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

Are You All In?

Jeremiah 32-34

Jeremiah 32 25 NIV sgl

The religious reformer Martin Luther once famously said: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

I thought about this quote as I was reading Jeremiah 32 today.  Jeremiah is being held in prison by Judah’s king, Zedekiah.  The city of Jerusalem was under siege by the powerful Babylonians.  To hold a city under siege means that you have it surrounded.  No one gets in, no one gets out.  More importantly, no FOOD gets in.  Hold a city under siege long enough and the people will get hungry, and some will come out voluntarily.  For those who hold out longer, they will simply starve to death, or become so weak that they are unable to fight.  It was a strategy of war that was used for thousands of years.

God had told Jeremiah the prophet to warn Zedekiah and all of Jerusalem that they were going to fall to the Babylonians, their city would be captured and destroyed.  Jeremiah had been warning them for over 2 decades.  They imprisoned him just to try to shut him up.  But here they were, surrounded by the Babylonians.  It was only a matter of time until the Kingdom of Judah would be destroyed.

So with all the doom and gloom what does God tell Jeremiah to do?  Buy a field.  Now, if you know that an enemy invader is about to completely destroy your nation does it make sense to perform a real estate transaction?  If an asteroid is headed for earth tomorrow, does it make sense to buy green bananas today?  If the Zombie Apocalypse has started, is it really a good time to order all of your Christmas presents early on Amazon?  If the world is going to go to pieces tomorrow does it make sense to plant a tree today?  Luther thought so.    Jeremiah, knowing that Jerusalem was about to fall to the Babylonians, went ahead and bought the field, signed the deed and put it in a clay pot for safe keeping.  Why?  because he trusted God.

God said that all that was about to happen to Judah, the destruction of the temple, the arrest and death of the king, the exile back to Babylon, it was all going to happen, but it was only temporary.  Eventually, they would come back, the Kingdom would be restored, the temple would be rebuilt, and a new King would be installed to reign.  So the question for Jeremiah is, do you trust God to keep His promise?  Do you trust enough to “put your money where you mouth is” and buy the piece of land, keep the contract safe so that your heirs will have a piece of land to rebuild a house on and plant crops, and maybe an apple tree or two?  How much do you trust God?  Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?

Jesus would later talk about the “pearl of great price”  a treasure so valuable that someone would sell everything that they had to buy it.

Some might say that right now, in the midst of a global pandemic and societal disruption it feels like we are under siege from uncontrollable forces.  I’m not acting as a prophet right now.  God hasn’t given me exclusive insider information about how all of this is going to end.  Maybe we discover an effective vaccine?  Maybe we figure out a way to restore racial harmony?  Maybe not.  I don’t know.  Maybe we have another civil war and the United States of America will be no more?  I don’t know what’s going to happen with these current crises.  God used the powerful and evil nation of Babylon to punish His disobedient children 2600 years ago.  Maybe God is using disease, division, death and destruction to punish his disobedient children today.  Or maybe this is the devil doing what he does – “steal, kill and destroy”.

There’s a lot about our current situation I Don’t know.  But what I DO know is that God is still in charge.  God is still in heaven.  God is still all powerful.  God is still good. God made a promise that one day he would send His Son Jesus to bring a final end to sin and death, there will be a final judgment against sin, and there will a renewed heaven and earth and finally God Himself will make His permanent home in our midst (See Revelation 20, 21 and 22).  I still believe that to be true.  If I were a betting man in Vegas I would push all my chips onto that hand, I’d be “all in”.  I don’t know how much time I personally have left before Jesus comes again or before I close my eyes in the temporary sleep of death and await the resurrection, but this I do know, I’m betting it all on God.  I’ll buy that field.  I’ll plant that tree. I’ll spend every day of my life telling people that God is faithful and God is good and that Jesus is coming again. I’m all in.  I hope that you are too!

Pastor Jeff Fletcher

 

Today’s Bible reading can be read or listened to at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jeremiah+32-34&version=NIV

Tomorrow’s reading will be Jeremiah 35-37 as we continue our journey through the 2020 Chronological Bible Reading Plan

Backsliding

Jeremiah 30-31

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In the traditional hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” there’s a verse that includes the following line: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it Prone to leave the God I love.”

I invite you to just sit with that line for a minute….

Have you observed this tendency in your own life?  Are you prone to wander … to stray away from God?  While you are thinking about that let us consider the Nation of Israel, God’s people.  We’ve been looking all week at Jeremiah’s prophecies to the people of God some 600 years before the birth of Jesus.  They were a nation that was “prone to wander” away from God.  They kept wandering into idolatry.  They wandered into sacrificing their children to the immoral gods of their evil age.

There’s a term Jeremiah uses in several places in his letter.  The word is backslide.  That word is kind of an old and outdated word, but I’d like to dust it off for a minute.

Jeremiah 3:22 “Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings.” KJV

Jeremiah 14:7  “Though our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake; for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against you.” ESV

One definition of backsliding is: “To revert to sin or wrongdoing, especially in religious practice, someone who lapses into previous undesirable patterns of behavior.”

If you’ve ever had a bad habit that was harmful or sinful- smoking, eating junk food, abusing alcohol or drugs, viewing pornography, spending too much time looking at social media, etc…. if you had a bad habit, overcame that bad habit and replaced it with a good habit for an extended period of time, and then reverted back to the bad habit… that’s a kind of backsliding.

Israel had a pattern of religious backsliding.  They would worship idols, God would warn them or punish them and they would stop worshipping idols for a while, then they would start worshipping idols again.

After many years of backsliding,  God had to deal more decisively with their hard hearted and sinful ways.  Their whole nation was about to be torn apart, the temple destroyed, the walls of Jerusalem come down, the king and his kingdom would fall from power, many would be killed and many would be brought into exile.

In the midst of all of this doom and gloom Jeremiah says in 30:10, “Do not be afraid.”  How does one NOT be afraid when everything around you is about to come crashing down?  Here in the midst of all the doom and gloom Jeremiah gives them some good news or gospel.

God’s message to Israel is this-  “I am going to discipline you because of your great guilt and many sins” but the discipline is only for a limited time.  “After your discipline, I will restore you, you will come back to your land, you will rebuild your temple, those who I used to punish you will themselves be punished, and after I have regathered you I will raise up one of your own to be your king.”

This part of Jeremiah was written 600 years before the birth of Jesus, but it gives a clear and vivid prophecy of Jesus.  In Jeremiah 30:9 when he says that he will “raise up” “David their King” he wasn’t just talking about King David, who had died several hundred years earlier, he was looking ahead to Jesus.  Jesus is “one of your own” a Jewish man, a descendant of the kingly tribe of Judah and descendant of David.  God promised that he would raise up this king- and oh how he kept that promise when he “raised up” Jesus, who had been crucified and buried in the tomb three days.  He raised up Jesus from the grave and 40 days later he raised up Jesus into heaven (Acts 1:9).  One day Jesus will return to reign over all the earth in the Kingdom of God and he will be raised up and exalted over all the earth (see Philippians 2:9-11).

What happened to backsliding Israel?  Jeremiah 31:19 “For after I had turned away I repented…”  And how did God respond?  Jeremiah 31:20: “Is Ephraim (another term for God’s children) my dear son?  Is he the child I delight in?  As often as I speak against him,  I still remember him.  Therefore I am deeply moved for him;   I will surely have mercy on him says the Lord.”

Other words for backslide are “apostasy” or “fall away”.  Friends, I dearly hope that in your walk with Jesus you will not be one of those who are “prone to wander” or “prone to leave the God I love.”   Recently Pastor John Guthrie posted old pictures from RYOT and FUEL.  Some going back nearly 20 years.  It was fun seeing myself, other staff and many of the FUEL attendees of past days who are now adults with children of their own.  But it was also sad to see some of them who are no longer in the faith.  Some have left the Church of God, but even more disheartening, some have left the faith completely.  Some have backslidden, some have fallen into complete apostasy and are now living in a state of unbelief.  It can happen to any of us.  Don’t let it happen to you.  But if it has and you are reading these words… it’s not too late to repent and turn back to God.  For just as God remembered and delighted in backsliding Israel and had mercy on them, He will remember and delight and have mercy on you if you turn back to Him.

Pastor Jeff Fletcher

 

Today’s Bible passage, Jeremiah 30 & 31, can be read or listened to at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jeremiah+30-31&version=NIV

Tomorrow we will read Jeremiah 32-34 as we continue our 2020 Chronological Bible Reading Plan

His Love & Discipline

Jeremiah 26-29

Jeremiah 26 2b 3 NIV sgl

I love God’s optimism.  Sometimes God reminds me of a Jewish mother, always looking for the best in her son.

“Three Jewish mothers are sitting on a bench, arguing over which one’s son loves her the most. The first one says, “You know, my son sends me flowers every Sabbath.

“You call that love?” says the second mother. “My son calls me every day!”

“That’s nothing,” says the third woman. “My son is in therapy five days a week. And the whole time, he talks about me!”

God is optimistic like that: “Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word. Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from their evil ways. Then I will relent and not inflict on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done.” (Jeremiah 26:2-3).

God was more than ready to forgive them.  God had no desire to punish His people.  He gave them every opportunity to repent.  But instead of heeding the warnings of Jeremiah and changing direction, they wanted to kill the prophet.  Jeremiah was eventually spared, but the people still failed to listen to his warning and repent.  Babylon ultimately did conquer them and carry them back to Babylon in Exile.

Jeremiah warned that the exile would last 70 years.  Another “prophet” named Hananiah came back and said that in just 2 years they would all be back and everything would be okay.  Hananiah flat out lied.  He was spreading fake news (see yesterday’s devotion).  It ended up that Hananiah is the one who died and his prophecy did not come true.

Once the exile began there was no turning back.  But God had a plan for that time in exile.  It was actually to protect his people.  Just as their years of captivity in Egypt enabled Israel to grow from just a few people into a great nation capable of taking possession of the promised land, this time of exile was intended to be a time for God to both cleanse the land from idolatry and cleanse God’s people from their idolatrous ways.  While the exile might have felt like a punishment and a judgement, and it was, it was actually intended by God to help bring his people back to righteous living.

When a parent punishes a child, the healthy parent is not getting any joy from seeing their child suffer.  The old expression “this is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you” has a real basis in truth.  A loving parent punishes, or better – disciplines, their child out of love.  The child has been acting in ways that are ultimately harmful to themselves and they need correction.  After numerous warnings and Israel’s failure to heed those warnings and repent, God had to take bold corrective action.  But the intent and purpose is love.  They needed to be purged of their idolatrous practices which included sacrificing their children to the gods of the age.

The exile was intended by God to purge them of their idolatry and purify them as a people.  As they were living in Babylon they were to live as good citizens.  They were to “seek the peace and prosperity” of the place in which God had brought them (Jeremiah 29:7).  Babylon was certainly not a perfect place and had its own share of godlessness and evil, but God’s people were to live peacefully and seek the good of Babylon while they were there.

I would encourage you to read carefully the letter that God had Jeremiah send to the exiles in Babylon found in chapter 29.  This is instructive for Christians today.  As Christians in the world today, we are ultimately children of God, citizens of God’s coming Kingdom.  Our King is Jesus and he is currently in heaven, waiting for the day when he will return to earth and establish God’s kingdom.  So our citizenship is currently in heaven.  When our king comes and the earth is transformed, our citizenship will be here on the renewed earth.  Until that time, as we live here we are resident aliens.  I may be a US citizen in the United States in name, but ultimately, I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom living here as a stranger and foreigner.  Peter calls us exiles.  You and I are exiles living here just as the Jewish people were exiles living in Babylon in Jeremiah’s time.

As exiles here we should practice the same things that Jeremiah told the Jews in Babylon to do as exiles there.  We should get married, have families, increase in number and pray for the place we are living.  We are to continue the creation mandate given in Genesis 1- “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it etc…”  As Christians living here in exile we use our gifts to make the place in which we are living a better place.  Babylon was not perfect, but the people of God living there were to contribute to it being a better place to live.  America or Canada or wherever you happen to live is not a perfect place, but you as a Christian should live in a way and use your gifts and energy to make it a better place, until Jesus comes again and we are no longer in exile but enter into the fulness of the Kingdom of God.

Note that eventually, God brought judgment against Babylon.  That empire fell to the Medes and the Persians, and it was the Persians that made it possible for the people of God to return from exile to the promised land.  Let us seek the best for wherever we live, but when God decides to bring judgment against that place, it is all part of his plan, and he will watch over His people who remain faithful to him wherever we are.  And in the end, all will be well.

Pastor Jeff Fletcher

 

Today’s Bible passage, Jeremiah 26-29, can be read or listened to at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jeremiah+26-29&version=NIV

Tomorrow’s reading will be Jeremiah 30-31 as we continue the 2020 Chronological Bible Reading Plan