For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ. [John 1:17 (NLT)]

mouse-ear hawkweedLegend had it that an angel of the Lord occasionally would come into the pool at Bethesda, stir up the water, and that the first person to enter the pool would then be healed. Jesus, however, simply said to the crippled man lying there: “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” and the man did just that. Since it was the Sabbath, the man later was stopped by the Jewish leaders and condemned for carrying his mat and working on the day of rest. According to the law, either he should have stayed and watched his mat or left it behind and walked away. When he explained that the man who’d healed him told him otherwise, they wanted him to identify his healer. Their curiosity, however, had nothing to do with knowing who had performed this amazing miracle; they wanted to know who’d broken the law!

It was on the Sabbath that Jesus gave sight to a man born blind. Out Lord spit on the ground, made mud with his saliva, applied the muck over the man’s eyes, and told him to wash himself in the pool of Siloam. After the man did as directed, he could see. Stunned by the change in him, people who’d known him as a blind beggar took him to be questioned by the Pharisees. Again, Mosaic Law had been broken, not just by the healing, but also by the spitting (considered digging or plowing) and mud making (combining wet and dry was kneading). Sure that a healer who so flagrantly broke the Sabbath could not be from God, the Pharisees wanted to know who it was.

On another Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in the temple when He saw a woman so misshapen by her disease that she couldn’t even stand up straight. After calling her over, He touched her and told her that she was healed. Instantly, the woman stood erect and praised God. The synagogue leaders didn’t have to question the woman as to who healed her that time; they saw it for themselves.

In all these instances, the synagogue leaders believed Jesus had broken the law by healing on the Sabbath. Unless it was a critical life-or-death situation, healing was considered work and was to be delayed until after the Sabbath. Since the crippled man had been that way for thirty-eight years, the blind man sightless since birth, and the woman’s body bent and broken for eighteen years, there was nothing urgent about their conditions. After Jesus healed the woman, the Pharisees indignantly told Him to come some other day to do His healing! Another day meant nothing to the Pharisees. Of course, they weren’t the ones suffering! When in pain or distress, even an hour can feel like an eternity.

When questioned by the Pharisees, Jesus reminded them that the main principle behind the treatment of animals in Jewish law was tza’ar ba’alei chayim: preventing the suffering of living creatures. Even though a donkey or ox could not be untied to go out to work, it could be untied and taken out to be fed and watered so that it wouldn’t suffer all day. Moreover, an animal was to be relieved if it was suffering from carrying too heavy a load. The load those hurting people were carrying was exceedingly heavy and stopping the suffering of God’s creatures was all Jesus was doing when He healed! In their obsession with keeping to the letter of the law, the Pharisees seemed to forget the spirit of God’s law: that we are to love the Lord and love our neighbor. That wasn’t a legendary healing angel of the Lord standing right in front of the Pharisees, it was the Lord himself! Sadly, instead of recognizing Him, they persecuted Him.

So the Jewish leaders began harassing Jesus for breaking the Sabbath rules. But Jesus replied, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” So the Jewish leaders tried all the harder to find a way to kill him. For he not only broke the Sabbath, he called God his Father, thereby making himself equal with God. [John 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. [Ephesians 6:18 (NLT)]

great egretIn our pastor’s absence, I led worship for two Sundays. For me, giving the sermons was far easier than leading the prayers. Our pastor has a way with words that inspire, enlighten and lift my spirits and his extemporaneous prayers appear to flow effortlessly from his heart through his mouth to my ears and up to God. He always seems to have the perfect Bible verse up his sleeve, the wisest thoughts in his mind, and the power of the Holy Spirit in his words. The Holy Spirit has truly given him a beautiful spiritual gift and our entire congregation is blessed by it.

While I’m often the one asked to give a table blessing, saying grace among friends or family is a far cry from leading the congregation in opening and closing prayers and Communion. Knowing I’d be leading prayers, I spent nearly as much time composing the days’ prayers as I did writing the sermons and I was fully prepared those Sundays with a well-written script.

More often than not, however, we don’t know when we’ll be called on to say a prayer. We frequently have opportunities to offer a spontaneous prayer with family, friends, and even strangers. Sadly, we may let those opportunities slip by simply because we don’t think we have the right words.

As a writer, I like to carefully select, arrange, rearrange, and edit my words before committing them to paper. Feeling at a loss for the perfect words when leading an impromptu prayer, I used to tell someone I’d pray for them rather than offer to pray with them right then and there. Intercessory prayer, however, isn’t about me and finding the perfect most expressive words; it about the other person and lifting their concerns to God. I’ve finally realized that God isn’t bothered by awkward prayers and hesitant delivery and I doubt that whoever we’re praying for minds either.

When giving a gift, we’re often told, “It’s the thought that counts.” That philosophy goes for prayers, as well. While we may not be gifted at spontaneously leading prayer, we all can pray. While we might not readily inspire others with our language, we can encourage them with our faith. We may not be able to remember the perfect Bible verse for every situation, but we can take the words of the Bible into our hearts and souls and let them guide our prayers. While we may not speak fluent Holy Spirit, we can let Him speak for us.

Prayer is talking with God. God knows your heart and is not so concerned with your words as He is with the attitude of your heart. [Josh McDowell]

Prayer is simply talking to God like a friend and should be the easiest thing we do each day. [Joyce Meyer]

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. [Romans 8:26-27 (NLT)]

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The Grand Tetons - Jackson LakeHe [Herod] put on his royal robes, sat on his throne, and made a speech to them. At its conclusion the people gave him a great ovation, shouting, “It is the voice of a god and not of a man!” Instantly, an angel of the Lord struck Herod with a sickness so that he was filled with maggots and died—because he accepted the people’s worship instead of giving the glory to God. [Acts 12:21b-23 (TLB)]

Our voices, our service, and our abilities are to be employed, primarily, for the glory of God. [Billy Graham]

When it comes to compliments, it’s not only more blessed to give than receive, but often far easier. Praise is a beautiful gift of encouragement and, like any gift, it should be acknowledged with thanks. But what then? None of us want to end the way Herod Agrippa did when he failed to give the glory to God! God is the source of everything that is good in our lives and He has blessed each of us with an array of aptitudes and gifts that enable us to do His work and bring Him glory. While we may put forth a great deal of effort to develop them, our talents, skills, insight, and achievements are not ours alone; they come from the grace of God. It is only right to acknowledge his greatness and give Him the honor and praise. So, when we receive praise, how do we give God the glory that is His?

While I occasionally see, “To God be the glory!” at the end of an actor’s biography in a theater program, I’m not sure it works so well in conversation. Responding to a compliment with, “To God be the glory!” is a Christianese phrase that could be off-putting, especially to non-believers. It might even seem a little boastful—as if God gifted me but not you or my God-given gift is better than yours. Yet, not acknowledging God in our response to sincere praise means we’ve wasted a valuable opportunity to share the gospel. After thanking someone for their encouragement, how do we use their words as an opportunity to celebrate all that God has done in and through us? Of course, I’m going on the assumption that whatever we’ve done that earned the compliment we truly did to glorify God.

While saying “To God be the glory!” may seem a bit flippant or trite, other responses might work better. We could say something like: “I’m thankful to God that you liked my work,” or “I’m happy to be able to use God’s gifts this way,” or “Anything praiseworthy in me is really Him,” or even, “God’s blessed me with a beautiful gift and I hope to use it wisely.” Whatever we say, our response should be humble, sincere and heartfelt. Let’s always remember to give credit where credit is due! To God be the glory!

To God be the glory, great things He hath done;
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,
And opened the life gate that all may go in.
[Fanny Crosby (1875)]

For everything comes from God alone. Everything lives by his power, and everything is for his glory. To him be glory evermore. [Romans 11:36 (TLB)]

O nations of the world, confess that God alone is glorious and strong. Give him the glory he deserves! [Psalm 96:8-9a (TLB)]

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The leaders saw that Peter and John were not afraid to speak, and they understood that these men had no special training or education. So they were amazed. Then they realized that Peter and John had been with Jesus. [Acts 4:13 (NCV)]

Sometimes, we Christians use religious jargon or “Christianese” when speaking. In fact, we might “testify” or “witness” instead of talk about our faith and “fellowship” instead of meet with friends! If, while speaking with non-believers, we use words we (and our fellow church-goers) can barely define we may as well be speaking a foreign language. Tossing about words like propitiation, sanctification, justification, glorification, conviction and reconciliation show that we can talk the talk, but what does it mean to anyone else? Let’s remember that Christianity isn’t a secret society like a lodge, college fraternity or sorority. There’s neither a secret handshake nor a password required for admittance.

When sharing our faith [witnessing], let’s not make the mistake of making Christianity harder than it is. Man rejected God [sinned] and we all stand guilty before God [condemnation]. Mankind’s sin alienated us from God but Jesus’s actions restored mankind’s relationship with God [reconciliation]. Jesus is God in flesh [incarnation].  Although the punishment for sin is death, Jesus paid that price [redemption]. Because Jesus took our punishment on the cross [propitiation/substitutionary atonement], we are no longer considered guilty [justification]. Jesus rose from the dead [resurrection]. When we believe in [accept] Jesus Christ and decide to follow Him [salvation], we turn from our old ways [repent] and are changed [born again/regeneration]. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we then grow more and more like Christ [sanctification]. Salvation is not something we earn [works], but something God freely gives to us [grace] when we believe in Jesus [faith].

Jesus didn’t use fancy words; he used parables and metaphors to make his point. Better yet, he explained his parables so everyone could understand the point he was making. The men he chose to spread the faith, men like Peter and John, were simple men. They didn’t require impressive words to preach or heal; they just needed faith! The bracketed words in the previous paragraph weren’t necessary and I’m not even sure I even used them all correctly! We don’t need $10 words or a special vocabulary to talk about Jesus; we just need to be sure we’re speaking the same language as the people with whom we’re talking.

Too many of us have a Christian vocabulary rather than a Christian experience. We think we are doing our duty when we’re only talking about it. [Charles F. Banning]

But we hear them telling in our own languages about the great things God has done! [Acts 2:11b (NCV)]

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So Cain left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain had sexual relations with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Then Cain founded a city, which he named Enoch, after his son. [Genesis 4:16-17 (NLT)]

snowy egretsOur pastor often says that the hardest part of giving his sermon is afterwards when someone asks him a question. I understood what he meant after finishing my sermon last Sunday. Opening our series on women in the Bible, I’d spoken about Eve. After service, a woman pulled me aside and said she’d always had trouble understanding how Cain, after being banished and settling in the land of Nod, could find a wife there. If Adam and Eve were the first parents, where did those people in Nod come from?

Skeptics of the Bible often use the identity of Cain’s wife in an attempt to discredit the book of Genesis. Sunday’s question came from two common misconceptions. The first occurs because only three of Adam and Eve’s children are named in Scripture and they’re all boys. Cain’s and Able’s births are recorded first and then Seth’s when Adam is 130 years old. We know Adam lived another 800 years after Seth’s birth and that “other sons and daughters” were born, but we’re not told when that happened. Scripture never says that Cain and Able were the only children born in the first 130 years and simple logic tells us that Adam and Eve did not average only one child every 43 years. Several more unnamed children had to have been born both before and after Seth’s birth. By the time of Cain’s banishment, the first couple probably had grandchildren, great-grands, and even great-great-grands. Assuming that about half of them were female, Cain had several women he could have married.

Of course, that means those early men married their sisters and, later, their nieces and cousins. Today, we gasp at the thought of incest but it wasn’t condemned in the beginning. While God’s command to leave one’s parents in marriage prohibited parent-child marriage [Genesis 2:24], His law against other intermarriage wasn’t given until thousands of years later when Moses recorded it in Leviticus. [Lev. 18:6] Remembering that Adam and Eve were perfect, with flawless DNA, and lived in an unpolluted environment, the danger from genetic defects with inbreeding was minimal in the beginning. Given the few number of people and the tribal structure of ancient society, intermarriage couldn’t be avoided. The righteous Abraham married his half-sister Sarah, Isaac married his cousin Rebecca, Jacob married his cousins Leah and Rachel, and Moses’s father married his aunt.

The second misconception is that Cain met his wife in the land of Nod; Scripture, however, never tells us that. The event that took place in the land of Nod was Cain having sex with his wife and getting her pregnant; an entirely different matter. Moreover, Scripture never tells us how old Cain and Abel were when Cain murdered his brother. Since Adam was already 120 by that time and the brothers worked as a shepherd and farmer, it’s logical to think they were grown men and already had families of their own. That Cain was frightened after killing Abel and needed a mark from God to protect him, would indicate that he feared repercussions from Abel’s line. In answer to the woman’s question, Cain brought his wife (who was most likely his sister) with him to Nod. Since he founded a city there, he probably brought several people in his clan with him.

We sometimes think that the Bible should read as concisely and unambiguously as an American history text; it simply doesn’t. Moreover, we must be careful of assuming that because someone or something isn’t mentioned that they didn’t exist. That there are only three birds in today’s picture doesn’t mean there were only three birds at the beach any more than only three boys’ names means there were only three sons. We can’t even assume that Abel was the second son. We only know that he came after Cain but how much after and whether there were other children in between, we don’t know. Perhaps his name is mentioned only because he was later murdered by his brother.

In the infamous Scopes trial, William Jennings Bryan was questioned by Clarence Darrow about the origins of Cain’s wife. Bryan was defending the Bible and yet this church elder had no idea where Cain got his wife and couldn’t even answer whether or not other people were on the earth at the time. Let’s do a better job than the famed lawyer in defending the Word of God! Of course, to defend it, we must first read it!

Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. [1 Peter 3:15 (NLT)]

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Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. [Galatians 1:10 (NIV)]

Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. [Galatians 6:4-5a (NIV)]

seedboxLast Thursday night’s Bible study had been as inspiring as Easter Sunday’s sermon. As we walked out of the building, I confided to my friend that there was no way I could follow such brilliant preaching. You see, our pastor was taking a much needed vacation and I would be doing the preaching for the next two Sundays. Afraid I couldn’t possibly fill his shoes or touch people’s hearts the way he does, I asked, “How can I possibly compare to him?” My friend wisely answered, “You don’t!” He reminded me to be myself and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

As I continued to polish my sermon, the enemy kept reminding me that I could never fill our pastor’s shoes.  I thought of the Apostles after Jesus had ascended. I’m sure their preaching, no matter how heartfelt and inspired, was no match for that of Jesus. That no one could possibly fill His holy sandals, however, didn’t stop them from speaking and spreading the gospel message. Scripture tells us that many became believers and were baptized after hearing the Apostle Paul speak. Yet Paul’s vast knowledge and speaking skills never kept Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, Titus or others from sharing God’s word.

When whispers of doubt are heard, I find it best to turn to God’s Word, so I turned to Paul’s letters to Timothy. Telling him not to be ashamed of his testimony, Paul encouraged the young man by reminding him that God’s Spirit “does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” He advised the young man to let his teaching be shaped by his faith and love for Jesus and to teach others so that they could pass those teachings on to still more people. Reminding Timothy that the only approval he should seek was that of God, Paul’s instructions were simple: “Preach the word.” [4:2]

Granted, I felt a heavy responsibility. Ours is a growing young church and I didn’t want us to lose momentum or have the church flounder in our pastor’s absence. Then again, I suppose the people Paul left to pastor the churches he planted felt much the same way. Nevertheless, Paul’s words made me ask whose approval it was that I sought. Did I want to please God or the people? While I prayed that my words would manage to do both, I had to focus on pleasing God and trust Him to take care of the rest. The only approval I should be seeking was that of God.

My preaching, like my writing, is not about me; it’s about God. While I hope that it pleases people, the only one I need to please with my words is God. Saturday morning, my friend sent some more words of encouragement. He reminded me that I’m a child of God, gifted by Him in my own special way, and that all God asks of me is to be myself and “Preach the word.” That’s all God asks of any of us! None of us are expected to fill someone else’s shoes; we just have to wear our own and walk in a way that pleases God.

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord. [2 Timothy 1:7-8a (NIV)]

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15 (NIV)]

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