Acts chapter sixteen gives the account of Paul and Silas having been put in jail in Philippi. They had been arrested for preaching the Gospel and accused of causing a disturbance. They were stripped, beaten with rods, thrown into a dungeon, and had their feet put in stocks. A terrible experience for anyone. One would expect them to be angry, to be looking at their wounds, and concerned about what their fate would be in the morning. Instead, the text tells us that “about midnight (they) were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”(vs.25) You can read the account to see the outcome, but my point here is what they were focusing on. Of course they were hurting and uncomfortable, and their fate uncertain, but they chose to focus their attention, and their hope, upon the Lord. Instead of allowing themselves to be consumed with their situation they focused upon the Lord with prayer and song. They looked to the Lord who is our strength in all situations.
This is the gift giving season, and many make lists of what they would like to have for Christmas. One can put their list of desired items up on Amazon Lists so others can see it and buy directly from Amazon. Even have it gift wrapped and mailed. Smart business move! But beyond the wish list of items what do you really want for Christmas? The New Testament writer James tells us, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…”(1:17) Our greatest gift is that of our life in the Child of Bethlehem. That gift allows us to come and stand in righteousness before our Father in Heaven. We have been given the gift of the greatest love. All other gifts flow from this. All of the items on the Amazon List are nice, and some may even be necessary, but the love that has come to us, and then flows through us to other, is a gift of immeasurable value. So what do we really want for Christmas? To come even more deeply into that love, and for that love to heal hurts and bind us to all those we care about.
We usually conclude our weekly Men’s Bible Study with a time of prayer, each man praying around in turn, and I conclude the prayer. This week’s was an especially good time of sharing in the presence of our Lord. When it came to my time I had noting further to add so I began singing the Doxology, and all joined in. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him all ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.” This is a wonderful prayer in itself. There are times when we don’t know how we should pray.(Romans 8:26) This is certainly a wonderful way to set our attitude on the Lord and bring us into His presence.
St. Luke’s account of the birth of our Lord is a favorite read during this Christmas season. It is an account filled with praise and glory to God. It contains Mary’s wonderful song “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” When John the Baptist was born his father, Zachariah, sang “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel…” The angels filled the heavens with praise singing “Glory to God in the highest…” When the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple the aged Simeon poured forth his thanksgiving and praise to God for allowing him to see the Christ Child. Praise should be a characteristic of God’s people. Yes, we are in a broken and sin filled world with many trials, but we are here with our God who has chosen to occupy this world with us, promising never to leave or forsake us. His strength, His life giving presence, is here in the midst of all our times and needs, and, in Christ Jesus, has promised to complete all of the good purpose for which we were created. In each of our days we have many reasons to give praise to our gracious God.
In the Small Catechism of Martin Luther he gives an explanation to each of the Ten Commandments. Each explanation begins, “We should so fear and love God that …” Fear and love are not mutually exclusive. We do a number of things to try to explain what this fear means – awe, reverence, respect – and all of those apply, but I have never felt that they truly explain what it mean to fear and love God. When I think of coming into the presence of Almighty God I literally tremble inside. I can’t imagine being in His holy presence. I know that I am redeemed by the precious blood of my Saviour, Jesus Christ. I know that I have been given His righteousness in exchange for my sin. I love the Lord and cling to His feet even as Mary did when she first saw the resurrected Christ. Yet He is holy. And when I first see Him I will fall at His feet as one dead, even as the Apostle John did in the first chapter of Revelation. St. Peter tells us to conduct ourselves in fear of Him we call Father during our time on earth.(IPt.1:17) “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.
One of our members was a blacksmith. There are several items of his metal creations around our church, as well as our strong handrails on the outside steps. His home was filled with many pieces of his work. Bill would use the expression, “everything works better with a little iron on it”. I thought of that yesterday as I was putting a small cross over the back entrance to our church building. Everything works better with a cross on it. Bill had a cross on his life and is now with the Lord. For a Christian the cross defines who we. The cross is our source of forgiveness, righteousness, peace before God. It is at the cross we learn to fear and love God. It is with the sign of the cross on our lives that we want to look beyond ourselves, our own comforts, to the care and needs of others. It was at the cross that the Son of God defeated the power of sin, death, and the devil. Life grows as God intended when one comes to the foot of the cross, and yields to the Saviour whose love for each of us put Him there.
We are seeing a lot of lights and outdoor Christmas decorations this time year. Many call this season a time of peace and good will, a special and joyful time of year. For other it is a time of sadness in remembrance of some personal loss. Young children are in awe of the colors and festive trees. Older ones perhaps more interested in the anticipated gifts. Whatever else may be a part of this season for you, never lose the wonder of this season’s central truth – the incarnation of Almighty God in the infant born in a Bethlehem stable. Almighty God loved the people of His creation so much that He came into this world with them. He took on the weak human flesh we all occupy. He experienced all of the joys and pains, the hopes and sorrows, the successes and temptations, that face us all. Our God chose to be intimately involved with human life. A wonder above all wonders. So, beyond all the lights, decorations, manger scenes, joys or sadness of this season, know that God has come among us to bring us into the fullness of His life now and eternally.
We understand from Scripture that we can do nothing to earn our salvation. Our salvation is a free and unearned gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It is important to understand two things that this does not mean. First, that, because we have our salvation as a gift, we are now free to do anything we want because God has accepted us. That would be an affront to the holiness of God, and a very dangerous path to walk. Second, because we can do nothing to earn our salvation, we therefore do not have to do anything. That would be a serious neglect of the gracious gift God has given. In Paul’s great statement about the free gift of our salvation in Ephesians 2:8 & 9, it is immediately followed by verse 10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We do not work to earn our salvation. But the more we understand and appreciate the magnitude of the gift of life we have been given, the more we want to share that gift in service to others. Paul wrote to the Romans, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” We can’t contain that love. By God’s grace it pours out in words and actions to the glory of our good Lord.
Symbols are important. Those who are married wear a wedding ring, a reminder of the unending covenant made with their spouse. I have symbols all around my office in objects and pictures that remind me of significant parts of my life. Our church is full of symbols in stained glass and in wood that underline the truths of our faith. These are all visible reminders of a deeper truth. There is one symbol under which we all live. It is the cross of Christ. Whether you wear it as a little metal piece on a chain around your neck, notice it as you enter the church building, or perhaps don’t see it visibly at all, it is still there. For you who have come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ it is the source and content of life. For those who have not, it still stands as the turning point of all human history, and a truth that requires a decision. Symbols surround us all the time, but this one symbol, the cross of Jesus Christ, is the mark upon all life.
There was an interesting article in Sunday’s Commentary section of our local paper about some young people discovering vinyl records. A young man found a shop in his town that still specialized in them. He had a great time searching through the crates of record jackets, and discussing music with the sales clerk. He told his parents he would like to have a record player. They couldn’t understand why he would want an antiquated machine when he had an almost infinite supply of music on his smartphone. The article ended with the comment, “Automation and technology are improving efficiency by cutting out the personal the friendly, and along the way leaving a generation starving for interaction.” God made us for relationships. He declared it His desire to dwell among His people. And whether it is with a clerk in a store, an acquaintance on the street, or members in ones own household, that personal conversation and interaction is why God created us. One can’t get a warm handshake or a hug through a smartphone. Or, I might add, the real sense that another person will support you and stand with you at all times, both good and bad.