Love and Truth

Matthew 15

January 15

We have used the word love to describe Jesus and his ministry many times in the last few days. And that is certainly true. But we would be creating a grievous error if we thought love was all that mattered to Jesus. Jesus’ ministry was about love and truth. Truth and love.

In Matthew 15 (and throughout the gospels) we don’t see a soft and cuddly pushover full of love and open arms. Indeed, Jesus is still love, but that includes love for the truth and love for those being led astray by deceit and human traditions. And sometimes love looks a little harsh when it is armed with truth.

The teachers of the law in Jerusalem were so curious about this Jesus. A delegation was sent to find him and question him. It would have been an 80-90 mile hike, or a 4-7 day journey from Jerusalem to the Gennesaret valley west of the Sea of Galilee. They were committed to this search for answers. How will they be received by Jesus?

There were a lot of Jewish laws and traditions about what to eat and not eat and what needed to be done surrounding the meal (like ceremonial washing of hands). The disciples and Pharisees were shocked to hear Jesus say that it wasn’t what goes into a mouth that makes you unclean, but what comes out of it. The disciples were also a bit surprised, I think, that Jesus answered the Pharisees the way he did, asking him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (Matthew 15:12). It is certainly NOT our purpose to try to be as offensive as possible when in religious discussion. And, it is wise to remember we don’t have all the wisdom of the Son of God. But, neither ought we be willing to keep the saving truth from those that might disagree with us, just because it would be more polite – or loving – to be silent.

How will you mix love and truth as Jesus did?

-Marcia Railton

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Jesus warned against following traditions of men that lead you to break the commands of God. What are some examples of how this could happen today? What are the benefits and drawbacks to following the traditions of men? What are the benefits and drawbacks to following the commands of God? Which would you rather follow? What will that look like this week?
  2. When is tradition a good thing? When is it a bad thing? Are there any traditions you are currently following that are not helpful in drawing you closer to what Jesus wants to see in your life?
  3. How can you bring truth and love into the lives of your family and those you are closest to? How can you bring truth and love into the lives of those who may not understand you or may outright oppose you?

When Evil Wins

Matthew 14

January 14

What do you do when tragedy strikes? How do you respond when it looks like evil has triumphed? How do you handle great loss?

In Matthew 14 we get to see how Jesus reacted. He had just heard about the fate of his relative and fellow worker, the man who had prepared the crowd for his own arrival – John the Baptist. John must have been such a blessing to Jesus. John was the one who knew and believed and spoke for Jesus first. He had performed the baptism in which the dove and the voice of God announced that Jesus was the loved son of God. I am sure that had been an incredible bonding moment for both of them. And now John was dead. Too young to die, he was just a few months older than Jesus. He still had more work to do. He had been so faithful.

To compound emotions, John’s death had been a violent, vengeful, plotted beheading at the hands of Herod the tetrarch (which means he was a ruler of one quarter of the region formerly ruled by his father Herod the Great). Herod the Great had been the one who had ordered the death of all baby boys 2 years old and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem, trying to assassinate young Jesus because the Magi had told him the star they were following signaled the birth of a new King of the Jews. Jesus had escaped the grasp of Herod the Great. But, now Herod’s son, with assistance from his twisted family tree, had murdered Jesus’ kin, John, who had boldly told Herod he had sinned by marrying his living brother’s wife. Evil had triumphed in this round. The righteous man John was dead while Herod, Herodias and her daughter lived and celebrated the death.

Jesus’ first reaction is to get away – alone. “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” (Matthew 14:13). There may have been some tears. There may have even been some angry outbursts, perhaps. Or maybe not. We don’t know exactly. But he was wise in seeking a moment of stillness and quiet – just him and God. It doesn’t say he prayed – but we know Jesus. For example, see what he does next time he is able to be alone (Matthew 14:23).

The crowds aren’t sensitive to Jesus’ needs, but they know they need Jesus so they seek him out and disrupt his quiet time. Rather than rebuking them or running away, Jesus compassionately makes time for them and meets their needs. In fact, the next 24 hours are going to see some of the most amazing ministry and miracles Jesus has with the crowd and with his disciples. Many more sick are healed, thousands are fed with one small lunch, and Jesus and Peter walk on the water! And, between it all, Jesus gets in some more quiet time with his Father.

When faced with tragedy, loss, heartache and evil it is easy to be tempted to give up or give in. Jesus shows us how to give it to God (again and again) and continue the fight. Jesus knew the war was not over. This round went to Herod, but there was more to prepare for. There would be more battles. There would be more sick, hurting, hungry, and scared to care for. The victor has not yet been crowned. We look forward to that day! Until then, give it to God and continue the fight.

-Marcia Railton

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What loss have you faced? During your lifetime when has it looked like evil has won a round? What was your first response? Were you able to get back in the game? Do you benefit from quiet alone time with God? If so, how? If not, what’s missing?
  2. Jesus invited Peter to get out of the safe boat and come join Jesus ON the water in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night. And Peter got out of the boat! What would you have done? What would Peter have missed if he had stayed in the boat? Can you think of a time you courageously tried something new for Jesus? What could you do with Jesus if you were willing to step out of the boat?
  3. Peter was walking on the water with Jesus!! He began to sink when he saw the wind and was afraid. What fears are you sinking in? What could you do with Jesus if fears didn’t hold you down? How can you keep your eyes on Jesus instead of on your fears?
  4. Jesus rescued Peter and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” What tone of voice do you think Jesus used? How do your own doubts affect your relationship with Jesus? Did John the Baptist ever doubt? What did he do? What evidence can you find to counter your doubts?

Master Storyteller

Matthew 13

January 13

I was excited to see that Matthew 13 begins with the Parable of the Sower because that is definitely one of my favorite parables. And then there was the Parable of the Weeds – oh that’s a great one, too. And, the Mustard Seed and Yeast. As well as the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl and finally, the Fishing Net. I believe Matthew 13 is the home of more parables than any other chapter of the Bible -but please correct me if I am wrong. It’s been a long time since I was in junior high, but I still remember Joyce Knapp, my junior high class Sunday School teacher, describing parables as earthly stories with heavenly meaning. Jesus was a master at telling stories about common, everyday things everyone listening would know about (fields, farming, seeds, yeast, weeds, fishing nets), and creating out of it a deeper spiritual, godly lesson. He didn’t give long confusing lectures filled with mile long words that you need a masters level degree to understand. He wanted to make it as simple as he could so that anyone willing to listen with an open mind could learn, even while knowing that many would not get it because they didn’t want to change or didn’t think they needed what Jesus had to offer.

What was it Jesus was offering? What was the point of all these earthly stories with “heavenly” meaning? It is interesting that Matthew is the only gospel writer who uses the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like…” to introduce many of Jesus’ parables. In fact the term “kingdom of heaven” is only found in the book of Matthew (31 times – and 8 of those are in Matthew 13). The other gospel writers, as well as Paul in his letters, refer instead to the kingdom of God (even Matthew uses this term 5 times). When Matthew was writing with the Jews in mind he knew they took very seriously the commandment to, “Not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7) So, in order to remain guiltless it might be better to not use his name at all. So, when speaking of God and godly things, Matthew often replaced the word God with heaven as that is the throne of God and it would be understood that he was speaking of godly, holy matters belonging to God, without having to risk misusing his name or offending a Jewish listener. These parables are not about being whisked away to heaven when you die. Indeed, they are very much grounded in what is happening on earth both now and in the future judgment. These parables of the kingdom of heaven/God are down-to-earth stories illustrating spiritual/Godly matters.

Take some time today reading and even rereading these parables. Each one has a gem hidden for those who will listen and seek. Each one reveals a little more about what Jesus found most important, what God is preparing, what is required, what is most valuable, what the evil one is up to, what is promised, what are dangerous challenges, what is worthy of sacrifice, what judgment will look like, what is to come, what will be. It’s a treasure hunt in Jesus’ parables. What does the Master want you to find in his stories?

There is one verse that really struck me as I read and re-read Matthew 13. It seems to say perfectly what discussed earlier this week about not throwing away the Old Testament but adding to it the love and beauty of Jesus and what he taught and what he has done and will do. After telling 7 parables Jesus asks his disciples if they are getting it. They reply yes. Then, “He (Jesus) said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.'” (Matthew 13:52 – NIV) The teacher of the (Old Testament) law who learns and lives by these (New Testament) principles spoken by Jesus and recorded by Matthew as the kingdom of heaven parables and teachings has double the treasure – both old and new.

What treasure in His Word will you find today? How will you use these treasures to make a difference in your life? How will you use these treasures to make a difference in someone else’s life?

-Marcia Railton

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Which of the Matthew 13 parables is your favorite today? Why? What is the lesson Jesus was teaching? Why is this important? How can you apply it or put it into action today?
  2. Jesus chose perfect illustrations for his parables. Even 2,000 years later, even if you are not a farmer, you know what happens when a seed is planted. Even if you have never been fishing, you understand how a net works. But consider how you would create a parable with one of these same teachings using a modern day illustration.
  3. Consider the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23). What 4 types of soil did Jesus mention and what do they stand for? What happened to each of the seeds? Have you seen these 4 instances occur to others? What kind of soil best describes you right now, and in the past? What lessons can you learn for evangelism from this parable?

Add Love to the Sabbath

Matthew 12

January 12

Jesus is at it again. Back in Matthew 5 we discussed how Jesus didn’t abolish the Old Testament but he breathed new life into the old laws with his teachings. The most important thing wasn’t following the letter of the law but having the heart of Jesus – adding love. Here in Matthew 12 the Pharisees are upset that Jesus’ disciples picked some heads of grain to eat when they were hungry on the Sabbath. Picking some grains is a lot like harvesting and harvesting is work and work is not allowed on the Sabbath. The Pharisees loved nit-picking the law, making it really hard for anyone to succeed in following the law, thus finding fault in everyone else, which they thought made themselves look better. Their microscopic vision into the smallest detail of the law took the focus off of the big picture – how are you doing at being God’s people. The law had been given by God to create a healthy, righteous people devoted to God and kind to others. But this extreme fascination with catching everyone’s slightest mistake was not healthy, righteous, kind, or pleasing to God. Instead of the law being used to make a holy people for God, it was being used to divide and tear down and pull people further from their love for God. The law was good. Their use of it was not. It wasn’t time to throw away the law. It was time to add love.

The purpose of the Sabbath was to put time (a whole day) aside to stop busyness and focus on rest, worship and loving God. It was given as a gift by a gracious and loving God who knew what people would do if they didn’t take time to rest and refocus. He knew all healthy relationships take time and this was the perfect opportunity to add a date day with God on the calendar – every week. A mini-vacation with God and family every 7th day. It’s a great way to create a spiritually, mentally, physically healthy people for God. But the benefits dwindled when the Pharisees turned it into a legalistic checklist of don’t do this and don’t do that.

Jesus wisely gave the Old-Testament-loving Pharisees two examples from the Scriptures of cases where the Sabbath regulations were broken by Godly people doing Godly things, and God didn’t strike them down dead. In fact, He seemed to approve of the exceptions to the rule. Likewise, Jesus is confident God also approved of him healing, doing good and helping others on the Sabbath.

In calling himself the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus wasn’t saying he was the Lord of something that ought to be thrown out because it had outlived its usefulness. No. He recognized the worth of the Sabbath AND the good that could be done during a day devoted to God. It wasn’t about a checklist and Sabbath day spies making sure you aren’t breaking the law. It is about a day to focus on God, your relationship with Him and the good that He wants you to do for Him. It is a day devoted to loving God and loving others to help us refocus and build our spiritual muscles to take us through the next 6 days doing His will in love.

-Marcia Railton

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Does your week generally include a Sabbath day of rest and devotion to God? If so, what does it usually look like? What do you appreciate most about it? Do you do it more for what you gain from it, or to please God? (either answer is legitimate). If you don’t normally include a Sabbath rest on your calendar, do you see value in trying a Sabbath rest? How might it look different from your typical day? What would be challenging about making this change? What benefits might you expect to see?
  2. Re-read Matthew 12:33-37. This week have you been producing good fruit or bad fruit? How so? What about your words? Why do you think your words are so important – at least one of the things you will be judged by? Do you find it easier to say the right thing or do the right thing? Were there any words you said recently that you wouldn’t want Jesus to repeat to you on judgment day? How can we stop careless words which will get us into trouble?
  3. Jesus welcomes us as a part of his family, if we do what? (Matthew 12:50) On a scale of 1-10 how are you doing in this area? What could you do today to boost your score? What benefits are there for those who are in Jesus’ family?

What Jesus do you See and Hear?

Matthew 11

January 11

Having just sent out the 12 for the job he had trained and empowered them for, Jesus took a beach vacation. No, just kidding, that’s not what Matthew 11:1 says. Jesus hit the road, too, teaching and preaching in the towns of Galilee. He met up with a lot of different people along the way and he had different responses and directives for them based on who he was talking to or talking about. In a humble way he answered the questions the followers of John the Baptist asked about who Jesus was, saying look at the evidence. Consider what you see and hear. We would be wise to also follow this advice when examining who this Jesus was – and is – and will be. Jesus is known as being a man of love who spoke wisdom. And that is so true! Let’s consider what we see and hear from Jesus in this chapter to see what we can learn of him.

Jesus commends John the Baptist. It is obvious he knows John well, and thinks very highly of him and the job he has done, even comparing him to the Old Testament prophets. However, Jesus doesn’t hold John on such a high pedestal that no one else can reach him. In fact, he curiously states that, “He who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

Jesus points out inconsistencies and short-comings in the understanding and actions of his generation. He pretty much calls them immature (like children). He calls them out for their critical, know-it-all spirit. They don’t like John the Baptist and his ministry. He is doing it wrong and they know better, he must have demons, the people said. Then Jesus comes along and they don’t like Jesus and his ministry, either. He is doing it differently, but still wrong and they know better, he must be, “A glutton, and a drunkard and a friend of tax collectors and sinners”, the people said. (Matthew 11:19) When in fact, it wasn’t the current generation that knew what was going on at all. It was Jesus who saw clearly what they had completely missed, more than once.

Jesus continues with harsh (but righteous) judgment for those cities that saw his miracles and knew of his ministry but did not repent (change, turn from their sins to begin a new life). He said it will be worse for them than it will be for Sodom (which was totally destroyed), because if Sodom would have seen the miracles of Jesus they would have surely repented.

People love the “Come-to-me-I-will-give-you-rest” Jesus. That appeals to many in this tired generation. Today even the loved-the-sinners Jesus is quite popular. Perhaps we are more comfortable with sin now than those in Jesus’ time who couldn’t handle Jesus because he wanted to be with the sinners. Loving the sinners like Jesus loved is the hip modern thing to do, as long as the sinners (including me) aren’t required to actually repent and change, right? Or, perhaps it was Jesus’ love for them that made him want to be around sinners, so they could see and hear him in action, so they would see the need to change, so they would indeed repent, so they would be spared the judgment coming to the unrepentant.

As a whole it seems, we would rather dismiss the woe-to-you-unrepentant-people Jesus as a bit outdated and unpopular. But this Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He spoke different things to different people based upon their response to him and His Father. The love-the-sinners Jesus is indeed the same as the woe-to-the-unrepentant-cities Jesus. Jesus is love. Jesus is judgment. What will he say to me? That will depend on how I will respond to him?

-Marcia Railton

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What words might Jesus have for your generation? For you? What might he see (and say) clearly that others have not?
  2. Is there an area of your life that is in need of repentance – changing/starting over, giving up the old sins, in exchange for a new life? What’s your motivation? How will you start? Who can help? What would Jesus say?
  3. What are your feelings as you read through this chapter? Any verses you are confused about? What do you think God’s purpose was for including each section in this chapter?

Jesus Has A Job for You

Matthew 10

January 10

One result of the covid pandemic that we find ourselves struggling with is the shortage of workers. Packages may take longer to be delivered, restaurants are slower and have shorter open hours (if they aren’t closed up altogether), hospitals and emergency crews are operating on a skeleton workforce. It makes life – and saving lives – hard. There is another life-giving job that also seems to have run into a worker shortage, beginning at least two thousand years ago.

In the final two verses of Matthew chapter 9, Jesus tells his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:37, 38 – NIV) Immediately after this statement, we have the whole passage of Matthew chapter 10 in which Jesus is giving final instructions before sending 12 new recruits out into that harvest field. He’s preparing his disciples for what they will face in this new job. And, it’s a tough picture he paints.

First of all, let’s look at the job description given by Jesus. Their mission is to go to the lost sheep of Israel, preaching that the kingdom of heaven is near (which should be sounding familiar now as we have already heard this from both John the Baptist and Jesus). And, when they aren’t preaching they will, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:8) Simple enough – just doing a little raising of the dead in their spare time in between sermons. We may be starting to see why there’s a worker shortage. Much is expected and it is far from an easy job.

Before you start any job – easy or hard – it is important to know what the employer will provide to help you do the job well. Does the position come with a company car? What does the training look like? Did you catch the opening line in Matthew 10:1? “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” They were going to be well-outfitted to do this difficult job. These men weren’t acting on their own power alone. They had participated in an amazing on-the-job training program and they were stepping out armed with the authority of Jesus. They had been changed from their time with Jesus and now they were empowered to go and do likewise – to tell others about the coming kingdom and change lives. As Jesus said so well, “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)

A good employer will warn his new hires of the difficulties they will face on the job. Jesus certainly did. Isn’t it better to know what to expect, even if it’s not what you wanted. He warns his disciples of rejection, trouble with the local authorities, being beat up and arrested, deep family division and rebellion, hatred, persecution, and the sword. This is what it may look like to carry your cross on the narrow road. Preaching Jesus and the kingdom saves lives, occasionally at the cost of the preacher’s life. It’s a job hazard. That helps further explain the worker shortage. Even when the difficulties are not to the point of physical pain and death, being hated is hard.

But what about the benefits of the job? Surely it has some good ones to make anyone willing to take this job. Yes, let me tell you about the benefits! How about life, eternal life, salvation. Picture standing before God with Jesus at His Father’s side and Jesus introduces you as one of his faithful workers. The pain will all be worth it.

On the flip side, imagine the one who gave up on the job (or never started), the one who decided it was too hard, the job demanded too much, the one who turned his back on Jesus’ job and went the other way on the wide road, through the wide gate. Whoever disowns Jesus before men, will be disowned by Jesus in front of the Father. (Matthew 10:33)

There is a job to do. And, the worker shortage continues. Will you work for him? Will you tell others what he has done for you? Will you step up and be one of the faithful, regardless of the difficulties? In the end, it will be worth it.

“All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)

-Marcia Railton

Questions for Reflection & Discussion

  1. If you have served as a worker for Jesus in the harvest field (carrying your cross and following him), what was the hardest situation you have been in? What did you learn from the experience? What do you think Jesus would say to you after this experience?
  2. Create a poster, advertisement or commercial for more workers in the harvest field. Don’t forget to include the great benefits and job training.
  3. What job can you do for Jesus today? How will you “preach”? How will you change lives? How will you take up his cross and follow him? What might you run into? What might it cost you? How have you been prepared and equipped? Pray before taking on today’s job for him.
  4. At the time of Matthew 10 the disciples were just to go to the lost sheep of Israel, not to the Samaritans or Gentiles. Why do you think these were the original directions? Did it change? If so when and how and why? (Hint: Matthew 28:16-20)

The Heart of Christ

Matthew 9

January 9

I believe Matthew 9 gives us an excellent glimpse into the heart of Christ.  Let’s start at the end of the chapter.  Matthew 9:36 tells us, “When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Remember these crowds were filled with tax collectors and sinners – people rejected by polite society – people rejected by the religious leaders of the day.  And yet Jesus’ first instinct was that of compassion.  To understand the significance of this, let’s remember that Jesus was the only sinless person ever to walk the face of the earth.  One would naturally think that whatever sins cause us (sinful people) to cringe, would cause Jesus to be horrified.  And yet Jesus had compassion because the people coming to him were harassed and helpless.

If we now back up to Matthew 9:35, we see what he did because of his compassion, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.”  Jesus was interested in helping these people who were helpless in and of themselves.  He first met their most basic need – their spiritual need – the need to be reconciled with God – by preaching the good news of the kingdom of God.  If all Jesus cared about was people’s salvation, I suspect he would have stopped there.  But in addition to preaching and teaching, he healed every disease and sickness.  This again points out that Jesus was deeply concerned with the people themselves, and cared about what the people cared about – and solved the problems they faced.  The only explanation is that Jesus genuinely loved these “unlovable” people.

Let’s look at some of the other stories in this chapter.  The chapter begins with some men bringing a paralytic to Jesus.  Jesus was so eager to help the man, he didn’t wait for anyone else to even speak, and just jumped in with, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” – almost as if Jesus just couldn’t wait to help the man.  Jesus jumped right to the most important problem – reconciling this man to God.  Then, to prove he had authority to forgive sins, he demonstrated his power again by completely healing the man.  The crowds were in awe, and praised God.

The next section talks about Jesus’ calling Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him.  Jesus didn’t only tolerate those society rejected, he actively sought them out.  It was at Matthew’s house that Jesus’ enemies accused him of eating (coming in close fellowship with) tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus’ response, in Matthew 9:12-13 was, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  Mercy.  God desires mercy, and Jesus was demonstrating it.  And I would argue that one cannot really demonstrate mercy without first loving the target of that mercy.

The chapter goes on to detail other miracles, including raising a dead girl back to life, healing a woman who had been subject to bleeding for 12 years, and healing two blind men.  All in addition to the summary at the end, saying that he healed every disease and sickness throughout all their towns and villages.

For me, if I had to define Jesus with a single word, based on this chapter, that word would be Love.  Love we can’t even fully comprehend.  God-like love.  

1 John 4:16 says, “… God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in Him.”

John 5:19 tells us, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

-Steve Mattison

Questions for reflection & Discussion

  1. Does Jesus care about the things that concern you?  (Hint:  read Matthew 11:28-30)
  2. If Jesus loved the people of his day, how much must he love you?  
  3. How has he demonstrated his love to you?  
  4. What is your response?
  5. If Christians are supposed to “imitate Christ” what would that look like in your life? (Hint: read John 13:34, Philippians 2:3-8, 1 John 2:6)
  6. How are you measuring up?

Jesus vs. Demons

Matthew 8

January 8

Jesus has just finished his impressive Sermon on the Mount and many are following him. They hear something different in his teaching and are drawn to him. Now, it’s time for them to see something different! Jesus is not all talk. He shows them the love and power of God which God gave to His Son to put into action to make believers, to convince the people that the Messiah was in their midst. Jesus is incredible to watch. He conquers disease, isolation, paralysis, suffering, fevers, demon possession, storms and the elements. He teaches a better way (add love) and he demonstrates what that looks like, with a healthy dose of God’s power.

Jesus is not scared of the leper who has been ostracized, feared and shunned because of the painful sores on his body and this contagious disease. Rather, he stops, listens, reaches out his hand, touches him, and heals him with compassion and power.

Likewise, he heals the Roman centurion’s servant (without even touching or seeing him) because of the faith of the centurion. He heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever and she responds by serving him. He heals the sick and demon-possessed and in a mighty way he calms the storm and amazes his disciples.

Those are all great accounts of awesome acts, but today I want to look a little deeper at the last events of Matthew 8 – the healing of two demon-possessed men in the region of the Gadarenes. It is certainly not because I have a wealth of information to share with you about demon-possession. It is indeed one of those Bible topics I know is in there, but still have a lot of questions about. It might be easier to try to ignore it and read right over it – but then I would be missing a chunk of Jesus’ life and power and I don’t want to do that. And I can’t help but feel that if I understand this a little more…there could be something useful for me to learn and put into action myself today.

So, what do we learn about these specific demons from this passage?

They are powerful and violent and have control over people even in a physical manner.

They are smart in spiritual matters. They recognize Jesus as the Son of God! They know that there will be a time coming when Jesus will do battle against them and torture them. (Matthew 8:29)

Despite all the power these demons have displayed over people, and the fear they have instilled in others, they are now in Jesus’ presence (since he was bold enough to go where others wouldn’t). And in Jesus’ presence they are begging him. They realize the Son of God, Jesus, has power over them. They have more than met their match.

And then there are the townspeople’s reaction to Jesus! They hear that Jesus has freed these two men from the demons that controlled them and terrorized their roadways. And they learn that Jesus had sent the demons (as per their request) into a herd of pigs which then rushed down the steep bank and drowned in the water. And their response is to plead with Jesus to leave town, leave them alone. They had grown accustomed to the demon possessed men. It might not be pleasant, but it was what they knew. They were used to their violent ways and were practiced at trying to avoid personal injury; maybe some demons weren’t too bad to have around. After all, the townspeople were still able to raise their pigs and have a decent way of life.

Until Jesus came around. He freed the men and sent the demons packing, but the pigs were lost. The people feared what they did not know. And, they were likely a bit upset about their material loss.

Help me to not grow comfortable in the presence of evil. Help me never be more attached to my material goods than to what is right. Help me to see clearly evil for what it is. And help me see clearly the power of God for what it is. Help me to see the power God has given Jesus over spiritual darkness and demons – then, now and in the future. Help me always choose good over evil, whatever the cost.

-Marcia Railton

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1 – What’s the worst storm you have ever been in? How would you react (both that day, and the following month) if Jesus had appeared in the middle of it and calmed the storm with his words? How did the disciples react? Why do you think Jesus calmed this storm but not all storms?

2 – Did reading this chapter make you think of any questions you have for God? Talk to Him about them.

3 – Jesus wasn’t afraid to help the outcasts, touch the lepers, and go where others wouldn’t dare. If Jesus were in your town today where do you think we would find him?

See Clearly

Matthew 7

January 7

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1 – NIV) Its a loaded statement. We don’t like to feel judged and told that we are wrong, so we won’t judge and tell other people they are wrong. And so this single verse is used to justify, and even demand, blind acceptance of others and all their deeds. You are free to be gay – I have no right to judge. You are free to have the right to an abortion – I have no right to judge. You are free to believe you are a woman when God made you a man – I have no right to judge. You are free to hook up with anyone anytime you want – I have no right to judge. And that is what some would have us believe a good Christian should do. Let them be them and accept them for it. Their way is just as good as my way.

Only trouble is – the rest of this passage continues.

“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2 – NIV) If you use a yard stick to measure yourself but a meter stick to measure others, they will always be coming up short. It is not a fair and right judgment or measure. It is skewed in your favor to make others look less than. They just don’t measure up to your greatness.

Here’s a little true story example – I have been known to be put out and upset when someone I am waiting for is running late. How could they inconvenience me by not operating more according to my clock and my time schedule? Only trouble is, yesterday I was caught by a train (it happens here in northern Indiana – the crossroads of America) and I didn’t show up exactly when someone else was expecting me, but of course my tardiness was excusable, because it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t know a train was going to be coming, etc…. It is not my right to condemn, chastise, be upset with others if I am not willing to be measured in the same way. Late is late. And, in actuality, it’s not my clock or their clock that really matters anyway – but what does God’s clock or measuring stick or word say? That is what matters.

The passage continues, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the PLANK in your own eye?…You hypocrite, FIRST take the plank out of your own eye, AND THEN you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3, 5 – NIV). If a brother has a speck in his eye and there was something loving you could do to help him get that irritating, painful thing out, wouldn’t you want to? Wouldn’t God want you to? But, how much help could I be in this delicate operation if my own eye has a beam sticking out of it? I can’t see clearly to help others out of sin when I am swimming in it myself. That sin in my own life is first priority. I must deal with it. Get rid of it. It may hurt like crazy to pull that beam out – but until I do, my usefulness to help guide and correct others is gone. Pull it out. Heal. See Clearly. Then, I can help others, with the same word of God, same guidelines, same measuring stick and same mercy and compassion that saved me.

It is very true I am not the judge and the jury. God is and He will share that job with His Son. But I DO have a responsibility to watch myself closely, to hold myself accountable to the Word of God, and to be very aware of what is happening around me – including the sin that so easily entangles.

All paths are not created equal. Some – the narrow ones that not many people are willing to stay on – lead to life. Others – the wide, easy, popular ones where the majority are – leads to destruction. It would be foolish of me to not be judging which path I am on at all times. See clearly the two paths.

We are told, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). This will require VERY keen eyesight and insight. We will have to be wise in judging what may at first seem right and true but in fact is cleverly disguised, dangerous, deadly lies which are leading many down the wrong path. Watch out! See clearly those who are deceiving and being deceived. Blind acceptance will take you somewhere you do not want to go.

Make sure you are not sitting in the house of the foolish builder as the wind picks up. Many in that house have heard the word of God. They may profess Christianity and call him Lord and even seek to serve him. But they are not acting any different from the world. They are not doing the will of God. They have grown comfortable with the plank in their eye. They have befriended the wolf in sheep’s clothing. They have failed to put Jesus’ words into practice. They are on the wide path approaching the wide gate that leads to destruction.

Get out and move to the house of the wise builder before the downpour comes! Hear Jesus and listen. Do what he says. Take the plank out of your eye. See clearly. Help your brother take the speck out of his. Don’t make friends with the wolf just because he dressed up like a sheep.

See clearly. All paths are not the same. All houses will not stand. All choices are not okay. All churches will not be saved. Some will lead to life. Some will lead to death. Use the same measuring stick – God’s Word and the teachings of Jesus. And put it into practice! See clearly. Judge roads and gates and houses and wolves wisely. Your life truly depends on this.

-Marcia Railton

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What was the difference between the wise and foolish builder? What fate awaited each? How can you put into practice the words of Jesus from Matthew 7 today?
  2. When we were introduced to John the Baptist and to Jesus we were told what they were preaching – see Matthew 3:2 and 4:17 to remember. Are any lessons from Matthew 7 connected to this preaching theme? If so, how?
  3. Is it easier for you to see your own sins or the sins of others? What advice does Jesus give? Pray to see clearly your own sins first so you can deal with them.
  4. How do you feel when you read Matthew 7:21-23? How does it relate to the rest of the chapter? How can we live now to avoid hearing these words from Jesus?

To Worry or Not to Worry

Matthew 6

January 6

What do you find yourself worrying about?

Finances, relationships, life decisions like which college or what job will fit you best, what people think of you or your family, pandemics, what your test result will be (covid test, spelling test, pregnancy test, SAT test, etc…), who will play with you at recess, the health of your parent, your child, your grandparent, your pet or yourself, how you will pay your bills, if your clothes are fashionable, global warming, flights and travel plans (or the lack thereof), government instability, natural disasters, and the list goes on. And on. And on.

There is a lot we can worry about. And the last two years hasn’t helped our worry levels. Anxiety is on the rise across all ages, but hitting young people especially hard. How can we help protect ourselves and our kids from the damage done by worry?

Worry does not change what will happen or what has already happened. (Though so often we waste much time worrying about what never happens at all.)

Worry does not change how well or how poorly we will respond to what does happen.

Worry does steal our thankfulness.

Worry does make us feel bad – and has a proven strong link to depression.

Worry does strip our focus off of God and His goodness and love and righteousness.

Can we agree that worry isn’t helpful? That we will be better off spending as little time as possible stuck in a worry cycle? So what do we do when we catch ourselves (or one dear to us) catching a ride on the worry train?

Yesterday I read a suggestion to limit yourself to a specific 5-15 minutes a day to worry. If you catch yourself worrying any other time of the day tell yourself it is not the time to worry now, but you will do that at the prescribed worry time (say, 6:10-6:20 pm). Interesting idea I have not tried yet.

But, I can tell you what HAS worked for me, and my family and friends, over and over again. Three times in the last three days I have heard and experienced the overwhelming power of turning to God in His Scriptures to combat our worry and anxiety.

A dear friend was worried about a new job possibility that appeared to be a closing door. She wisely decided to put a hold on her worried thoughts and instead took the time to write out her Bible passage for the day which happened to be about new beginnings. And when she was done – the phone rang with some positive information about the job.

My husband was stuck in a hotel overseas concerned about not receiving a negative covid test result so he could begin work he had been sent to do. It appeared there was nothing to do but wait and worry. Until, he decided to use the time instead to do the last 2 days of Bible reading and devotions. When he was done – the email came with the negative results and he got to work.

I was struggling with a decision that was weighing heavily on me for the past two months. But Monday was my deadline. I needed to contact my boss to let them know if I was going to pursue a job opportunity with them or not. I was worried about making the best decision and what it would mean for me and my family and those I would (or wouldn’t) encounter at work. I was struggling to know what I wanted..and what God wanted. Early Monday morning I was preparing the devotion on John the Baptist from Matthew 3 but wanted to check on some background information so turned to Luke 1. And, there was my answer as clear as could be, repeated twice in Luke 1:41-44. The letter has been written and peace has been growing while the worry has been wiped away. God sent the answer to my worry when I was in His Word. I know I didn’t give a lot of details, but ask me later and I can fill in the rest of the story but the important part is that in God’s Word the worry disappeared.

It sounds almost like magic. But, it’s not. It’s God at work. And God at work beats me at worry any day! And it happens again and again. My son has a great story about finding peace in his college decision when he was faithful in his Bible reading. Two generations earlier my mom has a similar story of the same peace discovered in scripture regarding a previously worrisome huge move and new job for her young family.

Often the answer and peace doesn’t come the same day. When our youngest was in elementary school she struggled with worry – especially at night. She would lie in bed long past bedtime thinking of what might go wrong the next day or the next year. Together we created some posters of Philippians 4:4-9 and stuck them to the wall by her bed. Here’s verses 4-7, but you might want to look up 8-9 as well and you can make a beautiful poster for your bedside, too.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

It didn’t happen overnight, but she read and re-read those words every night. She put those Scriptures deep into her memory and into her heart. She turned to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Under those circumstances worry had no chance to thrive. Over time her worry shrank and her peace grew and she slept soundly. She still does.

There is a lot we CAN worry about. And the worry can mess with our mind, diminish our health, steal our sleep, damage our relationships and take us deeper into depression and further away from God’s will for us. Or, we can SEEK HIM. Open the Bible He’s given to you where He reveals Himself and His answers for life and peace. Seek Him in prayer, just as Jesus taught. We can rest in peace knowing God is at work. He is feeding the birds. He is growing the lilies of the field. He is supplying answers. He is giving peace. That doesn’t mean that every day will be easy and no troubles will come. It just means that God is still there in those trials. He still has a plan. He still loves. He still guides. He still provides. He is still right. He still has a Kingdom like no other coming around the bend. Seek Him, His Kingdom, His righteousness. Rest easy knowing it’s gonna be alright. God is at work so I don’t have to worry.

-Marcia Railton

Reflection and Discussion Questions

  1. What did you used to worry about that you don’t worry about any more? What changed? Are you worried about something now? Do you think you will also be worried about it next year? 10 years from now? In the Kingdom? How could seeking God’s kingdom help take care of a worry problem?
  2. Describe an environment in which worry grows. Describe an environment in which worry can not thrive. Which environment do you want to live in? What steps can you include today to start changing your daily schedule and environment to reduce worry?
  3. Philippians 4:4-9 says prayer helps replace anxiety. In Matthew 6 the Lord’s Prayer, fasting, and teaching on our treasures all accompany Jesus’ teaching on worry. What can we learn about prayer from these passages? What pieces do you see in the Lord’s Prayer? Any aspects of Jesus’ prayer that you feel your prayer life could use more of? If so, practice adding those into your prayers today.
  4. How can you use the lessons of prayer and not worrying to help someone else today? Who?
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