IT’S CONTAGIOUS

With his great power the Lord warned me not to follow the road which the people were following. He said, “Do not join in the schemes of the people and do not be afraid of the things that they fear.” [Isaiah 8:11-12 (GNT)]

great blue heronKnowing that God’s people must be fully committed to their cause in battle, Deuteronomy 20 provided several exemptions from combat. An anxious man wouldn’t have his mind on battle and could make blunders that might endanger the entire army. Because men too preoccupied with concerns at home wouldn’t fight wholeheartedly, those who were engaged to be married, had built a house and not yet dedicated it, or planted a vineyard and not harvested it were released from service.  Moreover, anyone who admitted to being afraid was also sent home. This was done to keep their negativity and fear from infecting the entire army’s morale. A small army of faithful men was better than a large army of worried, frightened or fainthearted ones.

While the anxious and fearful soldiers were sent home, it’s not so easy to avoid those kinds of people in our daily lives. We all know people who seem to carry a dark cloud of pessimism over their heads. It doesn’t just rain on their parade—negativity pours down on everyone else’s, as well.

Several years ago, a friend’s husband had a slight cough. By the time she was done fretting about it to family and friends, she was sure it was bronchitis which would lead to pneumonia which would mean hospitalization. This led another family member to be sure the man’s death was imminent and funeral plans needed to be made. The wife’s negativity and fear were far more contagious than the man’s cough which, incidentally, never turned into bronchitis and is now long forgotten.

I’m not Pollyanna and I know that some coughs do lead to pneumonia, not all biopsies come out benign, bad things happen to good people, not everyone recovers from COVID, and not every story has a happy ending. That, however, doesn’t mean I have to put up my umbrella at the first cloud or focus on the storm rather than pray for a rainbow! Whether my glass is half empty or half full, I know that God will make sure I have all that I need in it.

The Old Testament advice is simple: stay away from the faint-hearted, pessimistic and fearful lest they infect you with their lack of faith. While we can be protected from measles, chicken pox, pneumonia, and even coronavirus, there’s no vaccine for panic, negativity or anxiety and they’re far more contagious than any virus! When dealing with a communicable disease, medical experts advise us to wear a mask, wash our hands, keep our distance, avoid crowds, and get vaccinated. Pessimism and fear are as infectious as COVID and, since there’s no vaccination for them, we can avoid exposure by washing our hands of doom scrolling, socially distancing ourselves from the “Debbie Downers“ of life, and avoiding groups of grumblers and faultfinders. Rather than being infected by pessimism, complaint or anger, let us prevent contagion by trusting in the Lord and choosing faith over fear and gratitude over grievance.

Fear is catching. He whose heart fails him makes his brethren’s heart to fail, like his heart. [Matthew Henry]

In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable. Put into practice what you learned and received from me, both from my words and from my actions. And the God who gives us peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (GNT)]

Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you. [Ephesians 4:29 (GNT)]

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RESTORATIONS

Bryce - UtahSince you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

Having worked in a garage as a teen, my husband enjoys those shows in which cars or motorcycles are renovated, restored or customized. Either the mechanics seek a wreck in the hope of restoring it to turn a tidy profit or a car’s owner brings in a vehicle for a rebuild. Derelict vintage cars and cycles are restored to their original glory in some of the shows while, in other programs, vehicles are upgraded and modified in truly remarkable ways

Turning rust-buckets into pristine collector cars of beauty or ordinary cars into extraordinary muscle machines is a little like what God does with us. Rather than just a little body work like buffing out a scratch, pin-striping, or filling a ding with Bondo, God does complete restorations like the ones done on shows like Fast N’ Loud or Counting Cars (only without the tattoos). Whether we know it or not, we’re as damaged as the rare E-type 1964 Jaguar left to rust in a barn for over forty years. Purchased for fifty thousand pounds, once restored, it was sold for four times that price. God, however, doesn’t have to buy us because Jesus already paid the price for us. Moreover, God isn’t concerned with turning a profit. Out of love for us, He does a complete overhaul, not to make us appear new, but to actually make us new!

As the original manufacturer, you can be sure God uses only OEM parts rather than aftermarket or recycled ones. No soul is too damaged, no job too hard and God won’t stop at something like a simple honesty fix when He sees a tough patience issue. He’ll get out His heavenly tool kit to work on a selfishness adjustment, replace the foolishness with godly wisdom, file down that vanity, and then get to work on that persistent case of pigheadedness. Even a pesky obedience problem can’t deter Him from His holy work. He’s not going to stop until we’re completely rebuilt.

When we accept Christ, we’re reborn or regenerated and taken from spiritual death to life. A momentary act, regeneration is the exclusive work of God. It’s like towing a broken-down car out of the junk heap and into the shop. The restoration part is called sanctification. TV’s restoration specialists usually have a deadline in which to complete their work but God’s sanctification work is never done; it’s a process that lasts a lifetime.

There is, however, another major difference between the car restorer and God. The mechanic doesn’t need the cooperation of the car to do his work. Sanctification, however, is a joint effort between God and us. We must do our part to mature and become more like Christ. As God continues His work in us through the Holy Spirit, we are strengthened in our continual struggle against sin. Because this process of putting away sin and putting on godliness never ends, we won’t be leaving God’s garage any time soon. It is only when we return to our rightful owner at Christ’s resurrection that we will be completely restored.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are coworkers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R.C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12-13 (NLT)]

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THE BACK BURNER

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. … Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:1,11 (NLT)]

red-bellied turtleWhen we spent winters in the mountains, our early morning walk took us by a gourmet restaurant. Occasionally, we’d get a whiff of a delectable mouth-watering aroma as we passed. What we smelled was a large pot of roasted beef and veal bones that had simmered on the back burner overnight. In this day and age of microwaves, Instant Pots, mixes and prepared foods, it’s difficult to understand a chef simmering stock for over 12 hours to concentrate it into a rich demi-glace. That, however, is how the restaurant’s chef gets the flavorful base she uses in her delicious sauces.

Sometimes prayer is like making stir-fry: put the ingredients in a hot wok, stir, and get quick results. Other times, prayer is more like making a demi-glace. We put it all together and then let it do a slow simmer on the back burner with just an occasional check to skim off the fat or impurities. Back-burner prayers are those far-reaching ones that take a long time coming, like the restoration of a ruptured relationship, the salvation of a child, a loved one’s sobriety, or a prodigal’s return.

When we put our prayers at a low simmer on the back burner, we trust God to do the work. As tempted as we are to fret, panic, meddle or intervene, God really doesn’t need us to keeping lifting the lid, stirring the pot, or adding ingredients. In fact, if we were making a demi-glace, our stirring would just slow things down by making the stock cloudy and greasy. The same thing usually happens when we try to do God’s job for Him!

I think of Sarah. Rather than leaving God’s promise of a child to simmer on the back burner until the time was right, she decided to stir the pot by giving Hagar to Abraham. Her interference didn’t turn out well for anyone! On the other hand, David, who’d been a teen when anointed king by Samuel, spent at least fifteen years waiting for the crown. Twice during that time he passed up the opportunity to speed things along by killing King Saul. Instead, he chose to trust in God’s timing saying, ”Surely the Lord will strike Saul down someday, or he will die of old age or in battle.” [2 Samuel 26:10]

God answers our prayers the moment we speak them; it’s just that we don’t immediately know His answer. It could be “Yes!” or, if what we asked isn’t in His will, “No!” After all, God might have something better in store for us! Sometimes, however, God’s answer is, “Not right now!” Those prayers go on the back burner to simmer until God’s time is right (or He tells us, “No!”)

Putting prayers on the back burner doesn’t mean we stop praying them any more than putting that stock pot on the back burner means the chef turned off the stove or forgot about it. It simply means that we have given our prayer over to the fullness of God’s time.

Persistent praying never faints or grows weary. It is never discouraged. It never yields to cowardice. It is motivated and sustained by a hope that knows no despair, and a faith that will not let go. Persistent praying has patience to wait and strength to continue. It never prepares itself to quit praying, and it refuses to get up from its knees until an answer is received. [E. M. Bounds]

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

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POSSIBILITIES

He [Jesus] asked, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many? [John 6:5,7-9 (ESV)]

great egretTwo disciples, Philip and Andrew, are mentioned in John’s account of the day Jesus fed over 5,000 with a boy’s lunch. When Jesus asked Philip where they could find food enough for all of the people, the right answer would have been, “Lord, you have the power to feed them all.” Instead, Philip, who may have been the first century equivalent of an accountant before following Jesus, immediately did a feasibility study and figured the massive expense. Ignoring the solution standing in front of him, he only saw impossibility.

On the other hand, we have Andrew. Perhaps before becoming a disciple, Andrew was the equivalent of a corporate recruiter; Andrew looked for potential and promise. The first thing he did after deciding to follow Jesus was to get his brother Simon and bring him to the Messiah. When faced with a hungry crowd, Andrew simply scanned the countryside to see what assets were available. Even though he knew the boy’s lunch wasn’t enough to feed a multitude, seeing its potential, he offered what little food there was to Jesus.

One disciple saw why something couldn’t be done while the other saw possibility in a meager offering. Philip saw only what was missing but Andrew saw the assets around them. One said there wasn’t enough and the other, even knowing it wasn’t sufficient, offered what little there was and expected Jesus to make it enough.

Nearly three years ago, a handful of people gathered in a park gazebo and started a church. The Philip in us looked at what we had and figured it was impossible—too little money and too few people. Even though we knew it wasn’t enough, the Andrew in us heard Jesus’ call and faithfully presented what we had to Him. In Jesus’ hands, our insufficiency became more than enough. Even though COVID-19 has prevented us from meeting in-person since mid-March, we’re on solid ground financially and able to tithe our funds to those in need. Our on-line services and App have kept our church family connected and enabled us to spread the message to thousands all over the world. Perhaps it was for such as time as this that God took our not enough, multiplied it, and enabled us to feed so many.

When God calls us, we often answer His call by seeing only what we’re lacking—whether time, energy, experience, people, money, or something else. The question, however, isn’t how we’ll respond with so little but what God will do with what we have! God’s math isn’t like man’s. The One who multiplied five barely loaves and two fish to end up with food enough to feed a multitude can multiply potential in amazing ways. As Andrew did with the boy’s meager offering, let us offer what we have and trust God to make it sufficient.

When they laughed at St. Theresa when she wanted to build a great orphanage, and had but three shillings to begin with, she answered, “With three shillings Theresa can do nothing; but with God and her three shillings there is nothing which Theresa cannot do.” Do not let us imagine, then, that we are too poor, or too stupid, or too ignorant, or too obscure to do any real good in the world wherein God has placed us. [Frederic Farrar]

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:8 (ESV)]

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LOST AND FOUND

After three days they found Jesus sitting in the Temple with the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. … When Jesus’ parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why did you do this to us? Your father and I were very worried about you and have been looking for you.” Jesus said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [Luke 2:46-49 (NCV)]

nativity

Last month, during my pre-dawn walks, I enjoyed seeing the bright holiday lights decorating many of our community’s homes. One morning, I passed by a beautifully lit arbor surrounding a nativity scene. Even though the twinkle lights and star didn’t fully illuminate the figures below them, I took a photo and hoped that a little Photoshop magic would result in a picture for a future devotion. When I finally got around to editing the photo, I discovered that Jesus was missing from the scene!

The missing baby reminded me of when my daughter’s family visited us several years ago. The young cousins were playing together at my son’s home. While the adults talked, the girls investigated the many toys in Mali’s toy chest. When Bree discovered parts from the Fisher Price Noah’s ark and nativity sets, she and Mali started rummaging through the box to find their various pieces. Bree started explaining the two stories to her younger cousin as they organized the figures. After digging to the bottom of the box, they realized one figure was missing. The girls jumped up and frantically dashed through the house toward Mali’s bedroom shouting, “We’ve lost baby Jesus!” Fortunately, after a thorough search, the missing baby was found among a few dust bunnies under Mali’s bed.

Mary and Joseph lost Jesus after they’d been in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The city’s population had quadrupled as caravans of Jews from all over came to observe the holiday. Somehow, in the mayhem of people gathering to return to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lost track of their boy and left Jerusalem without Him. Perhaps the people with the missing figure in their nativity had overlooked Jesus in a dark corner of their attic or lost him in the confusion of cartons and crates when they came to Florida. Like Mary, Joseph, and the little cousins, they didn’t notice they’d lost Jesus until they wanted Him! The same thing can happen to us in the challenges and chaos of our busy lives. Sometimes, we forget to bring Jesus with us and don’t even notice He’s missing until we need Him.

It’s important to remember that even though Mary and Joseph lost Jesus, they didn’t lose their relationship with Him. He remained their son but, by leaving Him behind, they lost His presence. The same thing can happen with us. When we lose Jesus, we don’t lose the salvation that comes with our relationship but we do lose His fellowship, our sense of His presence, and His peace and joy.

When the sheep can’t find the shepherd, it’s not the shepherd who is lost. The good shepherd is exactly where He belongs; it’s the sheep that have strayed. In actuality, Mary and Joseph were the ones who were lost, not Jesus. He was where He belonged—in His Father’s house studying God’s word. Our Lord promises He’ll never leave us but that pesky thing called free will allows us to leave Him and walk off on our own. When we feel empty or alone, when we wonder where Jesus is in our trouble, Jesus hasn’t forgotten about us. We are the ones who forgot and lost Him!

Yesterday, I walked by the house with the missing baby Jesus and was pleased to see that he’d been found and was in his rightful place. When Jesus is missing in our lives, like Joseph, Mary, Bree, Mali, and the people with the nativity scene, we must search until we find Him. Rather than looking in dark corners or under the bed, the first place to look might be where we’d expect to find Him—in His Father’s house and in His word.

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. [Psalm 105:4 (NLT)]

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LAMB OF GOD

He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. [Isaiah 53:7 (NLT)]

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29 (NLT)]

lamb of godAs I put away our various nativity sets until next December, I noticed they all include at least one lamb. Since shepherds came to see Jesus, it’s logical there would be a lamb or two in most depictions of Christmas. Nevertheless, as I packed up the figures, I thought about the shepherds and sheep visiting the child who was both the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God. That Jesus took on both roles is a bit of a paradox. The shepherd may have watched over the sheep but, in the end, his lambs were destined to be slaughtered for food or ritual sacrifice.

Nowadays, the whole concept of animal sacrifice seems alien and primitive to us but lambs were sacrificed to God as far back as Abel. Israel’s history as a nation began that first Passover in Egypt when they smeared lamb’s blood on the doorframes of each house. The sacrifice of a lamb as atonement for sin appears frequently in the Hebrew Bible and, of the 151 Old Testament references to lambs in my NLT, 125 are about their sacrifice to God. By Jesus’ time, the priests in the temple sacrificed a lamb every morning and night, on every Sabbath, and at the feasts of the New Moon, Trumpets, Tabernacles, Pentecost, Passover, along with other occasions. The purpose of these animal sacrifices was sanctification (to purify the people from sin), righteousness (to obtain right standing with God), and forgiveness. Being a perfect lamb without blemish did not bode well for a lamb and being the sinless Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world did not foreshadow a good ending for Jesus. Yet, “Lamb of God” is what John the Baptist called Him.

John’s words pointed to Jesus as being the perfect sacrifice for mankind’s sins but I don’t think he grasped the full implication of those words. Until the very end, even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand that being the Lamb of God meant that Jesus would willingly submit and go “like a lamb to the slaughter” to suffer and die on the cross. There was however, only one way the Lamb could take away the sin of the world. For the one perfect and final sacrifice to remove man’s guilt and open the way to God, the Lamb’s blood had to be shed and His life relinquished.

Earlier I mentioned that being both the Good Shepherd and Lamb of God seems a bit of a paradox—that the one who cares for the flock couldn’t also be the sacrificial lamb. Jesus, however, turns our expectations upside down. In His world, the week are strong, the first must be last, we reign by serving, the greatest is the least, and we find our lives by losing them. Jesus is both the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God because, “The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. …I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep.” [John 10:11,14-15]

Next December, when we set out our nativity sets and place the shepherd and lamb around the crèche, let us remember that, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus tends, protects and guides us and, as the Lamb of God, He defeated Satan by dying on the cross and taking away the sins of the world. The Lamb, however, is more than a sacrificial victim. In Revelation, John describes the victorious and very much alive Lamb, enthroned with God, serving as judge of God’s opponents, and praised by all creation!

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. [1 Peter 1:18-19 (NLT)]

And they sang in a mighty chorus: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.” And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang: “Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.”  [Revelation 6:12-13 (NLT)]

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