WHOSE SIDE?

When Joshua was near the town of Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and demanded, “Are you friend or foe?” “Neither one,” he replied. “I am the commander of the Lord’s army.” [Joshua 5:13-14 (NLT)]

red-shouldered hawk

The Israelites had just crossed the Jordan River and were preparing to conquer Canaan when Joshua came upon an armed man. Joshua was a stranger in a foreign land and I wonder if he brandished his sword when asking, “Friend or foe?” Neither Canaanite nor Israelite, the man identified himself as the commander of the Lord’s army. As to whether he was friend or foe, he said his loyalty was to neither side. His allegiance was to God and the only side he was on was God’s! Recognizing him as a divine being, Joshua fell to the ground.

Jump ahead 500 years to King Asa of Judah. Under attack by the Ethiopians, Asa turned to God for guidance. Rather than ask God to be on his side, he prayed that Judah’s side was God’s. In spite of overwhelming odds, Judah’s army was victorious, not because God was on their side but because they were on God’s. Asa then committed his kingdom to seeking God with all their heart and soul. Unfortunately, twenty-one years later, the King forgot whose side he was on. He depleted his nation’s treasury by committing himself to an alliance with Ben-hadad of Aram. Although the alliance at first appeared to be a success, the prophet Hanani rebuked the king for violating his covenant to seek the Lord. His foolishness meant that Judah would continue to be at war for generations. Asa, so sure he was on the right side, never bothered to find out if he was on God’s side.

During the Civil War, one of Abraham Lincoln’s advisors commented that he was grateful God was on their side. The President replied, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

Whether the dispute is ours or someone else’s, getting involved eventually means taking sides. It’s not a question of which side we’ll support. It’s a question of prayerfully determining which side is God’s and understanding there’s a good chance that God has a side all His own. Perhaps, we should take a lesson from Joshua and Asa before taking sides, drawing lines in the sand, making threats, burning bridges, creating alliances, waging battle, or committing ourselves to a cause. It’s not who’s on whose side that matters; it’s simply a matter of whether or not we’re on God’s!

The Lord will stay with you as long as you stay with him! Whenever you seek him, you will find him. But if you abandon him, he will abandon you. [2 Chronicles 15:2b (NLT)]

The eyes of the Lord search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. [2 Chronicles 16:9a (NLT)]

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DIVINE DISCIPLINE (Discipline – Part 1)

And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” Hebrews 12:5-6 (NLT)]

lion - tanzaniaIn C.S. Lewis’ fantasy The Horse and His Boy, Aravis, a young noblewoman, is attacked by a lion. After her wounds are cleaned and dressed, she’s told that the cuts on her back are neither deep nor dangerous and no more serious than the cuts of a whip. Aravis later learns from Aslan, the lion who attacked her, that the gashes on her back, stripe for stripe, equal the stripes laid on the back of the maidservant she’d caused to be punished. At first, this seems more like the Old Testament retribution of “an eye for an eye” than something Lewis’ Christ-like character of Aslan would do. What if the maidservant had been hung or beheaded? What then?

I began thinking about God’s justice, judgment, mercy and correction and the difference between them. We have a God of justice and mercy and yet those two words seem totally incompatible. Justice is getting the deserved punishment for the crime and mercy is not getting it. Justice is about penalty and mercy is all about pardon and compassion.  Justice would be the judge finding us guilty of speeding through a school zone and his judgment would be a fine of $1000. Mercy would be the judge coming to the defendant’s table, getting out his checkbook and paying the fine for us. Justice is served because the penalty is paid—mercy is given because we weren’t the ones to pay the fine. That, however, doesn’t mean there might not be some much needed discipline to correct our behavior. The merciful judge might send us to traffic school or require us to do community service as a crossing guard at the school. Moreover,  he will not protect us from the consequences of our offense. The ticket may cause an insurance premium increase or even a license suspension. Nevertheless, we will have been treated mercifully.

Was what happened to Aravis justice or judgment for her past behavior or was it discipline and correction intended the future? While Aravis’ action was rash, it was defensible. She deceived and drugged the maidservant who was watching her so she could escape from a forced marriage to an evil man. Under those circumstances, Aravis’ receipt of those slashes seems like an injustice. It’s easy to miss that those cuts on her back were not because the servant had been whipped. Aravis wasn’t being punished for what her servant had endured. She was being disciplined for her wanton indifference to her maidservant’s fate. Earlier in the story, when asked about the fate of the girl, Aravis coolly replied that she’d be glad if the servant had been beaten. It was only after receiving similar wounds that the once spoiled and haughty Aravis realized her thoughtlessness and showed concern for the servant’s welfare and fate. Within the next few pages, she both apologizes to someone and shows concern for his welfare (something the unwounded Aravis would never have done). Aslan’s discipline helped her become a better version of herself.

Because it’s usually unpleasant, discipline can feel a lot like punishment. While it may look like divine retribution or payback, it isn’t. Its purpose isn’t to make things right; its purpose is to make us right—to turn us from rebellion to obedience. Divine discipline is disapproval, instruction, correction, and direction. As it did with Aravis, discipline causes us to change both our point of view and behavior; it is through discipline that we become the people God wants us to be.

But consider the joy of those corrected by God! Do not despise the discipline of the Almighty when you sin. For though he wounds, he also bandages. He strikes, but his hands also heal. [Job 5:17-18 (NLT)]

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DOWN BUT NOT OUT

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. … Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. [Galatians 6:2,10 (NLT)]

damaged cypress trees - corkscrew swampHurricane Irma did quite a number on our southwest Florida bird sanctuary. Unfortunately, much of the boardwalk was damaged (some of it beyond repair) and there were several casualties among the trees, including two 100-foot cypress trees that proudly stood for over 400 years. Like them, many smaller trees were uprooted and now lie dead on the forest floor. Irma’s high winds did some violent and cruel pruning as it stripped bark, tore off branches, and splintered mature trees as if they were mere matchsticks. Cypress trees that were over 40-feet tall are now little more than stumps. Nevertheless, trees I thought were goners are recovering and greening up; new foliage is emerging out of their fractured tops and sides. In spite of the incredible damage they suffered, their roots still support and feed them with life giving water and they’re surviving. They may be down but they’re certainly not out.

I thought of the storms we endure in our lives; while some may be no worse than a noisy thunderstorm, others can be as devastating as a hurricane. Age and size certainly can’t keep us from falling. Nevertheless, the storm couldn’t defeat all of the trees and the setbacks and storms of life don’t have to defeat us. Like the damaged cypress trees with their new growth, we can stay rooted, survive and even thrive.

We do that through the church. Just as roots aren’t optional for trees, the church really isn’t an option for the Christian. I’m not talking about a building or a specific denomination; I’m speaking of a community of believers who belong to Christ and are bound together by both the gospel and the presence of the Holy Spirit. The church is what supports us when we start to fall, grounds us when we falter, and nurtures us with living water when we’ve been weakened.

God revealed himself to mankind when he became incarnate as Jesus Christ. As Christ’s followers, we reveal Him to mankind through the church—the church actually is Christ incarnate. As His hands and feet, heart and voice, we are the ones who keep, support, encourage, lift and comfort the broken and bruised. We are the ones who provide the nourishment and water that allow the damaged to grow and blossom once again. Like a tree that supports another one or the roots that ground and nourish it, the living breathing church is what makes it possible for our brothers and sisters to say, “I may be down, but I’m not out!”

 

All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. [1 Corinthians 12:27 (NLT)]

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SANCTIFIED

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Thessalonians 5:23 (NIV)]

This life, therefore is not righteousness but growth in righteousness, not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on our way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the end but it is the right road. At present, everything is being cleaned. [Martin Luther]

great blue heronI looked at my two sons and wondered when the tow-headed youngster’s hair darkened, his brother’s brown hair turned gray, and they both got those wrinkles around their eyes. At what point did the children who once thought Kraft mac n’ cheese to be high cuisine become gourmet cooks? When did my reckless boys become so sensible and wise? They matured into men so gradually that I wasn’t even aware of the changes as they happened.

When I look in the mirror each morning, I can’t see how I’m any different than I was the previous day but one look at my old photos tells me that, like my boys, I am not who I once was. Transformation, whether internal or external, is a gradual process; it seems almost impossible to spot as it’s happening. Nevertheless, it takes place.

When we accept Jesus, we are justified: set free by the blood of Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are spiritually reborn. Our work, however, has just begun because we still sin. Like babies who must learn to walk, we then begin the process of what is called sanctification and learn how to walk in the steps of Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we gradually transform from newborn Christians into mature ones. Growing in grace, we become obedient to God’s Word, understand His ways and, little by little, become more like Christ.

Although challenges are often accompanied by spiritual growth spurts, for the most part, we transform gradually and may not be conscious of it. If we look back, however, we’ll probably see the difference our growing faith in Jesus has made in the way we conduct our lives. Somewhere along the line, we developed enough patience to deal with our tiresome neighbor, wisdom to counsel a troubled friend, self-control to step away from an argument, or peace in the midst of turmoil. We’ll realize how the Holy Spirit has steadily produced bountiful fruit in our lives and matured us from baby Christians into adolescents and beyond. We’ve come a long way; yet, we have a long way to grow!

At my age, I prefer the face and body I had twenty years ago to the one I have now. On the other hand, I prefer the woman I am today to the woman of decades past. While I don’t look forward to seeing more wrinkles in the mirror, I do look forward to the changes the Holy Spirit makes as I continue the process of sanctification. I’m not who and what I used to be but I’m still nowhere close to the woman God wants me to be.

Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” [John Newton]

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. [1 Corinthians 15:10 (NIV)]

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  [Philippians 3:12 (NIV)]

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NOT WHAT WE WANTED – Palm Sunday

Orchard swallowtailFor the Lord will remove his hand of judgment and will disperse the armies of your enemy. And the Lord himself, the King of Israel, will live among you! At last your troubles will be over, and you will never again fear disaster. On that day the announcement to Jerusalem will be, “Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid! For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. [Zephaniah 3:15-17 (NLT)]

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. [John 1:10-11 (NLT)

With palm branches waving, the people greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. News of Jesus’s miracles, especially the resurrection of Lazarus, had spread through town. They shouted “Hosanna!” at the man they thought would overthrow the Romans, establish peace in the nation, and retake David’s throne. Expecting a political liberator rather than a spiritual savior, they wanted deliverance from the Romans rather than redemption from sin—a conquering king rather than a suffering servant. More concerned about the here and now than the forever after, they wanted power and might rather than love, peace, humility, forgiveness or eternal life. Jesus, however, didn’t come to change their circumstances; He came to change their lives and, when He didn’t give them what they wanted, they rejected Him.

I sometimes wonder if we do the same. Are we fair-weather followers like the people of Jerusalem? Those cries of “Hosanna!” became calls to crucify Him when the miracles stopped. Like them, do we turn away from God when He doesn’t fulfill our expectations? If God delivered Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from a fiery furnace, why won’t He deliver us from cancer, marital problems, or debt? God answered Elijah’s prayers with rain, so why won’t He answer ours with the longed for baby, spouse or job? He freed Peter from his prison cell, so why won’t he free us from debt, pain, or addiction? When God doesn’t deliver what we want, do we turn our backs to Him as did the people of Jerusalem? Let’s remember that while Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were delivered from the furnace and Peter escaped from prison, not everyone got what they wanted: Stephen was stoned, John beheaded, Isaiah sawn in half, and James slain with a sword.

When God doesn’t meet our expectations, we may start to doubt. Instead of believing that God is good, we ask, “What good is God?” We don’t have to earn God’s love with our works and yet we expect Him to prove His love through His blessings. Our faith cannot be tied to His fulfillment of our desires and expectations; it must be tied to His word. His business is transforming us and not our circumstances.

Let’s never confuse our desires with God’s promises. He will always deliver what He’s promised—peace, love, forgiveness, salvation, the Holy Spirit, eternal life, His grace, and sufficiency. Whether they recognized Him or not, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, God was fulfilling His promises and meeting their greatest need: deliverance, not from the Romans, but from sin. God continues to be true to His word today. He will always deliver what He’s promised but, like that itinerant rabbi from Nazareth riding on a donkey through the streets of Jerusalem, often it is not what we expect or think we want!

Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands. [Deuteronomy 7:9 (NLT)]

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? [Numbers 23:19 (NLT)]

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FAITHFUL FRIENDS

Then they lowered the man on his mat, right down in front of Jesus. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “My child, your sins are forgiven.” … “Stand up, pick up your mat, and go home!” [Mark 2:4b-5,11 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - cannaJesus had returned to Capernaum and the word was out—the rabbi from Nazareth could heal. People were flocking to Him and the crowd followed Jesus right into the house where he was staying. Four friends of a paralyzed man carried him to see Jesus but the house was so full they couldn’t get through the door. Determined to get to Jesus, they carried the paralyzed man up the outside stairs to the rooftop and started to dig through the thatch. Picture the scene. The room is jam-packed when a disturbance is heard overhead. Dried mud and straw start to fall into the room, a head peaks through, more straw and dirt come spilling through the opening, a mat is dropped, and then four men lower their paralyzed friend down to the ground right at the feet of Jesus.

Rather than heal the man, however, Jesus forgave his sins. Then again, Jesus always put first things first; even more important than health is the forgiveness of sin! Scandalized, the scribes thought His words blasphemy since only God can forgive sins. To prove His authority to forgive, Jesus then healed the paralytic. While the forgiveness of the man’s sins couldn’t be demonstrated, the scribes couldn’t refute the validity of his healing when the once paralyzed man jumped up, grabbed his pallet, and walked. Imagine the gasps of the astonished people as he worked his way through the crowded room to the door.

This story tells us we must be stretcher bearers. When our friends are weak, we should bring them to God as did those four men when they placed the paralytic at Jesus’s feet. We often think that Jesus healed the man because of his faith. Look more carefully at the words; Jesus healed the man because of the faith of his friends! They were so sure that Jesus could heal him that nothing discouraged or stopped them. Like them, nothing should stop us from carrying our friends (or even people we don’t know) to God in prayer. Yet, how often do we offer to pray for someone and pray just once, haphazardly, or not at all? Our faithful prayers can make a difference!

For the last several months, I’ve been praying for a toddler with metastasized cancer. Hundreds of us, many of whom don’t even know her (including fifty from my Tuesday Bible study), have joined in bearing her stretcher and placing it at Jesus’s feet. What looked absolutely hopeless in October looks hopeful today; her scans are good and she’s begun physical therapy. Knowing she still has to face a transplant, radiation, and immunotherapy, her stretcher bearers will continue to carry her until the day she lifts up her pallet and goes home—which brings me to another lesson from this story. It is God, and God alone, who has the authority both to forgive our sins and to answer our prayers. No matter how deep our faith, not everyone whose stretcher we bear will be healed. Some may pick up their pallet and go home to their family but others will pick up their pallet and go home to God. Nevertheless, let us never forget that before Jesus healed, He forgave; while health is not guaranteed, forgiveness is. Thank you, God, for your saving grace!

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. [Romans 12:12-13a (NLT)]

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