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Please find the latest sermons from worship at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.

24 Oct

The Bible and Land Confiscation

A Biblical Refection on Land Confiscation 

By: Munther Isaac

Land confiscation is not a new phenomenon. In the biblical tradition, perhaps no other story illustrates this abuse of power by the “king” with regards to the land than the story of king Ahab and the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kings 21). The relatively large space this narrative received in the book of Kings is an indication that the narrative demands special attention. Ahab, king of the northern kingdom, saw the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, coveted it, and presumed that he had divine entitlement to ask from Naboth to sell it to him (21:2). Naboth, on the other hand, rejected this – based on his belief that this is a land entrusted to him by God as an inheritance and therefore he could not sell it (21:3).

The infamous queen Jezebel intervened in the story, and reminded Ahab that, as king of Israel, he was entitled to take the vineyard (21:7). The assumption is simple: “Just because you can, then you should!” A plot was made, Naboth was killed, and Ahab received the vineyard (21:16). No apology was made. Power and manipulation were at play here. The victim in this narrative was Naboth, who represents the powerless peasants of Israel. The way in which Naboth and Ahab related to the land manifested a startling contradiction. One treated it as a gift, the other as an entitlement. One believed that it belonged to the community; the other wanted it for his empire.

The attitude of Naboth is similar to that of many contemporary Palestinian farmers. It is no surprise that Palestinians take the olive tree as a symbol, for it reminds them of their rootedness and belonging to the land. This attitude can be summarized by the words of Brueggemann:

Naboth is responsible for the land, but is not in control over it. It is the case not that the land belongs to him but that he belongs to the land.

The Bible is a book of hope and justice, and that was not the end of the story. The story concluded with judgment on Ahab. He was found guilty for murder and “taking possession:”

“Thus says the Lord, Have you killed and also taken possession? … In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood”. (1 Kings 21:19)

The king, who was supposed to be the guardian of justice in the land (Psalm 72), instead was responsible for inflicting injustice on the people of the land. God intervened and brought justice, for he is a God who is concerned for justice. Ahab had forgotten that:

“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you”. (Deuteronomy 16:20)

Interestingly, justice took place in the same place where Naboth was killed, hinting maybe that the land avenged the death of Naboth. God is a God of justice, and this our biblical hope.

In this Christmas season, let us remember that our biblical hope was revealed in the child of Bethlehem, who promoted and incarnated a new way of kingship. Jesus is the ultimate just and humble king. Of him the prophet Jeremiah said:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land”. (Jeremiah 23:5)

As his followers today, Jesus invites us to promote his kingdom and his vision for the land. The righteous king of Bethlehem rules with justice and righteousness, and so justice and righteousness should characterize our ministry.


26 Jun


God Has Visited Us…

Luke 1:68-69

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David”

These are troubled days that we live in. In the last few weeks, in particular, we have witnessed so many tragedies:

  • The mass suffering in Aleppo. Thousands have been killed, including many children, and many more became refugees.
  • The war in Iraq and especially around Mosul continues with people dying every day.
  • The terror bombing at St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral that killed 22 Christians.
  • The shooting attack in Karak Jordan.
  • The assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey.
  • The continuous violence in Yemen.
  • The terror attack on the Christmas Market in Berlin.
  • The shooting at a mosque in Zurich.
  • The deadly explosion in Mexico.

Christmas Lutheran ChurchThe world is a dangerous place, and it seems that no place is safe anymore We have fallen short as humans from what God has intended for us to be – his image on earth! We are seeing humanity in its ugliest image.

When the attack at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Egypt took place, in that week I led a devotion for the staff of Bethlehem Bible College. I asked them to openly express their feelings about what happened. One particular reply by a young woman was so strong and honest. She probably imagined herself in their place. She was not troubled by the terrorists. She was not simply sad for the families. She was angry at God. “I am troubled by God”, she said. “Where was he? Why didn’t he stop this?”

Where was God? Why does it seem these days that God is so distant from us; leaving us in this unending cycle of self-destruction and dehumanization of the other?

As a pastor, these are the type of questions you sometimes wish no one asks you! And it goes beyond terror attacks and catastrophes. As a pastor I encounter so many broken lives, homes, marriages and dreams – people who are in despair and who cry with the Psalmists in Psalm 88:

O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!

For my soul is full of troubles,
I am a man who has no strength,

O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me.
Don’t these verses describe the way we feel many times in our troubled and messy world? Where is God from all of this?

In this special day of Christmas, we remember that God is actually not that distant from us. Today we remember that it was here in Bethlehem 2000 years ago that God has visited us. It was here that the divine became human. It was here that God has remember his people!

Let us not forget what happened here 2000 years ago – and how it happened, for that has significant importance for us today.

Amazingly, or maybe not so amazingly, circumstances here when Jesus was born were not that different from today. An Empire. Occupation. Checkpoints. Interrogations. Corruption. Poor and rich. Military violence. Walls of hostility and hatred. Intifadas. Cities completely destroyed. Refugees. Religious fatalism. Obsession with the end times. Religious violence. Death!

It seems that this land has never known peace! The people of this land and this region continue to cry over the centuries: “Wainak Ya Allah?!” (where are you God?).

Amazingly – it was here, and it could only be here – that God has chosen to become man, to join our struggles as humans, to become part of this mess. Ever wondered why Bethlehem? Palestine? The “Middle East”? Well, if there is a place that so desperately and constantly needs to see the “mighty brought down from their thrones”, or “the hungry filled with good things”, as Mary prayed, it is this place. If there is ever a place that so desperately and constantly needs to hear the words of the angels “peace on earth”, it is this place.

If there is ever a place that so desperately needs a divine visit, a visit from the God who is love, mercy and compassion, it is this place!

The incarnation had to take place here.

And when God became man, he did through a baby. The symbol of life. Beauty. Simplicity. But also the symbol of weakness. Vulnerability. Innocence. This is how God became man.

He did through a poor and humble family. “For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant”, Mary said. And that family was homeless at the time. They had no place to sleep in. And then that family later became refugees; away from their home, looking for safety and shelter.

And when Jesus was born, there was a terror attack against the children of Bethlehem – a state terror attack! An attack that had a political rational (self protection or safety), and was executed by the solders – the agents of the Empire.

This is where and how God became man. And these were the days and circumstances that he chose to be born in.

Today and on this Christmas eve we remember that God has visited his people. Today we remember anew that: his name is “Immanuel”,

which means, God with us (Matthew 1:23)

So let us go back to the question: “Where was God”? Where was he when the bomb exploded in Cairo? When bombs kill thousands of innocent people in Syria? Where is he today after almost 50 years of military occupation?

Where was he when the children of Bethlehem were massacred 2000 years ago? When the people of this land lived under bondage and in fear? Where was he when Mary and Joseph became refugees?

The answer is that he is Immanuel. God with us. God with us in our suffering. God with us in our brokenness. God with us in our weakness. God with us in our need.

The good news of Christmas is that God has visited us. He has remembered his people. He has never forgotten us actually. But I think we missed him too often, because we did not expect to see him in humility and poverty. We probably looked in the wrong places: In fancy palaces and temples; among armies; among the rich and powerful. Surely, God is with them, we thought!

Christmas reminds us where and when to find God.

If you want to find God in the midst of our troubled and messy world, look for him in a cave with a homeless family. Look for him in the midst of refugees. Look for him in places where there is suffering, terror and death. Look for him in warzones.

If you want to find God in the midst of our troubled world – you will find him at a cross, suffering with us and for us. Beaten, humiliated, and dying, so that we could have life in glory and honor.

This is why the message of Christmas is one of comfort! Isaiah’s famous words echo in hope today as they did thousands of years ago: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”. How come? Because God is coming! “Prepare the way of the Lord”!

Today we are not hopeless. We are not in despair. Today we remember that God has visited us. Immanuel, God is with us. Indeed, God is still with us today. He is so near. This is our comfort and joy today. God has visited his people.

Not only that, today we remember that God takes sides! He chose to suffer with us. He became part of our messy and ugly world, and sided with the oppressed; the weak; the humble and the poor.

And more importantly, today we remember that God has visited us so that we could be with him one day forever. Jesus is the savior and redeemer of our world. Today we remember that God in his love sent Jesus to our world to redeem us from sin; from hate; from death; from sorrow; from sickness. Today we remember that the baby of Bethlehem is the redeemer of our lives and of our world, and that one day – and we must be sure of that – one day he will put an end to the messiness of our world. There will be no more death, terror, wars, sickness, cancer, brokenness, shame, tears, or fears. All of this will one day come to and end. We cannot lose our hope.

Today we remember: God has visited us. And so, in this Christmas season, may we find God, experience him, and sing with Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation…”


24 Dec


From Fear to Joy! A Savior is Born

The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church

Christmas Eve 24-12-2015

The sermon this evening is taken from Luke 2:10-11: And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Have you ever been so afraid – so terrified – of something? Like being in the wrong place in the wrong time? I remember as a kid I was once caught in the line of fire during a demonstration and it was so terrifying!

What is worst is living in a constant state of fear! Fear of a nearby danger. Fear of the future. Fear of the unknown. Or even being afraid of a perceived terrifying and unmerciful God.Christmas Lutheran Church

As I thought of what I will preach on this evening, the words of the angels to the shepherds kept ringing in my mind: Fear not… Fear not… Maybe it is because fear seems to be everywhere around us these days.

In the Christmas narrative, we read about the fear of the shepherds. They were terrified when the angels appeared, and we can, of course, understand that. Just imagine the scene how in the silence and darkness of the night they saw this glorious yet sudden vision. They were naturally afraid. There is the surprise element. There is the darkness. They were simply afraid.

Yet I wonder if Luke was eluding to a more general fear that was prevalent in Palestine in Biblical times. We read in his introduction to the birth narrative in Luke 1 many references to the yearnings and expectations of Israel. There was a reality of fear. We see this in the hymn of Zacharias in Luke 1:

“…That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers… to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear”

It is safe to say that fear maybe even anxiety were common in the days when Jesus was born. The people of the land were afraid… of their occupiers… of the unknown… afraid that God has forgotten them… They were afraid, and where there is fear, there is despair and slavery. You see when we are afraid, we become prisoners to our fears, chained in despair and hopelessness.

I see this reality of fear in our world today. Here in Palestine, we live under military occupation. Years of conflict and violence has created a reality of fear and despair.

Today in Palestine many are afraid of the future. Young people have lost hope in any promising future here. People leave looking for a better future – a more safe one. They are afraid of the unknown. Today the headline in BBC fittingly reads: “Christmas in Bethlehem: Hopes and fears for the future”.


And maybe as a Christian community here, there is another dimension of fear. Our numbers are small. We are literally a little flock. There is a lot of talks today about the future of Christianity in the Middle East. Every Christmas I read articles about this, yet we are here. We did not go anywhere.

But in places like Iraq and Syria – that might be true. The threat is so real and evil. The ones remaining live in fear and anxiety. The prayer of Zachariah is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago: “…grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear”.

But not only that. I look around the world and fear is everywhere. Most notably is the fear of Muslims and Islam – Islamophobia. Politicians are utilizing and encouraging this fear for selfish evil reasons. Because of this fear many Christians are not willing to serve and embrace refugees, which is as close a thing to being Christ-like and following Jesus’ teaching as you could get! Fear is causing many Christians to reject and in some cases hate others! Fear is a reality that is crippling our world today. It is a reality that is damaging our Christian witness to the world.

Today maybe more than ever we need to hear and embrace the words of the angels: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

There are at least three things concerning the fear that the Gospel is telling us today:

First, we fear not, because Jesus is born. The message of Christmas should drive fear away. The message that God sent his Son to be born here, to become one of us, to feel our pain and sorrows, and to ultimately carry our sins upon himself on the cross – this message should drive fear away.

Notice here: “Fear Not”, but not because your circumstances will change. “Fear Not”, but not because you should trust in yourself. This is not “self-help”. The message is not to simply have courage. “Fear Not”, because of what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ. Hope and salvation come from without, not from within. “My help comes from above, from the Lord”.

This is not a statement that the current political reality will change. Rather, a new kingdom reality is breaking through! A dawn of a new era is appearing. Interestingly, a similar statement with almost the same Greek words and sentence structure like the one we find in Luke 2:11 was known in Jesus’ times about the birth of Augustus. Was Luke alluding to this? “Fear Not”! The new king is born. It is not Caesar, but Jesus. And his kingdom of love and joy challenges the kingdoms of the fear that dominates our world today.

Those who really understand who the baby is, and what his kingdom is about – should know no fear. We fear no power or political reality. We do not live as prisoners. We may be occupied, yet we are free of fear. We may be feared and seen as a threat, but we know that we are loved and remembered by our God. The baby of Bethlehem drives away all of our fears.

Second, what is really interesting in the words of the angel is that fear is replaced with Joy – the joy of the Gospel. This is amazing! The opposite of fear is not security… but joy! Actually, we see the same pattern of joy replacing fear in both Luke 1:13, 1:30. It is like a theme in Luke.

Joy – not security – replaces fear. The promise of Christmas is not of security, wealth or comfort. In fact, the baby of Bethlehem and the holy family embody this: they were poor, powerless, and without a place to stay. Yet I bet that they were more than thrilled when Jesus was born. In the midst of hardship and anxiety – joy is born in Jesus.

Yet this is not any joy, but the joy of the Gospel! The joy of knowing that God dealt with our sins and failures. The joy of realizing that God has remembered his covenant; of realizing that we are not forgotten. The joy of knowing that the baby of Bethlehem is the prince of peace and also the one who “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).

Today we can have this joy. Today you should leave Bethlehem with this joy. This evening God wants to replace our fears with joy!

Thirdly and finally, this is not a passive or naïve joy. This is not escapism. Joy is active and transformative. The joy of Christmas should transform our world and reality and cause us to be ourselves agents of transformation and change. The shepherds received this joyful news of Jesus’ birth and went to Bethlehem and met Jesus and the family, and then returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them”. Today we are invited to do the same.

Because Jesus is born we are now free to love, serve and worship him. Because he is born we are no longer slaves to our fears. We “fear not”… and with joy we love and serve the world. You see many worship and serve God out of fear. This does not work. This becomes a burden. No one wins. But when we serve with joy – when we are liberated from fear, only then we are able to love and embrace God and others.

I pray tonight that as we are set free of our fears – that the joy of the Christmas story challenges us to love and serve the God of Christmas For Palestinian Christians: I pray that we are set free of our fears and instead to stay in this land with joy and confidence. I pray that we look at people around us  – our neighbors – through the eyes of love, not fear.

I pray for the church around the world to overcome its ungodly fears and suspicions and instead to love and embrace the refugees and the needy. Let us remember the words of 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear”. In this sense with can replace fear with service and love – indeed with Evangelism!

Sisters and brothers: in this Christmas evening, hear the words of the Gospel of our Lord: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.