Whom Do We Fear?

Luke 12:4-7 (NRSV)

By John Grimm

We face challenging times when we publicly say that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior.  People will not treat us well.  As Jesus was slain for opposing the religious establishment, those of us who follow Jesus will face mistreatment, character assassination, and even actual death.  What our Master has faced, we will face.  Let no one deceive us: Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is the hardest way of living in this world.

That is why we are afraid to speak about Jesus when we are around those who do not know the compassion of Jesus Christ.  We allow our fear to control our tongues, instead of trusting the Holy Spirit of Christ to guide our tongues.

Life is precious.  We want to keep our lives.  However, it is precious only because Jesus Christ has given us our very existence, even dare we say, new lives!

The Lord knows who we are.  The Lord knows we are believers in Jesus Christ.  He does not forget us, just as he does not forget five sparrows sold for two pennies.  We are more valuable than sparrows.  God in Christ helps us to not fear.

The one who could cast us into hell cares for us!  It is time for us to fear him!

God, we have not spoken about or lived our faith like Jesus Christ lived.  We are afraid.  Heal our unbelief.  In the name of Jesus Christ, loose in us your Holy Spirit so we may overflow with glad tidings of your grace and compassion; this we pray, Amen.

The Prophet Who Never Got It

“Jonah and the Whale,” Pieter Lastman, 1620, courtesy Google Art Project

The Book of Jonah

By Chuck Griffin

Do you ever wish God were different? It sounds like a strange question, but the prophet Jonah could have easily answered, “Yes.”

The story of Jonah opens with the prophet at home somewhere in Israel, hearing from God with the clarity most biblical prophets seem to experience. God gave Jonah a simple command: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

Nineveh was to the east, in what is now the northern part of Iraq. (Its ruins are near the city of Mosul, where modern battles have been fought in recent years.) It was one of the great cities of the Assyrian empire, a wonder to those who beheld it. Jonah had no doubt which direction Nineveh lay, yet Jonah headed west by sea, rather than east by land.

The story tells us Jonah went to the coast and got on a ship bound for Tarshish, a place not easily identified today. In the novel Moby Dick, the clergyman at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel, Father Mapple, preaches on Jonah and asserts that Tarshish must have been a port in Spain, the farthest point west a Jew in Jonah’s day would have known. It’s not a bad notion—we’re told Jonah is trying to go “away from the presence of the Lord,” so what seemed like the end of the earth would have been a logical destination.

Storms soon began to worry the ship on its journey to Tarshish, to the point that the pagan crew cried out to their various gods. The captain implored Jonah to pray, too. They cast lots to determine who was the cause of the problem, and something like a throw of the dice showed the cause was Jonah.

And, very early in the story, Jonah began to understand that God was present regardless of how far Jonah ran or sailed. He admitted to the crew who he was and what he had done, and despite their initial reluctance, he convinced them to throw him in the sea. The sea immediately became calm.

This brings us to the part we know best from childhood: God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Yes, it could have been a whale; the Hebrew word used in the story literally means a large fish, but the Jews would have used this word to include whales.) In the belly of this large sea critter, Jonah prayed a powerful psalm, in part acknowledging that God is everywhere, even capable of hearing one of his rebellious prophets trapped beneath the waves, “at the roots of the mountains.”

In response to this prayer, God had the fish vomit Jonah out somewhere on dry land. And Jonah once again heard his marching orders: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah headed in the right direction, presumably after cleaning himself up.

Once in Nineveh, Jonah preached his message. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And here’s the twist we might not expect when reading this story the first time—those pagan, supposedly godless residents of sprawling Nineveh responded!

Even the king put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. He ordered everyone to do the same, and to fast. They went so far as to cover the livestock with sackcloth and withhold the animals’ food or water. The prayers, wails, bleating and lowing set up a din that had to reach to heaven.

God heard, and God relented from the destruction he had promised. And that, we learn, was precisely what Jonah feared would happen.

“O Lord!” he prayed. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah was so bitter, he prayed that God might kill him. You see, the Israelites considered the people of Nineveh their enemy. The Jews had suffered terribly under Assyrian rule; Jonah had hoped for a scene of destruction worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. And now, here was the God the Jews acknowledged, the God over all things, showing mercy to these people!

All Jonah could do was pout. That pretty much sums up the rest of the story of Jonah. He pouted while God explained his deep concern for the people of Nineveh, using a simple plant as an example.

God is love. God is mercy. Yes, God’s holiness demands justice. But God seems to have this unrelenting desire to let people off the hook, to forgive, to find a way to draw people back into relationships with him.

That truth is best expressed through Jesus Christ, of course. Through the great sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God found a way to extend mercy to all, no matter what evil has been done. Repercussions in this life for our bad deeds may be unavoidable, but a renewed, ongoing relationship with God is constantly available, in any moment, on any day, under any circumstances.

When we find ourselves hoping God will crush someone, we’re wishing God were different. When we think there’s no way God could love us, forgive us, or change us, we’re underestimating who God is.

Why would we want to wish for a different kind of God? The one we have freely offers eternal life. We’ll do no better than that.

Lord, thank you for your incredible, undeserved mercy, expressed most clearly by Jesus Christ on the cross, dying for our sins. 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.

The Approach

We are moving toward our Sunday, July 11 sermon, which will be viewable online and based on 2 Samuel 6.

Today’s Text: Matthew 6:9-13 (NLT)


By Chuck Griffin

These devotions began in support of a larger effort to encourage traditional Methodist small groups. The group in which I participate recently revealed to me some connections between what we commonly call the “Lord’s Prayer” and this Sunday’s developing sermon on the nature of worship.

Jesus was teaching his followers how to pray, moving ultimately into an example of prayer straight from his divine lips. It’s perfectly fine to pray the prayer as is—you cannot go wrong quoting Jesus. The prayer also serves a larger purpose, however.

As a model for other prayers, his words remind us of how we are to approach God.

First, God is holy, and we need to stay rooted in that truth as we pray. By “holy,” we mean God is without fault, always perfect and the standard by which creation should be measured.

Sadly, we are sullied by our freely made poor choices. Our sins make us unholy. We need to approach God with expressions of humility and a sense of caution, what the Bible’s English translators sometimes describe as “fear.” That which is unholy historically has not survived direct experiences of God for very long.

As we pray, we also should express our deep desire to align our will with God’s will. We need to declare that we intend for our lives and the world around us to fall in line with what God wants.

That big-picture attitude creates the proper environment for praying about situations large and small. We can confidently approach our holy God as a loving God, knowing he will meet us in any moment as we call upon him with appropriate reverence.

In particular, we pray for relief from the sins tainting us, knowing we can seek forgiveness because of the work Jesus Christ performed on the cross. And we are reminded that the grace we are continually shown should be extended to others.

This all should create in us a humble demeanor that not only benefits us in daily prayer, but also prepares us for proper worship. As we will see on Friday, when properly prepared for worship, we can experience wondrous results.

Lord, keep us in awe, keep us humble, and at the same time let us know that we have many reasons to rejoice in your presence. Amen.

Wilderness Meditation

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 63:1-5 (NLT)

A psalm of David, regarding a time
when David was in the wilderness of Judah.

O God, you are my God;
    I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
    my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
    where there is no water.
I have seen you in your sanctuary
    and gazed upon your power and glory.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
    how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live,
    lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
    I will praise you with songs of joy.

There are different kinds of wilderness, but they all have a few things in common.

While starkly beautiful, they can be unnerving, being so different from our daily experience. They even can be life-threatening if we don’t know how to navigate them. 

Some of us might feel we’re in a metaphorical wilderness right now. With a pandemic and a shift in political climate both underway, life can seem unpredictable and maybe even a little scary.

Here’s a positive thought, though. The heightened awareness the wilderness demands can bring us in touch with God.

Let’s take time to look at the first part of Psalm 63 today. I’ll raise the questions, and you consider your particular answers.

Do you still actively search for God?

Are you emotionally engaged in that search? Is the search more than theoretical—are you praying a need will be filled?

Can you say you’ve recently worshiped in a way where you have sensed God’s power and glory?

If you’ve not said “yes” so far, you may have identified why you sometimes feel as spiritually dry as a Levantine desert.

You also may have the beginnings of a strategy to move toward praise and deep satisfaction, regardless of your environment.

Lord, grow us in our awareness of your presence and our appreciation of your power and overwhelming love. Amen.

Life and Breath

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

The Bible has a lot to say about the not-so-simple act of breathing. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, words for “breath,” “wind” and “spirit” overlap.

Genesis 2:7: Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Ezekiel 37:9: Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

John 20:21-23: Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Acts 2:2-4: And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

It’s pretty obvious that in Scripture, the source of life is God’s breath, which we also might think of as the movement of the Holy Spirit. This ethereal lesson can be lived out in very practical ways, however, particularly in times of stress.

When I’ve taught people under tremendous stress how to pray in a meditative way, the “how to breathe” part of the lesson has been critical. First, you have to position your body so you can breathe. If seated, your back and neck need to be straight, your shoulders squared and hanging from your collarbones as if on coathangers.

From here, “breath prayer” begins to line up with core techniques I’ve learned from decades of martial arts practice, principles recently confirmed in books I’ve read about how soldiers and police survive and control violent, high-stress situations. Breathing is normally automatic, but it can get out of control when the world becomes overwhelming. At such times, we have to take charge of our breathing.

Inhale through your nose deeply, slowly, expanding your lower stomach. Hold at the end of the inhale for a count equal to your time spent inhaling. Exhale through your mouth at the same rate, shrinking and pushing in your lower stomach. At the bottom of the exhale, hold for the same amount of time. Some people who teach this talk about using a “four count” at each stage.

I should warn you, if your heart is racing, if your blood pressure is up, your lungs will fight you at first, particularly as you hold at the bottom of your exhale. But if you’re feeling panicked or anxious, repeating this type of breathing will calm you, center you, and allow you to turn to God.

Biblically, it makes sense. Made in the image of God and granted the Holy Spirit through our belief in Jesus Christ, we have access to the source of life.

Think of deliberate, God-focused breathing as an unspoken prayer request: “God, renew in me what you have poured into the world.”

Peace be with you. Tomorrow, I will try to help you embed this breathing in prayerful Christian meditation.

Lord, we thank you for the life you have breathed into us. May we use our lives to glorify you and to the benefit of your dawning kingdom on earth.