COUNTING THE COST

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? [Luke 14:27-28 (RSV)]

Station of Cross 3 - loretto - santa fe NMHaving often watched the condemned walk to their tortuous deaths while carrying the crosspieces of their crucifixes, Jesus’ followers knew exactly what it meant to carry a cross. When Jesus told them to count the cost of being His disciple, he wasn’t offering a ticket to Easy Street; He was offering one to eternal life. The cost, however, was high: the giving up of self and all that might come to mean—loss of status, relationships, family, possessions and even life.

Some of us, looking at the cost, would prefer a watered down gospel. We want to be Christians without Jesus having any effect on our lives. We’re happy to bear his name and celebrate both His birth and resurrection, but we’re not anxious for His yoke. Wanting to guarantee our final destination, we want salvation without the sacrifice. Unwilling to surrender to God’s will, we figure a few good deeds can make up for our lack of faith and obedience. We want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

While free, God’s grace is not cheap; it cost God His only son. Jesus was the gift of God’s grace by which all of mankind could be saved. Accepting His name means far more than taking a spot in a church pew. We can’t just listen to a preacher, we must practice what Jesus preached! God’s grace expects us to follow Jesus wherever He leads us and to do whatever He asks. God’s grace expects us to love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, reach the unreachable, and do what often seems impossible. God’s grace demands that we grow smaller while He grows greater; it is taking up our cross and losing our lives in complete commitment to Him.

Costly grace…is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

Jesus knew the price He’d pay when He threw the money changers out of the temple, healed on the Sabbath, and confronted the Pharisees; nevertheless, He did His Father’s will. Over 2,000 years later, He still calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him. These last few weeks, I have watched as a young man did just that. He stood up for what is right and, while he’s not being hung on a cross, he is suffering both professionally and financially. After prayerfully counting the cost and consequences, he followed where God led him because he was not about to settle for cheap grace. Let’s never settle for cheap grace either. Our lives won’t necessarily be easier when we take on Jesus’ yoke but they definitely will be better!

And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 10:38-39 (RSV)]

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world. [Titus 2:11-12 (RSV)]

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MY VACUUM

Can you solve the mysteries of God? Can you discover everything about the Almighty? Such knowledge is higher than the heavens—and who are you? It is deeper than the underworld—what do you know? It is broader than the earth and wider than the sea. [Job 11:7-9 (NLT)]

great blue heronAt our house, the closest thing we have to a pet is one of those robot vacuums. While it’s nearly as entertaining as a puppy, it needs far less care. As I watch it zip around the house, its movement appears to be entirely random. Sometimes it starts by spiraling outward in a circle and other times it heads for the perimeter of the room. Whenever it hits an obstacle, it seems to bounce off in another direction. Apparently, it has multiple sensors that help it calculate room size, detect obstacles, and adjust for variations in surface.

Sometimes I think I’m not even as smart as this silly machine. It knows enough to stop and beep if it gets in a tight spot; as for me—I usually think I can get out of tight spots on my own when I clearly can’t! I should call on God as readily as the robot beeps for me. The robot will stop when it is filled with dirt. Like it, I don’t function well when bogged down with the grime of my life. Unfortunately, I’m not very good about confessing my sins and asking God to empty me of my burdens. When its battery runs low, this little vac knows enough to find its way back to its recharging station, connect, and charge up again. I, however, tend to forget the importance of resting in God and letting Him power me up again. I often run myself ragged until I stop dead in my tracks.

In spite of reading various explanations of its programming, I have yet to figure out whatever logic is built into this robotic cleaner. Right now, it is zipping around my office, going under tables and chairs and ducking in and out of corners; I can see neither rhyme nor reason to its behavior. Nevertheless, that robot knows what it’s doing and, given enough time, does a good job. I can’t help but think of the often inexplicable way God runs the universe. The events of life often seem random, disconnected, and perplexing and yet they are all part of a program we simply don’t understand. Just because we don’t understand them doesn’t mean they’re not part of God’s perfect plan.

I can program the vacuum to clean on my schedule, move it wherever I want, and place it on or remove it from the charger. I can even erect a virtual wall with a battery-powered infrared beam so it stays where I want. Clearly, in the case of my vacuum, I’m the one with the power. With God and us, however, He’s the one with all of the power and we are at His mercy. He schedules our lives, gives us tasks, and erects life’s barriers. He moves us wherever and whenever He wants and determines when our running time has ended. We just need to remember that the way He orchestrates our lives, like the way my little robot works, is beyond our understanding.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. Romans 11:33-36 (NLT)]

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STAND YOUR GROUND

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. [1 Corinthians 16:13 (NLT)]

So be strong and courageous, all you who put your hope in the Lord! [Psalm 32:24 (NLT)]

Queen butterflyYesterday I addressed abuse of power; today I address those who are ill-used or victimized. In the book of Esther, we meet King Xerxes, the king of Persia, whose reign spread over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. One of the wealthiest men in the world, he hosted a six-month long celebration to display the wealth of his kingdom. At its conclusion, he held a lavish week long banquet for all the men in attendance. There were no limits on the wine consumed and, after seven days of hard drinking, the King (said to be “in high spirits”) commanded that his queen, Vashti, come to the men’s banquet. Wanting his guests to gaze on her beauty, she was to wear the royal crown on her head. Since Vashti was specifically commanded to wear her crown and no other attire was mentioned, rabbinical tradition interprets this as meaning only her crown. Whether naked or dressed, it was against custom for a woman to appear in a gathering of men and hardly fitting for a queen to be paraded like a piece of meat in front of a group of drunken rowdy men. Knowing full well the consequences of denying the arrogant king, Queen Vashti refused to be exploited as part of his debauchery.

What became of the beautiful  queen who refused to be intimidated by a king or demeaned in front of a bunch of lustful men? Her brave defiance meant she was banished from the king’s presence forever. Having traded her crown for her self-respect, no more is heard of her. Of course, her disobedience opened the door for the orphaned Jewess named Esther to become queen. Although we know nothing more of Vashti, I suspect her banishment and the king’s intimidating temper was the talk of the royal harem.

When Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, the king’s pretentious vizier, the pompous man hatched a plot to slaughter not just Mordecai but all the Jews. Mordecai asked Esther to approach the king and plead for her people. Aware of Xerxes’ temper and knowing that anyone who approached him without being invited was doomed to die, she balked. Not to be dissuaded, Mordecai reminded her that she may have been made queen just for that opportunity. For three days, Esther fasted, prayed and pondered her decision. I wonder if she thought of Queen Vashti—the woman who boldly stood up to the king in spite of the consequences. How could Esther do any less for the Jews?

We’re not likely to be asked to make a display of ourselves before a group of intoxicated men, bow down to an official, or save an entire race. Nevertheless, Vashti’s, Mordecai’s and Esther’s actions teach us about standing up for what is right, refusing to do what is wrong, speaking up when something is amiss, not accepting abuse, and daring to take a stand, no matter what the consequences. Refusing to compromise our ethics, betray our faith, or lose our self-respect is not easy. Being the one who resists exploitation, reports abuse or blows the whistle is difficult and putting the welfare of others over our own security may come at a high cost. Queen Vashti lost a kingdom, Mordecai nearly lost his life, and we may lose our jobs. On the other hand, Mordecai and Esther’s story ended well. Mordecai became the prime minister and Esther continued as queen. Vashti, Mordecai and Esther bravely stood their ground and refused to retreat in the face of evil. Can we do any less?

Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. … Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. [Philippians 1:27, 28-29 (NLT)]

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HALLOWED BE THY NAME

So you shall keep my commandments and do them: I am the Lord. And you shall not profane my holy name, but I will be hallowed among the people of Israel; I am the Lord who sanctify you, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord. [Leviticus 22:31-33 (RSV)]

water lilyFor several years, a well-known and highly regarded actor/comedian’s name was synonymous with fatherhood and family values. After becoming the subject of sexual abuse allegations, spanning more than fifty years, by more than fifty women, his name went from respected to scorned. Several universities rescinded the honorary degrees awarded him, removed him from their boards and fund-raising campaigns, and eradicated his name from buildings and scholarships. His statue was removed from a Disney theme park, reruns of his shows were cancelled, there was a petition to revoke his Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he was dumped by his agent. No one wanted their good names tarnished by any association with such disgraceful behavior.

Names and reputations are important and none of us want our names to be besmirched by someone else’s words or actions. Apparently, God felt the same way when He gave us that often ignored commandment about not taking His name in vain. Some Bibles translate “in vain” as misusing, using thoughtlessly or irreverently, or making empty promises in God’s name. Whatever Bible we use, the meaning is clear; we must honor God’s name and never use it in a disrespectful, false or blasphemous way.

When Jesus taught us to pray, after addressing our Father in heaven, He said the words, “Hallowed be thy name.” Although some Bibles translate that sentence as, “May your name be kept holy,” the King James’ words are the ones most of us use in the Lord’s Prayer. I used to think those words were a call to worship and pretty much dismissed them as part of the preface to the actual prayer. I hadn’t realized that they are the first petition (or request) the prayer makes. In those four prayerful words, “Hallowed be thy name,” we are appealing to God to help us keep His commandment about not dishonoring His name! That sentence, however, means far more than just not cursing or committing perjury after promising to tell the truth.

If we call ourselves Christians—followers of Jesus Christ—whenever we act or speak shamefully we are not keeping God’s name holy. If we distort God’s word with our witness or actions, His name is not hallowed. It’s not just blasphemy, irreverence or profanity; hypocrisy, deception, treachery, insincerity, falseness, and immorality of any kind profane His name! We don’t have to be celebrities and have our transgressions blasted across the tabloids; we disgrace His name whenever we speak or act in any way that dishonors Him.

If we never get beyond those four little words, “Hallowed be thy name,” we’ve said enough. In that one sentence, we ask God to make our words and actions reflect His holiness. We express our desire to live godly lives and ask Him to enable us to live in a way that makes His name holy. Heavenly Father, hallowed be thy name!

We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfil every good resolve and work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. [2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 (RSV)]

Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name! [Psalm 103:1 (RSV)]

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THE MEANS TO AN END

The human mind is the most deceitful of all things. It is incurable. No one can understand how deceitful it is. I, the Lord, search minds and test hearts. I will reward each person for what he has done. I will reward him for the results of his actions. [Jeremiah 17:9-10 (GW)]

Dame's rocketIn Leviticus, we find Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offering incense to worship God. Although their goal was good, priests were required to fulfill their duties without variation and the brothers disregarded the method specified by God. Worshiping God was the right intent but using prohibited fire was the wrong way to do it and they were consumed by God’s fire. Bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem was a good goal but using a cart to transport it was the wrong method and Uzzah was struck dead when he reached out to steady it.

We may be tempted to sin in order to achieve an important aim and then rationalize our behavior by saying that the noble result justified the questionable method. As unfair as it seems, those men’s deaths at God’s hand tell us that the end, no matter how worthy the goal, never justifies the means if the means require a compromise of our faith or ethics. It is never acceptable to do something against God’s law. Right and wrong are not determined by a situation; they are determined by God! No matter how honorable or well-intentioned the goal, doing anything in sin to achieve an objective is not honoring God. Moreover, as worthy as we may consider our motives, they’re probably nowhere near as noble as we think they are. More often than not, those motives have more to do with ourselves—our desires, relief or convenience—than we’d care to admit.

Father, sometimes we’re tempted to let a situation justify sinful or questionable behavior. Thank you for showing us that even the most worthy purpose never justifies disobedience to your Word. If it’s not what Jesus would do and done the way He would do it, then it doesn’t honor you. Remembering that the end never justifies the means if the means offend you, show us how to achieve your goals in the way you have commanded. May we let your Holy Spirit guide us in all we say and do.

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the person who does what my Father in heaven wants. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name? Didn’t we force out demons and do many miracles by the power and authority of your name?” Then I will tell them publicly, “I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you evil people.” [Matthew 7:21-23 (GW)]

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JAMES KNEW HIM

This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad. Greetings! [James 1:1 (NLT)]

large striped swordtail butterflyFour men were in heated disagreement at a falafel stand in Jerusalem when they asked a passerby to settle their dispute about the authorship of an epistle. “I’m James, the father of the disciple named Judas (also known as Thaddaeus),” said the first man, ”I wrote the book of James.” The next man interrupted, “I’m James, the son of Zebedee, a fisherman and brother to John. I was a disciple of Christ and I wrote that epistle!” The third man disagreed, “Oh no!” he said, “I’m James, the son of Alphaeus. I was one of the twelve and I wrote those words.” The fourth man contradicted him saying, “I’m James, the brother of Jesus, and I’m the one who wrote that letter to the Jews.” The man they’d asked to settle their dispute calmly said, “You’re all wrong; I wrote it.” In unison, they asked, “Who are you?” He answered, “God—and all Scripture is God-breathed.”

Although all Scripture is God-breathed, someone named James put those words on paper. I’d always assumed it was one of the disciples but, according to Bible scholars, the weight of the evidence seems to point to James, the half-brother of Jesus. One of the earliest epistles, this letter isn’t about doctrine; it’s about the application of Jesus’s teachings and a testimony to the kind of life we should have as followers of Christ. James makes it clear that faith without works is meaningless. We can’t just talk the talk; we must walk the walk. Having known Jesus all of His life, rather than just the three years of His ministry, James knew what he was talking about. He may not have heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but he’d seen Him live that sermon every day of His life. Until the resurrection, James may not have known Jesus was the Messiah but he knew Jesus as only a brother can. Whenever we wonder, “What would Jesus do?” there’s an excellent chance we’ll find the answer in James’ epistle, in words penned by a man who actually saw what Jesus did!

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? … So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” [James 2:14,17-18 (NLT)]

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