And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. [Hebrews 11:6 (RSV)]

Steamboat Ski - COIt was a dreary winter day when the entire congregation exited the church into a weed-filled field. Like the Israelites, we were armed with horns, only ours were those silly blowout noisemakers seen at children’s birthday parties. Silently, we marched until we’d circled the muddy patch of ground seven times. Anyone observing us from the highway surely thought us foolish as we raised those noisemakers to our lips, blew hard and then cheered. Unlike the Israelites who marched around Jericho so God would knock down walls, we marched around that field to show our faith that God would erect walls for us!

That was a little more than five years ago in the Colorado mountain town where we spent our winters. Armed only with big prayers and bold faith, that church built a 15,000 square-foot Family Life Center. At its dedication last September, the congregation was again given noisemakers; when the service ended, the horns sounded as they celebrated God’s love, grace, and amazing provision.

Erecting that building wasn’t an easy task—blueprints were drawn and redrawn, delay after delay occurred, the red tape seemed never ending, and everything was more complicated and often more expensive than expected. The church never lost faith in the project nor did they cut back on serving God’s people. They faithfully continued their discipleship, benevolence, education, community outreach and missions work while raising additional funds for their expansion. This ski and ranch town is not a wealthy one and many are employed only seasonally. Nevertheless, they generously stepped out in faith, shared their resources, made sacrifices, and trusted God to provide. The pastor is fond of reminding his flock that God honors audacious prayers because audacious prayers honor God. The Family Life Center is a testament to that statement—when the people dared to dream and pray big, instead of walls falling, they were raised!

Picture the audacity of the bleeding woman who was so sure Jesus could heal her that she pushed her way through the crowd just to touch the hem of His robe. Imagine the audacity of Joshua asking God to stop the sun and moon from moving until the Israelites had defeated their enemies. When Elijah prayed for both drought and rain, he made some audacious predictions to Ahab. Like the bleeding woman and Joshua, he would have looked a fool if God had not answered those prayers. God came through for them all because their big bold prayers honored an even bigger God.

We insult our amazing Father with trivial prayers; they’re like asking famed chef Gordon Ramsey to make only a peanut butter sandwich. Inconsequential prayers imply we’re not sure He really can do anything that great. Courageous faith means bold audacious prayers and stepping out for God’s kingdom. Because they prayed, believed, and acted on their belief, that mountain church saw our awesome God provide in miraculous ways. He can do far more than we can imagine or ask and we must never doubt His power. Perhaps God will say, “No!” but, if we never ask, He can’t say, “Yes!” God honors audacious prayers because audacious prayers honor Him!

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it [a demon] out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” [Matthew 17:19-20 (RSV)]

Copyright ©2017 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

GOD-INCIDENCES – Thanksgiving 2017

The Lord has made the heavens his throne; from there he rules over everything. [Psalm 103:19 (NLT)]

mountain bluebirdMost of us live rather ordinary and somewhat predictable lives that are occasionally interrupted by major life events (some welcome and some not). It is life’s little surprises—its happenstance and serendipity—that keep our lives from becoming humdrum. On this Thanksgiving Day, let’s give thought to those little blessings we call coincidences.

We probably have no problem crediting God with the big blessings of life—things like the birth of a healthy child, the benign biopsy, the successful surgery, the spouse he gave us, the better paying job or His gifts of salvation and forgiveness. On the other hand, we tend to think of the little unexpected blessings—the butterfly or bluebird, the chance meeting, the phone call from a loved one, the sermon that spoke to our need, or the humorous email that arrived when we were in the dumps—as mere coincidence or luck. After all, our God is almighty and far too busy running the universe to deal with the minutiae of our everyday lives. Make no mistake; nothing is unimportant to a God who sees every sparrow fall and knows the number of hairs on our heads. Our universe is not run by random chance and God can multitask better than a one armed paper-hanger or a mom with triple toddlers! Nothing escapes His notice!

We speak to God in prayer but often chalk up His answer to luck or coincidence. Although He speaks audibly, I think he also speaks through a seemingly random Bible verse, a fortuitous encounter, words in a book we happen to pick up, a picture we see, or even sunsets, sunrises, flowers and animals. When we credit the little blessings of life to coincidence, we’re happy. When we credit them to their orchestrator, we become thankful. While we’re surprised by these seemingly random or chance events, our God never is! Both the big important incidents and the unimportant trivial ones come from His hand.

On this Thanksgiving Day, we will give thanks for our food, family, health, homes and all the major blessings of life. Let us also give thanks for the little blessings, the godsends, that make our ordinary lives so extraordinary: the ones that encourage us when we want to give up, put smiles on our faces, fill our hearts with joy, answer our questions, or remind us how much we’re loved. Along with all the big things, let’s be sure to give him credit for the little ones—the God-incidences—that he scatters throughout our days. His fingerprints are everywhere we look!

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)]

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 107:1 (NLT)]

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He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. [John 1:10-11 (NLT)]

desert roseCan you imagine what it was like being a brother or sister to Jesus? He had six siblings: James, Joses, Simon and Jude and two unnamed sisters. It couldn’t have been easy having the Son of God as a half-brother. Both his conception and birth were announced by angels, a star shone over his crib, and He’d been visited by foreign kings with expensive gifts. It’s tough to top that sort of entrance into the world. His brothers may have struggled with their religious studies but Jesus astounded the rabbis with his knowledge when He was only twelve. Without sin, He probably never threw a temper tantrum or a rock through a window. With no sassing, fighting, biting, or naughtiness, He was probably the perfect son and may have been Mary’s favorite. Such a blameless, intense and devout elder brother was a tough act for anyone to follow and there probably was some resentment and jealousy on the part of his siblings.

When Jesus left home and the family carpentry business for the ministry, it seems that his family didn’t support His mission. The Jews were looking for a very different Messiah—one who would be a victorious political leader. The Messianic king would free the Jews from their bondage to Rome and restore Israel as an independent nation. No matter how pious and righteous Jesus was, his brothers had seen him stub a toe, skin a knee, relieve himself, blow his nose, get a splinter and break a sweat—hardly what one would expect of the promised Messiah. John tells us “even his brothers didn’t believe in him.” [7:5] Jesus may have managed to turn water into wine but, to them, He was just a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. His ministry even may have been an embarrassment to the family, especially when he added tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners to His entourage. In fact, Mark tells us they thought him “out of his mind” and tried to take him home. [3:21] It’s highly unlikely that Jesus’ brothers were even at the crucifixion. As He looked down from the cross, rather than entrusting Mary’s care to them, Jesus asked his beloved disciple John to care for her.

In spite of their absence from His ministry, in the first chapter of Acts, we find Jesus’ brothers meeting with the disciples and joining them in prayer after the crucifixion. If they didn’t believe their brother before his death, why would they believe the words of His disciples after it? We can only assume the reason for their change of heart was that they actually saw the resurrected Christ. Only then did they finally understand and believe Jesus and His message. The Messiah didn’t come to save the Jews from bondage to Rome but to save the world from bondage to sin; He did not come to restore an old kingdom but to establish the new one. Instead of scoffers, His half-brothers became believers!

Jesus’s brothers had lived and worked with Him yet failed to see what was right in front of them. Like Thomas, they had to see the resurrected Christ before they could believe in Him. Seeing, however, is no guarantee of belief. Plenty of others saw Jesus and his miracles and never believed. As for us, unless we have a vision similar to Paul’s on the road to Damascus, we’re not likely to see the risen Christ. Nevertheless, if we believe in Him in this world, we will see Him in the next.

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” [John 20:29 (NLT)]

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Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. [Matthew 28:19 (NLT)]

Giessbach Falls - SwitzerlandLast year my eldest grand took advanced calculus. I could neither understand what she was doing nor the purpose in doing it (other than gaining entrance into a good university). This year she is taking something called Discrete Math, the definition of which leaves me in the dust. Apparently used in computer science, I didn’t even know that numbers could be discrete. Fortunately, I’m not the one taking SATs and making application to colleges so I don’t need to make sense of her difficult curriculum.

As confusing and difficult to explain as Calculus and Discrete Math is the concept of the Holy Trinity. Although my grand has to fully understand the concepts taught in her math classes, I don’t have to completely comprehend the Trinity to believe in it (which is good since the Trinity can seem as confusing as algorithms, algebraic combinatorics, and hypergraph theory.)

While various analogies are often used to describe the Holy Trinity, none seem to work completely. The Trinity has been compared to an egg with its three parts: yolk, white and shell. Although each is part of the same egg, the analogy fails because none of the three are the egg themselves. All three distinct parts of the Trinity are God rather than just part of Him. Others analogies compare the Trinity to water with its three properties of liquid, solid (ice) and vapor or steam. Although they all are water, the analogy fails since the same water can’t be all three at the same time. God, however, is Father, Son and Holy Spirit simultaneously. In previous devotions, I’ve compared the Trinity both to a chef’s mirepoix and the three dimensions of a book; while close, they weren’t perfect either.

While viewing a waterfall recently, I remembered an analogy used by one of my pastors. Picture yourself standing at the foot of a beautiful and powerful waterfall. You look up to the top. You can’t see the river that is the source of the water and yet you know it is there. The river, the source, is like God the Father. Then you look ahead and see the water pouring down over the rocks. The water you can see is Jesus (the Son who comes from God). Finally, you feel the spray on your face, breathe it in through your mouth and nose, and the water becomes part of you. That mist is the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity is central to our Christian faith. God is one being who exists as three coexistent, equal, eternal and divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. While they are all God, none of the three are any of the others. The Father is not the Son or Spirit; the Son is not the Father or Spirit, and the Spirit is neither Father nor Son. That we can’t fully comprehend this incredible phenomenon is understandable. God is God and we are not and His ways are beyond our limited human understanding. Nevertheless, just because I can’t understand calculus or discrete math doesn’t mean they are false or nonexistent and just because I can’t quite grasp the concept of a Triune God doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist either. His power and presence are not dependent upon my understanding. After all, this is the God who created a vast universe from nothing and scattered countless stars across the sky; fashioned everything from elephants to dragonflies and redwoods to roses; and understands theoretical astrophysics, nanotechnology, quantum physics, calculus and discrete math. Being three in one is probably child’s play to our omnipotent Triune God. Praise Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen!

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts. [Isaiah 55:8-9 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2017 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

OUR BANNER (Rephidim – Part 2)

But you have raised a banner for those who fear you—a rallying point in the face of attack. Now rescue your beloved people. Answer and save us by your power. [Psalm 60:4-5 (NLT)]

red shouldered hawkFollowing the Israelites’ victory against the Amalekites at Rephidim, Moses built a memorial altar and called it Jehovah-Nissi, which meant “The Lord is Our Banner.” Bearing the insignia of a country, opposing nations would fly their banners at the front line to rally and encourage their troops. The Amalekites were an army of fierce marauders with no fear of God. The Israelites, however, weren’t an army; they were weary travelers with women and children in their midst and they had no flag under which to rally. Moses’ staff was the closest thing they had to a banner. Naming the altar “Jehovah-Nissi” acknowledged that it was God’s presence and power that gave them their triumph. By not calling it “The Staff is Our Banner” or even “Our Banner Brought Us Victory,” it was clear that Moses knew it wasn’t battle strategy, military might or even his staff that defeated the Amalekites. God, and God alone, was the author of their victory.

Jehovah-Nissi: the Lord is our banner. Unlike the Israelites, we’re not being attacked by an army of marauding warriors but, like them, the enemy attacks us every day with desire, discontent, despair, anger, and guilt. If we keep our eyes focused on the Lord, as the Israelites did on Moses’ staff, victory is ours. We have a banner of encouragement, courage, hope, power and might. Because of Jehovah-Nissi, we don’t have to fight our battles on our own strength – we have His!

In that day the heir to David’s throne will be a banner of salvation to all the world. The nations will rally to him, and the land where he lives will be a glorious place. [Isaiah 11:10 (NLT)]

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Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. [Psalm 23:4 (AKJV)]

deer - buckI have an elderly friend who tells me Psalm 23 is her favorite psalm but, when reciting it, she omits one troubling sentence. “You know the one,” she added, “the one about death!” In actuality, a better translation for the original Hebrew would be “darkest valley” but she learned “valley of…death” as a girl and it remains that way for her. Whatever translation is used, those words should be ones of comfort rather than fear.

I thought of our exchange when another friend shared the last days of her uncle’s life. An avid outdoorsman and lover of nature, he’d been by defeated heart disease. Two days before he died, he was resting in his hospital bed and surrounded by family. A three-point buck emerged from the woods and slowly approached his house. The magnificent creature stood by the window and stared in at him. Eventually, it lay down beneath the window and, like the rest of his family, kept him company as he awaited death’s arrival.

My elderly friend is a woman of faith but even the most devout believers have moments they fear death. It is our final surrender and there is absolutely nothing we can do to defeat it; that loss of control is frightening. Nevertheless, death is inevitable and as much a part of life as birth! Even though Scripture assures us that death take us home to the Lord, the moment of death remains a mystery. Will there be a flash of light, a heavenly chorus, or a dark tunnel? Lazarus didn’t say and neither Trip Advisor nor Yelp have posted any reviews.

I wonder why my elderly friend seems so afraid of what, at her advanced age, is right around the corner (more likely, in the next room). If she has unfinished business, it’s too late; by now she’s forgotten whatever it was. Is it fear of leaving family and friends behind? God loves our loved ones far more than we ever could and He’ll continue to watch over them in our absence. Has she forgotten that we are only temporary residents here? There’s a great deal wrong with our present home but everything is absolutely perfect in the future one. Death, however, is necessary for entrance to it. If she’s afraid of losing her earthly possessions, she should remember that, rather than losing anything when we depart, we gain everything when we’re gone.

The actual moment of death is probably the most terrible and yet the most beautiful moment of our lives. Perhaps my friend’s fear of it is because she chooses to omit that one sentence from her favorite psalm. Whether it’s the valley of death or merely a dark valley, those encouraging words tell us we are under God’s care and safe in His presence when we enter that shadowy valley.

Was the buck’s extraordinary extended visit just a coincidence or was it a gift from God? We’ll never know. It is my understanding, however, that its presence assured both the dying man and his family that the God who knows when every sparrow falls was with him; he would not be making that final journey alone.

Death is not the end of the road; it is only a bend in the road. The road winds only through those paths through which Christ Himself has gone. This Travel Agent does not expect us to discover the trail for ourselves. Often we say that Christ will meet us on the other side. That is true, of course, but misleading. Let us never forget that He walks with us on this side of the curtain and then guides us through the opening. We will meet Him there, because we have met Him here. [Erwin Lutzer]

Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:  and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. [John 11:25-26a (AKJV)]

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