The Power Pickpocket

(The following discourse was prepared for a local congregation.)

Have you ever been pickpocketted? When I was in high school, I lost 200 Pesos on my way to school. I knew I passed through a crowd during my commute. I was supposed to pay something in school with that money. It either fell out of my pocket or someone picked my pocket.

In the past I heard that when you land in Manila International Airport, you would be greeted with something like this: “Welcome to the Philippines, the only Christian nation in the southeast Asia. Please beware of pickpockets.” I am glad that this had changed for the better.

A few days after I first arrived here in the US, I was walking alone in the streets of Morristown, New Jersey, a relatively quiet town, when a stranger greeted me, “What a beautiful day, isn’t it?” I was taken aback. First of all, in Manila where I came from, you don’t talk to strangers on the street. Secondly, nobody in the Philippines talk about the weather, for it is the same the whole year through. And lastly, when a stranger talks to you, check your wallet if it’s still there.

Our story today is about someone who pickpocketted Jesus of His power.

Let’s read the story in Luke 8: 43-48.

Jesus just arrived from the other side of the lake, and probably landed in the town of Capernaum. Perhaps his boat was still far from the shore when a crowd of people already gathered to meet him.

Ruins in Capernaum

Have you ever been in a crowd? Maybe like in a sporting event, or a concert, or in a very crowded bus or train? During my time in Manila and also in New York City, when I rode the train it was so crowded that I could almost exchange faces with the people around me. And even if the train was moving I didn’t have to hold on to something, for I was propped up as we were packed like sardines.

That was how it must have been when the crowd gathered around Jesus, for the Bible said it almost “crushed” Him (Luke 8: 42). The Greek word used to describe it was sumpnigo. Interestingly, it is the same word that was used to describe the thorns “choking” the seeds that fell on the thorny ground in the Parable of the Sower.

One lesson for us is if we don’t have a deep foundation, the crowd and the cares of this world could crush and choke us.

Invisible Woman

Then a woman pushed through the crowd to get close to Jesus.

Who is this woman? We don’t know her name or her age. I would guess that she was not very old for she was still menstruating, and I will get into that. But we know that she’s been suffering for 12 years. Perhaps in the beginning of her illness she was seeing all the doctors that were recommended to her. From one doctor to another, were only met by disappointment after disappointment. According to the account of the Gospel of Mark, “she suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors.” In the end she used all her money and was broke, but still did not get well.

What was she suffering from? According to the Gospel writers she was “subject to bleeding.” I would surmise that it was some kind of vaginal bleeding like having menstruation. Yet this one did not stop, and has been going on for 12 long years! If you’re bleeding that long, you would be anemic, weak and fatigued.

As a doctor, I would speculate that her illness was most probably not cancer. Because she was still alive after 12 years. I think it was some kind of a benign uterine growth, like fibroids. This causes vaginal bleeding even between menses, and particularly can have very heavy menses. That’s why I think she was younger and not of menopausal age.

If you have uterine growth like fibroids, no medication can treat it. No kind of concoction would work. Only taking out the fibroid by surgery or doing hysterectomy will cure it.

Do you have an illness that no doctor can help? Have you been suffering despite all the medical interventions? Are you desperate for a healing? Maybe you can relate to the story of this woman. It is my prayer that this message is for you and that you find encouragement in this story.

Besides the physical ravages of bleeding for 12 years there’s another aspect of her suffering. She was socially exiled and emotionally isolated.

According to the Mosaic law, if you have bleeding, you are considered unclean.

“When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Whoever touches them will be unclean; he must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening.” (Leviticus 15:25-27)

All she touched or sat on was considered unclean. People who had contact with her or with what she touched were considered unclean. This woman had been longing for human touch, and she probably had not received a hug for 12 years!

Why does being soiled with blood considered unclean? It is the Universal Precaution rule. If you work in the hospital today you will don on gloves, gown, goggles if you are handling blood or bodily fluids. This is to protect yourself from contacting disease or also from spreading the disease.

Before people discovered and learned about bacteria and viruses, or how a disease is spread, God already provided rules among His people, the ancient Israelites, on how to prevent spreading diseases. That’s why in the Mosaic law, you are considered unclean if you touch a dead person or an animal carcass, or if you touch an open sore. All pots that critters crawled on must be destroyed. God knows about the bacteria and how they cause diseases even before men discovered them! God is so wise.

A couple of hundred years ago, doctors who did autopsy in the morgue came to the hospital ward to examine patients without thoroughly washing their hands. They probably just wiped them. This was before the era of discovering the bacteria. Then they have observed that those patients nearer the door get sicker or die more frequently than those farther away from the door. Why? Who do you think the doctor touched first after coming from the morgue? The doctors were spreading the bacteria!

This is not Divisoria, but a market place in Jerusalem

Let’s go back to our story. To be considered unclean for 12 long years was like an imprisonment, punished by banishment from humanity. Or she must have gone incognito, and became an invisible woman, that nobody recognized or noticed her when she went out of her home.

Then she heard about Jesus and His miracles of healing. And she learned that Jesus was coming in this part of town. So she decided to see Jesus. Even though she had no business of going out in a crowd, for all she would get contact with would become unclean. According to the law, if she touch Jesus, she would make Him ceremoniously unclean.

Yet this woman was determined to elbow, push and claw her way through the crowd. Though pale and weak, nothing would stand in her way. She was unshakable on her mission. She believed that if only she could touch Jesus’ cloak, she would be healed.

She finally reached Jesus. She approached Him from behind, typical of the modus operandi of a pickpocket. Then she stretched out her hand.

Healing Wings

If you’re going to touch somebody in a crowd, isn’t it easier to touch the shoulder or back? Why stoop down and touch the hem of the cloak? We may think that like a pickpocket, she does not want Jesus to feel her touch, so the edge of the garment would do. But there’s more significance to this edge of the garment.

In the Mosaic Law, God instructed His people about the corners, or fringes, of their garments. In Numbers 15: 38-39 it says:

 Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God.

It seems like a strange instruction for us but in the Ancient Near East culture, the corner of a person’s garment represented his identity; it was a symbol of who he was and what he stood for. It is like an insignia, or perhaps a monogramed initials on the shirt.

In the story of Ruth, when she was seeking marriage to Boaz, she asked him to spread the corner of his garment over her (Ruth 3:9). It was a request for him to identify with her. The same Hebrew word means “wing” or “corner of a garment.”

When God spoke of making a covenant with His people, He pictured Himself as spreading the corner of His garment over Israel (Ezekiel 16:8)—a symbol of identifying with her as His bride.

In the story of David when he was running away from Saul, one day Saul fell asleep at the mouth of the cave where David and his men were hiding. David sneaked in and cut off a corner of King Saul’s robe, but “afterward David’s heart struck him” (1 Samuel 24:5). These pangs of remorse seem strange unless we realize that he had defaced an important symbol of Saul’s identity and God-given kingship.

So important were the corners of a man’s garment for the Jews that the Old Testament closes with a prophecy of the Messiah that references the corners of His garment: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2 KJV. Again, the same word means both “wings” and “corners of a garment”). At the heart of the Messiah’s identity would be healing for all who have faith in Him.

So when this woman reached out to the hem of Jesus’ coat, it was more than just for healing, but she was identifying with Him and what He stands for. She was embracing that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has healing in His wings.

This woman was not the only one healed when they touched the edge of Jesus’ garment. In Matthew 14, when Jesus was in Genneseret, perhaps after people heard this woman’s story, sick people lined up by the road where He would pass, and all who touched the edge of His coat were healed.

When this woman touched Jesus’ garment, “immediately” she felt that her bleeding stopped. She was instantly healed! And she felt it. But somebody felt it too. Jesus felt it too.

Then Jesus asked around who touched him. The disciples thought that Jesus was being silly. Why asked who touched him when we knew that a crowd of people was almost crushing him. But Jesus said “I know that power has gone out from me” (8:46). The Greek word translated “power” (NIV) or “virtue” (KJV) is dunamis, from which we get our English words “dynamo,” “dynamic,” and “dynamite.” That must have been a power surge that left Jesus. And He was looking for the power pickpocket.

Why did Jesus want to confront the woman and make her secret known? I can think of two reasons. The first one was to release her from the burden of uncleanliness and to take away the stigma. It was to make known to her and to the people around that He accepted her, and that she does not need to be incognito or invisible anymore. Secondly, to let her know that it was not the magical power of His cloak, but it was her faith in Him that healed her.

Ironically there were many people around pressing upon Jesus. But they have only brushed and casually touched Him. Are we one of those people in the crowd? Always in church, sits in the pew every week, present in all the church’s activities, and yet we have not really reached out to Jesus with that touch of faith.

I pray that we be like that woman – who have that elbowing-and-clawing-my-way kind of faith, that nothing-can-stand-on-my-way kind of faith. And that we reach out to Jesus. Be identified with Him and who He is. And that we embrace the Messiah, our Savior, who has healing in His wings.

This is my prayer.

A street in Jerusalem

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(*all photos taken during our visit in the Holy Land a couple of years ago)

Flower-Strewn Pathway

I was going out for my morning run a few days ago and as I got out of the front door I noticed that our walkway was covered with flower petals.

Beautiful morning. Flower-strewn pathway. What else could I ask for?

Maybe our crabapple tree was treating me as royalty, shedding and laying its flowers on my path.

I remember an old movie “Coming to America,” where the character played by James Earl Jones, the king of Zamunda, a fictional wealthy African nation, visited the United States, New York City, to be exact. He was looking for his son, played by Eddie Murphy, who was the crowned prince of that said nation. In one scene, as the king steps out of his limousine, royal attendants strew flowers on the ground where he would walk on. I know, I am no royalty.

Come to think of it that is what flower girls in a wedding do too. These cute little girls would scatter flowers in the path where the bride would walk on. But I am no bride either.

By the way the tradition of flower girls scattering flower petals has its origin from the Greek and the Romans. The young girls walking before the bride in ancient practice, scatter herbs and grains to wish the bride fertility. But nowadays it is replaced by tossing flower petals as a wish for happiness for the bride. And maybe fertility too.

Our journey in this life though is not always filled with happiness or a flower-strewn pathway, so to speak. Or perhaps it is, as our path could be littered with roses but including its thorns. Maybe the flower vase is thrown in the path as well with its broken pieces of glass!

A poem by Annie Johnson Flint said this, “God hath not promise skies always blue, flower-strewn pathway all our lives through.”

The author of the poem, Annie, was only 3 years old when her mother died while giving birth to her baby sister. Her father who also had an incurable disease decided to give Annie for adoption as he couldn’t take care of her, and he died not long after that. Annie was sent to school by her adoptive parents and was able to finish her education and became a teacher. However she developed painful and debilitating arthritis at a young age which extremely limited her mobility. She was resigned to a wheelchair most of her life.

Yet she still penned this poem:

WHAT GOD HATH PROMISED

God hath not promised skies always blue, 
Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through;
God hath not promised sun without rain, 
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.

God hath not promised we shall not know
Toil and temptation, trouble and woe;
He hath not told us we shall not bear
many a burden, many a care. 

God hath not promised smooth roads and wide,
Swift, easy travel, needing no guide;
Never a mountain rocky and steep,
Never a river turbid and deep

But God hath promised strength for the day,
Rest for the labor, light for the way,
Grace for the trials, help from above, 
Unfailing sympathy, undying love.

What a great reminder for us indeed.

As for my morning run that day, it did start with a flower-strewn pathway though it got a little thorny especially on the last mile. But I did fine.

I am thankful for the promised strength for the day. And I don’t mean just for running.

(*photo taken with an iPhone)

We’ll Be Alright

We had a very cold winter this past season. It was among the snowiest too that I can remember. According to the weather almanac, this past winter in Des Moines set some records in snowfall.

In the 15 years that we have lived here in Iowa, this last one was the most brutal winter we’ve experienced.

But winter is gone. Everything is forgotten. Above photo is our front yard in mid March when snow and ice were beginning to thaw.

Here it is today:

Life is like seasons. You may be undergoing harsh winter now, yet keep in mind that winter will not last forever. Life will flourish again.

Just like what the song “Leaves” of Ben and Ben (a Filipino indie/pop band) says:

Leaves will soon grow from the bareness of trees,
And all will be alright in time,
From waves overgrown come the calmest of seas,
And all will be alright in time.

In this case, flowers grew too from the bareness of trees. Yes, we will be alright in time.

(*photos taken with an iPhone)

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Here’s the official lyrics video of the song “Leaves.”

Leksiyong Pang-Grade One

May mga bagay na nakaukit na sa ating isipan. Kahit pa may mga ilan na hindi natin matandaan, gaya kung saan natin inilapag ang susi ng bahay, o kaya ang birthday ng ating biyenan, pero may mga bagay na hindi natin makalimutan. Tulad ng aking mga karanasan at mga leksiyon noong ako’y Grade One.

school_supplies_t715

Ako ay nag-Grade One sa isang maliit na pribadong paaralan sa Quezon City. Hindi kalakihan ang klase at mag-kasama pa nga ang mga estudyanteng Grade 1 at Grade 2 sa iisang classroom.

Hindi ko makalimutan ang ilan sa aking kaklase. Si Rolando, na kukurap-kurap, na para siyang laging kumikindat. Noong tumanda na lang ako, kesa ko nalaman na isa palang medical condition iyon – facial tic disorder. Nandiyan din si Nathan, na mestisuhin. Hindi sa ako’y naiingit na maputi siya, dahil masaya ako sa kulay kong “Italyano” – Itang Ilokano. At si Ronald na aking seatmate. Seatmate din namin ang nanay niya, dahil nakaupo ito sa likuran namin sa boong isang taon ng klase.

Maghapon ang aming klase kaya may bitbit akong baon. Inilalagay ang aming mga lunch box sa isang tabi ng classroom. Isang araw, isang Grade 2 na estudyante ang kumuha at kumain ng aking baon. Iniabot daw ng isa niyang kaklase ang aking lunch box dahil sa akalang ito’y sa kanya. Ang mokong naman kahit alam na hindi ito sa kanya, ay kinain pa rin ang aking baon!

Kaya’t unang aral ko sa Grade One ay ito:

1. Magpakatatag, kahit ang buhay kung minsan ay hindi patas. May mga bagay na nararapat na para sa iyo, ay aagawin pa ng iba. 

Hindi ko na matandaan kung ano ang aking kinain nung tanghaling iyon. Pero aking ipinaalam sa aking guro ang nangyari. Nakatagal naman ako hanggang hapon at hanggang sa mag-uwian na. At bumalik pa kinabukasan sa klase.

Naaalala ko rin noon na matapos ang aming lunch break, kami ay laging may siesta. Papatayin ang ilaw, at kami ay hihiga sa sahig o kaya ay sa desk para kami ay magpahinga. Medyo sapilitan ang pagpapatulog sa amin. May mga class monitor pa, sila iyong mga kaklase namin na in-charge daw, at sinusumbong nila sa aming teacher kung sinong ayaw matulog. Isa ako sa ayaw matulog.

Kung ako lang ang masusunod, maglalaro ako sa labas at magtatatakbo sa initan ng katanghaling tapat, hanggang sa tumagaktak ang aking pawis. Bakit pa kasi kailangan ng nap time?

Pero ngayong tayo’y tumanda na, kahit pa ibawas sa ating working hours ay payag tayo, magkaroon lamang ng ilang saglit na pahinga o siesta. Dahil sa sobrang abala at pagod natin, inaasam-asam natin kahit konting nap time o kaya’y free time para sa ating sarili.

Kaya’t ang pangalawang leksiyon ko sa Grade One ay ito:

2. May mga bagay na hindi mo gusto at parang walang kabuluhan ngayon, ngunit sa pagdaan ng panahon ay hahanap-hanapin mo.  Matutong pahalagahan ang mga ito.

Nakakatuwa lang isipin na ang batang galit sa tulog noon ay isang duktor na espesyalista sa pagtulog ngayon.

May panahon namang binibigay para kami ay maglaro. Ang mga gusto kong laro noon ay sipa, jolens, trumpo, teks, shato, patintero, habulan, prisoner’s base, at taguan. Kahit nga piko at jackstone ay nilalaro ko kalaban ang mga babae kong kaeskwela.

Hindi lang naman kaming mga Grade One ang naglalaro. Kahit ‘yung malalaking bata ay naglalaro din. Dahil medyo maliit ang school ground ng aming paaralan kaya minsan walang masyadong space para maglaro.

Isang hapon, may mga Grade Six na mga estudyante ang nagta-tumbling tumbling at nagsa-sommersault sa playground. Dahil haharang-harang ako, o dahil kasi maliit ako kaya’t wala silang pakundangan, nasipa ako ng isang lalaki habang ito ay nagta-tumbling. Tumilapon akong parang lata ng tumbang preso!

Kahit ako’y nasaktan, hindi naman ako makapalag. Nang ako’y mahimasmasan at lumingon sa batang nakasipa sa akin, nakita ko itong namimilipit na rin sa sakit. Ito ay dahil sa isang estudyanteng Grade Six ang humangos upang ako’y ipagtanggol at inumbag niya sa sikmura ang batang lalaki. Ang mabilis na sumaklolo sa akin ay ang aking ate. Oo, ipinagtanggol ako ng isang babae.

Kaya’t isa sa aral ko mula Grade One ay ito:

3. Mahalin natin ang ating pamilya. Sila ang  magtatanggol at tutulong sa atin sa oras ng pangangailangan.

Oo nga’t batid ko na hindi perpekto ang bawa’t pamilya. Ngunit darating ang panahon na walang iba kung hindi pamilya pa rin natin ang magsasalba sa atin. Ika nga nila, “Blood is thicker than water.”

Sa katunayan madalas akong tumilapon noon. Kaya kong tumilapong mag-isa. Bata pa kasi ako ay dare-devil na ako. Mahilig akong umakyat kung saan-saan at tumalon na parang Spiderman. Wala nga akong kadala-dala, kahit pumutok na ang noo ko noong ako’y tumalon sa hagdan, tapos pumutok din ang nguso ko nang ako’y lumipad sa swing. Eto ay bago pa ako mag-Grade One.

Isang araw nang ako’y nasa paaralan, tumatakbo ako sa loob ng banyo. Kahit banyo ginagawa kong playground noong ako’y Grade One. Dahil basa ang sahig, bigla akong nadulas at nakanto ang aking mukha sa pader. Pumutok na naman ang mukha ko at muntik na sa may kaliwang mata. Hindi ko nga alam kung bakit mukha ko ang lagi kong ipinangsasalo ng disgrasya.

Dinala nila ako sa aking teacher upang asikasuhin ang aking sugat. Duguan na naman ang dating ako. Ano kaya ang nasa-isip ng aking guro? Siguro sa isip-isip niya, may mararating ang batang ire kung hindi lang mababalda sa kalikutan, o kaya’y may potensiyal ang batang ire kung hindi lang mababasag ang bungo.

Matapos mapatigil ang pagdudugo, ay pinahiran ng aking teacher ang aking sugat ng mercurochrome. Ito ‘yung pulang likido na mahapdi kapag ipinapahid sa sugat. Sa aking isip noon, masakit na nga ang sugat, bakit kailangan pa itong lalong pahapdiin. Hindi ko pa maintindihan na ito ay anti-septic at kailangan para hindi ma-infection upang maghilom ang aking sugat.

Kaya isa pa sa aking leksiyong natutunan noong Grade One ay ito:

4. May mga karanasan sa buhay na mahapdi, pero kinakailangan para sa ating ikabubuti. Dahil sa mga sugat, tayo’y natututo.

Iyon na rin ang huling peklat sa mukha ko.

Kung tutuusin marami talaga tayong natutunan noong Grade One. Tulad ng pagbabasa, pagsusulat, pagbilang, pagtula at pagkanta. Oo nga’t parang payak lang ang ating alam noon pero ang karunungan ay isang proseso.

Mayroon akong isang kalaro na bata pa lang siya ay pangarap na niyang maging Engineer. Kwento ng nanay niya sa nanay ko, umuwi raw na umiiyak ang aking kalaro noong unang araw niya sa Grade One. Ang dahilan? Dahil hindi raw pang-Engineering ang tinuturo sa Grade One.

Isang araw, kami ay tinuraang bumasa ng oras ng aming guro sa Grade One. Ipinaliwanag niya na may dalawang kamay ang orasan – ang hour hand at minute hand. Para lalo naming maintindihan, tumawag siya ng dalawang estudyante sa harap para magrepresenta sa mga kamay ng orasan. Si Ronald, ang aking seatmate ang minute hand, at ako ang hour hand. Sinabi niya kay Ronald na lumakad nang mabilis, at habang ako nama’y lumakad nang mabagal.

Dahil gusto ko ring lumakad ng mabilis at makipag-unahan kay Ronald, kaya’t ako’y inakbayan at ginabayan ng aking guro na magdahan-dahan. Sa tingin ko hindi lang pagbasa ng oras ang natutunan ko noong araw na iyon.

Isa pa sa aking natutunan noong ako’y Grade One ay ito:

5. Huwag natin laging madaliin ang buhay.  Kahit mabagal, basta may katiyakan ang ating pakay ay makakarating din tayo sa paroroonan.

Nakaalpas naman ako ng Grade One. Pero ako’y inilipat na sa ibang paaralan nang ako’y mag-Grade Two.

Ano na nga ang nangyari sa aking kalaro na umuwi ng bahay dahil hindi raw pang-Engineering ang tinuturo sa Grade One? Nagtuloy din naman siya ng pag-aaral at nakatapos. Siya ay nangibang-bayan din. Ngayon, siya ay isa nang ganap at matagumpay na Engineer Registered Nurse.

(*photo from the web)

Of Pigs and Demons

(The following is a discourse I gave in a local congregation.) 

On June 8, 2015, a major highway in Ohio was shut down for 8 long hours. The reason? There were several hundred pigs running wildly on the road. According to the news, a trailer truck carrying 2200 piglets crashed and tipped over. Even though a couple hundred pigs died in the accident, the majority survived, but were set loose. People in the neighborhood took several hours corralling the piglets. About 1500 piglets were recaptured, but a few hundred were not, as they had escaped into the nearby forest. I’m not sure if there are still sightings of pigs running freely in that part of Ohio even today.

Our Bible story today is also about 2000 pigs running wildly. Let’s read Mark 5:1-20.

Crossing To The Other Side

The story opens when Jesus was getting off the boat, but I would like to go several verses back to what leads to this story, Mark 4:35-36.

After a long and tiring day of teaching, Jesus told his disciples, “Let’s go to the other side.” They were on the sea of Galilee, and Jesus told his disciples to cross to the other side.

This other side is not just the other side of the lake, but for the Jews during that day, it was really known as the “other side,” referring to a Gentile territory, a place to avoid. The whole region was known as Decapolis as it was composed of 10 cities. But in Jewish tradition it was also referred to as the “land of the seven,” pertaining to the 7 pagan nations that were driven out of the land of Canaan during Joshua’s conquest.

But why go to the other side? Because Jesus wanted to minister there too. Because the other side needed a Savior too.

What is the other side for us today? The other side of the world? It does not need to be, for it could be the other side of the fence. Or the other side of the street. Or the other side of a room. Hostile or not, someone on that other side needs to hear the message too.

The Sea of Galilee is not really a sea. It is a lake. It measures 64 square miles, nearly the size of Washington D.C. The lake is 700 feet below sea level with semi-tropical weather around its coasts. The lake is bounded by high mountains with snowy peaks especially on the east side. So the rising warm air from the lake can collide with the rushing cold air from the surrounding mountains, causing large temperature and pressure changes and giving rise to sudden violent storms.

Jesus and his disciples encountered such a strong storm as they were crossing it, that the disciples, most of whom were experienced fisherman who knew the lake like the back of their hand, were terrified that they would not see land again. They feared that they would perish. They cried to Jesus for help.

Jesus commanded, “Peace be still.” And all was quiet again.

Some of us may be going through some storms of life right now. Just remember, the Prince of Peace is on our boat. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

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A hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee

My Name is Legion

As Jesus and his disciples reached the other side, they got out of the water and were immediately met with another stormy situation.

In Mark 5:3-5 it is described how terrifying yet pitiful the condition of this man. He was alive yet he lived among the dead – in the graves and tombs. People tried to bind his hands and feet but he was so wild and strong that he broke the chains. He would shout and the people would hear his blood curling cries every day and every night. He cut himself with stones. He was naked, only covered with dirt, mud, and blood. What a terrible condition!

Jesus was still far off when this demon-possessed man came running to him. The disciples might have run in the other direction, but Jesus was ready to meet this man. The man fell on his knees in front of Jesus.

Did this man come to Jesus on his own volition despite under the power of the demons?Perhaps this man knew despite his cloudy mind that Jesus was his only hope. Maybe he knew that the only one that could free him from the slavery of the devil and has come to deliver him.

Then the demon within the man spoke to Jesus, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”

Even the demons knew who Jesus was. But whether they acknowledged or were subservient to that authority, is another story.

In the background of this, there is an ancient superstition that you can have spiritual power over another if you knew or said their exact name. This is why the unclean spirits addressed Jesus with His full title: Jesus, Son of the Most High God, not as a confession of Jesus’ authority, but a desperate attempt to gain control over him.

Jesus asked, “What is your name?” Now Jesus was not playing to that ancient superstition. In reality, Jesus knew each demon, their name and their rank. So when the demons answered “My name is Legion,” they were not giving their exact name. Yet Jesus still had power over them.

Legion is a Roman military unit that is about 6000 men. Whether this man has really 6000 demons, is not clear. What we know is that they were many. And so when the demons answered, “My name is Legion,” they were saying we are many and outnumber you. Were they trying to intimidate Jesus?

This is what I know, with Jesus on our side, we are never outnumbered. Even if its you against the world, with Jesus on your side, you always have the advantage.

Because Jesus was more powerful than the demons, He commanded them, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” Then the man was free.

Dark Encounter

It was a Friday night. We were attending a prayer meeting in our church in the Philippines and I was about 12 years old at that time. My father was out-of-town for a conference, so it was just my mother and us kids that went to church that night.

My mother had a part in the service. She gave the opening prayer, so she was sitting in front. The speaker was a lay person and was just starting his sermon when suddenly, a young lady a few pews in front of where I was sitting, started screaming in a voice that sounded non-human. She stood up and ran wildly to the pulpit and tried to attack the speaker.

The church members realized what was happening and sprang into action. Strong men in our church tried to hold down the lady who was acting strangely. It took at least 7 or more of them to control her. It was clear her strength was more than human.

But you know what? When she attacked the speaker who was a small man, the speaker, with one swiping motion, sent the lady sprawling to the floor. I want to believe that power was not coming from a human too.

They took her to a room at the back of the pulpit, the Pastor’s room, and there several members of our church tried to drive the devil out of her. You need faith to be inside that room. I was not one of them, for I may have been too young then, but more so, I was too afraid.

Even though I was not in that room, I heard what happened inside that room as it was relayed to us by those who were inside. They said that the demon-possessed woman was looking fiercely at everyone inside the room, and that was the most intimidating situation they had ever been in. But I want to believe that when the woman looked around her, it was her who was intimidated, as what she saw was not the frightened brethren, but the angels of God surrounding the brethren.

She also uttered that it was too bright in that room, and that she hated the “blinding” light. I would like to believe that it was not the 100W bulb that she was pertaining to, but it was the truth that our church had that she hated, for the devil is the prince of darkness. I am sure as well, that the blinding light was not coming from the light bulb, but from the presence of the Most High.

After some time of intense prayer, the devil left. Interestingly, when the demon left the woman, the door banged three times. Were there 3 demons in her? We don’t know. What we know was it left her.

After that event, there was a spiritual awakening in our church. The members became more active. For one we realized that since the devil was attacking the church, we must have the truth, and that angers him. The other thing was we realized that with God’s power, we can defeat the devil.

Deviled Pigs

Back to Jesus’ story, the demons requested that they would not be sent outside of the city but to the pigs instead (verse 12).

Nearby was a herd of 2000 pigs. As I’ve said, this was Gentile territory, that’s why they had pigs, as Jews would not raise pigs, for they were unclean. This story is full of the ritual of uncleanliness: the place of Decapolis – a pagan territory, the man living in graves, having an unclean spirit, and then the unclean herd of swine. But God can make even the most unclean clean. “Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,” Isaiah 1:18.

So the legion of demons were sent to the pigs. If there were 6000 demons, they went to 2000 pigs, so there were more demons than pigs. That’s the real “deviled ham.” So the pigs ran to the cliff and made a swine dive into the lake and drowned.

Iowa has the most pigs in all the US, so we could be considered experts. Every pig farmer would tell you that pigs can swim. Pigs may not fly, but they can swim. In fact, they are good swimmers for short distances.

Then why did those pigs drown? I don’t know, but perhaps the lesson for us is that even if we think we’re strong and can swim against the tide of temptation, if we allow the devil to take hold of us, we will drown.

Can you imagine the horror of the pig herders? The horror of the owners of those pigs? Losing 2000 pigs, that’s a lost livelihood!

When the town people came, the man was seen sitting, clothed, calm and on his right mind. The people, when they saw what had happened to the man, were afraid (verse 15). Were they more afraid now that the man was calm and on his right mind than when he was wild and fierce?

Then the saddest thing happened in this story: the people asked Jesus to leave their town (verse 17). Were they more concerned of their lost material possession or their lost livelihood? Or were they afraid of Jesus’ power and what He could do to them and their town, and they don’t want any part of that? What a more pitiful state they were in, than the demon-possessed, for they rejected Christ.

The most tragic state to be in is to believe that we don’t need a Savior.

The 13th Disciple

That term “sitting” is significant (verse 15). In Luke 8:35 it tells the “man is sitting at the feet of Jesus”  – a term usually used to picture somebody taking a posture of a disciple. What the gospel writers are saying is that this man became a disciple of Jesus. Thus I consider him the 13th disciple.

In fact he wanted to come with Jesus (verse 18), but Jesus said no. This is one instance that Jesus said ‘no’ to a request. To some disciples he said, “Come, follow me.” Not to this disciple.

Instead he was sent out and given a commission: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (verse 19). Besides being the 13th disciple, he was also the 1st missionary that was sent by Jesus.

Is there something that the Lord has done for us? Has He shown us mercy? Should we also tell our family and friends?

I can just imagine the people from this man’s hometown who saw him before like a wild beast and helped chain him down, now seeing him sane but on fire for the Lord. Those who have heard his wild cries in the night, were now hearing his wonderful story of redemption. Those people who were afraid and were running away from him before, were now drawn to this unusual bearer of good news. They must all be wondering, “Was this the same man?” And as the scripture said (verse 20), they were amazed. Amazed of how Jesus transformed this man.

When Jesus came back to this territory of Decapolis perhaps some months later (Mark chapters 7-8), the people were ready to listen. They even brought their sick for him to heal. We read that there was a multitude of people who gathered that after being with Jesus for 3 days, they refused to leave. This was when Jesus fed 4,000 people.

Why had this part of town become more receptive? I would like to believe that some of those people had heard the testimony of this 13th disciple, the man Jesus freed from the Legion, and they wanted that same transforming and saving power too.

When Jesus met this man, he did not see a demoniac. Beyond his frightful appearance Jesus saw a man who needed to be saved. He saw a man who would be his next disciple. He saw a man who would be a missionary for Him.

If Jesus can transform this demon-possessed man, He can transform you and me.

For One Lost Soul

We always heard, “Let’s come to Jesus and live.” But the truth of the matter is, we don’t come to Jesus. Jesus comes to us. He’s always the one initiating to meet us. He’s always the one searching for us.

As in this story, Jesus came all the way across the lake to meet this man. When Jesus made that trip, He foreknew that it would take all night to cross the lake. He foreknew that He’ll even encounter a storm. He also foreknew that the people on the other side of the lake were not ready to receive Him and He would be sent away.

But Jesus made the trip anyway. Why? Because there is one wretched man on that other side that needs salvation. He ministered to no other person on the other side of the lake, except for one man. He made the trip and crossed the lake for just one man.

I believe that if there was only one man who had fallen into sin, and if that was me, Jesus would leave heaven and die on the cross just for me. If it were you, He would do it for you.

That’s the God we serve. He’s searching for you and me. He’s coming to this part of town to meet us. Be ready to meet Him. This is my prayer.

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Waiting by the Sea of Galilee

(*photos taken last year)

Hindi Tanaw

Landas na tinatahak ay ‘di man malinaw,

At ang paroroonan ay ‘di ko matanaw,

Ngunit sigurado ako sa aking layunin,

Kaya’t patutunguha’y tiyak na mararating.

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(*thoughts while running on this foggy morning; photo taken with an iPhone)

*******

For my non-Filipino readers, here’s a loose translation, though I think it lost some of its poetic edginess:

The path I tread may be dreary,

Where I would go I cannot see,

Yet I’m certain where I want to be,

And there for sure, I would be.

Rolling Stone

(The following is an excerpt of a discourse I gave in a local congregation last month.)

We’ll be discussing rock and roll, and rolling stone, but in a way different subject matter the popular world knows today.

Mark 16: 1-3: When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

It was Sunday morning, and the women, the two Marys and Salome, were on their way to Jesus’ tomb. Their hearts were broken, yet they would like to show their devotion to their fallen leader by anointing his dead body with fragrances.

It was the custom of the Jews to anoint the dead. We may ask, was Jesus’ body not given proper burial rights before being buried? Let’s read:

John 19: 38-40: After this, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took the body of Jesus. And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury.

One hundred pounds of spices. That’s a lot of spices! Twenty pounds of spices was the usual burial custom in those days. Forty pounds was for the rich. So 100 pounds was really extravagant. I read that it is estimated that the cost of 100 pounds of this mixture of myrrh and aloes would cost about $150,000 in today’s market. Those men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, gave Jesus a burial fit for a king.

Then why did the women have to go? Do they think that Jesus’ body was not anointed properly that they have to do it again? Who can relate here, that what you have done is not enough? The dishes were not done right. The kitchen was not sparkling enough when you cleaned it.

I am not taking a swipe on the women. For I don’t think these women thought that the anointing of Jesus’ body was not done right or not enough, but rather they only wanted to show honor and respect to their fallen Savior, in their own little way. They wanted to show their love too.

The anointing of perfume was not to do mummification, but to put spice and fragrances to cancel the bad smell of decomposition. One of Jesus’ gifts when He was born was myrrh, a spice to anoint a dead body. Do you see the theme here? Jesus was a baby destined to die.

Back to our story. While the women were on their way, they asked: Who will roll away the stone? This implies that they alone cannot roll away this stone.

Archeologist have found many tombs around Palestine that they believe were first century tombs. Most of the time the opening of the tomb was blocked by a stone. It could be a large mill-like stone, though some experts say that it could also be a square rock that can slide. Though to me when the women said “roll” away, original Greek word apokylio, it must be circular that it can roll like a wheel.

The books of Mathew and Mark said that it was “very large.” If we say it should cover 4 to 5 feet of tomb entrance, then a disc stone would have a diameter of at least 6 feet. That rock could weigh 1.5 to 2 tons. That weight alone even though it can roll like a wheel, would be hard to move.

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me and a large stone in the Holy Land

But there’s another factor that was found by archeological diggings: usually the groove where the stone rolls is in an incline or has a deep ditch where it will drop. Meaning, it may be much easier to close it, but a lot harder to open it, as you have to roll it against an incline or lift it out of a deep rut, and put a wedge to keep it open. In a conservative estimate, you need more than 10 strong men at the least, to roll away the stone.

One more factor, according to Matt 27:66, it was closed with a Roman seal and thus cannot be opened without the permission of the Roman authority. Besides, there were Roman soldiers guarding the tomb. A usual Roman guard unit is 4-16 men, most of the time 4 men stay on guard while the rest sleeps, and they change shifts every few hours, to keep them fresh.

Despite all these factors, these women came to the tomb, and expect that they can somehow open the tomb. Do we have the determination and dedication of these women? Their faith may be imperfect as they did not expect that Jesus will be alive as He told them He will. But they were determined to go. They know that there would be barriers to do their mission, but they still continue.

Sometimes we feel unsure with our plans or mission. Should we carry it out anyway and hope that everything will work out fine? Just like those women did.

So they asked, “Who will roll away the stone?”

But when they came to the site, what did they see? The stone was already rolled away! How? Let’s read:

Matthew 28: 2-4: There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

No need for ten strong men, one angel is enough. No need to put a wedge on the stone, for the angel sat on it. No need to contend with the Roman guards for they became like dead men. Only one angel, can be such a powerful force to contend with, how much more if God would send ten thousand of them!

The women seeing that the stone was rolled away, came in to the tomb, and the angel told them that the Jesus they were looking for was not inside the tomb, for He is alive!

Yes my friends, we serve a risen Savior. Our God is alive! The tomb is empty. That stone blocking the entrance of a tomb was rolled away!

I believe that the rock at the entrance of the tomb was not rolled away so Jesus can come out. What? Before you accuse me of teaching heresy, just hear me out first.

Remember when He appeared to the disciples when they were inside a house with closed-door? Let’s read:

John 20:19: On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Doors were locked, yet suddenly Jesus stood among them. He came through the walls! I believe Jesus when He was resurrected, can verily come out of the tomb even with the stone locked in!

But why was the stone rolled away? It was not that Jesus can come out. It was for the women and His disciples to come in inside the grave, and see that the tomb was empty. The stone was not rolled away for Jesus. It was rolled away for us, so we can believe.

Are we still asking the same question right now? Who will roll away the stone? The stone of our failing health and illnesses. The stone of our broken relationships. The stone of our financial difficulties. The stone of our addiction. The stone of our day-to-day struggles in life. The stone of our unbelief.

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If we are asking the question “Who will roll away the stone?” we are asking the wrong question. The answer is already clear.

The question for us, is: “Are we going to allow God to roll away our stone?” A large two-ton stone is nothing to God. It should be nothing for us as well.

For God have told us in Matthew 17:20, Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.

God equipped us to move mountains. We should not be asking anymore, “Who will roll away the stone.”

(*photos taken in the Holy Land)

 

No Chance Encounter

(The following is an excerpt from a discourse I gave in a local congregation. Thoughts were inspired after standing in a spot pictured below.)

Simon, after an 800-mile long travel, in a dream journey of a lifetime, finally arrived in Jerusalem.

He was warned of the large crowd especially during Passover time. But that day, he saw a different event. Even though the streets were crowded with lots of people they were making way for this unusual procession. There were no wailing sirens or flashing lights to warn people to make way, but there were Roman soldiers shouting with their glistening swords that part the crowd like the Red Sea.

Then Simon saw a man, so bloodied in his face, head, and back, carrying a beam of a cross, being led by the soldiers. Simon realized, he was witnessing a man being led to his death by crucifixion.

Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but they perfected it. Crucifixion was a punishment mostly reserved for those sentenced with insurrection or rebellion. Mostly people crucified were people subjugated by the Romans.

The weight of the whole cross was about 300 pounds. But usually the one being crucified carry only the cross beam, which in itself weighs about 100 pounds. They carry this to the place where they will be executed.

But even that weight of the cross beam was too heavy for this man condemned to die, as Simon witnessed. Perhaps he was weakened from all the lashes he received in his back. Perhaps he was already too weak from the blood loss from the wounds in his head and body.

Simon saw that the man carrying the cross fell under the weight and cannot stand anymore. Next thing Simon knew was that he was being ordered to carry that man’s cross.

But why was Simon chosen? Was it really random or by chance that he was picked? Romans will not let a Roman citizen carry the cross. They only let Jews or a foreigner do it. And Simon looked like a foreigner. He stood out of the crowd. He definitely looked like a stranger in Jerusalem. Was it the way he dressed? Or was it something more obvious?

Simon was most probably dark-skinned. In a more blunt way of saying, he was black.

First of all he was from Cyrene, a country in North Africa. We know that these people were descendants of Ham, the third son of Noah, who was believed to be the ancestral father of black people. The name Ham, many scholars believe meant “black.” This is supported by the Hebrew and Arabic evidences, in which the word “chamam” means “to be black.”

Another support is in Acts 13:1, it mentioned a man named Simeon (Simon) who was called the black man, who was one of the teachers in Antioch. Whether this was the same Simon from Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross is hard to prove. What we know though, is that Acts 11:19-21 mentioned that the first Christians who preached in Antioch were from Cyprus and Cyrene.

In all likelihood, Simon was picked because he looked different. Discrimination is not something that we only have today. Even in those times it already existed.

But Simon was not pick by chance. I believe God has destined him to carry the cross for a special reason. Same thing that God picked those who were being discriminated and ostracized during those times: the Samaritans, the tax-collectors, the Publicans, the lepers, the sinners. God chose those who the world see as unwanted, and use them in a special purpose for his divine plan.

If God does not discriminate, who are we to discriminate people whom we think are different from us?

Back to Simon, when he was picked by the Roman soldiers, he was reluctant. The Bible said in Matt 27:32, he was “forced” or “compelled.” Meaning, he did not volunteer. Most likely he even refused!

But can you refuse the Romans? There was a Roman law called lex angeria stating that if a Roman soldier tells you to carry his pack or a load, you must carry it for 1000 paces (1 pace=2 steps), which is really close to our current mile. After 1 mile, you can bring down the load and you can go on your business.

But Jesus in his teaching in Matthew 5:41, said that if a soldier demands you to carry his pack for 1 mile (pertaining to lex angeria law), carry it for 2 miles instead. That was Jesus said! So if someone ask you a favor, do it beyond what you are being asked. Not out of duty, but do it out of love.

I am not sure Simon heard of this Jesus’ teaching, that he would be willing to carry the cross for more than a mile.

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Station V, Via Dolorosa: spot where Simon carried the cross

But I get it, not just because the cross was heavy, and it was not even his cross to carry, Simon has other reasons to be reluctant. One is that if he carry that bloodied cross, he would contaminate himself with blood and he would be deemed ceremoniously unclean by Jewish law. He then would not be able to participate in the Passover feast, which was the very reason he came to Jerusalem in the first place.

Sometimes we have our own plans, and all of a sudden we are being diverted to do something we don’t want to do. Just like Simon. But God has a plan for us. We just have to trust Him.

The other reason, why I think Simon was reluctant to carry the cross was, can you imagine the humiliation of carrying the cross of somebody you don’t even know? The humiliation of being associated to somebody condemned to die.

Simon’s experience was: from dream to nightmare, from holy to horrific, from going to the place of worship to going to a place of execution.

But as Simon followed Jesus carrying the cross and being led by the Roman soldiers, something happened to him. It changed him.

Simon have looked into the bloodied face of this man and their eyes met. The look that peered through his soul. The look of love and forgiveness, despite him being led to his death. Surely, Simon thought, this Man was different.

As he was following Jesus with the cross, he have heard him speak as recorded in Luke 23:28 “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children.” Surely, Simon thought, this Man was different.

Something changed the heart of Simon. I believe that after they came to Calvary and he was told by the soldiers that he can bring down the cross and was free to go, he stayed in the crowd and watched what would happen to the Man whose cross he carried.

Simon witnessed of how this Man forgave those who were crucifying him, praying “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He saw this Man die and how He cried “It is finished,” and how he uttered “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Surely, Simon thought, this Man was different.

From an unwilling cross bearer, Simon became a willing faithful follower.

Simon realized the fact that his hands and his shoulders and his body that were stained by this Man’s blood did not make him unclean, but rather that very blood cleansed him of his sins. Simon can claim that he was literally washed by the blood of the Lamb.

How sure are we that Simon became a follower of Christ?

In Mark 15:21 it mentioned Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus. The book of Mark was written about 25-30 years after Jesus died. The fact that Mark mentioned the names of his sons, implied that his sons became known to the early Christian church. That means they became pillars of the church, because their converted father introduced them to the Savior whose cross he carried.

Also in Acts 11:19-21, which mentioned those early Christians from Cyrene, and we may wonder, why were the earliest Christians from a place 800 miles away from Jerusalem? I want to believe that those were converted by Simon when he returned home to Cyrene. Even Paul in Romans 16:13 greeted Rufus, Simon’s son, whom Paul said was ‘picked by God to be his very own son.’

Yes, Simon was not picked by the Romans by chance, but rather God picked Simon. And it was not a chance encounter, but it was a destined encounter.

May the story of Simon, inspire us for our own fateful encounter.

(*photo taken in Jerusalem)

 

Looking at the Horizon: A New Year’s Message 2018

(This message was delivered during a local church’s gathering on New Year’s Eve.)

In a few hours, we will be saying goodbye to this year and we’ll be embarking on a new year. Happy New Year!

The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and of endings, and transitions. He is usually depicted as having two faces, facing back to back, one looking at the past and the other one looking at the future.

At this particular crossroad of time – the end of the old year, and the beginning of the new year – perhaps that’s what we ought to do: to look and evaluate the past, but also look and plan for the future.

Earlier this year, we were blessed with a trip to the Holy Land. We visited a place called Mount Nebo, which is located near Madaba, Jordan, or in Biblical times it is known as the land of the Moabites. The mountain is pretty high that it provides a panoramic view of the surrounding areas around it, including the land known as the Biblical Canaan.

As we were enjoying the view, the tour guide was giving insights and explaining the significance of this place to our group, while another group near us was having a devotional and they were singing the hymn “I am bound for the Promised Land.”

Where we were, is the place where Moses stood. And while Moses was looking at this same horizon that we were viewing, perhaps he was looking back at his life. But God also let him see the future and showed him the entire Promised Land, and the specific areas where certain tribes of Israel would settle. Since he was able to see details (recorded in Deuteronomy 34) that can only be seen with powerful binoculars, I believe God miraculously let him see Canaan with an assisted vision.

Yet the irony of this is, Moses never set foot in that land, for he died and was buried there in Mount Nebo.

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Moses, the chosen liberator of Israel, who led his people out of Egypt, and who dedicated his life leading the Israelites to enter Canaan, was not allowed to enter it. So unlike the song, Moses was not bound for the Promised Land.

Was Moses a failure then? Not at all!

Sometimes when we look at our past, we may feel that we are a failure, for we were not able to accomplish what we were supposed to accomplish. We may feel that we are losers for we are not where we wanted to be. Sometimes we feel like a disappointment for we started something but was not able to complete it.

Perhaps you’re thinking that you should have graduated from college by now, but instead you still have a couple of semesters to go since you shifted course. Or perhaps you’re thinking that you should have that high-paying dream job that you always wanted, but instead you’re stuck in a job you don’t really want. We may have started to work on a project, and now, it is still a project!

Friends, what we fail to understand, is that God may have some other plans for us. That God has a different destination for us, and we have just not realized it yet. Or God could have appointed you to begin that task, and He appointed somebody else to finish it. Just like in the case of Moses, where Joshua took over for him.

More importantly, when Moses stood there in Mount Nebo, while looking at the Promised Land from afar, he did not complain on why he was not allowed to enter the land that is promised to his ancestors, a land that was described as “flowing with milk and honey,” a destination I’m sure Moses wanted to be a part of. Instead, he humbly accepted God’s plan for him.

Moses may have not entered the Promised Land here on earth, yet God took him to a far better place, which is in heaven.

Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (NIV)

As we stand here in the Mount Nebo of the year 2017, and as we look at the horizon to the year 2018, I pray that it will be prosperous for each one of us. I hope that it will be flowing with milk and honey. And for the lactose-intolerant, flowing with soy milk and honey.

As we set our goals for the coming year, may we not forget that all our plans here on earth are just temporary, for our ultimate destination is the Promised Land, the heavenly Canaan.

God bless us all, and again Happy New Year!

Bethlehem Hills and Herod’s Mountain: A Christmas Reflection

It is mid-December, and in a few days it will be Christmas. It’s a season for celebration, yet it is well-known that the holiday season can be a cause of stress and depression for some people. Perhaps we should let go of that long Christmas shopping list of ours.

Even if the whole world celebrate Christmas in December, it is likely that Jesus was not born in the winter. Based on Biblical narrative, shepherds were watching their flocks in the fields at night during that time, and December nights in Judaea can be too cold for the shepherds to sleep outside in the fields.

Many scholars believe that it was probably spring time when Jesus was born, so December 25th is unlikely to be the exact date of Jesus’ birth. What I am saying is that the date may be off, yet I am not saying that we should not remember or celebrate Jesus’ birth. That’s another subject of discussion and debate.

Earlier this year, we were blessed with a visit to the Holy Land, including a trip to the city of Bethlehem.

IMG_4282.jpgBethlehem is about 10 kilometers away from Jerusalem. Today it is a Palestinian territory. So our guide who was an Israeli national and who was touring us in Jerusalem, boarded off our charted bus just before we entered Bethlehem, and another tour guide whom I assumed was a Palestinian, hopped in our bus after we entered the city and cleared the checkpoint. They must have some specific rules and arrangement.

We went to visit the Church of Nativity, the site believed where Jesus was born. This Byzantine basilica was built on top of a cave. So at the cellar of this church was a grotto (photo below), marked as the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.

img_4306Though the exact location is hard to prove accurately with archeological support, for me, it is enough that the city of Bethlehem exists to believe that Jesus was born. It does not matter where the exact spot is, as long as it was recorded that it was in Bethlehem, the city of David.

“For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord”(Luke 2:11). What a reassuring thought, that our Lord and Savior came to this earth, and that should not be a cause of stress and depression, but instead of joy and hope.

While on the bus, I observed that the terrain around Bethlehem was hilly. In fact, Bethlehem sits on top of a hill rising about 3,500 feet above the desert valley. It must have been difficult for Mary who was fully pregnant and about to give birth to climb those hills.

IMG_4290We passed through some hills that were full of houses and buildings today (photo above). It was probably in one of those hills, two thousand years ago, where shepherds were watching their sheep when suddenly they saw a bright light and then the angels appeared to them announcing the birth of the Messiah. It must have been a marvelous experience to be on those hills that glorious night.

The tour guide asked us to look beyond Bethlehem hills and direct our sight to a strange-looking mountain in the distance. It was truncated and cone-shaped. I enlarged the section of the photo above to feature the mountain. (Sorry I was not able to get a better picture.)

IMG_4290It was a strange-looking mountain because it was man-made. The mountain was named Herodium, a fortress that Herod the Great constructed, about 5 kilometers southeast of Bethlehem. This was the same King Herod that tried to kill Jesus by slaughtering all the male infants in the region.

As history recorded it, when Herod the Great, was searching for a place to build his home and fortress, there was not a mountain high enough for him to build this structure. Instead there were two hills near each other at the site where he wanted it.

So what did Herod do? He cut down one hill and with an army of laborers he placed the pared hill on top of the other hill to make it higher, one bucket of dirt and rocks at a time. He literally moved a mountain.

When Jesus and his disciples were having discussion about faith, they were probably looking at this Herod’s mountain, which was hard to miss in the Judaean desert. Its dominating presence was a constant reminder of an oppressive regime. It was a common knowledge of that time how Herod moved a mountain.

However, what Jesus was telling his disciples is that faith, is much more powerful than what Herod can do. With faith they can be mightier than the mightiest ruler of their time.

“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

Yes, we can move mountains. Though not by our own power but by the mighty power of God.

What mountains are we facing? What giant challenges are gripping our hearts with fear? Let’s put our faith in the King of Bethlehem hills, and He will move our mountains.

May we all have a meaningful Christmas.

(*photos taken with an iPhone)