LET MY PEOPLE GO!

But when Pharaoh saw that relief had come, he became stubborn. He refused to listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had predicted. … “This is the finger of God!” the magicians exclaimed to Pharaoh. But Pharaoh’s heart remained hard. He wouldn’t listen to them, just as the Lord had predicted. … But Pharaoh again became stubborn and refused to let the people go. [Exodus 8:15,19,32 (NLT)] 

frogThe Book of Exodus tells of the many times Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh with the Lord’s message that Pharaoh should let the Israelites leave Egypt. Pharaoh, unwilling to see his slave labor depart, demanded miracle upon miracle to prove that the Israelites’ God had sent them. The series of plagues that followed was the ultimate “smack-down” between God and all of the Egypt’s gods. The waters of Egypt were fouled with blood, frogs covered the land, and dust became an infestation of gnats. Even though Pharaoh’s magicians conceded to Moses, the headstrong ruler refused to believe the marvels before him. The Israelites remained unaffected by these calamities and Moses could both start and stop every plague but Pharaoh remained intractable and unconvinced.

More afflictions were visited on the people of Egypt: swarms of flies, diseased livestock, boils on people and animals, and a devastating hail storm that was followed by swarms of locusts. Yet, Pharaoh refused to budge. The ninth plague, three days of darkness, should have been enough to convince anyone that the Israelite’s God meant business. Nevertheless, no matter what sort of punishment rained down on the Egyptians, Pharaoh stood his ground. He would concede only long enough for Moses to end each affliction and then change his mind once the plague was lifted. It was not until the final plague, the death of every first-born creature which included his son, that Pharaoh relented. Even then, he recklessly sent his soldiers after the fleeing Israelites only to have the entire army destroyed.

What distorted sense of pride kept Pharaoh from admitting he was wrong? How arrogant he was to think foiling the God of the Israelites took precedence over the welfare of his people. Pharaoh’s hardened heart resulted in Egypt enduring terrible affliction and loss. I wonder; do we ever barge ahead, ignoring the consequences, simply because we are more concerned with being victors than right? Like Pharaoh, are we ever so arrogant and uncompromising that we’re unwilling to accept the possibility that we could be wrong? Do we ever harden our hearts to the truth? Do we ever harden our hearts to God?

Your ancestors refused to listen to this message. They stubbornly turned away and put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing. They made their hearts as hard as stone, so they could not hear the instructions or the messages that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies had sent them by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. [Zechariah 7:11-12 (NLT)]

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes—so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them. [Matthew 13:15 (NLT)]

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GOD NUDGES

blanket fower - tulip - golden cannaAnd after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. [1 Kings 19: 12 (NLT)]

God’s nudges—we all get them and, all too often, we ignore them.

Last week, one of my pastors felt an uncanny impulse to call an old friend who lives across the country. As far as she knew, all was well with her friend and, as often happens with that sort of thing, she got busy and forgot about making the call. Today, she was reminded of her failure when she received a call telling her that her friend had died suddenly over the weekend. As she shared her regret, she reminded us all to respond to God’s gentle nudges. As Elijah learned, sometimes God’s voice is in a whisper!

When asked how to know whether we’re getting a nudge from God or simply have an idea, the pastor suggested we look to the source; if it comes from our heart, it’s probably from God and if it comes from our head, it’s probably us. Nevertheless, our own feelings and desires certainly can influence our perception of the idea and, for some people, “God laid it on my heart,” is just a euphemism for, “This is something I want to do.” A friend’s ex-daughter-in-law claimed that God “laid it on her heart” to leave her husband and children for another man—proof that our hearts can be as deceitful as our thoughts. We must be cautious of attributing our feelings to God. Not every good idea is a mystical message from the Lord; sometimes it’s just an idea!

Discerning the voice of God is not always an easy task. When something is weighing heavy on our heart, perhaps we ought to weigh the message against God’s word. Every one of God’s nudges will match up with His word and none will be something Scripture forbids! Of course, the better we know His word, the easier it is to recognize His voice. Checking Scripture, however, doesn’t mean randomly opening the Bible, picking the first verse we see, and saying that is God’s specific word for us; that’s little different than using a Magic 8-Ball for decisions.

Not everyone will get the same nudge and what God lays on my heart may not be what He lays on yours. His nudge is for us alone and rarely does anyone need to know the reason for our actions. Moreover, we should never say God told us to do something merely to add credibility to what we’re doing. Finally, just because someone says God laid it on his or her heart doesn’t mean He actually did! Just as we, on occasion, can mistake our own desire for one of God’s nudges, so can others. If someone tells us that God laid it on their heart that we should join choir or donate to their cause, we must be wary of getting pressured into something that isn’t God’s plan for us. If God really wants us to do something, most likely, He’ll be the one to tell us!

If God is nudging me about something of major consequence, I pray, study His word, and do research. For the most part, however, those little God-nudges are pretty easy to identify and don’t ask much of us: cross the room to speak with someone, make a call, offer to pray with them, give a hug, ask what you can do, or invite him to church. When in doubt, as long as it’s not contrary to Scripture, I’d rather risk looking foolish than miss a God-given opportunity. Most important, when we get a God-nudge, we should respond (and the sooner the better). We certainly wouldn’t want to miss our last chance to chat with a dear friend.

Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, “This is the way you should go,” whether to the right or to the left. [Isaiah 30:21 (NLT)]

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. [John 10:27 (NLT)]

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ON A SLIDING SCALE

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. [2 Corinthians 9:7 (ESV)]

Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. [Deuteronomy 16:17 (ESV)]

mourning dovesIn the midst of all the tedious and repetitive regulations regarding sacrificial offerings in Leviticus, we find evidence of God’s love and mercy. For several sacrifices, a distinction was made between offering requirements for the wealthy and the poor. Called korban oleh v’yored, it was a sliding scale for sacrifice based on a person’s economic position. In Luke’s gospel, for example, we learn that Mary and Joseph brought two birds as their sacrifice after Jesus’ birth. Had the family been wealthier, they would have brought a one-year old lamb and a pigeon or dove and, had they been poorer, they would have brought only two quarts of choice flour.

The purpose of those sacrificial rituals in Leviticus was to strengthen man’s relationship with God, not to impoverish him. Our sacrifices are to be offered lovingly, humbly, obediently, joyfully, and willingly; that can’t be done if we can’t afford what we’re offering. When a Florida church embarked on a massive building program several years ago, the pastor asked the members to prayerfully reach deep into their pockets to pay for the new sanctuary. He then reminded them that the amount given would vary considerably among his parishioners. For one elderly woman, an extra twenty-five cents a week would constitute as great a sacrifice as a $25,000 check from a retired CEO. Each was asked to give only as he or she was able. This ancient sliding scale of sacrifice tells us that the pleasing aroma of sacrifice has nothing to do with the size of the sacrifice but rather with the heart that accompanies it.

The Magi arrived in regal robes and offered expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. There wasn’t a little drummer boy at the nativity but, had there been, the child playing his best “Pa rum pum pum pum” would have been as valuable a gift as those lavish ones. God in His grace does not discriminate against the poor or the rich. Moreover, let us never forget that, even more than our sacrifices, God wants our love and obedience.

You can always give without loving, but you can never love without giving. [Amy Carmichael]

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. [1 Samuel 15:22 (ESV)]

And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. [Mark 12:33 (ESV)]

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BLOOD AND GUTS

For the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible. [Leviticus 17:11-12 (NLT)]

sacred daturaFor most of us, the meat we purchase arrives at the grocery store prepackaged. We’re not used to seeing animals slaughtered, skinned or butchered and, unless we’re phlebotomists, rarely see large amounts of blood. As a result, much of Leviticus makes for rather gory reading since the temple, a place of worship, also served as a ritual slaughterhouse. Perhaps it’s my vegetarian sensibilities but, when the Bible refers to the pleasing aroma of sacrifice, I wince when thinking of the stench of dried blood and burnt meat.

Biblical sacrifices go as far back as Cain and Abel but it is in Leviticus that we read of the sacrifices God required of the Israelites. The book gives complicated instructions for each of the sacrificial rituals: everything from the kind of animal offered and the draining of its blood to splashing that blood around the altar and what to do with the meat. Nowadays, these bizarre rites seem sickening and gruesome. Then again, perhaps that is exactly what they were supposed to be even back then. Watching one’s best lamb have its throat slit and seeing its blood pour out was probably as awful 3,400 years ago as it seems today. Seeing the animal’s life offered as a substitute for the sinner’s symbolized the high cost of sin and could not have been taken lightly. Moreover, as offensive as all that blood and butchering seems, think of how offended God is by our sins! Sin is far uglier and more repugnant than any abattoir.

My 21st century self has difficulty understanding why blood had to be shed in the first place and how blood—something that stains—could ever be considered cleansing. Caught up in picturing all of that blood, gore and smell, it’s easy to forget that the reason for those sacrifices was atonement. The Israelites sacrificed what was precious to them to satisfy God as atonement for their sins. A price had to be paid for mankind’s sins and, without blood, there could be no forgiveness. For God, the aroma was not that of blood and seared meat but of repentance. Those bloody offerings, however, were temporary substitutes. Even though the animal died rather than the sinner, the sacrifice had to be repeated again and again. It is those sacrifices, however, that foreshadowed the one true and everlasting sacrifice that took place on Calvary. Our sins against a holy and infinite God required a holy and infinite sacrifice: the flawless lamb, Jesus Christ. Our atonement is now found in our faith in Christ—the one perfect and final sacrifice.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. [Hebrews 9:12-14 (NLT)]

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THE STRANGLER FIG

The seed cast in the weeds represents the ones who hear the kingdom news but are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get. The stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it. [Mark 4:18-19 (MSG)]

strangler fig - corkscrew swampAs a rule, trees start as seeds in the soil, form a cylindrical trunk and observe proper forest protocol by not killing one another. The strangler fig, however, is the exception to that rule. Strangler figs tend to grow in dense forests where the competition for light is intense. When forest critters eat their fruit, fig seeds are left in their droppings. Although unable to survive in the darkness of the forest floor, these seeds thrive when deposited higher in the crevice of a tree. Starting out as what’s called an epiphyte or air plant, the seed gets its nutrients from sun, rain and organic material on the host. As the seedling matures, it sends out long roots that grow downward toward the soil. Once rooted, the fig grows rapidly, sending more roots down and new branches upwards. In time, its lush foliage and complex root system compete with the host for light, rain and ground water. Walking through the southwest Florida forest, you can’t help but notice the figs’ bizarre lattice work of roots and branches wrapped around the trunks of their hosts and it’s often hard to know where one tree ends and the other starts. Eventually, the fig assassinates its host by cutting off its nourishment; like a boa constrictor, it strangles its prey to death.

Just as a tiny fig seed can eventually destroy a giant cypress; if allowed to take root, worry can do the same to us. Like fig seeds, worries are opportunistic—when they find a niche, they move right in and start growing. They seem harmless enough at first but, once they take root, they dig into us and branch out into even more worries. Rather than wrapping around our trunk, worry wraps around our spirit and, like the fig, steals the light from our lives. The fig embeds itself into its host and worry entrenches itself in our hearts. A silent assassin like the fig, worry attacks our roots with doubt and tries to rob us of the living water of Jesus. At least the figs produce fruit to feed the residents of the forest; worry, however, keeps us from bearing any fruit and starves our spirit. The fig’s many nooks and crannies offer homes to critters like frogs, bats, and lizards but worries only offer hospitality to things like anxiety, fear, doubt, and tension. The strangler fig sentences it host to certain death and, like it, worry is a killer. It kills our joy, vitality, strength, spirit, and faith but it can also strangle the life right out of us with high blood pressure, heart disease, and other stress related diseases.

The oaks, cypress and palms have no choice in the matter when a fig takes root. Fortunately, we have a divine Gardener who can rid us of worry but only if we trust Him to do His work. Without allowing worry to take root, we must prayerfully hand God our concerns as soon as they drop into our lives. It’s only by trusting God with tomorrow that we can bear fruit today.

In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:21 (MSG)]

But blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers— Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (MSG)]

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FALL PREVENTION

If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. [1 Corinthians 10:12-13 (NLT)]

The Lord directs the steps of the godly. He delights in every detail of their lives. Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand. [Psalm 37:23-24 (NLT)]

scarecrowLast week was “Fall Prevention Week” but it wasn’t about keeping summer’s flowers blooming or preventing Jack Frost from coloring the maple trees. Although accidents can happen, most falls are preventable and last week was dedicated to preventing those falls. Apparently, because my age puts me in the group most at risk of falling, my son sent me an article identifying the best ways to prevent falls. Instead of clearing walkways or installing non-slip tape and a grab bar in the tub, I ended up thinking about ways to prevent another kind of fall—the one into sin. In reality, I’m far more likely to fall that way than to stumble over my entry rug.

When most of us think of sin, we usually think of the “felony” sins: theft, murder, adultery, drug abuse, drunkenness, perjury, idolatry, bribery, extortion, wantonness, sorcery and witchcraft. Billy Graham, however, described sin as “any thought or action that falls short of God’s will.” Falling short of God’s will includes all sins, even those  “misdemeanor” ones like complaint, envy, attachment to possessions, selfishness, irreverence, laziness, arguing, hypocrisy, greed, backbiting, whining, jealousy, anger, broken promises, shortness of temper, and even gluttony. Sin isn’t just missing the target; it’s anything short of hitting the bull’s eye!

While the bathroom is the number one danger zone for slips and falls, it’s probably not our biggest danger zone for sin. That zone is harder to identify and probably varies from person to person. For some it may be the computer or refrigerator, for others the water cooler at work or an afternoon with the bridge group. It may seem as obvious as a bar, bachelor party or casino or as innocuous as the mall, TV, or the in-law’s house. It’s wise to identify our personal danger zones and either avoid them or do our best to slip-proof them. Sometimes hazards, like a child’s toy or spilled water, can be where we least expect them. Even a chat over coffee after church can turn into gossip or disparagement. No matter where we are, if we want to prevent either kind of fall, we should always be looking for hidden hazards. Keeping homes and work places tidy by cleaning up our messes is another bit of advice that works both ways. When our personal lives are in disorder and disarray, when we’re too rushed to spend time in prayer, when we’re not honest with others or ourselves, when we’re disgruntled or discouraged, sin has a way of tripping us up as easily as can a pair of shoes left in a hallway.

According to the fall prevention article, one of the best ways to prevent falls is exercise which increases flexibility, builds muscles, and improves balance. We don’t need get in our 10,000 steps or lift weights to avoid falling into sin but we do need to build up our spiritual muscles with Bible study, Christian fellowship and prayer. Using things like night lights, photocell outdoor lights, or photoluminescent tape to light the way was the final bit of advice in the article. While fine ideas, they’re not very effective when avoiding sin. A better solution is the light of Christ; He’s the light of the world and our never-ending supplier of spiritual light. His light allows us to spot temptation and step away from sin. His Holy Spirit enables us to look at life and people with godly eyes—and walk in God’s will. Stay safe!

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”  [John 8:12 (NLT)]

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