FAITH AND OBEDIENCE

Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock. [Isaiah 12:4 (NLT)]

wild geraniumAbraham and Sarah waited twenty-five years for their promised son, Isaac, but then God demands that Abraham sacrifice his long-awaited child as a burnt offering. Abraham takes Isaac off to the mountain and to what he believes is his son’s death. Abraham’s knife is drawn and he’s ready to kill Isaac when God intervenes. After an angel tells him not to lay a hand on his son, Abraham looks up to see a ram caught in the brush. With God’s blessing, he sacrifices it in place of Isaac.

This story is troubling and we wonder at God’s purpose in making such a horrifying demand and then retracting it. Does God play cruel pranks on people? While it certainly shows that God will not tolerate the sacrifice of children, that seems a thoughtless and brutal way to make such a point. The torment that Abraham must have suffered thinking he had to kill his own son is unimaginable. This story, however, is not about sacrifice and cruelty; it is about obedience and faith. It is about the fact that God demands our absolute obedience and our complete and unwavering faith.

Abraham truly didn’t know what was going to happen on the mountain, but he did as he was told. He had an unquestioning faith in God, a God who knows and does what is best. If Abraham had known that God wouldn’t allow Isaac’s death, he would simply have been obedient to God as he prepared the altar and placed the wood on it. But, when Abraham tied his son’s hands, laid him on the altar and brought the knife blade to his throat, he didn’t know that God would intervene; that was both obedience and faith!

If the widow had dropped her last two coins into the collection box knowing she’d get two more the following week, if Mary had known for sure that Joseph wouldn’t abandon her, if Daniel had been sure the lion’s mouths would remain closed, or if Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had known they wouldn’t be incinerated in the furnace, they would simply have been obedient to God when they submitted to His will. Instead, like Abraham, they showed faith even though they didn’t know how their stories would finish. They didn’t ignore the difficult circumstances; they simply knew that God is bigger than any circumstance.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” It‘s merely obedience when we can see all the way to the end of the stairs. Faith doesn’t know the outcome; faith is obedience even when we don’t know where the staircase leads or how long and steep it is.

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. [Saint Augustine]

Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God. [James 2:21-23 (NLT)]

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A MATTER OF CHOICE

Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. [Luke 1:38 (NLT)]

great blue heronYesterday, when writing about the angel’s visit to Mary, I came upon some articles by women who take offense at the story of Jesus’s conception. Interpreting Mary’s response as involuntary, they picture the Annunciation of our Lord as some weird sort of a supernatural rape. This is inconsistent both with Scripture and God as we know Him. The angel didn’t say, “Surprise, you’re pregnant!” and leave. Read the words as reported by Luke; Gabriel told Mary what would happen, not what had already occurred. It was only after Mary asked how the angel’s words would be fulfilled and she accepted God’s invitation to motherhood that the angel departed.

The God we know from Scripture is one of choice: it was He who gave us free will. Although God pursues, seeks and invites us, it remains our choice to accept or reject Him. Jesus called the people to follow Him but not everyone who heard His invitation did. When the people of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave, that’s exactly what He did. When Jesus told the parables about banquets to which the invited guests refused to come, the host accepted their refusals and simply invited others to the feast. God gave us free will and He will not violate this gift. No one, not even the virgin Mary, is ever forced to partake of God’s grace.

Although some would have us think that Mary was powerless in Gabriel’s presence, she was the one with the power. It was Mary who would decide whether or not to accept God’s call. Writer Mark Ballenger refers to God as a “sovereign gentleman,” and, like a true gentleman, He waited for Mary’s verbal consent before the Holy Spirit came upon her!

When feminists object to Mary saying she was the Lord’s servant, they are confusing being servile (mindlessly doing what is ordered) with consciously choosing to serve. There is nothing demeaning or weak about being a servant. Jesus was God and yet he called himself a servant and laid aside his majesty to selflessly serve mankind and die on the cross.

Mary was far more than an incubator for God. We honor her not because she had the womb in which Jesus grew; we honor her because she freely chose to be a faithful and obedient servant to God. God could not have carried out His plan of salvation without Mary’s consent and cooperation. Let us remember that God cannot continue to carry out the plans for His Kingdom without ours. Like Mary, we are called to be God’s servants. Whether or not we accept His invitation, is entirely up to us.

Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me. [John 12:25-26 (NLT)]

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HE LIFTS US

Save me, O God! The water is up to my neck; I am sinking in deep mud, and there is no solid ground; I am out in deep water, and the waves are about to drown me. [Psalm 69:1-2 (GNT)]

Great Blue HeronQuicksand forms in saturated loose sand and, when undisturbed, appears to be solid ground. If a person steps into it, however, there is a decrease in its viscosity which causes the water and sand to separate so the soil becomes liquefied. When I was growing up, a scene of someone sinking into the death trap of quicksand was a staple of adventure movies. Because of those Saturday matinees in the 1950s and 60s, countless children probably had a fear of plunging into quicksand while walking in the woods; I know I did!

Even though an Arizona man was recently stuck in quicksand at Zion National Park, the old Hollywood cliché doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and a person is unlikely to submerge completely. As that trapped man discovered, the real danger comes from hypothermia, bad weather, predators, dehydration, or even drowning from rising tides while stuck.

Without ever going near a swamp, beach or river bank, we can easily encounter quicksand-like conditions in our lives. Trusting ourselves rather than God, we think we’re on firm ground only to misstep and fall into a pit of problems. As we’re sucked into the muck of doubt, fear, worry, deceit, or depression, we start to panic. As happens in real quicksand, the more we struggle, the faster we sink.

Stuck in a quagmire of despondency or pit of despair, Satan finds us easy prey. Frightened, feeling alone, and thirsting for relief, we’re tempted to accept whatever comfort he offers. Feeling defenseless in the swamp of hopelessness, we reach for whatever seems easiest and, instead of rescue, a rising tide of more troubles sweeps over us.

Although I feared quicksand as a child, I’m not likely to be sucked into a bottomless pit of muck any time soon. Nevertheless, since quicksand does remain a minor threat wherever super-saturated sand exists, it’s reassuring to know that, if we step into quicksand, we don’t have to stay there. We don’t have to remain in situational quicksand, either. In both cases, we should get rid of anything that weighs us down, whether backpacks or negative thoughts and emotions. Frantic movement can agitate quicksand which further liquefies the soil but, by remaining calm, breathing deeply, and relaxing, it’s possible to float on top of the muck. In situational quicksand, the same rule holds. Knowing that God has not abandoned us, there’s no need for anxiety or panic. By pausing, praying, and following God’s direction, we can rise above our problems. Life’s challenges can’t sink us because our God will teach us how to float through them. Finally, in both situations, we must be patient. It usually takes a long time to move through both muck and troubles. In God’s time, He will lift us out of the pit and put our feet on solid ground!

I waited patiently for the Lord’s help; then he listened to me and heard my cry. He pulled me out of a dangerous pit, out of the deadly quicksand. He set me safely on a rock and made me secure. [Psalm 40:1-2 (GNT)]

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COME LIKE A CHILD

mute swansHe said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. [Mark 10:14-16 (NLT)]

When reading Jesus’s words about children and the Kingdom of God, a common misconception is that becoming Christian means committing something like intellectual suicide. Since we also are told to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, I doubt that we’re being told not to use our God-given intellect. So, what does it mean to become like a child? For a start, those children didn’t come to Jesus for healing, relief from Roman occupation, food, hidden treasure, or even salvation. They came out of love and love is what should bring us to Him, as well.

Faith in God is the foundation of His Kingdom and that faith is expressed through submission to His will. Dependent on their parents, children have faith in their provision and decisions; they understand the necessity of submitting to their parents’ will (at least the children in Jesus’s day did). Adults, however, tend to skepticism rather than faith and self-will rather than God’s will. Unlike adults, children are eager to learn and humble enough to admit that there is much they don’t know or understand. Pure and innocent, they are free of cynicism, arrogance, prejudice, preconceived notions and inflexible minds.

It’s a mistake to consider children unthinking; they just think a different way than do adults. For example, take Richard Scarry’s Lowly Worm character about whom I wrote yesterday. Kids have no problem understanding how a worm with one foot and no arms can dress himself, open a door, tie shoelaces, or eat with a fork. Adults, however, tend to overthink things. They wonder how Lowly, having only one foot, can possibly walk or kick a ball. In the same way, adults want a scientific explanation for how (in the days before in vitro) a virgin could give birth or why Lazarus wasn’t bloated, stinky, and covered with maggots after being dead four days.

Scarry’s imaginary worm makes sense to children, not because they’re mindless but because children accept things in their simplicity. Unlike adults, they’re not looking for hidden meanings or ulterior motives. They’re not fools; they know real worms don’t wear clothes, go to school, or live with a cat family but they also understand that Lowly isn’t like other worms. Jesus was clothed in a man’s body but He was no more like other men than Lowly is like other worms. Jesus was God with skin and, for the One who spoke the universe into existence, the tasks of raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, changing water into wine, or stilling storms were a breeze. The fixed minds of adults, however, often are unwilling to accept that God (the author of the universe) and Richard Scarry (the author of children’s books) work by a totally different set of rules in the worlds they’ve created: rules that often defy explanation.

God isn’t asking us to commit intellectual suicide or leave our brains at the church door. He’s asking us to love, believe, trust, accept, and submit to Him the way a child would. Although Jesus told us to come as a child, please remember that He never said He wanted us to stay that way!

Their [the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers] responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. [Ephesians 4:12-15 (NLT)]

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BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS

UtahThis is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” [Joshua 1:6a,9 (NLT)]

Joshua 1:9 was my Bible verse for the day but I decided to make it my verse for the week. To make sure I kept it in mind, I wrote it on a post-a-note and stuck it where I’d be sure to see it: on my phone!

Wanting to put this inspirational verse in context, I reread the first chapter of Joshua. The book of Joshua is about the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham made four hundred years earlier. Its first chapter is one of my favorite chapters of the Old Testament narratives. To set the stage: Israel is camped on the east side of the Jordan River with the Promised Land in sight. Forty years have passed since the parting of the Red Sea. Moses is dead and only Caleb and Joshua remain of the adults who’d once been slaves in Egypt. The Israelites are standing on the edge of the unknown and the Jordan River is at flood stage. With no bridges or ferry boats, they must have wondered how they’d manage to get safely to the other side. Joshua is the new leader of the Israelites and God tells him to be strong and courageous.

Granted, God’s words were spoken to Joshua around 1400 BC in an entirely different setting but, because I’m standing on the edge of the unknown as well, God’s words to Joshua are both comforting and encouraging. Then again, we’re all standing on the edge of the unknown. None of us know what tomorrow (or even the rest of today) will bring: be it good news or bad, tornadoes or sunny skies, an accident or a near miss, the making of a new friend or the loss of an old one.

When Joshua is told to be strong, God wasn’t talking about working out at the gym. This strength had nothing to do with muscles unless, of course, we’re talking about spiritual muscles. It had to do with having the strength to prevail, withstand, and sustain. Being of good courage, is more than not being a fearful coward; it’s being alert both physically and mentally, steadfast, and determined. It wasn’t powerful foes or a lack of weapons, battle strategy, or seasoned warriors that threatened Israel; it was fear, discouragement, and weakness of faith.

Being strong and courageous is easier said than done. Nevertheless, God tells Joshua exactly how to do that: meditate on and obey the instructions in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible and the only scripture at the time). Authored by God through Moses, those books contained the people’s history and God’s law, promises and plan. If the Israelites had only done that, the Old Testament would be an entirely different (and far less violent) story! 3,400 years later, we’re no longer limited to a mere five books; we have both Old and New Testaments to make us strong and courageous. Just the same, knowing and obeying those words can be as much of a problem for us as it was for the Israelites.

At least for me, the best part of Joshua 1:9 is God’s promise that He is with us wherever we go. Whether we’re crossing a deep river or just going across the street, confronting an enemy army or a CT scan, or facing a walled city or the loss of a spouse, we know that, no matter what befalls us, God is with us. When we’re standing at an abyss, facing the great unknown, there is no need to be afraid or discouraged. We can be strong and courageous because we have his promise in writing; He is always with us, “even to the end of the age.”

If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer – His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable. [John Newton]

Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20 (NLT)]

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DIGGING FOR THE TRUTH

Open your ears to my teachings, my people. Turn your ears to the words from my mouth. I will open my mouth to illustrate points. I will explain what has been hidden long ago, things that we have heard and known about, things that our parents have told us. We will not hide them from our children. We will tell the next generation about the Lord’s power and great deeds and the miraculous things he has done. [Psalm 78:1-4 (GW)]

limpkinYesterday, I wrote about archeological support for the story of Balaam; his is but one of many Old Testament stories with evidence provided by archeology. When reading about King Belshazzar giving a feast for 1,000 in his Babylonian palace, it’s easy to think there must have been exaggeration as to the size of his party. Archaeologists, however, have excavated a large hall in Babylon that was 55 feet wide and 165 feet long, a room sufficient to host a gathering of that size. The Bible mentions writing that appeared on the room’s plaster walls and archeologists found that this ancient room had plaster walls!

In 2 Chronicles 12, we read of Judah’s invasion by Egypt’s Pharaoh Shishak during Rehoboam’s fifth year as king. Archeologists have found evidence of their devastating invasion at settlements in both Israel and Judah. Hieroglyphics on the wall of the temple at Karnak describe Egypt’s 926 BC campaign and list 183 conquered cities, 43 of which are known Bible cities. Notably missing from the list of destroyed towns is Jerusalem, the city that Shemaiah prophesized God would not allow to be destroyed. Instead, Rehoboam surrendered and the Egyptians robbed Solomon’s temple of its treasures. When we wonder where all of that plunder went, a pillar in a temple at Bubastis tells of Osorkon I (Shishak’s son) giving away 383 tons of gold and silver to all the gods of Egypt just five year later.

When King Uzziah (who was struck with leprosy) died in 740 BC, 2 Chronicles 26 tells us he was buried in a field that belonged to the kings. His stone burial plaque was discovered on the Mt. of Olives with these words: “Here, the bones of Uzziah, King of Judah, were brought. Do not open.”

The Old Testament tells us of the Babylonians’ defeat of Judah but so do a collection of clay tablets known as the Babylonian Chronicles. These annals record Babylon’s history from 750 to 280 BC and tell of such things as the battle of Carchemish (recorded in Jeremiah 46), Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem (found in 2 Kings 24), and removing King Jehoiachin and replacing him with Zedekiah (recorded in 2 Kings 24). They even include receipts for goods that were issued to the deposed Jehoiachin when he was in Babylonian captivity (mentioned in 2 Chronicles 36).

The cornerstone of our faith is the Bible and archeology should never be the litmus test for its truth. Archeology can’t prove Scripture’s divine inspiration or the exactness of its every word. Because it’s based on what’s been left behind, discovered and deciphered, many pieces are missing in the puzzle. Moreover, since the Bible tells just a portion of the story, some ancient pieces will be found that don’t fit. Although we will never have undisputed historic proof of its truth, archeology can confirm the historicity of many Biblical events, people, civilizations, and places. For me, it is comforting to find that external evidence points to the trustworthiness of the Bible. Of course, since it is God-breathed, we shouldn’t be surprised that secular history dovetails so well with Biblical truth.

Every Scripture passage is inspired by God. All of them are useful for teaching, pointing out errors, correcting people, and training them for a life that has God’s approval.  They equip God’s servants so that they are completely prepared to do good things. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (GW)]

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