WHAT CHANGED THEM? (Easter – Part 2)

But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. … Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” [Matthew 10:17-18,16:24 (NLT)]

rabbitThe Federal Trade Commission is charged with enforcing truth-in-advertising laws so that all advertisements are truthful, not misleading, and backed by scientific evidence. Although drug companies abide by the FTC’s regulations by listing their products’ side effects, between the fine print and the announcer’s fast talk, most consumers don’t understand them. Jesus didn’t resort to fast talk, deceit, or ambiguity when he told His disciples the cost of following him. He was brutally honest and told the disciples they would arrested, persecuted and hated because of Him.

While the disciples may not have comprehended completely, they couldn’t say they weren’t warned and Jesus told them the possibility of losing their lives was very real. Nevertheless, I imagine they thought He was speaking figuratively when He spoke of them carrying a cross. Even though He’d predicted His own death, I suspect his followers really didn’t understand what lay ahead until that fateful night when Jesus was arrested. Once He’d been tried, sentenced, and crucified, I’m sure the Lord’s cautionary words echoed in their minds and they finally understood the reality of that cross they’d be expected to carry! No wonder they cowered together in a locked room. The next step after arresting a revolutionary was to arrest his followers.

It was only John and a few women followers at the foot of the cross and it was a stranger, not a follower, who carried the cross for Christ. Jesus’ disciples, the men with whom he’d lived for three years, weren’t there to carry his heavy load or share his final hours. Rather than His friends, it was a secret follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, who placed Him in a borrowed tomb. Rather than a day of rest, the disciples’ Sabbath probably was a day of mourning, disappointment, confusion, and fear. Sunday morning, with the Sabbath over, some followers returned home while the rest continued to cower together in fear.

What turned a veritable group of despondent deserters into men who bravely spread the good news of Christ the Savior? These are the same men who fled from Jesus when He was arrested and Peter publicly denied knowing Him three times that night. What caused the two disheartened men from Emmaus to return to Jerusalem and the disciples in that locked room? What turned Jesus’ followers into people who courageously faced persecution and martyrdom? Of the disciples, all but John are thought to have been martyred. They had nothing to gain from a lie but everything to lose with the truth. What turned a bunch of deserters into evangelists? They saw the risen Christ! They spoke with Him, touched his scars, and broke bread with Him. They knew it to be the truth!

We haven’t walked with Jesus, but we’ve read the words of those who have. We haven’t been in the same room with Him, but we’ve heard His voice. We’ve not touched Him, but He has touched us. We haven’t seen his wounds, but He’s healed ours. We didn’t see His ascent into heaven, but we’ve experienced his Holy Spirit. No—we haven’t actually seen the risen Christ but, as Jesus people, “We live by believing and not by seeing.” [2 Corinthians 5:7]

You can kill us. But you cannot hurt us. [Justin Martyr (c. AD 150)]

During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God. [Acts 1:3 (NLT)]

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” [John 20:29 (NLT)]

WHEN GOD MOVES A STONE (Easter – part 1)

On the way they were asking each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” But as they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled aside. [Mark 16:3-4 (NLT)]

Easter tombAlthough Jesus repeatedly predicted that He’d rise from the dead, the women didn’t bring clean clothes for a living man that Sunday morning when they went to the tomb. Instead, they brought burial spices of their own with which to anoint His dead body. Because of the Sabbath, Jesus’ burial was rushed and His body laid in a borrowed tomb. Although Joseph and Nicodemus had anointed Him, perhaps the women were concerned that, in the men’s haste to finish before sunset, they hadn’t done a proper job of preparing the body. The spices they brought would conceal the stench of decay and, out of love for Jesus, they wanted to complete the burial rites properly.

Not knowing about the guards Pilate had posted at the tomb, the women wondered how they would manage entry into it. Many Judean tombs were caves. The opening was covered by a large disc-shaped stone set into a groove cut in the bedrock. Getting the stone in place was fairly easy as it was rolled down a slight incline to cover the tomb’s opening. Several men, however, would be needed to roll it up the incline. “Who will roll the stone away?” they asked. Even though the women didn’t know how it would be done, they trusted that it could be done and proceeded in faith.

For a moment, consider that heavy stone at the cave’s opening. It was impossible to remove from within the tomb but it wasn’t removed so Jesus could exit the tomb. The Messiah who raised the dead, walked on water, and healed the sick certainly didn’t need anyone to move the stone for Him. Regardless of size, no boulder could block the way of the one whose resurrection meant that death had been conquered. That stone wasn’t moved so He could get out; it was moved so that His followers could get in, find the tomb empty, and share the good news!

The women didn’t let their reservations about moving the stone stop them from going to the burial site and serving their Lord. What about us? When we are called to serve Him, do we worry about the stones that might block our way and allow them to stop us? Let the Easter story remind us that, just as that stone was removed for the women so they could tell the good news, God will remove the barriers blocking our way from sharing the resurrected Christ!

Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying. And now, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Remember what I have told you.” [Matthew 28:5-7 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE WAGER (Part 2)

They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. [Romans 1:20 (NLT)]

sandhill craneIn researching yesterday’s devotion, I learned some interesting things about Blaise Pascal. Along with building the first digital calculator (c. 1642), he invented the syringe, created the hydraulic press, and, along with Pierre de Fermat, formulated the fundamental principles of probability theory.

It was when reading about Pascal’s Pensées, a compilation of notes and essays about Christian apologetics, that I saw mention of “Pascal’s Wager.” Curious as to what gambling and Christianity had in common, I read on. Perhaps it was Pascal’s interest in probabilities that led him to present the choice between belief and disbelief in God as a coin toss but, instead of betting on heads or tails, the bet is about God’s existence. After pointing out that making a wager is not optional, he asked how we’d bet. In mathematical terms, Pascal explains that, if God exists, and you bet that He does, you have infinite gain (eternal life) but, if you bet He doesn’t, you have infinite loss (loss of paradise and an eternity in hell). If, however, God doesn’t exist and you bet that He does, you lose nothing and, if you win, you gain nothing. Simply put, a winning bet on God pays off far better than a winning bet against Him and, if the bettor happens to be wrong, the one who’s bet against God has far more to lose than the one who’s bet on God.

If it should turn out that God doesn’t exist, Pascal says to the one who made a losing bet on Him: “Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.”

Summarizing, Pascal says: “According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost. ‘But,’ say you, ‘if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.’ He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it.”

Pascal’s wager does not prove the existence of God and wasn’t intended to do so; it simply tells us that belief in God is the best choice! There are, however, valid Christian criticisms of Pascal’s Wager. True faith doesn’t come from probability theory or a cost/benefit analysis; it comes from being born again. Pascal’s Wager seems to base belief in God on a risk and reward system that speaks of a heavenly reward without mentioning loving Jesus, obedience, or bearing fruit. His wager also fails to mention that there actually is a cost to following Jesus—one that is not always easy to pay. Whether we’re betting or choosing, the one thing about which we can’t argue is Pascal’s very first premise—the choice is not optional. We cannot sit this one out, the consequences are eternal, and the stakes are high.

Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists. [Blaise Pascal]

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? [Mark 8:34-37 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TOO DEFINITE FOR LANGUAGE

We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. [Galatians 2:16 (ESV)]

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. [James 2:24 (ESV)]

Siberian reindeerChristianity seems to be full of paradoxes. We’re saved by faith and not by works but we can’t have faith without works. As for grace and obedience—it’s God’s grace not our obedience that saves us. But, what initially sounds like a free pass isn’t because the saved are expected to have grace-fueled obedience! It’s easy to get confused when we read only isolated verses in Scripture. Rather than inconsistent or even contradictory concepts, however, faith, works, grace and obedience are complementary and interrelated. Perhaps some of the confusion comes from our language rather than our doctrine.

I think back to an exchange between two characters in Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. When the character Ransom is at a loss for words while trying to explain a concept, his companion says, “I realize it’s all too vague for you to put into words.” Looking at his friend sharply, Ransom replies, “On the contrary, it is words that are vague. The reason why it can’t be expressed is that it’s too definite for language.” Faith, works, grace, and obedience are so distinct and yet so interconnected in Christian doctrine that it’s a pity we don’t have a wider Christian vocabulary.

According to The Washington Post, there really are at least fifty Inuit words for snow that describe everything from a soft falling snow to a wet snow that will ice a sled’s runners. Along with having a multitude of words related to snow and ice, the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and Russia have over 1,000 words for reindeer. They have a different word for each year of a male reindeer’s life and I suspect they have one that would perfectly describe the reindeer in today’s picture. It’s done through something linguists call “polysynthesis,” which allows speakers to encode a huge amount of information into one word by plugging various suffixes onto a base word so that one word can encompass a whole sentence

Language evolves to meet the ideas and needs of the people speaking it. If the Sami people can use a single word like sietnjanjunni to describe a reindeer with the hair nearest to its nostrils having a different color than the one you’d expect from the color of the rest of its hair, we should be able to come up with something for the combined concepts of faith, works, grace, and obedience. Using a little polysynthesis, we could try for the whole shebang and come up with “faithorkobegracience,” but it still wouldn’t capture these concepts because we’re talking of something far greater than reindeer, snow, or ice.

We are finite beings trying to capture an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent being with words. No word in any language can come close to the immensity of all that is encompassed in our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith but true faith is obedient and obedient faith leads to works. Simply put, it is our obedience and works that reveal the authenticity of our faith!  We will just have to continue as we have for centuries: by having faith, doing His works, being saved by grace, remaining obedient to His commands and walking the way Jesus walked.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. … By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. [1 John 2:3,5b-6 (ESV)]

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. [James 2:18 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

CASTING CARES

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. [Psalm 55:22 (NIV)]

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. [1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)]

yampa river fishingEven though I’m not an angler, whenever I read about casting my cares, I picture using a fly rod and casting my concerns out into the river so the fast moving water can carry them away to God. When we lived in the mountains, one of our favorite walking trails ran alongside the Yampa River and we often paused to watch as the fishermen (and women) cast their lines into the water. Fly fishing is all about the art of casting and a bit like poetry in motion. It was fascinating to watch an angler flick the rod back and forth, gradually increasing the speed of the motion, before finally casting the line forward so the fly would land in the perfect spot. Masquerading as a water insect, the fly is made of things like fur, feathers, fabric and tinsel and secured to a hook. Rather than purchasing flies, many fishermen spend hours tying their own flies. Not wanting to lose either fly or fish in the river, anglers use at least five different knots to securely connect the reel to the backing, fly line, leader, and tippet before finally tying on the fly.

There is an art to fly casting and fly fishermen spend years perfecting their technique, especially since no one cast is ideal for every situation. Christians, however, aren’t casting flies—they’re casting things like fear, problems, anxiety, and worry—the cares every believer faces in this fallen world. While there’s no special technique to casting those cares, like fly fishing, it’s often easier said than done. Just as a fly fisherman may labor over tying his flies and fret about choosing the perfect ones for the day’s conditions, we often spend a great deal of time focusing on our worries rather than casting them into God’s river. Just as the fisherman ties those five knots to keep from losing his fly, we tie ourselves up in knots when we’re reluctant to give up our cares to God!

The anglers casting their lines in the river want to catch and land a fish but, when we cast our cares, we want to bring in an empty line. They catch, we release! Our cares are not for God to take away from us but for us to release to Him. Because the flies on the end of a fishing line are nearly weightless and our cares often seem as heavy as boulders, casting cares seems harder than casting a fly in the river. Nevertheless, it can be done and is far more rewarding than a trophy-sized trout.

Fishermen go to the river with an empty creel and hope to return home with a full one but we go to God with a creel full of cares so we’ll end up with an empty one. Our creels may be empty but we’ll be filled with the peace of God!

He that takes his cares on himself loads himself in vain with an uneasy burden. I will cast my cares on God; he has bidden me; they cannot burden him. [Joseph Hall]

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. [John 14:27 (NIV)]

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)] 

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.