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Pastor Paul's Blog

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 20

Matthew 27:57-66 (NRSV)
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
 
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, `After three days I will rise again.' Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, `He has been raised from the dead,' and the last deception would be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
 
In the Apostles’ Creed, Ecumenical Version, that we recite frequently in our worship services, there is this line, “he descended to the dead.” It is difficult for us to ascertain exactly what this means. There are many opinions and ideas. Here is a link to an article that helps:
 
 
Where was Jesus in that period between his death on the cross and his
resurrection on Sunday morning? If “into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) as Jesus says, where is that spirit when not alive in the body of Jesus? I don’t think we can say with any certainty.
 
What we can say with certainty is our belief in the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ. With confidence we proclaim a Gospel for all people, that the God who does not wish for any to be lost, will go to any length to rescue us from our lostness. Who will be saved? That is not for us to say. But, we are confident that it is God’s will for all to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, for every knee to bow and acknowledge him as Lord, for the whole of creation to worship Him forever. We say, “he descended to the dead”, and even in death, the work of God is alive. And, in between, we wait for resurrection.

Daily Devotions for Lent - April 19

John 19:28-42 (NRSV)
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
 
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken." And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced."
 
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
 
The Greek word is tetelestai. It is the translation of the word that Jesus spoke just before he died. It means, in our language, “it is finished,” but there is so much more to understand. 
 
In seminary, our Professor told us that the term tetelestai was a term of commerce. If you went and purchased something and it was paid in full, the word tetelestai was marked on the invoice. It meant that the work was complete, that the payment was made in full. But there is one other facet to this: the Greek word also means that this work is forever finished! It can’t be undone! It is complete at that moment, and will be for all eternity.
 
On “Good Friday”, we remember the death of Jesus. Why we call it “Good Friday” is paradoxical, but ultimately what we celebrate is that in the death of Jesus, God has acted decisively, to breach the gulf between God and us, offering love and forgiveness and reconciliation, to mark that the debt of sin and brokenness was tetelestai, it is finished. That is Good News.

Daily Devotions for Lent - April 18

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."
 
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
 
"Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
 
We call it “Maundy Thursday.” The term “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum novum, which means “new commandment.” What is the new commandment? It is that we love one another.
 
The setting is Thursday, the night before Jesus dies. He gathers with his disciples, in an upper room, a room that has been prepared for this moment. The synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that this setting was when Jesus instituted the meal that we have come to know as Holy Communion, Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. John records that during the meal Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. This is an incredibly meaningful event. In the culture of the day, that task would have been the job of the lowliest of the servants. With dusty or muddy roads, entering the home would have necessitated the cleaning of the feet. Jesus moves from the role of the host of the meal, the highest place, to the lowliest place, the place of the servant.
 
The disciples are aghast. Peter, always speaking for the group, cannot fathom this and refuses to have his feet washed by Jesus. Jesus’ reply is one that is so accurate and telling. We can’t begin to know the meaning of this service completely, but the death of Jesus on the cross the next day is a key to the meaning of the event. Peter would not know the extent of Jesus’ love for us all until he experienced his death, and then his resurrection. Giving your life for others, daily, is what Jesus means when he says, “Just as I have loved, you also should love one another.” The world will know the love of Jesus Christ when they have seen, experienced, and felt our love for one another.

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 17

Matthew 26:6-13 (NRSV)
 
The Anointing at Bethany
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
 
While the timeline is not certain, this event likely occurs on what we would know as Tuesday evening of Holy Week. Jesus has returned to Bethany, about a mile and a half from the old city of Jerusalem, to be with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He dines with “Simon the leper” and while reclining at table, a woman comes in and pours expensive ointment on him. The disciples are indignant. In other Gospel accounts, it is Judas Iscariot who voices the displeasure of the group over this extravagantly costly, and beautiful act. His hypocrisy is revealed when it is stated in the Gospels that Judas was the keeper of the treasury of the disciples, and misappropriated funds from that purse. Other accounts have the woman crying and pouring her tears down on the feet of Jesus, then letting down her hair and drying the feet with her hair. 
 
How socially awkward this situation would have been! This woman, who is believed to have been Mary Magdalene, is breaking many social customs in performing this most intimate act. To have a woman engage a man at such a level in a public setting, and at the dinner table no less, would have been scandalous. Yet, Jesus praises the woman and the beautiful act, saying she has prepared his body for burial, and this act will be remembered because of its beauty and its significance. At such a high and holy moment, decorum and social niceties pale in importance to the raw emotion over what is transpiring. The Son of God is preparing to lay down his life for the world.
 
In keeping a timeline of Holy Week, Wednesday is a day that Jesus continued to go to the Temple to preach and teach there. The tension is rising with the religious officials and Rome is conspicuously eyeing this Messianic hopeful.

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 16

Matthew 21:18-27
18 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
 
The Authority of Jesus Questioned
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
 
Bethany is a town about a mile and a half from the Temple mount in Jerusalem. It was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. It is likely that Jesus stayed at the home of his dear friends on his trip to Jerusalem. The scriptures record that on Monday night, after he had cleansed the Temple, he went back to Bethany to spend the night.
 
It was on his way back to Jerusalem on Tuesday that the incident with the fig tree occurs. Jesus is hungry, wants some figs on a tree he spies, but the tree only has leaves. And in the story, Jesus curses the tree and it withers. Odd, don’t you think?
 
It is, unless you understand the imagery. Going back to the Garden of Eden, tradition holds that it was fig leaves that covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve. Reference to figs and fig trees abound. When the people of Israel are told that they will inherit the land of Canaan, it is to be a land of “milk and honey, of vines and fig trees.” In the prophetic book of Joel Chapter 2:21-25, Israel is likened to the fig tree and the promise of God’s abundance is to be restored.
 
So, when Jesus encounters this fig tree, and there is no fruit, only leaves, it is as if he is placing a judgment on the entirety of those who will not believe he is the Son of God, incarnate Word. The fruit he was looking for was belief and trust in him and in what he offers from God, forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead, he sees the barrenness and hard-heartedness of people who refuse to open themselves to life and light and peace that only He can bring. The withered fig tree is a symbol of the rejection of Jesus by the people called Israel.
 
In the next part of the passage, this story serves to echo the point of the parable of the fig tree. The learned, religious leaders of the people question the authority of Jesus, asking him to justify himself. Jesus is having none of it, turning the question around, exposing their hypocrisy and their scheming. The fig tree withers and dies when it does not receive the Creator and the life he offers.

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 15

Matthew 21:12-13
12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
 
On Monday, Jesus is recorded as entering into the Temple. There, according to all of the Gospels, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers and drives the merchants out as well. If this week is indeed a Passover week as we believe, then there would have been thousands of pilgrims in the city. They would have come to offer sacrifices as prescribed by the law of the Jews. The law required a certain animal be sacrificed, and what animal you sacrificed and the cost of that sacrifice was determined by your economic means. If you could afford to pay for a sheep, you sacrificed a sheep. If you couldn’t afford the sheep, you might be required to sacrifice a bird.
 
The system was controlled by the Temple authorities. Not only did you have to buy their animal to sacrifice, you had to exchange defiled “Greek” money for the proper Jewish money. Of course, there was a fee for that! This whole system victimized people and became an abomination to the sanctity of worship within the Temple to the one Holy God.
The thing that I have come to believe about this action is that it in essence signed Jesus’ death certificate. It was one thing for Jesus to teach and preach. It was one thing for him to heal, even on the Sabbath. But when he started messing with the economic system, taking money out of the pockets of the established leadership, then they would be out to do him in. And by Friday, he would be dead. 
 
What do we take from this action of Jesus in the Temple? Are we remembering that the places of worship Jesus establishes are to be places of prayer, and not dens of robbers? If not, we risk the ire of God.

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 14

Luke 19:28-40 (NRSV)
After telling a parable to the crowd at Jericho, Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
"Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!"
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."
 
As the church comes together today, we begin to commemorate the events of “Holy Week,” the events from the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem through the following Sunday, Easter Sunday. 
 
On “Palm Sunday” all four Gospels tell us that Jesus entered Jerusalem, on Sunday, to the celebration of an adoring crowd. Packed with symbolism, this descent from the Mount of Olives to the Holy City, Jerusalem, was also packed with irony.
 
A few years ago, I was blessed to visit the Holy Land. We walked the approximately half-mile path from the Mount of Olives to the gates of Jerusalem, the old city. As we walked, we passed the hundreds of graves that lined the hill that faced the eastern part of Jerusalem. We were reminded that the “eastern gate,” or the “Golden Gate” is the gate in which it was believed the Messiah would enter when he comes. After Jesus’ time, the gate was sealed by Muslim rulers, and remains closed to this day.
 
As we passed the graves, we noticed small, loose stones on the graves. Our guide, Dr. Bob Tuttle, reminded us that this is part of the Jewish custom to place the stones on the graves, say rather than flowers, to mark the permanence of the person who has died. It is likely that custom that Jesus is referring to when the Pharisees told Jesus to hush those who shouted after him, that if they hushed, the “stones would shout out.” Even the dead would come to life to honor the coming King, Jesus! There is so much to process about the events of Holy Week! I hope you will join in the journey.

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 13

Galatians 5: 13-14
13For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
 
I think there is a conversation that needs to be had in our world today that involves two concepts presented here: freedom and mutual accountability. On the one hand, Paul is arguing in this letter to the Galatians that there is a freedom in Jesus Christ that is mind-boggling. We are not under bondage to a set of laws as people have often perceived. The things we eat and drink, as Jesus says, are not the things that defile us. We have freedom in Jesus to think differently and recognize that our contexts lead us to understand things differently. Old ways of being and thinking cannot be contained in the new wineskins of the Kingdom that Jesus inaugurated.
 
And yet, there is that second piece that must be held with the freedom. Paul says we are not to use our freedom as “an opportunity for self-indulgence.” We shouldn’t flaunt our freedom, and do things that intentionally harm ourselves and the relationships we have with others. When Paul says we are “to become slaves to one another” he is appealing to a higher freedom than our own personal desires. Always doing as we please isn’t a freedom we should exercise. Instead, the idea of fulfilling the perfect law of God is “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
 
Notice here that Paul doesn’t put the phrase here that we normally see, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and might,” first. He shortens the statement to a simple, if you love one another, that is the essence of loving God! AMAZING, isn’t it?! The whole law is summed up in the single command to love one another. 
 
As people of faith today, how might we need to hear these seemingly opposite concepts as not being opposed to each other, but two sides of the same coin? How can we recognize the great freedom from laws and expectations that have limited us, but at the same time be held to the standard of a greater call, to love one another, as God has loved us? I think this would be a healthy conversation to have.

Daily Devotions for Lent - April 12

Jeremiah 20:7-13 (NRSV)
7 O Lord, you have enticed me,
    and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
    and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
    everyone mocks me.
8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
    I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
    a reproach and derision all day long.
9 If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
    shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot.
10 For I hear many whispering:
    “Terror is all around!
Denounce him! Let us denounce him!”
    All my close friends
    are watching for me to stumble.
“Perhaps he can be enticed,
    and we can prevail against him,
    and take our revenge on him.”
11 But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior;
    therefore my persecutors will stumble,
    and they will not prevail.
They will be greatly shamed,
    for they will not succeed.
Their eternal dishonor
    will never be forgotten.
12 O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous,
    you see the heart and the mind;
let me see your retribution upon them,
    for to you I have committed my cause.
13 Sing to the Lord;
    praise the Lord!
For he has delivered the life of the needy
    from the hands of evildoers.
 
Imagine, if you will, a Pastor/Preacher/Prophet standing on the steps of the Congressional building in D.C. and proclaiming that God was about to take the whole country down. Imagine how that person would be received if they proclaimed that judgment was about to come on the country from God because of sinfulness and the injustices the country was allowing. What would be the response to that person? 
 
Imagine, then, the person, Jeremiah, who’s lament we read for our devotional reading today. Jeremiah was told by God to take a piece of pottery and take some leaders to a public place and smash the piece of pottery before them all; and, to make the connection that just as he had destroyed the pottery, God is about to destroy the country. Just as the pottery is smashed to bits, God is about to bring the foreign enemy, the Babylonians, and execute judgment and wrath on the country because they would not heed God.
 
Jeremiah is the “weeping prophet” that is moved to proclaim this word from God. He finds he both loathes himself for speaking the message and faces the ire of the people for speaking it. Even his friends turn their back on Jeremiah, rejecting him for so boldly predicting that God is about to demolish Israel as a sign of judgment for their turning their back on God. Being a prophet like Jeremiah is not an easy thing!
 
How do we respond to the prophets of our day? When many preachers proclaim “prosperity gospel” and “positive/self-help messages,” what about when God raises up someone who looks at the injustices and horrors of our society and calls them what they are? Not many people are willing to sign up for the role of the prophet speaking the word of judgment and correction. You tend not to get invited to the cocktail parties and social occasions the world so relishes. You may not even like yourself for doing it. But, God calls certain people to speak even unpopular messages. What will we say about them and to them? 

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 11

Genesis 17:1–8 (NRSV)
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”
 
Names are important. It seems that the name we are given often is a determining factor to our identity. My Dad’s name is Moses. My brother’s name is Mark. Our names are drawn from the names of Biblical people. It is quite the heritage!
 
But God also changes the names of people as recorded in the scriptures. Think of people like Jacob, who became Israel, Sarai who became Sarah, and Simon, who became Peter, among other name changes. The names signify something God is doing in our lives.
 
In this passage, God changes the name of Abram, which means “exalted Father”, to Abraham, which means, “Father of multitudes.” In Hebrew, the only change is one letter from Abram to Abraham, but the meaning is greatly changed. To go from “exalted Father” to “Father of multitudes” changes Abraham from a place of power in a family system to a reality that God is going to fulfill God’s promise to the world in him. Abram is not to be exalted, God is through Abraham. Abram falls down on his face before God, a sign of his humility and submission to God’s Word, and an example to us that when we exalt God and glorify him, God’s greatness is revealed and our true identity is established. We are His, and it is God’s name for us that matters. 

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 10

John 8:31–42 (NRSV)
Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
 
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”
 
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.”
 
The tension that existed between Jesus and the “Jewish establishment” is on full display here. By the time John’s Gospel was written down in the later years of the first century A.D. that tension still existed. The tension caused the faith that came to be known as “Christianity” to break away from and be differentiated from Judaism.
 
Jesus was born wholly and completely into the Jewish identity. His family adhered to the customs and practices of Judaism. He learned the scriptures of the Jewish faith, said to those who would listen that he came to his “own” people, first. The tension that John highlights meant that by the end of the first century, in Jewish synagogues, one could no longer hold onto their Jewish identity and proclaim Jesus as the promised Messiah. A decision was required: to follow Jesus meant that you would be ostracized from the Jewish community.
 
In this passage, Jesus says, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The truth that Jesus refers to is himself. If you want to know the way of God, and follow the way of God, then Jesus is the One to follow. God has spoken in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It was so difficult for those who were caught up in the religious life of Judaism to see that God was doing something new and life-giving in his Son, Jesus. God continues to reveal God’s truth in Jesus. Is it possible that God is still revealing truth and our “religious establishment” is keeping us from seeing God’s truth in Jesus? Know the truth, let Jesus reveal to us His truth, and we will be free indeed.

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 7

Romans 5:1-5 (NRSV)
5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
 
Today I will help officiate the funeral service for my friend, Tony Causby, of Morganton, N.C. Tony died last week after a long, brutal battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Part of what I want to share at Tony’s service comes from this passage, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
 
Tony was in many ways someone I admired and respected. He was a great athlete. He is in the Pfeiffer University Hall of Fame for his achievements in baseball. He was great at basketball, golf, and any other sport he attempted. It came pretty natural to him, but through hard work he became even better. Tony had many traits and qualities that were to be admired.
 
When Tony contracted this disease, he had two choices, in my mind. Something like this can make you bitter, or it can make you better. The suffering/endurance Tony experienced in the battle made him better as a person. The grace of God produced in him an endurance, and the endurance produced a deeper character, and that character produced hope. Right before he died, I visited with Tony. It was an especially sad time, but also a hopeful time. I am confident that even with the end of this earthly journey in sight, Tony’s suffering, endurance and character had produced a hope as to who he was and was about to become. And, that hope surely didn’t disappoint when Tony finally won the battle with ALS, thanks to the peace that had come by faith in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
 
All of us will experience suffering of some variety, I have concluded. The question is whether it will make us bitter, or will it make us better? Tony serves as a model for me as to how even a challenge like ALS can produce in him something else for me to admire and respect. 

Daily Devotions for Lent - April 9

Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
 
I don’t suppose there is a more beloved passage, not only in Biblical literature, but all literature, than this Psalm of David, the 23rd Psalm. It is widely used in a variety of settings, but probably most often heard at funerals.
 
A fascinating line for me is verse 4, that says, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Of course, a rod and staff were used for the care and protection of sheep. The rod was a source of protection for the shepherd and the sheep, a way to fight off predators and attackers. It might also be used to correct the sheep when necessary. Sheep are notorious for wandering off. The staff was a multi-purpose tool for the shepherd, used as a walking stick, a way to grab sheep away from places when they would wander away and/or get stuck, handy among other uses, including re-directing the sheep.
 
We tend to be like sheep, easily wandering away from the shepherd, easily getting lost. We think we have our own lives figured out, and think we don’t need a shepherd. We typically don’t like the thought of God using the rod, or the staff, with us. God’s rod and staff are ways that God both protects and corrects the sheep of his pasture, and we are the sheep of his pasture. Can you think of ways that God has used his rod and staff to comfort you? Surely, God’s goodness and mercy follows us, all the days of our lives, and we will rest in the house of the Lord forever.

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 6

Romans 3:21-26
21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
 
In the United Methodist Church, we believe that grace is at the heart and core of our theological understanding. Grace is God’s unconditional love and unmerited favor. Grace is God’s initiative, not ours. Grace is the lens by which we begin to understand the activity of God in the world.
 
In the passage above, we find Paul saying, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift...” From this, we take a step even further from yesterday’s devotion, in which we said that “the righteous will live by faith.” Today, we find that even the faith that is the vital response to God is not somehow conjured up on our own, but is, too, an expression of grace (God’s activity). God actually works in us to produce the kind of faith/trust in Him that leads to righteousness!
 
Think of it this way: if someone is going to give you a gift, what is the only thing necessary? I think it is to reach out and receive it. It may require us to put something down that we were holding, but all we must do to receive the gift of faith/trust in Jesus is to receive it graciously. The gift that God gave in Jesus is not something to achieve, it is simply something to receive! What do you need to put down in order to receive this gift of grace?  

Daily Devotions For Lent - April 8

John 8:1–11
Early in the morning Jesus came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
 
It would be fascinating to know what it was that Jesus wrote in the dirt, wouldn’t it? We can speculate that maybe Jesus wrote the sins of some of the people who were bringing the woman,“caught in the act of adultery,” before him. We can speculate that maybe he wrote revealing words that shamed the shamers. Maybe he wrote the name of the man involved in the affair, who is conspicuously absent in the scene? Whatever he wrote, the situation was resolved, and she lived.
 
I think we have represented in this passage a microcosm of the challenge we face in today’s society as far as morality. I think we all agree that not every behavior, sexual or otherwise, can and should be tolerated. Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong. Behavior that is destructive, against God that demeans and injures, can never be accepted or tolerated. 
 
Yet, we have the issue revealed in this passage about the hypocrisy of those who want to condemn others without dealing with their own sin. “Let anyone among you who is without sin throw the first stone” would require that we recognize that none of us is in a position to condemn because we all have sinned and missed the mark. So, what do we do with this and how do we both hold the standard of acceptable behavior and yet not condemn others when we ourselves stand condemned?
 
I think the answer is humility. Jesus is the only one who can condemn, and the only one who can save. He is the only one who can proclaim absolution, and only He can change the heart of a sinner. Whatever rocks we hold in our hands we need to put down. But, we need to hear the voice of Jesus, and speak it faithfully, when He says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Daily Devotions for Lent - April 5

Romans 1:16-17
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
 
In our Men’s Bible Study on Tuesday mornings, we have been journeying through Romans (for a long time!). We have been working with the above passage as the focal point of Paul’s message. There is no doubt in my mind that this passage is one that is critical to the message of Romans and for us, but is still a struggle for us to grasp even today. 
 
We are taught in our lives to “be good.” We teach our children to “be good” (because Santa Claus is coming to town). We reward our children with prizes and trophies and accolades for successes. So much of our religious training, especially for children, boils down to “be nice.” Yes, it is important to follow rules and model good behavior, but for what purpose?
 
Living in righteousness (the right relationship with God), Paul says, is by faith, or trust, in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. This good news (Gospel) is the power of God for salvation, not the good works we do. The one who lives in the right relationship with God will be the one who wholly and completely trusts in what God has done, not how good, or well, we have lived. This is such a paradox for most of us, so antithetical to the way we were brought up.
 
“Being good” is important, but it only allows us to see these attempts at good works as a response to what God has done in Jesus Christ, not as a way to attain the right relationship with him. In other words, the gifts God brought to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (as revealed in the stories of Christmas and Easter), are what leads us to expressions of gratitude and good works, in thankfulness for what God has already done. We need not be ashamed of this! It is good news for us all!