God in Art: Man of Sorrows

“Christ Carrying the Cross,” El Greco, circa 1580.

Having exited the Christmas season, let’s take a few moments to meditate on where the Christian story takes us as we move through winter and into spring. In between his birth and the moment depicted above, Jesus revealed much about God’s plan for humanity, including how the promise of salvation would be fulfilled.

Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

Epiphany 2022

Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

Gerard David, Adoration of the Kings, National Gallery, London, circa 1515

I hope I’m not overplaying the Epiphany by spending two days on the subject. To me, it seems appropriate. Throughout much of Christian history, the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany was a much bigger deal than celebrating Christmas.

From that alone, we should assume the story associated with it, the story of the Wise Men, is important.  So what does the story tell us about God?

We receive little detail about these men chasing a “star” in search of a newborn king, a star no one else seems to have noticed. Tradition has led us to think of three wise men, but the Bible doesn’t give us an exact number.

Today, let’s simply consider some odd facts. As mentioned yesterday, an event in a tiny village was communicated via the stars and planets. We also should note that these wise men likely would not have understood God the way a Jew did, and yet God drew them into the story of his ultimate intervention in history.

It seems the big lesson God gives us in this story is how surprising he can be as he tries to shower us in grace and save us from sin. He not only will meet us where we are, he will work through our current practices to change us. (Methodists call this “prevenient grace,” the love God tries to show us even before we acknowledge who God is.)

When I think of the wise men seeing Christ’s birth registered in the sky, I also think of all the stories I’ve heard of nonbelievers discovering God in unlikely places: in bars, in prison, in dive hotels—any of those locations or moments where we might wrongly think God is not present.

The story peaks in a happy way. God led the wise men on from their visit with Herod, and there was the baby, just as promised. They gave Jesus gifts. What a joy that must have been, to give the Christ child a gift! And even better, they were able to kneel before him.

Was it worship? Translators debate how to deal with the word describing their act. We kneel in worship, but the wise men also would have been likely to kneel before a king.

We can say for certain that the moment marked a dawning awareness. These wise men would have understood God was working in the world in powerful ways, and that they had been drawn into the plan. They even would continue to hear from God in dreams, protecting the child and themselves in the process.

These wise men, these magi, were a foreshadowing of the purpose behind Jesus’ work on the cross decades later, and the church’s Holy Spirit-inspired work today. God truly calls to all people, regardless of their location or circumstances. After all, “For God so loved the world … .”

Lord, in 2022, may we with great joy worship the Christ. Thank you for the revelations about Jesus that we receive through Scripture and experience in our hearts. May we give him our gift of faithfulness, made possible by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thanksgiving

Psalm 63:5-9 (NRSV)

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
    and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
    and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
    and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
    your right hand upholds me.

By John Grimm

We are ready!  We have our minds set on turkey and fixings.  We are looking forward to the pie—whether it be pumpkin, pecan, apple, or mincemeat!  We are glad it is time to feast. 

Why are we ready to feast?  God has been providing for us!  We are satisfied by God in our waking—whatever time we are awake.  For when we awaken in the middle of the night and can not get back to sleep, it is prime time to concentrate on the Lord.  This time is when we have a rich feast, and our mouths are full of praise.

I believe the hymn title is: “Count Your Blessings.”  God shelters us, and that’s a blessing we can count multiple times!  We cling to God by noticing how much the Lord does for us.  There is nothing like knowing God’s right hand upholds us!

Lord God, thank you satisfying our souls.  Lying in bed, thinking of you and your work in our lives brings joy to us.  As we know you, may our friends and family notice our contentment in you.  May we have more reasons to be thankful as friends and family find satisfaction in you.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray for joy for our friends and family this Thanksgiving.  Amen.

God in Art: Last Words

Sunday’s sermon at Holston View United Methodist Church will be “Last Words,” based on 2 Samuel 23:1-7. We also will be acknowledging Thanksgiving, and yes, the two concepts will tie together.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, is remembered in part for his last words, “The best of all is, God is with us.” He actually said the phrase twice before dying. The second time, we are told, he raised his hand and waved it in triumph. Below is a book engraving of his passing, artist unknown. (If you can help me find a proper attribution, please pass it along.)

Lord, may we always sense that you are with 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.

Conquerors

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: 1 John 5:1-6


By Chuck Griffin

This scripture meditation may sound a little old-fashioned.

Lately, a lot of clergy are more prone to talk about new ideas—clever ways to connect with the lost, or new trends in communication, which is all good stuff, of course. We have to remember, however, that the core truth about Jesus Christ doesn’t change. The author of 1 John brings us back to that core.

First, there is belief, specifically believing that Jesus is the Christ, God’s chosen redeemer for the world. In particular, we are to believe Christ’s death on the cross defeated sin, and that the resurrection is both proof of that fact and a promise regarding what is to come.

People come to believe in various ways. It is important for the converted to remember the unconverted may come to Christ in ways we don’t expect. I’m reminded of the story of the man who went to a hotel room to commit suicide, but instead opened a Gideon Bible and met Jesus in its pages.

Another favorite conversion story is of a man sitting in a Chicago church as a worship service opened with a full processional down the center aisle. As the crucifer—for those of you unfamiliar with more formal worship, that’s the person carrying the cross at the top of a long pole—went by, the man said he looked up, saw the cross and believed. No sermon, no prayer, he said. He just knew. Sounds strange to me, but it worked for him.

What is important, of course, is that we come to believe, and then live into our belief.

Belief allows us to be incorporated into a new family, 1 John also tells us. Again, it’s a little old-fashioned sounding, but we are “brothers and sisters.” The family metaphor doesn’t work for everyone. If Momma ran off when you were a baby and Daddy was a drunk, the word “family” probably sounds terrible. We’re supposed to think of the ideal version of family, however.

The author of 1 John goes on. In a healthy family, we abide by certain standards; for Christians, it is the commandments, the Ten Commandments and the other guidance God gives us in Scripture regarding right and wrong. In summing up the law, Jesus kept matters simple. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves. Right remains right, and wrong remains wrong, but love controls how we deal with sin when it is before us.

I thought about how love fits into the conversion equation when I drove by some placard-waving Christians at an intersection. The signs covered a range of issues. One asked God to bless Israel; another said homosexuality is still a sin, while a third noted, “Drunkards shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sitting at a red light watching them, I was struck by an odd dichotomy. Scripturally they were correct, but from a kingdom-building perspective, being right doesn’t always mean you are helping. They mostly appeared to be an example of like attracting like and repelling those who needed a deeper relationship with Christ. Right (or perhaps simple self-righteousness) was present, but I did not see love offered.

I do like the way we as traditional Methodists handle some of the more difficult issues requiring both law and grace. Human sexuality, for example—we call sin a sin, and we recognize that defiantly unrepentant sinners shouldn’t be leaders. At the same time, however, we acknowledge that in God’s eyes, all people are worthy of grace and need access to that grace through Christian community and worship. It’s a more complicated position than many Christians try to live out, but it’s easy enough to understand, if we try.

Once we get all these core concepts right, there is much to celebrate. As 1 John tells us, there is victory; we win! We conquer the world, ripping it from the grasp of evil and restoring it to its rightful owner. That in itself should be enough to draw people to Christ.

Yes, these ideas are old-fashioned, but in them there is good news, the kind of news that can transform anyone forever.

Lord, keep us grounded in the faith that has sustained the church and changed the world for centuries. Amen.

Justice Is a Holy Word

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View United Methodist Church, “Justice in the Gate,” will explore Amos 5:6-15. If you cannot be with us in the sanctuary Sunday, you are welcome to join us online at 11 a.m., or view a recording later.

Today’s focus text: Matthew 5:38-42 (NRSV)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”


By Chuck Griffin

“Justice” fits into all sorts of slogans: Justice is blind. Justice will prevail. No justice, no peace.

Here’s what I and a lot of other Bible-focused people might add. Justice is about relationships; perfect justice requires holy relationships. From a Christian perspective, God’s justice is constantly trying to expand its influence in our sin-wracked societies as we better learn to relate to one another as children of God.

Thousands of years ago, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a radical expansion of justice. Before that concept developed, only the rich and powerful had anything resembling justice. The weak and poor just lost a lot of teeth and eyes. What sounds like Old Testament vitriol to us now was in fact an attempt to guarantee everyone would be treated the same.

Sure, there often was a gap between intent and implementation, and we still see unequal applications of justice today. Dear Lord in heaven, did I even need to say that after these last few years? We harden our hearts against one another because of race or economic status, and we fail to offer a holy relationship to someone we think of as “other.”

And by the way, no, I did not just offer a wholesale restatement of the progressive left’s justice message. We are all guilty as we peer at each other from our various vantage points in the public square. When it comes to ensuring justice for all, most of us remain in the stage where we shout across the pavement, “You go first.”

Jesus’ difficult-to-accept description of kingdom justice is largely about deciding to go first, and it is hard to embrace because he asserts that change can happen when a victim begins the process. The great hope is that when people turn the other cheek, give the litigious more than they sought, and freely help beggars and borrowers, they trigger life-changing responses from these recipients of unexpected grace.

I know, I know. It’s so hard to follow Jesus’ teachings consistently. These recipients of grace often take advantage of the giver. They don’t seem to change, and we find ourselves constantly compromising when it comes to reaching out to really difficult people.

Let’s remember that it took centuries for most of humanity to be able to agree that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounds primitive—that there might be a better way. It may be a little longer before Christ’s vision of justice fully prevails. I suspect Christ will have to return to make his work complete.

That doesn’t mean we stop striving for justice now, though, establishing new, holy relationships wherever we can.

Lord, where we see injustice, give us the words and actions you would use if standing in our place, and then fill us with your courage. Amen.

Salvation Is Free—Stop Slaving!

Luke 15:24b-32 (NRSV)

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


By ‘Debo Onabanjo

As I mentioned in last Tuesday’s devotion, Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal or Lost Son gives all of us wonderful insight into the loving heart of our heavenly father. He also used the story to remind us of a profound truth. There is absolutely nothing we can do to earn God’s grace or to make God love us any better than he already does.  While God would very much prefer that we all live a life that is pleasing to him, he is always willing to extend compassion to those who repent of their sins and return home as the prodigal son did.  

As Jesus continued with the parable, he cleverly reintroduced the older son. Many of us would have conveniently forgotten the older son by this time, but Jesus used him as an object lesson for all of us. Truth be told, not everyone in the church (represented by the 99 righteous sheep that did not stray, as mentioned by Jesus in Luke 15:4-7) rejoices when the lone stray sheep returns. 

We who have been believers for so long can easily forget that our salvation is a gift and not a reward for something we have done. We are sometimes quick to show disdain when God pours out the richness of his grace on others. Even though it is never right, we can sometimes see others as undeserving of God’s grace. 

The older son saw the feasting and merry making and became very angry when he found out the party was for his younger brother. If you were an older sibling who received the news that your long-lost younger brother had returned home, and your father was celebrating his return, how would you react?  

Quite typical of Jesus, he did not leave us guessing and revealed the brokenness in us all, using the older brother as the example. Like the Pharisees and the teachers of religious law that Jesus constantly denounced for their hypocrisy and lack of compassion, the older brother did not want to be part of any celebration or gathering for his renegade younger brother.   As far as he was concerned, he was much better lost. 

Even when the loving father begged him to join the celebration, the older brother refused and castigated their father for his kindness. He displayed a warped sense of entitlement and selfishly wondered why their father had not celebrated his long years of slaving. Like the older brother, there are folks who have the wrong impression that salvation is something we earn through our hard work for God.

As Paul reminds us, “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” (Ephesians 2:9.)

The older brother in this parable, like some of us who are long time followers of Jesus, chose to stay at home not out of love for the father but for self-preservation.  He was slaving to retain his part of the inheritance. Even while he lived with the father at home, the older son, just like the younger son, lived in a distant land. He did not take the time to get to know the heart of the father. He had no relationship with his father and was only slaving daily with the expectation of earning his way into the inheritance when the father passed away. Our salvation is a gift and not dependent on any legalistic keeping of the laws or reward for our hard labor.  

The older son even disowned his younger brother and described him as a bum and scum who had dared to come back home “after squandering” his own share of the inheritance on “prostitutes.” How did he even know how the younger brother lived? 

He could not believe that his father killed the fattened calf for such a reprobate. The older brother, like the pompous Pharisees and teachers of religious law who looked down on sinners that came to be with Jesus, despised his younger brother.

Here is the moral of the parable: All of us have sinned, either in the manner of the older or younger son. We do not deserve eternal life, a gift from our eternal father.

I don’t know about you, but I am thankful that salvation is free. 

Compassionate and loving God, thank you for reminding us through your loving Son that we cannot earn our way to salvation. Help us to labor out of love and not because of what we hope to gain. Grant us compassion for everyone who is struggling with sin today and help us to offer a helping hand when needed. Grant us grace to be like our father in heaven, who is merciful and gracious to all his children without showing favoritism. Amen. 

For My Welfare?

Isaiah 38:10-20

By John Grimm

For my welfare?  We think we know what is best for ourselves.  We plan, we maneuver, and we make connections so that we can have the best life possible.  Then troubles come our way and we are at a loss.  Getting through the troubles strains us.

We then ask ourselves, is the trouble because of my own sins?  Are we the ones who caused our own souls to be bitter?  Or is the truth that someone else caused our misfortune and our problems?  Is it not that since we live godly lives, we can escape such bitterness?

When we know that we have caused our own bitterness, then we repent of our ways.  We confess our sin to God and he restores us.  We may even eventually see that God had been protecting us, despite our willful rebellion against him.  As soon as we recognize the good God was keeping us for, we thank him that he did not allow us to be punished for all time because of our rebellion. 

When we do not know the source of the bitterness in our life, we should keep turning to God.  It is through Jesus that we find salvation, even in the midst of bitterness.  It is during these times that we catch a glimpse of how much evil that God has kept from us.  Yes, going through the bitterness was for our welfare!

It is by living through bitterness brought on by our own sin or someone else’s sin that we can praise God!  Then we get to be in the sanctuary with other believers to sing and praise God for his work in our lives.  What a witness we have when those around us know of the bitterness of our souls and they get to hear us praise God.  Maybe it is during this pandemic that the bitterness of our souls is for our welfare.  It seems like a good time to praise God for getting us through these days.  What better way to shrug off bitterness than to be in the house of the Lord, thanking God for our deliverance?

God, we know who and what has caused bitterness in our souls.  It was not you.  We allowed that bitterness to grow.  Yet, you are using the state of our souls so that we may see how you are working to deliver us.  As we become content in your faithfulness, may we see the bitterness washing away and hear chords of praise coming from our lungs.  It is in Jesus’ name that we thank you for making a way for our welfare even when we could not grasp what was happening.  Amen.  And Amen!

Holy Ones

Psalm 34:9-14 (NRSV)
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
    for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

Come, O children, listen to me;
    I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Which of you desires life,
    and covets many days to enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil,
    and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
    seek peace, and pursue it.

By John Grimm

Is this psalm written for us?  Are we “his holy ones”?  The answer to these questions depends upon whether we fear the Lord.  This psalm helps us define fear of the Lord.

It appears the state of fearing the Lord has to do with seeking the Lord.  It might be that as we pursue the Lord, we gain a sense of awe regarding how the Lord does what the Lord does.  On this level, we realize the fear of the Lord is what we as individuals can do.

We also notice that the fear of the Lord can be taught.  We can listen to someone who has had experience with the Lord.  The instructions for having the fear of the Lord show us two facts.  First, it is our responsibility to avoid speaking evil and deceit.  The second fact is that fearing the Lord involves physically doing good and pursuing peace.

From the whole of the Bible, we see that we are holy ones because of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.  As we believe in Jesus, we become holy.  It is by living in the fear of the Lord that we receive the position of being holy ones.  It appears that this psalm was written for us and that we can be “his holy ones.”  Now, let us seek the Lord and learn from those who know about faith in Jesus Christ.

Almighty God, thank you for making us your holy ones.  We had wanted for so much before we found you.  You satisfy us and instruct us in how to live as your holy ones.  It is good to know that by faith in Jesus we can be holy as you are holy.  May we be found to be your holy ones, even this day.  In the Name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.