But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” [Matthew 9:11-13 (NLT)]

The Gospel is good news of mercy to the undeserving. The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales. [John Stott]

moth mulleinLast week, after posting the second of two devotions mentioning David Bennett, Sr. (who received a pig’s heart in a ground-breaking transplant), I checked news links for an update on his condition. I was surprised to learn that 34 years ago, when Bennett was just 23, he was convicted of stabbing Edward Shumaker seven times, a violent assault that left the 22-year-old paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Bennett was sentenced to 10 years in prison and served 6 of those years before returning to society and moving on with his life. As for Shumaker, after enduring 19 years of staph infections, sepsis, bedsores, a stroke, and moving in and out of nursing homes, he died a week before his 41st birthday.

Understandably, Shumaker’s survivors had difficulty processing the news that the man who caused such heartache and suffering for Edward not only went on to have a normal life complete with children and grands but also received a new lease on that life with his life-saving heart transplant. For Shumaker’s sister, it seems outrageous that someone guilty of such a violent crime could undergo this lifesaving procedure when so many more “deserving” recipients die or become too ill for transplant surgery before a heart becomes available.

Officials at the Baltimore hospital where Bennett received his new heart explained that the decision about Bennett’s transplant eligibility was based solely on his medical records, explaining that they provide, “lifesaving care to every patient who comes through their doors based on their medical needs, not their background or life circumstances.” Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at New York University, elaborated, “The key principle in medicine is to treat anyone who is sick, regardless of who they are.…We are not in the business of sorting sinners from saints.”

Caplan’s words made me think of Jesus—the Great Physician who came into this world to heal mankind. There is no record of His assessing the purity or sinfulness of those he restored to determine whether or not they deserved healing. He didn’t evaluate people’s righteousness before making the lame walk, the blind see, or the deaf hear. He didn’t categorize acceptable from unacceptable sins or sort out the honest from the corrupt, the moral from the immoral, or the law-abiding from the criminal before healing leprosy, mental illness, fevers, or hemorrhaging. When He fed the multitude, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to offer food only to those virtuous people worthy of receiving it and He broke bread with both the respectable and the disreputable. When it comes to God’s healing, mercy, love, provision, or forgiveness, not one of us is more or less deserving than the next; none of us are worthy because we all are sinners!

Just as the medical profession is not in the business of sorting sinners from saints, neither is the Church. Someday, the Lord will separate the sheep from the goats but, until that day comes, let us remember that His Church is a hospital for sinners, not a country club for saints! We don’t scrutinize those who come to us and weed out all of the swearers, liars, ex-cons, crude, self-righteous, alcoholics, doubters, adulterers, divorced, gossipers, or scoundrels before welcoming them through our doors. If we did, both our pews and pulpits would be empty! Our pasts, no matter how soiled or violent, do not bar us from the healing and restoration of the Lord!

Grace is the very opposite of merit… Grace is not only undeserved favor, but it is favor, shown to the one who has deserved the very opposite. [Harry Ironside]

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. [Romans 5:7-8 (NLT)]

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God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. [ Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT)]

Baptism - affusion In immersion baptism, a person is completely submerged in the water and, every time I witness a full immersion baptism done in the Gulf of Mexico, I think of what it must have been like when John baptized Jesus and the Holy Spirit descended on our Lord. Since the Greek word used to describe this event was baptizo, meaning to dip, sink, or submerge, we can safely assume His was a full immersion baptism.

The water of baptism illustrates dying and being buried with Christ and the coming out of the water illustrates Christ’s resurrection. Baptizo is the word Jesus used when telling the disciples to baptize new believers and, in the early church, full immersion was the norm. There is, however, evidence that affusion, the pouring of water over a person, was used for invalids. Although aspersion, or the sprinkling of water for baptism, is the norm in many mainstream churches today, it did not come into practice until around the 13th century. While today’s Christian church agrees on the importance of baptism, it is divided as to the method and conduct of this sacrament.

In determining the amount of water necessary to make a baptism “official,” it would be easy to become as nitpicky as were the Pharisees of Jesus’ day as they quibbled over specifics of the law. For an immersion advocate, would the baptism be invalid if a person’s hand or some of their hair didn’t get wet and how long must they be under water? For the pourers and sprinklers, how much water is too much and how little water is not enough? If there were no water available, would spittle or tears do? I don’t know the answer but I suspect God is more concerned with matters of the heart than ritual. Since I think our commitment to Jesus is far more important than the method of baptism or the amount of water used, I’m staying clear of that controversy!

Along with the dispute among Christian churches over the method of baptism, there is disagreement on whether baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. On Pentecost, Peter told the crowd they’d receive the Holy Spirit once they repented, turned to God and were baptized, which seems to support the side claiming baptism is required for salvation. On the other hand, while preaching to the household of Cornelius, Peter asked if anyone objected to the family’s baptism since they’d already received the Holy Spirit. This passage seems to support the side that, rather than a condition for salvation, baptism is evidence of salvation. While Scripture makes it clear that belief is a requirement for salvation, it never clearly says that baptism is, so I’ll leave the meaning of the original Greek text to theologians and scholars.

In the meantime, I’ll look to Scripture’s words that clearly tell us we are saved by grace through faith and not through works, effort or the law. A believer can be saved without being baptized because baptism isn’t how we receive forgiveness of our sins—we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus. Nevertheless, a believer will be baptized because Jesus commanded it!

Granted, I have a distinctly Protestant view of baptism and you are free to disagree. What we can agree on is that, regardless of the method used, it’s never too late to be baptized! Of all the baptisms I’ve witnessed, my favorite is when one of our church family made her declaration of faith at the age of 95.  Too frail for full immersion in the Gulf, while flanked by the pastor and her son, she was baptized (by affusion) in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit! Praise be to God!

Indeed, baptism is a vow, a sacred vow of the believer to follow Christ. Just as a wedding celebrates the fusion of two hearts, baptism celebrates the union of sinner with Savior. [Max Lucado]

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28 (18-20 (NLT)]

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Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2:1-2 (NLT)]

MagiAlthough we try to keep Christ in Christmas, many of our ideas about Christmas aren’t Bible based. In spite of the delightful carols, the gospels make no mention of a little drummer boy, cattle lowing, Jeanette or Isabella, a partridge in a pear tree, and, rather than mid-winter, it’s more likely that Jesus was born in early fall.

Perhaps the most glaring example of misinformation found in the season’s songs has to do with the wise men. We can blame John Henry Hopkins, the Pennsylvania clergyman who wrote the song “We Three Kings” for much of our confusion. He wrote the carol in 1857 for his nieces and nephews and used it in a Christmas pageant that year. Published in a collection of hymns and carols in 1863, it’s been sung around the world ever since and most people are now convinced that these three kings visited the baby Jesus shortly after his birth.

The magi or wise men, however, weren’t kings. If they had been, it’s likely that the Gospel writers would have included such an important detail. Renaissance artworks depicting king-like figures in flowing robes and elaborate crowns at Jesus’s birth probably contributed to Hopkins’ misrepresentation. While they may have been envoys from a king, these wise men probably were priests, court advisors, or even astrologers from a land or lands to the east such as present day Iran or Iraq.

Ancient astrologers interpreted major astronomical events as signaling the birth of a king. Whether a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars or a supernova, these wise men recognized the phenomenon as a special sign. Familiar enough with the ancient prophecies to quote from Micah to Herod, they knew a star would herald the Jewish king’s birth. It was typical for kings to send emissaries from their court with gifts to another king and a king (or kings) may have sent these men with their extravagant gifts to pay tribute to this newborn king. Moreover, while the gospel mentions three gifts, it never says how many men brought them and there may have been as few as two or more than twelve of them.

Even though the gospel account of the wise men’s visit follows closely after the birth of Jesus, logic tells us a couple of years had to pass before their arrival. Having traveled over 800 miles and stopping to see Herod in Jerusalem, the magi couldn’t have arrived immediately following Jesus’ birth. Jesus probably was a toddler when they finally arrived and found Him in a house with Mary. While these visitors sought to worship the new king, Herod wanted to kill him and his decision to kill all boys two years and younger ties in with this timeline.

The Magi may not belong in our nativity scenes, but they are an important part of the Christmas story. Today (January 6), many Christians observe Epiphany or Three Kings Day—a day that celebrates Jesus’ outward and visible expression of love for us and the wise men’s recognition of the one who was born “king of the Jews.” Although Jesus’ birth announcement was made to lowly Jewish shepherds, His first worshipers were these wise Gentiles. Although a messiah had been promised to the Jews, it was foreigners who sought Him, recognized His value, presented Him with precious gifts and worshipped Him. They may have been Gentiles, but they recognized the promised king of the Jews. Moreover, instead of returning to Herod as ordered, they were obedient to God’s direction and returned home another way.

While they weren’t actually there at the time, the presence of the wise men in our nativity sets is a reminder that Jesus, the promised Messiah, came to save all of mankind. They remind us to seek Jesus and recognize Him as our savior, to present Him with our gifts and worship him, and to obey God even when He sends us in a different direction.

We three kings of Orient are Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night, Star of royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light. [John Henry Hopkins]

Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. [Matthew 2:16 (NLT)]

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These people are stubborn rebels who refuse to pay attention to the Lord’s instructions. They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!” They tell the prophets, “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. Get off your narrow path. Stop telling us about your ‘Holy One of Israel.’” [Isaiah 30 9b-11 (NLT)]

fireweedBeing a prophet was a calling from the Lord and probably an unwelcome one at that. Amos, a businessman from Tekoa in Judah, was minding his own business when God called on him. He probably would have preferred tending his sheep and cultivating his fig trees to pronouncing judgment upon the Israel, Judah, and other nations. Nevertheless, this layman accepted God’s call and denounced the nations’ sins with brutal frankness. It was at the height of Israel’s prosperity that he prophesied their end by singing a funeral song for the northern kingdom. Needless to say, the words of a Judean pronouncing judgment upon Israel were not welcomed. Even though Amaziah ordered him back to Judah, Amos continued to give God’s message to the people.

It never seemed to go well for God’s prophets. Having infuriated the priests by going to the Temple to rebuke the people for their idolatry and falseness, Jeremiah was banned from the Temple even though he was the son of a priest. Seeing him as a traitor and conspirator, the priests plotted his death and Jeremiah was arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and thrown into a cistern to die. Although he was rescued from the cistern, he later was forcibly taken by rebels to Egypt and church tradition holds that he was stoned to death there.

It didn’t go any better for the rest of God’s prophets. Blaming Elisha for his troubles, the king of Aram wanted him beheaded and Elijah spent much of his time fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel and Ahab. Micaiah was tossed into prison for predicting Israel’s defeat and Ahab’s death, Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den, John the Baptist was beheaded and, according to rabbinical tradition, King Manasseh executed Isaiah by having him sawn in half! If the prophets weren’t losing their lives, they were running for them!

These prophets were unpopular because they fearlessly told the truth instead of what the people wanted to hear. They revealed the people’s sins and warned of their consequences. Sent to confront rather than comfort, their messages often were unwelcome and ignored. What those who persecuted them failed to realize is that, while they may have silenced the men’s voices temporarily, the truth of their messages didn’t disappear!

Let’s face it—reproach, sacrifice, and repentance are never popular messages. Not everything we read in the Bible or hear from the pulpit is going to be comforting and cheerful; it does, however, need to be heard. Not everything the Holy Spirit tells us is going to be approving, but it will be edifying. Not everything God instructs us to do will be easy, but it will be worthwhile. Not everything said by our brothers and sisters in Christ will be appreciated, but it will be honest. God gives warnings so we won’t have to suffer his wrath. Rather than ignoring, persecuting, or killing God’s messengers, we’re better off listening to them and heeding their words.

This is the reply of the Holy One of Israel: “Because you despise what I tell you and trust instead in oppression and lies, calamity will come upon you suddenly—like a bulging wall that bursts and falls. In an instant it will collapse and come crashing down. [Isaiah 30:12-13 (NLT)]

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Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” [John 8:12 (ESV)]

I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. [John 12:46 (ESV)]

luminariaHundreds of years ago, when Las Posadas was first celebrated, people gathered piñon pine branches into square piles to burn small vigil fires called luminaria to light the way for the Peregrinos as they searched for lodging. On Christmas Eve, bonfires were lit along the roads and in the church yard to guide people to midnight mass. Just as Las Posadas moved into the southwestern states as the Spanish and Mexicans came northward, so did the luminaria. When inexpensive flat-bottom paper bags appeared on the Santa Fe Trail in the 1870s, people started folding down the bag tops, anchoring the bag with a few handfuls of sand, and setting a small candle inside. Better than using precious fire wood, these luminaria (also called farolitos) became the popular tradition that continues in the southwest today.

While I probably won’t be part of any Las Posadas celebrations when I’m in New Mexico next week, I will see plenty of luminaria, even though many of those who set them out know nothing of Las Posadas. Although some of those lanterns will be made of hard plastic and powered by electricity rather than candles, the warm glow of their flickering lights illuminate the walkways, sidewalks, driveways and flat roof tops throughout the state each December.

For those who celebrate Las Posadas, the luminaria serve to light Joseph and Mary’s way as they seek lodging. For others, luminaria guide the way to Christmas Eve worship, are a way of welcoming the Christ child into their homes, or remind them of the star of Bethlehem. Sadly, for many more, their luminaria are lit simply to guide Santa’s gift-laden sleigh to their houses.

Wherever we are this Christmas season, we’re sure to encounter holiday light displays. Whether they’re luminaria, projection spotlights, mini-string or large colored bulb lights, let their brightness remind us that Jesus is the Light of the World. When Christ’s light came into the world, it did more than illuminate our sins. It brought us salvation by guiding mankind out of the darkness of sin and death and into the light of Christ! Jesus called us to lead others into His light but we mustn’t stop at merely pointing the way to Christ. Jesus calls us to be the light—to be His luminaria and provide light for others.

The light of Christ shines brightest in dark and troubled times—and these are dark and troubled times. On a dark night, one individual paper bag holding a flickering candle in it isn’t very impressive and it certainly doesn’t shed much light. Collectively, however, hundreds of luminaria are an impressive sight. Darkness can never overpower God’s light but His light can overpower the world’s darkness. Let us be the world’s luminaria, not just at Christmas, but all year long!

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. [Martin Luther King, Jr.]

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)]

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. [John 1:5-6 (ESV)]

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So Peter was kept in prison. But the church prayed earnestly to God on his behalf. … Suddenly an angel of the Lord stood there, and a light shone in the cell. The angel hit Peter on the side and woke him up. “Get up quickly!” he said. The chains fell off his hands. [Acts 12:5,7 (NTE)]

black-crowned night heronIn the early church, it was common for believers to gather together for prayer and, when Peter was imprisoned, they gathered to pray for his release at the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. For a people who believed in prayer, it’s ironic that Peter thought the angel that freed him to be a mere vision until he found himself free on the city streets and that the church was astonished when he showed up at Mary’s house! Amazing things can happen when the church prays for its leaders. Prayers broke Peter’s chains, imagine what they can do for our pastors!

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), known as the “Prince of Preachers,” is said to have had a voice so strong that he could be heard (without amplification) in a crowd of 23,000. His church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle was the largest of his day. Even though it seated 5,000, his powerful preaching drew such crowds that he would ask some of his members to attend other churches to make room for newcomers the next week. In his lifetime, Spurgeon preached to over ten million people and his collected work fills at least 49 volumes. Apparently unstoppable, he also founded 66 parachurch ministries, including two orphanages, seventeen homes for widows, and a free seminary. From where did Spurgeon get the power to accomplish so much for the Lord?

The story is told that one day the legendary preacher was giving some people a tour of the Tabernacle before service began. After asking if they’d be interested in seeing the huge church’s “power plant,” he took them into the basement and led them into a room. While Spurgeon seemed the unstoppable “Energizer Bunny” of preachers, his power didn’t come from batteries or the furnace room. Spurgeon’s power came from prayers—the prayers said by the hundreds of people who gathered in that room before church every Sunday and fervently prayed for their pastor while asking God to bless his preaching!

Behind every healthy church is a commitment to prayer and, behind every good pastor is a commitment to pray for him. Will we be the “power plant” needed by our pastors today?

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. [Colossians 4:3-4 (ESV)]

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