FACING THE MUSIC (Philemon)

Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. [Romans 6:18 (NLT)]

swamp milkweedPhilemon was a wealthy member and leader of the church in Colossae and Onesimus was his slave. Apparently after stealing from his master, Onesimus ran away and ended up in Rome. After finding his way to the Apostle Paul, who was under house arrest at the time, Onesimus became a Christian. The one page book of Philemon is simply a personal letter to the runaway slave’s owner pleading the man’s case.

Although Onesimus had become a new man in Christ, both he and Paul knew that, before the runaway slave could begin his new life as a Christian, he had to finish his old one with Philemon. As a fugitive slave, he’d always be looking over his shoulder wondering if and when he might be caught. He wouldn’t even be at liberty to openly share his new faith or be active in the church for fear that Philemon would learn of his whereabouts. Paul sent the remorseful slave back to Philemon with a letter asking his forgiveness and offering to make any financial restitution necessary.

I can’t help but think of steps eight and nine in many twelve step programs. Step eight is to make a list of the people who have been harmed and be willing to make amends and step nine is to make direct amends wherever possible, except when doing so would harm them or others. Making amends is a delicate process; sometimes it can be done directly, such as repaying a debt or making a repair. Sometimes, however, direct amends are impossible; neither lost lives nor stolen innocence can ever be returned. Moreover, there are times direct amends are unwise—some secrets are meant to be kept and one’s conscience should never be cleared at the expense of others. When direct amends can’t be made, then indirect amends are. Nevertheless, in all cases, part of making amends is facing the consequences for our behavior. The consequences facing Onesimus were serious: a thieving runaway slave could have been killed. Nevertheless, trusting in God (and Paul’s letter), Onesimus returned to Philemon to “face the music” and make amends. It certainly couldn’t have been an easy choice for him.

Onesimus’ story reminds me of news stories I’ve seen over the years of individuals who failed to resolve their past before starting new lives. Perhaps they arrived here illegally, evaded arrest, jumped bail, escaped jail, or remarried without benefit of divorce and managed to go undiscovered for many years. In some cases, they became productive citizens and may have married and had families. Then, through a routine traffic stop, a picture posted on line, or a chance meeting, their lives come tumbling down around them. Their past is discovered and they end up deported, in legal difficulties, or even in prison.

Unfinished business can plague us all; not living in the past doesn’t mean ignoring it. When we don’t deal with yesterday’s unresolved issues, the past can end up defining us. Without returning to Philemon, in spite of his new found faith, Onesimus would always be a runaway slave. We’re not runaway slaves but could we be slaves to the past? Are there problems we have escaped but not really resolved? Are there any loose ends that need tying up or amends to be made? Are there people we need to face or issues that need to be sorted out before we can truly be free of yesterday? We will continue to be troubled by the past until we face it; only then will we be able to live our new lives as free men and women.

Make peace with your past so it doesn’t screw up the present. [From “God Never Blinks” by Regina Brett]

My guilt overwhelms me—it is a burden too heavy to bear. [Psalm 38:4 (NLT)]

Fools make fun of guilt, but the godly acknowledge it and seek reconciliation. [Proverbs 14:9 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SPIRITUAL MALAISE

These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. [Isaiah 29:13 (NLT)]

queen butterflyA friend was on her way out the door when the CO (carbon monoxide) detector started beeping. Thinking the batteries needed replacing, she pulled it off the wall, removed the batteries, and departed for the day. Upon her return, she tried new batteries in the monitor but it started to sound again. She was faced with two options: either the detector was bad (they should be replaced every five to seven years) and she could ignore the alarm or her house was filled with an odorless, tasteless, colorless, and potentially fatal gas! Fortunately, my friend called the fire department. They detected a high level of carbon monoxide and discovered the cause: a chipmunk that got stuck and died in the gas water heater’s flue. With its carcass blocking the pipe, the heater couldn’t vent properly and deadly CO was backing up into the house. Had my friend gone to bed that night instead of calling the fire department, she probably would not have seen another day.

Spiritual malaise (what the early church called acedia) is nearly as undetectable and potentially fatal as CO; like that toxic gas, it can sneak up on us without our realizing it. While most of us probably won’t experience CO poisoning, I think we all, at some time or another, will experience a kind of spiritual malaise or lethargy. Rather than a blocked flue or a faulty exhaust system, its cause can be anything from being too busy to not being busy enough. It can occur when we feel defeated by our difficulties or too self-confident in our triumphs—when we’re disheartened by disappointments or become complacent in our blessings. Instead of nausea or drowsiness, spiritual malaise brings a subtle loss of purpose, an erosion of values, a wavering faith, a loss of hope, or a feeling of helplessness. Instead of replacing the oxygen in our red blood cells with carbon monoxide, it replaces the passion and joy in our worship with boredom, our desire for God’s word with disinterest, our fervor in prayer with listlessness, and our God-dependence with self-reliance. We grow drowsy in study, lethargic in worship, and sleepwalk through our prayers. Bible study, worship and prayer are seen as obligatory rather than the pleasure, privilege and honor they are. I think the enemy probably loves a passionless Christian almost as much as a passionate sinner!

When those passionless times come, and they will, we won’t have an alarm that beeps. We have to do our own self-monitoring and recognize the symptoms. Instead of opening windows or leaving the house, we need to turn to God, run wholeheartedly into His arms, and give ourselves fully to praise and worship. Rather than call the fire department, we must fellowship with other believers so that their enthusiasm can rub off on us. We must dig into God’s word and fill our minds with His truth, leaving no room for Satan’s lies. Most of all, we should pray for wisdom, strength, a rekindling of our faith, and the opportunity to use our gifts for His purpose.

Father in Heaven, remove our fatigue; renew, redeem, and restore us to your salvation. Fill us with the power of the Holy Spirit, transform our weariness into strength, and lift us on your mighty wings.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. [Psalm 51:10-12 (NLT)]

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:31 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT

Then Jesus said to them [Cleophas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus], “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. [Luke 24:25-27 (NLT)]

giant swallowtailWhile cleaning out the bookshelves recently, I came across one of my children’s favorite books: Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? A small drawing of Lowly Worm, an earthworm wearing a Tyrolean hat, red bow tie, and one shoe on the end of his tail, is hidden somewhere on every page of the book and I immediately started searching for him. I hope you don’t think it sacrilegious, but thinking of Lowly Worm, a character who silently makes his presence known throughout Scarry’s books, made me think of Jesus and how He’s quietly present in all of Scripture.

Unlike Lowly Worm, Jesus isn’t an imaginary character hiding on the pages of a children’s book; He’s the living breathing Messiah and we find evidence of Him throughout the Old Testament. Although most people’s lives are chronicled after they’re born, Jesus’s story began long before the night He appeared in Bethlehem. As part of our Triune God, He was there at the beginning of time. When Jesus told the religious scholars, “Before Abraham was, I am,” [John 8:58] He echoed God’s words to Moses, “I am who I am.” [Exodus 3:4]

While it’s not difficult to spot Lowly Worm on the pages of Scarry’s books, it’s harder to spot Jesus in the Old Testament, especially if we haven’t met Him in the New. Psalm 77, for example, tells of a God who makes the water afraid and who can make a path through the waters while Job mentions a God who can trample the seas. Both references sound a lot like Jesus walking on water and stilling the Sea of Galilee. Micah says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem and Isaiah states that a virgin would conceive Him. If we didn’t know about Jesus, however, we wouldn’t recognize Him in those words. Genesis and Numbers say He will be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah and the star mentioned in the Numbers’ prophecy is probably what brought the Magi to Judah in search of Jesus. Jeremiah tells us that the Messiah will be from the lineage of David, Malachi that He will be preceded by a forerunner, Zechariah that the Messiah will appear riding a donkey and be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, and Psalms that lots will be cast for His clothing, His hands and feet will be pierced, and His bones would not be broken. Once we know what we’re looking for, we can find Jesus throughout the Old Testament in the descriptions of God and in the more than 300 prophecies He fulfilled.

We also can spot Jesus in the Old Testament’s words that are repeated by Him in the New. In Deuteronomy, for example, we find Jesus’s replies to Satan long before His temptation in the wilderness. We find the two greatest commandments in all four gospels but also in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. We catch glimpses of the Beatitudes’ words in books like Proverbs, with its promise that the lowly in spirit (humble) will obtain honor; Isaiah, with the promise to comfort those who mourn; and Psalms, with the promise that the one with clean hands and a pure heart will ascend the hill of the Lord. Jesus wasn’t just a great Torah scholar repeating someone else’s words. Those words were God-breathed and He was the original author!

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking of the Old and New Testaments as two different unrelated books: pre-Jesus and post-Jesus. Jesus is present throughout Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. But, like the pictures of Lowly Worm, sometimes we have to search for Him.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” [John 5:39-40,47 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SERMON ILLUSTRATIONS

I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. …  These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. [1 Corinthians 10:1a,6-7a (NLT)]

One of my pastors says that everyone has two kinds of experiences. They’re either good or learning and, if we actually learn from the learning experiences, they can move into the good category! Being a pastor, he admits to categorizing his experiences a slightly different way; they’re either good ones or sermon illustrations (and he readily admits to having many sermon illustrations from which to choose!)

When we learn from the learning experiences of others, we can avoid having to learn those painful things first-hand. When advising the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offered some “sermon illustrations” as words of warning. Making reference to several of Israel’s failings, he reminded the Corinthians that, as blessed as the Israelites were, because they displeased God, most of their bodies were scattered through the wilderness.

Although the church at Corinth had some Jews, the majority of its members were Gentile converts. I wonder how familiar they were with the stories in Exodus and Numbers to which Paul refers. Did they know that, after the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, 3,000 of them died at the hands of the Levites? Were they familiar with the story of the 24,000 men who were executed for worshipping Baal and defiling themselves with Moabite prostitutes? Did they know that poisonous snakes bit the Israelites after they blasphemed God and rejected Moses? Were they aware that the Israelites’ complaint and rebellion against God, Moses and Aaron led to 14,700 dying in a plague? Did they even know that, of all the adults who came out of Egypt, only two (Joshua and Caleb) ever entered the Promised Land?

Actually, Paul’s congregation in Corinth probably knew those stories better than many Christians today. They had access the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and, while new to the church, I imagine they faithfully studied it and knew the history of Jesus’s people. While many in today’s church occasionally refer to their Bibles, it seems that few of us actually read them. Some of us may read Scripture haphazardly but, by just reading a passage here or there, we never see how it all fits together into a unified whole. If we attend a liturgical church, we may hear snippets of the Old and New Testaments each week, but that’s just bits and pieces. Many Christians who didn’t grow up in the church don’t even know Sunday school stories like Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jacob and Esau, or Moses and the burning bush. How, I wonder, can we learn from Israel’s mistakes when we don’t even know what they were?

Paul hoped the outcome for the Corinthians would be different from that of the Israelites but knew that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t learn from their ancestors’ errors. The Bible is one beautiful sermon illustration and there is much we can learn from others’ faults and failings. As for me, I would rather have my experiences be good ones rather than lessons or sermon illustrations. One way to do that is to learn from other people’s painful learning experiences so to avoid their pitfalls. To learn from them, however, we have to know what they were.

The only ignorance worse than not knowing the book that made us who we are as a civilization is believing we can go on being civilized without that book. The marks of the Bible upon the West and its people are deep. … But they are not indelible. We were barbarians before the God of the Bible found us. And we can become barbarians again. [G. Shane Morris]

Who allowed Israel to be robbed and hurt? It was the Lord, against whom we sinned, for the people would not walk in his path, nor would they obey his law. Therefore, he poured out his fury on them and destroyed them in battle. They were enveloped in flames, but they still refused to understand. They were consumed by fire, but they did not learn their lesson. [Isaiah 42:24-25 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TRAPPED

Then he said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.” [Luke 12:15 (NLT)]

You say, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!” And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. [Revelation 3:17 (NLT)]

grey squirrel in bird feederI looked at the greedy squirrel caught in the bird feeder. He’d managed to get himself in but couldn’t get out and wasn’t even able to enjoy the seeds that enticed him there in the first place. Other squirrels, however, were gathered beneath the feeder feasting on the seeds he knocked out of the feeder with his frantic movements. That silly squirrel lives in a bird sanctuary where there is more than enough food in the way of fungi, nuts, seeds, fruit, caterpillars and insects (along with the bird seed that frequently spills from the bird feeders) to keep him plump and happy all year long. Nevertheless, unsatisfied with enough, he hungered for more. We’re not much different.

I thought about King Solomon; while best known for his wisdom, like the squirrel, he was greedy. Although God had warned against a king amassing great amounts of gold, Solomon collected 25 tons of it every year and, unlike those bird seeds, his wealth didn’t even scatter down to his people. After Solomon’s death, they begged King Rehoboam for relief from their labors and heavy taxes. Perhaps hungry for an even more extravagant lifestyle than his father’s, Rehoboam refused and lost it all to the king of Egypt within five years.

Some say wealth brings happiness but, if anyone should know about wealth and happiness, it would be wise King Solomon. His words in Ecclesiastes, however, are not those of a happy man: “Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness!” [5:10] Amassing money and possessions is like running on a treadmill: a never ending journey. We think that bigger, better or more will bring contentment but what once seemed a luxury soon becomes commonplace and a mere necessity. So, wanting something even more extravagant, we get back on the treadmill of acquisition. So rich that he considered silver worthless, Solomon got rid of his silver goblets and utensils and replaced them with gold. Had platinum been discovered in his time, I imagine he would have replaced the gold with it.

Wealth is not evil; in fact, it can do wonderful things. Wealth, however, is dangerous because loving it and all that comes with it can lead us into temptation and trap us in spots far worse than a bird feeder.

Don’t feel sorry for the squirrel; a naturalist freed him that afternoon. But, chances are, many of us are still on a treadmill of acquisition, foolishly striving for that elusive place over the rainbow where dreams come true, “troubles melt like lemon drops,” and that pot of gold is hidden. The squirrel’s desire for more held him hostage; we mustn’t let our craving for more do the same to us!

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled. [Charles Spurgeon]

After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.  But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. [1 Timothy 6:7-10 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.