WOULD YOU?

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” … Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” Luke 1:30-31,34 (NLT)]

It’s no wonder that the angel Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid. Angels were not an everyday occurrence and, when they arrived, lives were changed. As God’s messengers, angels sometimes brought good news, offered protection, or comforted people, but they also brought warnings and executed God’s judgment. Although angels rescued Lot, they also warned of Sodom’s destruction! Balaam received a stern warning from a sword-bearing angel, David wrote of destroying angels, and 2 Samuel tells of an angel nearly destroying Jerusalem. Mary’s initial confusion and concern at seeing an angel is understandable. When reassuring the girl, Gabriel tells her she is “highly favored” by God; he’s not brought bad news, but good. Nevertheless, she knows her life is going to change; she just doesn’t know how!

Gabriel then tells Mary in what way she’s found favor—by giving birth to a child named Jesus who will fulfill the promises of Scripture. I don’t think Mary fully understood the ramification of Gabriel’s words simply because she was stuck on the “How?” of his words. When the angel told Zechariah of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the priest questioned out of disbelief saying that he and Elizabeth were too old. Mary, however, didn’t question whether God could do such a thing; she just asked how He would do it. That it would be a miracle through the Holy Spirit was all she needed to know! Calling herself the Lord’s servant, she immediately acquiesced to His will.

Mary’s answer is one of amazing faith. Unlike Moses, she didn’t list her weaknesses or the problems facing her and unlike Jonah, she didn’t run in the opposite direction. Although the angel encouraged Mary by telling her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary never asked for proof as did Gideon. Mary’s faithful response is that of highest obedience to God.

We know the rest of the story; Mary did not. She didn’t know how Joseph or her parents would react, where God’s plan would lead, or what would be demanded of her in the future. Trusting that the Lord would work out the details, she simply walked forward in faith. When God gives us a task, are we as obedient as Mary? We should be!

There’s some task which the God of all the universe, the great Creator, your redeemer in Jesus Christ has for you to do, and which will remain undone and incomplete until by faith and obedience you step into the will of God. [Alan Redpath]

Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. [Luke 1:38 (NLT)]

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STANDING ON HIS PROMISES

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. [John 6:11 (NLT)]

queen butterflyThe feeding of the five thousand is one of the more impressive of Jesus’s miracles. The gospels’ writers surely thought it important; other than the resurrection, this is the only miracle recorded in all four accounts. While small details vary, they all agree that Jesus had only five loaves and two fish when He said a blessing over the food. Although a typical Jewish blessing would have been something like, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” I think Jesus said something quite different. I don’t think He thanked God for five loaves and two fish and I don’t think He asked God for more provisions. In spite of not having sufficient food to feed even fifteen let alone more than five thousand, I think Jesus thanked our more-than-enough God for the more-than-enough food that would feed that multitude. I think the One who promised, “If you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours,” thanked His Father in Heaven for His abundant provision before that food ever appeared!

We don’t know exactly how this miracle transpired but none of the gospels’ writers describe anything impressive like fish and bread falling from heaven, Jesus staggering from the weight of the food that appeared in His arms, or needing extra baskets to distribute it (although twelve baskets were needed for the leftovers)! This extraordinary miracle occurred without drama or fanfare; as the food was distributed, it never seemed to diminish and, even though everyone ate until full, food remained.

Giving thanks in advance really isn’t so odd. Back in August, when we celebrated our anniversary, our children gave us play tickets and a night’s lodging in a nearby town. Our reservations, however, weren’t until October. Nevertheless, we didn’t wait two months to thank them. Even though we’d not checked into the hotel, enjoyed dinner and a comedy, or been assured at check-out that all expenses were paid, we thanked them in advance because we knew them to be good to their word.

A pastor recently shared his own story of giving thanks in advance. When he accepted a new job, he knew there had been some financial irregularities and questionable practices under his predecessor. Nevertheless, he was shocked to discover the church was so far behind in mortgage payments that the bank was considering foreclosure. He then learned that the church also was in debt to several church members. Sure it couldn’t get any worse than an insolvent church, the pastor received a notice from the city that, unless their gravel parking lot was paved within thirty days, services could no longer be held. That Sunday, as he delivered the disturbing news to the congregation, the pastor made one request. He asked everyone to say a prayer as they walked to their cars and felt the gravel’s stones beneath their shoes. They were to thank God for the smooth new asphalt under their feet and to praise Him for His timely provision of a parking lot! That was faith! Together, pastor and church stood on God’s promises of provision and, within thirty days, that parking lot was paved (and paid for). Eventually, through faith, prayer, good stewardship, and God’s provision, all of their debts were paid and the church got back on solid financial ground.

After the pastor told his story, I recalled the chorus to an old hymn, “Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior…I’m standing on the promises of God.” I wondered if I only thank God after His provision, which is gratitude, or if I stand on His promises and thank Him in advance, which is faith. If I have enough faith in my children to thank them before receiving their gifts, I should be able to trust God enough to thank Him for blessings not yet received. Do I stand on the promises of God? Do you?

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.” [Mark 11:22-24 (NLT)]

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UNLIMITED

expect a miracleBut Jesus said, “You feed them.” “With what?” they asked. [Luke 9:13a (NLT)]

After the crowd followed Jesus to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, He sat on the top of a hill, taught them about the Kingdom of God, and healed the sick. The gospels specify there were five thousand men but, considering that women and children probably accompanied them, there may have been as many as fifteen thousand or more. Late in the afternoon, the disciples asked Jesus to send the people away so they could go purchase food. Rather than dismiss them, Jesus said to feed them, but the disciples responded there wasn’t money enough to feed them all. When Andrew mentioned a boy with five loaves and two small fish, he added, “But what good is that?” Seeing neither money nor food enough, the disciples had missed the point; they were seeking a human solution for a God-sized problem.

Looking more like naan or pita than a modern loaf of bread, the boy’s loaves probably were about 7-inches in diameter and no more than an inch thick. As for the fish, with no refrigeration (or mention of cooking), they probably were dried or pickled and something like sardines. Did the boy even think his lunch would make a difference to that enormous crowd? The disciples certainly didn’t. Although the boy didn’t know what Jesus could do with his meager offering, he gave what little he had to Him. One boy shared his food with thousands and, instead of having less, everyone had more!

While the people’s problem had been lack of food, the disciple’s problem was graver: lack of faith! As first-hand witnesses to Jesus’s miracles, they’d seen Him turn water into wine, heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, give hearing to the deaf, free the demon-possessed, cure lepers, make the lame walk, and return a dead girl to life. When Jesus asked His disciples what they had to feed the people, not one of them said, “You, Lord! You can feed them!” Having seen His power, they didn’t see that their greatest asset was standing right in front of them. With his offering, this unnamed boy showed more faith in the Lord than did His own disciples!

How easily we forget that, while man’s resources are limited, God’s are unlimited. “It’s impossible!” is never heard in Heaven and shouldn’t be heard among His believers here on earth. When we offer what little we have to God, He can do more with our gifts than we can imagine! He will take our meager offerings and turn them into an abundance of blessings. Instead of worrying about how it can be done, we must have faith that it can be done! When we provide God with our fish and loaves, He will provide the miracle!

It is true that we have but our five coarse barley loaves and two small fishes; in themselves they are useless. Well, then, let us give them to Christ. He can multiply them, and can make them more than enough to feed the five thousand. [Archdeacon Frederic Farrar]

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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AN ABOUT FACE

I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law.  I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. [Philippians 3:5-6 (NLT)]

In writing about change yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of the Apostle Paul. He knew firsthand of God’s transforming power. When we first meet Paul, he’s going by his Hebrew name of Saul and looking on as Stephen (the first of Christ’s followers to give his life for the gospel) is stoned to death.

The slaying of Stephen led to a wave of persecution and Saul relentlessly went from house to house in search of Jesus’s followers so he could drag them off to prison. Full of religious zeal and eager to kill those who followed the Way, Saul asked the high priest for permission to go to Damascus so he could arrest Christ’s followers and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains. In short, Saul was brutal and violent and little more than a religious terrorist! It is on the road to Damascus, however, that Saul meets the risen Christ and has his amazing conversion [Acts 9]. Meeting Jesus face-to-face, being struck blind for three days, having Ananias lay hands on him, scales falling from his eyes, and Saul’s baptism make for a powerful story of redemption and truly testify that no person is beyond the saving grace of the Lord.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard and, as I wrote yesterday’s devotion, I wondered if Saul struggled as this once fanatical persecutor of Christians transformed into the great Christian evangelist. As a second-generation Pharisee, he thought of himself as a member of an elite group and anything foreign would have been detested. Wanting to keep himself free of any impurity, the old Saul would never associate with Gentiles or even any Jews who interpreted the law differently. Yet, the man who abhorred anyone different from him preached all over the Roman Empire, stressed unity between Jewish and Gentile believers, and became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles!

As a Pharisee, Saul had been meticulous to the point of obsession about obedience to both the written and oral Law. Yet, in an about face, he maintained that Jewish Christians no longer had to abide by those same regulations and that Gentile converts didn’t have to become Jews before becoming Christians. Understanding that it was the Holy Spirit rather than the Law that empowered holy living, Saul changed from thinking that strict obedience to the Law would make us right with God to knowing that we are only made right by grace through faith in Jesus.

Nevertheless, until meeting Jesus on the way to Damascus, Saul’s life had been wrapped around strict adherence to the Law. Did he have difficulty letting go of Pharisaic traditions like their elaborate hand washing ritual before meals, the conspicuous wearing of phylacteries and tassels, or fasting twice a week? Did the Jew who’d grown up loathing Gentiles cringe when he first sat down to eat with them? Until now, I hadn’t considered how difficult it had to have been for the Pharisee to become the Apostle. The man who wrote that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person” [2 Corinthians 5:17] knew firsthand the truth of his statement. It is in his transformation that we see the power of Jesus to revolutionize a life! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the persecutor of Christians became a preacher for Christ!

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. [Philippians 3:8-9 (NLT)]

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TWO IN ONE

For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. [Colossians 2:9 (NLT)]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

white ibisThe early church encountered difficulty in trying to reconcile the humanity and divinity of Jesus. In the 5th century, one group, from Alexandria, referred to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God, while the group from Antioch insisted that she was merely Anthropotokos, the one who gave birth to the human nature. Trying to bring about a compromise but pleasing no one, the bishop Nestorius suggested that the term Christotokos, the one who gave birth to Christ. The controversy, however, wasn’t about Mary; it was about the nature of Jesus. Did Mary give birth to a man who also was God or did Mary give birth to a man who later became God? The debate continued until 451 when the Chalcedonian Creed was adopted which confirmed the two natures of Christ (human and divine) in one person.

Creed or not, two natures in one being is a difficult concept to grasp. Infinite, God always has been and always will be, but the man Jesus had a beginning in Bethlehem and an end in Jerusalem. God is omnipresent but, when the boy Jesus was at the Temple, He couldn’t also be with his family on the way back to Nazareth, let alone everywhere at once. God is omnipotent but Jesus wasn’t all-powerful. He grew tired, thirsty and hungry, had to walk from village to village, and was cruelly crucified. God is immutable, meaning He never changes, but Jesus started as an embryo and matured into a grown man. He went from babbling to talking and from crawling to walking. His features changed as He lost his baby teeth and got molars and His voice deepened during adolescence. Self-sufficient, God has no needs but we know that baby Jesus needed to be fed, bathed, rocked and dressed. God never sleeps but we know Jesus did. God is omniscient; He sees and knows all but Jesus didn’t know the date of the End Times and, when the woman with the blood disorder touched his robe, He had to ask who touched him. Surely, as a little boy He asked Mary, “Why?”

Nevertheless, Jesus wasn’t two people; from the moment of His conception, He had two distinct natures perfectly united into one being. Inseparable, neither nature was diluted by the other. Jesus was fully man and, at the same time, fully God. Because our thinking is limited by the rules of this world as we know them, we can’t truly comprehend how He could be neither one nor the other but fully both in one body. How can finite man ever understand an infinite God? Nevertheless, we’re called to believe what we can neither imagine nor comprehend.

Can you conceive of anything more awesome than a God who chose to become man, who combined His divinity with our humanity, who connected with man by becoming one of us and yet remained God, who loved us so much that He took on our nature and died for our salvation? Thank you, Jesus!

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 (NLT)]

We all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood;… [Chalcedonian Creed]

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ICONS AND IDOLS

Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.” [1 Samuel 4:3b (NLT)]

Madonna and child - NetherlandsSorting through cabinets, I came across a video of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As I recall, archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones was authorized by the government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s Nazis could obtain its supernatural powers and dominate the world. Indiana was told that the Bible speaks of the Ark’s power to level mountains, lay waste to entire regions, and that any army carrying the Ark is invincible.

The only other Indiana Jones movie I remember is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Like its predecessor, it had equally poor Biblical history and theology. Indiana again found himself up against the Nazis when his father disappeared while pursuing the Holy Grail (the cup from the Last Supper). Since drinking water from the chalice would grant immortality, the Nazis wanted to possess it.

Of course, we should never get our religious education from popular movies. As for an army being invincible when carrying the Ark, the opposite actually happened. Thinking God’s power was in the Ark, the Israelites carried it into battle and were defeated by the Philistines; 30,000 of their soldiers died and the Ark was captured. As for drinking from the Holy Grail, the disciples all drank from it and they all died. Belief in Jesus is the only way to gain eternal life.

While it seems silly to think that merely possessing the real Ark would bring world domination or that drinking water from a cup used by Jesus would bring immortality, the Israelites made the same mistake of venerating some of God’s things rather than God. Instead of reminding them who to worship, objects like the bronze serpent became what was worshipped. When approaching Canaan for the second time, the impatient Israelites spoke against God and Moses. In judgment, God sent poisonous serpents into their camp. As people began to die, the people confessed their sin, and begged for mercy. God then commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent, telling him that all who looked at it would be healed. The Bible makes no more mention of Moses’ bronze serpent until some 700 years later when King Hezekiah began to rule Judah. When he eradicated idolatry throughout the country, Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent because people had started to worship it rather than God. Instead of being a symbol of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and healing, the bronze serpent became an idol.

Power comes from God, not from things. Central to the Israelites’ faith, the Ark was a sign of God’s covenant with them. Even though it symbolized a holy pledge, the Ark was no more worthy of worship than a rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant with Noah. Although it contained precious relics, it had no more power than does my jewelry box. The Holy Grail had no more power than my coffee cup and the bronze serpent possessed no more power than the bandage on my knee.

None of those items were graven images nor were they made to be idols and yet people turned them into objects of worship. While we have no ancient artifacts tempting us, let us never make the error of turning respect for a religious symbol into the worship of it. While worthy of reverence, the cross in the sanctuary or on the chain around one’s neck, the Communion chalice, a statue of Mary or picture of Jesus, dried palms from Palm Sunday, or a mezuzah at the doorway have no more power than a rabbit’s foot or a lucky penny. While they may aid in prayer or worship, salvation comes from God—not from any of His things!

You must not have any other god but me. [Exodus 20:3 (NLT)]

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