A New Command

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:34-35 (NIV) taken from http://www.biblegateway.com
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Jesus was about to be tried and condemned to die. He was giving His disciples last instructions and reminders. But in the midst of it all, He gave this “new” command. I’ve read this passage dozens of times, and yet it struck me, possibly because we have just started a new year, that Jesus calls this a new command. Love one another. As if this was a revolutionary concept; as if it had never been spoken before.

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So I began to search. ” You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. ” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV) “Do not take revenge on others or continue to hate them, but love your neighbors as you love yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18) “So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. ” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites are commanded to love God and to love their neighbors, especially to those who might otherwise know only hatred or injustice– enemies, conquered peoples, resident aliens, widows, orphans, etc.. Most often, the commands are given in negative terms– how NOT to treat others. “Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not bear false witness…”

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There is nothing completely new about Jesus’ command in John 13, but it IS new– it is a positive command to show love for one another. And Jesus goes further– “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This goes beyond simply seeing that others are treated fairly within the broader society. Jesus washed feet. He went out of his way to speak to those who were despised and marginalized– tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers. He didn’t write a check to a non-profit charity and pat himself on the back. He didn’t share a political cartoon about Pharisees or the Roman Emperor with his followers or join the Jerusalem March for Jewish Rights–he challenged the Pharisees face-to-face about their unjust practices and healed the family members of Roman officials. He gave His life– not just on the cross, but in serving others’ needs throughout His earthly life.

Love One Another. It isn’t a suggestion. It is a command–one Jesus gave directly to His disciples. It is not a new command to the Church; but it is one we have not obeyed fully. We love those Christians in our small group at church, or those who share our politics, or those who look and talk just like us. Or we “love” those Christians who are struggling thousands of miles away– from our safe and comfortable lives thousands of miles away.

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I find myself often reading this command, but trying to obey it the same way I look at the Ten Commandments– obedience by omission; obedience in the negative. “Thou shalt not offend. Thou shalt not intrude. Thou shalt not condescend.” But that’s where I stop. I don’t wash feet. I don’t visit the sick or disgraced. Sometimes I send a check or donate a box of unwanted items.

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What would this new year look like if I followed this command more fully? What if, instead of just showing love to those I already like, or when it’s convenient, I reached out across town or across the globe to share my time, my heart, my resources, my skills, with those who need them most? What if I obeyed Jesus’ command to love those around me as Jesus has already loved me?

What if I dared to pray that God would bless others through me, instead of just asking that everyone would “be blessed.”

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In this new year, God, let this be a new command– one that I follow with my whole heart– that I should love others as You have loved me!

Writing the Next Chapter

Welcome to the year 2020! The next 366 days stretch before us– new, unknown, and ready to be discovered, experienced, LIVED!

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It is tempting to make bold plans, resolutions, or vague wishes for all the days at once– trying to fold the entire year into a single goal or set of goals. But is this consistent with Biblical principles?

Today, I want to pray, as Jesus did, that God would “give us THIS DAY our daily bread”– that I would walk and talk with my Savior each day, each moment as it comes. That doesn’t mean that I make no plans or goals for the future; rather, I keep things in a proper perspective. God knows the future much better than I do. I know where I am and where I’ve been (hopefully!), but only God knows everything that lies ahead. My job is not to dream about the finish line, but to continue running the race– step by step and moving forward, my eyes fixed on Jesus:

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV) taken from http://www.biblegateway.com

Life is like a long race; it’s also like a story. As we enter a new year, we can look around and see where the story has brought us. Some of us are in crisis. Some of us have just defeated a giant, or survived a trip down the raging rapids. Some of us are headed for disaster, or about to head into battle. Some of us are caught in a trap and we can’t see any hope of rescue.

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I can’t change the race course I must face in the coming year. Nor can I change the story I’ve lived so far– I can’t change anyone else’s. But I know this– the next unwritten chapter is in God’s expert hands. God, the author of miracles and second chances. God, who turns shepherd boys into heroic kings; God, who transforms prostitutes into saints; God, who sends Himself naked and shivering into His rebellious creation knowing He will suffer and die at the hands of those He loved into being, and knowing that this death is not the end, but a glorious beginning! This God has a triumphant and joyous ending in store for me– for you!

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God has given us the amazing story of our lives–and the next chapter is here. God also gives us the amazing opportunity to write the next chapter. He will guide us through the process– bring in new characters and plot twists, or send us to new places through unexpected channels–but we have the power to choose the next step. Today and every day.

My prayer for this new year is a prayer for this new day. Tomorrow, I get the gift of taking the next step; of writing the next sentence!

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20/20 Vision, Blind Faith, and Prayer

As we approach the arrival of a new year, there is a lot of talk about vision–20/20 vision, that is. For the past few years, I’ve heard of companies, community groups, even churches using the year 2020 as a target date for planning, and using the phrase “2020 Vision” in their mission statements, fund-raising drives, and talking points.

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The phrase comes from 20/20 vision, considered clear or “good” vision. Someone with 20/20 vision has no need of corrective lenses or surgery to improve their reading, or correct their sight. Figuratively, 20/20 vision suggests good planning or foresight. So it is desirable to plan with clear “vision” and forethought, rather than jumping into a project, or from one unmet goal to another.

But, while it’s clever to borrow the idea of 20/20 vision and tie it to the coming year, it doesn’t guarantee that our future plans will be wise or successful just because the calendar says 2020. In the same way, just because we have 20/20 vision, it doesn’t mean that we can see everything around us perfectly. We will see clearly those things on which we focus– those things that are right in front of us and not obstructed. Even with “good” vision, we cannot see things that are hidden from sight or things that are outside our scope of vision.

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Even the old phrase, “Hindsight is 20/20 vision,” doesn’t mean that we will always gain clarity with time. Sometimes we understand past experiences in a different light after time has passed. But sometimes, we are still left wondering and asking about events from our past; no wiser or less damaged by setbacks or failures, and no better prepared for future trials and pains.

If vision, even good vision and planning, is no guarantee of future success, perhaps it would be better to trust to “blind faith.” After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “walk by faith, not by sight?” Except the Bible doesn’t exactly say that. Instead it says:

So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NKJV via http://www.biblegateway.com)

This verse often gets taken out of context and twisted to suggest that “faith” is opposed to “sight,” and therefore faith must be “blind” to reason, experience, or reality. Many good articles and sermons have been written to clarify the concept (see one example here:
https://www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/theologically-driven/walk-by-faith-a-misused-verse.html). Faith is not blind–or should not be blind. Rather, it utilizes the ability and practice of seeing what is hidden or indistinct in the present. If our faith is based on empty myth, rumor, conjecture, or cloud dreams, it is not faith at all–it is nothing more than a mirage. Faith is seeing beyond the obvious, the blatantly visible, and trusting more than just what we can immediately see. We don’t walk through life ignoring reality, or dancing across a superhighway full of speeding cars. But we see our circumstances as having hidden elements; our lives have unseen depths, and are lived on both physical and metaphysical spheres. There is more to life than meets the eye– and while faith may not always show us a clear picture of what lies beyond our sight, it causes us to know that something beyond our “20/20 vision” exists and matters.

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The great old hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” speaks to this as well. No matter what our circumstances look like, we can have confidence that “It is well, it is well, with my soul!” “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight..” We look forward, even as we look around, and look back to the finished work of Jesus our Savior. We see the present, but we walk in the knowledge that there is more than what our eyes behold.

Faith doesn’t negate the need to use our senses and common sense to navigate life. And using planning and vision for the future doesn’t negate the need for faith. Rather, they work together. And they work together best in prayer.

When we pray, we are exercising our faith– speaking to the One we do not see, though we know Him and trust Him. And we bring to Him our plans and visions and hopes and dreams. We lay them in His Hands, trusting that where our vision is “good,” He will empower and bless us; where our own vision is lacking, His Spirit will help us to refocus and see enough of what lies beyond to keep walking forward.

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As we walk into a new year, may we have more than just 2020 vision– may we have faith and hope in the One who has perfect vision!

Faith and Faithfulness

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible… And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Hebrews 11:1-3; 6 (NIV) taken from http://www.biblegateway.com

Faith is essential to prayer. Not only is it essential that we know the truth, we must depend on it. Those who lift up general prayers to some unknown “force” in the universe have no real hope that their prayers will be heard, instead of bouncing around among the planets in silent expectation. We pray to a God who sees, hears, loves, and works among us. And He will answer our prayers– in His way, in His time, and to our ultimate benefit.

That does’t mean that we must blindly believe everything we hear about God, or that we must agree exactly with everyone else who claims to believe. None of us has ever seen God face-to-face, nor can we claim perfect knowledge. But there are certain truths that do not change– God is GOD; creator, ruler, unchanging and Holy. God is who He says He is, not who someone speculates or imagines Him to be. God is mysterious, but He is “Knowable”–we see His character in the natural world, and we can see His reflection in the people around us who are all created in His image. Most of all, we have the testimony of Jesus Christ and of all who have followed Him and been transformed by Him. To all who earnestly seek Him, He has given us His Word, and His Spirit to guide us. And God is Good. Even though nature (and human nature) has been tainted and twisted by sin, God remains true to His own goodness. Even in the hard times, when God seems distant–especially when He seems distant–faith looks beyond our present circumstances, and the taunts of our enemies, to remind us of God’s providence, His Power, and His promises. Our present trials and calamities are not beyond His ability or His willingness to turn to good purpose, and they do not compare to the promises God has given.

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Faith is essential to prayer, but so is faithfulness. Prayer is part of a growing relationship with our Maker. And like any relationship, it must be maintained. God is eternally faithful, but we are not–not in our own power or in our own will. And our faith, without faithfulness (in prayer, in devotion, in our everyday thoughts and actions) will wither and die. The same thirst we have for prayer in the valleys of life should be present when we reach the mountaintops. The same need we have to cry out for help should be the need we feel to cry out in praise. This will not happen without discipline, developed by daily seeking His face.

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As we approach a new year, we can make many plans and resolutions– let one of them be to strive for faithfulness, especially in our pursuit of prayer. We know it is the right thing to do. And our faithfulness is not just for us. It blesses the heart of the One who was faithful even unto death. And it shines as an example to those around us– inspiring some to faith, and others to renewed faithfulness.

Merry Christmas!

I want to wish everyone a very Meaningful and Merry Christmas. May you find joy and peace in the gift of our Savior, Jesus the Christ, Messiah, God With Us!

The Weary World Rejoices…

We live in a weary world– weary of war, weary of chaos, weary of worry, and weary of sin and its consequences. From the time the alarm rings to the time we finally lay down our weary heads, we are bombarded by stress, misunderstandings, distractions, disappointments, questions, harsh words, harsh images, demands, doubts– I’m tired just listing them…

Even so, we are surrounded by promises (mostly false) of peace and rest, satisfaction and success. “Buy this!” “Try that!” “New!” “Improved!” The voices call out, offering temporary bliss, or temporary escape from the weariness all around. “Jingle Bells!” “Happy Holidays!” “Tidings of Comfort and Joy!” It is tempting to let Christmas become just like all the other worldly distractions–shiny, loud, stressful and fleeting, full of promise, but leaving us empty and cold in the end.

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But Christmas IS different, because it doesn’t celebrate what the world has to offer. The celebration includes lights and bells, songs and gifts, food and friends and family– but at its heart, Christmas celebrates something “out of this world!” Jesus came to a weary world long ago, and no matter how weary the world was, or is, or will be, Jesus brought all the hope and healing of Heaven in the small package of a tiny infant child in a crowded town in a conquered land.

On that Holy Night, God crashed the party– He did more than watch from a distance, more than speak from the skies above or send angel messengers–He arrived, actively participating in the struggle, the bone-weariness, the hunger and thirst and chill and stress of living among His fallen and fractured creation.

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And the weary world rejoices–can you hear it? Above the bustling noise of people shouting, and car horns blaring, and advertising slogans, and piped-in Christmas songs…Can you feel it–beyond the comfort of a warm blanket and hot cocoa, beyond the hugs of friends or the smiles of strangers or gifts from loved ones? Can you see it–beyond the glare of city lights, undimmed by the darkness of hatred and greed?

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The lights and songs will fade away, but the Love, Joy, and Peace of God that came to the world that first Christmas is for all time!

“Fall on your knees!
Oh, hear the angel voices,
‘O Night Divine. O Night, when Christ was born.
O Holy Night!'”

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Gifting "Outside the Box"

This year has been a difficult one for my family financially. With Christmas coming, there is no money for expensive (or inexpensive) gifts– barely any money for bills. We always like to say that it’s not about the gift, and that “it’s the thought that counts,” but we don’t enjoy putting those words to the test. Like it or not, we have a tendency to equate Christmas with shiny decorations and festive packages– especially for the kids and grandkids.

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Even the first Christmas featured gifts from the Wise Men of the East– Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. But what gifts did the shepherds bring? The Angel hosts? Jesus’s own parents? What they brought– love, worship, Good News of Great Joy– was priceless and just as precious as the physical gifts of the Wise Men.

This Christmas, whatever gifts you choose to give; whatever gestures or actions you perform–let them be done with joy and with a full heart. After all, the REAL gift of Christmas wasn’t wrapped in a box. It was wrapped in flesh and blood, sacrifice and suffering. “For God so Loved the world, that He gave His only Begotten Son…” (John 3:16)

Our gifts matter– small gifts, fancy gifts, hugs, smiles, time spent listening, words of encouragement, even just sitting in silence with someone who is in pain.

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One of the greatest gifts we can give this season and in the coming year is the gift of prayer. Try this challenge for 2020. Choose a person (not necessarily someone in your family or close circle of friends) and pray for them every day for one month–if you know them well enough, ask them for specific ways that you can pray for them. Write their name and/or their requests somewhere (a calendar or datebook, index card..) where you will see it. At the end of the month, send the person a card or note or text message, or give them a call– let them know you’ve been thinking of them every day and praying for them.

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A few warnings:

  • DO NOT use this activity as a form of intimidation, “virtue-signaling”, or with any selfish motive. Be careful not to make this about the other person’s “neediness”– their inability or unwillingness to talk to God on their own; your superior righteousness or religiosity. Pray for their health, their well-being, and any needs that THEY express. Remember, this is a gift, not an intervention. If you are not praying that way, don’t pretend you are actually giving a gift.
  • Be ready to commit. You may even want to begin with one week, instead of a month. But don’t begin until you are ready to finish well. That doesn’t mean if you miss one day you’ve failed. But it does mean that you need to have an intention and a plan.
  • Follow through! It’s one kind of gift to offer to pray– but it’s kind of like giving a child a gift that requires batteries, and not providing the batteries…
  • Beware–gifts like this tend to come with surprises and unexpected obstacles:
    • Your offer of a gift will not always be accepted. Even if it is offered in the best of spirits, some people will find it offensive. You can still pray for them, but don’t expect gratitude or cooperation.
    • Your commitment will be tested– you may find yourself “extra” busy, or suddenly find it difficult to focus and remember your commitment; you may even find yourself tempted to give up for no reason or you may question the value of your gift.
    • Your prayer life may get challenged in unexpected ways– as you pray for someone new, you may be convicted of your own needs, your own unworthiness, your own lack…
    • You may be surprised by the realization that in giving, you also receive. As you pray for someone you don’t know well, you will find yourself developing a heart for them and wanting to know them better. You may find yourself blessed with a new and growing friendship, or a better understanding of needs and experiences you never knew before.
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Are You Ready?

Someone asked me yesterday if I was “ready for Christmas.” They wanted to know if I had prepared for the holiday– had I bought and wrapped presents for the family, sent out Christmas cards, decorated the house, baked cookies, etc.? I had to admit that I was not ready in that sense. I don’t generally do much in the way of decorating, and I’ve cut back on the cookie baking, too. I’m not sending greeting cards this year, and I don’t have all the presents purchased or wrapped.

But I AM ready for Christmas– I’m ready to celebrate the coming of Jesus to Earth; His life, death, and resurrection; the new life and hope that resulted from God’s boundless love. I’m ready to sing carols and light candles and rejoice! I’m ready to be awestruck again by the ancient story of shepherds and angels and wise men from the East; of the little town of Bethlehem and the manger stall and a bright star; of a newborn child; the Lord of all Creation wrapped in rags; the Word of God willingly limited to unintelligible cooing and soft cries, to nakedness and infant human weakness.

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Being “ready for Christmas” means different things to different people. To many, it means surviving the stress of shopping, going to rounds of holiday parties, and trying to remember that it is supposed to be a season of “peace on Earth.” For others, it means watching the celebration from the outside looking in; facing loneliness, grief, regret, and envying or resenting those who have found joy when all they see is darkness. For some of us, it means reflecting on the amazing transformation we experience because of the coming of this single baby. We remember that there was a time when there was no Christmas– only a dim hope that God would someday send a Savior. Once the prophets could only speak of what had been promised, but not yet seen– could only remind people to “get ready” for something they had never known.

The world was waiting for the Messiah’s coming, yet it was unprepared for His actual arrival.

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But the story of Jesus Christ didn’t end with Christmas. It didn’t even end at Easter, with the glorious resurrection. We await the triumphant return of the risen Christ. He is Coming! He will return in an instant…no long period of Advent; no countdown calendars or lists of things to get ready; no angels or stars to announce His arrival; no Christmas pageant or Easter sunrise service–just a trumpet blast and an explosion of Glory. He will not arrive as a helpless babe, or a suffering servant, but as a conquering King. There will be no carols about little towns and sleeping cattle; no time to “let every heart prepare Him room.”

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Today, we prepare to celebrate Messiah’s coming. We spend time and money and energy getting “ready” to recreate the Advent of Jesus Christ. How much time have we spent getting ready for His return? I pray that this Christmas season will mean more than just a happy celebration of one event– even one as joyful as the Birth of Christ. Let us prepare our hearts to live out the joy of His Salvation, and prepare to receive our King in triumph.

Of Gingerbread, Christmas Trees, and Frankincense…

As the Christmas season approaches, people are decorating their homes– wreaths, Christmas Trees, lights, gingerbread houses, manger scenes, elves and reindeer, candles and more. And along with the sights and sounds and tastes, the air is redolent with the scents of the season.

Scents evoke memories and emotions deeper than any of our other senses. We can close our eyes or ears to unwanted stimuli, but it’s difficult not to breathe in the spicy air filled with cinnamon or cloves, or ignore the scent of pine or scented candles filling the room.

There was no gingerbread, or evergreen tree, or clove orange in the stable where Jesus was born so long ago– no candles or air fresheners to cover the other scents of animals and afterbirth. But when the wise men arrived to worship the infant King (which may have been a couple of weeks or even months later), they brought gifts, and two of the three were spices– Frankincense and Myrrh. They were precious spices, with medicinal and healing properties, and were also used in embalming– symbolic of Jesus’s future life and death. Oddly enough, their fragrances are reminiscent of citrus and pine, two scents we commonly associate with the Christmas season. https://www.history.com/news/a-wise-mans-cure-frankincense-and-myrrh

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God never wastes details. The Bible is full of them– lists of names, detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle and Temple, references to various places, animals, trees, events– seemingly unimportant, sometimes even distracting–but all of them have a purpose. The gifts of the Wise Men (or Kings) were costly, prophetic, and worthy of a newborn king. But they were also physical gifts. The Bible never tells us how the gifts were eventually used– Did Joseph and Mary use the gold to help pay for their flight to Egypt? Did Mary save the frankincense and myrrh to use for Jesus’s burial? We don’t know. But the spices would have kept their scent for a long time, releasing their fragrance whenever the jars or containers were opened. And they reveal something about both the recipient and the givers.

God reveals Himself to us in many ways– and He appeals to all of our senses. Our worship of and fellowship with Him should do the same. We may not have access to frankincense or myrrh (though they have increased in popularity and are readily available from dealers in essential oils), but the Bible tells us that WE are a fragrance– our worship, our obedience, our sharing of the Gospel with others.

14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?

2 Corinthians 2:14-16 (ESV) via http://www.biblegateway.com

Above all, our prayers are said to be incense– a pleasing aroma before the throne of heaven:

The Lamb Takes the Scroll (Revelation 5:1-10 CSB)

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides, sealed with seven seals. I also saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or even to look in it. I wept and wept because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or even to look in it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Look, the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw one like a slaughtered lamb standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent into all the earth. He went and took the scroll out of the right hand of the one seated on the throne.

The Lamb Is Worthy

When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and golden bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song:

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You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slaughtered,
and you purchased people
for God by your blood
from every tribe and language
and people and nation.
10 You made them a kingdom
and priests to our God,
and they will reign on the earth.

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This season, as we revel in the scents of the season and remember the gifts given to the infant Emmanuel, let us present Him with the gift of fervent prayer and enthusiastic praise. He is Worthy!

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