MATTHEW – Part 2

Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” [Matthew 9:10-11 (NLT)]

great blue heronWhen Jesus brought Matthew into the inner circles of disciples, it was as shocking as if someone like Billy Graham brought a loan shark, heroin trafficker, money launderer, or embezzler onto his worship team. But, along with his questionable reputation and his devotion to Jesus, Matthew brought a unique set of skills to the Lord and to countless generations of Christ’s followers.

Without benefit of calculator or computers, as a tax collector, Matthew was good with numbers and a meticulous record keeper. To do his job, a publican had to have been reasonably fluent and literate in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew and, to a lesser extent, Latin. It’s likely that he knew a form of shorthand commonly used in the ancient world since the 4th century BC. A man like Matthew was uniquely qualified to record the events surrounding Jesus’ ministry. Along with his skills and reputation, perhaps the only other thing Matthew brought with him when he followed Jesus was his pen.

The book of Matthew, like the other gospels, never explicitly names its author but ancient church tradition is unanimous in attributing it to Matthew the Apostle. Perhaps the best argument for Matthew’s authorship is the unlikelihood that a man with his skills, who responded to Jesus’ call the way he did, and became one of the disciples, would not have kept a careful record of the Lord’s words and ministry! Matthew had the skills, opportunity, means, and motivation. This is a man who showed such early concern for evangelism that one of the first things he did after leaving his tax booth was to invite his former friends and colleagues to dinner to meet and hear Jesus. When Matthew was honing his record keeping and language skills as a publican, little did he know that God had a far higher and better use for him than collecting money for Rome. Let his story be a reminder that no experience is wasted and God has a unique plan for each and every one of us.

After witnessing Jesus’ ascension, Matthew and the apostles returned to their room in Jerusalem and prayed. Scripture is silent about Matthew after that and, other than writing the gospel that bears his name, we don’t know what became of him. The earliest church records say he carried out his ministry in Persia, Macedonia, Syria, and/or the region south of Egypt known as Ethiopia. Those records also claim Matthew was martyred but they don’t agree on how or where it happened. All we know for sure is that Matthew didn’t just reform; he transformed! When he accepted Jesus’ call to follow Him, the despised and dishonest tax collector named Levi transformed into the beloved apostle and gospel writer named Matthew—a saved sinner who accepted the Great Commission and served as Christ’s witness “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The same Jesus who turned water into wine can transform your home, your life, your family, and your future. He is still in the miracle-working business, and His business is the business of transformation. [Adrian Rogers]

And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. [Acts 1:8 (NLT)]

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LOOKING FOR “LOVE”

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

cardinalNormally, the Internet would be one of the worst places to search for love but, according to my favorite online Bible resource site, some people went looking for love on line and were successful. Of course, they were looking for it in one of the right places—the Bible. With nearly 3 million searches a day (which, in case you wondered, is more than 2,000 per minute 24/7), “love” was the keyword most commonly searched for by the 160 million visitors to their site in 2021. Appearing 759 times in the NLT Bible, “love” was easily found (even in the King James that only uses it 442 times)!

“Love” tops the keyword search every year and “peace” (appearing 362 times in the NLT) retained its second-place position. As expected, hope, joy, and faith rounded out 2021’s top five most popular word searches. With “hope“ used 190 times, 333 appearances for “joy,” and “faith” mentioned 507 times in the NLT, the Bible was the right place to find them all. Although the number of occurrences depend on the version searched, these favorite words are found in every translation.

The Bible certainly is the place to look for love, peace, hope, joy, and faith but, with nearly 7,000 mentions of “Lord,” almost 5,000 of “God,” and nearly 1,500 of “Jesus” in the NLT, the Bible is a good place to go looking for them, as well! Those names, however, were missing from the most popular searches, as were words like prayer, humility, righteousness, repentance, servanthood, surrender, worship, sanctification, sacrifice, justification, judgment, sin, obedience, and atonement.

2021’s most searched for Bible verse remained John 3:16: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” The perennial runner-up continued to be Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’” As two of the most encouraging and heartening verses in the Bible, it’s easy to see why they are favorites.

Indeed, God’s Word is filled with words of comfort and reassurance, but limiting our Bible knowledge to only positive and uplifting words and verses is a bit like eating the croutons but not the salad beneath them, tasting only the crispy fried onions on top of the green bean casserole, or having dessert while skipping the main course! Some of those unsearched for words may be less tasty, but they are just as important as love, peace, hope, joy, and faith. It seems that many of us come to the Bible more interested in comfort than truth, affirmation than obedience, reassurance rather than correction, and inspiration rather than salvation. When we come to Scripture looking only for words of encouragement, we might miss the bigger message of salvation, redemption, and rebirth found in Jesus Christ. Let’s never settle for Scripture “Lite.”

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. [Augustine]

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. [Hebrews 4:12 (NLT)]

Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do. [Joshua 1:8 (NLT)]

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THE OWN GOAL

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

green heronUsed primarily in soccer and hockey, the term “own goal” or “OG” describes the moment a player accidentally (or deliberately) puts the ball or puck into their own net, resulting in the opposing team getting credited with the goal. OGs can arise from a player’s misjudgment or simply bad luck, as might happen when he’s the victim of a wicked deflection or freak incident. An “own goal” is probably one of the lowest moments for a player and the term has now become a metaphor for any action that backfires on a person. When I think of the way Paul’s imprisonment helped rather than hindered the growth of the early church, I can’t help but think that Satan made an own goal with that one and the point went to God’s team, not his.

The enemy scored another “own goal’ some 57 years ago when I was a freshman at Northwestern University. Although I’d been raised in a church-going family and considered myself a Christian, I was a troubled and confused young woman when I entered college. First quarter freshman year, I took a course in Methods of Discussion in which we studied group communication. On our first day, the class was divided into small groups for a major assignment. We were to select a campus organization that had discussions and observe several meetings. Our purpose was not to scrutinize the topic discussed but to analyze and evaluate the way in which it was considered—how decisions were made, conflicts resolved, understanding built, questions answered, and voices heard. Having been on campus for less than a week, we freshmen knew nothing about any campus organizations and when Dave, the group’s lone upper classman, assured us that Campus Crusade for Christ would make for a great term paper, we deferred to his wisdom. The fact they met Sunday nights and served supper when the dorms didn’t was the selling point for most of us.

What we didn’t know until after starting the project was that Dave’s purpose in choosing Campus Crusade had nothing to do with observing discussion methods or eating a free dinner. An angry atheist, his sole reason for choosing the group was to write a paper that denigrated and ridiculed Christians and this group in particular. The rest of us, however, insisted on sticking to the task and focusing on the method of communication rather than the topic discussed. When it became clear that our paper wouldn’t accomplish his purpose, Dave dropped the class.

While I remember getting an A on the paper, I remember nothing about the mode of discussion at the Campus Crusade get-togethers except that it was spirited and friendly. What I do remember is their message of God’s grace and salvation through Jesus Christ. This wasn’t the God of judgment and condemnation with whom I was familiar; this was a God of unconditional love and forgiveness, a God of relationship rather than religion. Jesus became real to me and I learned more about Him in a few Sunday evenings than I had in years of Sunday school and church. Even though I’d been baptized as an infant and confirmed as a young teen, it wasn’t until I knelt in the university chapel and asked Jesus into my life that I truly became His disciple. After our paper was submitted, I continued attending those Sunday meetings (and not just for the dinner) until I left university life.

Our Heavenly Father works in strange and wonderful ways and has no problem allowing evil people to accomplish His purposes. There’s a certain amount of poetic justice when Satan’s plans backfire as they did with the Apostle Paul and as they even did with me! Thank you, Jesus, for the atheist who brought me into your arms!

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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AN AMBASSADOR IN CHAINS 

And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should. [Ephesians 6:19-21 (NLT)]

lupineSince the beginning, Satan has been determined to impede God’s plan. He started in Eden and continued by attempting to cut off the promised line of the Messiah with the killing of Israel’s infant boys in Egypt, Haman’s evil plans to exterminate every Jew in the Persian empire, and Herod’s slaughter of boys under two in Judah. When that failed, Satan sought to derail Jesus’ mission to mankind by tempting Him in the wilderness and Scripture tells us that wasn’t his last attempt to stop the Lord. Having failed with Jesus, Satan has been trying to interfere with the church’s mission to spread the gospel ever since.

Satan may have thought he’d found the perfect man to defeat the early church in the Pharisee Saul—a powerful man who hated both Christ’s followers and Gentiles. He rejected Jesus as the Messiah, approved of the stoning of Stephen, and devoted himself to persecuting and terrorizing Christians. That, of course, was before Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus. In a little bit of God-ordained poetic justice, the Saul who had been doing Satan’s work by persecuting the church transformed into the Apostle Paul whose mission became that of building the church!

Satan probably thought he’d obstruct Paul’s mission with an assassination attempt, several shipwrecks, assorted arrests, beatings, stonings, and floggings, along with several stints in prison. Paul, however, managed to turn every hindrance into an evangelism opportunity; he even preached to his guards! Once Paul was put under arrest in Rome in 60 AD, Satan may have thought he finally stopped the evangelist in his tracks. Rather than being imprisoned as a common criminal, however, Paul was confined to house arrest. Although he was chained and under guard, he was allowed to live in a rented house at his own expense. In spite of his captivity, Paul “welcomed all who visited him, boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.” [Acts 28:31] Rather than discouraging other believers, Paul’s unstinting faith during imprisonment encouraged them and it was during these years that Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. When Paul wasn’t writing to the church, it seems that he spent his solitary time praying for it!

After a few years of freedom, Paul was re-arrested and imprisoned around 65 AD. Confined to a Roman prison that time, he was cut off from the world except for a few visitors. As the apostle faced death, he wrote his final epistle, 2 Timothy and, like his other letters, it is filled with faith, sound doctrine, encouragement, endurance, and love.

While Satan thought Paul’s hardships and suffering would stop him from preaching the gospel, Paul used his hardships and suffering to spread it. When Paul was free, he saw himself as an ambassador for Christ and, when imprisoned, he simply saw himself as an ambassador in chains. Moreover, knowing Paul’s situation, his words about forgiveness, rejoicing in suffering or trouble, and finding joy in all circumstances are all the more meaningful to his readers today. Rather than stopping his ministry, Paul’s imprisonments helped keep his ministry alive because of his letters. His words are as essential to the church today as they were when written nearly 2,000 years ago!

Satan couldn’t stop God’s plan for the Messiah, couldn’t stop Jesus from His mission as the Lamb of God, and couldn’t stop Paul. Satan can stop the church only if the church allows him. Paul didn’t. Will we?

And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear. [Philippians 1:12-14 (NLT)]

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JOHN THE BAPTIST – Part 1

And he [John] will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly. [Luke 1:16-17 (NLT)]

blue flag irisWhen the angel promised John’s birth to Zechariah, it was ordained that the child would be named John, that he would be a Nazarite, and that he would prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. After that, other than his circumcision, the only thing we know about John’s youth is that he “grew up and became strong in spirit. And he lived in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.” [Luke 1:80] We know that Zechariah lived in the hill country of Judea and church tradition places his home in Ein Karem near Jerusalem. Considering Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s advanced ages, they probably didn’t live to see their boy become a man. Nevertheless, they would have been sure their son knew of his divine calling and made provisions for his care.

The word translated as wilderness or desert is erémos, meaning a barren place, it typically was used to describe the desert to the east and south of Palestine. It is speculated that John may have resided in the erémos with a community of Essenes who lived in the Judean desert near Qumran. This Jewish sect studied and copied Hebrew scripture and practiced various forms of asceticism like fasting, prayer, and celibacy. 1st century historian Josephus tells us they often took in children who were dedicated by their parents to such a lifestyle and the Dead Sea scrolls tell us they often recruited members from priestly families.

There are similarities between John and the Essenes. They both strived for holiness through a demanding ascetic lifestyle, practiced a baptism ritual requiring a change in heart, and described themselves as voices in the wilderness. Like John, Essenes had a special diet and members vowed never to eat food prepared outside the community. There was, however, a loophole and anything eatable found in nature that didn’t require preparation was allowed so John’s strange diet of wild honey and locusts would have been acceptable for an Essene.

There are, however, significant differences between the Essenes and John. Essenes interpreted Isaiah’s words, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland” to mean they should separate themselves from Judah and civilization and live in the wilderness to await redemption. The Essenes lived in almost total isolation but John did just the opposite and became a very public voice by the banks of the Jordan as he called the nation to repent. The Essenes’ doctrine expected two Messianic figures along with a prophetic figure. The Dead Sea scrolls make it clear they did not believe Jesus to be a messianic figure but John recognized Jesus as the one and only Messiah.

With his call for the nation’s repentance, John is far more like an Old Testament prophet than an Essene. Just as Elijah confronted King Ahab about his sins, John confronted Herod. Like Elijah, he wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt and his attire, while seeming strange to us, would have made perfect sense to a 1st century Jew. Jesus made the connection when he told John’s disciples that John was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy that a prophet would come in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way for the Lord.

John the Baptist is the connection between the Old and New Testaments—between the old covenant of the law and the new covenant of grace. We may not know much about John before his thirtieth year but we do know that he fulfilled the task God set before him: “to prepare the way for the Lord. …to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.”

And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord. You will tell his people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins. Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.” [Luke 1:76-79 (NLT)]

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TEND THE GARDEN – EARTH DAY 2022

Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” … The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. [Genesis 1:28,2:15 (NLT)]

It is terrible to hear the young birds calling for food after the old ones have been killed to get the feathers for rich women to wear. I am not going to have my birds sacrificed that way. [Rhett Green (Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Warden from 1912 – 1917)]

great egret - snowy egret - corkscrew sanctuaryThe wading birds of southwest Florida are absolutely beautiful, especially this time of year when they’re wearing their mating plumage. We’ve lived here eleven years and I still haven’t tired of their beauty as I encounter them daily in our ponds. 115 years ago, however, I would have been hard put to see any of these beautiful creatures anywhere. In the late 1800s, bird feathers became the fashion craze in women’s hats. Along with a plethora of plumes, some hats even featured an entire exotic bird! By 1900, more than five million birds were being killed every year and plume hunters had nearly wiped out the entire egret population. It wasn’t just the egrets with their white mating plumes—herons, roseate spoonbills, flamingoes, and peacocks were among the fifty North American species being killed for their plumage. No bird was safe.

After killing the birds and stripping them of their plumage, poachers would leave their carcasses to rot. They also left abandoned nests with eggs that would never hatch or baby birds unable to fend for themselves. For the hunters, poaching was profitable; they could easily bag 100 birds on a good day and the plumes sold for as much as $32 dollars an ounce. Merely for the sake of fashion, the bird population in rookeries was decimated throughout Florida and the southeast U.S. Fortunately, because of a grass roots campaign by two Boston socialites, organizations like the Audubon Society, and both state and national legislation, the carnage of these beautiful creatures has stopped.

We were called to be good stewards of the earth, but we still show little regard for God’s creation. Last fall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted 11 species of birds from the endangered species list—not because they no longer were at risk but because they had become extinct! In 2021, Birdlife International reported that nearly 1,500 of the 11,000 species of birds face the threat of extinction with another 1,000 species considered “vulnerable.” We’re not wearing fancy feathered hats but loss of habitat, climate change, wind farms, cell towers, pesticides, cats, and even windows pose threats to them. It’s not just birds that are in danger; our local papers are filled with reports of blue-green algae, red tide, fish kills, Florida panther loss, starving manatees, diminishing wetlands, and endangered sea turtles! Worldwide, we face plenty of other pressing environmental issues including oil spills, water pollution, global warming, fossil fuel dependency, a diminishing rain forest, and the loss of open land (to name just a few).

When I look at the birds with their beautiful plumage, I thank God for their creation and for the people who took action to save them. Although God did the creating, it is up to us to do the maintaining. In Genesis, we read that God gave mankind permission to govern the earth and reign over all the animals along with the responsibility of tending and watching over His garden. The Hebrew word used for “tend” was shamar and it means more than keeping the land cultivated and free of weeds. It means keeping watch, preserving, guarding, and protecting. Have we tended God’s beautiful garden and made it thrive or have we run roughshod over it without regard for His creation?

Today is Earth Day. Observed by over a billion people every year, it has become the largest secular observance in the world. Concern for our environment, however, is not a secular concern—it is a sacred responsibility given to us by God. Let us remember that every day is Earth Day!

Lord, grant us the wisdom to care for the earth and till it. Help us to act now for the good of future generations and all your creatures. Help us to become instruments of a new creation, Founded on the covenant of your love. [The Cry of the Earth]

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him. [Psalm 24:1 (NLT)]

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