THE LORD’S VICTORY

And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” [Judges 6:15-16 (NLT)]

Because the Midianites were raiding and plundering Israel, we meet Gideon hiding in a large vat. Rather than threshing wheat in the open air so the wind could blow away the chaff, he was cautiously working in the bottom of a secluded wine press when an angel of the Lord delivered a message to the timid man. Addressing Gideon as a mighty warrior, the unlikely hero demurred and claimed to be the least worthy of the weakest clan in the tribe of Manasseh.

After a fair amount of hesitation and questions, the reluctant warrior eventually gathered an army of 32,000 to battle the Midianites, a force of 153,000 men. With the odds against Gideon being four to one, I imagine he was wondering where to find more men when God told him that he had too many! He was instructed to send home all those who were afraid. After 22,000 men departed, God told Gideon there still were too many men. He was to separate them by the way they drank water from a stream—whether they cupped the water with their hands and lapped it up or knelt down to drink from the stream. Only the 300 warriors who drank from their hands were allowed to remain. With an overwhelming ratio of 450 Midianites to one Israelite, Gideon’s defeat seemed inevitable. Nevertheless, while Gideon may have been fearful, he never lost faith. Gideon’s few good men crushed the Midianites. The nomadic tribe never recovered and there was peace in the land for the next forty years.

We might wonder why God chose Gideon—the least of the least—and why He didn’t provide him with as large an army as possible to ensure an Israelite victory. The odds were bad enough when Gideon started with 32,000 men but, with only 300, victory seemed impossible. But that was God’s point! When the angel of the Lord entered Gideon’s life, the Israelites had been oppressed by the Midianites for seven years because they “did evil in the Lord’s sight.” [Judges 6:1] They’d worshipped pagan gods, built an altar to Baal, and erected an Asherah pole. Gideon’s first task, prior to leading the men into battle, had been to destroy those pagan symbols. When Baal did not retaliate, it became clear how worthless the false god was. But, did the people understand how powerful the Lord was?

God chose Gideon, the youngest son of the weakest clan, and only a handful of men because their victory against absolutely impossible odds made it abundantly clear to all that the victory didn’t belong to Gideon or his soldiers; it belonged only to God! Rather than looking at this story as an example of what just a few men (or women) can do, we should look at it as an example of what God can do just with a few! He is, after all, the hero in every story!

Selfish and proud creatures that we are, we tend to blame God when things go wrong but remove Him of any responsibility for our successes. In Gideon’s story, God eliminated any possibility that the Israelites’ strength, skill, or valor had anything to do with their triumph. Victory was the Lord’s! God was the hero of Gideon’s story; let Him continue to be acknowledged as the hero of ours, as well!

The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord. [Proverbs 21:31 (ESV)]

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TUMBLEWEED AND COTTONWOODS

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future.” [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

Russian thistle - tumbleweed

Russian thistle – tumbleweed

Because Judah had trusted in false gods and foreign alliances rather than God, Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on the southern kingdom. After saying their sins were as if they’d been etched on their stony hearts with a diamond-pointed iron chisel, he compared them to a stunted shrub. That shrub may have been the tumble thistle, a common plant found in Israel’s grasslands. I’ve never been to Israel but I’ve seen a similar plant in the western states: the Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed or wind witch. Both kinds of weeds begin with flowers on a spiny plant. As their seeds mature, the entire plant dries and breaks from its roots at the soil surface. Shaped like a ball and rootless, the wind blows and rolls these plant “skeletons” across the prairie.

In stark contrast to a stunted shrub, Jeremiah likened those who trust in the Lord to deep-rooted trees planted by the riverbank—trees untroubled by heat or drought. I’m reminded of our hardy American cottonwoods found near rivers, lakes, and irrigation ditches throughout the nation. The fastest growing trees in North America, cottonwoods can grow to over 100-feet tall, with a trunk diameter of 6-feet, and a leaf canopy over 75-feet wide. Instead of being blown by the wind like tumbleweed, the cottonwood’s size makes it an excellent windbreak. When we trust in ourselves and false gods, we’ll be blown every which way like a tumbleweed but, when we trust in God, we can withstand life’s headwinds like a cottonwood.

Growing on the water’s edge, cottonwoods typically survive adverse conditions and prairie fires. Few plants can survive the scorching heat, scant rainfall, relentless winds, blowing sand and poor soil of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument but the deeply rooted Rio Grande cottonwood thrives there! When we trust in God and sink our roots deep in His word, like the cottonwood, we will flourish and have a full life, even in harsh conditions.

Dubbed “the pioneer tree,” the cottonwood was a welcome sight for settlers crossing the plains because it meant shade from the heat, fuel for a fire, and a source of water. Those same settlers considered tumbleweeds a menace. They leeched nutrients from the soil, crowded out forage grass and, being highly flammable when dry, could become flying fireballs and spread a grass fire. Just as pioneers found refuge in the cottonwood, those who trust in the Lord find refuge in Him. Those who trust only in man are as worthless as a noxious weed and as dangerous as burning tumbleweed.

When we put our trust in man, false gods, or empty ideologies, we’re no different than a tumbleweed: dry and rootless, rolling in whatever direction the wind is blowing, and with no hope for the future. When we trust in the Lord, we’re like the cottonwood: deeply rooted in His word, fed by His living water, and able to survive, even thrive, in the bleakest of situations.

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

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FIRM FOOTING

Hear my prayer, O Lord; listen to my plea! Answer me because you are faithful and righteous. … Show me where to walk, for I give myself to you. … Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious Spirit lead me forward on a firm footing. [Psalm 143:1,8b,10 (NLT)]

sign on schilthornMany years ago, I was facing a difficult decision about a project. In spite of praying, pondering, searching Scripture for direction, and consulting with wise advisors, I was still in a quandary. Nothing brought me closer to a clear answer to my dilemma. Although it seemed like a good idea (at least in theory) and I felt like I should want to be part of it, doubts kept nagging at me. Wanting God to make known His will, I prayed the words of Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your gracious spirit lead me forward on a firm footing.”

The phrase “firm footing” reminded me of a sign I’d seen at the top of the Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps. Warning that high-heeled shoes shouldn’t be worn while hiking the mountain, the caution seemed to demonstrate a firm grasp of what seemed obvious. The steep slope was covered with scree and would prove precarious even for a properly equipped and skilled hiker! I realized the footing on this particular project felt anything but firm. In spite of its good intentions, it was as ill-considered as wearing a pair of strappy high heels while hiking the Schilthorn. While there’d been no cautions about prohibited footwear, I’d seen plenty of other warning signs about the venture; I just hadn’t wanted to heed them. It’s easy to confuse what we want to do with what God intends for us or to think we’re hearing God’s voice when it is only ours speaking louder than His!

Had I been reading any other Bible translation, rather than “firm footing,” the verse would have read level ground, land of uprightness, level pastureland, or good paths. Whether those words would have resonated with me the way “firm footing” did, I don’t know. But, as God would have it, I was using my NLT Bible and I finally understood the project was not right for me.

God has challenged, admonished, cautioned, and tested me but He has never steered me wrong. Even when I haven’t especially liked God’s task for me, He’s always given me a sense of peace along with His mission, even when it meant stepping into unknown territory. Admittedly, obedience often has upset my plans, meant more work, pushed me out of my comfort zone, or challenged my capabilities, but it always has led to peace. The sense of peace I had as soon as I declined this undertaking told me that I’d finally found and followed God’s will.

If we don’t have peace about a choice we’ve made, if we don’t feel confident in our walk, it’s time to stop, reconsider, and pray. We’ll only know we’re on firm footing and following His plan when God gives us peace about our decision.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

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THE ANCHOR

So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. [Hebrews 6:18-19 (NLT)]

duluth MN harbor - anchorThe sign in front of a nearby church read, “Our hope is anchored in the Lord,” which got me thinking about anchors. I’d never given them much thought until we took a Windjammer cruise off the coast of Maine many years ago. Accompanied by four friends and a crew of two, we sailed for a week. At dusk, we’d lower the sails and anchor in a harbor for the night. After breakfast, we’d pull up anchor for another relaxing day of sailing by lighthouses, granite cliffs, fishing villages, and even a few seals. One day, however, gale force winds replaced the gentle breeze and the calm sea turned violent. The sky darkened as rain and hail poured down on us. We immediately pulled into the nearest inlet, lowered the sails, and dropped two anchors to keep from being blown into the rocks! If we’d had two more anchors (as did the sailors in Acts 27), I suspect we would have dropped them, as well. After donning my life jacket and slicker, all I could do was pray and hope those anchors held. You really don’t appreciate the worth of an anchor until you’ve needed one in a storm!

Since the anchor symbolized hope in the ancient secular world, the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews would have understood the author’s use of the anchor as a metaphor for hope. It is a vivid picture of what keeps us steady and safe in the storms of life—times of trial, danger, hardship, anxiety and uncertainty. An anchor, however, is only as secure as that to which it is fastened. The anchor of hope is not buried in sand or hooked onto a rock that might pull loose. The believer’s hope in Christ is secure, because it is fixed in the very presence of the Almighty.

When the epistle writer says that hope “leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary,” he’s referring to the Holy of Holies—the inner room of the Temple holding the Ark of the Covenant. Only the high priest could go into this holy place (anyone else would be killed). The priest entered just one day a year, on the Day of Atonement, and only to offer a blood sacrifice. The Holy of Holies was the special dwelling place of God and the curtain emphasized His inaccessibility because of man’s sins. When Jesus died, the curtain tore in half, symbolizing that the way to God was now open to all.

Just as a boat’s anchor holds it safely in position, a Christian’s hope keeps him safe and secure. Like an anchor, God will keep us steady in the storms of life—when the wind of fear blows, suffering rains down, opposition crashes into us, trials threaten us, and uncertainty rocks us to and fro. A boat’s anchor goes down and digs into the bottom of the sea but a Christian’s hope goes up to the heavenly sanctuary and attaches itself to God!

What an anchor is to a vessel in its tossings, so the hope is to us in our times of trial, difficulty and stress. The anchor is outside the ship, is connected with it, and keeps it secure. [W.E. Vine]

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

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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YOKE OR EASY BUTTON?

yoke - easy button

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”  [Matthew 11:28-30 (NLT)]

Several years ago, an office supply company featured an “easy” button in its advertisements and you still can purchase one for less than $9. “Don’t stress it; press it,” their web site suggests. Apparently, when placed on your desk, you can show others how easy it is to find solutions to their problems. Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do was push a button to make things easy (or at least easier)?

Rather than a button, however, Jesus offers us a yoke: a wooden frame used as a sort of harness to join two draft animals so they can work together. Among assorted farm implements that once decorated our mountain home, we had the yoke pictured above. It hung upside down but that heavy wooden beam actually rested on the animals’ necks. Without any padding, it doesn’t look that easy to bear! If it is all the same to God, I’d much rather push an easy button than take on anything like a yoke! Fortunately, Jesus was speaking figuratively.

The heavy burden to which Jesus was referring was that of the Pharisees and their legalistic law-keeping that went far beyond God’s demands. For example, there were 39 major categories with hundreds of subcategories defining what constituted work on the Sabbath. While the Jewish way offered the yoke of the law without the power to be obedient, Jesus offered a yoke of faith empowered by the Holy Spirit!

Nevertheless, this passage also can be interpreted as Jesus being our burden sharer. While many things are too heavy for us to bear alone, nothing is too great for Him. By taking His yoke, we give up trying to do life on our own; instead of finding rest in a method, we find rest in a person: Jesus! His yoke is better than an easy button because it actually works! When yoked to Him our burdens are no longer our own!

Can you think of any kinder words than Jesus asking us to come to Him to find rest? Life isn’t easy but God never promised that it would be. Rather than an easy button, we have Jesus and His promise that life is doable with Him. Unlike the yoke that hung on our wall, His yoke is easy to bear and the burden is light. We never have to carry the heavy load of life on our own because He will share it with us. Better yet, since He is so much stronger, most of the weight will be on His heavenly shoulders.

Today, as I take on Jesus’ yoke and share life’s weight with Him, I recall the old Swedish proverb that says, “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”  Wearing His yoke will make my life much brighter and my burdens much lighter.

Give your burdens to the Lord, and he will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall. [Psalm 55:22 (NLT)]

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

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FILL THE TANK

Hungry and thirsty, they nearly died. “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he rescued them from their distress. … Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them. For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. [Psalm 107:5-6,8-9 (NLT)]

Trumbull cemetery - OhioMy father had what’s often described as a Type-A personality. An impatient workaholic, he always took on more than he could handle. Life, for him, was one crucial task after another, none of which anyone else could do, at least not correctly. Always in a hurry, he never wanted to stop for anything, even when his gas gauge read precariously close to empty. Something more pressing always took precedence over a brief stop for gas. As a result, his car was often left on the roadside while he trudged off with a gas can to find the nearest service station. Instead of saving time, his refusal to stop cost him time. Living that way actually cost him his life; he died of a massive coronary at the age of fifty-six. It’s often been said that your in-box still will be full when you die and, indeed, his was. None of us can accomplish everything on our to-do list and we may well destroy both our relationships and ourselves while trying.

Unlike my father, most of us will stop at a gas station when our cars need fuel. Having spent hours stranded on country roads waiting for my father to return with a can of gasoline, my gas tank is never less than half full. But, like my father, I’m not always so careful about keeping my spiritual tank full. No matter how organized I try to be, my to-do list seems to get longer while the days remaining get shorter. Sometimes, I feel like I’m just running on fumes and I don’t think I’m the only one!

Unfortunately, just as my father ignored his gas gauge, we often ignore signs like anger, worry, sadness, impatience, and temper that tell us our supply of spiritual fruit is dangerously low. It often takes a squabble, blow-up or crisis before we finally stop and refuel with God. Of course, the wiser choice is to top off our tanks with daily prayer and meditation so we never run low!

When asked about his plans for the following day, it’s been said that theologian, professor, author, Bible translator, reformer, pastor, husband and father Martin Luther replied: “Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” If we’re too busy to stop for gas, we’re busier than we should be. Martin Luther knew that, if we’re too busy to pray, we’re busier than God wants us to be.

Heavenly Father, sometimes we allow the challenges of everyday life to keep us from spending time with you and we run precariously low of the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control your Spirit so graciously provides. Help us accept that we can’t do it all and that there will always be another task waiting right around the corner. Guide our priorities, Lord so that you’re on the top of our to-do list every day. Remind us that you are all we really need and help us see a brighter tomorrow in your promises. Lead us to that peaceful place of your presence. Refresh and renew us and let your Holy Spirit fill us up again.

No one ever said at the end of his days, “I have read my Bible too much, I have thought of God too much, I have prayed too much, I have been too careful with my soul. [J.C. Ryle]

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. [Psalm 23:1-3 (NLT)]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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