THE LORD’S VICTORY

And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” [Judges 6:15-16 (NLT)]

Because the Midianites were raiding and plundering Israel, we meet Gideon hiding in a large vat. Rather than threshing wheat in the open air so the wind could blow away the chaff, he was cautiously working in the bottom of a secluded wine press when an angel of the Lord delivered a message to the timid man. Addressing Gideon as a mighty warrior, the unlikely hero demurred and claimed to be the least worthy of the weakest clan in the tribe of Manasseh.

After a fair amount of hesitation and questions, the reluctant warrior eventually gathered an army of 32,000 to battle the Midianites, a force of 153,000 men. With the odds against Gideon being four to one, I imagine he was wondering where to find more men when God told him that he had too many! He was instructed to send home all those who were afraid. After 22,000 men departed, God told Gideon there still were too many men. He was to separate them by the way they drank water from a stream—whether they cupped the water with their hands and lapped it up or knelt down to drink from the stream. Only the 300 warriors who drank from their hands were allowed to remain. With an overwhelming ratio of 450 Midianites to one Israelite, Gideon’s defeat seemed inevitable. Nevertheless, while Gideon may have been fearful, he never lost faith. Gideon’s few good men crushed the Midianites. The nomadic tribe never recovered and there was peace in the land for the next forty years.

We might wonder why God chose Gideon—the least of the least—and why He didn’t provide him with as large an army as possible to ensure an Israelite victory. The odds were bad enough when Gideon started with 32,000 men but, with only 300, victory seemed impossible. But that was God’s point! When the angel of the Lord entered Gideon’s life, the Israelites had been oppressed by the Midianites for seven years because they “did evil in the Lord’s sight.” [Judges 6:1] They’d worshipped pagan gods, built an altar to Baal, and erected an Asherah pole. Gideon’s first task, prior to leading the men into battle, had been to destroy those pagan symbols. When Baal did not retaliate, it became clear how worthless the false god was. But, did the people understand how powerful the Lord was?

God chose Gideon, the youngest son of the weakest clan, and only a handful of men because their victory against absolutely impossible odds made it abundantly clear to all that the victory didn’t belong to Gideon or his soldiers; it belonged only to God! Rather than looking at this story as an example of what just a few men (or women) can do, we should look at it as an example of what God can do just with a few! He is, after all, the hero in every story!

Selfish and proud creatures that we are, we tend to blame God when things go wrong but remove Him of any responsibility for our successes. In Gideon’s story, God eliminated any possibility that the Israelites’ strength, skill, or valor had anything to do with their triumph. Victory was the Lord’s! God was the hero of Gideon’s story; let Him continue to be acknowledged as the hero of ours, as well!

The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord. [Proverbs 21:31 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SWEET JESUS

Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! [Psalm 34:8 (NLT)]

The religion of Jesus Christ is not ascetic, nor sour, nor gloomy, nor circumscribing. It is full of sweetness in the present and in promise. [Henry Ward Beecher]

tri-colored heronThe Synsepalum dulcificum is a West African fruit better known as the “taste berry” or “miracle fruit.” This almost tasteless red berry can make lemons, Dijon mustard, Brussels sprouts, pickles and even vinegar taste sweet. A protein in the berry temporarily binds to the tongue’s taste buds and causes sour or acidic foods to taste sweet. Miracle fruit tablets, powder, freeze-dried berries and plants can be purchased from several websites. Along with suggesting using the berry as a way to get fussy eaters to eat their fruits and vegetables, sellers suggest hosting “flavor-tripping parties” where guests get a berry and a strange buffet of foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, radishes, grapefruit, cheap tequila, goat cheese, vinegar, and Tabasco sauce. Why anyone would want to alter the delicious flavors of kiwi, pineapple, strawberries, Granny Smith apples, grapes, or tomatoes is beyond me and I certainly have no desire to drink pickle juice or Sriracha chili sauce.

Miracle berries really aren’t miraculous because they don’t change anything; they merely change the user’s perception of a food. Although the berry neutralizes the flavor in the mouth, the food is still acidic as it goes down and the after-effects of indulging in hot sauce as if it were frosting or drinking straight lemon juice often include stomach upsets and mouth ulcers.

Rather than changing the taste of food, it would be nice to have something that miraculously could transform the bitterness, disappointment, and distress of life into something palatable and sweet. When I remember the words of Psalm 34 to “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” I realize we already have it! When we taste of the Lord, we see His goodness, receive the power of His Holy Spirit, and experience the true sweetness of life. Jesus truly does perform a miracle—the miracle of changed lives. He transforms shame, sorrow, bitterness, resentment, meanness, hate, and rage into acceptance, joy, contentment, forgiveness, generosity, love and peace. The miracle berry’s effect lasts for only a few hours but the miracle of Jesus lasts into eternity. Taste and see.

Souls are made sweet not by taking the acid fluids out, but by putting something in—a great love, a new spirit, the Spirit of Christ. Christ, the spirit of Christ interpenetrating ours, sweetens, purifies, transforms all. [Henry Drummond]

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness. [1 Peter 2:2-3 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE TWELFTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

nativity

Today is the Feast of Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas. For me, this is the day the holiday CDs return to the back of the cabinet and the last of our holiday decorations disappear. The tree is stripped, disassembled, and crammed in its box and the ornaments, stockings, nativity scenes, and Christmas books returned to their plastic tubs. Once everything is packed up, we’ll haul the boxes back to the storage unit where they will remain until next November. Except for some left-over Christmas candy and a few spritz cookies, the only remnants of Christmas will be a few needles from the tree and bits of sparkle from the holiday flower arrangements that will elude my vacuum for weeks.

Although the outer trapping of Christmas will vanish, we must never let the message of Christmas depart from our lives. Christmas didn’t come in a box from Amazon; it came with a baby in a manger. Yet, Christmas really isn’t about a baby; it’s about a God whose greatness was reduced to a microscopic fertilized egg and born of a virgin. Christmas isn’t about a wreath hanging on the door or Christmas cards and carols; it’s about the love and sacrifice that led to Jesus hanging on a cross. It’s more than the Grinch, Santa, Rudolph, or Scrooge because it says that God’s love for us was so great that he laid aside His divine privileges to live and die as a man. Christmas isn’t about brightly colored lights or holiday candles; it’s about the light of the world. Christmas lasts more than twelve days because that baby’s name was Immanuel (meaning God with us). Jesus was with us then, as a man, and He continues to be with us today, as the Holy Spirit.

A few years ago, after everything Christmassy had been crated and stowed, I discovered one small figure of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus that I’d forgotten to put away. Rather than pack it up, I moved it to my desk where it remains regardless of the season. The outer trappings of Christmas won’t return for another eleven months but that carving of the holy family reminds me that Christmas doesn’t end on January 6. The message of Christmas must remain in our hearts all year long.

May you have the gladness of Christmas which is hope; The spirit of Christmas which is peace; The heart of Christmas which is love. (Ada V. Hendricks)

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:6-11 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

GOD SHOTS

Give thanks to the Lord of lords. His faithful love endures forever. Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles. His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 136:3-4 (NLT)]

sunflowerAfter hearing people say, “It’s a miracle!” regarding the speedy development of the COVID-19 vaccines, I began to wonder what constitutes a miracle. In his book Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem defines a miracle as “a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself.” I’m not a theologian but his definition seems to qualify a miraculous event by its infrequency and awesomeness rather than its nature. By his definition, last month’s “great” conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn might qualify. It certainly was awesome and, since that hasn’t happened at night for nearly 800 years, it certainly qualifies as uncommon. It was, however, predictable and the two planets will be even closer together the night of December 25, 2874. I prefer Pastor Taylor Krug’s definition:  “A miracle is a particular event that occurs within the natural world that cannot be sufficiently explained with a perfect science and an exhaustive understanding of the cosmos.”

Yet, even with Krug’s definition, I can’t clearly draw the line between an amazing inexplicable incident and a sure-fire miracle. Sometimes people, places, and things intersect in extraordinary and mystifying ways. I have a friend who calls these profound happenings that defy explanation “God shots.” While writing about the SK8 church yesterday, I thought of the bizarre coincidences that brought us together.

Our association with the ministry began with a haircut. When my hairdresser closed shop, I picked a new salon from the phone book and took the first available appointment. Because of a last minute conflict, I had to reschedule and got a different stylist. We talked while she worked and our exchange took an unusual turn toward Jesus and our mutual faith. Then, for some odd reason, the conversation turned to our family business. Learning we make a product for skateboards, she told me about her involvement in a skateboarder ministry. The next morning, the coffee shop barista recognized our company logo on my husband’s cap and told us her dad had started a SK8 church. Almost immediately, her father came in to post a SK8 church notice on the bulletin board. We introduced ourselves and our association began—all because of a haircut at a randomly selected salon and a baseball cap. While not miraculous, I think that qualifies as a God shot.

During the years, we continued to see these God shots at SK8 church. Someone totally unrelated to the ministry or skateboarding was given a PlayStation he didn’t want. Rather than selling it, he brought it to the SK8 church. Why them and not EBay? Only God knows. The following afternoon, a woman with no connection to the church gave them her old car. What seemed like an odd donation actually was the timely answer to a prayer. You see, living at the church was a homeless young man who’d just gotten a job but had no way to get to it. A coincidence or the hand of God?

When the SK8 church wanted to build a skateboard bowl, they had the materials and workers one weekend but not the expertise. When the pastor called a professional boarder for technical advice, instead of giving advice, the pro drove from Missouri to Colorado the next day. He preached to the kids that night and directed the building project throughout the weekend. The God shot? He originally had a professional obligation for that weekend but it had been cancelled only minutes before the pastor’s call.

From our viewpoint, much of life seems incredibly random but we must remember that our sovereign God always is in control. He both causes things to happen as he did when a supposedly random arrow killed wicked King Ahab but He also allows things to happen, as He did when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and Satan plagued Job. Whether the incredible speed with which these COVID vaccines were developed qualifies as miraculous, I don’t know but, without a doubt, God’s hand was in it. Thank you, Lord!

Praise the Lord! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. Who can list the glorious miracles of the Lord? Who can ever praise him enough? [Psalm 106:1-2 (NLT)]

O Lord my God, you have performed many wonders for us. Your plans for us are too numerous to list. You have no equal. If I tried to recite all your wonderful deeds, I would never come to the end of them. [Psalm 40:5 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE GRATITUDE JAR

Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Ephesians 5:18b-20 (NLT)]

roseate spoonbill - corkscrew swampEvery year a dear friend sends me a bayberry candle to burn on New Year’s eve. Legend has it that lighting a bayberry candle when the first star appears, burning it past midnight, and allowing it to extinguish on its own, will ensure a year of prosperity and good fortune. Since we can’t manage to stay awake to midnight, leaving a burning candle unattended seems more a guarantee of fire and disaster than good luck. A safer tradition is a “gratitude jar.” Little notes of thanks are dropped into it throughout the year and, on New Year’s eve, the jar is emptied, the messages read, and a new year of gratitude begins with an empty jar.

What sort of notes might go into your jar? There might ones written in thanks for finding things: the baby’s “binky” or favorite blanket, the car keys, or the money to pay the mortgage. There certainly would be mention of blessings received: recovery from COVID-19, technical assistance that spoke English, extra time to finish a project, or a stimulus check. There might be thanks for the ability to give: blood or convalescent plasma, food to the food pantry, an opportunity to a deserving person, or good advice to a friend. Gratitude would probably be expressed for the various people in our lives: exterminators, trash collectors, skilled surgeons, first responders, compassionate hospice volunteers, helpful sales associates, pastors, or a loving spouse.

In all likelihood, there’d be note of gratitude for our accomplishments and those of others: not burning the holiday pies, finishing chemo, a good report card, or learning how to use Photoshop. There might be mention of moments that took our breath away: a roseate spoonbill feeding in the swamp, a double rainbow, or seeing the green flash at sunset. Notes might be written for things we found: the solution to a problem, the right words, a lost locket, or a new friend. In addition, there would be thanks for things we received like a good biopsy report or words of encouragement, forgiveness, and love.

Of course, there would be thanks given for arrivals: the prodigal who returned home, spring daffodils, or a new baby. There’d be gratitude notes for things that happened, like the virtual holiday brass concert or your silver anniversary (even if it was just the two of you celebrating) and notes of thanks for things that didn’t, like a hurricane, being “downsized,” or getting COVID-19. Perhaps there would be thanks for surviving an experience: the terrible twos, working from home, or on-line schooling. There might be messages giving thanks for things as simple as purring cats, comfy shoes, a child’s giggle, NetFlix, curb-side pick-up, or pizza.

There is so much for which to be grateful—big things like Jesus, salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life, along with little ones like warm chocolate chip cookies, a phone call from a friend, or still fitting into your skinny jeans—that our gratitude jars need to be huge!

New Year’s resolutions are made and broken every year. Perhaps the best way to start this year is to start with the determination to look for our blessings and offer thanks for them daily. Although keeping a gratitude journal or filling a gratitude jar isn’t necessary, they might make us more mindful of the many blessings (both large and small) we receive. The notes will also make good reading come next New Year’s eve!

Happy New Year, dear friends. May 2021 be filled with a multitude of blessings and gratitude.

Give us, O Lord, thankful hearts which never forget your goodness to us. Give us, O Lord, grateful hearts, which do not waste time complaining. [St. Thomas Aquinas]

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name.  For the Lord is good.  His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE WONDERS OF THE WORLD

Men know about God. He has made it plain to them. Men cannot say they do not know about God. From the beginning of the world, men could see what God is like through the things He has made. This shows His power that lasts forever. It shows that He is God. [Romans 1:19-20 (NLV)]

alstromeria - Peruvian lilyIn one of his four-minute essays, Dr. Frank Crane posited that that the Seven Wonders of the World weren’t the most wonderful things in the world; the wonders of everyday life were! I have to agree. The seven wonders are man-made and, of the original seven, only the great pyramid in Giza remains. On the other hand, the night sky has been there since God created it when time began. Within our galaxy there are some 300 billion stars. The Milky Way, however, is just one of some 2 trillion galaxies (making for a total stellar population of roughly 70 billion trillion.) Since that’s just in the observable universe, there probably are plenty more that haven’t yet been detected. That those trillions of stars are orbiting around an ever expanding universe boggles the mind! Nothing made by man even comes close.

I look over at the Alstroemeria (Peruvian lilies) my husband brings me each week. How is it possible that no two of those flowers are exactly alike? Yet, there’s no duplication in them or in snowflakes, zebras, fingerprints, butterflies, and those 70 billion trillion stars either!

As wondrous as God’s creation is, I wonder if we appreciate it. In 2007, a young man exited the metro station in Washington, DC, took out his violin, and began to play. The violinist was virtuoso Joshua Bell and his instrument, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1713, was worth $3.5 million. Bell played for three minutes before anyone even turned a head, another half-minute before someone dropped a dollar into his open violin case, and six minutes before anyone stopped for a moment. Sure that people would notice and recognize Bell, crowd control had been the initial concern for this experiment. There was no need to worry. Although 1,097 people passed by Bell during his 43-minute concert, only seven stopped for at least a minute to listen to a man who easily commands $1000 a minute to play a concert and for whom standing ovations are the norm.

Later, when viewing a video of the experiment, Bell said he understood why a crowd didn’t gather—after all, it was rush hour and people had to get to work. What mystified the violinist was that people didn’t even notice him; it was if he were invisible. There was no applause or acknowledgement of his music until near the end when one woman passed by him. Having been to one of Bell’s concerts, she recognized the violinist and stopped to listen. When he’d played his last note, she thanked him before continuing on her way to work.

Those commuters in DC have become so accustomed to the noisy busy world around them that they totally missed seeing and hearing Joshua Bell. Like them, has the noise and busyness of our lives dulled our senses so much that we no longer see or hear the wonders around us? We don’t need to leave our homes to see the wonders of the world. The Great Wall of China doesn’t hold a candle to the sky on a clear night. As impressive as is Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer statue, it’s really no match for a field of summer wildflowers and the marble structure of the Taj Mahal pales in comparison to the structure of the human genome.

Because God hasn’t hidden His glory from our senses, the Apostle Paul says there is no excuse for not knowing of His existence. Yet, just as people were deaf and blind to Joshua Bell, even those who know God are often as deaf and blind to His glory. We have eyes and ears but, in our rush, we neither see nor hear. Like Bell, God is an artist whose handiwork is worthy of a standing ovation yet, like those commuters, we frequently fail to acknowledge His presence in the everyday wonders of the world. The next time you hear a bird sing, smell a flower, see a rainbow, or bite into a juicy piece of fruit, thank God for the intricacy, beauty, and wonder of His creation. He’s a virtuoso!

O Lord, how many are Your works! You made them all in wisdom. The earth is full of what You have made. … I will sing to the Lord all my life. I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May the words of my heart be pleasing to Him. As for me, I will be glad in the Lord. [Psalm 104:24, 33-34 (NLV)  

When I look up and think about Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in their place, what is man, that You think of him, the son of man that You care for him? [Psalm 8:3-4 (NLV)]

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.