COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS

I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. [Mark 10:29-30 (NLT)]

mockingbird dangerLast year, Forbes magazine published a list of the most and least trusted professionals. It should come as no surprise that, with only an 8% approval rating, members of Congress and car salesmen were at the bottom of the list. Nurses were at the list’s top but, even then, only 84% of the public thought them honest and ethical. After all, too many nurses have promised, “This won’t hurt,” when it really did. Jesus, however, was brutally honest about life—it would hurt and life wouldn’t be trouble-free when people took up their crosses and followed Him.

After the rich young man who was unwilling to give up his possessions and follow Jesus departed, Peter reminded the Lord that His disciples had given up everything to be His followers. Having met the requirements of discipleship given to the rich man, implicit in Peter’s statement was the question, “What’s in it for us?”

In His answer, Jesus promised blessings both in this life and in the next. Whatever His disciples had sacrificed would be returned one hundredfold. Getting back 100% would be getting back exactly what had been forsaken but a return of a hundredfold is one hundred times better! This, however, is not a prosperity promise; while Jesus tells his disciples their lives will be richer, He never promises they’ll be wealthier. The people and things they lose are literal but the people and possessions gained are spiritual. After all, while not of substance, a soul is irreplaceable and its worth is incalculable. When adopted as one of God’s children, Christ’s followers get a new family in His church, a home in His Kingdom, and eternal life.

But then Jesus got brutally honest; tacked smack dab in the middle of those blessings and the promise of eternal life is His promise of persecution. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus reiterated that the cost of discipleship would be sacrifice, persecution, suffering and trials. Unlike nurses, He told us that it would hurt. Life doesn’t necessarily get easier when we follow Jesus, but He promises it will become better (and the two are not the same thing).

Living in Florida, like being a disciple of Christ, comes at a cost. A cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost includes dangers like venomous snakes, black bears, poisonous cane toads, toxic plants, hurricanes, feral pigs, alligators, sink holes, fire ants, panthers, and even stinging caterpillars. Other negatives include the expense of air conditioning, seasonal traffic, and mosquitoes! That cost, however, is more than offset by the benefits of living in a tropical paradise of forever summer, beautiful birds, beaches, colorful flowers, ocean breezes, early-bird specials and no state income tax!

A cost-benefit analysis of discipleship tells us the price we pay is our lives but the benefits of God’s Kingdom and eternal life outweigh the cost a hundredfold! There certainly are times serving Jesus and His church with our time, talents, and money seems a heavy price to pay but true discipleship (and all of the sacrifice, trials and even persecution that arise from it) comes with the territory just as learning to live with hurricanes comes with Florida! In both cases, it’s more than worth it.

Not one man has ever sacrificed for his Lord without being richly repaid. If the cross is only contrasted with earthly pleasures lost, it may seem hard and threatening. But when the cross is weighed in the balances with the glorious treasures to be had through it, even the cross seems sweet. [Walter J. Chantry]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? [Mark 8:34-36 (NLT)]

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THE RICH YOUNG MAN

The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:26-27 (NLT)]

great blue heronThe book of Daniel makes reference to the resurrection of both the wicked and righteous, with the destiny of the one being shame and disgrace and the other being everlasting life. By the time of Jesus, many Jews believed in some sort of eternal life and that it would come by obedience to the Law. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell of the rich young man who asked Jesus what good deed he must do to have eternal life. He wanted Jesus to check his resume of good works and, if found lacking, to give him a task that would assure his immortality.

Before answering, Jesus clarified that goodness only comes from God rather than things or actions and then told the man to keep the commandments. As if some were more important than others, the man asked which ones. After listing several commandments dealing with man’s relationship with man, Jesus summarized with the command to love your neighbor as yourself. The man proudly responded that he obeyed them all. Had he been truly honest about himself, he would have admitted his inability to keep the law perfectly and acknowledged that he couldn’t attain eternal life on his own merit. But, sure his ticket to eternity was safe in hand, the man asked what else he should do. When Jesus told him what needed to be done to be “perfect,” He didn’t mean faultless; the Greek word translated as “perfect” means goal or end. So, to achieve or perfect his goal of eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Him. Hearing this, the rich young man departed. In spite of his claims, he clearly didn’t love his neighbor as himself.

At first, it seems odd that Jesus didn’t mention the first four commandments—the ones having to do with man’s relationship to God. But Jesus could see into the man’s heart and knew the man loved his wealth far more than God or his neighbor. So, after he claimed to love his neighbor, Jesus asked him to put his money where his mouth was by giving his wealth to his neighbor!

That Jesus gave the rich man a requirement wasn’t unusual for a rabbi. When prospective students came to study with rabbis, the teachers often gave them a condition as a way of weeding out those students who really weren’t serious. The young man, however, hadn’t come to our Lord to learn; he’d come to be commended for his righteousness!

When people read this story, they often fear that it means Christians must live a life of poverty, but Jesus wasn’t setting financial requirements for salvation. His demand merely revealed what was in that rich man’s heart. He loved himself and his possessions far more than God or his neighbor. Although this encounter demonstrates the implications of discipleship, it never demands that we sell our possessions or live a life of asceticism. Jesus wasn’t teaching salvation through philanthropy; He was demanding that God be first place in our hearts.

Obedience to the commandments does not qualify any of us for eternal life; there is nothing we can do to merit the gift of salvation and eternal life. That only comes by grace through faith. Nevertheless, obedience to the commandments—loving God and loving our neighbor—is evidence of our faith. Is there something more important to you than loving God? What would Jesus ask you to relinquish? Do you love Him enough to do it?

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-39 (NLT)]

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REMEMBER

We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us. [2 Corinthians 1:8-10 (NLT)]

osprey600 war chariots and at least 1,200 soldiers were fast approaching and the Israelites were trapped between the mountains and the Red Sea. Panicking, they immediately blamed Moses for their predicament. No longer regarding Moses as the man who freed them from years of suffering slavery, he was now the fool who’d led them to certain death in the wilderness. In despair, the Israelites second-guessed their decision to leave Egypt. Facing such a formidable army and sure they were to die, the miseries of slavery now appealed to them. Ungrateful, unarmed, on foot, and with no place to turn, they lost heart. Failing to recall God’s powerful hand in releasing them from Pharaoh’s tyranny just a few weeks earlier, they immediately conceded defeat.

Have you ever felt like the Israelites: between a rock and a hard place, with no place to turn? When that happens, we usually do what they did: panic, find someone to blame, lose heart and want to quit because the circumstances seem greater than our God. Assuring the people that God would fight for them, Moses said, “Watch the Lord rescue you today.” I’m not sure he had any idea how the Lord planned on doing that but Moses trusted the God he knew for a solution he didn’t know.

Following God’s instructions, Moses raised his hand over the waters, the Red Sea parted as blowing winds turned the sea into dry land, and the Israelites walked across the seabed. Although we know that all the Israelites safely made it across, they didn’t know that’s what would happen! Can you imagine the faith it took when the first of them stepped onto the dry seabed with a wall of water positioned on each side? Were they fearful the waves would come rushing at them without warning? Did they literally run for their lives as they crossed? We know the rest of the story: Pharaoh and his army gave chase, their chariots got stuck, Moses raised his hand once again, the waters surged over the Egyptians and none of them survived.

Seeing God’s tremendous power, the Israelites were filled with awe and again put their faith in Moses and the Lord. What a great ending to their story, but we know it doesn’t end there. That won’t be the last time they complain, the last time they think slavery in Egypt a better option than freedom in the Promised Land, the last time they rebel against Moses’ leadership, or the last time they stop having faith in the Lord. Sadly, it won’t be the last time they forget God’s faithfulness, power and might!

Sometimes God brings us to what seems to be an impossible situation: to that spot between a rock and a hard place or an army and the deep blue sea. Those barriers are put before us so that we have nowhere to turn but to God. While He may not have parted the Red Sea for us, there have been many times that He’s led us safely through a whole sea of troubles. Unlike the Israelites, may we never forget His power and faithfulness in those trying times. Let us always be willing to trust our unknown future to our known God.

And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me.” But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. They are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works. [Psalm 77:10-12 (NLT)]

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A RIGHTEOUS MAN

Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. [Matthew 1:19 (NLT)]

Joseph Yesterday’s devotion about Mary made me wonder about Joseph. Other than having the right lineage, why did God chose this carpenter to raise His one and only Son? Mary and Joseph were betrothed and engagement in 1st century Palestine was a serious commitment. A legally binding relationship, betrothal usually lasted ten to twelve months. Although the bride continued to live at home and the couple did not have marital relations, their engagement ended only through death or a divorce-like proceeding.

We have no idea when or how Mary told Joseph she was pregnant. Having gone to stay with Elizabeth just a few days after the annunciation, we assume she told him of her pregnancy after returning to Nazareth. The conversation couldn’t have been pleasant. We’re never told that Joseph was angry but it’s hard to think he wasn’t upset and perplexed by this turn of events. His fiancée went away for three months and returned pregnant! No matter how Mary explained it, there was no way she could prove its truth. Her story made no sense so Joseph assumed Mary had been unfaithful to him.

Betrothal was a sacred relationship and the law required a man to divorce an unfaithful fiancée. Joseph was a righteous man, a man who abided by the law; he was obligated to end the engagement by divorcing Mary. Although the Torah demanded stoning an adulterous woman, people couldn’t be executed without Roman permission. Instead, Jewish tradition called for any divorce on adulterous grounds to take place publicly. Mary would have stood in the public square to answer questions about her unfaithfulness while the townspeople watched and judged. Making Mary’s pregnancy public knowledge would have been a fitting punishment for her suspected betrayal, preserved Joseph’s reputation as a righteous man, and freed him of any responsibility for Mary’s child.

It would have been easy for Joseph to wreak revenge on his unfaithful bride, but he didn’t. While he wanted to do the right thing, which was divorce the woman he believed adulterous, he wanted to do it so that she wouldn’t suffer. Joseph decided on a “writ of divorcement” which could be done quietly in the presence of a few witnesses. The equivalent of “irreconcilable differences” or no-fault divorce, it would have allowed Mary the freedom to marry someone else. Once her pregnancy became public knowledge, however, Joseph’s reputation would suffer since he would be suspected of being the father. Nevertheless, because he loved Mary more than he wanted revenge or people’s respect, Joseph put her needs first.

Not a rash man, Joseph took no action immediately. While considering his plan of action, an angel appeared to him and reaffirmed Mary’s story that the child she was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph now had a third option: marry the girl! But, by marrying her, Joseph assumed responsibility for the pregnancy, shared in Mary’s shame, gave the village fodder for gossip, became the legal father of Jesus, and accepted responsibility for a child who wasn’t his.

Although we don’t know much about Joseph, we know all we need to know: he was a man of integrity who valued God more than other people’s opinions of him. In spite of the consequences, he immediately obeyed God and took Mary as his wife. What kind of man was Joseph? A godly man is my answer. He displayed the character of God we find in Exodus 34 when the Lord passed in front of Moses: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” That’s the sort of man God chose to act as father to his boy!

“Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:  “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. [Matthew 1:20-24 (NLT)]

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A HANDMAID’S HEART

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. [Luke 1:38 (RSV)]

Mary - ChristmasIgnoring the fact that most of us in the room couldn’t qualify as virgins, are well-past child-bearing age, and our genealogies don’t link us to the tribe of Judah and the line of David, the pastor leading our women’s Bible study asked if we were the kind of women God would chose to give birth to His son.

Aside from being young, virginal, and of the right lineage, what kind of woman was Mary? At first glance, she seems little different than any other young girl in the obscure village of Nazareth. There is no mention of her having wealth, exceptional beauty, or social status. Looking like any other peasant girl, she seems unsuitable for a job as mother of God. What about Mary set her apart from every other girl in Palestine who met the lineage and virtue requirements?

Rather than looking at outward appearance, God looks into hearts; while we don’t know about Mary’s physical beauty, her character must have been exceptionally beautiful. Faithful, obedient and humble, she was filled with love for God. She risked her entire future when she submitted to Him. In many translations, Mary calls herself the “Lord’s servant.” The original Greek, however, was doule, which means bondmaid, female slave or handmaid. A doule wasn’t hired help who could quit when she wanted. She was someone who surrendered completely to her Master’s will.

I thought about the pastor’s question. Had I fit the physical and lineage requirements, would God have chosen me to bear His son? He wouldn’t have given me a second look when I was Mary’s age—I was far too willful, rebellious, selfish and unsure of myself to ever call myself a servant to anyone, even God! Even if the woman I am today fit the physical and lineage requirements, God wouldn’t consider me. It’s not that He wouldn’t trust me to feed, comfort, teach, love, guide, encourage, and protect His Son; I’d qualify in the mothering department. It’s that submission thing; I don’t think I’d freely surrender my will to His and God will not force Himself upon anyone. Mary had enough faith to yield her will to God but, even with 72 years of experiencing God’s faithfulness under my belt, I’m not sure I have the heart of a handmaiden. Humble and complete submission to the Master’s will does not come easily. “Thy will be done,” are some of the hardest words to pray and truly mean.

Both Mary and Jesus submitted to God’s divine will; should we do anything less? Father, forgive us for choosing our will over Yours. Give us a handmaid’s heart.

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” [Luke 22:41-42 (RSV)]

Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:9-10 (RSV)]

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THE SNOW GLOBE

Steamboat SkiAnd we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. [1 John 5:14-15 (NLT)]

Along with the typical things you’d expect to find on my desk is an odd collection of other items. A small resin figure of the Holy Family reminds me that God deliberately chose to be born of a woman and to live as a man while the small olive wood cross tells me how He chose to end that life. When I see the three-inch square-cut nail, a souvenir from a Good Friday service, I remember how He suffered for mankind while on the cross and a small candle reminds me to let my light shine. My wooden “God box” holds some long-term prayers, Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” and my promise “to face life, not with doubt and pessimism, but with hope.” In the desk’s corner is a small African carving of two people facing one another with arms connected. Made of just one piece of stone, it continues to remind me that, in marriage, two become one and we must never turn away from one another.

Something new has just been added to my quirky collection: a small snow globe. Probably designed to be a baby gift, in it is a pink-cheeked little girl gently touching a lamb and printed on its base are the words “Jesus loves me.” This bit of nursery décor seems rather strange for a woman my age but, along with telling me that Jesus loves me, it reminds me that God answers prayers in unexpected ways!

When filling in for our pastor recently, my message was about God’s grace, the faith necessary for salvation, and the discipleship that comes from that faith. While preparing it, I’d asked God to help me bring it all together with one final example. The following day, I came across the story of Izabella McMillon. Years before she started working for Samaritan’s Purse, she lived in Romania and was the recipient of one of their gift-filled shoe boxes. Having already been introduced to Christianity, 13-year old Izabella had asked God to prove His existence by giving her snow but, after three months of waiting, the girl was ready to give up. The prayer for faith is one God always answers and inside Izabella’s shoe box was a snow globe! As she watched the snow fall through the water, she was assured of God’s presence in her life; it was then that Izabella decided to carry Jesus into the world as His disciple!

God answered my prayer with one woman’s witness about salvation, grace, faith and discipleship! He answered hers with an inexpensive snow globe! That our church was packing 75 shoeboxes for Samaritan’s Purse was just God’s way of putting frosting on the cake for me! That Izabella received other gifts in that box, gifts that told her not just of God’s presence but also of the love and compassion found in His disciples, was the frosting on hers!

God answers prayers in unexpected ways. When the Israelites complained of hunger and God promised them bread from heaven, I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting manna—something like coriander seeds that tasted like honey and was found on the ground. When God promised a Messiah who would deliver His people, Israel expected a political savior who would free them from Rome rather than a spiritual savior to deliver them from sin. Although the Israelites accepted manna as God’s provision, most didn’t recognize God’s answer to their prayers for a Messiah. Had Izabella insisted on cold wet snow falling from the sky, she would have missed God’s glorious answer to her prayer, as well. While my new snow globe says that Jesus loves me, it also reminds me to expect the unexpected!

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:18-19 (NLT)]

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