From Rev Dr Tom Nibbe
"...So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee...to Judea, to Bethlehem, the City of David...because he belonged to the house and lineage of King David...He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and and was expecting a child...While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in swaddling cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn..." Luke 2:6-7
Even before the foundation of the earth---and the universe---you anticipated the coming of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, to take on flesh, and become a human being, in order that you might be "Emmanuel", that is, "God With Us"...not way up in the sky or otherwise far away...but God, able to comprehend our lot, and empathize with our daily joys and sorrows. We want to praise you and thank you for the gift of Jesus, because in Him we know you understand us, our feelings, and our motivations, as human beings...what it's like to suffer, what it is to experience the loss of a loved one...or what it is like to experience the terror of some natural disaster. Yea, though we walk through the valley, you are with us. We need not be afraid. We can be confident because in all things you work for the good of those who love you, and are called, according to your purpose. This is your Christmas gift to us in this year of pandemic and economic fallout. Our trust is in you. You are the God who knows us inside and out, and loves us, just the same. You are the God who walks with us unconditionally through all experiences of our lives. At Christmas time, in this year especially, we continue to praise you for the reason for the season, our real Christmas gift, the Lord Jesus.
"...trust in the Lord will all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him, and He will make your paths straight...do not be wise your own eyes; fear the the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones..." Proverbs 3:5-8
"...if the light in you is darkness, it is indeed a profound darkness..." [Jesus in] Matthew 6:29b
"Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire came a still, small voice...
Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave."
1 Kings 19:11b-13
"...but Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart..." Luke 2:19
"...a still, small voice..."
The personal memories of "the place where Jesus walked" remain fresh in my mind, and like the Virgin Mary, I treasure them and ponder them in my heart. I am sure my wife, Priscilla, feels the same.
My daughter, Ayesha, and David, her husband, invited us to go with them to Israel four years ago. We felt a bit sad that we would miss Christmas in the Holy Land because I needed to conduct services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Pacifica, but God had a surprise for us.
In Jerusalem, they celebrate Christmas on the day traditionally the three wise men arrived there, January 6th. Thus, on Christmas Eve, I stood no more than three-feet from the place Jesus is said to be have been born. A choir of Franciscan monks squeezing in next to us in the confined space at the birth-place made things heavenly, singing in beautiful Latin. Leaving the Church of the Nativity, it was cold and raining. We noticed a Palestinian shepherd driving his sheep across Nativity Plaza in the rain.
I hadn't planned properly to be dressed for the cold weather. My first thought was...here we are at the birthplace of Jesus and I have to feel so uncomfortable...I paused... being discomforted in that moment was gift from God...that's the way it must have been for Joseph and Mary...I rethought things. I paused again. I would've had Jesus born in the comfort and luxury of a royal palace with all the privileges and conveniences of the court. God the Father wanted His beloved Son to be identified with the poor, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged, and the outcast. The message was meant specifically for me. It was the "still small voice" in the midst of the rain storm, of the cold, and of my dismal discomfort. It was the voice of God speaking to me. All of a sudden, in my mind and heart, it wasn't just my desire and my will to be in the place where Jesus walked. On the way back to our inn, the Mulvey at the Omar Mosque on Nativity Square invited me to tea after the prayer hour. I regret that I had to refuse... because I was shaking so badly head to toe from the cold and the wet. We arrived back at the inn. I kept thinking, there was no room in the inn for Jesus, down the street at the birthplace, but the Lord had provided this extraordinary place for us. It wasn't a palace, but how warm and comfortable How humbling!
The Lord would be speaking to me in very subtle ways during the entire journey, "the still, small voice", (that of Elijah's experience), breaking through the darkness there inside of me. The nuns at the "inn" were accommodating and kind. The soup and salad that night tasted like heaven. The beds were like sleeping on a cloud. I would have slept in, but I needed to check out the German Lutheran Chapel across the street, built during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, I am convinced, as a place of worship (and as a "window" on what the present-then world powers were doing in Palestine.)
For over seventy years, I had wanted to reaffirm my baptism by immersing myself in the River Jordan.
A couple of days after we had visited Bethlehem and were presently at the Lutheran Guest House in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem, we headed out in a car rental for Jericho, the Dead Sea, the Mount of Temptation, and the River Jordan. I slipped into a provided gown and went into the freezing river---after all, it was January...in the name of the Father...and of the Son...and of the Holy Spirit...my head when under three times...and when I stepping out onto the shore, I felt just great. I didn't feel any cold at all. Wow!
Only exhilaration. I seemed to be on fire. We headed on to Jericho for shawarma & freshly baked bread.
WALKING WHERE CHRIST WALKED...WALKING WHERE CHRIST DIED
Back in Jerusalem, I mounted Golgotha (Calvary) and placed my hand over the place where the post of the cross had been in the ground. We also entered the tomb where Jesus was laid after the crucifixion...from whence He arose on the third day. We walked the Via Dolorosa (the street Jesus carried the cross on), down into the Kidron Valley and then up to the Garden of Gethsemane in the Mount of Olives. On the way, just adjacent to the Temple Mount, an Armenian restaurant owner asked if I wanted the best cup of coffee I had ever tasted...if I didn't think so...there would be no charge. I ordered a cup. The guy was right.
Once in Gethsemane, a Franciscan monk gave me a vile of anointing oil, which now sits on the altar at Holy Cross Lutheran Church. Not long after we arrived, an Italian priest all decked out in his liturgical gown and stole, arrived on the scene with a congregation of at least forty people. He started saying the mass in Italian and then distributed the elements to the people present. When he came to me, I graciously bowed with my arms crossing my chest. I stepped back and bowed to indicate I wouldn't receive. I didn't want to deceive him into thinking that I was a Roman Catholic. I returned upright. He stuck the host in my mouth. He smiled in a gentle way and said, "We are all one in Christ..." and then...continued on with the other people there.
These were just a few of the blessings of that trip. I am grateful to David and Ayesha. There were many more insights that came to me during the course of the trip, but these I will share at this time. I do, however, want to share another experience that has stayed in my mind after all these years. The one I have selected to write about happened about forty years ago and involved my youngest daughter, Shama. So, we will leave Jerusalem and Israel (Palestine), for the time being, and resettle ourselves in Pakistan.
The name "Shama" is associated with the verse that Jesus suggested to be the most important in the Bible of his time, Deuteronomy 6:4-5: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord, is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."
This verse is called, "The Shama" (Sh'maah). We thought we'd name our third daughter that because it is a common Pakistani name for girls, for daughters, and also, we love and treasure this verse, as we love and treasure her. Jesus thought this verse was the most important verse in the Bible of his time because it suggests that anything less than placing God first in your life is falling short of the standard. It is mere religion, of no use in and of itself, and has nothing to do with Jesus' concept of genuine faith, expressed by Saint Paul (Hebrews 11:1): "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."
CAN I GET IT ALL TOGETHER
It was the early 80s. We had been in Pakistan a little less than two years. I'd been depriving my kids of hot dogs, hamburgers, Coca Cola, Seven-Up and bubble-gum for about the same period of time. They'd missed Santa Claus last December. Something had to be done, because Christmas was right around the corner. Since September, I'd been collecting various items from other Americans stationed in Pakistan and hiding them. I was able to find a red top and bottom in Lahore. A large black belt and boots (my size) showed up in Rawalpindi. Surprisingly, somebody had a hat and a white wig in Peshawar. I needed a beard and moustache. I was becoming desperate by November. And then finally a Canadian was planning to go back to Toronto. He had the goods I needed. I was set by December 20th. Ready to go! O, yes! I needed a sack. No problem! The American Consul in Peshawar had one to lend.
Christmas Day arrived. Some of the gifts were under our tree. Some were in my sack. I appeared in all my (that is, Santa's) glory! My nephew was so-o-o excited. He didn't think Santa Claus came to Pakistan. My niece was excited and a bit scared. Santa looked so big and so fat (thanks to the pillow from England). My daughter, Ayesha, and my daughter, Yasmin, were absolutely amazed. How is it that Santa knew they were in Pakistan, twelve-thousand miles away from California?
O, OH! SOMETHINGS UP
As I handed out the wonderful Christmas presents, you could feel the energy all around the room. The kids were so exciting and the adults acted so surprised by Santa's appearance..."Ho! Ho! Ho!" As I handed the gift to Shama, she took it nicely, but gave Santa the strangest look. Shama was about five years old at the time. The impression stayed in my mind. Yes, the impression stayed in my mind...for years...literally for decades. Last year, before the pandemic, I went up to Bellingham, Washington, right before Christmas, to stay with Shama and her husband Tim because I wanted to spend time with my grand-daughter, Elliot, at Christmas.
THE LORD CAN SEE RIGHT THROUGH US
Sitting by the fireplace one evening while I was there, I mentioned the unexpected reaction Shama had given me in Pakistan forty years before. Here's what she told me, "Dad! I'm really surprised you don't know me better. Listen.
I just never knew how important my hands were to her! I learned last year at Christmas time.
The reason I wanted to mention this story is because, like me, in my relationship with my daughter, I really was totally ignorant about what was so important to her regarding her father. I guess I should've known better. We often just don't know how important we are to others we live with...how important we are to the people we love and the people who love us. Sometimes that's because we don't see the point of going out of our way to show that love. The manifestation of that love evaporates like the mist. Maybe this is an encouragement to be extravagant in the way we show our love to others...first, to those who share life significantly with us at home and in the church...and...secondly, to those who need us, who we may not know so well, but have need to fellowship with, if only briefly. We don't know love more significantly because we are not extravagant in showing it. The tragedy of life is that we wait for somebody else to show us love.
WE ARE VERY SPECIAL TO GOD
The point here, also, is that we think that God is important to us, but it's less so, the other way around. The fact is that we are important to God. We are essential. Often, we think He is great and we are small. We actually may try to equate Him with being a famous movie-star, or a rock idol, or the President of the United States. These famous folks of renown can all "well live" without us, but this isn't true of God. We could ask ourselves the question, how could we ever make any significant difference to God? It all has to do with...please excuse me...a four-letter word...that word is love. It all has to do with perfect, divine love.
ALLOW HIS DIVINE LOVE TO WASH US CLEAN
As my wife and daughters love me and need me, God loves us all and needs us all. This kind of love is unconditional. We have our ups-and-downs in this relationship with the Lord, but it's a genuine relationship and it will never ultimately fail. This kind of love overcomes the world. We have all the personal resources we need, right now, to please Him...to allow His love to wash over us, like the waters of the River Jordan washed over me four years ago. In no time at all, God's love in our life will make us a better person...a much better person than we could ever be without His love. It's just that we need a lift from time to time.
We need to come to terms with personal value issues, and we do so, when we surrender and accept his love, which makes us whole. Some people think they have nothing significant to give to the Lord. Every single human being in our world has something unique to give in love. The Church is diminished by every believer who doesn't provide his or her unique personal gifts to contribute to the whole.
May I wish to each of us in this difficult, dangerous, and heart-wrenching time the blessing of Almighty God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! I am convinced that regular prayer for others, thoughts guided by the Spirit, kind and considerate gestures, cards and letters to family and friends, the regular routine of systematic study of the Bible, making it our regular project to forgive those who have offended us...as our special gift to those who have sorely hurt us and caused us grief, and thanking God in advance that, just at the precise time, (His timing is perfect), the Lord will bring us back to safe and sound to satisfying worship in our sanctuary.
In the meantime, we will praise Him.
The "still small voice" speaks to us in the midst of all the loud noises of the second decade of the 21st century---the beeping horns, the shouting voices, the endless offers of discounted (price-inflated) goods at the market-place, the screams of the oppressed, the bull-horn platforms of the powerful---but we have peace in our God who continues to keep us on the straight and narrow---we have joy in the assurance the Lord gives us that we will prosper in the land---and we have all we will ever need in Jesus Christ, our Lord,
born in Bethlehem, long ago.
In the meantime, we will still praise Him.
"A voice came to Elijah, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?' Elijah replied, 'I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword...I am the only one left...and now they're trying to kill me, too..." The Lord said to Elijah, 'Go back the way you came...I have reserved seven thousand in Israel...all whose knees haven't bowed down to Baal and all whose moths have not kissed him..." 1 Kings 19:14,18
You are not alone!
Merry Christmas to all!
Most cordially, Tom