THE RICH YOUNG MAN

The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:26-27 (NLT)]

great blue heronThe book of Daniel makes reference to the resurrection of both the wicked and righteous, with the destiny of the one being shame and disgrace and the other being everlasting life. By the time of Jesus, many Jews believed in some sort of eternal life and that it would come by obedience to the Law. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell of the rich young man who asked Jesus what good deed he must do to have eternal life. He wanted Jesus to check his resume of good works and, if found lacking, to give him a task that would assure his immortality.

Before answering, Jesus clarified that goodness only comes from God rather than things or actions and then told the man to keep the commandments. As if some were more important than others, the man asked which ones. After listing several commandments dealing with man’s relationship with man, Jesus summarized with the command to love your neighbor as yourself. The man proudly responded that he obeyed them all. Had he been truly honest about himself, he would have admitted his inability to keep the law perfectly and acknowledged that he couldn’t attain eternal life on his own merit. But, sure his ticket to eternity was safe in hand, the man asked what else he should do. When Jesus told him what needed to be done to be “perfect,” He didn’t mean faultless; the Greek word translated as “perfect” means goal or end. So, to achieve or perfect his goal of eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Him. Hearing this, the rich young man departed. In spite of his claims, he clearly didn’t love his neighbor as himself.

At first, it seems odd that Jesus didn’t mention the first four commandments—the ones having to do with man’s relationship to God. But Jesus could see into the man’s heart and knew the man loved his wealth far more than God or his neighbor. So, after he claimed to love his neighbor, Jesus asked him to put his money where his mouth was by giving his wealth to his neighbor!

That Jesus gave the rich man a requirement wasn’t unusual for a rabbi. When prospective students came to study with rabbis, the teachers often gave them a condition as a way of weeding out those students who really weren’t serious. The young man, however, hadn’t come to our Lord to learn; he’d come to be commended for his righteousness!

When people read this story, they often fear that it means Christians must live a life of poverty, but Jesus wasn’t setting financial requirements for salvation. His demand merely revealed what was in that rich man’s heart. He loved himself and his possessions far more than God or his neighbor. Although this encounter demonstrates the implications of discipleship, it never demands that we sell our possessions or live a life of asceticism. Jesus wasn’t teaching salvation through philanthropy; He was demanding that God be first place in our hearts.

Obedience to the commandments does not qualify any of us for eternal life; there is nothing we can do to merit the gift of salvation and eternal life. That only comes by grace through faith. Nevertheless, obedience to the commandments—loving God and loving our neighbor—is evidence of our faith. Is there something more important to you than loving God? What would Jesus ask you to relinquish? Do you love Him enough to do it?

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-39 (NLT)]

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GOATS AND SHEEP

Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other. [John 13:34-35 (MSG)]

goatsIn Matthew 25, Jesus uses a long simile to describe the final judgment. As for whether this occurs at the beginning or the end of Christ’s millennial kingdom, is unclear; that it will occur, is not! When it happens, God will separate people the way a shepherd does his goats and sheep.

Sheep are known to be docile, quiet, gentle and easily handled by the shepherd. Throughout Scripture, we find them representing God’s people: the righteous. While sheep will follow the shepherd, goats are far more independent and tend to wander off. With a tendency to be unruly, aggressive, and poor followers, they represent those who are not true disciples of Christ. During the day, both kinds of animals intermingled in the pasture, as do believers and unbelievers (and pretenders) in the world. At night, the shepherd separated his flock. Less tolerant of the cool night air and having a tendency to stray and butt heads, goats were herded tightly behind a secure fence. Sheep, with their heavy coats of wool, welcomed chilly nights and, less belligerent than their horned relatives, weren’t crowded into their sheepfold. Like the shepherd, God will separate his flock—the righteous from the unrighteous—at Judgment.

The shepherd easily separates his herd by looking at their tails: a sheep’s tail hangs down and a goat’s points up. The King uses a different criteria; he looks at our tales: how we have treated our neighbors! The people to His right, the sheep, are those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners. The people on His left, the goats, did none of that! The King informs them that by doing (or failing to do) any of those things for those who suffered, they had done (or failed to do) those same things for Him! Those who did for the least will inherit the Kingdom and those who refused will face eternal punishment.

At first reading, this begins to sound like salvation through works rather than by grace through faith. A closer look, however, tells us otherwise. The righteous weren’t surprised by the King’s reward but rather by His reason. Their behavior hadn’t been motivated by ulterior motives as a way to buy their way into the Kingdom; their behavior was the natural result of their love for the King. Works aren’t necessary for salvation and won’t earn the keys to the Kingdom; works, however, are evidence of that salvation and confirmation that the person holds the key!

Rather than looking at our tails, God looks at our works—not because they produce righteousness, but because they are proof of that righteousness. We can’t love our neighbor if we don’t love God and, if we truly love God, loving our neighbor naturally follows! How we treat others reveals whether our tails humbly hang down or self-righteously point up!

With an estimated 2.5 billion people who claim to be Christians [Fact & Trends], I wonder why the world isn’t a kinder gentler place. Perhaps it’s because there are way too many goats who think they are sheep!

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove. [James 2:18 (MSG)]

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NONDESCRIPT NOBODY BIRDS

Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. [Isaiah 58:10 (NLT)]

clark's nutcrackerA few weeks ago, in Charles Schultz’s classic comic Peanuts, Snoopy sat on his doghouse and decided not to tell his little bird friend Woodstock about Santa Claus. “He’ll never get any presents anyway. Santa Claus never brings presents to tiny, nondescript, nobody birds,” he thought before concluding, “It’s kind of sad at Christmastime to be a nobody bird.” I wasn’t so sure about Santa ignoring the “nobody birds.” The previous day, several from our church had participated in a project that demonstrated just how much “Santa” really does care.

Those “tiny, nondescript, nobody” birds live in a nearby town where more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty level. Their parents, many of whom don’t speak English, are the working poor: the people who quietly bus our tables, pick our tomatoes and lettuce, mow our lawns, trim our trees, clean our hotels, and re-tile our roofs. A beautiful ray of hope exists for them in a center dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through early childhood education, after-school tutoring, summer enrichment, and a tutoring corps. For five nights in mid-December, the Center offered a “shopping” event for families in need while volunteers served as stockers, Santa’s elves, and gift wrappers. Qualified shoppers were assigned a day and time to arrive and browse through a beautifully appointed and organized “store.” A personal Santa’s elf accompanied parents as they selected three gifts for each of their children along with stocking gifts, stuffed animals, and clothing. Parents were able to shop with dignity as they selected presents for each of their children and Santa’s own workshop couldn’t have been better stocked! At checkout, their selections were gift-wrapped in colorful holiday paper. The only difference between this store and a regular one was that the gift-wrapping was complimentary and money never exchanged hands! The store’s entire inventory had been donated by individuals, organizations and stores in neighboring communities.

People’s hearts grow bigger around Christmas and nearly one-third of all giving occurs in December. During the holidays, we see a generous outpouring of love in the Salvation Army’s red kettles, Fill the Truck and Angel Tree programs, Toys for Tots, Operation Christmas Child, Trees for Troops, assorted wishing and giving trees, and both toy and food drives sponsored by churches and other groups. The need, however, doesn’t disappear when the tree comes down. Loving, giving, sharing and caring shouldn’t be boxed up with the ornaments for the next eleven months.

I remember one father whose gifts I wrapped. Although he was thrilled to select presents for his children, tears of joy came to his eyes upon learning he also could select new shoes for them. When those two pairs of new sneakers are outgrown in a matter of months, what then? Will the family have to choose between new shoes, milk, school supplies or a visit to the dentist? Poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, lack of medical care, and the other challenges facing the “tiny, nondescript, nobody birds” in our communities remain long past December. Instead of being Santa Claus just in December, let us be the hands and feet of Jesus, generous in thought, word and deed, all year long.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. [spoken by Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens]

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

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PRAY, SEND, GO

The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places he planned to visit. These were his instructions to them: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields. Now go.” [Luke 10:1-3a (NLT)]

daisyThe story is told of a minister who made this announcement just before passing out the offering plates: “The good news is that God has all of the funds necessary to fund His church’s ministry.” As the congregation started to return their checks and cash to their wallets, the pastor added, “But the bad news is that it’s still in our pockets!”

Having been called by the Holy Spirit to serve, a young woman in our church shared her plans to become a missionary. Just as being a teacher, nurse, plumber or electrician is a career choice, so is being a missionary. Unlike those other careers, however, as a missionary, she has to provide the funds for her paycheck! Like everyone else, missionaries need a salary and insurance along with money for travel, ministry tools, professional support, and even retirement. A love for Jesus and a desire to obey His call won’t put food on the table or pay rent!

When Jesus told his disciples to count the cost of discipleship, He reminded them that builders don’t start construction without calculating the cost and being sure they have enough money to finish the project. This woman is doing that by working with an evangelical Christian mission organization to determine her funding needs. This charitable agency requires her to have a full year’s salary raised or pledged before she goes abroad. Technically, she will be their employee, but the monthly checks she receives from them will come from the funds that she has raised, and she is actively seeking financial partners for her ministry. Perhaps a missionary’s biggest obstacle is raising the funds needed to go out and share God’s word.

We rarely think about the business side of ministry and certainly not of Jesus and money. Nevertheless, in their three years together, Jesus and His disciples had financial needs. After all, they’d quit their jobs to follow the Lord. I suppose, miracle worker that He was, Jesus easily could have multiplied their few provisions or had Peter catch fish with gold coins in their mouths every morning, but that’s not how He did things. Scripture tells us they all shared a common purse and that Judas was in charge of it. From where did that money come? Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and “many others” provided for them out of their financial resources. When Jesus sent seventy-two of his followers out into the countryside, He told them to take nothing with them. They were to live on the kindheartedness of those they visited. Even Jesus depended on the generosity of others; he rode a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem and was buried in a donated tomb. Generosity fueled by the faith of His followers is how Jesus started His ministry and how we must continue it.

When Jesus sent out those seventy-two, He used three verbs: go, pray, and send. While all of us are called to share the gospel message, not all of us are called to go out and do missions work as a career. All of us, however, can pray both for more workers and for their funding. Some of us (perhaps many) also are capable of sending those workers to the harvest. The good news is that we have the funds to further spread Jesus’s message by financing those who do go. The bad news, however, is that the funds probably are still in our pockets!

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? [Romans 10:13-15a (NLT)]

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A SEASON OF GETTING OR GIVING?

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. [John 15:12 (ESV)]

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. [1 John 4:18-21 (ESV)]

santaThe National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend between 727.9 and 730.7 billion dollars on Christmas gifts and merchandise between November 1 and the end of the year. If they’re correct, we’ll have spent nearly $95 for every one of the 7.7 billion people on earth (most of whom won’t get any of those purchases). It’s ironic that a day set aside to honor the birth of Jesus, the Savior who sacrificed His life for us, has become a frenzied season of obtaining and consuming.

While this clearly is a season of indulging, let’s also make it a season of giving. Some of us make our giving decisions by asking, “What’s the least I can give while still honoring God?” Others ask, “What’s the most I can give without changing my life?” A very few, however, simply offer what they have. When a young boy offered his lunch, Jesus fed a multitude. When a poor widow shared her one serving of flour and oil, three people ate for three years. When a farmer shared his sack of grain and loaves of bread, Elisha and one hundred hungry men ate to their hearts’ content. The boy, widow, and farmer offered what they had, not what remained after they’d eaten their fill and, instead of having less, everyone had more.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis suggests that the real obstacle to giving could be fear—the fear of insecurity. We’re afraid that, if we share what we have, we might not have enough later. What if the stock market crashes, we lose our jobs, need long term nursing care, or outlive our money? Lewis points out we must recognize that fear for what it really is: temptation. Worry is one of the enemy’s favorite weapons!

Jesus told us to love one another in the way He loved us and that was unqualified sacrificial love on the cross! Being saved by God’s grace doesn’t free us from obedience to His command. Our knowledge of God’s perfect love should dispel all fear—not just about judgment or eternity, but about today and the days after this one. What we give is between us and God but we must never let fear enter into the equation. “In God we trust” is written on our currency. Do we really trust Him? If we do, why do we have such trouble sharing our assets with His children? Let us trust Him and obey.

Not, how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself? [John Wesley]

Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. [1 Timothy 6:17-18 (NLT)]

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LITTLE THINGS WITH LOVE

Feed the hungry! Help those in trouble! Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you shall be as bright as day. [Isaiah 58:10 (TLB)]

food bankWhile tucking toothbrushes, dental floss, Band-Aids, and soap into shoeboxes already filled with pencils, notebooks, markers, tee-shirts, and toys, I thanked God, not just for the privilege of giving, but also that basic items like these are not a luxury in my world. In many parts of the world, however, they are! For example, our pastor just returned from Cuba where a sample-size tube of toothpaste costs the equivalent of $5 and is so sparingly squeezed that it lasts a family of four one month. The gifts he’d packed in his suitcase were simple drugstore items such as toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, and pain relievers, but the people who received those basics were as appreciative as if he’d delivered a treasure chest of gold and diamonds.

Dwight Moody once told of a man at sea who was ill and confined to his cabin. Hearing that a sailor had fallen overboard and not knowing what he could do to help, the man picked up his light and held it against the port-hole. Upon hearing that the sailor had been rescued, the man returned to his bunk. When walking on the deck after his recovery, this gentleman met the fellow who’d fallen overboard that night. Recounting the frightening episode, the sailor said he’d been sure no one would see him in the darkness as he desperately tried to stay afloat in the churning waves. But, just as he started to go down for what he was sure was the last time, a light from out of a port-hole shone on him; finally seeing the drowning sailor, a man caught his hand and pulled him into the life-boat.

Our pastor’s suitcase of basics and the clothes he and his wife left behind in Cuba can’t stop the blackouts, ease the nation’s food shortages, or shorten the queues waiting for a bus or a few gallons of gas. The Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes our church filled won’t change governments, provide jobs, or feed the hungry. The meals packed for food banks, clothes donated to resale shops, gifts purchased for strangers whose names hang on a giving tree, food served at a homeless shelter, change dropped into the bell ringers’ buckets, checks written to the Salvation Army, or the animal purchased for Heifer International won’t solve the world’s problems. Nevertheless, while we can’t change the world, we all can do our part to change the world for someone, even if it’s just with a toothbrush or a tube of toothpaste!

“Let us take the torch of salvation and go into these dark homes and hold up Christ to the people as the Savior of the world,” said Moody as he finished his story of the light in the port-hole. “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love,” were the words of Mother Teresa. Few, if any, of us will pull a drowning sailor from the sea and we’re not likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize for our humanitarian efforts. Nevertheless, in our own small ways, we each can make a difference by shining a light for those in despair. Let us be the light that brings Christ’s love into the world!

You are the world’s light—a city on a hill, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light! Let it shine for all; let your good deeds glow for all to see, so that they will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:14-16 (TLB)]

Eternal life is in him, and this life gives light to all mankind. His life is the light that shines through the darkness—and the darkness can never extinguish it. [John 1:4-5 (TLB)]

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