Bride and Groom

Revelation 21:1-6

By Chuck Griffin

Revelation’s author—and the Holy Spirit, I suppose—must drive rigid English teachers crazy with the use of mixed metaphors. Life in the full presence of God is described as both a marriage and a beautiful city (the city at one point is clothed as a bride), and each metaphor reveals something special about God’s relationship with humanity.

Let’s explore the idea of the “new Jerusalem” adorned as a bride for her husband. This metaphor is one of the major reasons Revelation is so appropriate as the closing book of Christian Scripture. Throughout the Bible, there has been a thought running along like a thread from nearly front cover to back. It is the idea of God as the spurned husband and humanity as the unfaithful wife.

In the beginning of our Bible story, it is clear God wanted to be fully present with his creation. When God discovered Adam and Eve’s first act of disobedience, he had gone for a stroll in Paradise in the cool of the day, looking for the people he made. Their sin caused a terrible separation. Rather than a close companion, our maker by his very nature was forced to become distant, while at the same time beginning the plan to overcome sin and restore what once was.

The prophets in particular picked up on the image of God as spurned husband. Jeremiah did. Hosea certainly did, at God’s command taking a prostitute as an unfaithful wife to symbolize Israel’s unfaithfulness.

But in the end, bride and groom will be restored. The Holy Spirit works within the church, healing its members and restoring them through faith in Christ. The bride is being adorned and dressed as we gather in worship and live out the church’s mission.

The metaphor also says much about the value of earthly marriage. When I take couples through premarital counseling, I make a point of reminding them that the union they are about to enter symbolizes the great work Christ is doing.

The husband represents God; the wife stands for the church. And to keep the husband from getting a big head, thinking this metaphor somehow puts him in a position of power, I remind him of Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

In a culture where marriage is less and less valued—we are so much more about instant gratification and so much less about commitment—we need again to emphasize the symbolic value of marriage. If I could add a third sacrament to our Methodist practice, it would be marriage. Perhaps we would better understand how we participate in God’s grand scheme for creation when taking our vows before God.

Lord, help us to live faithfully, anticipating the day when you dwell among us and all is set right. Amen.

A Child Is Born

Luke 2:1-20

By Chuck Griffin

The story of the birth of Jesus is both marvelous and deeply important to the world. Even nonbelievers have been heavily impacted by it, simply because Christianity has been a key driver of human history for nearly 2,000 years.

For a complete view of Christianity, you have to understand Jesus as an adult, and in particular, you have to understand the importance of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ birth narrative, however, is the beginning of the description of Jesus as the promised Messiah, evidence that God has chosen to be with us in the most personal of ways.

News this important needs to be told. Luke’s spare, tight account of the birth is all about the telling, with voices declaring Jesus as Messiah from both heaven and earth.

Already, angels have punctuated the story repeatedly, prepping the key players for what is to come. The actual birth happens in a straightforward manner. Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem in answer to a census, and while there, Luke tells us, “The time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

The formal birth announcement comes from heaven, with angels appearing before lowly shepherds, declaring the arrival of “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The angels tell the shepherds how to find this great miracle—look for something common. “This will be a sign for you: You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

I find it instructive that while angels began the announcement, the proclamation effort quickly was turned over to humans, and quite common humans at that, at least in worldly terms. God’s good news spread from the bottom up, ensuring that the people usually left out of key events were the first to know about the most important event.

The shepherds went in search of evidence of what they had heard, finding it in a primitive barn. The baby in the manger was enough for them to begin to tell others what they had seen, causing amazement.

And here we are now, still celebrating what God has done for us through this incredible birth. Word has spread not because of angels but because of faithful telling and re-telling from generation to generation.

Have you told anyone lately? Have you amazed anyone with the story of how much God loves his creation? Have you helped the joy of Christmas seep into others’ souls so their joy may be eternal?

What an opportunity the Christmas season is!

I wish you a merry Christmas, and I pray that you will carry Christmas to those in need of good news.

Forward Looking

Micah 4:6-8 (NRSV)

In that day, says the Lord,
    I will assemble the lame
and gather those who have been driven away,
    and those whom I have afflicted.
The lame I will make the remnant,
    and those who were cast off, a strong nation;
and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion
    now and forevermore.

And you, O tower of the flock,
    hill of daughter Zion,
to you it shall come,
    the former dominion shall come,
    the sovereignty of daughter Jerusalem.

By Chuck Griffin

As the season of Advent ends and Christmas is upon us, let’s take one last look at where the story of the infant Christ is headed.

It moves from childhood to adulthood to his death—and astonishingly, beyond death, to his resurrection and promises that all of creation will be renewed.

We sometimes forget that we are not beyond the story, but in the middle of it. It’s important we cling tightly to the promise there is more to come, that all will be set right.

Why does God not rescue those who suffer, or the outcasts, or the ones who bear the scars brought on by their own sins or the sins of others? It’s a question often heard, and the answer is straightforward: He’s doing so right now. The process is ongoing. The world is turning upside down as people continually are offered escape from sin through belief in Jesus Christ.

We don’t ask firefighters why they aren’t rescuing the trapped when they’re breaking down the door of a burning house. We don’t ask the doctor why he isn’t healing a patient when he’s in the middle of setting a broken leg. Even if the situation appears frightening or painful, we are grateful someone is moving events in the right direction.

This Christmas season, remember to give thanks not only for what happened in Bethlehem, but what was made possible. The hope seen in the manger is our hope for the future.

Lord, the details of how your promise will be fulfilled can seem mysterious, but we know that great day to come will bring eternal life in your presence. Hallelujah! Amen.

Checking In

My apologies for the lack of devotions these last couple of mornings. Pastoral duties sometimes become demanding, making it difficult to find time to write something thoughtful.

Now is a good time to mention that Methodist Life welcomes submissions from new writers and artists. We tend to work from the daily lectionary readings, but I personally deviate from those texts from time to time, and submissions do not have to be built around them. As editor, all I ask is that you represent traditional Christianity well while not minding some editing when necessary. If you want to submit something, send it to chuck@methodist.life.

For your consideration today, I offer you an article I wrote for the Jonesborough Herald and Tribune while pastor of Fairview United Methodist Church more than a decade ago.


Heart Wide Open

By Chuck Griffin

How open are you to God’s influence?

Most of us who call ourselves Christian would like to think we are very open. And indeed, a lot of Christians allow God to influence them in ways that change their lives dramatically.

Often, you run into Christians who have given up careers and financial security to serve God.

Occasionally, you meet people who for long periods of time give up the comfort and familiarity of home to serve others in far-away places. For example, I once met a missionary who had gone to Papua New Guinea as a young woman in the early 1970s. She had felt God calling her to translate the New Testament for a tribe of people who speak an obscure language.

By 2005, she had finished the work. I met her while she was in Kentucky, a much older woman saying a last good-bye to her relatives. She loved the tribal people so much that she had decided to live with them the rest of her life.

Rarely, you meet people who face death to follow God’s lead. Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, falls in this category.

Stoning was the punishment of the day for a poor, unwed pregnant girl, which is how her neighbors would have viewed Mary. To follow God while facing such dire circumstances required a heart wide open to God’s influence.

God chose Mary, it seems, because she had the right soul for the job. She was young, perhaps as young as 14, but Scripture records in the first chapter of Luke her remarkable understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary said. She was rejoicing with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who carried in her womb John the Baptist, the prophet who would announce the coming of Jesus’ ministry in adulthood.

As Mary continued in her rejoicing, she laid out the radical mission of Christ. He brings mercy to those who believe and follow God. He scatters the proud. He brings down the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and the hungry. He does all of this as a fulfillment of a promise made to the world through Abraham long ago.

And of course, we now understand that Jesus grew up to accomplish this radical realignment of power through his death on the cross, a sacrifice designed to break the grip of sin.

Governments and armies still seem to have power, but none can help you establish a relationship with God. At best, they can keep the relationship freely available.

If you believe, really believe, in the saving work of Christ, it becomes more difficult each day to see your place in the world in secular ways. How open are you to God’s influence?

The answer has a lot to do with how much of this world you’re willing to risk while knowing a better world is guaranteed.

God in Art: Pietà

As we move toward the Christmas season, let’s not forget the larger story. Christ grew in wisdom and stature, and as a man had much to teach us regarding God’s love and expectations for us. Then he died for our sins, restoring us to God.

We can easily imagine Mary holding her son both at his birth and his death, when he was brought down from the crucifixion she witnessed. The Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo beautifully captured the latter moment in a sculpture commissioned in 1497. It is called the Pietà, which in English means “Piety.” It is on display in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

While it is a scene of death, the sculpture certainly can remind us of Christ’s birth. Mary is depicted as remarkably young, more like her age at Jesus’ birth than at his death more than three decades later. Michelangelo also altered the scale of the characters—if the two characters in the sculpture were to stand, Mary would tower over Jesus. And yet, the scene appears astonishingly natural, a mother cradling her son. The image seems to bridge the moments of birth and death.

Dear Lord, in this approaching Christmas season, may we carry in our hearts the full meaning of Christ’s presence among us. Amen.

Scripturally Gentle

Hebrews 10:10-18 (NRSV)

By Chuck Griffin

As Christians, we’re always trying to fully absorb the idea that God came among us in flesh to save us from the deadly power of sin.

With the Christmas season drawing near, I also couldn’t help but think of the humble birth of our Savior, cradled and softly placed in a feeding trough as his first bed. There is so much tenderness in that scene, a moment of beauty in the midst of what too often is a horror story, the ongoing story of people disconnected from God.

As traditional Christians, we so want to focus on the beauty of salvation, but we simultaneously want to be vigilant against the damage sin has wrought and continues to cause. The world has trouble understanding the nuanced message we offer; even followers of Christ sometimes struggle with how to offer that message.

At the extreme edges of our faith, some want to ignore the danger of sin, while others legalistically limit the possibilities of grace. Both edges can at times exhibit a surprising amount of anger.

To be successful in our basic mission, traditionalists need to carry with them an attitude rooted in how God is at work in the world. A phrase popped into my head recently: Scripturally gentle. Like Jesus, we need to be scripturally gentle, openly discussing the terrible danger of sin while preaching the power of grace.

It is not judgmental to share with others the warnings God has given us about certain behaviors. Those biblical revelations from God about what counts as sin need to be declared for all to hear. These should be gentle declarations, however, tempered constantly with the Good News that God offers redemption from sin through Jesus Christ.

Jesus gives us great examples of how to live as scripturally gentle people. One of my favorites is in John 8:3-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus. In short, there is sin present in the community, and the legalists want to use the situation as a harsh test. Jesus reminds those present that they all are in need of grace, and the woman’s would-be executioners drift away. Jesus then says to the rescued sinner, “Go your own way, and from now on do not sin again,” pointing her toward a process Methodists call sanctification.

The traditional Methodism I discovered and fell in love with as a young adult has long been filled with scripturally gentle people, setting it apart as a movement within the Kingdom of God. This middle way will continue, even if it has to happen under a new denominational name.

We offer the world an attractive, biblical way to live in faith, and God will bless this approach until the day we see Christ in full.

Lord, thank you for guidance and grace. May the two work hand-in-hand in our lives so we can become holy responses to your great gift of eternal life. Amen.

A Lesson in Changing Hearts

Acts 28:23-31 (NRSV): After [the leaders of the Jews in Rome] had set a day to meet with [Paul], they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets. Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.

By Chuck Griffin

I’m going to use what some think is an ugly word, even a scary word: evangelism. Before ascending into heaven, Christ called us to evangelize, but we sometimes avoid the topic because it carries some negative connotations.

All that negativity stems not from use but from abuse of the basic mission Jesus gave us. Evangelism isn’t about ambushing people with difficult questions so we feel we have discharged our duties. It is about preparing ourselves spiritually and intellectually, and then helping people find the answers to questions they naturally have.

The end of Paul’s story as he arrived to house arrest in Rome serves as a good example. Through letters and representatives, he already had built a relationship with a small group of Christians there, and his reputation allowed him to draw leaders of the Jews to his guarded home. There they heard the message that Jesus Christ is Savior, a deeply controversial idea.

Here’s what Paul did:

  1. He met his audience as the people they were. In this case, they were Jews, and he used the two godly sources they most respected, the law of Moses and the words of the prophets, to make his case. Being an educated Jew who had studied Judaism on a deep level equipped him well, of course. In short, we have to know our audience and the details of our own faith.
  2. He found a way to hold their interest and keep them in an extended conversation. It’s hard to imagine keeping people in an all-day conversation today, but we need to have a similar willingness to spend extended time with those who care enough to keep talking. Instead of a whole day, we might need to be willing to commit regular chunks of time to those who keep wanting more.
  3. He persevered despite the fact that some opposed him. Paul did all he could to make a convincing argument that Jesus Christ is Lord, and he kept trying to win the hearts of all who would listen. Acts ends this way: “He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”

Our churches’ situations can seem very different than what Paul faced, but these basic principles of evangelism remain. What creative efforts can we make to be Paul-like to our unbelieving neighbors?

Lord, grace us with a deeper understanding of evangelism so more may enter your kingdom each day. Amen.

Surely, Surely

Isaiah 12:2 (NRSV)
Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

By Chuck Griffin

I often default toward using longer texts in these devotions, especially if I can chase meaning in a well-developed Bible story. But sometimes a single verse offers us so much, drawing us into a more meditative place.

The first word is enough to dwell on for a while. “Surely.” Other translations go with “behold,” as if the certainty of the salvation being declared is visibly before the prophet, or another positive affirmation like “indeed.” Did Isaiah have a full vision of Jesus Christ?

How powerfully can I affirm that salvation is mine? Does my conviction rise and fall with my circumstances? Do I stand like an oak or bend like a reed?

How often does fear creep in?

Our faith is strongest, of course, when a being untainted by sin places it in us. The power to do anything, even believe, flows first from God. Faith should never involve a struggle; instead, it is an ongoing surrender.

Take time today to settle into this one verse, and see what it says to you.

Lord, wash over us so our faith never fails. Amen.