PLAYING WITH HEART

For see, today I have made you strong like a fortified city that cannot be captured, like an iron pillar or a bronze wall. You will stand against the whole land—the kings, officials, priests, and people of Judah. They will fight you, but they will fail. For I am with you, and I will take care of you. I, the Lord, have spoken! [Jeremiah 1:18-19 (NLT)]

white tailed deerI thought of locker room speeches today when reading the book of Jeremiah. God calls Jeremiah to be His prophet and gives him the task of bringing a message of both judgment and blessings to the nations. Telling him to get ready for action and not to be afraid, God gives the prophet the Biblical equivalent of a locker room speech and tells him that he will be invincible, as unconquerable as a fortress, and promises to care for him. God’s words had to be encouraging and reassuring to the young prophet.

We all have our favorite motivational movie speeches. Perhaps it’s the one from Hoosiers when Gene Hackman’s character tells his team to play to their potential and not get caught up in thinking about winning or losing. Another great speech is when the groundskeeper in Rudy tells the young man that giving up, while easier than perseverance, leads to regret. It is pushing through that leads to triumph. My favorite scene is probably when the coach in We Are Marshall tells his team that the opponents don’t know their heart. “We cannot lose,” he says, adding that, while they may be behind on the scoreboard when the game ends, they cannot be defeated. Perhaps I like these speeches because none of the coaches said that winning the game was what determined the players’ victory. Victory would be achieved by playing the game with heart. When God encouraged Jeremiah, like these coaches, He never promised a win.

Jeremiah was Judah’s primary prophet during the dark days preceding their conquest by Babylonia. Known as the “Weeping Prophet,” many would say Jeremiah was a failure. He labored over forty years and, at best, his audience was apathetic and ignored him; at worst, they were antagonistic and hostile. His neighbors wanted to kill him, his family plotted against him, and he was banned from the Temple. He was arrested, whipped, put in stocks, and ridiculed at a city gate. After another flogging, he was imprisoned and then lowered into a cistern where he sunk into mud. Even after his prophecy proved true and Jerusalem fell, he was disregarded and ridiculed. Taken against his will to Egypt, tradition holds that Jeremiah’s fellow countrymen stoned him to death there.

A sportscaster would say that Jeremiah lost the game in an agonizing and humiliating defeat. The reforms of Judah that started with Josiah stopped there and it was downhill from then on. By the time Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, Jerusalem had fallen, the temple was destroyed, and his people slaughtered, tortured or taken captive. Nevertheless, Jeremiah did his utmost and never lost heart. Quitting certainly would have been easier but he persevered. His triumph was not in changing the minds of Judah but rather in following the will of God. Let us never forget that God’s idea of victory has nothing to do with winning or the numbers on the scoreboard but everything to do with how we play the game. Like Jeremiah, may we always play it with heart, faith, and obedience.

For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. [1 John 5:4-5 (NLT)]

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FEAR THE LORD

But be sure to fear the Lord and faithfully serve him. Think of all the wonderful things he has done for you. But if you continue to sin, you and your king will be swept away. [1 Samuel 12:24-25 (NLT)]

horicon WisconsinWhile I prefer thinking fear of the Lord means regarding him with reverential awe, when Samuel said “Fear the Lord,” he meant good old fashioned terror and dread. Rather than trust in God, the Israelites had asked for a king and gotten Saul. As long as they and their king walked with God, Samuel said that all would go well for them but, if they rebelled and disobeyed, there would be serious trouble. To make God’s message crystal clear, he prayed for thunder and rain. While a rain storm would seem a blessing to people in an arid land, it was harvest time and rain during harvest would damage the crops and cause them to rot. Not a boon but a disaster, this clear sign of God’s displeasure terrified the people and demonstrated God’s tremendous power over their lives. The same God who brought blessings to them when He parted the Red Sea, made the walls of Jericho fall, rained hailstones on the Amorites, and scattered the Philistines with a thunderstorm, could rain trouble upon them as well. The thunderstorm showed that they could be punished for disobedience as easily as they’d been blessed for obedience. The Israelites were given good reason to fear the Lord.

Unfortunately, Samuel’s warnings (and those of the many prophets who followed) were not heeded and, as prophesied, the kingdom was swept away less than 500 years later. One of God’s Biblical names is Elohay Mishpat, the God of Justice; the fall of Israel and Judah was His judgment against injustice, evil, disobedience, and sacrilege.

What does fear the Lord mean to us today? The Hebrew word for fear is yirah and it can be applied in many different ways. It conveys dread and terror: the sort of fear the Israelites had when God displayed his awesome power and authority with that rain storm. Yirah also expresses reverential awe, wonder, worship and respect. Fear of the Lord means regard for His might, trust in His limitless love, awe of His majesty and power, loving reverence for His being,  submission to His commands, and an overwhelming mindfulness of His existence in our lives. Let us never forget, however, that our God is fearfully powerful. As followers of Christ, we have no need to fear natural disaster, the strange or unfamiliar, the future, shame or embarrassment, speaking the gospel, enemies, persecution, judgment, or even death. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I beg to differ; the only thing we have to fear is the Lord!

Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. [Matthew 10:28 (NLT)]

Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. [Hebrews 12:28 (NLT)]

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OTHER DEMONS

No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:37-39 (NLT)]
Halloween ghost

Yesterday, I wrote of the emotional vampires that can plague us but there are other demons even harder to spot than those two-legged ones. Invisible, they go by the names of guilt, anger, doubt, resentment, shame, regret, fear, and worry. They haunt us with “if only,” “what if,” “should have,” and “could have” and leave us discontented, sullen, resentful, fearful or worried. They are the hobgoblins that whisper lies and half-truths in our ears: we’re unlovable, contemptible, unforgiven, helpless, inadequate, or worthless. Like vampires, these monsters also can suck the life out of us. Friends of the enemy, they keep us from living boldly, stepping out in faith, and leading the fulfilling and joyful life Jesus promised.

It’s time to declare war on these monsters; they have no place in our lives. In the old movies, evil was repelled by the crucifix—a mere religious symbol. In real life, however, it is the power of Jesus that defeats the enemy! Through His power, we can banish those demons that steal our joy and suck the life from us. We can face our secrets, shed our shame, forgive others (and ourselves), know we are loved, release our anxiety and fear, trust God and choose His truth. The voice we hear can be that of the Holy Spirit rather than the unsettling voice of the enemy. With the power of the cross, we will be able to step out of the haunted house of our lives not in fear, but in faith—not in darkness, but in light.

Heavenly Father, help us look into the dark corners of our lives and, through your power, banish the demons that keep us from the abundant life you promised.

The scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls. [Edgar Allen Poe]

The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. [John 10:10 (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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RATINGS

Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant. [Galatians 1:10 (NLT)]

passion glower - pasqueflower“Over 1 million served,” was the sign Ray Kroc posted at his first McDonald’s franchise in 1955. That number became 100 million in 1958 and was 1 billion in 1963. When the number of burgers served surpassed the 99 billion mark in 1994, operators were told to change their signs to “Billions and Billions Served!” Executives at McDonald’s claim they no longer keep track of how many are served but I don’t believe it! Someone there knows exactly how many of those hamburgers have been sold, along with the number of Egg McMuffins and chocolate shakes.

People gauge their success with numbers and I’m no different. Before quitting my work for the day, I often check the stats for my web site. How many people visited and how many views did they take? Did I get any new subscribers? Worse, did I lose any? I doubt that I’m alone in checking stats; we all seek approval and use some sort of yardstick to measure our success. The restaurant measures sales, the YouTuber his subscribers, the author his place on the best seller list, the student his class rank, and the blogger her followers. We live our lives measuring and comparing: how many likes on the posting, hits on the website, orders taken, compliments on the outfit, friends on Facebook, or Christmas cards received.

Granted, publishing a blog is a little like speaking into a radio station microphone and not knowing if anyone is listening. Nevertheless, I had to ask myself, “Whose approval do I seek?” Like most people, I tend to seek tangible approval from people when the only approval that matters is that from God. It’s not who or how many people follow me; the only thing of importance is that I follow Him!

Our pastor shared the story of a successful evangelist who literally lost his voice. No longer able to preach, he asked God, “Don’t you care about my ministry?” The answer clearly given to him was, “No! I care about you!” I think of his story whenever I struggle with my writing ministry—when the words don’t come or I feel like I’m speaking to an empty auditorium. God cares about us—not about our triumphs and certainly not about how many people hear our voices or read our words. That pastor’s voice returned when he understood that God loved him rather than his accomplishments. Consider the Old Testament prophets: with Haggai (at whose urging the temple finally was rebuilt) being the exception, most of the prophets’ messages fell on deaf ears. Misunderstood, persecuted, ridiculed and ignored, by human standards they were failures. God, however, uses an entirely different kind of measuring stick. The prophets’ lives tell us that the success of our endeavors is not what matters; what matters is our obedience to God’s word and the doing of His will. It’s not about our glory; it’s about our bringing glory to God!

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)]

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NO WORDS OF COMFORT

Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. [John 14:1-3 (NLT)]

snowy egretTomorrow would have been Sally’s wedding anniversary but there will be no celebration because tomorrow is the six month anniversary of her husband’s death. Instead of flowers, dinner, and romance, there will be tears. This morning, Sally called her step-mother, Sue, to share her dread of tomorrow. When telling me this, the older woman admitted to being at a loss for words of consolation. This woman of faith, a pastor, had difficulty finding comforting words for a very simple reason: her step-daughter is Jewish. When Sue married Sally’s Jewish father, she respected her new family’s faith just as they respected hers. They know her beliefs and what she does for a living. Sue gladly answers their questions but she chooses her words carefully when speaking of God and, while tempted, never evangelizes. Although her words this morning were as reassuring as they could be without speaking of Jesus, Sue knew they were nowhere near as comforting as they could have been.

In the Hebrew Bible, Sheol is mentioned as the place of the dead and the idea of a resurrection appears in Daniel and Isaiah. The Talmud contains references to heaven (Gan Eden), hell (Gehinnom), and the World to Come. Unfortunately, the who, when, what, how and where details are missing and Judaism is ambiguous (and often contradictory) about what happens when one dies. Sue said she listened carefully during her son-in-law’s funeral and interment for words of comfort but heard none at all. After reading the funeral prayer El Maleh Rachamin and the Mourner’s Kaddish, I had to agree.

Had Sally been a believer, Sue might have told her daughter-in-law that she was not alone in distress and reminded her of the time Jesus walked on water and stilled the storm. We have a God who knows when we’re in trouble, is willing walk on water to reach us, and will bring us peace in the middle of the tempest! Sue would have told Sally how much God loves her—so much so that He gave His one and only son so that all who believe would not perish but have eternal life. She would have comforted her with the story of Lazarus and Jesus’s words to Martha that He was the resurrection and life and that anyone who believed in Him would live even after dying. Then again, maybe the widow would have found Revelation’s promise that He will wipe every tear and there will be no more tears, mourning or death comforting. Sadly, those words are of little cheer to a non-believer.

No words can take away the sorrow of a young woman suddenly losing her beloved husband, the father of her three small children, but there is much in our faith that can ease that pain. No Christian is left to face sorrow alone; we have a Savior, a Comforter, and the reassuring and powerful words of Scripture. Thank you, Jesus.

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

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HARD HEARTS

But when they saw him walking on the water, they cried out in terror, thinking he was a ghost. They were all terrified when they saw him. But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage! I am here!” Then he climbed into the boat, and the wind stopped. They were totally amazed, for they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in. [Mark 6:49-52 (NLT)]

water liliesAfter feeding a multitude with little more than a handful of food, Jesus sent the disciples across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida. He stayed behind to send the people home and then, exhausted, went into the mountains to pray. During the fourth watch (somewhere between 3:00 and 6:00 AM), Jesus looked out at the water and saw that the disciples were struggling against the wind and waves to keep the boat on course. Seeing their trouble, he walked on the water toward them. Instead of being pleased to see Him, the disciples were alarmed and frightened!

By this point in the ministry of Jesus, He had restored a deformed hand; exorcised numerous demons; healed a paralyzed man, a bleeding woman, lepers and even Peter’s mother-in-law among others; raised a girl from the dead; calmed a storm with a few words; and fed a multitude with just a few loaves and fish. What part of these miracles didn’t they get? They shouldn’t have been surprised by Jesus’s appearance; they should have expected it! If someone can still storms and create food, He certainly can walk on water; those are things only God can do!

Sometimes, I wonder if we’re any different than the disciples. Do we have trouble believing what is so obvious? Knowing the end of the story, of course, it’s easier for us; the disciples came in at the beginning and didn’t know how it would end. Nevertheless, that Jesus was more than a wise, kind and gifted healer but actually God in a man’s body is an overwhelming concept for many and remains a barrier to their belief.

Jesus certainly didn’t fit the disciples’ expectations and, sometimes, He doesn’t fit ours. They pictured the Messiah as a conquering warrior and judge but Jesus was the opposite; He spoke of mercy, love, and forgiveness rather than vengeance. While we don’t expect Jesus to slay our enemies, we often think of Him as a sort of cosmic vending machine where we put in a prayer (or make an offering) and out comes whatever it is we want. Like those who expected a military leader, we find ourselves disappointed.

I wonder if the disciples simply were afraid to believe. Just imagine their discussion in the boat that evening as they tried to understand how Jesus managed to feed thousands. They must have wondered what it would mean for them if Jesus really was the Messiah. Would His mission end up as did the failed Messianic movement led by Judas of Galilee: the leader dead and his followers scattered? They weren’t soldiers; they were common working men and Simon was the only Zealot among them. Would they end up headless as did John the Baptist? Did they wonder what Jesus would expect of them? Do we hesitate to accept Jesus because we’re afraid of what He will ask of us? Mark tells us that the hearts of the disciples “were too hard to take it in.” Even knowing all that Jesus had done, they didn’t yet believe.

Almighty God, through the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to your holy truth.

Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” [Mark 4:40 (NLT)]

Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:16 (NLT)]

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