SPIRITUAL MALAISE

These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. [Isaiah 29:13 (NLT)]

queen butterflyA friend was on her way out the door when the CO (carbon monoxide) detector started beeping. Thinking the batteries needed replacing, she pulled it off the wall, removed the batteries, and departed for the day. Upon her return, she tried new batteries in the monitor but it started to sound again. She was faced with two options: either the detector was bad (they should be replaced every five to seven years) and she could ignore the alarm or her house was filled with an odorless, tasteless, colorless, and potentially fatal gas! Fortunately, my friend called the fire department. They detected a high level of carbon monoxide and discovered the cause: a chipmunk that got stuck and died in the gas water heater’s flue. With its carcass blocking the pipe, the heater couldn’t vent properly and deadly CO was backing up into the house. Had my friend gone to bed that night instead of calling the fire department, she probably would not have seen another day.

Spiritual malaise (what the early church called acedia) is nearly as undetectable and potentially fatal as CO; like that toxic gas, it can sneak up on us without our realizing it. While most of us probably won’t experience CO poisoning, I think we all, at some time or another, will experience a kind of spiritual malaise or lethargy. Rather than a blocked flue or a faulty exhaust system, its cause can be anything from being too busy to not being busy enough. It can occur when we feel defeated by our difficulties or too self-confident in our triumphs—when we’re disheartened by disappointments or become complacent in our blessings. Instead of nausea or drowsiness, spiritual malaise brings a subtle loss of purpose, an erosion of values, a wavering faith, a loss of hope, or a feeling of helplessness. Instead of replacing the oxygen in our red blood cells with carbon monoxide, it replaces the passion and joy in our worship with boredom, our desire for God’s word with disinterest, our fervor in prayer with listlessness, and our God-dependence with self-reliance. We grow drowsy in study, lethargic in worship, and sleepwalk through our prayers. Bible study, worship and prayer are seen as obligatory rather than the pleasure, privilege and honor they are. I think the enemy probably loves a passionless Christian almost as much as a passionate sinner!

When those passionless times come, and they will, we won’t have an alarm that beeps. We have to do our own self-monitoring and recognize the symptoms. Instead of opening windows or leaving the house, we need to turn to God, run wholeheartedly into His arms, and give ourselves fully to praise and worship. Rather than call the fire department, we must fellowship with other believers so that their enthusiasm can rub off on us. We must dig into God’s word and fill our minds with His truth, leaving no room for Satan’s lies. Most of all, we should pray for wisdom, strength, a rekindling of our faith, and the opportunity to use our gifts for His purpose.

Father in Heaven, remove our fatigue; renew, redeem, and restore us to your salvation. Fill us with the power of the Holy Spirit, transform our weariness into strength, and lift us on your mighty wings.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. [Psalm 51:10-12 (NLT)]

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:31 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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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COME LIKE A CHILD

mute swansHe said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. [Mark 10:14-16 (NLT)]

When reading Jesus’s words about children and the Kingdom of God, a common misconception is that becoming Christian means committing something like intellectual suicide. Since we also are told to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, I doubt that we’re being told not to use our God-given intellect. So, what does it mean to become like a child? For a start, those children didn’t come to Jesus for healing, relief from Roman occupation, food, hidden treasure, or even salvation. They came out of love and love is what should bring us to Him, as well.

Faith in God is the foundation of His Kingdom and that faith is expressed through submission to His will. Dependent on their parents, children have faith in their provision and decisions; they understand the necessity of submitting to their parents’ will (at least the children in Jesus’s day did). Adults, however, tend to skepticism rather than faith and self-will rather than God’s will. Unlike adults, children are eager to learn and humble enough to admit that there is much they don’t know or understand. Pure and innocent, they are free of cynicism, arrogance, prejudice, preconceived notions and inflexible minds.

It’s a mistake to consider children unthinking; they just think a different way than do adults. For example, take Richard Scarry’s Lowly Worm character about whom I wrote yesterday. Kids have no problem understanding how a worm with one foot and no arms can dress himself, open a door, tie shoelaces, or eat with a fork. Adults, however, tend to overthink things. They wonder how Lowly, having only one foot, can possibly walk or kick a ball. In the same way, adults want a scientific explanation for how (in the days before in vitro) a virgin could give birth or why Lazarus wasn’t bloated, stinky, and covered with maggots after being dead four days.

Scarry’s imaginary worm makes sense to children, not because they’re mindless but because children accept things in their simplicity. Unlike adults, they’re not looking for hidden meanings or ulterior motives. They’re not fools; they know real worms don’t wear clothes, go to school, or live with a cat family but they also understand that Lowly isn’t like other worms. Jesus was clothed in a man’s body but He was no more like other men than Lowly is like other worms. Jesus was God with skin and, for the One who spoke the universe into existence, the tasks of raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, changing water into wine, or stilling storms were a breeze. The fixed minds of adults, however, often are unwilling to accept that God (the author of the universe) and Richard Scarry (the author of children’s books) work by a totally different set of rules in the worlds they’ve created: rules that often defy explanation.

God isn’t asking us to commit intellectual suicide or leave our brains at the church door. He’s asking us to love, believe, trust, accept, and submit to Him the way a child would. Although Jesus told us to come as a child, please remember that He never said He wanted us to stay that way!

Their [the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers] responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. [Ephesians 4:12-15 (NLT)]

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HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT

Then Jesus said to them [Cleophas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus], “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. [Luke 24:25-27 (NLT)]

giant swallowtailWhile cleaning out the bookshelves recently, I came across one of my children’s favorite books: Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? A small drawing of Lowly Worm, an earthworm wearing a Tyrolean hat, red bow tie, and one shoe on the end of his tail, is hidden somewhere on every page of the book and I immediately started searching for him. I hope you don’t think it sacrilegious, but thinking of Lowly Worm, a character who silently makes his presence known throughout Scarry’s books, made me think of Jesus and how He’s quietly present in all of Scripture.

Unlike Lowly Worm, Jesus isn’t an imaginary character hiding on the pages of a children’s book; He’s the living breathing Messiah and we find evidence of Him throughout the Old Testament. Although most people’s lives are chronicled after they’re born, Jesus’s story began long before the night He appeared in Bethlehem. As part of our Triune God, He was there at the beginning of time. When Jesus told the religious scholars, “Before Abraham was, I am,” [John 8:58] He echoed God’s words to Moses, “I am who I am.” [Exodus 3:4]

While it’s not difficult to spot Lowly Worm on the pages of Scarry’s books, it’s harder to spot Jesus in the Old Testament, especially if we haven’t met Him in the New. Psalm 77, for example, tells of a God who makes the water afraid and who can make a path through the waters while Job mentions a God who can trample the seas. Both references sound a lot like Jesus walking on water and stilling the Sea of Galilee. Micah says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem and Isaiah states that a virgin would conceive Him. If we didn’t know about Jesus, however, we wouldn’t recognize Him in those words. Genesis and Numbers say He will be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah and the star mentioned in the Numbers’ prophecy is probably what brought the Magi to Judah in search of Jesus. Jeremiah tells us that the Messiah will be from the lineage of David, Malachi that He will be preceded by a forerunner, Zechariah that the Messiah will appear riding a donkey and be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, and Psalms that lots will be cast for His clothing, His hands and feet will be pierced, and His bones would not be broken. Once we know what we’re looking for, we can find Jesus throughout the Old Testament in the descriptions of God and in the more than 300 prophecies He fulfilled.

We also can spot Jesus in the Old Testament’s words that are repeated by Him in the New. In Deuteronomy, for example, we find Jesus’s replies to Satan long before His temptation in the wilderness. We find the two greatest commandments in all four gospels but also in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. We catch glimpses of the Beatitudes’ words in books like Proverbs, with its promise that the lowly in spirit (humble) will obtain honor; Isaiah, with the promise to comfort those who mourn; and Psalms, with the promise that the one with clean hands and a pure heart will ascend the hill of the Lord. Jesus wasn’t just a great Torah scholar repeating someone else’s words. Those words were God-breathed and He was the original author!

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking of the Old and New Testaments as two different unrelated books: pre-Jesus and post-Jesus. Jesus is present throughout Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. But, like the pictures of Lowly Worm, sometimes we have to search for Him.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” [John 5:39-40,47 (ESV)]

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SERMON ILLUSTRATIONS

I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. …  These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. [1 Corinthians 10:1a,6-7a (NLT)]

One of my pastors says that everyone has two kinds of experiences. They’re either good or learning and, if we actually learn from the learning experiences, they can move into the good category! Being a pastor, he admits to categorizing his experiences a slightly different way; they’re either good ones or sermon illustrations (and he readily admits to having many sermon illustrations from which to choose!)

When we learn from the learning experiences of others, we can avoid having to learn those painful things first-hand. When advising the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offered some “sermon illustrations” as words of warning. Making reference to several of Israel’s failings, he reminded the Corinthians that, as blessed as the Israelites were, because they displeased God, most of their bodies were scattered through the wilderness.

Although the church at Corinth had some Jews, the majority of its members were Gentile converts. I wonder how familiar they were with the stories in Exodus and Numbers to which Paul refers. Did they know that, after the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, 3,000 of them died at the hands of the Levites? Were they familiar with the story of the 24,000 men who were executed for worshipping Baal and defiling themselves with Moabite prostitutes? Did they know that poisonous snakes bit the Israelites after they blasphemed God and rejected Moses? Were they aware that the Israelites’ complaint and rebellion against God, Moses and Aaron led to 14,700 dying in a plague? Did they even know that, of all the adults who came out of Egypt, only two (Joshua and Caleb) ever entered the Promised Land?

Actually, Paul’s congregation in Corinth probably knew those stories better than many Christians today. They had access the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and, while new to the church, I imagine they faithfully studied it and knew the history of Jesus’s people. While many in today’s church occasionally refer to their Bibles, it seems that few of us actually read them. Some of us may read Scripture haphazardly but, by just reading a passage here or there, we never see how it all fits together into a unified whole. If we attend a liturgical church, we may hear snippets of the Old and New Testaments each week, but that’s just bits and pieces. Many Christians who didn’t grow up in the church don’t even know Sunday school stories like Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jacob and Esau, or Moses and the burning bush. How, I wonder, can we learn from Israel’s mistakes when we don’t even know what they were?

Paul hoped the outcome for the Corinthians would be different from that of the Israelites but knew that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t learn from their ancestors’ errors. The Bible is one beautiful sermon illustration and there is much we can learn from others’ faults and failings. As for me, I would rather have my experiences be good ones rather than lessons or sermon illustrations. One way to do that is to learn from other people’s painful learning experiences so to avoid their pitfalls. To learn from them, however, we have to know what they were.

The only ignorance worse than not knowing the book that made us who we are as a civilization is believing we can go on being civilized without that book. The marks of the Bible upon the West and its people are deep. … But they are not indelible. We were barbarians before the God of the Bible found us. And we can become barbarians again. [G. Shane Morris]

Who allowed Israel to be robbed and hurt? It was the Lord, against whom we sinned, for the people would not walk in his path, nor would they obey his law. Therefore, he poured out his fury on them and destroyed them in battle. They were enveloped in flames, but they still refused to understand. They were consumed by fire, but they did not learn their lesson. [Isaiah 42:24-25 (NLT)]

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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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