Ibis, Big Cypress National Preserve, Ochopee, Florida. [Photo: DFG Hailson]
Ibis, Big Cypress National Preserve, Ochopee, Florida. [Photo: DFG Hailson]
In today’s entry in Streams in the Desert, I was reminded of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into an enormous fiery furnace when they refused to abandon their allegiance to the living God. Here was an apparent victory for the enemy. It looked as if God’s people were going to suffer a terrible vanquishment, but God saved them in and through the fire. We can imagine what a complete defeat the destruction of the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, China must appear to be to many, but as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego emerged from the fire unsinged, so let us pray this apparent defeat will result in a marvelous victory for Christians.
Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.
When the great oak is straining in the wind, the boughs drink in new beauty, and the trunk sends down a deeper root on the windward side.
Only the soul that knows the mighty grief can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come to stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.
Praying the Church in China will grow ever stronger as Christians are coming under increasing persecution.
My husband just picked up a new book and insisted he needed to read the introduction to me. Therein, the author thanks a specific individual for helping to keep her “focused and sane (more or less) through the war that is writing a book.”
I was reminded through this of the words of Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. The War is filled with precise advice from an artist who understands the daily battle and wages the daily battle that is writing “professionally.” I found much with which to resonate in the book and, as the mother-in-law of a career Marine, I especially appreciated Pressfield’s passage on what he learned as a member of the Corps.
Contrary to the popular myth, he writes, “Marine training does not turn baby-faced recruits into bloodthirsty killers. It teaches something far more useful: how to be miserable.” And, this, Pressfield opines, is “invaluable for an artist. Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction from having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because these candy-asses don’t know how to be miserable.”
Pressfield concludes: “the artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt and humiliation. The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.”
Telamon of Arcadia, a fifth century B.C. mercenary, observed that “It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.” Pressfield finds that: “Aspiring artists defeated by Resistance share one trait. They all think like amateurs. They have not yet turned pro . . . The amateur plays for fun. The pro plays for keeps. To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation. The amateur plays part-time. The pro plays full-time. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.”
Aspiring artists are encouraged to take heart from a deep truth reckoned by Somerset Maugham: “by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he [came to understand that he] set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration.”
When all is said and done, Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire) exposes the enemy Resistance, exposes the evidence of its presence (fear, procrastination, self-dramatization and the like) and offers helps toward living the “unlived life within.”
I am grateful for this reminder of Pressfield’s description of and advice for the professional writer. I’m onto my fifth book. On two, I served as editor. One was a collaborative effort with three other writers, and the last I authored (in collaboration with a photographer) and edited. The book on which I am now at work is mine entirely, and the poor thing has been languishing in Oblivion, awaiting a long-delayed rescue. I know that half the battle is fought, as Somerset Maugham so rightly judged, in “simply” sitting down and starting to work. Well, I’m sitting…
Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God (Isaiah 40:1).
God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.
–John Henry Jowett
Store up comfort. This was the prophet’s mission. The world is full of comfortless hearts, and to make you sufficient for this lofty ministry, you must be trained. And your training is costly in the extreme; for, to render it perfect, you too must pass through the same afflictions as are wringing countless hearts of tears and blood. Thus, your own life becomes the hospital ward where you art taught the Divine art of comfort. You are wounded, that in the binding up of your wounds by the Great Physician, you may learn how to render first aid to the wounded everywhere. Do you wonder why you are passing through some special sorrow? Wait till ten years have passed, and you will find many others afflicted as you are. You will tell them how you have suffered and have been comforted; then as the tale is unfolded, and the anodynes applied which once your God wrapped around you, in the eager look and the gleam of hope that shall chase the shadow of despair across the soul, you will know why you were afflicted, and bless God for the discipline that stored your life with such a fund of experience and helpfulness.
Adapted from today’s Streams in the Desert
Accompanying photo: The Good Samaritan, David Teniers the Younger (Flemish, Antwerp 1610–1690 Brussels).
I have been chastising myself since last night.
I had been in conversation on Facebook with a Jehovah’s Witness who had set up the straw man of John Shelby Spong as an “authority” on the subject of hell. He was using a video-taped interview with the heretical, now retired, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark as support for his argument against the concept of eternal punishment. In earlier postings, he had made other pointed attacks against non-JWs. In turn, I had been sharing the manifold errors that I believe are clearly evident in the history and theology of the Witnesses. I had been praying that the man might be released from the deluding influence of the organization. In each encounter, he had responded using copious copied-from-JW sources. When in this most recent exchange, he came back with–what I took as–a compounding personal affront, I impetuously, without consulting the Lord, withdrew from the conversation and unfriended him, shaking the dust off my feet as a testimony against him.
Now I have spent most of my professional life studying world religions and new religious movements; I have engaged with many, many individuals walking innumerable paths. I can’t recall ever being the one to withdraw from a conversation, and I’ve been trying to comprehend why I did this time. I think I’m upset with myself because I fear it may have been the wounding to my person that served as the final straw and not the many affronts to Christ.
I woke this morning to find the following as the day’s devotional entry in Streams in the Desert. The line that leapt out from this was this: “Beloved, whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment absolutely to the Spirit of God, and ask Him to shut against you every door but the right one.” It is possible that the Lord might have called me to withdraw from the conversation because other work needed to be done in the man’s life before he would be open to hearing what I had to say. The problem is I didn’t wait to hear from the Lord.
The devotional that follows gives a nod to one of my favorite verses (Isaiah 30:21): “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” I used to keep a copy of this verse on my desk at the seminary and churches I was serving. As I now sit at a crossroads in my life, I am especially grateful for the call to return to these words today. Sometimes doors are closed. Sometimes God directs our steps to the right. Sometimes we are led to go left. Sometimes, we’re told to stay put. And sometimes…
Here’s the devotional, with its admonition to look to the Lord for clear direction:
Having been kept by the Holy Spirit [at that time] from preaching the Word in Asia (Acts 16:6).
It is interesting to study the methods of His guidance as it was extended towards these early heralds of the Cross. It consisted largely in prohibitions, when they attempted to take another course than the right. When they would turn to the left, to Asia, He stayed them. When they sought to turn to the right, to Bithynia, again He stayed them. In after years Paul would do some of the greatest work of his life in that very region; but just now the door was closed against him by the Holy Spirit. The time was not yet ripe for the attack on these apparently impregnable bastions of the kingdom of Satan. Apollos must come there for pioneer work. Paul and Barnabas are needed yet more urgently elsewhere, and must receive further training before undertaking this responsible task.
Beloved, whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment absolutely to the Spirit of God, and ask Him to shut against you every door but the right one. Say, “Blessed Spirit, I cast on Thee the entire responsibility of closing against my steps any and every course which is not of God. Let me hear Thy voice behind me whenever I turn to the right hand or the left.”
In the meanwhile, continue along the path which you have been already treading. Abide in the calling in which you are called, unless you are clearly told to do something else. The Spirit of Jesus waits to be to you, O pilgrim, what He was to Paul. Only be careful to obey His least prohibition; and where, after believing prayer, there are no apparent hindrances, go forward with enlarged heart. Do not be surprised if the answer comes in closed doors. But when doors are shut right and left, an open road is sure to lead to Troas. There Luke awaits, and visions will point the way, where vast opportunities stand open, and faithful friends are waiting.–Paul, by Meyer
[Originally posted in 2013.]
“There is a time for everything and a season for every purpose under heaven.”
Time. From time to time. For the time-being. Time-honored, timeless, timely, time-sharing, time-worn. Time heals all wounds. Time wounds all heels. Time is always a circus packing up and moving away. Living is entirely too time-consuming. Time and tide wait for no man. Time immemorial. Time expired. On time. In time. Time-out. Time, what a concept and how fascinated by it and fixated on it we are!
We try to make time, spend time, and cheat time but time marches on.
My little pocket paperback dictionary has a thirty-line definition under the word “time.” But, in all those words offered in explanation, there is no real definition of time for there is no attempt to define time outside of time — time as a created sphere within which God’s plan of redemption is actualized. Time from an eternal perspective. Time from God’s point of view. Does any human being really know what time is in this sense? And as the song goes, does anybody really know what time it is?
And yet, if you’ve come upon this entry at the start of a new year, much of the world is upon the time when folks reflect upon the time – the year – that is past and look forward to the time – the year – that is to come. A new year of promise and challenge. What will we make of it?
How are you now spending your time? It’s an enlightening exercise to consider what percentage of your days are used up in sleeping, working, watching TV, eating, traveling, lounging about, dressing, being ill, engaging in determinedly spiritual pursuits . . . Each one of us probably has a unique way of looking at time. For someone coping with a debilitating illness, each minute may pass like an hour. And another, nearing the end of his life, may feel as though he has too much time on his hands. He’s had enough of time. For another healthy, often over-committed individual who’s always rarin’ to go, each hour may pass like a minute – there never seems to be enough time.
Life comes to us in seasons, in spans, in stretches, in seconds and in spells. Life comes to us in moments, months and millennia. We may be at a juncture, in an interval and everything can change in an instant. Isaac Watts reminds us in the great hymn, O God, Our Help in Ages Past, that: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.” He also reminds us that God has been our help in ages past and is our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.
To live within real reality, to embrace the seasons of our lives, we need to understand time. We must begin to see time from God’s perspective if only on our very elementary level.
The author of our passage from Ecclesiastes offers us, in the verses before us, a majestic ode to time and he concludes with a way of dealing with and in time. He tells us that every human activity has its own appointed time but that time also creates a problem. If human beings were merely creatures within a limited span of time, they would not concern themselves with the further dimensions of eternity. But it is God who has placed “eternity in our hearts,” while keeping us from the full knowledge of what will be in the future.
Made for eternity but limited just now to time, that is our predicament and the suggestions for dealing with this enigma are the focus of this entry.
In Ecclesiastes 3, verses 1 through 15, we read:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account. (NIV)
In chapter 12, verses 13 and 14, the author concludes:
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (NIV)
So, again, does anybody really know what time it is? Does any human being really have a grasp on the nature of time?
It’s been calculated that if you could put the entire history of humankind in a fifty-year span, this is how it would read:
For the first 45 years, nothing all that significant happened. Five years ago, humans began to have some form of primitive writing and communication. Two years ago, Christianity came into being. Five months ago, the printing press was invented. Twenty days ago, Ben Franklin made the connection between lightning and electricity. Nineteen days ago, the telephone was invented. Eighteen days ago, the airplane appeared. Ten days ago, radio. Five days ago, television. Five minutes ago: jet airplanes.
We hear quite often that time seems to be speeding up. More than 40 years ago, Alvin Toffler wrote a very influential book entitled Future Shock.
Toffler argued that society was undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a super-industrial society. The accelerated rate of technological and social advances was leaving people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation”: they were “future shocked.” He coined a new phrase for the problem: folks, he said, were on “information overload.”
Today, you can pick up a magazine most any day and you’ll find some article on time management, sleep disorders related to stress, or products you can use to de-stress and relax. A few years ago, I typed into the search line, “no time, stress” and came up with 8,900,000 items. I did that again just now and came up with 63,500,000! Among those entries, I found everything from books to consultants to relaxation sayings to an e-zine article entitled, “How to Get Stress Relief by Constantly Pleasing Other People.”
It seems we’re running, running, running but where to and what from? What are we doing with our time?
The author of Ecclesiastes, who may well have been King Solomon, son of David, writing around 900 B.C., considered the same questions.
His book starts with the words “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” What good is all the work, he wonders. There is nothing new under the sun, no remembrance of men of old.
And this guy had done everything, seen everything. He’d studied. He’d acquired. He’d amassed. He’d taken on great projects, built houses, cultivated vineyards, planted gardens, set out parks and constructed reservoirs. He’d denied himself nothing. But, all of it, all of his activity had left him empty. He saw all of it as meaningless, a chasing after the wind, because he knew he couldn’t take any of it with him and he couldn’t make any more time.
In the 2011 release, In Time, starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, a future is envisioned wherein time is literally money, and aging stops at 25. In this scenario, the only way to stay alive is to earn, steal, or inherit more time. The plot plays on a craving many seem to share. Art Historian Bernard Berenson, who lived 94 years — from 1865 to 1959 — once said, “I wish I could stand on a busy street corner, hat in hand, and beg people to throw me all of their wasted hours.”
But even if we could earn, steal, borrow or inherit more hours, it would make no difference, the author of Ecclesiastes concludes, because our fates would still be the same. The fate of the fool will overtake the wise as well. Like the fool, the wise man too must die.
And so, he despairs: what is the point of it all? Why bother?
Finally he hits upon it: only those activities undertaken for the sake of God are truly worthwhile. For “to the one who pleases Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness but to the sinner, He gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth just to hand it over to the one who pleases God.” Thus writes Solomon.
If there is no purpose, no meaning to existence beyond the limited span of an individual’s years, he decides, all the effort is for naught.
But, when one sees the hand of God at work in ordaining the times and seasons, when one sees an everlastingness and a reason for and value in every season, everything one does takes on a new dimension.
Each one is born. Each one will die. In between, God has ordained that certain things will happen according to His plan. There will be times of planting and harvest, times of destruction and times of healing. There will be times of sorrow, times of joy, times of searching, times of moving ahead, times of yielding. There will be times for keeping and times for throwing away, times for silence, times for speaking up. There will be love and hate, war and peace.
Why? Why go through all of these things? So that we will learn to fear God, to obey Him, so that we will learn through our labors to turn to the Lord, to seek Him, to seek our purpose in serving Him. He has placed eternity in our hearts. Deep within, we know there is more beyond the few years of existence we are given on this plane. We can’t fathom what God has done from beginning to end. We don’t have to fathom what He’s done. We need only to ensure that our eternity is safe, that we have accepted His provision of salvation, and that – while we have time — we are living as we should, keeping in mind that some of the greatest challenges we face are mercies meant to develop our characters.
If we begin to look at our lives from an eternal perspective, we will be able to take greater pleasure in all that comes to us – the times of trial as well as the times of ease. We will be able to have peace in all circumstances because we know the Lord means us well and uses all things to benefit those who love Him. He is working in all time, outside of time and at all times. And He makes all things beautiful in His time.
Consider, for a moment, what endures and what does not endure for it is in the everlasting that we should invest.
The Bible tells us that riches do not endure (Proverbs 27:24). Youth, though so many of us try so desperately to hold onto it, does not endure.
In 1Corinthians 13, we’re told that what does endure is faith, hope and love. John, chapter 6, assures us that spiritual food, which the Son of Man – Jesus Christ – gives us, endures. What else endures? Truthful lips (Pr. 12:19), God’s righteousness (Ps. 112:9 and 2Cor.9:9) and all of our labor done for the sake of the Lord (1Cor. 15). Matthew, chapter 6, assures us that treasures, laid up in heaven, endure. And where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. We too will endure.
We are here – in time – for a reason. Richard Kroner once noted that “history has its beginning in God, it has its center in Christ, and its end in the final consummation of the last judgment.”
God has established time. In that time, we are to live and work and play, to seek some answers, to come to some conclusions. We are born by the grace of God. We are redeemed – our time is redeemed, our eternity is redeemed – by accepting the gift of the new life in Christ. We are then to use our time – leading up to the end times – seeking to please our God. We learn of His will for our lives through scripture, through prayer, through pursuing truth in fellowship with other believers, through service to others, through committing our work – all that we do – to our Lord and Savior, living lives that are pleasing in His sight. Whatever we’re doing, whatever work He has given us to do, we do it all as unto the Lord.
Time is “the arena of humanity’s decision on our way to eternal destiny.” We make choices within the arena of time – every thought, word and deed has repercussions in the eternal moral order.
God has ordained a time and a season for everything. He has set eternity in our hearts so that we will seek Him, use the time well and know peace and satisfaction – a taste of eternity in established time.
When your life comes to an end, what stories will it tell? Will your life reflect God-honoring priorities? Do you need to make adjustments in the way you use your time?
When your life comes to an end, will you have to say, “When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2: 11a)? Or will you be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness” (2Timothy 4-7a)?
In the days ahead, I pray you will devote yourself to those pursuits that honor God and minister to your fellow human beings. May the Lord teach you to number your days aright (Psalm 90:12) and remind you that each day is “the day the Lord has made” (Psalm 118:24a). Our times are in His hands (Psalm 31:15) and we can “trust in Him at all times . . . for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8). God is the God of our days and God is the God of all time whether we are in time or out of time. Remember God is the God of eternity and He has placed that eternity in the hearts of His people.
Great and Eternal God, Your love for us never ends. You remain constant and faithful through all the seasons of our lives – from birth to death, in times of weeping and in times of laughter, in times of mourning and in times of joy, in times of war and in times of peace, in the silence and in the clatter and clutter of busy lives. Lord, you have set eternity in my heart and so I commit my ways to You and pray that Your Holy Spirit will indeed guide me into all truth. May You sanctify me and preserve me.
Lord, as I look toward the days ahead, I pray that you will grant me strength during times of trial and wisdom at all times. Lord, as the cliché goes, today is the first day of the rest of my life so I turn afresh to seeking You, Your wisdom, Your will, Your strength. May I give serious consideration to the ways in which I use the time that you have given to me. Fill me with awe because of the challenges I face but fill me also with confidence because of the power that is mine because I belong to You. May the days ahead find me engaged in those pursuits that honor You and further Your kingdom. Grow me Lord in miraculous ways that I may love You and serve You all my days through Jesus Christ my Lord, I pray. Amen
A PILGRIMAGE TO BETHLEHEM ON CHRISTMAS EVE
John 6:35, 40 and Mark 10:46-52
Today as we look at the sixth chapter of the gospel of John and at the tenth chapter of the gospel of Mark, we’ll be examining the meaning of Christ’s coming into the world in terms of new life, abundant life, and spiritual enlightenment. We’re going to begin with a look at today’s Bethlehem and we’ll relate what we find to the story of the blind man Bartimaeus, who had both his physical sight restored and his spiritual eyes opened by the Savior Jesus Christ.
Some years ago, I came across an article in the London Times that carried this headline: “Bethlehem gets a wall for Christmas.” The story opened with these words: “The birthplace of Christ was this week sealed off from Jerusalem – just in time for Christmas – by a 25 foot wall and huge iron gate resembling a nuclear shelter.”
The wall that was being erected is part of a hugely controversial 423-mile barrier that Israel has been building through Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. As the wall at Bethlehem was nearing completion, the mayor of the city said it had created “a big prison for its citizens; it is living one of history’s darkest chapters.” Today, the city of 22,000 is only one-third Christian as Palestinian believers have been quietly abandoning the place.
According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, about 35,000 pilgrims are expected to cross Israel’s checkpoint into Bethlehem during the next few weeks [Source: PRI]. While the Western churches observe Christmas on Dec. 24-25, the Eastern churches, due to the discrepancies between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, observe Jan. 7. The Armenian Apostolic Church observes Jan. 6, marking both Christmas and the Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi and the baptism of Jesus Christ.
Except for a few roundabouts, sporadically policed routes, access to Bethlehem is from Jerusalem and requires crossing a 27-foot-high checkpoint manned by Israeli security authorities. Popularly known as “Checkpoint 300,” it is part of the separation wall Israel began building during the second intifada in 2002.
Bethlehem, the city of David, lies five miles south of Jerusalem to the west of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. It was here that Rachel was buried. It was here that Ruth gathered grain in Boaz’ field and it was here that David was anointed king. But, most significantly, Bethlehem, which translates from the Hebrew “House of Bread,” was the birthplace of the One who was to be revealed as the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Come with me in the next moments in your imagination; let us make a pilgrimage together to Bethlehem.
Once we make it past the new wall, we can visit the place that most authorities believe was the site of Christ’s nativity – a grotto or cave now located under the Church of the Nativity. The gospels make no mention of a cave but Justin – a reliable source – writing around 2 A.D. does speak of the “cave” in which Jesus was born. And, in fact, many dwellings of the period were built in front of caves and the cave part would have been used to shelter animals in inclement weather.
About 325 years after the birth of Jesus, the emperor Constantine built a large basilica over this hillside grotto and this Church of the Nativity remains today among the oldest of the well-known churches around the world.
The grotto is under the chancel and is approached by steps leading down from each side of the choir. In a crypt at the front of the grotto is the place where Jesus is believed to have been born. A silver star on the marble floor at the east end of the crypt is inscribed with these words in Latin: “Here, of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born.” And fifteen lamps burn day and night around this star.
Some time ago, I read an article by Charles N. Barnard, which recorded his journey to Bethlehem over the days preceding Christmas. I recall it again here.
On the afternoon of December 23, he made his first visit to Manger Square. His express purpose in this timing was the beating out of the Christmas crowds.
He entered the Church of the Nativity through a small, low door and was quite surprised to find that the limestone Grotto of the Nativity is a close, cluttered space with many lights, stars, mosaics, lanterns, canopies and jewel-like ornaments hanging from a blackened ceiling. After a brief look-see, he headed back to his hotel, where he watched the televised news with its frightening reports of street violence in the West Bank towns all around him.
On Christmas Eve, he returned to Manger Square but his guide warned him he wouldn’t want to stay. “You’ll see,” Raphael said. “It’s the same every year. A sideshow.”
Picture these images: roadblocks, rows of tire-puncturing spikes stretched across the pavement like shark’s teeth; barricades of stones; squads of soldiers.
The streets decorated with strings of red, yellow and white lights. Random spurts of fireworks. Checkpoints. Businesses — restaurants, beauty parlors, retail shops – inviting folks in off the path. Distraction upon distraction.
Then English-language Christmas carols coming from a public address system. Then another checkpoint. Finally, Manger Square. With all the lights and flags, it could easily have been a used car lot on a rainy night.
A few hundred people are milling about near the souvenir shops, the street vendors, a Barclay’s Bank open until midnight and the Christmas Tree Café. A movie screen carries the images of Western movies with Hebrew and Aramaic subtitles. One group of young American Baptists holds an impromptu sing-along, “Jesus is Coming, Sing Hallelujah.” By 10 o’clock, the streets fill with larger crowds – thousands now. By 11, the crowd is becoming conspicuously drunk in some places and music from the many visiting choirs is nearly drowned out. There is a distinct odor of marijuana in the air.
In front of the Church of the Nativity, long lines of ticket holders are forming. Many have held reservations for a very long time and they will still pass through five checkpoints before they get in.
Then, suddenly, the first chanted phrases of the Latin Mass – clear, pure and strong – take possession of the square. A new image flickers on the TV screen and the crowd is silenced. Choir voices, broadcasting from within the basilica, now accompany the picture. “In excelsis deo . . .” The traveler looks at his watch. It is midnight. Christmas has broken in upon the scene.
This story – which I’ve abridged for presentation to you – appeared in a secular magazine but there are many, many images within it that inform our understanding of the Christian experience. Here is a pilgrim wandering along streets of darkness trying to make his way to the place of Christ’s birth. What does he find along the way? The distractions of life within the body: food, drugs, various kinds of amusements, all manner of diversions. Then there are the walls, the barricades, the checkpoints, the misguided masses oblivious to what lies in their midst. Then there are the voices of truth crying out, trying to be heard, only to be drowned – if only momentarily – by the noise and clatter of the crowd. Then there are the few glimpses of light and finally the ticket holders are in line walking the last few steps toward their goal.
“I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus said. “I am the Way, the Truth and The Life” – the very life. No one will go hungry. No one will thirst if only they will come to me. He feeds and waters our spirits. For, He said, it is the Father’s will that everyone who looks to Him and believes in what He is, in who He is, believes in what He has done – will have eternal life, raised at the last day, welcomed in, if you will, as one of the ticket holders, one of the faithful who has walked the path and remained true. The ticket holders, keeping their eyes on the goal of Jesus Christ – growing more determined with each step not to yield to the distractions, the temptations – determined to make it past the barricades to reach the place of Christ and enter in.
The blind man Bartimaeus was one who was determined to reach Jesus. Jesus and His disciples met this son of Timaeus as they were traveling on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside as they approached. When he heard whom it was who was passing, he called out for the Lord’s help. This man then became one of the first of those, outside of the ranks of the apostles, who is recorded as having proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah – the divine One promised by God. You’ll note that in verse 47, he called Jesus “Son of David,” a term specifically Messianic and, further, Bartimaeus turned to Jesus as Savior.
Bartimaeus shouted to this Jesus: “Have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” Bartimaeus came running to the Savior’s side and Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“I want to see,” he said.
Bartimaeus may have believed in Jesus’ power to heal perhaps because he was familiar with Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would enable the blind to see. His faith led to healing. And his healing was not only of physical blindness but of spiritual blindness as well for we are told that he received his sight and followed Jesus.
There are many references to spiritual blindness throughout Scripture. The prophet Isaiah speaks of those who are like the blind groping along the wall, feeling their way like men without eyes.
The gospel writer, Matthew – again referring to spiritual blindness – says that if a blind man leads another blind man both fall into a pit.
In the fourth chapter of 2nd Corinthians, Paul writes: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
And, in Ephesians, Paul writes: “They (unrepentant, unredeemed sinners) are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of their ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.”
Jesus did not just cure Bartimaeus’ physical blindness, he – more importantly – lifted the darkness from the man’s soul so that he could walk in spiritual light.
At times, I’ve been asked by those who are searching: “Why is there this darkness? Why is there this wall?”
One needs to take in all of Scripture to get a whole picture but a beginning of an answer comes from the 28th chapter of Ezekiel. There we find a recounting of the beginning of humankind: You were a model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden. You were blameless from the day you were created until wickedness was found in you. You were filled with violence and you sinned. Your heart became proud and you corrupted your wisdom.
In those verses, the writer goes on to record the Lord speaking of inflicting punishment but also of gathering up His people. Elsewhere in scripture, we learn that He will provide the means of forgiveness for sins – a Savior – a Messiah – Christ the Lord – God Himself who would come in human form to suffer the punishment for our rebellion.
In Ephesians, chapter 2, we read about a dividing wall. The wall of hostility discussed in verses 11 and following, refers to the distance between Jews and Gentiles in biblical times. It also refers to the wall that exists between non-believers and God. The One who is able to take down those barriers is the One who has made believing Jew and believing Gentile one. Jesus is the One who has brought reconciliation through the cross. He is the One who has given us access to the Father through the Holy Spirit.
Someone told Bartimaeus that Jesus Christ – the promised Savior – was passing by and that simple witness led to the man’s redemption.
He cried, “Have mercy on me!” He looked to the right person for the right thing at the right time.
In Acts 4, verse 13, we read: “Salvation is found in no one else for there is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved.”
And in the second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 6, Paul writes: “In the time of my favor, I heard you, and in the day of salvation, I helped you. I tell you now is the time of the Lord’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”
Jesus loved Bartimaeus. Jesus loves each one of us. Jesus loves you – He loves you so much that He gave His life that you might have eternal life. He came to save those who were lost – lost in spiritual darkness. There are various cures and no cures for physical blindness. There is only one cure for spiritual blindness and that cure is Jesus Christ.
As we approach Christmas, let us not be shy in celebrating our Lord’s birth. Let us pray that the Lord may tear down any walls of hostility that we have built or maintained in our personal lives. Let us not get sidetracked by all the distractions. Let us not be found guilty of removing Christ from Christmas. Let us seek a closer walk with God in the light of His Holy Spirit, in the light of His Holy Word.
Let us give thanks for the Lord’s mercy upon us, for His healing and for the gift of spiritual sight. Let us follow Him in faithfulness and in truth. Let us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, get past the barricades and make our way to the Child of Christmas. Let us love and encourage one another and seek to bring others into a relationship of faith with the Lord. Let us faithfully share the message of Christmas.