BE PREPARED

When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes. [Matthew 24:37-39 (NLT)]

black vulturesLast Friday, there was hardly a spot in the parking lot of a local warehouse club, empty carts were at a premium, and the wait for gas was over 30 minutes. Inside, people were gathered around the fork truck bringing down more generators, packages of batteries were being grabbed by the handful, and cases of bottled water were being snatched right out of the stockers’ hands. The supply of things like toilet paper, garbage bags, bleach wipes, and paper towels was dwindling fast.

June was the official start of hurricane season and even though our Florida newspapers were filled with articles about hurricane preparedness and several days were set aside as sales tax holidays for hurricane supplies, most people did little to prepare until Friday. Up to then, the “spaghetti plots” of Tropical Depression 9 were all over the place but that morning’s weather report showed them coming together over our part of the state. By that afternoon, forecasters predicted a major Category 3 hurricane and warned us to be prepared. By Saturday, the storm had a name (Ian) and the governor had declared a state of emergency for 24 counties!

What part of being prepared didn’t we get back in June when the NOAA warned us to expect an “above average” year of named storms? Perhaps, we were lulled into a false sense of security by the season’s calm beginning and an August without any named storms. Until we see a storm heading straight at us, we tend to ignore the warnings. While better prepared than many, I’m not pointing any fingers; Friday morning, we were filling the gas tank and getting bottled water and batteries!

Thinking of the frenzied crowd at the store and gas pumps, I thought back to Noah. While Genesis focuses on the building of the ark and Noah’s obedience, such an enormous project couldn’t have gone unnoticed. Surely Noah’s neighbors wondered about the massive craft being built in his backyard. Genesis tells us Noah was righteous and blameless and 2 Peter 2:5 tells us that ”Noah warned the world of God’s righteous judgment.“ If he preached the need for repentance and cautioned that God would bring a flood and everything on earth would die, the people ignored his warnings and probably laughed at what seemed an impossibility. When the rain began and the water continued to rise, imagine their panic as the reality of what was happening set in.

In Matthew 24:36-44, Jesus warned of the arrival of another time of judgment and cautioned that the world would be caught off guard as it was in Noah’s day. When that day comes, there will be no spaghetti plots on the weather channel and no chance to run out and get bottled water or batteries. There simply will be two groups—those who are prepared and saved and those who are unprepared and lost.

By Sunday morning, Ian was expected to reach Category 4 intensity once it reaches the Gulf, the “cone of concern” broadened to include the Florida panhandle, and the governor declared a state of emergency for the entire state. With the latest news, the people north of us are now frantically filling gas tanks, water jugs, and sand bags. Jesus, however, wasn’t speaking about hurricane preparedness. He was speaking of His second coming. While many Floridians are fleeing out of the storm’s path, there will be no fleeing when that day arrives. Whether the Last Days or simply our last day here on earth, there will be no way to escape and no place to hide when it comes. Are we prepared?

Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. [Matthew 24:42-44 (NLT)]

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JUDGING THE PUDDING 

sheep goatsAnd the King will say, “I tell you [the sheep] the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” … Then he will answer them [the goats] saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” [Matthew 25:40,45-46 (ESV)]

“The proof is in the pudding” is the shortened version of the original proverb: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, rather than what something claims to be, it must be judged by trying it yourself or seeing it in action. Regardless of its outward appearance or what the label states, the value, authenticity, and quality of something can only be determined by experiencing it or seeing the results!

Jesus probably never tasted the pudding to which the original proverb refers but we know that He frequently told parables illustrating its point. Rather than talking about a seasoned minced meat and grain dish boiled in a bag, He was telling us that the true evidence of our declaration of faith is not found in our words; it is seen in our actions. In His parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, the King separated the sheep from the goats. After doing so, he said to the sheep, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” [25:35] The goats, however, got a vastly different message: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” [25:41]

Since both species are Bovines in the subfamily Caprinae, roughly the same size, have cloven hooves, and chew the cud, the King couldn’t determine their identity with a quick look. Their difference, however, had nothing to do with their appearance: whether they had a groove in their upper lip or wool instead of hair. He wasn’t concerned with the shape of their horns or whether their tails hung down or pointed up.

The King judged the animals’ breed by their actions. While sheep graze and goats browse, their eating habits weren’t what determined their destination because Jesus really wasn’t talking about sheep or goats. He was speaking of the final judgment, specifically of those who claimed to be one of His flock. The parable’s sheep (like true followers of Jesus) fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner—the very people Jesus called “the least of these.” The goats, however, hadn’t. With His parable, the Lord made it abundantly clear that the way we love one another shows the way we love Him and that our actions have eternal significance.

Jesus wasn’t preaching salvation through works; He was telling us that our actions are evidence of the faith we proclaim! It’s not enough to hear or even to profess; we must obey! We can dress up as sheep and claim to be Christians, but, as the old proverb goes: the proof is in the pudding!

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? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? 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. You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? [James 2:14-20 (NLT)]

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COMPLETING THE RACE – Part 1

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]


Next weekend, my son will be participating in Chicago’s triathlon during which he’ll swim nearly a mile, bike 24.8 miles, and finish up with a 6.2-mile run. Because it’s a grueling race that requires stripping off extraneous equipment twice, it reminds me of Hebrews 12:1. After coming out of the water, my son rushes to the first transition area while stripping off swim cap, goggles, and wet suit. Having worn shorts and shirt under the wet suit, he drops off his swim attire and dons his race bib, socks, shoes, helmet, and sunglasses before mounting his bike. Then, after biking nearly 25 miles, he makes his second transition by changing into running shoes and leaving behind his bike, helmet, and bike shoes. At each transition, he strips off any unnecessary gear that can slow him down. After all, the wet suit would be extra weight when biking as would be the bike and helmet during the run!

Although my son is a seasoned triathlete, he wasn’t when he did his first triathlon a dozen years ago in rural Illinois. Not knowing that seasoned triathletes don’t wear wetsuits designed for water sports, he wore the same wetsuit he used when wake boarding and diving. Wet suits made for triathlons, however, are designed to be taken off quickly for an easy transition and made of thinner lighter neoprene with a slippery outer coating that reduces drag and provides optimal swimming dynamics and speed. He also made the mistake of wearing regular bike shorts under his wetsuit. While bike shorts have the extra padding necessary for long rides, in a triathlon that padding acts like a sponge and holds onto the wetness from the swim along with any sweat from the ride and run. My son ended up biking and running in what felt like a toddler’s very wet and heavy soiled diaper! Instead of conserving energy and swimming, biking, and running faster, he was weighed down by his poor choice of equipment.

The race referred to in Hebrews 12, however, isn’t a triathlon; it is our journey of faith. Nevertheless, it is like a triathlon because it requires strength, determination, and endurance. It’s long and strenuous, often grueling, and comes with a variety of challenges and difficult transitions. The epistle’s writer tells us that we must cast off anything that hinders us in order to complete the journey. Rather than stripping off water-logged bike shorts or leaving behind the bike when we start to run, the believer needs to strip himself of the extra weight found in things like unbelieving friends, questionable activities, greed, fear, anxiety, bitterness, unconfessed sins, or doubt. Those can impede our progress and cause us to stumble as easily as can running a race in bike shoes.

There will be times when even the best prepared Christian will tire, falter, turn the wrong way, or consider quitting. Unlike a triathlon, however, the time it takes to complete the course doesn’t matter; finishing is the only thing that counts. Moreover, there is no winner in the race of faith—staying true to the course, no matter how long it takes, makes anyone a winner!

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. [2 Timothy 4:7-8 (NLT)]

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THIS JAMES WAS KILLED WITH A SWORD

A little farther up the shore he saw two other brothers, James and John, sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, repairing their nets. And he called them to come, too. They immediately followed him, leaving the boat and their father behind. [Matthew 4:21-22 (NLT)]
blue jay

The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were among the first to follow Jesus. Along with Simon Peter, they were part of Jesus’ inner circle. The three men knew Jesus the longest, saw Him raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead, were witnesses at the Transfiguration, and went with Jesus to Gethsemane. It was these brash brothers who wanted to rain down fire from heaven upon an inhospitable Samaritan village. Because of their impetuous tempers and fiery zeal, Jesus gave them their nickname: “sons of Boanerges” (meaning sons of thunder). It even may have been at their urging that their mother brazenly asked Jesus to grant special places for her boys in His kingdom.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus around 33 AD, the first followers of Jesus were tolerated by the Jewish leaders. They considered Jesus’ believers to be a minor sect that would die out in time. But, instead of diminishing, the Christian movement rapidly grew with its acceptance of Gentiles. By the time of Herod Agrippa I (41 to 44), Jewish leaders became alarmed at the number of Christ’s followers. Rather than a minor sect, they were becoming a religion—something the Jews considered apostasy. Like the Herods before him, Agrippa ruled over Palestine on behalf of Rome and his main purpose was to keep the peace for the emperor. Knowing the importance of currying favor with the Jewish leaders, the king began to persecute some of Christ’s followers and James, the brother of John, was the first of the disciples to die.

Acts 12 tells us he was “killed with a sword” which is just a polite way of saying James was beheaded. According to the Talmud, people were to die of the sword when found guilty of communal apostasy and James may have been accused of convincing the Jews to forsake Yahweh and Mosaic law for the “false teachings” of Christianity. Given what we know of James—outspoken, zealous, impulsive, and quick to anger—the apostle easily could have offended both Pharisees and king. Although the Sanhedrin lacked the right to execute without Roman permission, as king, Agrippa could execute at will, which he did!

We know little about this fisherman from Galilee who was among the first to be called and the first of the apostles to die. When Jesus called the brothers to come to him, they responded without hesitating, analyzing their options, or asking questions. The men immediately left their father and livelihood to follow an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus asked them if they could drink from the same bitter cup of suffering from which He would drink. Again, without hesitation or asking what that might entail, John and James said they could.

James died more than a decade after Jesus’ ascension and Scripture is silent as to what he did during those years. Although legend has it that James evangelized in Spain for several years before returning to Jerusalem, it took eight centuries before that legend took hold and there is no historical basis for it. In all likelihood, James probably limited his preaching to Judea and Samaria but we don’t know. All we really need to know, however, is that James was an ordinary person, like you and me. Although his life was cut short and his brother John lived more than one hundred years, both apostles lived for Jesus and always said, “Yes!” to Him. Can we say the same?

But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!” Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering.” [Mark 10:38-39 (NLT)]

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A WORK IN PROGRESS

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. [Philippians 1:6 (NLT)]

juvenile ibis - juvenile little blue heronWhenever I see immature white ibis or blue herons, I recall a picture that hung in my daughter’s bedroom. Beneath a drawing of a little girl in a pink dress were the words, “Be patient; God isn’t finished with me yet!” These birds, however, don’t need a sign to tell us that God isn’t finished with them; their varicolored plumage makes that abundantly clear. You see, for their first few years, they look like a work in progress. Instead of being born white, the newly hatched white ibis chicks start out grey but quickly turn dark brown. As they mature, the young birds become a haphazard patchwork of brown and white. By the end of their second year, they’re mostly white but it’s not until the end of their third year that they finally molt the last of their brown feathers. Unlike the ibis, the little blue herons start out pure white. Were it not for their greyish-green legs and bill, they look more like snowy egrets than blue herons for much of their first year. They turn into a patchwork of blue and white as they gradually molt into the dark slate-blue plumage of an adult by the end of their second year.

Today, I thought of those words about patience and being unfinished after berating myself for making a foolish and avoidable mistake. I spoke to myself in a way I’d never (or hardly ever) use with anyone else and called myself something that I wouldn’t call others (at least not out loud). Sometimes, it’s easier to be patient with a child than it is with ourselves. Perhaps, we need to remember that God isn’t finished with us, either!

Even though it may be less obvious, I’m as unfinished as an immature ibis or little blue heron! The birds, however, don’t have to make any effort for their colors to change—that automatically comes with time. For us, it’s a bit different. When God brought us from death into life in Christ, He loved us with all of our imperfections and faults. Nevertheless, just as He doesn’t leave those birds looking half-done, He’s not about to leave us the flawed way we began. Our sanctification began at the moment of salvation but it didn’t end there. No matter how old we are, God continues to give us opportunities to learn and grow. He expects us to actively strive for holiness and obedience so that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become more and more like Jesus. Unlike the birds, however, we remain works in progress until our last day on earth. Remembering that we still are mid-design and won’t always get it right, let us be patient with ourselves until that day comes.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are co-workers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R. C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12-13 (NLT)]

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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)]

orchard swallowtail butterflyHaving witnessed the condemned walk to their tortuous deaths while carrying their crosses, the people of Judea knew exactly what it meant to carry a cross. The cross meant humiliation, indescribable pain, grief, anguish, and death! When Jesus spoke of cross bearing and cautioned His followers to count the cost of discipleship, it was clear He wasn’t offering a ticket to Easy Street. While He was offering a ticket to eternal life, it came with a price: the giving up of self and all that might come to mean—be it loss of status, relationships, family, possessions, or even life. Rather than an abstract ideal, discipleship was a hard reality that included denial of self and promised to be a challenge.

Some of us, when looking at the cost, would prefer a watered-down gospel. We want to be Christians without Jesus having any effect on our lives. We want the blessings of a new life without giving up the pleasures of the old. We’re happy to bear His name, celebrate both His birth and resurrection, and wear a cross, but we’re not that anxious to bear one! 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. Jesus was the gift of God’s grace by which all of mankind could be saved, but it cost God His only son. Accepting Jesus’ name means far more than taking a spot in a church pew. God’s grace expects us to follow Jesus wherever He leads us and to do whatever He asks. We can’t just listen to a preacher; we must practice what Jesus preached! 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—that we take up our cross and lose our lives in complete commitment to Him. For many, that loss is figurative but, for some like Bonhoeffer and most of the disciples, that loss of life was literal!

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. Even though a Roman cross doesn’t await us as it did Jesus, Peter, and Andrew, taking up the cross for us today means that we willingly bear the cost of Christian discipleship as we sacrifice ourselves, our time, and talents in serving God and others. That cross doesn’t necessarily mean life will be easier, but it 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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