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.

Dodging the Cross

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View UMC will be “A Piercing Truth,” drawing on Hebrews 4:12-16. If you cannot be with us in person, please join us online live or to watch a recording later.

Today’s Focus Text: Mark 8:27-38


By Chuck Griffin

Like most preachers,  I tend to mention God’s grace a lot. This makes sense; the fact that God loves us despite our sinfulness serves as the basis of salvation.

Grace is a heart-warming joy. We need to remember, however, that while God gives us grace freely, grace is by no means cheap, having been purchased at a terrible price.

Grace comes to us primarily through Jesus Christ, of course. In Mark 8:27-38, Jesus speaks in no uncertain terms about its price.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter has the good sense to declare Jesus to be Messiah.

Jesus then begins to teach his followers exactly what this means. As Messiah, Jesus must suffer, be rejected by religious authorities, be killed, and rise from the dead.

Peter cannot stand it. He goes so far as to rebuke Jesus for saying such things.

“Get behind me, Satan!” is Jesus’ response. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Despite his moment of brilliance, Peter has proven to be wilfully blind to the cross in Jesus’ future. Informed of the cross, he still refuses to see it. To Peter, half the story is better than the whole story; he wants the joy of Christ’s presence and power without the pain required to redeem the world from sin.

Even after hearing Jesus’ teachings on this matter, the disciples still refuse to understand. They never understand until after Jesus’ resurrection.

Modern Christians, myself included, are so often like the pre-resurrection disciples that I want to cringe. We like grace and the warm, secure feeling it provides us. Now, if we could just avoid the idea of the cross.

It’s particularly difficult because Jesus spoke not only about his own cross, but the cross his followers must bear, too. Our cross usually proves to be more metaphorical, but we hardly find it more pleasant to consider.

But can the requirements of a Christian be any more clear? “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

When Jesus says “deny themselves,” he is telling us to set aside our own worldly interests. When he tells us to take up our cross, he is telling us to make God’s will, the establishment of his kingdom on earth, our top priority.

Such thinking turns our lives upside down. Suddenly, even our own well-being does not matter so much as loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbors as if their interests precede our own.

Fortunately, such thinking also turns the world upside down. And the more we think this way, the more visible God’s kingdom becomes.

We may even learn to like our cross, understanding it to be the proper response to the sacrifice Christ made on his cross.

Lord, show us our crosses, and may we bear them in gratitude for the eternal life we have received. Amen.


The editor of Methodist Life’s Lifetalk blog will be on vacation through the end of October, so the blog will be on hiatus, too.

The Constancy of Blood

During August, the Sunday sermons will be rooted in stories from the Old Testament. This Sunday’s story is found in Genesis 4:1-16, where we learn about Cain and Abel. If you want to watch the sermon but cannot attend Holston View United Methodist Church, it will be available online.

Today’s text: John 19:33-34 (NRSV): But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.


By Chuck Griffin

Christianity links the earliest stirrings of ancient faith to a glorious future. It is through Christ that we discover radical ideas about peace and love, giving us visions of a world where all is set right under God, with healing and rest available for those he calls his children.

We need to remember how such visions are made possible, though. The tapestry of our faith is spattered with blood—in places it is soaked in blood. Sin has forced us to live as primitive people, and God had to debase himself through the Son for us to have any hope of eternal life.

This Sunday I will preach about the first murder recorded in the Bible, Cain’s killing of his brother Abel. Even this is not the first case of blood flowing in Scripture, though. When Adam and Eve realized they were naked, God fashioned animal skins to clothe them, a process that must have been horrifying for these shocked new sinners.

The Old Testament stories in many ways seem bound by blood. Brutal wars and repetitious sacrifices all play their part in a cycle of rejoining God and turning away from God, the people never finding a way to full union with the Holy One.

Even The Way is built upon a bloody path, with Jesus scourged and nailed to a cross to die for our sins. The spear thrust and ensuing discharge from Jesus’ side, recorded in John’s crucifixion account, evoke the image of the blood and water gushing from the temple drainage system, as the priests rinsed away the blood of the animal sacrifices. We are to understand that Christ’s body became the temple for all people.

Let’s not forget, however, that in Scripture, blood equals life. That shedding of Jesus’ divine blood was so perfect a sacrifice that it is continually purifying. We simply have to believe in its effectiveness.

When we take communion to access that purifying grace, we call the bread and juice the “body and blood of Christ.” Using strange, highly symbolic language, the author of the Book of Revelation is able to describe the robes of the believers as having been washed white “in the blood of the Lamb.” 

No doubt, we practice what many would call a blood religion, one with deeply primitive roots. It is astonishing how God has worked among our messes to lift us up to undeserved heights.

Lord, we thank you for your willingness to work through a gruesome and unholy history so that we may find you and establish a full relationship with you. Keep us mindful that while finding salvation is relatively easy for us, it was extremely difficult for Jesus Christ. We are so blessed! Amen.

Confident Hope

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

—Romans 12:12 (NLT)


By Chuck Griffin

If we are able to understand what our confident hope is, this becomes a simple verse to live by.

Paul wrote these words in a chapter of Romans where he also talked about making our bodies a living and holy sacrifice. Paul regularly spoke of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as the central message of Christianity, and it is clear he wants us completely “sold out” on the idea, committed to its meaning in good times and bad.

The cross, of course, means freedom for us. Think of your sins for a moment; briefly experience them as the crushing weight they should be. (I feel a slight shudder when I do this.) Now remember, that weight has been lifted by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross! Sin should lead to death, but both have been defeated by Christ.

Thus, the resurrection, the Easter event. It is our proof the cross is effective, and a promise of what is in store for us.

The cross also is the source of our confidence. We certainly will experience negative and even frightening moments in this life, but the fear they are somehow terminal, a full-stop end, is unjustified. We will pass through—life goes on, even after our bodily deaths.

This great truth of Christianity should shape every moment of our lives. Even in sorrow, joy lingers nearby because the truth of our salvation is constant.

Romans 12:12 is a simple Bible verse worth memorizing.

Lord, keep the cross before us in all circumstances. Amen.

Horror and Salvation

By Chuck Griffin

In terms of a devotional, you don’t need much from me today. It is Good Friday, and you have the ultimate action story before you.

As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his arrest, he sought relief from the terrible work ahead. But he heard clearly from Father God: It has to be done. Today calls for a simple response from Christians. Give thanks for the work that has been done, the work recorded here:

John 19

At the cross, Christ gathers us in his arms, yanking us from death’s tight grip and delivering us to eternal life. As you pray, try to come alongside Jesus as he walks to the cross. As he hangs on the cross, some ultimately run and some stay for the burial, but remain with him for as long as you can.

And remember, good action has good consequences. That’s a story for Sunday, though.

Lord, may the truth of the crucifixion be very real for us this day. Amen.

That Terrible Step to Come

We continue to walk with Jesus this Holy Week toward Good Friday and the cross.

John 12:20-36 (NRSV)

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.


By Chuck Griffin

During the week that culminated in Jesus’ crucifixion, signs of what was about to happen were everywhere. At the time, only Jesus could see them.

Note how oddly Jesus acted when Greeks arrived seeking him. Rather than welcoming them, he began to speak of obedience, service and death. Eventually, he hid from the crowds for a while.

Jesus knew that while his earthly ministry was designed to bring salvation to the whole world, it mostly was to occur among his own Jewish people. It would be the role of the post-resurrection, Holy Spirit-empowered church to reach the world beyond Judaism. The arrival of Gentiles from a distant place made it clear crucifixion was unavoidably near. 

Jesus’ cryptic talk of being “lifted up” also triggered questions among the common people, who were expecting an invulnerable warrior king to take charge.

How could one anointed and glorified by God, the one we now understand to be God in flesh, die such a horrible, humiliating death? Over time, Christians have gotten used to the idea of the bloodied Jesus hanging on a cross, but we have to admit the image is strange, particularly to people not raised in the faith.

To answer the question raised by the crowd, it is necessary to explore the design of salvation, and that means we delve into a mystery too complex for us to understand in full, at least in this life. Jesus’ answer, rooted in “light” and “darkness,” gives us insight, however.

For all practical purposes, the Son of Man mounted a rescue mission. Because of our sins, we were trapped in darkness—a place that the Holy God, who is light, had every right to disregard. Out of love, however, he chose not to forget us or destroy us.

Instead, the light entered the darkness to find us, taking on flesh. The title “Son of God” reminds us of his divinity; the title “Son of Man” reminds us of his blessed humanity.

To break the grip sin and death had on us, Jesus had to bear our punishment for sin. Or we might say he had to ransom us from sin. Or we might say he carried our shame. Or we might say he became the one perfect sacrifice for sin, simultaneously priest and slain lamb. These and other descriptions of how atonement works mark the point where the mystery becomes almost unfathomable. We use metaphors to understand what can be grasped in full only by the mind of God.

What’s important is that we believe Christ’s death on the cross is effective, that the divine machinery works even if we cannot comprehend all its cogs and pulleys.

Lord, on this Holy Tuesday we reaffirm our belief that the Son of Man died on the cross, knowing our belief is enough to pull us from darkness into light.

What They Saw

Acts 2:14-24 (NRSV)

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

"In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

The above passage is the beginning of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, delivered shortly after the Holy Spirit had fallen upon the disciples.

Peter referenced a prophecy from Joel, found in Joel 2:28-32, to explain what was happening in the moment, the enthusiastic declaration of the gospel by disciples in languages they should not have known. Peter also continued to quote from Joel about the sun being darkened and the moon turning to blood.

I am fascinated by that second part. There is no record of anyone in the crowd asking, “And exactly when did these signs in the sky occur?” It appears there was no need for such a question because these events had been witnessed and discussed widely for more than a month.

In regard to the sun darkening, all we have to do is look at Luke’s account of the crucifixion, focusing on the actual moment of Jesus’ death. According to the NRSV translation, Luke tells us “the sun’s light failed.” 

We can be certain this was not the result of a natural solar eclipse, for reasons rooted in moon phases and how they relate to the Passover, the religious festival that was the backdrop for Jesus’ death. I consider the unknown cause either directly miraculous or a miracle of timing, incorporating a sandstorm or some other strange environmental phenomena.

The moon turning to blood is easier to explain. Again, because of the moon phase during Passover, it is quite possible the moon rose with a deep red tint on the Saturday while Jesus was in the grave, a disturbing reminder of the blood spilled the day before.

Regardless of how these events in the sky happened, they were very much on people’s minds, and Peter was able to reference them without explanation.

The crowd was troubled by all they had seen, just as we sometimes are troubled, and they became even more troubled as Peter offered them their share of blame for Jesus’ crucifixion. Blessedly, his sermon went on to deliver good news.

“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Lord, thank you for the signs of love and reconciliation we receive from you now, preparing us for the glorious day of your return. Amen.

We See You!

Mark 3:7-12 (NLT)

Jesus went out to the lake with his disciples, and a large crowd followed him. They came from all over Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, from east of the Jordan River, and even from as far north as Tyre and Sidon. The news about his miracles had spread far and wide, and vast numbers of people came to see him.

Jesus instructed his disciples to have a boat ready so the crowd would not crush him. He had healed many people that day, so all the sick people eagerly pushed forward to touch him. And whenever those possessed by evil spirits caught sight of him, the spirits would throw them to the ground in front of him shrieking, “You are the Son of God!” But Jesus sternly commanded the spirits not to reveal who he was.


The religious phrase “Great Awakening” has been borrowed by some who badly abused it in secular settings the last couple of years. Today’s text reminds us of what it means for people to leap to their feet and respond to the clear presence of God.

Jesus’ ministry, of course, was the ultimate Great Awakening, as he first revealed an expanded understanding of God’s plan and then, in his crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit, made an ongoing, living connection to God possible.

Any later Great Awakening simply was or will be a revival, a renewed understanding of what has come before. As in Jesus’ day, when such an event happens, people more easily recognize miracles past and present. They may travel great distances to hear what God has to say, even though these truths have long been available to them in God’s word.

I particularly like the idea that the spiritual world in contention with God trembles at the idea of such moments that lead to movements. Unseen evil beings trouble us all the time. Why should they not be troubled, too?

Hear the Good News: Jesus Christ is Lord! The evil in this world is in retreat and the brokenness of creation is being healed. It is a truth established for you and for me. It is simultaneously personal and global; it will change our lives forever.

Lord, may we see such an Awakening in our day, to the benefit of our families, friends, neighbors, enemies, and of course, ourselves.

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.

Death of the Son

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 9:1-14

So, right up front, I might as well tell you what I’m doing wrong. I’m taking an obscure, hard-to-translate heading on a psalm and likely stretching it into far more than was intended.

The least controversial way to translate Psalm 9’s heading is, “To the chief musician upon Muth-labben,” which avoids all problems in translating the Hebrew phrase “Muth-labben.”

I studied a little Hebrew in seminary, but let’s just say I never wanted to make a living working in biblical languages. I have enormous respect for those who choose this path. But as best as I can tell, even the experts have trouble agreeing on the translation of this particular psalm title.

I will not bore you with all the possibilities, but my favorite, the one chosen by the New Living Translation, is, “To be sung to the tune, ‘Death of the Son.’ “

That translation begs other questions. Whose son? Being considered a psalm of David, Absalom, perhaps? Again, it’s impossible to answer for sure.

Just for the fun of it, let’s stick with “Death of the Son” as the title and then really Christianize the psalm. We will look at it like people who believe Jesus Christ is somehow present in every page of the Bible, Old Testament or New Testament.

What follows Psalm 9’s heading is unrestrained praise for God. This is the God who fills us with joy!

We also hear of the God who restores us at the judgment, sending our sin-aligned enemies staggering away mortally wounded.

The nations are all rebuked for unholiness. All is set right, and God is understood to be astonishingly loving, the one who shelters and restores the oppressed and hopeless.

Regardless of the psalmist’s intent, I think of the God who came among us in flesh and died for our sins, making resurrection and restoration possible. I think of Jesus Christ, the cross, and a stone rolled away from a tomb.

It’s enough to make me wonder if “Death of the Son” was a joyous tune.

Lord, help us begin our week immersed in the idea that Jesus Christ died for our sins, and in the hope that death brings. Amen.