The People You Don’t See

As the recent paid guest for ten days at a couple of hospital Intensive Care Units, each day perhaps ten to twenty people I had never met before introduced themselves with friendly smiles before doing something for me or to me. After a time all these scores of people blend together until by the end, one no longer can see or distinguish them. They are just faces with rapidly vanishing names. All of us experience that as we make our way through the normal events of our lives.

Some, however, I did get to know a bit, snatched conversations, the natural human tendency to reach out and establish a point of connection. On the first day a pretty young nurse was assigned to me and soon we had discovered that we both were Christians. A link that made her more than a face. And since at that moment I was feeling extremely self-centered, as patients tend to do, I thanked God that he had kindly sent me a caretaker who bore a symbolic message from Him, “Don’t worry. I am with you.”

As the evening shift changed, so did the message. “Where did you get the idea that I sent you here for your benefit?” God said. Now there was another Christian nurse, and as we talked on and off through the night she revealed her story to me. Her oldest son, now 20, has been a heroin user and is struggling to stay off drugs and to rebuild his life. Eight years before, the boy had witnessed the very dramatic conversion of his grandfather to faith in Christ, and then barely an hour later, the old man died suddenly and unexpectedly just as the family sat down for dinner at their home. It seemed this traumatic experience had propelled her son to take his first step into darkness. Now this mother’s grief is full and she bears overflowing fears. In the middle of the night, surrounded by hundreds of hospital workers and patients, she and I paused and prayed to God together.

Another day, another ICU in the deep center city at a giant hospital. The evening nurse’s aide came in and I asked his name. “Johnson,” he replied. First name. He wasn’t from here. From Kenya, he said. He was a Catholic, but loved Jesus; and had come to America three years ago, leaving his family behind, to send money back to care for orphans in a village ministry in his home country. Johnson works two fulltime jobs, spends all his time at it. He showed me pictures of his family and the children.

Did I know anyone who could help him, he asked? I have some African connections but they are now in other countries and are running ministries of their own. But I said I could do something better than that. “I can put you in touch with God directly,” I said, “and I will ask him to meet the needs you bring to him for the children, as if I were asking him myself.” And then we prayed together, both of us, and placed Johnson’s family and these impoverished children into the hands of the Almighty.

Two nights later my nurse was Laina and I found she was from India. I have been to India a couple of times and we exchanged the kind of conversation you do when you tie two nations together. “I hear you are a pastor,” she said. And so I had another Christian with me. She’s been in America four years. We exchanged some names of Christians from India I know, and established some tenuous connection. She is lost in the big city. And so I prayed with her that God would enable her to find an embracing Christian fellowship. Two nights and she was gone.

Then another struggling believer, a nurse’s aide, and she too was from India. Her husband died and she remarried. She has two teen age children she is concerned about. She is a member of a church but it is a large one and she told me that the pastor has not spoken to her since the day she joined the church. No one has, and she is alone and struggling to maintain faith. We talked about what to do, and I prayed with her. I urged her to find Laina and talk with her. Perhaps she will.

There were others. The Asian nurse’s aide who misses her family back home. The nurse who is living with her boyfriend, who is seeking something rich out of life. She too claims to be a Christian, and we talked about family and meaningful commitments and knowing God. But it was all in passing. It is hard to talk deeply in an ICU when every two to three minutes another doctor arrives on his rounds, or an aide comes to take vital signs, or a transport person shows up to ferry me to a test site. Or the food service person dances in, brandishing a tray with a different kind of challenge.

These are the people we never see. Their lives speed past ours in a blur, their needs and sorrows and burdens rarely revealed. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) But they will not be comforted unless someone who knows about comfort spots them and notices them long enough to pass on the grace of God. Who have you seen today?

Voter Guide in Ten Categories

In case you didn’t notice, we have a presidential election process going on. The media becomes breathless with each new development until I wonder if there is anything else happening in the world. But the question for whom to vote is important. I heard from one friend who announced that he is planning to vote for a candidate who, frankly, shocked me. Nobody could be that dumb, I thought! So in the interest of providing some helpful analysis, I herein set forth ten standards against which to measure the candidates. They are provided from a divine source, for they are the Ten Commandments. Consider, and then cast your vote.

1. “You shall have no other gods before me.” Religious liberty is perhaps the most urgent issue today, for if that falls, everything follows. The question then is, which candidate most firmly defends our rights to worship God as he has called us to do? Which candidate is an uncompromising defender of the First Amendment? A thinly disguised anti-Christian bias is gaining strength in our culture. The voter must listen beyond the rhetoric, for candidates will tell you what you want to hear. But a candidate who leans toward criticism of Christians or Christian moral positions should cause us to pause.

2. “You shall not bow down before idols.” Here one must consider a candidate’s personal faith. Lip service to the Christian God is not enough if we can do better, but it is not enough to elect a President just because he is a Christian. Being President is a difficult job, and a man (or woman) who knows how to seek and find guidance from God, and who is instructed by the Bible, is almost a prerequisite. So ask yourself, does this candidate evidence a living knowledge of Christ, or is his profession of faith only a pandering to American traditional religion?

3. “You shall not take God’s name in vain.” Here we should look at the way a candidate speaks. Is he respectful of God and his truth? Is he profane? Does he speak with vulgarity? A President should set an example for the nation. It is not always easy to tell. President Nixon was filthy-mouthed in private, and you know how that one turned out!

4. “Keep the Sabbath Day holy.” Does this candidate worship God regularly? And if he does, what kind of church does he attend? Who are his closest spiritual advisers? Does he respect the church and America’s spiritual traditions? President Obama was for twenty years a member of a radical preacher’s church in Chicago, and that revealed much about his values and beliefs. But no one was watching.

5. “Honor your father and your mother.” This commandment is more about honoring authority than it is about the family. What is this candidate’s view about upholding the institutions of our nation and defending the rule of Law in our land? Is he a friend or a foe of the military, the police, the justice system? Will he uphold or weaken the fabric of a stable society? Will his oath to defend, support, and uphold the Constitution be more than mere words? Will the judges he appoints—and he may nominate four Supreme Court justices—likewise uphold the Constitution or will they legislate from the bench?

6. “You shall not murder.” Everyone is against murder. But what is the candidate’s commitment to halting crime and fighting terrorism? Where does the candidate stand on the issue of abortion? What about the right of citizens to protect themselves and their families, using his gun if necessary? Will he keep our military strong so that our nation is defended against enemies abroad? Will he actively defend our borders and uphold the immigration laws? What is his stance on sanctuary cities?

7. “You shall not steal.” Is this candidate personally honest and does he surround himself with honest advisors who act with integrity? Where does he stand on the national debt and spending money the nation does not have in order to pander to various segments of the electorate? Will he run his administration with fiscal discipline? Is he committed to “crony capitalism” where the government grants favors to big business in order to gain their support in exchange for the government creating tilted decks?

8. “You shall not commit adultery?” Here is where the protection of the family comes into the picture. Does the candidate uphold traditional marriage as God has defined it? Is he himself morally upstanding? What is his own family like? He will be a moral example to the nation? We have had some Presidents who set bad examples and thereby dragged down the whole social fabric. And then there is the issue of same sex marriage. Will he defend the freedom of those who oppose so that they live by their consciences without fear of punishment? This is going to be a major issue during his term.

9. “You shall not bear false witness.” Does this candidate tell the truth? Candidates always accuse their opponents of lying, so the voter must be discerning. When he gives his word, does it mean anything? Is he committed to telling the truth to the American people, or will he be one who seeks to manipulate popular opinion by “spinning” how events are interpreted? Without truth, society ceases to function freely and the government loses the support of the people.

10. “You shall not covet.” Coveting, essentially defined, is being dissatisfied with what God has given you. In a free society citizens have liberty to better their circumstances through hard work and initiative. So, does a candidate seek to manipulate various special interest groups by promising them more and greater free gifts from the government? Or is the candidate committed to the free market, to the right of people to keep what they have earned, to a fair tax system? Or is his intention to create a dependent class whose path to a better life is effectively blocked by the government? Much of the labor movement is based on this goal. So is the appeal to racial minorities under the guise of civil rights, by stirring up resentment toward others. The issue of coveting will be a very key issue in this election, for it divides the nation one from the other with a cloud of suspicion.

The Ten Commandments are found in full in the Bible in Exodus 20:1-17 and in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, and are affirmed in the new Testament. They have stood for 3500 years as the working standard for the human race. If we wish to have a fair and just society, one that is prosperous and offers benefits to all its citizens, it is time we vote for the Commandments. For too long we have been wandering away from them. No candidate of course, is going to conform perfectly to everything God’s word says. But as you evaluate the candidates, at least pick a competent one who is committed in principle to uphold God’s revealed plan. Take this voter guide with you to the polls!

The Super Bowl Mirrors America

Super Bowl 50 mirrored the American culture in a rather disturbing way. The faces of who we are beamed back at us from the glitz and glamour of America’s biggest sporting event, and it forms a perplexing picture, rather like the grotesque images in a carnival funhouse.

Those who are older and more traditional enjoyed the opening ceremonies. Patriotism was in full throat as the military color guard marched onto the field and the combined armed forces choir sang America the Beautiful and Lady Gaga stirred us with an outstanding treatment of the National Anthem—red mascara and all! The game itself was classic football, with the Bronco’s amazing defense shutting down the winningest team in the NFL, Carolina’s Panthers, 24-10. Americana on display.

At halftime it all changed, with Beyonce and her black clad dancers doing an ode to Black Power and “Black Lives Matter.” The halftime show concluded with Coldplay doing a song that finished with a huge block of the stadium holding up rainbow hued cards that spelled out “Believe in Love.” Some are hedging, but the message was not all that subtle. It was a promo for homosexuality and same sex marriage. Anti America sticking its finger in our face.

Then there was the contrast between class and boorishness. The Panther’s Cam Newton was extolled all season long as the outstanding young quarterback in the league. His response has been to swagger and strut and smile and boast. Indeed, the Panthers have more black players on their team than any other, and “Ghetto Culture” was prominent. But after the loss, Newton could barely answer reporters’ questions with more than one or two word grunts; and then, having barely begun, he announced, “Man, I’m done,” and slinked off. All right, cultures are different and I get tired of the trash talk and the jiving celebrations. But even football icon Deion Sanders said Newton’s act was bad news.

In contrast Peyton Manning manifested class—he was not very good, but good enough to win behind his league leading defense. When asked right after the game if this was his last game, if he was retiring, Manning said that he was going to kiss his wife and his children and then reflect a bit. He would not steal the spotlight from his teammates’ joy at their championship. In old America, that was the way it was done. Gracious in victory, head up in defeat.

Among the commercials, one provoked an angry reaction from the political left. A Doritos ad showed a father and a mother-to-be in the doctor’s office viewing a sonogram of their unborn “beautiful baby,” who made a play for his father’s bag of Doritos. Humorous, most of the country thought. But not the people from NARAL Pro Choice America. They blasted the commercial for being anti-abortion because it showed a baby alive in the womb. No kidding.

Meanwhile, Franklin Graham posted a tribute on Facebook recognizing the Christian faith of four outstanding players, two on each team. It was a reminder that in the rough and tumble world of professional sports, there are players who follow Jesus and do not hide it. Christianity is not incompatible with being a champion, though the Christians be few.

All of this leads me to recall the situation that confronted the people of Israel in the decades after Moses and Joshua had died. They were left with the task of conquering the Promised Land. God had commanded them to drive out the Canaanites, totally and completely, because the Canaanites had filled up the measure of their sins. In other words, God had had enough. But in the Bible, the book of Judges tells us that most of the tribes failed to pursue that goal and left large parts of the land with their pagan neighbors intact.

So God confronted the people of Israel and said to them, “I said…,You shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars. But you have not obeyed me….Therefore…they shall become as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.’” Then “the people lifted up their voices and wept.” (Judges 2:2-4) This is where we find ourselves in America today. Yes, cultures are going to change, and that is not a bad thing. But what was on display in San Francisco on Super Bowl Sunday was not one, but several cultures. And most of those are not the culture that once typified this nation and its people.

One does not in these times remove the people who serve other gods by deportation or other means as once Israel was commanded to do. They are here to stay. But sometime in the past—frankly, it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when America was in its “golden age”—American Christians largely stopped their efforts to lead people to Christ. Evangelism would have been the equivalent of removing the unbelievers from America by lovingly turning them into believers. There are a lot of reasons for this. But now, a generation or more later, they are a thorn in the side and a snare to the godly ones among us. Fortunately, it is not too late. It is just more difficult. If America is ever going to reflect again the culture of godliness, we’d better get going.

Why is Jew Hatred Growing?

Visible hatred of the world against the Jews is once more on the rise. Seventy years after humanity vowed “Never again!”, two generations after the full horrors of the Holocaust were laid bare, it is surging. Most of us became aware of it when Muslim terrorists struck Jewish businesses in Paris late last year, but it has been growing over recent months.

In January of last year, a gunman entered Paris’s Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, took hostages and killed four Jewish men. An Israeli man was beaten in Berlin when he asked several locals to stop singing anti-Semitic songs on the subway; In February, another gunman opened fire at Copenhagen’s great synagogue, killing Danish-Israeli guard Dan Uzan, who was providing security for a bat mitzva ceremony taking place inside. Then came other attacks: in March a drunken mob attacked a group of people in a synagogue in London; in October a rabbi and two congregants were stabbed in Marseilles; in December fourteen worshipers at a synagogue in Bonneuilsur- Marn, France were seriously injured by liquid poison that was poured on the building’s electronic lock.

The Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University has issued a report stating that anti-Semitic incidents in London are up 60 percent over a year ago. In France they are up 84 percent compared to 2014. Globally they have increased 40 percent. The Kantor Center says that 2015 was a “record year” for Jewish emigration from Western Europe. Seven thousand Jews from France alone emigrated to Israel, and the Israelis are scrambling to make room for them.

In America the same disturbing trends are also evident, although as yet, mostly on college and university campuses. For example, Lisa Marie Mendez, a UCLA student who is also employed by the UCLA Medical Center, posted this vitriol on Facebook: “F****** Jews. GTFOH with all your Zionist b*******. Crazy a** f****** troglodyte albino monsters of cultural destruction. F****** Jews. GTFOH with your b*******. Give the Palestinians back their land. Go back to Poland or whatever freezer-state you’re from, and realize that faith does not constitute race.”

The Kantor Center reports that Seventy-five percent of American university students say they have witnessed anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist incidents. A recent study from the Brandeis Center for Human Rights found that more than half of nearly 1,200 Jewish students surveyed at 55 campuses nationwide reported they have experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on campus during the last year. Things like swastikas spray-painted on Jewish fraternity houses, “eviction notices” delivered to Jewish students in their dorms, and mock “apartheid walls” which disseminate Hamas propaganda. There have been anti-Semitic boycotts, institutional divestment of Israeli investments, sanctions resolutions, and attempts to shut down pro-Israel speakers, sometimes with violence.

A lot of this, of course, is driven by Muslim student groups or pro-Palestinian organizations on campus. There are, fortunately, campuses where Jew-hatred is met with official condemnation. However, the disturbing factor is that at many colleges and universities, liberal faculty and administrators look the other way. If it were KKK sponsored anti-African-American rhetoric or demonstrations, it would not be tolerated for an instant. If it were allegations of coeds being raped on campus, there would be an immediate public outcry. But because it is directed at Jews, left leaning educators are content to stand by and do little or nothing.

Hatred of the Jews has been around for centuries. The question we might profitably ask is, why? Why are Jews consistently singled out as objects of hatred? The Bible may offer us a clue. I realize that merely by saying what I am about to say, some will rear back in horror and accuse me of gross anti-Semitism myself. But this is not the case. I want to raise a question that ought to be considered if we want to find a solution.

In Deuteronomy 28 Moses has gathered the people of Israel on the facing mountain peaks of Ebal and Gerizim. It is just before Israel was to enter the Promised Land, what is today Israel and Palestine, to conquer it. Moses enacts a ceremony where symbolically half the people represent the blessings of God, if Israel will remain faithful and obedient to him. And half represent God’s curse if the people forget God and do not keep his commandments. The passage is too long to reproduce here. The list of curses is vast and the language is strong because God has singled out Israel for special favor and a special purpose, and he wants to bless them.

Here are some of the relevant words of the curse: “You shall become a horror, a proverb, and a taunt among all the people where the Lord shall drive you… All these curses shall come on you and pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you would not obey the Lord your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you. And they shall become a sign and a wonder on you and on all your descendants forever.” (Deuteronomy 28:37, 45-46) (Emphasis ours.) Does the persistence of hatred by the world directed at the Jews find its explanation in this curse? Is this the ultimate factor that lies beneath the Holocaust? It is worth pondering.

Ultimately, the unrelenting animosity of much of the world toward the Jews is directed and fueled by Satan. This malignant being is real. When horrifying Evil appears in the world, as it does from time to time, the only adequate explanation is the supernatural nature of hell’s wrath. At bottom, Satan’s fiery hatred is directed at God and all whom God appears favors. The Bible says that the people of Israel were God’s chosen people. If the Jews today do not fully and joyfully serve their true God as once they did, it means they have slipped out from under the protection of God. Hence the curse. It is worth contemplating. If we want to bring the hatred of Jews to an end in our time, it is the place to start.

Anglicans andthe Crisis of Apostasy

Apostasy is a nuclear bomb word. For those who are not conversant with the ecclesiastical language of the Christian faith, it describes a wholesale and fundamental departure from the faith, so egregious that it places the offenders beyond the boundaries of what defines a Christian. In other words, it is a person, group, or church that once was Christian but now no longer is. For several days in January, the Primates of the Anglican Church gathered in Canterbury, England, and apostasy was the topic of the day.

The Anglican Communion encompasses some 80-85 million Christians in 165 countries around the world. The diversity is such that its members speak 1000 languages. While the word “Anglican” means “England” and the Church of England remains the source and center of this huge body, the far greater weight of its membership lies below the equator. The churches in Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda alone compose forty percent of all the Anglicans around the world. Until now, Anglicans have been nominally united by their common statement of faith, the Thirty-Nine Articles, which dates from the Reformation. It is the Global South which most consistently holds to the historic and Biblical faith.

The crisis that propelled the Primates to gather was created by the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC), and to a lesser extent, the Anglican Church in Canada. For decades the Episcopal Church has tolerated liberal heretics who have notoriously denied some of the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity. Then in 2004 it consecrated an openly practicing homosexual, V. Eugene Robinson, as Bishop of New Hampshire. Lastly, in July 2015, TEC formally changed its Canon rules concerning marriage, to permit and approve same sex marriages.

After the change, the Episcopal marriage service now begins, “Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of [Name] and [Name] in Holy Matrimony. The joining of two people in a life of mutual fidelity signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and so it is worthy of being honored among all people.” (Emphasis ours) “Two people,” no longer exclusively a man and a woman.

The change has serious theological implications. First, the Bible clearly defines marriage as a lifetime union between one man and one woman: “For this cause, a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, Ephesians 5:31) But second, the apostle says marriage between a man and a woman is a symbol of the relationship between “Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32)

There is no way that a “marriage” between two persons of the same sex can be a symbol of anything, and certainly not this holy union between Christ and the people for whom he died. In a “marriage” between two persons of the same gender, which is the bride? Which is the bridegroom? They are the same.

The Word of God pictures Christ as the bridegroom and the church as his bride. Male and female. Same sex marriage is a monstrous perversion of what God has declared to be holy. Not least is the declaration in Scripture that practicing homosexuals are cast in that group who will not be permitted to enter heaven. (I Corinthians 6:9-10) To declare otherwise is to call what God has said to be a lie. That is serious business.

And so the Anglican Churches of the Global South have demanded that the Anglican Communion sever its ties with what they consider to be the apostate church in America. Indeed, TEC’s endorsement of same sex marriage has already resulted in the withdrawal of large numbers of its congregations and dioceses in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and across the country. They have formed independent Anglican congregations or dioceses, many with ties to the churches in Africa. (The Presbyterian Church (USA) which likewise gave approval to same sex marriages in 2015, has also seen hundreds of congregations withdraw from its communion.)

So at the summons of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the Primates gathered. For days they discussed and prayed together over what to do. The archbishop of Uganda gave up in frustration on the second day and returned home. But on January 14, in an apparent answer to the fervent prayers of thousands across the world, the Primates issued their decision. It amounts to a suspension of the Episcopal Church. The Primates declared that TEC’s actions endorsing same sex marriage represent “a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage.” TEC’s action has created a “significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.” Consequently, for three years the Episcopal Church in the United States will be suspended from representing the Anglican Communion and voting or participating in matters of “doctrine or polity.”

In other words, the Primates view the position of the Episcopal Church on marriage as heresy, without specifically calling it that. They maintain a heart-felt desire to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion, but they have sent a strong warning that the bonds of unity have a limit. As I read the Primates’ declaration, they are providing the Episcopal Church with a period to reconsider, repent, and reverse their action. It remains to be seen if the Episcopal Church will pull back from the brink, and if they do not, whether the Anglican Communion will take the step of declaring the Episcopal Church apostate. There ought to be no question, but for church bodies, these things take time.

The issue is of the gravest importance to the church of Christ worldwide. Ninety years ago Presbyterian theologian, J. Gresham Machen, put the matter clearly: “Liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions.” That in reality is where the Episcopal Church has wandered. Will they come back? Speculation is that they intend simply to sit out the three years and expect the Anglican Communion will be the one to back down. But we must wait to see.

For the sake of the worldwide church’s witness to Christ, let us all pray that God will provoke a spirit of true repentance within the Episcopal Church and draw them back into the fold of the Christian faith. And let us thank God for the unswerving commitment of the African Anglicans to the gospel of Christ.

Special Post!


A sermon preached by Dr. Rick Perrin on January 17, 2016 at Covenant Community Presbyterian Church in Wexford, PA.

“With righteousness He will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; and He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.” Isaiah 10:1-11, v 4

Today is among the last sermons I will ever preach, and it is fitting that I do it here and with you. It was forty years ago, June 8, 1975 to be precise, that I preached my first sermon. Not actually the very first sermon I ever preached. It was number twenty according to my records. But it was the first time I preached to this congregation. It was the beginning Sunday for this, the first church plant by the Presbyterian Church in America north of the Mason Dixon line. On that inauspicious occasion nine adults, four children, and a dog gathered for worship in a living room in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. Frankly, the sermon was not very good. It was awful enough that looking back I’m surprised there was ever a second sermon. Those people were either deaf or rendered insensible by the Holy Spirit!

That day I spoke from Psalm 46:10 where God says, “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” In retrospect, it was an appropriate place to begin when starting a new church, casting a vision uttered three thousand years ago of a time when the whole world would know and honor God. Now, today, in the act of recalling that small beginning, I would like to bring us full circle and present to you that same vision, renewed and coupled with hope, that the day is soon coming when the exaltation of God on this planet will be fulfilled in its entirety, the day when the Kingdom of Christ will be revealed in all its glory. Please turn to the 11th chapter of the prophet Isaiah, to the first ten verses. I want to direct our attention to three sections in this prophecy: (1) The Character of Christ and His Kingdom; (2) The Conditions to be Experienced in Christ’s Kingdom; and (3) The Conquest that will Create Christ’s Kingdom.

First of all, however, I need to set this passage up for you by looking a bit at the world situation when Isaiah spoke these words. Isaiah came from an aristocratic family with inside connections to the nobility of the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah. He prophesied for over fifty years in Jerusalem, from about 740-685 BC. He came to have the same sort of popular standing and respect as Billy Graham did at the peak of his ministry, as recently as twenty years ago. Isaiah probably spoke these words recorded in chapter 11 about the year 720 BC, but we cannot know for sure. A very wicked king was then on David’s throne, Ahaz, the son of Jotham and the father of the godly king, Hezekiah.

Ahaz had introduced the worship of pagan idols into the country and he set them up in the temple court. Eventually he closed the temple so that the worship of the God of Israel was forbidden in Judah. When Isaiah spoke, Ahaz refused to listen to the prophet, with the result that for the remainder of Ahaz’s reign, Isaiah withdrew from speaking publicly and directed his preaching to and teaching toward a circle of faithful followers of God. (See Isaiah 8:16-18) It may have been that among that group was the crown prince, Hezekiah, who under Isaiah’s guidance would emerge as one of the greatest kings of Judah.

The source of Ahaz’s wickedness lay in the political pressures of the day and from the tyranny of political correctness that smothered the land. The Assyrian empire had awakened during the preceding century. Because of the idolatry that overtook the ten northern tribes in the nation of Israel, God sent the Assyrians southward to punish and conquer them. The capital of Samaria fell in 722 BC, and Assyria began the process of deporting the population of Israel and replacing them with conquered peoples from other parts of the Middle East. Eventually—700 years later—these people would become the troublesome Samaritans of Jesus’ day. The Assyrians were the ISIS of their time. The atrocities that ISIS commits, the Assyrians did also, but to a much larger extent. The whole world trembled before them. They were unstoppable.

As Isaiah spoke these words to his followers, Assyria loomed as a threat to Judah’s continued existence. Ahaz’s wickedness stemmed from his attempts to appease the Assyrians by worshiping their gods. Isaiah had already prophesied that the Assyrians would come sweeping into Judah as a result (Isaiah 8:5-8), and indeed, in 701 BC they conquered every fortified city in Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem itself. You can read the story of what happened on that occasion in Isaiah 36-37.

So the times were bleak and extremely discouraging for the righteous people in the country, those who loved God. They had watched in despair as the faith of Judah’s people had been relentlessly compromised and polluted by unbelief. They had seen their government become increasingly corrupt. They were distressed by the leadership or lack of leadership of their weak and wicked king. And they lived in terror of powerful and heartless enemies who threatened the nation. Can you identify with what they were feeling? I hope you can because we here in the United States and the West generally are oppressed by similar conditions, although they are not yet as bad or as immediate as Isaiah and his contemporaries faced.

It was in that gloomy, suffocating despair that Isaiah suddenly turned to a theme of hope. At the very end of chapter 10 he tells God’s people that at in the proper time, God would destroy their enemies, and Assyria in particular. “Behold, the Lord, the God of hosts, will lop off the boughs with a terrible crash; those also who are tall in stature will be cut down, and those who are lofty will be abased. And He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an iron axe, and Lebanon will fall by the Mighty One.” (Isaiah 10:33-34)

Now we come to the first part of the passage before us today, The Character of Christ and His Kingdom. Isaiah begins chapter 11 by foretelling the coming of Christ who would establish a glorious kingdom. “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” (v 1) The word stem may also be translated stump. It implies that the royal line of David was going to be cut down, like a tree that has fallen, leaving only the stump. If Isaiah’s audience was listening carefully they would have picked up this inference. And indeed this happened about 150 years in the future. But the people of God should never despair. God keeps his promises, and Isaiah was saying there would be a descendant of David born in the future who would be the long awaited Messiah. Over Christmas you probably heard the familiar parallel prophecy read from Isaiah 9: “A child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over His kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.” (v 6-7)

Isaiah continues in chapter 11, and notice how in what he says, we hear echoes of the names given to the coming king in chapter 9. “And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And He will delight in the fear of the Lord, and He will not judge by what His eyes see, nor make a decision by what His ears hear; but with righteousness He will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth…Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about his waist.” (v 2-5)

Let me take you aside for a moment to observe a social phenomenon that is currently developing in America. I am referring to electoral politics, as numerous candidates seek their respective parties’ nomination for president. What appears to be happening is a revolt on the part of the citizens. The old rules have been thrown out the window. Candidates on both the left and the right who are Washington outsiders, several without elective experience, are leading the field, or at least drawing surprising levels of support. The attitude of the electorate seems to be that government in Washington is broken. Men and women elected in recent years to change things, to fix what is broken, have accomplished little. Nothing seems to change. Government corruption and waste and incompetence seem to grow worse. And “the Establishment,” as it is called, the “Ruling Class,” as others term it, remains in power. The voters are angry.

On the other side of the economic spectrum the minorities and the poor who populate our great cities are angry too. Angry enough that with little provocation and a small injection of manipulation they have exploded into fiery violence, looting and rioting. They are resentful of what they perceive as the denial to them of good jobs, effective education, and fairness from those who are in authority. The interesting thing is that the same “ruling class” that has the rest of society up in arms has been running the cities for two generations or longer. And self-serving politicians, mired in corruption, remain securely entrenched.

This is the way the world has always operated. That was not always how America used to be, but our nation is year by year becoming more like the world. Look again at the coming kingdom that God promises in the first verses of Isaiah 11, and at the King himself. He is going to be a righteous and just ruler, and his kingdom will be in every respect, the Righteous Kingdom. Truth and honesty and competence will characterize this kingdom. And for the poor and oppressed of the earth there will be justice and fairness. God has promised it to citizens of his kingdom. It is just what the world clamors for.

We ought to be filled with hope, just as the frightened and beleaguered people of Isaiah’s day must have been! This is good news. It is a king and a kingdom worth waiting for! And we are stirred to do all we are able to hurry it up, to bring this kingdom to pass.

This brings us to the second observation I wish to make. It has to do with the Conditions to be Experienced in Christ’s Kingdom. Starting in verse 6 Isaiah describes what life will be like for those who live there. “The wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze; Their young will lie down together; and the lion will eat straw like the ox. And the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (v 6-9)

I have a grandson who is two years-old. His family owns a huge black dog named Rooney. Rooney is rather terrifying, especially when you are sitting in a chair and she comes and stares at you eye to eye. She has a ferocious bark that rattles the windows. But Rooney is a gentle beast. Wyatt climbs on her, uses her as a step stool, pulls her ears, and in return receives Rooney’s fat slobbery kisses. He leads her around the house and Rooney willingly follows. But lions are not that way. A couple of years ago Barb and I were in Africa, and while I was attending meetings with other Christian leaders, Barb visited a lion refuge. She was given the privilege of cuddling in her arms a baby lion cub. He was as cute as could be, and she rocked him like an over-sized pussy cat. But one does not venture near the lions after they reach the age of nine months.  That is when their adult teeth come in, and at that point, lions eat you!

It is one thing for us to picture a two year old leading a sweet, tame dog. It is quite another to ever imagine in this world a little boy leading around the king of the jungle. That is not the way this world is, and we cannot imagine it ever will be. Isaiah in this passage is making the point that in the Righteous kingdom there will be absolute and total peace, not only between men, but within nature as well. While his words are surely symbolic, I suspect that they are also meant to be taken literally. When Christ’s kingdom arrives in fullness when he comes again, a massive change will take place, and the world will be remade. The apostle Peter reminds us of this: “According to His promise”—this promise that we have just been reading!—“we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.” (II Peter 3:13) The Righteous Kingdom.

Now, third, we consider the Conquest that will Create Christ’s Kingdom. With a coming kingdom as wonderful and glorious as this one will be, we might expect it to be welcomed with joyful cheers by the people of the earth. But this is not the case. Instead it is met with wrathful opposition and bitter resistance. The reason is simple. The Establishment and the Ruling Class see this kingdom as a threat to their own power and position. And the lowest person in society likewise views this kingdom as a usurpation of his own sovereignty, even though his own ways have brought him much misery. And so in order for this Righteous Kingdom to be established, it must be secured by forceful conquest. The present world will not cede its place willingly.

The question logically follows, then: How will Christ conquer the earth to create his kingdom? Isaiah tells us clearly in the second half of verse 4. It is not what we expect and it is absolutely stunning. The prophet says of Christ the conqueror, “He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.” What comes to your mind when you hear these words? Christ raises his voice and lightning bolts fall. The earth shakes. Men tremble in fear. There are pictures of this sort of powerful destruction of the wicked, particularly in the book of Revelation, as Christ splits the sky with his hordes of fiery angels.

But in context, this is not what Isaiah is saying. Christ does not wage war with guns blazing and bombs exploding, or in the language of the time, with swords and cudgels. He does it with words, simply by speaking! What words can these be that are so powerful that Christ uses them to conquer his enemies? It is the word of God. Or more precisely, it is the gospel of Jesus!

Look for a moment at verse 10. Isaiah says, “It will come about in that day that the nations will resort to the root of Jesse, who will stand as a signal for the peoples; and His resting place will be glorious.” Notice the word “signal.” The same word in the Hebrew is sometimes translated “standard.” We do not use this word in the way that Isaiah means it. A signal or a standard is a battle flag or a banner which is held up high so that the king, watching the battle unfold from a distant vantage point, can follow the flow of the battle; or so that a soldier in the confusion of conflict can look up and see where his unit is fighting. The last time that we used a flag in this manner was at Iwo Jima in 1945. When finally, after thousands of casualties, Mt. Suribachi was taken, a handful of Marines and one Navy corpsman famously raised the American flag to show that Americans held the highest peak on the island. You have seen the picture. It is depicted as the Marine memorial in Washington DC.

This verse is saying that the nations will look to the standard of Christ and flock to it. We can trace the progress of the church by observing where that standard is raised. And what is this standard? It is the cross. In China the government has begun a campaign to tear down the cross from the tops of the churches. But the Chinese house churches have responded by vowing that they will send 20,000 missionaries westward to complete the encirclement of the globe with the gospel. They plan to invade straight into the stronghold of Islam from the back side! The cross of Christ raised high! And guess who is going to win!

How does the gospel conquer the enemies of Christ? Let me give you an illustration. In his latest book, Stealing America, Dinesh D’Souza discusses the corruption that characterizes his native country of India. Every person is intent on stealing what he can from everyone else. It may be in the form of simple larceny, or in the highest levels of government, it comes through laws that confiscate wealth or through bribes and embezzlement. The police in most communities, D’Souza says, are for sale to the highest bidder. Every bureaucrat, every merchant, every lowly laborer is out to pluck what he can from someone else. To get along one must play this game. Everyone has his price.

There is no way to break this system by any human means. You can’t do it by education or by increasing prosperity or by moral persuasion. It can only occur by changing people’s hearts. The only force powerful enough to alter a human heart is the gospel of Jesus! Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay for sin. He rose again to seal the promise. And any person who will repent of his sin and place his trust in Jesus to save him will be forgiven and granted the gift of citizenship in the coming Righteous kingdom. The supernatural word, by the working of the Holy Spirit, transfers a person from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. A disciple made is an enemy slain! Have you become a citizen of the Righteous Kingdom by receiving Jesus as your Savior and Lord? If not, or if you are not sure, then I call you right now to come by faith and receive your citizenship papers in Christ’s Kingdom!

You and I must tell this gospel boldly to others, for it is not Christ by himself alone who speaks the words that slays his enemies and makes them into friends. He has co-opted his followers to the task. We are the ones who are to preach the gospel! It is a great privilege. You recall that Christ’s last command to his apostles was, ”All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20) Mark puts it this more succinctly: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15)

We might wonder at this. But the apostle reminds us, “God was well pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” (I Corinthians 1:21) I have always known this truth, that it is the gospel that creates Christ’s kingdom. I included it in the first sermon I preached in that living room many years ago. But it has struck me anew with urgency in recent years. You and I are the messengers of Christ the King sent out to conquer the world. You and I, especially in these desperate and difficult days, must shed our hesitancy to speak and find the voice to tell others that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. I may not be able to do it much longer. My time and opportunity is fading away. Will you take my place?

I am going to leave you with an assignment. Franklin Graham, who is the president of Samaritan’s Purse and of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has begun a year long plan to hold prayer and preaching meetings on the steps of every state capitol in our country during 2016. It began on January 5 in Iowa where 2500 people gathered. The date for Harrisburg has not yet been fixed. But when it comes I want to charge you to travel to Harrisburg on that day (or your own state capital)—take a day off work if you have to—and gather with other Christians on the capitol steps. Bring others with you. Be present to help raise high the cross of Christ and to call our state and all of America to turn to God. Build the Righteous kingdom!.


13 Hours and the Cabal of Liars

The world premiere last week of the movie, 13 Hours, has reignited the controversy surrounding Benghazi and the conflict which took place there on September 11, 2012. That night four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in a thirteen hour attack on the United States consulate annex and safe house by the Islamic terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia. The movie focuses on the American CIA security contractors who disobeyed orders and came to rescue forty American diplomatic personnel and staff, and endured a night-long battle.

The film depicts the initial attack and the urgent calls for help that came from the consulate around 10:00 PM. The rescue party was preparing to leave when stand-down orders delayed their departure from the CIA Annex, just a mile away. Tyrone Woods and others finally took matters into their own hands and set out to fight the insurgents. By this time Ambassador Stevens was missing and another American diplomat had also been killed. The rescue party was forced to retreat back to the safe house. Woods was killed by a mortar blast while manning a position on the roof. Fellow operative Glen Doherty also died during the night. The movie depicts the repeated messages these men sent asking for assistance. Help and air support was not far away, but it was help that never came.

13 Hours is an important film. Pollster Frank Luntz says it is every American’s “responsibility” to see this movie. The reason is that Benghazi is an event that casts a shadow of shame across America and her leadership. The people of this country need to be aware of what happened that night so that it never occurs again. We did not defend our own. We allowed our ambassador to die. We left the bodies of the slain behind on the ground to be picked up later by the Libyans. All of this runs contrary to American tradition and the nation’s code of honor. But there are heroes, and two of them are dead.

Having said this, we must point out that the film never mentions Hillary Clinton and her role in denying repeated requests for additional security for the consulate in the preceding weeks. She has taken responsibility for that. It does not mention President Obama, or speculate on how high up the chain of command the “stand-down” order rose. Official sources deny there was a stand-down order. The survivors of the battle insist there was. The movie chooses to be non-political in that it tells the story strictly from the viewpoint of the men involved on the ground. Their view was limited to the circumstances as they knew it. But on top of everything, 13 Hours is a darn good war movie.

You will recall that after the Benghazi incident, the Obama administration—the President, Secretary Clinton, and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, insisted for four days that the attack was caused by Muslim reaction to a video. That was of course a lie. The attack was conclusively proven to have been a well planned and executed assault by Muslim extremists–and the administration knew that from the beginning. It was to this question of her integrity that Mrs. Clinton made her famous reply to a congressional committee investigation, “Four Americans are dead….What difference, at this point, does it make?” This movie answers that question.

The night after the premiere, Megan Kelly of Fox News interviewed the father of Tyrone Woods and the mother of Glen Doherty. They had been invited to attend the premier. Mr. Woods told how every parent wants to see where his loved one died, to be there on the spot. He said this movie took him there. It was very hard, but he was glad he went. Mrs. Doherty left the movie when she saw her “son” appear on the screen.

And then both recounted their experience when the bodies of their sons and the two other casualties were brought home. Mr. Woods said he went to the President and the Secretary of State who were present, and asked repeatedly, “How did my son die? Please tell me.” Then, for the TV audience, he pulled from his pocket the notebook which he carried with him that day and in which he had written the words that Hillary Clinton spoke to him. He held it up so the viewers could read it. “Mrs. Clinton said to me, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to arrest the filmmaker who caused this.’” At the time, that was all these parents knew. Now they understand they were lied to by the highest officials of the land. In deep distress, Mrs. Doherty cried out to Megan Kelly, “Hillary Clinton is a liar!” and she broke into tears.

Well, we all know that, don’t we? We know that Mrs. Clinton has lied repeatedly about everything she does, and continues to lie in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary about her emails and the personal server she used while Secretary of State. But that is merely standing operating procedure for the Obama administration. America has had some great prevaricators who have served the country as President. But this President and his administration is by far the worst and the most consistently false.

God thinks telling the truth important enough that he gave it as his Ninth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness.” (Exodus 20:16) Without truth and the confidence that the people with whom we deal are telling the truth, society cannot function. Worse, without truth the government of a country forfeits the loyalty of its people and must resort to rule by force in order to govern.

God has declared that he will enforce his commandment in the end. Hell was created for the devil and his angels, but the Bible says, “For the cowardly and untrustworthy and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars; their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)

Do you believe this, or not? God does not lie. I hope the American people will pay attention.

The Moral Lesson from the Steelers-Bengals Playoff Game

It was the craziest, most improbable ending to a football game that I have ever seen. But in it lies a lesson that each of us ought to learn. The Pittsburgh Steelers had backed their way into the NFL Wildcard Playoff game and faced off against the Cincinnati Bengals in Cincinnati on Saturday night, January 9. Both teams carried a bagload of anger and resentment into the game, the leftovers from their last meeting in December when the league leveled $140,000 in fines for player misconduct.

The Steelers took a 15-0 lead into the fourth quarter. And that was when the craziness started. On the last play of the third quarter, Cincinnati’s linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, sacked the Steelers’ star quarterback, Ben Rothlesberger in what appeared to be a legal hit. But Rothlesberger’s shoulder was injured and he was carted off the field to the cheers and jeers and thrown garbage of the Cincinnati fans. Now the Steelers began to fade. The Bengals scored a touchdown, a field goal, and then another touchdown to pull ahead 16-15. Steelers’ backup quarterback Landry Jones was ineffective, and with time running out, he forced a pass which was intercepted by the afore mentioned Vontaze Burfict. Cincinnati had the ball on the Pittsburgh 26 yard line with 1:36 remaining in the game. It was all over, just a matter of running out the clock. Burfict was in line to be the toast of Cincinnati, come the morrow.

However, the way the script was written was not to be. On the first play from scrimmage, Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier forced Cincinnati running back, Jeremy Hill, to fumble and the Steelers recovered. They took over the ball on their own 9 yard line with 1:32 to go. It was then that demoralized Pittsburgh hearts across the country rose: Ben Rothlesberger trotted onto the field and took his place under center. Rothlesberger, unable to throw long, completed 4 out of 5 short passes to bring his team to their own 41 . It was fourth down with three yards to go. Rothlesberger threw complete for twelve yards to Antionio Brown for a first down on the Cincinnati 47. Twenty-two seconds remained, and Pittsburgh had no time outs left. They were a dozen yards away from even thinking about a long field goal.

Rothlesberger fired again to Brown but the pass was incomplete. And that was when Vontaze Burfict went insane. He lowered his head and deliberately plowed late into the shoulder and head of Antonio Brown, knocking him out cold. It was clearly a malevolent hit and the yellow flags flew. Burfict was penalized for a personal foul and the ball moved fifteen yards to the Bengals’ 32. And then while the referees were still sorting out the play and Antonio Brown was being helped off the field, Cincinnati’s Adam “Pacman” Jones in a fit of anger aimed at Steeler linebacker coach, Joey Porter, shoved a referee. Another flag, another fifteen yards, and now the Steelers had the ball on the 17 yard line with 22 seconds left in the game. The Steelers did not hesitate. Chris Boswell kicked an easy 35 yard field goal and the game was over.

The Steelers won 18-16, and Cincinnati stumbled into their clubhouse, stunned and silent–except for Adam Jones who put the icing on the cake, spitting out profanity laced curses at the referees, the Steelers, and anyone else he could think of. Cincinnati had the game won. And these two men, Burfict and Jones, by losing control and giving way to their personal hatreds and anger, stupidly destroyed certain victory and twisted it into shameful defeat. Vontaze Burfict especially went from hero to goat in the space of two minutes.

One may draw all sorts of lessons from this game, things like, “Never give up,” or “Reach for the inspiration and courage to give all you have and more, even when you are injured.” Or on the other side, “Keep your head in the game and play for the good of the team and don’t give in to your destructive emotions—maintain self control!”. But there is something else, something more important to learn from what happened in Cincinnati. It is to understand the power of human sin that exists in all of us. The apostle Paul wrote with resignation about human nature. He says that we are each “sold into bondage to sin. For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate….I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.” (Romans 7:14-18)

The sin that resides in all of us is irrational. And it can overcome even the best of us at the most inopportune moments of life. No matter how educated one may be or how cultured or how skilled in urbane manners and proper behavior; no matter how much money one possesses or does not possess; no matter how much one is drilled and trained and bound by the bands of strong self-will and determination; still one cannot control the power of sin that courses through our bodies. It cannot be tamed. That is why no person will ever be saved by any amount of good deeds or extraordinary piety. We may do many good things. But in the end they are futile. So the apostle cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (v 24) Who indeed?

Fortunately there is an answer, and Paul gives it in the next verse. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Here is the solution to the despair of the human race. The saving work of Jesus Christ does not in this life render a person perfect in all his behavior or in every word he speaks. But it means that when a person comes with repentance to Christ to save him, he is forgiven. And God changes his heart. The spirit of Christ begins more and more to control him. Imperfect we may remain, but here lies the only hope for the human condition.

The World Lurches Toward War

“Why are the nations in an uproar?” The psalmist asked this question three thousand years ago. (Psalm 2:1) At the dawn of 2016, it continues to be a most relevant thought to ponder. Saudi Arabia and Iran glare at each other with clenched fists and burning rage across the Persian Gulf. A few days ago Saudi Arabia, which is a Sunni Muslim nation executed a leading Shiite cleric, Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, on charges of inciting terrorism and threatening the security of the Saudi kingdom.

The execution set off protests in Iran. On the evening of January 2 a mob stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and burned it. Saudi Arabia responded by breaking diplomatic relations with Iran and gave Iran’s diplomatic staff 42 hours to leave the country. Iran retaliated by declaring that it welcomed war and placed troops on the alert. In Iraq, Shiite terrorists bombed two Sunni mosques, and Shiite protestors demanded that the new Saudi Embassy be closed. On January 3 Bahrain and Sudan followed Saudi Arabia’s example and cut diplomatic ties with Tehran. The United Arab Emirates recalled its ambassador from Iran. On January 4 Saudi Arabia suspended all air traffic to Iran and shut off economic transactions.

Across the world, nations recoiled. Middle Eastern stock markets plummeted as much as two and a half percent. In the United States the New York Stock Exchange opened on Monday and dropped 450 points by mid-morning. China shut down its stock markets to prevent panic.

And so it stands as this is written. This conflict would merely be about two countries acting out their animosities and venting their long time strains, except for two factors. The first is oil. If the crisis escalates, the prime target for Iran will be Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. Iran will seek to close down the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz is 23 miles wide at its narrow point and through it passes 20 percent of the world’s oil and 34 percent of all oil shipped by sea. It is a choke point. It will seek to provoke unrest in the oil region, where many Shiites live, with intent to destroy Saudi oil production. That spreads the crisis to Europe and the United States and other parts of the world, including China and Japan, which depend on Saudi Arabian oil to fuel their economies. Some experts predict the loss of Saudi oil could rocket the price of oil to over $300 a barrel. And that likely will plunge the world into economic depression or collapse.

The second factor is the political alliances. Iran is supported by Russia which cherishes dreams of recapturing the old Soviet Empire. The United States is allied with Saudi Arabia, but seems now to be tilting toward Iran, pushing the Saudis to feel the need to act unilaterally in its own defense. That’s where the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria enters the picture. Saudi Arabia is part of the coalition fighting ISIS. ISIS is backed by Iran. So a proxy war between the two is already being waged. It could easily escalate. Russia is in the mix. Turkey sits on the border with Iraq and opposes Iranian expansion. Turkey and Russia are close enough to armed conflict, ever since the Turks shot down a Russian fighter a few weeks ago, that a small additional spark could set it off. The United States and Europe are bound through the NATO alliance to come to Turkey’s aid in the event of a war. With stakes so high, perhaps tensions can be dialed back. But it is not difficult to see a scenario where the nations of the world could be drawn into a war, even against their wills.

Part of the equation, of course, involves Israel. A hot war in the Middle East offers a very good opportunity to launch massive Muslim attacks against Israel, which many Islamic nations have lusted to do for two generations. The nations hostile to America and the West look at the weakness of the United States and the fact that America is so far in debt that it cannot afford a major war. They know they have a year left in which they can assume a dithering and indecisive United States response. All of this may persuade them that now is the time to move if they are ever going to. The world situation could not be more precarious.

So we return to the question with which we began: “Why are the nations in an uproar?” The reasons are not hard to see. But the psalmist has a deeper analysis. He says, “The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed. (That is, Christ.) ‘Let us tear their fetters apart, and cast away their cords from us.’” (v 2-3) He is saying that at bottom, the conflicts and wars of the earth stem from men’s attempts to break free from the rule of God and to establish their own. What is now developing is part of a cosmic struggle.

As we view these events and hold our breaths, and as diplomats scramble to placate old grievances and patch the world order together for a bit longer, the queasy thought invades our hearts that this could be it. This could be the big one, the war that will engulf all the peoples and bring an end to world order as we have known it. This may not be. But the Bible says that one day it will come. And present world events appear in such a manner that they could be lining up. We cannot know.

But instead of living fearfully, we need to listen for and strain to hear the voice of God for our times. The psalmist says that as God watches the machinations of the nations, “He who sits in the heavens laughs. The Lord scoffs at them.” (v 4) Pray that you might hear a mighty roll of laughter echoing on the air. And that “the peace of God that passes all understanding may guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

More of the Same in the New Year

It’s not a good time to be a Christian in 105 of the world’s 190 nations. Persecution of Christians continues to run at an all-time high. There have been more Christian martyrs in the 20th and 21st centuries than in all of the preceding 19 centuries combined.

“Credible research has reached the shocking conclusion that every year an estimate of more than 100,000 Christians are killed because of some relation to their faith,” Vatican spokesman Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi told the United Nations Human Rights Council in mid 2015. The estimate is based on figures compiled by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, which publishes such a figure each year in its Status of Global Mission.

The basis for this number is actually just a guess and the totals may be calculated on questionable assumptions. Nevertheless, the number of Christians killed for believing in Jesus is extremely disturbing. The nations on earth most hostile to Christianity center around the Middle East and Africa. However, the greatest on-going persecutor of Christians is the North Korean Communist dictatorship of Kim Jong-un.

In North Korea, thousands of Christians and their families are held in penal labor camps. In 2014 up to 80 were executed for possessing Bibles or similar “transgressions.” In Sudan, hundreds of Christian women and girls are flogged annually for “indecent dress,” though what constitutes indecent dress is not defined by law. Iran raids church services and threatens believers, punishing Christians with prolonged detention, torture and executions. Hundreds of Christians have been detained throughout the country since 2010, including Iranian-born American pastor Saeed Abedini.

America’s Muslim “allies” in the Middle East are no exception to the pattern: In Egypt, scores of Coptic Christians were killed in 2015. Hundreds of churches and other Christian buildings, homes, and businesses have been attacked by Muslim extremists. In Pakistan, Christian women and girls experience violence daily, and many are targeted for rape, sexual abuse and kidnapping. A mob beat and burned to death a Christian couple last year for alleged “blasphemy.” In Saudi Arabia, not a single Christian church is allowed to exist in the entire country.

Then there is China, where ten percent of the population are Christians. But the government is kicking back. Christians face the “worst persecution since the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong,” says Bob Fu, former leader of the student movement crushed by the Tiananmen Square massacre and now a Christian underground church pastor. “There has been forced demolition, the removal of crosses, over 300 churches have been attacked and government sanctioned church pastors sentenced to 12 years in prison.” One pastor who dared to question authorities about the forced removal of the crosses was sentenced to prison, and a court recently sentenced two Christian bookstore owners to five and two years’ imprisonment for “illegal business operations.” Fu adds, “Multiple believers have been attacked and hospitalized, and thousands of police were mobilized to attack a church. That has not been seen since the time of the Cultural Revolution. It’s overwhelming.”

And so it goes around the world. In the book of Revelation, John is viewing heaven, and he reports, “I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed, even as they had been, should be completed also.” (Revelation 6:9-11)

Clearly, the number of those to die for their faith in Christ has not yet been filled up. Evil men continue their rampage against the church of Christ. Christians continue to bear witness to the truth and to offer their enemies and the enemies of God the gracious invitation from on high: “Cease your warfare and come to Christ. He died to pay for the sins of sinners and rose from the dead to secure eternal life for his people. Sinners who place their trust in Christ will experience not judgment but full forgiveness—all this a free gift from a merciful God!” Some do receive it. But unless Christ returns in this new year, 2016 will likely be another twelve months where the fierce wrath of those who hate God rages without pause, and a year where those who follow Christ suffer and die.

Hebrews 13:3 urges all followers of Christ to “Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.” As the weeks of 2016 unfold, don’t forget them.