SACRIFICES

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - butterfly weedIf you ever visited the Mayan ruins near Cancun, Mexico, chances are you saw the remains of a stone ball court with sloping walls. Nowhere near as impressive as the Mayan pyramids, I didn’t even take a picture when I saw one. Two stone rings hang about 20 feet up the walls. A ball game called pok-ta-pok was played there. As in volleyball, players passed a solid rubber ball around by hitting it with various parts of their bodies. Unlike volleyball, however, they could not touch the ball with their hands. The goal was to get the ball through one of the rings.

This game was a reenactment of the Mayan creation story and had ritual significance. When prisoners of war were forced to play the game, it became a prelude to their sacrifice by decapitation, heart removal, or disembowelment. Since blood was considered nourishment for the gods, the sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful one and the sacrifice of a human was the most powerful.

When we hear the word sacrifice, we tend to picture something as brutal and gruesome as the Mayans, satanic cults, King Manasseh sacrificing his son to Molech, or even Abraham placing his son on an altar and bringing a knife to his throat. We think of sacrifice as suffering terrible loss: the destruction or surrender of something precious to us. Having a negative connotation, we tend to see sacrifice as unpleasant, involuntary, or punishing.

There was, however, another scenario to that Mayan ball game. In some cases, it was the winners who were sacrificed. Teams willingly played in the hopes of winning and being sacrificed to the gods. This sacrifice was a privilege that gave great honor to the player and his family. Although the game’s losers lived, they were disgraced and may have become slaves. While it still seems barbaric to us, rather than a giving up of something, that sacrifice was seen as a gain.

God clearly prohibited human sacrifice when he gave the law to the Israelites, yet Paul tells the Romans to be living sacrifices! This is neither a forced sacrifice nor one of punishment; we are not defeated warriors being sacrificed in shame. This is an enthusiastic sacrifice, like that of the Mayan warriors who chose to compete in that sacrificial game. Like them, we are victors but, unlike them, ours is not a one-time sacrifice resulting in death but rather a constant placement of our lives at God’s disposal. It is a joyful and willing sacrifice of worship—a consecration of our lives to Him.

Sunday, we sang these words from Frances Havergal’s hymn: “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” As we sang, we offered Him our time, hands, feet, voices, lips, money, intellect, will, heart, and love. That is what it means to be a living sacrifice to God. Four years after writing her hymn, Havergal responded to her own words, “Take my silver and my gold,” by giving away all of her jewelry (nearly fifty items) to a missionary society. About this sacrifice, she wrote a friend of her “extreme delight” and said, “I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.” Her words, actions, and joyful attitude are an example of what it means to be a living and holy sacrifice,

Take my love, my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.
[Frances R. Havergal (1874)]

Give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. [Romans 6:13b (NLT)]

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PERFECTION

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! [Deuteronomy 32:4 (NLT)]

But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. [Matthew 5:48 (NLT)]

water lilyAlthough humanity started out as a perfect creation, we quickly lost that perfection in the Garden of Eden; Jesus was the only sinless perfect man. If He’s telling us to be perfectly sinless when He calls us to be perfect, we’re in trouble. I suppose we should be able to resist all sin (as did Jesus) but, in reality, no one else (not even the Apostle Paul) has managed to do that. Perfection is God’s alone and we flawed mortals will never be His equals. If Jesus means things like spotless kitchens, beds made with hospital corners, and clean mirrors when He says to be perfect, even without having guests, I’m still in serious trouble. Yet, Jesus’s answer to the rich young man that, to be perfect, he should sell his possessions and give to the poor tells us that possessions and how neatly they’re arranged have no importance to Him. So, what does it mean to be perfect?

Of course, Jesus wants us to be as flawless as humanly possible. Nevertheless, He isn’t expecting us to be completely faultless. By telling us to be perfect, He’s telling us to reflect the moral excellence of God, something God told people to do centuries earlier when He said, “Be holy because I am holy.” [Leviticus 19:2] Jesus is asking us to imitate God, just as children imitate their parents. The original Hebrew word used in this verse was tamim. Rather than perfect (meaning without fault, flaw or defect), it might better be translated as complete in all its parts, full grown or mature. Jesus is the standard by which we set our goal and He wants us become mature in our faith by growing more like Him.

The Pharisees tried to achieve perfection through exacting obedience to the law but, while they looked good on the outside, they were soiled inside (and Jesus took them to task for that). Our perfection will never be found their way. By telling us to be perfect, our words and actions are to match up with our faith. Jesus wants us to be resolute, wholehearted and completely committed to walking with Him and living His way. We’ll become perfect by living through the power of the Holy Spirit: by letting God’s glory shine through our imperfect and flawed lives into the world. Our call is not to have spotless mirrors but to mirror the spotless character of God.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. [Ephesians 5:1-2 (NLT)]

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. [1 John 4:17 (NLT)]

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ON SANTA’S TEAM

Be generous: Invest in acts of charity. Charity yields high returns. Don’t hoard your goods; spread them around. Be a blessing to others. This could be your last night. [Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 (MSG)]

santa ornamentThe following is a holiday pass-along story that has made the rounds on the Internet. Years ago, little Jimmy was shocked when his big sister told him there was no Santa. He tearfully went to his grandmother and asked her. Assuring Jimmy that Santa existed and she’d prove it to him, Grandma took him to the local department store. Instead of seeing the store Santa, as Jimmy expected they would, his grandmother gave him $10 and told him to use it to purchase a present for someone who needed one. Alone in the store, the boy pondered who should get a gift and finally decided on Robby, a boy in his classroom. Robby never went out at recess; although he said it was because he wanted to study, everyone knew it was because he didn’t have a warm coat. Jimmy found a brown wool coat, took it to the clerk and asked the price. After telling her he hoped he could afford it since it was a gift for a boy at school who didn’t have a coat, the clerk questioned how much he had. Proudly showing her his ten dollar bill, she told him that was the exactly what the coat cost and bagged it up for him.

Once home, Jimmy’s Grandma removed the price tag, tucked it into her Bible, and helped him box and wrap the coat. That evening the two of them went to Robby’s house. After placing the festively wrapped gift at his front door, they rang the bell and hid behind the bushes. The joy they felt when Robby answered the door and picked up the box convinced Jimmy that Santa did, indeed, exist and that he and his grandmother were on Santa’s team. That little boy is now a grown man and Grandma is gone. When she passed, Jimmy was given her Bible. It was when he found the coat’s $19.95 price tag between its pages that Jimmy realized there had been three on Santa’s team that day.

I remembered that holiday story last month when our church provided fifty-four Christmas shoeboxes for Samaritan’s Purse. Packed with toys, school supplies, books, clothing, hygiene items, and games, these boxes will bless children in over 100 countries around the world. My husband and I were on Santa’s team while roaming through stores picking out things that a nine-year-old boy and a fourteen-year-old girl would like to find in their boxes, when trying to fit everything into the shoe-box size green plastic boxes, when writing short notes to include with the gifts, and when hearing one woman share her experience of being on a mission trip and meeting Christmas box recipients who told her of the great impact those boxes had on their lives and faith.

As you do your Christmas shopping for family and friends in the coming weeks, why not think about getting on Santa’s team and purchasing some items for those less fortunate. In His parable, Jesus told us that He identifies with those in need—the hungry, thirsty, homeless, impoverished, sick and imprisoned—and when we do something for them, we are doing it for Him. On someone’s birthday, it’s traditional to give him a gift so, when we purchase Christmas gifts for the poor and needy, we’re really buying birthday gifts for Jesus!

“I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:35-40 (MSG)]

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PUT IN ORDER

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-23 (NLT)]

bird houseIn both Matthew 12 and Luke 11, Jesus tells a rather confusing parable about a demon. After leaving a person, it searches for rest; finding none, the demon returns to its former home. Discovering it empty, swept, and in order, the demon brings seven more demons to live there. A rather puzzling parable, I can’t help but think of the phrase, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” First postulated in 485 BC by Parminedes and restated around 350 BC by Aristotle, it states that empty space is unnatural and goes against the laws of physics; therefore, every empty space in nature needs to be filled. I know nothing of vacuum theory, physics, or thermodynamics but, from this parable, it appears that sin abhors an empty mind or, as my mother used to say, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground!” I don’t know if Jesus was familiar with the Greek philosophers but, having exorcised several demons, he certainly was familiar with them. Empty minds and hearts must be filled by something—if not by God and good, then sin and evil.

Nevertheless, there seems to be more to this parable. Having just healed a demon-possessed man, Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees and scribes, people he frequently criticized for being more concerned with appearing righteous than actually being righteous. When reading that the house had been put in order, we probably think of it as neat and organized (like a file cabinet). The original Greek, however, used the word kosmeo which means to adorn, beautify or make attractive by having the right arrangement and the King James translation, which uses “garnished” instead of “put in order,” is probably closer to the original meaning. Kosmeo is the root word of cosmetics. While make-up may conceal, enhance, and even deceive, it does not change the underlying reality. The house may have looked good but the demons weren’t tricked and moved right back in. Sin isn’t deceived by appearances and will always return to hollow hearts and empty lives. Although God will take away our sins and banish our demons, it’s not enough to sweep out the old and redecorate; we must fill our lives with the new!

While they may look fine from the street, empty homes don’t do well; eventually they succumb to vermin like ants, box elder bugs, flies, termites, dust, spiders, mold, leaks, and dry rot. Empty lives are no different; they soon will be filled with demons like selfishness, anger, greed, addiction, pride, lust, pessimism, scorn, envy, prejudice and hate. But, if those same lives are filled with the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that come from the Holy Spirit, there will be no room for demons.

The first and the great work of a Christian is about his heart. Do not be content with seeming to do good in “outward acts” while your heart is bad, and you are a stranger to the greater internal heart duties. See that your chief study be about your heart—that there God’s image may be planted; that there His interests be advanced; that there the world and flesh are subdued; that there the love of every sin is cast out; that there the love of holiness grows. [Jonathan Edwards]

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. [1 Peter 1:18-19 (NLT)]

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ST. NICHOLAS DAY

Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” [Matthew 19:21 (NLT)]

Sr. Nicholas

Although it is difficult to know fact from fiction, we do know that St. Nicholas was born around 270 AD in Patara, a city in Lycia, in Asia Minor. The son of wealthy and devout parents, it was his uncle, the Bishop of Patara, who took charge of his spiritual life. Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra, quite likely attended the council of Nicaea, spent seven years imprisoned under Diocletian Persecution, and died on December 6, around 343 AD. While we don’t know much about the man, he must have had a great impact on the early Christian church because, by 450 AD, churches in Asia Minor and Greece were being named in his honor and, by the mid-6th century, the Emperor Justinian dedicated a church to him in Constantinople.

When Nicholas’ parents died, legend has it that he began to distribute the money and property he had inherited to those who begged him for help. Taking seriously Jesus’s command to sell his possessions and give to the poor, he selflessly gave away his entire wealth. It’s said that wherever he saw suffering or need, he gave in secret and expected nothing in return. The best known story of this revered saint is that he secretly provided money for the dowries of three girls whose father was so poor that he was going to sell them into slavery. Nicholas secretly provided each girl with a bag of gold (some say by putting it in their stockings that were drying by the fire). This legend evolved through the centuries into the custom of gift giving on the eve of his saint’s day.

Today is St. Nicholas Day. Last night, in his memory, children throughout Europe put out shoes, boots, or stocking to be filled with small gifts, fruit, nuts, candies and cookies brought by the Saint. These little gifts are meant to be shared with others and not hoarded for oneself. Perhaps we should pare down our Christmas lists so that our gifts can fit into a shoe or stocking. Let us also remember that those gifts are to be shared.

From what we know of the beloved saint, he loved God more than anything. I wonder what he would think of the way his name, faith and generosity have turned into such crass commercialism. While he is the patron saint of children, seamen, brides, the hungry, and scholars he is not the patron saint of credit card companies, malls, shoppers, catalogues or Amazon! Nicholas certainly wouldn’t approve of the way Santa Claus has eclipsed the Christ child in the hearts of many.

As we move into this holiday season, perhaps we should emulate St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus. His life wasn’t about how many presents were stacked under a tree; it was about dedicating his life to serving God and helping those in need. It is Jesus, not Santa, who is the reason for the season!

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

Blessed are those who are generous, because they feed the poor. [Proverbs 22:9 (NLT)]

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LET ME BE YOUR SERVANT

And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. [John 13:14 (NLT)]

Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. [Mark 10:43-44 (NLT)]

crab appleAs she sang, “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too,” I reached over to take my husband’s hand. I contemplated the road we’ve traveled together for over half a century as the soloist continued: “We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav’lers on the road; We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” As I listened to the rest of Richard Guillard’s beautiful song, I thought it was the perfect choice for a wedding.

I will hold the Christ light for you, In the night time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, Speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping. When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow, Till we’ve seen this journey through.
[“The Servant Song” by Richard Guillard]

During last week’s worship, however, I realized Guillard’s song applies to Christian fellowship as much as it does to marriage. His words describe the church or, at least, what the church is supposed to be. We comfort and support, encourage and enlighten, pray for and serve one another. We share good times and bad, walk together, go the extra mile, and help carry one another’s burdens.

“Will you let me be your servant?” That’s what Jesus was asking when he stripped off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and knelt to wash the disciples’ feet. That servant, on his hands and knees and holding a wash rag, was God! When Jesus came to Peter, the man protested and only relented when told, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.” Whether Jesus meant that Peter’s sins had to be washed away by the cross or that Peter needed to humbly submit to Jesus, I’m not sure. Either way, Jesus taught a valuable lesson both about servanthood and accepting God’s grace.

It’s important to serve but equally important to graciously accept the gift of service that comes with Christian love. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet but He also allowed a woman to wash his feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair. Servanthood in Christ’s church involves both the giving and accepting of grace but, for many of us, giving comes far easier than accepting.

How can we wash one another’s feet if we won’t take off our shoes because someone might know we have athlete’s foot or see the ugly bunion, corn, bruised toe, or blister? Let’s not be afraid to share our vulnerability, expose our failings, acknowledge our doubts, admit our fear, or disclose our needs. Let us love and serve one another as did Christ and let us accept that love and kindness as did His disciples.

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.
[“The Servant Song” by Richard Guillard]

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. … When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. … Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. [Romans 12:9-10,13,15 (NLT)]

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