Invictus at Christmas

A Christian look at William Ernest Henley’s famous poem, Invictus.

A Christian look at William Ernest Henley’s famous poem, Invictus.

Julie fumbled with the lock of her dorm room. Laying her purse, nursing notebook, deli croissant sandwich, and coffee on the floor in the hall, she finally opened the door. My biology quiz didn’t go well this morning, and my anatomy project is late. At least I’ll get English right. I’ve got 30 minutes before I have to leave for work.

Sitting at her desk a few moments later, Julie began reading the poem her English professor was expecting an analysis of on Monday morning.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley, Britain, 1875

I have always liked Invictus, Julie thought to herself. My mother read it to me when my father left us. I read it to Michelle when she and her boyfriend broke up and she wanted to drive her car off a cliff. It makes me feel strong and independent. Best of all, Invictus is short. Julie read it again and again. Then she opened her notebook computer to type a few lines.

“Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King” sang a choir outside Julie’s window. She watched the little group, a motley mix of young and old, talented and not so talented. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…” Once the tune ended, she chuckled to herself. Why would anyone want a king? How could he bring peace on earth? Kings make war, not peace. And who decides what is sin, and who is a sinner? She thought about the carolers for a few minutes, and about her few forays into church as a child. Misguided bunch, but their singing wasn’t bad.

Julie finished her croissant sandwich and returned to work on her assignment. Her phone buzzed, announcing that a text had arrived. “Ramona is in the hospital. She took a bunch of pills and drank a bunch of whiskey.”

Julie’s face turned white. Not Ramona! She was the most glamorous, gorgeous, toughest, smartest girl in high school. Every teacher loved her, every coach recruited her, and every boy in school would have killed to date her. Every girl wanted to be like her. Ramona had it all, and she knew it.

“I liked her, I envied her, and I followed her” Julie remembered aloud.

There was a knock on Julie’s door. Julie answered it. Her friend Michelle stood outside, her eyes red and puffy with tears. “Michelle, I got your text about Ramona. Are you OK?”

“I just had to walk over. The three of us were best friends in high school. Now, just two years later…” Her words trailed off.

“Do you have any more information?” Julie asked, but Michelle was in no shape to talk. “Give me your phone” she ordered, and took it when there was no reply. Julie scrolled through the messages. She found a voicemail from Ramona’s mother.

“Michelle, this is April. Ramona is in the county hospital. She took a handful of Tylenol and drank a bottle of whiskey early this morning. She has been struggling in college – engineering just isn’t her thing. Two days ago, she found out that she is pregnant. When she told her boyfriend Brandon, you remember him from high school, he broke off their relationship. Ramona’s stepfather and I are at the hospital. Call her soon on her cell phone. She needs a friend.”

Julie dialed April’s number, but noticed the clock on her wall. “1243!” she exclaimed. “I got to be at the nursing home at one to start work.” She hung up, rushed Michelle out of her room, choked down her coffee, changed into her scrubs, grabbed her nursing bag, and ran out the door. I’ll call later.

***

Julie raced down the highway. If I’m late one more time, I might get fired. Then, how could I stay in school?  She thought about Ramona. She certainly is in a black pit now, but her soul doesn’t seem very unconquerable.

Hoping to distract herself, Julie turned on the car radio. “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…”

“Let nothing me dismay!” she blurted as the song continued. “One of my best friends is in the hospital, I am late to work, and I have to listen to stupid music on the radio.” Despite her irritation, Julie continued listening. She sat silently until the song ended. I feel bludgeoned and bloody by circumstances, but I am not wincing or crying. Still, there is something soothing, and even encouraging, in that song. She turned off her radio.

Flashing blue lights appeared in Julie’s rear view mirror. She pulled over, furious for getting caught speeding and furious for being late to work. The policeman approached from the driver’s side.

“Do you know what the speed limit is here?”

“45?”

“35” the officer answered. “And you were going 51.”

“Sorry, I just found out that my friend is in the hospital, and I am late for work.” Julie started to cry, hoping for a quick warning and speedy departure. The policeman looked skeptical.

“I’m going to have to give you a ticket. Please hand me your driver’s license, insurance, and registration.”

Julie erupted. “I can’t believe that you are doing this to me! Give a man a little power and he abuses others.”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you were 51 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone.”

“My head is bloody but unbowed” Julie snapped at the officer.

“That’s great, ma’am, but you still have to pay the ticket.”

“Cretin” she whispered to herself.

The two fell into silence – Julie’s sullen and the officer’s confused. Several minutes passed as the officer walked back to his car and checked her plates and her documents. He wrote the ticket, returned to her car, and handed it to her. She snatched it out of his hand. The officer walked back to his patrol car as she sped away. It was 1308.

***

Julie walked into the Happy Horizons nursing home at 1315. Mrs. Applegate, the head nurse, greeted her at the door.

“Glad you could make it, Julie,” she said with an edge. “Cindy has already started getting the medications ready for your patients. Here is the list.” Julie’s heart sank. This has to be the worst day ever. Why couldn’t I have been sick? How am I going to make it until five? Julie forced a smile on to her pretty face, put her long brown hair into a ponytail, and walked into room 103 to see her first patient.

“Hi, Mr. Gebhart. How are you today?” Cindy snuck his pain medicine into some applesauce while Julie distracted him with stories of her day. Then Cindy slipped a bite into his mouth, and Julie rushed another spoonful of applesauce into his mouth to hide the bitter taste. They were a good pair.

Julie helped patients to the bathroom, walked with them, fed them, moved them, and talked to them. The work, the help to others, and the light that came to their aged faces helped Julie to forget her own cares. Her smile became real, her steps grew light, and her eyes regained their sparkle.

Mrs. Applegate watched from the nurses’ station. “Julie is often late, and can be immature, but she is becoming a terrific nurse” the older woman whispered to herself. Nurse Applegate continued typing her notes in the medical record. Writing nursing evaluations wasn’t nearly as rewarding as taking care of patients.

“O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining…” sounded from the activity room at Happy Horizons. Julie’s shift was almost over and her work was done, so she walked slowly towards the music. She sat down next to a wizened woman in a wheelchair. “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth…” The music continued, filling the room, and lifting the spirits of everyone around. A smile broke onto Mrs. Applegate’s face.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…” Julie listened silently, drinking in the music. “Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.” The choir finished with What Child is This?

What child was this, really? Why do billions of people on earth believe in Him? Why do I feel that I need to know more about Him?

“The choir at Redemption Baptist Church thanks you for inviting us to Happy Horizons, and wishes you a very Merry Christmas” the music minister concluded. “Come by the church for a caroler pot luck tonight at 6” the choir director said to Julie as he walked past.

The woman in the wheelchair next to her looked at Julie. Her face was gray and wrinkled, her back bent, and her skin thin as tissue paper.

Julie didn’t notice. She said quietly:

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

I want to be found unafraid, but I dread becoming like this woman. The menace of the years has taken its toll on her. How much longer can she live? How much longer can Ramona live? How much longer can any of us live? How long do we want to?

Julie sat back and took a deep breath. The last four choir members sang as they walked away, “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

But perhaps the world really has laid long in sin, pining for restoration. My patients here sure want to be restored. And what child is this, really? Is He the one who will help each person’s soul feel its worth?

“Miss, excuse me, miss?” A feeble voice awakened Julie from her thoughts. It was the crooked old woman in the wheelchair, the one that Julie could barely look at. “Would you please wheel me back to my room?”

Julie snapped back into her professional mode. “Of course, ma’am. My name is Julie. What is yours?”

“Harriet Shaker. You know, I was a nurse too.”

“Wow, where did you work?”

“I worked on the med-surg ward at St. Joseph’s hospital here in town for 35 years” Mrs. Shaker replied. “In 1977 I was voted Nurse of the Year by the whole staff.”

“What an honor! I hope that I can do as well myself” Julie answered. “Was that the highlight of your career?”

“Yes, but the highlight of my life was my family. I was married for 57 years and had seven children. Careers are wonderful, but they end. Family never does.”

Julie smiled a little awkwardly. Noticing, Mrs. Shaker shifted her conversational gears and inquired, “How old are your parents?”

“My mom’s name is Pam, and she’s 43. My dad is 45.” Julie was blunt, “He left mom and me when I was ten.”

“I am so sorry,” Harriet returned. “Family breakups heal, but scars remain forever. Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“No. My parents didn’t want kids, and I was an accident. But they didn’t abort me, which was good, I think. But they made sure that I was alone.”

“You poor dear,” Harriet said as she reached out her withered hands to hug Julie. The young nursing student instinctively leaned back, but stopped herself and leaned forward into the hug. Julie had no idea why she was sharing her life troubles with this stranger, but somehow it seemed like the right thing to do. Julie asked “Tell me more.”

Mrs. Shaker continued, “We needed my job to make ends meet, but my husband and my children were my life. My husband Jerry has passed, but my children and grandchildren still are my life.”

“Didn’t you get tired of living for others?” Julie asked.

“First, you live for God. Second, you live for others. Third, maybe, you live for yourself. What else would you live for?” Harriet puzzled.

“Yourself. Your career. Your happiness. Your fame and fortune.” Julie replied. Her mother had always told her to stand on her own two feet, trust no one, and get what she wanted out of the world. “Your father left us” she said, “and I don’t care. We will get along without him…without anyone.”

Invictus flashed in Julie’s mind. “Aren’t you the master of your fate and the captain of your soul?”

Harriet paused for a moment. “In January 1973, I was in my early 30s, and was sick of my life. Jerry sold tools in a hardware store but didn’t make much. I took care of my five children and worked at a local hospital on Saturdays. Jerry was boring, the kids were boring, my job was boring, and I was bored. I wanted the independent, liberated life of a modern woman. I wanted money and travel, dancing and wine, and romance. I was sick of diapers, dishes, dinner, and even sex.

One Saturday I met a handsome doctor on the ward, not much older than me. His sparkling eyes and toothy smile took my breath away. One day I was holding the chart of one of his patients and he touched my hand. I almost melted. No one else was around, and he put his arm around my waist. I trembled as he glanced about, and kissed me.

Soon we were leaving work together. We were both married and had kids, but who cared? I was in love. I rationalized my actions with the philosophy of the day. Personal fulfillment, whatever the cost, was the goal, and free love was the means. I left my family and moved in with my handsome doctor. It was everything I had ever dreamed of. We danced, sang, and drank. He took me to Mexico, Hawaii, and France. Then after three months, he left. I guess he just got bored with me. I never saw or heard from him again.”

“What did your family do?” Julie implored.

“They couldn’t believe that I left, and especially right after Christmas, although Christmas didn’t matter to us much at the time. Our Christmas was all about presents and parties – all I really wanted was to be done with it. Anyway, Jerry was morose. He spent days at home in despair and almost lost his job. Our children were heartbroken. The older ones started failing school and tried never to come home. Everything was wrong for all of us. My work suffered, and I lost my job, so I moved back in with my parents. Jerry tried for months to get me back, but I refused. My 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son rejected me, and only my youngest three – 2, 4 and 6 – wanted me home.”

“How did it end?”

“I yearned for my family, but was too ashamed to tell them. On Easter Sunday, 1973, I went to church. Jerry and the kids were there, sitting on the other side of the sanctuary. The pastor read 1 Corinthians 15, about the sacrifice of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead. Something happened that day which I will never fully understand. I went back to my room at my parents’ house, closed the door, and cried for six hours. Mother brought my old Bible, the one with the dedication from my grandparents. Through my tears I found Christ. On the same day, Jerry did too.

Three weeks later, Jerry asked me to go to lunch. It was really awkward at first, but he just started talking about the kids. One lunch led to another and we began reminiscing about our life together. We all started going to church and sitting together. By Thanksgiving, I had moved back in. We were together again as a family. He had forgiven me…so had the kids. We had the greatest Christmas ever.”

Abandoning my family for a fling was the worst thing I have ever done, but Jesus washed that sin away.

“You asked if I was the captain of my fate, the master of my soul. I tried to be, and you can see how well that went.” Harriet sat back into her wheelchair. “I didn’t need a handsome, rich, young doctor. And I only partially needed a slightly older hardware salesman. I needed someone else, a Savior and Lord, and I found Him…or He found me.”

Julie had heard the gospel before and had rejected it. But this was different. Ramona, her day, her friends, her past, and her worldview, summed up by Invictus, didn’t seem enough anymore. She felt confused.

Julie got up, unlocked the wheels, and pushed Mrs. Harriet Shaker to her room. They hugged as they parted.

***

Michelle read Alice’s text. “Ramona is in the intensive care unit. Her liver has been damaged by the overdose, and her lab tests are rising. We’ll know tomorrow if she will recover or if she will need a liver transplant…if she can get one.”

Michelle, a sociology major, had no clue about medicine and relied on Julie for answers. “What do you think?”

“It doesn’t sound good” Julie suggested.

“Should we visit her?”

“No”, Julie replied. “Ramona went to school in Arizona. Driving would take over 20 hours, and neither of us can pay for a plane ticket.”

The girls sat silently at the table in Julie’s dorm room – desperate for their friend and powerless to help her.

“Shall we pray?” Michelle asked.

“To whom, and why?” answered Julie bitterly. “To whatever gods may be?”

Why did I answer so harshly? Julie thought to herself. Will Jesus be angry? Oh, its no use. I can’t be good enough to be religious.

Julie’s tone softened. “Besides, I don’t know how to pray.” The girls heard a song outside their window.

“Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing over the plains…” the choir sang. Julie recognized them – the group from Redemption Baptist Church.

Julie and Michelle listened until the music ended. “That’s what we need right now…angels,” opined Michelle.

“That’s what Ramona needs” corrected Julie.

The music stopped, and Michelle suggested “Let’s go to church…Redemption Baptist is right down the street.”

“Good idea,” agreed Julie. ““That’s the church whose choir sang at work today! Maybe they can help. Even if they can’t, we can at least get a free dinner.”

The girls put on heavy coats and scarves, locked the door, and walked into the night.

***

Julie and Michelle stepped from the cold dark street into the warm light of the church. They slipped into the back row, hoping to escape notice. Julie was surprised to see the police officer who had pulled her over earlier in the day sitting next to her. He smiled.

“Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright…” the choir sang.

The pastor stood and welcomed the group. Our church choir had a busy afternoon, and we hope this potluck conveys our thanks, both to choir members and guests. Before we eat, we need to remember what Christmas is really about. The pastor opened the Bible sitting on the pulpit and began to read.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

“Now let us continue the Christmas story.”

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

“And now let us complete the Christmas story. The baby who was born on Christmas grew to adulthood and lived a perfect life. His name was Jesus, and He was called Christ, the Messiah, because He was God’s chosen one. Jesus taught the unlearned, fed the hungry, and healed the sick. He performed many mighty miracles to prove His identify. Wicked and jealous men, religious leaders, had Him executed on trumped up charges in a quick political killing. He died as a sacrifice for the sins of all men and women who had ever lived, or ever would live. But that was not the end. The Apostle Paul writes…”

Christian brothers, I want to tell the Good News to you again. It is the same as I preached to you before. You received it and your faith has been made strong by it. This is what I preached to you. You are saved from the punishment of sin by the Good News if you keep hold of it, unless your faith was worth nothing.

First of all, I taught you what I had received. It was this: Christ died for our sins as the Holy Writings said He would. Christ was buried. He was raised from the dead three days later as the Holy Writings said He would.

Julie concentrated intensely on every word. Something was different about this place, and something was stirring in her soul. The police officer smiled at her again, and Julie felt no anger. Instead, she felt a spirit that she had never known before. What does this mean, and what about Invictus?

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.

“Miss, would you and your friend like to join my family and I for dinner?”

Roused from her thoughts, Julie recognized the smiling face of the policeman who had pulled her over earlier.

“We brought lasagna with Italian bread and a Caesar salad” the man continued, “and my wife is a fantastic cook.”

Julie hesitated but Michelle answered for them both. “Sure.”

The group found a table, and Julie and the policeman began to talk while the others stood in line for dinner.

“What did the pastor mean when he said that ‘Jesus died for the sins of men, and rose again?’” For the next hour, Julie and the policeman had one of the most intense conversations of their lives, while the others had a delightful chat. Finally, it was time to go.

Michelle and Julie stepped out of the church, back into the cold December evening to walk the half-mile back to school. Michelle jabbered on, but Julie’s mind was full of thoughts.

My scroll of punishments, my sin, is charged with many, many, punishments. But Jesus took them. He paid the price. Jesus’ paid the price for Ramona’s pride, and later her despair. He paid the price for Harriet’s adultery, and for Alice, Pam’s, and Michelle’s iniquities. Jesus took the wickedness of the whole world on Himself. His blood washed away forever the blackness of their sins.

Maybe Invictus should end like this:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
Jesus Christ is the master of my fate:
Jesus Christ is the captain of my soul.

A Witness Carol

In his famous work, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens told the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly businessman who learned the true meaning of Christmas. Three important characters in the transformation of Scrooge from sinner to saint were the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future.

The book of Hebrews is written by a Jewish believer to several Jewish attendees at a Christian church in the first century, some of whom followed Jesus and others who probably did not. Due to increasing persecution, the Jews in this church seemed to be wavering in their commitment to the Lord. The purpose was to encourage these people to renew their Christian commitment. In Hebrews 11 the writer reminded his readers of some of the greatest men and women in Hebrew history, noting that they completed their life-race in service to God, and reassuring his audience that they would as well. Hebrews 12 remarked that these heroes of old form a great crowd of witnesses which would help contemporary saints stay faithful to the Lord. The focus of the race is Jesus Christ, the length is our life, and the plan is to finish together.

What was true in the first century Roman Empire is true today; Christians are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses helping them to complete their race. I was driving north on 395 towards DC a few weeks ago and was thinking about our church. There is good teaching, but people need more than knowledge about living for Jesus, they need power. Hebrews 11 and 12 discuss the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds each believer as he walks along the journey of life. This cloud gives believers power to live for Jesus. Our cloud of witnesses gives us power through:

  1. teaching and example
  2. resources in the physical world
  3. encouragement
  4. fellowship
  5. accountability
  6. bearing one another’s burdens

Many people are in our cloud of witnesses, and we are in the cloud of witnesses for many others. There are three types of witnesses in our cloud, Witnesses Past (those leave the world before we enter it), Witnesses Present (those who are in the world at least partly in the same time that we are), and Witnesses Future (those who enter the world after we leave it). There is one other category, Witnesses to Others, because while others may be witnesses past, present or future to us, we are the same to them. We need to prayerfully consider how we serve those roles in the lives of those around us.

Witnesses Past

Too often we read the Bible only from our own perspective, as 21st century AD Westerners looking over the shoulders of 10th century BC Middle Easterners. In our better moments we read it (as best we can) from the point of view of the recipients, as 10th century BC Middle Easterners. Occasionally we try to grasp the perspective of characters in the story, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, and their relationships to each other.

To Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph fell into the “witnesses past” category. He would never have been in Egypt had Abraham not left Ur to journey to Palestine and Joseph served God faithfully after being sold as a slave to Potiphar. Moses was able to accomplish all of his amazing work in establishing Israel as a nation because Abraham followed God from Ur to Haran and Joseph followed him into success in Egypt.

Moses was a “witness past” to everyone in 11:32. As the leader of the Exodus and the Lawgiver, he influenced Israel in their path towards God in countless ways. The judges could not have defended Israel if Moses had not led the people out of Egypt nor could David have ruled as her king. If we consider how Moses, and all of these people, spoke after their deaths, as Abel did in 11:4:

How can we speak after our earthly death?

  1. Our teachings speak through whatever we say and write.
  2. Our example speaks in the lives of anyone who has seen us live, whether our biological descendants or others we have influenced. This is especially true if we are written about.
  3. Our work speaks through the institutions that we have influenced.
  4. Our decisions speak to those who follow us by directly influencing them.
  5. Our body speaks in the Better Country.

Witnesses past include family members who went to glory before we were born. They also include great Christian thinkers, leaders, preachers and writers from yesteryear. When I ask audiences who they would include as Witnesses Past, many mention great grandparents, famous writers such as C.S Lewis, and famous preachers such as Charles Spurgeon. Others note William Wilberforce and Martin Luther. None of these men were perfect, but they all assisted contemporaries and descendants as they ran their race to Christ.

Your cloud includes people who are walking with you, but also includes those who have gone before. How have you received help in your Christian race from those who have gone before you in your cloud?

  1. Who have you known that has had the greatest impact on your Christian life?
  2. Name someone who you have not known, who died before you were born but is not in the Bible, who has had a great impact on your Christian life.
  3. What did they do for you? (Teaching, example, resources, encouragement, fellowship, accountability, bearing burdens, something else?).
  4. Do you recognize all of the ways in which these people helped you to win in your race towards Christ?

There is another way in which Witnesses Past help us succeed in our race toward Christ. Sometimes understanding the Bible is difficult because the gulf between the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean basin and the modern Western World is too great. Rather to trying to jump the cultural, linguistic, temporal and geographic chasms between America in the 21st century AD and Mesopotamia in the 21st century BC, for example, we may have more success if we break our study into steps. When faced with a cryptic passage in Romans, for example, we may first review the work of Matthew Henry (17th century AD), then Thomas Aquinas (13th century), then Augustine (4th century) and finally Romans itself (1st century). Often members of our cloud of witnesses who lived in the past can illuminate our questions today.

Witnesses Present

The writer of Hebrews used ancient heroes in Hebrew history to encourage his readers, but many of the people in the list were “witnesses present” to each other. Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac lived at the same time as a family and encouraged each other towards godliness (11:8-12). Abram and Sarai shared fellowship and encouragement on the long road from Ur to Haran and then to Canaan. She followed Abram faithfully as he obeyed God’s leading. He provided resources from the flocks and she used them to meet the needs of their family and servants. When they made foolish decisions, such as when Abram lied about Sarai being his wife and Sarai gave her handmaiden Hagar as a concubine to her husband, they endured.

In our lives, Witnesses Present may include our families, our friends, our parents, contemporary Christian writers, pastors, and other leaders, and many others. They teach us, exemplify right behavior, encourage us, give us fellowship, hold us accountable, and bear our burdens. Sometimes the Lord brings people into our lives just once to encourage us, protect us, and otherwise serve Him. We may never see these people again on this side of heaven, but they are important members of our cloud of witnesses at that time.

Who is in your current cloud of “witnesses present”? How have they helped you in your race towards Christ? Have you thanked them? How do you need them to help you in your race towards Christ? Have you asked them? Gratitude is one of the most important Christian virtues; are you grateful for your Witnesses Present?

Witnesses Future

The readers of the book of Hebrews would recognize the great prophets of old such as Elijah, Elisha and Isaiah in Hebrews 11:33-38. In Israelite tradition, young men would ask such great prophets to teach them and gather together into schools of prophecy (Hebrews 6:1-7). Such Men of God would thus mentor younger men, literally becoming part of their cloud of witnesses as they helped each other in the faith.

Military leadership training highlights the importance of mentorship, both formal and informal. Young officers are told to seek leaders that they respect to mentor them in the art of war. Young men of yesteryear would find skilled craftsmen and ask to be their apprentice so that they could learn a trade.

Who are people in your life that you would like to be more involved in your cloud of witnesses? These are people that might mentor you in the faith.

Who are people in your life that you would like to be a greater part of their cloud of witnesses? These are people that you might mentor in the faith.

How should you approach them? What should you say? Do you have space in your life for them? Do they have space in their lives for you? Even if they cannot give you time, what can you learn from their example? What about their writings or other works?

Another question is what should you give up to make space in your life to improve your cloud of witnesses? Are there bad activities? Are there good activities that take time away from the best activities? Are you taking care of your physical body, including getting good sleep, healthy food, and plenty of exercise? Psalm 101:3-4 says “I will set no wicked thing before my eyes…a perverse heart shall depart from me”, implying that even family or friends, if they insist on practicing evil, should lose their influence on you, though you continue to care for and pray for them.

Witnesses for Others

The heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 thought of the future as well as the present and the past (11:20-22). They had an eye to what their sons would do, both returning to Canaan and following God as a mighty nation when the time came. They blessed their children through teaching/example, resources, encouragement, fellowship, accountability, and bearing burdens, but they also blessed them by guiding them in what they needed to do in the future. Thus they recognized that while others were in their cloud of witnesses, they were in others cloud of witnesses, and these great men intentionally helped them.

Who are you in the cloud of witnesses for? Whose witness should you be? How are you helping them in their race towards Christ? How should you be? If you are a mentor to others, do you have a special time and place set aside for them? There is an inexpensive restaurant near my house that I use for meetings and mentoring. My preferred time is 0700 on Saturday mornings, early enough that my family is still asleep and I don’t take time away from them.

Conclusion

The Christian life was never meant to be lived alone. It was never meant to be lived only with people of your own age, and it was never meant to be lived only with people in your generation. The cloud of witnesses that helps each believer extends from time immemorial in the past to eternity in the future. As we focus on Jesus throughout the race of our lives, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. Even on earth, witnesses past, present and future help us in our walk towards our God.

The Inevitable Incarnation

In 1819 using a razor and glue, the former American President Thomas Jefferson, one of the most brilliant men of his age, cut and pasted passages of the New Testament to create The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, popularly known as the Jefferson Bible. Jefferson’s Bible removed all of the miracles of Jesus, most mentions of the supernatural, the Resurrection, and all mentions of His divinity. In a letter to William Short (1820), Jefferson wrote that “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” Thomas Jefferson clearly regarded the man Jesus as a great moral teacher, but rejected the concept of Jesus as God.

He was not alone. The Koran teaches that Allah has no son, and that those who believe that he does will be destroyed. Many critics throughout history have lauded Jesus for his moral example but lambasted early Christians for making him God. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of Christianity; without Him Christianity could not exist. At the same time, Jesus is the stumbling block of Christianity; the gospel as written in the New Testament is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Islam teaches that Allah spoke to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel in a cave on Mount Hira (610 AD), reciting the teachings that would later become of Koran. Buddhism holds that Gautama achieved enlightenment through meditation sitting under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India (c. 528 BC). Mormonism insists that Joseph Smith received the revelation of God on golden plates delivered by the angel Moroni (1823). Judaism affirms that God inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets on Mount Sinai and gave them personally to Moses (Exodus 31:18), providing the rest of the Law through subsequent revelation. Many other religions have similar stories; that a special human received divine guidance which he subsequently used to found a religion.

Jesus is unique. He did not claim to be a man who transmitted the word of God, He claimed to be God (John 8:58-59) and Man who was the Word of God. There is no record of Jesus receiving golden plates, stone tablets, words in a cave or under a tree, coming down from heaven. The extant record states that Jesus Himself came down from heaven. Religious prophets throughout time have said “follow these teachings and you will be right with God” while Jesus metaphorically said “eat my flesh and drink my blood (John 6:29-58)” and “if you have seen Me, you have seen God (the Father) (John 14:9-11).” Jesus’ enemies knew His claims, and hated Him for them (John 5:18).

Jesus claimed to be God Incarnate; God in human flesh. His claims were unlike any other religious leader in history, and these claims were either true or false. If true, then Jesus really was the Son of God and God the Son; fully human and fully divine. If His claims were false then He either knew that they were false or He did not. If Jesus knew that His claims were false and made them anyway then He was a terrible deceiver, not a great prophet and moral teacher. He was also a fool because His claims cost Him His life. If He did not know that His claims were false then He was crazy. In this case also, He could not have been a great prophet or moral teacher. We are left with a dilemma. Jesus could not have been merely a prophet or great moral teacher, as Mohammed and Buddha were reputed to be. He was either God, unspeakably evil, or insane.

Another question arises. Every other religion posits an enlightened human leader, but Christianity requires an incarnation of the divine. Not an incarnation in the sense that Zeus became a swan to seduce Leda, Queen of Sparta, but an incarnation of the One God: All Knowing, All Loving and All Powerful. Not an incarnation of the temporal gods of the polytheist traditions, who themselves sprang from the primal matter and energy of the universe, but an incarnation of the eternal God who created the primal matter and energy of the universe. Such a thought is almost offensive to the thinking man, and it is no wonder so many people oppose it. Nonetheless, this Incarnation is the central tenet of Christianity. The next question is…why was an incarnation necessary? Taking the claims of the Bible at face value, just as with the Koran and other religious texts, this article will address that question.

Share Information

Gabriel met with Mohammad to share God’s teachings, the same reason that Moroni met with Joseph Smith and Jehovah met with Moses. The information was contained in language and stored in a physical medium, whether written recitations, golden plates or stone tablets. The knowledge that could be transmitted was limited by the language involved and the physical properties of the chosen medium, such as size. While extra-biblical texts suggest that Mohammad and Smith might be good role models, none claim that they were perfect, much less divine, and even less an incarnation of the One God.

Jesus, according to Biblical testimony the Incarnation of the Divine, broke the mold. Whereas Moses and Mohammad could only report on what God said, Jesus’ every word and His every action revealed God. He was the perfect example of how God would react in everyday situations faced by humans, because He was God and Man. As John wrote, the incarnation provided so much information about God that the world could not hold all the books that could be written about Jesus (John 21:25). It had to be that way, because God is totally different from man and we need as much information as we can get to know Him. Furthermore since we can only understand Him by analogy to human experience, we had to see God in human experience to translate His nature into our lives. The gospels show the work of the eternal God who voluntarily limited Himself in space and time. Several hundred pages could not provide man all that he needed to know about God, the most foreign of all personages. Further, if the Almighty is interested not merely that man holds a certain set of beliefs but that he acts in a certain way, He must show him, not just tell him, what to do.

A skeptic might protest that though Jesus’ life revealed legions about Him, moderns have only the Bible, a long book to be sure but still a small glance at Him. While a valid point, the issue is not so much the amount of knowledge but the type of knowledge. While other texts are heavy in rules, the gospels are heavy in stories. While other holy books mention battles and political domination, the New Testament mentions day to day struggles of regular, usually unremarkable, people. If the wholly-other God were trying to tell mortal man how to live, coming to earth and living among them would be the most logical way to do it.

Therefore, the first reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share information with man.

Share Suffering

Suffering and death are inevitable parts of human existence. Religions handle these realities different, with some such as Buddhism denying their reality and others such as Islam telling their adherents to submit to suffering and death now because paradise is coming. Suffering among the gods in polytheistic religions was common, such as when the storm-god Baal was “killed” by the sea-god Yam in the Canaanite mythology or when the chief of gods Osiris was “killed” by the underworld god Set in the Egyptian mythology. However, suffering in these traditions was due to rivalry between deities, not suffering for the sins of mankind. In Islamic tradition, Allah, like the god of Aristotle, is beyond suffering. In ancient Hebrew tradition, however, which is the soil out of which Christianity grew, Jehovah suffered for His people, as seen in the example of Hosea.

In the Christian faith, man suffers, but God suffers far more. Each person suffers a certain amount in his or her life and then the suffering ends at death. God, however, bears all of the suffering for each person who has ever lived. He does it directly as noted in the Old Testament, and even more directly in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus bore all of the suffering and all of the sin for everyone. One amazing thing about the gospel is that while we suffer, our Creator suffers with us, and ultimately He suffers more. As preposterous and even offensive as it sounds, the God who holds the universe together suffered and even died for the rebellious creatures He made.

However the mystery here is even deeper. Man is inherently wicked in his moral nature and therefore predisposed to sin. Since the inevitable result of sin is suffering and death, man is destined to suffer throughout his life and ultimately die. To completely understand and completely share in the human experience, God would also have to suffer and die, even though He would do so without sin. In fact, Hebrews 2:10 teaches that Jesus Christ was made complete through His suffering and death. What a mind bending thought! Jesus was God Incarnate, with every attribute of the Father in its fullest extent, and yet He had to suffer to be the Savior of Man, and was thereby made complete.

Therefore, the second reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share suffering with man.

Share Salvation

In most religions people are given a list of things to do to attain salvation, often including praying, giving money to the poor, or going on a pilgrimage. There are also moral rules or standards of conduct, which adherents must follow. These standards are communicated by the deity to the prophet and then to the people, whose standing in the religion and ultimate destiny is determined by how well they follow the rules.

Two assumptions underlie this process. The first is that the people want to follow God and the second is that the people are able to follow God. To meet these assumptions mankind has to be morally good; not perfect, but good. He also has to be competent enough in himself to understand physical as well as spiritual truth.

Christianity makes neither of these assumptions, largely because of the Hebrew experience. In the Torah, Moses clearly laid out the blessings that would come when the Hebrews followed Jehovah (Deuteronomy 28) and the curses that would come when they did not (Deuteronomy 27). Nonetheless, the history of Israel was by and large a history of man failing to meet God’s standards and ultimately rejecting Him.

Rather than relying on man to secure his own salvation, the Christian faith relies on God. Since He is utterly holy and man is not, there can be no association between God and man. For man to encounter the fiery holiness of the Lord in his weak and sinful state is to face inevitable annihilation, as the Hebrews perceived on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:18-19). Man no more wants to encounter the real God than he wants to march into the sun. For the relationship between humanity and God to be restored, men had to live a life of perfect righteousness. No one can do this, so God Himself became a man and did what mere man could not. The Lord had to hide the power of His glory in human flesh, live a sinless life, suffer and die. Furthermore God took all of the sin in history upon Himself and paid the logical price…death. In doing so as a man God enabled men to transfer their sin, and its penalty, to Jesus, to know Him and to believe in Him as they could never before. Because Jesus rose from the dead, all those who believe in Him will rise also.

Therefore, the third reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share salvation with man.

Share the Spirit

Most religions do not have a concept of the trinity, in which God eternally exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore the Christian concept of the Spirit of God dwelling in man does not exist in other faiths. In the ancient Hebrew religion the Spirit of God indwelt people for a time but departed when they chose evil, such as Samson (Judges 14:6 cf. 16:20) and Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).

Christianity is different. The New Testament teaches that the Spirit of God dwells in believers forever, beginning the moment that they accept Christ. Why could the Spirit do that now when He could not before? Recall that God cannot coexist with sin; His very nature snuffs out sin in His presence. When man still bore his own sin, such as the ancient times, the Spirit could not abide in man. When Jesus took the sin of man, the man had no sin, and the Spirit of God could abide there. Only once Christ had cleansed man from his sin could the Holy Spirit come and live within him. This does not mean that believers in Christ do not sin but rather that their sin is imputed to Jesus Christ and in the judgment of the Father, they are clean.

Therefore, the fourth reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share God’s Holy Spirit with man.

Conclusion

The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the foundation of Christianity, and yet it is also one of the greatest obstacles to others accepting Christianity. It is literally a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Nonetheless it was the only way that God could restore the relationship between Himself and man which had been broken by the first sin in the Garden of Eden.

For all his insight, Thomas Jefferson could not see that Jesus of Nazareth could never have been just a moral teacher, and he could not see that man by his nature needed more than instructions and willpower to be reconciled with God. Man needed God to become man and restore fellowship. Therefore, however mysterious, once God decided to redeem man, the incarnation became inevitable.