WHICH CAME FIRST?

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. … Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person. [Genesis 1:3. 2:7 (NLT)]

hen and eggs

Years ago, The Jerusalem Post published a joke about human arrogance. After considering all of humanity’s scientific progress, a group of scientists decided that God no longer was necessary. The chief scientist explained to God that man’s ability to clone people, manipulate atoms, build molecules, fly through space, create body parts with 3-D printers, and perform other miraculous feats meant God was unneeded and could be replaced by man. After patiently listening to the scientist, God suggested a human-making contest with only one rule: “We have to do it just like I did in the Bible.” Saying that was easy, the arrogant scientist bent over to pick up a handful of dust. “Put that down!” said God, while adding, “To do it my way, you have to make your own dust!”

Our vacation home in Idaho came complete with chickens and hen house. Every morning, the littlest grands would trek out to the hen house, check for eggs, and return with the makings of an omelet. I was relieved they never asked the age-old unanswerable question of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” We need a chicken (actually two) to have a fertilized egg but we need a fertilized egg to make a chicken. This seemingly futile question has been discussed for thousands of years. The Greek philosopher Aristotle considered it but evaded the answer by saying that both egg and chicken went infinitely backwards and always existed. The oldest fossilized eggs are 190 million years old and the oldest fossilized birds are only 150 million years old so paleontologists might say the egg came first. A strict reading of Genesis, however, would lead us to conclude that the chicken came first because animals appeared on the 5th day of creation. It’s a silly question but people ask it because they want to understand how something can come from nothing.

When making the children’s omelets, we still needed the raw ingredients. Along with the eggs that came from chickens (that came from eggs), we needed butter and cheese from cows, salt from the sea, pepper from the drupe of a pepper plant (Piper nigrum}, and green peppers and onions that came from seeds sown by a farmer, as well as a frying pan, whisk, spatula, and gas stove. Although my seamstress friend creates stunning clothing, she needs the silk from the silkworm (that came from an egg) or the cotton from the cotton bush (that came from a seed) to do so. My wood-working friend creates beautiful furniture but he can’t do it without the wood that comes from an oak tree that comes from an acorn that originally came from the oak! This begs the question, “Which came first, the oak or the acorn?” As the arrogant scientist learned, mankind can’t create something from nothing!

God, however, created everything from nothing. He had no eggs for the chickens, acorns for the oaks, seeds for the apple trees, or pollen for the flowers. He had no hydrogen or oxygen for water and no sodium or chloride to add to the water for the sea! Simply put, God spoke all creation into existence. That’s a rather unsatisfactory answer for those who want a technical explanation but the Bible is a book of theology that tells us the who and not a book of science that tells us how. We’re not about to get any more details as to how chaos turned to order, a void came to be filled, and nothing became something. Whether it was the chicken or its egg that came first will always be a conundrum.

The Lord merely spoke, and the heavens were created. He breathed the word, and all the stars were born. He assigned the sea its boundaries and locked the oceans in vast reservoirs. Let the whole world fear the Lord, and let everyone stand in awe of him. For when he spoke, the world began! It appeared at his command. [Psalm 33:6-9 (NLT)]

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KNOWING HE’S THERE

And the believers were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. [Acts 13:52 (NLT)]

zebra longwing butterfly
Zebra Longwing butterflies (Heliconius charithonia) live in hammocks and damp forests. Unless they are resting on a plant, however, they are often difficult to spot. Unlike most butterflies, they don’t stay in the sunlight for long. I may see their shadows on the boardwalk but, when I look up, they quickly vanish into the shade they prefer. With their yellow and black colors, shallow wingbeats and languid flight, they float through the woods and often seem to be little more than flickering sunlight glimmering through the trees.

Oddly, I think of the Holy Spirit whenever I get a glimpse of these beautiful creatures. Just as I’ll probably never hold one in my hand, I have difficulty grasping the concept of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I know they both exist and bring me joy. There are times it’s difficult to catch sight of the winged zebras and, unfortunately, there are times I have difficulty detecting the Spirit. Nevertheless, just as I know the butterflies are in the woods, I know that He is present. Some days are better than others when it comes to spotting the Longwings and some days are better than others when it comes to sensing the Holy Spirit’s presence. If I’m jogging down a trail, I’ll never spot the butterflies and, if I’m rushing through life, it’s just as easy to overlook the Holy Spirit.

While I can blame the season, weather, light, or location for not seeing a butterfly, I have only myself to blame when I fail to perceive the Spirit. The times I feel devoid of His presence are when I neglect Scripture and prayer—the times I become so busy with the “me” and “my” of life that I don’t leave room for Him. They are the times I refuse to accept God’s control of my circumstances, ignore His direction, or don’t want to hear His conviction of my unacceptable behavior. Most often, however, I can’t feel the Holy Spirit because I’ve done something that grieves Him. Things like anger, resentment, jealousy, guilt and pride serve as barriers to feeling His presence. Fortunately, unlike the butterflies that disappear as they float through the woods, the Spirit will never leave me, even when I’ve disappointed Him.

In perfect unity with God the Father and God the Son, the Holy Spirit is the power of God that dwells within every believer in Jesus Christ. Just as it’s likely that I’ll catch a glimpse of Zebra Longwings on a certain boardwalk through the mangroves, I’m sure to feel the Spirit’s presence when I walk in His ways throughout the day.

You might as well try to see without eyes, hear without ears, or breathe without lungs, as to try to live the Christian life without the Holy Spirit. [D.L. Moody]

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. [John 14:26 (NLT)]

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THE MARK OF CAIN

The Lord replied, “No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him. So Cain left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. [Genesis 4:15-16 (NLT)]

After the magnificence of creation, things go from bad to worse and, by the fourth chapter of Genesis, we have the first homicide. When Cain and Abel make an offering to God, Abel’s is accepted but Cain’s is not. The rejection wasn’t because one gift was animal and the other was crops—both fauna and flora were acceptable and represented each brother’s vocation. Abel, however, presented the “best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock” and Cain merely offered “some of his crops” rather than the best and first. God rejected the offering because of Cain’s heart. While Abel made his offering whole-heartedly, Cain begrudged making the gift at all. Although Abel was not responsible for the rejection, he died at the hands of his angry jealous brother.

God punished Cain by banishing him and cursing the ground so that he would be unsuccessful in cultivating the soil. Having lost homeland, family, and livelihood, Cain was condemned to be a “homeless wanderer.” Cain protested that his punishment was too harsh—as a homeless fugitive without the protection of a community, he could be attacked and killed, perhaps in revenge by Abel’s family. Promising Cain that scenario wouldn’t happen, God pledged a seven-fold punishment for anyone who killed Cain.

To seal the deal, God gave Cain a sign or mark. Contrary to what we may have learned in Sunday school, this mark was a blessing not a punishment and may not have been a physical mark at all. The Hebrew verb typically translated as “set” or “put” in this verse was sum or sim which could mean everything from appointed, assigned, and established to attached, placed, or laid. The word typically translated as “mark” was ‘owth which referred to a sign, token, or mark and is the same word God used when giving Moses miraculous signs to convince Israel’s elders that God had spoken with him. Because we don’t know if this was an actual mark on Cain or some other sign, some Bibles translate the questioned verse as God giving Cain a sign or appointing a sign for him. Nevertheless, in one way or another, the sign or mark guaranteed Cain’s safety by indicating he was under God’s divine protection and warning of repercussions should the fugitive be killed.

More important than the mark is God’s choice of Cain’s punishment. It certainly isn’t what we expect from the God who later says, “Anyone who murders a fellow human must die.” [Genesis 9:5] Cain’s banishment is an important lesson for us. After being with God, Cain had to leave the Lord’s presence and his departure from God’s presence demonstrates the way our sin separates all sinners from God. When we sin and reject God’s will, only spiritual isolation and wretchedness remain. Moreover, by God withholding the full penalty of death for Cain’s sin, we are introduced to His amazing grace and mercy—a theme that weaves its way from Genesis through Revelation and culminates in Jesus! When Jesus took our punishment on the cross, rather than the death penalty we rightly deserved, like Cain, we were given life!

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. [Romans 5:8 (NLT)]

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) [Ephesians 2:4-5 (NLT)]

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THIS JAMES KNEW HIM BEST

This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad. Greetings! [James 1:1 (NLT)]

climbing aster
Four men were in heated disagreement at a falafel stand in Jerusalem when they asked a passerby to settle their dispute about the authorship of an epistle. “I’m James, the son of Alphaeus. I was one of the twelve disciples and I wrote the book of James.”  The next man interrupted, “No, I’m James, the father of the disciple named Judas (also known as Thaddaeus) and I wrote those words!” Disagreeing, the third man said, “I’m the disciple James, the son of Zebedee, a fisherman, and brother to John. I was the one who wrote that epistle! Contradicting him, the fourth man said, “I’m James, the brother of Jesus, and I’m the one who wrote that letter to the Jews.” The man they’d asked to settle their dispute calmly said, “You’re all wrong; I wrote it.” In unison, they asked, “Who are you?” He answered, “God—and all Scripture is God-breathed.”

Although all Scripture is God-breathed, someone named James put God’s words on paper. The writer of James simply identifies himself as a “slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There is an assumption in his words that he was well enough known by the church that no other identification was necessary. One disciple named James was the son of Alphaeus. Either younger or smaller in stature than the other disciple named James, he also is identified as James the mikros which meant little or small. Sometimes called James the less, he seems too obscure since his only mention is as one of the twelve and that his mother was with some of the women during the crucifixion. James, the father of Judas/Thaddeus is even more obscure since his only mention is that he was the father of a disciple! The other disciple named James was the brother of John. Usually referred to as the son of Zebedee or James “the greater,” he certainly is less obscure than the other two James but, like them, little more is known about him. Moreover, since he was dead by 44 AD, he wouldn’t have been well-known by the early church.

The most likely author is James, the half-brother of Jesus and the eldest of Mary and Joseph’s four boys.  Although he wasn’t a believer before the crucifixion, he was after and, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes specific mention of James seeing the resurrected Lord. The seven references to this James in Acts and both Paul’s and Jude’s letters tell us he played a prominent role in the early church. Scholars are in near unanimous agreement that, of all the James in the New Testament, this James is the one who penned the words found in the epistle.

Believed to have been written before the Jerusalem Council in 48 or 49 (mentioned in Acts 15), this may have been the first of the New Testament books written! Unlike Paul, James wasn’t a theologian and his letter wasn’t about doctrine. When he said that faith without works is meaningless, he wasn’t arguing with Paul’s concerns about legalism—he may not even have known of them at the time. He simply was opposing the attitude that dismissed works as unnecessary for Christians. We can’t just talk the talk; we must walk the walk.

James’ epistle was about applying Jesus’ teachings—a statement about the kind of life a Christ follower should live. As Jesus’ half-brother, he was uniquely qualified to do so. Having known Jesus all of His life, rather than just the three years of His ministry, James knew what he was talking about. He may not have known Jesus was the Messiah until the resurrection, but he knew Jesus as only a brother can. He may not have heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or heard Him preach about forgiveness, sacrifice, and loving one’s enemy, but he’d seen Jesus live those words every day of His life. Whenever we wonder, “What would Jesus do?” there’s an excellent chance we’ll find the answer in James’ epistle, in words penned by a man who actually saw what Jesus did!

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? … So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” [James 2:14,17-18 (NLT)]

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SLEEPLESS NIGHTS

Glen Canyon - Lake Powell
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)]

“What keeps you awake at night?” he asked. The questioner, however, wasn’t interested in my husband’s snoring or my reaction to caffeine or spicy foods. He wondered what things weigh heavy enough on my heart that I’m kept from peaceful sleep.

While a venti latte in the late afternoon can keep me awake and I may take a midnight trip to the bathroom, other than my recent bout with bronchitis or when I’m in physical pain, not much robs me of a night’s sleep. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when things like worry, resentment, disappointment, fear, regret, and even despair overwhelmed me enough to deprive me of sleep. Nowadays, I’ve found that resting in God’s word has a way of pushing aside my concerns better than any lullaby or sleep aid.

Unfortunately, it took me way too many years to understand that things like anxiety, apprehension, and angst simply push God out of His rightful place. Even though I knew better, I felt responsible for the happiness and success of everyone I loved. I thought I had to be perfect (or as near to perfect as possible) to be loved by God or man and I worried because perfection was unachievable. Some nights, I also brought a bag of remorse, guilt, and grief to bed along with my concerns and cares. Instead of counting sheep, I would catalogue regrets, troubles, offenses, and misgivings.

It took a few crises to knock me to my knees where I belonged—praying instead of worrying and surrendering to God instead of trying to be Him. Once I resigned as ruler of the universe, I finally found the peace Jesus promised that had seemed so elusive. Understanding that God does a much better job of running lives than I ever could, I turned it all over to Him. After all, He’s up all night anyway so there’s no reason both of us should stay awake!

Better than melatonin, chamomile tea, or lavender aromatherapy is the reassurance found in God’s word that God is firmly in control and He is bigger than all of our burdens combined. Our job is to hand those burdens over to the Lord and leave the rest up to Him! As for regrets, the Apostle Paul told the Philippians that he focused on forgetting the past and looking forward to what lay ahead. [3:13] We should do the same. If God can forgive us, we can graciously accept His forgiveness and forgive ourselves. If He can say “over, done with, and gone” about our offenses, then we can do the same for others.

Now, instead of sheep, problems, fears, or regrets, I count my blessings! Even if the day went every which way but right, there’s always something for which to be thankful—even if it’s that tomorrow is another day! If I ever happen to find myself wakeful, I figure it’s the Lord telling me the day’s work isn’t done and there’s something about which I need to pray.

What keeps you awake at night? Is there a Bible verse that might help you sleep better? Resting in God’s word probably is more effective than many of those sleep medications on the market and there are no undesirable side effects! Like those prescription meds, however, there is a warning—you can get dependent upon God’s word. Indeed, the peace that passes understanding is addictive!

God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you. [Augustine]

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe. [Psalm 4:8 (NLT)]

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GROWING JOY

You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. [1 Peter 1:8 (NLT)]

Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:10 (NLT)]

cherriesWhile both are joy and happiness are pleasurable, there seems to be a fine line between the two. Happiness is more like satisfaction. Dependent on external circumstances, it needs everything to go right or as close to right as possible. On the other hand, because joy doesn’t depend on what is happening to us or to the people we love, it is possible even when everything has gone terribly wrong. Happiness is an emotion which, like anger, sadness, fear, and jealousy, is short-lived but joy can be a permanent state of mind. Because happiness takes the short view, it’s hard to be happy in suffering. Because joy takes the long view, it can endure through suffering.

After writing yesterday’s message, I wondered what God thinks of our pursuit of happiness. He certainly isn’t against happiness but, since happiness is circumstantial and temporal, God doesn’t promise that we’ll always be happy. Since God’s concern is the permanent and eternal, however, He does promise us joy and that joy is built on His presence in our lives! Unlike happiness that needs pursuing, we don’t have to pursue joy. Instead, when we pursue God, joy will find us! Joy is possible in all things because we know who is with us now and what awaits us in the future; we know we’re just in the prelude to our real and eternal life.

Rather than coming from people, things or circumstances, joy is a one of the fruits the Holy Spirit plants in our hearts but, like any fruit, it needs cultivating and tending. Rather than peach scab and brown rot, unrealistic expectations and discontent can hamper our receptiveness to God’s joy and ruin a harvest. Like weeds, envy and greed compete with the fruit for nutrients while anger, adversity, and resentment are like the destructive aphids and fruit worms that destroy new growth and keep fruit from developing. Instead of birds, racoons, deer, and groundhogs, things like guilt, unforgiveness, worry, and fear can destroy or steal the fruit from right under our noses!

So, how do we nurture this fruit and bring it to harvest? We apply weed killer with gratitude and acceptance, fertilize with forgiveness and humility, water with compassion and generosity, eradicate bugs and worms with a heavy dose of perspective and humor, and protect our joy from pests with a strong fence made of God’s word, worship, and prayer. The fruit of the Spirit exists because of God’s presence in our lives. While joy, like love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is produced by the Spirit, whether we harvest His fruit is entirely up to us.

Remember, O my soul, it is thy duty and privilege to rejoice in God; He requires it of thee for all his favors of grace. Rejoice then in the giver and his goodness, Be happy in him, O my heart, and in nothing but God, for whatever a man trusts in, from that he expects happiness. … Let God be all to thee, and joy in the fountain that is always full. [The Valley of Vision – A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions (Arthur Bennett, editor)]

For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. [Romans 14:17 (NLT)]

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! [Philippians 4:4 (NLT)]

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