WHAT CHANGED THEM? (Easter – Part 2)

But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. … Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” [Matthew 10:17-18,16:24 (NLT)]

rabbitThe Federal Trade Commission is charged with enforcing truth-in-advertising laws so that all advertisements are truthful, not misleading, and backed by scientific evidence. Although drug companies abide by the FTC’s regulations by listing their products’ side effects, between the fine print and the announcer’s fast talk, most consumers don’t understand them. Jesus didn’t resort to fast talk, deceit, or ambiguity when he told His disciples the cost of following him. He was brutally honest and told the disciples they would arrested, persecuted and hated because of Him.

While the disciples may not have comprehended completely, they couldn’t say they weren’t warned and Jesus told them the possibility of losing their lives was very real. Nevertheless, I imagine they thought He was speaking figuratively when He spoke of them carrying a cross. Even though He’d predicted His own death, I suspect his followers really didn’t understand what lay ahead until that fateful night when Jesus was arrested. Once He’d been tried, sentenced, and crucified, I’m sure the Lord’s cautionary words echoed in their minds and they finally understood the reality of that cross they’d be expected to carry! No wonder they cowered together in a locked room. The next step after arresting a revolutionary was to arrest his followers.

It was only John and a few women followers at the foot of the cross and it was a stranger, not a follower, who carried the cross for Christ. Jesus’ disciples, the men with whom he’d lived for three years, weren’t there to carry his heavy load or share his final hours. Rather than His friends, it was a secret follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, who placed Him in a borrowed tomb. Rather than a day of rest, the disciples’ Sabbath probably was a day of mourning, disappointment, confusion, and fear. Sunday morning, with the Sabbath over, some followers returned home while the rest continued to cower together in fear.

What turned a veritable group of despondent deserters into men who bravely spread the good news of Christ the Savior? These are the same men who fled from Jesus when He was arrested and Peter publicly denied knowing Him three times that night. What caused the two disheartened men from Emmaus to return to Jerusalem and the disciples in that locked room? What turned Jesus’ followers into people who courageously faced persecution and martyrdom? Of the disciples, all but John are thought to have been martyred. They had nothing to gain from a lie but everything to lose with the truth. What turned a bunch of deserters into evangelists? They saw the risen Christ! They spoke with Him, touched his scars, and broke bread with Him. They knew it to be the truth!

We haven’t walked with Jesus, but we’ve read the words of those who have. We haven’t been in the same room with Him, but we’ve heard His voice. We’ve not touched Him, but He has touched us. We haven’t seen his wounds, but He’s healed ours. We didn’t see His ascent into heaven, but we’ve experienced his Holy Spirit. No—we haven’t actually seen the risen Christ but, as Jesus people, “We live by believing and not by seeing.” [2 Corinthians 5:7]

You can kill us. But you cannot hurt us. [Justin Martyr (c. AD 150)]

During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God. [Acts 1:3 (NLT)]

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” [John 20:29 (NLT)]

THE WAGER (Part 2)

They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. 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)]

sandhill craneIn researching yesterday’s devotion, I learned some interesting things about Blaise Pascal. Along with building the first digital calculator (c. 1642), he invented the syringe, created the hydraulic press, and, along with Pierre de Fermat, formulated the fundamental principles of probability theory.

It was when reading about Pascal’s Pensées, a compilation of notes and essays about Christian apologetics, that I saw mention of “Pascal’s Wager.” Curious as to what gambling and Christianity had in common, I read on. Perhaps it was Pascal’s interest in probabilities that led him to present the choice between belief and disbelief in God as a coin toss but, instead of betting on heads or tails, the bet is about God’s existence. After pointing out that making a wager is not optional, he asked how we’d bet. In mathematical terms, Pascal explains that, if God exists, and you bet that He does, you have infinite gain (eternal life) but, if you bet He doesn’t, you have infinite loss (loss of paradise and an eternity in hell). If, however, God doesn’t exist and you bet that He does, you lose nothing and, if you win, you gain nothing. Simply put, a winning bet on God pays off far better than a winning bet against Him and, if the bettor happens to be wrong, the one who’s bet against God has far more to lose than the one who’s bet on God.

If it should turn out that God doesn’t exist, Pascal says to the one who made a losing bet on Him: “Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.”

Summarizing, Pascal says: “According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost. ‘But,’ say you, ‘if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.’ He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it.”

Pascal’s wager does not prove the existence of God and wasn’t intended to do so; it simply tells us that belief in God is the best choice! There are, however, valid Christian criticisms of Pascal’s Wager. True faith doesn’t come from probability theory or a cost/benefit analysis; it comes from being born again. Pascal’s Wager seems to base belief in God on a risk and reward system that speaks of a heavenly reward without mentioning loving Jesus, obedience, or bearing fruit. His wager also fails to mention that there actually is a cost to following Jesus—one that is not always easy to pay. Whether we’re betting or choosing, the one thing about which we can’t argue is Pascal’s very first premise—the choice is not optional. We cannot sit this one out, the consequences are eternal, and the stakes are high.

Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists. [Blaise Pascal]

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “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? Is anything worth more than your soul? [Mark 8:34-37 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE GOD-SHAPED HOLE (Part 1)

Wilson Arch - Moab UtahYet 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. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NLT)]

Our children gave us a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas and, as I struggled to complete it, I wondered if I should thank or curse them for their gift! After staring at an opening, I’d try to find the one piece out of 1,000 that would fit. Since the puzzle’s edges were one color, I confess to a bit of pride when I completed the puzzle’s border. After assembling several sections of the interior, I ran into difficulty finding the right spots for them. Eventually, I realized why—the left side was shorter than the right! With a puzzle that large, while each piece is unique, some are nearly identical; a close fit, however, isn’t good enough and the border had to be redone. As I struggled to find the perfect fit for each opening, I thought of the phrase about everyone having a God-shaped hole that only can be filled by Him. While it doesn’t come from Scripture, the concept is Biblical and I wondered about its source.

The saying may have been inspired by Augustine of Hippo’s word from his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” As a young man, Augustine attempted to fill his restless heart with things like paganism, revelry, drunkenness, empty philosophies, idleness, and decadence. Having tried to fill that void with everything but God, Augustine still felt empty until he heard a voice say, “Take up and read.” Reaching down, he picked up the book beside him and read the first thing he saw—the words from Paul’s epistle to the Romans urging them to stop participating in “the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness…sexual promiscuity and immoral living…quarreling and jealousy,” and  to “clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.” [13:13-14] Augustine had been living the life of debauchery about which Paul warned the Romans but, in the Apostle’s words to clothe himself in Jesus, he finally knew how to fill the emptiness in his life and immediately transformed. Augustine ended up being one of the most influential voices in both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology.

Some sources wrongly attribute a quote about having a “God-shaped vacuum” in our hearts to the 17th century French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal. While close, that’s not what Pascal said. In Pensées, a book written in defense of Christianity, Pascal wrote of an “infinite abyss” that man vainly seeks to fill with things that aren’t there. Since Pascal came along more than 1,200 years after Augustine, perhaps the ancient theologian’s words influenced him.

Like Augustine, Pascal had a conversion experience but, unlike him, Pascal never led the life of a libertine. Nevertheless, shortly before having a mystical vision in what he called a “night of fire,” Pascal complained of the dissatisfaction, guilt, lack of purpose, and boredom in his life. After his vision, Pascal committed his life to Christ, left the world of science and mathematics, put his remarkable mind to work for God and, like Augustine, left his mark on Christianity.

That “God-shaped hole” is man’s innate longing for something far greater than anything found in this world. Perhaps it’s the “eternity” God plants in our hearts that keeps us from finding complete fulfillment in earthly pursuits and passions. As happened with my puzzle, we often try to fill the emptiness in our lives with pieces that don’t fit and, while some may come close, only the perfect piece works. Nothing—not fame, wealth, education, possessions, shopping, popularity, ritual, false gods, self-indulgence, or even family, can fill that God-shaped hole. As for the puzzle, I eventually gave up and returned it to the box—perhaps, someday I’ll try again. Fortunately, seeking God and fitting Him into the emptiness in our hearts is far easier!

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. [Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)]

 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14 (NLT)]

His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. Acts 17 27-28 (NLT)]

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IT’S TERMINAL

Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all, everyone dies—so the living should take this to heart. … A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time. [Ecclesiastes 7:2,4 (NLT)]

ghost bikeIt’s often said that there are no atheists in foxholes. This maxim traces its beginnings back to 1914 and World War 1 when an English newspaper quoted a chaplain at a memorial service for a fallen soldier: “Tell the Territorials and soldiers at home that they must know God before they come to the front if they would face what lies before them. We have no atheists in the trenches. Men are not ashamed to say that, though they never prayed before, they pray now with all their hearts.” When we joined our northern church, it was during the Viet Nam War. I remember a young man in our new member class who’d drawn a low number in the draft lottery. Expecting to be in combat within the year, he confessed wanting to “get right” with God before that time came. Apparently, even the threat of a foxhole is enough to cause some people to rethink their relationship with the Almighty.

Whenever we pass a roadside memorial or ghost bike like the one in today’s picture, I’m reminded of the precariousness of life. There’s a memorial at a corner near us for a young man who died there several years ago. Decorated seasonally by family and friends, it’s a poignant reminder of how unexpectedly a life can be extinguished and how much he is missed. Unlike the fellow in our church class, that young man, the victim of a drunk driver who ran a red light, didn’t have a low lottery number to warn him how near to death he was.

“A funeral provides an indispensable perspective on the universally terminal condition,” said the Reformation Study Bible notes for today’s verses from Ecclesiastes 7. Indeed, everyone is born with the incurable disease of death. I’m of an age where the many notes of condolence I’ve written these last few months make me think I should buy sympathy cards in bulk. These are dark thoughts for an early spring day, yet far too many of us choose to ignore our inevitable fate. Death is the one appointment that none of us will miss. While we have little control over the when of that day, we do have control over how we choose to prepare for the inevitable.

In both this world and the next, what happens after we die depends entirely on what we do now. Once laid out in the mortuary, it’s too late to write a will or accept Jesus. When we’re placed in a casket, we won’t be able to mend fences or make amends and we’ll have missed the opportunity to get right with God. By the time we’re on the other side of the sod or turned to ash in a crematorium, we can’t express our love and forgiveness or decide to accept God’s saving grace.

The problem with foxhole conversions, of course, is that once out of the trenches, they rarely last. Moreover, if we don’t make it out alive, by waiting until the very end to accept Jesus, we’ve missed out on the abundant Kingdom life He offers that begins while we’re here. Getting right with God long before we enter either foxhole or hospice care seems to be the wiser choice. The good news for the saved is that dying doesn’t mean departing from the land of the living. For those who know Jesus, death means departing from the land of the dying for the land of the living.

Depend upon it, your dying hour will be the best hour you have ever known! Your last moment will be your richest moment, better than the day of your birth will be the day of your death. It shall be the beginning of heaven, the rising of a sun that shall go no more down forever! [Charles Spurgeon]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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THE STONE THE BUILDERS REJECTED (Cornerstone – part 1)

The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. [Psalm 118:22-23 (NLT)]

Meiringen-Turm der Burg RestiAfter telling the Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus told one about the Evil Farmers. As parables go, it’s pretty easy to follow. The landowner (God) builds a vineyard (Israel), sets up a protective wall (the Law), and leases it to tenant farmers (religious leaders). When he sends his emissaries (faithful priests and prophets) to collect his rent, the farmers ignored, mistreated and even killed them. The landowner, thinking the farmers would respect his son (Jesus), sends him to the vineyard. Wanting the estate for themselves, the farmers murder him. When Jesus asked his listeners (who were the chief priest and elders) what the landowner would do to the famers when he returns to his land, they responded that he’d kill the tenants and lease the vineyard to new farmers who would honor him with his share of the crop.

It was then that Jesus asked his audience if they were familiar with today’s verse from Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” When we encounter the word cornerstone in the Bible, there is some disagreement as to whether it is referring to a cornerstone—the first stone in a building and part of the foundation—or a capstone—the last stone that completes a building. The Hebrew literally means head of a corner so the exact meaning is unclear. Since Jesus is the Alpha and Omega—the first and last—perhaps both meanings apply. He is both the foundation upon which the church is built and the capstone which crowns the whole.

Regardless, in this context, the transition from a metaphor about a vineyard and evil farmers to one of architecture seems odd. Then again, we’re not first century Jews who would have been familiar both with Psalm 118 and the ancient rabbinic legend about the stone the builders rejected. When the first temple was being built, the stones were carefully cut at a quarry several miles away from Jerusalem. Although each stone was shaped to fit perfectly into place at the temple, the story is that the first stone to arrive didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Oddly shaped, the builders tossed it aside where people stumbled over it and weeds grew around it. When construction was nearly complete, it was time to place the final stone, the great lintel, in place over the doorway to the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle. Supported by scaffolding until then, once the capstone was placed, it would stand by itself. The builders, however, could not find the necessary stone. When they sent to the quarry for it, they were told they’d already received it. It was only then that they remembered the stone the builders had rejected. Retrieved from the weeds, it slid perfectly into place. As the capstone of the Temple, it held all the other stones in their proper position.

Just in case the religious leaders missed His point, Jesus told them that, like the vineyard, the Kingdom of God would be given to a new nation who would produce proper fruit. Changing metaphors back to the stone, He warned, “Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.” [Matthew 21:44] Until I learned the legend of the rejected stone, this verse troubled me—how could someone trip over a stone that also could fall on him? That rejected stone, however, could do both!

In this exchange, Jesus was telling the religious leaders that He was both the landowner’s son and the stone rejected by the builders—the very ones who should have recognized Him. His final words were a clear warning that the Kingdom of God could not be built without Him. Those who didn’t build on His truth would stumble over it and break while those who tried to pull it down would be crushed by it and destroyed!

For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says, “The stone that you builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” [Acts 4:11-12 (NLT)]

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SECOND CHANCES

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.” [Matthew 21:31b-32 (NLT)]

“It’s all about getting a second chance!” said the back of the man’s T-shirt. I then saw the dog paws printed on both sides of the message and realized his shirt was advertising a dog rescue organization. Nevertheless, the shirt’s words made me think of the parable Jesus told the Pharisees about two sons. The vineyard owner told his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son rudely refused but the second son respectfully promised he’d do the work. As it turned out, the defiant son had a change of heart and went to work in the vineyard while the second seemingly dutiful son never did. Jesus then asked the Pharisees which of the two sons had done his father’s will. Of course, they had to say that the first son, in spite of his initial rebellion, was the obedient one.

The purpose of the parable was to convict the religious leaders of their phoniness. Claiming obedience and righteousness, they’d refused God’s invitation to repent delivered by John the Baptist. While saying they wanted to do God’s will, the Pharisees hadn’t. The scum of society, however, had believed and repented. When Jesus claimed that repentant sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes would get into the Kingdom of Heaven long before the Pharisees, they were shocked. You see, in God’s world, performance takes precedence over promise!

While immediate obedience is preferable, delayed obedience always beats phony obedience. Like the first son, some people prove to be far better than initially expected. Before we accepted Jesus, most of us didn’t show much potential. Truth be told, we probably were willful, selfish, mean, hypocritical and possibly immoral. Like the first son, however, we repented, mended our ways, and now work for our Father in Heaven. Unfortunately, like the second son, others prove false to their initial promise. There is, however, good news for those people whose intentions and promises haven’t materialized. Like the first brother, they too can repent, change their ways, and start working for their Father. Jesus’ words to the Pharisees tell them that the door to His Kingdom is closed to religious pretenders but open to even the vilest of repentant sinners.

The parables of the Two Sons and the Prodigal Son tell us that our God is a God of Second Chances! If there had been a cross on that man’s T-shirt instead of dog paws, the same words would have promoted Christianity! Indeed, “It’s all about getting a second chance!” in Jesus’ rescue organization! Best of all, He doesn’t stop at second chances. Our God is the God of Endless Second Chances, which is good news since it’s pretty much a guarantee that most of us will mess up our second chance and need several more!

So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. … If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:6,8-9 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.