THE LAMB OF GOD – ASH WEDNESDAY

New mexicoThe next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! [John 1:29 (NLT)]

Today is the first day of Lent, a season in which we remember the time Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights. Because Lent occurs in the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter, we tend to associate this period of Jesus’s life with the end of his ministry. It actually occurred early in His ministry, shortly after his baptism by John and his empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

During Jesus’s time in the wilderness, Satan visited and tempted Him. Jesus first was tempted to serve Himself—to alleviate his hunger by turning stones into bread. In the second temptation, Satan urged Jesus to jump off the Temple and reveal Himself in a spectacular display. This action would also test God’s love by coercing Him into saving Jesus. In the third test, Satan tempted Jesus to skip the cross altogether; all the kingdoms of the world would be His if only He’d worship the evil one.

Just because Jesus was divine doesn’t mean He couldn’t have fallen; He also was human and, like us all, susceptible to Satan’s wiles. He could have sinned as easily as Adam and Eve, but He didn’t! Resisting temptation was as essential to His mission as was suffering on the cross. Just as sin came into the world through one man, God would redeem the world through one man, but Jesus had to remain sinless for that to happen. If He hadn’t, there would have been no point to the cross; only a perfect sinless sacrifice could atone for mankind’s sins.

Because Jesus countered all of Satan’s temptations with Scripture, we tend to think of the temptation of Christ as sort of a “how to” manual on overpowering temptation. While it is that, it is so much more. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness to teach us a lesson—He went into the wilderness to save us. He wasn’t just battling for His soul—He was fighting Satan for ours! He was defeating Satan by deliberating choosing to suffer for us as a man when He was God! He endured hunger when he could have spoken food into existence. He humbly chose to remain an obscure rabbi from Nazareth rather than use His power to win a following. Refusing to compromise with Satan, He chose obedience to God: to live, suffer and die as a man. Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, chose to endure the cross for sinful selfish mankind: the very people who would put Him there!

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. [2 Corinthians 5:21 (NLT)]

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:15-16 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

MINUTES PER DAY

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)]

sunset - vanderbilt beach - naplesFitbit recently notified me that I’ve logged 4,132 miles and awarded me a badge for having walked the length of the Nile River. And to think—I managed to do it all without ever leaving the country. With the aim of averaging 10,000 steps a day, I was curious to see how close to that goal I’ve gotten since getting the Fitbit. Some complicated math told me that, by now, I should have logged enough steps to be three-quarters of the way from the North to the South Pole. Granted, I haven’t always worn my pedometer and both foot and knee injuries temporarily benched me. Nevertheless, surprised to see how short I was of my goal, I realized how easy it is to think we’ve done far more than we actually have.

We don’t have prayometers to log our prayer time nor does God award badges for time spent talking with Him. If He did, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I should be. By my next birthday, I will have lived 26,280 days (not counting leap days) which is 37,843,200 minutes. If I spent even five minutes a day in prayer, that would be 131,400 minutes or 91 days of my life. While I would have received the Kim Kardashian badge for praying longer than her 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, I wouldn’t have prayed as long as the 98 days the Macarena was the number one hit song.  Even if I’d faithfully prayed ten minutes every day, I’d be short of the badge honoring James Garfield (who died 6 months and 15 days into his term). It would take twenty minutes of prayer every day to qualify me for the 365-day one year badge. One year out of 72 spent in prayer didn’t sound deficient until I realized that is a little less than 1.4% of my life. Although some of that time was spent in infancy when I was too young to pray, most of it wasn’t. Other than sleeping, what was I doing with the other 98.6% of my time? Then reality set in; days I spent twenty minutes in prayer were few and far between; on the average, five minutes is more like it.

Unfortunately, just as I over-estimated my steps, I’ve probably over-estimated even five minutes of daily prayer. We’re told to pray without ceasing but how? We don’t live in monasteries or convents, have servants to do our chores, or families we can ignore. Needing to eat, sleep, work, and serve family, church and community, how is it possible to pray continually? I suppose the answer is that our entire life should be a prayer—having our hearts open to the Lord’s leading, dedicating ourselves to being a blessing to others, and glorifying God in all we say and do. Nevertheless, in spite of saying grace or shooting out quick “please and thank you” prayers during the day, time needs to be set aside daily for daily chats with our Father in heaven.

God allots us twenty-four hours in a day; taking eight off for sleep, that leaves us sixteen hours (960 minutes) for eating, working, reading, Facebook, bathroom, television, talking, exercise, prayer and so on. If we gave God our undivided attention in prayer for only ten minutes each day, that would be a mere 1% of our waking time. I would venture a guess that we probably spend more than that on social media and email. As we move into this Lenten season of reflection, it might be a good time for us to consider our prayer life. Jesus withdrew into the wilderness for forty days; it would seem that we should be able to withdraw from the world and commune with God for ten minutes a day.

It’s not enough to splash a little prayer on in the morning or to run through a sprinkler of God’s mercy now and then. It’s not enough to double our spirits in an hour of worship on Sunday or to dash into a drizzle of teaching every month or so. Our souls need to soak in God’s presence. It’s no luxury, this time we spend in the healing waters of God’s grace. It’s neither excess nor indulgence to immerse ourselves in communion with our creator. It’s a spiritual necessity if we want to become the people God has created us to be. [Penelope J. Stokes]

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. [Romans 12:12 (NIV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE SERVANT SAVIOR

They replied, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” … When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. [Mark 10:37, 41-42 (NLT)]

great blue heron - great egretThe day’s gospel was from Mark 10 and, as the sermon began, the pastor shared having spent three hours earlier that week in a tiresome meeting on evangelism. The speakers had been lauded for the high number of “first public professions of faith” in their parishes. As the meeting went on, the pastor furtively checked his phone to see if memory had served him right. Indeed, his church far exceeded the numbers of the keynote speakers. Part of him (the bad part), like James and John, wanted to boast and be honored but the other part reminded him that ministry is about people and not numbers. He ate a little humble pie and said nothing. As often happens in long meetings, his mind wandered and he thought back to an encounter some twenty-eight years ago when he first came to the parish.

In 1991, both the church and our nation had much less liberal views about alternative lifestyles and homosexuality. An era of homophobia, there often were economic, social, and even physical repercussions to coming out. AIDS was the leading cause of death among men 25 to 44 and, in an attempt to raise AIDS awareness, the Red Ribbon Project had just launched.

That year, Wayne, an elderly retired minister in the parish approached the pastor. “This homosexual thing,” he said, “I just don’t comprehend it and I can’t condone it. But,” he added, “all people are God’s children and are of sacred worth.” Wayne then spoke of the many gay men dying in the area. In those early years, most families abandoned their gay AIDS infected sons and brothers. Fearing contagion, AIDS patients were touched only by hands in rubber gloves and, because of surgical masks, they saw only the eyes of those who attended them. Facing death and without a support system, they felt alone, unloved, and worthless. Reiterating that he neither understood nor approved of homosexuality, Wayne added that he couldn’t stand by and do nothing. He asked permission to serve AIDS patients in the local hospitals. “I don’t want them to die without feeling the touch of a warm hand, seeing a smile, or knowing that they have value. I can’t let them die alone or without telling them that Jesus loves them.” The pastor immediately agreed to Wayne’s ministry of love because being a servant is what Jesus was and what He told us to be.

As the pastor thought back to Wayne’s selfless and loving service, he understood why his church’s growth numbers are exemplary. It wasn’t evangelism techniques, community events, baseball team sponsorship, or advertising; it was that the church and its members serve as Christ’s hands and feet. Through service, they both tell and show people that Jesus loves them.

When the pastor wanted to brag about his numbers, he realized he was being like James and John when they wanted their place of honor in God’s kingdom or the other disciples who were indignant at the thought they might not be honored as well. When he thought back to Wayne, however, he thought of Jesus’ words: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others…” As Christ followers, we don’t need to understand or condone, we just need to serve our brothers and sisters (and all are our brothers and sisters).

One of the principal rules of religion is to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbour; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us. [John Wesley]

But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:43-45 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

OUR WORST ENEMY

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. [James 1:14-15 (NLT)]

white ibisThe book of Numbers tells of Balaam, an unscrupulous prophet-for-hire, who was hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites.  Although he tried to do just that, the Lord intervened and Balaam could only say the words God put into his mouth. The prophet ended up blessing the Israelites and cursing his own people. Although he escaped with his life, needless to say, Balaam wasn’t paid for his work.

The Israelites’ biggest threat, however, was not from pagan curses, Moab, Midian or even Jericho; it was their continual failure to remember their God—the God who delivered them from Egyptian slavery, brought them safely through the wilderness, and even protected them from Balaam’s curse. While they were camped on the plains of Moab, the men had sex with the local women who then persuaded them to make pagan sacrifices and bow down to the Baal of Peor. The Lord grew angry with them and commanded the death of all who’d defiled themselves by participating in the sacrilege; 24,000 men died in the violent plague of judgment.

Prevented from cursing the Israelites, it turns out that Balaam may have found another way to get his reward from Balak by getting them to bring a curse upon themselves. It was the prophet who instigated the women’s invitation to fornication and idolatry. Even though Balaam set the stage for the seduction of the Israelite men, no one forced them to respond; that responsibility fell squarely on each man’s shoulders.

Balak didn’t need a curse to kill any Israelites; they did a fine job of doing that on their own! The story didn’t end well for Balaam and the Midianites, either. The Lord commanded Moses to take vengeance on them for their seduction of His people; a brutal massacre of the nation followed and the prophet Balaam died in the carnage. Nevertheless, the Israelites’ fall to temptation reminds us that our greatest battles are not against enemy armies or pagan prophets but against Satan and our own sinful natures. God, however, has not left us defenseless. While our worst enemy is self, our strongest ally is Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Beware of no man more than of yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us. [Charles H. Spurgeon]

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. [Galatians 5:16 (NLT)]

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. [Ephesians 6:10-11 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

CELEBRATING VALENTINE’S DAY

When the Lord your God goes ahead of you and destroys the nations and you drive them out and live in their land, do not fall into the trap of following their customs and worshiping their gods. Do not inquire about their gods, saying, “How do these nations worship their gods? I want to follow their example.” You must not worship the Lord your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the Lord hates. [Deuteronomy 12:29-31 (NLT)]

just engagedSt. Valentine may (or may not) have been the Catholic bishop of Terni, a priest who helped persecuted Christians during the reign of Claudius II, one who suffered in Africa, one who secretly married couples when marriage was forbidden, or one who converted the family of a jailer named Asterius and restored sight to his blind daughter. It was a common name and whether there was only priest named Valentine who did all of these things or as many as three, supposedly he or they were beheaded by the Emperor Claudius II on February 14 around the end of the third century. The confusion about Valentine’s identity led the Roman Catholic Church to drop his saint day from their official calendar of feasts in 1969.

Today’s romantic traditions, however, have pagan roots. On February 14, the Romans celebrated a day dedicated to the goddess Juno. Included in the revelry was a matchmaking lottery that paired up couples for the duration of the festival. On the 15th, they continued the merriment with Lupercalia, a fertility festival that involved sacrificing goats and a dog and whipping women with thongs made from the skins of the sacrificed animals. Understandably, the early Christian church was displeased by such behavior and, around 496, Pope Gelasius I recast the pagan festival as a feast day in honor of St. Valentine. Instead of men drawing names of women who’d become sex partners, children drew names of saints whose lives they would emulate for the year.

Although there was a common belief that birds began to mate for the season on February 14, it wasn’t until the late 14th century that Valentine’s Day became associated with romance, thanks to the publication of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Parliament of Fowls. Probably about the wooing of Anne of Bohemia by King Richard II, the poem depicts a dream of a pagan heaven where all of the birds have come before Dame Nature to choose their mates. “For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,” wrote Chaucer, “When every fowl comes there his mate to take.” The birds have a debate while three eagles unsuccessfully try to seduce a female eagle.

Written valentines began to appear in the early 15th century and, by the middle of the 18th century, it became common for friends and lovers to exchange notes and tokens of affection. By the early 20th century, ready-made cards replaced the personal notes. Nowadays, over one billion valentines are sent each year.

With its pagan beginnings and the murky history of a man or men named Valentine, what does Valentine’s Day mean to Christians? At first thought, the day seems harmless enough. Some churches, however, prohibit celebrating this holiday because it, like certain other popular holidays, Christianizes or “whitewashes” pagan customs and traditions. We know from the Old Testament that God detests anything pagan. The Israelites were warned not to worship other gods but also not to adopt any pagan customs. The Apostle Paul warns us about not copying the behavior and customs of the world. [Romans 12:2] I wonder what God thinks about Valentine’s Day. What does He think of our spending nearly $20 billion to celebrate a day that began as pagan wantonness?

Although God is love, He is nothing like Cupid (the Roman god of erotic love). His love for us is immeasurable, consummate, unconditional, and sacrificial and has nothing to do with chemistry, sexuality, romance or even likability. We are called to love one another as He loves us—with a love that is generous, compassionate, forgiving, unqualified and expects nothing in return. We are to love the undeserving, unlikeable and adversarial as well as family, friend, and ally. How we celebrate this day is between us and God. There is no question, however, as to how we are to love one another every day of the year.

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. [John 15:12 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HE KNOWS WHAT WILL FIT

Then the Lord asked Moses, “Who makes a person’s mouth? Who decides whether people speak or do not speak, hear or do not hear, see or do not see? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will be with you as you speak, and I will instruct you in what to say.” [Exodus 4:11-12 (NLT)]

white admiral butterflyWe were window shopping and celebrating our anniversary. Wanting to get me a gift, my husband spotted a dress he liked in the window of a little boutique and insisted we go inside. The owner greeted us, said the dress in the window wouldn’t fit and showed me a different dress. It was so unlike anything I’d ever worn that I immediately said it wouldn’t look right on me—wrong color, wrong style, wrong material, and wrong fit. ”Don’t you tell me what it will look like,” she said indignantly. “I created this dress and know exactly who it will fit. It will be beautiful on you.” Chastened, but still sure it would look terrible, I reluctantly tried it on. The designer, however, was right. As the creator of the dress, she knew what she had in mind when making it and that it would be right for me.

Through the years, we got to know this woman rather well; as a Messianic Jew, I imagine she was familiar with the book of Exodus. Our first exchange was much like that between God and Moses when God spoke out of the burning bush and gave Moses the task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Like me, Moses protested that the job wasn’t a good fit. Who was he to approach Pharaoh? Why would the Israelites listen to or believe him? God responded by giving Moses three miraculous signs to convince them but Moses still objected that the task was not right because he wasn’t eloquent. Like the dress designer, God took that complaint personally and was angry that Moses didn’t seem to trust the One who made Him. As Creator of the man’s mouth in the first place, God knew what it could and couldn’t do. When He promised to empower Moses by putting the words in his mouth, Moses still balked so God provided him with Aaron.

It’s not just trying on dresses and freeing Israelites at which we balk. Whenever we feel one of those God nudges to step out of our comfort zones, our first response is usually something like, ”But God, that’s not the right task for me. I’m not designed for that sort of thing!” Be it sharing our faith or offering to pray with someone, volunteering at the food pantry, greeting at church, teaching Sunday school, writing a blog, visiting a shut-in, planning a fund raiser, organizing a blood drive, starting a Bible study or leading a grief group, we’re sure there is someone better qualified.

Perhaps there is; nevertheless, if God calls us to a task, it’s one He wants us to do and, as our creator, He knows exactly what it is we are capable of doing. Besides, He’ll give us the skills we need. He gave Moses the words and, when God appointed Bezalel and Oholiab to be in charge of building the Ark, the Tabernacle and its furnishings, God filled them with His spirit, wisdom, ability and expertise and gave special skill to all of their craftsmen. He’ll do the same for us! Moreover, just as He provided Moses with the assistance of Aaron, He’ll give us all of the help we need to do His work.

What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, “Stop, you’re doing it wrong!” Does the pot exclaim, “How clumsy can you be”? [Isaiah 45:9 (NLT)]

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. [Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.