WE DON’T KNOW WHEN – Advent

Sandhill Canes - Moraine Hills State Pk.When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes. … So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. [Matthew 24:37-39,42 (NLT)]

The pleasant autumn, with temps in the 60s, suddenly took a sharp turn toward winter. The day’s high was 37° at 4:00 AM and, as the winds increased to over 25 mph, the temperature plummeted. Instead of enjoying the balmy weather of southwest Florida, we were visiting the Midwest and enduring an arctic blast. As we walked in the park that wintery December day, we observed hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese in the marsh. In preparation for their seasonal migration, they gather in the wetlands here. The birds are usually gone by now but, because of the mild fall weather and still plentiful food, they’ve recklessly delayed their departure. Colder temperatures and snow are predicted; soon the marsh will freeze and food will be scarce, not just here, but all along their migration route. Are they like the people of Noah’s day or the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah—having a rollicking good time right up until the weather changes and disaster rains down on them? By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late!

Jesus compared His second coming to the surprise arrival of a thief in the night and unbelievers have good reason to fear that day. As with the flood and Sodom’s destruction, swift and sudden judgment will accompany Jesus’ return. Like unbelievers, Christians don’t know exactly when the thief will appear yet they have no reason to worry. To carry the thief metaphor further, believers aren’t afraid of the thief because they are well insured. Their acceptance of Jesus gives them assurance of salvation; their sins are mercifully forgiven and they have everlasting life. There is nothing to fear!

Seventeen years ago, my granddaughter made her entrance into the world nearly two months prematurely. Not anticipating the early arrival, her unprepared mother was visiting family 1600 miles away from home and her father was 450 miles away from them both on a business trip. On the other hand, when that grand’s father made his entrance thirty-one years earlier, he was more than two weeks later than expected. Although worried and weary of waiting, even I was surprised when he finally made his presence known. While both my daughter-in-law and I had faith that our babies would arrive, neither of us knew the precise time and both of us were taken aback by the unexpected dates. Christians have faith in Christ’s second coming but, like a pregnant woman, we’re not quite sure when. Just as pregnancy’s morning sickness, swollen feet and expanding belly tell a woman her delivery day is approaching, there will be clear signs that Christ’s return is near. The date of deliverance, however, remains unknown.

As we spend Advent preparing for the celebration of Jesus’ first coming, let’s also use this time to prepare for His promised return. Just because we don’t know the exact date doesn’t mean we should be surprised when that day arrives. Three days after our walk in the park, we returned to find the marsh frozen and the birds gone. They’d seen the signs and made the right decision; we should do the same.

For you know quite well that the day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. When people are saying, “Everything is peaceful and secure,” then disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape. But you aren’t in the dark about these things, dear brothers and sisters, and you won’t be surprised when the day of the Lord comes like a thief. [1 Thessalonians 5:2-4 (NLT)]

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ARMLOADS OF GIFTS

O Israel, hope in the Lord; for he is loving and kind and comes to us with armloads of salvation. [Psalm 130:7 (TLB)]

dahliaMy arms were filled with precariously piled packages as I trudged through the mall parking lot. Thinking it was the perfect time to test the easy tailgate feature on our new SUV, I kicked my foot forward under the car’s rear bumper expecting it to magically open. Perhaps it was the trailer hitch or that my legs are too short, but the sensor didn’t work and the trunk lid remained closed. After trying several more times, it became clear that, in spite of the car’s promise, I was not going to open the tailgate while holding armloads of anything! It was when I tried to find the keys in my purse that my pile of holiday gifts tumbled every which way. On the plus side, my arms were finally free to lift the tailgate!

As God would have it, that morning’s Bible reading had taken me to Psalm 130 in the Living Bible translation: “He…comes to us with armloads of salvation.” While gathering up assorted packages in the parking lot and muttering a few bahs and humbugs, I wondered how God, with his armloads of salvation, would do with my tailgate. Then I pictured another, far nicer, scenario. It’s Christmas and someone’s at the door. As the host opens the door, he welcomes his visitor inside. The guest’s arms are overflowing with beautifully wrapped packages piled so high that you can’t even see his face. Everyone eagerly gathers around him with open hands to receive their gifts. The boxes, however, aren’t filled with shirts, purses, perfume, toys, books, and the latest electronics; they are filled with a never-ending supply of salvation, redemption, wisdom, forgiveness, joy, peace, faith and love. It may be His birthday, but it is Jesus who brought us armloads of gifts!

Since the Lord’s arms are filled with His gifts, we must open the door for Him. I couldn’t open the tailgate when my arms were filled with packages and we can’t open the door to our hearts if our arms are filled with the stuff and nonsense of this world. Although attachment to wealth and actual possessions can fill our arms, things like unforgiveness, fear, doubt, pride, anger, ingratitude, shame, and guilt also can leave us too encumbered to open the door or accept His gifts. God’s got an armload of good things for us but our arms must be free and our hands empty if we ever hope to get them.

Faith is two empty hands held open to receive all of the Lord. [Alan Redpath]

Look! I have been standing at the door, and I am constantly knocking. If anyone hears me calling him and opens the door, I will come in and fellowship with him and he with me. [Revelation 3:20 (TLB)]

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COUNTING THE COST

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? [Luke 14:27-28 (RSV)]

Station of Cross 3 - loretto - santa fe NMHaving often watched the condemned walk to their tortuous deaths while carrying the crosspieces of their crucifixes, Jesus’ followers knew exactly what it meant to carry a cross. When Jesus told them to count the cost of being His disciple, he wasn’t offering a ticket to Easy Street; He was offering one to eternal life. The cost, however, was high: the giving up of self and all that might come to mean—loss of status, relationships, family, possessions and even life.

Some of us, looking at the cost, would prefer a watered down gospel. We want to be Christians without Jesus having any effect on our lives. We’re happy to bear his name and celebrate both His birth and resurrection, but we’re not anxious for His yoke. Wanting to guarantee our final destination, we want salvation without the sacrifice. Unwilling to surrender to God’s will, we figure a few good deeds can make up for our lack of faith and obedience. We want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

While free, God’s grace is not cheap; it cost God His only son. Jesus was the gift of God’s grace by which all of mankind could be saved. Accepting His name means far more than taking a spot in a church pew. We can’t just listen to a preacher, we must practice what Jesus preached! God’s grace expects us to follow Jesus wherever He leads us and to do whatever He asks. God’s grace expects us to love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, reach the unreachable, and do what often seems impossible. God’s grace demands that we grow smaller while He grows greater; it is taking up our cross and losing our lives in complete commitment to Him.

Costly grace…is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

Jesus knew the price He’d pay when He threw the money changers out of the temple, healed on the Sabbath, and confronted the Pharisees; nevertheless, He did His Father’s will. Over 2,000 years later, He still calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him. These last few weeks, I have watched as a young man did just that. He stood up for what is right and, while he’s not being hung on a cross, he is suffering both professionally and financially. After prayerfully counting the cost and consequences, he followed where God led him because he was not about to settle for cheap grace. Let’s never settle for cheap grace either. Our lives won’t necessarily be easier when we take on Jesus’ yoke but they definitely will be better!

And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 10:38-39 (RSV)]

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world. [Titus 2:11-12 (RSV)]

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THE DASH

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. [Ecclesiastes 3:1 (ESV)]

I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
from the beginning…to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth
and spoke of the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years. [Linda Ellis]

clock - ChicagoAfter scrutinizing the website for the umpteenth time in a futile search for the perfect gift for my daughter-in-law, I closed the iPad and announced, “What a waste of time! This is why God created checks and gift cards!” I remembered last Friday when both Linda Ellis’s poem “The Dash” was read and the recently deceased David Cassidy was mentioned. The former Partridge Family heartthrob’s last words were: “So much wasted time.” Indeed, too much time is wasted in unproductive activities or agonizing over what, in actuality, are trivial matters. Searching the same website, over and over, and expecting to find something different was certainly one of those.

Last Friday morning, I made better use of my time; after looking at a photo of a friend’s niece, I prayed for her. This two-year old, bald from undergoing chemotherapy for stage 4 cancer, was asleep in her mother’s arms and doesn’t understand that the chemicals making her so miserable are a last ditch effort to destroy the cancer that has ravaged her body. Later that day, I attended a Celebration of Life for a man who, less than a week earlier, set out for an afternoon ride on his motorcycle never knowing that would be his final ride in life. Absent from that memorial service were our senior pastor and his wife. They’d been in a car accident earlier in the day. Like the toddler and the motorcyclist, they never expected what came hurtling into their lives. One child is fighting for her life, one man lost his life, and one couple escaped with their lives.

Many of us might say we have too little time but the quantity of time granted us and our loved ones, whether just days or several decades, is exactly the right amount of time and has been determined by someone far greater than we are. The way we spend those precious moments, however, is our choice alone. Unfortunately, David Cassidy had it right: “so much wasted time.” When the book of Ecclesiastes tells us there is a season for everything, wasting time is never mentioned as one of them. We can fritter away our minutes in all sorts of futile ways—anger, nitpicking, regret, lethargy, worry, complaint, conflict and fretting are just a few—or we can use them generously, joyfully, thankfully and with love.

This week we celebrate my mother-in-law’s 101st birthday; her dash has been long and well spent. While she has been blessed with exceptional longevity, last Friday was a reminder that we all have expiration dates and none of us know that day. In many cases, it will be far sooner than expected. The dates we are here, however, are not as important as how we spend the time between those dates. How will we spend our dash?

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (ESV)]

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THE MEANS TO AN END

The human mind is the most deceitful of all things. It is incurable. No one can understand how deceitful it is. I, the Lord, search minds and test hearts. I will reward each person for what he has done. I will reward him for the results of his actions. [Jeremiah 17:9-10 (GW)]

Dame's rocketIn Leviticus, we find Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offering incense to worship God. Although their goal was good, priests were required to fulfill their duties without variation and the brothers disregarded the method specified by God. Worshiping God was the right intent but using prohibited fire was the wrong way to do it and they were consumed by God’s fire. Bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem was a good goal but using a cart to transport it was the wrong method and Uzzah was struck dead when he reached out to steady it.

We may be tempted to sin in order to achieve an important aim and then rationalize our behavior by saying that the noble result justified the questionable method. As unfair as it seems, those men’s deaths at God’s hand tell us that the end, no matter how worthy the goal, never justifies the means if the means require a compromise of our faith or ethics. It is never acceptable to do something against God’s law. Right and wrong are not determined by a situation; they are determined by God! No matter how honorable or well-intentioned the goal, doing anything in sin to achieve an objective is not honoring God. Moreover, as worthy as we may consider our motives, they’re probably nowhere near as noble as we think they are. More often than not, those motives have more to do with ourselves—our desires, relief or convenience—than we’d care to admit.

Father, sometimes we’re tempted to let a situation justify sinful or questionable behavior. Thank you for showing us that even the most worthy purpose never justifies disobedience to your Word. If it’s not what Jesus would do and done the way He would do it, then it doesn’t honor you. Remembering that the end never justifies the means if the means offend you, show us how to achieve your goals in the way you have commanded. May we let your Holy Spirit guide us in all we say and do.

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the person who does what my Father in heaven wants. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name? Didn’t we force out demons and do many miracles by the power and authority of your name?” Then I will tell them publicly, “I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you evil people.” [Matthew 7:21-23 (GW)]

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THEY DIDN’T BELIEVE

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. [John 1:10-11 (NLT)]

desert roseCan you imagine what it was like being a brother or sister to Jesus? He had six siblings: James, Joses, Simon and Jude and two unnamed sisters. It couldn’t have been easy having the Son of God as a half-brother. Both his conception and birth were announced by angels, a star shone over his crib, and He’d been visited by foreign kings with expensive gifts. It’s tough to top that sort of entrance into the world. His brothers may have struggled with their religious studies but Jesus astounded the rabbis with his knowledge when He was only twelve. Without sin, He probably never threw a temper tantrum or a rock through a window. With no sassing, fighting, biting, or naughtiness, He was probably the perfect son and may have been Mary’s favorite. Such a blameless, intense and devout elder brother was a tough act for anyone to follow and there probably was some resentment and jealousy on the part of his siblings.

When Jesus left home and the family carpentry business for the ministry, it seems that his family didn’t support His mission. The Jews were looking for a very different Messiah—one who would be a victorious political leader. The Messianic king would free the Jews from their bondage to Rome and restore Israel as an independent nation. No matter how pious and righteous Jesus was, his brothers had seen him stub a toe, skin a knee, relieve himself, blow his nose, get a splinter and break a sweat—hardly what one would expect of the promised Messiah. John tells us “even his brothers didn’t believe in him.” [7:5] Jesus may have managed to turn water into wine but, to them, He was just a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. His ministry even may have been an embarrassment to the family, especially when he added tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners to His entourage. In fact, Mark tells us they thought him “out of his mind” and tried to take him home. [3:21] It’s highly unlikely that Jesus’ brothers were even at the crucifixion. As He looked down from the cross, rather than entrusting Mary’s care to them, Jesus asked his beloved disciple John to care for her.

In spite of their absence from His ministry, in the first chapter of Acts, we find Jesus’ brothers meeting with the disciples and joining them in prayer after the crucifixion. If they didn’t believe their brother before his death, why would they believe the words of His disciples after it? We can only assume the reason for their change of heart was that they actually saw the resurrected Christ. Only then did they finally understand and believe Jesus and His message. The Messiah didn’t come to save the Jews from bondage to Rome but to save the world from bondage to sin; He did not come to restore an old kingdom but to establish the new one. Instead of scoffers, His half-brothers became believers!

Jesus’s brothers had lived and worked with Him yet failed to see what was right in front of them. Like Thomas, they had to see the resurrected Christ before they could believe in Him. Seeing, however, is no guarantee of belief. Plenty of others saw Jesus and his miracles and never believed. As for us, unless we have a vision similar to Paul’s on the road to Damascus, we’re not likely to see the risen Christ. Nevertheless, if we believe in Him in this world, we will see Him in the next.

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” [John 20:29 (NLT)]

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