DOING IT RIGHT OR DOING THE RIGHT THING?

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 5:17 (NLT)]

For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners. [Matthew 9:13b (NLT)]

grey catbirdWe recently saw a stage production of Les Miserables (“Les Miz”), a musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel. Set in France in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. When Valjean, known as “Prisoner 24601,” is released, he is issued a “yellow passport” which he’s required to present to the police in any village he passes through. Stating he has been released from prison but listing his crimes, this yellow piece of paper marks him as a criminal forever.

Almost immediately upon his release, Valjean steals from the Bishop of Digne, the only person who shows him any kindness by offering him food and shelter. When the ex-convict is caught by the police, the bishop refuses to accuse him and even gives him more silver. The astonished Valjean then commits his life to virtue and service. Realizing he can’t start life anew as a convict, he breaks parole by tearing up his yellow passport and changing his name.

Valjean becomes a model citizen but, to an unrelenting policeman named Javert, Valjean remains Prisoner 24601 and a criminal. Even after Valjean saves his life, Javert remains wholly dedicated to enforcing the law by arresting Valjean and punishing him for breaking parole. He sings these words about Valjean: “Once a thief, forever a thief. What you want you always steal.”

While hardly a Christian story, Victor Hugo’s tale depicts the way Christian love can transform a person. We see how the bishop’s love and forgiveness affects Vajean and how his new personality positively impacts the lives of others. When we accept Jesus, like Valjean, we become new people and the old is gone. The “yellow passport” identifying us as sinners is torn and tossed and we are new people with a new purpose.

While we identify with Valjean, we also can resemble the unrelenting Javert or the merciful Bishop of Digne. Like Javert, do we ever act as judge and jury and insist that “a man like that can never change”? Are we people who can’t forgive: people who believe justice is more about retribution than mercy? Like Javert, are we more interested in being right or, like the bishop, is our concern doing what’s right? As did the bishop, do we truly believe in redemption, forgiveness, love and mercy? To give someone a new lease on life, would we lie to the police or give even more to a thief? Would we follow the letter of the law or the word of God? When I ponder this question, I think of the advice given to a young man by his minister father: “Don’t just do what is legally right, do what is morally right!” Let us remember that, as Christians, we are not called just to do things right; we are called always to do the right thing!

You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. [Matthew 5:38-42 (NLT)]

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YOU ARE FORGIVEN

So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself. [1 Corinthians 11:28 (NLT)]

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. [United Methodist Book of Worship]

ospreyIn the denominational church we attend Saturday nights, we celebrate Communion every week. As part of the liturgy, the congregation is invited to join in a corporate general confession. The pastor then tells the congregation that, in the name of Jesus Christ, they are forgiven. The congregation responds with the words, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” New to this denomination, at first I wondered, “Does the pastor need the entire congregation’s forgiveness?”

With just a little thought I realized we weren’t forgiving the pastor (unless, of course, she’s harmed us in some way); we were forgiving all who have wronged us. Sinning and being sinned against are part of the human condition. If we need God’s forgiveness (and we always do), it’s a sure thing that someone out there needs our forgiveness as much as we need theirs.

Our Lord’s words were “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us,” [Matthew 6:12] which seems to mean that the way we give forgiveness is the way we’ll receive it. But does that mean we’ll not be forgiven if we don’t forgive? That seems to run contrary to the concept of God’s grace. I’ve read assorted and contradictory commentaries on this and still don’t know the answer to that one. What I do know is that the power to forgive doesn’t come from me; it comes from the Holy Spirit. Perhaps our inability to forgive others has more to do with our relationship with God than with anyone else.

The Apostle Paul tells us to examine ourselves before partaking of the bread and wine which would seem to mean that we should examine our relationship with Christ to determine whether it is sincere and genuine. Harboring condemnation, ire, bitterness, or resentment indicates there’s a problem in our relationship with Jesus as well as with someone else. The message of the gospel, however, is one of reconciliation and forgiveness.

When I say those words of forgiveness during Saturday worship, I am reminded that Jesus placed the burden of forgiveness and reconciliation on me. It doesn’t matter who is at fault, who should be the one to apologize, or whether the person who offended us is repentant or not. We can’t ask for the blessings found in the Lord’s Supper if we’re unwilling to share those blessings with friend and enemy alike. There is no room for anger and unforgiveness at the Lord’s table; His table is one of love and forgiveness.

‘Forgive our sins as we forgive,’ you taught us, Lord, to pray,
but you alone can grant us grace to live the words we say…
In blazing light your cross reveals the truth we dimly knew:
what trivial debts are owed to us, how great our debt to you!
[“Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive” by Rosamond E. Herklots]

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. [Colossians 3:13 (NLT)]

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A MATTER OF CHOICE

Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. [Luke 1:38 (NLT)]

great blue heronYesterday, when writing about the angel’s visit to Mary, I came upon some articles by women who take offense at the story of Jesus’s conception. Interpreting Mary’s response as involuntary, they picture the Annunciation of our Lord as some weird sort of a supernatural rape. This is inconsistent both with Scripture and God as we know Him. The angel didn’t say, “Surprise, you’re pregnant!” and leave. Read the words as reported by Luke; Gabriel told Mary what would happen, not what had already occurred. It was only after Mary asked how the angel’s words would be fulfilled and she accepted God’s invitation to motherhood that the angel departed.

The God we know from Scripture is one of choice: it was He who gave us free will. Although God pursues, seeks and invites us, it remains our choice to accept or reject Him. Jesus called the people to follow Him but not everyone who heard His invitation did. When the people of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave, that’s exactly what He did. When Jesus told the parables about banquets to which the invited guests refused to come, the host accepted their refusals and simply invited others to the feast. God gave us free will and He will not violate this gift. No one, not even the virgin Mary, is ever forced to partake of God’s grace.

Although some would have us think that Mary was powerless in Gabriel’s presence, she was the one with the power. It was Mary who would decide whether or not to accept God’s call. Writer Mark Ballenger refers to God as a “sovereign gentleman,” and, like a true gentleman, He waited for Mary’s verbal consent before the Holy Spirit came upon her!

When feminists object to Mary saying she was the Lord’s servant, they are confusing being servile (mindlessly doing what is ordered) with consciously choosing to serve. There is nothing demeaning or weak about being a servant. Jesus was God and yet he called himself a servant and laid aside his majesty to selflessly serve mankind and die on the cross.

Mary was far more than an incubator for God. We honor her not because she had the womb in which Jesus grew; we honor her because she freely chose to be a faithful and obedient servant to God. God could not have carried out His plan of salvation without Mary’s consent and cooperation. Let us remember that God cannot continue to carry out the plans for His Kingdom without ours. Like Mary, we are called to be God’s servants. Whether or not we accept His invitation, is entirely up to us.

Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me. [John 12:25-26 (NLT)]

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MARCH 25 – HAPPY NEW YEAR

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

spiderwortIf we were living in England between 1155 and 1752, today would be New Year’s Day! Although the historical year would have begun January 1, March 25 was the day the civil or legal year began. Since England and its colonies used the Julian calendar (named after Julius Caesar) they celebrated the spring equinox on March 25. Starting a new year in the dead of winter seemed counter-intuitive and the first day of spring, the season of new growth, seemed more logical and the perfect day to start a new year. The Julian calendar, however, had miscalculations (including the spring equinox) and was replaced in 1752 by the Gregorian one (named after Pope Gregory); that, however, is another story.

For those in liturgical churches, today is also known as the Annunciation of our Lord and commemorates the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary. This feast was celebrated as far back as the fourth or fifth century and its March date was set in the seventh century. For the English, celebrating Christ’s first presence as a human being on this day was another good reason for starting the year on March 25.

The story of Jesus didn’t begin in Bethlehem; it began in Nazareth nine months prior to that night. It was when Mary became pregnant that God became incarnate: a human being made of flesh and blood. Granted, He was but two cells fused together but that zygote had everything in it to become Jesus Christ. It divided again and again, the embryo grew, the cells began to differentiate, and the fetus developed everything needed to live outside His mother. Since sin-filled man was incapable of going to God, our perfect God came to us. That baby boy forming in Mary’s womb was the promised Messiah!

While Jesus’s incarnation is the core of our Christianity, it is difficult to understand and, for some people, impossible to believe. Nevertheless, the God who spoke the world into creation, created night and day, scattered the stars through the sky, filled the oceans with water, and populated the earth with living plants and animals could certainly manage to plant a fetus in a womb without going through the ordinary steps. When Mary assented to God’s will, Jesus was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit!

Of course, since we really don’t know when Jesus’s birth took place, we don’t know the date of His conception. Nevertheless, having grown up in a liturgical church, I find a richness and strength in remembering and celebrating events in the life of Christ (even if the dates are wrong). While Advent is a beautiful season of anticipation both of Christ’s birth and his second coming, Luke’s gospel account of Gabriel’s visit to Mary seems more appropriate in this spring season of new beginnings than in winter, a time of dormancy. On what I hope to be a beautiful spring day for you, please take the time to read the account of this blessed miracle found in Luke 1:28-36. Remember to thank God for entering the world as man to save humanity.

Without question, this is the great mystery of our faith: Christ was revealed in a human body and vindicated by the Spirit. He was seen by angels and announced to the nations. He was believed in throughout the world and taken to heaven in glory. [1 Timothy 3:16 (NLT)]

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DAY ONE

DawnThe faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentations 3:22-24 (NLT)

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. [2 Corinthians 4:6 (NLT)]

I’m an early riser anyway but the three hour time difference between the east and west coasts had me up well before dawn. While sipping my morning latte, I looked out the window and watched the morning appear. As the sun began to rise, God got out his paints to color the sky and the horizon took shape. I slipped on my shoes and went out to greet the new day. While a rooster in the distance crowed his welcome to the sun, I silently shouted my good morning to God and thought of Matthew West’s song Day One of the Rest of My Life. “It’s day one and here comes the sun!” I sang to myself. Indeed, each morning brings day one of the rest of our lives—day one of the best of our lives! Thank you, God.

Seeing the sunrise shouldn’t just be saved for Easter morning services and I feel sorry for those who sleep through the day’s awakening. They miss experiencing that perfect moment when dawn breaks through: when today becomes yesterday and tomorrow becomes today. Although saying, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” is a cliché, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Telling us that yesterday does not have to repeat itself today, each dawn brings a new beginning.

Of course, we don’t have to arise while it’s still dark to enjoy a dawn in our lives. Our faith in Jesus takes us from the darkness of unbelief into a new beginning. Moreover, because of God’s grace, we’re assured that even when we mess up (and we surely will), there is another new beginning and plenty more after that. Nevertheless, seeing a sunrise reminds us both of God’s forgiveness and the new life in Christ we’ve been given. It tells us that this is the day we should live life to the fullest, honor and serve God the most, and be the best we can be. This is the day we can get back on the right path, realize our dreams, fulfill His will, and be wiser, better, and more forgiving. But, just as we don’t have the power to make the sun rise, we don’t have the power to become the person God wants us to be by ourselves. That power comes from the Holy Spirit within us. It is He who fills us with the peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to meet each day.

The Psalmist said, “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” [118:24] Indeed, each new day brings reason to rejoice. Yet, since every dawn inevitably ends in a sunset, the sunrise also serves as a subtle reminder of the brevity of life. Not a moment should be wasted in regret, anger, resentment, worry or fear. Lord, whether today is the first or the last day of the rest of our lives, fill us with your Spirit so that it is the best day of our lives!

Well, I wish I had a short term memory,
Wish the only thing my eyes could see
Was the future burning bright right in front of me;
But I can’t stop looking back.
Yeah, I wish I was a perfect picture of
Somebody who’s never not good enough.
I try to measure up but I mess it up
And I wish I wasn’t like that. …
Well, every single day Your grace reminds me
That my best days are not behind me.
Wherever my yesterday may find me
Well, I don’t have to stay there.
It’s day one of the rest of my life!
It’s day one of the best of my life! [Matthew West, Peter Kipley]

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 5:17 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE LAMB OF GOD – ASH WEDNESDAY

New mexicoThe next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! [John 1:29 (NLT)]

Today is the first day of Lent, a season in which we remember the time Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights. Because Lent occurs in the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter, we tend to associate this period of Jesus’s life with the end of his ministry. It actually occurred early in His ministry, shortly after his baptism by John and his empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

During Jesus’s time in the wilderness, Satan visited and tempted Him. Jesus first was tempted to serve Himself—to alleviate his hunger by turning stones into bread. In the second temptation, Satan urged Jesus to jump off the Temple and reveal Himself in a spectacular display. This action would also test God’s love by coercing Him into saving Jesus. In the third test, Satan tempted Jesus to skip the cross altogether; all the kingdoms of the world would be His if only He’d worship the evil one.

Just because Jesus was divine doesn’t mean He couldn’t have fallen; He also was human and, like us all, susceptible to Satan’s wiles. He could have sinned as easily as Adam and Eve, but He didn’t! Resisting temptation was as essential to His mission as was suffering on the cross. Just as sin came into the world through one man, God would redeem the world through one man, but Jesus had to remain sinless for that to happen. If He hadn’t, there would have been no point to the cross; only a perfect sinless sacrifice could atone for mankind’s sins.

Because Jesus countered all of Satan’s temptations with Scripture, we tend to think of the temptation of Christ as sort of a “how to” manual on overpowering temptation. While it is that, it is so much more. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness to teach us a lesson—He went into the wilderness to save us. He wasn’t just battling for His soul—He was fighting Satan for ours! He was defeating Satan by deliberating choosing to suffer for us as a man when He was God! He endured hunger when he could have spoken food into existence. He humbly chose to remain an obscure rabbi from Nazareth rather than use His power to win a following. Refusing to compromise with Satan, He chose obedience to God: to live, suffer and die as a man. Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, chose to endure the cross for sinful selfish mankind: the very people who would put Him there!

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. [2 Corinthians 5:21 (NLT)]

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:15-16 (NLT)]

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