The Long Journey to Rome

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Acts 27

Today it only takes a few hours to travel from the Holy Land to Rome. A non-stop plane ticket costs just a few hundred bucks. For a couple of hundred more, you can get upgraded to first class. That sounds rather nice–flying over the beautiful Mediterranean sea, being waited on hand and foot, heading to the former center of the Roman empire to take in the sights and sounds of this majestic ancient city.
For Paul, though, the journey was not so short…or luxurious. And it certainly wasn’t non-stop. The trek to Rome included a slew of problems for this man from Tarsus and his companions, such as a snakebite, a shipwreck, and a plan to slaughter prisoners. What happened during this voyage would have tested the most experienced seafarer. But throughout the storms and chaos, Paul remained calm and determined. When others had lost hope and were filled with fear, the Apostle took charge and restored order.
Paul was able to remain composed and didn’t cave to fear because of where he placed his trust. He had been informed by the Lord that he would make it to Rome to testify there and he believed this wholeheartedly. God had been faithful thus far and Paul knew this would continue. After all, he did write the words of Romans 8:28.
“We know that God is always at work for the good of everyone who loves him. They are the ones God has chosen for his purpose.” – Romans 8:28 (CEV)
God has a plan. From the Bible, we can gain a general understanding of it. We can see how He has worked in history and what He intends to do in the future. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult for us to see where we fit in the grand scheme of things or how God can work in us. God used Paul as an instrument for His glorious plan. It wasn’t because he was special that God chose to employ Paul as His messenger to the Gentiles; he was special only because he was chosen. We don’t have to be special for God to use us either (which is a good thing…because we’re not).
Paul found himself on that arduous adventure because he was doing work for God. If we are going to be active followers of Christ and productive promoters of his Good News, sometimes we’re going to find ourselves in difficult situations as well. But we, like Paul, can have courage knowing the plan God has for the future and confidence because we are doing His will.
-Joel Fletcher
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Lessons from the Wilderness: Elijah

Wilderness Wandering Lesson #2: Remembering past circumstances can help to steady our heart in the midst of our current despair.

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It was at that moment though that the sky got a little cloudy and the wind started to pick up. We wanted to hike a little, so we to hike the trail towards the top of the mountain, with cattle lazily grazing along the rocky path. Quickly, the picturesque scene turned gray. We made it to the summit, but the mountain had clouded over, so much so that it was difficult to see straight in front of you. We quickly walked back down and waited out the fog in a small cafe, trying to warm up our hands with a coffee, before making our way to the tram.

That hike was beautiful and totally worth our short brush with the fog. But, what I’ve found is that our lives sometimes mirror that hike, but the fog can be much more dangerous. Sometimes, our lives are steady, and we exist in the happy medium of contentment and love. At other times though, our lives can be a stormy cycle of highs and lows, mountains and valleys. In our case, we were on a mountain, a mountain where we were elated. We had traveled far to get there and wanted to rest in the view and the glory. But, it was on this mountain that what we had traveled far to see and done a lot of work to do (including a 1 hour train ride and a flustered conversation in German) that we experienced a storm that clouded our experiences and made us doubt if it was really worth it.

Elijah the prophet experienced his own brush with the wilderness right after he experienced the high of his life. He was no stranger to the wilderness after relying on God’s provision in 1 Kings 17. In 1 Kings 18, he is able to testify to God’s glory and work as he goes through a showdown with the prophets of Baal. He actually gets to see the fire of Yahweh fall from heaven and rid the people of the prophets of Baal!

If we saw these things, we might be tempted to say that we would never doubt God. After seeing this, we might be elated, speechless, high on our mountaintop moment. But, for Elijah, the fog rolled in. In chapter 19, Jezebel sends word to Elijah that she was planning on killing him as soon as she could get her hands on him. Elijah panics and runs for his life into the wilderness. There, he lays down and prays for God to take his life (v. 4). Sometimes, our wilderness moments can lead us to places like this. Our vision can get cloudy if it’s focused on our circumstances that may stormy and volatile. And, in those moments, dark despair can set in, and we may think it would be better to just give up.

But then I recall all you have done, O LORD; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago.If you are in that moment, remember that God does not leave Elijah there, and he doesn’t want to leave you there either. Instead, he says, “Get up and eat (v. 5). After Elijah eats twice, he goes on a journey forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God. There, Elijah waits, first through a great wind, then through an earthquake, and lastly through a fire. In each of these places, he does not hear God’s voice. Finally, he hears it in the soft whisper, as God asks him “What are you doing here Elijah?” (v. 13) Elijah responds by saying, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts, but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they’re looking for me to take my life” (v. 14). Elijah feels this despair because he had forgotten what God just showed him. In the desert when he was hungry, God was there with provision. He had forgotten that in the showdown, God was there with provision. When we turn our eyes from God to focus on our fractured circumstances, it can lead us to doubt. But, one remedy for that doubt is not only to remember the character of God but also to remember how God has exhibited that character in previous actions of faithfulness. We can trust in him not only because of what we know from the Bible but also because of what we know from our own lives. So, if you are in a wilderness period in your life, pause and remember God’s past faithfulness instead of dwelling on your despair. These reminders can help us to remember that even in our darkest times, God will carry us through.

~ Cayce Fletcher

Lessons from the Wilderness: The Israelites

heb.Over the next few days, we’re going to look at four wilderness stories in the bible to learn a lesson about what the wilderness is and what it can teach us. The first Wilderness Wandering Lesson is this:

Wilderness Wandering Lesson #1: The faithful love of God is infinitely more secure than our fractured circumstances.

The most recognizable story of wilderness is that of the Israelites. After 400 years of servitude to the Egyptians, the Israelites kept crying out to God for the deliverance prophecied by Joseph in Gen. 50:25. That help came in the form of Moses, who was commissioned by God to lead the Israelites to the land of Canaan. So this so-called Promised land, part of the covenant promise that God made with Abraham in Gen. 12, was the Israelites’ destination. Even in the Israelites’ time in the wilderness, we can see two purposes in the wilderness. The wilderness in the first year was a time of purification and dependence. It is in the wilderness that the Israelites learned to trust God for direction (Fire and Cloud – Ex. 14) and sustenance (Manna and Water – Ex. 16). In Exodus 16, God even says, “I will test them to see whether or not they will follow my instructions” (v. 4). This testing was his goal for the first year the Israelites spent in the wilderness. Spent mostly at the base of Mt. Sinai, it was in this time that the Israelites received the ten commandments, built the tabernacle, and received the rest of the law (Ex. 15-Num. 10). Though there was difficulty in this time (think Golden Calf – Ex. 32), this time in the wilderness was also full of incredible closeness to God. It was during this time that the Israelites were able to witness the Shekinah glory of God descend on the tabernacle. And, during this time, the Israelites experienced the humbling dependence on God that came from relying on him.

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We can think of this first year in the wilderness as the training wheels period where God was showing the Israelites that relying on him was best. That trusting in him was the way to choose life and joy. In Numbers 10, the Israelites break camp and move towards the border of the Promised land. In Numbers 11, the cracks begin to show again as the Israelites complain more and more about hardship, food, and in the case of Aaron and Miriam, the power and relationship with God that Moses had. Based on the tendencies that we see in these chapters, we shouldn’t be as surprised as we generally are that the Israelites get to the border of the promised land and choose to go against God and refuse to take the land because of their fear (Num. 14). The Israelites chose not to go into the promised land because their trust in God was lacking. They didn’t think that God would do what he said he would. Instead, they based their decisions on their circumstances, which seemed too difficult to overcome. It’s this that ultimately angers God and leads towards his judgment against the Israelites: They would wander the wilderness for 40 years (one year for each day they spent scouting the wilderness). In the remaining chapters of Numbers, we see more instances of rebellion and provision as the Israelites do exactly as God says and wander the wilderness for 40 years. It is not until the book of Joshua, that we see the next generation of Israelites rise up and take the land just as God promised his people that they would.

These two tales are frequently told together, but they tell two very different stories of the wilderness. In the first, the Israelites seemed to have done nothing to be put in the wilderness, while in the second, the wilderness was a place of punishment for the past sin of the people. But, the purpose of each wilderness experience is the same. The wilderness is meant for purification and refinement, to make the people of God ‘holy, because [he] is holy’ (Lev. 19:2). Too often, I think we view the wilderness as a punishment, and because of that, we go back to asking God, “Why? Why am I here?” We may even sound like some of my high school students when they get called out, “Why? I wasn’t even doing anything!” (No matter what they are doing.) We need to stop viewing the wilderness as a place of punishment. It can be that place, as we’ve seen with the Israelites. But, more importantly, this time in the wilderness is where God is beckoning us back to him. It’s in this time that all of the Israelites first heard God’s word. It’s in this time that they felt the characteristics of God that Moses spoke in Numb. 14:18. In your wilderness wanderings, instead of focusing on the doubt – the questions of why you are in that experience – focus on who God is:

“The Lord is slow to anger and rich in faithful love, forgiving wrongdoing and rebellion. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children to the third and fourth generation.” (Numb. 14:18)

Rest on God’s faithful love, and in your time in the wilderness, don’t forget to remember who he is. When we trust in him, our circumstances don’t seem so challenging anymore.

~ Cayce Fletcher

What path will you choose? – Jer. 17:5-10

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Breaking News::

Humans have been found to have an uncontrollable and incurable disease. As of yet, there have been no tests by humans that have been created to test for the disease. Worse yet, this disease can’t be seen; it’s almost undetectable. The only thing that can test for it is God. What is this disease? The conditions of our heart.

 

Though physical heart disease is an important and often fatal problem, we have an even more deadly disease in our spiritual hearts. If we look at Jeremiah 17:5-10, we see a portrayal of opposites that centers around the heart, and more specifically, on who the heart trusts in.

The first person is someone who trusts in mankind. They trust in themselves or in others. In doing this, this person has turned their heart from God. They are like a dead bush, a tumbleweed, in the middle of a desert.

The other person is a beautiful picture of someone who trusts and has confidence in God. They are like a tree planted beside water that stands firm even in hot weather because they are deeply enrooted by the life-giving stream.

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Like our memory verse for this week states, in our lives, we have a choice. We choose who we will trust in. That choice affects everything in our life. It affects our thoughts, actions, and feelings. In our lives, we tend to rely on our feelings and thoughts, the things that make up what the Bible calls the heart, to determine our choices. This shouldn’t be!

The prophet Jeremiah says that the heart is more deceitful than anything else. It’s incurable and unknowable on our own power. Only God can examine the mind and test the heart to know what is in it.

Thankfully, God doesn’t leave us in this place. God can transform our hearts! In Romans 8:29, it says that God has predestined us so that we would be “conformed to the image of His Son.” Through God’s Spirit, we are being made into the perfect image of Jesus! On our own power, we cannot change the heart. It will guide us down wrong paths that seem correct according to worldly wisdom. But, through God’s help, our hearts can be revived and transformed to become a man or woman after God’s own heart.

 

God’s Spirit works in us in many ways, one of which is through the wisdom that it gives. We learn what true wisdom is from God’s word (Prov. 1:2). James 1:5-8 says, “Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways.” If we come to God and ask for wisdom through prayer, he will give it to us through his word and wise counsel.

This week, we will be talking more about the importance of gaining wisdom through God’s word for choosing the right paths of God. Remember: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; think about Him in all your ways, and He will guide you on the right paths.”

Rose Among the Thorns

Jeremiah 38-41

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Saturday, March 11

 

In between the battle, the fall of a city, and betrayal I think I managed to find something slightly more positive within these stories to make into a life applicable lesson!  A little rose among the thorns if you will…

If you read carefully, these chapters in Jeremiah actually speak a lot on friendship.

In chapter 38, we see a man named Ebed-Melek who managed to convince a king to let him save Jeremiah.  This didn’t seem like a big deal to me until I did a little more research on who Ebed-Melek was.  From the text we know that he was a Cushite and an official (or eunuch, according to the notes in my Bible) in the royal palace.  I really didn’t understand what the significance of this meant at first.  I won’t take up most of the devotional explaining* but from the information I read, Ebed-Melek was not high up on the chain of command AT ALL.  Why does this matter?  Because he went to see the king…someone with as little “importance” as himself went up to the highest ruler in his city to ask to save Jeremiah.  And he did!  “Ebed-Melek the Cushite said to Jeremiah, “Put these old rags and worn-out clothes under your arms to pad the ropes.” And Jeremiah did so, and they pulled him up with the ropes and lifted him out of the cistern…” (Jeremiah 38:12-13)

Because of this, God promised that Ebed-Melek would be saved from the destruction of the city.  “But I will rescue you on that day, declares the LORD; you will not be given into the hands of those you fear.  I will save you; you will not fall by the sword but will escape with your life, because you trust in me, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 39:17-18)

In chapters 40 and 41 we see how Johanan tried desperately to be a good friend to Gedaliah.  He warned Gedaliah about Ishmael’s plan to kill him, and even offered to “take care” of the problem.  “But Gedaliah son of Ahikam said to Johanan son of Kareah, ‘Don’t do such a thing!  What you are saying about Ishmael is not true.'” (Jeremiah 40:16)  Have you ever disregarded a friend’s advice because it wasn’t what you wanted to hear?  Unfortunately for Gedaliah, this ended up costing him his life.  He trusted Ishmael, he invited him to eat with him on the same day that Ishmael struck him down.  Even after Gedaliah was assassinated, Johanan was still loyal to him and went out to do what he could to save the rest of the people.

Just in these four chapters we see two amazing stories of friends.  The people we spend our daily lives with, our friends, make a huge impact in our lives.  When you look around at your friends, do you see people like Ebed-Melek and Johanan who are willing to take risks and will stay by your side no matter what?  Or do you see people like Ishmael who you want to trust but may not be the best to have around?  If you see some Ishmael’s… do you need to make a change before it’s too late for you?

“Friends are the roses of life, pick them carefully to avoid the thorns!” -Unknown

*You should do your own research, it makes the whole story a lot more impressive if you ask me!

-Sarah Blanchard

(Photo Credit: http://www.alittleperspective.com/jeremiah-39-and-52/)