I specifically asked for the singing of that song “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s a song that gets a lot of shade thrown on it lately. Even my own kids have thrown shade on that song. But that song will always be very precious to me for a couple of different reasons. But the biggest reason is because the man who wrote the music to that song whose name is Buddy Greene. Buddy Greene, as you see in the picture, plays the harmonica along with about 30 other instruments. He is a professional musician, and Buddy Greene’s story intersects with my story in a kind of surprising way.
My grandmother, we called her Grammy, also played the harmonica, and Grammy was a street person. Actually, virtually her whole life in the 40 years that I knew her, she lived almost all of those years on the street. Sometimes, she would play her harmonica on the street for money, and her common-law husband Paul was a classically trained vocalist. When he sang, it would split your eardrums. Sometimes, he would sing, but people gave more money to the harmonica than him.
So, for those of you who are here tonight, and you struggle with the holidays. Sometimes the holidays that look so cheerful and bright for other people, just a lot of times there’s stuff that goes with the holidays. If you have a family like mine that has a history, it’s just hard. And I really only saw Grammy on holidays, usually Christmas. When Grammy died, we gathered for her funeral in a bar in northern California.
And it was kind of sad. But in the midst of this funeral, a friend that knew my grandmother brought a letter from Buddy Greene. There actually is this thing, I guess maybe it’s still going (these kinds of things probably should never die). But there’s this thing called a harmonica orchestra that they did every year in northern California, and my grandmother never missed. Every year she went to that, like that was her thing. And Buddy Greene came a lot of times to this, and he got to know my grandmother and befriended her and was very kind to her.
And after she passed, he sat down and took the time to write a handwritten letter to the family of my grandmother whom he’d never met and just in a very gracious, beautiful way shared memories of knowing my grandmother. I just thought that is so beautiful, just that act of kindness. So, nobody throw shade on his song, all right? Actually, he was here about maybe three years ago. They were over at a church nearby with Keith and Kristyn Getty, and I got to go up to him and talk to him and say, “I don’t know if this is going to connect with you, but Lila Peterson was my grandmother; and when she passed away, you wrote a letter, and we read it at her funeral. And I just want you to know that it really meant a lot to me.”
And it’s interesting in the course of that concert, Buddy shared that he actually wrote the music to that song in 30 minutes. So, Mark Lowry, the comedian singer, just had written the words of that song out, and he gave it to Buddy Greene. Buddy Greene wrote the music in 30 minutes, and in the morning, he sang it to Mark Lowry. The thing that the Buddy shared was after that song went huge – I mean that song has been covered over 500 times by everyone from Kenny G to Pentatonix – and he said, “You know, I thought, ‘OK I can write music.’ And I wrote song after song after song, and I never wrote another song that was any good.”
So that song was his Magnificat. So, it’s just wonderful how art and music are such a part of this season. I’m so grateful that God put it on Alan Bunn’s heart to have this focus during this Christmas season. Thank you. Shout out to all the artists who contributed their work. It has been such a huge blessing to me to be able to see that in the lobby. Frances Schaeffer said,
“The Christian is the really free person – he’s free to have imagination. This too is our heritage. The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars; and when God redeems us, he redeems all of us, not only our soul, not only our mind, not only our destiny in heaven, but he redeems our imagination, and he enables us to dream again.”
And that’s my prayer for many of you. Many of you have had dreams, but they’ve died. I think that God is calling us to awaken those dreams. God has actually used art to change lives a lot more probably than we know.
My favorite story about this is a story that actually happened almost exactly three hundred years ago. There was a very, very rich, very spoiled young man whose name was Count Ludwig Nicolaus von Zinzendorf. It’s a really cool name. His parents owned houses and lands and properties all over Europe. When he was about 20 years old, he went on a tour to find himself. He was just kind of wandering around Europe, which is nice work if you can get it. And he came into an art gallery, and he saw a particular painting of Jesus that was done by an Italian man named Domenico Fetti. And this painting is called Ecce Homo, which from Latin means “Behold the Man.” You can’t see it in this picture, but the Christ figure in the painting is leaning on some books, and on the spine of those books there are words written in Latin. Those words say, “All this I have done for you. What have you done for me?”
There was something about that painting that when Zinzendorf saw it, he just sat down for hours and much of the time he was sobbing convulsively. God used that painting to grab Nicolaus’s heart and he said, “It was as though the painter had captured in every line of Christ’s face his love.” And the love of Jesus broke that young man. He actually then went on to open his estate to refugees. Refugees came from all over the world from many different languages to live with him. They became known as the Moravians, and they launched the modern missionary movement. And it all came from the work of an artist that God used to touch someone’s heart.
So, this series is about another form of art. It’s about hymns. Maybe some of us may think, “Okay, well, it seems a little strange that we’re talking about songs over Christmas,” but as I was preparing for this message, I did some study and I found out that Leland Ryken, who is a very well-known biblical scholar, did an overview of the Bible, and he found out that actually more than one third of the Bible is written in poetry. More than one-third of your Bible was written originally as poetry. The whole book of Psalms is a book of poems. The whole book of Proverbs is poetry. The whole book of the Song of Solomon is poetry. When you read almost all of the prophets – Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel – most of what they wrote is poetry, which is really cool.
John Piper, who is himself a preacher poet, said this.
“Paradoxically poetry is an expression of the fact that there are great things that are inexpressible. There is no one-to-one correspondence between the depths of human experience and capacities of language to capture that experience. There are experiences that go beyond the ability of language to express them. For the poet, this limitation of language does not produce silence; it produces poetry. Poetry is a kind of verbal resistance to the impenetrability of human experience.”
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts two weeks ago, and it’s called The Bible Project. They were talking about the way Paul viewed Jesus Christ – Paul’s theology of Christ. And the guy who was talking made the point that whenever Paul was going to try and communicate a really, really deep theological construct, he seemed to do it in poetry, which is really interesting.
I’ve never seen a systematic theology book written in poetry. They usually use big, long words that I have no idea what they’re talking about. But the apostle Paul uses poetry. Here’s one example: 1 Timothy 3:16. (Now, it doesn’t rhyme, so it may not look like poetry to you, but take my word for it. It is poetry.) “Great indeed we confess is the mystery of godliness.” Now here’s the poem.
“He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, and taken up into glory.”
So, when a third of our Bible is poetry, it’s very appropriate that we stop and think about this catalog of music that God has given to us, which is written in poetry. I’ve been thinking a lot for several weeks about what does it mean that so much of our Bible is written in poetry? What does it mean that when God wants to communicate something really big and really important and really deep, he does it in a poem?
Well, for one thing, it affects the way we think about God. The way we think about God should be informed by the fact that God uses poetry. And one thing certainly it tells us about God is that God is not just a proposition, he’s a person because poetry is the language of experience and encounter. The owner’s manual for your DVD player didn’t come in poetry. The report about the basketball game that happened yesterday wasn’t made in poetry.
But throughout history, when a man or a woman are expressing the feelings they have for one another, the language, the genre of choice is always poetry because poetry tells us more than just the facts. It tells us things on all the levels of our existence.
Poetry touches us in our spirit, in our soul, even in our body because the rhythm is attuned to the rhythm of our very created beings. So, when we think about God, we should not think of God as something to be defined. We should think about him as someone to be encountered and known. God is not primarily something that we dissect or define or debate about. That’s football.
You can know every word in the English language that expresses the idea of love. You can know every word in 20 languages, and yet you can know nothing about love. We can know all the words and all the concepts about God and yet really know nothing about God. Because God is our Father who embraces us. He’s our friend. He’s our helper. He’s our kinsman redeemer.
He’s someone that we know in a relational way, and poetry helps us remember that. Poetry also informs the way we think about corporate worship. If you grew up in a church like I did, a church like North Hills, where we really, really value the teaching of the Bible – it is a super high value. But sometimes, as I was growing up, I would hear people say things like, “Okay, now our sister is going to sing a song to prepare us for the sermon.”
You ever hear that? Or “Let’s pray now in preparation for the sermon.” I used to hear that a lot in the church I grew up in, and I got the impression that preaching is on one level, and everything else we do here is like a warmup. It’s like the opening act. The essence of corporate worship is when we listen to somebody bring a message. And believe me, we at North Hills believe that that is an essential part of the worship event. But it’s not the exclusively essential part of the worship event. Everything we do when we gather to worship is equally essential to the ways that we come to know God, to celebrate him, and experience him together.
So what people are doing, what we’re doing when we sing, when we pray, when we greet one another, when we dedicate children, when we care for one another, when we pray for one another, that’s all equally a part of the way that we know and interact with our God. It’s not just a warmup. This isn’t essentially a lecture with some preliminary stuff. This is an engagement, an interaction, an encounter with the living God. Our heart can take us places that our minds can never go.
In fact, in the Bible in Romans chapter 10, God says that when we believe on Jesus, what do we believe with? We believe with our heart. Now, that doesn’t mean our heart and not our minds. Of course. Any kind of belief that doesn’t include our understanding is not really belief, right? But there is also a kind of belief that has a lot of understanding that’s not a kind of belief because the devils, in that sense, believe and tremble. So, the essence of spiritual maturity is not the ability to articulate complex theological propositions in an accurate way.
It’s much more than that. The fact that so much of our Bible is poetry should affect the way we think about Christmas. I was looking at my wife’s study Bible. Virtually, none of you use printed Bibles anymore. If you did, and if you looked at the page – (This isn’t a great picture) – but this is Luke 1 and Luke 2 that I took with my iPhone in my wife’s study Bible. If you notice the left-hand column, more than half of it is poetry. You have Mary’s Magnificat, which is all poetry.
You have Zachariah’s prayer, which is all poetry. And then in 2:14, 2:29-32. So much of the Christmas story when God told the story, he told it in a poem. He told it in songs. The Christmas story is not like “In 1400 and 92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” The Christmas story is so full of so many dimensions of mystery and wonder and majesty and glory and love and surprise and plot twists. It can only be captured, or best be captured in poetry. If we lose the wonder, we’ve lost the soul of the Christmas story, and it really shouldn’t be lost on us.
The very first poem in the New Testament was written by a young girl, no older probably than the young lady who read the scripture for us this evening. A young girl, probably 15 years old, growing up in a backwater of the world, even a backwater of Palestine, which was a backwater of the world. It’s kind of like growing up in Pickens probably.
Someone warned me. I said that in the second service, and as I was walking out, he said, “Hey, I live in Pickens.” Well, I’m sorry. But not only that, she grew up in Galilee! Galilee is like… They don’t even have a Walmart. Not only does she grow up in Galilee, but she grows up in the city of Nazareth, which is like growing up in Pickens right next to the race track. Some of you understand that, some of you don’t. If you haven’t gone to Pickens, you really ought to go. I spent a week there one day and it was…
So, here’s this young girl. She didn’t get up in the morning with any idea that she was going to meet an angel. That was not in her day planner. And all of a sudden, an angel appears to her. And remember, no one has seen an angel or heard directly from God for over four hundred years. Four hundred years! This angel appears to Mary, this young girl, and tells her that two things are going to happen that have never happened either before or since in the history of the world, that a young girl is going to have a baby without any involvement from a man. That’s never happened. It’s impossible.
But let’s pile on top of that that this child that’s going to be born is the God of heaven. And Mary says, “Okay. How is this going to happen?” And the angel said, “The Holy Spirit is going to come upon you and that child that is going to be born of you is going to be the child of the Most High God.” And what has baffled and blown my mind is that Mary basically says, “Okay. I am the servant of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word.”
That’s crazy! I would have had a few more questions. But she, in simple faith, says yes to God. “God this is your plan. I’m your servant, and I’m rejoicing in the part, the role that you called me to play in the story that you’re writing.” And then Mary, a girl who almost certainly had no theological training because in the culture of the day, it was considered wrong to give theological training to girls. I think I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was doing some research about this. I saw that one of the leading rabbis of the day, one of the leading scribes, one of the two or three most well-respected spiritual leaders in Israel said, “I would rather burn the Torah than teach it to a woman.”
So, it was virtually impossible that Mary had any theological training. It’s doubtful that she had even much education living in a rural backwater like Nazareth, and yet, touched by the power of God, touched by the wonder of what God was going to do, comes pouring out of her what has come to be known as the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And the words that come out of this girl’s mouth are so soaring with the most transcendent theology. And even as a literary work, it is stunning. It’s full of scripture.
She’s recapitulating so many of the stories of the Old Testament that she had been meditating no doubt on in her heart, the stories of Hannah and others. And so out of Mary’s interaction with God, out of her encounter with God came this magnificent poem, which really so defines Christmas. So, let’s think for just a minute about the classic hymn “What Child Is This?” – another great poem of Christmas. This really was William Dix’s Magnificat. The hymn starts with a question, What Child Is This? Who is this? I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but a lot of Christmas songs start with questions.
And the reason is because it’s so unexpected. It’s like things that don’t go together. And this had to be the least likely scenario for God to come to earth. What Child is this? So, he’s asking us to use our imaginations, right? See a baby. There’s a baby, and he’s sleeping. See a mother, and the mother’s holding the baby in her arms. See angels, and they’re singing. See shepherds, and they’re standing around keeping watch and guarding. God said to Mary, the angel said, “Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus, and he will be great.
He is going to be the Son of the Most High God of heaven.” So, then Dix asks another question: “Why lies he here in such mean estate?” Now, he’s not talking about people being mean. The word “mean” just means poor. Why is he lying here? Dix just told us, “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste! Come on! Everybody come quick! Bow down before him; worship him.” But then, all of a sudden, it’s like wait, wait, wait! Why is he lying in a feed box? Why is he lying in a feed box? It doesn’t make any sense.
“Where ox and ass are feeding.” Now, I don’t know if you have those little manger things in your house, whether it’s ceramic or porcelain or straw or whatever you’ve got. And you set all the animals up, and it just looks so nice, maybe you’d like to have a child there. It’s real clean, and in your house, there’s probably some music playing, and it’s quiet, and there are nice smells of cookies baking. I’d like to have a child there. That would be cool. It’s kind of like a birthing center with a theme to it, you know? But if you’ve ever actually gone into a barn with cows, it isn’t that nice.
If you’ve ever actually listened or watched cows eat, it’s disgusting. I’m sorry. I was raised in the city. Maybe you think it’s beautiful, but I promise you this, what happens after they eat is not beautiful. So, with all our idyllic, sanitized, commercialized, romantic notions of just how awesome it must have been to be born in this heated theme park of a stable, Dix is calling our attention to, no! He’s in a feedbox.
He has to share his cradle with animal feed. Then all of a sudden, Dix is calling our imaginations again, and we’re somewhere else. We’re in another place. We’re looking okay: baby (check), Mary (check), shepherds (check), angels (check). Okay! Now, we’re standing at a cross, and there’s nails and there’s spears, and someone’s getting pierced, and someone’s getting tormented and tortured and put to death by one of the worst forms of execution ever devised by twisted people! And Dix is using poetry in such a powerful, effective way to remind us that we cannot think about Christmas without thinking about the cross.
You can’t think they do. They just don’t go together. I mean, they can’t be separated because Jesus said, “Even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
So, when this child was born, he was born for a specific purpose. Now when all the people who came up to dedicate their children today, all throughout the day, many families, and they talked about what is my vision for my child? What are my hopes for my child? Nobody said I hope my child will die an excruciating, early death when they are about thirty-three years old. That is no mother’s vision for her child.
But that was God’s vision for his Son. So, when Dix writes the words, “Good Christians, fear, for sinners here, the silent word is pleading.” What is he saying in the second verse? He’s saying that even before Jesus can talk, even before Jesus can walk, he’s already accomplishing your redemption.
Even as he’s lying in a feedbox, it’s all part of what theologians call his mediatorial work. It’s all part of that work where he is interposing himself. He’s putting himself in our place, and if he’s going to put himself in your place, he has to do it as a human being. So, God prepares for him a body, true humanity that can feel and experience everything that we can feel and experience, and God puts him in a feedbox. Because even in his birth, God is saying to you, “See what I’m doing? Do you see that I’m coming for you? Do you see that it’s all part of my rescue plan?”
It’s so beautiful. So beautiful. Why is he in a feedbox? He’s in a feedbox for me. And for William Dix, this was not just something that was a warm Christmas thought. William Dix’s father was a lifelong alcoholic. He was an author. He wrote a seven- or eight-volume biography of some dead guy that you’ve never heard of, but he fell deeply into debt because of his drinking and gambling and was put into prison.
When he got out of prison, William Dix’s father, when William was 8 years old, his dad got on a boat to America and abandoned his family and went to make a new life for himself. So, it’s no wonder that Dix was sick and depressed, having a childhood like that.
In fact, at some point, somebody actually read the book that his dad wrote and figured out that almost every word he wrote he had stolen from some other author. And when William Dix was around 30 years old, a literary review published this critique of his dad’s work. They said it’s one of the most shameless literary, that his dad was one of the most shameless literary forgers of the present century.
So here you are, you’re 30 years old you can’t get away from the legacy of your dad whom you really never even knew. Dix said about writing hymns, he said I was I was ill and depressed at the time, and it took me a long time to write it out because my hand trembled, and I could hardly hold the pen.
It’s a somewhat curious fact Dix says that most of my best-known hymns were written when I was suffering from some bodily ailment. So, what I’m saying is that you look at this man whose life to all human experience and expectation should have been defined by the failure of his dad, by the reality that he grew up without a dad.
And yet God takes this man and empowers him to write a Magnificat, a hymn that is so powerful, so effective that it’s taken millions of hearts all over the world, been son billions of times and pointed countless people to the reality of the gospel.
Out of William Dix’s pain and disappointment and sorrow and hurt and struggle came a Magnificat of worship to God. That is what God does. You know.
I was I got in a fender bender a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t my fault. Don’t worry. But I got a rental car, and in the rental car they had this Sirius satellite radio. So, I turned it on, and whoever (it must be a woman – oh, I’m going to get in trouble for this) But you’ll understand in a minute. I know it was a woman who rented that car before because the Sirius satellite radio was on the Hallmark Radio Channel.
Now is it okay to say that? Thank you. And I couldn’t get it off.
I’m not techie. I couldn’t get it off the Hallmark Channel. So, they were playing Hallmarky kind of Christmas songs. And so, I was listening for a little while. Josh Groban came on singing this song, “Believe.” That’s another person who gets a lot of shade, Josh Groban, but he does have the second highest selling Christmas album of all time, so he’s doing something right, I guess. I’m not a big fan. You know the highest selling Christmas album of all time?
No no. Should be… Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole. Some of you know who they are. Kenny G.
So, some of you kids, almost all of you kids, you need to ask your mom and dad who that is. But, I digress.
So, Josh Groban comes on, he’s singing this song about trains in the mountains and winds on the hillsides and hot chocolate. And he comes the end of the song, and I just thought, this is like, this is it, right? When you take Christ out of Christmas, this is what you get. You ready?
Here’s the end of the song. Here’s the climax. Believe. That’s pretty good. But believe in what your heart is saying. Hear the melody that’s playing. There’s no time to waste. There’s so much to celebrate. Believe in what you feel inside, no matter what it is, whether it’s Christ or Mohammed or flying monkeys, just believe. That’s the key. And give your dreams the wings to fly.
You have everything you need if you just believe, if you just believe, if you just believe, if you just believe. If you just believe. Sing it with me. Just believe. Yeah. And I was listening that song and I just thought, what? If anything could make you cry that has absolutely no meaning, that would have been it, because he just was really…
And so, I was just kind of bemused by it and then I was kind of tempted to throw shade on Josh Groban. Then I just got kind of angry because I thought that’s so ridiculous. That never paid anybody’s rent. That never healed a marriage.
That never reconciled two friends who were angry and bitter at each other. It never really gave anybody hope in the midst of brokenness. It really doesn’t do anything. But God, God is the one that turns our mess into a Magnificat. God is the one who found Buddy Greene and used his life to be an expression of something beautiful. God is the one who found Mary in a backwater and said, you know what? I’m going to put my favor on you, and you’re going to be part of this story throughout all eternity.
God is the one who found me in a stream of nothing but mental illness and brokenness and corruption and disappointment and hatred and fished me out and gave me a reason to live. This is real. This has cash value in a broken world.
And I want to give you one more example of it. I have my friend with me today. Pastor Mohammed Yamout from Lebanon (forgot for a moment). So, come on up here, brother, I want to interview you. Let’s welcome him to the stage this morning.
So, brother you were born in Lebanon. Just tell a little bit about your life growing up and what it was like for you and your background.
Good evening, first. It’s great to be here with you. It’s always a privilege to come and share about what God is doing in our lives in us and through us in the Middle East, more so as my dear wife is with me, my better half. It’s now 27 years since we’ve been married. Sometimes I tell her, it’s too long for you.
You just don’t want the day that she tells you that.
Yeah. But God is good through it all. My name is Mohammad, Pastor Mohammad. I don’t know if they go together. Many people try to tell me, change your name to Tony, and I say Tony what? My name is Mohammad and my Lord and Master is Jesus Christ.This is his testimony and his grace.
And so, I was born in 1966 in Beirut, Lebanon to a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father. Early on my dad had to leave because he was in the PLO and people were after him. And so, when I was born, he was not there, and I had to live with my mom who was working 24 hours, didn’t have much time for me.
So practically speaking I was a street kid. At the age of six, somebody invited me to come to Sunday school.At that time for a street kid, Sunday school was attractive. I mean there were a lot of goodies in there. They were coloring books, coloring pencils, filmstrips, cookies, Kool aid and Samaritan’s Purse boxes.
You couldn’t resist if you were a street kid. And so, I started going to Sunday school, and Sunday school became sacred to me. I mean I could not miss a Sunday not going to Sunday school. And for eight years that was the case. Nothing happened. I was going there for the goodies. And people in Sunday school loved on meevery time I was there and there were times I thought, those guys are crazy. What’s wrong with them? My mother doesn’t love me like they do. But I was taking advantage of them.
And sometimes we want to give up on loving people because they take advantage. Let me tell you one thing. Love always wins. It never loses. And we can see that today as we celebrate Christmas, Christ loving us. Many people scolded him, he was crucified and hit and shamed. But look what happened. Today we’re sitting here tonight.
So, you went to Sunday school year after year after year. At some point, did you believe? I mean I know you believe, you’re a pastor. But what was the process that God brought you through to bring you from just coming for the goodies to coming to a relationship with Jesus?
Well in 1978 I started asking questions. I mean I was a street kid. I matured quickly, was living next to the American University of Beirut, interacting with the students.I started asking questions, why I’m here, where is my dad, why my mom was so poor, why I’m on the street, why is there war? There was a civil war in Lebanon at that time, and I tried to find answers in Islam which is the natural thing to do, being a Muslim. But to no avail. There were no answers there.
But in 1979, it started clicking, and God started working in me. And love started making sense to me, and I realized how much I am in need of Christ, how in despair I am, how depressed I am, how I was hopeless and helpless, and nobody can do anything about this except Jesus Christ. And so, in 1979, in the spring of 1979 I was in Sunday school, and the teacher laid down the plan of salvation and asked if anybody would like to give his life.
And how old were you then?
Fourteen. And I was afraid to do it in class.I mean there were other Muslim kids with us in the class and I didn’t want them to know. And I thought it would be awkward to do it, so I didn’t raise up my hand. But that day was not a good day for me. I did not rest. I went home to sleep. I could not sleep. We were all sleeping in one room. My stepfather, my mother and my brothers on a plastic bag of cloth. And every time I would fidget I was afraid to wake up my mom, wake up my step dad, and I couldn’t take it. It felt like a burden.
There was something heavy, and something was pulling me. And then around dawn I just couldn’t resist anymore, and I said Lord, I’m yours. I need you. Please help me. And I gave my life to Jesus Christ, and I went to sleep for three hours. Then I woke up, and I was a different person, very peaceful. I went to my stack of New Testaments that I had collected over the years going to Sunday school but never really read. You know in Sunday school every time you come, they give you one. And I used to take them. I put one of them in my school bag, went to school, and I was on fire.
I wanted to share what happened to me that night, how things changed with every person I met, with all my friends. And that same boy that was ashamed the day before, today he was standing boldly for Jesus Christ. Everything was changed. Everything. And that day was the beginning of a long walk with my Savior. Ups and downs, hills and valleys, mountains and you name it. But all in all, it was a great walk.
But eventually, you didn’t make a lot of friends proclaiming Jesus boldly. So, after a few years your pastor said I’ve got to get you out of the country or they’re going to kill you. They had actually I think already attempted or said they were going to kill you.
Twice. By 1982 the first attempt was to kill me. My pastor had to take me and hide me in his village in north Lebanon for six months. Then I came back, and he says, Hush, don’t talk. But I couldn’t but talk. Everywhere I’d go, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. And that put me in trouble again. And they were after my tail again. And so, my pastor said I’m not going to let them kill you. I have to ship you out.
So, he contacted Bob Jones University and arranged for a scholarship for me to come to Bob Jones University and study Bible. And so, in 1986 I flew to Philadelphia International Airport and then down to Greenville-Spartanburg and came to Bob Jones.
What was that like for you?
I don’t know. I didn’t know which was worse, Bob Jones or Beirut, you know? It was tough. You had to walk on the sidewalk, don’t touch girls, wear a tie, wear a suit, go to vespers.
I mean here I was a street kid. I’m not used to all that stuff. But it was good. God did a great work in my life as I attended Bob Jones University. But there was a turn right there. While in Bob Jones I just lost sight of my Savior and stopped choosing my first love. And I wanted to follow my dreams and my desires. I wanted to climb the ladder just like every young man wants to, especially if you come from a poor family.
And so instead of studying Bible I went into accounting. And by 1989, I had a B.S. in accounting. I was offered to go work for an accounting firm in New York and another one in Cairo. But for one reason or another the Lord had other plans.
So, you went back to Beirut.
Yeah, I felt homesick and I just wanted to go back home. I didn’t want to go work. And so, I went back, and the war was raging. I couldn’t go through the airport. I had to go to Cyprus and take a ship to Beruit and then came to the church. It was closed. The pastor had had to leave with his family because the war was just vicious.
And I started again evangelizing, visiting people, gathering people, and within a year the church was back, 100 people were attending. I was preaching, I was teaching, I was administering, I was leading singing.
And then when the pastor came, I said, Chief this is your baby, it’s not my baby. I don’t want to be a pastor. I want to go be a businessman. And so, I relinquished God’s call at that time though he tried to put me back there and went into business and started an entry level accountant job with Oxford University Press and started climbing the ladder and doing business on the side.
By the age of 25 I had half a million dollars in my pocket. How much? Half a million dollars.
And I had a house, I had a factory, I was married, I had two kids. I was cruising. I was getting my way. But then the Lord said, I didn’t save you for that. So, he took the 2 x 4 out. Sometimes we don’t like the 2 x 4 but believe me it’s good. You can’t realize how good it is at the time you’re taking it, but later on you will.
And so, I lost everything in no time. I was in debt $750 thousand U.S. dollars. I went to prison for six months because I was bankrupt. And I still was as hardhearted as an ox.
I did not want to serve God. I wanted to teach God how it’s done. I said look, if I make money, I will help support missionaries, I will build churches, I will build orphanages, I will help the poor. Listen to me God. I know what I’m doing.
Did he appreciate that? You helping him?
No. The voice was always, Mohammed, I own the world. You’re going to help me? And I couldn’t understand that. God owns everything. He’s in charge of everything. He doesn’t need our help. What he needs of us is obedience, and it’s so hard for us as young people to obey because we want to be smart. And I’ve learned to be a fool for Christ. No more to be smart, because wisdom sometimes gets you in trouble if it’s overdone.
From there 2008 came, I was not feeling good, I was miserable, there was no peace. I was working hard. I stood again on my feet. I had a business, but I wasn’t happy. And then it clicked one day as I encountered God again on the beach as I was jogging, I realized, what am I doing? How stupid I am. God wants me to serve him and I am running after worldly dreams.
So, I went to my wife and I said, Honey we’re done. Liquidate everything. Close everything. I don’t want to do business anymore. And she looked at me and said, have you flipped? Did you lose your mind? We have five kids. What do you mean you don’t want to do business again?
I said no more. She said, how are we going to live? I said, God will provide. And so, I started street evangelism, and that led me down to the city of Tyre. And this is where Jesus was.
This is where Paul the apostle was. But it was dark. There was nothing there. No evangelism, no living church. And I felt the Lord saying to me, Go reclaim the land. So, I went back to my wife. I said we’re going to go down to Tyre and she said, you need to see a shrink. You’re losing your mind. You’re not taking my five kids down to a war zone between Hezbollah and Israel. No job, no work, no school, no friends. What’s your story?
I said this is where God wants us to be. Let’s go. And my wife is a godly woman. She prayed about it. She said I’m going to go with you now, and if you’re wrong, he’s going to give you another wacking.
And so, we went down to Tyre, and we started with a Center. We slept in the Center on the floor on mattresses. We went down with $300 support by faith. And I went that summer to register my children in school, and they said $12,000. You know I have an accounting degree, it doesn’t make sense. $300, $12,000. It doesn’t work.
And then the principal says, What do you do? I said I’m an evangelist. He says okay we can make 50% for you because this is a Christian school. I said, okay that’s nice. $6,000, that still doesn’t make sense. And then he said, What does your wife do? I said, she’s a teacher.
Okay, can we interview her? And I said, no problem I’ll call her. So, my wife comes to the school, she goes to the principal’s office, and she’s interviewed. And then after half an hour she comes out crying. Honey, what’s the problem? Why are you crying? They gave me a job. But that’s good. We need a job. We can pay for the schooling.
She said, this is not it. I said, please stop suspense. Tell me what’s the problem? She said, They gave me $800 in cash, all the children free in school, insurance for me and the children. God provides.
I said yes, stop nagging about it.
Very sensitive of you.
I’m not known to be sensitive.
I know that. And that was how many years ago?
It was ten years ago.
And so today we have a picture of a miracle, which is your church in the city of Tyre. How many people approximately come every week?
Today we have two operations going on in Tyre. We have the church which was established after five years of our work there, and we have 40 to 50 believers that attend regularly and serve in the outreach center, which is the lighthouse.
And then we have a thousand people that come to the lighthouse every week to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, to get their needs met, to be counseled, to seek after Jesus.
So, what is this concept of a lighthouse? What do you mean by that?
Well after five years of being in Tyre, the Lord gave us a vision and especially with the Syrian crisis coming on the scene, and two million refugees flooding our country. We realized what the Muslim world needs are lighthouses. They don’t need cruise missiles, they don’t need defense budgets, beefed up defense budgets, and they don’t need democracy. What they need is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what they need.
And for years we have erected walls of fears around the Muslim world because we are Islamophobic. And they have erected walls of fears because they don’t want their people to know the truth. For when they know the truth, the truth will set them free. And so meager efforts have been taken to reach the Muslim world for Jesus Christ.
In fact, IMB says that less than 20% of missions funding and missionaries go to the 10/40 window, and over 80% goes to one third of the world population. That is to our shame, really, because Islam is the second largest religion in the world and the most antagonistic towards the gospel. And I’m not going to be politically correct with you and tell you that Islam is not the enemy.
Islam is the enemy. But what does Jesus say about the enemy? We need to love the enemy because we are a people of love. And so, the lighthouses are a place, a medium where the love of Jesus Christ is shared and shown to people, and the truth about Jesus Christ is shared.
Today we have 13 lighthouses in the Middle East. We have one in Turkey, five in Lebanon, two in Syria, two in Jordan, and three in Egypt. We hope very soon to go to Yemen, Iraq and everywhere in the Muslim world.
But your heart is to see a thousand lighthouses.
Well, a thousand lighthouses not a big number, it’s a small number compared to our resources and the blessings that God has given us. Today the Muslim world is an open door for the gospel of Jesus Christ. God has brought calamity and turmoil to that area of the world.
There is a lot of sorrow and suffering, and God works most when there is suffering and sorrow. Make no mistake, what’s happening in the Middle East today is God’s doing. He’s working there because he has a lot of sheep to bring to the fold. And so, we should not stand idle, and we should not be indifferent. But we should rise and shift gears and make a difference where God is working.
So, this is a great Christmas story. I actually asked Mohammed to wear his traditional Arab attire, not because he looks like a shepherd or a wise man. But really the main reason was that I don’t know about you, but a lot of times we see somebody in traditional attire, especially something that’s associated with Islam, and a lot of people I think their reaction is, oh, oh, let me move away.
But God has called us to be a people that love is greater than fear. My prayer is that when we see a person with attire like this then they should be, oh, let me move near you. Because the truth of the matter is that people, Muslim street kids, are like people everywhere. They’re looking for hope. And they have no hope. And we do.
So, I just want to finish with a real Christmas gift. It’s not sermon notes. One of the most important ways, one of the many ways that Mohammed and his team reach out to Muslim refugees is through medical care. If you can imagine being one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, having no access to even basic medical care. Your child might have a disease or a condition that’s easily curable, but you have nowhere to get the most basic medicine. And so, this is a really important way. They have a clinic now but part of the vision they have is to build this clinic, The River of Healing Clinic, that will intensify their outreach ten times, I think it’s fair to say. We’re also hoping to send a medical mission team in the coming year to work with Mohammed.
But because of your giving at harvest, actually you guys went so far beyond what we expected. You are so generous. As we met together as elders last week we just said, what does this mean? God has given us this resource. I said well I have one idea. God in his providence has Mohammad and Grace coming. What if we sewed into their ministry? So, because of your giving, you are blessing them and encouraging them in the amount of $20,000 dollars toward the cost of building this clinic. Thank you, brother.
So, we’re going to close. But as we do, this has just been an awesome day. And the message of this day is simply this. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what your background is. I don’t care what is part of your story or what skeletons you have in your closet. God can turn your mess into a Magnificat, and that’s what he wants to do.
So, if you’re here tonight, and you have never met Jesus Christ, and you’ve never come into a relationship with him. Maybe you know about him like Mohammed did for years, but you’ve never met him. This is the night. This is the night that you can pass from death to life. You need to give your life to the only person who has the right to rule over it. And I just want to call you, do it tonight. Don’t leave. Come and talk to me. You can talk to Gregg, you can talk to Mohammad, because the way of salvation is the same for all peoples in all places.