Saturday, December 26, 2009

From The Cradle to the Cross

I'm sure that sometime during this Christmas season, at one time or another, you have heard or sung the carol, Good King Wencelas. Now, you may know who King Wenceslas was, but if you don't let me fill you in. He was a chap of the 10th Century. He was also known as Vaclav the Good but this poor Duke of Bohemia ended up being assassinated by his wicked brother, Boleslaw the Bad. Hmmm, I wonder how he got that name? I know I'd be bad if I had the name BOLESlaw. Anyway, because of his holiness, the good guy, Vaclav, now known as Wenceslas, had his bones interred in St. Vitus's cathedral in Prague. I wonder if that's where the dance stared. But that is another tragic sad story that many today are afflicted with.

On with the story, The song named after Good King Wensaslas was written by J. M. Neale (1818-1866). It has nothing to do with Christmas really, but is based on a story about Wenceslas who befriended a peasant. This poor peasant lived on the edge of a forest and so touched the good king, that he felt impelled to give this poor man a pine log. Now why a peasant would need a pine log is not told. But logic would tell me that probably the forest belonged to the king and anyone who chopped down the kings trees could probably have his head chopped off...or something like that, I surmise.

Nor is there any explanation of the footprints in the snow. But the verse I find interesting is the reference to Steven. What was this "feast of Stephen?" Those of us in the "free church" tradition relegate saints to a dusty corner of our library shelves, but most of Christendom has celebrated this "Feast of Stephen" from the earliest centuries. It is also known as Boxing Day in Europe and England and is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church on December 27 instead of today. It was a day when gifts were gathered and given to the poor, hence, Boxing Day. And since Stephen was noted for his ministry to the helpless in the New Testament he is honored with this tradition.

The other thing we know about Stephen is that he was the first martyr of the church. But why in heaven's name do we celebrate this event the day after Christmas? Well, here's where tradition and the teaching ministry of the ancient church kicks in. One of the teachings of the church down through the centuries has been that Jesus, the babe born in Bethlehem, was born to die. He came to this earth, lived 30 or so years, and then fulfilled his destiny on the Cross in a horrible execution. His life was given in order that we might live. The sin that broke our relationship with God with Adam and Eve was forever destroyed by the death of Christ so that we can have eternal life with God. That has been the teaching of the Church.

And what the church wanted to show was that we too, who have been redeemed by Christ, also go through hardship. What the church is telling us is that the message of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection is filled with similarities for us. Jesus himself warned,
"If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you...Remember the word I said to you; a servant is not greater than his master: If they persecuted me they will persecute you."

This has been the story of Christianity from day one. Good old St. Augustine said, "Every age is an age of martyrdom...Don't say that Christians are not suffering persecution; the Apostle's words are always true...: All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim. 3:12) All, with no one being excluded or exempted. If you want to test the truth of this saying, you only have to begin to lead a pious life and you will see what good reason he had for saying this."

Jesus said, "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you."

St. John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the fourth and fifth century wrote: "Don't say that they didn't suffer, but that they rejoiced to suffer. We can see that by the use to which they instantly put their freedom: immediately after the flogging they gave themselves up to preaching with wonderful zeal."

Today, persecution still goes on. Look at the house churches in China. Weep over the Christian Palestinian, Arab, Jordanian churches and all of the churches in the middle Eastern region who are suffering at the loss of their pastors and churches due to persecution. Many of these poor folks have suffered horrible crimes perpetrated against them. And remember, war has also brought pain and suffering to these folks. Yes, even some of our own bombs.

Persecution goes on around the world. It may be the greatest argument for the sinful state of man that I know. Man needs a saviour. I know, I know, this is a message that falls on many deaf ears. But folks, how many of you are suffering from isolation for your faith? The words of Jesus are being fulfilled in our own country. Christianity is still, the most hated and despised religion in the world. How many news reports have you heard about complaints about crosses in public places or in places that can be seen by the public? How many displays of the 10 commandments are pushed into the shadows?
How many of your friends have ignored you on Facebook because you are open in your faith? What about those subtle little references like, "Oh, you STILL believe in a God and go to Church? How ignorant you are to be call yourself a Christian.

Now to be honest, those of us in the church have earned a lot of that scorn for trying to be something we aren't to take credit for the piety we exhibit. But the fact remains, there is a concerted effort to push Christianity back into the home and out of the public sphere. Oh, we can celebrate the muslim days, or the Jewish days, or push all kinds of new age spirituality on the unsuspecting public, but God forbid you wear a cross to work or have picture of Christ in you cubicle at work.

We can be encouraged, and in some companies, compelled to take meditation courses or new age self help classes at work but God help you if you want to have a private Bible Study or Prayer Group in your office. Why, that's a violation of church and state. I'll use my favorite theological term. HOGWASH!!

Face it folks, Christianity will never be popular. I don't care how much you try to package it into theatrical productions, the majority will ignore anything that bases its foundation on the message of the cross of Christ. And as time goes on and our nation sinks more and more into apostasy, we'll be the pariahs of humanity. As long as our churches continue to try to make our services more and more like the local nightclub we'll continue the downwards slide.

The church of Jesus Christ is different. It is counter cultural. It is not like the rest of the world. It is a haven for the lost. A hospital for sinners. Sinners belong in the church because that is where Christ is. He loves sinners. We are all sinners and if we Christians will finally admit to that and realize Jesus Christ is the source of our hope, love and living, then we'll quit trying to be Christians and instead let the Grace of Christ make us the kind of people he wants us to be.

So on this day of St. Stephen, take heart. If you are suffering, your consolation is in Jesus. Your suffering may not end until death, but you will have the hope of his presences with you daily and for eternity. Sing the song Good King Wenceslas on this day and remember Stephen who showed us the cost of being a Christian. It's a life from the cradle to the cross.

One final word. I know some of you will be appalled by what I've just said. Yes, I actually agree with you. The Cross is ugly, was then and is now. Suffering is awful and not to be desired. But it's life. And how you decide to live that life depends on whether you are willing to obey Christ by trusting in him as your Savior.

God bless you and have a Joyous Christmas Season...yes..the season extends into January. And have a blessed New Year.

Good King Wencelas

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

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