The Game of Life

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View UMC in Weber City, Va., will be “Seeking Signs,” based on Judges 6:36-40. If you want to view the sermon but cannot be present, the entire worship service will be available through Holston View UMC’s web page.

Today’s preparatory text: Ecclesiastes 9:11 (NLT)I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.

By Chuck Griffin

I play backgammon, mostly online with other people. The game can be maddening―your moves are limited by rolls of the dice, and dice are fickle.

It is quite possible to lose at backgammon while making no obvious mistakes. Chance simply smacks you down. Of course, on the other side of the board, your opponent benefits from the randomness, having made some mistakes but rolling three doubles in a row, or some other combination that looks like wizardry.

Skill does remain important. Players who understand the principles of risk management and employ them early in the game win more than they lose. Mostly, they keep themselves positioned to take advantage of good rolls while minimizing the impact of bad rolls.

If your only exposure to backgammon is a James Bond movie, I should add that I don’t play for money. I wouldn’t want a district superintendent to get the wrong idea! I also have never worn a white dinner jacket during a game. Actually, I’ve never worn a white dinner jacket.

I do utter the occasional Homer Simpson “Doh!” or Charlie Brown “Aaaaargh!” after an unlucky roll, but I love the game because of the way it mimics life. I think the author of Ecclesiastes would soberly appreciate backgammon—the fastest, the strongest and the wisest don’t always end up winning.

My mind sometimes drifts to theology as I play backgammon. (A drifting mind will quickly put you on the bar, by the way.) At times, I’ve wondered whether it’s possible that original sin corrupted the holy math underlying creation.

The devil certainly seems to be in the dice some days, a miniature expression of the way evil impedes our progress through illness, accidents and other unwanted events.

If that’s true, then we can think of salvation this way: God loaded the dice to work to our advantage. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross rigged the game of life completely in our favor, even though we do not deserve to win.

Perhaps you don’t like my comparing salvation to a heinous act like cheating, but in his own way, Jesus went just as far, describing himself as a burglar plundering the house of a strong man, Satan.

There’s nothing wrong with cheating sin and death out of victory, our prize being eternal life.

Lord, help us to see the tremendous advantage you offer us through our belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As we better understand the eternal life we are given, help us to offer your saving grace to others. Amen.

The Tree I Hope to Be

Luke 6:43-45 (NLT)

“A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs are never gathered from thornbushes, and grapes are not picked from bramble bushes. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.”


By Chuck Griffin

I suspect that James, brother of Jesus and leader of the early church at Jerusalem, had the above words in mind when he wrote, “Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.” (James 3:11-12.)

The way we are on the inside, deep in our souls, will eventually show on the outside through our behaviors. Our inner nature, whatever it may be, cannot remain hidden or pretend to be something else for long.

Few of us would dare claim that what is within us is perfectly pure, and fewer still would be telling the truth. But remember, there are no perfect trees, except those found in Paradise. A tree we would call “good” is one that fulfills its mission year after year, providing abundant, attractive fruit despite the occasional blemish on its trunk or scar within its roots.

Not far from a church building where I once served, there was a rough-looking little apple tree at the edge of a yard, its branches overhanging the road. You wouldn’t think much of it in the winter, but in the late summer and fall, it produced apples galore. When I went for a walk, it practically waved its branches and said to me whenever I passed under it, “Here, have an apple! Please!”

I would take one and eat it as I walked along, and the apple was always very good. It was a faithful little tree, doing its best in a less-than-perfect location, bordered on one side by asphalt and exhaust. I suppose the tree persistently kept reaching for the water and nutrients it needed all those years.

Jesus, James and a particular apple tree I know offer us a straightforward way to measure our Christian lives.

Lord, in our brokenness and infirmities, we can still bear fruit for you. Keep us mindful of where we find sustenance: in prayer, in Scripture, in worship, in fellowship and communion, and in so many other places where you have promised to meet us. Amen.

The Chosen Ones

Mark 3:13-19 (NLT)

Afterward Jesus went up on a mountain and called out the ones he wanted to go with him. And they came to him. Then he appointed twelve of them and called them his apostles. They were to accompany him, and he would send them out to preach, giving them authority to cast out demons. These are the twelve he chose:

Simon (whom he named Peter),
 James and John (the sons of Zebedee, but Jesus nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder”),
 Andrew,
 Philip,
 Bartholomew,
 Matthew,
 Thomas,
 James (son of Alphaeus),
 Thaddaeus,
 Simon (the zealot),
 Judas Iscariot (who later betrayed him).

What an odd mix.

Among them are fishermen, a tax collecting bureaucrat, a rebel who under different circumstances might try to kill the tax collector, some loud, pushy brothers, and a petty thief who would eventually prove to be a traitor. Their de facto leader, functioning like a senior student, is one of the fishermen, good old foot-in-mouth Peter.

Other than being Jews, the common denominator in the group was that they would all abandon Jesus after his arrest. I once knew a seminary professor who referred to them as the “duh-sciples.”

Out of the larger crowd of people following Jesus, these were the 12 deemed worthy to be part of the inner circle, the ones charged with spreading the Good News about Jesus, proclaiming to the world that salvation is available.

In them, I see what has been evident far too often in me: inattentiveness, dull wit, self-centeredness, impatience, insecurity, striving, and yes, the failure to perceive what is godly and right in front of me. And when I consider these flawed men, I take great comfort.

As we assess these men charged with the role of apostleship—the spread of the Good News and the growth of the church—here’s what’s incredible: They got the job done! The fact that there are more than 2 billion people calling themselves Christians nearly 2,000 years later is the proof.

Well, let me rephrase that a little. God got the job done through them, and through many who followed them. The key, it seems, is that the apostles who remained after Jesus’ resurrection were willing to let the Holy Spirit fill them and guide their work. Grace began to pour forth from these badly cracked earthenware vessels, and it just kept on pouring.

Never doubt for a moment that God can work through any of us.

Lord, thank you for the blessing of broken people who give themselves over to you. Amen.

The Zechariah Effect

Zechariah and the Angel Gabriel

Luke 1:18: Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”


There is an odd reaction people sometimes have to gifts from God. I call it the “Zechariah Effect.”

We receive what we have so long desired. Clearly, what we receive is a blessing from God. And yet, we question whether what is happening is real.

I guess we could also call this the “Sarah Effect.” After all, Abraham’s wife laughed when she heard from a divine source that she would bear a child in old age.

The opposite to these startled, inappropriate responses is Mary’s response to hearing from the angel Gabriel that she would bear Christ. After asking a childlike “how” question, she simply replied, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”

Be sure to read the full story of how Zechariah learned he and his wife would have a child in old age, a child who would come to be known as John the Baptist. (I preached about him last Sunday.) There’s no doubt Zechariah knew an angel standing in a very holy place was telling him good news. He simply struggled to believe!

Some of you may have ideas regarding why we might react to divine gifts in such ways. I can think of at least a couple of possibilities.

First, it’s possible we’ve lived with a particular form of brokenness for so long that we have learned to accommodate it, using little mind tricks to keep our related sadness or dysfunction at bay. It can be disturbing to discover God is going to disrupt our stasis, even if we’ve been preserving something negative in our lives.

Second, maybe we’re discovering our faith isn’t as strong as we thought. Even with a miracle before us, our human doubts may briefly outrun the increase in faith we are going to receive from the experience.

By biblical standards, Zechariah’s punishment was relatively mild. Sarah was chastised, but just slightly. It would appear God is patient with our human reactions, even if he does want a more Mary-like faith from us.

Lord, grant us not only the changes we seek for our lives, but the wisdom to recognize when they have arrived. Amen.

Psalm 19: Look Within

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Let’s continue our meditation on Psalm 19. Yesterday, we considered the first six verses.

After contemplating the heavens, the psalmist makes what initially seems like a sudden turn, talking about how God instructs us. In particular, he references the law given to the Israelites. The two subjects are more connected than we might initially think.

The order and beauty of the heavens partially reveal God. A fuller understanding of God’s nature is found in contemplating God’s law, the psalmist is saying.

Because of sin, we are too broken to intuit such truths on our own. We need a direct revelation from the mind of God, a conduit Scripture offers us every day.

Even then, we are not strong enough to remain aligned with God—to remain holy—unless God helps us. Thus, we hear the petition at the end of the psalm to be kept and cleansed from sins committed deliberately or unknowingly.

The psalmist did not know the details of how God ultimately would respond to this prayer, benefitting all of humanity, but we know. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross makes it possible for all people to be cleansed of sin.

When we believe in Jesus and the effectiveness of his sacrifice, God’s Holy Spirit rushes in to engage with us and strengthen us, if only we let him.

Lord, may the words from our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, our rock and redeemer. Amen.


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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.