IMMANUEL – PENTECOST

”And be sure of this,” He promised, ”I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20 (NLT)]

oleanderMy mother’s father walked out of her life when she was a child and never made contact with her again. When I learned this as a girl, I couldn’t understand how someone could do that. How could he not care about the daughter he’d left behind? Didn’t he want to know the beautiful woman she’d become? I secretly fantasized that he would finally come to his senses, seek her out, and embrace both his daughter and his grands. He never did.

People come in and go out of our lives; some leave abruptly and others just fade away. We see that most clearly in December with Christmas cards. We remove names from our list because we stopped getting a card from someone we haven’t seen for twenty years or last year’s card was returned as undeliverable. Because of a death or divorce, some cards we receive are signed by only one when once there were two. In this world, people move, depart, and die and even our closest relationships are only temporary.

Relationships may be transitory, but there is one constant: Jesus. Isaiah called Him “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” But, when Jesus lived as a man, He could be with only a few people at a time. Confined to a man’s body, even though he was God, He couldn’t be with everyone at once. When in Capernaum, He drove an evil spirit out of a man and healed both Simon Peter’s mother and the paralytic who came through the roof but He had to leave Capernaum to raise the widow’s son in Nain and heal the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda.

Because Jesus couldn’t be with people in Jerusalem, Gennesaret, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Cana, Bethany, Ephraim, and Samaria all at once, he journeyed from place to place. It’s estimated that He walked more than 3,000 miles during his three year ministry. Sadly, we don’t know what became of most of the people whose lives He touched. After Jesus left Samaria, did the woman He met at the well ever see Him again? Did she lose touch the way we lose touch with old friends? What of the ten lepers, the two blind men, Jairus, his daughter, or the bleeding woman? Jesus was with them for a time but then He left to preach and heal elsewhere. When confined to a human body, Jesus couldn’t be with both Martha and Mary in Bethany and with the disciples a day’s journey from Jerusalem. When He lived as a man, Jesus was only Immanuel, “God with Us,” to those who were near Him.

When Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t leave us alone the way the loved ones of so many of my friends have. When He ascended into heaven, Jesus didn’t move without a forwarding address, lose touch with us as happens with friends, and He certainly didn’t walk out on us the way my grandfather did to his family. Jesus died and rose and ascended into heaven but He never really left us. Because of His Holy Spirit, Jesus is truly with every one of us, all of the time, no matter where we are. Moreover, unlike my grandfather who never came back for his children, Jesus will. No longer limited by time or space, He is, indeed, Immanuel: God with Us.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. [John 14:16-18 (NLT)]

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IT CONTINUES [THE HOLY WAR – Part 2]

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. [John 10:10 (RSV)]

Lucerne - city wallMankind falls within the first few pages of Genesis as does Mansoul within the first few pages of John Bunyan’s allegory The Holy War. Resembling real life, Bunyan’s King Shaddai sends his son, Prince Emmanuel, to rescue the fallen city. Under Diabolus and his minions Lord Will-be-will and Misters Lustings, Forget-good, No-truth and Unbelief, Mansoul refuses to listen to Shaddai’s captains. The gates to the city are double-locked and Mr. Prejudice and his band of Deafmen guard Ear-gate (the most likely place the King’s forces will try to enter). Nevertheless, Prince Emmanuel delivers Mansoul from the tyranny of Diabolus, Mansoul repents, and Emmanuel forgives. The story, however, is far from over because Diabolus is not done with Mansoul.

Just as the Israelites failed to rid the land of Canaanites and idolatry, Mansoul failed to rid the city of the many Diabolonians who remained in strongholds after Emmanuel’s victory. Lords Blasphemy, Adultery, and Mischief along with Misters Profane and Deceit plot Mansoul’s destruction. Mr. Self-secure misleads Mansoul into thinking it is strong and invincible, beyond the reach of any foe, and not dependent on Emmanuel. Diabolus returns with his army of Doubters and assaults Ear-Gate with incessant drumming. Captains Brimstone and Sepulcher are placed at Nose-Gate; the grim faced Past-Hope at Eye-Gate; and Captains Cruel, Torment, and No-Ease at Feel-gate. Diabolus seeks to fill Mouth-gate, the voice of prayer, with dirt. The town resists but its gates are weak. Diabolus and his Doubters again take possession of the city; this time, however, they cannot take the castle, the heart of Mansoul. On the third day, Emmanuel returns to them and Diabolus and his Doubters are routed from the town. The city again seeks to rid itself of any remaining Diabolonians such a Misters Mistrust, Flesh, Sloth, Legal-life, and Self-love. Mister Unbelief, however, is far too nimble to be caught and Carnal-sense escapes from prison.

Bunyan’s allegory is more than a story of man’s fall and redemption; it tells of the continuing conflict between good and evil for the possession of man’s soul. Starting with innocence, followed by temptation, sin, and repentance, the story doesn’t end there. Sadly, there is more temptation and sin followed by more repentance. With Unbelief and Carnal-sense still at large, the reader is left to believe that will not be the last time temptation and sin rear their ugly heads.

In Emmanuel’s final commission to Mansoul, he warns them not to live by their senses but by his Word. When explaining why Diabolonians are allowed to exist, he says, “It is to keep you awake, to test your love, to make you watchful… My design is that they should drive you, not further off, but nearer to my Father, to teach you war, to make petitioning desirable to you, and to make you little in your own eyes.” He adds, “Love me against temptation, and I will love you notwithstanding your infirmities … I have taught you to watch, to fight, to pray, and to make war against my foes, so now I command you to believe that my love is constant to you.”

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. [2 Corinthians 10:3-6 (RSV)]

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BEWARE THE GNATCATCHERS!

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)]

red-shouldered hawkSeeing a red-shouldered hawk perched up in a nearby tree, I focused in on it only to see him suddenly duck his head to avoid being attacked by small bird and then drop again as another tiny bird swept down at him. Those two gnatcatchers boldly harassed the hawk as it kept bobbing and weaving to dodge them. Fiercely territorial, gnatcatchers are unafraid to confront predators and, apparently, the hawk was infringing on their territory. Eventually, the hawk admitted defeat and flew off to another tree. I later asked one of the Audubon docents why the large hawk didn’t fight back against the tiny birds and was told that the hawk knows it can’t win. Being so small, the fast and agile gnatcatcher easily can out maneuver the bigger bird. For the hawk, the energy spent trying to catch the gnatcatcher isn’t worth it; fleeing makes more sense than staying. After settling in another tree not far away, the hawk spotted a crayfish. After sweeping down to catch it, he returned to his new perch and enjoyed a peaceful breakfast (without any annoying gnatcatchers).

“Surely, there’s a devotion of some kind in this!” I thought. Seeing those tiny birds harass the hawk (who was more than 100 times their weight) seemed like a David versus Goliath moment. The more I thought about it, however, I thought the hawk was the innocent party. He hadn’t provoked the birds; he was just minding his own business and looking for breakfast when those birds started pestering him. What the gnatcatchers were doing is called “mobbing.” When birds mob, they make a distress call that attracts other birds (even different species) to join in the harassment. If the hawk hadn’t moved, chances are more birds soon would have joined in hounding and harassing him.

Since another word for harassing is “worrying,” I wondered if those gnatcatchers might be like the worries that seem to come at us from out of nowhere to vex, torment, and distress us. Like mobbing birds, worry calls its pals anxiety, fear, and apprehension to join in troubling us. The gnatcatchers kept the hawk from doing his work (finding breakfast) and worry keeps us from moving ahead, as well. Realizing those birds were not going to disappear, the hawk wisely moved away from them. Often, we’re not that smart; we remain smack dab in the middle of worry and allow it to continue attacking and pecking at us. While the hawk only needed to fly to a nearby tree, we need fly to God, thank Him for His goodness, ask Him for help, and leave our concerns with Him. “You can pick what you ponder,” says Max Lucado. We can perch ourselves in the midst of worry or we can perch ourselves in the promises of God.

Whether or not we worry, our problems will remain. Worry, however, accomplishes nothing. We may not have a lot of power over our problems, but we do have power over our thoughts. Like the hawk, we need to stop perching in the worry zone and get on with our lives, whether that involves catching crayfish in the swamp or giving our concerns to God and working at finding a solution to our problems!

Your problem is not your problem; it is the way you think about it. [Max Lucado]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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DESPAIR AND DOUBT

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! [Acts 16:25-26 (NLT)]

By 1658 in England, it had become illegal to conduct a religious service differing from the Church of England’s official liturgy or for “one not in Episcopal orders” to address a congregation. A Puritan, John Bunyan, was arrested for preaching the gospel without a license. After three months in the Bedford jail, he was offered his freedom if he’d agree not to preach publicly. He refused saying, “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.” Bunyan spent twelve years imprisoned. During that time, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. No country cub prison, the Bedford jail was overcrowded, unsanitary, unheated, and the plague of 1665 claimed forty prisoners as victims. Years later, Bunyan wrote: “Satan can make a jail to look like hell itself.” Although all looked hopeless for the man, he found strength in prayer and in his writing.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful accidentally step out of the Way. Having trespassed on the grounds of Giant Despair, they are captured and taken to Doubting Castle. The Pilgrims are imprisoned in a dark dungeon, without bread or water, for nearly four days. The first day, Despair mercilessly beats the men with a club. The second day, telling them there is no escape, the giant urges the suffering men to kill themselves. Realizing that others have managed to escape, the men retain hope, refuse to end their suffering, and vow to battle Despair. The third day, to further destroy their spirits, the giant takes them into the castle yard, shows them the remains of those he’s destroyed, and pitilessly beats them again.

Around midnight Sunday morning, just as Paul and Silas did in their prison cell, Christian and Hopeful begin to pray. A little before dawn, Christian realizes what a fool he’s been. In his coat, next to his heart, is a Key called Promise and Christian is sure it will unlock the doors of Doubting Castle. Although Doubt and Despair caused them to forget the promises of God, prayer reminded the two men to recall and trust in God’s promises. The Key easily opens both the door to their cell and the one into the castle yard but the last lock, the one out of Doubting Castle opens hard. It’s not easy to escape from the depths of Doubt and Despair and I imagine that, during those twelve years he sat behind bars in abysmal conditions, Bunyan had many moments of doubt and despair.

Let us remember to keep the Key of Promise close to our hearts.  It’s unlikely that doubt and despair will come in the form of a giant or a castle dungeon, but they will come and they are capable of imprisoning us. While not using a club, despair will attack us mercilessly, try to strip us of hope, and imprison us in doubt. May we always hold tight the key to our freedom: the promises of God.

Lord, we pray for those imprisoned By Despair, who lie in grief;
Locked in Doubting Castle’s dungeon, Stripped of hope and its relief.
Father help them to remember In Your promise is the key;
Now unlock the door that bars them, In the Gospel, set them free.
[From “A Prayer for Pilgrims” by Ken Puls]

For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” And through Christ, our “Amen” (which means “Yes”) ascends to God for his glory. It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us. [2 Corinthians 1:20-22 (NLT)]

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TO BE STILL

God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. … Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honored by every nation. I will be honored throughout the world. [Psalm 46:1,10 (NLT)]

When we’re told to “Be still” in Psalm 46, we tend to think in terms of stopping movement—our busyness, frantic activity, or agitated actions. We associate it with a director yelling, “Cut!” the ref blowing his whistle, or a frustrated parent’s “Cut it out!” Being still can entail all of that, but it is much more. The root of the original Hebrew word used for “still” is the verb rapa which means to be faint, forsake, or sink down. When used as the imperative ra’pha’h, as it is in Psalm 46, it means to drop or release our concerns, to become weak, or surrender. While most Bible versions translate this as “Be still,” some translate as desist, stop fighting, cease striving, be quiet, or be at peace. In short, we’re being told to stop anxiously fighting a situation and leave the matter to God—to relax our grip on things, stop worrying and let it be.

Forgetting that we can’t save ourselves, we often base our self-worth on what we can do—our strength, self-sufficiency and independence. It goes against the grain to accept that we must become weaker so that God can become stronger and that we must lose our lives to find them. But, it is when we loosen our grip, release our hold, and admit our helplessness that we finally understand that God is God and we are not!

Do we come to God with clenched fists or open hands? Do we come with hands clutching things like worry, fear, possessions, expectations, wealth, plans and goals or with open hands that have relinquished those things to God? “Be still,” we’re told—loosen the grip and surrender to God. Remember, just as clenched fists can’t release anything, they also can’t receive God’s blessings! Today, instead of bringing my hands together in prayer, I opened them and turned my palms upward in a symbolic gesture both of surrender and acceptance. I was still and knew that He is God.

When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off.  You sit still and trust the engineer. [Corrie ten Boom]

Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you. Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act. [Psalm 37:3-5,7a (NLT)]

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WEAR YOUR OWN SHOES

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. [Galatians 1:10 (NIV)]

Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. [Galatians 6:4-5a (NIV)]

seedboxLast Thursday night’s Bible study had been as inspiring as Easter Sunday’s sermon. As we walked out of the building, I confided to my friend that there was no way I could follow such brilliant preaching. You see, our pastor was taking a much needed vacation and I would be doing the preaching for the next two Sundays. Afraid I couldn’t possibly fill his shoes or touch people’s hearts the way he does, I asked, “How can I possibly compare to him?” My friend wisely answered, “You don’t!” He reminded me to be myself and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

As I continued to polish my sermon, the enemy kept reminding me that I could never fill our pastor’s shoes.  I thought of the Apostles after Jesus had ascended. I’m sure their preaching, no matter how heartfelt and inspired, was no match for that of Jesus. That no one could possibly fill His holy sandals, however, didn’t stop them from speaking and spreading the gospel message. Scripture tells us that many became believers and were baptized after hearing the Apostle Paul speak. Yet Paul’s vast knowledge and speaking skills never kept Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, Titus or others from sharing God’s word.

When whispers of doubt are heard, I find it best to turn to God’s Word, so I turned to Paul’s letters to Timothy. Telling him not to be ashamed of his testimony, Paul encouraged the young man by reminding him that God’s Spirit “does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” He advised the young man to let his teaching be shaped by his faith and love for Jesus and to teach others so that they could pass those teachings on to still more people. Reminding Timothy that the only approval he should seek was that of God, Paul’s instructions were simple: “Preach the word.” [4:2]

Granted, I felt a heavy responsibility. Ours is a growing young church and I didn’t want us to lose momentum or have the church flounder in our pastor’s absence. Then again, I suppose the people Paul left to pastor the churches he planted felt much the same way. Nevertheless, Paul’s words made me ask whose approval it was that I sought. Did I want to please God or the people? While I prayed that my words would manage to do both, I had to focus on pleasing God and trust Him to take care of the rest. The only approval I should be seeking was that of God.

My preaching, like my writing, is not about me; it’s about God. While I hope that it pleases people, the only one I need to please with my words is God. Saturday morning, my friend sent some more words of encouragement. He reminded me that I’m a child of God, gifted by Him in my own special way, and that all God asks of me is to be myself and “Preach the word.” That’s all God asks of any of us! None of us are expected to fill someone else’s shoes; we just have to wear our own and walk in a way that pleases God.

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord. [2 Timothy 1:7-8a (NIV)]

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15 (NIV)]

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