IT’S NOT OURS TO KEEP

When the poor and needy search for water and there is none, and their tongues are parched from thirst, then I, the Lord, will answer them. I, the God of Israel, will never abandon them. I will open up rivers for them on the high plateaus. I will give them fountains of water in the valleys. I will fill the desert with pools of water. Rivers fed by springs will flow across the parched ground. [Isaiah 41:17-18 (NLT)]

giant swallowtail butterflyYesterday, I wrote of God’s provision, yet I can’t help but wonder. If God promises His divine provision, why are there still people in need?

There was to be no permanent poverty in Israel. In the Old Testament, we find complex laws and social practices that were meant to ensure that no one lived in need. To eliminate food scarcity, every third year there was to be a special tithe of crops for the Levites and those at risk like foreigners, widows and orphans. The Israelites were to leave the edges of their fields unharvested and anything dropped during the harvest ungathered; this portion could be gleaned by the poor. There were laws against exploiting the vulnerable through usury or by demanding unreasonable collateral. Every seventh year was to be a Sabbath year when loans were forgiven and Hebrew slaves were released from servitude. The land would lay fallow and any produce that grew by itself was free to all. Additionally, in the Year of Jubilee, celebrated every fifty years, economic disparity was further minimized by returning all real estate (whether sold, mortgaged or leased) to its original owner.

The poor in the Bible were not much different than today’s poverty-stricken: the people without land or the economic, legal, or political resources to be self-sustaining. A diverse group of the marginalized, they were day laborers, subsistence farmers, indentured slaves, beggars, prostitutes, widows, resident aliens, the disabled and infirm. God’s vision wasn’t a welfare state but rather one that allowed families to have the opportunity to provide for themselves. The Sabbath and Jubilee years were a fresh start for those who found themselves in poverty. Unfortunately, the reproachful words of the prophets to Judah and Israel tell us that God’s laws were not obeyed.

The story is told of two businessmen. Like me, the first was troubled by the abject poverty that exists in the world today and wondered about God’s promise of provision. He said, “Someday, I hope to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice when He could do something about it.” The other man replied, “I’m afraid that God might ask me that very same question.”

Perhaps God has fulfilled His promise to provide by filling our wells with blessings. The problem is that we haven’t done our part by passing along His provision. Instead of letting His gifts flow through us to others, we’ve plugged the pipeline and are keeping His gifts for ourselves. We’ve been freed from the Old Testament laws but we haven’t been freed from the obligation to love our neighbors. Could we be holding the provision that God has promised? Could we be the answer to someone’s prayer? For those of us with water in our wells, perhaps it’s time turn on the faucet and let His blessings flow.

We are not cisterns made for hoarding, we are channels made for sharing. [Billy Graham]

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:16-18 (NLT)]

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FREE TO BE…

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. [Isaiah 45:7 (KJV)]

sunflowerWow! Now there’s a troubling verse. God creates evil? Since evil is anything that contradicts God’s holy nature, it’s hard to understand how that could happen. Even other translations like the NLT’s, “I send good times and bad times,” the ESV’s, “I make well-being and create calamity,” and the NIV’s, “I bring prosperity and create disaster,” don’t make this verse sound much better. How do we reconcile a God who is good, a God who is love, with a God who says he creates evil?

There’s certainly no mention of God creating evil in Genesis. We are told that He created the world and everything in it, that man was made in His own image, and when God was finished, He looked over everything and saw that it was good. This is where we again see the flexible nature of Hebrew verbs in Scripture. As discussed yesterday, many verbs such as create, harden, send, blind, or deceive are used in a permissive sense as well as a causative one. As a result, we frequently find God represented as doing something when, in actuality, He is only permitting it or predicting that it will be done. Reading it that way, God didn’t create evil but He does allow it. Nevertheless, how can a righteous, just, and loving God even allow evil?

Our being made in God’s image means that, like Him, we have intelligence, reason and the ability to make conscious choices. Personal volition means that we have a choice as to whether or not we love and obey God. When God gave us the ability to choose, He also gave us the responsibility to choose well. Adam and Eve didn’t choose wisely when they ate the forbidden fruit and we’re not much better. While we can choose obedience over rebellion or love over hate, we also can choose deception instead of truth or vindictiveness rather than forgiveness. Because God allows us to choose, we can abandon good for evil as easily as we can close our eyes to His light, shut our ears to His truth, and harden our hearts to His love. C.S. Lewis pointed out that “If a thing is free to be good it’s free to be bad. And free will is what made evil possible.”

Knowing we’d mess up by the third chapter in Genesis, why did our omniscient God allow us freedom to go against His will? Yet, if He compelled us to be obedient, wouldn’t He be more a puppet master than a God of love? Without freedom of choice, would we be unique individuals, made in His image, or marionettes moving only when He pulled the strings? A relationship must be voluntary to be authentic and love must be freely given to be genuine. God didn’t create evil but He did create a people who can rebel and turn from righteousness and it is that rebellion that creates evil.

I don’t understand it completely; someday, I will. I do know that our good and loving God has a good reason for allowing evil to exist. I also know that God can use evil for our good and His glory; after all, from man’s rejection and murder of His only Son, came our salvation!

If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. [C. S. Lewis]

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. … And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. [John 3:16-17,19 (KJV)]

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BLOOD AND GUTS

For the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible. [Leviticus 17:11-12 (NLT)]

sacred daturaFor most of us, the meat we purchase arrives at the grocery store prepackaged. We’re not used to seeing animals slaughtered, skinned or butchered and, unless we’re phlebotomists, rarely see large amounts of blood. As a result, much of Leviticus makes for rather gory reading since the temple, a place of worship, also served as a ritual slaughterhouse. Perhaps it’s my vegetarian sensibilities but, when the Bible refers to the pleasing aroma of sacrifice, I wince when thinking of the stench of dried blood and burnt meat.

Biblical sacrifices go as far back as Cain and Abel but it is in Leviticus that we read of the sacrifices God required of the Israelites. The book gives complicated instructions for each of the sacrificial rituals: everything from the kind of animal offered and the draining of its blood to splashing that blood around the altar and what to do with the meat. Nowadays, these bizarre rites seem sickening and gruesome. Then again, perhaps that is exactly what they were supposed to be even back then. Watching one’s best lamb have its throat slit and seeing its blood pour out was probably as awful 3,400 years ago as it seems today. Seeing the animal’s life offered as a substitute for the sinner’s symbolized the high cost of sin and could not have been taken lightly. Moreover, as offensive as all that blood and butchering seems, think of how offended God is by our sins! Sin is far uglier and more repugnant than any abattoir.

My 21st century self has difficulty understanding why blood had to be shed in the first place and how blood—something that stains—could ever be considered cleansing. Caught up in picturing all of that blood, gore and smell, it’s easy to forget that the reason for those sacrifices was atonement. The Israelites sacrificed what was precious to them to satisfy God as atonement for their sins. A price had to be paid for mankind’s sins and, without blood, there could be no forgiveness. For God, the aroma was not that of blood and seared meat but of repentance. Those bloody offerings, however, were temporary substitutes. Even though the animal died rather than the sinner, the sacrifice had to be repeated again and again. It is those sacrifices, however, that foreshadowed the one true and everlasting sacrifice that took place on Calvary. Our sins against a holy and infinite God required a holy and infinite sacrifice: the flawless lamb, Jesus Christ. Our atonement is now found in our faith in Christ—the one perfect and final sacrifice.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. [Hebrews 9:12-14 (NLT)]

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SEIZE THE DAY

Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. [Ecclesiastes 5:18-19 (NLT)]

great egretFrom the viewing platform at the marsh, I watched a Cooper’s hawk soar high in the sky. When I turned to leave, I looked down and saw several white egret feathers on the ground below. Whether it was the hawk, a raccoon, or some other predator, the park had one less egret in the pond. Those beautiful white feathers were a stark reminder of how precarious life is, not just for wild birds, but for us all. I was reminded of Ecclesiastes: “For people and animals share the same fate—both breathe and both must die.” [3:19]

Beginning with the words, “Everything is meaningless,” much of Ecclesiastes expresses disappointment, discontent, and a cynical world-weariness. The world is a fallen place where life is unfair: good happens to the bad and bad befalls the good. The future is unknown and filled with uncertainties and satisfaction is not guaranteed. We can strive for a goal and never reach it or attain the goal and discover it wasn’t worth the effort. The pursuit of pleasure, possessions, wealth, achievements, wisdom, or power comes to nothing. As disheartening as the author’s words are, I’m not sure we can really argue with them. Life is capricious and frequently makes no sense and the same destiny—death—awaits both the righteous and wicked. Sadly, sometimes, our efforts really do feel like an exercise in futility.

Yet, hidden in those sobering verses are nuggets of beauty and comfort. Just because life is hard and its meaning is hard to find doesn’t mean life is meaningless. Granted, some seasons of life are perplexing, challenging, or downright unpleasant but, as much as we wish we could control or understand them, they are beyond human control and understanding. The seasons of life are not in our hands but God’s. Rather than knowledge and comprehension of His plan, however, God gives us sort of a consolation prize: the ability to find enjoyment in life. While we can’t control the seasons, we can accept and find contentment in them.

Those feathers on the ground were a reminder to live life with gusto—to accept and enjoy whatever we’ve been given—to seize the day! Yet, Ecclesiastes is not an “eat, drink, and be merry because tomorrow you die!” promotion of hedonism. Woven throughout its verses is one more theme—that of fearing God. We can’t find the meaning to life apart from God and we certainly can’t live life on our own terms. The enjoyment of life neither permits us to disobey God not does it exempt us from His law. Telling us to enjoy life, Ecclesiastes also tells us to fear (i.e., obey, revere, love, serve, honor and worship) God while doing so!

Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. [Ecclesiastes 3:12 (NLT)]

That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. Go will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. [Ecclesiastes 12:13 (NLT)]

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ONLY HE CAN MAKE A TREE FROG

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)]

A friend sent a link to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world; you’ve probably gotten a similar one and been amazed by photos of the northern lights in Iceland, the red and orange pillars of Bryce Canyon, or the Glowworm caves in New Zealand. Awestruck by God’s amazing creation, I thought of how He makes Himself known through all that He’s made. Unfortunately, we tend to hear God better when He shouts with the exceptional and impressive than when He whispers with the small and familiar. obedient plant (false dragonhead) - green tree frogWe’re sure to notice God in the Grand Canyon, the multitude of stars in the night sky, or when watching two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelles migrate through the Serengeti. We sense Him in extraordinary or exotic things like the peacock’s splendid tail, Devil’s Tower, or spectacular sunsets and sunrises. But do we notice Him in the commonplace and unremarkable?

Yesterday, I watched, spellbound, as several bees visited the flowers I was photographing. A bee would enter one of the purple tubular blossoms and disappear as it inched its way deep into the corolla to gather pollen and nectar. After backing out, it would move on to another bloom. A perfect fit, it was as if bee and flower had been designed for one another (and they were). The flowers’ scent attracted the bees and, while the bees gathered food for their hive, they pollinated the plants. What was happening in these ordinary flowers growing wild by the road was truly extraordinary!

God’s grandeur is revealed in the giant trees of the redwood forest but His attention to detail is found in the one billion bacteria that live in just one gram of the forest’s soil. His greatness is made known in the 1,600 miles of the Great Barrier Reef but also in the 1,500 species of fish, 5,000 species of mollusks, 17 species of sea snakes and 6 species of turtles living there. We see our ingenious Creator in the enormous African elephant but also in the oxpeckers and cattle egrets that ride on its back and in the lice, ticks and parasites living on the elephant that are eaten by those birds. God’s artistry is revealed in the 28,000 species of orchids and but also in His amazing design of the wasps, bees, flies, moths, ants and gnats that pollinate them.

God teaches us, speaks to us, and provides for us through his creation. Let’s not fail to see His marvelous work in the everyday and mundane: wasps building a nest, mushrooms appearing on the lawn after a rain, maple leaves turning red in autumn, raindrops glistening on a flower petal, or a squirrel gathering nuts. You may remember the first line of Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees: “I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.” The last line reads: “Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.” Only God can make a tree, but He’s also the only one who can make the lichens and fungi living on its bark, the small tree frog hiding in its leaves, and the sparrow nesting in its branches.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!

Nature is the living, visible garment of God. [Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe]

All things bright and beautiful, All creatures, great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all. [Cecil Francis Alexander]

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. … I will sing to the Lord as long as I live. I will praise my God to my last breath! May all my thoughts be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord. [Psalm 104:24,33-34 (NLT)]

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ONLY JESUS SAVES

God saved you by his grace when you first believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. [Ephesians 2:8 (NLT)]

viceroy butterflyUnlike the bruised and broken butterflies in yesterday’s devotion, this one looked perfect as it lay on the trail. When we approached, the Viceroy fluttered its wings but only managed to skim a few inches across the gravel. As intact as it looked, one wing was entirely useless. To protect it from walkers’ feet and speeding bicycles, we managed to get the creature off the trail into the grass. Unfortunately, without some sort of butterfly super-glue to reattach the loose wing, while we could help, we couldn’t save it.

Although it was easy to see that saving the butterfly was not within our purview, I’m not sure we understand that about our friends and loved ones. As much as we might want to, we can’t save the people around us. We can’t keep Terry from gambling, stop Mary from dating abusive men, make John quit drinking, or salvage Joan’s failing marriage. Seeing their potential and possibility, we want their lives to be better; they, however, are not our repair projects and their transformation is not our job. We can’t fix our loved ones, change their lives or save them from their own bad decisions. What we want for others is meaningless unless they want it for themselves. We can love them, share God’s word, help to bear their burdens, refuse to enable their destructive choices, and counsel, encourage and pray for them. What we can’t do is save them.

Just as we can’t save the addict from his addiction or the fool from his decisions, we can’t save non-believers from their non-belief. When we share the gospel message, we can impart knowledge but we can’t make people think; we can show people the truth, but we can’t make them believe. Just as we can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink, we can lead people to Jesus but can’t make them drink of His living water. We can give our testimony, but it is God who opens their hearts. We can sow the seed (and even water and fertilize it) but it is up to that seed and God as to whether or not it will sprout. Let us remember that Jesus will save anyone but not everyone will choose to be saved. Unfortunately, many will reject His offer of salvation. We can witness and pray for their salvation but we can’t save them. We aren’t their savior—Jesus Christ is! In actuality, He’s already done the saving; it’s just up to people to receive His gift of grace.

You will find all true theology summed up in these two short sentences: Salvation is all of the grace of God. Damnation is all of the will of man. [Charles Spurgeon]

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. … And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment. [John 3:16-17, 36 (NLT)]

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