We’re so glad you found our website. Whether you’re visiting us from another part of the world, or from right here in the Huntersville, North Carolina area — welcome!

We’re so glad you found our website. Whether you’re visiting us from another part of the world, or from right here in the Huntersville, North Carolina area — welcome!

We’re so glad you found our website. Whether you’re visiting us from another part of the world, or from right here in the Huntersville, North Carolina area — welcome!

Pastor Paul's Blog

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 19

Matthew 18:21–35
Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
 
"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, `Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
 
A favorite Pastor of mine, Rev. Dr. Bruce M. Morgan, once preached a sermon that I’ll never forget. In one sentence, the sermon could be summarized as follows, “Humanly speaking, some things are so grievous to us that it is impossible to forgive, but with God we can, and must, forgive.” In the sermon he started by saying that some things require no effort for us to forgive. Someone bumps into us, accidentally, “no worries, you’re forgiven.” But then there are those heinous acts, so profoundly hurtful and destructive that they seem impossible to forgive. And they are, unless we have God and an awareness of the necessity of forgiveness.
 
In this passage, hear first a reminder of how many times we are to forgive. The number is not 7, 77, or even 70 times 7. These numbers are symbolic of a greater understanding, that we are to forgive as often as necessary. And then this parable is told by Jesus of one who is forgiven a debt, but then fails to forgive someone else. The parable has a clear message, a message that all does not end well for the one who wouldn’t forgive. 
 
It doesn’t seem possible, but with God’s help we can forgive even the unforgivable. May this be a reminder to us all of the necessity of forgiveness. 

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 18

Luke 6:27–38

Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

If this passage reveals the essence of the Christian faith (and I believe it does), then who can be a follower of Jesus? Who among us loves our enemies, prays for those who abuse us, offers our other cheek when struck, and gives to everyone who begs from us? Who among us doesn’t judge, who among us forgives? My experience has been, not many of us.

Make no mistake, this is a difficult teaching. And if our failure to live up to this teaching disqualifies us from following Jesus, and receiving the gift of salvation, then we are in a bad way. Thankfully, it does not. Our belief is that Jesus died and rose again to overcome our failures. But, this in no way diminishes this word Jesus gives.

I think the last line in this passage is the one that says it well. If we want to live the good life, the life that Jesus offers both in the here and now and in the world to come, life begins when we recognize this truth. The measure we give is the measure we get back. In other words, what we put into something is what we can expect back. It is a pretty simple formula. As I write this, I am watching the NCAA basketball tournament show. Every coach on every team will be saying the same things to their teams. To put your heart and soul into each day, to work hard at being the best we can be, to trust that faith is not a destination, but a journey, is the answer! 

Who shall we forgive today? Who will we bless? Who should we give to? Who should we offer our other cheek? Jesus is offering us a way of life that will not be easy, but promises that the measure of blessing we will receive is amazing!  

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 17

Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I am has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you':

 This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.”

 “You don’t really begin to know someone until you know their name.” I’m not sure where I heard that, but I think it is true. Names are important. I work hard at learning people’s names and have found that people are pleasantly surprised when you remember their name.

 In this passage that is part of the defining story of Israel, the Exodus story, Moses is called to action. He is uniquely qualified to lead the people of Israel out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt to God’s promised land due to his being raised in the home of the Pharaoh. Now, God is going to send him with a message of deliverance.

 The scene begins with a burning bush, but unlike every other bush Moses has seen burn, this one wasn’t being burned up. As Moses turned (curiosity matters) from the bush came a voice. Take off your shoes, the ground on which you are standing is holy ground.

 Then, Moses is charged with the responsibility that he wants no part of. You, go, for me, to speak to Pharaoh to let my people go. So Moses starts bringing out the excuses, among them “I don’t know your name.” And God says, as I have been taught, my name is “I AM.” In Hebrew, that is written, “YHWH”. It is the divine name and is considered so holy in Judaism that it is not said or written. Instead, it is often substituted with names like Jehovah, or other forms of God’s name.

 Note that the divine name is like a verb conjugated, something like this:

I was                 was

I am     what I     am

I will be              will be

 The name speaks to the timelessness of God, as he is past, present, and future. He is not bound by time and space and is eternal. One can only imagine that upon hearing the divine name, Moses was mesmerized. Knowing the name of God is a first step in learning to know God.

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 16

March 16, 2019
Luke 4:1-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Temptation of Jesus
4 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    to protect you,’
11 and
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
 
The following reflection is shared, with permission, from my friend/brother, James P. Marsh, Jr. (Jimmy) I was moved by it and hope you will be as well.
 
Weekly Gospel Reflection
After his descent into the river, Jesus gives himself to another downward journey. He has been blessed, and now will be tested. It will not be a scripted act for show. It was not a done deal that he would pass.
He was led into the wild by the Spirit*, to a place of long shadows. Like a mother walking her child to school, hand in hand…a bag packed full of affirmation and courage for the classes ahead. Other than the stories of his people coiled tightly around his heart, he’s as naked as the day he came. There is no hiding place in this desert. Just dust and his desires. Turning loose his Mother’s hand, he hears her clear call, “stay until your work is done.”
Near the end of forty days, the hunger brings him before his shadows. Having waited patiently to overtake him, they speak. In the desirous emptiness, he listens. Those temptations can be distilled into one: Complete control.
In the quiet and barren calmness, his sleeping desires awaken. If they didn’t, it’s all a sham. To name a simple thing, being tempted means you want it. And he did, which makes him just like us.
On this ragged edge, he unwraps a handful of his people’s stories, like golden gifts, and summons the courage to leave all that control alone. Holding fast, fed by a Mother’s promise that she’ll be waiting, he looks off into the distance, and finds himself free.
-Jim Marsh, Jr., Bread of Life Church
  • Where are the “long shadows” in your life?
  • What do you hunger for? What are the temptations hidden there?
  • Is there a “golden gift” that you unwrap in a time of temptation?

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 15

Genesis 37:3–4,12–28
Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
 
Now his brothers went to pasture their father's flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them." He answered, "Here I am." So he said to him, "Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me." So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
 
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, "What are you seeking?" "I am seeking my brothers," he said; "tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock." The man said, "They have gone away, for I heard them say, `Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him" -- that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
 
Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
 
Jealousy is a hideous thing, is it not? Here we have one of the more well-known stories of the Bible, especially Children’s Bibles. We tend to focus on Joseph’s “technicolor dreamcoat” and not on the real meaning of the passage.
 
Joseph was the perceived favorite of his Father, Israel (or Jacob, as he was renamed after a famous wrestling match with the angel). The mother of Joseph, Rachel, was the favorite of the wives of Jacob, and likely why Joseph was perceived as the favorite, as it was in his old age that Israel (Jacob), had Joseph.
 
The older brothers see the favoritism and they are jealous. In the story, they eventually plot to kill Joseph, but then brother Reuben talks them out of that plan, and into a plan to simply sell him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver (sound familiar, Judas?). 
 
Jealousy is not uncommon among siblings. In fact, this story resonates with us because sibling rivalry is so common. In our complicated relationships with our parents and among our brothers/sisters, we often hear of families torn apart by them. It is as if our need for love, from our parents primarily, is diminished if we feel they also love our siblings. What a tragedy that is.
 
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my Mom one day in my kitchen, right before the birth of our second daughter. I was quite in love with our first daughter and having a bit of trouble in my heart over making room for another child to love. I shared that with my Mom. Her reply, “Love doesn’t divide. Love multiplies. You don’t have to stop loving one, in order to love another.” How true that would prove to be, as I have grown to be equally in love with all three of my daughters.
 
How true it is, too, for the love of our heavenly Father. He doesn’t have to stop loving us for him to love others. In fact, we find that love grows when we are able to love the rest of God’s offspring. We need not be jealous. His love doesn’t divide, it multiplies!

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 14

Luke 16:19–31
Jesus said, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
 
A few years ago, I heard a lecture by Dr. Tom Long on this passage. He pointed out a fascinating aspect of this parable. He said that most of the parables of Jesus are earthly stories that have a heavenly meaning. For example, the story of the Prodigal Son is a story of a son and his father’s unfailing, unconditional love and acceptance. In the story we come to realize that the story is a portrait of God’s love for us, and ends with a celebration that mirrors heaven’s joy when a child is reconciled to the Father.
 
In this parable, however, Long points out that here we have a heavenly scene that offers us a message for our earthly existence. In this parable, we have a rich man (not named), dressed in the royal color purple, feasting extravagantly. At his gate outside his home lay a man, named Lazarus, who is poor, diseased, and is hungry. The implication is that the rich man ignored the plight of the poor man, Lazarus. By his inability or unwillingness to share his resources with Lazarus, he seals his fate. Lazarus dies and is taken to be in the place of comfort and joy, the bosom of Abraham. The rich man dies, and is taken to the place of torment, Hades. 
 
Pleading with Father Abraham, the rich man asks for water to satisfy his thirst. No can do, says Abraham. You are getting what you deserve for ignoring the needs of others on earth. Then, the rich man pleads that if that is the case, then would someone go and warn his family that this is what happens when we ignore the plight of others. Well, Abraham says, they had the prophets, the preachers and the like. Then send Lazarus, please, because they’ll listen to him (he’s dead). No, Jesus says, if they weren’t convinced then, having someone rise from the dead won’t work either. 
 
Is Jesus right? He was raised from the dead. Are we listening to him, or ignoring him as well? This heavenly scene, with Abraham and dead people and warnings and chasms, teaches us an earthly truth. Will our call to follow in the way of Jesus lead us to be able to see who is at our gate, who may be hungry and diseased and dying for attention? The answer to that question seems to have eternal consequences.

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 13

Matthew 20:17–28
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”    
 
    
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
 
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
 
I think we tend to prize ambition in ourselves or those close to us, while not appreciating it in others. In our culture, ambition is constantly on display, people putting themselves forward for recognition and gain. Reality TV shows come to mind as an example of pretty normal people putting themselves on display out of an ambition to be recognized. It is not always pretty to see.
 
In our reading for today, we see an ironic connection. In the first part of the passage, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem, where he will be arrested, convicted, beaten and killed, but will rise again. Then, we have the “mother of the sons of Zebedee” (James and John), putting forward her sons for the office of “right and left-hand men” to Jesus. In the other Gospels, James and John ask for this position themselves, but here it is their Mother ambitiously putting them forward for cabinet positions in this new Kingdom Jesus is inaugurating. You don’t get it, Jesus replies. Are you ready for what this means? Are you, too, going to drink the cup of death that I am about to drink? Foolishly, they reply, “we are able.”
 
It is almost humorous to see the reactions of the other disciples. They are angry with James and John over their ambitious request, or maybe they are just angry that they didn’t get the request in first. We tend to prize ambition in ourselves and those whom we love, but not so much in others.
 
Jesus then reverses the culture and world as we know it and live it. If you want to be great, serve! If you want to be known for something, be known as the person who gives your life for others. Just as Jesus came not to be served but to give and serve by offering his life for the world.  The implications of this are huge. How are we living this out in our lives? Are we angling for wealth, notoriety, and significance at work, at church, and in the community? Or, are we answering the call to promote others, to take on the tasks that no one else wants to do, to put the needs of others before we fulfill the desires of ourselves?
 
I think of my friend, Bill Osborne, who died last year. Bill served “important” roles and leadership positions in the United Methodist Church, but at his funeral we remembered Bill for how he promoted and advocated for others. He was known for teaching a Sunday School class in retirement, for washing dishes and taking on roles at his church no one else much wanted to do.  I think of Pam Aiken, our Church Council Chair, who time after time has grabbed a broom or a mop bucket and jumped in to do what needed to be done. I see others who lay down their lives for our church and community in ministries like Room in the Inn, Loaves and Fishes, Not Here, Nifty Needles, and more. We are called not to be served, but to serve, and offer our lives as a blessing for others.   

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 12

Romans 4:13-18
The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be."
 
In our Tuesday morning Men’s Bible Study we are studying the Book of Romans. We have been studying the book for SEVERAL months now. The depth of the book has made it a treat for us to study and has fostered great conversation.
 
We have looked at the book believing that one of the primary points of emphasis Paul makes is found in Chapter 1, vs. 17, “. . . The one who is righteous will live by faith.” Paul makes an extended argument to support this idea in the following chapters, and in this section he contrasts a righteousness (right relationship with God) through adherence to the law, versus a righteousness through faith in what God has done through Jesus.
 
Jewish tradition says that there are over 600 laws that are found in the scriptures we call the “Old Testament,” over 600 laws! If we are to attain a right relationship with God by adherence to the law, how can we possibly accomplish that by not offending one of the 600 laws? On the contrary, Paul argues here that Abraham received the promises of God based simply on believing they were his. It was not based on Abraham’s adherence to a set of laws and regulations. As a matter of fact, Abraham preceded Moses and the giving of the law. And, Paul argues, “where there is no law, there is no violation.
 
What does all this mean for us? I think many of us believe that we can attain a right relationship with God based on how well we follow the rules. We won’t. And believing we can will only set us up for further disappointment and disillusionment. Instead, trusting that what God has done in Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, is enough. The righteous will live by faith, not in their capacity to follow 600 rules.   

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 11

Matthew 25:31–46
Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
 
This parable fascinates me. It is a parable (a story that makes a point by drawing a comparison, usually from a common, everyday experience) that often gets misinterpreted. In looking at this particular parable, we often draw the conclusion that if we help people in need, we are “sheep” and we get accepted into heaven. Conversely, if we ignore the needs of the poor and in prison, the prisoner and the sick, then we are goats and we face “eternal punishment.” This, in my opinion, is not the focus of the meaning of the parable.
 
To understand this parable, we have to see it in the context of its place in the Gospel of Matthew. It is the last word before the Passion stories (stories of Jesus’s death). It is part of a series of stories that point to the end of the age. These are stories of how things will be when Jesus returns and inaugurates his Kingdom. 
 
To understand the parable we also have to understand sheep and goats, which the readers of Matthew would have. Goats are independent, strong-minded creatures. They in many ways are self-sufficient. They will eat virtually anything. They can survive on their own for a while, not really needing the shepherd’s care that closely. Sheep are vulnerable. If they get on their backs, they will die if someone doesn’t help them up. They are weak, utterly dependent on the shepherd for their well-being. They take their emotional cues from the shepherd. 
 
So, the story depicts a scene in which the Son of Man (Jesus) separates those who were reliant on themselves (the goats), and those who were reliant on the shepherd (the sheep). The sheep will be surprised to discover that they have been transformed by their relationship with the shepherd, moved to be in relationship with other sheep who needed the care he provided. Conversely, the goats will be shocked that they have been left out of the blessing. They say that they, too, would have helped others had they known that is what had been expected by the shepherd. Self-reliance and self-interest may not be the qualities that qualify one for the Kingdom.
 
So, sheep are looking to the Shepherd, modeling the life and character of the Shepherd, especially when it comes to the care others. The point of the parable? If you are a sheep, be listening and following the Shepherd.

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 10

Luke 4:1-13
After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written,
'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'"
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
'He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,'
and
'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
 
The sermon series that I am offering our church this year is centered around the difficult to understand faith affirmation that Jesus was both divine and human. We tend to err in one direction or another, in my opinion. We can focus, as some do, on Jesus as just a good man, a prophetic figure, and deny his oneness with God. Or, we can tend to focus on the divinity of Jesus, and sometimes deny important aspects of his humanity. For example, in this passage from Luke, we have Jesus being tempted by the Satan. The Satan tempts Jesus, to turn a stone into bread so that he will not hunger, to bow down to Satan to save all the hurt the world faces because of the deceiver, and to put on a brilliant display of power to impress. We tend, in my estimation, to minimize the temptation Jesus would have felt in this exchange. Though he was God in human flesh, I believe we are to recognize the real struggle this exchange would have been for Jesus.
 
Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In other words, Jesus did face in the fullness of his humanity every temptation we would face. He was tempted to take shortcuts. He was tempted to worry about relevance. He was tempted to focus on his own needs, rather than on the will of the Father. Yet, he remained sinless. We won’t. 
 
Why does this matter? It matters because we believe in a God who knows our struggles and is with us in the midst of them. There is no superficial “winking at sin” and excusing it because “the devil made me do it.” No, the real cost and effect of sin can only be overcome by the One who understands temptation, dies and rises to defeat it, and helps us find the strength to keep on trusting him through it. We need the divine/human Savior, Jesus.  

Daily Devotions For Lent - March 9

Isaiah 58:9b–14
 
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places, 
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, 
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
 
John Wesley, the founder of the movement called Methodism, called people to a “holiness of heart and life.” I understand that to mean that not only were we called to a holiness that manifested itself in the personal devotions, such as prayer, fasting, giving to God and his church, and a refraining from vices, but also contained a sense that how we treated each other, especially the poor and the disenfranchised, was fundamental to the faith. It was not an either/or, it was a both/and. Live a faithful life in private and public affairs.
 
This passage from Isaiah is a perfect example of what that means. In this passage, the prophet is exhorting the people to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. The call is to be kind in our words, not to speak evil, but to be people of peace. It also calls us to offer food to the hungry, to help the afflicted. This “blend” of personal and social holiness then comes with promises of fullness, light and blessing.
 
How are you doing with these expressions of the faith? Are you more likely to express your faith in prayer, daily devotions and giving to the church? Or, are you more likely to help someone who is in need, someone who is impoverished, or sick? The promise is for the person who remembers both that we will indeed be people of light, riding upon the heights and finding our connection to the ancient word of God. 

Daily Devotions For Lent - March 7

March 7, 2019
Luke 9:18–25
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”
 
He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
 
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”
 
Maybe the question that really matters in the big picture is the one that Jesus asks here, “Who do you say that I am?” Who is Jesus for you? Is he just another great prophet, a key historical figure that enlightens us, or something else? 
 
It is possible to say the right answer, and still not get it right. Peter did. He correctly stated that Jesus was, and is, the “Messiah of God.” Messiah and Christ are the same word, one Hebrew (Messiah) and the other Greek (Christ), both meaning the “Anointed One.” It is an ancient term, and had been applied to others in the Old Testament, even a King who didn’t even believe in Israel’s one God. Peter said Jesus was and is the Messiah, God’s own Son, but had no idea what that really meant. 
 
Jesus tells Peter, and us, that for him to be the Messiah of God means that he is going to Jerusalem to die, and then be raised on the third day. Then, he says that if we understand him to be the Messiah, we too must follow him, even if it means taking up a cross as he did. His promise to us is that as we do, we will find life. If we refuse, we forfeit life.
 
The cross was a form of death penalty, a sign of taking life away. What takes life away from you? Is it an addiction? Is it an unhealthy relationship? Is it shame or guilt? Is it an over reliance on self? Whatever it is, Jesus invites us to take it up and follow after him. He will give life by taking those things on and helping us overcome them! Seems ironic, doesn’t it, that the cross is the symbol that both represents death, and yet a love that can overcome death.
 
So, how will we answer the central question? Is Jesus the Messiah/Christ? If you make that correct confession and affirm that he is, then certainly understand what ramifications come with that statement. The good news is that you will find life as you do. Like Peter, it may not come immediately. But, it will come. Trust him, he is who he says he is.

Daily Devotions for Lent - March 8

Matthew 9:10–17
As Jesus sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
 
 
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
 
 
Are you familiar with the following axioms? “We are known by the company we keep.” “If you get into bed with dogs, you get fleas.” These commonly accepted statements are generally recognized as true. We teach them to our children. We follow the sentiment of these statements as adults. So how do we reconcile these statements with this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus makes it clear that he fully intends to reach out in love and acceptance to those whom others would deem unacceptable?
 
 
As Matthew communicates to his primarily Jewish audience in this Gospel, there is an undercurrent of tension that we discern. Whom does God extend an invitation to relationship? The undercurrent of exclusivity is evident. In their minds, the Jewish readers would have immediately excluded any possibility that God would extend an offer of relationship to a tax collector, or to a broad category of “low-life's” called here “sinners”. Yet Jesus pushes back and with a bit of irony (sarcasm?), says that those who are well (or think they are well) don’t think they need him, but those who are sick are aware of their need for a healing physician. He tells them to contemplate that “mercy, not sacrifice” is what he desires.
 
 
The metaphor Jesus uses, of wine and wineskins, is a metaphor that is helpful. In the Kingdom of God, he is revealing a new way of being. The Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be contained in the structures that these readers would have known. God is doing the once unthinkable in that he is including a plea to anyone who will receive it. The only condition is that you recognize your condition! Sinners are invited to find forgiveness and reconciliation with God. If you think somehow that you are well, you won’t hear the invitation. 
 
 
Who are the “tax collectors” and “sinners” of our day? Maybe we need to reintroduce ourselves to them so that we might be able to hear the invitation to “mercy, not sacrifice.” 
 
 
Paul B. Thompson

Daily Devotions For Lent - Ash Wednesday, March 6

Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 (New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA)
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you. "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
 
What would it mean for you to be “reconciled to God”? Paul pleads with us in this passage to be “reconciled to God” on behalf of Christ. If the word reconcile means to “restore friendly relations, to cause to coexist in harmony, or to settle a disagreement,” what will it take for you to be reconciled to God? Paul is saying that God has done his part in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. What is keeping you from that offer of reconciliation?
 
The answer for me is my sin and brokenness. I want things my way. I want God to serve me, and not me to serve him. I tend to interpret the challenges of life as obstacles to peace, rather than paths to peace. Paul argues something quite differently. He says that the things like afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings and the other items he lists are not God’s way of punishing us. Rather, righteousness (living in the right relationship with God), is often a journey through these difficulties. 
 
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent (a season of preparation for Easter). People often mark this season by giving up stuff, a time of self-denial. We may give up sweets, alcohol, or social media. Instead, could I offer that we focus our efforts on being reconciled to God by reflecting on what God has already done in Jesus? Maybe our time could best be spent cooperating with the grace of God and living in harmony with the love we have found in Jesus. What will it take for you to be reconciled to God? Maybe you already have been and you just need to celebrate it!