PUT IN ORDER

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-23 (NLT)]

bird houseIn both Matthew 12 and Luke 11, Jesus tells a rather confusing parable about a demon. After leaving a person, it searches for rest; finding none, the demon returns to its former home. Discovering it empty, swept, and in order, the demon brings seven more demons to live there. A rather puzzling parable, I can’t help but think of the phrase, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” First postulated in 485 BC by Parminedes and restated around 350 BC by Aristotle, it states that empty space is unnatural and goes against the laws of physics; therefore, every empty space in nature needs to be filled. I know nothing of vacuum theory, physics, or thermodynamics but, from this parable, it appears that sin abhors an empty mind or, as my mother used to say, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground!” I don’t know if Jesus was familiar with the Greek philosophers but, having exorcised several demons, he certainly was familiar with them. Empty minds and hearts must be filled by something—if not by God and good, then sin and evil.

Nevertheless, there seems to be more to this parable. Having just healed a demon-possessed man, Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees and scribes, people he frequently criticized for being more concerned with appearing righteous than actually being righteous. When reading that the house had been put in order, we probably think of it as neat and organized (like a file cabinet). The original Greek, however, used the word kosmeo which means to adorn, beautify or make attractive by having the right arrangement and the King James translation, which uses “garnished” instead of “put in order,” is probably closer to the original meaning. Kosmeo is the root word of cosmetics. While make-up may conceal, enhance, and even deceive, it does not change the underlying reality. The house may have looked good but the demons weren’t tricked and moved right back in. Sin isn’t deceived by appearances and will always return to hollow hearts and empty lives. Although God will take away our sins and banish our demons, it’s not enough to sweep out the old and redecorate; we must fill our lives with the new!

While they may look fine from the street, empty homes don’t do well; eventually they succumb to vermin like ants, box elder bugs, flies, termites, dust, spiders, mold, leaks, and dry rot. Empty lives are no different; they soon will be filled with demons like selfishness, anger, greed, addiction, pride, lust, pessimism, scorn, envy, prejudice and hate. But, if those same lives are filled with the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that come from the Holy Spirit, there will be no room for demons.

The first and the great work of a Christian is about his heart. Do not be content with seeming to do good in “outward acts” while your heart is bad, and you are a stranger to the greater internal heart duties. See that your chief study be about your heart—that there God’s image may be planted; that there His interests be advanced; that there the world and flesh are subdued; that there the love of every sin is cast out; that there the love of holiness grows. [Jonathan Edwards]

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. [1 Peter 1:18-19 (NLT)]

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THE OLIVE BRANCH

Forget about the wrong things people do to you, and do not try to get even. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. [Leviticus 19:18 (NCV)]

Humility has such power. Apologies can disarm arguments. Contrition can defuse rage. Olive branches do more good than battle axes ever will. [Max Lucado]

mourning doveIn a “Baby Blues” comic strip, Zoe, the big sister approaches her brother and tells him, “About that fight we had a while ago…I would like to extend an olive branch.” With a panicked look on his face, the little brother screams, “MOM!!! Zoe’s threatening me with a stick!” Having had an older brother who delighted in tormenting me, I completely sympathized with the little boy. There were times when my brother just had to come near me and I would frantically call out, “Mom, Steve’s hitting me again!” I wanted to avoid another painful punch but, who knows, maybe one of those times he, like Zoe, was just offering an olive branch.

Long before the ancient Greeks and Romans used the olive branch as a symbol for victory and peace, the story of Noah recorded that a dove brought an olive branch back to the ark which meant the end of the flood and the earth’s rebirth. Symbolizing peace and reconciliation, the olive branch requires two things: someone to extend it and someone else to accept it. An apology and its acceptance are two sides of the same coin, as are the asking of forgiveness and the granting of it. Both are necessary for peace in our lives.

I have been like Zoe, the one extending the olive branch; I admitted my offense, apologized, and asked forgiveness but was rebuffed. Unfortunately, there are people who will never accept an apology, no matter how humbly or amiably it is offered. All we can do is keep the olive branch extended, pray that God will open their hearts, and continue to love.

Like Zoe’s little brother, however, it’s not always easy to accept that olive branch. Wanting to protect ourselves from further hurt or disappointment, we may prefer suspicion, aloofness, hostility, or anger. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to trust people who are untrustworthy or believe those who are dishonest. An act of love, mercy and grace, forgiveness is releasing the offense and offender to God; it is giving up our right to hurt those who’ve hurt us. Being the wronged party never gives us permission to continue the wrong with unforgiveness.

Along with an olive branch, the handshake is a gesture of peace. In ancient Greece, hands were grasped to demonstrate that neither person held a weapon. In Rome, the grasp became more of an arm grab as a way of seeing whether any weapons were hidden in someone’s sleeves. The shaking part is said to come from medieval England when knights would shake hands in an attempt to shake loose any concealed weapons.

Hopefully, we don’t need to worry about lethal weapons hiding in sleeves when we shake hands this holiday season. Nevertheless, we need to put aside the invisible weapons we carry: things like anger, gossip, blame, intolerance, pettiness, jealousy, resentment, and disrespect. Let’s extend any olive branches that need to be extended and accept any that are offered. If there can’t be peace throughout the world this holiday season (and from the news that looks unlikely), let there at least be peace and reconciliation in our homes and families.

To be forgiven is such sweetness that honey is tasteless in comparison with it. But yet there is one thing sweeter still, and that is to forgive. As it is more blessed to give than to receive, so to forgive rises a stage higher in experience than to be forgiven. [Charles Spurgeon]

When you are praying, if you are angry with someone, forgive him so that your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins. But if you don’t forgive other people, then your Father in heaven will not forgive your sins. [Mark 11:25-26 (NCV)]

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THE NEXT STEP

Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. … This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5: 14b-15,17 (NLT)]

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. [Westminster Shorter Catechism]

waterfallIn writing about the Sinner’s Prayer yesterday, I wondered if, by saying it, a new believer gets the false impression that his responsibility ends with a prayer when, in fact, it has just begun! Justification takes only a moment but sanctification takes a lifetime. Addressing the guilt of our sins, justification is when, by the grace of God, we are made righteous through God’s grace and our faith. It’s as if we’re guilty criminals, standing in God’s courtroom, and God pardons us. Telling us our debt to society has been paid, He sets us free. While it’s easy to walk out of the courthouse, it’s not so easy to alter the behavior that led to our life of crime. Like any felon, we need to change our ways, which is where sanctification comes in. Rather than the reformation of a criminal, it is the transformation of a sinner.

Powered by our faith and the Holy Spirit, sanctification transforms our sinful character so we grow more and more like Christ. Focusing on the destructive power of sin in our lives, it gradually shapes our hearts, minds, and desires to those of God. Sanctification is the work part of our salvation and requires diligence in study, prayer, fellowship, witness and service. It’s coming to know Jesus, loving and obeying God, and letting both His word and the Holy Spirit convict us when we sin. It’s allowing God to work in and through us, not as a way to earn His blessings and favor, but because we delight in His will.

While holiness is the goal of sanctification, I don’t think any mortal can live a life completely free from sin in this world. Nevertheless, even though we can’t attain sinless perfection, like the Apostle Paul, we will continue to struggle against sin and temptation as long as we’re on this side of the grass. We persevere and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, continue to grow more and more like Christ every day.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are coworkers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R.C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12b-13 (NLT)]

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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MARIA’S SON

blue flag iris - blue-eyed grass - pansyLook carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (ESV)]

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (ESV)]

Maria, an elderly woman, used to come to our Tuesday Bible study but stopped when she could no longer drive. Last Christmas, her son gave her a beautiful gift: the promise to drive her to Bible study every week. This was no small gift; she lived nearly an hour from her son and a half hour away from church. By the time you add the son’s driving time to and from his house to hers, to and from her house to the church, the hour of class, and the time it took to get his mother (and her walker) in and out of the car four times, this gift was nearly a five hour obligation every week. Maria’s health eventually failed and, today, we learned that she went home to Jesus.

I didn’t know Maria or her son but I do know about time. I spent enough hours shuttling my daughter to and from dance classes to know that a mere hour between drop off and pick up is not enough time to accomplish anything in the way of running errands. By the time you get to Costco or Target you have to turn around and come back. Time is a precious commodity and, once spent, can never be recovered. Maria’s son spent his hours as would Jesus—in loving service. Can we say the same thing?

We have plenty of labor saving devices: food processors, instant pots, microwaves, automatic sprinklers, power drills, washers, dryers, dishwashers, pressure cookers, power mowers, computers, and even a virtual assistant in Alexa. In theory, with all these modern conveniences, we should have plenty of time. Yet, when I speak with others, a common complaint is a lack of time. What do we do with all the time we save?

Rather than a shortage of time, perhaps the problem is in our priorities. Since God gave us the Sabbath, I don’t think He has a problem with rest and recreation. Nevertheless, He didn’t put us here just to have a good time. He’s trusted us with the gift of time; could it be that He’s also testing us to see what kind of stewards we are of that gift?

Forbidden to reap their harvest right up to the edge of their fields and or strip their vineyards bare, the Israelites were to deliberately leave produce for the poor. The way we use our time is a little like harvesting it. Rather than leaving wheat and grapes in the field, perhaps we should deliberately leave some time in our lives for the needs of our families and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

What would Jesus do with our spare minutes? How can they be gleaned for God’s purposes? How can we use our time to magnify God and further His kingdom? Where can we spend it to improve the lives of others? The answer may be as easy as taking someone to Bible study.

One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. [Proverbs 11:24 (ESV)]

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (ESV)]

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GATEKEEPERS

“For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” [Isaiah 56:7b-8 (ESV)]

cardinal

In the Old Testament, the Levites acted as gatekeepers. Among their many duties, they maintained decorum, enforced the laws of ritual cleanliness, directed worshippers to the correct area, and prohibited entry to anyone considered defiled or unclean (such as lepers, eunuchs, or Gentiles). The gatekeepers placed a large stone between the Court of the Gentiles and the Women’s Court to remind the unclean they would die if they passed it; if they entered into the Temple area, they would be dragged out and killed.

Gatekeepers who determine one’s fitness to worship remind me of my response to Jimmy, about whom I’ve previously written. A man with what could be called a colorful past, Jimmy started attending our Florida church last March. I admitted in “It Takes All Kinds” that I was less than enthusiastic when my husband invited him to church after meeting him in the park. A bit of a character, Jimmy is a recovering addict/alcoholic and, while not homeless, he lives on the fringe of society. Although I knew my misgivings were unchristian, as I got to know him, I quickly learned they also were unfounded. After starting to attend our church, he began coming to Bible study, bringing his well-worn Bible with him, and often joined our group for fellowship after class. Early this summer, when Jimmy asked to be baptized, ten others from our church joined him in the Gulf of Mexico for that sacrament.

During the summer, Jimmy went north to be with family but kept in touch with our pastor. He wrote about meeting a man in the park who was new to recovery. When the fellow asked Jimmy how he managed to stay sober, his reply was simple and to the point: Jesus! Our new Christian became a witnessing disciple. Jimmy recently returned to Florida and was warmly welcomed by all when he joined us for Sunday worship; I felt honored to take his hand during prayers.

The story is told of a homeless man, disheveled and dirty, who entered a church Easter morning. The service had just started and the pews were jam packed. As the man walked up the aisle in search of a seat, people avoided eye contact and no one made room for him in the pews. Once at the front of the church, the man sat down on the floor near the altar rail. As an usher, dressed in a black suit with a boutonniere in his lapel, made his way up the aisle, the parishioners were sure that he would quietly ask the man to leave (as any good gatekeeper would do). Instead, to the surprise of the congregation, the usher handed the man both program and hymnal and sat down beside him.

Although more and more churches now use security people to protect personnel and worshippers, we no longer have Levites to keep the unclean out of worship. If we did, our churches would be empty because we’re all soiled by sin! While we don’t have official gatekeepers, let us all be cautious of being unofficial ones. What would have happened to Jimmy if we had gatekeepers in our churches? What of his new friend? The best part of any man is what’s found in his heart and we’ll never know what’s in his heart until we take the time to know the man.

May the church be the place of God’s mercy and love, where everyone can feel themselves welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel. And in order to make others feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged, the church must have open doors so that all might enter. And we must go out of those doors and proclaim the Gospel. [Pope Francis]

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. [Hebrews 13:2 (ESV)]

And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40 (ESV)]

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WHAT’S YOUR GIFT

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. [1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (NLT)]
barred owl - painted bunting - penguin

When I was writing about the peacock’s unpleasant scream yesterday, I pictured him complaining to the owl that the wren has a nicer voice. The wren chirped back her complaint that, unlike the peacock, she was small and nondescript. Hearing them, the penguin complained about his plain black and white feathers but the colorful painted bunting countered that she was unable to swim. The pelican joined the grumbling and whined that he couldn’t flit from flower to flower like the hummingbird who then expressed jealously over the pelican’s large bill. When the bald eagle protested not having long legs like the ostrich and the ostrich expressed envy at the eagle’s ability to soar high in the sky, the wise owl hooted at them all to be quiet.

Unlike the other birds, the owl did not grumble about what many would consider his shortcomings: his dull color, asymmetrical ears, and farsightedness. Explaining that his dull color gives him camouflage, the lopsided ears allow him to locate prey at night, and his farsightedness makes him an excellent hunter, he told the other birds to be thankful for their gifts. He reminded each bird of what made it special: the peacock’s beautiful tail, the wren’s ability to sing and trill, the penguin’s powerful flippers and streamlined body, the bunting’s unique coloring, the pelican’s skill at diving from heights of 30-feet, the hummingbird’s capability of flying backwards, the eagle’s eyes that can spot a rabbit two miles away, and the ostrich’s gift of running faster than any other bird. Rather than complaining about what they didn’t have, they should appreciate their own unique God-given gifts and use what they were given with wisdom, joy and thanksgiving.

Like the birds, we too have gifts: both the talents we were given at birth and the spiritual gifts we received from the Holy Spirit. Those talents and gifts are as unique as a peacock’s tail or the wren’s song. Some gifts, like the strong legs of an ostrich or a pastor’s inspired preaching are rather obvious. Others, like the owl’s lopsided ears or the healing embrace of someone gifted with empathy are less apparent. Rather than complain, as did the birds, we should take inventory of our many gifts and talents, appreciate and develop them, and use them enthusiastically and wisely to glorify God. Let’s appreciate what we have and accept that there will always be some things, like singing or soaring, that are best left to others.

Our purpose should be to discover the gifts He has given us and to use those gifts faithfully and joyfully in His service, without either envying or disparaging the gifts we do not have. [John MacArthur]

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. … It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. [1 Corinthians 12:7,11 (NLT)]

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