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)

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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

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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

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

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The Jordan River in the Judean Wilderness

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Mark 1:1-8 — The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”  And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.  John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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     John the Baptist was, back in Bible days, in the same business I am in now— preaching.  And we both have the same message— telling people about Jesus.  But I preach in a very different setting.  I am in town; John did his preaching out in the country.  I get to preach from a pulpit in a beautiful, historic old sanctuary.  John was outside.  I wear a microphone and my voice is projected from speakers.  John was a “voice of one calling in the wilderness.”  Look at the above photograph of the Judean wilderness.  It is not the kind of place you would want to set up a pulpit to try and attract a crowd.

     But John did attract a crowd– huge crowds, day after day.  Verse five says “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to hear him.”  I have always wondered how that worked.  In my congregation it is easy.  People show up at 8:00, 9:15, or 10:45 Sunday mornings, and about half way through the service, I get up and talk, and they, very politely, sit and listen.

     But how does that work for a “voice calling in the wilderness?”  There would have been no newspaper ads, no radio spots to announce the new preacher, and no church building with a sign out front announcing worship times.  It was just John out there preaching about the coming Savior, and the news getting out by word of mouth.  People would tell everyone they knew, “You need to hear this guy and what he has to say.”

     What do you need to hear?  What are you listening to?  These days, we are all able to be listening to something, all the time.  For some, it is the television on in the house all day, and the radio always on in the car; or, my preference, audio-books when I am driving.  For others, it is the hundreds, even thousands of songs downloaded onto their phone or stored up in the cloud.  For some others, it is the news all day, every day– Fox News, CNN, or something else— each supplying a steady stream of breaking news and whatever commentary you want to hear.  And there are dozens of sports channels, thousands of movies on Netflix and Hulu, and billions of videos on YouTube, short and long, silly and profound.

     What are you listening to?  This is an important question, because what we listen to, is what we think about, and what we think about, is what we become.

     Sometimes people who listen to the news all day become very angry, not only with how things are going, but also with other people who have different views on why things are not going well.  And there is much to be angry about, but we don’t only want to be angry and forget to be grateful.  And we do have significant differences, but we must remember to see people on more levels than just the political.  And the songs we listen to change us, for good or ill, and we become different people in our morals, our outlook on life, and our treatment of other people.  We have to ask ourselves if we want to become the type of people whose songs we are hearing.  Sometimes we do, but oftentimes, we do not.  And Hollywood can tell such wonderful and powerful stories, but they can also, in such a wickedly appealing way, present an outlook on life that is crude and vulgar and just wrong.  And we’ve been seeing every day on the news what kind of people are telling us these stories and teaching us about life.  Do we want to learn from them and become like that?  I love movies, but we have to be discerning about what we see and listen to and what it does to us.

     There is an old Sunday School song titled “Be Careful” and verse two goes like this:  “O be careful little ears what you hear, O be careful little ears what you hear; there’s a Father up above, And He’s looking down in love; So, be careful little ears what you hear.”  The people in the Judean wilderness wanted to hear John.  In order to do so, they made an inconvenient journey out to an unpleasant place.  Oftentimes, what we listen to distracts us from the realities of life.  And we like to be distracted from our troubles.  But John moves us in a different direction.  John’s message is a reminder to listen to a word from God about our sin, about eternity, and about Jesus.  We must be careful that we are not distracted from that, because Jesus himself said that is the one thing we need most of all.  (continued…)

1705) Hopes and Fears

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From “Don’t Let Christmas Destroy You” by Joshua Rogers, posted December 6, 2017 athttp://www.joshuarogers.com

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     A few years ago, on Christmas Day, a friend was celebrating with her family when they heard a single, loud pop outside.  They didn’t think anything of it, but soon the sound of sirens filled the neighborhood.

     Their neighbor had walked out to the back patio and shot herself.

     As the woman was taking her final steps to her back door, other families in the neighborhood were opening presents, baking desserts for Christmas dinner and listening to holiday music.  But something told this hurting woman she would be better off dead than to live through the remaining hours of Christmas Day.

     The thought of her Christmas death haunts me – how isolated she must have felt, how desperate for relief.  But though she might not have realized it, in those other houses down the street other people could relate.

     Someone was baking a pie and fighting back tears in a losing battle against depression.  Another person was so anxious she could hardly breathe while cleaning up the wrapping paper.  Someone else was facing his first Christmas without a loved one.  And while those people did not commit suicide, I’m sure many felt like they were dying inside.

     Christmastime brings with it an expectation of happiness and there are plenty of times you’re expected to show it.  But faking happiness throughout a whole month only serves to remind a person who’s depressed just how lonely he or she feels inside.  It’s in that dark place that the real meaning of Christmas shines through.

     Matthew 1:23 says: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’”  There couldn’t be better news in our dark hours.

     Jesus – “God with us” – lay in a feed trough on Christmas night and brought us a message through the meaning of his very name: I’m with you.

     Immanuel is in the heartache with you.

     Immanuel is in the loneliness with you.

     Immanuel is in the shame with you.

     Immanuel came so he could lie down in the dirty manger of your circumstances and simply be there with you.

     Immanuel will provide comfort through his Spirit, and he will also give you the strength to reach out for help from loved ones, support groups, counselors or even a crisis hotline.  Receive that strength today.  Experience his presence through the people he will use to help you get through this unbearable time.

     During this hard season, keeping praying, over and over, “Immanuel, I need you.”  As God uses others to be with you in that dark place, you will experience the true meaning of Christmas: You will not be alone.

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Matthew 1:22-23  —  This took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”  (which means “God with us”).

Psalm 34:18  —  The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Luke 23:42b  —  Jesus, remember me…

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O little town of Bethlehem,
    How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
    The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
    The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
    Are met in thee to-night…

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
    Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
    Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels,
    The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
    Our Lord Emmanuel!

–Bishop Phillips Brooks  (1835-1893)

1704) Seeing God’s Gifts Everywhere

Open Your Eyes to All the Gifts God Has Given You This Christmas

By Randy Alcorn, at http://www.epm.org , December 8, 2017

     Sometimes focusing on God’s “big miracles”—like curing cancer and making brain tumors disappear—causes us to overlook His small, daily miracles of providence in which He holds the universe together, keeps our hearts beating, provides us with air to breathe and lungs to breathe it, and gives us food to eat and stomachs to digest it.  (Years ago when I became an insulin-dependent diabetic, it dawned on me that I had never once, in the fifteen years I’d known him, thanked God for a pancreas that had worked perfectly until then!)

     If we disregard these and thousands of other “ordinary” gifts, we don’t just fail to notice them, we fail to notice God.  God’s goodness is always evident if we look in the right place.  “He is actually not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

     G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Here ends another day, during which I have had eyes, ears, hands and the great world around me.  Tomorrow begins another day.  Why am I allowed two?”

     When life is viewed with a spirit of thankfulness, we will see the happiness and reasons for happiness that surround us.  So this Christmas, let’s open our eyes to the multitude of daily gifts that God has already given us.  We have much to be thankful for!

     This great little video made by Forest Hill Church in Charlotte, NC illustrates that point wonderfully.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSxPWpLPN7A&mc_cid=b468b0b7df&mc_eid=7a61505e6c


On this same theme, watch this video “Sedated and Elated,” though you might have seen it before.  It was America’s Funniest Homes Videos grand prize winner in 2017.  A young man is waking up after being sedated for some dental work; and he hears, as if for the first time, about all the blessings in his life, and he is filled with awe and gratitude:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yk_9_NEz5qE

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Acts 17:27b-28a  —  (God) is not far from any one of us; for in him we live and move and have our being.

James 1:16-17a  —  Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters.  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…

Deuteronomy 8:17-18a  —  You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.

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O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

–Psalm 118:29

1703) Worship in North Korea

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North Korean Christians gathering in secret for prayer.

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From the December 5, 2017 reading of “Standing Strong Through the Storm,” posted athttp://www.opendoorsusa.org  (no author’s name is listed)

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In the United States we have the freedom to worship when and where and however often we choose.  Many Christians take this great privilege for granted, worshiping only when they feel like it, and that usually means less and less frequently as time goes on.  Even then, worship is often approached as a duty and a chore.  In this reading, we learn about worship in North Korea, where finding opportunities worship really is a chore, and, a risk.  But still it is a privilege, as believers faithfully try hard to gather with other believers whenever and however possible.

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     In the summer of 2010, I led an excellent team of Open Doors staff and supporters on a visit to North Korea.  We were allowed to pray publicly in the areas we visited and of course were presented with a formal church service on Sunday morning at one of the three churches functioning in Pyongyang.  It was a well-executed performance; especially the choir.  On its website, the Korean Christian Federation claims that there are ten thousand Protestant Christians in North Korea meeting at five hundred designated centers.  In reality, Christians in the country experience tremendous challenges in worshiping publicly.

     Brother Simon, the leader of the Open Doors work in North Korea, says that the true church must operate underground in the country.  “They can’t simply go to church to sing and to listen to the sermon.  It is clear that being a Christian in North Korea is a lonely business.”

     Simon’s thoughts turn to Sundays in North Korea.  “It happens only sporadically that Christians consider themselves safe enough to meet together in small groups.  Usually gatherings consist of only two people.  For example, a Christian goes and sits on a bench in the park.  Another Christian comes and sits next to him.  Sometimes it’s dangerous even to speak to one another, but they know they are both Christians, and at such a time, this is enough.  If there is no one around, they may be able to share a Bible verse which they have learned off by heart and briefly say something about it.  They also share prayer topics with each other.  Then they leave one another and go and look for a Christian in some other part of their town or village.  This continues throughout the Sunday.  A cell group usually consists of fewer than twenty Christians, who encourage and strengthen one another, plus one-to-one meetings in people’s homes.

   “Only if the whole family has turned to Christ is it possible to have something like a real fellowship gathering, as long as you keep your faith hidden from the neighbors.  Besides this, it is sometimes possible to hold a meeting in remote areas with a group of ten to twenty people.  Very occasionally, it is possible for Christians to go unobtrusively into the mountains and to hold a ‘service’ at a secret location like a cave.  Then it may be the case that there are as many as sixty or seventy North Korean Christians gathered together.”

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Hebrews 10:24-25  —  Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another— and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

I Corinthians 16:13  —  Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.

I Peter 5:8-10  —  Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.  And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.

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

1702) Seeing the Invisible

By Rick Warren, December 1, 2017, athttp://www.pastorrick.com

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     There is a strong belief in our culture that influences every one of us, whether we want it to or not: If it feels good, do it.  But when you allow yourself to be manipulated by your moods, you are living your life according to your feelings.  God wants you to live a different kind of life.  He wants you to live a life of faith, not a life of feelings.

     We don’t always feel like doing the right thing.  I don’t always feel like being nice to people.  I don’t always feel like washing the dishes with my wife.  I don’t always feel like stopping what I’m doing to help someone.

     But God can give you the kind of faith that persists above feelings.

     Anybody who’s successful at anything does things they don’t feel like doing.  An Olympic athlete exercises when she doesn’t feel like it.  A great musician practices his craft, even when he’s tired.  If you’re going to be a great salesperson, you make calls that other people don’t feel like making.

     If you want to deepen your relationship with God, you have to spend time with him even when you don’t feel like it.  People who have a regular, consistent quiet time with God didn’t get there because every morning they woke up and wanted to spend time with God.  They got there because they woke up and spent time reading the Bible and praying even if they were tired or didn’t feel like it.

     Faith is being persistent.  Faith is refusing to give up no matter how tired you are or how many other things you think you should or wish you could be doing.

     The Bible talks about how you can begin to develop persistence in your life through the example of Moses.  Hebrews 11:27 says, “It was by faith that Moses left the land of Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger.  He kept right on going because he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible” (NLT).

     That’s how you get there.  That’s how you persist — you begin to see the invisible.  Only those who see God for who he really is can persist in the most difficult times of life.  Only those who see the invisible can do the impossible.  Believe in faith what God can do in your life, and thank him in advance for how he is going to work.

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II Corinthians 4:16-18  —  Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Hebrews 11:27  —  By faith Moses left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.

Hebrews 11:13  —  All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.

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O Thou Creator of all things that are, I lift up my heart in gratitude to Thee for this day’s happiness:

For the mere joy of living;
For all the sights and sounds around me;
For the sweet peace of the country and the pleasant bustle of the town;
For all things bright and beautiful and happy;
For friendship and good company;
For work to perform and the skill and strength to perform it;
For a time to play when the day’s work was done, and for health and a glad heart to enjoy it.

Yet let me never think, O eternal Father, that I am here to stay.  Let me still remember that I am a stranger and pilgrim on the earth.  For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  Preserve me by Thy grace, good Lord, from so losing myself in the joys of earth that I may have no longing left for the purer joys of heaven.  Let not the happiness of this day become a snare to my too worldly heart.  And if, instead of happiness, I have to-day suffered any disappointment or defeat, if there has been any sorrow where I had hoped for joy, or sickness where I had looked for health, give me grace to accept it from Thy hand as a loving reminder that this is not my home.

I thank Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast so set eternity within my heart that no earthly thing can ever satisfy me wholly.  I thank Thee that every present joy is so mixed with sadness and unrest as to lead my mind upwards to the contemplation of a more perfect blessedness.  And above all I thank Thee for the sure hope and promise of an endless life which Thou hast given me in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

–John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 1949.

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1701) Advent (part three of three)

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      (…continued)  Martin Luther himself found this to be the case.  When he was young and brilliant and powerful, and the revolution he started in the church was going his way, and he was riding high on a wave of public support—then, he did not care much for the book of Revelation.  It is too strange, too negative, too wild and chaotic, he thought.  But then in later years, when the reformation he started turned chaotic, and his whole world was reeling out of control, and he was old and sick and cranky and did not know what to do; then, Luther took another look at the book of Revelation, and then found great comfort in its message that God can and will work in the chaos to bring about something new and better in the world, both now and in the future.

      Of course, you don’t have to be Martin Luther or live in a cave in Nigeria to experience the unraveling of your life.  No matter how good things are in the country or the economy, and no matter how stable or secure one’s personal life is, the troubles and chaos eventually come to everyone.  Either by disease or accident or death or the heartbreaking rebellion of a loved one or something else, everybody gets their turn at seeing their world get ripped apart and over-turned.  While apocalyptic literature contains plenty of bad news and misery, it is nothing out of the ordinary— nothing beyond what anyone in this life can expect at any time.

     One of the oldest sermon illustrations in the book is the one about the graffiti painted on the outside of a building.  “Jesus is the answer,” said the spray painted letters.  And below that, someone else had sprayed painted, “But what is the question?”

     The apocalyptic writings of the Bible raise the question.  The world pictured in such writings is a world that can be blown apart anytime, and is indeed being blown apart and turned upside-down at any given time for half of us.  And the question is, “Where can we find hope in such a dangerous and uncertain world?”  And the answer the Bible gives, is that hope comes from God who is bigger than this world—from God, who gives us the promise of another life in another world, beyond this brief life in this dangerous place, and can give us the strength to endure whatever comes at us until then.  And that hope is in a person, in the person who God became in a visit to his world, in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the answer that we need.

     Advent is the Season of the Church Year that anticipates the birth of that Jesus, and the Season of Advent begins by raising the question of what it is we need most.  And what we need most in this brief and fragile life is a ‘sure and certain hope,’ to use words from the Committal Service as we bury our dead.  We need something solid to look to, and depend on, and live for.  And where else can one look for that but to God, and what better place can one look for God than to that time and place where he came to earth in person?  One of the old Christmas carols puts it best when it sings of Jesus with these words: “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

     So these end of the world passages are not really bad news after all, though they do sound that way.  The writings themselves don’t necessarily bring, or even promise, such bad times.  Rather, the writings simply describe this life and this world, and how it is and will always be.  But the Bible always goes on to say that this is only the beginning.  In fact, when it is describing the very end of the world, it is still saying even that is only the beginning.  There is another day coming, a better day, in which, as it says at the end of the book of Revelation, “There will be no more death and no more pain, no more sorrow and no more tears.”  That is the kind of perspective that gives real and lasting hope.

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John 16:20-22  —  (Jesus said), “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.  You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.  A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.  So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

Revelation 21:3-4  —  “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He 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.”

Matthew 24:13-14  —  (Jesus said), “The one who stands firm to the end will be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

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O come, O come Emmanuel… Come and cheer our spirits by your Advent here… Disperse the gloomy clouds of night… And death’s dark shadow put to flight… Close the path to misery… Make safe the path that leads on high…  And open wide our heavenly home…  O come, O come, Emmanuel.

–Phrases from Veni, veni Emmanuel, a 12th century antiphon; versifed and translated in 1851 by John Mason Neale (1818-1866)