The Greatness of God

Luke 9:37-42 (NRSV)

By John Grimm

Wow.  That is what can be said about Jesus casting out a demon from a boy.  We should be astounded at the greatness of God.  For the man to see his son free from the demon would have been spectacular!

When is the last time we were astounded by the greatness of God? 

Did this astonishment happen when a confirmand felt the Holy Spirit present in her?

Did this astonishment happen when a loved one quietly died after battling a terrible disease?

Did this astonishment happen in a worship service as Jesus healed a broken relationship?

Maybe we are like the generation who watched Jesus cast the demon out of the boy.  Maybe we are faithless and perverse.  It might be that Jesus needs to rebuke us so that we can see the greatness of God.

God, we want to see your greatness.  However, our lack of faith and our perverse ways keep us from noticing your power at work in this world.  Heal our lack of faith and drive out our perverse ways.  We want to see you work in our world.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray.  Amen.

Guided

Luke 2:25-35 (NRSV)

By John Grimm

Serving God is unique.  We will not know exactly what we are to do in every situation.  We will not know how long we will have to wait to see what God has promised.  We only know that we are serving God.  When we arrive where God wants us to be for someone else, we will know it.

As a member of the clergy, I have noticed this truth.  There have been countless times that I have contacted a disciple and that disciple says to me: “How did you know I needed…?”  Whether it has been a prayer, my presence, or even a phone call, God has allowed me to be part of an unknown that blessed others.

Simeon waited for the consolation of Israel.  We do not know how long he waited.  We only know that he would see what God promised him before he died.  Then, Simeon praised God.  His words amazed Joseph and Mary.

The truth is that the consolation of Israel is for the glory of Israel and a light of revelation to the Gentiles.  We may not ever be in the situation Simeon was.  However, being there with a prayer, our presence or even a phone call for another person can be exactly how God wants us to serve Him.

Jesus, thank you for being all that you are.  As we serve you and the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit, may we see what you promise us.  Give us the words as we pray for other people.  Give us the wherewithal to be present when someone needs us.  Give us the timing that allows us to dial a number for us to speak what you desire for us to speak.  Amen.

A Burning Desire

Luke 12:49-53 (NKJV)

“I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
    and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

By Chuck Griffin

Yesterday, my new hardback copy of Percy Livingston Parker’s “The Heart of John Wesley’s Journal” arrived. I opened it at random, wanting to see the typeface, layout and such.

I landed on page 212, which has this subhead on it: “Wesley Burned in Effigy.” Here begins Wesley’s account of a handful of April days in 1750 in the Irish town of Bandon, County Cork. It is easy for us to forget that Methodism in its original and purest form brought its adherents into conflict with other Christians, who sometimes were angered by the Methodist call to turn back to a scriptural faith.

Monday, 21.—I rode on to Bandon. From three in the afternoon till past seven, the mob of Cork marched in grand procession and then burned me in effigy near Dant’s Bridge.

Wednesday, 23.—The mob was still patrolling the streets, abusing all that were called Methodists, and threatening to murder them and pull down their houses, if they did not leave this way.”

Wesley’s Thursday and Friday entries give accounts of continuing vandalism of homes and the efforts of people to organize anti-Methodist mobs, apparently with the encouragement of local clergy. By Saturday, the town had settled down a little, and Wesley that evening began preaching “to more than twice the usual congregation.” (People do crave truth, don’t they!)

“After I had spoken about a quarter of an hour,” Wesley writes, “a clergyman, who had planted himself near me with a very large stick in his hand, according to agreement, opened the scene. (Indeed his friends assured me he was in drink, or he would not have done it.) But before he had uttered many words, two or three resolute women, by main strength, pulled him into a house; and after expostulating a little, sent him away through the garden.

“The next champion that appeared was one Mr. M—, a young gentleman of the town. He was attended by two others with pistols in their hands. But his triumph too was but short; some of the people quickly bore him away, though with much gentleness and civility.

“The third came on with greater fury; but he was encountered by a butcher of the town (not one of the Methodists), who used him as he would an ox, bestowing one or two hearty blows upon his head. This cooled his courage, especially as none took his part. So I quietly finished my discourse.”

Some observations:

  1. Christianity, properly lived, requires courage. Let nothing, not even institutional powers that may threaten us, prevent us from following God’s call. Jesus warned us that the core truth about who He is can cause division even within households.
  2. People who crave real truth and meaning will be guided by the Holy Spirit to support and shield those who bring the word.
  3. Regardless of the circumstances, preach it! And I don’t just mean professional preachers—we are all called to declare the truth about who Jesus is. When God prompts you, finish your discourse quietly or loudly, according to your style.

And if the situation really gets out of hand, pray that the town butcher is nearby.

Dear Lord, thank you for the brave souls who have gone before us to ensure your biblical revelation of Christianity is revealed to the world. And should we be called into the fray, may we be counted among them as worthy. Amen.

God in Art: A Revealing Walk

In one of the resurrection stories, Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, walking unrecognized with them. The story is found in Luke 24:13-35. This depiction by an unknown Flemish painter around 1600 is dependent on pilgrim clothing and imagery familiar to the artist, but it does capture an important theme. The world is a busy place, full of distractions, and as we wander through it we can miss the Savior even as He walks with us. Be sure to zoom in on the tiny details. There’s more going on in this painting that you initially will see.

Whom Do We Fear?

Luke 12:4-7 (NRSV)

By John Grimm

We face challenging times when we publicly say that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior.  People will not treat us well.  As Jesus was slain for opposing the religious establishment, those of us who follow Jesus will face mistreatment, character assassination, and even actual death.  What our Master has faced, we will face.  Let no one deceive us: Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is the hardest way of living in this world.

That is why we are afraid to speak about Jesus when we are around those who do not know the compassion of Jesus Christ.  We allow our fear to control our tongues, instead of trusting the Holy Spirit of Christ to guide our tongues.

Life is precious.  We want to keep our lives.  However, it is precious only because Jesus Christ has given us our very existence, even dare we say, new lives!

The Lord knows who we are.  The Lord knows we are believers in Jesus Christ.  He does not forget us, just as he does not forget five sparrows sold for two pennies.  We are more valuable than sparrows.  God in Christ helps us to not fear.

The one who could cast us into hell cares for us!  It is time for us to fear him!

God, we have not spoken about or lived our faith like Jesus Christ lived.  We are afraid.  Heal our unbelief.  In the name of Jesus Christ, loose in us your Holy Spirit so we may overflow with glad tidings of your grace and compassion; this we pray, Amen.

Empty Space

By Chuck Griffin

In this season of Lent, the word “repent” comes up on a regular basis. Repentance requires more commitment than we may realize.

In the third chapter of Luke, we see how crowds of people responded to John the Baptist’s call to repent and prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. But when they showed up to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers.”

Clearly, there’s a little more to repentance than just showing up. As we read on in Luke, we see more clearly what the hairy, locust-chomping prophet was expecting: a true change of heart, the kind of transformation that results in a change of behavior.

The crowd asked, “What then should we do?”

John the Baptist’s answer was simple. If you’ve got plenty, and the poor around you have none, share! Stop being so greedy. He must have sensed there were a few folks in the crowd who planned to keep their extra cloaks and food despite being baptized.

If you have a job, particularly one where you have power over others, then perform your duties honestly, he went on. The soldiers and tax collectors whom he addressed directly were notorious for abusing their power to commit theft and extortion. Again, he must have seen the desire for sinful gain still glimmering in their eyes.

These were just examples. His main point was, you cannot say “I repent” but then go on with your old, sinful ways. “Repent” means that you regret your past actions and put them aside. Without true repentance, all the water in the Jordan River won’t help you.

Salvation is simple. All you have to do is believe that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient to pay for your sins. True belief by its very nature requires a repentant heart, however. If you don’t think the concept of sin, and in particular, your individual sins, are a problem, how can you take seriously the need for the cross?

Think of it this way: Ongoing sin fills up places in you where God needs to be. True repentance creates empty spaces, allowing God to rush in.

Anyone in church knows that we still have much to repent. Sadly, even the really obvious sins—murderous anger, adultery, theft, deception—go on among Christians, within what we call the body of Christ.

And then there’s the more subtle stuff—gossip, slander, greed and refusals to forgive, just to name a few—that can do as much damage long-term as murder can do short-term.

Yes there’s always plenty of repentance needed, even among those who have submitted to the water and taken on the name of Christ. I won’t go so far as to call us a “brood of vipers,” but I wonder if John the Baptist might.

Fortunately, we worship a patient, loving God, one who will grant us the power to change, if only we repent and ask for God’s help.

Lord, as we open ourselves to you, search us and show us what needs to be surrendered. Amen.

A Sermon: “Headed Home”

Here’s a Monday Extra for Methodist Life readers. As some of you are aware, this blog began as part of outreach efforts by the Holston Wesleyan Covenant Association. The link below will take you to the manuscript of a sermon I preached last Saturday during worship, before our Holston chapter’s annual business meeting.

Headed Home”

Watch!

Luke 21:34-36

By John Grimm

Every year it seems like Christmas comes before we are ready.  We are going to work.  We are doing our daily and weekly routines at the store, with our family, and with the church.  Suddenly, there it is.  It is Christmas (again)!  How did we not notice it creeping up on us?

Jesus warned the disciples and all the people (Luke 20:45) to be on guard.  We can be weighed down with the concerns of work and home.  We can be drunk on how well our college tournament brackets are going to perform.  We can even be worried about how high the gas prices will go.

Life can trap us., so much so that we may actually miss out on what God is doing around us.  Heaven forbid if we miss what God is doing in our lives!  Our social media feed will not get us caught up with what we missed from God.  What can we do?

We pray.  We are alert in prayer as we ask Jesus for strength to prepare us for the destruction Jesus foretold in Luke 21:5-33.  The power of the Holy Spirit can get us to the point where we can stand before the Son of Man.

Until Jesus Christ returns, we can be praying.  That will be the best posture for Jesus to find us in when that day happens.

Almighty God, we know not when Jesus Christ will return.  Until that day arrives, we read that Jesus wants us to be on guard.  Thank you that we can meet you in prayer.  May all the troubles of this life and the destruction to come not trap us, making us unready for when Jesus returns.  Holy Spirit, give us the strength we need to make it through that day.  We ask this request in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Eyes Open

A detail from Fedor Bronnikov’s “Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Home,” painted in 1886.

A Parable of Jesus, from Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

“He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

By Chuck Griffin

Having heard the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you may be having trouble seeing yourself in the story. That’s understandable. Lottery jackpot billboards aside, most of us don’t seriously imagine a life of great wealth and constant feasting. I suspect our basic psychological makeup also makes it difficult for us to imagine having fallen so low in life that we could end up lying in the street with festering sores, stray dogs the only creatures who seem to notice us.

And yet, I find this parable to be almost universally applicable.

Certainly, the lesson is taught through extremes of wealth and poverty. But at the same time, it’s not really about the dangers of wealth, nor does it somehow invest poverty with a kind of holiness. Instead, Jesus gives us a lesson for the heart.

Notice something about both men in the first of the parable. They simply are described in their respective states. There’s no evidence they interact; at no point does poor Lazarus actually ask the rich man for anything, and at no point is the rich man portrayed as having rejected Lazarus directly. They simply are in proximity to each other.

The parable points out the danger of a terrible sin, a sin we seldom talk about. It is the sin of self-absorption, of being unable to see a need that is before us. It is the sin of unsearching eyes; it is the sin of walking past someone and not caring.

We tend to think, “It is what I do that could send me to hell, to an eternity separated from God.” Jesus is telling us something very different—there is tremendous danger in what we fail to do.

The extremes of wealth and poverty are in the story for a basic reason. They make clear the rich man has no excuse for his failure to act. With such wealth, he could have easily cared for the poor man who had wandered into his circle of influence. The rich man would not have missed what Lazarus required for restored health and a decent standard of living.

The rich man is not condemned for failing to care for all poor people, just for failing to help the one at his gate. I’m reminded of the story of the thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach, gasping and dying. A little girl walked the ocean’s edge, throwing starfish into the ocean.

A man came along and said, “Little girl, there’s no way you can save all those starfish!”

“You’re right,” she replied, throwing another one in the ocean. “But I saved that one.”

The rich man could have at least said of Lazarus, “I saved that one.”

Some may protest this interpretation by pointing out how we are saved by faith, not works, and on that point, I would agree. We can do nothing without the grace of God at work in us, and we receive God’s saving grace through a belief in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus intertwines faith and action in his teachings, however, presenting them as the rope that pulls us from the pit. This parable has much in common with Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, where he sorts the judged to his left and right—to damnation or eternal joy—based on how they treated the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.

The lesson is the same in both accounts: Our actions best reveal whether our hearts rest near the bosom of Christ.

This teaching is good news! We are actually being invited to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. All we have to do is pray that the Christ who saves us also makes us intentional about seeing the brokenness around us.

I once worked in a nonprofit relief organization with a woman who required a family to allow her to make a home visit before they could receive any significant aid. I asked her one day why she did that—I could tell some of the families felt they were being scrutinized or even judged.

She laughed, telling me that yes, some of them probably felt that way, but the home visits let her see the needs the families weren’t revealing. Even the poorest people in rural Upper East Tennessee are generally a proud bunch, and often the problem was getting them to ask for all the help our little nonprofit could provide.

When I understood what she was doing, I admired her approach. She was actively searching for need so she could see it and address it.

The end of the parable emphasizes the overall point. The rich man’s last request is that Lazarus be sent to his presumably rich brothers as a warning about the danger of their hard-heartedness. Abraham makes it clear that these lessons about compassion have already been delivered by Moses and prophets, and that men who failed to hear those ancient words would continue in their deafness “even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there again is the great danger of unseeing self-absorption. When we fall into it, we miss God entirely. In God’s greatest work in this world, Christ rose from the dead, but self-absorption can leave us blind to even this great miracle.

Lord, make us alert. Show us the broken people in this world and how we can play some small part in undoing their suffering. Amen.

Malevojoy

The Book of Obadiah

By Chuck Griffin

The little prophetic book of Obadiah contains a description of an emotion so nasty that God promised to destroy those who felt it.

Oddly, as powerful an emotion as it is, we don’t have a word for it in English. The Germans call it schadenfreude. The Greeks call it epichairekakia.

It is the joy we sometimes feel when someone else experiences trouble. Usually, that someone else is a rival or enemy, and we are reminded in Obadiah that we can treat people quite close to us as rivals or enemies.

Obadiah, a prophet we know little about, described in 21 tight verses why God would destroy the Edomites. The Edomites, you may recall, were the descendants of Esau, twin brother of Jacob. Jacob, of course, was a progenitor of the Israelites.

In other words, the Israelites and the Edomites were cousins. They considered themselves the killing kind rather than the kissing kind, however, keeping alive some very old grudges going back to their twin forefathers.

While we don’t know the exact time frame for Obadiah, his prophecy clearly came after the Israelites had suffered terrible defeat and destruction. The Edomites were guilty not so much of committing violence, but of reveling in what they witnessed.

“You should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune; you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah on the day of their ruin; you should not have boasted on the day of their distress,” God said to the Edomites through Obadiah.

The desire to grin at a rival’s pain is such a common emotion that I’m surprised we don’t have a word for it in English. Perhaps we need one; it’s hard to identify and repent from a sin when you cannot name it. “Malevojoy,” a fusion of “malevolence” and “joy,” might work.

We see such perverse emotion displayed again in the New Testament, as Jesus is hanging on the cross. The chief priests, scribes and elders watch their rival bleeding and dying and mock him, no doubt with grins on their faces.

“And the people stood by watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!'” (Luke 23:35.)

The potential result of their malevojoy seems much different in the New Testament, however. We are told in Luke how Jesus dealt with such people before they so much as spoke, knowing full well the judgment his enemies might face one day. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Even at his death, Jesus felt only love and pity for his rivals.

Dear Lord, forgive us for the nameless sins we commit. Amen.