions and leading the way, he can move the stars around if he wants to, and that is what he did for the Magi.  Matthew 2:9 tells us that “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.”  They found Jesus, but it was like the little boy found his daddy– with a lot of help.  They were, in fact, the ones who had been found and were being led.

     I hope I’m not ruining anyone’s Christmas story with this less than flattering picture of these ‘not-very’ wise men.  They probably look very wise and very dignified in your nativity scene at home.  We’ve been more used to that more positive picture of them.  But there has been a whole stream of Biblical interpretation over the years that has seen them as well-meaning bumblers at best, or at worst, devious wizards who only in the end change their wicked hearts when they see and truly worship the Christ-child.  Actually, there is not enough in the Bible to know very much for sure, except that they really did need a lot of help from God, as do we all.  Praise God that he is always there for us, ready to be found and ready to help.  And keep asking, seeking, and knocking.


Matthew 7:7 — (Jesus said), “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Matthew 2:11 — On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

O God and Father of all, whom the whole heavens adore:  Let the whole earth also worship thee, all nations obey thee, all tongues confess and bless thee, and men and women everywhere love thee and serve thee in peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

2184) Wise(?) Men (part one of two)

The Magi in the House of Herod by James Tissot    The Wise Men and Herod, James Tissot  (1836-1902)


     Matthew 2:1-12 tells the story of the Wise Men’s visit to the Holy Family after the birth of Jesus.  This is one of the most familiar of all Bible stories.  We hear it every year.  We see three Wise Men in front yard Christmas displays, we receive pictures of their visit on Christmas cards, and many of us were Wise Men in long ago Christmas programs.  The story seems not odd or strange at all, but very familiar.

     But to anyone hearing this story for the first time in the first century, the appearance of these men would have seemed very odd indeed.  Upon hearing that these three characters had come to see the newborn Savior, those early readers would have asked, “What are they doing in the story?  Who invited them?”  It was God, of course, who invited them, and, who saw to it that they found their way to the right place, leading them by that bright star and all.  But the average Jew of that day, for whom Matthew was primarily writing, would certainly be wondering why God would have included them.  When it came to religion, the Jews at that time were very careful about who was in and who was out, and those men were about as far out as anyone could get.

     First of all, they were foreigners– ‘from the East,’ says verse one.  Secondly, they were not ‘wise’ men.  That is an awful translation, so far from the original that it is hard to imagine how the word ‘wise’ ever got connected to this story.  They were, in the Greek, ‘Magi,’ from which we get our word magician, and there is nothing in the rest of New Testament to indicate they were anything more dignified than that.  And they certainly were not kings, as in ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are.’  They weren’t wise and they weren’t kings and nothing in the text indicates that they were.  There are Greek words for wise men and for kings, but those are not the words used here.  The word used is ‘magi,’ and in the two other places in the New Testament where the word magi appears, it is used in an unfavorable way.  In Acts 8, it is Simon the Magi (there translated sorcerer) who opposes the ministry of the Apostles; and in Acts 13 there is Elymas the Magi, and there the word is often translated ‘false prophet.’  Nowadays, a magician may have a respectable job as an entertainer, and children can do magic tricks for fun.  But in the New Testament world, magic was more in the realm of black magic; sorcery, fortune telling, astrology, and the like, the kinds of things God had forbidden, and not the sort of thing any respectable Jew would be interested in.

     Not only that, these men were not wise, but very naive– at least when it came to politics.  Who, after all, would go to the current king in power and ask him where the new king could be found?  Certainly, no one would have asked this of jealous King Herod who already had two sons and a wife killed because he had some suspicions that they might be thinking about replacing him as king.  Herod, of course, would want more information about this new competitor for his throne, and when the Magi did not return to tell him what they found, Herod had all the baby boys in Bethlehem under two years old killed.  If the Magi had not gone to the King in the first place, this slaughter would not have happened.

     These men from the east, whatever we might call them, are not Jews, they are not in a respectable profession, and they do not seem to be very wise at all in the ways of the world.  So the first readers of this story would have seen them not as a natural part of an old familiar story, as we now see them.  Rather, they would seem to be as out of place as Rush Limbaugh at a fundraiser for Nancy Pelosi.

     But these Magi had one big thing going for them.  They were on a search, the most important search of all, and they were taking great pains to seek and find this newborn King.  They had been looking in the wrong place, the stars, but they did see something there, God knows what– and I do mean God.  It would probably be more accurate to say God saw something in their desire to seek out this King, and then God honored their search by leading them to the right place.  (continued…)


Matthew 2:1-2  —  Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him?”

Matthew 2:3  —  When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

Isaiah 60:1-3  —  Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.  See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.  Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:  Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer