TORCH TRUST FOR THE BLIND, Torch House, Torch Way, Northampton Road, Market Harborough, Leicestershire, LE16 9HL, U.K.
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Just before the birth of Jesus, any sense of hope was in short supply within Israel. Conquered, occupied and ruled by Romans, the flame of hope was barely flickering. But it still burned brightly in the hearts of two Godly old people, Simeon and Anna.
The meeting in the Temple courts is an amazing one. Simeon was a very spiritual man and he had received a remarkable revelation: that he would not die until he had seen the long awaited Messiah - the one that would come as God's saviour. It's by the prompting of the Holy Spirit that he goes to the Temple that day - the very day that the baby Jesus' parents take him there.
Anna, an elderly widow lived a life of incessant worship within the Temple area, night and day. The Temple was a very large place. So it's amazing that she too encounters the baby Jesus at the same time and also recognises that this is no ordinary baby.
Certainly there were those looking forward to a day when God would restore Israel. But it may well be they were confused about what form the "redemption of Israel" would take. It becomes clear from the record of Jesus' ministry that many of his followers, if not all, expected Jesus to lead the Israelites out of the clutches of the Roman empire. How mistaken they were. Nevertheless they lived in hope, looking for God to act decisively to save them.
Hope is a word that has come up again and again during 2008. In the UK the Hope 08 initiative encouraged and motivated many churches in a diversity of imaginative outreach activities. At the same time, it's been a year where many who had their hope placed in the world's financial markets have seen that hope dashed.
Advent, the season before Christmas, is a time of hope. As it was for Simeon and Anna it's a hope of salvation. And because Jesus came once and promised to return, we can live in hope of his return. The first time he came inconspicuously as a baby. He would have been so easily missed by Simeon and Anna. But he will return in glory in a way that it will be impossible for anyone to miss him.
Simeon and Anna saw what others failed to see. Unlikely though it must have seemed, Simeon held in his arms God's salvation - one who would live and die and live again to reconcile us to God - and one who would revive God's original intention that Israel would be a beacon to the rest of the world. Jesus declared himself to be the Light of the World.
Though people all over the world may celebrate Christmas in many different ways and for different reasons, sadly many will fail to see its real significance, or recognise the true identity of the baby of Bethlehem. As we read again the words of Simeon in the following article, may we, like Mary and Joseph, marvel at what, with the Holy Spirit's prompting, he had to say.
Christmas greetings to you all from Gordon Temple and all at Torch.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)
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Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
The child's father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."
There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
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by Mike Townsend
I wonder if you will sing "Good King Wenceslas" this Christmas. Why do we sing this song at this time of year? Well it is the story of a good king who helps a poor man in snowy weather. But it is more than that. This kindly act took place on the "Feast of Stephen". St Stephen's day occurs on Boxing Day which is the day after Christmas. We don't celebrate Stephen much in the UK, but in Spain things are different.
I once spent Christmas in Spain. The day following Christmas is "fiesta". The streets were filled with Mary and Josephs, tableaux depicting someone being stoned, and pirates. I don't know how the pirates got in on the act, but the day really is "The feast of Stephen". So who is the Stephen of the feast? - and why might he inspire such kindness from a Czech king?
Stephen was one of the seven who were chosen to assist the apostles in food distribution to Greek widows. We looked at Philip, another of them, last time.
Faithfulness is the aspect of the fruit of the Spirit that I associate with Stephen. "The fruit of the Spirit is ... faithfulness" (Galatians 5:22).
Faithfulness means loyalty and commitment. It is one of God's amazing attributes. When God showed his nature to Moses, he passed in front of him proclaiming ... "the Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness." (Exodus 34:6.) How wonderful to see this godly attribute lived out by Christians such as Stephen.
As we noted with Philip, Stephen's job was not glamorous. He delivered food to the Greek-speaking widows. Each day he met them and showed them kindness. This was a very personal service. Today a lot of service is very impersonal. You get these menu driven robotic telephone "help" lines. Even when you reach a person, they don't seem to care. I had a lovely experience recently. I was staying in a very large hotel. My room was down some complicated long corridors. I wondered if Tom, my guide dog, would be able to find his way back. "Don't worry sir. We will bring your breakfast to your room, and guide you back." That was personal service.
It is very important that we provide personal service in sharing the gospel. Public meetings and preaching are important, but most people come to know Jesus through personal contact with Christians. My good friend, Peter, pointed me to Jesus in my last year at school. The immediate result of the seven's and Stephen's faithful service was, "the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly." (Acts 6:7).
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Stephen was an excellent Bible teacher. He taught in the Greek-speaking synagogues of the "Freedmen" (v 9). Stephen was the first in the early church to really understand and preach the significant difference between the old Judaism and the new faith in Jesus. His critics were right when they said, "this fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us." (chapter 6 vv 13-14.) Chapter 7 contains Stephen's extensive Bible study on God's purposes for Israel. Stephen shocked the Sanhedrin leaders by saying that there was no longer any need for a temple. "The most high does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: 'heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? Says the Lord'." (chapter 7 vv 48-9.) Stephen built on the apostles' teaching that salvation was completely provided through Jesus once and for all by his sacrifice on the cross. This meant that there was no longer any need for the temple and its sacrifices.
I have read that some people are preparing to re-build the temple in Jerusalem following the guidelines at the end of the prophecy of Ezekiel (chapters 40 to 48). Do you think that a temple should be re-built and sacrifices started again? Ezekiel says, "I saw a man whose appearance was like bronze; he was standing in the gateway with a linen cord and a measuring rod in his hand. The man said to me, 'son of man, look with your eyes and hear with your ears and pay attention to everything I am going to show you, for that is why you have been brought here. Tell the house of Israel everything you see'." (Ezekiel 40:2-4.) Prophecy can be hard to understand. We must be like Stephen and know the Bible enough to interpret its basic message. No, the temple should not be re-built. I agree with Stephen. It is no longer needed.
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Stephen continued, "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one. And now you have betrayed and murdered him" (vv 51-52). A long line of God's prophets had been murdered culminating in the crucifixion of the saviour, Jesus, God's own son.
Stephen's accusations angered them: "When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 'Look,' he said, 'I see heaven open and the son of man standing at the right hand of God.' At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him." (vv 54-58). This was all too much. The temple superfluous, accusation of murder, and now the very prediction of Jesus at his trial was being fulfilled before their eyes. Jesus had said, "But I say to all of you: in the future you will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of the mighty one." (Matthew 26:64). Stephen's shining face declared the truth of what he said.
How far would we be prepared to follow Jesus? Would we die for him and what we know to be true in the Bible? I was very moved as I stood before Martyrs Memorial in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh. It commemorates eighteen thousand Scots martyred for their faith with the inscription, "Halt passenger, take heed what you do see. This tomb doth show for what some men did die." The word "martyr" is Greek for "witness". Thousands today still testify to their trust in Jesus by not denying their faith, but dying. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. "While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he fell on his knees and cried out, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' When he had said this, he fell asleep." (59-60).
After the Christmas day festivities, spend some time on Boxing Day, the Feast of Stephen, praying for persecuted Christians who face the prospect of death for their faith.
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(by Dick Innes from actsweb.org)
Some years ago Dr Frederic Loomis, an obstetrician, faced one of the greatest challenges of his life. One of his patients, a fragile young woman, was carrying her first child. As best he could, he sought to help her as she struggled to keep her emotional and nervous reactions under control.
One month before the baby was due, a routine examination showed that the baby was in a breach position. That is, instead of coming into the world head first (which is the safest way for a baby to be born), the baby comes feet or seat first. The danger with these births is that the umbilical cord can get compressed between the baby's head and the mother's bony pelvis, cutting off the tiny infant's supply of oxygen - without which the baby will die in a few short minutes. Time is of the greatest essence in these births.
This particular case was a "complete" breach - the baby's legs and feet being folded under it, tailor-fashion. As the baby was ready to be born, Dr Loomis gently drew down on one little foot. Next he drew on the other foot, but it didn't respond. As the baby's body moved down, he noticed that it was a girl. And then, only he saw that the entire thigh from the hip to the knee was missing. Quickly he wrapped the warm towel - readied to keep the baby's body warm while struggling to be born - around the baby's one leg.
Then followed the greatest struggle Dr Loomis ever faced. He envisioned a girl growing up different from her peers, sitting alone, being gawked at, unable to participate in any kind of athletic activities, never being invited out on dates - lonely, insecure and forlorn.
He could also imagine the agony of this young mother with such a burden to carry. "Don't bring this suffering upon them," he reasoned to himself. "This baby has never taken a breath - don't let her ever take one."
He glanced at the clock. Three of the allotted seven or eight minutes had passed. Nobody in the room knew of his struggle and intention. He would slow the birth. Nobody else would ever know. In a few short minutes it would all end. The mother would grieve but would be greatly relieved that she didn't have the responsibility of bringing up such a handicapped child.
Right then the baby's good foot popped out from beneath the towel and pressed against the doctor's hand. Then her body heaved with a surge of energy - it was wanting to be born.
The doctor could not do what he planned. He delivered the baby with her pitiful little leg.
Dr Loomis said, "Every foreboding came true. The mother was in a hospital for several months. I saw her once or twice and she looked like a wraith of her former self. I heard of them indirectly from time to time ... Finally I lost track of them altogether.
"As the years went by, I blamed myself bitterly for not having had the strength to yield to my temptation."
Years later, as was the custom of the nurses at the hospital where Dr Loomis served, an impressive Christmas party for the hospital staff and doctors was held. This year was particularly interesting. Every doctor and staff member who could be there was.
When the nurses, beautifully attired in their spotless uniforms, entered in procession, the audience stood as one to honour them. Then, from the back of the auditorium entered twenty more young nurses, each holding a lighted candle and singing the familiar strains of "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright ..."
The spotlight then focused on the elaborately decorated Christmas tree with every decoration shimmering with unusual beauty. Then the spotlight moved to centre stage as the curtain was slowly drawn aside to reveal three lovely young musicians, all in glistening white evening gowns - a harpist, a cello player, and a violinist. Together with the organ the beautiful harmony of their music brought tears to many eyes.
The harpist played so exceptionally well that at the close of the evening Dr Loomis waited to congratulate her.
As he sat alone waiting, a lady came running down the aisle and with outstretched arms excitedly cried out, "You saw her. You must have recognised your baby. That was my daughter who played the harp - I saw you watching her. Don't you remember the little girl who was born with only one good leg 17 years ago? We tried everything else first, but now she has a whole artificial leg on that side - but you would never know it, would you? She can walk, she can swim, and she can almost dance. But, best of all, through all those years when she couldn't do those things, she learned to use her hands so wonderfully ... She is so happy ... And here she is!"
And then they met ... Instinctively Dr Loomis reached out and embraced the one whose life he came so close to destroying before she had a chance to live.
"You will never know, my dear," he said, "you never will know, nor will anyone else in all the world, just what tonight has meant to me. Go back to your harp for a moment, please - and play 'Silent Night' for me alone. I have a load on my shoulders that no one has ever seen, a load that only you can take away."
How precious is the gift of life. There is only one gift that is greater - that is the gift of eternal life.
Some time ago one of my sons was upset with me about something. What I did I have long since forgotten but I will never forget what he said. In his frustration he blurted out, "Why did you have me anyhow?"
I paused for a moment and then replied from the depths of my heart, "Because you were part of God's eternal plan."
And that is true of you and me also. From the moment we were conceived in our mother's womb, God knew us by name. And we, too, are a part of his eternal plan. But at our birth only God could see our handicap. We were deformed, too - not physically perhaps - but spiritually. Because of our sinful nature, we were born spiritually dead and cut off from God - the giver of all life. But because we were so precious to and so loved by him, he sent his Son, Jesus, on that first Christmas to come to earth to die in our place for our sins, to deliver us from eternal death, and to give to us the greatest gift of all - the gift of eternal life. God has this gift for you, too. Whatever you do, don't leave earth without it. There could be no greater tragedy.
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by David Coffey
(taken from CWR Today - Sep 2008-Jan 2009)
[Why does God make us wait? David Coffey seeks to help us make sense of these challenging times as we approach Advent.]
Celebrating the arrival of the Servant King ... and anticipating the promised arrival of the King of Glory.
Malachi 3:1-5, 16-18 (NIV) says:
"See, I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the Lord Almighty.
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
"So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the Lord Almighty.
... Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name.
"They will be mine," says the Lord Almighty, "in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.
I spend much of my time flying to and from London Heathrow. When the brochure for the new Terminal 5 was published, I was promised that British Airways' new home would transform my travel experience. I eagerly read the publicity on T5 and discovered the main departure area is the size of ten football pitches, the baggage system transports 12,000 bags per hour around the terminal, the water-harvesting scheme re-uses up to eighty-five per cent of the rainfall that falls on Terminal 5's campus.
All very impressive, but I scanned the publicity in vain for one tiny piece of personal information: would T5 tackle my problem of waiting? You see, my total time of waiting at Heathrow probably adds up to a few years of my life. I have got used to humming, "When peace like a river" when stuck in another queue. In many areas of discipleship I know I am growing, but I need bucket loads of grace to cope with a waiting period.
Advent. This is the waiting season when we are invited to look back and listen to the familiar readings from the Old Testament prophets who prophesied the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah prophesied there would be a Messiah from God who would be a Wonderful Counsellor, a Mighty God, an Everlasting Father and a Prince of Peace. And the people of God waited 800 years for this promise to be fulfilled.
During Advent we rejoice that in the fullness of time God did send his son (Galatians 4:4), but Advent reminds us that we are still in a waiting period. We await the return of Christ the King, who is coming to judge the world in righteousness at the end of the age. We wait in the tension between celebrating the arrival of the Servant King in the lowliness of the Bethlehem stable and anticipating the promised arrival of the King of Glory in his triumphal return. And the people of God have been waiting for the fulfilment of this promise for 2,000 years.
Waiting periods can be a challenge to faith.
Malachi has been called the prophet of the waiting period. His book is the last in the Old Testament and it is estimated that when he put down his pen, centuries went by before the birth of Jesus. It was 400 years of waiting.
Malachi was raised up by God to strengthen faith in a waiting period, and his message is relevant for today. His message is: in a waiting period, guard your grand purpose (Malachi 1:11).
God has a grand purpose for the world - to make his name great among the nations. Waiting for God to deliver on his promises can become a huge burden (Malachi 1:13). Instead, be inspired by the beautiful picture in Malachi of how to wait. Faithful people gather together to share their hope in the promises of God. God records in writing their prayers and worship and fellowship (3:16). It is a lesson in how to wait.
[This extract was taken from Joy to the World by David Coffey. This book is now available from the Torch Library in audio cassette, braille and giant print. David is President of the Baptist World Alliance. He is an ordained Baptist Minister and has served as Pastor of three Baptist churches. David was President and General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, and from 2003-2007 was the Moderator of the Free Churches Group and one of the four presidents of Churches Together in England. He is also a member of the Torch Council of Reference.]
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Jesus comes with clouds descending -
See the Lamb for sinners slain!
Thousand thousand saints attending
Join to sing the glad refrain:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall then behold him,
Robed in awesome majesty;
Those who jeered at him and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Shamed and grieving ...
Shall their true Messiah see.
All the wounds of cross and passion
Still his glorious body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers.
With what gladness ...
We shall see the Saviour's scars!
Yes, Amen! let all adore you
High on your eternal throne;
Crowns and empires fall before you -
Claim the kingdom for your own.
Come, Lord Jesus ...
Everlasting God, come down!
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