A MATTER OF CHOICE

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)]

great blue heronYesterday, when writing about the angel’s visit to Mary, I came upon some articles by women who take offense at the story of Jesus’s conception. Interpreting Mary’s response as involuntary, they picture the Annunciation of our Lord as some weird sort of a supernatural rape. This is inconsistent both with Scripture and God as we know Him. The angel didn’t say, “Surprise, you’re pregnant!” and leave. Read the words as reported by Luke; Gabriel told Mary what would happen, not what had already occurred. It was only after Mary asked how the angel’s words would be fulfilled and she accepted God’s invitation to motherhood that the angel departed.

The God we know from Scripture is one of choice: it was He who gave us free will. Although God pursues, seeks and invites us, it remains our choice to accept or reject Him. Jesus called the people to follow Him but not everyone who heard His invitation did. When the people of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave, that’s exactly what He did. When Jesus told the parables about banquets to which the invited guests refused to come, the host accepted their refusals and simply invited others to the feast. God gave us free will and He will not violate this gift. No one, not even the virgin Mary, is ever forced to partake of God’s grace.

Although some would have us think that Mary was powerless in Gabriel’s presence, she was the one with the power. It was Mary who would decide whether or not to accept God’s call. Writer Mark Ballenger refers to God as a “sovereign gentleman,” and, like a true gentleman, He waited for Mary’s verbal consent before the Holy Spirit came upon her!

When feminists object to Mary saying she was the Lord’s servant, they are confusing being servile (mindlessly doing what is ordered) with consciously choosing to serve. There is nothing demeaning or weak about being a servant. Jesus was God and yet he called himself a servant and laid aside his majesty to selflessly serve mankind and die on the cross.

Mary was far more than an incubator for God. We honor her not because she had the womb in which Jesus grew; we honor her because she freely chose to be a faithful and obedient servant to God. God could not have carried out His plan of salvation without Mary’s consent and cooperation. Let us remember that God cannot continue to carry out the plans for His Kingdom without ours. Like Mary, we are called to be God’s servants. Whether or not we accept His invitation, is entirely up to us.

Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me. [John 12:25-26 (NLT)]

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MARCH 25 – HAPPY NEW YEAR

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)]

spiderwortIf we were living in England between 1155 and 1752, today would be New Year’s Day! Although the historical year would have begun January 1, March 25 was the day the civil or legal year began. Since England and its colonies used the Julian calendar (named after Julius Caesar) they celebrated the spring equinox on March 25. Starting a new year in the dead of winter seemed counter-intuitive and the first day of spring, the season of new growth, seemed more logical and the perfect day to start a new year. The Julian calendar, however, had miscalculations (including the spring equinox) and was replaced in 1752 by the Gregorian one (named after Pope Gregory); that, however, is another story.

For those in liturgical churches, today is also known as the Annunciation of our Lord and commemorates the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary. This feast was celebrated as far back as the fourth or fifth century and its March date was set in the seventh century. For the English, celebrating Christ’s first presence as a human being on this day was another good reason for starting the year on March 25.

The story of Jesus didn’t begin in Bethlehem; it began in Nazareth nine months prior to that night. It was when Mary became pregnant that God became incarnate: a human being made of flesh and blood. Granted, He was but two cells fused together but that zygote had everything in it to become Jesus Christ. It divided again and again, the embryo grew, the cells began to differentiate, and the fetus developed everything needed to live outside His mother. Since sin-filled man was incapable of going to God, our perfect God came to us. That baby boy forming in Mary’s womb was the promised Messiah!

While Jesus’s incarnation is the core of our Christianity, it is difficult to understand and, for some people, impossible to believe. Nevertheless, the God who spoke the world into creation, created night and day, scattered the stars through the sky, filled the oceans with water, and populated the earth with living plants and animals could certainly manage to plant a fetus in a womb without going through the ordinary steps. When Mary assented to God’s will, Jesus was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit!

Of course, since we really don’t know when Jesus’s birth took place, we don’t know the date of His conception. Nevertheless, having grown up in a liturgical church, I find a richness and strength in remembering and celebrating events in the life of Christ (even if the dates are wrong). While Advent is a beautiful season of anticipation both of Christ’s birth and his second coming, Luke’s gospel account of Gabriel’s visit to Mary seems more appropriate in this spring season of new beginnings than in winter, a time of dormancy. On what I hope to be a beautiful spring day for you, please take the time to read the account of this blessed miracle found in Luke 1:28-36. Remember to thank God for entering the world as man to save humanity.

Without question, this is the great mystery of our faith: Christ was revealed in a human body and vindicated by the Spirit. He was seen by angels and announced to the nations. He was believed in throughout the world and taken to heaven in glory. [1 Timothy 3:16 (NLT)]

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COME LIKE A CHILD

mute swansHe said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. [Mark 10:14-16 (NLT)]

When reading Jesus’s words about children and the Kingdom of God, a common misconception is that becoming Christian means committing something like intellectual suicide. Since we also are told to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, I doubt that we’re being told not to use our God-given intellect. So, what does it mean to become like a child? For a start, those children didn’t come to Jesus for healing, relief from Roman occupation, food, hidden treasure, or even salvation. They came out of love and love is what should bring us to Him, as well.

Faith in God is the foundation of His Kingdom and that faith is expressed through submission to His will. Dependent on their parents, children have faith in their provision and decisions; they understand the necessity of submitting to their parents’ will (at least the children in Jesus’s day did). Adults, however, tend to skepticism rather than faith and self-will rather than God’s will. Unlike adults, children are eager to learn and humble enough to admit that there is much they don’t know or understand. Pure and innocent, they are free of cynicism, arrogance, prejudice, preconceived notions and inflexible minds.

It’s a mistake to consider children unthinking; they just think a different way than do adults. For example, take Richard Scarry’s Lowly Worm character about whom I wrote yesterday. Kids have no problem understanding how a worm with one foot and no arms can dress himself, open a door, tie shoelaces, or eat with a fork. Adults, however, tend to overthink things. They wonder how Lowly, having only one foot, can possibly walk or kick a ball. In the same way, adults want a scientific explanation for how (in the days before in vitro) a virgin could give birth or why Lazarus wasn’t bloated, stinky, and covered with maggots after being dead four days.

Scarry’s imaginary worm makes sense to children, not because they’re mindless but because children accept things in their simplicity. Unlike adults, they’re not looking for hidden meanings or ulterior motives. They’re not fools; they know real worms don’t wear clothes, go to school, or live with a cat family but they also understand that Lowly isn’t like other worms. Jesus was clothed in a man’s body but He was no more like other men than Lowly is like other worms. Jesus was God with skin and, for the One who spoke the universe into existence, the tasks of raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, changing water into wine, or stilling storms were a breeze. The fixed minds of adults, however, often are unwilling to accept that God (the author of the universe) and Richard Scarry (the author of children’s books) work by a totally different set of rules in the worlds they’ve created: rules that often defy explanation.

God isn’t asking us to commit intellectual suicide or leave our brains at the church door. He’s asking us to love, believe, trust, accept, and submit to Him the way a child would. Although Jesus told us to come as a child, please remember that He never said He wanted us to stay that way!

Their [the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers] responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. [Ephesians 4:12-15 (NLT)]

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A MOUNTAINTOP EXPERIENCE – THE TRANFIGURATION

Chapel of the Transfiguration - Grand Teton National Park

Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. [Matthew 5:17 (NLT)]

In the middle of Grand Teton Nation Park is a small log church, the Chapel of the Transfiguration. Built in 1925, it offers a beautiful view of the majestic Teton Mountain Range through a window behind the altar. When people gaze out that window, I wonder how many think of the amazing event—the transfiguration—that took place on another mountaintop more than 2,000 years ago.

About a week after Peter called Jesus “the Messiah sent from God!” and Jesus explained that He’d suffer, die, and be raised, Peter, John and James accompanied Him up a mountain to pray. While tradition says it was Mt. Tabor, both its height (only 1,800 feet) and location make that unlikely. While not as high as the 13,000 ft. Grand Teton, Mt. Hermon’s height (9,000 feet) and location make it the more likely location of this glorious event.

While praying, Jesus made a dramatic change: his face transformed and his clothes turned white and gleaming. Having only seen Jesus in his human form, His now glorious presence gave the disciples a greater understanding of his deity. Two men then appeared and spoke with Jesus about his exodus (or departure) from this world. They were Moses and Elijah—representing, at least symbolically, the Law and the Prophets. Jesus, as we know, was their fulfillment.

Amazed at what was the ultimate mountaintop experience, Peter foolishly suggested building three shelters for Jesus and his visitors. That, of course, was a mistake; neither the lawgiver not the prophet were Jesus’s equal. Furthermore, that Peter wanted this glorious event to continue would have kept Jesus from the mission He’d already explained to His disciples. A cloud then enveloped them all and a voice, unmistakably that of God, said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.” [Matthew 17:5] The “Listen to him,” made it clear that the One who was new would be replacing the old way. After this powerfully dramatic event, the four men found themselves alone on the mountaintop.

Jesus commanded the disciples to keep silent as to what had taken place until after his resurrection. Looking for a Messiah who’d be a political deliverer rather than one who was a suffering servant, the world wouldn’t understand what had transpired. Even the disciples, the men who’d walked with Him for three years, didn’t fully understand the meaning of their mountaintop experience. It was not until Jesus joined them in that locked room on Easter that they finally understood that He’d come to conquer death rather than Romans.

The transfiguration was a foretaste of things yet to come and, someday, we all will see the fullness of Christ’s glory as did Peter, James, and John. Although Jesus told His disciples to keep his identity a secret, let us not forget that was only a temporary request. He later told them to “make disciples of all the nations.”

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)]

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QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Make the most of your chances to tell others the Good News. Be wise in all your contacts with them. Let your conversation be gracious as well as sensible, for then you will have the right answer for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (TLB)]

doris longwing butterflyWhen Meg and John walked into the church narthex, Meg was visibly disturbed. “I just can’t believe they said that. How can they call themselves Christians?” she asked her husband. Seeing Meg’s obvious distress, the pastor who’d been greeting at the door went over to talk. The two had been at a small group study before service when, after class, another couple nonchalantly dismissed the virgin birth as fiction and, as they walked out the door, added that the resurrection was as much a fabrication as the virgin birth.

The virgin birth is a doctrine plainly stated in the Apostle’s Creed—a creed that is regularly recited at that church. Christianity holds that Jesus had no earthly father and was not the product of intercourse. How it happened, we don’t know and certainly can’t understand. The resurrection of Christ is also affirmed in the Apostle’s Creed. For the most part even non-believers won’t argue the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus nor will they dispute that his tomb was empty on the third day. They simply can’t accept how the tomb came to be that way. Just because we can’t understand how something happened, however, doesn’t mean that it didn’t occur!

This devotion, however, isn’t about defending the virgin birth and the resurrection. It’s about Meg and John. “I don’t think that group is right for us,” she said. “Let’s find another group; we’re not going back there again.” Her husband, however, emphatically disagreed: “Oh, yes we are! We’re not going to let this go unanswered.” Meg and John have a valuable opportunity to share the gospel and one that I hope they use wisely.

This devotion is also about that other questioning couple and I think back to nearly fifty years ago when a young woman, from a Buddhist background, was about to join our church. Having grown up in a Buddhist home with a family altar, she was struggling with a way to reconcile praying to her ancestors (something she had always done) with her new Christian beliefs. While there is no place for ancestor worship in Christianity, our pastor’s answer was gentle and loving. Rather than condemning her for her past beliefs and practices, he encouraged her to grow in her new ones. His words were encouraging and accepting—not of ancestor worship—but of her.

Meg and John’s experience is a reminder that not everyone we meet at church, Bible study, or small group is a firm believer. The fact they are there, however, is a step in the right direction! We must do our best to keep them there by being sympathetic, compassionate, humble, loving, gracious, patient, and willing to listen. If people can’t freely question doctrine, express their disbelief, or ask for further explanation in church, where should they go? Remember, even Thomas had doubts! Rather than telling them what we think and why we think it, perhaps we should start by asking them what they think and why they think it. Let’s meet them wherever they happen to be, walk with them into a deeper understanding of the gospel, and pray with and for them.

Try to help those who argue against you. Be merciful to those who doubt. Save some by snatching them as from the very flames of hell itself. And as for others, help them to find the Lord by being kind to them, but be careful that you yourselves aren’t pulled along into their sins. Hate every trace of their sin while being merciful to them as sinners. [Jude 1:22-23 (TLB)]

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WHERE WAS HE? (Daniel – part 3)

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

Frabel - Naples Botanic GardenSomeone was missing from yesterday’s story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace: their good friend Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar’s giant statue was erected on the plain of Dura, word was sent to all of his officials to assemble there for the statue’s dedication. We know Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were there because Daniel reported that they got tossed in a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to an idol. But what of Daniel? He’s the one who chronicled the event: the one who wrote that all of the high officers, officials, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and provincial officials were present. Daniel gives no explanation for his absence at the dedication of the king’s golden statue.

We’d like to think that Daniel remained back in Babylon for some important task at the palace, was elsewhere on a vital mission, or even sick in bed. We want to think Daniel wasn’t there because, if he’d been in Dura that day, he should have joined his friends in the furnace. Four men would have been sent to certain death unless, unlike his friends, Daniel had bowed to the idol! Daniel, however, is our hero: the wise prophet who later braved a king’s wrath to pray and survived being thrown into a den of lions. We never want to think that our heroes are real people, with feet of clay, just like us. When we look at the Bible’s heroes, however, they really are every bit as flawed as are we! Among others, we have drunken Noah, lying Abraham, impatient Sarah, deceitful Jacob, thieving Rachel, temperamental Moses, jealous Miriam, weak Aaron, immoral Rahab, psychotic Saul, adulterous David, sex-addicted Solomon, bad dads Eli and Samuel, the thieving publican Matthew, and Peter, the disciple who denied Jesus. They all disappointed God and sinned at one time or another.

We’ll never know if Daniel was in that fiery furnace with his friends, far from Dura that day, or if he bowed to the idol. Oddly, the remote possibility that he might have bowed his head to an idol doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t disturb me because we have a great God of second (third, fourth, and more) chances. If Daniel sinned that day, along with prophecy and history, his story is one of forgiveness and redemption.

What we do know is that that God continued to give Daniel wisdom and revelations during the more than seventy years he served the four rulers of Babylon. We know that, when another opportunity arose to honor his God by rejecting idolatry, Daniel did the right thing. Perhaps he was inspired by his friends’ faith. In spite of knowing that he’d face certain death in a lions’ den, Daniel remained faithful and continued to openly pray to God rather than to the king. “May your God, whom you serve so faithfully rescue you,” said the king, and God did. Daniel, at the end of his story, was as faithful to God as were his three friends that day on the plain of Dura.

For he is the living God, and he will endure forever. His kingdom will never be destroyed, and his rule will never end. He rescues and saves his people; he performs miraculous signs and wonders in the heavens and on earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions. [Daniel 6: 26-27 (NLT)]

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