NINE MONTHS

Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. [Luke 1:46-48 (NLT)]

campionWe know that within a few days of the angel’s visit that Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth’s home, but what of those first few days after the annunciation? Did Mary tell anyone or did she wait until she’d seen proof of Elizabeth’s pregnancy before she truly believed that she, too, was with child? Did she tell Joseph immediately or wait until she returned to Nazareth three months later?

Have you ever wondered how that conversation went and about Joseph’s initial reaction to her unbelievable news? The couple’s betrothal was far more involved and serious than today’s engagements. In those days, betrothal wasn’t just an agreement between two people; it was an arrangement and commitment connecting two families. Joseph would have presented a ketubah, or marriage contract, to Mary and her father and paid a bride price, called a mohar, to compensate her father for the cost of raising the young woman. He then would have returned home to prepare a place for her and their engagement may have lasted as long as a year. Although the couple didn’t live together and certainly didn’t have sex, they were bound to one another as if married.

Though unconsummated, their betrothal was binding and could only be undone by a divorce with just cause (such as Mary not being a virgin). Knowing he wasn’t the father of her child, Joseph could have had her stoned for adultery. Matthew tells us he considered quietly divorcing her until he was visited by an angel who explained how the baby was conceived. But what of Mary’s parents? Worse, what about the reaction of Joseph’s family? How did Mary and Joseph explain this miraculous conception? Who would believe them? For that matter, what about the gossips of Nazareth? Mary had gone to visit her cousin and returned pregnant so it couldn’t be Joseph’s! There probably were whispers of scandal surrounding Mary all of her days.

After the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive without virtue of a husband, he left. We can only hope that when the Holy Spirit came upon her and the Most High overshadowed her that Mary was given more than a baby—that she was given wisdom and strength beyond her years. I suppose any doubts Joseph had about the baby boy eventually were allayed by the unprecedented visits of shepherds and angels at the nativity, their encounters with Simeon and Anna at the temple, and the visit of the Magi with their extravagant gifts. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that the angel who visited him also gave him wisdom and strength for the challenges ahead.

The Christmas story actually begins nine months before that extraordinary night in Bethlehem. In celebration of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, many churches celebrate the feast or festival of the annunciation on March 25 but it’s easily overlooked by many of us. Today, as I set out the figures for the nativity scene, I thought about Mary and Joseph and couldn’t help but wonder what happened in the nine months between Nazareth and Bethlehem.

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,  which means “God is with us.” [Matthew 1:22-23 (NLT)]

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BUT HOW?

Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” … Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”  [Luke 1:34,38 (NLT)]

queen butterfly Angels taking on bodily form and appearing to people certainly wasn’t an everyday occurrence so it’s understandable that Mary was troubled and perplexed by Gabriel’s presence when he showed up in Nazareth. After telling her not to be afraid, the angel gave her the startling news that she would conceive and give birth. Mary may have been a virgin but she knew that babies weren’t brought by the stork or found in a cabbage patch. “But how?” was her first response.

“But how?” Isn’t that our typical response when God calls us to His work? Abraham couldn’t see how his people would possess Canaan, Sarah couldn’t see how God could give her a child when her child-bearing days were over, Moses wanted to know how he could convince both the Israelites and Pharaoh, Gideon asked how he could rescue Israel, Samuel asked how he could anoint a new king without being killed by Saul, and Zechariah asked how his wife could possibly become pregnant. Given their situations, “But how?” certainly seems understandable.

The angel’s answer that the Holy Spirit would come upon her still didn’t tell Mary exactly how her pregnancy would come about. Had that been me, I would have wanted a better explanation and then followed with a series of “whys” and “what abouts.” While being told that her barren cousin Elizabeth was already pregnant may have reassured Mary that what seems impossible can actually happen, Elizabeth was married and Mary was not! “But how?” probably was just one of many questions circling in Mary’s head.

Unlike Moses, Mary didn’t try to squirm out of the task with excuses; unlike Sarah, she didn’t laugh in unbelief; unlike Gideon, she didn’t ask for a series of signs; unlike Samuel, she didn’t point out the problems she was sure to face with her pregnancy; and, unlike Zechariah, she believed the angel. After asking him, “But, how?” Mary accepted the simple explanation that nothing is impossible with God and humbly submitted.

Do we forget that God doesn’t have the limitations we have? He can make manna appear, feed 5,000 with a few fish and loaves, part the sea, walk on water, restore sight to the blind, and raise the dead. Nevertheless, we often ask, “But how?” when called by God to serve and then allow the logistics of His task keep us from doing His work. Could we be missing God’s blessings because we’re too busy asking, “But how?” instead of responding in faith? Let us never forget that God will work out the how; we just need to submit as readily as did Mary.

You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said. [Luke 1:45 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

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THE BREAD OF LIFE – THANKSGIVING DAY 2018 

“Tell everyone to sit down,” Jesus said. So they all sat down on the grassy slopes. (The men alone numbered about 5,000.) Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. After everyone was full, Jesus told his disciples, “Now gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.” So they picked up the pieces and filled twelve baskets with scraps left by the people who had eaten from the five barley loaves. [John 6:10-13 (NLT)]

fresh breadIn all probability, you’re not having more than 5,000 guests for dinner today and, rather than sitting on the ground, they’ll probably all be seated at a table. Nevertheless, other than that, these words sound a bit like dinner today at any number of homes throughout our nation—there will be lots of people, more than enough to eat, and plenty of leftovers.

While some people will take a stroll around the block in an effort to make room for the next round of food, many will settle into comfortable chairs and probably snooze while watching football. Although “I can’t eat another bite!” will be repeated at tables far and wide, sooner or later, people again will wander into the kitchen for another morsel of turkey or piece of pie. We’ll get hungry again and overeat once more, if not today then tomorrow or the next day. No matter how much we eat this afternoon, today’s meal won’t satisfy tomorrow’s hunger.

Jesus, however, offers us a meal that is more than satisfying; one that will erase the hunger in our souls forever. We won’t ever feel stuffed or need to unbutton our pants to enjoy it. Totally calorie-free, we have no reason to worry about fats, gluten or carbohydrates. As you pass the basket of rolls today, be sure to remember that Jesus is the true Bread of Life!

Farmers everywhere provide bread for all humanity, but it is Christ alone who is the bread of life…Even if all the physical hunger of the world were satisfied, even if everyone who is hungry were fed by his or her own labor or by the generosity of others, the deepest hunger of man would still exist…Therefore, I say, Come, all of you, to Christ. He is the bread of life. Come to Christ and you will never be hungry again. [Pope John Paul II]

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. … I tell you the truth, anyone who believes has eternal life. Yes, I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven, however, will never die. [John 6:35, 47-50 (NLT)]

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HARD HEARTS

But when they saw him walking on the water, they cried out in terror, thinking he was a ghost. They were all terrified when they saw him. But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage! I am here!” Then he climbed into the boat, and the wind stopped. They were totally amazed, for they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in. [Mark 6:49-52 (NLT)]

water liliesAfter feeding a multitude with little more than a handful of food, Jesus sent the disciples across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida. He stayed behind to send the people home and then, exhausted, went into the mountains to pray. During the fourth watch (somewhere between 3:00 and 6:00 AM), Jesus looked out at the water and saw that the disciples were struggling against the wind and waves to keep the boat on course. Seeing their trouble, he walked on the water toward them. Instead of being pleased to see Him, the disciples were alarmed and frightened!

By this point in the ministry of Jesus, He had restored a deformed hand; exorcised numerous demons; healed a paralyzed man, a bleeding woman, lepers and even Peter’s mother-in-law among others; raised a girl from the dead; calmed a storm with a few words; and fed a multitude with just a few loaves and fish. What part of these miracles didn’t they get? They shouldn’t have been surprised by Jesus’s appearance; they should have expected it! If someone can still storms and create food, He certainly can walk on water; those are things only God can do!

Sometimes, I wonder if we’re any different than the disciples. Do we have trouble believing what is so obvious? Knowing the end of the story, of course, it’s easier for us; the disciples came in at the beginning and didn’t know how it would end. Nevertheless, that Jesus was more than a wise, kind and gifted healer but actually God in a man’s body is an overwhelming concept for many and remains a barrier to their belief.

Jesus certainly didn’t fit the disciples’ expectations and, sometimes, He doesn’t fit ours. They pictured the Messiah as a conquering warrior and judge but Jesus was the opposite; He spoke of mercy, love, and forgiveness rather than vengeance. While we don’t expect Jesus to slay our enemies, we often think of Him as a sort of cosmic vending machine where we put in a prayer (or make an offering) and out comes whatever it is we want. Like those who expected a military leader, we find ourselves disappointed.

I wonder if the disciples simply were afraid to believe. Just imagine their discussion in the boat that evening as they tried to understand how Jesus managed to feed thousands. They must have wondered what it would mean for them if Jesus really was the Messiah. Would His mission end up as did the failed Messianic movement led by Judas of Galilee: the leader dead and his followers scattered? They weren’t soldiers; they were common working men and Simon was the only Zealot among them. Would they end up headless as did John the Baptist? Did they wonder what Jesus would expect of them? Do we hesitate to accept Jesus because we’re afraid of what He will ask of us? Mark tells us that the hearts of the disciples “were too hard to take it in.” Even knowing all that Jesus had done, they didn’t yet believe.

Almighty God, through the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to your holy truth.

Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” [Mark 4:40 (NLT)]

Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:16 (NLT)]

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BELIEVE IT OR NOT

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. After everyone was full, Jesus told his disciples, “Now gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.” So they picked up the pieces and filled twelve baskets with scraps left by the people who had eaten from the five barley loaves. [John 6:11-12 (NLT)]

African IrisThe resurrection of Jesus and His feeding of the 5,000 are the only two miracles recorded in all four gospels. Since the gospel writers only told us of the number of men at that al fresco meal, Biblical scholars estimate the actual number eating those loaves and fish to be more than double that figure. Perhaps it’s because of the magnitude of that miracle that people often want a logical explanation of how Jesus did it. Some suggest that everyone just had a small bite of food. When I’ve had unexpected guests, I’ve made some pretty thin slices in the roast to fill everyone’s plates but there is no way even the most experienced butcher could slice those loaves and fish thin enough to feed fifty, let alone thousands. There are others who explain this event as an example of the amazing charisma of Jesus. They speculate that He managed to convince anyone who happened to have food to share with everyone else and that a massive impromptu potluck picnic took place. Indeed, getting a crowd that size to share their provisions with strangers would be a miracle. Nevertheless, if enough people had brought their own food, feeding the crowd wouldn’t have been a concern to Jesus or the disciples. Moreover, neither scenario explains those twelve baskets of leftovers!

In the television show Penn & Teller: Fool Us!, aspiring magicians perform their best illusions for the famed duo who then try to figure out how they are done. As experienced and skilled as Penn and Teller are, they often are fooled. If expert illusionists can’t figure out how a magic trick is done, as mere mortals, we shouldn’t expect to understand how God manages an actual miracle! By definition a miracle can’t be explained; unlike a scientific experiment, it can’t be duplicated and, unlike a magic trick, it’s not sleight of hand.

If we insist on figuring out how Jesus managed this miracle, do we also want a plausible explanation for the raising of Lazarus, the virgin birth, wine at Cana, walking on water, calming a storm, or the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountainside at the transfiguration? Jesus was God and God is not bound by the laws of nature. When He created the world, He made something out of nothing; feeding thousands with a few loaves and fish was probably child’s play for Him. Try as we will, there are no plausible explanations for the supernatural. The logical explanation for the feeding of the multitude is the obvious one: it was a miracle!

About miracles, one of my pastors is fond of saying, “You either believe it or you don’t!” As for me, I choose to believe!

Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. [St. Augustine]

I am the Lord, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for me? [Jeremiah 32:27 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

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LET MY PEOPLE GO!

But when Pharaoh saw that relief had come, he became stubborn. He refused to listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had predicted. … “This is the finger of God!” the magicians exclaimed to Pharaoh. But Pharaoh’s heart remained hard. He wouldn’t listen to them, just as the Lord had predicted. … But Pharaoh again became stubborn and refused to let the people go. [Exodus 8:15,19,32 (NLT)] 

frogThe Book of Exodus tells of the many times Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh with the Lord’s message that Pharaoh should let the Israelites leave Egypt. Pharaoh, unwilling to see his slave labor depart, demanded miracle upon miracle to prove that the Israelites’ God had sent them. The series of plagues that followed was the ultimate “smack-down” between God and all of the Egypt’s gods. The waters of Egypt were fouled with blood, frogs covered the land, and dust became an infestation of gnats. Even though Pharaoh’s magicians conceded to Moses, the headstrong ruler refused to believe the marvels before him. The Israelites remained unaffected by these calamities and Moses could both start and stop every plague but Pharaoh remained intractable and unconvinced.

More afflictions were visited on the people of Egypt: swarms of flies, diseased livestock, boils on people and animals, and a devastating hail storm that was followed by swarms of locusts. Yet, Pharaoh refused to budge. The ninth plague, three days of darkness, should have been enough to convince anyone that the Israelite’s God meant business. Nevertheless, no matter what sort of punishment rained down on the Egyptians, Pharaoh stood his ground. He would concede only long enough for Moses to end each affliction and then change his mind once the plague was lifted. It was not until the final plague, the death of every first-born creature which included his son, that Pharaoh relented. Even then, he recklessly sent his soldiers after the fleeing Israelites only to have the entire army destroyed.

What distorted sense of pride kept Pharaoh from admitting he was wrong? How arrogant he was to think foiling the God of the Israelites took precedence over the welfare of his people. Pharaoh’s hardened heart resulted in Egypt enduring terrible affliction and loss. I wonder; do we ever barge ahead, ignoring the consequences, simply because we are more concerned with being victors than right? Like Pharaoh, are we ever so arrogant and uncompromising that we’re unwilling to accept the possibility that we could be wrong? Do we ever harden our hearts to the truth? Do we ever harden our hearts to God?

Your ancestors refused to listen to this message. They stubbornly turned away and put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing. They made their hearts as hard as stone, so they could not hear the instructions or the messages that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies had sent them by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. [Zechariah 7:11-12 (NLT)]

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes—so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them. [Matthew 13:15 (NLT)]

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