ADMIT IT

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” [Luke 18:11-13 (NIV)]

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes that he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

snowy egretA.W. Tozer’s words remind me of Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and tax collector who prayed in the Temple. Acting as if God should feel grateful to receive his prayers, the Pharisee didn’t understand that he should be grateful that God listens! Rather than express thanks for God’s righteousness, power and majesty, the proud Pharisee thanked God for his own righteousness and then listed his virtues! Although it wasn’t required, he fasted twice weekly and was so fastidious about tithing that he tithed not just what was earned but also anything he acquired. If he were unsure that a farmer had tithed his produce, the Pharisee would tithe it again! Standing before God and proclaiming both his good works and his contempt for others (like the tax collector), the Pharisee is a perfect illustration of a man “who believes that he is worthy of heaven.” How wrong he was! Perhaps the Pharisee’s refusal to recognize his own self-righteousness was his biggest sin of all.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector. Standing apart, beating his breast in repentance, and feeling so contemptible that he couldn’t even look up, we find a man who clearly knew he was a sinner. Recognizing exactly who and what he was, the tax collector humbly came before God and, with a repentant heart, admitted his sin and begged for mercy.

When Jesus told this parable, He must have shocked his listeners. The Pharisee was considered the epitome of pious living and the tax collector of sinfulness. Jesus turned that comparison upside down when He said that it was the humble tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home with his sins forgiven.

It’s only when we’re sick that we see the need for a physician and only when we see our sinfulness that we see the need for a Savior. We must approach God as did the tax collector: by understanding our wickedness and the need for His mercy. The Pharisee didn’t understand that nobody deserves salvation and it can’t be secured by fasting, tithing or other good deeds. It is out of God’s love for his children that He generously saves those who repent of their sins. It is only when we know we’re sinners, deserving of hell and undeserving of God’s grace, that we are likely to find our way to heaven.

Don’t say that a loving God is going to send you to hell – He’s not. The thing that’s going to send you to hell is that you’re a sinner and you don’t want to admit it. [J. Vernon McGee]

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. [Luke 18:14 (NIV)]

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NONDESCRIPT NOBODY BIRDS

Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. [Isaiah 58:10 (NLT)]

clark's nutcrackerA few weeks ago, in Charles Schultz’s classic comic Peanuts, Snoopy sat on his doghouse and decided not to tell his little bird friend Woodstock about Santa Claus. “He’ll never get any presents anyway. Santa Claus never brings presents to tiny, nondescript, nobody birds,” he thought before concluding, “It’s kind of sad at Christmastime to be a nobody bird.” I wasn’t so sure about Santa ignoring the “nobody birds.” The previous day, several from our church had participated in a project that demonstrated just how much “Santa” really does care.

Those “tiny, nondescript, nobody” birds live in a nearby town where more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty level. Their parents, many of whom don’t speak English, are the working poor: the people who quietly bus our tables, pick our tomatoes and lettuce, mow our lawns, trim our trees, clean our hotels, and re-tile our roofs. A beautiful ray of hope exists for them in a center dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through early childhood education, after-school tutoring, summer enrichment, and a tutoring corps. For five nights in mid-December, the Center offered a “shopping” event for families in need while volunteers served as stockers, Santa’s elves, and gift wrappers. Qualified shoppers were assigned a day and time to arrive and browse through a beautifully appointed and organized “store.” A personal Santa’s elf accompanied parents as they selected three gifts for each of their children along with stocking gifts, stuffed animals, and clothing. Parents were able to shop with dignity as they selected presents for each of their children and Santa’s own workshop couldn’t have been better stocked! At checkout, their selections were gift-wrapped in colorful holiday paper. The only difference between this store and a regular one was that the gift-wrapping was complimentary and money never exchanged hands! The store’s entire inventory had been donated by individuals, organizations and stores in neighboring communities.

People’s hearts grow bigger around Christmas and nearly one-third of all giving occurs in December. During the holidays, we see a generous outpouring of love in the Salvation Army’s red kettles, Fill the Truck and Angel Tree programs, Toys for Tots, Operation Christmas Child, Trees for Troops, assorted wishing and giving trees, and both toy and food drives sponsored by churches and other groups. The need, however, doesn’t disappear when the tree comes down. Loving, giving, sharing and caring shouldn’t be boxed up with the ornaments for the next eleven months.

I remember one father whose gifts I wrapped. Although he was thrilled to select presents for his children, tears of joy came to his eyes upon learning he also could select new shoes for them. When those two pairs of new sneakers are outgrown in a matter of months, what then? Will the family have to choose between new shoes, milk, school supplies or a visit to the dentist? Poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, lack of medical care, and the other challenges facing the “tiny, nondescript, nobody birds” in our communities remain long past December. Instead of being Santa Claus just in December, let us be the hands and feet of Jesus, generous in thought, word and deed, all year long.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. [spoken by Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens]

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

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KARMA

Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. [Galatians 6:7-9 (NLT)]

maccawCutting in and out of traffic, the sports car sped around us and raced through a red light. A few minutes later, we saw it pulled off to the side of the road with a policeman at the driver’s side window. While the driver deserved the ticket, what happened was not karma. Nevertheless, when seeing someone suffer the consequences of their bad behavior, people often say, “It was karma—what goes around comes around!” Granted, what goes around often comes back around but the word “karma” is not a word that should be in our Christian vocabulary.

Although Christianity says we will harvest what we’ve planted, karma is not a Christian concept. Karma tells us that every good or bad action will result in a comparable good or bad consequence. Because the full reward or penalty doesn’t happen in this lifetime, it’s necessary to return to life again to reap the consequences of previous actions. The behavior during this and previous lives determines one’s destiny (and form) in future lives. Not only do people get what they deserve in karma, but they also get whatever their past life deserves! This life’s cancer, poverty, or paralysis is the result of a previous life’s transgressions or offenses (and we don’t even remember what they were)!

Karma requires reincarnation and there is no such thing as reincarnation in the gospel message. We die once and we’re judged once; our eternal reward or punishment is determined in a single lifetime. We’ll be reborn, but that rebirth is in this life, not in some future life. Yes, there will be an afterlife—but it will be as us (not something or someone else) and it only will be in one of two places: heaven or hell.

As Christians, we sow in this world and reap both in this world and the next. Because there are consequences to our actions, we often reap what we sow in this lifetime, but not completely. We live in a fallen world where the wicked can prosper, the righteous can suffer, and not every reckless driver gets a ticket. Nevertheless, a final day of judgment is promised in Revelation. It is God, however, not karma, who ensures that righteousness is rewarded and sin punished. While there will be rewards for good works and judgment for failures, there will be no condemnation to hell for the Christian. Rather than a pronouncement of doom, our judgment will be more like an assessment of value. What did we do with the gifts with which we’d been blessed? While I don’t understand how this judgment will work or what rewards we might receive or forfeit, I do know that it won’t be in some future life as an insect, dog, pauper or prince.

Thankfully, because of God’s mercy, Christians don’t receive what they ought to get; as sinners, what we deserve is death! Thankfully, because of God’s grace, we also get what we don’t deserve: salvation, forgiveness of sins, abundant life, the Holy Spirit, and an eternity in heaven!

We have one and only one opportunity to get it right and live according to God’s plan. Let’s not waste it!

Each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment… [Hebrews 9:27 (NLT)]

For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body. [2 Corinthians 5:10 (NLT)]

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RENEW – NEW YEAR’S DAY

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins. [Jeremiah 31:33,34b (NLT)]

Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, thru Jesus’ power, his name to glorify;
and promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die. [Charles Wesley]

queen butterflyJohn Wesley had an excellent alternative to making a New Year’s resolution that’s unlikely to be kept. Believing that Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God, in 1755, he introduced a covenant service to the Methodist Societies. By 1775, this service was usually held on New Year’s Eve (and called a Watch Night Service) or New Year’s Day. This was a service of renewal in which believers would gather for self-examination and reflection and then renew their covenant with God by dedicating themselves wholly to Him. The practice of a covenant renewal service held on the Sunday nearest January 1st continues in some Methodist churches today and is a practice that has crossed denominational lines.

A covenant is a promise between two (or more) parties to perform certain actions. The covenant of the New Testament between God and man is that He will restore fellowship with and forgive the sins of those whose hearts are turned to Him; it is a covenant of salvation by grace through faith. Our part of this promise is our faith in Jesus and a giving up of self so that He can fill us with His Spirit; it is the taking of His yoke and a commitment to follow Him. Unlike a resolution to eat healthier or exercise more, it is God’s power, not our good intentions, that keeps this covenant in place.

I don’t know if you’re making any resolutions today, but let us all join together in renewing the covenant of grace—to be God’s people, trusting in His word, empowered by Him to be His hands and feet, seeking to bring His light into this dark world. Our prayer can be as simple as, “O Lord, I dedicate my life to you and will serve you in every way I can!”

Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will. Rank me with whom You will. Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things. Let me have nothing. I freely & heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen. [John Wesley]

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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EXPLORATORY SURGERY – NEW YEAR’S EVE

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

spiderwortThe tradition of New Year’s resolutions goes back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. During their 12-day celebration of the new year (held in mid-March), they either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the old one. They also promised to return anything borrowed and pledged the repayment of all their debts. While returning borrowed items and paying our debts are good goals for the coming year, our resolutions usually have something to do with exercise, diet, getting better organized, learning a new skill, spending less money, or reading the entire Bible in a year.

Perhaps, before resolving to floss or eat more vegetables, we should pray and ask God what it is that He would like to see us change. “Search me, O God,” is what could be called a dangerous prayer; when we ask Him to look, we’d better be ready for what He finds. Chances are that it will have nothing to do with developing better dental or nutrition habits. Asking God to examine our innermost being is asking Him to perform exploratory surgery in search of sin. While a surgeon may not find a tumor, God is sure to find plenty of areas in our hearts and minds in need of improvement! If a surgeon does find cancer, we expect him to remove it but, when God finds something offensive in us, He expects us to repent and turn away from it.

Our spiritual goals can fail as readily as the non-spiritual ones and, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, less than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful at keeping them. Perhaps we’d do better if we understood that we can’t change by ourselves. Maybe will-power alone can keep us away from Dunkin’ Donuts or get us to a 6 AM aerobics class but it isn’t enough when we’re combating spiritual enemies. Fortunately, we are powered by the Holy Spirit and, through Him, all things are possible.

Let us remember that Jesus is in the business of transformation. It was at a wedding party in Cana that He transformed water into wine. He then transformed the blind into the sighted, the lame into the strong, and the diseased into the healthy. He changed the churning sea into calm water, a few morsels of food into a feast, and the dead into the living. Jesus’s miracles of transformation continue today. He turns darkness into light, anger into peace, fear into hope, animosity into love, selfishness into generosity, mourning into joy, shame into honor, and sinners into saints.

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul. [G. K. Chesterton]

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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WORDS

A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. [James 3:4-6 (MSG)]

rabbitJames warns of the dangers of an untamed tongue and the damage that can be done with ill-considered words. Although he was speaking of speech, the same goes for the written word. Whether we’re holding a pen, our fingers are speeding across a keyboard, or our thumbs are tapping out a text, our words are powerful. Whether we use them to build or destroy is our choice.

C.S. Lewis, one of the great Christian minds of the 20th century, authored more than thirty books. A man who never used a typewriter, he also was a prolific letter writer. Writing not just to friends and colleagues, he answered every letter sent to him. Most of us probably have trouble responding to someone with a quick email, yet this busy man never hesitated to handwrite a response, even to strangers or children who wrote after reading one of his books or hearing him on radio. More than 3,200 of Lewis’ handwritten letters remain and have been published in various collections. They range from the somewhat mundane (thanking someone for a ham) to the exceptional (reassuring a woman who is afraid of dying).

Often writing more than 100 letters a month, his letters show not just a deep thinker with a brilliant mind but also a compassionate man generous enough to take the time to instruct, explain, empathize, encourage, and reveal himself and his vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, Lewis once complained, “If I didn’t have so many letters to answer, I’d have time to write another book.” His words from another letter, however, explain why he did it: “Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that perhaps the best, perhaps the only service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief.” He wrote those letters out of obedience to God and concern for the people who’d written to him.

While many proverbs give dire warnings about imprudent words, the other half of those proverbs often are about judicious ones. That C.S. Lewis’ letters continue to be read today illustrates the power of the written word. Rather than start a wildfire with cruel words, Lewis sowed seeds of Christ with his kind ones; may we do the same. Let us never forget the beautiful things our words, both spoken and written, can do when used wisely and with love!

Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. [Proverbs 18:21 (MSG)]

The words of the wicked kill; the speech of the upright saves. [Proverbs 12:6 (MSG)]

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