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by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

December, 2002

In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Jacob Marley’s ghost is condemned to drag heavy chains throughout eternity. These chains are said to represent Marley’s “sins” in life. Marley says that his fate is the result of “one life’s opportunities misused”: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business.” Marley tells Ebenezer Scrooge that Scrooge has a chance to escape a fate like his.

John the Baptist also warned the people of his day that they could escape their fate (Matt. 3:1-2). Those who believed confessed their sins and were baptized by John in the Jordan River (Matt. 3:6). But John warned those who believed they were righteous to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matt. 3:8 NIV).

Likewise, Paul warned the Romans, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Rom. 2:5-8 NIV).

Like Jacob Marley, our sins are often less the things we do than the things we leave undone. The links of our chains are forged of our failure to act, of “life’s opportunities misused.” Each day, we have many opportunities for service, many opportunities to show God’s love, mercy, and justice. “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” (Matt. 25:35-36 NIV).

At Christmas time, we recall when God sent Jesus into the world to break our bonds and shatter our chains. He came into a world of “prisoners suffering in iron chains,” (Psa.107:10b NIV), and set us free. One day in the synagogue, Jesus read from Isaiah, “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners . . . to release the oppressed,” (Luke 4:18b NIV). And on another occasion he said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36 NIV). This is the good news: because of his birth, life, death, and resurrection, we are free from our chains of sin.

Young Jesus asked Mary and Joseph, “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49b KJV). As his disciples, we are also called to be about God’s business. And God's business is not so very different from Jacob Marley’s business: “Mankind . . . common welfare . . . charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, . . .” Jesus told those who accepted his message, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31b-32 NIV). We can be set free from our chains, and when we have been freed, we can show others the way to be set free from theirs.

“"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.” (Isa.58:6-8 NIV.)
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Copyright © 2002 by David Phelps