PRESENCE OR PRESENTS?

“I’m telling you the solemn truth,” he said. “You aren’t looking for me because you saw signs, but because you ate as much bread as you could. You shouldn’t be working for perishable food, but for food that will last to the life of God’s coming age – the food which the son of man will give you, the person whom God the father has stamped with the seal of his approval.” [John 6:26-27 (NTE)]

white peacock butterfly

As a result of Jesus miraculously providing food for a multitude with a boy’s lunch, the people wanted to make Him king. Rather than Caesar, they desired a ruler who would provide them with food and security. Realizing this, Jesus slipped away from the crowd. He and the disciples crossed over to the lake to Capernaum but the crowds followed Him there. Selfishly, they were looking to Jesus as if He were some sort of miracle-working vending machine—just pop in a material need and out would come a healing, feast, or wine enough for a week! Since they were seeking perishable bread rather than the enduring bread of everlasting life, Jesus confronted the crowd about their motivation. Like them, do we ever find ourselves seeking God’s hand rather than His face?

Most of the invitations we receive are for celebrations of retirement, landmark birthdays, or special anniversaries. They usually include something like, “Your presence would be the best present you could give us,” or “Your presence is present enough.” I wonder, are we are as willing to invite God into our lives with the same kind of wording? Or, like small children who greedily tear into all of their birthday gifts, are His presents more important than His presence?

Sometimes, when looking at my prayer list, I wonder if, like those people who followed Jesus looking for gifts, I might be more interested in Jesus satisfying my earthly wants rather than His filling my spiritual needs. Rather than abiding in meditative prayer, delighting in His presence, and getting to know Him, I often rush through a laundry list of requests. Rather than praying that He align my prayers with His will, I want Him to match His will with my desires. I often seem more interested in what He can give me than how I can best serve Him. I seem to forget that, when I invited Jesus to my party, it wasn’t for His presents; it was for Him!

In spite of those words requesting no presents on party invitations, there usually is a table laden with a variety of gifts and cards because people naturally want to give presents to the ones they love. God, like our friends, will also bring presents along with His presence when we invite Him into our lives. Because He loves us, He will lavish us with both His presence and the best presents possible: peace, love, forgiveness, guidance, faith, joy, wisdom, hope, and salvation.

God has bestowed upon us, through his divine power, everything that we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue. [2 Peter 1:3 (NTE)]

Don’t worry about anything. Rather, in every area of life let God know what you want, as you pray and make requests, and give thanks as well. And God’s peace, which is greater than we can ever understand, will keep guard over your hearts and minds in King Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NTE)]

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JUST DO IT (THE GOOD SAMARITAN – Part 2)

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

brown pelicanWhen writing about the Good Samaritan yesterday, I recalled being asked who represents Jesus in the parable. The most obvious answer appears to be the Samaritan. After all, love that unlimited and sacrificial had to have been supernatural. The parallels are somewhat obvious—both men were merciful, compassionate, paid another man’s debt, promised to return, and were despised and rejected by the Jews. In fact, early commentators like Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, and Origen found all sorts of allegorical meaning in the story with the injured man representing Adam, the bandits Satan, the loss of clothing as man’s loss of innocence, the wine given the man as Christ’s atoning blood, the inn as the Church, the innkeeper as Paul (or the Pope), and the two coins given to the innkeeper as the Law and the Prophets or the two testaments. While some of Jesus’ parables (like the Sower and the Soils, the Wheat and the Weeds, and the Evil Tenants) clearly are allegories, other are not.

Sometimes a parable is just a parable and The Good Samaritan meets the traditional definition of a parable: “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Rather than preaching about Himself, Jesus was giving a straightforward answer to the question of who is our neighbor and He did it in an easily remembered story that makes its point in a striking way. While the parallels between the Good Samaritan’s compassionate acts and Jesus’ sacrificial love for us are remarkable, we should be cautious of complicating the parable or adding extra meaning where there is none. After all, unlike many of his parables, Jesus didn’t seem to think this one required additional explanation. He simply said, “Go and do likewise!”

If, however, we went looking for a Jesus figure in this parable, perhaps we should consider the Samaritan as an ordinary person and the injured man as Jesus. He was beaten, stripped, abandoned, and left to die, as was our Lord and, like Jesus, after being ignored by the pious Jews, He was accepted by the outcast Gentiles. In this light, perhaps, in a roundabout way, Jesus did answer the lawyer’s question about attaining eternal life. Eternal life isn’t defined by good works—although we can try, none of us can love as lavishly and perfectly as did the Samaritan. But, just as the Samaritan responded to the injured Jew, we can respond to Jesus. And, when we do, we will be given divine empowerment to love God and others.

Reverend Amy Reumann tells of a sermon her grandfather preached to his small congregation; at a mere ten words, it might be the shortest sermon known! After reading Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as his sermon’s text, her grandfather said, “We all know what this means. Just go do it.” With those ten words, the sermon was over and the pastor sat down. Perhaps we try to complicate this simple parable because we know exactly what it means and we don’t want to do it! Preferring not to get involved, interrupted, or inconvenienced, we don’t want the obligation of addressing the pain, poverty, hunger, hurt, injustice, oppression, loss, affliction, and abuse found in this broken world. Although we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone, let us always remember the Apostle James’ words that faith without works is dead!

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. [James 2:14-17 (RSV)]

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OUR NEIGHBOR (THE GOOD SAMARITAN – Part 1)

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” [Luke 10:25 (RSV)]

zebra longwing butterflyOperating on a salvation by works mentality, the lawyer/expert in Mosaic law asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus asked what the law said, the man cited Deuteronomy 6:5, about total devotion to God, and Leviticus 19:18, about loving his neighbor as himself. When Jesus told him, “Do this, and you will live,” the man realized that perfect obedience to loving everyone wasn’t possible. Hoping to limit the commandment to something more attainable, he searched for a loophole and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps he was thinking of the words found in the book of Sirach (a collection of moral counsel and maxims well known in Jesus’ time), “If you do a kindness, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good deeds. … Give to the godly man, but do not help the sinner.” [12:1,4] These words reflected the prevailing view of the time that kindheartedness and aid were mainly for family, friends, or a righteous deserving person, but certainly not to one’s enemies.

To help define “neighbor,” Jesus told the parable about the Good Samaritan. While travelling the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a Jew was attacked by bandits, stripped of his clothes, beaten, and left half-dead beside the road. First a priest and then a Levite pass by. Although they both clearly see the wounded man, each man ignores him. They may have been in a rush or afraid that they might be set upon by bandits if they lingered. Not sure whether the man was dead or alive, perhaps they feared that, by touching a corpse, they’d become ceremonially unclean and unable to fulfill their Temple duties. The priest, however, wasn’t going “up” to serve in the Temple; he was going “down” the road to Jericho. Even if the Levite was on his way to the Temple, the oral tradition overrode the prohibition of defilement in the case of an abandoned corpse and commanded that any corpse be given a proper burial. Maybe the priest and Levite remembered the words in Sirach—they didn’t know the man, couldn’t expect a proper thank you and, for all they knew, the man was a sinner and deserved the beating. In any case, they clearly forgot the commandment about loving their neighbor as themselves!

While Jesus’ audience may have been scandalized by the behavior of the priest and Levite, Jesus often was tough on the religious leaders in His parables. I suspect His listeners expected a Jewish lay person to be the hero of the story, in which case they could go home and feel good about themselves. Rather than a fellow Jew, however, the hero of the story was a hated Samaritan, which must have shocked and perplexed Jesus’ audience. Even though Jews and Samaritans detested one another, where the devout Jews had ignored the law, a Samaritan fulfilled it! When Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three was a neighbor, unable to say, “The Samaritan,” he answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise!” Few believed in doing good to one’s enemies until Jesus taught us that there are no religious, ethnic, economic, racial, political, or cultural lines in God’s Kingdom.

Although Jesus clearly defined “neighbor” as everyone—friend and foe alike—let’s not forget the original question was what the lawyer needed to do to inherit eternal life—something left unanswered in the parable. There is nothing we can do to work our way to heaven because we can’t obey the law as perfectly as God demands it be obeyed. None of us are capable of living as selflessly as did Jesus or even the fictitious Good Samaritan. Nevertheless, Jesus calls us to live a life of compassion with no boundaries. We can’t do it perfectly and we can’t meet every need but, by the grace of God and with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be His instruments of compassion. That is how we love our neighbor.

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. [Romans 9:30-32 (RSV)]

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BROKEN-DOWN WALLS

An evil man is held captive by his own sins; they are ropes that catch and hold him. He will die for lack of self-control; he will be lost because of his great foolishness. … A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls. [Proverbs 5:22-23, 25:28 (NLT)]

Stagecoach Rd GalenaThe book of Nehemiah opens with Nehemiah’s distress at learning that Jerusalem’s walls remained in shambles even though decades had passed since the first Jewish exiles returned to the city. Broken walls and no gates meant Jerusalem (and the Temple) were defenseless against enemies and wild animals. Just as a city is defenseless against its enemies’ attacks, a person without self-control is defenseless against the Satan’s attacks.

The story is told of Raynald III, a 14th century duke in what now is Belgium. After his younger brother Edward led a successful revolt against him, the duke was captured. Rather than kill his elder brother, Edward built a room around him in the castle. Hardly an ordinary prison cell, it had several un-barred windows and a nearly normal-sized unlocked door. All Raynald had to do to regain both his title and property was to leave his room.

While walking out an unlocked door sounds easy to us, it wasn’t for Raynald. With the nickname of “Crassus” (Latin for “fat, gross, plump”), the deposed duke was grossly overweight. To gain his freedom, Raynald just needed to lose some of his girth so he could fit through the door. Rather than dieting his way out of prison, however, the obese man grew even fatter as he feasted on the delicious rich foods his brother sent to him each day. When Edward was accused of cruelly imprisoning his brother, he justified his actions by saying, “My brother is not a prisoner. He may leave when he so will.” Indeed, Raynald wasn’t Edward’s prisoner; he was a prisoner of his appetite. With no self-control, he gorged himself in that room for ten years until the door was widened after Edward’s death.

Just as a city with broken walls and no gates is vulnerable to attack, a person with no self-control, like Raynald, is equally vulnerable. Because of his brother’s insatiable appetite and self-indulgence, Edward knew how to defeat Raynald. Like Edward, Satan knows what tempts us—be it gluttony, lust, greed, wrath, laziness, envy, pride or any other sin. Self-control is the last (but not the least) characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit mentioned by the Apostle Paul. Indeed, without the power of the Holy Spirit, we are as defenseless as an ancient city with broken-down walls. Nevertheless, in the end, we are the ones responsible for patrolling our gates and judging what will enter into our lives. Although empowered by the Spirit with the self-control to refuse entry, we are the ones who must close the gates.

Nehemiah’s concern for Jerusalem, however, was about more than safety. Although their broken walls and burnt gates made them vulnerable to enemies, to the ancient pagan world, the strength of a city’s walls represented the strength of the people’s gods. Nehemiah knew those wrecked walls dishonored Jehovah’s name; to the rest of the world, they meant a powerless God and a disgraced and defeated people.

When we can’t control our passions, anger, conversation, spending, appetite or any other behavior, what does that say about us? Are we a disgraced and defeated people? When we, as followers of Christ, fail to exercise self-control, what does that say about our God? Because of his lack of self-control, Raynald was held captive by his appetite and dishonored his own name. Without self-control, we become captives to sin and dishonor Jesus’ name.

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. [1 Corinthians 6:12 (NLT)]

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. [2 Timothy 1:7 (NLT)]

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FAKING IT

The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra-long tassels. [Matthew 23:2-5 (NLT)]

cliffroseThere is a funny scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally when, in the middle of a delicatessen, Sally proves to Harry that women can successfully fake being in the throes of passion. After a rather loud and vivid demonstration, Sally calmly returns to her meal. After watching Sally’s display of ecstasy, an older woman tells her waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having!” While it may be possible to fool people about a number of things, we can’t fool God. He looks beyond appearances right into our hearts.

Around the 4th century BC, the Jewish rabbis starting taking the commands in Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18, and Exodus 13:9 literally. They wrote God’s command to love Him and keep His commandments, placed the words in small leather containers called tefillin or phylacteries, and strapped them to their left hand and forehead during prayers. There were various rules regarding the length and width of the straps, the color of the boxes, the knots used, the parchment and ink, and even the number of lines for each verse. These were the “extra wide prayer boxes” to which Jesus referred.

The “extra-long” tassels Jesus mentioned were called tzitzit and were worn on the four corners of an outer garment’s hem. In response to the command in Numbers 15:38-40, the original intent was to remind the people to keep the Lord’s commandments and be holy before Him. As happened with the prayer boxes, by Jesus’ time, additional rules had been added regarding the quantity of threads used in each tassel, the amount of white and blue tassels, and the knots used.

Jesus wasn’t criticizing the wearing of tefillin or tzitzit. After all, as Jews, He and the disciples may have worn them. Jesus was criticizing the religious leaders for the burden they placed on the people with so many demanding man-made regulations. Moreover, He was taking to task those men who sought to draw attention to themselves rather than God by enlarging their tefillin and lengthening their tzitzit in a conspicuous show of their piety and religious zeal when they didn’t truly obey God’s commands. Their garish example of faith was as false as Sally’s intense example of ecstasy. While their display may have fooled and impressed the people, it didn’t fool Jesus.

Some Christians wear crosses or t-shirts announcing their faith while others might display bumper stickers or hang crosses in their homes. More important than how we decorate ourselves or our possessions is the way in which we conduct our lives. Without the love of Jesus and the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit, we’re no different than the self-righteous Pharisees; we’re just faking it.

I remember a song from my Sunday school days in which I proclaimed having the “joy, joy, joy,” the “love of Jesus,” and the “peace that passes understanding down in my heart…down in my heart to stay!” It’s that joy, that love of Jesus, and that peace that passes understanding that truly identify us as Christians. When we know, love and worship God, His love instills a joy into our hearts and lives that only He can produce and, unlike passion and piousness, they can’t be faked. It is, however, only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can live the kind of lives and exhibit the sort of behavior that truly will make people say, “I’ll have what they’re having!”

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Galatians 5:22-23a (NLT)]

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SHAVUOT

At the Festival of Harvest, when you present the first of your new grain to the Lord, you must call an official day for holy assembly, and you may do no ordinary work on that day. [Numbers 28:26 (NLT)]

fruitAt sunset yesterday, the Jewish feast of Shavuot began. Originally known as Festival of Harvest or First Fruits, Shavuot is the second of the three pilgrimage festivals given to the Israelites. The first was that of Unleavened Bread (Passover) and the third was the Final Harvest or Ingathering (Sukkot or Tabernacles). Originally, all three festivals were tied to the harvest with Passover at the beginning of the barley harvest, Shavuot seven weeks later at the start of the wheat harvest, and Sukkot at the last harvest of the season. For a nation who’d left Canaan because of famine, spent four hundred years in a foreign land (much of it as slaves) and then another forty years as nomads, the promise of becoming a people with land of their own, who could plant and harvest for themselves, must have been almost inconceivable.

Two distinct rituals were observed on Shavuot. In gratitude for the harvest, two loaves of bread baked from the new crop of wheat, a bull, seven lambs, two rams, and a goat were offered. In the second ritual, the choicest of the harvest’s first fruits were presented to the priests as these words from Deuteronomy were said: “With this gift I acknowledge to the Lord your God that I have entered the land he swore to our ancestors he would give us.” [26:3] Continuing with verses 5 through 10, the worshiper then acknowledged God’s faithfulness in bringing the people out of Egypt and in keeping His promise to the patriarchs to bring His people to a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Because it fell a full seven weeks (50 days) after the Passover, this festival became known as the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot).

Ten days after Christ’s ascension, during Shavuot, a group of believers gathered together in Jerusalem. A powerful wind roared and flashes of fire appeared and “everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Because of the uproar, a crowd gathered and Peter preached the gospel to them. That day, 3,000 people believed and were baptized; these new believers were the first fruits of the gospel harvest. Because it occurs fifty days after Easter, Christians call this day Pentecost, from the Greek meaning “fiftieth.” Because of the difference between the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, however, 2021’s Shavuot began last night but Pentecost will not occur until Sunday, the 23rd.

Because rabbinic tradition held that the Law was given on Mt. Sinai exactly seven weeks from the beginning of the Exodus, the day’s emphasis gradually moved from the first fruits of the harvest to the Torah. By the 2nd century, with the Temple destroyed, what began as a harvest festival commemorated the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai.

Today, Shavuot celebrates Israel’s bond because of the Torah and Pentecost celebrates Christians’ bond because of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, when looking at the origin of this ancient Jewish festival and its acknowledgement that God fulfilled His promise to bring His people into the Promised Land, I think of the many Messianic promises of the Old Testament. Rather than freeing us from slavery in Egypt, God faithfully fulfilled His promise and freed us from slavery to sin. Rather than physically bringing us into Canaan, He brought the Kingdom of God to us. Granted, the story is not over and the Kingdom is not fully realized, but we are in the land He promised and the best is yet to come! Let us be thankful and praise God for all He’s given us!

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey. It is a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking. It is a land where iron is as common as stone, and copper is abundant in the hills. When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. [Deuteronomy 8:7-10 (NLT)]

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