ARE WE READY?

Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The Lord has spoken! [Isaiah 40:3 (NLT)]

christmas ornamentYesterday was the first Sunday in Advent – the church season leading up to Christmas. Advent, coming from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “arrival,” is a time of preparation. Back in the 4th century in Spain and Gaul (Western Europe), Advent was a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians on Epiphany (January 6). On that day, they celebrated not just the gifts of the Magi, but also Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and His first miracle at Cana. The forty days leading up to Epiphany were to be spent in penance, prayer and fasting. By the 6th century, Advent was tied to the coming of Jesus — but to His promised second coming rather than His first. By the Middle Ages, however, Advent was tied to the celebration of Jesus’ first coming. Today, Advent is a time we both commemorate Christ’s first coming and anticipate His second. It’s a time of preparation both for Christmas, when Jesus came as a servant and a sacrifice, and for His return, when He will come as a conquering King.

Indeed, most of us use the four weeks of Advent as a time of preparation. But for what are we preparing? Rather than readying our hearts for Christ, we’re making lists and checking them twice, scouring flyers for the best sales, decorating our homes and yards, planning parties, cooking our favorite recipes, trimming the tree, wrapping packages, addressing Christmas cards, and shipping boxes, all of which have little or nothing to do with that first Christmas when God came into our chaotic world in the village of Bethlehem. Moreover, none of those activities have anything to do with anticipating His return.

We have four weeks to focus on Christ’s coming. During this time, let’s remember how the Jews longed for the promised Messiah and, recognizing mankind’s need for a savior, let’s focus on Jesus’s incarnation and answer to that prayer. May we also look forward to Christ’s second coming—a time when peace and justice will prevail and there will be neither sorrow nor tears. We must never allow our holiday preparations to keep us from preparing our hearts for the promises that Christ brings to our lives.

The question isn’t “Are we ready for Christmas?” The question is, “Are we ready for Christ?”

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all. [Isaiah 11:6 (NLT)]

An old abbot was fond of saying, “The devil is always the most active on the highest feast days.” … The supreme trick of Old Scratch is to have us so busy decorating, preparing food, practicing music and cleaning in preparation for the feast of Christmas that we actually miss the coming of Christ. Hurt feelings, anger, impatience, injured egos—the list of clouds that busyness creates to blind us to the birth can be long, but it is familiar to us all. [Edward Hays (A Pilgrim’s Almanac)]

Copyright ©2017 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

 

THE CHAIR

What sorrow awaits those who look to Egypt for help, trusting their horses, chariots, and charioteers and depending on the strength of human armies instead of looking to the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. [Isaiah 31:1 (NLT)]

The best-equipped army cannot save a king, nor is great strength enough to save a warrior. Don’t count on your warhorse to give you victory—for all its strength, it cannot save you. [Psalm 33:16-17 (NLT)]

Lake LouiseThe small chair looked quite inviting but there was a note on it: “Broken—do not use.” That note has been resting on the same chair for several years. Had the chair been mine, it would have been repaired or at least hidden out of the way. As it is now, the chair is useless and an invitation to disaster. Just a slight breeze might blow the warning off the chair; the next person to come along could sit there and end up sprawled on the floor surrounded by splintered wood.

In contrast to the precarious antique chair at my friend’s house, is the large leather arm chair in our family room. It’s not there for looks—it’s there for support and comfort. Oversized and well-built, it’s strong enough to hold my weight and that of all the grands as they pile on it with me. It’s durable, comfortable, welcoming and dependable.

Some people depend on things as fragile as that broken chair—things that look nice but can’t be trusted like wealth, career, appearance, possessions, power, contacts, intelligence, or fame. They may appear sturdier than that broken chair but, like it, they can easily shatter and collapse when we need them most. Our circumstances can change in an instant and what we had yesterday may not be here tomorrow. The Old Testament is filled with stories showing the danger of relying on the wrong things. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah suffered for their dependence on idols, other nations, and themselves rather than God; we will, too. When we depend on anything as weak as a rickety old chair, eventually it will collapse and we’ll be left to pick up the broken pieces. As for me, I’d rather depend on a God who is like our arm chair—strong, steadfast and indestructible! Ours is a rock-solid God who won’t fail us, no matter how much weight we place on Him.

On who or what do you rely? Is it reliable….as reliable as God?

But the Lord watches over those who fear him, those who rely on his unfailing love. He rescues them from death and keeps them alive in times of famine. We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord, for our hope is in you alone. [Psalm 33:19-22 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2017 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

MY VACUUM

Can you solve the mysteries of God? Can you discover everything about the Almighty? Such knowledge is higher than the heavens—and who are you? It is deeper than the underworld—what do you know? It is broader than the earth and wider than the sea. [Job 11:7-9 (NLT)]

great blue heronAt our house, the closest thing we have to a pet is one of those robot vacuums. While it’s nearly as entertaining as a puppy, it needs far less care. As I watch it zip around the house, its movement appears to be entirely random. Sometimes it starts by spiraling outward in a circle and other times it heads for the perimeter of the room. Whenever it hits an obstacle, it seems to bounce off in another direction. Apparently, it has multiple sensors that help it calculate room size, detect obstacles, and adjust for variations in surface.

Sometimes I think I’m not even as smart as this silly machine. It knows enough to stop and beep if it gets in a tight spot; as for me—I usually think I can get out of tight spots on my own when I clearly can’t! I should call on God as readily as the robot beeps for me. The robot will stop when it is filled with dirt. Like it, I don’t function well when bogged down with the grime of my life. Unfortunately, I’m not very good about confessing my sins and asking God to empty me of my burdens. When its battery runs low, this little vac knows enough to find its way back to its recharging station, connect, and charge up again. I, however, tend to forget the importance of resting in God and letting Him power me up again. I often run myself ragged until I stop dead in my tracks.

In spite of reading various explanations of its programming, I have yet to figure out whatever logic is built into this robotic cleaner. Right now, it is zipping around my office, going under tables and chairs and ducking in and out of corners; I can see neither rhyme nor reason to its behavior. Nevertheless, that robot knows what it’s doing and, given enough time, does a good job. I can’t help but think of the often inexplicable way God runs the universe. The events of life often seem random, disconnected, and perplexing and yet they are all part of a program we simply don’t understand. Just because we don’t understand them doesn’t mean they’re not part of God’s perfect plan.

I can program the vacuum to clean on my schedule, move it wherever I want, and place it on or remove it from the charger. I can even erect a virtual wall with a battery-powered infrared beam so it stays where I want. Clearly, in the case of my vacuum, I’m the one with the power. With God and us, however, He’s the one with all of the power and we are at His mercy. He schedules our lives, gives us tasks, and erects life’s barriers. He moves us wherever and whenever He wants and determines when our running time has ended. We just need to remember that the way He orchestrates our lives, like the way my little robot works, is beyond our understanding.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. Romans 11:33-36 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2017 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

BOTH SEEN AND HEARD

And the angel also said, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress. … Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.”  [Genesis 16:11,13a (NLT)]

sparrowThe slave woman Hagar felt invisible. It was Sarah who was loved by Abraham; Hagar was just a substitute womb. Of course, Hagar wasn’t entirely blameless. Once pregnant, she taunted her mistress with her fertility and Sarah retaliated by treating her harshly. Abraham washed his hands of the whole thing when he told Sarah the way she treated (or mistreated) the maid was her business, not his. After all, Hagar was little more than a brood mare; the powerless victim of Sarah’s scheme, she meant nothing to Abraham so she ran away. Invisible, unappreciated and unloved—she sat by a spring of water in the wilderness. The angel of the Lord heard and saw her, comforted her, gave her hope of a future and sent her back to her mistress. From then on, Hagar referred to the Lord as El-Roi: the God who sees me.

Fourteen years later, Sarah bore a son—Isaac. Animosity and jealousy between the women and sibling rivalry between the boys made a bad situation even worse. Now that the promised son was born, Sarah demanded that Abraham get rid of both Hagar and Ishmael. Although Abraham was upset about losing his first son, Hagar continued to be invisible, unappreciated and unloved by him. After strapping some food and water on her back, he sent mother and son off into the wilderness. Their water supply was soon depleted and, at death’s door, Ishmael lay under a bush and cried. His name meant “God shall hear” and, indeed, God did. Hearing her boy’s cries, God again reassured the distraught woman of her son’s future and opened her eyes so that she saw a well and a means of survival.

We have a God who sees and hears us. If He could see an invisible unloved slave woman in the wilderness and hear her unwanted son’s cries, He can see and hear us. If He knows when a sparrow falls to the ground, He knows when we need Him. It may seem that we’re invisible and unheard by those around us but we are never invisible or unheard by Him. He will open our eyes to possibilities and give us hope and a future.

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. Matthew 10:29-31 (NLT)

But in my distress I cried out to the Lord; yes, I prayed to my God for help. He heard me from his sanctuary; my cry to him reached his ears. [Psalm 18:6 (NLT)]

Why should I feel discouraged, Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart feel lonely, And long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? A constant friend is He;
His eye is on the sparrow And I know He watches me.
[“His Eye Is On the Sparrow” by Civilla D. Martin]

Copyright ©2017 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

STAND YOUR GROUND

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. [1 Corinthians 16:13 (NLT)]

So be strong and courageous, all you who put your hope in the Lord! [Psalm 32:24 (NLT)]

Queen butterflyYesterday I addressed abuse of power; today I address those who are ill-used or victimized. In the book of Esther, we meet King Xerxes, the king of Persia, whose reign spread over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. One of the wealthiest men in the world, he hosted a six-month long celebration to display the wealth of his kingdom. At its conclusion, he held a lavish week long banquet for all the men in attendance. There were no limits on the wine consumed and, after seven days of hard drinking, the King (said to be “in high spirits”) commanded that his queen, Vashti, come to the men’s banquet. Wanting his guests to gaze on her beauty, she was to wear the royal crown on her head. Since Vashti was specifically commanded to wear her crown and no other attire was mentioned, rabbinical tradition interprets this as meaning only her crown. Whether naked or dressed, it was against custom for a woman to appear in a gathering of men and hardly fitting for a queen to be paraded like a piece of meat in front of a group of drunken rowdy men. Knowing full well the consequences of denying the arrogant king, Queen Vashti refused to be exploited as part of his debauchery.

What became of the beautiful  queen who refused to be intimidated by a king or demeaned in front of a bunch of lustful men? Her brave defiance meant she was banished from the king’s presence forever. Having traded her crown for her self-respect, no more is heard of her. Of course, her disobedience opened the door for the orphaned Jewess named Esther to become queen. Although we know nothing more of Vashti, I suspect her banishment and the king’s intimidating temper was the talk of the royal harem.

When Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, the king’s pretentious vizier, the pompous man hatched a plot to slaughter not just Mordecai but all the Jews. Mordecai asked Esther to approach the king and plead for her people. Aware of Xerxes’ temper and knowing that anyone who approached him without being invited was doomed to die, she balked. Not to be dissuaded, Mordecai reminded her that she may have been made queen just for that opportunity. For three days, Esther fasted, prayed and pondered her decision. I wonder if she thought of Queen Vashti—the woman who boldly stood up to the king in spite of the consequences. How could Esther do any less for the Jews?

We’re not likely to be asked to make a display of ourselves before a group of intoxicated men, bow down to an official, or save an entire race. Nevertheless, Vashti’s, Mordecai’s and Esther’s actions teach us about standing up for what is right, refusing to do what is wrong, speaking up when something is amiss, not accepting abuse, and daring to take a stand, no matter what the consequences. Refusing to compromise our ethics, betray our faith, or lose our self-respect is not easy. Being the one who resists exploitation, reports abuse or blows the whistle is difficult and putting the welfare of others over our own security may come at a high cost. Queen Vashti lost a kingdom, Mordecai nearly lost his life, and we may lose our jobs. On the other hand, Mordecai and Esther’s story ended well. Mordecai became the prime minister and Esther continued as queen. Vashti, Mordecai and Esther bravely stood their ground and refused to retreat in the face of evil. Can we do any less?

Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. … Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. [Philippians 1:27, 28-29 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2017 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

POWER

But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.  [Matthew 20:25-27 (NLT)]

red-shoudered hawkRecently, the news has been filled with stories about powerful men who have misused their influence to prey on others. Unfortunately, abuse of power is nothing new. Consider our Biblical hero King David. While strolling on his roof late one afternoon, he looked down on the city below and spotted a beautiful woman taking her ritual bath. Even though he knew she was married, David sent for her. With at least six wives already, he wasn’t lacking for female companionship. Nevertheless, he wanted the beautiful Bathsheba. The Bible tells us the two had sex, she got pregnant, and David killed her husband to conceal their adultery. The Bible, however, tells us nothing of Bathsheba. We know she didn’t ask David to invade her privacy and, obedient to her king, she went to his palace. How could she refuse and to whom could she complain? Whether David managed to seduce her with his charm or forced himself on her doesn’t matter. He was her king and she had no choice. He wrongly took advantage of his power when he sent his men to get her, had sex with her, and manipulated events so that her husband was killed in battle.

This is not a male-bashing devotion; it is a reminder to us all that power and authority of any kind is a privilege. We are told to be good stewards of our wealth and use it wisely. When we are blessed with positions of authority or power, we should use that wisely, as well. If we’re not millionaires, CEOs, politicians, producers, or celebrities, we might think we have little or no power, but we do. We have the power to make someone else’s day good or bad and we have the power to affect their future. We can badger or intimidate co-workers, baby sitters, interns, clerks, sales people, bus drivers, assistants, neighbors, care givers, maintenance people, spouses and even children. It’s not just sexual abuse; there are many other ways to abuse, demean, mistreat, manipulate, or exploit people. Bullies aren’t found just on the playground; I’ve seen them berate wait staff, receptionists, and students. Threats aren’t made just by bosses; I’ve seen them made by irate customers. Politicians aren’t the only ones with clout; many of us have the ability to put in a good (or bad) word that can change someone’s future. We can make or break someone’s reputation with a few keystrokes. Having the upper hand never gives us the right to hit with it and having the power to do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

Abuse of power has consequences; conceived in adultery, David and Bathsheba’s child died and we’ve recently seen numerous successful careers crash. We may not make the tabloids when we shortchange the sitter, take out our anger on the secretary, or threaten someone out of spite. Nevertheless, there will be consequences for us as well—if not in this world, then in the next. In the parable of the talents, Jesus tells us that we’ll be held accountable for the way we use our gifts. We tend to think of those gifts as money, time and skills. They also include knowledge, relationships, privilege, power and authority and we should use all of them with love and compassion. Moreover, when we use our influence or authority to mistreat those less powerful, let us remember that we are mistreating the most powerful one of all!

And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:40 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2017 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.