Not Much Has Changed

Daniel 9:1-14

In the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans— in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.

Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying,

“Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.

“Righteousness is on your side, O Lord, but open shame, as at this day, falls on us, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. Open shame, O Lord, falls on us, our kings, our officials, and our ancestors, because we have sinned against you. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him, and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.

“All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. So the curse and the oath written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against you. He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers, by bringing upon us a calamity so great that what has been done against Jerusalem has never before been done under the whole heaven. Just as it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us. We did not entreat the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on his fidelity. So the Lord kept watch over this calamity until he brought it upon us. Indeed, the Lord our God is right in all that he has done; for we have disobeyed his voice.”


It was a different time and a different nation.  Yet, the prayer that Daniel prayed is one that can be prayed by each generation and each nation. 

Daniel’s prayer is called a prayer of confession.  We can have shame upon our nation for we have sinned against God.  From our rulers to even the ones reading this devotion, we all have sinned.  Paul will even remind us in Romans that we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God.

As Methodist Christians, we realize the importance of repentance.  For when we repent, we are responding to God’s prevenient grace. 

Our confession of our sins, iniquities, and wickedness allows God to give us new birth through faith in Jesus Christ.  It is hard to realize that we have brought calamity upon ourselves.  Yet, thankfully, turning to God in faith we find the forgiveness that he has already prepared for us.

God, we are sinners here in America.  We have not listened to you.  Now, we are listening to you.  We admit we have done wrong by you and our neighbors.  Let us know your forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Do No Harm

For at least a few weeks, I want to try something a little different with our Monday devotionals. Monday should be a good day to focus on a Christian behavior we can then practice throughout the week.

Here’s our text for this Monday:

Romans 12:17-18 (NLT): Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

John Wesley summarized the Christian life with three simple rules for living, rules emphasized heavily in the early days of Methodism. They remain just as valuable today. Let’s consider the first one this week.

Rule No. 1: Do no harm.

The first rule sounds more like avoidance than action, until you consider how intentional a person must be to live it out in full. The world is full of evil, and it’s not unusual to find ourselves wanting to compromise our Christian standards to combat that evil.

In rare situations, such compromise is unavoidable. Otherwise, all Christians would have quickly begun to live as pacifists. I’m going to assume and pray, however, that none of you will find yourself in such a rare circumstance this week.

Going about our everyday lives, let’s try to assess each of our decisions with “do no harm” in mind. Who around us is touched by our actions? Where we gain, does someone lose?

What might we have to surrender to avoid doing harm? A little self-denial might be an important part of our week.

This all sounds a bit cerebral, but what we’re aiming for is an attitude that infects others. As “do no harm” becomes the standard within a community, its members begin to find themselves in a state of mutual care, and from there, those rare, compromise-inducing situations should become even rarer.

In many ways, this is a kingdom-building exercise, the first of three common to Methodism.

Lord, we pray this so often, but let our eyes see and our ears hear. 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.

Faith in Jesus

Romans 9:6-18 (NRSV)

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” As it is written,


“I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.”


What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses,


“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”


So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.


God has mercy. God has compassion.

God has called all of us to himself. That is mercy.

Some of us have believed the Lord. We live in the promises that God has for those who have faith. We live like Abraham, and like Rebecca. This life of having faith is how we receive God’s compassion.

When we refuse the mercy of God, then we do not receive his compassion. We harden our hearts when we refuse God’s mercy. It behooves us to believe in Jesus Christ so we can not only know mercy, but so we may know and receive compassion from God.


Lord, sometimes we hear people say that you are mean. Yet, because we believe in Jesus, we know that you have mercy and compassion for us. May our lives be filled with your compassion as our faith in Jesus grows deeper and stronger. We lift people to you who have refused your mercy. Use our lives to show your mercy to this world. May our friends and family accept your promises in Jesus Christ. It is in the name of Jesus that we pray, amen.

Peace

Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Let’s continue exploring the four big themes of the season of Advent. Today, we will consider the concept of peace.

When we talk about biblical peace, we don’t just mean a feeling of bliss. Biblical peace is more akin to peace between nations that have been at war. When they agree to peace, they end hostilities and seek new possibilities for their relationship.

Through his sacrifice, Jesus ended the state of war between God and humanity. Humans brought on this terrible situation by sinning against God, creating a state of unholiness that called for our destruction. Through Jesus Christ, God made a unilateral offering of peace, restoring our ability to relate to our creator.

To accept the offer, we simply look to the cross and believe, accepting that the work done there is complete and irrevocable.

Now, don’t get me wrong, a state of peace does also bring a feeling of bliss. The threat of destruction is removed.

In terms of emotional responses, there’s more, too. But that’s for tomorrow.

Lord, thank you for the tremendous offer of peace made to us when you had all the power and divine privilege. Amen.

Hope

For the rest of this week, let’s consider the four themes of the Advent season—hope, peace, joy and love—which are usually captured in readings during the lighting of candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday.

As odd as it might seem, Romans 5:1-4 ties hope among the believers to suffering:

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

I find it helpful to realize that suffering can have a point, so long as we continue in our faith that God’s promises have come true and will continue to come true.

Whatever we are experiencing, we learn to say in stronger and more authoritative ways, “Yes, this situation is bad, but it is temporary. God has promised that evil and all of its effects will be overcome.”

The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train. There’s no trick in store for us. The light of Christ is bearing down on us, coming to our rescue.

Hope also serves as a great evangelism tool. When people look at a Christian and say, “I want what that person has,” odds are the believer is exhibiting hope. People long to know that there is a potential happy ending to every story, and they particularly want to know how to ensure they can take part in that ending.

It is the basic role of every Christian to project hope where people may find themselves in despair. Where will we demonstrate hope today?

Lord, we don’t like to suffer, but thank you for being there in the midst of suffering, helping us to turn it into something good on behalf of your kingdom. Amen.

A Joy to Behold

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 96

Let’s close out the work week with a psalm, hoping its words will enhance our weekend worship. (The link above will take you to the full psalm.)

Followers of Christ have a basic, biblically inspired vision and mission for their lives and churches, and vision and mission interact in this psalm.

When we speak of “vision,” we’re talking about how we believe events in heaven and earth will play out one day. In short, we see a future where the world will conform to the happy truth that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

In the words of Romans 14:11, which is quoting Isaiah 49:18, ” ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess and give praise to God.’ “

The vision naturally inspires us as we go about our day-to-day mission. We let the Holy Spirit work through us so new disciples of Christ are made. Implicit in all of this is our need to grow as disciples so we can be more effective in our work.

Psalm 96 brings out one particular aspect of vision and mission. In living them out, there is great joy.

We worship a loving, glorious God, and he wants to put a new song in our hearts!

Lord, where our vision has grown dim and we have strayed from our mission, forgive us, please. Give us new light and understanding so we may better serve your kingdom. Amen.

Spiritual Gifts

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Corinthians 12:1-3 (NLT)

Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about the special abilities the Spirit gives us. I don’t want you to misunderstand this. You know that when you were still pagans, you were led astray and swept along in worshiping speechless idols. So I want you to know that no one speaking by the Spirit of God will curse Jesus, and no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit.


During last Sunday’s Holston View UMC worship service, I talked about spiritual gifts. Part of my sermon was an invitation to explore what gifts we have among us, using what some may think of as Covid-19 “down time” to study, train and prepare.

I’ve long been perplexed by Christians who remain disinterested after learning that spiritual gifts await them. I have a working theory about the problem.

Some Christians are like kids who fear they may get push mowers for Christmas. Open that present and there’s nothing ahead but work, work, work.

If I’m right, we need to get past that unfounded fear. If I’m wrong, one of Satan’s most influential demons must go by the name Apathy.

I’ll not spend much time on specific spiritual gifts today; there are about 30 described in the Bible. Sunday, I mentioned the ones Paul listed in Romans 12:1-8. First, let’s understand the great gift we are given, an ongoing encounter with the Holy Spirit.

The gift of salvation through Jesus Christ is received in a moment, but it’s also the gift that keeps on giving. Through our belief in Christ, we open ourselves fully to the influence of God’s Spirit. We are offered ongoing transformation.

This first great gift includes a kind of freedom we cannot experience otherwise. We live securely as people who know they will live forever. Even if we find ourselves with challenging God-given work to do in this life, we can trust our tasks will ultimately be joyful because of this promise.

Opening spiritual gifts, which God may bestow at different times in life, also brings a sense of renewal. Even if you’re already a highly skilled person, you may find the gifts of the Spirit flowing through those skills in new ways. Spiritual gifts often become a holy enhancement of the person you already are, reinvigorating you.

I’m praying some of you feel a new sense of excitement about your unopened spiritual gifts. I am willing to devote some serious time to those of you wanting to explore this subject. I’ve made this offer to the Holston View UMC family, but as so much of it will have to happen online, I’m also making it to other LifeTalk readers who might want to join us.

Just let me know, and we’ll open those gifts together, knowing all of our churches will be stronger in the process.

Lord, bless us with a renewed sense of excitement about the gifts you give every follower. May we long to open these gifts and use them! Amen.

Bad to the Bone

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Romans 3:9-20 (NLT)

One night in my college dorm room I was awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. For some reason my roommate also was awake. Out of the darkness, he asked me, “Chuck, do you think people are basically good or basically evil?”

Remember, I was maybe 20 at the time. My non-pastoral, non-theological answer was, “For crying out loud, Derek, I’m trying to sleep.” Derek has always been persistent, though.

“No, really,” he said. “What do you think? Are we good, or are we bad?”

I drew on the distant memory of a Sunday school lesson and said I suppose people are basically bad—that’s why we need Jesus. Derek seemed unsatisfied, though. He’s always been the kind of guy who looks for good in people.

Judging from our text today, Paul would agree with my answer. Or more accurately, I was in agreement with his, my subconscious vaguely remembering these or similar verses. Making it a satisfactory answer for genuinely curious people takes a little work, though.

“All have turned away,” Paul wrote. “All have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.”

And it’s not just Paul’s opinion. Most of what he writes is a collection of quotes from the Old Testament, the result of his years of Jewish theological training. He quotes from six different psalms and the 56th chapter of Isaiah to make his point.

Every time I hit one of Paul’s discussions of sin, I think of some of the really powerful sermons in history, the kind designed to crush listeners so they would run to the altar, weeping. There is Jonathan Edwards, of course, with that famous sermon many of us were required to read in high school or college, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Remember this part?

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

Jonathan Edwards, 1741

One man in attendance at this sermon wrote, “The hearers groaned and shrieked convulsively; and their outcries of distress once drowned the preacher’s voice, and compelled him to make a long pause.” I wonder what it would take to get such a reaction today.

Our own John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was no slouch when it came to fiery sermons, either. In “Original Sin,” Wesley takes the account of the depravity of people in Noah’s day and considers whether modern people are any different. 

In 21st century language, Wesley says we’re not only bad, we are so spiritually broken from birth that we cannot sense how bad we are.

I think this somber message is much more difficult to preach than it was just a few decades ago. As a people, we are becoming more humanist in our thinking every day. By that, I mean there is this undercurrent of thought where people assume the best aspects of being human can eventually overcome the worst aspects.

I have trouble seeing how humanism is actually achieving much, though. The modern world seems able to collapse into a heap of evil rather quickly.

Humanist thinkers also become comfortable with a relative kind of morality, a line of thinking not particularly useful for people seeking a relationship with a perfectly holy God. Moral relativism makes possible thoughts like, “Well, I’m not perfect, but at least I’m better than the creeps I have known and read about.” Jesus has a parable along those lines.

Well preached, this topic should go to a very positive place, however. Relating to God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ opens us to a healing power we could never find through human means. God intended us to be good, God still wants us to be good, and God has provided a way to goodness.

We begin with belief, and the Holy Spirit guides us from there.

Lord, it is helpful to consider our sins and brokenness. In repenting and following Christ, may we become sources of your goodness in a hurting world. Amen.

Hellish Behaviors

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Galatians 5:15 (NLT): But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.

As painful as it is to consider, let’s take a few moments to imagine what life in hell must be like. I’m not going to deal with all the fire-and-brimstone imagery—while there are some fiery biblical images associated with Satan or hell in the Bible, much of what we imagine is rooted more in secular literature.

Here’s what I suspect is really painful about hell. It is a place where souls are cut off from the grace of God. (Grace simply is unmerited love, given freely to the undeserving.) In hell, God no longer gently tugs at people to make them aware of his existence; God no longer provides a way to escape the power of sin; certainly, God no longer works as the Holy Spirit to grow us toward a state of holiness.

And of course, if God is not present to inject grace into people’s broken existence, then people cannot possibly show grace to one another. If there’s any kind of society in hell, it is a nasty, backbiting, hateful, grudge-holding, vengeance-seeking kind of culture.

I fear some people are trying to develop a little microcosm of hell in our own culture right now. Popularly, it’s called cancel culture. If you’ve ever tripped up, letting poor judgment lead you to say or do the wrong thing, you’re liable to pay, big!

Criminal behavior needs to be dealt with, of course—under the rule of law. A lot of the criminal events triggering our current social unrest, such as the killing of George Floyd, will be settled under the rule of law. And if the rule of law needs to be changed, we have a process for that to happen. You go to the polls and you vote for representatives who will make that change.

What strikes me as strange are the efforts to destroy people for decades-old poor judgment, when the cultural context for what they may or may not have done was very different. We saw a glimmer of this when Neil Gorsuch was being vetted for the U.S. Supreme Court, as opponents went as far back as his high school years in an attempt to discredit him.

Such deep, unforgiving vetting is now a bizarre extension of the social unrest we’re seeing. It has gone so far that statues of brilliant-but-imperfect historical figures are being torn down. The basic complaint: People living in the 15th through the 20th centuries didn’t have 21st century values.

Well, duh. We honor most of these people with statues not because they had it all figured out, but because in difficult times they figured out important pieces of the grand puzzle, helping us see the clearer picture we have today.

Back to the need for grace from God and grace for each other. In the Galatians text above, Paul makes clear what happens as we begin to bite and devour one another—destruction! In Romans 3:23, he also notes another important fact: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”

There do seem to be important developments that show the Bible to be right. Some of the people who might have initially supported much of this divisive behavior are now finding themselves bitten as their shortcomings become public, be it over the wearing of blackface, insensitive tweets or some other sin of speech or action. It helps when we remember the “everyone has sinned” part.

Perhaps we will soon get to a place where we all take a breath, rub our painful bite marks, and say, “Let’s show each other a little grace. Let’s try to work together as the people we are now, rather than fighting over who we used to be.”

In an environment like that, we will better deal with both our history and our current crises. God might even bless us anew.

Lord, give us the long pause we need to overcome animosity and rebuild our nation, trusting the scriptural truth that your forgiving grace is always available and can be imitated. Amen.