CLOSED MINDS

Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. [2 Timothy 2:23-25 (NLT)]

killer whaleWhen discussing whales, the 3rd grade science teacher insisted that because of the whale’s small throat it was physically impossible for one to swallow a human. Disagreeing, the little girl told her that Jonah had been swallowed by a whale. When the teacher insisted it was just a silly story, the girl said that when she got to heaven she would ask Jonah. ”Well,” replied the teacher scornfully, “What if Jonah isn’t there? What if he went to hell?” The little girl politely answered, “Then I guess you can ask him!”

Last year, we took a bus tour of the Canadian Rockies and, at times, our tour guide and bus driver must have felt like they were herding cats. Although there were less than forty in our group, I compared us to the two million Israelites of Exodus and them to Moses and Aaron who led those “stiff-necked” people for forty years. When people weren’t ready on time, asked already answered questions, complained about the food, whined about accommodations, didn’t follow directions, wanted special treatment and misplaced their possessions, I appreciated the frustrations the brothers must have had leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. Overhearing my comment, a fellow traveler took me aside. After advising me that he didn’t want to disparage my faith, he added, “But really—two million people? Forty years? How can you possibly believe that? How could they all be fed?” My response was easy: “God provided manna!” Rather than continue the conversation, I smiled and walked away. This man didn’t want to talk miracles or God’s provision and, in spite of his words to the contrary, like the teacher in the joke, he really did want to disparage my faith.

As for that whale, according to several sources, including the Smithsonian, while most species of whales (like the killer whale pictured) couldn’t swallow a human, the exception is the sperm whale. Capable of swallowing a whole giant squid, it could easily swallow a man. In actuality, however, both the girl and the teacher were wrong. The Hebrew Bible says neither whale nor fish but rather dag gadôl  which means a great sea creature. The Greek translation was kêtei megalô, meaning a mega-sized ketos or huge sea serpent. The ketos was a sort of dog-headed sea dragon and several references to it are found in both art and non-Biblical literature from 700 BC through 500 AD. Whether the leviathan mentioned in Job, Psalms, and Isaiah is the same creature as that in Jonah and whether it was fish, reptile, whale, or some extinct form of sea monster, we really don’t know. Just because we don’t know, however, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Would the teacher have been interested in this answer? I think not. Like the man who spoke to me, her mind was already made up.

There always will be non-believers who are more interested in proving we’re wrong than hearing our answers. Wanting to display their cleverness and our naiveté, they ask questions like, “Why aren’t there dinosaurs in the Bible? How did Noah get those animals in the ark? How did the penguins get to the ark from Antarctica?” and, “If God is so all-powerful, why did it take Him six whole days to create the world?” The Bible is filled with a slew of fantastic and extraordinary accounts that defy easy explanation and I’m not sure it’s worth getting into a debate about such things. In most cases, even if we answered these types of questions to the skeptics’ complete satisfaction, it wouldn’t make a difference to them. All we can do is decline to accept their challenge with a simple and gracious answer. Jesus told the disciples to shake the dust from their feet as they left any town that refused to welcome them. Sometimes, we must do the same thing.

Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. [Ephesians 4:18 (NLT)]

Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. [1 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TALISMANS

You may worship no other god than me. You shall not make yourselves any idols: no images of animals, birds, or fish. You must never bow or worship it in any way; for I, the Lord your God, am very possessive. I will not share your affection with any other god! [Exodus 20:3-6 (TLB)]

blue birdIn the days of the judges, the Israelites were at war with the Philistines. Following the loss of 4,000 men, the elders wondered why God had allowed their defeat. Rather than pray, however, they decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant with them into battle. Perhaps they remembered when priests carried the Ark around the city of Jericho. Unfortunately, they forgot that God had specifically commanded Joshua to do just that. Ignoring the law that the Ark was to remain in the Tabernacle, they brought it thirty miles from Shiloh to their camp in Ebenezer. Cheering upon the Ark’s arrival, they acted as if the Ark rather than God would save them and treated it like a good luck charm or an idol rather than the sacred box it was. I wonder if the Israelites blamed the Ark rather than their sacrilege when the Philistines defeated them, captured the Ark, and took it into their territory.

Treating it like a trophy or a spoil of war, the Philistines placed the Ark in the temple of their deity Dagon. Believing the Israelite’s god was in the box, they were pleased to have another god on their side until things went from bad to worse for them. After twice finding the idol Dagon vandalized, they suffered from a deadly plague of tumors. Realizing the Ark was not a lucky talisman, they returned it seven months later.

Upon its return, the men of Beth Shemesh still didn’t understand the sanctity of the Ark and violated Mosaic law by looking inside it. When seventy men were struck down for that sacrilege, like the Philistines, they also wanted to get rid of it. The men of Kiriath-jearim came for the Ark and took it to the home of Abinadab where it was unceremoniously stored for twenty years. Scripture tells us that during that time, “all Israel mourned because it seemed that the Lord had abandoned them.” [1 Samuel 7:2] God, however, had never abandoned them; they had abandoned Him for pagan idols and practices.

A picture of the good shepherd Jesus, a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror, the olivewood cross in your pocket, a fish symbol on the trunk, St. Christopher on the dash, a pendant with a Bible verse, an angel pin on the jacket, or even a cross made from Palm Sunday’s palms can all serve as visual reminders of our powerful God. Nevertheless, they are powerless symbols. We must never make the mistake of treating any religious object as a lucky charm or worshiping it as if it had power. Protection and victory come from God alone, not from pictures, jewelry, talismans or even the Ark. There is a fine line between revering an object and idolatry. Philistine and Israelite alike crossed that line; let’s be sure we never do.

The heathen worship idols of gold and silver made by men—idols with speechless mouths, sightless eyes, and ears that cannot hear; they cannot even breathe. Those who make them become like them! And so do all who trust in them! [Psalm 135:15-18 (TLB)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

 

THE GATEWAY SIN

You must not covet your neighbor’s wife. You must not covet your neighbor’s house or land, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor. [Deuteronomy 5:21 (NLT)]

roseIn spite of many states having legalized its use, countless studies suggest that marijuana is a “gateway drug” meaning that it may lead to the use of other stronger more addictive drugs. I’m not going to enter into that argument but I’d like to use the word “gateway” as it regards to sin. Just like marijuana (when compared to heroin or cocaine) seems innocuous, coveting (when compared to murder or stealing) seems like an insignificant sin. After all, who does it harm? No sin, however, is insignificant and every sin is an offense to God

While desiring God, wisdom, right living, and faith is good, the tenth commandment’s coveting is desiring what God doesn’t want us to have or what rightfully belongs to another. Masquerading as envy, jealousy, resentfulness, lust, longing, selfishness, greed, materialism, desire, craving, bitterness, and even wishful thinking, it is one of the easiest commandments to break. Just as a rose by any other name is still a rose, coveting (no matter what you call it) is still coveting and easily can lead to more sin. Coveting is a “gateway” sin because it can lead us deeper into the enemy’s darkness.

Consider Achan who disobeyed God’s direct command to take none of Jericho’s plunder for himself. Coveting the spoils of war, he stole a beautiful robe, 200 silver coins and more than a pound of gold. His coveting led not just to stealing but also to murder when 36 of his countrymen died in battle and his family was killed in punishment for his sin. David coveted his neighbor’s wife and then committed both adultery and murder to have her. Coveting Esau’s rightful blessing, Jacob stole it from his brother and failed to honor his father. King Ahab coveted the field of Naboth; when Naboth refused to sell it, Ahab’s covetous heart made him so sullen and angry that he refused to eat. His wife Jezebel then hatched a scheme in which two of her minions falsely accused Naboth of cursing both God and king; the man was stoned to death and Ahab claimed his field. Ahab’s coveting led to breaking the commandments about false witness, murder and misusing the name of the Lord. It would seem that when we want something that isn’t ours to have, we’re likely to break several other commandments to get it!

Indeed, coveting is a gateway sin!

Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content. [1 Timothy 6:6 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

A MESSAGE IN THE SKY

skywriting - love godJesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-38 (NLT)]

After a lovely walk in the park, I looked up in the sky and saw a skywriter busy at work. The word “love” was starting to fade in the sky and, thinking a marriage proposal was in the works, I thought the pilot needed to work faster to get his message written. Curious, I waited to see what came next and was surprised to see the word “God” written in pale white smoke before the pilot flew off.

“Love God” – that’s the first and greatest commandment and we are to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind. In other words, love Him with our entire being: our passions, prayers, thoughts, words, voices, skills, desires, reactions, appearance, finances, strength, desires, relationships, and possessions. With no punctuation, however, that wasn’t necessarily what was meant. Rather than the command “Love God!” those little two words in the sky could have been more like the closing and signature line to a letter, card, or love note: “Love, God.” Indeed, the sunny day had been a beautiful gift sent from Him.

Although God sends us love notes all of the time, they’re usually not done in skywriting on a blue sky day. A rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant with His creatures to never again send an all-destructive flood, is one of His reassuring love notes reminding us that His love shines through all the storms of life. Rainbows, beautiful days, magnificent sunsets, butterflies, even the aroma of spring lilacs—all can say “Love, God” to us. Today, when I opened my email, I realized God sends His love another way—in the encouraging words and prayers of a Christian friend. Having mentioned my heavy heart for a loved one, she immediately responded with encouraging words and by lifting us both in prayer. The email may have come from her address, but it bore His signature: “Love, God.”

In church Sunday, I turned to a stranger and told her how beautifully her daughter had sung during the teen led worship service. She welcomed those words with such enthusiasm that you would have thought I’d offered her girl a recording contract. Telling me how thrilled her daughter would be to hear the compliment, she added that the teen had just been cut from a choral group and badly needed reassurance. I spoke the words but they came from one of His nudges and were signed “Love, God.” In the many ways we share God’s love, we fulfill the second, equally important commandment given to us: to love our neighbors as ourselves.

“Love God!” or “Love, God” – in this case, the punctuation makes no difference. Each day brings opportunities to love and honor God by being one of His love notes with our prayers, an encouraging word, a quick text or email, a warm touch, a hand-written note, extra patience, a friendly smile or a helping hand. It is in the love we show to one another that we can fulfill both of His commands at once.

All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. [1 John 4:15-16 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE SAMARITAN

Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. [Luke 10:33 (NLT)]

prairie false indigoAccording to the historian Josephus, around 9 AD, when Jesus was just a boy, some Samaritans snuck into Jerusalem on Passover and defiled the Temple with human remains. The hatred between Jews and the Samaritans, however, had been going on for centuries. In 930 BC, when Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) was king, the kingdom of Israel divided. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, eventually became known as Samaria. The southern kingdom, where Jerusalem and the Temple were, became known as Judah. Fearing a change of alliance if his people returned to Jerusalem to worship, the northern kingdom’s first king, Jeroboam, set up his own worship centers complete with golden calves. After they were conquered by Assyria in 772 BC, most of the Jews were taken into captivity and foreigners, bringing their pagan gods and beliefs, colonized the land. The remaining Jews began to worship idols along with the God of Israel and the Samaritan religion became a mix of idolatry and Judaism.

Samaritans were a continual source of difficulty for the Jews of the southern kingdom. Insisting that Moses said they should worship on Gerizim, they erected a temple there. Recognizing only the five books of Moses, Samaritans rejected most Jewish traditions, interfered when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and offered safe haven to Judah’s criminals. Controlling the land between Galilee and Jerusalem, they regularly harassed pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem. Because of all the intermarriage between the Jews and Gentiles of Samaria, Samaritans were considered “half-breeds.” Seeing them as both racially and theologically contaminated, the Jews had a proverb: “A piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.”

This is the world in which we find Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan with the unlikely hero being a Samaritan (whose people were known to harass travelers). We know this parable was in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” but let’s back up one chapter to see what preceded it. Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. Rather than taking the longer walk around Samaria, they were walking right through it. When Jesus sent messengers into a Samaritan village to make sleeping and eating arrangements, they were not welcomed. Although Jesus had previously told the disciples to simply shake the dust from their feet if a town refused to welcome them, John and James suggested calling down fire from heaven to destroy the village. Luke says Jesus rebuked them but we don’t know what was said.

Part of their rebuke may have been the story of the Good Samaritan. The parable could have been as much for His disciples (especially James and John) as it was for the legal expert who asked the question. Jesus easily could have made his point with a Roman soldier as the story’s unlikely hero, but He didn’t. Although the Samaritans had been unneighborly in snubbing Him, Jesus deliberately chose a Samaritan to teach a lesson about neighbors! That parable told the disciples that, even when our neighbor is inhospitable and slights us, we still treat him as our neighbor. Whether or not someone helps us, we are to help them and, when someone offends us, we’re not to take offense. We do unto others as we would like them to do to us and not as they’ve done to us!

Although there are about 800 Samaritans still living in Israel, for most of us the word “Samaritan” refers to someone who helps other people, especially strangers, when they have trouble. How ironic that the despised “pagan half-Jews of the Old Testament” (as one writer called them) took a place of honor in the New!

Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you. If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! [Luke 6:30-31 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LEAVING THE COMFORT ZONE

snake river raftingHe said, “That’s what I mean: Risk your life and get more than you ever dreamed of. Play it safe and end up holding the bag.” [Luke 19:26 (MSG)]

If I am never tempted, and cannot even imagine myself being tempted, to gamble, this does not mean that I am better than those who are. The timidity and pessimism which exempt me from that temptation themselves tempt me to draw back from those risks and adventures which every man ought to take. [From “Reflections on the Psalms” by C.S. Lewis]

We were accompanied by two grandchildren, ages fifteen and eighteen, during part of our trip west. When my husband mentioned taking them on a raft trip, I pictured a scenic float down the Snake River and readily agreed. What got booked, however, was a white water adventure. Not a thrill seeker, adrenaline inducing adventures are not my thing. I was not happy about the scheduled activity and began thinking of ways to gracefully bow out of it. By coincidence (or what I call God-incidence), the above quote by C. S Lewis arrived in my email. I realized that my fear of stepping out of my rather narrow comfort zone was threatening to keep me from sharing this once-in-a-lifetime experience with my precious grands. Lewis’ words (and some much needed prayer) convinced me that this was one adventure I should not miss.

Prayer got me in the raft and I bravely paddled through the rapids. Even after we tipped and lost six of the eight passengers on the third set of rapids, witnessing the grins on the kids’ faces as they were pulled back into the raft made both the dunking and the adrenaline spike worth it. All’s well that ends well and, in spite of the soaking in the rapids, the rafting wasn’t nearly as terrifying as I’d imagined. When asked to name the highlight of their twelve days with us, our grands both mentioned the raft trip—and to think I nearly missed sharing that experience with them! The pictures taken from the photographer’s spot on shore would not have captured their smiles and whoops of delight at the rapids or the thrill of the ride!

While a certain amount of caution is wise, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, there are certain risks and adventures that none of us should miss. Timidity, pessimism, faint-heartedness, fear, and anxiety can keep us from unsafe behavior like drugs, gambling, or adultery but they shouldn’t make us retreat “from those risks and adventures which every man [and woman] ought to take.” Consider what they would have missed if Peter had allowed fear to keep him from stepping out of the boat onto the water, if David had allowed faint-heartedness to keep him from facing Goliath, or if Moses and Gideon had allowed their pessimism to prevent them from accepting the tasks given them by God.

God invites us to participate in world-changing adventures that probably have nothing to do with white water rafting. We mustn’t allow a reticence to step out of our comfort zones prevent us from accepting His invitation to go on that journey. While the adventure may involve an element of risk, the rewards will be well worth it!

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies. … Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. [Philippians 4:8-9,13 (MSG)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.