NEITHER OBSESS NOR IGNORE

Now concerning how and when all this will happen, dear brothers and sisters, we don’t really need to write you. For you know quite well that the day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. When people are saying, “Everything is peaceful and secure,” then disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape. [1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 (NLT)]

Martin Luther once compared human nature to a drunkard who, after falling off the left side of his horse, resolves not to make same mistake again. He remounts and then, overreacting, leans to the right side of his saddle only to fall off again. His point is that just because one side is wrong, the opposite extreme isn’t necessarily correct!

In Jesus’s time, the strict adherence of the Pharisees to the law was an overreaction to Judah’s exile and captivity in Babylon. Knowing that Jerusalem’s destruction and their deportation was God’s punishment for the neglect of His law, no one wanted to endure God’s wrath again. Hoping to safeguard the Torah, the Pharisees went to the opposite extreme by augmenting it with oral explanations and traditions in an effort to guard against any possible breach of law. Shifting from ignoring the law to obsessing over it, they went from disregarding both the Lord and His law to loving the law instead of the Lord.

Sometimes Christians go to extremes. Although both Biblical prophecy and Jesus’s own words tells us that He will return at an undisclosed time in the future, some churches and theologians are obsessed with the End Times and Christ’s Second Coming. They point to every earthquake, political upheaval, famine, natural disaster, or plague as signs of the Apocalypse and often seem more interested in looking for apocalyptic signs than looking to Jesus’s teachings. There even is a “Rapture Index” (a sort of Dow Jones average of End Times activity). As of mid September, the score was 184; according to the site, any score over 160 means “Fasten Your Seatbelts” because the end of the world is at hand.

Since the 1st Century, there have been various end-of-the-world prophecies based on everything from the dimensions of Noah’s ark, the millennium, planetary alignments, mathematical calculations, and secret numerical codes. With an error rate of 100%, those predictions haven’t been rooted in Biblical theology; nevertheless, many have come from Christians and are an embarrassment to the Church.

As a result, many churches and theologians have fallen off the other side of the horse by completely ignoring the issue of the End Times and Christ’s return. Some openly scoff at the prophetic words while others quietly ignore them. Let’s not forget that Christian doctrine is grounded in Scripture and it tells us that Jesus will return. The Athanasius, Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds (the summaries of our Christian beliefs) clearly state that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. Nevertheless, afraid of sounding like quacks or fanatics, many churches and pastors choose to ignore the Second Coming entirely.

End time prophecy is confusing but not completely understanding something, comprehending how it will happen, or knowing when it will occur doesn’t mean that it won’t take place. Although Jesus said He would return, He also made it clear that we are not to know the date. Whether or not we choose to believe or consider it; at an undisclosed and unknown time in the future, He will return. Rather than obsess or ignore, it’s time to get back in the saddle, sit squarely, and find the proper Biblical balance.

Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. And he will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from all over the world—from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven. … However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. [Mark 13:26-27,32 (NLT)]

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THE POTTERY SHOP

“Go down to the potter’s shop, and I will speak to you there.” So I did as he told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over. Then the Lord gave me this message: “O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” [Jeremiah 18:2-6 (NLT)]

hibiscusIn January, there will be an Empty Bowls event in our town. Attendees will purchase a bowl and then fill it with soup and bread donated by local restaurants. The money raised will help feed the more than 36,000 food insecure people in our county. To make that event possible, 4,500 one-of-a-kind bowls are made by local potters. Then, with the help of local volunteers, the bowls are painted and fired. Recently, several of us from church gathered to decorate some of those bowls. While we painted, I thought about the potters who made our bowls—how they formed and reformed their creations until they were just right. Varying in shape and size, no two bowls were exactly the same and, by the time they are painted, each will have a personality of its own. When their purchasers are done eating soup from them, they will be put to different uses. The ones embellished with paw prints or bones probably will be used by pets, and the others may be used for popcorn, nuts, cereal, loose change, or even soup!

In words found in Jeremiah and Isaiah, we see God portrayed as the potter and mankind as His clay (rather fitting since Adam was made from dust on the ground and clay comes from the ground). Picture God forming us in His heavenly pottery shop. As with the bowls we painted, each of His creations would be carefully crafted and one-of-a-kind. While our bowls were made of the same kind of clay, God would choose the best type of clay for each one of us. For those who will be severely tested in life, He would chose a clay that withstands high heat but, for those who will have to be especially adaptable, He would chose a clay that is more easily worked.

Once He’d selected the type of clay, God would knead and shape us. While the bowls we painted were all thrown on a potter’s wheel, God might choose to pinch us into shape, or roll long threads of clay and layer them. For one person, He’d combine flat slabs of clay but, for another, He might select a unique mold or use His wheel. No matter the technique chosen, God would continue shaping and re-shaping us until we were formed the way He wanted us. If we got lopsided, He’d prop us up and, if we tore, He’d put us back together. Because clay is malleable and capable of change, God can continue to fine-tune His creations. We might not enjoy all of that pinching, squeezing, molding and scraping, but it is for our own good.

The parallel ends here because the bowls we painted, having been dried and fired, couldn’t be reshaped. God, however, is never done working on us and we continue to be a work in progress until our dying day. Nevertheless, I picture Him with a paintbrush, making each of us beautiful in our own unique way. Moreover, just as the bowls we painted couldn’t complain that, rather than being painted with flowers they wanted polka dots or preferred candy apple red to sour apple green, we really have no voice in how our potter formed and embellished us. God is sovereign over his people; the creation doesn’t get to argue with the Creator!

How foolish can you be? He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay! Should the created thing say of the one who made it, “He didn’t make me”? Does a jar ever say, “The potter who made me is stupid”? [Isaiah 29: 16 (NLT)]

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. [Isaiah 64:8 (NLT)]

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NO SCISSORS ALLOWED

And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book. And if anyone removes any of the words from this book of prophecy, God will remove that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book. [Revelation 22:18-19 (NLT)]

lilyThere is much in Scripture, such as the subjugation of women, that I find troubling and would just as soon skip reading . For example, there’s no mention of their handmaid slaves’ consent when Sarah, Rachel or Leah offer them as surrogates to their husbands! Scripture may call them righteous because of their faith but Lot readily offered up his virgin daughters to a crowd of lustful men and Abraham twice gave Sarah to another man to save his own skin and benefitted financially both times he did it! There’s a word for a man who does that and it isn’t usually righteous. Then there was the Levite who pushed his concubine out the door to be raped by a gang of men. Many would consider David’s tryst with Bathsheba to be rape and even he tolerated the rape of his own daughter!

The amount of blood shed throughout the Old Testament is disturbing as well; picture the Levites killing 3,000 of their fellow Israelites at God’s command or Simeon and Levi killing all the men in Shechem because of one man’s crime and then plundering the city and taking the women and children captives. It’s difficult to read about Israelites killing everyone in Jabesh-gilead (except for 400 virgins) just to provide wives for the tribe of Benjamin or of the wholesale slaughter of people in places like Jericho and Amalek. Nevertheless, as much as I’d like to skip over these and other troubling passages, they are part of Jewish history and our faith’s roots.

Apparently, one of our nation’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, found parts of the New Testament equally disconcerting. Instead of struggling to understand and praying to believe, he simply eliminated anything he found “contrary to reason.” Believing the gospels’ authors to be untrustworthy reporters, Jefferson wrote his own gospel by taking a penknife to his Bible, cutting up passages, and then pasting them together with other ones on a blank piece of paper. Leaving behind the parts he didn’t believe or like in mutilated Bibles, Jefferson created his own version of Christ’s life and philosophy. By including Christ’s death and burial but omitting His resurrection, rather than the Son of God, Jesus became little more than an altruistic philosopher. Titling it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson believed his version of the New Testament collected “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Boston University professor Stephen Prothero has a more accurate description of Jefferson’s Bible: “scripture by subtraction.”

Unlike Jefferson, we must never make the mistake of subtracting those parts of Scripture we don’t like and yet nearly all of us do. We tend to read only those parts we find comforting, believable, or easy to understand. I certainly prefer reading Psalms or John to the carnage of Judges or deciphering the cryptic visions in books like Revelation, Ezekiel, and Daniel. While we don’t take a scissors and glue to our Bibles, we do read selectively which, in actuality, is not much different than what Thomas Jefferson did with his penknife and paste.

Echoing the warning found in Deuteronomy, the book of Revelation has some pretty stern words about adding to or subtracting from Scripture’s words. Every word in the Bible is there for a purpose: to explain, convict, correct, and train. Let’s treat them all with the respect they deserve and never use either literal or figurative scissors on God’s holy word.

We must not select a few favorite Bible passages to the exclusion of others. Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian. [A. W. Tozer]

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

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HATTIE’S ADVICE

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:32 (NLT)]

As I sorted through the papers that my mother-in-law had saved through the years, I came to a letter written to her in 1936 by her soon to be mother-in-law, Hattie. Hoping the young couple liked the mixer she’d given them, Hattie sent best wishes for a “long happy wedded life.” Wondering why such a mundane letter had been saved for 83 years, I read on. “May there be lots of love, joy and contentment in your home,” she continued, “forgiving each other as God forgives you.” Praying that my in-laws would have a long and “sweet contented life,” Hattie signed the letter “One who wishes you well in everything, Mother.”

Hattie’s prayers were answered; my in-laws were together for 68 years and, at least from my view-point, they did, indeed, live a “sweet contented” life. Could the secret to their marriage be hidden in Hattie’s advice to be forgiving? Is that why my mother-in-law had saved the letter?

I think of the story of a man who, when told by the doctor that he had an incurable case of rabies and but a few days to live, immediately got out paper and pen and started writing. When asked if he was composing his last will and testament, the man said he was making a list of everyone he wanted to bite! With an attitude like that, if the rabid man were married, I doubt that his was a happy marriage or that he lived a “sweet contented life.”

As I pondered my ability to forgive, I began to wonder how willing I was, not just to offer forgiveness, but also to ask for it. I’m not one to serve “cold shoulder and hot tongue” for dinner, give the “silent treatment,” or bring up past offenses but (and that’s a really big “but”), I also am not one who readily admits her failings. When I’ve committed the relationship sins of sharpness, impatience, pettiness, or indifference, I tend to assume forgiveness rather than apologize. Although my husband and I readily forgive one another, I think our relationship suffers if one or the other of us falls short and doesn’t admit it and apologize.

When we accept Jesus, all of our sins (past, present and future) are forgiven on a judicial or “positional” basis which means we will not suffer eternal damnation. Nevertheless, we should never take God’s forgiveness for granted or treat it as something we deserve. We must confess our sins for what could be called “relational” forgiveness in order to restore our relationship with Him.

Author and theologian Frederick Buechner calls unconfessed sins an abyss between us and God, adding that, once confessed, they become the bridge. I think Buechner’s abyss/bridge metaphor applies to our earthly relationships, as well. The prodigal’s father had already forgiven his son before the boy’s return but it was not until his son admitted the error of his ways that their relationship was restored. A certain amount of forgiveness is assumed in a family—husbands and wives forgive one another as do parents and children simply because love forgives. But, we must never take either the grace of God or the gift of forgiveness lightly.

Lord, give us forgiving and humble hearts. May we always be as willing to apologize and admit our errors as we are to accept both your forgiveness and that of others.

Few things accelerate the peace process as much as humbly admitting our own wrongdoing and asking forgiveness. [Lee Strobel]

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. [1 John 1:8-10 (NLT)]

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NO LOST CAUSES

And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. [Luke 15:20 (NLT)]

lambI was re-writing and updating my prayer list when I came to the names of several prodigals. Some of their names have been on that list for nearly two decades; during that time, they’ve been in and out trouble, jail, and rehab. Having wasted most of their lives, each one of them one would qualify as the poster child for lost causes. I thought of not adding their names to my new list. “After all, what’s the point?” I wondered.

I then thought of the parable of the prodigal son—a young man with plenty of opportunities who squandered his money and broke his father’s heart. When life got really tough and the pigs were living better than he, the boy finally repented and returned home to the welcoming and forgiving arms of his father. Like the prodigal son, when they were in financial or legal difficulties, the prodigals on my prayer list often returned home for a warm bed, financial and legal assistance, and even another trip to rehab. Unlike the prodigal son, however, they never managed to truly repent and always returned to their old friends and way of life.

What if there was another chapter to Jesus’s story of the prodigal son? What if, after cleaning up, getting some good meals in his belly, and obtaining a few coins in his pocket, the boy had returned to his life as a wastrel? How would his father have reacted? What would his father have done if his son, after wasting everything again, had returned home a second time? Would his father have rejoiced and thrown his arms around the boy? What if it happened again and again? Would his father eventually have stopped looking for his lost son? In anger, would he eventually have barred the gates and turned his back on his child?

I think not. Jesus’s parable was about forgiveness and hope, God’s grace and mercy, and His lavish love for his children. I think the father would have continued to run to his child and welcome him back every time he returned. Although God won’t enable His prodigals in their sinful ways, I believe He will receive them every time they come home, forgive them when they repent, and shed tears if they relapse and return to their old ways.

Our Heavenly Father will continue to forgive and welcome them (and us) back again and again until they (and we) finally get it right. With God there are no lost causes, only lost children. If God hasn’t given up hope, neither will I. For all of His lost sheep, I will continue to pray that they eventually find their way home and into the arms of their loving Father.

I’ve wandered far away from God, Now I’m coming home;
The paths of sin too long I’ve trod, Lord, I’m coming home.
I’ve wasted many precious years, Now I’m coming home;
I now repent with bitter tears, Lord, I’m coming home.
I’m tired of sin and straying, Lord, Now I’m coming home;
I’ll trust Thy love, believe Thy Word, Lord, I’m coming home.
Coming home, coming home, Nevermore to roam,
Open wide Thine arms of love, Lord, I’m coming home.
[“Lord, I’m Coming Home” by William J Kirkpatrick]

He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve. For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. The Lord is like a father to his children,    tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. [Psalm 103:10-14 (NLT)]

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INADEQUATE AND UNQUALIFIED

I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. [1 Corinthians 2:3-4 (NLT)]

buttercupWhen I sit in front of my computer to start writing, I often wonder what makes me think I am qualified to spread the good news of the Gospel. I take comfort in the Apostle Paul’s similar feelings of inadequacy. Of all the people we meet in Scripture, Paul’s credentials (other than those of Jesus) seem to be the most impressive. Fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, from the tribe of Benjamin, and a second-generation Pharisee who had studied and trained under the respected Gamaliel, Paul was well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and passionate for Jesus. Yet, we know that even he sometimes felt inadequate to the task. Although extremely knowledgeable, by his own admission, his preaching ability left much to be desired.

Then again, an 80-year old man who stammered was called to lead his people out of slavery, a shepherd boy was called to be a king, and a housewife was called to be a prophetess and judge. Samuel was just a boy when he first prophesized, Jeremiah little more than a teen when God called him, and the disciples were just ordinary people like you and me. None of them had impressive resumes. Yet God, knowing exactly who they were, their ages, skills, capabilities, and shortcomings, called them! And He calls us!

In 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote that, rather than calling the qualified, God choses to qualify those he calls: “God chose the things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise.” [1:27] Paul reassured the Corinthians in a later letter that, “God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.” [2 Corinthians 9:8] While the Apostle was referring to material gifts for the believers in Jerusalem, his words hold true for the other gifts with which God has blessed us. Sometimes, we don’t even know we have those gifts until God calls us to use them!

Whether God calls us to lead two million across the desert or lead a small group, to compose letters to the new church or write a blog, to speak to kings or a troubled teen, to build a temple or the set for the Christmas pageant, none of us can do it alone; we must depend on God and believe his promises. We continually underrate ourselves because we’re thinking small; we think we have to go it alone, under our own power, but we don’t. When God called the young Jeremiah to be His prophet, He didn’t promise that it would be easy or that he’d never get discouraged or frustrated. What God promised was His protection, provision, and supervision. Those promises apply to us, as well. God is the source of our ability and it is His power that will enable us to do His work. We are merely God’s tools; He is the builder and we must let Him use us to build His Kingdom.

Loving God, His word, and His children hardly qualifies me to write and yet, with over 1,800 devotions written, as unqualified as I am, through God’s power, it’s been done. He has, indeed, generously provided. We must trust the God who calls us to reach beyond where we think we can grasp, to climb higher than we’ve ever been, or to dig deeper than we thought possible. He will enable us to do whatever He asks us to do. While we may not do it perfectly, all God asks is that we answer Him, obey His call to the best of our ability, and trust in His provision. The outcome is His responsibility!

We are confident of all this because of our great trust in God through Christ. It is not that we think we are qualified to do anything on our own. Our qualification comes from God. He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. [2 Corinthians 3:4-6a (NLT)]

For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. [1 Corinthians 4:20 (NLT)]

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