TAKE A CENSUS

Mallard ducksHe will say to them, “Listen to me, all you men of Israel! Do not be afraid as you go out to fight your enemies today! Do not lose heart or panic or tremble before them. For the Lord your God is going with you! He will fight for you against your enemies, and he will give you victory!” [Deuteronomy 20:3-4 (NLT)]

The book of Numbers lives up to its name with two censuses commanded by the Lord. The first was taken a year after the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, around 1444 BC, in the Sinai wilderness. Only men over twenty (not counting Levites) were counted and the total was 603,550. With the addition of women, children and Levites, the number of people in the exodus is estimated at two million. The purpose of the census was to assess Israel’s military strength, to keep an accurate record of genealogies, and to organize this enormous group into effective groups for both travel and battle. Family banners identified the tribal units so they could stay together as they moved and camped. A year later, convinced that the power of God and over 600,000 fighting men were not enough to defeat their enemies, the Israelites refused to enter Canaan.

Thirty-seven years later, when a new generation of Israelites was camped on the east side of the Jordan River, a second census was conducted. Like the first, this census ascertained military strength but also determined the amount of land allotted to each tribe. 601,730 fighting men were counted—slightly less than when they refused to enter Canaan the first time. Their opponents were no less formidable a generation later but this generation didn’t underestimate the power of God and the value of each man; they conquered the same people their parents had feared.

If we took a census of our assets, what would we list? Along with our faith in God, we might list things like bank accounts, investments, homes, possessions, education, experience, reputation, and even family. Would we list our sisters and brothers in Christ? I ask because I recently overlooked this valuable asset.

It had been a difficult week for me; writing had gone badly, the news was worse, loved ones were hurting, and a cloud of sadness enveloped me. While I’d been prayerfully bringing my concerns to God, I was trying to muddle through on my own. During our weekly church board teleconference, I reluctantly admitted my struggle and asked for prayers. Our pastor immediately led us in prayer before we continued our meeting. Immediately after its adjournment, my phone rang. On the other end was a fellow board member with words of encouragement—words I desperately needed to hear.

Sometimes we’re so determined to be good examples of faith that we let pride get in the way. We allow God to see the chinks in our armor but no one else. We’re told to share one another’s burdens and to encourage, pray for, and counsel one another but how willing are we to ask for help, encouragement, prayers, or counsel when we need it? We don’t have an army of over 600 thousand fighting men but we are blessed with an army of people who care: the prayer warriors, encouragers, comforters, helpers, and even correctors who are found the body of Christ. They aren’t, however, mind readers!

A Christian isn’t meant to go it alone. Jesus never compared us to solitary animals like bears or leopards; He compared us to sheep, creatures that follow a shepherd and gather in a flock. Take a census today and count the people in your life who give you strength—the people who will walk with you on your rocky road and prop you up when you weaken. Let us never be afraid to ask for assistance from our brothers and sisters in Christ. Unlike the Israelites, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of God and His army! Remember, it’s not the size of the army that’s as important as the size of their faith!

Blest be the tie that binds Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds Is like to that above. …
We share each other’s woes, Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows The sympathizing tear.
[John Fawcett]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

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THE LEIDENFROST EFFECT

I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me? [Psalm 56:4 (NLT)]

leidenfrost effect

Two businessmen were touring a foundry. When they entered the smelting area with its vats of molten metal, their guide said it was possible to safely pour that hot metal over someone’s hand if the hand was first dipped into water. When he asked if either gentleman cared to give it a try, the first man said, “I’ll just take your word for it.” The second man agreed and dipped his hand in a tub of water. When the molten metal was poured over the wet hand, it streamed off without causing him pain or injury. Although the first man said he believed the guide, the second one showed his faith in the man by acting on his belief.

Because of something called the Leidenfrost Effect, you really can dip your hand into water and then pour a stream of molten metal over it without pain or injury; a tiny layer of steam would insulate and protect your damp hand from the hot metal. Just because we could do it, however, doesn’t mean we should. The effect is short lived and I don’t suggest trying it at home!

I understand the Leidenfrost Effect and have seen it demonstrated; in theory, I believe in it. In actuality, however, I’d never trust it enough to give it a try! I’m like the Israelites during the Exodus. Although they witnessed God’s power over and over again in the plagues God visited on Egypt and when they safely crossed the Red Sea, saw the defeat of Pharaoh’s army, drank sweet water that once was bitter, gathered both quail and manna from heaven, and saw water spring from a rock, they continued to doubt. In spite of God demonstrating the truth of His promises throughout their journey, the Israelites spurned the God of miraculous provision while camped at Kadesh by refusing to enter Canaan, the land He’d promised to them. How much proof did they need that God would be true to them? Sometimes, even seeing isn’t enough to truly believe and trust.

It’s easy to have faith when the outcome is known. Our challenge is to believe and trust when the outcome is unknown or there is an element of risk, such as third degree burns or formidable foes. Because the power to believe a promise depends on our faith in the one who makes the promise, I wouldn’t have trusted the factory guide enough to put my wet hand under molten metal and, without trusting that God would be true to His promises, the Israelites wouldn’t obey Him!

Unlike the Israelites, do we have faith in the One who guides us through life? In the end, the difference between intellectual belief and actual faith is a willingness to take action: to step out in obedience. We have more proof of God’s faith, love, and power in Scripture than all the YouTube videos about the Leidenfrost Effect. Yet, there are many who probably would place their damp hands under molten metal before trusting their unknown fate to a known God! Isaac Watts said, “I believe the promises of God enough to venture an eternity on them.” What about you? Who do you trust? In whose hands have you rested your fate?

God never made a promise that was too good to be true. [Dwight L. Moody]

For the word of the Lord holds true, and we can trust everything he does. [Psalm 33:4 (NLT)]

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. [Hebrews 10:23 (NLT)]

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THE ASCENSION

He showed himself to them alive, after his suffering, by many proofs. He was seen by them for forty days, during which he spoke about God’s kingdom. [Acts 1:3 (NTE)]

He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end. [Nicene Creed]

viceroy butterflyYesterday was the 40th day of Easter and Ascension Day (or the Feast of the Ascension): the day we remember Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Although Augustine of Hippo and his contemporaries John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa held that the Feast of the Ascension originated with the Apostles and possibly dated as far back as 68 AD, no written evidence of its celebration until Augustine’s time in the fourth century exists today. From his time on, however, it has been a church holiday. Nowadays, it is observed primarily in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and liturgical Protestant churches.

At Easter, we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection: His return to life and to His disciples. Yesterday, some of us may have observed His departure from the disciples. Whether or not we consider Jesus’ ascension into heaven a religious holiday, it is a significant event in Christianity. Rather than stopping at the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, we should continue through His ascension, when Jesus was seated at the right hand of God, and all the way to Pentecost, when His Holy Spirit came upon His followers.

Jesus’ ascension signified that His task on earth was complete. His time here over, He was returning to His full heavenly glory to reign as the one true King. Until His return, only one more piece needed be put in place – the giving of the Holy Spirit – which would happen ten days later on Pentecost.

Unlike most partings, Jesus’ departure was not a sad farewell but a joyous one. It must have been a glorious sight as the disciples stood on the Mount of Olives and watched Jesus being taken up in a cloud. If any had doubted before, they now knew for sure that Jesus truly was God and His home was in heaven! As they stood there, astonished, with mouths agape, two angels appeared and assured them that someday Jesus would return in the same way He left: physically and visibly!

Before parting, Jesus commissioned the disciples to be His witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” The disciples didn’t just stand there and wait for His return and neither should we. He gave us all a job to do until that day comes.

As Jesus said this, he was lifted up while they were watching, and a cloud took him out of their sight. They were gazing into heaven as he disappeared. Then, lo and behold, two men appeared, dressed in white, standing beside them. “Galileans,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” [Acts 1:9-11 (NTE)]

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GOOD SOIL (Soil – Part 4)

Still other seed fell on fertile soil. This seed grew and produced a crop that was a hundred times as much as had been planted! … And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest. [Luke 8:8a,15 (NLT)]

strawberriesIn Jesus’ parable of the four soils, the farmer’s seed finally falls on fertile soil: the people who do more than just hear the Word. Receiving it into their hearts, the Word takes root, grows, and eventually bears fruit. This is the kind of soil we’d all like to think describes us!

The very same seed was sown in what we think of as four different soils but, in actuality, it was the same kind of dirt in four different conditions: hard packed, shallow and rocky, filled with weeds, and fertile. All of that soil had the potential to receive the word—but only if it yielded to the plow! Sadly, at various times in our lives, our hearts can grow hard, become shallow, or be overwhelmed by life’s weeds. If we are willing to yield to God’s plow and accept His seed, even the hardest soil can be farmed.

We often think of the heart only in terms of emotions but, in the Bible, the heart is more than the core of our feelings. The center and source of our belief and faith, the heart is the seat of our thinking: our imagination, ideas, interests, intentions, purposes, and understanding. Fertile soil is the honest and good heart that receives the word eagerly and with good intentions. Moreover, such hearts don’t stop at hearing the word (receiving the seed); they retain it, let it shape their lives and, with perseverance, yield a large harvest.

In this parable, we are both the soil—the hearer of the Word—and the farmer—the one who spreads the Word. The fertile soil of a receptive heart allows us to see, hear, understand and apply God’s Word so that we bring forth an abundant harvest of good fruit. To bring forth that harvest, however, the cycle must continue as we become the farmer in the parable and sow God’s word far and wide. It is our responsibility to spread the seed; whether or not it takes root, however, is between God and the soil!

The quality of the soil determines the future of the seed. [Mike Murdock]

I said, “Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you.” [Hosea 10:12 (NLT)]

And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, so they will obey my decrees and regulations. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God. [Ezekiel 11:19-20 (NLT)]

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THORNS AND THISTLES (Soil – Part 3)

Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. [Mark 4:7]

nodding - musk thistleSome of the farmer’s seeds fell among the thorns (probably what we’d call thistles). Prolific seed producers, thorny plants like thistles can grow in the harshest environment. While they may have been cut down and no longer were visible to the farmer, their seeds and roots remained. With their deep roots, thistles are masters of survival and can flourish in adverse conditions. Stealing the moisture and sunlight from the plants around them, they stunt their growth and, if allowed to grow, can overtake a field.

The farmer’s seed was good, it took root, and started to grow but, because of the thistles, it never developed into maturity. The thistles represent the material concerns of the world—the cares, riches and pleasures that distract us from God’s word and, like a thistle’s roots, are deeply seated in our hearts. Rather than robbing us of water, sunlight, and nutrients, they stunt our growth by keeping us from God’s living water, the light of Christ, and the nourishment of His church. The busyness, distractions, and cares of life; the challenges of work and tending a family; the pursuit of wealth; the desire for possessions, status, amusement, contentment, and even revenge: all of these distract us from letting God’s Word bear fruit in our lives.

The faith of Judas was like a field with thistles. He heard the word and followed Jesus as a faithful disciple and yet he betrayed our Lord. We never know exactly why. Perhaps, it was simply for riches. John tells us he was a thief who stole from the disciples’ purse and we know he received money for his betrayal. Judas also may have been distracted by politics and a desire to be among the elite when Jesus defeated the Romans. Disillusionment may have set in when he realized that wouldn’t happen. Whatever it was, like a field of thistles, those distractions allowed Satan to enter him

In God’s perfect plan, there were no weeds and He didn’t mean for thorns or thistles to be in hearts, either. Weeds and sin both came with the fall. Ridding a field of thistles and other weeds is nearly impossible but, with diligence and hard work, it can be done. It takes continual inspection of the field and, once spotted, the weeds must be eradicated. The questions we must ask are simple ones. What are the thistles or thorns in my life? What is holding me back? What is keeping me from bearing His fruit? Is my faith genuine?

Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. [2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)]

When the ground soaks up the falling rain and bears a good crop for the farmer, it has God’s blessing. But if a field bears thorns and thistles, it is useless. The farmer will soon condemn that field and burn it. [Hebrews 6:7-8 (NLT)]

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HARD HEARTS (Soil – Part 1)

A farmer went out to plant his seed. As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it. [Luke 8:5 (NLT)]

old world wisconsinIn the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we find Jesus telling the parable of the four soils in which the farmer’s seed falls on four types of ground and yields four different results. Although the same good seed is sown over the entire field, only one kind of soil will yield a good crop. Jesus isn’t giving a lesson about agricultural practices; the seed that is sown is God’s word and the soils represent the different responses we have to God’s word. The lessons taught are both for the sowers—those who teach, preach, or witness—and for the soil—the people who hear the Word.

Some of the farmer’s seed falls along a footpath. There the soil is packed down so hard that the seed can’t take root. At first, it seems like the farmer is at fault, but he was doing what farmers did at the time—sowing before plowing. In Jesus’ day, farmers’ plots were small and adjacent to one another’s plots. Wanting to avoid stepping on growing plants, there were pathways between the fields used by the farmers. As the farmer walked along the path, he’d scatter seeds with a broad sweeping motion of his hand. Inevitably, some seed would land on the footpath between the fields. Heavily used and neither plowed nor fertilized, its soil was hard packed and nothing would grow on it.

 It’s not enough for the word to be heard any more than it is for seed to fall on hard ground. In Scripture, faith and belief are products of the heart. Just as seed must germinate to grow, the Word must be accepted, but a hard heart, like hardened soil, cannot receive God’s word. Instead of birds, it is Satan who snatches the Word away.

We know what makes a footpath hard but what hardens hearts? I think of Herod Antipas who married his half-brother’s wife (forbidden by Mosaic Law). When John the Baptist denounced Herod’s illegal marriage, Herod arrested and imprisoned the prophet at his wife’s urging. Scripture, however, tells us that Herod respected John and liked to listen to him but, not wanting to recognize his own sin and repent, Herod didn’t allow John’s word to change him. Unrepentant sin caused both Herod’s and Herodias’ hearts to harden enough that John died a gruesome death.

In Pharaoh’s case, it was pride and arrogance that hardened his heart to the powerful God of the Israelites. It was setbacks and disappointments that hardened the heart of the Israelites when camping at Meribah. Ignoring God’s previous provision, the ungrateful people quarreled with Moses over the lack of water. Hearts can harden in times of prosperity, as well. God sent Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Zechariah to warn Israel and Judah about their hard hearts and the coming of God’s judgment but they didn’t change their ways. Distractions like fear and blame can cause hearts to harden enough for Satan to snatch away God’s word. Twice Scripture describes the hearts of the disciples as being “too hard to take it in” when they failed to let Jesus’ miracles of abundant provision grow into faith in His power. [Mark 6:52,8:17]

Hardened hearts dull our ability to perceive and understand God’s message, blind us to the value of the gospel, and keep us both ignorant of God and alienated from Him. As hearers of the Word, we must not let the enemy harden our hearts and, as sowers, we must keep spreading the seed; whether or not it is accepted is up to the soil! The good news, however, is that even the hardest soil can be broken and even the hardest heart can be softened.

Hardness of heart evidences itself by light views of sin; partial acknowledgment and confession of it; pride and conceit; ingratitude; unconcern about the word and ordinances of God; inattention to divine providences; stifling convictions of conscience; shunning reproof; presumption, and general ignorance of divine things. [Matthew George Easton]

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)]

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