ASK

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Matthew 6:7-8 (RSV)]

Our Father, whose predominant residence pattern is widely perceived as being in an exo-atmospheric environment, your name shall be treated, as a matter of course, in a reverential demeanor appropriate to existing protocol guidelines. It is to be hoped that, as an optimal result of the ongoing situational development, your form of governmental institution may be, in accordance with the appropriate procedures, finalized within the foreseeable future, in forms applicable to both bilateral and multilateral fora. [Anonymous]

climbing asterThese are the first lines of the Lord’s Prayer as if they were written by a lawyer and, having recently met with our attorney to update some documents, I don’t think they’re much of an exaggeration. With all of their circumlocution, it’s difficult to know what lawyers actually mean. They use vague abstract nouns rather than concrete ones and seem to go around a subject rather than straight through it. Why can’t they use straightforward language and directly say what they mean?

While our prayers probably are not as convoluted as the above version of the Lord’s Prayer, they frequently are as indirect and vague. Of course, the lawyer uses all of that language out of caution. He’s writing so that his words can’t be misconstrued: so that anyone seeking another meaning to his words can’t find it. God, however, is not an adversary who is trying to trap us into saying something we don’t mean or attempting to find a loophole in our prayers. In fact, He already knows what we need before we say it. Nevertheless, He’s waiting to hear it from us.

When Jesus was leaving Jericho, two blind beggars called out to Him with a rather ambiguous request: “Have mercy on us!” Did they want forgiveness, food, clothing,  or money? Any of those would have been acts of mercy. Surely Jesus knew what they really wanted but He responded by asking them, “What do you want me to do for you?” Only then were they direct and asked for what they really wanted: to see! It was not until they clearly asked that Jesus acted and they received sight.

We have been told to ask before we receive. Could it be that God answers our prayers based on our requests? Jesus promised that, if we ask for bread, we won’t get a stone and, if we ask for a fish, we won’t get a serpent. Unsaid, but certainly implied, is that, if we fail to ask for that bread or fish, we won’t get either one! Could receiving depend upon asking? Could there be blessings He has for us that we haven’t received simply because we never asked?

Like lawyers, perhaps we err on the side of caution: the less specific our prayers, the less likely it is that we’ll be disappointed. Vague prayers, however, don’t exhibit faith. If someone listened to our prayers, would they know what we mean or are our prayers filled with cautious language and ambiguous requests? I think of a child’s prayers and the long list of “God blesses” usually found at their end. Are our prayers as vague? How do we want God to bless those on our prayer list? What are their specific needs? What are ours? We don’t need a lot of words to be direct and specific with God. If Jesus were passing by right now, what would we call out to Him? What would we ask?

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. [Matthew 21:22 (RSV)]

Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? [Matthew 7:7-9 (RSV)]

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NAMES 

Saul, also known as Paul, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he looked the sorcerer in the eye. … Paul and his companions then left Paphos by ship for Pamphylia, landing at the port town of Perga. [Acts 13:9,13 (NLT)]

great blue heronIt’s a common misconception that Saul became known as Paul when Jesus transformed the Christian hater into a Christ follower on the road to Damascus. Saul, however, was always named Paul. As a Roman citizen, he would have had a three part Roman name. While we don’t know the first two parts, the third (the cognomen) and commonly used name was Paullus (which becomes Paul in English). As devout Jews, however, his parents also would have given him a Hebrew name. They named him Saul, a good name for a boy from the tribe of Benjamin (King Saul’s tribe). Understandably, when among Jews, Saul would have used his Hebrew name and Luke, the writer of Acts, refers to him as Saul until Acts 13, about fifteen years after his conversion. Saul (and Luke) started using his Roman/Gentile name of Paul around the time he moved further into the Roman Empire on his first missionary journey. As he moved into Gentile territory, Paul’s Roman name was more appropriate. The Apostle was not alone in having both a Roman and Hebrew name. One of the candidates to replace Judas had two Jewish names, Joseph and Barsabbas, along with the Roman one of Justus.

Although Paul’s name was given to him by his parents, sometimes a new name was forced upon someone. When Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of the land, he gave his new second-in-command an Egyptian wife and the Egyptian name of Zaphenath-paneah. In honor of Babylonian gods, King Nebuchadnezzar gave Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah the names of Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Sometimes, it was circumstances that changed a person’s name. When the widowed Naomi returned to Bethlehem, the grief-stricken woman called herself called Mara, meaning “bitter.” After destroying the altar of Baal and cutting down the Asherah pole next to it, Gideon became known as Jerub-baal, which meant “Let Baal defend himself.”

In some cases, it was God who did the name changing. These name changes often described someone’s character or calling. In Genesis, Abram (“exalted father”) became Abraham (“father of a multitude”) and Jacob, the “heel-catcher” or “deceiver,” became Israel, “God’s fighter.”  Jesus changed Simon’s name (meaning “he has heard”) to Cephas, the Aramaic word for “rock.” Since the New Testament was written in Greek, we know Cephas by the name of Peter, also meaning “rock.” Although Peter wasn’t rock solid during Jesus’s life, following the resurrection, he fulfilled the promise of his name by becoming the rock upon which the new church was built.

In actuality, most of us go by more than one name. My personal favorite is the one my grands use for me: “Nonnie.” Some people say they don’t care what they’re called, as long as they’re called for dinner. As for me, I don’t care what you call me as long as God has my name written in His Book of Life!

All who are victorious will be clothed in white. I will never erase their names from the Book of Life, but I will announce before my Father and his angels that they are mine. … And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire. [Revelation 3:5,20:15 (NLT)]

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AN ABOUT FACE

I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law.  I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. [Philippians 3:5-6 (NLT)]

In writing about change yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of the Apostle Paul. He knew firsthand of God’s transforming power. When we first meet Paul, he’s going by his Hebrew name of Saul and looking on as Stephen (the first of Christ’s followers to give his life for the gospel) is stoned to death.

The slaying of Stephen led to a wave of persecution and Saul relentlessly went from house to house in search of Jesus’s followers so he could drag them off to prison. Full of religious zeal and eager to kill those who followed the Way, Saul asked the high priest for permission to go to Damascus so he could arrest Christ’s followers and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains. In short, Saul was brutal and violent and little more than a religious terrorist! It is on the road to Damascus, however, that Saul meets the risen Christ and has his amazing conversion [Acts 9]. Meeting Jesus face-to-face, being struck blind for three days, having Ananias lay hands on him, scales falling from his eyes, and Saul’s baptism make for a powerful story of redemption and truly testify that no person is beyond the saving grace of the Lord.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard and, as I wrote yesterday’s devotion, I wondered if Saul struggled as this once fanatical persecutor of Christians transformed into the great Christian evangelist. As a second-generation Pharisee, he thought of himself as a member of an elite group and anything foreign would have been detested. Wanting to keep himself free of any impurity, the old Saul would never associate with Gentiles or even any Jews who interpreted the law differently. Yet, the man who abhorred anyone different from him preached all over the Roman Empire, stressed unity between Jewish and Gentile believers, and became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles!

As a Pharisee, Saul had been meticulous to the point of obsession about obedience to both the written and oral Law. Yet, in an about face, he maintained that Jewish Christians no longer had to abide by those same regulations and that Gentile converts didn’t have to become Jews before becoming Christians. Understanding that it was the Holy Spirit rather than the Law that empowered holy living, Saul changed from thinking that strict obedience to the Law would make us right with God to knowing that we are only made right by grace through faith in Jesus.

Nevertheless, until meeting Jesus on the way to Damascus, Saul’s life had been wrapped around strict adherence to the Law. Did he have difficulty letting go of Pharisaic traditions like their elaborate hand washing ritual before meals, the conspicuous wearing of phylacteries and tassels, or fasting twice a week? Did the Jew who’d grown up loathing Gentiles cringe when he first sat down to eat with them? Until now, I hadn’t considered how difficult it had to have been for the Pharisee to become the Apostle. The man who wrote that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person” [2 Corinthians 5:17] knew firsthand the truth of his statement. It is in his transformation that we see the power of Jesus to revolutionize a life! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the persecutor of Christians became a preacher for Christ!

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. [Philippians 3:8-9 (NLT)]

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ONCE AND FOR ALL – YOM KIPPUR

On that day offerings of purification will be made for you, and you will be purified in the Lord’s presence from all your sins. …This is a permanent law for you, to purify the people of Israel from their sins, making them right with the Lord once each year. [Leviticus 16:30,34 (NLT)]

goat

Today is the tenth day of Tishri (the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar) and the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. For our Jewish brothers and sisters, this day, with its themes of atonement and repentance, is the holiest one of the year.

The book of Leviticus describes the rituals the Israelites were to perform on this holy day every year. In ancient Israel, this was the only time the high priest could come into the Holy of Holies (the innermost sacred area of the tabernacle or temple) where the Ark was housed. Before he could come into the presence of God and the Ark to begin the ritual of atonement, he had to ritually cleanse himself from sin by bathing and dressing in spotless plain linen garments. He then atoned for his own sins and those of his family with the sacrifice of a bull.

Two unblemished male goats were taken from the community and lots were cast to determine which goat would be given to the Lord. The first goat was sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Ark. This was the sin offering and made to appease the wrath of God and atone for the sins of the people. Then, having received forgiveness, the second goat was brought before the altar. As a way of transferring the sins of the people to the goat, the priest laid his hands on its head and confessed all of the peoples’ sins and transgressions. This goat, the “scapegoat,” was then sent out into the wilderness to carry those sins into the wasteland.

In this ceremony, the blood of the first goat ritually provided propitiation by appeasing God’s wrath and the second goat provided expiation by atoning for and removing those sins. This atonement ritual was to be repeated year after year. Without a temple in Jerusalem, there no longer are animal sacrifices or scapegoats, but Jews throughout the world continue to observe this day with about 25-hours of fasting, intensive prayer, and repentance.

Unlike the yearly sacrifice of goats, the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross had to be done only once. Christ was both our sinless high priest and the unblemished sacrifice. When He gave himself up for us, Jesus took God’s wrath upon himself as His blood dripped on the ground beneath Him. When He suffered and died on the cross, Jesus was both the propitiation and expiation of our sins for all time. By dying, this sinless man took on God’s wrath—the wrath we sinners deserved. Rather than take our transgressions into the wilderness, He “removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” for all time. [Psalm 103:12] Thank you Jesus!

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. [Romans 3:22-24 (NLT)]

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JUST SORRY OR REPENTANT?

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. [Psalm 51:16-17 (NLT)]

The fellow looked at me and apologized: “I’m sorry; I know I can be a real #@!%* at times!” I debated as to my response. While the polite thing would have been, “It’s OK, I understand,” that wouldn’t have been honest. His behavior wasn’t OK. We’re told in Proverbs 27:6 that wounds from a friend are better than an enemy’s kisses and, since he’d left the door wide open, I agreed with him. “I know you are. But you don’t have to be,” I gently added. “It’s your choice!” Apparently preferring an enemy’s kisses to my honest assessment, he shrugged his shoulders and left the room.

Although “sorry” and “repentant” often are used synonymously, they are not the same thing. My friend’s regret may have been heartfelt but repentance requires a change of heart. While sorry, he wasn’t ready to change his heart or his petulant behavior.

In John 8, we read about a woman caught in adultery. Facing a crowd ready to stone her to death, she surely regretted her behavior. After Jesus’s words caused the crowd to disperse, our Lord didn’t condemn her but He didn’t send her back to her paramour either. Clearly expecting repentance, He told her, “Go and sin no more.” [8:11] Whether or not she repented, we don’t know, but Jesus’s actions and words that day make two things clear. First, rather than wanting sinners to die, God wants them to repent and live! Second, forgiveness doesn’t mean tolerance.

Repentance has two requirements: turning from evil and turning to good. When we repent, we turn from sin to obedience, evil to good, selfishness to selflessness, deception to truth, vulgarity to civility, meanness to kindness, animosity to goodwill, dysfunction to function, and childishness to maturity. As Christians, we don’t repent because we’re afraid of fire and brimstone or that God will strike us dead. Out of our love for God, we consciously decide to become better by moving away from anything that offends Him toward something that pleases Him. The power to do that comes from the Holy Spirit.

Let us never confuse an apology, regret or even confession with repentance. It’s not enough to say, “I have sinned;” we must commit to making a change and not sinning again!

To do so no more is the truest repentance. [Martin Luther]

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. [2 Corinthians 7: 10 (NLT)]

Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. [Matthew 3:8 (NLT)]

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PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE

I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy. It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world. [John 16:20-21 (NLT)]

baby boyOn the night He was betrayed, Jesus forewarned the disciples of the grief and fear they’d encounter in the days ahead. In his short parable about labor and delivery, Jesus prepared the remaining eleven disciples for the emotions they would encounter over the next three days: their anguish and despair as He hung upon the cross, died, and was buried. For His followers, those three days would feel like an eternity of hopelessness. But, as happens when a woman beholds her newborn baby after hours of painful labor, their despair would turn to joy when they saw the resurrected Christ!

At the time, no one could have convinced me that I would forget the pain of my long labor and medication-free delivery but, when I held my first-born, I did. All women do (or every baby would be an only child)! Those first six months of sleepless nights spent comforting that colicky boy seemed endless; I didn’t know how I’d endure them but I did. Yesterday, he celebrated his 50th birthday and the 24-hours he spent making his way into this world make up only 1/18,251th of his life and just 1/26,406th of mine! Even the six exhausting months he spent crying in my arms every night are only 1% of his life and less than .7% of mine! While putting my labor and sleepless nights into perspective, I realized my fractions are wrong because I can’t determine the true length of my life; rather than ending here on earth, it will continue forever in God’s heavenly Kingdom.

Jesus’s parable applies to more than those three days the disciples hid in a room following his crucifixion. It applies to the suffering and pain endured by all of His children (which often lasts far longer than 24 hours, 3 days, or even six months). Anguish of any kind seems interminable and unbearable but, when put in perspective, it is but a blip on our eternal lifeline. For now, we live in a world of tears, weariness, frustration, anxiety, confusion, disappointment, loss, fear, and affliction but, on the other side of this earthly life, there is a place without pain, sorrow, grief or tragedy! Although it’s of little comfort to those hurting, our present suffering must be viewed in the light of eternity. As heavy as the weight of our present pain may be, when put on a scale and weighed against the eternal joys of heaven, it is no more than a feather. That doesn’t mean anyone’s pain is small; it simply means that eternity is absolutely enormous! Let us remember—all that’s wrong in this fallen world is temporary and will be forgotten when we joyfully behold His face in eternity!

The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon. [Joni Eareckson Tada]

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [1 Corinthians 4:17-18 (NLT)]

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