Feeling Betrayed

Our devotionals for Holy Week continue. The following ran on Luminary UMC’s website for Holy Wednesday last year, and received a lot of comments. It seems we’ve all felt betrayed at one time or another.

John 13:21-27 (NLT)

Now Jesus was deeply troubled, and he exclaimed, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me!”

The disciples looked at each other, wondering whom he could mean. The disciple Jesus loved was sitting next to Jesus at the table. Simon Peter motioned to him to ask, “Who’s he talking about?” So that disciple leaned over to Jesus and asked, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus responded, “It is the one to whom I give the bread I dip in the bowl.” And when he had dipped it, he gave it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. When Judas had eaten the bread, Satan entered into him. Then Jesus told him, “Hurry and do what you’re going to do.”


By Chuck Griffin

If you have a strong reaction to this story, you’ve probably been betrayed. A co-worker, a friend, a relative, a spouse—someone not only let you down, the person actually turned on you, consciously violating a long-established trust.

The closer the relationship, the worse the pain caused by the betrayal. It usually is hard for the victim of betrayal to let go, to forgive.

Most cultures hold betrayers in very low esteem. In Dante’s fictional account of hell, punishments grew progressively more severe moving inward, and the heart of the inner circle was for betrayers who remained frozen in painfully contorted positions. In the very center, Satan munched on the people Dante considered to be the three greatest traitors, Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius.

In contrast to our personal and cultural reactions, Jesus seemed resigned to betrayal. Of course, by this point in the story, he knew exactly where he was headed, down to the minute, I suspect.

Jesus didn’t do anything to change Judas when he gave him the morsel of bread; Judas’ heart was already turned toward sin. In the act, Jesus simply identified who among the 12 was most deeply broken. The sharing of the gravy-dipped bread makes me sad, though.

To eat with someone on such a night—in this case, to literally break bread—is an intimate moment. Earlier in the evening Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, Judas included, compounding the intimacy. But none of those acts could turn the betrayer from his plan.

On that night, Judas truly was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And once your mind is so firmly set in such a terrible direction, it is easy for Satan or one of his minions to enter and lead the way.

I do wonder about something, though. The Bible tells us that Judas died shortly after the betrayal. (The accounts of his death in Matthew 27 and Acts 1 are difficult to reconcile, but in each one he ends up dead.) Had he lived, how would the resurrected Jesus have treated his betrayer?

The closest analogy we have is Peter, who proved to be the worst of the deniers once Jesus had been arrested. Near the end of the Gospel of John, we see Jesus forgive and restore Peter. Again, the scene is intimate, on a beach near a charcoal fire, a breakfast of fish and bread cooked and waiting for some very ashamed men.

Had Judas lived, carrying with him the remorse and repentance he seems to bear in Matthew 27:3-4, I suspect he would have found forgiveness, too. Such radical forgiveness would be typical of the Savior we serve.

Lord, where we have been betrayed, let us find a way to forgive during this Holy Wednesday, and where we have betrayed others, may we be forgiven. Amen.

Almeida Júnior, “Remorse of Judas,” 1880

The Great Sympathizer

Hebrews 4:14-16 (NRSV)

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.


Just recently my online small group spent some time discussing the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. We were struck by how easily we could relate to the temptations Satan put before our savior.

Yes, the magnitude of what it took to tempt one who is divine is astonishing. After 40 days of fasting, Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. He was tempted to fling himself from the pinnacle of the temple and demonstrate his ties to heaven, an act certain to inspire a following. And he was offered a world under his dominion, if only he would place himself below Satan in the grand scheme of the universe.

When we boil those temptations down, however, we see how they appeal to basic human desires for immediate gratification, recognition and control. Satan simply offers us less because he knows how easy it is to draw mere humans toward defeat and death.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that the priest who represents us in heaven, Jesus, is deeply sympathetic toward our plight. He has felt our desires. And while Jesus did not succumb to those desires, he certainly understands how fragile humans can easily do so, making our circumstances even worse.

Jesus went to the cross out of love for us, and even after the terrible pain from bearing the weight of every sin ever committed, he continues to love us. He stands there in the heavenly temple, ready to make us holy despite our sins.

We certainly respect what Jesus has done. Our hearts should be filled with gratitude, and there is no need for cringing fear when the time comes to approach Christ in heaven. He has lived among us and understands our circumstances.

Lord, we thank you for the sacrifice making our forgiveness and restoration to God possible. As you represent us in heaven, may we be so bold as to speak for you on earth. Amen.

Soul Soil

Gardening taught me something spiritually interesting several years ago. It’s possible to make soil in infertile places.

You accomplish this by layering various organic elements. First, you use a heavy layer of newspaper as the base. This kills any weeds in the plot where you want something to grow.

Then you start making layers an inch or two deep, each composed of different organic substances: compost, ground leaves, vegetable peelings, grass clippings, peat moss. You simply lay it on inch-by-inch until you get the depth you want, finally topping it off with a layer of mulch.

After it sits for a while, it’s ready for planting. While living in Georgia, I made some very productive little gardens for herbs, peppers and other vegetables where I had nothing but barren red clay.

One day, I was thinking about what is sometimes called the “parable of the soils” or the “parable of the sower.” This is the story Jesus tells in Matthew 13:1-9 and then explains in Matthew 13:18-23.

The different kinds of soils represent different kinds of people: those who don’t understand the truth about Jesus, those who hear the truth but become discouraged by trouble, those who hear it and become distracted by worldly pleasures, and those who hear the truth and let it grow mightily in them, until it begins to spread to others.

And then I asked myself, “Do you have to remain one kind of soil?”

I don’t think so. God has given us the tools to make good, deep “soul soil.”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, sometimes talked about the “means of grace,” those ways we can hold ourselves out to God and say, “Please change me.” There are five big, scripturally based ways. And they work together, enhancing each other’s ability to make a person more spiritually fertile.

Prayer is like the paper base. We use it liberally to keep the weeds of the world from growing. Lying close to prayer is fasting. Fasting makes prayer more effective because it keeps us mindful of our dependence on God.

The third layer is Scripture. How can we understand God’s truth if we’re not reading what our Creator has revealed? Reading the Bible has to be a daily experience for any Christian.

The fourth layer in our “soul soil” mix is what Wesley called “fellowship.” We practice fellowship whenever we gather with other Christians. Fellowship keeps us mindful of our need for community.

The fifth layer is the taking of communion. Jesus told us to remember via this act what he has done for us. Communion should be meaningful. It should be regular. And it should be done with the knowledge that God transforms us for the better every time we faithfully participate.

Make some soul soil. God’s truth will sprout in amazing ways.

Lord, in this season of Lent may we find ways to practice all the means of grace, enriching our experience of you. Amen.

One of Us

Important Link ~ Jesus Is Tempted: Matthew 4:1-11

It is the season of Lent, and this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness tells us much about how to put sin behind us and grow spiritually, seeking holy alignment with God.

Not that Jesus, who was in a mysterious way fully divine and fully human, had sin in his life. He did have the potential to sin; he simply did not succumb to temptation, as we so often do as frail humans.

Just before the temptation story in Matthew, the Father in Heaven affirmed Jesus’ sonship at his baptism. In our baptisms, we become children of Father God, siblings of the Savior Son. As the author of Hebrews notes, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Think of baptism as God lifting up his children, gazing upon them and claiming them as his own. God also kneels down with his children. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was God, through Jesus’ eyes, seeing life from our level.

And what a painful place the wilderness can be. When I read this story, I imagine Jesus walking about in the chalky, sun-baked wilderness, hungrily praying about everything that draws humans away from God.

We hear specifically the lures old Satan dangled before Jesus: You know you’re hungry; make bread from stones. Throw yourself from the highest point of the temple; angels will save you. Bow down to me and I’ll let you rule the world!

Jesus was ready, though, and I’m reminded of our need to find time apart for fasting, meditation and prayer. Folks, we’re really not very good at these disciplines in our culture. It is as if our goal is to fill every moment with something to tingle the ears or penetrate the eyes, as if time spent in unstimulated silence is somehow wasted.

We fail to do what Jesus did. We fail to go without, so we fail to remember our fragility and dependence. That’s the real purpose of fasting. The act helps us become more conscious of the voids within us, deep depressions in the soul we too often try to fill with excesses in eating, sex, recreation or other diversions.

Having consumed the wrong kind of sustenance and thinking we are satisfied, we then fail to gather our strength through direct communion with God.

I don’t talk about our failures to make us despair, however. No, I point them out so we can, with God’s help, overcome them and be amazed at all that God wants to do for us!

Never forget that in the midst of what seemed like vacant, dry wasteland, a place of constant danger, there were angels ready to tend to our sibling savior. Do you not think they will do the same for us, his little brothers and sisters in the family of God?

Lord, your Bible stories in the Lenten season remind us of sin. But more importantly, they remind us of the joy and power in a life redeemed from sin, a life connected to eternity by Jesus Christ. Help us to make and hold on to that connection. Amen.

Do Good

Hebrews 13:16: Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.


We’re continuing with our Monday focus on behaviors we can practice throughout the week, a particularly good exercise during the season of Lent. Last week, we focused on the first rule for traditional Methodist living, do no harm.

This Monday, we move to the second very simple rule: Do good.

Be an active Christian, not a passive one. In our daily living, we should be making the world more like the kingdom of heaven. This sounds like a simple assertion, but if we are not intentional about doing good, we will miss many opportunities.

We do good in a couple of basic ways. We of course need to relieve suffering. When the kingdom of heaven is fully present, Christ’s work on the cross will be complete, and suffering and death will come to an end.

A good guideline for identifying those who suffer begins at Matthew 25:31, which recounts the scene of judgment Jesus gave us. We of course are dependent on God’s grace to be saved, but it’s also clear that salvation is supposed to change us so we do good, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Righteousness in Christ is identifiable by how we treat the least among us: the hungry and the thirsty, the vulnerable strangers we encounter, those lacking the basics for living, the sick, and the imprisoned.

You are invited to spend the week considering how you might do good toward these people, and then follow through. I would suggest we start as close to home as possible and then work out from there, considering our church family, our community, and then beyond.

If you’ll look at the larger context surrounding today’s Bible verse, you will see Jesus’ teachings embedded there. You also will see that our acts of good are a response to the great act of good Jesus performed on the cross, overcoming sin and death for us.

That larger context reminds us of our second big opportunity to do good. Tell the story of Jesus Christ to people needing to hear it. Our willingness to do so may be the difference between eternal life and eternal death for someone.

Again Lord, let our eyes see and our ears hear what you would have us do. Amen.

Fight My Enemies

“The Angel Michael Binding Satan,” W. Blake, circa 1805

Psalm 35:1-10

I hope you’ll take time to read these verses from Psalm 35, which can be found by clicking the above link. You can examine the psalm in different translations, if you want.

If you are someone who believes others are working against you, acting as your enemies, this psalm makes an excellent prayer to God for assistance. It creates a stirring mental picture when read; imagine the eternally powerful and wise Lord of All arming himself for battle and coming to your aid.

A word of caution, though. Praying this psalm is no magic trick, no casual incantation. Our God cannot be trapped and contained the way people believed (and still believe) pagan, little “g” gods can be controlled.

There are some serious actions that must accompany such a prayer. First and foremost, people who would lift it need to do some deep soul-searching, examining whether they have aligned themselves with the Lord. Scripture would be their best source of guidance, of course. Is what they desire precisely what God desires?

Do their tormentors, as unrighteous as they may seem, have anything resembling a valid point to make? Might they, too, be in at least partial agreement with God, and might that mean there is a place for reconciliation, for middle ground?

As Paul reminds us in Romans 3:10-12, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”

We are all dependent on Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross for salvation. Any righteousness we have flows from our belief in the cross. Any success we might have in praying this Psalm 35 prayer would be rooted in our faith, and a willingness to also pray for our enemies, just as Jesus taught us.

Dear Lord, as we meditate on our relationship with you, may we find ways to escape hostility and be rejoined to our enemies, seeking peace. Amen.

What We Do Next

1 Timothy 4:11-16 (NRSV)

These are the things you must insist on and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.


Paul wrote the above words to a young pastor. Let’s read them as instructions to mature Christians.

Yesterday, I wrote a lament and a prayer regarding events that led to mob violence in our nation’s Capitol building Wednesday. How can Christians help restore a nation’s character?

We’re discovering how dangerous it is to ignore character. For too long now, we’ve been willing to say, “Well, that person lacks character, but he promotes something I like, so let’s give him power.” Many of you will think I’m talking about just one person, but I actually could make a list.

Speech and conduct matter; they are external expressions of the character within. They should exhibit high ideals, and we as Christians believe that Jesus Christ expresses the highest ideals, given to us straight from the mind of God. Christ’s standards are so high, in fact, that they are difficult to achieve—we should always be striving toward what is higher.

Our words should reflect love for all people. We will always be broken into little factions, political, theological and otherwise, and the differences sometimes might be sharp enough that we find it difficult to live in each other’s circles. But one of the beautiful aspects of this nation is that it was designed so we can at least share a common commitment to freedom, with harm of others being the one trait we should refuse to accommodate.

As Christians, we need to use God’s word, referencing it, quoting it and letting it guide us. This means we live as true disciples, taking the Bible seriously. Using it regularly sometimes makes the secular folks around us a little uncomfortable, but only where they find themselves in conflict with God’s will.

Let’s be deliberate about living and speaking as Christians. Our baptismal vows are more than a part-time commitment. We take on Christ to be clothed in undeserved holiness. From there, we are called to project God’s purity to a hurting world.

Lord, make us bold for you. Amen.

Here Come the Pagans

Matthew 2:1-12

The story of the “wise men from the East” has embedded itself firmly in our Christmas practices. On the church calendar, their story is the centerpiece of Jan. 6, the day we call “Epiphany,” which marks the end of the Christmas season.

On the nearest Sunday, it’s not unusual to add three crowned characters to our church nativity scenes, often accompanied by camels. We sing “We Three Kings.” We read the above story found in Matthew.

And yet, I’m not sure we always grasp the identity of these visitors, which means we may also miss the significance of their trip.

Matthew’s gospel is very sparing in details about these travelers. Writing in Greek, he simply referred to them as magi, as if he expected the audience of his day to know exactly what that meant.

Our problem arises because at some point in history, what it meant to be a magi was largely lost by western culture, resulting in English translations using words like “kings” or “wise men.” The former is largely inaccurate, despite the popular hymn; the latter is accurate but so general that we gain little in terms of understanding.

Fortunately, researchers in the last couple of centuries have developed a better understanding of these travelers’ background. One hint lies in the fact that magi did make it into the English language in words like “magic” and “magician.”

It helps if we understand the religious practices of the lands east of Israel in Jesus’ day, places we now think of as dominated by Islam—modern-day Iran and Iraq, for example. We have to remember, Islam did not exist until about 600 years after Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. One of the dominant pre-Muslim religions in the area was Zoroastrianism.

Historically, the Zoroastrian priests were known as magi, and they practiced all sorts of activities the Jews and even the Romans would have considered the province of pagans: astrology, divination, and other activities considered to be magic. Often, the magi used these practices to advise their kings.

It is revealing that Matthew chose to incorporate the story of the magi’s astrological discovery of Jesus and their visit into the birth narrative of Jesus. In the book of Acts, the works of similar magi are presented negatively, as a force working against God.

Matthew mentioned the magi to make a larger point, however. The birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of the dreams of the world, not just the dreams of the Jewish people. Through Jesus, God was speaking to all people in a way they could understand.

Matthew also was demonstrating that the Jews should have recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of their desire for a messiah. Even far-away “pagans” were able to use what the Jews would consider forbidden practices to spot Christ’s arrival.

We live in a culture today where many people are like the magi. There is a goodness about them and a fascination with all things spiritual, to the point that interest in astrology and magic are on the upswing among generations where church attendance is in decline.

If the magi in the book of Matthew are any indication, people with general spiritual interests at least may be open to hearing the story of God among us.

They will need a shining light to guide them. Christian, you may be that light as you gently connect their desire for goodness with God’s great plan of redemption.

Lord, help us to better understand how we can lead people with differing spiritual practices to Jesus Christ. Amen.

We Are Family

Matthew 12:46-50

While [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”


The fifth of the Ten Commandments is, “Honor your father and mother.” When we remember how important family is in Jewish culture, Jesus’ above statement becomes more startling.

Family was important to Jesus, of course. He was an obedient child; likewise, as he was dying on the cross, bearing the burden of the sins of the world, one of his concerns was who would care for his mother.

As important as family is, however, there is a greater concern. Even family cannot interfere in our relationship with God. Walking with God, understanding God and following God’s will are the most challenging and critical activities in our lives.

It can be tough when God’s will for us is out of alignment with what the family wants. I will always remember a little girl in the Czech Republic who learned in Vacation Bible School the story of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. She lived in a nation with a shockingly high percentage of committed atheists, a vestige of communist rule.

Having learned how to tell the story on her own, she said, “I will tell my family. But it will make my grandmother very angry.” The interpreter and I teared up simultaneously.

Jesus knew such conflict would arise when he said, “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.” (Luke 12:51-52.)

If you and your family are aligned in the pursuit of God’s will through Jesus Christ, know what a tremendous blessing you have. And if you are not so blessed, know that your global family prays for you, and that through your witness, your biological family has hope.

Lord, give special strength and new gifts of the Spirit to those who go about the particularly difficult task of telling non-believing family members the Good News. Amen.

From Glory to Horror to Hope

Matthew 2:13-18

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

So strange—at this point in the Christmas story, we’ve heard of angelic announcements and a virgin birth, events so miraculous they’re highlighted in the night sky, drawing wise men from distant lands. And then this horror happens.

As terrible as the slaughter of these innocent children is to contemplate, perhaps the account does help us process the horrors we have seen. It’s not unusual for people to ask, “How can God let such things happen?”

Well … evil remains in the world, doesn’t it? Satan and all beings who follow Satan’s lead see their impending destruction in Christ’s arrival. Their ongoing response is one of fury, an unleashing of the irrational anger at the core of their being.

Like Herod, any self-centered human can experience how frustration leads to anger, and anger can turn violent. There’s also a general brokenness to the world, the result of uncountable generations of sinful decision-making going back to the original break between humanity and God.

So even at the time of the birth of Christ, horrors persisted. And horrors will persist, for a time.

God has provided the solution, though. Somehow, the solution even will be mysteriously retroactive, wiping away every tear, to quote Revelation 21:4. We also can look to the concluding verses in Jeremiah 31:15-17, to which Matthew alluded after telling the tale of the Bethlehem children:

“There is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.”

The work of Christ does not yet relieve us of the horrors we have witnessed or experienced, but it will. That great truth, mysterious as it is, should give us hope in all circumstances.

Lord, as we confront the dark realities of our world, give us a deeper understanding of how very temporary you will prove them to be. Amen.