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Monday, December 23, 2013

Joy to the World! The Lord has Come!

Christmas is that wonderful time of the year when we pause from all our hectic activities to celebrate the birth of Jesus, God’s Son. What was God’s purpose in sending Jesus to this earth?  It was to rescue us. Why do we need rescuing? What do we need to be rescued from?
Well, God has created heaven, a perfect place, with no squabbling, no anger, no pain, no disagreements, no relationship problems, no money worries, or any other problems. It is a place of peace and happiness. Sounds great, right? 
But, there’s a problem. I hate to tell you, but you’re not perfect. Neither am I, or any other man or woman that has ever lived. It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? We all fail, do bad things, think bad thoughts, and just plain sin. God is blunt about it. He says, “Because all people have sinned, they have fallen short of God's glory.” (Romans 3:23) And, “Certainly, there is no one so righteous on earth that he always does what is good and never sins.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20) We are all in the same boat when it comes to righteousness before God. We stink.
The question is how do we imperfect human beings get to spend our next life in a perfect place? If we place imperfect people in a perfect heaven, it’s no longer perfect. That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem in very humble circumstances, and for 33 years he lived the perfect life that you and I cannot live. Finally, he took all our shortcomings, and failures—our sins—on himself as he went to the cross and died for us. But, he wasn’t finished. He rose victorious from the grave to send you and me a strong, clear message that death is not the end, it really is the beginning our life in heaven with Jesus. All he asks of us is to believe in Jesus as our savior and to acknowledge our failures, shortcomings, sins, and thus our need of a savior. In Ephesians 2:8 & 9 he says this very clearly… “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast.”
And, did you know that the birth and life of Jesus was precisely forecast hundreds of years before it happened?  The Book of Isaiah was written between 701 and 681 years before the birth of Jesus. This is what Isaiah wrote in Chapter 7, verse 14…
“So the Lord himself will give you this sign: A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel [God is with us].”
There are many miracles recorded in the Bible, but of all of them, Jesus’ virgin birth and his resurrection from the dead are the two greatest and two most important. Upon these two miracles hang all our hopes of passing through the portal of death to our next life in heaven.  That is why Christmas is celebrated and why it is so important.
This is how God describes the time leading up to the birth of Jesus in the Book of Luke…
The Angel Gabriel Comes to Mary
26Six months after Elizabeth [the mother of John the Baptist] had become pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee. 27The angel went to a virgin promised in marriage to a descendant of David named Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary.
28 When the angel entered her home, he greeted her and said, “You are favored by the Lord! The Lord is with you.” 29She was startled by what the angel said and tried to figure out what this greeting meant. 30The angel told her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. 31You will become pregnant, give birth to a son, and name him Jesus. 32He will be a great man and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33Your son will be king of Jacob’s people forever, and his kingdom will never end.” 34Mary asked the angel, “How can this be? I’ve never had sexual intercourse.” 35The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come to you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy child developing inside you will be called the Son of God. 36“Elizabeth, your relative, is six months pregnant with a son in her old age. People said she couldn’t have a child. 37But nothing is impossible for God.” 38Mary answered, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let everything you’ve said happen to me.” Then the angel left her.
Mary Praises God
46Mary said, “My soul praises the Lord’s greatness! 47My spirit finds its joy in God, my Savior, 48because he has looked favorably on me, his humble servant. “From now on, all people will call me blessed 49because the Almighty has done great things to me. His name is holy. 50For those who fear him, his mercy lasts throughout every generation. 51“He displayed his mighty power. He scattered those who think too highly of themselves. 52He pulled strong rulers from their thrones. He honored humble people. 53He fed hungry people with good food. He sent rich people away with nothing. 54“He remembered to help his servant Israel forever. 55This is the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants.” 56Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then went back home.
Jesus Is Born
1At that time the Emperor Augustus ordered a census of the Roman Empire. 2This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All the people went to register in the cities where their ancestors had lived. 4So Joseph went from Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a Judean city called Bethlehem. Joseph, a descendant of King David, went to Bethlehem because David had been born there. 5Joseph went there to register with Mary. She had been promised to him in marriage and was pregnant. 6While they were in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to have her child. 7She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger because there wasn’t any room for them in the inn.
Angels Announce the Birth of Jesus
8Shepherds were in the fields near Bethlehem. They were taking turns watching their flock during the night. 9An angel from the Lord suddenly appeared to them. The glory of the Lord filled the area with light, and they were terrified. 10The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid! I have good news for you, a message that will fill everyone with joy. 11Today your Savior, Christ the Lord, was born in David’s city. 12This is how you will recognize him: You will find an infant wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13Suddenly, a large army of angels appeared with the angel. They were praising God by saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those who have his good will!” 15The angels left them and went back to heaven. The shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has told us about.” 16They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph with the baby, who was lying in a manger. 17When they saw the child, they repeated what they had been told about him. 18Everyone who heard the shepherds’ story was amazed. 19Mary treasured all these things in her heart and always thought about them. 20As the shepherds returned to their flock, they glorified and praised God for everything they had seen and heard. Everything happened the way the angel had told them.”

This news of the birth of Jesus is the best news I will ever hear and it is the best news that you will ever hear.  Have a wonderful, joyous Christmas celebration!

Monday, December 16, 2013

One Word Made Nelson Mandela Great

I have truly enjoyed reading all the stories about the life of Nelson Mandela since his death just a few days ago. There have been fanciful ones by people who did not know him, interesting stories by people who did know him, and several very insightful stories by folks who studied him. I confess that my knowledge of Nelson Mandela was limited prior to his death.  I knew that he had communist leanings for many years. I knew that he suffered greatly in prison for 27 years, and, I knew that he became President of South Africa just a few years after his release from prison.

Mandela was born into the Thembu royal family. After attending Fort Hare University and the University of Witwatersrand where he studied law, he became involved in anti-colonial politics. He joined the African National Congress, a decidedly Marxist, Communist organization dedicated to the overthrow of the white South African government. Initially he was committed to non-violent protest, but after more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts to obtain a government controlled by the black majority, he gave up and formed the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) that was affiliated with the South African Communist Party (funded in part by the Soviet Union).  The MK advocated violence and it led a sabotage campaign against apartheid. However, in no instance of sabotage did anyone die.  In 1962 Mandela was arrested and convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Commentators have noted that Mandela was offered release 27 times if he would agree to forego violent acts. However, undoubtedly that was just a part of the conditions for his release from prison. In all likelihood, the other terms included nonparticipation in any activities, nonviolent or violent, seeking to end apartheid in South Africa. That was an unacceptable term to Nelson Mandela and one for which he was unwilling to compromise.

The Soviet communists saw in Mandela and the ANC an opportunity to establish a foothold in Africa.  That was the only reason that they supported his efforts. While Mandela was a socialist, however, and perhaps even a Marxist, he did not care about advancing Soviet communism, he only cared about freeing his people from apartheid.  He supported the communists only to the extent that they benefitted his cause.

For 27 long years Nelson Mandela was a prisoner. But, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela didn’t fade away. He became a symbol of white oppression and white racism. Mandela did, however, have lots of time to contemplate. Raised as a Christian, Mandela concluded that there was a conflict between his faith and his violent past. He realized that he could not be both a Christian and a communist or a Marxist.

While Mandela was still in prison, pressure continued to mount, both inside and outside of South Africa, for an end to apartheid.  One of those working to end apartheid was President Ronald Reagan.  As this excerpt from an article by Arnold Steinberg (used with his permission) points out, Reagan sought not to overthrow the government of South Africa, but to bring an end to apartheid. 

"In fact, the [Reagan] policy was strategic and allowed for Reagan’s philosophy…of seeking change within authoritarian regimes as opposed to isolating totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, which required full confrontation.  And, at that time during the Cold War, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was a Marxist, if not pro-Communist, organization, so prudence was required.

In 1986, Chet [Chester Crocker] recommended to Secretary of State George Shultz the appointment of Ed Perkins to be U.S. Ambassador to South Africa.”

This was significant because not only was Edward Perkins a career foreign service officer serving as U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, he was an African American. For President Ronald Reagan to send a black man as the US Ambassador was a crystal clear message to then President of South Africa, P.W. Botha, that the United States did not condone or approve of apartheid.

“In his book, Ed [Perkins] says, quite simply, that neither George Shultz nor Ronald Reagan have been given credit for their determination to change apartheid in South Africa. Shultz told Ed, ‘No one has the right to ask you or any other black person to go down there.’  Some thought the Afrikaners might try to assassinate a black ambassador. And ‘black leaders’ here, he was told, would attack Ed as a sell-out to a “racist” president…

…when it came to Reagan himself, Ed and the President had immediate rapport. Ed recollects how informed Reagan was on Africa and also Reagan’s moral clarity. …[Reagan] told Ed that he was personally appointing him U.S. Ambassador to South Africa and, almost unheard of, giving him authorization to make American policy from the embassy. Ed recalls that in subsequent meetings during his ambassadorship, Reagan was …thoroughly analytical and well engaged — hardly the detached caricature drawn by liberals.

[The] South African press predictably blasted the appointment. …But Ed became, in his words, ‘a change agent’ from the moment he set foot in South Africa… …in the first official private meeting with South Africa’s President P.W. Botha, [Botha] directly insulted him and indirectly insulted President Reagan.  

…But the bottom line is that President Reagan’s personal envoy made policy from the moment he refused to accept segregated housing for the black State Department employees.  And, he reached out to all groups, from rigid Afrikaners to black Marxist revolutionaries, while making clear the U.S. position was against apartheid and against violent change and for a market economy.  

…By selecting a black American to be ambassador, President Reagan sent a message.  And by sending Ed Perkins, Reagan showed that his selection was not some politically correct symbol of diversity but the real deal. In South Africa, [Perkins] celebrated the U.S. Constitution and its genius of a democratic republic of limited, balanced powers.

At times, Ed even gave Embassy or consular sanctuary to political dissidents… When challenged by the South African government, Ed Perkins declared that the dissidents were on sovereign territory. And when Botha (who, ironically, would later become part of Nelson Mandela’s government) …repeatedly became belligerent, Ed Perkins replied with his ace-in-the-hole line — that he was acting on behalf of the President of the United States — Ronald Reagan.”

President Ronald Reagan was walking a fine line in South Africa. By instituting the Reagan Doctrine, he sought to bring down the dictatorship of the Soviet Union. The ties of the African National Congress to the Soviets only made that fine line even smaller. Other Presidents, like Jimmy Carter, in their haste to achieve human rights actually empowered harsh dictatorships that still plague us today, such as Iran. Without Carter’s bumbling, we would not have the danger of a nuclear war that is posed by the current Islamic fascist regime of the Ayatollah in Iran. It is not a stretch to say that without the quiet, but firm intervention of Ronald Reagan in South Africa at a critical time, that South Africa could have made the peaceful transition to a majority rule nation that exists today.

But, let’s get back to the story of Nelson Mandela and the one powerful word that made him a great leader. When Mandela eventually was released from prison in 1990, President F.W. de Klerk was serving as Prime Minister. It was a time of great civil unrest. Demands for an end to apartheid had reached a boiling point.

After so many years in prison, Nelson Mandela had a right to be an angry man, a man filled with bitterness and bent on revenge. But, he wasn’t. His commitment to his Christian faith overrode his potential rage against his mistreatment and abuse in prison. Instead of anger, Mandela did the unthinkable thing.

The then President of South Africa was F.W. de Klerk. While de Klerk was no saint, he was not the racist firebrand of his predecessor, P.F. Botha. Nelson Mandela had not given up the fight for justice and freedom, he had just rejected hatred, anger and violence as a means to that end. But, much more than that, his faith compelled him to do was Jesus did, forgive his enemies. He obviously knew these passages well…

Then Jesus said,

“Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing."—Luke 23:34

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked him, "Lord, how often do I have to forgive a believer who wrongs me? Seven times?" Jesus answered him, "I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy times seven.”—Matthew 18:21-22

The ability of Nelson Mandela, a man who had served 27 years in prison, to forgive his enemies was what made him a truly great man and a great leader.  His ability to forgive was a powerful force for good. With genuine, heart-felt forgiveness he united his nation, a seemingly impossible task. By being able to purge the anger from his heart, he was able to reach out to both blacks and whites with a message of reconciliation.

Amazingly, just four years after release from his long imprisonment, Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa. The times were still dangerous with a possible civil war rumbling just below the surface. While Mandela was willing to forgive, many black South Africans did not want to forgive, they wanted revenge. But, Mandela knew that vengeance belongs to the Lord, not to man. As it says in Romans 12:19

“Don't take revenge, dear friends. Instead, let God's anger take care of it. After all, Scripture says, "I alone have the right to take revenge. I will pay back, says the Lord.”

Once again, it was the wisdom of God that led to the wise and prudent decisions made by Nelson Mandela. It would have been oh so easy to give in to the demands of black South Africans to seek revenge against white South Africans. It would have been easy to take revenge on those white South Africans that insulted him and belittled him, but Nelson Mandela did not give in to his lower desires. Of course, it would have been so easy to do so and the result would have looked something like today’s Zimbabwe, a totalitarian dictatorship where everyone suffers, black and white.

The movie Invictus by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, which by most accounts is an accurate rendition of what really happened, provides insight into the wisdom of Nelson Mandela. Here is an excerpt from a synopsis of the movie as told by Wikipedia…

“…[President] Mandela is particularly concerned about racial divisions between black and white South Africans, which could lead to violence.

While attending a game between the Springboks, the country's rugby union team, and England, Mandela recognizes that the blacks in the stadium are cheering for England, as the mostly-white Springboks represent prejudice and apartheid in their minds; he remarks that he did the same while imprisoned on Robben Island. Knowing that South Africa is set to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup in one year's time, Mandela persuades a meeting of the newly black-dominated South African Sports Committee to support the Springboks. He then meets with the captain of the Springboks rugby team, François Pienaar (Matt Damon), and implies that a Springboks victory in the World Cup will unite and inspire the nation. Mandela also shares with François a British poem, "Invictus", that had inspired him during his time in prison.

Many South Africans, both black and white, doubt that rugby will unite a nation torn apart by nearly 50 years of racial tensions, as for many blacks, especially the radicals, the Springboks symbolize white supremacy. Both Mandela and Pienaar, however, stand firmly behind their theory that the game can successfully unite the South African country.

Things begin to change as the players interact with the fans and begin a friendship with them. During the opening games, support for the Springboks begins to grow among the black population. By the second game, the whole country comes together to support the Springboks and Mandela's efforts.

Before the game, the Springbok team visits Robben Island, where Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years in jail. François mentions his amazement that Mandela ‘could spend thirty years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put [him] there.’

Supported by a large home crowd of both races, Pienaar motivates his team. The Springboks win the match on an added time long drop-kick from fly-half Joel Stransky, with a score of 15–12. Mandela and Pienaar meet on the field together to celebrate the improbable and unexpected victory.”

In many ways, Nelson Mandela reminds me of another great Christian leader, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn never became the President of Russia after the peaceful defeat of the Soviet Union, but like Mandela, Solzhenitsyn was a man of great leadership based on the strength of his ability to forgive. Because of their ability to forgive, both Mandela and Solzhenitsyn were able to heal. Those who bear grudges, who seek retribution and revenge, may gain power, but they will never be great. In fact, theirs will be a leadership that destroys, divides, and encourages envy, hatred, jealously, and even violence. It will be a legacy of failure and shortsightedness.

Let us celebrate the greatness of Nelson Mandela and his willingness to forgive.  He would, of course, point to the one who makes it possible for us to forgive, Jesus, the Savior of the world.  Nelson Mandela, RIP.