Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. [Matthew 6:19-21 (NLT)]

For it is in giving that we receive. [St. Francis of Assisi]

It’s less than a month until Christmas and I’m awaiting the family’s Christmas wish lists. Six years ago, when my son was helping his daughter compose her Christmas list, he told Mali she could ask for anything. A bit overwhelmed by such free rein, she questioned, “Anything?” While warning Mali that she may not get everything, he reassured her that she could ask for anything. To his surprise, the sweetheart asked for a sleeping bag for her little brother and explained that if he had one like hers, they both would be snug and cozy while watching their half hour of TV at night. Just four at the time, she had the right idea—giving truly is better than receiving.

Now that Mali is a worldly ten-year-old in fifth grade, I doubt that her Christmas list will reflect the same naïve generosity. Since she now has an American Girl doll, I suspect this year’s list will be more like the one her cousin made when she was the same age. That list was so long that it would have been easier if she’d just sent the American Girl catalog with the few things she didn’t want crossed out. Overwhelmed by the plethora of doll accessories available, she wanted everything. Fortunately, as she’s matured, she’s become more discerning and sensible in her requests.

Two extremes—wanting nothing for oneself or everything. How do we find balance? Although Christmas is about just one gift—the Christ child—the traditions surrounding this holy day tend to be ingrained in those colorful bags and gaily wrapped packages sitting beneath our Christmas trees. How do we keep things in perspective, not just during this season of giving and getting, but all year long? Perhaps we need to think more about filling our homes and the homes of others with love, peace, joy, and happy smiles rather than boxes, wrapping paper, and ribbons.

Father, as we prepare to celebrate the Savior’s birth, help us to share your love and blessings, to hold your Word in our hearts, and to properly set our priorities by keeping Christ as the focus of our Christmas.

The giving of gifts is not something man invented. God started the giving spree when he gave a gift beyond words, the unspeakable gift of His Son. [Robert Flatt]

You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” [Acts 20:35b (NLT)]

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Photo: Dennis Johnson

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. … Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:13-14,17 (NLT)]

Last week, I missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—the longest lunar eclipse to occur in a span of 1,000 years. The last time a lengthy lunar eclipse happened was in 1440 and the next one won’t occur until 2669! Although I woke in the middle of the night and remembered the eclipse, I let the threat of clouds, the inconvenience of going outside in the middle of the night, and the lure of sleep deter me. Instead of seizing the opportunity, I rolled over and went back to sleep. Although it will be much shorter, I can always see another lunar eclipse next year. Then again, there’s no guarantee that the sky will be clear that night or that I’ll be awake (or even alive) between midnight and 3:00 AM on May 22! A missed opportunity is missed forever!

When pondering once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, I think of the time Jesus passed through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem. A blind man named Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that Jesus was passing by, he called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Annoyed by his cries, the crowd following Jesus yelled at him to be quiet. Perhaps, like many of their time, they considered illness and disability God’s punishment for one’s sins and didn’t think the blind man deserved Jesus’ attention. In any case, Bartimaeus was not to be deterred. Taking the opportunity before him, he called out so loudly and persistently that Jesus heard the blind man’s voice, called to him, and restored the man’s sight.

As Jesus walked through Jericho, a wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus wanted to catch a glimpse of the famous rabbi. A little man, Zacchaeus was too short to see over people’s heads and couldn’t push his way to the front of the crowd. As the chief tax-collector, he probably was the most hated man in Jericho and no one was about to make way for the man. In fact, Zacchaeus probably was shoved around by the crowd and may have encountered a few deliberate pokes in his ribs. Like Bartimaeus, however, the publican was not about to be deterred. He ran ahead (a very undignified thing for a government official) and climbed up a sycamore tree to get a view of Jesus as He passed. Seeing his determination, Jesus called him down and invited himself to the tax man’s house.

That day, Jesus restored the sight of Bartimaeus and brought salvation to the home of Zacchaeus but what if those two men had allowed the opportunity to know Jesus slip past them? Like most, they thought Jesus was going to Jerusalem for Passover and would be passing back through town again. Thinking they’d catch Jesus next time He came through town, they easily could have allowed the crowd to deter them. Jesus, however, was on His way to the cross and that one day in Jericho was their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Regretfully, I’ve missed far more important opportunities than seeing a six-hour lunar eclipse—opportunities to be kind, helpful, compassionate, and generous. I’ve allowed myself to be deterred from opportunities to witness, defend, advocate, assist, and support. Like Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus, we don’t know if today is the last day a particular opportunity will arise nor do we know what tomorrow will bring. Today, let us take advantage of all the God-given opportunities it offers.

If today were your last, would you do what you’re doing? Or would you love more, give more, forgive more? Then do so! Forgive and give as if it were your last opportunity. Love like there’s no tomorrow, and if tomorrow comes, love again. [Max Lucado]

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (NLT)]

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. [Galatians 6:9-10 (NLT)]

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What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Matthew 23:27-28 (NLT)]

purple coneflowerJesus often took the Pharisees to task, not for their theology, but for their behavior. With the Talmud’s description of seven different kinds of Pharisees, six of whom were contemptible, we know that the Jews were not unaware of their failings. Since Jesus was well-versed in Jewish law and tradition, I wonder if He was thinking about the Talmud’s list when He pronounced seven woes upon the scribes and Pharisees.

The Talmud mentions the Shikmi or “Shoulder” Pharisee who ostentatiously wore his good works on his shoulder for all to see. Next was the Nikip Pharisee; he was the “Stumbling” or “Wait-a-Minute” fellow who could always find a good deed that needed to be done and a reason why he couldn’t do it. The Kizai was the “Bruised” or “Bleeding” Pharisee who was so sanctimonious that he kept his eyes turned away from any woman. As a result, he kept bumping into things and hurting himself. The “Hump-Backed” or “Mortar and Pestle” Pharisee pretentiously showed his extreme humility by remaining bent over and shuffling his feet. Believing that God owed Him for every good he did, the “Ever-Reckoning” or “Always-Counting” Pharisee self-righteously kept score of his good deeds and the “Timid” or “Fearful” Pharisee did good works only out of fear that God would punish him if he didn’t. The seventh type was the “God-Loving” or “God-Fearing” Pharisee who really loved God and did good deeds to please the Lord. Perhaps Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to Jesus personally, defended Him, and brought spices to His grave was such a man.

Jesus’ words of condemnation shouldn’t be limited to 1st Century Pharisees; they hold true for all of us. What might Jesus say about some of those who profess to be His followers today? Thinking of the seven kinds of Pharisee, I replaced the word “Pharisee” with “Christian” and saw much that was recognizable in the 21st century church.

There are plenty of “Shoulder” believers who subtly manage to make sure everyone is aware of their good works. If we don’t pat them on the back, they’ll do it for us. Yet, Jesus told us not to do our good works for the admiration of others. As for the “Wait-a-Minute” believers, if you’ve ever served on a church committee, you’ve met one (or more) of these. “Yes, it needs to be done but I can’t do it now,” is their permanent response to any call. They forget that sins of omission are no less wrong than sins of commission. When I reflect on the scandals and abuse that have rocked our churches, I think of the “Bruised” believer—the one who so publicly and virtuously denounces sexual sin while secretly bumping right into it. Then there’s the “Hump-Backed” believer whose pious self-effacement and insincere humility beg for public praise. False modesty is no more attractive in a Christian than it was for a Pharisee.

We also have the “Always-Counting” believers who can list every noble thing they’ve ever done (and every ignoble one done by anyone else). Thinking their score card entitles them to preferred treatment, they get angry with God when life goes awry. Good works, however, are to be done from the heart and not as a way of warding off trouble. Moreover, God is the only one allowed to keep score and any reward will occur in in the next life, not this one. The “Fearful” believer is the one who can’t accept his salvation or believe that he’s really forgiven. Afraid of hellfire and damnation, he tries to earn his ticket into heaven with good works. Salvation, however, is God’s gift and can’t be earned. Saving the best for last, we come to the “God-loving” believer, the one who does good works, not for praise, brownie points, or to ward off trouble, but out of love for God and his fellow man.

If Jesus walked into your church today, which of the seven would you be?

But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven! [Matthew 5:20 (NLT)]

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Jacobs ladderWhen a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, “Come in and eat with me”? No, he says, “Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.” And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey me you should say, “We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.” [Luke 17:7-10 (NLT)]

Even though we no longer live in Illinois, we still receive our northern church’s newsletter. The latest edition mentioned the need for substitute Sunday School teachers and people to participate in “a crazy afternoon of ‘Do-Gooding’” called “Rake and Run” in which church members go from yard to yard raking leaves for those unable to do so for themselves. It also included an image of a newspaper “help wanted” ad that read:

SERVANTS WANTED: We have unlimited openings for motivated servants to meet the needs of God’s people. Start immediately. Responsibilities include performing random acts of kindness, serving and pleasing God, and doing what He calls you to do. No skills needed. God will equip you with on-the-job training. Benefits will include growth opportunities leading to one incredible “raise” at the end of your service. To apply: Contact God.

Notably absent in the newsletter was the word “volunteer.” Volunteers are an essential part of clubs, homeowner associations, service groups, and non-profits, and groups like these couldn’t function without them. The Church, however, doesn’t need volunteers; it needs servants! Jesus never told parables about volunteers because He wasn’t enlisting volunteers. Instead, He told parables about servants because that’s what He was calling us to be!

The word often translated in our Bibles as servant or bond servant, however, had nothing to do with being a servant like the chamber maid, butler, or valet in Downton Abbey. The word used was doulos, meaning slave, and it literally meant a person owned by another for his or her lifetime. While the word “volunteer” occurs eight times in the Old Testament, it never appears in the New. Doulos, however, occurs there 127 times in 119 verses. When Jesus freed us from slavery to sin, He freed us to become slaves to God. While our bondage to sin meant death, our bondage to God means eternal life—the “raise” at the end of our service!

For a follower of Jesus, there is big difference between being a volunteer at the church and a doulos or servant to Christ. Since they’re under no obligation, volunteers never need to leave their comfort zones; they can choose their task and are free to decline any or all requests. Serving at will, volunteers use leftover time to work and can quit and walk away at any time. It’s an entirely different matter for a doulos or servant of Christ. Instead of choosing the task we are willing to do, we do the task that needs to be done—the one God call us to do—even  when it means leaving our comfort zone. While volunteers use their free time at their convenience, Jesus’ servants sacrifice their time (often at their inconvenience) to serve Him. A volunteer’s commitment is temporary but, as servants of Christ, we have a lifetime commitment to serving our Master whenever and wherever He calls us. We volunteer only when we want to but we serve God because we need to do so. It is what we are called to do because faith and works are inextricably linked!

When Jesus told His disciples that the harvest was plentiful but the workers were few, could it have been because those workers viewed themselves as volunteers rather than His servants? Jesus is calling us to serve Him, will we answer His call?

It is a greater glory to us that we are allowed to serve God, than it is to him that we offer him that service. He is not rendered happy by us; but we are made happy by him. He can do without such earthly servants; but we cannot do without such a heavenly Master. [William Secker]

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. And what was the result? You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:20-23 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SARAH SMITH (The Great Divorce – 2)

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:8 (ESV)]

Growing up, one of my favorite hymns was, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Its author, Lesbia Scott, wrote hymns for her children as expressions of the family’s faith. Not originally intended for publication, she wrote this song to emphasize that saints lived not just in the distant past but also in the present day. My favorite verse was the final one and I recall singing it loudly with childlike enthusiasm: “The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, In church, by the sea, in the house next door; They are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.”

It’s been years since singing that song but its words came to mind while reading C.S. Lewis’ fantasy The Great Divorce. After the dreaming narrator, presumed to be Lewis, takes his bus ride from hell to heaven, he meets his guide—the author George MacDonald. Although MacDonald was dead before Lewis read any of his books, his writing had a direct impact on Lewis’ faith and work. Lewis believed there was “hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continuously close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.” MacDonald’s writing was instrumental in causing the atheist Lewis to eventually become one of Christianity’s greatest apologists.

While conversing with his heavenly guide, the narrator sees a woman of “unbearable beauty” surrounded by a dazzling procession of angels, children, animals, and musicians. Although he’s sure she must be someone of great importance, perhaps even Jesus’ mother, MacDonald explains, “Fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.” Identifying her as “Sarah Smith of Golders Green,” he says she was “one of the great ones.”

Since MacDonald was a real person whose books I read as a girl, I thought Sarah Smith might have existed and immediately put down my book to Google her. Sarah Smith, however, was but a figment of the writer’s imagination—an ordinary person who loved children, was kind to people, and cared for animals. Nevertheless, explains MacDonald, like a stone dropped into a pool, Sarah had a ripple effect of love and joy on the lives of those she encountered and the “abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father” flowed over into the lives of all she met. As a result, children loved their parents more and men even loved their wives more. After knowing her and being loved by her, people were renewed, restored, and transformed in a meaningful and beautiful way. In short, ordinary Sarah Smith of Golders Green touched the lives of others as only a Christ follower can. She was, indeed, a saint of God.

Like the fictional Sarah Smith, the real Sarah (and Sam) Smiths of today humbly and lovingly shine the light of Christ on all whose lives they touch. Completely ordinary men and women, they are the kind of people about whom I sang as a child—and the kind of people Jesus call us to be. As followers of Christ, we are called to be the Sarah and Sam Smiths of our troubled world. May we all be saints of God.

We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won’t need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouses don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining—they just shine. [D.L. Moody]

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)]

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You heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: love your enemies! Pray for people who persecute you! [Matthew 5:43-44 (NTE)]

red-bellied woodpeckerNo respecter of early mornings, an annoying woodpecker was busy drumming on the gutters of a nearby house. A few streets later, I spotted a woodpecker determinedly drilling into the stucco of another house. As it excavated a roost hole in the decorative trim, the determined little bird was doing as much damage with his beak as a heavy sledge hammer. A plaster patch nearby told me this wasn’t the first time the wall has been under attack! Throughout our community I see reflective streamers, children’s pinwheels, life-sized plastic owls, and strips of aluminum foil hanging from the eaves of houses. Nothing, however, seems to deter these birds from their drumming and drilling.

I thought of relentless woodpeckers after talking with a friend who recently experienced a stressful (but unavoidable) time with extended family. I could hear the exasperation in her voice as she spoke of the visit. As followers of Jesus, we’re supposed to reflect God’s love to everyone but she wondered if there’s an expiration date for that command when we get nothing but rudeness, deceit, or put-downs in return? How do we continue to love others when they are unlovable? We should be channels of God’s grace but what if we’re channeling that grace into what seems to be a bottomless pit of nasty? We’re supposed to be giving but when do we get a chance to receive? If other people can be selfish, under-handed, and bad-mannered, why can’t we?

Perhaps we need to remember that other people, no matter how unpleasant, demanding, or quarrelsome, are not the real foe—it is Satan. Like the woodpecker, he doggedly pokes, prods, and pesters us and our frustration, impatience, and annoyance with troublesome people is Satan chipping away at us a little bit at a time. Given enough time, instead of a stucco wall, he hopes to break through the wall of self-control. Instead of turning the other cheek, he wants us to lash back with some of the same!

In Jesus’ call to love our enemies, the word used was agapate which is the very kind of love God has for His sinful, disappointing, deceitful, troublesome, stiff-necked, difficult, selfish, and argumentative children! His love for us is active, unconditional, consistent, and permanent—a love that builds up rather than tears down. When Satan pecks at us with unpleasant people and difficult situations, let us remember that grace—unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it—is exactly what we got from God and what He expects us to pass on to others! Admittedly, there are times we’re sorely tempted to retaliate rather than love but, just as God never takes a break from loving us, we don’t get to take a break from loving our enemies!

Fortunately, instead of plastic owls, we have God’s armor and the shield of faith to fortify us against Satan’s attacks. While loving our enemies is impossible on our own, God’s power enables us to resist Satan’s attacks and continue to pass on God’s grace to everyone (not just the nice deserving ones).

Agape is disinterested love. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both. [Martin Luther King, Jr.]

These are the clothes you must put on, then, since God has chosen you, made you holy, and lavished his love upon you. You must be tender-hearted, kind, humble, meek, and ready to put up with anything. You must bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against someone else, you must forgive each other. Just as the master forgave you, you must do the same. On top of all this you must put on love, which ties everything together and makes it complete. [Colossians 3:12-14 (NTE)]

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