Sharing the Savior’s Story
Good News of Great Joy
I have a Christmas story for you, although I imagine many will not
think of it as a Christmas story. The year is 1999, the place is outside
St. Petersburg, at a Russian holding prison for women. The guests that
day are John Reehl and his interpreter, Constantine.
They have been told they can go anywhere they want. Only one cell is
off limits. From this cell, it is explained, they must stay away. No,
it is not because these women are especially dangerous to outsiders.
You might expect that they would be since these women’s lives
have been filled with problems and pains. No, the visitors are not allowed
in because this cell is filled with women who have AIDS and an especially
virulent, contagious form of tuberculosis.
Most women in Russian prisons get few visitors; the prisoners in this
cell, the living who are already dead, get none. The authorities in
charge don’t know John Reehl. At that moment he was representing
Orphan Grain Train, a dedicated group of Christians who do their best
to answer the needs of those who are in need. That is who he was currently
representing, but for many years Reverend John Reehl has represented
the Savior who was born in a Bethlehem manger and died on Calvary’s
cross so that the lost might be saved and those in darkness might live
in the light of salvation. “Who,” he reasoned, “more
than these ladies in the forbidden cell need to hear God’s Good
News of great joy?” He asked for admission.
That permission was given only most reluctantly and with great warning.
In the cell, using the pictures from a Russian children’s Bible,
John, through his interpreter, told the women God’s story of forgiveness.
There was the story of Adam and Eve, the first sin, the promised punishment
and God’s commitment to send His Son, the Rescuer. John told the
Bible stories and all of the stories he told pointed to Jesus. All of
the stories eventually told how God, in His unexplainable love for sinners,
sent His Son to take their place. All of the stories told how Jesus
was born for us, lived for us, suffered, died, and rose for us. All
of the stories told how there was no sinner beyond the reach of Jesus’ nail-pierced
loving hands. The ladies listened. You could have heard a pin drop in
Year after year many of you have heard the familiar story of great
joy the Christmas angels first shared with Bethlehem’s shepherds,
but for those ladies in a Russian jail, the news that God loved them
was new. For the ladies that day the Savior was born—their Savior,
Christ the Lord.
Move ahead one year. The place is a women’s prison outside St. Petersburg.
Reverend John Reehl has come to this place where women serve out their sentence.
Among the listeners that day is a face that seems familiar. Different, but
familiar. He asks about her and is told to keep his distance: the woman has
AIDS; she has TB. He remembers her. Her hands are bandaged; her face seems
shrunken. He asks her, “What has happened? What is wrong?” She
shows that she has lost all her teeth. As for her hands, she explains, “I
am rotting away.”
Having completed his work, Reverend Reehl went to leave. It was then
that the lady came running up to him and grabbed him. No, it was not
an attack. Far from it. She kissed him, according to Russian custom,
on both cheeks. As quickly as she kissed him, a doctor scrubbed his
cheeks with cotton swabbing and alcohol. As the woman was taken away
she began to shout in Russian. Again and again she called out the same
sentence. Reverend Reehl asked his interpreter, “What is she saying?” The
interpreter replied, “She’s saying, ‘He told me about
Jesus. He told me about Jesus.’”
The last time Reverend Reehl went to that prison, the woman was no
longer there. The authorities sent her home to die. There was nothing
they could do for her. But that is not the end of her story. For when
Alla (that is her name) takes her last breath; when medicine can do
no more, Jesus, whom she met in a Russian prison through the power of
pictures from a children’s Bible, will take her home. Not to die,
but to live.
Excerpt from The Lutheran Hour broadcast of: December 7, 2003