Though much more could be said, in the previous two posts I have tried to lay out some basic defining points for true Biblical prophecy – some from the linguistic analysis of the terms translated as ‘prophet’ and some from Scripture passages describing prophecy, warning about false prophets, etc. As I have laid them out;
*The prophet must be given a clear vision of God’s will for a time/situation,
* The subject matter of the vision must be ‘weighty’ (non-trivial) enough to constitute a ‘burden’,
*The prophetic message must create sufficient internal pressure that it must ‘flow forth’.
*Prophecy is a public rather than a private enterprise.
*Prophecy is for the sake of the already believing community rather than a more evangelistic endeavor.
*The prophetic message must be consistent with what God has already said.
*The prophet’s conduct (though no prophet is perfect) must be definable as ‘good fruit’.
*Any predictions made by the prophet must prove to be accurate.
All this said, distinguishing a ‘true’ prophet can still be difficult. And our own desires often get in the way. Consider the ministry of the prophet, Jeremiah. Jeremiah had a prophetic competitor named Hannaniah. The two preached exactly opposite messages. Jeremiah prophesied the coming Babylonian captivity. Hannaniah prophesied that no such captivity would occur. The two prophets had different takes on the reliability of Egypt. The people and the king(s) had to choose between the two competing prophetic messages. It is easy, in retrospect, to identify Jeremiah as the true prophet. The Babylonian Captivity happened and lasted precisely as long as Jeremiah foretold. I suspect at the time it seemed less clear. Even after the first two waves of captives were taken away, as long as Jerusalem stood, the captives in Babylon were not minded to hear the prophetic word of their fellow captive, Ezekiel. Of course, they might have heard Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Hannaniah and simply asked which agreed with the accepted earlier prophetic word of Isaiah. But, as I say, our desires get in the way – cloud our vision. Never think that we are immune to such effects.
So, rather than expand the criteria for recognizing a true prophet I will rehearse a story already known to one degree or another by most and let you draw your own conclusions.
In 1958 a young Pennsylvania preacher by name of David Wilkerson became acquainted with the murder trial of seven young Hispanic New York gang members. Wilkerson felt certain that God wanted him to do something to ‘help those boys.’ He got some time off from his congregation and rushed to New York to attend the ongoing trial. As a recess was called, Wilkerson tried to go to the front of the courtroom to ask the judge for permission to visit the defendants. Wilkerson was unaware of death threats against the Judge or appropriate extra security measures! The next days New York Daily News featured a great photo of Wilkerson being hauled off to jail. He never got to meet or help those seven individual young men – he also never resumed pastoring the PA congregation. Rather, he took to preaching to other gang members on the streets of New York. He raised money and founded a ‘house’ where gang members could come to get off drugs, get off the streets in cold weather, get a meal, receive counseling, etc. The rules were strict. Troubled youth worked if they wanted to eat. Drug rehab was strictly cold turkey. The first step in resolving legal conflicts was to go to the police and make a full confession. No services were received without the necessity to hear religious teachings.
To the surprise of many, Wilkerson had remarkable success. The ‘house’ became ‘Teen Challenge’ and sprouted chapters all over the world. Out of this ministry came the book and the movie – The Cross and the Switchblade – and the lifelong ministry of evangelist Nicky Cruz (played in the movie by Erik Estrada). Wilkerson gained international fame – and a fair chunk of personal wealth in the form of royalties from the movie and over forty books he would author moving forward. It needs to be said right here than Wilkerson never confused ministry money with personal money and is one of those rare ‘big timers’ among ministers for whom there was never a hint of scandal financial, sexual, or otherwise. Wilkerson came to like fancy cars, expensive shoes and very nice homes but they were all purchased with his personal wealth – not ministry funds – and he still gave away as much of his personal money as he kept.
As Teen Challenge became a HUGE international organization, Wilkerson discovered that he didn’t like administering huge international organizations. He just wanted to preach! So he turned Teen Challenge over to one of his associates and took off for California in 1970. The ministry he envisioned on the west coast did not materialize as Wilkerson developed, of all things, a terrible fear of flying. He was still in demand all over the country (and internationally) as a speaker. In 1971 he moved to Dallas, Texas from where it was easier to operate his Bible Belt travelling schedule in a bus! He also developed in Texas what he meant to do in California – the Twin Oaks Ranch for Boys. This ministry also found great success until Wilkerson found he was spending more time with architects and accountants than with the Lord. He sold the ranch to YWAM for a fraction of its worth, built a new home and started World Challenge – mostly writing books. Later, Wilkerson would withdraw his own support from five of his own books saying he head foolishly written them to raise money rather than as the result of a mandate from God.
Over the first three years of World Challenge, Wilkerson shifted from ‘preaching’ to ‘prophecy’ – feeling that he had been given a prophetic burden. This is where the rubber hits the road for this blog post. In 1973 his prophetic burden ‘flowed forth’ in a book called – The Vision. (Talk about hitting the points!) He predicted that at an unspecified date in the ‘near future’ America would enter a terrible tribulation. Predictions included,
*Roller coaster pricing for precious metals that would wipe out fortunes.
*Expansive union busting by the government.
*Bankruptcy for almost every large American corporation.
*The death of American agriculture.
*The exhausting of American food reserves.
* Continent wide famine in Africa.
*An explosion of pornography.
*The worst earthquake in American history.
*The legalization of Marijuana.
*Roving bands of homosexuals assaulting citizens publicly on the streets.
In addition to the predictions, Wilkerson denounced ‘contemporary Christian Music and musicians as back-sliders singing ‘rock & roll born in the womb of the devil’ and almost all televangelists as ‘Prosperity Gospel Hucksters’. He named several prominent televangelists by name. He had almost as unkind words for most of the non-televised church services in America. He called TVs in general the ‘Babylonian Idiot Box’ and an ‘idol’.
Former fans and supporting congregations could hardly abandon Wilkerson fast enough. World Challenge – his prophetic ministry – became his first ministry endeavor not to result in explosive success. He conducted ‘Call to Repentance’ seminars which drew a few hundred at a time – as opposed to the thousands and tens of thousands of days gone by for Wilkerson. His numerical few but hard-core supporters christened Wilkerson ‘America’s Jeremiah’.
But Wilkerson lost even many of those devoted followers with his 1985 release of the book, Set the Trumpet to Thy Mouth. In this prophetic work, Wilkerson identified America as the Babylon of the book of Revelation and forecasted that God was forging a hammer in Moscow for our destruction. His prediction was fairly specific. Russia would launch a first strike over the North Pole. Our missiles, perhaps due to the hand of God, would never leave their silos. We would be wiped out in a single hour. Again, Wilkerson did not name a date other than ‘the near future’. In discussions outside the printed book he flirted with 1996 as, he considered, the close of sabbath week of millennia.
Shortly, after almost everyone abandoned the World Challenge ministry, Wilkerson received the call from God to return to New York, This post is already getting a little long and I have hit the portion of Wilkerson’s career appropriate to the question at hand. So, I will leave to you to research the Times Square Church ministry if you are interested. Wilkerson died in an automobile accident in 2011. His final blog post, titled – When All Means Fail – relays a message profitable to us all.
I have done my best to apply what I see as the Biblical criteria for prophecy to Wilkerson’s ministry. I will not, at this time, share my conclusions – tentative as they are. I would be happy to discuss points any of you may raise. But for the moment I simply ask you – David Wilkerson, prophet or not?
Is ‘prophecy still active in the church and if so, how do we recognize it? Those are the questions I began with on the previous post. As explained in that post, analyzing the Biblical vocabulary leads me to a baseline definition for ‘prophecy’ –
A public exercise for the sake of those who already believe, carried out by one who has been given a clear vision of God’s plan for a situation or time (often including predictions of the future) and to whom the message is weighty enough to be called a burden, possessed of sufficient internal pressure that it must flow forth and, where predictions are concerned – 100% accurate.
I will now add a point to this baseline definition by considering I John 4:1-3.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God; and every Spirit that does not confess Jesus is from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist. Of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
And I Corinthians 14:37-39
If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.
Both passages obviously have relevance in terms of ‘qualifying’ a prophet. In both passages it is necessary to take the words in their larger context to gain a fuller understanding. In I John, John is concerned with three points about Jesus Christ – each of which is presented as non-negotiable in the course of the letter. That is to say that one cannot be considered a Christian if they do not agree that –
In I Corinthians 14, Paul is finishing a discussion about the work of the Holy Spirit in the church: the manner in which the Spirit dispenses gifts, the manner in which the gifts work/work together and the manner in which the gifts are to be ‘recognized’ or ‘carried out’ in the life of the church. It is this, I believe, Paul insists the prospective prophet must agree to. If a prophet does not recognize the source of his/her gift, uses the gift in a way that does not compliment the gifts of other Christians, does not bring about the common good, does not maintain proper order, etc. – If one calling himself a prophet fails to exercise his/her gift according to these points Paul has laid out, perhaps goes so far as to say the points themselves are invalid – such an ‘alleged prophet’ is not to be recognized.
There are a other passages in this vein – Deuteronomy 13:1-4, Isaiah 8:20, etc. Taking them all together, I draw a conclusion. God, who sees the end from the beginning is never surprised by developments and thus, never contradicts Himself. A prophet – given a clear vision of God’s will and plan for a specific situation or time – operating by the Spirit of God – will not contradict God either. If we have decided that God has spoken through Scripture, we cannot accept any prophet (or an angel from heaven either) who offers a message contradicting what God has already said.
A prophet cannot contradict Scripture on the nature or office of Jesus Christ. A prophet cannot contradict Scripture on the nature or exercise of Spiritual gifts – like prophecy! A prophet may well speak a ‘new’ word as John – in that same first epistle offered ‘new’ commandments. But those new commandments are not a contradiction of anything God has already said – rather a fulfillment of previous commandments. Love was always the essence of the law and Jesus was always the essence of prophecy. The new commandments are simply to love one another and believe what God has said about Jesus.
So, yes, a prophet may well issue a new word for a new situation but the new word will not contradict what God has previously said. Rather, the new word will more fully apply what God has previously said to the current situation. The new word may call for a new and more radical obedience to what God has already said. But the new word will never legitimately proclaim – God has changed His mind! Adultery is ok now – so give me your daughters.
Add to this Matthew 7:15-20
Beware of all false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles are they? So, every good tree bears good fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruit.
Not only must the prophet’s message not contradict what God has already said, the prophet’s life must not contradict it either. I am quick to note that, aside from Jesus, there are no morally perfect prophets. God worked with Jonah despite his obvious need for an attitude adjustment and God met Elijah’s bout of suicidal depression head on. But neither Jonah nor Elijah (nor Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Zechariah, etc.) lived lives defined by drunkenness, gluttony, sexual immorality, deception, or exploitation.
So, we add another point to the definition – the Prophet speaking for God will not, by the message spoken or the lifestyle lived, contradict what God has previously said. David Koresh (were he still living) is no more a prophet than Harold Camping.
There is still more to be said – another post?!?
For our Sunday evening adult Bible Study I’ve been taking questions and doing my best to provide – if not answers, at least insight. One question concerned whether ‘prophecy’ is still a function of modern Christianity and if so, what does it look like. My methodology always begins with a linguistic definition of the term. We all carry ideas of what words mean but we often find, upon examination, that our ideas are a little hazy. It is crucial for us to understand what Biblical prophecy is and isn’t before we start to include or exclude any prospective modern examples. But very few tasks are as simple as we’d like them to be. We have to look at the various words from the languages of the Bible (especially the Old Testament) which we translate as ‘prophet’ and decide whether all those words are really talking about the same thing. If our English translations have conflated different ideas into a single term, the difficulty of our task multiplies exponentially. Accordingly, in this vocabulary study I will examine only such terms as are applied to several different individuals we would recognize as ‘prophets’.
What would prophecy look like today?
*A public as opposed to private exercise
*An exercise for the sake of those who already believe rather than a more evangelistic enterprise
*A heavy or weighty ministry – carried as something of a burden
*A message/ministry planted by God inside the prophet and possessed of sufficient internal pressure that it must be delivered (flow forth)
*A ministry by one who has been given to see a clear vision (of the future or of the present situation) and must communicate that vision to those who cannot or will not see.
Note: this is the beginning, not the end of a methodology for defining and recognizing prophecy. But – the better we can define what we’re looking for, the more likely we are to recognize it when we see it and the less likely we are to be fooled by counterfeits. I may return to this topic in a future blog. In the meantime, I will add only one question and one statement.
Question: What would be the differences between ‘prophecy’ and ‘preaching’?
Statement: If an alleged prophet makes a prediction – it had better come true and there is no batting 500. Harold Camping is out.
The price of scrap is up! For the last few loads I have taken in, general scrap brought $180 per ton (9 cents per pound). Naturally, appliance is a little less, prepared steel a little more, electric motors a little more yet, and following the scale up through, low grade copper wire, power chords, various grades of aluminum, radiators, batteries, brass, and copper till you hit number 1 clean copper at upwards of $3.00 per pound. So, a little load I took in today (only 840 pounds of scrap, 1 electric motor, several bags of aluminum cans and a bucket of cleaned brass) netted $144. This may not sound terribly exciting to you but not so long ago that same load would have brought no more than $40 – most of that from the brass. When the pandemic impacted industry negatively and piled that on top of our trade difficulties with China, the price of general scrap fell to $30 per ton – all the other prices indexed accordingly. For what it’s worth, the highest prices I have seen over the years (right before the cash for clunkers program came along and flooded the scrap market) was $235 per ton or just short of 12 cents per pound.
As we are not able to store large amounts of scrap at the church and we didn’t want to suspend the program, we never stopped taking it in (except for when the scrap yards closed entirely!) It is always harder to revive a ministry that stopped. While neither I nor the Corps of Scrap Dummies (they chose that name for themselves) are the type to object to hard work, I can tell you that it is considerably less fun to take scrap in at $30 per ton than it is at $180 per ton! I mean, we believe in keeping materials out of the landfills and in helping people get rid of unwanted metal items, but there is just something about rewards.
I object to the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ in the strongest possible terms. The point of Jesus’ atoning death and hope filled resurrection was not to fatten my pocketbook. I do not mean to say that God is unconcerned with the prosperity of His people. But I cannot find the promise that we should all be millionaires and I can find the warnings about the dangers of being millionaires (needles eyes, bigger barns, treasure/heart co-location et al). But my objections to the Prosperity Gospel do not at all mean that I miss the Biblical emphasis on rewards. Like when Jesus preached to the poor and persecuted about how great their reward would be in heaven or to the humble givers about how even a cup of water given in His name would not lose its reward. Or, as per Revelation 11:18 – when the time comes at last to reward the bond servants of God.
I know the promises about the righteous not begging for bread but there’s a lot of territory between not having to beg for bread because you can’t work or can’t find work and being independently wealthy past the need of having to work at all! And somewhere in there, peace and love and righteousness must be reckoned as reward enough for the time at hand and eternal life in the world to come as more than just recompence for all.
I am not complaining about people who have money and I truly admire those who can have great wealth without it ruining their spirit. More, I greatly appreciate the ministry many have made possible by their wealth. Nor was I just whistling Dixie when I said it was more fun to take in scrap at $180 per ton that at $30 per ton. But we never quit taking in scrap. In the end, whatever passes before then, I will be thrilled just to hear – ‘Well done thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joys of thy master.’
I have always loved trees. In my childhood, much to the dismay of the adult population in general, I loved to climb trees. What else were they there for?! Well, as it turned out, adults had funny ideas about the answers to that question. They valued trees for such silly reasons as –
Right up into my young adult years, I never saw a tree I didn’t want to climb – all the way to the top if possible. There was this tall tulip tree on the high ground of our farm and when you got way up to the top you could look down on all the buildings, the county road and the tops of the trees in the lower woodlot all while swaying pleasantly in the breeze! There were some catalpas in my maternal grandparents front yard which measured the years of my growing by how far up into them I could get at the time. There were many other individual trees I could mention but you get the picture.
The problem, as hinted at in the opening paragraph of this post, was escaping adult supervision. Almost every really good climbing tree grew in the territory of an adult who would end up standing on the ground below LOUDLY insisting that I get down before I fell and killed my fool self – a thing I never did. Well, obviously, I never killed myself. But I never fell either. I have never fallen out of a tree. I have always thought that if I should fall out of a tree and hit the ground, someone else would have to climb back up and retrieve my fingers because they would still be up there gripping bark. I have one aunt – who didn’t even own the stupid tree – who would nevertheless stand below with an egg turner insisting I come down so she could whip me for climbing the tree in the first place. I never found that to be extremely strong motivation for coming down and, it turned out I was correct in thinking my aunt was not, despite her threats to the contrary, coming up to get me.
I will jump to the end for a moment and say that at age 63 I don’t climb as many trees – though it is not yet out of the question – and, I admit, I have come to love and value trees for all those adult reasons that seemed so meaningless to me back then. But along the way to my current position, there was a definite turning point. About the time I turned 14, adults (at least a certain class of them) seemed to change their minds about the advisability of my climbing trees. And those (mostly of the female persuasion) who still considered tree climbing dubious, at least let their forbiddings settle down to forebodings – by which I mean they might stand by and fuss and wring their hands and predict imminent death, but they quit howling for me to get down out of the tree.
If I lost you, let me clarify. Say a tree needed trimming or topping. Or, say a tree needed felling but it needed cabled first so it could be pulled away from a house, fence, power line, etc. Or, say there was an old-fashioned pear tree with fruit growing well out of reach from the ground. If the adults affected by these or other similar circumstances didn’t have immediate access to a bucket truck, they needed someone to CLIMB THE TREE. They needed someone who wasn’t afraid to climb way up to the top or shinny way out on a high limb. They often needed someone sure enough of himself in a tree that he could hang on with one hand while working a hand saw with the other. They needed someone who could climb trailing at least a light line which could be used to haul heavier cables or chains up to the fastening point. My popularity in this capacity lasted decades. It is only in the last couple of years that I have pretty much given it up. The last tree of any size I climbed, topped, cabled and felled was a sixty-foot fir at a restaurant owned by friends. The tree was crowded between a street, power lines, buildings and the restaurant sign with only one possible path for safely falling and it needed to be topped before it was short enough for that path. I attracted much attention on that occasion from passersby on the city street – all the females in the cars no doubt taking up the old pastime of writing my obituary in advance.
I have been a river rat almost all my life. One of the keener memories from my early childhood stems from the thousand or so times our family drove across the White River bridge entering Martinsville, IN (the county seat and nearest big (we thought so then) town where items not available at the little mom & pop establishments that dotted our township could be had. Whatever we kids were doing before we got to the bridge (singing, playing, fighting) I would disengage to stare longingly over the concrete railing at the mystery of the river winding away to the south (or the north as we left Martinsville). I would, of course, as my knowledge of local geography increased, find out where the White River went. It crosses the entire state, longwise and on a diagonal, starting as a tiny creek up in the northeast corner and becoming pretty-big water well before emptying into the Wabash across from Mount Carmel, Illinois. There are lots of bridges on the White and all these years later I still never cross one without looking wistfully up or down stream. Of course, now I’m looking at something more familiar. As I became a young teen I learned the publicly accessible fishing sites in our area and caught a lot of fish out the White River. Then, my father and I took an overnight canoe camping trip on the White (Indiana maintains public access sites about every 25 miles and camping is allowed below the high-water mark.) From that trip forward, nothing else would do. There are no bridges on the White River between Waverly, Indiana and Mount Carmel, Illinois that I have not canoed under and very little in the way of promising camping sites along those 200+ miles of water where I have not pitched a tent. (North of Waverly there are lots of dams and power generation facilities that take a lot of the fun out of canoe camping. Between Waverly and Mount Carmel there is only one dam and two power generation facilities – and the occasional gravel dredging operation.) Dad, siblings, friends, my wife and my own children (not yet born at the time of that first trip) have all been my companions on various legs of the journey. I’ve learned a lot about rivers in the process, how the channel changes over the years, how islands come and go, how some houses built too near the river come and go! I have become pretty sufficient at steering a heavily laden canoe through snag forests where the river has relocated trees that used to be growing on the bank. I have practiced the methods that allow for paddling a canoe short distances back upstream when needed. I have learned how to slice across the current on sharp bends and (usually) to recognize in advance where the bed of the river is significantly tilted across a curve so that the river negotiates what looks like a ‘C’ as though it were a ‘Z’ – trust me, it’s subtle from a distance but if you miss it, rounding the bend is complicated considerably. All these things are questions of current or flow. Everything on a river is.
So, on various legs of my river journey, I have put in some time thinking about that old life question of going with the flow or against it. Naturally, going against the flow is a lot more work and takes much more time and every time you try to rest for a moment – all your progress is undone. But there is a sense in which we as Christians must resist the flow of earthly culture and wisdom. This not only makes for hard paddling, it seems, if the context is only here and now, so futile.
Going with the flow is obviously easier – for a minute or two. Since all those dead trees are swept along by the current, the current inevitably pushes us along to the exact spot the tree ground to a halt against the rising riverbed. Nor is it just the snag forests. The current is always easy going for just a while before throwing us up against a boat breaking, man drowning obstacle. If we don’t resist the current at all, our journey will be short. In the end, what washes to the sea consists of wrecks and corpses. Still, resisting the current even enough to steer downstream, you still end up eventually at sea – in a canoe. Hmmm.
I know it’s all metaphor – but metaphors are helpful. I have finally come to the conclusion that the only way to avoid being washed to one ruinous end or the other is to cross the river. Every one of my trips ended with placing my foot on shore. Crossing resists the current but is headed not for the sea but to the other side. Again, it’s a picture – and yet, life as a crossing is not a new idea and if the river in consideration is the whole flow of earthly culture and wisdom – the only escape is to set foot on the opposite shore.
I’m going there. 2020 was quite an exercise in current related hazards and I do not know what will come up in 2021 but with Christ as my companion I will make the crossing.
It goes without saying that we never really understand the dynamics of the relationship we had with our parents until we are old enough and experienced enough to gain proper perspective. When I think back to my young childhood I am (uselessly) abashed at the total lack of understanding I had of my father. He worked long hours for long years at a job that represented no kind of dream for him and we five kids lined up to consume his paycheck and break all his stuff! That, of course, is not the whole of the story either – simply a strand I was incapable of grasping at the time. And, unless it was accidental on my part, I did nothing to make his life easier at the time. Later, as I understood more, I did better. Sadly, I must confess that I worked a lot harder to be a blessing to dad after I was out of the house than before. I suspect I am far from alone in this. In the last few years of his life, when his strength failed, all dad’s adult children worked tirelessly to help him remain as active as possible, as comfortable as possible and as engaged as possible for as long as possible. Dad took a yen to have some ducks around and duck eggs to eat. None of us even cared why? I built a coop and put up a pen. My older sister got six peeps (Campbells’s – egg layers) and raised them in her garage until they were old enough to occupy the coop. All siblings made whatever improvements were necessary as time went by, fed and watered the ducks, gathered the eggs, learned the best ways to cook with them, etc. It was but one thing. When dad could no longer make it to the woods we went and took pictures of the recent doings of the beavers, deer, snapping turtles, etc. My youngest sister is a nurse and kept on top of the increasing medical demands, giving the rest of us the training we needed. All my sisters went to great lengths learning to cook for dad’s specialized dietary needs. We built a new deck with a ramp to ease the process of getting to the car. My younger brother did the lion’s share of the home repairs. We trimmed and removed trees and repaired the leaky roof. We learned to do physical therapy and therapeutic wraps. We mowed, gardened, and kept the roads hot between dad’s house and the pharmacy, grocery, hardware…. Our only wish was that we could have done more. When absolutely no more could be done, we gathered round his bed and stayed till the time came to say goodbye. We experienced in those times, a fierce determination to bless our father. It was, as Dickens would have it, the best and the worst of times.
My experiences with my earthly father mirror my experiences with my Heavenly Father in at least this one way. There was a time when I was only concerned about being blessed by God. I still am concerned with that. I desire earnestly to be blessed by God. But I also wish to bless God – a thought that did not enter into my earlier calculations. It never even occurred to me that I could! God had everything to give and what could He possibly need from me?! Well, we learn better. Even though He never ages, fails, nor dies, God is a father after all and every father can be blessed by His children.
As we come to a new year, if we are goal setters/resolution makers let us try getting alongside the ambitions of the Apostle Paul who said – Therefore, we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. II Corinthians 5:9
Let us spend 2021 in a grand effort to please God.
When I was a young child, I would have climbing the walls the past couple weeks WAITING for Christmas to arrive! I do remember once thinking in July that we had gotten over the hump in the long WAIT for Christmas. Then, shortly after Thanksgiving the actual Christmas decorations would start going up. In our house a tree never showed up until about December 15 – 10 days being about the max for keeping a fresh cut tree looking good. Although mom had a box of actual store-bought Christmas tree decorations, we kids loved to string pop corn and paste bright colored construction paper chains together until almost no actual foliage could be seen. Stockings would be hung, somewhere in that last week mom always arranged a telephone call from ‘Santa’. A box of oranges (the only time of year we had oranges) and a dish of vanilla crème drops showed up (always managing to make their mysterious appearance when I wasn’t looking!). All these little markers and progressions finally led to laying awake in bed on Christmas Eve, having set out the milk and cookies and determined to stay awake until….zzzzz.
Then the big day arrived.
Well, things have changed. These days I feel like the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day passes far too quickly. There are so many things to do and so little time to do them that the season is over before I have much got to enjoy it. But there are high lights, markers and progressions: Singing the old Christmas Carols and the new songs the contemporary praise band learns, the Christmas play (the youth of the congregation really knocked our socks off this year – helpful hint: put your socks back on before leaving the church building – Ohio December evenings are cold. The personal Bible studies that inform and build the sermons for the Christmas season. All these things have nothing to do with the glitter and color that so thrilled my childhood days. And the mysteries of Santa have been squeezed aside by a much deeper and more profound mystery – the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The few weeks at our disposal are inadequate for considering such things and suddenly, it is January.
The secret lies in the realization that the blessings of the incarnation are not limited to a season. The big event came – as the Bible says – in the fullness of time: that is, following millennia of preparations that involved whole peoples, cultures, languages, nations, societies, and more. The markers and progressions that led to the Christmas event took in the whole phenomenon of Hebrew prophecy, the entire panoply of Eastern monarchs, the rise and fall of powers, earthly and heavenly, the ministries of men and angels and LOTS MORE. Nor is it only the relative past of all those years BC. The blessings of the incarnation have spanned all the years, languages, peoples and powers since as we mark off the steps along the way to the next phase of God’s REALLY BIG PLAN – in the fullness of time. Suddenly, hanging a stocking seems somewhat trivial and the taste of those crème drops fades.
I am not anti-presents, trees, decorations, etc. – I do believe glitter is immoral and ought to be illegal, but only because it is impossible to contain. But the Christmas season is already short enough and we do have to be careful of distractions from the actual point. I hope you have a blessed Christmas in every possible sense.
I am not much of a gambler myself. As kids my siblings and I would take a jar in which the family saved pennies until the jar was full, divvy up the coins and play poker until someone had cleaned everyone else out – then all the pennies went back in the jar. At some point the jar would get full and whosever turn it was would get an infusion to their savings account. Gambling is easy when it costs you nothing. But that isn’t usually the case. As an older teen I helped my grandparents a lot on their perspective farms. On one occasion my paternal grandfather and I finished up his haying for the year. We had just filled the last two wagons in the field and grandpa was certain it would not all fit in the remaining space in the barn loft. I said I though I could get it all in. He said he doubted it. I said ‘Wanna bet’. He asked ‘Bet what?’ ‘A root beer!’ I replied. Grandpa and I both had a thing for root beer. Mason’s was our favorite! Grandpa took the bet. We pulled the wagons to the barn and he ran the bales up the elevator while I scrambled, climbed and toted to arrange them in the loft. On the way from grandpa’s farm to ours we stopped at Campbell’s grocery where I bought two root beers. Then we finished the journey and put the last thirty some bales in our barn. Before giving up I had been hanging out grandpa’s loft window, clutching the track for the sliding window cover with one hand, hooking bales from the elevator with the other and swinging them into the rapidly vanishing available space. Too late I had considered the decades worth of scrawls on the loft wall where grandpa had counted, each and every year, the number of bales he put in that loft. Never bet against the man with certain knowledge!
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is probably best remembered for what has come to be called ‘Pascal’s Wager’. It was actually a minor portion of his thinking and not published until after his death. If you really want to warp your mind study Pascal’s Triangle! But the wager. A brief summation goes like this.
*God is or is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives. (if an infinite God exists He is outside the system of cause and effect and beyond the limits of our reason.)
*A game is being played. (You exist and must conduct your life by a series of choices.)
*You must wager. It is not optional. (Everyone decides for themselves whether God exists or not or, at the very least, whether the decision is important to them.)
*If you wager that God is and win – you gain all and lose nothing – or at the very least any small losses of present material and pleasure are miniscule compared to the eternal bliss you have gained - if you win the wager.
*If you wager that God is not and lose – you lose all and again, any gains in present material and pleasure you may have enjoyed are miniscule compared to the eternal bliss forfeited – if you lost the wager.
*If you wager that God is and lose - you actually lost nothing – endless extinction is the same whichever way you bet and, Pascal observed, believers seem to be as happy – if not happier – in the course of their lives.
*If you wager that God is not and win – if it can be demonstrated that believers are as happy, if not happier than non-believers in the course of their lives – what, exactly did you win?
Whatever anyone thinks of the wager, by describing it Pascal is counted as the father of both game theory and decision theory – both consequential to our modern lives! But, as to the wager itself. Most skeptics deride the theory as the very weakest possible proof of the existence of God – which is kind of like looking at an apple and saying it’s the worst shaped banana you’ve ever seen. Pascal was not trying to prove the existence of God. He was trying to describe the situation in which humans, lacking proof of God, find themselves. Criticizing the wager on the basis of something it is not is what as known as attacking a straw man.
From the perspective of a committed believer, I have only ever seen two objections to the wager.
Once, long ago, my father found himself laid off from work for the Christmas Season. In those days and in our neck of the woods at least, working class families did most of their Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve. Online shopping wasn’t even a dream yet! Dad would get a Christmas bonus and get off early on Christmas Eve. As soon as he got home – he and mom were off to shop. The department stores in the County Seat (My upbringing was considerably more rural than most people are used to and unless we kids wanted rough cut lumber from the local family owned sawmill under the tree and bologna sandwiches from one of the few local mom & pop groceries in our stockings – the County seat was it.) stayed open late on Christmas Eve for just such shoppers. Well, on the Christmas Eve in question, the stores were open and Dad had plenty of time but there was not only no Christmas bonus, there was no regular paycheck either. In addition to our parent’s shopping, we kids were usually given a few dollars to put with whatever small amount we had been able to hold on to so we could buy something for each other. None of that was on the menu. Jumping ahead, we kids always received $7 cash @ on Christmas day - $5 from one set of grandparents and a $2 bill from the other. As usual, when it rains it pours and the well pump quit the day after Christmas. Dad needed our Christmas money to buy a new one and spent the immediate post-holiday season seven feet under ground and hip deep in cold water installing it. But – that was afterwards. Dad was always pretty good with his hands and spent some of his presently copious spare time out in the unheated garage with the table saw, drills, and C-clamps manufacturing gifts. Mom spent as much time at the sewing machine, rapidly depleting her hoard of cloth and for just once in my experience, nearly emptying the button can (an old candy tin in which she kept buttons rescued from clothing we wore out). We kids caught the spirit and went to work. I painted my older sister’s room. My middle sister crocheted little tie thingies for us boys to put on the top buttons of our dress shirts. And so it went. All said and done, dad went back to work and there followed lots of Christmases where the gifts represented more money. I remember here and there over those years receiving a Secret Sam (look it up), a Johnny Eagle set (look it up), a Timex watch and a chromatic harmonica. But none of those gifts I remember and certainly none of the ones I have long since forgotten, had the same impact as the year we gave the work of our hands. Sure, I suppose we had to due to unfortunate circumstances. I can only say in retrospect that I am glad those circumstances arose. For myself, even my $7 (more money then than now) that went into the new pump, felt like just one more contribution. I felt closer to my family that year and closer to God as well. I pass this on for what it’s worth. Merry Christmas.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church