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)]

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SLOW THINKING

sliders - turtlesBut the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. [James 3:17-18 (NLT)]

Someone has a small rubber ball tucked into the palm of his hand and you have just one minute to do whatever it takes to get the ball away from him. What would you do? If you were an inner city youth, chances are you’d start by trying to pry his hand open. Your efforts may even escalate into a wrestling match. I’m not sure you’d have to be an at-risk youngster to have that same response; my husband responded the same way. Imagine his reaction when learning that all he needed to do was ask for the ball and it would have been his!

That is just one of the exercises in a program called “Becoming a Man”®, a cognitive behavioral program offered in cities like Boston and Chicago. Knowing that small slights often can lead to pulling a trigger, the program is designed to help young men avoid life’s pitfalls and develop the social and emotional skills necessary for success: integrity, accountability, positive anger expression, self-determination, respect for women, and visionary goal setting. Young women are not exempt from needing life skills and a similar program called “Working on Woman”™ cultivates the core values of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, visionary goal-setting, and leadership.

Instead of life skills, as Christians, we might call these faculties “Christ skills”, as does a local Christian school in my town. Instead of a formal code of conduct, the school’s teachers make a covenant with the students to live up to ideals listed as Christ skills: trustworthiness, cooperation, truthfulness, courage, organization, curiosity, patience, effort, perseverance, flexibility, pride, common sense, problem solving, caring, resourcefulness, personal best, responsibility, no put-downs, sense of humor, active listening, initiative, friendship, and integrity. With the goal of growing more like Christ, students learn to evaluate their choices and their consequences based on these skills.

All of these programs teach youngsters that there is power in slow thinking—in living deliberately rather than impetuously. Automatic thinking, such as assuming we have to force the ball out of a person’s hand, can mean the difference between life and death in the inner city but it can have bad consequences everywhere. Our typical weapons of anger and irritation may be less lethal than a gang member’s Smith & Wesson but none of us are exempt from needing to learn to think before acting or speaking.

We don’t need to live in the inner city to know it’s an angry, rude, intolerant, and violent world: a world of road rage, air rage, middle finger waving, swearing, bullying, pushing and shoving, domestic violence, tweet rants, peaceful demonstrations that turn violent, school shootings, child abuse, heckling, bickering, heated arguments, fights between students in school, fights between fans at the game, indignant outbursts, name calling, and a “do unto others before they do unto you” kind of mentality. Perhaps we all need a course in cognitive behavioral therapy or a list of desired Christ skills to emulate.

Even so, under our own power, we still will tend to act impulsively and heedlessly. On our own, we’ll never be the people God means for us to be. Maybe, instead of a list, we need a whole lot more of Jesus and the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and a whole lot less of self. Along with the power of slow thinking, let’s tap into the power of the Lord!

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. [1 John 2:4-6 (NLT)]

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THE OMEGA

I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.” [Revelation 1:8 (NLT)]

alpha and omegaIn the book of Revelation, when Jesus says He is the Alpha (the beginning), He also says He is the Omega (the end). He’s not talking of alphabets but rather the absolute beginning, revealed in Genesis, and the absolute end, revealed in Revelation. God had the first word when He spoke the universe into existence and He will have the last word when the world as we know it ends.

Much of the prophecy in the Bible is frightening and it was meant to be. Jeremiah’s warnings to Judah were as urgent as the weather alerts on our phones that tell us to take cover because of an approaching tornado. That kind of warning, while frightening, is meant to save lives. On the other hand, there are other prophecies in the Bible that give us hope. Consider Isaiah’s prophecies of a Messiah, the many prophecies that the people of Judah would return from their captivity in Babylon, and Revelation’s hopeful words that describe a time when death is gone, evil disappears, there are no more tears and sorrow, and all things are made new.

Hidden in Revelation’s joyful news, however, is the prophecy that there will be a final judgment which, depending on the person, can be good or bad news. For those who put their faith in Christ—who thirst of His water—there is nothing to fear; Jesus is forever. For those who ignored previous warnings and failed to put their faith in Christ, however, the eternality of hell awaits.

That Jesus is both the Alpha and Omega is a reminder to all of us: be ready! There will be a time when everyone will give an account to God of his or her life. Jesus is not the omega the way Z ends the alphabet. He’s not like the last page of a book with a finite number of pages. Jesus is the end of an eternal and everlasting book. Whether that never-ending book is set in the New Jerusalem, where God lives among his people, is entirely up to us.

And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. [Revelation 21:6-8 (NLT)]

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MARKED AND SEALED

One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” [Luke 3:21-22 (NLT)]

Baptism of JesusAlthough I don’t remember my Baptism as an infant, I do have a picture that tells me I wore a long white dress and a bonnet. Another picture tells me that I wore a shorter white dress, a hat instead of a bonnet and my first pair of nylon stockings and heels at my Confirmation thirteen years later. That, however, is about all I remember of making a public reaffirmation of my faith and recommitting to the baptismal promises made for me when I was a baby. Although I knew a lot about Jesus at the time, I’m not sure that I truly knew Him. I know Him now and, in a much simpler ceremony, I recently reaffirmed my Baptism in a way I will never forget.

The first Sunday after Epiphany is when many churches celebrate the Baptism of our Lord which is the case at one of the churches we attend. The hymns (When Jesus Came to Jordan, O Come and Dwell in Me, and On the Wings of a Snow White Dove) set the stage. The readings from Isaiah, Acts, and Luke kept our focus on Baptism and the pastor’s sermon continued the theme as she told of her visit to the Holy Land, standing where John may have baptized Jesus, and collecting water from the Jordan River. After the sermon, she offered us the opportunity to reaffirm our Baptisms when we came to the altar to receive Communion.

The Pastor held a chalice filled with water and, when we approached her, she dipped her finger in it, made the sign of the cross on our foreheads and said, “In Baptism you were marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.” That she’d collected the water from the Jordan River made it even more meaningful. If there could be frosting on this cake, it is that we then received the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. With just two steps, I passed from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry—His Baptism when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him—to the night He was betrayed and instituted Communion. I accepted the wafer from a second person, dipped it in a chalice of wine held by a third and ate it while remembering the body that was given and the blood that was shed, not just for me, but for all of us.

It’s rare that we celebrate the two New Testament ordinances (what many call sacraments) together and I found it a moving experience. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two rituals or practices that Jesus commanded (or ordained) the assembly of believers to observe. Baptism is not what a person does to be saved; our salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Baptism is something a saved person does. It symbolizes the death of the old life and our resurrection as a new person in Christ. While it’s only done once, it can be reaffirmed, as I did last weekend. Participating in Communion is another thing the saved person does. Unlike Baptism, however, taking Communion is something the saved person does throughout his life. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we walk as that new person in Him and connect not just with our Lord but with all with all believers, both past and present.

No matter how long ago we became Christians or the age at which we were baptized, let us always remember that we have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with His Holy Spirit forever.

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all. All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. [Acts 2:41-42 (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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THE REASON FOR MORE THAN A SEASON

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. [Hebrews 2:14-15 (NLT)]

The Holy Family - Willow TreeAlthough Epiphany celebrates the magi’s visit to the Christ child, for many people it simply marks the official end to the holiday season. It’s the day the tree goes down, lights are removed, and nativity scenes get stowed for another year. British tradition holds that if you haven’t removed the holiday décor by January 6, you must leave it in place all year long to avoid misfortune. I don’t know about misfortune but, in our community, you’ll face a fine if holiday lights or decorations remain after this week!

This year, my five-year old grand helped me take down the tree and put away the Christmas decorations. Along with the ornaments, candle holders, stockings, and two Santas, we put away four nativity sets. As the little guy placed the Christ child in one of the boxes, he asked me why I had so many figures of baby Jesus. I reminded him that Jesus (not Santa) is the reason for the season and that we always want to keep Christ in Christmas.

After everything Christmas was packed up and put away, I realized a small resin figurine of the Holy Family remained on a shelf in the living room. The crates in the garage were filled to the brim and, just as on that first Christmas, there was no room anywhere for Mary, Joseph and the newborn King. Rather than having them spend the next eleven months in a high cabinet with assorted vases, I decided to keep them on my desk.

That figurine will serve as a reminder of how God deliberately chose to humble Himself: to be born of woman and live as a mortal man. That was God Himself who entered our world through a birth canal amidst blood and amniotic fluid. The baby who nursed at Mary’s breast and peed, pooped, spit up and drooled was God! He who created man was so helpless He couldn’t even roll over for the first few months of His life and had to learn to crawl and walk. The God who gave mankind the gift of speech had to learn to speak, the One who invented numbers had to learn to count, and He who spoke the law to Moses had to learn how to read His own words! The God who spoke light into existence had to light a candle at night and our omnipresent God had to walk to get from one place to another. The God who never gets tired, thirsty or hungry became a man who did. Jesus humbled Himself by living as a man and endured everything mankind does: blisters, bruises, colds, waiting, toothaches, bug bites, stubbed toes, hangnails, exhaustion, sunburn, skinned knees, and probably diarrhea. He even endured temptation but, unlike us, He remained sinless!

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget the human part of Jesus: that our infinite God chose to live in a finite world with all of its limitations. That figurine will remain on my desk this year as a reminder that our invincible and invulnerable God freely chose to live as a man so that He could die as a man in my place. Fully man and fully God at the same time, Jesus is more than just the reason for the Christmas season; He is the reason for our salvation. Christ belongs in far more than Christmas; He belongs in everything we think, say and do.

Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people.  Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. [Hebrews 2:17-18 (NLT)]

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