BELIEVE IT OR NOT

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. After everyone was full, Jesus told his disciples, “Now gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.” So they picked up the pieces and filled twelve baskets with scraps left by the people who had eaten from the five barley loaves. [John 6:11-12 (NLT)]

African IrisThe resurrection of Jesus and His feeding of the 5,000 are the only two miracles recorded in all four gospels. Since the gospel writers only told us of the number of men at that al fresco meal, Biblical scholars estimate the actual number eating those loaves and fish to be more than double that figure. Perhaps it’s because of the magnitude of that miracle that people often want a logical explanation of how Jesus did it. Some suggest that everyone just had a small bite of food. When I’ve had unexpected guests, I’ve made some pretty thin slices in the roast to fill everyone’s plates but there is no way even the most experienced butcher could slice those loaves and fish thin enough to feed fifty, let alone thousands. There are others who explain this event as an example of the amazing charisma of Jesus. They speculate that He managed to convince anyone who happened to have food to share with everyone else and that a massive impromptu potluck picnic took place. Indeed, getting a crowd that size to share their provisions with strangers would be a miracle. Nevertheless, if enough people had brought their own food, feeding the crowd wouldn’t have been a concern to Jesus or the disciples. Moreover, neither scenario explains those twelve baskets of leftovers!

In the television show Penn & Teller: Fool Us!, aspiring magicians perform their best illusions for the famed duo who then try to figure out how they are done. As experienced and skilled as Penn and Teller are, they often are fooled. If expert illusionists can’t figure out how a magic trick is done, as mere mortals, we shouldn’t expect to understand how God manages an actual miracle! By definition a miracle can’t be explained; unlike a scientific experiment, it can’t be duplicated and, unlike a magic trick, it’s not sleight of hand.

If we insist on figuring out how Jesus managed this miracle, do we also want a plausible explanation for the raising of Lazarus, the virgin birth, wine at Cana, walking on water, calming a storm, or the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountainside at the transfiguration? Jesus was God and God is not bound by the laws of nature. When He created the world, He made something out of nothing; feeding thousands with a few loaves and fish was probably child’s play for Him. Try as we will, there are no plausible explanations for the supernatural. The logical explanation for the feeding of the multitude is the obvious one: it was a miracle!

About miracles, one of my pastors is fond of saying, “You either believe it or you don’t!” As for me, I choose to believe!

Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. [St. Augustine]

I am the Lord, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for me? [Jeremiah 32:27 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” [Matthew 19:26 (NLT)]

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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)]

James, along with his brother John and Simon Peter, was part of Jesus’s inner circle. The three of them knew Jesus the longest; they went with Him to Gethsemane, saw Him raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead and were witnesses at His transfiguration. This James is often referred to as the son of Zebedee or James the Greater to distinguish him from the other Apostle named James who was the son of Alphaeus (James the Lesser) and the Epistle writer James who is thought to be Jesus’s brother (James the Just). Perhaps because of their impetuous tempers and fiery zeal, Jesus gave James and John the nickname “sons of Boanerges” which meant “sons of thunder.” These brash brothers were the ones who wanted to bring disaster upon the inhospitable Samaritan village and asked Jesus for places of honor beside His throne.

Sunday’s reading, from Acts 12, included these words: “About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword.” [v.1-2] Although the rest of the reading was about Peter’s arrest and the power of prayer, I kept thinking about James. “Killed with a sword” isn’t much of an epitaph for one of the original twelve.

Herod Agrippa ruled Judea from 41 to 44 AD so James died some eleven to fourteen years after Jesus’s ascension. Scripture is silent as to what James did during this time and we can only speculate. According to legend, he went to Spain and evangelized there for several years before returning to Jerusalem. It took eight centuries before this legend took hold and there is no historical basis for it. In all likelihood, his preaching was limited to Judea and Samaria. Nevertheless, many Christians believe his remains were miraculously transported to Spain. Even though the authenticity of the relics is suspect, every July 24th, people make a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela where his remains are said to rest below the altar.

“Killed with a sword” is just a polite way of saying beheaded and, according to the Talmud, people were to die of the sword when found guilty of communal apostasy. James may have been accused of convincing the Jews to forsake Yahweh and the law for the false teachings of Christianity. Herod Agrippa, a supporter of conservative Jewish policies, repressed the Jewish Christians. Given what we know of James—outspoken, zealous, impulsive, and quick to anger—the Apostle easily could have offended both Pharisees and king.

We know little about this fisherman from Galilee: one of the first to be called and the first of the Apostles to die. When Jesus called the brothers to come to him, they responded immediately and faithfully followed Him for the next three years. Without hesitating, analyzing their options, or asking questions, they left their father and livelihood to follow an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. James and John answered God’s call and the fishermen became fishers of men. Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus asked the brothers 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, they said they could.

We don’t know how James spent those years after Pentecost. All we really need to know is that James was an ordinary person, like you and me, and that he always said, “Yes!” to Jesus. 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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ONLY JESUS SAVES

God saved you by his grace when you first believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. [Ephesians 2:8 (NLT)]

viceroy butterflyUnlike the bruised and broken butterflies in yesterday’s devotion, this one looked perfect as it lay on the trail. When we approached, the Viceroy fluttered its wings but only managed to skim a few inches across the gravel. As intact as it looked, one wing was entirely useless. To protect it from walkers’ feet and speeding bicycles, we managed to get the creature off the trail into the grass. Unfortunately, without some sort of butterfly super-glue to reattach the loose wing, while we could help, we couldn’t save it.

Although it was easy to see that saving the butterfly was not within our purview, I’m not sure we understand that about our friends and loved ones. As much as we might want to, we can’t save the people around us. We can’t keep Terry from gambling, stop Mary from dating abusive men, make John quit drinking, or salvage Joan’s failing marriage. Seeing their potential and possibility, we want their lives to be better; they, however, are not our repair projects and their transformation is not our job. We can’t fix our loved ones, change their lives or save them from their own bad decisions. What we want for others is meaningless unless they want it for themselves. We can love them, share God’s word, help to bear their burdens, refuse to enable their destructive choices, and counsel, encourage and pray for them. What we can’t do is save them.

Just as we can’t save the addict from his addiction or the fool from his decisions, we can’t save non-believers from their non-belief. When we share the gospel message, we can impart knowledge but we can’t make people think; we can show people the truth, but we can’t make them believe. Just as we can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink, we can lead people to Jesus but can’t make them drink of His living water. We can give our testimony, but it is God who opens their hearts. We can sow the seed (and even water and fertilize it) but it is up to that seed and God as to whether or not it will sprout. Let us remember that Jesus will save anyone but not everyone will choose to be saved. Unfortunately, many will reject His offer of salvation. We can witness and pray for their salvation but we can’t save them. We aren’t their savior—Jesus Christ is! In actuality, He’s already done the saving; it’s just up to people to receive His gift of grace.

You will find all true theology summed up in these two short sentences: Salvation is all of the grace of God. Damnation is all of the will of man. [Charles Spurgeon]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. … And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment. [John 3:16-17, 36 (NLT)]

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YOUR MISSION

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:19-20 (NLT)]

dahliaIn 1978, Merck Research Laboratories was approached by a scientist who thought a drug he was developing to treat parasitic infections in animals might be useful in treating a parasitic infection in humans. Called onchocerciasis or river blindness, it is transmitted through the bite of black flies and had no known cure. The pharmaceutical company faced a dilemma. Since onchocerciasis is found only in third world areas, the people needing the medication could never afford to buy it. How could the company expend money to develop a drug they’d never be able to sell? Nevertheless, they did and, in 1987, Merck announced that, for as long as was necessary, they would give away the drug (Mectizan®) for the treatment of onchocerciasis to any country that needed it. Eleven years later, they expanded their commitment and started donating Mectizan® for the treatment of Lymphatic filariasis, a mosquito-transmitted disease which can develop into elephantiasis. Since 1987, more than a billion treatments have been donated to thirty-three countries and the World Health Organization forecasts that both diseases could be eradicated by 2020.

Typically, in business, if there’s no chance for profit, there’s no chance for the project. In the case of Mectizan®, however, Merck saw the company’s primary goal as getting the drug to the people who needed it rather than getting a return on their investment. This mindset goes back to a statement by George Merck in 1933 that the company’s mission was to develop scientific breakthroughs to benefit humanity. In 1950, he elaborated by saying, “Medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits.” Merck’s CEO in 1978, Dr. Roy Vagelos, further clarified the company’s mission by directing its scientists to put medical needs before profits and to think of their work as a quest to alleviate worldwide human disease and suffering.

Jesus gave us what’s known as the Great Commission; recently, our northern church wanted to clarify how it intended to fulfill that command. At a congregational meeting to formulate a mission statement, the story of Merck putting people before profit was shared to illustrate the importance of knowing our purpose and what we will or won’t do to achieve it. It’s not just churches, businesses or charitable foundations, however, that need to articulate their mission. “What is my objective? What have I been called to do and how will I do it?” are questions each of us should ask of ourselves and our families.

In that same 1950 speech, George Merck said, “The all-important question in research, which must be asked constantly, is: what is the right thing to do? … We cannot rest till the way has been found…to bring our finest achievement to everyone.” I’m not in medical research but Merck’s words apply to us all. What is the right thing to do? How can we bring our finest achievements to others? A good place to start is to ask two more questions: “What would Jesus do and how would He do it?”

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. [John Wesley]

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. … Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. [Romans 12:2,21 (NLT)]

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HIS EYES AND EARS

Sandhill Crane FamilyAgain a message came to me from the Lord: “Son of man, you live among rebels who have eyes but refuse to see. They have ears but refuse to hear. For they are a rebellious people. [Ezekiel 12:1-2 (NLT)]

Don’t you know or understand even yet? Are your hearts too hard to take it in? “You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?” Don’t you remember anything at all? [Mark 8:17b-18 (NLT)]

While walking at the park yesterday, my husband pointed at something in the brush. As I zoomed in with my camera, I realized he’d spotted a sandhill crane foraging in the deep grass. They mate for life and, where there’s one, there usually are two so I kept looking until I spotted Mrs. Crane just before they disappeared into a thicket. A few minutes later, we turned a corner, looked hopefully toward the open meadow, and spotted the pair again, along with junior. These elegant long-necked birds are among my favorites in the park but, with their grey-brown bodies that blend into the colors of the prairie, they’re easy to miss. This morning, when I heard their unique rattle-like call, we stopped and scanned the meadow and finally spotted the distinctive red cap that meant a crane was in the grass. As I whispered a prayer of thanks for another sighting of these beautiful birds, I realized how easy it is to miss God’s blessings because we haven’t looked for them.

sandhill craneThinking of the maxim that blessings are hidden in every trial if only we’d open our hearts to them, I initially thought I’d write about hidden blessings. I then realized that we miss more than beautiful birds and blessings when we fail to look and listen; we miss God-given opportunities to be true disciples of Christ.

The gospels tell of when Jesus and the apostles, tired and hungry, just wanted to go off to a quiet place and rest but an enormous crowd pursued them. Rather than send away the people, Jesus had compassion on them. He healed the sick, spoke about the Kingdom of God, and fed the hungry with a picnic of massive proportions. Another time, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and, like other rabbis, He was probably teaching as He walked. Anxious to hear everything the rabbi said, people crowded around as they followed Him. When a blind beggar shouted out to Jesus, they yelled at the man to be quiet. Jesus, however, heard the cry for mercy, stopped what he was doing, and compassionately restored the blind man’s sight.

Blessings and sandhill cranes often go unnoticed; I only spotted those cranes because I wanted to see them. I’m rarely that anxious to see the needs and hear the cries of my fellow man and they are far more obvious. Compassion, witness, and service can be inconvenient. We justify our failure to act by turning a deaf ear and blind eye to what’s right in front of us. Jesus never failed to see those who needed to be fed spiritually or physically and He always heard their cries for mercy. As His disciples, we are called to serve those who hunger and thirst, welcome the lonely, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and visit the prisoner. We can’t be the hands and feet of Jesus unless we also act as His eyes and ears.

Now you, my brothers and sisters, are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out upon this world, and yours are the lips through which His love is to speak; yours are the hands with which He is to bless men, and yours the feet with which He is to go about doing good—through His Church, which is His body. [Mark Guy Pearce (Evangelical Christendom, 1881)]

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. … And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:35-36,40 (NLT)

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THE BARBER

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land. [Jeremiah 17:5-6 (NLT)]

 If God is, why is there evil? But if God is not, why is there good? [Saint Augustine]

Kuchenhof Gardens netherlandsThe story is told of a barber who vehemently denied the existence of God while cutting his customer’s hair. “Look at this troubled world,” he said. “School shootings, terrorism, wars, genocide, pain, poverty, hatred, prejudice, and deceit: they all prove your so-called God doesn’t exist!” The customer tried to reason with him but the atheist would have nothing of it.

When the customer left the shop, he saw a man sitting on a nearby bench. His hair was long, filthy and matted; his eyebrows were so shaggy they nearly covered his eyes; his face was so dirty his skin color was undistinguishable; and his mustache and beard were long, mangy, and disgusting. Returning to the shop, the customer announced to the barber, “There are no barbers; you do not exist!” The shocked man replied, ”But, I do; I’m right here in my shop. Here’s my chair and sink, towels and wash cloths, shampoo and shaving cream, scissors and razors, combs and brushes. How can you say I don’t exist?” The customer then pointed to the unkempt man sitting outside on the bench. “Well, that’s what happens when people don’t come to me,” said the exasperated barber. “My point exactly,” replied his customer. “This troubled sinful world is what happens when people don’t go to God!”

It’s been said that someone once asked Billy Graham how Christianity could be valid when there is so much evil in the world. The famous preacher replied, “With so much soap, why are there so many dirty people in the world? Christianity, like soap, must be personally applied if it is to make a difference in our lives.”

 A Christian is nothing but a sinful man who has put himself to school for Christ for the honest purpose of becoming better. [Henry Ward Beecher]

But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NLT)]

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