TRADING PLACES

My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. [Romans 9:2-3 (NLT)]

little blue heron (juvenile) - great blue heronBereft that the people of Israel had rejected Jesus, Paul’s words are some of the saddest ones found in the epistles. I can see the tears in his eyes and hear the anguish in his voice as he dictated them to Tertius, his scribe. Young’s Literal Translation translates Paul’s words as having “great grief and unceasing pain in my heart.” Although he knows that nothing could cut him off from Christ, Paul says he’d be willing to sacrifice himself for his people if it were possible. That’s not just his life he’s offering; the word he used was anathema, meaning he was willing give up his salvation. If it would save the people of Israel, he would be delivered over to the wrath of God for eternal destruction: to spend an eternity in Hell!

While Paul probably was the greatest of Christian evangelists, we mustn’t forget that first and foremost, he was a Jew. A Pharisee who’d studied under the best teachers, he was from the tribe of Benjamin. Describing himself as “a real Hebrew if there ever was one,” all of his family and friends were Jews. He was one of God’s chosen people to whom the Messiah had been promised. Although Jesus came to the Jews first, Paul wondered how so many of God’s chosen could reject Him. Paul’s message throughout Romans was salvation by grace through faith. It must have broken his heart that the majority of his Jewish brothers and sisters would miss out on that salvation because they didn’t have faith.

Paul’s willingness to sacrifice salvation for his people shows what a burden their unbelief was on him. A similar burden is borne by many Christians when their loved ones aren’t Christ followers. Like many others, I have adult family members who don’t believe and their unbelief breaks my heart as much as the Jews’ unbelief broke Paul’s. Many of my friends have shared their grief that, in the life to come, they will not be reunited with their unbelieving family members. Like Paul, we would sacrifice our salvation if it would ensure theirs. That, however, is not how salvation works. Although Jesus suffered, died and took our punishment upon Himself, we cannot take theirs. Only Jesus can save them!

It’s been asked, “How do you convince a person they’re in danger of being burned when they’re floating on a raft in the ocean?” I really don’t know! As parents and grandparents, we don’t want to lose our children or grands in this life or the next. Knowing that we are not in control, we must accept and respect their choices. In the end, only God can convince them of the truth of the Gospel! Nevertheless, we continue to love (and listen) to them, model Christ in our behavior, bear the Fruit of the Spirit, and pray continually and expectantly for them. Let us trust that God has a plan for our children. The good news is that, no matter what our loved ones have said or done in the past, they are only one step away from Jesus! Until then, let us pray!

And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. [Romans 10:8b-10 NLT)]

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WHY THIRTY?

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry. [Luke 3:23a (NLT)]

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. [Romans 5:6 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtailWe know little about Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood. Born in Bethlehem, He was circumcised and given His name eight days later. Forty days after His birth, Mary and Joseph took Him to the Temple in Jerusalem in accordance with the command to consecrate every firstborn male to God. Sometime after that, He received gifts from the Magi, His family fled to Egypt, and they returned to Nazareth after Herod died. That’s all we know of His childhood until He was twelve and the precocious youngster stayed behind in Jerusalem to discuss spiritual matters with the teachers there. After Mary and Joseph found Him in the Temple courts, He dutifully returned home to Nazareth with them. Although we know that Jesus learned Joseph’s construction trade and that he started his ministry around thirty, we know nothing of the years between twelve and thirty except that He was obedient to His parents and “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and all the people.” [Luke 2:52]

Why did Jesus wait until he was thirty to begin His ministry? Wouldn’t He be in a rush to bring salvation to the world? Although we know Mary and at least six other siblings were alive during Jesus’ ministry, the last reference to Joseph is when Jesus was twelve. With no mention of Joseph at the wedding in Cana, scholars assume that he was dead by that time. It’s clear that Mary was a widow by the crucifixion because Jesus entrusted her care to the Apostle John. Mary’s widowhood might be one reason for the ministry delay. As the eldest son, Jesus had family duties and couldn’t leave the family until His brothers were old enough (and skilled enough) to support the large family.

Before the Messiah could arrive, a forerunner was necessary. Jesus couldn’t begin His ministry until John the Baptist had prophesied His arrival. About six months older than Jesus, John was in his mid-twenties when he became a prophet and time was needed for his message to become known. Thirty also was considered the age when men reached their full maturity. Moreover, the frankincense given to Jesus as a baby signified His priesthood and it was at thirty that scribes were admitted to office and men could become priests.

Perhaps the main reason for waiting until He was thirty is simply that Jesus needed to mature. Paul tells us that, “Even though He was God’s Son, He learned obedience from the things He suffered.” [Hebrews 5:8] We know Jesus suffered on Calvary but, in those thirty years spent growing up, He suffered the other things we mortals inevitably do: loss, injury, illness, rejection, and pain. Boys aren’t born with qualities like self-discipline, patience, perseverance, or courage; those qualities are developed. Jesus may have been God but the boy Jesus had to become a man.

Perhaps waiting until He was thirty was simply so that Jesus, like the rest of us, would learn to appreciate God’s timing. While God’s time schedule often is not the schedule we’d choose, He’s always right on time. Jesus may have been God but, like the rest of us, He had to wait patiently for God’s perfect timing.

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. … Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. [Hebrews 2:14a,17 (NLT)]

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WHY PRAY?

You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.… You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. [Psalm 139:4,16 (NLT)]

Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray. [Samuel Chadwick]

blue flag irisAs I offered prayers for a good biopsy report, it occurred to me that my prayer was too late. Already excised, the tissue had been sent to a pathologist; for all I knew, the report was written and waiting to be read by my physician. Was God going to rewrite the report? Any troublesome cells in my body had been there awhile. Most likely, the biopsy result was decided months ago so I probably should have been praying about it long before anyone knew a biopsy was needed. Since the pathologist’s report was determined long before my prayers, “Why bother to pray at all?” was the whisper of doubt in my mind.

I imagine I’m not alone in questioning the purpose and efficacy of prayer. When I question if my prayer right now can affect a report written two days ago, let alone a situation that probably has been months or years in the making, I am thinking in human terms: past, present, and future. While we can remember the past, we can only remember that which we know about, not what was hidden from us. We can see the present, but only that which is immediately in front of us and we are blind to the future. God, however, is infinite. Unlimited, He exists outside time or space. Omnipotent, He knows everything that has happened, everything that is happening now, and everything that will take place in the future. Before I was born, He knew the choices I would make, what those choices would mean, whether or not I would pray, and what I’d say in those prayers. He even knew I’d be having a biopsy, its results, and whether or not I’d pray about it. Having given me free will, He didn’t determine my choices; nevertheless, He knew the choices I’d make. Not only did He hear my prayers before I spoke them, He heard my prayers before I’d even thought about praying them.

While I know prayer changes people, I don’t know if prayer changes history. Rather than changing history, perhaps our history is already determined because God knows whether or not we will pray. Rather than changing history, perhaps prayer determines it. Did God change His mind about destroying the people of Nineveh because of their prayers? Or, even before sending Jonah to them, did He know that, having been warned, they would pray and repent so Nineveh would be spared?

Our vision is limited but God’s is not. Without twenty-twenty hindsight or a crystal ball allowing us to see the future, we’re not likely to understand the way He answers our prayers. Clearly, Jesus believed in prayer. He often prayed, taught the disciples to pray and we know of his anguished prayer in Gethsemane. God the Father knew every prayer Jesus offered, not because He determined them, but because He lives in a continuum of time and sees yesterday, today, and tomorrow as one. I think God already knows the prayers we’re going to offer tomorrow (even though we don’t) and that He has already set in motion whatever needs to be done to answer those prayers according to His will! I don’t understand how prayer works but I’m not going to allow uncertainty or doubts keep me from praying.

Let us pray!

I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me. [C.S. Lewis]

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)]

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WE’VE BEEN WARNED

So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would keep watch and not permit his house to be broken into. You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected. [Matthew 24:42-44 (NLT)]

He will come again to judge the living and the dead. [The Apostles’ Creed]

Taos NM In an attempt to avoid the day’s heat, I went walking immediately after breakfast, leaving the bed unmade and the dishes on the counter. Thinking I would tend to the bedroom and kitchen later in the day, I cleaned the lanai when I returned home. Just as I was finishing up, the gate house called: I had unexpected guests! One of my visitors is a “neatnik” and nothing about me or the house (except for the lanai) was neat or clean. In the few minutes between the gate’s call and their arrival, I managed to pull up the bedspread, throw the dishes in the sink, wipe the counter, slip on a fresh t-shirt, put on lipstick and don a baseball cap. I was thankful for the advance call that gave me just enough time to make things semi-presentable.

At least I had a few minutes warning to straighten up; we won’t get that much time when it really matters! The day of Christ’s second coming will be sudden and unexpected, with no cautionary alarms. While there will be signs, many people won’t understand them and most won’t heed them. There will be no call from the gatehouse asking if we want to give Him entry! We’ve been amply forewarned in Scripture; let’s not plan on an extra five minutes to clean up our act!

Putting aside the question of Judgment Day, how prepared are we for our own last day here on earth? Some of us may linger under Hospice care and be painfully aware of death’s imminence, but many will get little or no warning. Tornadoes hit, aneurysms burst, cars run red lights, and a heart attack can turn a wife into a widow within minutes. Even those with health issues often ignore the inevitability of death and many seniors act as if they’re immortal. They have no wills, powers of attorney, or advance healthcare directives and refuse to discuss funeral plans or decide which grand might like a special piece of jewelry. “There’s time enough for that later,” they say. The clock is ticking; how much warning do any of us need?

There are, however, far more important decisions than what songs will be sung at our funeral or who will get our things—decisions that need to be made now. Are we followers of Christ or not? When our final day comes, we won’t get an opportunity to discuss the options or make things right. When that last day arrives, there may be no warning: no opportunity for frenzied prayers and last minute repentance. We shouldn’t wait until the eleventh hour to choose God; after all, we could die at 10:30!

One of two things you must do; you must either receive Him or reject Him. You receive Him here and He will receive you there; you reject Him here and He will reject you there. [D.L. Moody]

None of us can hold back our spirit from departing. None of us has the power to prevent the day of our death. There is no escaping that obligation, that dark battle. And in the face of death, wickedness will certainly not rescue the wicked. [Ecclesiastes 8:8 (NLT)]

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COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS

I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. [Mark 10:29-30 (NLT)]

mockingbird dangerLast year, Forbes magazine published a list of the most and least trusted professionals. It should come as no surprise that, with only an 8% approval rating, members of Congress and car salesmen were at the bottom of the list. Nurses were at the list’s top but, even then, only 84% of the public thought them honest and ethical. After all, too many nurses have promised, “This won’t hurt,” when it really did. Jesus, however, was brutally honest about life—it would hurt and life wouldn’t be trouble-free when people took up their crosses and followed Him.

After the rich young man who was unwilling to give up his possessions and follow Jesus departed, Peter reminded the Lord that His disciples had given up everything to be His followers. Having met the requirements of discipleship given to the rich man, implicit in Peter’s statement was the question, “What’s in it for us?”

In His answer, Jesus promised blessings both in this life and in the next. Whatever His disciples had sacrificed would be returned one hundredfold. Getting back 100% would be getting back exactly what had been forsaken but a return of a hundredfold is one hundred times better! This, however, is not a prosperity promise; while Jesus tells his disciples their lives will be richer, He never promises they’ll be wealthier. The people and things they lose are literal but the people and possessions gained are spiritual. After all, while not of substance, a soul is irreplaceable and its worth is incalculable. When adopted as one of God’s children, Christ’s followers get a new family in His church, a home in His Kingdom, and eternal life.

But then Jesus got brutally honest; tacked smack dab in the middle of those blessings and the promise of eternal life is His promise of persecution. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus reiterated that the cost of discipleship would be sacrifice, persecution, suffering and trials. Unlike nurses, He told us that it would hurt. Life doesn’t necessarily get easier when we follow Jesus, but He promises it will become better (and the two are not the same thing).

Living in Florida, like being a disciple of Christ, comes at a cost. A cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost includes dangers like venomous snakes, black bears, poisonous cane toads, toxic plants, hurricanes, feral pigs, alligators, sink holes, fire ants, panthers, and even stinging caterpillars. Other negatives include the expense of air conditioning, seasonal traffic, and mosquitoes! That cost, however, is more than offset by the benefits of living in a tropical paradise of forever summer, beautiful birds, beaches, colorful flowers, ocean breezes, early-bird specials and no state income tax!

A cost-benefit analysis of discipleship tells us the price we pay is our lives but the benefits of God’s Kingdom and eternal life outweigh the cost a hundredfold! There certainly are times serving Jesus and His church with our time, talents, and money seems a heavy price to pay but true discipleship (and all of the sacrifice, trials and even persecution that arise from it) comes with the territory just as learning to live with hurricanes comes with Florida! In both cases, it’s more than worth it.

Not one man has ever sacrificed for his Lord without being richly repaid. If the cross is only contrasted with earthly pleasures lost, it may seem hard and threatening. But when the cross is weighed in the balances with the glorious treasures to be had through it, even the cross seems sweet. [Walter J. Chantry]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? [Mark 8:34-36 (NLT)]

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WITH A SMALL “C”

For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (NLT)]

old world wisconsinIt is said that John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist movement) once dreamt of visiting the gates of Hell. Curious, he asked the gatekeeper how many in Hell were Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists. “We have many,” was the gatekeeper’s answer regarding each denomination. Nervously, Wesley then asked if there were any Methodists and was disheartened to learn there were plenty of them there, as well.

Dismayed, Wesley proceeded to the gates of Heaven. The preacher asked how many in Heaven were Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists. To each question, the gatekeeper replied, “Not a one.” After Wesley asked how many Methodists were there, his heart dropped at the gatekeeper’s reply of, “None!” Perplexed, the concerned preacher asked who was in Heaven. The angel at the gate replied, “The only ones here are those who love the Lord and the only name by which they are known is that of Christian!”

From that strange dream, John Wesley is said to have concluded that unity within the Christian church was essential for its mission. Nevertheless, acknowledging that there will be different points of view, he said, “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may.”

I thought of John Wesley’s dream when my husband told me how, as a boy, he refused to say the word “catholic” when reciting the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds. Not attending a Roman Catholic church, he didn’t know how he could say he believed in it! Of course, he didn’t understand that catholic (with a small c) has never meant a specific denomination.

Etymologically, “catholic” comes from two Greek words, kata or kath (meaning “throughout”) and holos (meaning “whole”). When joined as katholikos, it means, “throughout the whole.” Meaning more than universal, “catholic” captures the dual sense of “throughout all time and in all places” while pointing to the essential unity or wholeness of Christ’s Church. When the creeds state, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” they aren’t referring to any branch of Christianity; they refer to the entirety of the whole Church, not just here and now, but everywhere in the past and future as well. First used in the early 2nd century, the adjective “catholic” didn’t mean a particular denomination; it simply described the universal scope of the Christian Church. It was not until the Reformation that the Roman church used “Catholic” (with a capital C) as a denominational title to distinguish itself from the Protestants.

To avoid confusion, many Protestant churches have replaced “catholic” with “Christian” when saying the creed. Nevertheless, the original word has a beautiful subtext because it refers to the wholeness of the entire church and the unity of all believers in the body of Christ, throughout all time and in all places. The “holy catholic church” simply refers to all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ—people like the ones John Wesley found in heaven! Indeed, we won’t all think alike nor will we worship alike but we all can love alike!

Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. [Ignatius of Antioch]

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. [John 17:20-23 (NLT)]

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