The Test

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspringall nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Genesis 22:1-19 (NIV)

This time of year can be dangerous for anyone choosing to venture out on a frozen body of water. As the weather warms up, melting and freezing takes place. This causes the ice to become thin and brittle. It can be difficult as we transition from winter to spring to know with any certainty how thick the ice is. This is why it is extremely important to test the ice before venturing out on it, or just stay completely off of it.

In the passage assigned for today, we discover a much different type of testing. This is a familiar story which can be very troubling to many. The request which God appears to make of Abraham seems extreme and does not fit our image of a loving God. There is clearly more to unpack here than this devotional can cover. Remember that we must read this passage through the contextual aspects in which it was written. The struggle for Abraham here is a question of being willing to give up the most precious item in his life to communicate his faith in God and be obedient. See this story is much more about Abraham than it is about God. God provides a substitute for Isaac. Here God is communicating that child sacrifice is not what is required. Abraham had faith that God would provide a solution to a difficult situation and God did.

There are times when life can really test us. During those times, we discover a lot about ourselves. Who is it that we turn to or rely on when we are tested? When what we are experiencing does not make sense, do we turn to the Lord? We may want to give up, and may even be justified in wanting to give up, but our faith tells us that God will provide a way. Trusting in the Lord to provide the right people, resources, or solutions demonstrates what we believe. As long as we are open to the possibilities which God creates, we can face the test no longer how short or long it exists.

Fan the Flame

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

2 Timothy 1:6-10 (NIV)

There are people who thrive being in front of groups to speak or perform. Others are extremely uncomfortable being in front of groups. One factor which can influence the comfort level of the individual is the type and size of the group. Another factor of influence can be the purpose or subject matter. The individual’s personality type may increase or decrease the comfort. A person’s sense of skill or confidence in knowledge impacts how he/she responds to being in front. All of these factors combined in varying degrees influence an individual’s willingness to be in front of others.

In what we read today, Paul is writing a letter to one of his disciples, Timothy. He is sharing words intended to build up Timothy in his efforts to share the gospel. A reminder to fan the flame which God has placed in Timothy begins this section of the letter. The flame is a gift of the Spirit which gives power, love and self-discipline. Through the gift, shame in sharing the story of the gospel is dispelled. The story of being saved and led to a holy life through God’s purpose and grace as revealed by Jesus Christ is what Paul tells Timothy to share.

Like Timothy, we can benefit from a similar pep talk at various times. We can become timid or lose our energy in sharing our gospel story. During these times, Paul’s words reminding us of the importance in fanning the flame in us and the power, love and self-discipline which we receive from the Spirit may assist us in sharing before others. Participating in the corporate worship of the Lord can fan the flame. Reading Scripture and being in fellowship with other believers can fan the flame. Time in prayer and consultation with the Lord can remind us of the gifts of the Spirit which we possess. Together this can assist us when we might become uncomfortable or ashamed to share our gospel story with others.

Shattering Norms

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

John 4:1-26 (NIV)

Society has a set of norms or rules which are to be followed by all individuals. These norms govern the behaviors and interactions of those people living in the society. A majority determines and adopts these for a smooth functioning of the given society as they understand. Today there seems to be a reduction of the norms and rules in place, or at least they are much more centered on specific locations and not as widely adopted. Many of society’s norms have been based upon ethnicity, race, religion, sex and sexuality in earlier times. While some still exist, there have been leaders, movements and courageous individuals who have worked at eliminating discriminatory norms and rules.

Today as we read the passage, we encounter a rebel, who through actions, attacks some of the social norms of his day. Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well contains actions which people would have considered totally unacceptable. First, he had a lengthy discussion with an unfamiliar woman. Second, this woman was a Samaritan woman which meant that she was part of a group despised by the Jews for centuries. They despised them since they were unwilling to let the Jews pass through their country on the way to the promised land. Third, she was a woman who Jesus somehow knew had had many men in her life. The man who she was living with now was not even her husband. All of this was very scandalous which is why the woman questioned Jesus asking her anything. Their conversation focused on the worship of God but actually is more about the arbitrary division of people. Jesus makes it known that God is more interested in the spirit of people than any humanly defined differences. The location of the people no longer even matters. The Spirit binds all together.

The example of breaking social norms and rules here is part of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus’s ministry was about introducing a new way of living. In the kingdom there will be no division because we all share in the same Spirit. The norms and rules based on old understandings and conflicts are not a part of the coming kingdom.

As followers of Christ, we are charged to be active participants in the coming of the kingdom. Whenever we say the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Your kingdom come…” God has chosen us to be agents of bringing about the kingdom. We are to do as the rebel Jesus did throughout his ministry displayed in this passage. We are to challenge the norms and rules of our society which encourage division among people. Our challenge cannot be in mere words but must also be in bold actions. As we stand shoulder to shoulder with our Muslim or Jewish neighbors, or any who are harassed or ostracized because of their faith, we follow Jesus. As we walk alongside our neighbors who have a different skin color than our own in an effort to overcome unfair practices, we follow Jesus. As we learn from and embrace those of different sexual orientation, or those who have struggled with addictions, or those who have acted in ways deemed unacceptable to others, we follow Jesus. It is time to follow Jesus and be rebels in bringing forth the Kingdom of God on earth.

Our Advocate

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:12-16 (NIV)

If you have ever been required to go into court for some reason, you know the importance of having a strong advocate to present your case. Having an attorney who understands your side of the legal matter can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of your court case. A lawyer who can present the facts of your case in a competent and well-supported manner is good. If that same lawyer can explain the background and demonstrate empathy in the situation, a favorable result is even more likely.

In the writing to the Hebrews, we are reminded that each of us has an advocate which understands and empathizes with our circumstances. First we receive the counsel that nothing is hidden from God. The word of God is alive and active; cutting through any of the smoke screens we may attempt to use in order to hide our sinful thoughts and actions. Next, we receive the reminder that Jesus, who has lived and struggled as we do daily, is the one who stands before God to state our case. Knowledge of this reality allows us to stand before God in confidence since Jesus has assured our reception of mercy and grace.

There is not one of us who when God’s light of inquiry shines on us can stand guiltless. If our actions appear innocent, our thoughts and attitudes betray us. We have sufficient reason to fear justified punishment. However, our fear no longer has merit because of Jesus. Jesus stands before God on our behalf. He acknowledges our weakness in battling temptations, unhealthy thoughts, and the desires to engage in hurtful actions. He demonstrates understanding before the Father. Then he reminds God that he battled the same but overcame not just for his sake but for the sake of all humanity. Instead of punishment we receive forgiveness and mercy due to the grace of our Lord.

Behavior Guidelines

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2 (NIV)

Human relationships can be challenging. Our behaviors toward one another are not always positive in nature. At times, our self-centeredness, greed, and anger can prompt us to act in ways which are harmful towards others. These behaviors create a negative environment for all people. Our society has developed rules and laws to manage the most destructive of these behaviors. Throughout civilizations and religions in all of recorded history, there have been acceptable and unacceptable ways to behave and interact with one another.

In the letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul writes about the behaviors which are acceptable and unacceptable among followers of Christ. He provides a list of unacceptable behaviors with contrast behaviors scattered within the list. Some of the unacceptable behaviors are found in the commandments which God gave the Israelites through Moses. Clearly there is instruction here in regard to building one another up and not tearing one another down. Attitudes are addressed here as well. Attitudes lead to actions.

As we consider how we interact with one another, Paul’s instructions are beneficial in guiding us. Lying to one another, being angry, slandering others, expressing rage are seen too often in our public discourse and among neighbors. These happen as well in communities of faith. Paul tells us that we are no longer to engage in these behaviors. We are not to cause grief for the Holy Spirit by behaving in these ways. Instead, we are to practice kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and building one another up.

No Shame

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Romans 1:16-17 (NIV)

There are numerous aspects of life which can cause people to feel ashamed. Mistakes which we make can bring a sense of shame into our lives. The actions of a relative or friend can bring shame to us. Our perceptions of ourselves can lead us to feel ashamed. In specific situations this shame may be warranted. Often the shame is more embarrassment than actualized shame. No matter the cause or legitimacy of our being ashamed, the feeling is real. We may choose to avoid people and/or situations due to our sense of shame.

In today’s reading, we hear Paul make the statement that he is not ashamed of the gospel, or good news. Others have stated that the good news of Jesus’s death on a cross and resurrection was foolish and nonsense. Those who indicated they believed in the salvation found in these events were often labeled as ignorant, idiots, and even blasphemers. So Paul indicating he was not ashamed and saw the message of the good news as a sign of God’s power is a bold statement. Paul sees the gospel as a revelation of God’s righteousness being displayed and imparted upon those who believe in it.

Are you ashamed of the gospel? After all, there is sketchy logic to support the claims of the good news. Individuals today still reject this news and take a dim view of those who believe in it. Do you attempt to excuse away your belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection when others question you or do you make a bold statement as Paul does here? Some say that religion or faith should not be discussed in public settings, maybe not even in private ones. How often is this used to avoid having to declare belief in God and God’s saving actions? Like Paul, we need to stand and boldly proclaim our belief in the gospel without any sense of shame.

Foolishness

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 (NIV)

Over the centuries, humanity has gained all types of knowledge. We have developed systems to teach and communicate this knowledge to new generations. With an increase of knowledge, an arrogance has come into our human psyche. Many have determined that anything which cannot be explained by what we know is foolishness. This has led to the development of very concrete thinkers. Knowledge has become a power chip in our game of life. Knowledge, in and of itself, is not an issue. How we use knowledge and how we apply it to life can become a problem.

Paul is writing to the group of believers in Corinth, Greece in what we read today. Greece has long been considered to be one of the birthplaces of science and philosophy in the ancient world. The Greeks prided themselves on their knowledge. Often they considered other civilizations to be primitive and ignorant in comparison to themselves. Paul states that to many the actions connected with the cross were foolish. These people believed that Jesus dying on a cross served no purpose and was a waste. So here, Paul says that God has made them look foolish, not those who believed in Jesus’s saving actions on the cross. The wise, according to Paul, are the individuals who believed in and trusted the events of the cross. These can boast in the Lord who defined true wisdom.

Are you like the unbelievers in Corinth? What does the cross mean to you? Can knowledge and the cross beheld together in our grasp of wisdom?

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  – I Corinthians 2:2

Life Purpose

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

Titus 3:1-8 (NIV)

There comes a point in everyone’s life when we try to understand what is our purpose. For some, there may be more than one point in life when this question surfaces. Seeking an answer to this question requires introspection, sometimes counseling, and research. Each of us have a drive for discovering our purpose. This drive is due to our desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world. We desire to feel we have value in our work and actions.

The passage from Paul’s letter to Titus speaks of life purpose. Paul directs Titus to remind the people how they should interact with leaders and members of their community. Paul points toward a time when everyone’s behavior was unkind and destructive. Then God chose to introduce the Savior into the world. Through Jesus, a new way of living was made possible. This new way has provided the people with an opportunity to do what is good for everyone.

A purpose has been given to bring meaning into our lives. We have been saved from our destructive and self-centered ways of living. Christ has not only saved us from these behaviors but has presented us a pattern in which the purpose is doing good for the sake of others. We do good in response to being saved. Our life’s purpose is to do good. How we go about fulfilling that purpose is our true quest.

Communicating Love

11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

1 John 4:11-12

How does someone communicate love to another person? The means of this communication is dependent upon the type of relationship which exists between the individuals. If the relationship is romantic in nature, the love will be communicated in physical ways, in gifts, in words, and in actions. A relationship which exists between co-workers or individuals who live next to each other lends itself to expressions of love in acts of helping and regular conversations. Expressions of love will vary along the spectrum between these two relationship descriptions. Another dynamic is the way love is communicated between strangers.

As we look at the assigned verses for today, it is clear that the Lord has an expectation that we will communicate love to others. The author of this letter states that we do this because God has loved us first. None of us have seen God but God is revealed to us when we love one another. This is not a physical revelation but a sense we have within ourselves as we express love.

Throughout Scripture, a clear insight into God is enveloped in the expression of love. From Deuteronomy when Moses says we are to love God and neighbor, to Jesus’s response to the question of the greatest commandment, to this passage found in a letter, love is how we are to understand God. God and love are synonymous.

We must find appropriate ways to communicate love to those in our lives. As we love others, we will come to understand God and God’s love more completely.

Radical Love

38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

We are accustomed to living in situations where love is fragile and easily taken away. The type of love which we normally experience is dependent upon many factors. Human love requires fulfillment of a set of expectations. This love can be separated from us by outside influences. There is no guarantee in regard to the longevity of human love. However, there is a different form of love which is available to every person. A love which is not unpredictable, fragile, or dependent upon a list of qualifications.

The words found at the end of the eighth chapter in Romans gives insight into a special kind of love. Here is described a love found only with God. This love is immune to the influences of the world or powers which surround us. The immunity even extends to cover our own actions or inactions. It is a love which cannot be taken away by anything. This love surrounds us and is in us.  As the writer states, this love cannot be separated from us.

Because of our experience with love in our lives, we struggle to comprehend the type of love described here to the Romans. In our minds we attempt to find “the catch.” We tell ourselves that this love is not possible. We may even wait with expectation for the point where we will somehow be separated from this love.

The reality is that the words which we read here are the truest words which may ever have been said or written. The unique fact about God’s love as demonstrated in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ is that NOTHING can, or ever will, separate us from it. This love exists within the core of our being and surrounds us without any gaps. God will NEVER remove it from us.  It is a radical love.

Accept the truth of these words. Incorporate them into your life and the views which you have. Respond to them in a way which demonstrates your belief in them.