The Exodus: Starting a new thing

We have been building up in the last couple of chapters to bigger and bigger plagues and displays of God’s might and power over the gods of Egypt, and finally we are coming to the climax of that story.  God is about to unleash his judgement on every firstborn in Egypt, but he will spare the people of Israel if they will sacrifice a lamb and put its blood around their doors.  

3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. 

4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 

5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats.

6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.

7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 

8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. (Exodus 12:3-8)

The meat of a lamb that you had taken care of for a week and that was cooked with bitter herbs and unleavened bread would not be a special feast that you would enjoy.  Emotionally this would be difficult, and the food would not taste that great.  This is to show the people of Israel that sacrifices and victories are not always joyous or exciting, but come at a personal cost.  For Moses it was seeing the Egyptians, the people he grew up with and who he cared for still, devastated and suffering.  This judgment was difficult for God as well since we know that he does not wish that any should perish, but he needed to show his people that the Egyptian gods they were following were powerless so that he could start to build them into his own people.

12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. (Exodus 12:12-13)

God is starting to prepare the Israelites to be his people so that one day he can have Jesus, his son, die for all sins as the ultimate sacrificial lamb whose blood will cover our sins. They have a long ways to go before they are really the people of God, but we can skip ahead to Mark 3 and start to see another major change that is being initiated.

Jesus went into the synagogue again and noticed a man with a deformed hand. 2 Since it was the Sabbath, Jesus’ enemies watched him closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath.

3 Jesus said to the man with the deformed hand, “Come and stand in front of everyone.” 4 Then he turned to his critics and asked, “Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?” But they wouldn’t answer him.

5 He looked around at them angrily and was deeply saddened by their hard hearts. Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored! 6 At once the Pharisees went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus. (Mark 3:1-6)

This is very near the start of Jesus’ ministry and we see that he is running into a ruling group who have hard hearts and are therefore unable to follow God’s will.  Sadly this time it is the very teachers of the law that we will see Moses give later this week that are wanting to kill a Godly man.  

The biggest thing stopping God from working strongly in our lives is our own hard heart, and sometimes it can take a really major event in our lives to break down the walls that we set up around our heart, but I encourage you to take the first step and prayerfully listen to what God is trying to tell you.

I really enjoy the story of the Exodus and I hope you enjoy walking through this next chapter in the story of the Israelites and also in the early stages of Jesus’ ministry.  

Chris Mattison

Links to today’s Bible reading passages Exodus 11-12 and Mark 3

Darkness

Exodus 9-10

                In today’s reading the plagues continue:  livestock, boils, hail, locusts and darkness.  The plagues reap destruction on their food supplies and on their bodies.  God declares to Pharaoh His purpose for sending the plagues: “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Exodus 9:16)

                Once again, Pharaoh continues his predictable response: plague comes, Pharaoh says he repents and will let them go, the plague is lifted, Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses to let them go.

                All of the plagues are bad but the 9th plague is of particular interest: darkness.  In my younger days I sang with a choir and performed Handel’s Messiah.  I was given the privilege of singing the bass recitative: “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth…” (If you’ve never listened to it check it out: “For Behold…The people that walked in darkness”, Philippe Sly, Julian Wachner – YouTube )

                The next year I was in college at George Mason University and we sang Handel’s Israel in Egypt and I sang the bass recitative “He sent a thick darkness over the land, even darkness which might be felt.”  Nearly 40 years later I still have vivid memories of our first performance of this, I was battling strep throat and spent the whole day nursing my throat with honey, lemon and salt water so that I could sing my solo that night (check it out here: Israel in Egypt, HWV 54, Pt. II: Part II: He sent a thick darkness over all the land (Chorus) – YouTube)  In fact you might want to listen to the entire Oratorio Israel in Egypt by GF Handel.

                In both of these Handel works with the Biblical texts and colors them with the accompanying music.  You can almost feel the darkness.  What does three days of thick darkness feel like?  How disoriented would it be for an entire nation to be blanketed in darkness?

                Jesus later used darkness to get Saul/Paul’s attention.  Saul was blinded for three days (Acts 9:9)  until Ananias prayed over him and the scales fell from his eyes and his sight was restored.  Paul responded by literally “seeing the light”  and he become a lifelong follower of Jesus Christ.  He immediately got up and was baptized into Jesus Christ.

                What happened after Pharaoh came out of three days of darkness?  You guessed it, his heart was once again hardened.  It was harder than ever.  After 9 plagues, 9 times God gave him a chance to repent after seeing God’s power at work. 9 Times Pharaoh had the chance to proclaim God’s greatness to all the earth.  9 times Pharaoh hardened his heart.

            Psalm 103 reminds us that:

The Lord works righteousness
    and justice for all the oppressed.

He made known his ways to Moses,
    his deeds to the people of Israel:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love.

                God balances His love and desire to see justice for the oppressed with his compassion and gracious love for the oppressor.  In the story God loves both His oppressed people Israel represented by Moses and He loves His children mired in pride and power who oppress his people, the Egyptians represented by Pharaoh.  God demonstrates His patience to Pharaoh by giving him 9 chances to repent.  God also demonstrates His love and faithfulness to Israel by limiting Pharaoh.

Peter later picks up this same theme in II Peter 3:9-10- “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”

God was patient with Pharaoh, “Love is patient”.  But God was also merciful to Israel, God’s love and patience have limits.  Pharaoh was about to discover the limits of God’s patience.   It would cost him and all of Egypt their firstborn sons.

                How will America and the world respond to our current “plague” the Covid-19 Pandemic?  Will we soften our hearts and repent and turn to God and forsake our sins and put our full faith and trust in God?  Or will we harden our hearts again?  How much longer will God be patient and give opportunities to repent?  When will God finally say- it’s time to fully and finally set my people and all of the earth free from this dreaded curse of sin and death?  It’s time to bring about the final judgment?

                I don’t know and you don’t know.  But learn the lesson from Pharaoh and don’t test the limits of God’s patience and mercy.  May the scales fall from our eyes, may the thick darkness of sin and unbelief that covers our land be lifted.

-Jeff Fletcher

Links to today’s Bible readingExodus 9-10 and Mark 2

Hard Hearts

  

              In this week’s devotions we’ve been focusing on the last five chapters of Matthew.  Hopefully you’ve also been reading the Old Testament readings at the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus.  Today’s devotion turns our attention to the Exodus readings.

                Israel’s story shows the interplay between being part of the people of God while living in a broken world amid systems and structures that are broken by sin.  When Jacob and his family first went to Egypt, the most powerful nation in the world at the time, they went there to escape famine.  God positioned Jacob’s son, Joseph, to be one of the most powerful men in the Egyptian government.  Joseph was able to provide food and a safe place to live for his brothers and their families during the famine and beyond.

                Unfortunately, with the passage of time, Joseph died, and a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph.  Suddenly, Israel went from being sheltered and protected by Egypt to being enslaved.  For 400 years they suffered under the Egyptian oppression.  The people cried out to God to set them free.  God heard their cries and provided a means of salvation.  A young baby boy born of the Hebrews, rescued from death and raised as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter.  He was the one who would lead his people to freedom.  But it took 80 more years for God to prepare Moses to lead his people.

                When the time came for Moses to lead the people to the Promised Land, God did so through a series of plagues.  In today’s reading God had Moses bring forth the first plagues: blood, frogs, gnats and flies.  With each plague Pharaoh asked Moses to pray to God to stop the plague and said that he would let the people go.  But each time, after the plague was over Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he refused to let them go.

                Sometimes, when people are in the midst of a crisis, they soften their hearts and fall on their knees in repentance and turn to God for help and hope.  Sometimes, when those prayers are answered and things get better, those same people forget, and allow their hearts to grow hard again.

                As I write this devotion we are one year into the Covid plague.  As both a pastor and a hospital and nursing home chaplain I’ve had to live every day of this past year dealing with the reality of that plague.  I’ve have family and friends get sick.  Most got well, some didn’t.  Some died from Covid.  Others have suffered from the effects of our attempts to mitigate the spread of Covid.  Some have lost jobs, some have grown isolated and alienated and depressed.  I’ve seen churches struggle to keep going when they’ve been ordered to stop meeting in person and when able to meet in person I’ve seen many struggle with half as many people participating.  It’s been hard.  Some churches have been forced to close their doors and will never open them again.  It’s been sad.

                During Covid, some have turned to God and softened their hearts.  Others, like Pharaoh have hardened their hearts.  At the end of the day the question for you is, how is your heart?

-Jeff Fletcher

Links to Today’s Bible Reading – Exodus 7-8 and Mark 1

Resurrection Changes Everything

Today’s Bible Reading – Matthew 28 and Exodus 5-6

                During the 20th century among the more liberal wing of Christianity it became fashionable to interpret the Bible in a less literal more metaphorical way.  The story of the resurrection of Jesus was regarded not as historical fact but something that happened inside the disciples of Jesus that gave them hope.  The Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong famously wrote of the resurrection of Jesus as a myth which opened the disciples’ eyes to the reality of God and the meaning of Jesus Christ. (whatever that means).

                John Updike is a well regarded novelist and poet, not a theologian, but he uses the tools of a poet to counter the theological attempts to reduce the resurrection of Jesus to a simple myth.  In his poem Seven Stanzas at Easter he writes:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.


It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/seven-stanzas-at-easter/

                What Updike so poetically states is that the resurrection of Jesus is no myth, no allegory, it actually happened.  Jesus’ dead corpse physically rose up from the tomb in which it had been buried.  Jesus was really raised to everlasting life.  The first disciples of Jesus would certainly have agreed whole-heartedly.

                Today’s passage from Matthew 28 is one of four Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus.  Each of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John include and omit different elements of the story.  This is always true of witnesses.  In a trial or a new article when multiple witnesses are interviewed they will tell the story in different ways and include and exclude data.  Each person sees and experiences things from their own unique perspective.  In fact, if all witnesses say exactly the same thing in exactly the same way it raises suspicions that they got together and colluded beforehand what their statement was going to be.  Eye-witness accounts should have different details.  But the overall story should be the same.  This is true with the story of Jesus’ resurrection.  Each of the Gospels gives different details and some alter the chronological order of events, but they are all in agreement of the important facts- Jesus physically rose from the dead and there were numerous eye-witnesses.

                Outside of the Gospels, the Apostle Paul also offers his own testimony.  In the book of Acts Paul encountered the risen Christ while he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Church.  And later, Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the resurrection of the dead:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (I Corinthians 15:3-8, New International Version).

                Paul makes it clear that not only is the death of Jesus foundational to Christianity but so is his resurrection that was witnessed by more than 500 people including Paul.  According to the Old Testament Law it took two or three witnesses to confirm something as factual.  More than 500 witnesses is way more than necessary to confirm a fact.  Jesus really did rise from the dead.

                Paul then connects the resurrection of Jesus to the resurrection of all people.

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (I Corinthians 15:3-8)

Paul says here that if there is no resurrection of Jesus and no resurrection of the followers of Jesus, then we are wasting our time talking about faith.  The true, bodily resurrection of Jesus is no myth, it is central to our faith and it changes everything.

The Apostles certainly believed it was true.  They took up Jesus’ commission to go into all of the world and proclaim the good news that Christ has died and Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.  You and I are part of that same tradition.  We are called to pass along this same truth.  It is who we are.  Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead.  Jesus Christ really is coming again to raise those who have died and are asleep in their graves from death to everlasting life.  That is our hope and joy.  That is the foundation on which to live your whole life.

-Jeff Fletcher

In Despair

Today’s Bible Reading – Matthew 27 and Exodus 3-4

                As we move through the Gospel of Matthew one chapter per day it’s pretty amazing how quickly we move through the life of Jesus.  Matthew brings us through the entire earthly life of Jesus so quickly.  Think about it for a minute.  Less than a month ago we were celebrating Christmas and the birth of Jesus.  Just a week later we were celebrating the start of a new year, 2021 and we started the book of Matthew which summarized roughly 2000 years of Israel’s history from Abraham down to Jesus.  We heard the angels announcement to Joseph that Mary was going to give birth to God’s son.  We read of his birth, the visit from the magi and Herod’s attempt to have Jesus killed and his rescue to Egypt.  We fast forwarded to his 12th year visiting the temple and being precocious in his questions of the learned doctors of Jewish Law. Just like that Jesus is 30 and being baptized by John in the Jordan River and going into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  Then he’s calling disciples, performing miracles, preaching the Torah in a way that is more authoritative than the average rabbi.  Before we know it 3 more years have passed and Jesus is in Jerusalem having his last supper with his disciples and preparing them for his approaching death.

                Now, here we are reaching the climax of Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus is tried, condemned and crucified.  This was not how any of his followers or any of the Jews for over 1000 years imagined how the story would go.  They envisioned the son of David as a triumphant King leading an armed rebellion and  defeating the powerful and oppressive Romans and being free to finally worship God under the rule of God’s anointed King, descended from the great King David of old.  Instead, they get a meek and gentle man being falsely accused and  refusing to defend himself, being rejected by his own people and, despite his complete innocence, meekly suffering and going to his death in the most shameful way imaginable: beaten, stripped naked and nailed to an execution pole for all to see and mock and serve as warning to any who might dare to defy Rome’s hegemony over the whole world.

                For the Apostle Paul and most every Christian since that day, this is foundational to the entire Christian message and the central event in the history of the world.

Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:

15 Now, brothers, I must remind you of the Good News which I proclaimed to you, and which you received, and on which you have taken your stand, and by which you are being saved — provided you keep holding fast to the message I proclaimed to you. For if you don’t, your trust will have been in vain. For among the first things I passed on to you was what I also received, namely this: the Messiah died for our sins, in accordance with what the Tanakh says; and he was buried; and he was raised on the third day, in accordance with what the Tanakh says; and he was seen by Kefa, then by the Twelve;

(Complete Jewish Bible Translation)

                Paul reminds his readers that one of the first things he passed on to his students was the death of the Messiah, Jesus, for their sins as a fulfillment of the teaching of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh or Old Testament).  Matthew tells the story more or less chronologically and it builds up to this.  But for Paul, this was among the first things he taught.  Whether it’s shared first as in Paul or toward the end as in Matthew, either way the death of Jesus and with it his resurrection, is the most important thing for Christianity.

                There is much for you to think about in this chapter but I will simply pause to name two and they both have to do with despair and death.  Matthew places side by side two men who have reached a crisis in their life, Judas and Jesus.  For both their crisis has brought them into great anguish and to the brink of death.

                Judas is in despair because he has betrayed his teacher and friend.  He sold Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver.  One might try to get Judas off of the hook by suggesting that he didn’t really have a choice in the matter.  It was God’s plan.  I’ve even heard it suggested and even wondered myself if Judas wasn’t simply trying to force Jesus to go to war against Rome.  Judas was a Zealot and growing impatient with Jesus.  Maybe he assumed that when Jesus was arrested he and the other disciples would defend him and bring him into his Kingdom.  When Judas realized that his plan backfired and Jesus was going to die without bringing in the Kingdom he was overcome with guilt and despair.  Or maybe he was just greedy and sold out his friend for the money.  Or maybe some combination of things.  Sometimes we humans beings do things and we don’t even understand why we did it, but afterwards we are filled with shame and regret and despair of life. 

                Judas responded to his despair by taking his own life.  Suicide is the final act of despair.  The suicide rate in the US has been going up each year.  I imagine when the deaths related to Covid are finally tallied we will see a significant number of deaths were not from Covid but because of people’s despair over Covid and the Covid related isolation, economic losses, disenfranchised grief, increased substance abuse and loss of connection with faith communities and other sources of hope and meaning.  Judas’ story ends in a tragic death of despair.

                Jesus is also facing his own existential despair.  He’s been betrayed, denied, abandoned and rejected by his friends and followers and all his fellow Jews.  Jesus was beaten nearly to death and is alone on the cross and has all of the guilt and shame of the world heaped upon him.  In his agony and isolation he cries out to God in despair ,“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus is having the worst day of his life, just as Judas did and Jesus is in extreme pain, just as Judas was and Jesus was about to die, just as Judas did.  And yet, their deaths couldn’t be more different.  Jesus never lost his connection to and faith in his father, even at this point of greatest pain.  Even as Jesus cries out, he is praying and maintaining his connection to his faith tradition.  “My God, My God why have you forsaken me” is the opening prayer of Psalm 22.  This was a Lament Psalm.  The Hebrews were very familiar with suffering.  They had been slaves for over 400 years in Egypt.  They spent 40 years traveling in the wilderness.  They spent 70 years in exile in Babylon.  The Hebrews knew suffering and it was in suffering that God continued to sustain them and draw them back unto himself.  Every Psalm of lament, no matter how much hurt or pain they processed, no matter how angry or betrayed by God they felt, there was always a remembering of the ways God had been with them and helped them in the past, and there was the hope and trust that God would sustain them through the suffering and restore them to wholeness and joy.

                Jesus never lost his connection to the father, even in the depths of pain and despair.  He surrendered his life to God, but he did not take his own life as Judas did.  Judas’ tragic death ends with no hope for him.  Jesus’ tragic death ends with hope for him and for everyone.

                We all go through periods of hurt, pain, disillusionment, brokenness, anger, shame, guilt and pain.  When we go through those time we are in a moment of decision.  Do we give in completely to the despair and give up on God, or do we cling to faith, remembering God’s faithfulness in the past and hope in the future.  That will make all the difference in how our story ends.  It doesn’t have to end like Judas.  Jesus offers the path to hope and life.

-Pastor Jeff Fletcher

Still Loving the Unfaithful

Today’s Bible Reading – Matthew 26 and Exodus 1 & 2

                I hesitate to write very much about Matthew 26.  I would much prefer that you spend your time reading Matthew 26 than whatever I have to say about it.  It is a very emotionally powerful story about love and betrayal, desire and surrender.  Read it slowly and soak it in.  What is God saying to you as you read through the text?

                One thing that stood out to me was Jesus’ warning in vs. 31 that they would all “fall away”.  Two things I note about this.  First, Jesus knew that one of them would betray him, another would deny him and the rest would abandon him after he was arrested. Jesus knew this and yet he still broke bread with them.  Matthew doesn’t include it but we know from John’s telling of the story that Jesus also washed their feet.  It would be hard to wash someone’s feet even if they aren’t about to betray or deny or abandon you, yet so great was Jesus’ love for them that he did this for them knowing full well that they would be undeserving.  Paul would later write to the Romans that God showed His love for us in that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (See Romans 5:8).

                The second thing I notice is a recurring theme that keeps emerging in each day’s readings so far this week.  In Matthew 24 Jesus warns that many will fall away and that they should stand firm to the end.  In Matthew 25 Jesus warns that many will be unprepared (without enough oil to keep their lamps lit), lazy (burying their talents instead of working for their master till he comes), or apathetic (not caring about “the least of these” enough to help those in need.  Each of those stories is a warning about falling away from faithfully following Jesus.  Now in Matthew 26 Jesus explicitly says that they are all about to fall away.  But he still washed their feet.  He still gave them the bread and wine which symbolize his body and his blood.  He still loved them.  Jesus holds out hope for them that after he has been resurrected he would meet them in Galilee (vs. 32). 

                Jesus knows what it is to be human.  Jesus knows what it is to have great intentions like Peter “even if everyone else abandons you Jesus I never well” and then to fail miserably in no time.  Before the sun rose the next day Peter had already broken his promise to Jesus and denied three times that he even knew Jesus.  Jesus knew Peter meant well but was a weak and fallible human being, as they all were and as we all are.

                Who among us hasn’t made a new year’s resolution and before the month of January completely broken it?  Who among us hasn’t made a promise to a friend or loved one and failed to keep that promise? Who among us hasn’t made a promise to God that we would “Never” do that sinful thing again, and by the time we woke up the next morning we had done the sinful thing again? 

                Jesus knows how sinful we are and how sinful we will be, yet he still loves us, he still washes us (not just our feet but all of us in baptism) he still gives us his body and his blood and he still sets an appointment to meet us after the resurrection.  Does Jesus want us to fall away?  Of course not.  That’s why he warns us every way imaginable NOT to fall away, NOT to fall asleep, NOT to deny him, NOT to abandon him, NOT to fail to care for him by caring for the needy, NOT to run out of oil, NOT to bury our talents in the ground.  He wants us to stand firm to the end and not fall away.  But he knows that some of us will and he knows that all of us will mess up, but he still loves us.

                I can assure you, even though I’ve been a follower of Jesus for 46 years and a pastor for 35 years, I still mess up.  I’m still tempted by greed, by pride, by lust, by selfishness, by bitterness and hatred.  I’m thankful that I’m one of those sinners for whom Jesus died, and you are too.  Don’t fall away, but if you do, come back to the loving arms of Jesus.

-Pastor Jeff Fletcher

Listening to Jesus

Today’s Bible Reading – Matthew 25 and Genesis 49 & 50

                I Love stories, don’t you?

Here’s a story by CS Lewis found in the book: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as retold by Jennifer Neyhart:

               “Eustace is a character you kind of just want to punch in the face until his transformation experience with Aslan. He was arrogant, self-centered, and all around annoying to Edmund and Lucy.

On one of the islands the crew lands on, Eustace finds a dragon’s lair and is very greedy for the treasure. He puts on a gold bracelet and falls asleep, and when he wakes up, he has been turned into a dragon. Lewis writes, “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” Eustace had fleeting thoughts of relief at being the biggest thing around, but he quickly realizes he is cut off from his friends, and all of humanity, and he feels a weight of loneliness and desperately wants to change.

That night, Aslan comes to Eustace and leads him to a large well “like a very big round bath with marble steps going down into it.” Eustace describes the scene to Edmund after the fact. He says the water was so clear and he thought if he could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in his leg (from the gold bracelet he had put on when he was human). But Aslan told him he had to undress first. And doesn’t God ask this of us? As Lewis wrote in Letters to Malcolm: “We must lay before him [God] what is in us; not what ought to be in us.”

Eustace found that no matter how many layers of dragon skins he managed to peel off of himself, he was still a dragon.

“Then the lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”

“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off … And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…” – C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

 This scene always grabs my heart. It reminds me that I cannot fix myself. It paints a beautiful picture of baptism and transformation to new life. It humbles me as I put myself in Eustace’s place. And even long after our initial baptism we have the ongoing challenge of surrendering to God’s work in our lives which can be painful at times, even when it’s a good pain.

And I like Lewis’s note of narration at the end of this scene as well:

“It would be nice, and fairly nearly true, to say that “from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.” To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.”        

https://www.jenniferneyhart.com/2014/10/c-s-lewis-undragoning-of-eustace.html

End of Story.

Jeff’s comments:

                Stories have a way of capturing our attention and keeping our interest.  In a really good story like the undragoning of Eustace we might discover after reading it that it stays with us, that it somehow changes the way we see the world or the way that we are in the world.

                Jesus was a master storyteller.  Throughout the Gospels we hear him telling stories, and amazing stories they were as they somehow manage to transcend time and place and language and cultural barriers.

                In Matthew 25 Jesus tells three stories.  One story is about bridesmaids and oil, one is about masters and servants and bags of gold, and one is about sheep and goats.  Jesus told these stories just a few days before he was to be arrested, tried, condemned and nailed to a Roman cross and publicly executed. 

If you’ve ever been around someone who knew that they were going to die soon, you know that near the end of life people usually want to focus on those things which are most important.  They want to say “ I love you” to people they care about.  They want to say “ I’m sorry” to the people they have hurt or they want to say “I forgive you” to the people who have hurt them.  Since Jesus is running out of time and opportunities to preach and teach before his arrest you can imagine that what he has to say is very important to him. This is Jesus saying “I love you” to people he cared deeply about.

I encourage you to read and reflect on those stories in Matthew 25. 

Why is he talking about weddings and bridesmaids and having enough oil and the danger of missing out on the wedding banquet?  What does he want us to do or not do?

Why is he talking about a rich landowner going away on a long trip and leaving behind something valuable and asking his trusted workers to manage his valuable gold well?  What does he want us to do or not do?

Why is he talking about sheep and goats and why is he praising and rewarding some for the good things they do to help others (and him) and condemning  and punishing others for the good things that they fail to do to help others (and him)?  What does he want us to do or not do?

Spend some time thinking about each story.  Imagine yourself there in the story.  What’s it like to be a bridesmaid who wasn’t ready and missed out on your friend’s wedding?  What’s it like to be a worker who gets praised and rewarded for working hard when the master returns?  What’s it like to be called a goat (not The G.O.A.T. –a.k.a. Michael Jordan or Drew Brees) but a goat who failed to care for the sick, the hungry, the prisoners and the naked and gets turned away by Jesus?

Listen to Jesus’ stories and allow them to teach you whatever Jesus wants you to learn.

-Pastor Jeff Fletcher

Birth Pains

Today’s Bible Reading – Matthew 24 and Genesis 47 & 48

               I have never had a baby.  Shocker, I know!  As a male member of the human race the act of childbirth has and will forever elude my lived experience.  However, as a father of eleven Fletchers, I have spent many years of my adult life in the company of pregnant women, or more precisely, a pregnant woman.  I was there for all eleven births and I caught most of them (the last one came so quickly that I caught him solo).  All this is to offer to you my credentials that, although never directly experiencing labor, I have been present for enough births to recognize the various stages that women go through in childbirth.  Fun fact, for women who have more than one baby the Braxton Hicks contractions (otherwise known as false labor) can come several weeks or even months before the baby is actually born.  Braxton Hicks contractions are one way that the body prepares itself for labor.  It’s like an athlete doing warm up exercises before the actual event.   Muscles tighten and relax as they practice for the real thing when it comes. 

                Today’s devotion isn’t really about childbirth, it’s about being prepared for the return of Jesus Christ, the end of this present age and the preparation for the age to come, the Kingdom of God.  Matthew 24 is known as the “little apocalypse”.  Apocalypse is another term for Revelation.  In the Bible the book of Revelation is 22 chapters long and goes into a lot of detail about the end of this age and the coming of Jesus.  Matthew 24 is a condensed version, kind of a mini-sermon Jesus preached to his followers shortly before he went to the cross.  (You will run across parallel or “synoptic” passages when we get to Mark 13 and Luke 21 in just a few days/weeks).

                Jesus’ purpose here is to prepare his followers to be ready for times of great tribulation or distress that would come immediately prior to his return.  If you’ve ever read or heard a sermon about the apocalypse or the end of the world or Armageddon you probably are aware that Jesus warned that before things get amazingly better- ie. The New Heavens and the New Earth, Christ returning to rule over all the world bringing a final end to all sin and death and setting free the whole earth from the “curse” of death… before things get amazingly better, there will be a time when they become incredibly hard.

                A brief study of the history of the Church for the last 2000 years will show that Christians have gone through hard times a lot.  In the first 2 centuries the problem was the Roman Empire.  Followers of Jesus were often told that they had to renounce their loyalty to Jesus and declare their loyalty to Caesar alone.  When they refused, some of them were thrown to the lions or burned at the stake.

                Since Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire it has faced challenges in many parts of the world at different times.  In the 17th century Christian missionaries in Japan were killed for their faith.  In the 1930’s Christians in Germany who failed to support Hitler faced severe persecution and some, most notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were executed for resisting Nazism.  Christians in Communist China and the Soviet Union experienced incredible persecution during most of the 20th century.  There are places in the Islamic world today where Christians who attempt to proselytize Muslims face the threat of execution.

                Every generation of Christians since the first century could look at what was happening in the world and see the potential for the end of the world.  Jesus’ own disciples asked him right after his resurrection, before he ascended to God, “Is it NOW, Lord?” (Acts 1:6).

                2020 was a really challenging year with Covid, racial division, murder hornets, wildfires and hurricanes.  I had a lot of people asking me if I thought the end of the world was coming.  Perhaps you’ve wondered that yourselves.

                Matthew 24 is a great place to go when you start wondering if this is the end.  Like a woman who is going to have a baby, she may have “birth pangs” for a long time before the baby is actually ready to be born.  The same is true with the coming Kingdom of God.  I think every generation of Christians experience some amount of persecution or “natural” disasters or other tragedies that leave them wondering if the end could be near.  Just as Braxton Hicks contractions are God’s way of preparing a woman to give birth by having her muscles practice for the big event, God permits every generation to experience a certain amount of trials and tribulations to help prepare God’s people for the final “great push” that will occur right before Jesus returns.

                Jesus himself said that no one knows exactly when he will return.  He said that even he doesn’t know.  That is something that only God knows.  What Jesus does say to his disciples then and to us today is that we need to stay ready, we shouldn’t fall asleep in our faith.  He warns that as troubles and persecution increase and as the world becomes a less loving and more violent place that many of his followers would fall away:

                “At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:10-12).

                Jesus might come very soon. I can’t predict when.  All I can do is make sure that I’m ready whenever he does come.  I must make sure that I stay faithful and don’t turn away even if the persecution gets really bad.  I think Christians living in the United States are getting ready to face some real persecution in the near future.  In fact, I think we already are.  There is a lot of pressure to conform to the changing norms of society.  Cancel culture will not have any respect for Christianity.  Some of the things that the Bible teaches about how we are supposed to live, particularly in areas of morality, sexuality and gender norms are considered anathema by the current progressive climate.  As people place more value on becoming “woke” more followers of Jesus, young and old will be persecuted if they fail to change their values.  Remember, Caesar doesn’t like to be rejected as God, neither does the devil, and neither do the progressive elites.  In the wake of the coming persecution Jesus our Lord tells us to “stand firm.”

-Pastor Jeff Fletcher

Blind Guides

Today’s Bible Reading – Matthew 23 and Genesis 45 & 46

Yesterday we got to spend our whole devotion thinking about a great party and the thrill of receiving an invitation from God to honor His Son. Today – no such fun. The parties and parables are gone and today, in Matthew 23, we read only of strong warnings, harsh words, and blasting condemnation. This is the last recorded time in the book of Matthew that Jesus addresses the crowds. This is what he is going to leave with them – too important to not say. Anyone who believes Jesus would never condemn because he just loved people no matter what, just full of overflowing forgiveness and love, could benefit from a little sit down with Matthew 23.

It is clear that Jesus was not happy with these Pharisees and teachers of the law. He starts by warning the crowd to not be like the Pharisees as he begins describing them: they don’t practice what they preach, they make it harder for people to be godly, they love being honored by men and they pridefully exalt themselves. And then, speaking directly to the Pharisees and teachers of the law he lets loose on what has become known as the “7 Woes”. Six times he will begin with “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” and once with “Woe to you, blind guides.” Jesus uses some choice language to describe these men: son of hell, blind guides, blind fools, blind men (notice a pattern?), snakes and brood of vipers.

So, what in the world were these people doing that was so bad to receive this 7 part hellfire sermon. After all, we know Jesus often responded to people’s sins with mercy, grace and forgiveness and the all-important chance to start over. He hadn’t called the lying cheating thieving Zacchaeus a son of hell? What was different here?

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were supposed to be the ones to guide people to God. The Wiersbe Bible Commentary suggests there were about 6,000 Pharisees at the time – mostly middle-class businessmen who had devoted themselves to being separate – becoming the religious leaders who would show the Jews how to please God. And, some were indeed authentic in this quest (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are two named in Scripture). The crowd gathered was likely shocked to hear Jesus speaking of and to the Pharisees in this way because they had been taught (at least by the Pharisees themselves) to revere the position and spiritual leadership held by this Jewish sect.

What started out as a good goal became warped and ungodly. As the Pharisees kept puffing themselves up there was no room left for what really pleases God. They had become blind guides. And it is obviously very dangerous to follow a blind guide. They could lead you straight to somewhere you don’t want to go. And that is exactly the warning Jesus was giving the Pharisees and the crowd. “You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13 NIV).

The Pharisees loved the law and specialized in knowing and enforcing each and every little detail of a long long list of do’s and don’ts. This, they thought, would make God happy. But all the while they neglected the larger heart issues of justice, mercy and faithfulness. They mastered in the dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s, but failed to see that the novel they were writing with their lives was tearing down every attempt others were making to please God. They were quick to point out other’s errors, but saw none of their own. It became most important to them to look good before man. So important that they forgot about how to actually look good before God. They were puffed up and proud, greedy and selfish.


It is easy to read this chapter and shake my head and point my finger and say, “Boy, I’m glad I am not like one of them.” But, in so doing – I become like one of them.

Dear God, help me to do what is right – with a heart that is right. May I see the error of the Pharisee’s ways – and my own – and work to clean up my own insides. Help me be humble and not seek the honor of men. Open my eyes to who you are and what truly pleases you. Open my ears to the teachings of your Son, to not just know it but to live it. Help me guide others to you, not armed with a legalistic checklist, but with a heart of justice, mercy and faithfulness. In your precious Son’s name, I pray.

-Marcia Railton

You are Invited!

Today’s Bible Reading – Matthew 22 and Genesis 43 & 44

What was the best party you have ever been to? How did you get invited? What was your relationship with the host? With the guest of honor? Who else was there? What did you wear?

Or, maybe there was a party you were invited to that you didn’t make time for? Perhaps you didn’t really know the guest of honor that well so you weren’t too interested. Or maybe you were mad at the host so you stayed away? Or you figured it would be boring since they didn’t have (insert hobby/entertainment of choice). But then, come to find out – you missed out on the party of the century.

Jesus knew we like to talk about parties. Wedding receptions are particularly exciting – and royal wedding parties top the charts. So what a perfect parable and analogy for the Kingdom God is preparing. God is the King – and as host of the party he decides who to invite to this event of all events which will honor His Son – Jesus.

The guest list starts out somewhat small and elite which is very fitting for a royal party. The Jews were the first to be invited to the party. They could trace their heritage back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the fathers of the faith. But, they ignore their invite and the God who sent it. They don’t even RSVP. God sends his servants out as messengers (the prophets and those who speak for God) to remind God’s people of the graciousness of their host and the splendor of the party. But, the potential guests of the party are too deep into other things – their fields, their businesses, their homes, their selfish pursuits, their false gods. Most just ignore God’s messengers – but some decide the best way to decline the invite is through violence. In rage they attack God’s messengers, even killing some. For a time they may have thought they got away with it. But, God knows and delivers judgment.

The guests didn’t show but the party isn’t cancelled. God sends his messengers again. They hit the streets with new invitations. “Invite them all,” says the host. It no longer matters who your great great great grandfather was. It doesn’t matter who you were or what you did. Old, young, rich, poor, men, women, children, black, white, and every color in between. You are invited! And all your neighbors in the world are invited! Let the party begin.

But, wait – that’s not yet the end of the parable or God’s expectations. The host has indeed invited all and is ready to receive all into His Kingdom Party. But, you must come dressed appropriately for the party so you aren’t tossed out. No, God won’t check to see if you have a designer label – but He will check to make sure you have clothed yourself with salvation. To accept your invitation accept God’s Son as the only way to salvation. And then put on the robes of righteousness – seek to live the life that will bring glory to the Father and the Son. There are many passages that continue the analogy of being properly clothed with righteousness, not stained with sin – some are Job 29:14, Isaiah 61:10, Jude 23, Revelation 3:4 and 19:8).

The greatest party ever to come is about to begin and you and all your neighbors are invited. Don’t turn down the invite because you are mad at God or don’t know Jesus well or are busy at home and work. Accept His invitation. Come to the party. But don’t make the fatal error of trying to sneak in unprepared. Accept His Son and clothe yourself with righteousness. Make sure your neighbors know they are invited and help them select their proper attire.

And then – let the party begin!

-Marcia Railton