For Such a Time as This, Pt. 2

2 Corinthians 13:5-10

By Chuck Griffin

Tuesday, I began moving toward Sunday’s sermon with an exhortation: Theologically conservative Methodists positioned by God to lead should do just that in our current environment, employing a little creativity and a lot of grace in the process.

I am not naïve. Once people become entrenched in institutional power and lucrative privilege, they very often will place their own interests above scriptural principles. (Another exhortation in Philippians 2:4-5 comes to mind.) So I exhort with only faint hope of a real response from anyone already positioned to make a difference.

That failure at the top continues to reverberate throughout the United Methodist Church, as it has done for decades now. Basic biblical concepts long preached and taught by Methodists have fallen by the wayside as the people once most able to encourage them grew silent in the face of secular pressure.

You can test how heavily your particular church has been affected by all of this. Look at today’s text from 2 Corinthians and ask yourself if it sounds like something anyone has taught or preached there.

The church at Corinth had very modern problems, the people immersed in “impurity, sexual immorality, and eagerness for lustful pleasure.” Paul expected that when he arrived, he would find quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorderly behavior among them, too. (Read chapter 12 for the context I am citing here.)

Paul did not dance around those problems. He did not accommodate the social trends of the day. Instead, he relied on his humble subservience to God, letting God speak through him, employing the Scripture of his day and his direct encounters with the Holy Spirit to define right and wrong.

“Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.”

If you’re unfamiliar with such language in church, you are in a congregation that has lost sight of what once was a basic Methodist concept, the pursuit of holiness. In church, this is a group effort to create an environment where people can, with the help of God, find their actions more closely aligned with God’s will each passing day.

Missing that in your church? Well, here’s the good news. Unworthy leaders can be ignored and even replaced. Paul ultimately aimed his message at all the Christians in the Corinthian church, giving everyone an opportunity to respond, and we can consider his words a message to us, too.

Know God’s word. Seek the presence of God’s Spirit through prayer, fasting and worship. As more of us do so, we will begin to recover what was once a bright, vibrant form of Methodism, a kind of Christianity that changed lives for the better.

Lord, we give thanks for the leaders who will arise among us, and we pray that they be graced with a double portion of your Spirit. Amen.

For Such a Time as This, Pt. 1

Esther 4 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

I am moving toward a sermon this Sunday that has been stirring in my heart for some time. It will be based on Luke 9:51-62, the story of Jesus resolutely heading toward Jerusalem to do what must be done.

I want to focus my two Methodist Life devotions this week on ideas that will come out in the sermon. Today, I want to go back to a particular moment in the story of Esther—I hope you’ve already taken time to click the above link and read the fourth chapter of that Old Testament book.

In short, the Jews seemed doomed, destined for slaughter by a powerful enemy. But through a miraculous set of what humans call coincidences, a Jewish woman became queen of the dominant Persian empire. In terms of power, she was not much more than a crowned concubine, but she did have direct access to the king—assuming he was agreeable to her presence.

Her uncle told her she must do something to save her people, but her hesitancy and fear were obvious. Then she heard the obvious question, the words that stirred her to action: “If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”

Most of us have a hard time imagining ourselves in such a situation, but I think these moments arise for us more often than we might guess—perhaps at least once in a lifetime?

We find ourselves comfortable and content. We don’t want to be bothered by what looks to be a massive personal complication. And yet, we are where we are because God has been preparing us and positioning us for an important moment.

The moment arrives. Do we lie back as if our God-granted situation is a comfortable hammock, or do we stand alert and ready, saying to God, “I am in place. What would you have me do now so that your will is done?”

None of this is theoretical right now for Methodists. Certainly not as Scripture is being compromised, and certainly not as ministry assets developed by our very orthodox-minded Methodist ancestors are threatened.

I am not speaking to so-called progressives. They are who they are, and it’s unlikely that anything I might say would move them.

I do speak to conservative, scripturally sound thinkers in the United Methodist Church, particularly those who have risen to comfortable, well-paying positions of power and influence—people prepared by God for particular tasks.

With courage, a little creative thinking and the proper application of grace, you could quickly end the conflict we are experiencing. I have no doubt God placed you where you are for such a time as this.

Lord, move the hearts of the right people. May the great gift of the scriptural movement we call Methodism once again bless your kingdom in its unique ways. Amen.

The Righteous Heart

Romans 2:17-29 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

The early church in Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, and sometimes they had trouble combining their world views. In today’s text, Paul clearly addresses the Jewish portion of his audience.

Paul begins with a call for an attitude adjustment, upholding the value of the law but emphasizing how knowing the law was supposed to move the Jews toward something greater.

I suppose I should pause and make sure we have a basic understanding of what Paul means by “the law.” Certainly, Paul is talking about the laws spoken by God to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, what we call “The Ten Commandments.” He references three of those commandments, ones related to stealing, adultery and idolatry, when he accuses the Jewish Christians of hypocrisy.

He also may have been thinking of additional, more culturally specific rules God gave Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites. He may even have been referencing the interpretations of the laws developed by rabbis over the centuries.

To a good Jew, the Mosaic law was everything. How well you followed every jot and tittle of the law served as evidence of your righteousness to God and the people around you. Let’s not forget Paul himself had once been a Pharisee, a sect of Jews known for their rigorous adherence to the law.

And yet, Paul had seen the true purpose of the law through his encounter with Jesus Christ. He wanted to be sure these early Jewish Christians saw it, too.

It helps to think about the law in a big-picture way. You may recall that a lawyer once tried to trap Jesus by asking him to name the most important commandment.

Jesus replied: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Jesus took the law and explained it as a matter of the heart. He then lived out that truth in how he lived and died. In Romans, Paul developed his message along the same lines.

The Jewish mistake was simple enough; it even seemed noble and holy. God gave the Israelites the law to live by, and those who wanted to be obedient saw the law as a call to action.

There were rituals, sacrifices and festivals to be performed. There were specific actions to be avoided, the “thou shalt nots” that were always to be kept in mind. The pursuit of obedience seemed paramount, and we can tell from Paul’s writings in Romans and elsewhere that Jews who followed Jesus as their promised Messiah continued to emphasize obedience to rules.

In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we see this problem reach a crisis point. At this point in the life of the church, there was a lot of friction between the Gentile followers of Christ, who were drawn to a message of universally available salvation and grace, and certain Jewish followers of Christ, who essentially believed all converts needed to follow Jewish law as well as Jesus. Perhaps the harshest requirement: The Jewish Christians said the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.

In what is now called the Council of Jerusalem, the early church leaders, including Peter and Paul, decided Gentiles did not need to be burdened with rituals and behaviors that had never been part of their culture. Instead, they simply asked that the Gentiles abstain from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, and from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals. The ones related to food may have been simple measures of politeness, as Jews found such consumption detestable, making it difficult for the community to eat together. Acts tells us the Gentile Christians rejoiced greatly when they received word of this lenient decision.

Paul and the other early church leaders understood the law was intended to be more than just a call to “head knowledge” or a series of repeated actions. The law was a call to transformation. Understanding the law was supposed to change the heart, bringing a person into a full relationship with God and a proper relationship with others.

This is the full meaning of the word we translate as “righteous.” It’s not just getting certain actions right—it’s having our innermost being aligned with God’s will.

Lord, may your Spirit help us pursue that true, scripturally sound heart righteousness, knowing that once we have that, our actions will fall into alignment with your will. Amen.

Resurrection Day!

John 20:1-18 (New Testament for Everyone)

On the first day of the week, very early, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark.

She saw that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. So she ran off, and went to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved.

‘They’ve taken the master out of the tomb!’ she said. ‘We don’t know where they’ve put him!’

So Peter and the other disciple set off and went to the tomb. Both of them ran together. The other disciple ran faster than Peter, and got to the tomb first. He stooped down and saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter came up, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the napkin that had been around his head, not lying with the other cloths, but folded up in a place by itself.

Then the other disciple, who had arrived first at the tomb, went into the tomb as well. He saw, and he believed. They did not yet know, you see, that the Bible had said he must rise again from the dead.

Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood outside the tomb, crying. As she wept, she stooped down to look into the tomb. There she saw two angels, clothed in white, one at the head and one at the feet of where Jesus’ body had been lying.

‘Woman,’ they said to her, ‘why are you crying?’

‘They’ve taken away my master,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they’ve put him!’

As she said this she turned round, and saw Jesus standing there. She didn’t know it was Jesus.

‘Woman,’ Jesus said to her, ‘why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’

She guessed he must be the gardener.

‘Sir,’ she said, ‘if you’ve carried him off somewhere, tell me where you’ve put him, and I will take him away.’

‘Mary!’ said Jesus.

She turned and spoke in Aramaic.

‘Rabbouni!’ she said (which means ‘Teacher’).

‘Don’t cling to me,’ said Jesus. ‘I haven’t yet gone up to the father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I’m going up to my father and your father – to my God and your God.” ’

Mary Magdalene went and told the disciples, ‘I’ve seen the master!’ and that he had said these things to her.

A Sermon: “Headed Home”

Here’s a Monday Extra for Methodist Life readers. As some of you are aware, this blog began as part of outreach efforts by the Holston Wesleyan Covenant Association. The link below will take you to the manuscript of a sermon I preached last Saturday during worship, before our Holston chapter’s annual business meeting.

Headed Home”

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12

By John Grimm

The spiritual reasons for fasting have been lost on society.  United Methodists are surprised to learn that John Wesley fasted two days a week in his younger days. Later he fasted on Fridays. Charles Yrigoyen Jr., in “John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life,” writes:

Wesley was convinced that fasting, abstaining from food or drink, was a practice firmly grounded in the Bible. People in Old Testament times fasted (Ezra 8:23). So did Jesus and his followers (Matthew 4:2; Acts 13:3), and Wesley saw no reason why modern Christians should not follow the same pattern. His plan of fasting sometimes allowed for limited eating and drinking. He found that fasting advanced holiness.

Being holy, is that a reason to fast? Being holy seems to be a reason to fast. Isaiah 58 helps us get to how we should fast.

Why isn’t fasting working? We are rebelling.  These questions matter: Do we practice righteousness?  Whose interest are we serving? Are we quarreling?

God’s grace allows us to see the harsh reality of our lives. Sin is in our lives. At times, our attitudes are horrendous. It almost sounds like we, like Israel, can be spoiled brats trying to get the attention of our downtrodden parents! There must be more to drawing near to God.

What must change to have grace in our lives? We understand the kind of fast has the Lord chosen.  The fast the Lord has chosen includes justice, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, giving clothes to the naked, and welcoming the stranger (among other tasks).  By doing these works, we work in the grace God has given us.

God’s grace can work through fasting. It is not a diet. Fasting is not an idea for young adults and youth who are worried about their body image, who are leaning toward purging. That is a sign of needing help. If you need to get closer to God, to be more holy, then fasting can be one way that you draw closer to God. That is if you are helping those who need help. Otherwise, we are just spinning our wheels.

It is in the basics of our faith that we gain the means to be closer to God, to become holy as he is. During Lent, we can give up chocolate or sweets. That would be categorized as abstaining. But to give up a meal or two and spend the time in prayer and giving those funds to the needy, that is fasting.

Will you fast this Lent? For those of us with health concerns, talk with your doctor before you fast. For those of us who need to get closer to God, to allow his grace to work in our lives, then let us fast. Just do not let anybody know when you are fasting.

Day of the Lord

By Chuck Griffin

Before we launch into today’s verses from Zephaniah, let’s acquire a little background on his situation.

The prophet spoke about 630 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, during a time of religious indifference, social injustice and economic greed.

This also was an important time of transition for the Kingdom of Judah, which was moving from King Amon, who had been assassinated, to King Josiah, a boy king. A little later in Josiah’s reign, the Book of the Law would be rediscovered. Essentially, the people were about to re-learn who they were, and Josiah, for a time, would restore them to religious righteousness.

Zephaniah was a contemporary of the Prophet Jeremiah. It very well may be that what Zephaniah said helped lay the groundwork for the transition back toward holiness.

Let’s hear some of what he had to say, recorded in Zephaniah 1:7-18:

Stand in silence in the presence of the Sovereign Lord,
    for the awesome day of the Lord’s judgment is near.
The Lord has prepared his people for a great slaughter
    and has chosen their executioners.
“On that day of judgment,”
    says the Lord,
“I will punish the leaders and princes of Judah
    and all those following pagan customs.
Yes, I will punish those who participate in pagan worship ceremonies,
    and those who fill their masters’ houses with violence and deceit.

“On that day,” says the Lord,
    “a cry of alarm will come from the Fish Gate
and echo throughout the New Quarter of the city.
    And a great crash will sound from the hills.
Wail in sorrow, all you who live in the market area,
    for all the merchants and traders will be destroyed.

“I will search with lanterns in Jerusalem’s darkest corners
    to punish those who sit complacent in their sins.
They think the Lord will do nothing to them,
    either good or bad.
So their property will be plundered,
    their homes will be ransacked.
They will build new homes
    but never live in them.
They will plant vineyards
    but never drink wine from them.

“That terrible day of the Lord is near.
    Swiftly it comes—
a day of bitter tears,
    a day when even strong men will cry out.
It will be a day when the Lord’s anger is poured out—
    a day of terrible distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and desolation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness,
     a day of trumpet calls and battle cries.
Down go the walled cities
    and the strongest battlements!

 “Because you have sinned against the Lord,
    I will make you grope around like the blind.
Your blood will be poured into the dust,
    and your bodies will lie rotting on the ground."

Your silver and gold will not save you
    on that day of the Lord’s anger.
For the whole land will be devoured
    by the fire of his jealousy.
He will make a terrifying end
    of all the people on earth.

It’s hard to miss the sound of irrevocable finality in this concept of the “Day of the Lord.” Zephaniah may seem obscure to us, but the Day of the Lord is a common biblical theme, its images at times playing out in not-completely-final ways, giving us little preludes of what we are told is to come.

Jesus spoke in similar apocalyptic tones. Mark 13 is a good example.

Not everyone lives as if they will ever see such a day, including many who consider themselves God’s followers. In church circles, it is not unusual to hear people express a longing for the positive aspect of such a day, the visible return and rule of Jesus Christ. People ask, “Why does he take so long?”

And yet, judgment for both the living and the dead will accompany Christ’s return. I suspect many will examine their lives and cry out, “We needed more time!”

Christians live in the midst of a people much like Zephaniah’s, and we have to be careful not to fall in with them. It’s easy to think of examples of religious indifference, social injustice and economic greed all around us.

Our prayer should be that we’re moving into a similar time of transition, a rediscovery of what God has revealed to us and an awakening in our culture to how that truth impacts all of us.

Thanks be to God that he works in this world with an offer of overwhelming love and forgiveness, received through the simple belief that Christ died on the cross for our sins.

In return, all we are asked to do is to present the world with this tremendous opportunity to escape from what ultimately will be destroyed on the Day of the Lord.

Lord, show each of us what to do as part of a great turning back to you. Amen.

For Such a Time as This

The Book of Esther

By Chuck Griffin

Esther is an unusual book of the Bible. For one thing, it never mentions God.

Through the centuries, scholars have debated whether it should even be in the Bible. I’m convinced, however, that its core message is one of the most useful biblical teachings we have as we cope with the modern world.

I boil that message down this way: God often works in the world through what look like coincidences.

I’ll leave it to you to read this wonderful tale, an act that should be a pleasure. It reads like a short story, particularly if you have a modern English translation.

Suffice it to say that there are two main characters, Esther and her adoptive father Mordecai, both Jews living in exile in the capital of the Persian kingdom.

Through a series of odd events, including what amounts to a beauty pageant, Esther becomes queen, all the time keeping her Jewish heritage a secret. She has no real power, however; mostly, she exists to provide companionship to King Xerxes (Ahasuerus in some translations).

On a separate track in the story, Mordecai works as a court official, but in the process he angers the king’s top administrator, Haman. When Haman finds out Mordecai is a Jew, he plots to destroy not only Mordecai, but also every Jew in the empire.

By being in the position she is in and acting bravely, Esther saves the Jews and even arranges for the destruction of their enemies. To do this, she has to go unbidden before the king, an act that could get her killed. 

The whole book turns on a series of coincidences. The enthronement of a Jew during the impending destruction of the Jews is the obvious one. The king’s sleepless night, leading to the reading of a particular court record, is another.

While God is not mentioned in the book, it is easy to assume that the original audience saw God’s hand in all that happens in the story. What makes the Esther story different is that God nudges history along through divine coincidences rather than driving it forward with pillars of fire and peals of thunder.

Of course, for God to move history in such a way, human beings have to respond to God-made opportunities when they arise. If people simply sit passively, saying, “I’m not sure I see God,” little happens.

The formula for participating in God’s divine plan is simple. First, accept that God does have a hand in day-to-day events. Second, when you think you’ve identified a moment in time where God is calling you to act, do something about it. Act courageously, with an attitude of hope in everything you do.

As Mordecai tells Esther when her moment of decision is before her: “Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?” In the eyes of other people, we may have been made big or small, but I believe we are where we are for a reason.

Lord, in those moments where we sense you have gently prodded us to take risks on behalf of the kingdom, give us the kind of courage and selflessness necessary to act. Amen.