COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS

I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. [Mark 10:29-30 (NLT)]

mockingbird dangerLast year, Forbes magazine published a list of the most and least trusted professionals. It should come as no surprise that, with only an 8% approval rating, members of Congress and car salesmen were at the bottom of the list. Nurses were at the list’s top but, even then, only 84% of the public thought them honest and ethical. After all, too many nurses have promised, “This won’t hurt,” when it really did. Jesus, however, was brutally honest about life—it would hurt and life wouldn’t be trouble-free when people took up their crosses and followed Him.

After the rich young man who was unwilling to give up his possessions and follow Jesus departed, Peter reminded the Lord that His disciples had given up everything to be His followers. Having met the requirements of discipleship given to the rich man, implicit in Peter’s statement was the question, “What’s in it for us?”

In His answer, Jesus promised blessings both in this life and in the next. Whatever His disciples had sacrificed would be returned one hundredfold. Getting back 100% would be getting back exactly what had been forsaken but a return of a hundredfold is one hundred times better! This, however, is not a prosperity promise; while Jesus tells his disciples their lives will be richer, He never promises they’ll be wealthier. The people and things they lose are literal but the people and possessions gained are spiritual. After all, while not of substance, a soul is irreplaceable and its worth is incalculable. When adopted as one of God’s children, Christ’s followers get a new family in His church, a home in His Kingdom, and eternal life.

But then Jesus got brutally honest; tacked smack dab in the middle of those blessings and the promise of eternal life is His promise of persecution. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus reiterated that the cost of discipleship would be sacrifice, persecution, suffering and trials. Unlike nurses, He told us that it would hurt. Life doesn’t necessarily get easier when we follow Jesus, but He promises it will become better (and the two are not the same thing).

Living in Florida, like being a disciple of Christ, comes at a cost. A cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost includes dangers like venomous snakes, black bears, poisonous cane toads, toxic plants, hurricanes, feral pigs, alligators, sink holes, fire ants, panthers, and even stinging caterpillars. Other negatives include the expense of air conditioning, seasonal traffic, and mosquitoes! That cost, however, is more than offset by the benefits of living in a tropical paradise of forever summer, beautiful birds, beaches, colorful flowers, ocean breezes, early-bird specials and no state income tax!

A cost-benefit analysis of discipleship tells us the price we pay is our lives but the benefits of God’s Kingdom and eternal life outweigh the cost a hundredfold! There certainly are times serving Jesus and His church with our time, talents, and money seems a heavy price to pay but true discipleship (and all of the sacrifice, trials and even persecution that arise from it) comes with the territory just as learning to live with hurricanes comes with Florida! In both cases, it’s more than worth it.

Not one man has ever sacrificed for his Lord without being richly repaid. If the cross is only contrasted with earthly pleasures lost, it may seem hard and threatening. But when the cross is weighed in the balances with the glorious treasures to be had through it, even the cross seems sweet. [Walter J. Chantry]

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? [Mark 8:34-36 (NLT)]

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RENEW – NEW YEAR’S DAY

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins. [Jeremiah 31:33,34b (NLT)]

Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, thru Jesus’ power, his name to glorify;
and promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die. [Charles Wesley]

queen butterflyJohn Wesley had an excellent alternative to making a New Year’s resolution that’s unlikely to be kept. Believing that Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God, in 1755, he introduced a covenant service to the Methodist Societies. By 1775, this service was usually held on New Year’s Eve (and called a Watch Night Service) or New Year’s Day. This was a service of renewal in which believers would gather for self-examination and reflection and then renew their covenant with God by dedicating themselves wholly to Him. The practice of a covenant renewal service held on the Sunday nearest January 1st continues in some Methodist churches today and is a practice that has crossed denominational lines.

A covenant is a promise between two (or more) parties to perform certain actions. The covenant of the New Testament between God and man is that He will restore fellowship with and forgive the sins of those whose hearts are turned to Him; it is a covenant of salvation by grace through faith. Our part of this promise is our faith in Jesus and a giving up of self so that He can fill us with His Spirit; it is the taking of His yoke and a commitment to follow Him. Unlike a resolution to eat healthier or exercise more, it is God’s power, not our good intentions, that keeps this covenant in place.

I don’t know if you’re making any resolutions today, but let us all join together in renewing the covenant of grace—to be God’s people, trusting in His word, empowered by Him to be His hands and feet, seeking to bring His light into this dark world. Our prayer can be as simple as, “O Lord, I dedicate my life to you and will serve you in every way I can!”

Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will. Rank me with whom You will. Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things. Let me have nothing. I freely & heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen. [John Wesley]

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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DEFYING NATURE

ngorongoro crater

At the blast of your breath, the waters piled up! The surging waters stood straight like a wall; in the heart of the sea the deep waters became hard. … The finest of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea. The deep waters gushed over them; they sank to the bottom like a stone. [Exodus 15:8,4-5 (NLT)]

Skeptics love questioning the miracle of the Red Sea. Either they provide a natural explanation or deny it ever happened. Unfortunately, sometimes we even find believers doing the same thing. A miracle is usually defined as something that violates the laws of nature, but God wrote those laws! “Miracles are not contrary to nature,” said Augustine, “but only contrary to what we know about nature.” As Christians, we base our faith on a miracle—the resurrection of Jesus—so a belief in God’s powerful ability to defy nature’s laws is essential to our faith.

How can the waters part for the Israelites and then come surging down on the pursuing Egyptians? For decades, scientists have tried to find a natural explanation using various computer models. In spite of Moses giving a good description of where their crossing occurred, land and water are not static and the topography of the area has shifted over 3,500 years. Not knowing exactly where it happened, many suggest that, instead of it being the Red Sea, the crossing actually took place further north in a shallow lake called the Reed Sea. They explain that a wind temporarily drained this shallow marshy area just enough to allow the Israelites to safely cross. The Hebrew word used to describe the seabed was yahbashah which means dry land, not the muck or mud of a damp marsh. Moreover, while the Egyptians with their heavy chariots might have gotten bogged down in the mire, that can’t explain how an entire army was drowned in a few feet of water.

Other skeptics have argued that a volcano or earthquake north of Egypt produced a tidal wave or tsunami that parted the Red Sea. A tidal wave happens suddenly which hardly supports Moses’ description of the gradual retreat of the waters during the night or the fortuitous return of the waters in time to drown the Egyptians.

Scientists also have estimated that a steady 63 mph wind from the east could have swept the water back to the western shore to create a land bridge. Winds of just 45 mph make driving hazardous and can knock down a person weighing 100 pounds. A wind of 63 mph would make the crossing nearly impossible. Moreover, Moses described two walls of water, one on each side. I’m not a scientist but two opposing walls of water would seem to imply winds blowing in opposite directions and I can’t see how anyone could get anywhere in that kind of crosswind! When considering the width of the path required for about two million Israelites (along with sheep, goats, and cattle) to cross a seabed in just part of one night, it needed to be at least one mile wide. It’s hard to believe that any natural wind could do that.

Even if some of these explanations are partially or totally correct, there is no explanation for what would seem to be the most amazing coincidence in all of history: that the Israelites arrived at some body of water at the exact moment a tsunami or gale force winds occurred that caused the waters to recede, that the land remained dry just long enough for them to cross, and that the waters gushed back at precisely the moment the Egyptians were in the seabed! That so-called coincidence would require the miraculous power of Almighty God!

Scientists admit they can’t explain everything but even a valid scientific or medical explanation doesn’t negate a belief in the hand of God. While her doctors might say that Pearl’s recovery from metastasized cancer is a result of oncology advances, they originally thought she’d not live a year. While John’s doctors could say his ability to walk after having his pelvis crushed is the result of their skills as orthopedic surgeons, they initially thought he wouldn’t live, let alone walk! I know how thoroughly Pearl’s body was attacked by cancer and I’ve seen John’s x-rays; I have no doubt that without our prayers and God’s intervention, modern medicine would have failed them both. In spite of a medical explanation for their recoveries, they are nothing short of miraculous.

Skeptics and atheists have trouble believing in miracles because a belief in miracles necessitates believing in the hand of someone or something that can cause them: God. I’ve seen His wonderful work firsthand; our God is a God of miracles and that’s explanation enough for me!

I will meditate on your majestic, glorious splendor and your wonderful miracles. [Psalm 145:5 (NLT)]

He does great things too marvelous to understand. He performs countless miracles. [Job 9:10 (NLT)]

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REMEMBER

We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us. [2 Corinthians 1:8-10 (NLT)]

osprey600 war chariots and at least 1,200 soldiers were fast approaching and the Israelites were trapped between the mountains and the Red Sea. Panicking, they immediately blamed Moses for their predicament. No longer regarding Moses as the man who freed them from years of suffering slavery, he was now the fool who’d led them to certain death in the wilderness. In despair, the Israelites second-guessed their decision to leave Egypt. Facing such a formidable army and sure they were to die, the miseries of slavery now appealed to them. Ungrateful, unarmed, on foot, and with no place to turn, they lost heart. Failing to recall God’s powerful hand in releasing them from Pharaoh’s tyranny just a few weeks earlier, they immediately conceded defeat.

Have you ever felt like the Israelites: between a rock and a hard place, with no place to turn? When that happens, we usually do what they did: panic, find someone to blame, lose heart and want to quit because the circumstances seem greater than our God. Assuring the people that God would fight for them, Moses said, “Watch the Lord rescue you today.” I’m not sure he had any idea how the Lord planned on doing that but Moses trusted the God he knew for a solution he didn’t know.

Following God’s instructions, Moses raised his hand over the waters, the Red Sea parted as blowing winds turned the sea into dry land, and the Israelites walked across the seabed. Although we know that all the Israelites safely made it across, they didn’t know that’s what would happen! Can you imagine the faith it took when the first of them stepped onto the dry seabed with a wall of water positioned on each side? Were they fearful the waves would come rushing at them without warning? Did they literally run for their lives as they crossed? We know the rest of the story: Pharaoh and his army gave chase, their chariots got stuck, Moses raised his hand once again, the waters surged over the Egyptians and none of them survived.

Seeing God’s tremendous power, the Israelites were filled with awe and again put their faith in Moses and the Lord. What a great ending to their story, but we know it doesn’t end there. That won’t be the last time they complain, the last time they think slavery in Egypt a better option than freedom in the Promised Land, the last time they rebel against Moses’ leadership, or the last time they stop having faith in the Lord. Sadly, it won’t be the last time they forget God’s faithfulness, power and might!

Sometimes God brings us to what seems to be an impossible situation: to that spot between a rock and a hard place or an army and the deep blue sea. Those barriers are put before us so that we have nowhere to turn but to God. While He may not have parted the Red Sea for us, there have been many times that He’s led us safely through a whole sea of troubles. Unlike the Israelites, may we never forget His power and faithfulness in those trying times. Let us always be willing to trust our unknown future to our known God.

And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me.” But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. They are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works. [Psalm 77:10-12 (NLT)]

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THE CRÈCHE AND THE CROSS

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3 16-17 (NLT)]

creche and crossPew Research reports that while 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, more than half of them celebrate it only as a cultural holiday! While they’ll decorate their house with lights and wreaths, trim a tree, send cards, and exchange gifts, Christmas is just an excuse for good food, parties, family gatherings, and presents. While they’re not indifferent to Santa, gifts, merriment, or decorations, like the people of 1st century Palestine, they are indifferent to the Christ child. The shepherds saw the star and sought the babe in the manger and a caravan from the East brought Him gifts, but we don’t read of any townspeople visiting Joseph and Mary. What of the priests and scribes who told Herod where the Messiah would be born? They knew the prophecies but didn’t join the Magi in their quest to find the One who would fulfill those prophecies. Lowly shepherds and men from a faraway land recognized Jesus as the Messiah but most of God’s chosen people ignored the greatest event in all of history.

Some people react to Christmas with antipathy; like Herod, they hate its message. Rather than join the magi and seek the newborn King of the Jews, the enraged Herod slaughtered all of the male babies around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the king! The “bah humbuggers” are like the atheist who erected a 10-foot 300-pound pentagram just 20-feet from a nativity scene in a Boca Raton park in 2016. Non-believers don’t want a King who might knock them off their pedestals any more than Herod wanted one who could knock him off his throne. They’re uncomfortable with the concepts of sin, salvation, love, sacrifice, obedience and forgiveness that surround Christmas. Then again, maybe they dislike this day simply because Christmas reminds them of the emptiness of their lives.

Some people respond to Christmas as did the angels, shepherds, magi, Simeon, and Anna: with worship. Tonight and tomorrow, people around the world will raise their voices in praise and thanksgiving, light candles, sing carols, kneel in prayer, lift their hands in worship, and share bread and wine at communion. Some will come and adore Him tonight but won’t return to church until next Christmas. But others will ponder the events of this night, as did Mary. They will allow the Christ child to enter into their hearts and lives and affect their every thought, word, and action for the rest of their lives. After extinguishing the Christmas Eve candles, they will continue to let their lights shine all year long. They are the ones who know that God came as a baby and lay in a manger so that He could suffer, die on the cross as a common criminal, and pay the penalty for mankind’s sins. They know that the crèche is meaningless without the cross!

Let us behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

But Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. [Luke 2:19b-20 (NLT)]

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A HANDMAID’S HEART

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. [Luke 1:38 (RSV)]

Mary - ChristmasIgnoring the fact that most of us in the room couldn’t qualify as virgins, are well-past child-bearing age, and our genealogies don’t link us to the tribe of Judah and the line of David, the pastor leading our women’s Bible study asked if we were the kind of women God would chose to give birth to His son.

Aside from being young, virginal, and of the right lineage, what kind of woman was Mary? At first glance, she seems little different than any other young girl in the obscure village of Nazareth. There is no mention of her having wealth, exceptional beauty, or social status. Looking like any other peasant girl, she seems unsuitable for a job as mother of God. What about Mary set her apart from every other girl in Palestine who met the lineage and virtue requirements?

Rather than looking at outward appearance, God looks into hearts; while we don’t know about Mary’s physical beauty, her character must have been exceptionally beautiful. Faithful, obedient and humble, she was filled with love for God. She risked her entire future when she submitted to Him. In many translations, Mary calls herself the “Lord’s servant.” The original Greek, however, was doule, which means bondmaid, female slave or handmaid. A doule wasn’t hired help who could quit when she wanted. She was someone who surrendered completely to her Master’s will.

I thought about the pastor’s question. Had I fit the physical and lineage requirements, would God have chosen me to bear His son? He wouldn’t have given me a second look when I was Mary’s age—I was far too willful, rebellious, selfish and unsure of myself to ever call myself a servant to anyone, even God! Even if the woman I am today fit the physical and lineage requirements, God wouldn’t consider me. It’s not that He wouldn’t trust me to feed, comfort, teach, love, guide, encourage, and protect His Son; I’d qualify in the mothering department. It’s that submission thing; I don’t think I’d freely surrender my will to His and God will not force Himself upon anyone. Mary had enough faith to yield her will to God but, even with 72 years of experiencing God’s faithfulness under my belt, I’m not sure I have the heart of a handmaiden. Humble and complete submission to the Master’s will does not come easily. “Thy will be done,” are some of the hardest words to pray and truly mean.

Both Mary and Jesus submitted to God’s divine will; should we do anything less? Father, forgive us for choosing our will over Yours. Give us a handmaid’s heart.

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” [Luke 22:41-42 (RSV)]

Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:9-10 (RSV)]

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