TRYING TO SERVE TWO (Part 3)

You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. [Deuteronomy 5:7-9a (NLT)]

campionAlthough Elisha once worked his land with a plow and oxen, after he accepted Elijah’s cloak, he burnt his plow and oxen, left home, and joined Elijah as an itinerant prophet who depended on others for food and shelter. We know that every time Elisha passed through Shunem, he was fed and sheltered by a family there and Scripture tells us that pious Israelites commonly brought gifts to the prophets they consulted. So why wouldn’t Elisha accept any of Naaman’s generous gifts?

As a pagan Aramean who was ignorant of Jehovah, Naaman was used to priests and prophets who greedily demanded rewards for their services. As a servant of God, however, Elisha knew it was wrong to accept payment for Naaman’s healing. After all, he’d done nothing but tell the man to wash himself in the Jordan seven times. Elisha’s refusal of payment made it clear to Naaman that Israel’s powerful God alone had done the healing and God’s grace and miracles are not for sale. When Jehovah made Himself known to the pagan warrior, Naaman realized that, rather than being one of many gods, the God of Israel was the only God. Saying, “There is no God in all the world except in Israel,” the Aramean vowed never again to worship another god.

Naaman then made a rather strange request—that he be allowed to load two mules with some of Israel’s dirt to take back home. While that seems a bizarre sort of souvenir to us, it made perfect sense to Elisha. The pagan people of the ancient Near East believed that gods were tied to the lands they ruled and that a deity only could be worshiped on the soil of the nation to which he was bound. If Naaman wanted to worship Israel’s God, he thought it necessary to use some of Israel’s dirt to make a brick altar on which to make sacrifices. The man who once undervalued and scorned Israel’s Jordan River now overvalued its dirt and wanted to take some back to Damascus! The pagan didn’t understand that all of earth’s soil is God’s!

Having converted to the God of Israel, Naaman made one more request of Elisha. Even though his heart was committed to Jehovah, Naaman knew there would be occasions when he would be required to enter the pagan temple with his master the king. The warrior requested Elisha’s permission and God’s forgiveness when he bowed to the Aramean god Rimmon. Although we’d expect Elisha to respond with the first commandment, the prophet didn’t address Naaman’s dilemma. He simply encouraged the man’s desire to be faithful to God while serving a pagan king with these words, “Go in peace.”

Elisha’s words were ones of grace acknowledging that the world is filled with difficult decisions for people of faith. Unlike Naaman, we may not be expected to bow down to an idol to please the king, but we regularly face both big and small moral dilemmas when we’re asked to bow to the idols of position, appearance, popularity, success, status, fashion, fame, wealth, reputation, or sex. We must ask ourselves who is our master and to what will we bow.

We don’t know what happened to Naaman but I wonder how serving two masters worked for him! I suspect one of them was not pleased.

So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. [Joshua 24:14 (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” [Luke 4:8 (NLT)]

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MAKING THE MOST OF IT

You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. [Genesis 50:20 (NLT)]

purple cone flowerOne morning, the self-assured Joseph went out to check on his brothers’ flocks and, by nightfall, Jacob’s favorite son had been stripped of his beautiful robe, thrown in a pit, betrayed by his brothers, and sold to Ishmaelite traders. That day seventeen-year-old Joseph found out how capricious life could be. For the next month, he journeyed through the desert before ending up in Egypt. Imagine how alone, frightened, and lost the young shepherd from Canaan was when, unable to speak, read or write the language, he found himself in the most advanced civilization of the time—one with monumental architecture, centralized government, papyrus, ship building, and a military force.

Rather than give up all hope, the wealthy man’s son adapted to the role of servant. As Potiphar’s slave, Joseph worked hard and became so essential to his master that he ran the man’s entire household. Loyal both to Potiphar and God, the youth rejected Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances. When she falsely accused him of rape, however, life threw another curve ball and the trusted overseer of Potiphar’s estate was tossed into prison.

Once again, the youth’s life turned upside down through no fault of his own, but Joseph adapted by becoming a model prisoner and serving as the warden’s administrator. Nevertheless, he still was a slave in prison, away from family and friends, without any rights, and considered guilty until proven innocent. Joseph had a glimmer of hope when Pharaoh’s cup-bearer was restored to his position, but it was two more years before the man remembered Joseph’s kindness and ability to interpret dreams.

When Pharaoh summoned the young man to interpret his dreams, another transition began. After giving Pharaoh a survival plan for the next fourteen years (and crediting God with his wisdom), the boy from Canaan moved from prison to palace and from slave to prime minister of Egypt. Joseph had been released from a cell but he wasn’t free. He served at the whim of Pharaoh, a capricious man who thought nothing of expressing his displeasure in the chief baker by impaling the man on a pole!

Joseph didn’t cause his life to crash at seventeen. Over the span of at least thirteen years, he was betrayed, mistreated, sexually harassed, falsely accused, punished unjustly, and forgotten. In spite of that, Joseph never gave up because he knew he was not alone. Because he knew God was with him, Joseph made the most of every situation. Throughout his story, we are told that the Lord’s presence was the reason for Joseph’s success.

Although we know the happy ending of Joseph’s story, Joseph didn’t know any of that when he was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery! He didn’t know that he’d eventually be reunited with his family or that what his brothers meant for evil, God meant for good. Nevertheless, he faithfully served God and others by adapting, adjusting, and making the most of every situation into which he was thrown. Let’s not forget that Joseph did more than save the lives of the entire population of Egypt. He saved Jacob’s family—the sons of Israel who were the seed of Abraham and the ancestors of Jesus.

Like Joseph, our lives are filled with upsets, shocks, setbacks, and disruptions; author Bruce Feiler calls these events “lifequakes.” While their purpose probably isn’t to save whole nations from starvation as did Joseph, they have a God-ordained purpose. We get no choice in experiencing “lifequakes,” but we can choose how we deal with them. The challenge comes with navigating our way through these upsets into the new normal of our lives. Do we resist, throw a pity party, complain, grow resentful, or give up? Or, like Joseph, do we take on the burden of climbing out of the pit and making the most of wherever life takes us? We won’t have to do it alone. Scripture tells us that God was with Joseph from pit to palace because, when serving Potiphar, the prison warden, and Pharaoh, Joseph always was serving God!

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything you do. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Serve them sincerely because of your reverent fear of the Lord. Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. [Colossians 3:22-24 (NLT)]

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IN THE FIRE – Polycarp (Part 1)

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. [Isaiah 43:1-2 (ESV)]

athabasca falls - canadaHaving refused to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bravely stood before the king. Even when offered a second opportunity to save themselves from incineration in the blazing furnace, the young men were confident the Lord they loved more than life itself would save them. “But, even if he doesn’t,” they added in what are some of the most heroic words in Scripture, “We will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Furious at their refusal, the king had them tied up and tossed like logs into the fiery furnace—a fire so hot that the soldiers who threw the men into the furnace were killed. The men’s faith was well-founded; in spite of their bindings, they could be seen walking about freely in the flames (with an angel of the Lord) and the three emerged unscathed from the inferno.

Because they wouldn’t worship the emperor, Christians were considered disloyal to Rome. Moreover, Romans feared that the Christians’ refusal to make sacrifices to their various gods would cause disaster to fall upon the nation. Hated by the Romans, Christianity was considered an “illegal superstition” until 313 AD. Polycarp (ca. 69-155 AD), who was said to have been taught by the Apostle John, was appointed by some of the original apostles as bishop of Smyrna. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the bishop was arrested and faced a choice between God and incineration.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Proconsul offered his prisoner a second chance and promised to set Polycarp free if he would curse Christ, declare Caesar as Lord, and offer a bit of incense to Caesar’s statue. Even though Polycarp knew his refusal to deny Jesus meant he’d be burned at the stake, he said, “86 years have I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When the soldiers prepared to nail him to the stake, the old man stopped them by saying, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” Did the bishop think he might escape death as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? If so, he was seriously mistaken. Unlike them, he died a martyr’s death.

In the first story, three men walked out of a furnace untouched by fire and, in the second, an equally righteous man, died at the stake. Nevertheless, both stories illustrate faith—people’s faith in God and God’s faithfulness to His people and both stories are a call for all of God’s people to be faithful witnesses to Him. All four men clearly exhibited their faith in God by refusing to bow down to anything or anyone but God and all four men are examples of being faithful witnesses to God. Obviously, in the case of the fiery furnace, God showed his faith in His people with the men’s supernatural escape from death; even Nebuchadnezzar recognized that God’s angel had rescued the men. But, since no angel saved Polycarp from the flames, how can his story demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his people?

God showed his faith in His people more than a century earlier when He offered His one and only son so that all who believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Polycarp knew God already had demonstrated His love and faith through Jesus; whether he lived or died, Polycarp knew there was nothing to fear. “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly,” warned the bishop before courageously adding, “Bring on whatever you want.” Could we do the same?

You can kill us, but you cannot harm us. [Justin Martyr]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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LOOK FOR IT!

Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked. Hymenaeus and Alexander are two examples. I threw them out and handed them over to Satan so they might learn not to blaspheme God. [1 Timothy 1:19-20 (NLT)]

mimosa1 Timothy doesn’t tell us much about Hymenaeus or Alexander—the men whose faith was shipwrecked. From Paul’s other references to the men, we do know that Hymenaeus denied the doctrine of the resurrection and that Alexander did “much harm” to Paul, but we don’t know the details. Whatever these men said or did, by accusing them of blasphemy and handing them “over to Satan,” Paul seemed to be excommunicating them from the church.

In theological terms, Paul was writing about apostasy, coming from the Greek apostanai meaning “to stand away.” When someone commits apostasy or becomes apostate, they renounce or abandon their faith in Christ. Like Hymenaeus and Alexander, believers can lose their way and even fall. After all, Peter denied Jesus three times and Thomas had his moments of doubt. Every fall, however, doesn’t mean apostasy. Unlike Hymenaeus and Alexander, Peter and Thomas never fell beyond the point of no return. When Peter repented and Thomas’ doubts were assuaged, their relationship with Jesus was fully restored. But, what of those who don’t repent or whose doubt turns to unbelief? Is it possible to lose our faith?

Recently, my husband lost his wedding ring. As soon as he noticed his empty finger, we revisited every place he’d been and searched high and low in every store and parking lot. At home, we sifted through our waste baskets, carefully inspected the car, looked in every nook and cranny in house and garage, and even checked the garbage disposal. There’s not a spot we haven’t examined and more than one prayer was said but, alas, the ring has disappeared. My husband feels awful about the loss but I reminded him that it’s just a piece of metal that can be replaced. Although it symbolized our marriage, he didn’t lose that; we still have what’s important—each other. Be that as it may, I admit searching for it again today!

If we’re willing to turn our house upside down, rifle through the trash can, and drive all over town in search of a ring, I don’t understand the person whose excuse for no longer attending church is that he simply lost his faith. “Go look for it!” is my response. “Where were you when you last had it? Go back there and start looking!” I’d suggest starting in church, the Bible, in prayer with God, and in conversation with mature Christians. Unlike a wedding ring, which is a mere symbol of a relationship (and a replaceable one at that), faith in Jesus is an irreplaceable relationship.

At one time or another, we all will have crises of faith. There will be times we are overwhelmed with troubling questions about things like evil, pain, and suffering; the world of the Old Testament; or the truth of Scripture. There certainly are times we’re disappointed in God and want to know “why?” Like Thomas, it’s only normal to have doubts but doubt is not disbelief. The real issue isn’t doubt, it’s what we do with that doubt. Do we call out to God and seek the answers to our questions or do we simply give up and say we’ve lost our faith?

Scripture seems to make the case that once we’re saved (by God’s grace through our faith), we remain saved—we can’t lose our salvation. When people claim to have lost their faith, I wonder if they ever truly had it—whether they were true believers in the first place. After all, calling oneself a Ford and sitting in the garage doesn’t make you a car any more than calling oneself a Christian and sitting in a pew on Sundays makes you a believer! I can’t know if a person who’s “lost” his faith is an apostate like Hymenaeus and Alexander, is having a crisis of faith, or if he ever truly had faith. I can’t see into a person’s soul and only God truly knows the status of anyone’s salvation. What I do know is that God isn’t playing hide-and-seek; unlike my husband’s ring, He’s right in front of us and waiting to be found! Let us never stop seeking Him!

Faith is not the complete absence of doubts. Faith is trusting even in the presence of doubt – even when I don’t understand. [Chris Goswami]

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

The Lord says, “I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help. I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me.” [Isaiah 65:1a (NLT)]

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CHAPTER 43 (Job – part 2)

Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground to worship. He said, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God. [Job 1:20-22 (NLT)]

mountain blue birdEven though all that he lost was restored to Job at the end of Chapter 42, did the ten new children remove Job’s memory of his first ten or his sorrow at their deaths? While the new ones may have filled Job’s home with laughter again, there still would be an empty place in his heart from his loss. Although Job’s health was restored, would the scars from his boils be a daily reminder of his past afflictions? Would double his livestock be enough to make him forget the original herds and servants who had perished? How would experiencing the precariousness of life—the inexplicable randomness of misfortune—affect Job’s next chapter, the Chapter 43 of his life? Would he be more affectionate, patient, or protective of his children? Would he better appreciate and cherish every precious moment with which he was blessed?

Even though he questioned God, Job is Scripture’s model for patience and endurance. I know some people who could give Job a run for his money if their stories were compared. People of faith, like Job, they have experienced more than their share of life’s tragedies first-hand—things like catastrophic loss, chronic disease, severe disability, heartache, betrayal, grief, poverty, divorce, addiction, abuse, disfigurement, ever-present pain, or the loss of spouse or children. Some have moved through their Job-like experiences while others are still in the midst of them. Like Job, their story didn’t end at Chapter 42 but unlike him, their next chapter wasn’t necessarily a fairy tale ending of complete restoration. I admire them—not because of their suffering but because of what they’ve made of it—because of how they’ve written the next chapter of their lives.

I think of one couple, both of whom lost their beloved first spouses to the ravages of cancer.  Perhaps because they know the fragility of life and the pain of loss, in their Chapter 43, they seem to listen better, cherish each other more, and complain less than do most couples. I think of a friend who was nearly destroyed by mental illness and came out the other side of her darkness stronger and wiser. Having experienced the depths of despair, she makes it a point to find joy and thanksgiving on each page of her Chapter 43. The mother who lost a child seems to grumble less about the tears, temper tantrums, mess and teen-age angst of her living children. The man who who once flat-lined values each moment more than those who never have been on the brink of death. I think of a friend, suffering from Parkinson’s, who enthusiastically seizes every today because she knows that she’ll be just a little worse tomorrow. I remember a couple who lost three of their children to drugs and yet they never lost their trust in the Lord and confidence in His goodness. I think of other friends whose Chapter 43 is a continuing battle with metastatic cancer, Alzheimer’s, MS, and chronic pain yet they still bravely face each day with courage, faith, and even joy. Does their experience of what truly defines a “bad day” give them a new perspective and help them know how little is necessary to make any day a great one?

I don’t admire these people simply because they are survivors of tragedy. Anyone can survive tragedy. I admire them because they managed not just to survive but to thrive, to become better not bitter, all while keeping their faith intact. I admire them because they are examples not just of faith, but also of determination, strength, wisdom, generosity, love, joy, and even optimism. I admire them because they are making the most of the 43rd chapter of their lives. Their examples remind me to thank God for every circumstance He throws at me and to savor every breath with which I am blessed!

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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THE PATIENCE OF JOB (Job – part 1)

For examples of patience in suffering, dear brothers and sisters, look at the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We give great honor to those who endure under suffering. For instance, you know about Job, a man of great endurance. You can see how the Lord was kind to him at the end, for the Lord is full of tenderness and mercy. [James 5:10-11 (NLT)]

campionWithin the first two chapters of the book of Job, a man whose life had been blessed with health, wealth and family loses his livestock (meaning his livelihood), along with his servants, ten children, and health. Although James cited Job as an example of patience and endurance through suffering, we really don’t know how long Job’s pain and anguish lasted.

We do know Job’s friends sat and mourned in silence with him for seven days but we don’t know how long it took for the news of his loss to reach them or for them to travel to Job. Once Job’s friends start talking, we have thirty-five chapters of dialogue followed by four more chapters of God questioning him but no way to know if it all took place in a day, several days, or even months. The only clue to the length of Job’s suffering is when he complains of being assigned “months of futility” and “long and weary nights of misery.” [7:3] Those sound like the words of someone suffering from a chronic illness but he could have been speaking figuratively—that it felt like he’d been in agony for months. Whether days or months of misery, Job maintained his faith the entire time.

In Chapter 38, God finally appears. Rather than answer Job’s questions, God asks questions of His own and Job realizes how limited his knowledge of God is. Accepting that God alone knows what is best, the man finally understands that he can’t judge God’s actions or question His reasons. Submitting to God’s authority, he repents and says, “I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” [42:6] After God rebukes Job’s friends, demands a sacrifice, and has Job pray for them, Job’s life is restored. God blesses him with health, a long life, twice his original wealth, and ten new children. It’s a real “happily-ever-after” ending!

What if Job’s story ended another way? What if Chapter 42 ended at verse 6 with Job’s repentance for questioning God? What if his health, wealth and family had not been restored? Instead of Job’s misery dragging on for several months, what if it dragged on for years? As Job continued to suffer from pus-filled boils all over his body, insomnia, nightmares, fever, and pain, how would Job’s next chapter read? After all, fairy tale endings are few and far between. Would Job remain faithful if his adversity lasted his lifetime or would he turn bitter? Would he still be able to say, “Praise the name of the Lord!” as he did in Chapter 1?

Perhaps the answer is found earlier in Job’s story, in Chapter 19. Even though he doesn’t know why he’s suffering, Job expresses confidence that God would vindicate him from his friends’ false accusations. Moreover, Job is certain that death would not be the end of his existence and that he eventually would see God—if not in his lifetime, then when resurrected in the next. After speaking with God in Chapter 42, Job knew that God had not abandoned him and had heard his prayers. He understood that God’s infinite wisdom was behind the unpredictable and arbitrary nature of life, and he no longer questioned the why of his misfortune. Even if health, wealth, and family had never been restored, by Job 42:6 the most important thing Job had was restored—his relationship with God. The lesson found in the book of Job is the same whether or not his suffering came to an end. Had his suffering continued, I think Job would have endured—would we?

But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God! I will see him for myself. Yes, I will see him with my own eyes. I am overwhelmed at the thought! [Job 19:25-27 (NLT)]

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