UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. [Isaiah 55:8-9 (ESV)]

violetsIt was the first night of a new small group study and, as we gathered our books to leave, one woman said she’d have to read more about the author since he sounded like a Calvinist. Believing that everyone has the God-given ability to choose God’s grace, she didn’t want to participate in the class if the book’s author believed that, in the past, God chose some among mankind for His own and that that Christ died only for those elect.

There is much in church doctrine that is disputed between denominations and the differences are often subtle, complicated, and confusing. Regarding Calvinism, there is five-point Calvinism, Amyraldism which holds to only four of Calvin’s points, Arminianism (the rejection of predestination and an affirmation of free will), and a host of other isms in between. There are differing views of Communion, as well: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, sacramental union, receptionism, and memorialism. Does the bread actually transform into the actual flesh and blood of Christ, is it spiritually the flesh and blood of Jesus, the spiritual presence of Christ, or a remembrance of Christ’s suffering? What about baptism? Is it a requirement for salvation or merely symbolic of the salvation process? All of these questions (and many more) arise out of several hard to reconcile passages in the Bible. Unable to clearly define many of these issues, I know I will never fully understand them.

Some things in Christianity are essential and non-negotiable: the deity of Christ, His substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, the resurrection, salvation by grace though faith, the Holy Trinity, the authority of Scripture, and life everlasting. Agreement on many other issues, however, is not necessary and those issues will remain unresolved this side of heaven. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis opined that many of our great theological and metaphysical questions are probably as nonsensical and unanswerable as asking how many hours are in a mile or whether the color yellow is square or round. He wrote that when he laid his unanswered questions at God’s door, he got no answer. Lewis added that the silence was not a locked door/no one’s home kind of silence but more like that of a compassionate God, shaking his head and thinking, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

When the woman from class said, “I can’t believe in a God who would sacrifice His son for only a select group rather than all of mankind,” I said she didn’t have to. She and I may be wrong in our beliefs, but our salvation doesn’t depend on our knowing the right answer. Actually, our salvation doesn’t depend on having the right answer to most of the doctrinal controversies and isms that separate Christ’s Church. More important than understanding various theological or doctrinal issues is having the mind of Christ. Sooner or later, all the rest will make perfect sense.

Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never really was any problem. [C.S. Lewis, from “A Grief Observed”]

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. [1 Corinthians 13:11-13 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved

NO APPOINTMENT NECESSARY

sanderlingsFor I am the Lord, your healer. [Exodus 15:26b (RSV)]

In that hour he cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. [Luke 7:21-22 (RSV)]

Here in southwest Florida it’s “season,” which means that flocks of snowbirds have arrived (and I don’t mean the kind with wings). While they boost the economy, locals groan at the busy traffic, the difficulty of getting into their favorite restaurants or hair salons, and the scarcity of parking places. One of the biggest problems is seeing a doctor! If we can find a doctor (or dentist) who is taking new patients (a challenge in itself) and takes our insurance, we’ll find a two month or longer wait before getting an appointment. Then, if we’re referred to a specialist, the whole routine begins again. As for urgent care clinics; unless the situation is life threatening, there is nothing urgent about the care one eventually receives. My best advice during season is not to get sick!

Our God truly is the Great Physician but, unlike the doctors in our town, He’ll take new patients. He won’t make us fill out detailed medical history forms; rather than past illnesses, He’s concerned about our wellness in the present and future. Insured or uninsured, Medicare or Medicaid, co-pay or no pay, it makes no difference; Jesus already paid our fee. God will never turn us away as incurable or hopeless because there are no lost causes in His office and He’ll never refer us to someone else because He specializes in whatever is ailing us. Best of all: no appointment is ever needed. God operates a walk-in clinic where the waiting room aways is empty and the doctor always is in!

At first, God being available 24/7 and taking His time during an appointment sounds like the concierge medicine that has become so popular in our area. God, however, doesn’t limit the number of patients in His practice nor does He require a hefty retainer fee before He gives you His number or listens to your complaint. God never takes a vacation and always has enough time and energy to deal with everyone who calls Him. Like a concierge physician, however, God is strong on preventative medicine: regular prayer, Bible study, Christian fellowship, and eating frequently at His table.

Of course, as with any physician, if we don’t recognize our sickness and the need for healing, we won’t call Him. We must have faith in our doctor’s wisdom and skill and follow his directions completely and we must do the same with our Great Physician. While He won’t be prescribing Lipitor, a flu shot, or more exercise, He’ll probably prescribe a healthy dose of repentance, forgiveness, love and prayer. Instead of giving us medical brochures about our condition, He’s already provided us with something better than the Merck Manual: Holy Scripture. As for any sort of long-term therapy—among other things, God is sure to recommend Christian community and service.

Our Great Physician hears our painful cries and heals our troubled souls. Thank you, God.

And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Mark 2:17 (RSV)]

As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against thee!” [Psalm 41:4 (RSV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

BE HOLY

Have the people of Israel build me a holy sanctuary so I can live among them. [Exodus 25:8 (NLT)]

And this is the basic law of the Temple: absolute holiness! The entire top of the mountain where the Temple is built is holy. Yes, this is the basic law of the Temple. [Ezekiel 43:12 (NLT)]

roadside chapelBefore the incarnation of Christ, God dwelt first in the tabernacle and then in the temple. The innermost room of the temple was called the “Most Holy Place” and it was in this inner room that God’s glory was said to dwell. This was where the Ark of the Covenant was kept and where the high priest came with a sacrifice to atone for his and the nation’s sins every year. With the incarnation of Jesus, God no longer dwelt in the temple but in the flesh of His son and, for a brief time, God actually walked among His people. Yet, when Jesus lived as a man, only a few people at a time could be in His presence. With His death, there is no yearly atonement ritual because Jesus atoned for our sins once and for all. Moreover, because of His resurrection, ascension, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, it is possible for countless people, everywhere, to be in His presence at the same time. Once we become believers, the Holy Spirit moves into our hearts and each one of us, as members of Christ’s church, become part of His body and the temple of God.

When Ezekiel spoke that the absolute rule of the temple was holiness, he was speaking of the temple building in Jerusalem, a place that had been defiled by idolatry and sin. While we no longer worship at a temple on a mount, the prophet’s words still hold true. The innermost room, the Most Holy Place, the dwelling of the Lord, still exists. That innermost room is now in our hearts and they must be kept holy. While we tend to think of holiness as moral purity, it is much more. It means to be dedicated or consecrated to God, to be set apart for Him, and not with just a small part of us. Holiness means that our entire being is His, our first love and loyalty are to Him, and that we are committed to God’s will and work.

In a sermon given in 1872, Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon told of an unbeliever who ridiculed a Christian’s faith. The skeptic asked the believer whether his God was a great God or a little God. The devout man replied that his God was, “so great that the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him, and yet He condescends to be so little, that He dwells in broken and contrite hearts.” Indeed, our great God has chosen to dwell in our hearts. Although there was idolatry and sin in Jerusalem’s temple, let there be none in our hearts, the temple of the Lord.

For we are the temple of the living God. As God said: “I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Therefore, come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord. [2 Corinthians 6:16b-17 (NLT)]

But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” [1 Peter 1:15-16 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

WHAT’S IN A NAME? (Daniel – part 1)

“But you are my witnesses, O Israel!” says the Lord. “You are my servant. You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God—there never has been, and there never will be. [Isaiah 43:10 (NLT)]

black skimmerAfter Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Judah, he returned to Babylon with the temple’s treasures and some of Judah’s nobility as captives. The best and brightest of the young men were to learn the literature and language of Babylon so they could serve the king. In spite of being captives, they were housed in the palace and given the king’s choice of food. While this would appear to be a pretty good gig for prisoners of war, the boys were probably castrated and made eunuchs as was typically done for palace officials (and prophesied by Isaiah in 2 Kings 20:18).

Among these captives were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all of whom were given new Babylonian names. Daniel, whose name meant “God is my judge,” became Belteshazzar, meaning “Bel protects his life” (Bel was another name for the chief Babylonian god Marduke). Hananiah, whose name meant “The Lord shows grace,” became Shadrach, meaning “Under the command of Aku” (the Sumerian moon god). Mishael, whose name meant “Who is like God?” became Meshach, meaning “Who is what Aku is?” and Azariah, whose name meant “The Lord helps,” became Abednego, “Servant of Nebo” (the god of learning and writing).

“What’s in a name?” asked Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” added the star-crossed lover. Romeo’s name made him an enemy to her family but his name was meaningless to Juliet. She knew a man’s name did not determine his value or character. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, thought otherwise. By changing the captive boys’ names, he wanted more than just their assimilation to Babylon; he wanted their allegiance. When he took their names from them, he also thought he took their God.

These young men lost their homes and families, their masculinity and their names. To further distance them from the God of Israel, as eunuchs, they wouldn’t be allowed to worship in the temple if they ever returned home. Nevertheless, they never lost their identity as children of the God of Israel and refused to defile themselves by partaking of the king’s food and wine.

Some think their decision was based solely on health and nutrition and now offer a wide variety of eating plans based on Daniel’s diet. Their refusal, however, probably had more to do with the youths’ attempt to regain some control over their lives and faith. The king’s meat would not have been butchered or prepared according to Jewish law and would have included prohibited foods like horseflesh and pork that had first been offered to the pagan god Marduk. The four friends refused it and, working out a compromise with the palace guard, agreed to eat nothing but vegetables and water for a trial period of ten days. Since they looked better nourished after that time, they were allowed to continue observing their food rules. Their fitness, however, had more to do with God’s promise of provision than their diet. God granted them not just health but special wisdom. In spite of their new names, they now knew that, by remaining faithful to God, He would be remain faithful to them. Found superior to all of the others in their group, they entered the king’s service in his court.

These four young men knew there was nothing in a name. What mattered was their character and their faith in God—a God who was judge, showed grace, and helped them in their troubles. They knew the Lord would honor those who honored Him and it was this knowledge that would carry them through their later trials in Babylon.

Praise the name of God forever and ever, for he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars. [Daniel 2:20-21 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE ALPHA

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. [Revelation 22:13 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneHaving forgotten the Greek alphabet he learned as a fraternity pledge, my husband asked the meaning of the symbols on the lecterns in the church sanctuary. On the left was A for alpha and, on the right, was Ω for omega: the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In Hebrew, those letters would have been aleph and tau. Among Jewish rabbis, using the first and last letters of the alphabet was a common way to express the whole of something, from its beginning to its end. Today’s equivalent expression would be “from A to Z” or “from soup to nuts.” Those Greek letters refer to three verses in Revelation in which Jesus claims to be the Alpha and Omega. They tell us that that, as part of our Triune God, Jesus was there at the beginning and He will be there at the end.

As for alpha: only God could exist before time even existed! Although Genesis starts with, “In the beginning,” God was already there! Since time, space, and matter are co-relative and God created space and matter, we know it was God who also created time. God never had a beginning because He is the beginning! He didn’t emerge from something; everything emerged from Him!

One of the basic laws of science is that neither mass nor energy can be created. Simply put, it can only be converted or broken apart and put together in a new way. Strictly speaking, mankind can’t create; we can only synthesize or transform by taking existing materials to make something new. We can’t create ice or steam but we can convert water into those things by freezing or boiling it. We can take that water (H2O) and combine it with carbon dioxide (CO2) and end up with carbonic acid (H2CO3) but we couldn’t create carbonic acid without the building blocks of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. God, however, started from scratch; with no time, space or matter before Him, he created mass and energy. Making something from nothing boggles the mind but it’s the only answer that makes any sense—even to scientists!

Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, and delicately balanced to provide exactly the conditions required to support life. In the absence of an absurdly improbable accident, the observations of modern science seem to suggest an underlying, one might say, supernatural plan. … The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I had nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole. [Arno Penzias]

Arno Penzias was the winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. He and Robert Wilson discovered cosmic microwave background radiation. Their discovery supported the Big Bang theory of the creation of the Universe and showed that the Big Bang was not a chaotic random explosion. A highly fine-tuned explosion, it appears that some being guided it along.

The Apostle Paul said, “By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command.” [Hebrews 11:3] I don’t think we need faith to know that anymore; it appears that science tells us the same thing. The writers of the Bible, however, didn’t know the theory of relativity, didn’t have telescopes telling them the universe is expanding, and had never heard of the Big Bang, thermodynamics, radiation afterglow, or variations in the temperature of the “great galaxy seeds” – they just knew the truth. Our great God is the Alpha!

I alone am God, the First and the Last. It was my hand that laid the foundations of the earth, my right hand that spread out the heavens above. When I call out the stars, they all appear in order. [Isaiah 48:12-13 (NLT)]

All glory to him who alone is God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen. [Jude 25 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

MARKED AND SEALED

One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” [Luke 3:21-22 (NLT)]

Baptism of JesusAlthough I don’t remember my Baptism as an infant, I do have a picture that tells me I wore a long white dress and a bonnet. Another picture tells me that I wore a shorter white dress, a hat instead of a bonnet and my first pair of nylon stockings and heels at my Confirmation thirteen years later. That, however, is about all I remember of making a public reaffirmation of my faith and recommitting to the baptismal promises made for me when I was a baby. Although I knew a lot about Jesus at the time, I’m not sure that I truly knew Him. I know Him now and, in a much simpler ceremony, I recently reaffirmed my Baptism in a way I will never forget.

The first Sunday after Epiphany is when many churches celebrate the Baptism of our Lord which is the case at one of the churches we attend. The hymns (When Jesus Came to Jordan, O Come and Dwell in Me, and On the Wings of a Snow White Dove) set the stage. The readings from Isaiah, Acts, and Luke kept our focus on Baptism and the pastor’s sermon continued the theme as she told of her visit to the Holy Land, standing where John may have baptized Jesus, and collecting water from the Jordan River. After the sermon, she offered us the opportunity to reaffirm our Baptisms when we came to the altar to receive Communion.

The Pastor held a chalice filled with water and, when we approached her, she dipped her finger in it, made the sign of the cross on our foreheads and said, “In Baptism you were marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.” That she’d collected the water from the Jordan River made it even more meaningful. If there could be frosting on this cake, it is that we then received the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. With just two steps, I passed from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry—His Baptism when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him—to the night He was betrayed and instituted Communion. I accepted the wafer from a second person, dipped it in a chalice of wine held by a third and ate it while remembering the body that was given and the blood that was shed, not just for me, but for all of us.

It’s rare that we celebrate the two New Testament ordinances (what many call sacraments) together and I found it a moving experience. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two rituals or practices that Jesus commanded (or ordained) the assembly of believers to observe. Baptism is not what a person does to be saved; our salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Baptism is something a saved person does. It symbolizes the death of the old life and our resurrection as a new person in Christ. While it’s only done once, it can be reaffirmed, as I did last weekend. Participating in Communion is another thing the saved person does. Unlike Baptism, however, taking Communion is something the saved person does throughout his life. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we walk as that new person in Him and connect not just with our Lord but with all with all believers, both past and present.

No matter how long ago we became Christians or the age at which we were baptized, let us always remember that we have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with His Holy Spirit forever.

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all. All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. [Acts 2:41-42 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.