Tuesday, January 23, 2018

January 23 - Charles Spurgeon, Preacher, Author, Pastor

It was January in England and Charles was only fifteen when he set out into a storm for some now forgotten appointment. The journey was difficult but manageable for a young man like Charles. Yet, as he drew nearer and nearer to his destination the storm grew more and more insurmountable and inescapable. It was as if the storm was offended by his continued journey and determined to turn him aside. Eventually, Charles did turn aside into a little Methodist church where he might find shelter from the wind and snow. As he waited for the storm to pass, he picked up a Bible and considered it. He had heard some of the stories contained therein but they had not had any significant effect upon his life as of yet. He opened to Isaiah--perhaps a favorite book of his at the time--and was hit by a verse: "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is none else." At these astounding words, Charles bucked. There is none else? Surely that couldn't be right. Yet, he was caught upon the hook of God's grace and could not escape either the snowstorm or God's furious love. It was alone in that little church that Charles would say "God opened [his] heart to the salvation message." Charles Haddon Spurgeon was converted to a faith worth talking about.

He was later baptized in the Baptist church his family attended. His passion and intensity were plain to see by the leaders and laypeople alike in the small church. He was asked to preach the following winter and he did so gladly to much acclaim and appreciation. It seemed he had a gift. Few expected the boy preacher to have much of a gift--if any at all--and were amazed to hear the way Charles spoke to them as one having authority. His style was not the cultured and educated style of many clergy but, rather, was characterized by an earnest and sincere directness that gripped the heart of the reader and begged it to reconsider what Jesus had to say. Whereas many preachers were waxing theological and earning accolades with sweet words, Charles had one powerful strategy: beg the listener to take Jesus seriously and at his word. It was very effective and he soon found himself a pastor (less than five years after being converted) and preacher at the largest Baptist church in all of London.

In spite of his failure among homiletical critics, soon he was regularly preaching to crowds of more than 10,000 listeners. All of this happened within ten years of finding Jesus in a little Methodist church where he was forced to take shelter from the storm. He was finding that there was "none else" but God that brought salvation and hope for many. He was soon invited to preach at the Crystal Palace and he did so gladly having just founded a preacher's academy that he had been publicizing. He entered the area to test its acoustics and determine where the platform should be placed. He picked a phrase that spoke to him and which he routinely used in sermons: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" As he shouted it repeatedly, it fell upon the ears of a man who had been doing some renovations and repairs in the building. As the repetitions hammered upon his brain, he was struck by the incredible desperate sincerity in the voice of the preacher and he left his job to go home and think upon the sentence he had heard several times. That night the man was converted to follow after the one and only Lamb of God.

Charles' sermons became one of the most widely read publications in the history of printing and his sermons became collector's items for those desperate to hear a word from God. Though he never extended an altar call at any point in his career he did invite all who were moved to meet with him in the church building on Monday morning. Routinely, these meetings were full of people moved to tears and conversion by the sincere and hopeful words of a man who had been turned aside by a snowstorm. He died, as the end of the 19th century approached, a noted and lauded preacher not by critics but by the ones whose lives had been changed by his preaching.

Monday, January 22, 2018

January 22 - Timothy, Martyr, Shepherd, Companion of Paul

Timothy had heard about the one they were talking about--Jesus. Perhaps he had even met him but apparently he had not been persuaded to become a follower of his if he had indeed run across him in his travels. Of course, Timothy was only a late teenager when Jesus had been put to death and it was Paul who had really brought the Gospel to him later in Lystra. In fact, it was nearly two decades after Jesus' death that Timothy finally found him in the words of the traveling missionary who seemed to be calling Timothy to a higher calling than a typical life in Lystra. It had all happened when Paul and Barnabas had showed up one day to preach their message in Timothy's town and region. With much prayer and passion, they brought about a miraculous healing of a crippled child and the people were shocked. In the face of compassionate power that the Empire could not match--for it could cripple but never heal--many of the witnesses were converted to the faith of Paul and Barnabas. Timothy, his mother Eunice, and his grandmother Loida were all part of these initial converts in Lystra. Timothy became the companion of Paul and went with them on their missionary journeys.

It was at the feet of Paul that Timothy received his education in the faith that now gripped his heart and soul. As they traveled, Paul taught and Timothy learned. In this way, Timothy was immersed not only in the waters of baptism but in the ebb and flow of Christian teaching. Thus, it was no surprise when this loved one of Paul became a leader in the Church at Ephesus. Paul appointed Timothy to be a shepherd of a flock in need of guidance and leadership. Though Timothy did not look forward to leaving his cherished place of guidance by Paul's side, he knew that God had called him and prepared him for an important ministry within the Church. Paul went on with his journeys and Timothy became a leader in the Church. Indeed, Timothy received letters from his mentor advising him how to live into his calling but most of Timothy's decisions were made by focusing on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.One day, though, Timothy received a letter inviting him to a prison where Paul had been incarcerated for preaching the message he shared with Timothy. Timothy traveled and said his farewells to his mentor and Paul reminded Timothy to have confidence in his calling even if it felt overwhelming at times. Paul died and Timothy returned to his flock with the knowledge that the message that he and Paul carried could very well cost him his life. Eventually, it did.

There was a festival going on in Ephesus that involved parading idols before the people so that they might worship and appeal to the gods they were supposed to represent. Timothy could see the faces of the people who put their hopes in dead stone. They sought healing and help and they received nothing but disappointment.Recalling the day he had seen God heal a crippled boy, his heart burned at the thought of misplaced faith and so he took to the street and stood in front of the parade to preach words of true hope and effective faith. They screamed for him to stop and he continued anyway because he had been trained and taught by Paul that the Gospel was worth suffering for. So, he was beaten savagely and dragged by his clothes and arms through the street before those who had such desperate hope stoned him to death and made him a martyr.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

January 21 - Agnes, Martyr, Virgin, Pure of Heart

Agnes was a young Christian of maybe one twelve or thirteen years of age when Diocletian's regime came calling for her life.She was a Roman citizen living in Rome with her wealthy and influential parents when the persecutions began to claim her brothers and sisters in the Faith. As was the case with many wealthy Christian families at the turn from the third to the fourth centuries, Agnes and her family's peaceful existence was turned on its head as the Empire demanded more and more and accepted less and less resistance. However, Agnes' noble parents meant that they would simply be extorted and coerced instead of immediately killed--the time of noble death usually came after they had been bled dry of all their resources by a power-hungry ruling class that no longer cared for them. So, Agnes should have been okay--except Agnes was beautiful.

She was so beautiful that the prefect's son prized her above all the other maidens and went to his father to see what could be done about gaining Agnes as his wife. The prefect was confident that the family would be all too happy to give their daughter over to his family as the bride of their son. So, he sent a courier asking what they thought of the proposal. Amazingly for the day, Agnes' father wanted to know what Agnes thought about the proposition. She rejected the offer and word was sent back to the prefect as the family waited--holding their breath at the expected retaliation. The prefect was furious that they would dare deny him his wishes and his will. He didn't understand why her father hadn't forced her to marry his son and demanded that Agnes be brought before him. When Agnes arrived, she seemed confident in a way that surprised the prefect and so, instead of questioning her--somehow knowing she would continue to refuse even under threat--he ordered her to be killed. "But, prefect," one of his advisers interjected,"she is a virgin and cannot be executed...it would be unseemly." Everybody let out their breath feeling that surely Agnes' life would be spared. They underestimated the cruelty of the Empire.

"We'll see what we can do about that," growled the prefect. His armed and trained guards stripped a young teenage girl of her clothing and chained her hands and feet. She was taunted and mocked for her nudity and age and then led naked through the streets of Rome. The guards led the defenseless girl at sword point as if she were a dangerous criminal--she who had refused the prefect's wishes--and brought her to a brothel to be raped so that she might then be executed. When they tried to seize her they found themselves unable even though she did not resist them. It seemed that their bodies didn't work right. When she was finally pushed into the brothel, men lined up to rape the young girl but were stricken blind as each of them tried to step forward and perpetrate that unholy act upon her. In fear, they took her from the brothel and tied her to a stake. As they tried to set the young girl on fire the wood refused to catch. In fear and panic, the commander drew his sword and drove it through Agnes' throat. The naked little girl had brought an Empire to its knees only by refusing to be shaken or coerced. Her grave became a site of adoration and prayer and yet more Christians were gathered in by the empire for martyrdom upon visiting Agnes' grave.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

January 20 - Fabian, Martyr, Pope, Layman

Anterus had died and so the Church needed a new bishop in Rome. Many Christians from the surrounding communities gathered in one location in Rome to select, call, and appoint a new bishop of Rome--the next pope. Of course, they were mourning the passing of Anterus but they were also busy about the business of the Church as they felt God was calling them to be. The Church did not know it at the time--though some may have seen the writing on the wall--but the next pope would be crucial for the life of Christians throughout the Roman Empire as Decius would become emperor and the Decian persecution was only a little ways away. For now, though, the emperor was Marcus Julius Philippus--remembered as Philip--and life was relatively easy as evidenced by the significant public gathering of Christians. As they talked about who the next pope might be several notable names were passed around--until something miraculous happened. The assembly stopped talking suddenly when they saw a dove slowly circle the gathering. Every eye focused on the dove and every mind turned to the familiar story of Jesus' baptism and they wondered if this dove might mean something amazing. The bird landed gracefully upon the head of a lay Christian named Fabian.

At first, there must have been confusion as to why the dove had not landed on one of the notable people in the group--it had chosen an unknown who wasn't even a priest or deacon. But as they began to voice their confusion, their minds turned to the story of the anointing of David in the house of his father Jesse. David had been a youth of so little importance that he hadn't even been invited for Samuel to inspect when choosing a new king from the sons of Jesse. Yet, God had called David and so David became king. The people held their tongues for they felt God was calling Fabian to be pope even if they didn't see how he was qualified for it. So, they selected, called, and appointed Fabian to be the bishop of Rome--the next pope.

Fabian's papacy was tame for the majority of the time and Fabian served honorably in this exalted and humbling position. Yet, when Decius became emperor the Church became very aware that a storm was brewing. Decius was no friend of the Church and would not be baptized by the pope as emperor Philip had been with his son. Instead, Decius would baptize Fabian--in blood. With the advent of the Decian persecution, the Church was eviscerated and dwindling. Through Fabian's leadership, missionaries were sent to Gaul to carry the Christian faith out of the reach of Roman oppression. Instead of hoping to renew and maintain the Church by focusing inwardly, Fabian knew that the Church was only maintained and renewed by reaching out and spreading the Gospel given to it. So, missionaries were sent that would do the work of the Church even amid the tyranny of the Empire. This great work was essential but it came at a very high price: the life of the pope. Decius hunted down Fabian and had him burned alive in the catacombs where the Church met. The pope who had insisted upon recording the deeds and words of the martyrs--because he was aware of the power of a good story--was made a martyr himself when he refused to bow his knee at the Imperial altars.