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Topical - (Palm Sunday) Elements of Extraordinary Worship

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Elements of Extraordinary Worship

Luke 19:11-48              March 20, 2005

 

Scripture Reading: Unison, Luke 19:28-44

John 12:12-13; Rev. 7:9-10 (palm branches)

Lev. 23:39-40; Zech. 14:16-19 (Feast of Tabernacles)

“12 ¶  The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13  They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the King of Israel!"” (Joh 12:12-13 NivUS)

“9  After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10  And they cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb."” (Re 7:9-10 NivUS)

“39  "‘So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the LORD for seven days; the first day is a day of rest, and the eighth day also is a day of rest. 40  On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” (Le 23:39-40 NivUS)

“16 ¶  Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. 17  If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain. 18  If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. The LORD will bring on them the plague he inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. 19  This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.” (Zec 14:16-19 NivUS)

Introduction: (Luke 19:11-48)

Today is Palm Sunday. It is a day of extraordinary worship. It is the day you get to wave the palm branch of victory in honor and praise of Jesus. And I – He – expects you to wave it in agreement with him as you listen to him and worship him this morning. Wave it in adoration of him for his deliverance unto salvation from bondage.

What do I mean by extraordinary worship? It is a day when God does something or reveals something far beyond the daily blessing of knowing him – far beyond the weekly blessing of worship in his sanctuary.

It is when God takes a quantum leap forward in our experience of him – like what happened on the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Holy Week – the culmination of three years of miraculous ministry among the people.

He was coming home to the City of God as the King of the Jews. The Son of God had vindicated truth as God among men. He was soon to embody it as he prepared to give his very self as the means to cross out sin, the enemy of truth.

Like one much greater than any earthly ruler, he didn’t need the pomp and display, and yet it could not be helped because the testimony of his life seemed to require it – even demand it.

His disciples praised and worshipped him with overwhelming joy, without reservation, with abandon. This was unrehearsed and spontaneous. It was the most natural thing in the world to do at the time, even though they did not yet fully understand all that his kingship meant for him – and for them.

He rode humbly yet resolutely toward the temple on his borrowed donkey to cleanse it from degradation – to drive out the merchants and moneychangers who profaned it – his first act as rightful King on the way of our salvation as rightful Lord.

Humility can act decisively when the righteousness and holiness of God’s worship are involved. Humility can act even more decisively when the righteousness and holiness of the souls of men and women are at stake.

The cross was coming, and whether or not his disciples really understood all that meant, extraordinary worship was in order.

I would like for us to come to a fuller understanding of the elements of extraordinary worship so that it might truly be what takes place in our hearts today, and that it might also become increasingly characteristic among us.

This is because even though we rightly celebrate special events in the life of the church, like Palm Sunday, every Sabbath, every day of knowing Jesus, is a special event in the marvelous grace of God.

We must continually and irresistibly be drawn toward unreserved worship of our extraordinary Savior.

Big Question: What are the common themes that constitute extraordinary worship?

Scripture gives us several examples of extraordinary worship with various people at various times and places and circumstances.

Let’s take a look at some of these to discover not only what the extraordinary worship consists of but also what prompts it.

I.       Extraordinary worship is called for when we receive a long-awaited answer to prayer. We honor God with our words.

“9 ¶  Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the LORD’s temple. 10  In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. 11  And she made a vow, saying, "O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head."” (1Sa 1:9-11 NivUS)

 “So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, "Because I asked the LORD for him."” (1Sa 1:20 NivUS)

 “25  When they had slaughtered the bull, they brought the boy to Eli, 26  and she said to him, "As surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the LORD. 27  I prayed for this child, and the LORD has granted me what I asked of him. 28  So now I give him to the LORD. For his whole life he will be given over to the LORD." And he worshiped the LORD there.” (1Sa 1:25-28 NivUS)

“1 ¶  Then Hannah prayed and said: "My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance. 2  "There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3  "Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed. 4  "The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength. 5  Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away. 6  "The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. 7  The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. 8  He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. "For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s; upon them he has set the world. 9  He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness. "It is not by strength that one prevails; 10  those who oppose the LORD will be shattered. He will thunder against them from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth. "He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed." 11 ¶  Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, but the boy ministered before the LORD under Eli the priest.” (1Sa 2:1-11 NivUS)

Receiving a long-awaited answer to prayer should cause us to praise God with even prophetic eloquence and abandon in recounting all his acts of kindness and goodness. Hanna was ecstatic in praising God for fulfilling her heart’s desire after long suffering.

Hanna affirmed and glorified God for his marvelous record of:

a)                 his deliverance from disgrace and enemies

b)                his unique holiness and dependability

c)                 his omniscience that exposes human arrogance

d)                his power to fell the mighty and lift up the fallen

e)                 his power to satisfy our deepest longings

f)                  his power to give life and death

g)                 his power to humble and exalt

h)                his power to rise up and put down

i)                   his power to judge and anoint

Who knows but that we also might prophesy in the praise of extraordinary worship like Hanna did when she received the long awaited answer to her prayers and prophesied that her miraculous son, Samuel, would anoint the King of Israel, both Saul and David. And we know that the one we praise today came from the root of David, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

II.      Extraordinary worship is called for when we know that our efforts to serve God are finally blessed. We honor God with our actions.

“1 ¶  David again brought together out of Israel chosen men, thirty thousand in all. 2  He and all his men set out from Baalah of Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark. 3  They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart 4  with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. 5  David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.”

“6 ¶  When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7  The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God. 8  Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah. 9  David was afraid of the LORD that day and said, "How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?" 10  He was not willing to take the ark of the LORD to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it aside to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. 11  The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the LORD blessed him and his entire household.”

“12 ¶  Now King David was told, "The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God." So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. 13  When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. 14  David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, 15  while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. 16  As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart. 17  They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the LORD. 18  After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD Almighty. 19  Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes.”

“20 ¶  When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, "How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!" 21  David said to Michal, "It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel— I will celebrate before the LORD. 22  I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor." 23  And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.” (2Sa 6:1-23 NivUS)

Knowing that we finally got it right with God, that he has favored us in our efforts to honor him and serve him, is cause even for the abandon of all normal convention in extraordinary worship. David was ecstatic in praising God for his affirmation.

David got radical in his praise of God by:

a)                 presenting sacrifice to God as soon as he knew God was pleased

b)                dancing before God with all his energy to the sound of shouts and trumpets

c)                 blessing the people in the Name of God

d)                giving gifts to the people in honor of God

e)                 blessing his family in the Name of God

f)                  being willing to appear even vulnerable, undignified and humiliated in his celebration of God

Who knows but that we also might bring home the very presence of God to our own church and family when we let go of appearance to embrace extraordinary praise.

III.    Extraordinary worship is called for when we come to the place of repentance and forgiveness for sins. We honor God with our heart.

“36 ¶  Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37  When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38  and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. 39  When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is— that she is a sinner." 40  Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you." "Tell me, teacher," he said. 41  "Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42  Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?" 43  Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled." "You have judged correctly," Jesus said. 44  Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47  Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven— for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." 48  Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." 49  The other guests began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" 50  Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."” (Lu 7:36-50 NivUS)

Receiving forgiveness, even reconciliation and righteousness from God, beyond all doubt, is certainly a reason to abandon oneself in heartfelt acts of devotion. The sinful woman, a prostitute, enslaved in a life of sexual abuse and addiction, heard the message of eternal life and was moved, even overwhelmed, to express her worship with all she had. How did she do this?

The sinful woman expressed extraordinary worship of Jesus by:

a)                 exposing herself to rejection by entering a “respectable” house to worship the lover of her soul

b)                being humble in repentance to worship even behind him at his feet

c)                 allowing her emotion at his acceptance of her to be expressed in a wellspring of tears

d)                being so compelled with love to wipe his feet with her own hair

e)                 being so overwhelmed with devotion to pour out the life savings of her profession, now transformed, to anoint even his feet

f)                  being so committed to her new calling as a child of God to find it nearly impossible to stop kissing his feet

Who knows but that our own acts of extreme devotion in response to our salvation and forgiveness might convict others to exclaim, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Extraordinary worship reveals extraordinary truth.

IV.    Extraordinary worship is called for when we are miraculously healed from sickness or disease by the grace of God. We honor God with our testimony of faith.

“11 ¶  Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12  As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13  and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" 14  When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were cleansed. 15  One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16  He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him— and he was a Samaritan. 17  Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 19  Then he said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well."” (Lu 17:11-19 NivUS)

All ten lepers had the faith to be physically healed by obeying what Jesus told them to do – to go show themselves to the priests.

But only one leper, and a foreigner at that, glorified God in extraordinary worship by returning to thank Jesus, throwing himself at his feet, praising him in a loud voice for all to hear, to worship him and receive the spiritual healing of eternal life.

His testimony of faith saved him. Who knows but that our testimony, loudly proclaimed for all to hear, might lead another to the feet of Jesus for a similar healing.

“35 ¶  As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36  When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37  They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by." 38  He called out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" 39  Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" 40  Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41  "What do you want me to do for you?" "Lord, I want to see," he replied. 42  Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has healed you." 43  Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.” (Lu 18:35-43 NivUS)

Another man, this one not a leper, but blind, also called out for physical healing by Jesus. He could not be silenced. He was sure that he ‘wanted to see’. He had the ‘faith’ for healing.

But it was his response of praise, like the leper, that proved his soul. Whether his faith for physical healing was also faith for spiritual healing, or whether he believed for salvation once he was healed, the proof of it was that he followed Jesus.

And when the people saw his faith in the following, they also praised God. I think we can be sure that he continued to praise Jesus after his healing with the same insistence he praised him before.

Who knows but that your testimony of healing will also bring others to faith in the power of Jesus to save.

We have seen here four categories of extraordinary worship: in response to God answering prayer, in response to God’s approval, in response to God’s forgiveness, in response to God’s healing.

I have one left for you this morning, and this one is the most profound, the most crucial, the most compelling. It is our response to Jesus, the Son of God, for who he is as Lord and King. It is behind, above, beneath, and through all the rest.

So we turn back to our Palm Sunday passage in Luke 19:28-44. As we look again at this passage we will delve deeper into the elements of extraordinary worship that it has for us to know – and to do.

V.      Extraordinary worship is called for whenever we give praise to Jesus for who he is as Lord and King. We honor God with our allegiance.

We show our allegiance to Jesus by:

a)       having great eagerness to present our very selves as a highway of                      holiness for the Lord’s purpose

ILLUS:        Chgo. Trib., 3/14/05, “Advertisers make no bones about using skin”

Our willingness to lay ourselves on the line for Jesus (like the extravagant expression of laying down your garment) becomes prime advertising space for the fact of his excellence and holiness.

We show our allegiance to Jesus by:

b)      having great eagerness to proclaim resounding praise as a testimony                           of joy for the Lord’s goodness (seen in miracles)

ILLUS:        “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” Luke 16:19-31

“"He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’"” (Lu 16:31 NivUS)

The Parables by Gary Inrig, p. 133: “The primary use of miracles in Scripture was not to convince people of the truth by replacing the Bible, but rather to confirm the truth of Scripture.”

The disciples in Lk. 19:37 were already called by the Lord’s goodness. They needed no convincing, but they praised God for all the confirmation of his goodness that the miracles provided (i.e., the 5,000 people who ate the loaves and fishes on the hillside were not convinced of who Jesus was by his miracle of multiplication, but it did confirm who he was for those who desired to believe in him for who he was rather than merely ‘use’ him for what he could do).

“26  Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27  Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval."” (Joh 6:26-27 NivUS)

ILLUS:        Chgo. Trib., 3/15/05, “Finding their religion”

Were these soldiers and marines convinced by miracles or confirmed? If you are not called, you cannot be convinced, no matter what happens. There are many others who have not responded. But these people responded with ‘extraordinary worship’ to what God had confirmed for them. I propose that if you put a palm branch in their hands they would wave it and loudly proclaim, like the disciples, praise and glory to Jesus.

We show our allegiance to Jesus by:

c)       having profound realization of blessing from the Lord when we                                   eagerly respond to what he has revealed (hosanna in the highest;                       meaning “save, I pray”; by extension meaning “all praise to the God                      who saves us”)

Wendy Kinnear became convinced that the blessing of religious expression was threatened in her daughter’s school. Like Jesus, she went to bat for the right to praise him in public. It is always a blessing when we proclaim his praise.

It is like the disciples on Palm Sunday who were proclaiming the blessing of “religious freedom day” in their extraordinary worship of Jesus who set them free from their worship of the law.

UkCalif. Mom's Religious Freedom Efforts Have District-Wide Impact
Jim Brown, Agape Press

The efforts of one Christian mom have prompted a California school district to begin promoting religious freedom among its 26,000 students. Wendy Kinnear, the concerned parent, decided to talk with the principal of her daughter's school to address her apprehension over the possibility that the children were getting the message that their faith was not welcome at school. Not long ago, Kinnear attended a Gateways for Better Education event. Gateways is a national organization dedicated to helping public school students and educators gain a better understanding of and appreciation for the value and contributions of Christianity to society. Through the event, the Christian mom became equipped with several strategies for promoting religious freedom in her daughter's school. Afterward, Kinnear had an opportunity to address the entire Yorba Linda/Placentia school board with her religious liberty concerns. The response to her talk was subdued and, at first, disheartening. However, eventually the district responded to the address by encouraging all of its schools to celebrate "Religious Freedom Day." As a result of the changed, pro-religious freedom atmosphere that she helped to foster in the school district, Kinnear says her daughter is no longer hesitant to pray or express her faith at school. Also, due to Kinnear's activism, the principal of Lauren's elementary school has asked faculty members to teach the school's 700 students about their religious freedom. The parent-activist is hopeful that this informal directive will find its way into schools throughout the district.
 

We show our allegiance to Jesus by:

d)      having profound realization of judgment and separation from the Lord              if we should fail to respond to what he has revealed (“if they keep                         quiet, the stones will cry out”)

It is like this prisoner in Syria who, despite the threat of proclaiming his faith, could not help proclaiming the good news of his salvation.

Syria: Prison Ministry Draws Muslims to Christ
Christian Aid Mission

Even as political turmoil plagues Syria, the work of the gospel continues. Native missionaries involved in prison ministry especially are seeing many come to Christ. One gospel worker writes that he was able to lead a Muslim prisoner to the Lord who in turn has become a witness for Christ throughout the prison. He reportedly stood up in an assembly of inmates, held his Bible aloft and shouted, "Listen you people! From now on I'm a new person and a Christian." Curious prisoners have been more open to hearing about the Lord since seeing their fellow inmate's dramatic conversion; one has already committed his life to Christ. Yet the gospel is not spread without opposition, even though Syria is considered one of the freer countries in the Middle East and does not have the intense religious persecution of some of its neighbors. When the families of the two newly-converted prisoners learned of their conversions, they disowned them, cutting them off from any support. Gospel workers are helping the prisoners by meeting their physical needs while they are in jail. Though they know they could face similar treatment by Muslim family members, many in Syria continue to choose Christ.
 

Timeless Truth:

“"He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.” (Lu 19:26 NivUS)

It is my considered understanding that this parable of the ten minas, that directly precedes the triumphal entry in Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry, is in direct reference to the use of our gift of praise and worship that the King gave us to remember him until he comes. Each one was given the same capacity.

When we exercise our God-given opportunity to praise him, we find not only increased capacity to praise him, but also multiplied reason to praise him, because of the blessings that come from praising him.

Let us be characteristically known as a people of uncommon praise toward our Lord and King. We will all be blessed if we do it.

School for Prophets - Wilberforce Forum's Centurions Program
BreakPoint with Charles Colson

Bill Lawrence has been a successful physician for many years. Yet he recently gave up his Arizona practice in order to become a chaplain to prison inmates. Why? Because Bill, a long-time Prison Fellowship volunteer, spent the past year studying Christian worldview, and God used that process to call him to full-time service.

Bill is among the first graduates of our Wilberforce Forum's Centurions program. It's designed to equip an ongoing fellowship of one hundred mature Christians each year, enabling them to advocate the Christian worldview in all of life. Each student studies how worldviews influence economics and work, marriage and family, popular culture, the arts, politics, and the like. They learn how to contend for the truth through apologetics, teaching, and critiquing false worldviews.

This program is urgently needed. One of the reasons the Church is having so little impact on culture today is that too many Christians view their faith only in terms of a personal relationship with Jesus. George Barna's research backs this up. His 2003 national survey found that only nine percent of born again Christians even hold a biblical worldview. And flawed worldviews have fatal consequences: Barna found that Christians who don't embrace a biblical worldview are more likely to condone things like premarital cohabitation, homosexuality, adultery, and abortion.

The Centurions aim to change that. The inaugural class is made up of people ready to do serious battle for God. For instance, software consultant Rick Hooten recently hosted a worldview education seminar for some thirty Houston pastors. He introduced them to the concept of a biblical worldview, encouraging them to promote worldview education in their churches. Dayna Garner hosts a weekly television program called "Worldview in Focus." She recently spent thirteen weeks teaching biblical worldview to her Albuquerque television audience based on the book How Now Shall We Live?

Sean Copley, a Maryland graphics designer, is developing a worldview curriculum and animation series for Christian television. Sean says: "I believe this is where my calling resides . . . teaching worldview in reference to the arts and pop culture, specifically to youth."

Many Christians believe we change cultures from the top down-get righteous leaders, they think, and you'll have a righteous society. But throughout history, the greatest movements have started from the bottom up-ordinary people talking with their friends and before their church groups and reaching their kids.

The great abolitionist William Wilberforce-for whom our Forum is named-understood this. He knew it was not enough to take on the evil of the British slave trade, but to effect a permanent change, there had to be what he called a "reformation of manners," a moral renewal in England. His decades-long efforts led to the abolition of slavery and, ultimately, to the second Great Wesley awakening, which revived the Church and the culture.

Our Centurions have the potential to accomplish the same-to raise up an army of Christians equipped to call the Church to greater faithfulness to God and to change our culture one person at a time by defending biblical truth. The good news is that there are one hundred of them out there right now doing it, and hundreds more are on the way.

Murders of New Jersey Coptic Christians Still Unsolved
Maria Sliwa

It's a fearsome prospect: Christian proselytizing may have caused the murders of four Coptic Christians slain last month in New Jersey. Relatives of the murdered family, as well as key figures in the American Coptic community; think so - and believe the brutal slayings were a warning not to proselytize Muslims.

They say that the body of the 15-year-old daughter, Sylvia Armanious, was the most viciously attacked in the killings. Was it because she was too vocal in sharing her faith or was it a robbery gone bad?

"Sylvia talked about Jesus to everyone," her uncle Ayman Garas said. "She was extremely religious."

On Jan. 14 the bodies of Amal Garas, 37, her husband, Hossam Armanious, 47, and their daughters Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, were found in their home bound and gagged with puncture wounds to their throats. The unsolved murders were thrust into the spotlight again earlier in February when the relatives of the victims went to Washington to meet with lawmakers and hold a press conference to put an end to rumors about why the family was murdered and to ask for a fair investigation.

"We aren't looking for trouble, we are just looking for the facts," Emil Garas, an uncle of one of the victims, said.

This week, Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio told reporters that someone using Hossam Armanious' debit card removed thousands of dollars from several of his accounts during a string of ATM visits in the days following the murders. Yesterday, DeFazio announced that it may be unlikely investigators will be able to decipher the license plate of the car used to make the ATM withdrawals.

Many Copts believe that conversion sparked the murders. While Dr. Monir Dawoud, the acting president of the American Coptic Association, says that proselytizing is not a common practice among Coptic Christians, it is common for the denomination of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church Sylvia attended in Jersey City. Congregants at this church call themselves "born-again."

A number of Sylvia's friends interviewed at the Mid East Evangelical church, said that tension ensued after Sylvia befriended the Muslim daughter of a Halal butcher she encouraged to convert to Christianity. They said they fear Sylvia's Christian influence on this girl may have provoked the killings that followed.

When asked today about the progress of the case, in a phone interview the Hudson County Prosecutor said: "We believe based on our investigation that it's a financially motivated crime of robbery and greed. We doubt that it has to do with extremism. Nothing is being discounted, but it does not appear to the various law enforcement agencies working on the case to be religiously motivated."

But according to Robert Spencer, the director of JihadWatch.com, terrorism and plunder often go together under Islamic law. "It isn't necessarily an either or proposition," Spencer says. "It is lawful under Islam to kill and seize the property of those who war against Islam."

Spencer says he obtained information, from sources close to the murders, that the Halal butcher had planned the killings for months and that several of his accomplices are still in the country. Spencer says police are investigating. But when DeFazio was asked about the information his office was provided, he said: "None of that was given any credence by any law enforcement agencies. Our office has not received any names."

But Spencer gave the Hudson County Prosecutor's office very detailed information, (names, locations and phone numbers) of the alleged murderers and their accomplices. When reminded of this, DeFazio then said that he did receive this information, but he appeared uncertain if all those named were questioned before this avenue of investigation was closed.

DeFazio is certain about one thing. All talk of religious extremism is off limits. "This case has nothing to do with religious extremism," he said. "And if you keep asking these questions, I won't continue with the interview."

Friends of Sylvia and fellow churchgoers say that though they are grateful for the investigators on the case, they are still convinced that conversion is the motivating factor for the Jersey City murders and fear this will encourage an increase in the persecution of converts (and those who convert them) in the U.S., as is the case in Egypt.

Freedom House, a Washington-based nonpartisan organization that monitors the global spread of democracy, says Coptic Christians in Egypt live in oppression and fear. "While Egypt has no explicit law against apostasy, the influence of Sharia law on the civil code is creating a de facto law," which sanctions intolerance.

Each year thousands of Copts convert to Islam, many under pressure, and Christians have an emigration rate three to four times that of Muslims due to religious persecution, Freedom House reports. Coptic church sources estimate that more than a million Copts have left Egypt in the past thirty years.

Egyptian Muslim leaders in Jersey City, however, insist that such persecution in America is not likely. Hamed el Shenawany, the president of Jersey City's Al Huda Islamic Center, says that though it is possible that a "crazy fanatic" could have sought retribution against the Armanious family, Christian proselytizing is fully accepted by Muslims in the U.S. "America is the land of the free and Muslims are free to convert to any religion they want," el Shenawany says.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior terrorism analyst at the Washington-based Investigative Project, a terrorism research center, disagrees and says this hatred has crossed international borders. "It's an unfortunate fact that even in the West many converts from Islam to Christianity are driven underground in the practice of their new faith because they fear retaliation," he says. "A number of converts in the U.S. have received serious threats, particularly if they're outspoken in their new faith." There is little data, he says.

But he notes that "At least ten cases since the mid-1990s in which apostates from Islam living in the West have reported threats, in places that include Chicago, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Britain and the Netherlands. In some cases, the apostates have reported actual physical violence."

It's not hard to find such cases. A former Muslim from Egypt, who wouldn't give his name for this article for fear of retribution, says he fled to America in 1992, after he was severely beaten for converting to Christianity. He says he was threatened in 2001 when he began discussing his faith with Muslims on PalTalk, a New York City-based Internet chat service. Though Saleh admits that his debates were often too fervent on the net, he was shocked to find photos of himself and family members, along with all of his contact information, on a radical Islamic Web site called Gegadeath.com. Below Saleh's picture was a statement of warning. After he appeared on Gegadeath, Saleh says he received numerous death threats on the phone and quickly moved to another state.

Last month Ahmed Mohamed, 36, a former Muslim in Colorodo, who converted to Christianity, discovered that his photo and contact information were posted on another radical Islamic Web site, Barsomyat.com, along with accusations that he'd been debating Muslims on PalTalk. He says that since his information was posted, he has received numerous threats on the phone, in person and in letters he has received in the mail.

Whether robbery or extremism is the motive, family members of the Armanious family in New Jersey live in grief, inconsolable, and say they continue to hope that the murderers will soon be identified.

"I think of Amal, Hossam, Sylvia and Monica all the time." Sylvia's grandmother Ferail Garas said. "Like a movie, their deaths keep playing over and over in my mind. Whenever I am alone, I cannot stop crying."

"I just want the killers of my family found."

> Maria Sliwa is a former NY City police officer and presently works as a freelance journalist based in New Jersey. She is the publisher of Freedom Now News, which is accessible on the Web at www.freeworldnow.com.

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