Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice! [Psalm 141:2 (ESV)]

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. [Hosea 6:6 (ESV)]

chapel of the transfiguration - Grand TetonsOne of the countless questions we have about this pandemic is how God could allow church doors to close throughout the world. 2020 is not the first time the doors to His house have been shut. In 586 BC, the Temple doors closed for the Jews when Judah fell to Babylon; Jerusalem was laid to waste and the Temple destroyed. Its doors didn’t open again until the exiles returned and completed the second Temple in 515 BC. Destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, all that remains of that Temple is a small portion of an external supporting wall on the Temple Mount.

Although the focal point of Jewish worship was the Temple, we know that synagogues existed in Jesus’ day. They may have evolved as a substitute for the first Temple during the Babylonian exile. Rather than houses of worship, however, they were places for study, communal meals, the local court, and from which to distribute charity. Until 70 AD, the Temple remained fundamental to Jewish worship and, every year, Jews from all over the world returned to Jerusalem to worship there for the festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

After the Romans destroyed it, the Jews wondered how they could continue to worship and offer the required sacrifices without a Temple. Looking to the Bible and tradition for answers, they found scripture that connected prayer with sacrifice. Prayer became a satisfactory substitute for ritual sacrifice and the synagogue became a place of worship and prayer (as well as study).

Nowadays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur draw Jews to the synagogue the way Christmas and Easter draw Christians to a church. COVID changed that this year and, when the High Holy Days were celebrated last month, even the doors to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue were shut. When asked how they could observe the holiest days of the year without going to synagogue, Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky replied, “You’re going to make your home into a mini-synagogue.” He then made reference to a quote by Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a 19th century Hasidic rabbi who, at the age of five, is said to have asked his father, “Where is God?” When his father answered, “God is everywhere!” the future rabbi responded, “No, I think God is only where you let Him in.”

God needs somewhere to live but that place isn’t a church or synagogue; that place is us! When we ask, “Where is God?” let us remember He doesn’t live in a building. God is wherever we allow Him in! He is in the simple everyday miracles of life and His Holy Spirit dwells within us. Since God has allowed our church doors to close, He must have His reasons. Perhaps it’s simply a reminder that being a Christian isn’t going to church; it is being the church! We can do that anywhere! Let our homes become mini-churches and may our lives reflect His presence.

Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” [John 14:23 (ESV)]

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? [1 Corinthians 3:16 (ESV)]

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And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. [Joshua 10:13 (RSV)]

button bushMy initial interest in The Book of Jashar arose from Joshua 10 when, while in the midst of heated battle, Joshua prayed that the day would be prolonged. Scripture reports that both the sun and moon stayed in place until victory was won by the Israelites and that the account is found in The Book of Jashar.

In Joshua’s miracle, time stood still. In 2 Kings 20, instead of time stopping, time appeared to go backwards when the shadow on King Hezekiah’s sundial went back “ten steps.” Without an explanation of how God accomplished these miracles, people often assume He stopped the earth in one and briefly reversed its rotation in the other. But, if the earth suddenly stopped spinning, the atmosphere, oceans, and anything not nailed down would keep spinning. Their momentum would cause a 1000 miles-per-hour wind. There would be earthquakes and tsunamis and anything not attached to bedrock would be swept away. If the earth suddenly went backwards, the result would be equally disastrous. Scripture, however, only tells us the sun and moon stayed in the sky and the shadow on the sundial retreated; it never explains how.

For centuries people have pondered these two miracles and questioned the accuracy of their reports. Why people find them more unbelievable than the ten plagues inflicted on Egypt, the parting of both the Red Sea and the river Jordan, manna from heaven, the virgin birth, various miraculous healings, raising the dead, or any other of the more than 120 miracles we find in Scripture is beyond me. Perhaps it’s because these two miracles seem to defy physics and all we know about the way our planet works. Let us remember that the one who spoke the universe into existence can certainly do things in a way we can’t understand or explain.

Nevertheless, there is a persistent urban legend that says astronomers have found a missing day, dating back to Joshua’s time, in the astronomical calendar. This tale started in the late 1800s and has been updated periodically to reflect new science and technology. The latest version is that NASA, while making calculations for a space launch, found a missing 23 hours and 20 minutes. A Christian explained that it must be Joshua’s 48-hour day. He clarified that it wasn’t a full 24 hours because of Hezekiah’s sundial episode when time went backwards and then forward again, adding 40 minutes to its day. While scientists can calculate the past or future positions of heavenly objects with precision, there is no way they can know if time from over 3,000 years ago is missing! To detect missing time, they would need an accurate earth-based clock with which to compare their astronomical observations. Such clocks, however, didn’t exist in the era of sundials and there are no precisely-timed astronomical observations from Joshua’s time.

Scientific proof of these events is impossible and, while Biblical scholars have various explanations for them, they are only speculating. I prefer the easiest answer of them all: God can accomplish His will in ways that defy natural explanations. As the writer of the laws of nature, He can both enforce and alter those laws at His will. What happened was impossible; nevertheless, it happened. Rather than concentrating on the how, let us remember the who!

Ah Lord God! It is thou who hast made the heavens and the earth by thy great power and by thy outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for thee. [Jeremiah 32:17 (RSV)]

Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” [Mark 10:27 (RSV)]

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FAKE NEWS (Part 1)

Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar. [Proverbs 30:5-6 (NIV)]

gray catbirdBoth 2 Samuel 1 and Joshua 10 mention stories that could be found in The Book of Jashar (sometimes translated as Book of the Upright One or Book of the Just Ones). Biblical scholars speculate The Book of Jashar was a collection of Hebrew poems and songs praising Israel’s heroes and victorious battles. Scripture tells us it existed at one time but we’ll never know what was in it because it vanished more than 2,000 years ago.

Although The Book of Jashar can’t be found in our Bibles, nearly a dozen versions can be found on Amazon and elsewhere. Saying they’re the lost book referenced in Scripture and written by Jashar, “son of Caleb,” they claim to cover Hebrew history from creation through Joshua’s day. In spite of their claims, these books are works of fiction and none date further back than the 1600s. Confusing the issue, there is a genuine collection of Jewish legends called Sefer ha Yashar (or The Book of Righteousness) Written in the 1100s and first printed in Italy in 1544, it doesn’t claim to be history or written by Jashar. Nevertheless, this Hebrew title can be found as part of some of the fictional works purporting to be Jashar’s!

I enjoy reading fiction; my problem is with fiction that claims to be truth, most especially with fiction claiming to be on a par with the Bible! When reading reviews of the Jashar books on Amazon, it was disturbing to see that many people—people who should know better—believed this fiction was God’s truth. One woman (identifying herself as a Christian) wrote how wonderful it was to read the same words Jesus read in the Temple. She also asserted that The Book of Jasher was removed from our Bibles 200 years ago. Jashar never was in our Bibles and Jesus couldn’t have read those words because the book was lost by His time!

Another reviewer, thrilled to have a “deeper understanding of the people of the Bible,” was delighted to learn the reason Esau was so weary the day he sold his birthright was that he’d just killed Nimrod. Another reader cited the book’s explanation that it was God’s anger at man for having made an herbal concoction used as birth control that brought about the flood. Creative writing but not Biblical truth!

Fiction masquerading as truth can be found in fake gospels, as well. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 alleged sayings of Jesus, some of which are contrary to the rest of Scripture. Alleging a physical relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Philip also explains that the world is imperfect because God made a mistake and “fell short of attaining his desire.” The Gospel of Barnabas has Jesus predicting the Prophet Muhammad and claims that Judas was mistakenly crucified in Jesus’s place. Judas is rehabilitated in the Gospel of Judas which asserts that Jesus taught one message to eleven of the disciples but a special one to Judas. According to it, Judas served our Lord honorably because Jesus asked Judas to “betray” Him. Written in the second to fourth centuries, these “gospels” have no connection with any of the disciples, no historical support, and show no understanding of 1st century Judaism. They are nonsense!

Let us be cautious and discerning in our use of extra-biblical writings. While these works of fiction make interesting reading, we must never mistake them for God’s word. Unlike them, the 66 books of the accepted canon are not myths, legends, or filled with contradictions and errors. In Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, Dr. Tebring calls the Bible “a product of man.” Tebring had it wrong. The Da Vinci Code, The Book of Jashar, and the various “missing” gospels are all products of man. The Bible, however, is God-breathed and merely transcribed by man! Let us never confuse the two.

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. [2 Peter 1:20-21 (NIV)]

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV)]

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The one thing I would stress is this: your public behaviour must match up to the gospel of the king. [Philippians 1:27a (NTE)]

As children of obedience, don’t be squashed into the shape of the passions you used to indulge when you were still in ignorance. Rather, just as the one who called you is holy, so be holy yourselves, in every aspect of behaviour. It is written, you see, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’ [1 Peter 1:14-16 (NTE)]

ducks domestic

When I’m riding “shotgun” and we’re moving at snail’s pace in a traffic jam, I often amuse myself by reading the bumper stickers on the cars and trucks surrounding us. People tell us the number of children they have (and how bright they are) and make known their favorite pets, profession, and hobbies along with their stand on a variety of political issues. Bumper stickers certainly give an impression of the driver (or possibly the vehicle’s previous owners). While some stickers indicate the driver might be someone I’d enjoy meeting, I know I’d have little in common with the trucker who said he hated everybody, the one who thanked God he was an atheist, or the driver who told me to test my faith by driving with my eyes closed and avoid hangovers by staying drunk.

With the election coming up, many vehicles now display political ads. I don’t base my vote on bumper stickers, but the sentiments expressed by the other stickers on a vehicle often tell me something about the kind of person who supports the advertised party or cause. When the vehicles with political stickers also sport idiotic, hateful, bigoted or rude messages, their combination gives me pause. If the sort of person who supports that policy, party or politician sees nothing wrong or inappropriate with the rest of his messages, what does that say about his politics? If this driver is a typical supporter, would I want to further that movement?

If we were cars, what sort of messages would we display? Would they be the sort of stickers Jesus would have on His bumper? Or, do we claim to be Christian but preach a different story with words of hate, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, bigotry, or sexism? Are we good spokespersons for the church of Christ or do people look at us and want nothing to do with whatever it is we claim to believe? People judge Jesus by His followers and the world is watching us. What message are we sending with our words and actions?

The world takes its notions of God from the people who say that they belong to God’s family. They read us a great deal more than they read the Bible. They see us; they only hear about Jesus Christ. [Alexander MacLaren]

Behave wisely towards outsiders; buy up every opportunity. When you speak, make sure it’s always full of grace, and well flavoured with salt! [Colossians 4:5-6a (NTE)]

Anyone who says, “I abide in him,” ought to behave in the same way that he behaved. [1 John 2:6 (NTE)]

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But I will come—and soon—if the Lord lets me, and then I’ll find out whether these arrogant people just give pretentious speeches or whether they really have God’s power. For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. [1 Corinthians 4:19-20 (NLT)]

hot air balloonBecause we heard the fan running, we didn’t realize the AC wasn’t working until we returned home after being gone most of the day. By then, the inside temperature of 86 told us we were in trouble. A check outside told us the AC compressor wasn’t operating and the blackened grass near it told us why: a lightning strike during the previous night’s storm! Although the fan could still operate, without the power of the compressor, all it did was blow hot air!

Sure there was a lesson somewhere in all of that useless hot air, I thought of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians expressing his concern about eloquence without evidence. Even though some of their teachers were saying the right things, they weren’t living them out. Without God’s power, they were just windbags and, like our fan, full of hot air! Accustomed as they were to great orators, the Greeks were impressed by eloquent speeches but talk is cheap. Paul explained that the Kingdom of God isn’t speaking the right words; it is living them! He promised that, when he came to Corinth, they’d see the real power of God!

When Paul referred to the Kingdom of God, he wasn’t referring to Christ’s future reign but to Christ’s present reign in the hearts of His followers. The Kingdom of God is wherever the King is and His kingdom isn’t powered by words; it’s powered by the Holy Spirit and leads to changed lives.

John Calvin described a Christian’s task this way: “We must make the invisible kingdom visible in our midst.” That’s not done with flowery phrases, grandiose sermons, impressive words, or empty promises; it’s done by the way we live. As Paul said to the Corinthians: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” [13:1] The Kingdom is made visible by the evidence that our King rules us in every aspect of our lives: whether at work, school, church, or home; with family, friends, co-workers or strangers; when writing a check, browsing the internet, or posting on social media.

The power enabling our air conditioner to function is in its compressor; the power enabling us to function as citizens of the Kingdom of God is found in the Holy Spirit. If we find ourselves just blowing hot air; it’s time to check the connection!

We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love. We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us. We use the weapons of righteousness in the right hand for attack and the left hand for defense. [2 Corinthians 6:6-7 (NLT)]

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Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. [1 Peter 1: 3b-4 (NLT)]

giraffe family -Serengeti - TanzaniaBack in March, when this pandemic began, people began thinking seriously about worst-case scenarios. Looking at the death tolls in other countries and seeing them rise in ours, many began scrambling to write their wills and end of life directives. By late April, one on-line estate planning platform reported a 223% increase in customers. When schools announced plans to resume in-person classes, that trend continued as many teachers added will writing to their back-to-school tasks.

Since we’re well into our seventies, my husband and I didn’t need a pandemic to remind us of our pending departure dates. Wanting to be good stewards of our financial blessings in both life and death, we’ve made arrangements and written our wills. Our lawyer wisely suggested that our end goal should be to have everyone in the family still speaking to one another when all is said and done. Unfortunately, even with a pandemic, many people fail to plan ahead for what we know will happen eventually to all of us. Sadly, their families end up squabbling over money, Uncle Joe’s war memorabilia, Grandma’s ring, or Sue’s Beanie Baby collection! By the time everything is resolved, the lawyers are the only ones who come out ahead and no one is speaking to anyone. Money rarely brings out the best in any of us.

Other than our financial assets (or debts, as the case may be) and a few possessions, what do we really leave to our children? Money and property are not the only legacy about which we should be concerned. Some things are far more important than cars, houses, insurance policies, or jewelry.

Perhaps we should be as concerned about our spiritual estate planning as we may be about our financial one. Unlike money, the quality of a spiritual bequest is far more important than its quantity. Good memories, an example of Christian living, wisdom, morals, love and good will are all more valuable than money or property. If we leave our children with humility, confidence, courage, hope, self-respect, the ability to laugh at themselves, and the desire to give and serve, we’ll have given them far more than money can buy.

The one thing we can’t leave them, however, is faith; that’s something they’ll have to find for themselves. We may have laid the groundwork by raising them as Christians but the choices they make are theirs alone. We can give them our prayers, good example, guidance, and love but they’ll have to do the rest on their own.

Heavenly Father, we give you our children—our heirs—and pray that they will become your heirs, as well. May they become heirs to the richness of your kingdom and glory.

I have now disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more I wish I could give them, and that is the Christian Religion. If they had that and I had not given them one shilling they would have been rich; and if they had not that and I had given them all the world, they would be poor. [Patrick Henry]

For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. [Romans 8:16-17 (NLT)]

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