Trajectory

Paul’s Letter to Philemon

By Chuck Griffin

A few years ago on television, there was a show where a fictional senator and president discussed their discomfort with Christianity. The senator, played by Alan Alda, said, “I couldn’t believe there was a God who had no penalty for slavery. The Bible has no problem with slavery at all.”

Like all good fiction, this show dealt with ideas that trouble real people. Why doesn’t God say in the Bible, “Followers of Christ, it is wrong to own another person!”

The Apostle Paul’s words to an early Christian named Philemon are worth examining if we’re concerned about how effectively the Bible influences society. Philemon was a slave owner. Onesimus, his slave, had run away to Paul, converting to Christianity in the process. Paul then sent Onesimus back to Philemon. 

Paul’s decision to send a slave back to his master hardly seems to condemn slavery. But Paul also gave Onesimus a letter to take to Philemon. And the content of that subtle letter is so powerful that we now call it a book of the Bible.

The official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795, Josiah Wedgwood.

Nowhere in the letter will you find Paul saying, “End slavery now!” There’s one obvious reason. Such a direct attack on a central feature of the society in which early Christians lived would have invited terrible punishment.

Instead, Paul uses gentle coercion to change the situation. First, he speaks lovingly of the slave owner’s faith, found under Paul’s pastoral guidance.

Then Paul speaks of the slave’s faith, calling him “my child” and asking the master to receive the slave as a brother. The implication is obvious—how do you enslave and punish a beloved brother or sister?

As the television senator noted, there is no outright rejection of slavery in the letter to Philemon or anywhere else in the Bible. But we must learn to think of the Bible as more than a rule book from ancient history. It often works like a launching pad for ideas, ideas that God has shot like rockets through time so people are changed.

Now, we do have to be careful; some people would take a concept like scriptural trajectory and use it to argue the Bible says whatever they want it to say. We have to be certain that we go in the direction God first sent us. Otherwise, we will spin north, south, east and west until we finally hit the ground like an experimental missile.

God used Paul and his little letter to change the world dramatically over several centuries. Certainly, Paul wanted to free Onesimus from slavery. But more importantly, he wanted to free Philemon from any anger he might have been feeling toward his escaped slave and the wrongheaded notions that allowed the enslavement to occur.

If Paul had simply issued a rule for Philemon to follow, he never would have gotten to the heart of the matter. Was the Holy Spirit really changing Philemon? Could this slave owner find himself capable of loving Onesimus as a Christian brother?

And that brings us to the deepest lesson from the letter to Philemon. Christians change the world by changing hearts, not by rigorous rule making. Once hearts are changed, the rules for living become obvious and begin to fall in place.

Dear Lord, help us see the true trajectory of your great plan so we may conform ourselves to the holiness you offer your creation. Amen.

The Whole Heart

2 Chronicles 25

By Chuck Griffin

Have you ever been in a spiritually good place, feeling “right with God,” and then suddenly found yourself sinning mightily?

Those who have experienced such behavior know the sudden turn can be shocking and confusing. The author of 2 Chronicles repeatedly tells us stories of leaders who make such sudden wrong turns.

In chapter 25, we find Amaziah presented as one of the more successful kings over Judah, at least to a point. Early in his reign, he seems to follow God’s law scrupulously. When he goes to war against the Edomites, God tells him to send home the mercenaries he has hired to supplement his army, assuring the king he will have victory without such unsavory assistance.

And victory is Amaziah’s. That’s what makes his next act so odd.

Rather than giving thanks to the God who has given him assurances through prophets and victory on the battlefield, he carries home the idols of his defeated enemy and begins to worship them.

God, of course, expresses anger, speaking through a prophet. But even then, Amaziah is unrepentant, threatening the prophet with death. Amaziah eventually falls into the hands of his enemies and dies as the result of a conspiracy, all a result of divine displeasure.

We do receive an early clue to Amaziah’s problem in 25:2. We’re told that Amaziah “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, yet not with a whole heart.”

In other words, while part of Amaziah loved and followed God, there were dark places where he had not allowed God to penetrate. Therein lay the problematic parts of his personality.

Self-righteous anger may have been one of Amaziah’s serious problems. On their way home, the mercenaries he had dismissed looted parts of Judah, doing a lot of damage.

Perhaps Amaziah blamed God for allowing such a thing to happen. If so, Amaziah failed to see that the mercenaries’ behavior was more evidence that they were not the kind of people to be aligned with a godly mission, and that he had made a serious mistake in hiring them.

It also was a tradition in the Ancient Near East to take home the gods of a defeated people, absorbing them into the conqueror’s religious traditions. It may be that Amaziah forgot the special nature of the God over Judah, the God who declared himself One and Only. If so, Amaziah is simply another example of the folly of blending worldliness with godliness.

We again see how the Old Testament points us toward the New Testament. Only one with a whole and holy heart, Jesus Christ, could make it possible for the darkest parts of the human heart to be filled with light.

Dear Lord,when we experience sudden, surprising failure like Amaziah’s, search us deeply and show us what we still keep hidden. And of course, help us to hear your guidance and make the changes we need to make. Amen.

A Prayer of Faith

Habakkuk 3:17-19
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer's;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

By Chuck Griffin

Monday, we looked at how the prophet Habakkuk wrestled with his era’s version of the problem of evil, the questions that arise about God when bad people seem to prosper. The context was very different from our own—God’s chosen people were overrun by brutal conquerors—but the frustration and confusion expressed by the prophet were similar to what we might experience today.

We stopped at Habakkuk 2:1, the point where the prophet took a stand, seemingly demanding answers.

And God answered. Rooting the vision he offered Habakkuk in a seemingly distant but certain end to the divine plan, God asserted that the “righteous shall live by faithfulness.” He also assured Habakkuk that our perception of right and wrong is correct. Those who build wealth out of their own strength and corruption, making idols of objects in this world, will fail, although the patience of the righteous will be required.

It was enough to launch Habakkuk into prayer. We might even say song, as the third chapter has embedded in it instructions that there be musical accompaniment.

Habakkuk shows us the right attitude to maintain, even when the answers aren’t at first satisfying. He declared the greatness of God, poetically recounting the actions of the one who is clearly over all creation.

And even in pain, with all around him seeming lost, the prophet made it clear that God would continue to be worthy of honor and worship. “I will take joy in the God of my salvation,” he said (3:18).

How blessed are we that we have seen so much of God’s great plan play out! With the coming of Christ, we see how the cross marks the end of sin and death, even if we must wait patiently for Christ’s work to come to full fruition.

We will tread the high places.

Dear Lord, when we experience our own times of woe, help us to have the faith and perseverance of Habakkuk, trusting in the end of your plan to come. Amen.

Finding Our Watchposts

Note: I’m going to try something a little different for at least a few months. Normally, I’ve developed devotions based on daily readings found in the lectionary, but I thought it would be enlightening (at least for me) to focus on Scripture I’ve tended to neglect. I’ve been writing for this blog for nearly two years, and by my count, there are 13 books of the Bible I have never even referenced, much less explored. Let’s begin by looking at a portion of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk 2:1
I will take my stand at my watchpost
    and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
    and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

By Chuck Griffin

The precise details about when Habakkuk made his prophetic statements, or who he was, are unclear. We can tell, however, that he lived in a woeful time. The people who were certain they were God’s Chosen were experiencing ongoing conquest and oppression, causing them great confusion.

Habakkuk opens with an expression of that confusion, and in the process the prophet points out a core problem we wrestle with today: How can a holy and loving God allow sin and violence to take hold so deeply that justice is perverted?

Habakkuk finds God’s initial answer unsatisfying. Essentially, God says he has raised up these invaders, clearly describing their efficiency in war and their ability to plunder at will.

While acknowledging God uses these brutal people to bring judgment and reproof on the disobedient, Habakkuk also wonders how God can tolerate ongoing evil, saying in verse 1:13, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”

It’s a question many all around the world ask today. Yes, we are imperfect, but must we continually suffer at the hands of people who are clearly evil?

Rather than moving on to the rest of Habakkuk, I want to stop where we hear today’s focus verse, which begins the second chapter. The prophet makes a declaration that some might find impudent: I will stand like a sentry, eyes forward, expecting more of an answer from the Lord.

I respect the prophet’s dutiful stance, and I have no doubt God wants to meet us and answer us in these moments. As evidence, I would note that the Holy Spirit-inspired Bible offers us several psalms that, when recited, allow us to loudly lodge a complaint. For example, Jesus quoted a portion of Psalm 22 from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We will spend more time in Habakkuk this week, hearing more of God’s response, and what Habakkuk says from there. For now, let’s consider this: Where are we confused? Do we have the courage to climb dutifully onto our watchtower, that place of prayer that will be different for each of us?

From there, can we admit our inner turmoil to God, listening for his reply, regardless of what it might be?

Lord, make us brave enough to hear what you say so that your words change us, shaping us into the holy beings you would have us be. Amen.

Epiphany 2022

Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

Gerard David, Adoration of the Kings, National Gallery, London, circa 1515

I hope I’m not overplaying the Epiphany by spending two days on the subject. To me, it seems appropriate. Throughout much of Christian history, the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany was a much bigger deal than celebrating Christmas.

From that alone, we should assume the story associated with it, the story of the Wise Men, is important.  So what does the story tell us about God?

We receive little detail about these men chasing a “star” in search of a newborn king, a star no one else seems to have noticed. Tradition has led us to think of three wise men, but the Bible doesn’t give us an exact number.

Today, let’s simply consider some odd facts. As mentioned yesterday, an event in a tiny village was communicated via the stars and planets. We also should note that these wise men likely would not have understood God the way a Jew did, and yet God drew them into the story of his ultimate intervention in history.

It seems the big lesson God gives us in this story is how surprising he can be as he tries to shower us in grace and save us from sin. He not only will meet us where we are, he will work through our current practices to change us. (Methodists call this “prevenient grace,” the love God tries to show us even before we acknowledge who God is.)

When I think of the wise men seeing Christ’s birth registered in the sky, I also think of all the stories I’ve heard of nonbelievers discovering God in unlikely places: in bars, in prison, in dive hotels—any of those locations or moments where we might wrongly think God is not present.

The story peaks in a happy way. God led the wise men on from their visit with Herod, and there was the baby, just as promised. They gave Jesus gifts. What a joy that must have been, to give the Christ child a gift! And even better, they were able to kneel before him.

Was it worship? Translators debate how to deal with the word describing their act. We kneel in worship, but the wise men also would have been likely to kneel before a king.

We can say for certain that the moment marked a dawning awareness. These wise men would have understood God was working in the world in powerful ways, and that they had been drawn into the plan. They even would continue to hear from God in dreams, protecting the child and themselves in the process.

These wise men, these magi, were a foreshadowing of the purpose behind Jesus’ work on the cross decades later, and the church’s Holy Spirit-inspired work today. God truly calls to all people, regardless of their location or circumstances. After all, “For God so loved the world … .”

Lord, in 2022, may we with great joy worship the Christ. Thank you for the revelations about Jesus that we receive through Scripture and experience in our hearts. May we give him our gift of faithfulness, made possible by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Right Under Their Noses

Matthew 2:1-12

By Chuck Griffin

Today and tomorrow, we will consider the Epiphany, which marks the end of the Christmas season. The church traditionally associates the arrival of the wise men with this moment, officially on Jan. 6 each year.

From a distance, the wise men saw so much. At the same time, Jewish King Herod and his best advisers were oblivious to the most important moment the people of Jerusalem could imagine, the coming of the Messiah just six miles away from Herod’s court.

How do you see so much from afar? How do you miss such a big event when it’s happening right under your nose?

The wise men, most likely astrologers who advised rulers living in the area of modern-day Iraq, responded to a sign in the sky by packing their camels and making a months-long journey to Jerusalem. For them, whatever was going on in Jerusalem was huge, and they needed to get there despite the hardships.

When the wise men arrived, however, no one in Jerusalem seemed to know what they were talking about. Herod had to ask the wise men when the sign in the sky had occurred, despite having consulted with his chief priests and scribes.

So much for the “Little Drummer Boy” television version of Christ’s birth, where a star shines so brightly that its tail points toward the manger like a neon sign at a roadside motel.

The best astronomical explanation for the wise men’s sign in the sky probably lies in a series of conjunctions involving Venus and Jupiter near the constellation Leo and its bright star, Regulus. Such conjunctions would have screamed “a king is born in Judah” to these astrologers while going unnoticed by others. It’s also possible the star was a supernatural event, unusual in that it was intended for the wise men and no one else.

Regardless of exactly what motivated the wise men, it seems God spoke to them in signs for a simple reason. They were seekers. They spent their lives anticipating great events, looking for signs in the skies. God grants guidance to those who actively seek his will.

I’m not suggesting everyone take up astrology to hear from God. In this case, I think God simply was speaking to these seekers in a language they understood.

They also were the kind of men who were not afraid to go out into the world. These weren’t ivory-tower academics. They knew how to get those camels across the desert; with God’s guidance, they knew how to deal with the evil, wily Herod, heading home “by another way” to keep the Christ child safe.

And perhaps most importantly, they were ready to respond to the truth that had been revealed to them. They accepted God’s revelation, and they acted accordingly, honoring the Savior of the world.

The wise men stand in stark contrast to the corrupt King Herod, a man who sought his own glory rather than that of the God he should have been serving as the leader of the Jews. In many worldly ways, Herod was a great king. Certainly, he was a great builder, expanding the Second Temple and building the fortress at Masada.

He also was mercilessly shrewd, murdering his own wife and two of his children when he began to consider them threats. That ruthlessness is seen again in what we call “the massacre of the innocents,” the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem under the age of 2 in an attempt to kill the Messiah. Blinded by his worldly concerns, Herod could not have seen God’s glory if the baby Jesus had been born at his feet.

It’s not hard to see which model we should follow. Like the wise men, Christians should be seekers of God’s truth, listening for God’s sometimes subtle answers.

As seekers who begin to hear, it also is important to respond bravely. Do we put our possessions and even our lives at risk? What is our equivalent of getting on a camel and riding into the desert?

I would like to know more of the wise men’s story. I feel certain they were changed forever by the experience. For some reason God chooses not to give us those details through Scripture, however.

At least we are allowed to make a similar journey. We can be wise men and women ourselves, pursuing and worshiping Jesus as the Christ.

Dear Lord, show us the way. Amen.

The Heart of Justice

Psalm 72:1-5 (NLT)
A psalm of Solomon.
Give your love of justice to the king, O God,
    and righteousness to the king’s son.
Help him judge your people in the right way;
    let the poor always be treated fairly.
May the mountains yield prosperity for all,
    and may the hills be fruitful.
Help him to defend the poor,
    to rescue the children of the needy,
    and to crush their oppressors.
May they fear you as long as the sun shines,
    as long as the moon remains in the sky.
    Yes, forever!

By Chuck Griffin

Justice was a byword for 2021, and it will continue to be an important concept for this year, as it has been for thousands of years.

When the above psalm was written, kings and princes were lifelong arbiters of justice, which is bound tightly to other concepts like equality and fairness. In modern times in a democracy, we still vest certain people—presidents, governors and judges, for example—with a similar power. The major difference between ancient kingdoms and modern democracies is that directly or indirectly, the citizenry can now revoke that power in nonviolent ways if it is abused.

Justice has its constants, however, regardless of the era. Psalm 72 points out an important one, a truth spanning thousands of years. Justice has a source. Justice springs forth from the very nature of God. His will defines what is just and unjust, and it also is part of God’s will that justice be done.

Be it a king, prince, governor or judge, it has always been the prayer of godly people that the justice-givers root their task in a studied understanding of who God is.

God seeks to make people free. As Christians should understand, Christ went to the cross to give us freedom from the sins that bound us as they caused us to treat each other unjustly. Accordingly, those charged with providing justice in this world need to ask if they are making the people around them more free.

God asks that we live now as a people who believe he will provide a full and complete kind of justice one day. Right will be declared right, and wrong will be declared wrong, but at the same time, tremendous mercy and grace will be available for those who took time to seek the forgiveness made possible by Jesus’ sacrifice.

It should be our hope that today’s justice-givers incorporate appropriate measures of grace in their decisions, while remembering that victims of injustice crave restoration and renewal.

It’s a tough job. I admire those who take it on; I also pray they humbly keep in mind their roles as temporary conduits of what flows eternally from our maker.

Dear Lord, may justice be done in 2022, and may those charged with its provision be blessed by your guidance. Amen.

A Prayer for the New Year

Lord, join our hearts with your Spirit as we pray for 2022.
No matter what happens, we give all glory to you.
     We know the hard work has been done for us on the cross.
May the pandemic end.
May the church in America and beyond find renewal,
     spreading word of salvation in new ways.
May our nation be blessed and shine more brightly as a beacon for you.
May our communities be safe places for the resident and the stranger.
May our hearts grow in holiness as we study your word
     and make our lives more prayerful.
It is in the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

Endings and Beginnings

Mark 13:32-37 (NLT)

“However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert!

“The coming of the Son of Man can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. When he left home, he gave each of his slaves instructions about the work they were to do, and he told the gatekeeper to watch for his return. You, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know when the master of the household will return—in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak. Don’t let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning. I say to you what I say to everyone: Watch for him!”

By Chuck Griffin

Here at the end of another year, today’s gospel reading from the daily lectionary gives us words from Jesus about the end of creation as we know it. I sometimes feel I want to avoid such texts.

The subject is complicated for a 20-minute sermon, and more so for a devotion that might run 700 words. When I have a group of people who really want to study what theologians call “eschatology,” I prefer the reading time and lessons to stretch over several weeks in a small group or Sunday school setting.

The concept also has been muddied to the extreme, particularly in American religion, by people with some strange ideas about how to read the Bible. The most troubling of these authors and preachers fail to heed Christ’s words that begin our reading today.

A lot of these charlatans not only want to predict the timing of the end and tell us exactly what must happen on earth before Christ returns, they also want to sell us books explaining their theories. If they are sure the end is near, why don’t they live their convictions, going deep in debt to print their books and give them away? Why do they feel they need the money?

But the end of our Christian story is important, so let’s consider the matter, at least a little. If you want to consider it more deeply in a different setting, I’m always glad to help.

Are we living in the end times? Yes, we are. We have been since Christ ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit arrived to guide the church.

Jesus warned us that all sorts of terrible things would be happening around us: “wars and rumors of wars,” natural disasters, famines, pandemics and so on. Such events were happening even as he spoke.

From a global perspective, they have continued to happen nonstop, but they do not represent the end; as Jesus said, they are merely the “birth pangs” of what is to come. Evil was defeated by the cross, but evil will continue to snap and bite, to try to take as many of us down with it as possible, until Christ destroys evil forever.

Many of the earliest hearers of Jesus’ words lived long enough to think the world was coming to an end. In the year 70, the Romans burned and razed everything on top of the Temple Mount in response to a Jewish rebellion. The historian Josephus claimed that 1.1 million people were killed in this destruction.

There have been other times people have been convinced the end must be near. In fact, I would assert there has been no definable period in history where someone didn’t think, “This must be the end of everything.”

Just imagine being in the midst of the Black Death, when plague killed anywhere from one-third to one-half of Europe’s population in the 14th century.

Or think of the 20th century, when two world wars left people with the sense that everything was crumbling around them. Those wars gave us nuclear bombs and were followed by a Cold War during which it seemed most of us might die at the push of a few buttons.

It’s depressing stuff to think about. And maybe that’s why I want to be careful when talking about the end times. We don’t want to get so lost in the sad and scary stuff that we miss the true message Christ is trying to give us. His return is good news; it is the end of suffering, with ungodliness and death destroyed forever.

I want all of us to live with a sense of joyful immediacy. Let’s live as if we are going to see Christ with our next breath! When we live this way, evil cannot really touch us, not even if it takes our lives. Even if we are killed, we are sheltered with Christ, destined to return with him on that great day.

In Christ, what we call the end is merely a new beginning.

Lord, help us to live with a sense of your immediate presence. Amen.

Building Plan

1 Corinthians 3:10-17 (NLT)

Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ.

Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames.

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

By Chuck Griffin

Every church I have pastored has either been planning a building expansion, in the midst of a building expansion, or paying off a building expansion. The need for additional facilities means that at some point the church has been healthy, serving more people than it ever has served before.

We like to measure churches by their buildings. Structures are easy to see. Paul points us toward a more spiritual understanding of church expansion, however, writing at a time when Christians might have had difficulty imagining the kinds of facilities congregations construct today.

As we are reminded in one of our great hymns, “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” A church is strong when its people sink themselves into the core truths about Jesus Christ: That he is the promised Messiah; that he is the Son of God, divinity in flesh among us; that he died on the cross for our sins and was resurrected from the dead; that he rules over all creation and will return in full one day to set this broken world aright.

We lay a solid foundation in what we preach, teach and practice. The Holy Bible, the Holy Spirit-inspired word of God, acts as our blueprint. In terms of programs, worship style, dress, decor and architecture, we may look different from congregation to congregation, but that’s okay, as long as our churches remain rooted in who Jesus is.

Take Jesus out of the plans, and we are quickly in danger of being some sort of club rather than a church. As we work to adapt to a rapidly changing society, it’s okay, perhaps even essential, that we shift in our outward appearance. But we must offer the world Jesus and the values that naturally flow from a relationship with him.

Heavenly Father, help us to build well for the future. Whatever the church becomes, may it always be so holy that it stands beautifully in your refining fire. Amen.