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A Tale of Two Sinners
Witnessing Tools
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Wendy Wippel

It's 1893, and sons are born to two German mothers, 5000 miles apart.  Henry Gerecke was born to German immigrants in Gordonsville, Missouri; Joachim von Ribbentrop drew his first breath on German soil.  One wore the swastika, one the cross.  Only God knew how dramatically their lives would someday intersect.

Ribbentrop was the son of a German Army Officer.  Well educated in Swiss schools, he returned home to join the German Army at the beginning of World War I.  He was wounded and decorated, but survived, and traveled as part of the German delegation to the Paris Peace Conference.  The war over, he pursued a career as a wine importer. He was very successful, as a large number of French soldiers stayed behind to keep peace in the Rhineland.  But peace was short-lived.

With war again on the horizon, Ribbentrop joined the National Socialist German Workers Party, and before long was Hitler's foreign affairs adviser.  He was appointed Ambassador to London in 1936. 

In London, he made his mark.  His mission, straight from Hitler’s mouth, was to convince the Soviet Union that Germany was their friend.  More specifically, to get the Soviets (under then Premier Molotov) to promise that they would not fight against Germany in the developing European War.  He succeeded, and the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact (signed in August 1939) promised the Soviet Union (in return) that Hitler and Molotov would divide up Central Europe between them. (Neither mentioned this to Central Europe.) That pact would prove be the biggest feather in Ribbentrop's diplomatic hat.

He had single-handedly given Germany free rein in Europe by convincing Soviet officials that Hitler could be trusted.

He couldn't.

The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was obsolete in less than two years, broken when Hitler himself invaded his BFF the Soviet Union.  (Who lost all of the territories gained, as well as 7.5 million of their own citizens-- 3.5 million of those soldiers-- within 6 months).

Ribbentropp was the one who convinced them that Hitler could be trusted.  And he was rewarded.  He returned to Germany as Hitler's foreign minister.

Third Reich Translation: it was Ribbentrop's job to convince the other members of the Axis to deport their Jewish populations to Hitler's camps and crematoriums.

He succeeded in that as well.  And he had no quarrel with Hitler's plans.  He referred to Germany's Jewish citizens as a “detestable breed”.  He said, "the Jews in Germany, without exception, are pick-pockets, murderers, and thieves."  He said, in Hitler's Germany, the Jews should and would be treated as criminals.

Ribbentrop once chastised the more squeamish among Hitler's advisors, declaring that,  "the Jews must either be annihilated or taken to concentration camps.  There was no other way".

The rest is, quite literally, history.  A total of 5.9 million Jews were exterminated in Hitler's camps.  And as many as 20 million Soviet citizens died as a result of the unanticipated German occupation of their country.

More than 25 million deaths, all of which can be credited to Ribbentrop's account.  Ever Hitler's champion, and often even his confidante, Ribbentrop attended Hitler's birthday party on April 20, 1945.

Ten days later Hitler was dead.

Nuremberg Trials. Defendants in their dock; Goering, Hess, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel in front rowNot much later, Ribbentrop was arrested, charged on four counts: crimes against peace, deliberately planning a war of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  He and fourteen other top Nazi butchers (most notably Reich Marshall Hermann Goering, head of the Gestapo and Luftwaffe) were incarcerated at Nuremburg to await their trials.

Ribbentrop remained defiant.  Early after his arrest, he would say, "If in this cell Hitler should come to me and say 'Do this!', I would still do it."

Enter Henry Gerecke. 

Gerecke, the son of devout Lutheran Germans, was raised in church, attended seminary and was officially ordained in 1926, serving as associate pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Chester, Illinois.  He was appointed the director of the Lutheran City Mission in St. Louis in 1935.

Part of his responsibility there was the prison ministry.  Records still exist.  Gerecke coached his prison ministry volunteers on soul-winning.  He emphasized not retribution, but redemption.  "Show them Jesus", he said.  "Savior from sin."

Jesus.  Friend of sinners.  The Lamb of God, slain, whose blood can wash the blackest soul white as snow. 

By March of 1944, Gerecke had a new job.  He sailed for England to serve as Chaplain to Allied armed forces, and by July of 1945 was serving in a hospital in Munich.

In November, he was summoned to Company Headquarters.  And informed that he had been selected to serve as spiritual advisor and chaplain to the Nuremburg defendants.

Why him?  His childhood language was German, he had a background in prison ministry, and, well, he was there. (Those were the human reasons.) His instructions were minimal but clear.  He was allowed to conduct services for prisoners who wanted to attend, and he could counsel prisoners, but only if asked. 

Gerecke admitted that the thought of ministering to these men made him shudder; when he reviewed the crimes of which his congregation of fifteen had committed, he felt totally inadequate and utterly hopeless about the potential for influence with these men: 

“Before having to visit these Nazi leaders in their cells, I asked myself the question: Must I greet these men who had bought such unspeakable suffering on the world, and the cause of the sacrifice of so many millions of lives?  My two only sons were also victims of their misdeeds.” (Both were grievously wounded in the war.)

“How should I comport myself before such men so that they would be willing to receive God's word?”

Their offenses were heinous to the point of being inconceivable.  They were now helpless, but they were nonetheless the embodiment of evil, representatives of hell itself.  And he had planned to go home.  It was the last thing Gerecke wanted to do.

But he stayed.  Ultimately, he decided to visit each defendant personally to invite them to the services he planned to conduct.  To show them Jesus, he thought, and with that in mind, though the idea was repulsive, he resolved to personally shake each man's hand.

(He was criticized for that by other ministers.)

And he went to his knees. "I prayed harder than I ever had in my life", said Gerecke.  He prayed that God would help him to "somehow hate the sin but love the sinner".

Ribbentrop (well educated) offered a list of intellectual objections to the Christian faith when Gerecke issued an invitation to the first service, finishing his arguments with the observation that "this business of religion isn't as serious as you make it out to be."

Nevertheless, (like many others, probably just to get out of his cell) Ribbentrop came.  Goering as well, although he admitted that a change of scenery was only motivation.

Gerecke was present in the courtroom when, on October 1, 1946, sentences were handed out.

Goering and Von Ribbentrop (and many others) were condemned to death by hanging.  To be carried out on October 16.

Gerecke redoubled his efforts.  He records that "The greater part of the remaining time I spent in the condemned cells."  And before they went to the gallows, several of those he had so faithfully labored for called on Gerecke to witness their conversion.

Ribbentrop, finally, followed.

Goering, though amiable and faithful to attend services had been consistently unmoved.  (Although he cried when told his daughter had said that she hoped to see him in heaven.)  Gerecke made one last visit, imploring him to take Christ’s offer and secure an eternal home.  Goering ridiculed the doctrine of atonement and denied an afterlife.  When reminded of his daughter, he said the she could believe what she wanted, and so would he.

Gerecke was called back to his cell hours later.  Goering had managed to secure his own death, three hours before his scheduled execution. 

With Goering's already gone, Ribbentrop became the first man called to the gallows. Gerecke accompanied him, praying with him one last time.  Ribbentrop offered this confession of faith: "I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins," and then mounted the thirteen steps to the gallows.

He turned, looked to Gerecke, and said, "I'll see you again." 

And at 1:15 am on October 16, he slipped away into eternity.  An eternity with God, as one desperate sinner, now washed clean.

Aren’t we all?

Gerecke, then, serves as an object lesson for us today, as one Zhokhar Tsarnaev lies recuperating in a Boston hospital, charged and undeniably guilty of a nearly unimaginably heinous crime.  Ribbentrop’s victims were abstract victims of war to him.  Not even a blip on his radar, really.

But how do you set a bomb down in front of two young children and walk off?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that we are not ultimately Zhokhar’s judge and we are not his jury.

Yes, justice should and hopefully will be carried out.  It was the Bible, after all, that said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

And a life for a life. 

But ours is a higher calling.  We are God’s ministers of the interior (the heart, that is.)

We’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation.  And our marching orders are the same as Gerecke’s.  Show them Jesus.  Savior from Sin.

Paul told us, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”

And for today, at least, Tsarnaev may be chief.

Pray that somebody shows him Jesus.

About Wendy Wippel

Last week: Dry Bones Revisited



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