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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ONLY HE CAN MAKE A TREE FROG

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. [Romans 1:20 (NLT)]

A friend sent a link to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world; you’ve probably gotten a similar one and been amazed by photos of the northern lights in Iceland, the red and orange pillars of Bryce Canyon, or the Glowworm caves in New Zealand. Awestruck by God’s amazing creation, I thought of how He makes Himself known through all that He’s made. Unfortunately, we tend to hear God better when He shouts with the exceptional and impressive than when He whispers with the small and familiar. obedient plant (false dragonhead) - green tree frogWe’re sure to notice God in the Grand Canyon, the multitude of stars in the night sky, or when watching two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelles migrate through the Serengeti. We sense Him in extraordinary or exotic things like the peacock’s splendid tail, Devil’s Tower, or spectacular sunsets and sunrises. But do we notice Him in the commonplace and unremarkable?

Yesterday, I watched, spellbound, as several bees visited the flowers I was photographing. A bee would enter one of the purple tubular blossoms and disappear as it inched its way deep into the corolla to gather pollen and nectar. After backing out, it would move on to another bloom. A perfect fit, it was as if bee and flower had been designed for one another (and they were). The flowers’ scent attracted the bees and, while the bees gathered food for their hive, they pollinated the plants. What was happening in these ordinary flowers growing wild by the road was truly extraordinary!

God’s grandeur is revealed in the giant trees of the redwood forest but His attention to detail is found in the one billion bacteria that live in just one gram of the forest’s soil. His greatness is made known in the 1,600 miles of the Great Barrier Reef but also in the 1,500 species of fish, 5,000 species of mollusks, 17 species of sea snakes and 6 species of turtles living there. We see our ingenious Creator in the enormous African elephant but also in the oxpeckers and cattle egrets that ride on its back and in the lice, ticks and parasites living on the elephant that are eaten by those birds. God’s artistry is revealed in the 28,000 species of orchids and but also in His amazing design of the wasps, bees, flies, moths, ants and gnats that pollinate them.

God teaches us, speaks to us, and provides for us through his creation. Let’s not fail to see His marvelous work in the everyday and mundane: wasps building a nest, mushrooms appearing on the lawn after a rain, maple leaves turning red in autumn, raindrops glistening on a flower petal, or a squirrel gathering nuts. You may remember the first line of Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees: “I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.” The last line reads: “Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.” Only God can make a tree, but He’s also the only one who can make the lichens and fungi living on its bark, the small tree frog hiding in its leaves, and the sparrow nesting in its branches.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!

Nature is the living, visible garment of God. [Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe]

All things bright and beautiful, All creatures, great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all. [Cecil Francis Alexander]

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. … I will sing to the Lord as long as I live. I will praise my God to my last breath! May all my thoughts be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord. [Psalm 104:24,33-34 (NLT)]

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BEWARE THE YEAST

purple prairie clover“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” [Matthew 16:6 (NLT)]

In Biblical days, rather than using a packet of Fleishman’s yeast for leavening, people kneaded a small amount of old fermented dough called a starter or seor into fresh dough. When a yeast starter gets contaminated by bacteria, however, it gets a moldy odor of decay and, if mixed into new dough, its foulness will spread; the resulting bread will be unpleasant and inedible.

We’re all familiar with Jesus’ warning to the disciples to beware the yeast of the Pharisees. They weren’t bakers so what was their yeast? I’d always thought of it as the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and false teachings. And, while both of those can spread and spoil like bad leavening, I think there’s more to his caution.

The Pharisees and Sadducees, disregarding all of Jesus’ previous miracles, had demanded an impressive miraculous display from Him. Jesus wasn’t an entertainer and His miracles were never for show. Knowing nothing would convince the religious leaders, He refused and left. Shortly after that, Jesus and the disciples departed to the other side of the lake. It was when the disciples realized they’d failed to bring provisions that Jesus first warned them about the yeast of the Pharisees. Thinking He was talking about bread, they then started arguing with one another about not having anything to eat. Imagine their conversation as they pointed accusing fingers at one another for having no food—each man trying to shift the blame for the oversight to someone else. Totally misunderstanding Jesus’ warning, they were bickering about bread and worrying about their next meal when Jesus had just fed thousands with only a few loaves and fish. Our Lord was probably rolling His eyes at their blind foolishness. Like the Pharisees, what part of His many miracles didn’t they understand? Twice they’d ended up with several baskets of leftovers after feeding a multitude; certainly lack of bread shouldn’t pose a problem for just twelve men. Reminding them of His previous miracles of provision, Jesus told them He wasn’t speaking of bread. When He again told them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, they finally understood He was speaking of their unbelief.

Although Jesus warned them of this very thing before they’d started to argue, like the Pharisees, they ignored what they knew of Him and His miracles. Instead of allowing their belief to grow into trust, they allowed doubt to taint their faith and their relationship with one another in the same way that bad yeast contaminates bread. A little bit of uncertainty and skepticism swelled into fear, anger, and criticism. They were squabbling about bread for supper when they had the bread of life right beside them.

We all must beware the yeast of the Pharisees: not just false teaching and hypocrisy but also lack of trust!

Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation. [D. Elton Trueblood]

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. But you haven’t believed in me even though you have seen me. [John 6:35-36 (NLT)]

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WORK THE PROGRAM

Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. [Matthew 7:7-8 (NLT)]

naples doorwayThe gospels relate two stories of Jesus telling the disciples where to cast their nets and of the record catches that resulted. Jesus fed thousands with a mere basket of food, healed lepers, walked on water, gave sight to the blind, and turned water into wine. A miracle worker like that easily could fill their boats with fish without the disciples lifting a hand. As awestruck as they were by their overflowing nets, imagine their astonishment if the fish had jumped right into their boats! Nevertheless, Jesus chose to have them work for their blessing; He provided the fish but the men did the heavy lifting.

Sometimes God seems silent regarding a prayer when He’s already answered; we’ve simply missed His answer because we stopped at the asking and forgot about the rest of His promise. When asking, we often pray for an easy solution; God’s answer, however, usually involves work. We ask for a plentiful harvest but are disappointed when all we find are seeds, bags of fertilizer, a hoe and a shovel. When the bills are overwhelming, we ask for relief. He gives us overtime, a second job, or credit counseling and we wonder why He hasn’t answered us with a winning lottery ticket. We pray for recovery from the stroke but think God silent when we’re faced with hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy instead of a miraculous healing. We pray for good grades but think He’s ignored us when all we see is a tutor and more hours spent studying. We pray for sobriety but, when faced with rehab, a counselor and twelve steps to work, we don’t think He cares. We’d much prefer a God of instant solutions but most of God’s solutions come disguised as work.

The disciples wanted fish, but they had to cast their nets to get them. When the Israelites asked for food, God gave them manna but they had to go out and gather it. God tumbled down Jericho’s walls, but it was the Israelites who marched around the city thirteen times before that happened. To be healed of his leprosy, Naaman had to wash himself in the Jordan seven times and, when Jesus healed the two blind men, they’d followed him down the road and right into the house where He was staying. Those 3,000 converts on Pentecost didn’t happen by themselves—the disciples had to go out and do the preaching!

God answers our prayers with His spiritual power but that power usually has to be converted into physical power on our part. He works the miracle but, for the most part, it comes through us as we turn His promises into reality with our actions. In answer to our prayers, God gives us His wisdom in Scripture, His guidance through the Holy Spirit, and people and opportunities; what we do with those gifts is our choice. Never stop at the asking—remember to do some serious seeking and knocking, as well!

Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you. [Attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola]

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. [Thomas Alva Edison]

Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Don’t be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. [1 Chronicles 28:20 (NLT)]

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IS THERE LUCK?

We may throw the dice, but the Lord determines how they fall. [Proverbs 16:33 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronMy youngest grand held the dice and blew on them for luck. The way those dice fell, however, had to do with probability and not luck. Like Yahtzee, life often seems a game of chance; sometimes we’re lucky and sometimes we’re not. Luck, however, has nothing to do with it. For example, King Ahab seemed to have incredibly bad luck when a soldier randomly shot an arrow and accidently hit him right between the joints of his armor. In spite of appearances, that wasn’t luck; God had already pronounced Ahab’s doom through the prophet Micaiah. It was God, not luck, who caused King Xerxes’s insomnia and the report of Mordecai saving his life to be read just moments before Haman wanted a death sentence pronounced on the Jew. Nor was it simply luck that Ruth ended up gleaning in the field of Boaz (Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer). Our sovereign God was firmly in control and directed those seemingly chance events.

On the other hand, sometimes God allows events to happen. That Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers wasn’t bad luck on Joseph’s part; it was evil and jealousy on the part of his brothers. God allowed Satan to plague Job and David to take a lustful look at Bathsheba. He’s allowed me to make a number of bad decisions and, while I would prefer attributing their consequences to bad luck, I can’t. They were simply the result of my foolishness, pride, pigheadedness or disobedience.

As the creator of the universe, God set a certain number of “laws” in place that keep our lives somewhat predictable. Principles like the laws of gravity, motion, and conservation of energy determine how things will operate in our world. We have twenty-four hours in a day, the sun sets in the west, water flows from a higher to a lower elevation, and if a equals b then b equals a. These “laws,” however, can be broken by their creator. For example, it wasn’t luck that kept Joshua from running out of sunlight while battling the Amorites; God prolonged the day at his request. Although time may have stopped for Joshua, God made it move backwards for Hezekiah and Isaiah when the shadow on a sundial moved back ten steps. Natural laws were suspended when a three-day plague of darkness descended on the Egyptians (but not the Israelites) and when the Red Sea parted for the Israelites but consumed the Egyptians. Surely turning H2O (water) into CH3CH2OH (ethyl alcohol) plus glycerin, pectins, acids, polyphenols and flavor to make wine broke some law of chemistry. That Jesus and Peter walked on water broke the laws of flotation. None of these, however, were the result of luck.

Even though much of life seems random, we live by God’s sovereignty and not by luck. As for my grand and the dice—God could determine the way they fall but that wouldn’t be luck; it would be God’s will. Nevertheless, I seriously doubt He is going to interfere in a friendly game of Yahtzee. There is no force of good luck that can be coaxed into finding us a parking place, turning lights green, or giving us five of a kind nor is there a force of bad luck we can blame when those parking places are filled, the lights are red, and we can’t even roll a pair. Whether God is actively causing something to happen or passively allowing it, nothing is a matter of luck. As for the favors and blessings of life—let’s always give credit where credit is due: to the grace of God.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

Remember the things I have done in the past. For I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me. Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. [Isaiah 46:10 (NLT)]

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