WHAT’S IN A NAME? (Daniel – part 1)

“But you are my witnesses, O Israel!” says the Lord. “You are my servant. You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God—there never has been, and there never will be. [Isaiah 43:10 (NLT)]

black skimmerAfter Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Judah, he returned to Babylon with the temple’s treasures and some of Judah’s nobility as captives. The best and brightest of the young men were to learn the literature and language of Babylon so they could serve the king. In spite of being captives, they were housed in the palace and given the king’s choice of food. While this would appear to be a pretty good gig for prisoners of war, the boys were probably castrated and made eunuchs as was typically done for palace officials (and prophesied by Isaiah in 2 Kings 20:18).

Among these captives were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all of whom were given new Babylonian names. Daniel, whose name meant “God is my judge,” became Belteshazzar, meaning “Bel protects his life” (Bel was another name for the chief Babylonian god Marduke). Hananiah, whose name meant “The Lord shows grace,” became Shadrach, meaning “Under the command of Aku” (the Sumerian moon god). Mishael, whose name meant “Who is like God?” became Meshach, meaning “Who is what Aku is?” and Azariah, whose name meant “The Lord helps,” became Abednego, “Servant of Nebo” (the god of learning and writing).

“What’s in a name?” asked Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” added the star-crossed lover. Romeo’s name made him an enemy to her family but his name was meaningless to Juliet. She knew a man’s name did not determine his value or character. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, thought otherwise. By changing the captive boys’ names, he wanted more than just their assimilation to Babylon; he wanted their allegiance. When he took their names from them, he also thought he took their God.

These young men lost their homes and families, their masculinity and their names. To further distance them from the God of Israel, as eunuchs, they wouldn’t be allowed to worship in the temple if they ever returned home. Nevertheless, they never lost their identity as children of the God of Israel and refused to defile themselves by partaking of the king’s food and wine.

Some think their decision was based solely on health and nutrition and now offer a wide variety of eating plans based on Daniel’s diet. Their refusal, however, probably had more to do with the youths’ attempt to regain some control over their lives and faith. The king’s meat would not have been butchered or prepared according to Jewish law and would have included prohibited foods like horseflesh and pork that had first been offered to the pagan god Marduk. The four friends refused it and, working out a compromise with the palace guard, agreed to eat nothing but vegetables and water for a trial period of ten days. Since they looked better nourished after that time, they were allowed to continue observing their food rules. Their fitness, however, had more to do with God’s promise of provision than their diet. God granted them not just health but special wisdom. In spite of their new names, they now knew that, by remaining faithful to God, He would be remain faithful to them. Found superior to all of the others in their group, they entered the king’s service in his court.

These four young men knew there was nothing in a name. What mattered was their character and their faith in God—a God who was judge, showed grace, and helped them in their troubles. They knew the Lord would honor those who honored Him and it was this knowledge that would carry them through their later trials in Babylon.

Praise the name of God forever and ever, for he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars. [Daniel 2:20-21 (NLT)]

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SACRIFICES

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - butterfly weedIf you ever visited the Mayan ruins near Cancun, Mexico, chances are you saw the remains of a stone ball court with sloping walls. Nowhere near as impressive as the Mayan pyramids, I didn’t even take a picture when I saw one. Two stone rings hang about 20 feet up the walls. A ball game called pok-ta-pok was played there. As in volleyball, players passed a solid rubber ball around by hitting it with various parts of their bodies. Unlike volleyball, however, they could not touch the ball with their hands. The goal was to get the ball through one of the rings.

This game was a reenactment of the Mayan creation story and had ritual significance. When prisoners of war were forced to play the game, it became a prelude to their sacrifice by decapitation, heart removal, or disembowelment. Since blood was considered nourishment for the gods, the sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful one and the sacrifice of a human was the most powerful.

When we hear the word sacrifice, we tend to picture something as brutal and gruesome as the Mayans, satanic cults, King Manasseh sacrificing his son to Molech, or even Abraham placing his son on an altar and bringing a knife to his throat. We think of sacrifice as suffering terrible loss: the destruction or surrender of something precious to us. Having a negative connotation, we tend to see sacrifice as unpleasant, involuntary, or punishing.

There was, however, another scenario to that Mayan ball game. In some cases, it was the winners who were sacrificed. Teams willingly played in the hopes of winning and being sacrificed to the gods. This sacrifice was a privilege that gave great honor to the player and his family. Although the game’s losers lived, they were disgraced and may have become slaves. While it still seems barbaric to us, rather than a giving up of something, that sacrifice was seen as a gain.

God clearly prohibited human sacrifice when he gave the law to the Israelites, yet Paul tells the Romans to be living sacrifices! This is neither a forced sacrifice nor one of punishment; we are not defeated warriors being sacrificed in shame. This is an enthusiastic sacrifice, like that of the Mayan warriors who chose to compete in that sacrificial game. Like them, we are victors but, unlike them, ours is not a one-time sacrifice resulting in death but rather a constant placement of our lives at God’s disposal. It is a joyful and willing sacrifice of worship—a consecration of our lives to Him.

Sunday, we sang these words from Frances Havergal’s hymn: “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” As we sang, we offered Him our time, hands, feet, voices, lips, money, intellect, will, heart, and love. That is what it means to be a living sacrifice to God. Four years after writing her hymn, Havergal responded to her own words, “Take my silver and my gold,” by giving away all of her jewelry (nearly fifty items) to a missionary society. About this sacrifice, she wrote a friend of her “extreme delight” and said, “I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.” Her words, actions, and joyful attitude are an example of what it means to be a living and holy sacrifice,

Take my love, my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.
[Frances R. Havergal (1874)]

Give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. [Romans 6:13b (NLT)]

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DON’T DO IT!

Again and again the Lord had sent his prophets and seers to warn both Israel and Judah: “Turn from all your evil ways. Obey my commands and decrees—the entire law that I commanded your ancestors to obey, and that I gave you through my servants the prophets.” But the Israelites would not listen. They were as stubborn as their ancestors who had refused to believe in the Lord their God. [2 Kings 17:13-14 (NLT)]

wrong wayWe were at the symphony watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho while the orchestra played Bernard Herrman’s chilling soundtrack. When Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, stepped into the shower, a man in the audience yelled, ”Don’t do it!” Since most of us saw the movie decades ago, we didn’t want her to take that fatal shower either. In spite of the warning, however, she did. Since Marion was at the Bates Motel because she’d embezzled $40,000 from her boss, perhaps that man should have yelled, “Don’t do it!” much sooner.

That’s sort of what it was like when rereading the books of Kings and Chronicles recently. I knew they would end badly for both Israel and Judah but there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t want to read their sad history again any more than I wanted to see Marion Crane die in the shower a second time. But, just as I made it through the gruesome movie murder, I made it through the disheartening saga of God’s chosen people.

No one warned Marion about Norman Bates but the people of Judah and Israel got plenty of warnings from God. The prophets Amos and Hosea told the northern kingdom they’d be taken captive by the Assyrians and both kingdoms were warned of their tragic ends by Micah. Joel and Isaiah warned Judah to turn from their idolatry and sins. Habakkuk warned them that the Babylonians would be used as an instrument of judgment and Zephaniah and Jeremiah predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. God’s chosen people couldn’t claim they weren’t warned. In fact, the warnings are found as far back as Deuteronomy when God made clear the cost of disobedience.

Scripture warns us to repent, resist the enemy, be morally alert and obedient, and not to be misled by false teachers. It warns of persecution and the dangers of lust, drifting away, prejudice, hypocrisy, and God’s impending judgment. Romans 6:23 puts it bluntly: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Like the people of Israel and Judah, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One who speaks to us from heaven! [Hebrews 12:25 (NLT)]

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PERFECTION

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! [Deuteronomy 32:4 (NLT)]

But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. [Matthew 5:48 (NLT)]

water lilyAlthough humanity started out as a perfect creation, we quickly lost that perfection in the Garden of Eden; Jesus was the only sinless perfect man. If He’s telling us to be perfectly sinless when He calls us to be perfect, we’re in trouble. I suppose we should be able to resist all sin (as did Jesus) but, in reality, no one else (not even the Apostle Paul) has managed to do that. Perfection is God’s alone and we flawed mortals will never be His equals. If Jesus means things like spotless kitchens, beds made with hospital corners, and clean mirrors when He says to be perfect, even without having guests, I’m still in serious trouble. Yet, Jesus’s answer to the rich young man that, to be perfect, he should sell his possessions and give to the poor tells us that possessions and how neatly they’re arranged have no importance to Him. So, what does it mean to be perfect?

Of course, Jesus wants us to be as flawless as humanly possible. Nevertheless, He isn’t expecting us to be completely faultless. By telling us to be perfect, He’s telling us to reflect the moral excellence of God, something God told people to do centuries earlier when He said, “Be holy because I am holy.” [Leviticus 19:2] Jesus is asking us to imitate God, just as children imitate their parents. The original Hebrew word used in this verse was tamim. Rather than perfect (meaning without fault, flaw or defect), it might better be translated as complete in all its parts, full grown or mature. Jesus is the standard by which we set our goal and He wants us become mature in our faith by growing more like Him.

The Pharisees tried to achieve perfection through exacting obedience to the law but, while they looked good on the outside, they were soiled inside (and Jesus took them to task for that). Our perfection will never be found their way. By telling us to be perfect, our words and actions are to match up with our faith. Jesus wants us to be resolute, wholehearted and completely committed to walking with Him and living His way. We’ll become perfect by living through the power of the Holy Spirit: by letting God’s glory shine through our imperfect and flawed lives into the world. Our call is not to have spotless mirrors but to mirror the spotless character of God.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. [Ephesians 5:1-2 (NLT)]

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. [1 John 4:17 (NLT)]

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TOSS ‘EM OUT – It’s a New Year

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. [Hebrews 4: 13 (NLT)]

Snow in SteamboatExplaining her years of addiction, Alice said, “It’s all because my parents moved from Illinois to Texas while I was in high school.” Was the move a contributing factor to Alice’s drug use? Maybe, but that was more than twenty-five years ago and has nothing to do with her failure to deal with her behavior today. Since high school, she’s abandoned a child, served time in prison, been in and out of a well-known residential rehab so often that she should have her own room, and is still lying, stealing, and using. Like many of us, Alice is simply blame shifting.

Yes, our experiences influence us but, as Christians, our past determines neither our present nor our future. By blaming our genes, nationality, appearance, or our over-indulgent or too strict parents, we abandon ownership of our failures and sins. We say we had too little or were given too much, that the spouse was inattentive, the judge was prejudiced, the teacher was inept, or we shouldn’t have moved. I’ve heard people blame their rudeness, stinginess, drinking, and tempers on their upbringing when they alone are responsible for their conduct today. Blaming other people or things implies that we aren’t accountable for our actions and leads us to think we aren’t responsible for changing that behavior.

Contributing factors, extenuating circumstances, and difficult childhoods may be of interest to a therapist but not to God. We may be able to deceive ourselves and others, but our excuses will never deceive Him! There will come a day when each one of us will be held responsible for our thoughts, words, and deeds and any excuses we use to justify our sins will disappear.

For both the non-believer and believer, there is judgment. No matter what the excuse, the person who has rejected Christ is doomed. When Alice meets God face to face, He will see into her and hold her accountable for her sins: the way she denied Him and wasted the precious life he gave her. While believers are saved by faith alone, they too will be judged. At the Judgment Seat of Christ, they’ll be asked to give an accounting of their lives in service to Him. When Alice’s parents (both believers) stand before God, He won’t hold them accountable for their move to Texas but He may well hold them accountable for the way they continually enabled their daughter to squander her life.

Excuses may not be outright lies but they keep us from facing the truth and, without facing the truth about ourselves, we won’t change. Our goal in life is to become more like Christ and we can’t do that by rationalizing our failings. This is a new year and a perfect time to do some serious self-examination. Are we victims of circumstance or victors in Christ? Are there any excuses we should toss out with the holiday trash?

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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THE BLAME GAME

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. [Matthew 7:1-2 (NLT)]

roseate spoonbill - corkscrew sanctuaryThere’s a classic Peanuts comic (drawn by Charles Schulz) that shows meek Linus questioning Lucy, “Why are you always so anxious to criticize me?” His bossy big sister answers: “I just think I have a knack for seeing other peoples’ faults.” Dropping his blanket, Linus asks, “What about your own faults?” to which Lucy replies, “I have a knack for overlooking them.” Among other things, Lucy has what psychologists call “fundamental attribution error.”

Fundamental attribution error is the tendency to judge other people differently than how we judge ourselves. We attribute other peoples’ flawed behavior to shortcomings in their character (dispositional attribution) and ours to the challenges of our situation (situational attribution). For example, when someone else spills his coffee, it’s because he was careless but, when we do, it’s because the barista didn’t put the lid on tight. When a car speeds past us in traffic, the driver is a jerk but, when we exceed the speed limit, it’s because we’re late for an important appointment. Our neighbor’s angry outburst is evidence of a character flaw but our temper tantrum is because of the extreme pressure at work. Unfortunately, we often attribute other people’s actions to their disposition (they’re irresponsible, inconsiderate, or foolish) rather than consider that their behavior, just like ours, could also be linked to their circumstances. Although we know our story, we don’t know the stories of others. Perhaps the person who spilled the coffee has Parkinson’s, the speeder was on his way to the hospital, or the neighbor’s spouse just filed for divorce.

Without reading further than Jesus’s first words in Matthew 7, people often misinterpret the passage. “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged,” Jesus doesn’t mean we shouldn’t judge. He doesn’t want us to suspend our critical thinking or be so open-minded that our brains fall out! Wanting us to use discernment in our dealings with people, He tells us that the same standard we use in judging others will be applied to us. The literal translation for this verse is: “for in what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and in what measure ye measure, it shall be measured to you.” If I measure you in fractions of an inch, I can’t measure myself in yards! If I judge your actions by your nature, I must judge mine the same way. If I explain or justify my actions by my circumstances, I must consider that circumstances may also explain or justify yours.

Even if you didn’t hurry home after school to watch Dark Shadows, you probably know that vampires can’t see their reflections in the mirror. While we may not sleep in coffins during the day, there’s a little bit of vampire in us when it comes to seeing ourselves in a mirror. Like Lucy, we often judge other people harshly but rationalize our own behavior to make it excusable. Jesus, however, tells us to take a good hard look at ourselves and deal with our own faults before we start judging other people.

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Deal with the faults of others as gently as your own.” While that’s good advice, Jesus tells us to deal with our own faults before we begin to deal with anyone else’s.

It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own. You can‘t clear your own fields while you’re counting the rocks on your neighbor’s farm. [Cicero]

And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, “Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,” when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. [Matthew 7:3-5 (NLT)]

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