Tag Archives: Christianity

A LOOK BACK: God’s People, part 138: Joseph

Read Matthew 1:18-25

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.”  (Luke 2:4-5 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

JosephFatherofJesus

Part 138: Joseph. One of my favorite Christmas films, a must watch annually on Christmas Eve, is The Nativity Story. Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary and Oscar Isaac as Joseph, the story chronicle Mary’s betrothal (aka engagement) to Joseph, her becoming pregnant through the Holy Spirit, Joseph’s initial reaction and final acceptance of her. It follows them as they make the difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and concludes with what everyone is there to watch: the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

This is my favorite portrayal of the Nativity because the actors really pull off their roles convincingly. The vulnerability that both of the actors bring out of their characters helps the audience to connect with them on a most personal level. This is especially true for Joseph. Oscar Isaac takes us on an emotional roller coaster ride as he falls in love with Mary, is broken by her seeming betrayal when she comes home pregnant, to accepting her story as truth, to supportive husband caring for Mary on the journey to Bethlehem (even to the point of short changing himself.”

Of course, Joseph was a flawed individual, just as we all are. It would be easy for us see the final result of Jospeh, rendering him to a two-dimensional character. It would be easy for us rush to the Joseph who was by Mary’s side in the manger. Yet, the reality is that Joseph almost broke off his engagement to Mary because he could not believe that she had conceived of a child through the Holy Spirit.

Honestly, which one of us would actually believe that if someone came to us and said that they got pregnant by God without having sex with anyone. Most of us would have a hard time believing that. So, we cannot judge Joseph for his disbelief; however, he did struggle to believe Mary.

That left him with two options, to keep Mary as his wife and take her shame upon himself. If he stayed with Mary, people would think the two were sexually active, which would put both of them in a bad light socially speaking. The other option would be to break off the engagement and distance himself from Mary. That would keep the shame from falling on him; however, it would put Mary in a dangerous situation. If that became public she could have been stoned to death for adultery. This was serious business.

Scripture tells us that Joseph was a just (aka righteous) man and did not wish to disgrace her publicly. So he was going to quietly break the engagement off. How he would have pulled that off without others knowing, only one can guess; however, he came very close to ending the relationship with Mary for fear that her “shame” would fall upon him and his “good name”. In other words, he was putting his own “name” and reputation in society before the woman, the human being, he was engaged to.

It took an angel in a dream to tell Joseph that he need not fear taking Mary as his wife, for all that Mary had told him was true. Thankfully, Joseph listened to the voice in that dream. The question for us is this, how do we let fear take control of our lives? Do we allow fear to dictate our actions and do we allow fear to make our decisions for us? The challenge for us is to listen to God’s voice over the many voices of fear. Let us seek God’s voice out in all things and allow God, not fear, guide us in our lives and in our decisions.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

PRAYER
Lord, keep me from allowing fear to take control. I put my trust in you. Guide me in your love. Amen.

December 5, 2021 – Newton UMC – Sunday Worship Livestream

JOY Fellowship Service: 9 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 9:00 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Traditional Service: 10:30 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 10:30 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Welcome to our Sunday Worship Services for December 5. Today we learn how sometimes God calls us to go beyond duty for the glory of God.

Please support us by giving online: https://tithe.ly/give?c=1377216 or https://paypal.me/newtonumc Your support is vital, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. You can also write and mail a check to First UMC of Newton, 111 Ryerson Ave., Newton, NJ 07860.

If you are from another church that is not able to host online worship, we would strongly encourage you give to YOUR church and support them. They no doubt need that support as much as we do. God bless you all for your generosity.

A LOOK BACK: God’s People, part 139: Elizabeth

Read Luke 1:5-23

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed…when I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy.”  (Luke 1:42, 44 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

elizabeth-and-john

Part 139: Elizabeth. Here, in the New Testament, we come across a familiar tune as we saw with women such as Sarah in the Old Testament. Elizabeth, who is Mary’s cousin according to Luke, is an older woman who is married to a priest named Zechariah. Luke says that both Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous in God’s sight; yet, he also records that Elizabeth was unable to conceive a child and, thus, her and Zechariah never had a child. On top of that, Elizabeth and Zechariah were both very old.

We don’t know very much about Elizabeth other than that she is the much older cousin of Mary of Nazareth. I think, for that reason, it is important to pause and add some perspective to this story. In the end, the perspective will help us to look inward at ourselves and so that we might find areas in which we, as God’s people, can grow.

First, it must be noted that there is a trend in the Bible to paint the women as being the ones who are barren. It must not be passed over that the Bible was written mostly (if not entirely) by men, and the society in which it was written was very much a patriarchal society. What does that mean? Patriarchy is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line.” Thus, the focus is centered much more on Zechariah than it is on Elizabeth.

With that said, Luke is somewhat aware of that in his Gospel, for he tells how Zechariah ends up as the one who is silenced and Elizabeth becomes the one who has the voice. In fact, one cannot fully appreciate that until they realize that the society in which this Gospel was written was patriarchal. With that said, the Bible is filled with accounts of barren women, but there are no accounts of infertile men.

This was not necessarily intentional, but it does reflect the way that their society looked at men versus women. If a couple could not have a child, it was the woman paid the social price. She was considered “barren” and not able to have a child. If you stop and think about it, it is quite possible that Elizabeth was fertile and it was Zechariah who was infertile. Luke records that Elizabeth was barren, but how did they really know it was her and not her husband who was unable to reproduce.

I state this not to counter what the Bible says, but to make us aware of how easily we can scapegoat and stereotype people in way that are not so healthy. Regardless of who was infertile or not, God caused a miracle to happen and Elizabeth and Zechariah conceived and gave birth to a child. The challenge for us to reflect on how society informs who we are, both positively and negatively. In what ways do our social norms, rules and regulations form in us biases that are not of God? In what ways do we judge people based off of our social standards as opposed to God’s? Let us reflect and tweak where God is call us to change.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Christ is our footing, our foundation, our structure, our walls, our ceiling, stairs, windows, and doors. Make Christ your home, not society.

PRAYER
Lord, immerse me in your presence and help me to make you my home.

A LOOK BACK: God’s People, part 140: Zechariah

Read Luke 1:5-25

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“The father instantly cried out, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”  (Mark 9:24, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Zechariah 1

Part 140: Zechariah. In the Gospel of Luke, we receive a unique Nativity account to the one that is found in Matthew’s Gospel. It is important to realize some facts about the Nativity before talking about Zechariah and his story. First, out of the four canonical Gospels, only two included the Nativity story. Mark does not, nor does John.

Second, Matthew’s account is quite different than Luke’s account. In Matthew, we have Mary, Joseph, King Herod, and the Wise Men as the predominant characters. There are no choirs of angels, shepherds, Wise Men, and certainly no manger in Matthew’s version. In fact, there’s not even a mention of Nazareth or any journey to Bethlehem. Rather, it reads as if Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem and only ended up in Nazareth because they fled to Egypt from soldiers carrying out Herod’s villainous orders, later returning and settling in Nazareth.

In Luke, on the other hand, we have Gabriel, Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, August Caesar, Quirinius, Shepherds, Choir of Angels, Simeon, and Anna the prophet. It is Luke’s account that is most familiar to us as the Nativity story, but our typical picture also includes pieces of Matthew’s account blended into the story.

Zechariah, according to Luke’s account, was the husband of Mary of Nazareth’s cousin Elizabeth. He was a priest and a person who had status, power and authority in terms of the religious life of Judah. In fact, he was in the temple performing his priestly duties when an angel spoke to him and told him that he and his wife would have a child and name that child John.

Unlike Elizabeth, Zechariah had a powerful voice in society. He was someone of prominence and religious leader in the community. If someone wanted spiritual advice, they would go to Zechariah or other priests, not his wife. He was someone who was supposed to be in tune with God and someone leading the people of Israel in the act of repentance, sacrifice and worship. Yet, Zechariah did not believe what God was telling him was going to happen.

To be fair, who would believe that two older people, past the age where childbearing is a possibility, could bear a child? But Zechariah, steeped in the Jewish religious tradition must surely have known better, right? He knew the account of Sarah, of Rebecca, and other women who God blessed with children. Yet, he vocally refused to believe what he heard from the angel Gabriel that day.

As a result, God took away his ability to speak. I guess one could say God gave Zechariah a time out. In fact, Zechariah would not get his speech back until after his son, John, was born. We must keep in mind that Zechariah had no way of communicating to his wife, or anyone, what he heard that day in the Temple. As such, we can deduce that Elizabeth probably had no idea that she was going to get pregnant.

This is important to note because, when she did conceive a child, she went into seclusion (probably to protect herself from the community who would be marveling at such a miracle) and spoke the following words: “How kind the Lord is! He has taken away my disgrace of having no children” (Luke 1:25, NLT). Did you catch that, Zechariah’s pride rendered him speechless, yet Elizabeth, in her humility, found her voice. What’s more, she instantly recognized, believed and gave credit to God for her miraculous pregnancy. Her reaction to the news, as it were, was on the complete opposite spectrum from her husbands.

The challenge for us is to reflect on our own faith in God. Do we have faith? Do we believe God is God? Do we believe, for instance, Christ’s words when he says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father”  (John 14:12, NLT). The challenge for us is to reflect on our own belief and to grow in our willingness to TRULY believe that God’s power is not only at work within us, but THROUGH us as well.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls the butterfly.

PRAYER
Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief. Amen.

November 21, 2021 – Newton UMC – Contemporary Worship Livestream

JOY Fellowship Service: 9 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 9:00 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Traditional Service: 10:30 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 10:30 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Welcome to our Sunday Worship Services for November 21. Today we learn the importance of giving thanks as we prepare for Thanksgiving.

Please support us by giving online: https://tithe.ly/give?c=1377216 or https://paypal.me/newtonumc Your support is vital, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. You can also write and mail a check to First UMC of Newton, 111 Ryerson Ave., Newton, NJ 07860.

If you are from another church that is not able to host online worship, we would strongly encourage you give to YOUR church and support them. They no doubt need that support as much as we do. God bless you all for your generosity.

A LOOK BACK: To Wrestle and Prevail

Read Genesis 32:22-32

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NRSV)

jacob13

Questioning is a huge part of what it means to be human. We as human beings have been given the ability to think for ourselves, to know good from evil, to create, to name, and to care for other things. We have been given the vision of what paradise is, of what it means to live in harmony with all of creation, and we have also been forced to recognize that reality is often times much different than our vision of utopia. It is in those moments that we find ourselves questioning ourselves, questioning humanity, questioning the created order and, most importantly, questioning our Creator.

This is especially true when we are going through our own trials. When we find that we are losing control over different aspects of our lives, or when we come to the realization that we were never in control to begin with, we find that we start to question God. When we lose our wealth, when we our loved ones, when we lose our health, when we lose our independence, when we suffer loss in any sense, we can’t help but cry out to God and question why these things are happening. What’s more, we often get angry at God and, in the process, begin to feel guilt over our anger, over our doubt, over our questioning.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we read of a man named Jacob who had stolen his brother’s birthright many years earlier and he was on his way back home to try and make amends with his brother who wanted to kill him…literally. One night, while on his way back to his homeland to meet his angry brother, a man suddenly wrestles with Jacob. We aren’t told who this man was and one can assume that Jacob had no clue who he was either. The two wrestle each other all night long and, in the end, Jacob wins the wrestling match. Realizing that Jacob had won the other man strikes him on his hip, which leaves Jacob permanently injured. Still, Jacob did not let go of the man and refused to do so until the man blessed him.

Perhaps Jacob thought the man was his brother Esau, after all, it was dark and the man happened upon him suddenly.  Regardless, the man ends up relenting and giving Jacob his blessing. After that, Jacob lets the man go and he names the place Peniel, which means, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” For whatever reason, Jacob came to the realization that the man was God, and that he had wrestled with God. Upon this revelation, God renames Jacob Israel because he had wrestled with God and prevailed.

I tell this story for all who feel guilty for wrestling with God. For all who have questioned and for all who have found themselves angry with God, take heart! You are not alone. God has big shoulders and can take our questions. God knows our hearts and understands our anger. God blesses us when we wrestle with God, because that means we are in relationship with God. We weren’t created to be mindless drones; rather, we were created to be a relationally engaged people. Who doesn’t struggle in relationships? That’s the very nature of them.

Take heart, be confident, and know that God does love you and that God does give you the space to wrestle! God has blessed you with the ability to question, to think freely, and to wrestle with God when we don’t understand why things are as they are. In fact, it is in that relational wrestling match that we will find that God has richly blessed us with a renewed assurance of our identity in our Creator, and of our Creator’s identity in us. For all who have indeed wrestled with God, stand up tall and thank God for such an awesome opportunity.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.” – Marcus Aurelius

PRAYER
Lord, you know my heart and you know that I have struggled and even wrestled with you. I thank you for having broad shoulders and for giving me the opportunity to wrestle and, more importantly, to be in relationship with you. Amen.

November 14, 2021 – Newton UMC – Sunday Worship Livestream

JOY Fellowship Service: 9 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 9:00 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Traditional Service: 10:30 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 10:30 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Welcome to our Sunday Worship Services for November 14. Today we learn the importance of praying without ceasing.

Please support us by giving online: https://tithe.ly/give?c=1377216 or https://paypal.me/newtonumc Your support is vital, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. You can also write and mail a check to First UMC of Newton, 111 Ryerson Ave., Newton, NJ 07860.

If you are from another church that is not able to host online worship, we would strongly encourage you give to YOUR church and support them. They no doubt need that support as much as we do. God bless you all for your generosity.

A LOOK BACK: Two Probing Questions

Read Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

who_am_iAnyone who has ever had me as their teacher in confirmation class can attest to the fact that I take confirmation very seriously. I have developed a curriculum that goes beyond teaching the meaning of membership to a curriculum that instructs the students to engage in Christian History from Jesus to our current day and age. The curriculum has the students actively engage theology and doctrine (and the history behind the formation of the doctrines) as well as learn about the meaning of membership in the church.

One of the exercises I have the students do as a requirement for the class is to write a 3 page paper, or longer if they desire, answering two very simple, and very Biblical questions. In Mark 8:27-30, in Matthew 16:13-20, and in Luke 9:18-21, Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is and, following their various answers, he asks them who they say that he is. So, likewise, I have the students answer those two questions.

It is amazing how challenging such an exercise is. Most of us can easily and quickly come up with a long list of the things that people say Jesus is; however, when it comes to who we say Jesus is, if we are going to take the exercise seriously, it becomes much more difficult to articulate. But each of my students have been through the exercise and each have come away saying that the experience of it was rewarding, leaving them with a richer sense of who Jesus is to them.

When God created humanity, God did not create robots. It was not God’s intention to have an android creation that just mindlessly, and robotically, did whatever God wanted them to do. Rather, God created a free-willed, free-spirited, and free-thinking people who had the ability to not only choose to be in a relationship with God and, in that relationship, seek to come to an understanding of God and of self in the context of that relationship. As human beings, we do not only define ourselves by our own thoughts of who we are, but rather we define ourselves by the relationships we have with ourselves and with others. Who am I without my mom, my sister, my friends, my wife, my children, and myself?

Thus, if we are Christians who claim to be in a relationship with God and with Jesus the Christ, then doesn’t it make sense that we would seek out who Jesus is? Doesn’t it make sense that we would not just settle for who people say Jesus is, but that we would find out who Christ is to us? Doesn’t it makes sense that we would want to get to “know” the person we claim to love and to follow?

Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt for you to write down Jesus’ two probing questions: “Who do people say that I am?” Who do you say that I am?” God is calling you to probe deep into your faith. It is never okay to just accept things at face value. God is calling you to move beyond what you’ve been taught into the realm of personal, experiential knowledge. Who is Christ for you? How have you experienced the power and the love of Christ in your life? How has Christ healed you, been present with you, changed you, and/or challenged you? Where does your story and the Gospel story intersect? God is calling you to truly discover who Jesus is and to deepen your faith in him. Such an invitation leads to transformation and conviction. Get to know your Lord and be convicted to bear his hope, healing and wholeness to world.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“The steady discipline of intimate friendship with Jesus results in [people] becoming like Him.” – Harry Emerson Fosdick

PRAYER

Lord, take me deeper in my faith that I may more intimately know you and grow more and more like you. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: The Trust Game

Read Genesis 16

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.” (Psalms 37:5)

Picture_12_xxxlargeWhen I was in High School, I remember that we used to have to do all sorts of different “team building” activities in gym. The idea was to teach the students how to work as a team, how to rely on each other as teammates and, most importantly, to learn to trust one another. If a team does not act as a single unit, it will fall apart into a fragmented mess.

One of the activities that our gym teachers would have us do involved a great deal of trust. They would blindfold some of the students and have them stand with their backs facing other students. In turn, the students were told to lean back and let themselves fall back into the arms of the people standing behind them.

I remember when it was my turn to be blindfolded. I remember how paralyzed I was for fear that the other person wouldn’t catch me. The last thing I wanted to do was to fall flat down on the ground, making a fool of myself in front of all my peers. It was hard, extremely hard, letting myself go in order to fall back into the arms of the person behind me. Eventually, I did let go, was caught in mid-air, and was relieved when my turn was over. With that said, I cannot say that I felt any more trust, nor was I looking forward to do that again.

We, as human beings, have a particularly hard time putting our trust in other people. And this is never any more evident than it is in the church. Too many times we find infighting, bickering, dissention, and all sorts of conflict rise over the issue of trust. But the trust issue doesn’t stop there. Though we attend church, we sing hymns, we praise God, and we pray to God, we ultimately find ourselves lacking in trust when it comes to God.

Though we say that we put our faith and trust in God, we often find ourselves acting in a way that would state otherwise. Though we say that we trust God to guide us through our situations, we find ourselves trying to do things our way, just like when Abraham figured he would have to sleep with his servant in order for God’s promise to come true. Instead of fully placing our trust in God, we pull back our trust in order to “take control” of things.

It is in those moments that we find ourselves in situations we could have otherwise avoided had we only placed our trust in God to guide us through. As the church, as Christians, we are called to be a people of faith and of trust. We are called to trust in God and we are called to trust in each other. If we do not stand together, and place our trust in one another, then what good news are we really displaying to the rest of the community? If we are lost in our own brokenness how can we ever witness to the hope, healing and wholeness that Christ has to offer?

The challenge today is for us, as Christians, to begin to reestablish our trust in God. It is time to let go and fall back into God’s arms. We need to trust that God will not let us fall and, so long as we love God and are called according to God’s purpose (Romans 8:28), God will do mighty things in us, through us and even in spite of us. But how can we place our trust in God if we cannot even put our trust in those who are trying to serve God alongside of us? God desires all of us to be a people of trust. Place your trust in God and let God lead you from where you are to where God is calling you to be.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Let the love of God lighten your life, let his kindness mold you into his presence, let him be your guide as you travel the road of life.” – Unknown

PRAYER

Lord, today I place my trust in you. Lead me in a way that deepens my trust in you and in your people. Amen.

October 17, 2021 – Newton UMC – Sunday Worship Livestream

JOY Fellowship Service: 9 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 9:00 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Traditional Service: 10:30 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 10:30 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Welcome to our Sunday Worship Services for November 7. Today we learn the importance of commitment, when it comes to going ALL IN for Jesus.

Please support us by giving online: https://tithe.ly/give?c=1377216 or https://paypal.me/newtonumc Your support is vital, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. You can also write and mail a check to First UMC of Newton, 111 Ryerson Ave., Newton, NJ 07860.

If you are from another church that is not able to host online worship, we would strongly encourage you give to YOUR church and support them. They no doubt need that support as much as we do. God bless you all for your generosity.