The Big Promise

Genesis 12:1-3 (NRSV)

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”


I find myself repeatedly referencing these promises while I’m preaching or teaching. The last one, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” is one of those linchpins of the Bible, firmly connecting the Old and New Testaments.

Abram, of course, eventually was renamed “Abraham” by God, who worked through this man to establish a people, the Israelites, with whom God could be in relationship. Sin had broken the relationship between God and humanity, but God has from the earliest pages of the Bible wanted it restored.

What a sweeping promise: All the families of the earth shall be blessed! When we really start to think that through, it boggles the mind.

Yes, Abraham is known widely, having influenced the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But being known and being the conduit of a blessing spanning millennia are two very different matters.

As Christians, we understand that God came among us in flesh through the Israelites, the promised descendants of Abraham. Jesus Christ died on the cross because “God so loved the world.” Through the work of Christ, restoration to God—the great blessing granting us forgiveness from sin and eternal life—is possible.

The promise to Abraham seems to go beyond mere possibilities, though. “All” and “shall” hint at the completeness of God’s plan, which will play out in ways that should astonish us. Salvation through Jesus Christ will be global; no family will be untouched.

The astounding quantity of God’s grace should fill us with hope, whatever our circumstances.

Lord, we seek new visions and evidence of how widespread your loving work extends, and we look forward to the day when it is complete. Show us our role in all that is to transpire. Amen.

The Zechariah Effect

Zechariah and the Angel Gabriel

Luke 1:18: Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”


There is an odd reaction people sometimes have to gifts from God. I call it the “Zechariah Effect.”

We receive what we have so long desired. Clearly, what we receive is a blessing from God. And yet, we question whether what is happening is real.

I guess we could also call this the “Sarah Effect.” After all, Abraham’s wife laughed when she heard from a divine source that she would bear a child in old age.

The opposite to these startled, inappropriate responses is Mary’s response to hearing from the angel Gabriel that she would bear Christ. After asking a childlike “how” question, she simply replied, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”

Be sure to read the full story of how Zechariah learned he and his wife would have a child in old age, a child who would come to be known as John the Baptist. (I preached about him last Sunday.) There’s no doubt Zechariah knew an angel standing in a very holy place was telling him good news. He simply struggled to believe!

Some of you may have ideas regarding why we might react to divine gifts in such ways. I can think of at least a couple of possibilities.

First, it’s possible we’ve lived with a particular form of brokenness for so long that we have learned to accommodate it, using little mind tricks to keep our related sadness or dysfunction at bay. It can be disturbing to discover God is going to disrupt our stasis, even if we’ve been preserving something negative in our lives.

Second, maybe we’re discovering our faith isn’t as strong as we thought. Even with a miracle before us, our human doubts may briefly outrun the increase in faith we are going to receive from the experience.

By biblical standards, Zechariah’s punishment was relatively mild. Sarah was chastised, but just slightly. It would appear God is patient with our human reactions, even if he does want a more Mary-like faith from us.

Lord, grant us not only the changes we seek for our lives, but the wisdom to recognize when they have arrived. Amen.

Ultimate Covenant

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Jeremiah 31:31-34

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord.

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.”


If we are going to grasp what’s going on in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, there are a handful of critical concepts. Two major ones are in this prophecy from Jeremiah.

First, there is the idea of “covenant.” God’s covenants with humanity evolve through time, growing ever more expansive regarding whom they reach. You can see the potential for expansion was there from the start, when God entered a covenant, a holy contract, with the man we would come to know as Abraham.

Genesis 12:1-3: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.'”

Followers of Jesus Christ see his death on the cross thousands of years later as establishing a new covenant that makes salvation possible for all the families on earth. 

As covenants are established through time, we better understand a second critical concept, the idea of holiness. As God expands his relationship with humanity through Jesus Christ globally, he also begins to penetrate the hearts of his followers more deeply.

Jeremiah speaks of a time when holiness is complete, when God’s followers are so closely aligned with him that they have no need of written or spoken instruction. God will be so present within us that we simply will know God’s will for ourselves, enabling us to live in perfect harmony.

We obviously are not there yet. But as we practice faithful discipleship, it’s good to know where we are headed.

Lord, help us grow in holiness as we accept the eternal covenant offered us through Jesus Christ. Thank you for meeting us in our imperfect states, rescuing us from sin and death. Amen.

Timing

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Joshua 6:1-20 (NLT)

Today is election day, and as I look at the recommended Nov. 3 Scripture readings, the irony of finding a particular story from the Book of Joshua does not escape me.

In the story there is a wall, and the wall collapses. The story has inspired many people through the years, including Black slaves who once sang, “Joshua fought the Battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumblin’ down.” It is a story of change, chaotic change, but change designed to benefit the people of God.

First and foremost, let’s be praying that any change to come from today’s voting process is according to God’s will, and to the benefit of Christ’s kingdom on earth. There also is a lesson in this story about timing, a lesson any culture can benefit from in any era.

Joshua asked the Israelites to do a difficult thing—trust God’s timing. It must have been strange, marching around a city’s high wall day after day in silence. I wonder, once back in camp in the evening, did anyone mutter, “When are we going to actually do something effective?”

Timing is difficult to master. If you’ve ever played sports or music, you know how critical timing is. My father has been a drag racer for decades; races are often won or lost by thousandths of a second. In karate, there’s an ancient saying: “The time to strike is when opportunity presents itself.” You can be too quick or too slow. 

People sometimes like to act as if God isn’t fully awake. The solution we’ve deemed right must be forced, it seems: Here, Abram, go impregnate Hagar. Other times, we lose focus, and we’re too late to be effective. (I plan to preach this “too late” text Sunday.)

Jesus’ earthly ministry relied on timing. He repeatedly warned the disciples and others not to reveal too much about him, not just yet. It was as if Jesus knew exactly which beams and nails had to be available for his crucifixion if heaven and earth were to be joined through him.

If we’re going to master timing as Christians, we need to be sure we’re hearing clearly from God. Let’s neither rush nor miss those moments when our Lord says, “Blow those trumpets! Shout!” Again, prayer and study of Scripture are the best ways to unstop our ears.

Once we know God has issued a call to action, we can be confident our efforts to change things for the better will be effective, even if it turns out we’re just one move in the Lord’s long game.


Today seems like a good day for John Wesley’s covenant prayer. Here’s a modern version:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

The Power of Stories

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 78:1-4

O my people, listen to my instructions.
    Open your ears to what I am saying,
    for I will speak to you in a parable.
I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—
    stories we have heard and known,
    stories our ancestors handed down to us.
We will not hide these truths from our children;
    we will tell the next generation
about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
    about his power and his mighty wonders.

Biblical truth often is communicated in less-than-obvious ways. This piece of Psalm 78 reminds us of the power of stories and our need to wrestle with what we hear in them.

The psalmist says, “I will speak to you in parable.” Christians tend to associate “parable” with the stories Jesus told to reveal an astonishing truth. In today’s psalm, the word has a slightly different meaning, in that the psalmist is referencing historical stories passed from one generation to the next.

The underlying principle is the same, however. We should take those stories, turning them round and round and upside down. We should peer inside of them as deeply as we can. We meditate on them, we chew on them. Our goal is to discover something deeper about God and what God wants for his creation.

I get the sense that average Americans struggle with defining “truth” today. We confuse the search for truth with the acquisition of undisputed facts. As hard as it is these days to come up with an undisputed fact, it is still a much greater challenge to seek truth.

Searching for meaning in the stories of the Israelites and in the stories of Jesus is, I believe, the best way to fathom God and his mysterious love for very sinful humanity.

I can tell you God is merciful, but you’ll remember this truth better if you dwell on the story of the fall in Genesis. Focus in particular on the pause God takes while doling out punishment to show pity for the shivering, terrified, naked humans

I can tell you God loves you and longs for you to return to him, but you’re going to better grasp how deeply God loves you if you spend significant time meditating on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Look at the story through the eyes of father, son and brother and consider what they feel and why.

I know, this involves us slowing down and truly absorbing a story, a skill we’re losing rapidly in our modern cultural rush. But if you want to deepen your ability to search for truth in Bible stories, I can recommend a couple of books to get you started.

Fairly Simple: Any of the “Parables from the Backside” books by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Dr. Kalas was one of my preaching professors, and he was the master of shifting to an unusual perspective within a familiar story so we can see truth in a new way.

A little more challenging: Henri J.M. Nouwen’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” Nouwen offers his meditations on a Rembrandt painting depicting the moment the son returns home. This book is considered a modern Christian classic.

Whatever age you are, whatever education you may have, there’s more to be found in the Bible.

Lord, as we explore what you have revealed to us through stories in your holy word, may we find joy, excitement and a deeper sense of purpose. And give us the opportunity to pass on these truths to a new generation. Amen.


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Stairway to Heaven

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Genesis 28:10-17 (New Living Translation)

Let’s take a few minutes to consider Jacob, Jesus, Led Zeppelin and the chance to have an eternal connection to God.

I would bet that upon reading this devotional’s title, most of you first thought of Led Zeppelin. I’ll go ahead and correct a critical theological error in the group’s most famous song. No matter how much money a lady has, she won’t be buying the stairway to heaven.

If you are wondering what the stairway might look like, Israelite patriarch Jacob got a glimpse of it in a dream, while sleeping against a rock in a place eventually known as Bethel. Angels went up and down the stairway, marking the place as a connection between heaven and earth. At the top of the stairway stood the Lord, who restated promises made decades earlier to Jacob’s father, Isaac, and his grandfather Abraham.

Some of you raised on older English Bible translations may be protesting a bit right now, saying, “No, it was a ladder to heaven.” Many of us also were raised singing, “We are climbing … Jacob’s ladder.”

Either “ladder” or “stairway” works as a translation of the Hebrew word used in the story, which appears just once in Scripture. I like “stairway” better—as I imagine angels simultaneously going up and down, with God standing at the top, a stairway is more like what I see. As a child, I tried to visualize angels going up and down a ladder, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they felt crowded as they passed each other.

But back to Jacob’s dream. My New Living Translation Study Bible has a footnote attached to the story: “The point of the vision was that God and his angels were with Jacob on his journey.”

Jesus must have had that point in mind as he connected his very reason for existing to Jacob’s dream. In John 1:51, we hear Jesus say, “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man.”

In other words, God wants to be with us on our journeys, just as he was with Jacob. Jesus, God in flesh, is the stairway—because of his work as intermediary we have access to heaven.

God even comes down to us now, in this life! Belief in the effectiveness of Jesus’ death on the cross reconnects us to God, overcoming our sins, and God’s Spirit rushes to accompany us.

It really is incredible that all of this is free for us. Christ paid the price. We simply have to accept the stairway to heaven as our own.

Lord, thank you for the connection you offer us every day of our lives. Help us to use it well, drawing eternity into the lives we live now. Amen.

Life and Breath

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

The Bible has a lot to say about the not-so-simple act of breathing. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, words for “breath,” “wind” and “spirit” overlap.

Genesis 2:7: Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Ezekiel 37:9: Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

John 20:21-23: Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Acts 2:2-4: And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

It’s pretty obvious that in Scripture, the source of life is God’s breath, which we also might think of as the movement of the Holy Spirit. This ethereal lesson can be lived out in very practical ways, however, particularly in times of stress.

When I’ve taught people under tremendous stress how to pray in a meditative way, the “how to breathe” part of the lesson has been critical. First, you have to position your body so you can breathe. If seated, your back and neck need to be straight, your shoulders squared and hanging from your collarbones as if on coathangers.

From here, “breath prayer” begins to line up with core techniques I’ve learned from decades of martial arts practice, principles recently confirmed in books I’ve read about how soldiers and police survive and control violent, high-stress situations. Breathing is normally automatic, but it can get out of control when the world becomes overwhelming. At such times, we have to take charge of our breathing.

Inhale through your nose deeply, slowly, expanding your lower stomach. Hold at the end of the inhale for a count equal to your time spent inhaling. Exhale through your mouth at the same rate, shrinking and pushing in your lower stomach. At the bottom of the exhale, hold for the same amount of time. Some people who teach this talk about using a “four count” at each stage.

I should warn you, if your heart is racing, if your blood pressure is up, your lungs will fight you at first, particularly as you hold at the bottom of your exhale. But if you’re feeling panicked or anxious, repeating this type of breathing will calm you, center you, and allow you to turn to God.

Biblically, it makes sense. Made in the image of God and granted the Holy Spirit through our belief in Jesus Christ, we have access to the source of life.

Think of deliberate, God-focused breathing as an unspoken prayer request: “God, renew in me what you have poured into the world.”

Peace be with you. Tomorrow, I will try to help you embed this breathing in prayerful Christian meditation.

Lord, we thank you for the life you have breathed into us. May we use our lives to glorify you and to the benefit of your dawning kingdom on earth.

More than Enough

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 15:32-39 (NLT)

Then Jesus called his disciples and told them, “I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way.”

The disciples replied, “Where would we get enough food here in the wilderness for such a huge crowd?”

Jesus asked, “How much bread do you have?”

They replied, “Seven loaves, and a few small fish.”

So Jesus told all the people to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, thanked God for them, and broke them into pieces. He gave them to the disciples, who distributed the food to the crowd.

They all ate as much as they wanted. Afterward, the disciples picked up seven large baskets of leftover food. There were 4,000 men who were fed that day, in addition to all the women and children. Then Jesus sent the people home, and he got into a boat and crossed over to the region of Magadan.


I love the various “feeding” stories. They remind me that we still are invited to feed, knowing that when we are satisfied, there will be abundant leftovers.

Just in case you think I’m talking about food, hear what Jesus has to say to his disciples in the 16th chapter of Matthew. The layered context includes faith, the need to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (a reference to their deceptive, legalistic teachings), and the disciples’ inability to get their heads out of the immediacy of a moment.

“You have so little faith!” Jesus declares in 16:8. “Why are you arguing with each other about having no bread?”

Then, having reminded them of the two miraculous feedings recorded in Matthew, he asks, “Why can’t you understand that I’m not talking about bread?”

Jesus is trying to remind his followers that he is the bread of life. He is the source of grace. Let’s break away from the food metaphor for a moment and get to the point: Grace comes because God grants us life-giving love despite our not deserving it.

That grace didn’t come cheap, either. If grace were bread in a market, none of us could afford so much as a slice. God had to come in flesh and buy it for us, dying on the cross to overcome the power of sin and death.

All we have to do is accept what is given. We simply behave like hungry people, holding out our hands to catch loaves of bread being tossed in our direction.

Coming from an eternal source, the supply of grace will always exceed demand. As followers of Christ, our mission is pretty simple. We find ways to tell others, “God loves you! Accept what is yours! Stop starving for the love and forgiveness you so desperately crave!”

I’ve recently spent some time writing about the “means of grace,” the places where we are sure to receive grace, so perhaps we don’t need to explore those details again today.

But for crying out loud, eat. Eat!

Lord, may we be overwhelmed as we experience your love. Help us to find innovative ways to offer that love to others. Amen.

The Unloved

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor
“Jacob Urging Rachel and Leah to Flee Laban,” Pieter Symonsz Potter, 1638.

Genesis 29:31-35 (NRSV)

When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, “Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also”; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons”; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the Lord”; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.


Desperate sadness surrounds this part of Jacob’s story in Genesis. If you don’t know all the background, I would encourage you to find a plain-English translation and read Genesis chapters 27 through 36—it’s just a good story!

Leah was married only because her father tricked her husband Jacob into taking her, when Jacob really wanted her younger, more beautiful sister, Rachel. Within a week of marrying Leah, Jacob married Rachel, too, making Leah the ultimate third wheel in her own home.

Jacob wasn’t reluctant to use Leah for breeding purposes, but clearly, there was no affection. Undoubtedly, he held her father’s deception against her, even though there was no way in her day she could have defied her father. It’s not hard to imagine Leah weeping over her circumstances, crying out “Why?” to God. All she wanted was to be loved, too.

In this story, we see early evidence of how God notices and blesses the unloved. God gave Leah what a woman needed most in those days to be relevant, male sons, heirs for her husband. And in her case, she ultimately delivered the progenitors of six tribes of Israel, including Judah’s tribe of kings and Levi’s line of priests in the first flurry of four sons. Jacob may have failed to love Leah, but God honored her mightily.

In Matthew 1, the lineage for Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, traces back to Judah, making Leah very much a part of Jesus’ family memory. I wonder if the boy Jesus, sensitive to the stories of his world, was moved by his ever-so-great grandmother’s need to be loved. Did her story echo in his mind as Jesus reached out to the unloved of his day? Jesus spent a lot of time with untouchably ill people, traitorous tax collectors, prostitutes, and other outsiders, ministering to them in ways supposedly holy people would not.

There’s a lesson here for the church today. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we act on God’s behalf. And there’s no doubt we are called as the church to love the unloved as God loves them. There’s plenty of evidence of this call in the New Testament. Matthew 25:31-46 alone should be enough to convince us.

We are led to a simple question. Do we know the unloved around us?

Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear so no one in our community is left unloved and alone. Amen.