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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. [Psalm 19:14] 

I’m sharing these daily devotions in the hope they will inspire you to read God’s word. I’m praying that they will help you find your way to a closer relationship with God.  [Read More ….]

BELIEVE IT OR NOT

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. After everyone was full, Jesus told his disciples, “Now gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.” So they picked up the pieces and filled twelve baskets with scraps left by the people who had eaten from the five barley loaves. [John 6:11-12 (NLT)]

African IrisThe resurrection of Jesus and His feeding of the 5,000 are the only two miracles recorded in all four gospels. Since the gospel writers only told us of the number of men at that al fresco meal, Biblical scholars estimate the actual number eating those loaves and fish to be more than double that figure. Perhaps it’s because of the magnitude of that miracle that people often want a logical explanation of how Jesus did it. Some suggest that everyone just had a small bite of food. When I’ve had unexpected guests, I’ve made some pretty thin slices in the roast to fill everyone’s plates but there is no way even the most experienced butcher could slice those loaves and fish thin enough to feed fifty, let alone thousands. There are others who explain this event as an example of the amazing charisma of Jesus. They speculate that He managed to convince anyone who happened to have food to share with everyone else and that a massive impromptu potluck picnic took place. Indeed, getting a crowd that size to share their provisions with strangers would be a miracle. Nevertheless, if enough people had brought their own food, feeding the crowd wouldn’t have been a concern to Jesus or the disciples. Moreover, neither scenario explains those twelve baskets of leftovers!

In the television show Penn & Teller: Fool Us!, aspiring magicians perform their best illusions for the famed duo who then try to figure out how they are done. As experienced and skilled as Penn and Teller are, they often are fooled. If expert illusionists can’t figure out how a magic trick is done, as mere mortals, we shouldn’t expect to understand how God manages an actual miracle! By definition a miracle can’t be explained; unlike a scientific experiment, it can’t be duplicated and, unlike a magic trick, it’s not sleight of hand.

If we insist on figuring out how Jesus managed this miracle, do we also want a plausible explanation for the raising of Lazarus, the virgin birth, wine at Cana, walking on water, calming a storm, or the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountainside at the transfiguration? Jesus was God and God is not bound by the laws of nature. When He created the world, He made something out of nothing; feeding thousands with a few loaves and fish was probably child’s play for Him. Try as we will, there are no plausible explanations for the supernatural. The logical explanation for the feeding of the multitude is the obvious one: it was a miracle!

About miracles, one of my pastors is fond of saying, “You either believe it or you don’t!” As for me, I choose to believe!

Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. [St. Augustine]

I am the Lord, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for me? [Jeremiah 32:27 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

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AS WE GATHER TOGETHER

Moraine Hills State ParkWell, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you. [1 Corinthians 14:26 (NLT)]

If you’re like us, when you visit a new church, you tend to sit toward the back so you can view the rest of the congregation and see when people stand, sit or kneel. If communion is served, you probably anxiously look around to see how it is done in that church. After all, we  want to worship “correctly.”

While there often appears to be a certain way to worship in a particular parish or a specific denomination, there is no one right way for us in our personal worship of God. At a church we recently visited, a young woman spontaneously stepped into the aisle and did a beautiful dance during a rousing praise song. The dance was her worship gift to God (and a blessing for the rest of us). While I pray silently when the pastor offers a prayer, I often hear people around me quietly adding their own petitions during his prayers. Recently, while the rest of the congregation sat, a woman stood and clapped her hands in praise during one of the songs. Some people shout a loud “Amen!” or applaud during the sermon when they heartily agree with the pastor while others quietly nod their heads. At our northern church, one woman’s “Amen!” at the end of every prayer can be distinctly heard above the rest of the congregation. At our Florida church, some people kneel and pray at the altar rail following communion while others quietly return to their seats for prayer. Kneeling in prayer, making the sign of the cross, genuflecting before entering a pew, or raising our arms during a praise song are all ways various people worship but not the way all people do. Nevertheless, if those actions come from the heart, they all are the correct way!

One size does not fit all in clothing and certainly not when it comes to either private or communal worship. Worship is an intensely personal act; we each bring our own unique worship style with us wherever we go. Some of us are staid and reserved while others are ebullient and demonstrative. The joy of the more expressive worshippers often enriches the worship experience for all and I imagine God prefers an enthusiastic “Amen” to a half-hearted one any day! Whether alone or with others, the important thing is to come before our Lord with love, passion, praise and thanksgiving.

In spite of my words, I’ll continue to play it safe and sit in the back when visiting a new church. After all, no one wants to be the person in the front row left standing when everyone else is seated! Then again, God doesn’t mind so why should we?

Worship is an inward feeling and outward action that reflects the worth of God. [John Piper]

Happy are those who hear the joyful call to worship, for they will walk in the light of your presence, Lord. They rejoice all day long in your wonderful reputation. They exult in your righteousness. [Psalm 89:15-16 (NLT)]

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IT’S NOT OURS TO KEEP

When the poor and needy search for water and there is none, and their tongues are parched from thirst, then I, the Lord, will answer them. I, the God of Israel, will never abandon them. I will open up rivers for them on the high plateaus. I will give them fountains of water in the valleys. I will fill the desert with pools of water. Rivers fed by springs will flow across the parched ground. [Isaiah 41:17-18 (NLT)]

giant swallowtail butterflyYesterday, I wrote of God’s provision, yet I can’t help but wonder. If God promises His divine provision, why are there still people in need?

There was to be no permanent poverty in Israel. In the Old Testament, we find complex laws and social practices that were meant to ensure that no one lived in need. To eliminate food scarcity, every third year there was to be a special tithe of crops for the Levites and those at risk like foreigners, widows and orphans. The Israelites were to leave the edges of their fields unharvested and anything dropped during the harvest ungathered; this portion could be gleaned by the poor. There were laws against exploiting the vulnerable through usury or by demanding unreasonable collateral. Every seventh year was to be a Sabbath year when loans were forgiven and Hebrew slaves were released from servitude. The land would lay fallow and any produce that grew by itself was free to all. Additionally, in the Year of Jubilee, celebrated every fifty years, economic disparity was further minimized by returning all real estate (whether sold, mortgaged or leased) to its original owner.

The poor in the Bible were not much different than today’s poverty-stricken: the people without land or the economic, legal, or political resources to be self-sustaining. A diverse group of the marginalized, they were day laborers, subsistence farmers, indentured slaves, beggars, prostitutes, widows, resident aliens, the disabled and infirm. God’s vision wasn’t a welfare state but rather one that allowed families to have the opportunity to provide for themselves. The Sabbath and Jubilee years were a fresh start for those who found themselves in poverty. Unfortunately, the reproachful words of the prophets to Judah and Israel tell us that God’s laws were not obeyed.

The story is told of two businessmen. Like me, the first was troubled by the abject poverty that exists in the world today and wondered about God’s promise of provision. He said, “Someday, I hope to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice when He could do something about it.” The other man replied, “I’m afraid that God might ask me that very same question.”

Perhaps God has fulfilled His promise to provide by filling our wells with blessings. The problem is that we haven’t done our part by passing along His provision. Instead of letting His gifts flow through us to others, we’ve plugged the pipeline and are keeping His gifts for ourselves. We’ve been freed from the Old Testament laws but we haven’t been freed from the obligation to love our neighbors. Could we be holding the provision that God has promised? Could we be the answer to someone’s prayer? For those of us with water in our wells, perhaps it’s time turn on the faucet and let His blessings flow.

We are not cisterns made for hoarding, we are channels made for sharing. [Billy Graham]

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:16-18 (NLT)]

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FLOWERS AND BIRDS

Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith? [Matthew 6:26-30 (NLT)]

cardinal - narrow-leaved sunflower - Corkscrew SwampI’ve never seen a field of lilies in blossom but they couldn’t be any more beautiful than the field of narrow-leaved sunflowers that surrounded me at the bird sanctuary recently. Standing in wonder as their yellow faces smiled down on me, I was reminded of Jesus’s words about the lilies of the field. When I came upon a cardinal pecking away at a large ripe berry, I remembered His words regarding the birds. While watching the bird enjoy his breakfast, the story of Elijah and the ravens that fed him came to mind and I thought about God’s promise to provide.

Having more than enough clothes in my closet and a pantry full of food, I’m not worried about food or clothing. I do, however, tend to worry about God’s provision of words for these devotions. Trust in Him doesn’t come automatically—it is a learned response. Nevertheless, even though God has provided me with fodder for over 1,600 devotions, I’m a slow learner and I still have trouble trusting Him to continue with His provision.

Throughout Scripture, God promises over and over again to provide and, over and over again, people don’t trust Him. Consider the Israelites; after being told there would be manna enough every day, they tried to save it. Even though stored manna turned rotten and maggoty, I would venture a guess that some people continued trying to save it. If I’d been there, I probably would have tried different types of containers, hoping that I’d eventually find the right way to preserve manna (just in case God missed a day)! Later, when God promised to provide the power and strength to take Canaan, the Israelites didn’t believe that God’s provision would be enough and refused to enter. I’m afraid I wouldn’t have trusted God’s promise any more than did the rest of them.

You’re probably not worried about words and maybe not even food or clothing. Even so, we’re all worried about whether God will provide enough of something we need, be it money, health, time, comfort, friends, faith, strength, wisdom, peace or patience. Remember, God promises to provide for the birds and flowers and they’re not even made in His image! Jesus didn’t die on the cross for them and the Holy Spirit doesn’t dwell within them, yet God provides for them! God loves us—we’re created in His image, redeemed by His son, and given eternal life by Him. As His beloved children, we ought to trust Him enough to provide our necessities! When God brings us someplace, as He did with the Israelites and Elijah, He’ll provide us with a way to meet our needs, be it manna on the ground, ravens bringing us food, or wildflowers swaying in the breeze.

God looks at the anxious and says, I tore my Son to shreds for you, and you’re afraid I will not give you what you need? [Timothy Keller]

So don’t worry about these things, saying, “What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?” These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today. [Matthew 6:31-34 (NLT)]

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FREE TO BE…

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. [Isaiah 45:7 (KJV)]

sunflowerWow! Now there’s a troubling verse. God creates evil? Since evil is anything that contradicts God’s holy nature, it’s hard to understand how that could happen. Even other translations like the NLT’s, “I send good times and bad times,” the ESV’s, “I make well-being and create calamity,” and the NIV’s, “I bring prosperity and create disaster,” don’t make this verse sound much better. How do we reconcile a God who is good, a God who is love, with a God who says he creates evil?

There’s certainly no mention of God creating evil in Genesis. We are told that He created the world and everything in it, that man was made in His own image, and when God was finished, He looked over everything and saw that it was good. This is where we again see the flexible nature of Hebrew verbs in Scripture. As discussed yesterday, many verbs such as create, harden, send, blind, or deceive are used in a permissive sense as well as a causative one. As a result, we frequently find God represented as doing something when, in actuality, He is only permitting it or predicting that it will be done. Reading it that way, God didn’t create evil but He does allow it. Nevertheless, how can a righteous, just, and loving God even allow evil?

Our being made in God’s image means that, like Him, we have intelligence, reason and the ability to make conscious choices. Personal volition means that we have a choice as to whether or not we love and obey God. When God gave us the ability to choose, He also gave us the responsibility to choose well. Adam and Eve didn’t choose wisely when they ate the forbidden fruit and we’re not much better. While we can choose obedience over rebellion or love over hate, we also can choose deception instead of truth or vindictiveness rather than forgiveness. Because God allows us to choose, we can abandon good for evil as easily as we can close our eyes to His light, shut our ears to His truth, and harden our hearts to His love. C.S. Lewis pointed out that “If a thing is free to be good it’s free to be bad. And free will is what made evil possible.”

Knowing we’d mess up by the third chapter in Genesis, why did our omniscient God allow us freedom to go against His will? Yet, if He compelled us to be obedient, wouldn’t He be more a puppet master than a God of love? Without freedom of choice, would we be unique individuals, made in His image, or marionettes moving only when He pulled the strings? A relationship must be voluntary to be authentic and love must be freely given to be genuine. God didn’t create evil but He did create a people who can rebel and turn from righteousness and it is that rebellion that creates evil.

I don’t understand it completely; someday, I will. I do know that our good and loving God has a good reason for allowing evil to exist. I also know that God can use evil for our good and His glory; after all, from man’s rejection and murder of His only Son, came our salvation!

If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. [C. S. Lewis]

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. … And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. [John 3:16-17,19 (KJV)]

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HOW DID IT GET THAT WAY?

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go.” [Exodus 7:14 (ESV)]

little blue heronThe whole matter of Pharaoh’s hardened heart and how it got so stubborn is confusing and an issue that has been debated at length by Biblical scholars. How exactly did Pharaoh’s heart get that way? Based on the verses in Exodus where God says He will make Pharaoh’s heart hard [7:3,9:12,10:20,27], some say that God deliberately hardened Pharaoh’s heart to demonstrate His power and glory. Wouldn’t that mean Pharaoh had no free will? If Pharaoh couldn’t submit to Moses’ demands, the plagues hardly seem justified. How could a just God inflict such cruel punishment on all of Egypt when He was the one who made Pharaoh so inflexible?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, citing the verses saying that Pharaoh hardened his own heart [8:15,32], other commentaries say that Pharaoh freely chose to stubbornly deny Moses and watch his people suffer. Saying that the hard heart was all Pharaoh’s doing, however, seems to contradict several other verses. The middle of the road explanations admit that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart but add that Pharaoh already was so arrogant and headstrong that God didn’t change the outcome by further hardening it. The Oxford Jewish Study Bible notes that God “does not stiffen Pharaoh’s heart initially, but only after Pharaoh has done so himself many times.”

After reading several commentaries on Hebrew grammar, I found yet another explanation. Although God-breathed, Scripture was penned by men who used the words, idioms and metaphors of the day. In Hebrew, active verbs often were used idiomatically to mean the action was allowed or predicted; verbs could be both causative and permissive. Saying God hardened Pharaoh’s heart can also mean that God allowed Pharaoh’s heart to harden. Another example of this verb use would be when Jeremiah tells God, “You have utterly deceived this people.” [Jeremiah 4:10] Jeremiah isn’t accusing God of being a liar; he’s saying that God allowed the people to be deceived (two very different things).

Instead of looking to commentaries, I finally looked to Scripture for my answer about Pharaoh’s hardened heart. In James, we find that, while God may test people, He does not tempt them. Temptation comes from Satan and we give into temptation when we’re seduced by our own desires. Pharaoh’s heart was hard because he was an evil, stubborn, and arrogant man. God may have allowed it but it wasn’t God who made him that way. Nevertheless, we could also say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by providing the circumstances that forced him into revealing his true colors. Had God not sent Moses, the plagues would never have happened. In the end, however, the responsibility for those plagues falls squarely on Pharaoh’s shoulders. And, in the end, the responsibility for our sins falls squarely on ours.

It is not God that blinds the eyes of men or hardens their hearts. He sends them light to correct their errors, and to lead them in safe paths; it is by the rejection of this light that the eyes are blinded and the heart hardened. … Every rejection of light hardens the heart and darkens the understanding; and thus men find it more and more difficult to distinguish between right and wrong, and they become bolder in resisting the will of God. [Ellen G. White]

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. [James 1:13-15 (ESV)]

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