What’s New Is Old

Acts 13:16-25 (NRSV)

So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak:

“You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. For about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel. Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised; before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.’”


As Christians, we love the story of our savior, Jesus Christ. Let’s never forget how he is rooted in a more ancient story.

Yes, that sometimes intimidating collection of Old Testament texts is very important. God came to save all the world through a particular group of people, and it’s difficult to fully understand salvation without understanding their story.

Paul knew that while speaking to fellow Jews, he needed to keep Christ in context so they could see Jesus as the fulfillment of long-awaited promises made to them. Note, however, that Paul also addressed “others who fear God.” We owe some study time to the story of the Israelites, the one group of humans selected by God to serve as a light to all the world, illuminating the path to salvation.

Paul summarizes the story by beginning with the Israelites’ captivity in and exodus from Egypt, moving through their time in the wilderness and their conquest of the Promised Land. Then he recounts their being led by judges and kings, noting the great King David was in Jesus’ ancestry.

If you find the Old Testament less than familiar, perhaps today is a good day to launch into at least a high-altitude study of what is there. A good study Bible is all you really need, although the amount of information now available to us in a digital world is astonishing. Just be sure your sources are trustworthy!

And of course, you can always ask your pastor and other church leaders for help.

As you immerse yourself in these ancient texts, much of what Jesus Christ has to say in the New Testament will make more sense. Jesus was, after all, a good and faithful Jew, deeply rooted in his people’s history and traditions.

Lord, bless us with a deeper understanding of how the stories in our two testaments are connected. May we find joy in all that is there, knowing these concepts add up to the great story of our salvation. Amen.

Instruct the Children

Methodist Life welcomes the Rev. John Grimm as a regular contributor to the LifeTalk blog.

Joshua 2:6-10 (NRSV)
When Joshua dismissed the people, the Israelites all went to their own inheritances to take possession of the land. The people worshiped the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of one hundred ten years. So they buried him within the bounds of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.


John Wesley instructed the preachers to spend time with the children. The preachers were to instruct the children about God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. As I have learned in church, many hands make light work of instructing the children on how to follow Jesus.

For me, it was my mom who gave me much of my instruction about faith in Jesus Christ. My siblings also were instructed by our mom in these matters. This passage caught my eye because just like Joshua, my mom and her generation of her birth family are gathered to their ancestors.

Now, I get to make sure the next generation knows the work of the Lord. As you and I together serve God, we get to instruct the children so that more children follow Jesus.

God, in these days of my generation, I get to teach the children about you and your work. May my generation be inspired to make sure the children know our faith in Jesus. Use my generation to make yourself and your works known to younger generations. It is in the name of Jesus Christ that I pray. Amen.

Potential Unleashed

John 1:29-34 (NRSV)

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”


John—prophet in the wild and Jesus’ cousin—offered a different kind of baptism than what we undergo today to become Christ’s followers. It was a traditional Jewish baptism of repentance, designed to ready people for the coming Messiah.

When Jesus underwent this baptism despite his lack of sin, he demonstrated solidarity with the people he had come into the world to save. John also declared something about Jesus’ baptism that we should see in our own baptisms, too, despite their different natures.

In Jesus’ baptism, great potential was revealed; in our baptisms, great potential is made possible. Because Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins, the Holy Spirit is able to descend on us, too. When we declare our belief that the cross is effective for salvation, the door to a relationship with God is reopened for us.

Whatever we are after baptism is much more than what we would have been without baptism. It is only natural that we move toward “better” in relationship with the eternal, holy God.

Of course, we do have to let the Holy Spirit remain at work throughout our lives if we want to see continual spiritual progress. Thanks be to God, who has made this process relatively easy.

He has told us there are intersections of heaven and earth where we can go to allow the Spirit to penetrate our souls more deeply. Studying the Bible, immersing ourselves in prayer, receiving communion, and being in fellowship with other Christians are some prime examples.

God only knows what wonderful things might happen if we go to those intersections again and again.

Dear Lord, thank you for the potential you give us. Help us to develop it and live fully as the people you would have us be. Amen.

Smells Like Spirit

Exodus 30:22-38 (NRSV)

The Lord spoke to Moses: Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand; you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy. You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, in order that they may serve me as priests. You shall say to the Israelites, “This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. It shall not be used in any ordinary anointing of the body, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an unqualified person shall be cut off from the people.”

The Lord said to Moses: Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (an equal part of each), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from the people.


I still find it remarkable how God wants to engage all our senses as we relate to our creator through worship.

God gave Moses detailed instructions regarding how worship was to be carried out when the Israelites were on the move and needed a portable facility, and these principles would continue to undergird Jewish worship once a temple was in place. As we read these instructions, it’s not difficult to let our imaginations come alive and sense the experience: the colors we would have seen, the feel of the fabrics and utensils (assuming we were in the group allowed to touch them), the sounds of consecration and sacrificial slaughter, and yes, the smells.

As we see in the instructions for the production of anointing oil and perfume, most of what was created for worship was distinctly different from daily life, set aside for use in worship of our unique God. And our experience of the holy God should be different from any other experience.

If you have ever smelled any of the items in the text—myrrh and frankincense, two of the gifts brought to the baby Jesus, are possibilities—you may understand my reaction. They can be earthy and biological in a familiar way, but simultaneously they transport me somewhere strange, a place beyond my normal olfactory experience. I then think of the promise in Revelation of a new heaven and earth, the re-establishment of holiness in all of creation.

Wow. Sometimes I can get carried away more than a wine snob with a bottle of Etna Rosso Lacryma de Christi. (Confession: I found that by running an internet search on “wine snob.”) But we should be excited when we explore our relationship with God using all our senses.

After all, God made all five senses to be used. Think about that the next time you are in worship, wherever you may be.

Lord, thank you for engaging with us as we are, where we are. Through our senses, you lift us up, and it is our prayer that through our senses you are glorified. Amen.

On the Outs

Psalm 69:1-5 (NRSV)

To the leader: according to Lilies. Of David.
Save me, O God,
    for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
    where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
    and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
    my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
    with waiting for my God.

More in number than the hairs of my head
    are those who hate me without cause;
many are those who would destroy me,
    my enemies who accuse me falsely.
What I did not steal
    must I now restore?
O God, you know my folly;
    the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

There is more to this psalm, but let’s deal with the initial feeling being expressed, one I suspect many of us have experienced.

When we are little children, the feeling comes out in a song: “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, going to the garden to eat worms.” (If you learned to sing it a little differently, there are many variations.)

I wonder if any teenager has managed to get through puberty without feeling unfairly ostracized and opposed from every direction. And yes, most of us know that even as adults, we can find ourselves on the outs and wondering why.

As the psalmist is noting, it’s particularly painful when we come under attack for doing what we are certain is in accord with God’s will. We shouldn’t be surprised, however—Scripture is clear that our relationship with God will bring us into conflict with the world.

Recovery Strategy, Part 1: Keep our hearts attuned to God, who loves us more than any human can love. God will not abandon us as we do our part to work within the divine plan. It’s okay to complain a little, like the psalmist. God can handle it, and God will let us know if we are somehow off track.

Recovery Strategy, Part 2: Stay in community with godly people, even if that community is no larger than a group of three or four. Search the Bible together, pray together and encourage each other.

Remember, the kingdom is not only coming, it will come in full.

Lord, sustain those who would work on your behalf in all sorts of worldly places. May they exude a light from you that astonishes and attracts others. 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.

Fate of a Nation

Job 12:23-25 (NRSV)

He makes nations great, then destroys them;
    he enlarges nations, then leads them away.
He strips understanding from the leaders of the earth,
    and makes them wander in a pathless waste.
They grope in the dark without light;
    he makes them stagger like a drunkard.

Having watched the news yesterday, all I can do is offer a lament and a prayer for this morning.

My lament is this:

Like Job, I believe God takes a very active hand in what happens to the nations of this earth. The world remains a broken, confusing place, and we can find God inscrutable at times. It is, however, better for a nation to be aligned with God than indifferent to God or against God. A nation made up of people seeking God’s will should, for the most part, experience blessings and peace.

We find ourselves far from feeling blessed or at peace. That alone should tell us something is wrong with our national relationship with God. Not all Americans are Christian, and being Christian is not a requirement to be an American. But enough of us call ourselves Christian that our beliefs should be having more of an impact on national events.

Deliberate efforts to manipulate people with misinformation have triggered anger and fear in a significant part of the population, driving yesterday’s events. Such tactics do not align with Jesus Christ’s teachings or with thoughtful Christianity, where truth and a desire for peace should reign.

Let’s never forget Jesus’ warnings regarding the danger of acting in anger, or his repeated post-resurrection statement, “Fear not.” What have we to fear, knowing Christ has died for us, knowing his power is within us?

I am convinced that current events are a result of declining Christian evangelism, combined with a lack of discipleship and spiritual depth in the American church. Too many of us are failing to look in our Bibles, absorb what we find and then apply those truths in daily life.

That’s my lament. I root my prayer in the light that has come into the world, a light to overcome the darkness and keep us from staggering through history like drunkards.

Lord Jesus Christ, speak to the hearts of all people so a desire for peace and righteousness fills us and overwhelms us as a nation. Give special power and understanding to the people who make up your church. Let us be the first and best examples of what it means to follow 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.

When Push Comes to Peace

Luke 6:27-31 (NRSV)

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”


I suspect a lot of good Christians wince at this radical teaching of Jesus, immediately imagining a dozen or more scenarios where these precepts seem impractical.

We are in good company. The church—by that, I mean the great, historic, traditional church stretching back to the earliest days of Christianity—has always struggled with how to live into Jesus’ teachings while contending directly with a world full of dangerous evil.

Facing imminent attack? Well, you may find Just War Theory helpful. And there are many other situations where theologians have acknowledged it can be more loving to take a naturally repulsive action than to take no action at all.

For example, turning the other cheek is a noble response, but if in doing so you endanger the lives of people dependent on you, then a different strategy may be in order. Much of what Jesus said is about witnessing to others, and allowing unnecessary harm to happen makes for a poor display of Christ’s love.

Let’s not, however, turn those rare compromises into an excuse for avoiding what Jesus would have us do. It’s particularly important we follow these teachings when a pacifist response could transform another’s soul.

Verbally assaulted? Be the one who responds with kindness.

Confronted with great need? Do something about it, even if the people in need somehow seem unworthy by worldly standards.

As we deliberately practice Jesus’ teachings in everyday situations, perhaps we will find new and creative ways to apply them to major conflicts.

Dear Lord, help us to identify opportunities to practice what you have preached, swallowing our emotional responses so we may instead demonstrate your love. Amen.

Giving and Receiving

Proverbs 3:9-10

Honor the Lord with your substance
    and with the first fruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
    and your vats will be bursting with wine.

As we launch into the first work week of 2021, let’s think about what we plan to dedicate to the Lord this year, supporting the work of the church.

It’s good to start a new year deliberately praying about how we will participate through our tithes and offerings in the kingdom work that will happen. If we seek guidance from God, we will find clear answers, and from there we can make commitments satisfying to our souls.

In the Old Testament, a “tithe” usually is a reference to 10 percent of what a herd or field produces. That concept, of course, can apply to monetary income, too.

Mainly, I want us to understand the value of thinking in percentages—a percentage commitment can be made before we know for sure what we will receive. Wherever I have led as a pastor, I have encouraged people to write down a percentage commitment early in the year and post it where they will see it regularly, for example, on a bathroom or dresser mirror.

Once you’ve faithfully and bravely done all that, the rest is just a matter of following through.

I have to be careful with what I next say. The above proverb also promises abundance to those who make and keep such commitments. I don’t want to sound like a prosperity gospel televangelist, saying $10 will return to you for every dollar you contribute.

But simultaneously, I will always affirm that a life lived with God, a life where we conform our resources to God’s unselfish plan, is better than a life where we simply look out for ourselves. After all, we live as reflections of the God who rained manna where needed, who turned a few loaves and fishes into great abundance, and who gives us eternal life through the cross.

As we are blessed through our close walk with God, we may even find ourselves making offerings above our basic commitments, if for no other reason than to show gratitude.

Lord, guide us in regard to how we are to use our resources in 2021. We trust we will receive our daily bread; knowing that, we seek to better understand the purpose of any abundance we see. Amen.