Potential Unleashed

John 1:29-34 (NRSV)

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”


John—prophet in the wild and Jesus’ cousin—offered a different kind of baptism than what we undergo today to become Christ’s followers. It was a traditional Jewish baptism of repentance, designed to ready people for the coming Messiah.

When Jesus underwent this baptism despite his lack of sin, he demonstrated solidarity with the people he had come into the world to save. John also declared something about Jesus’ baptism that we should see in our own baptisms, too, despite their different natures.

In Jesus’ baptism, great potential was revealed; in our baptisms, great potential is made possible. Because Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins, the Holy Spirit is able to descend on us, too. When we declare our belief that the cross is effective for salvation, the door to a relationship with God is reopened for us.

Whatever we are after baptism is much more than what we would have been without baptism. It is only natural that we move toward “better” in relationship with the eternal, holy God.

Of course, we do have to let the Holy Spirit remain at work throughout our lives if we want to see continual spiritual progress. Thanks be to God, who has made this process relatively easy.

He has told us there are intersections of heaven and earth where we can go to allow the Spirit to penetrate our souls more deeply. Studying the Bible, immersing ourselves in prayer, receiving communion, and being in fellowship with other Christians are some prime examples.

God only knows what wonderful things might happen if we go to those intersections again and again.

Dear Lord, thank you for the potential you give us. Help us to develop it and live fully as the people you would have us be. Amen.

God’s Stepfather

Poor Joseph, husband of Mary and earthly step-dad to the son of God. Even today, his situation seems awkward, what with God placing a baby directly in the womb of his wife-to-be.

It had to be embarrassing for him. We can tell from the first chapter of Matthew, where we find an account of how Jesus’ birth came about.

When Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant, he initially planned “to dismiss her quietly,” knowing he had not touched her in anything resembling an intimate way, but assuming some other man had.

And even after an angel told him the child was the direct work of the Holy Spirit, the circumstances still had to be embarrassing. People would have noticed Mary’s pregnancy was out of sync with her marriage to Joseph.

The gossip mongers would have speculated on some ugly possibilities: Maybe Mary was in love with some village boy. Maybe she was raped by a Roman soldier. Maybe Joseph couldn’t control himself until the wedding night.

Joseph doesn’t need our pity, however. People face such quandaries from time to time, situations where what is right before God may not look right before the world. We should all hope to handle such dilemmas as well as Joseph.

Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous” man, but we can miss just how righteous he was. He proved himself to have the kind of righteousness Jesus would talk about as an adult, a “Sermon on the Mount” kind of goodness about him.

That righteousness was in Joseph even before the angel came to him in a dream. You would think that a man who believed he had been made a cuckold would lash out. It’s surprising he didn’t embarrass Mary and her family, and perhaps even demand serious punishment for what was a crime in their society.

Yes, as a righteous Jew, Joseph would have known the Jewish law and how it worked to his advantage. But he also seems to have understood that the root of the law is love. Thus, the plan to dismiss her quietly.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ teachings that occurred more than three decades later. He would begin a lesson with, “You have heard that it was said,” and finish by demonstrating how the law actually calls us to sacrificial levels of love for God and neighbor.

And that superbly righteous behavior continued after the angel came. Having awakened from his dream, Joseph leaped into immediate action.

He took Mary as his wife, and proceeded to follow God’s instructions. He obediently let God use him as a trustworthy tool, one capable of keeping the Christ child out of the reach of murderous kings.

In Joseph, we see a righteous and obedient man for every age, a model for those who would follow God regardless of what the world thinks.

Lord, thank you for the remnants of righteousness, the ones who were able to take part in your great plan to save humanity from sin. Amen.

Joy

Yesterday, I mentioned how biblical peace describes the current relationship between God and humanity, a state made possible by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Bliss is a perfectly appropriate response to that peace.

There is a more exuberant emotion, too, the third theme of Advent. There is joy! It is so important, many churches use a pink- or rose-colored candle to mark the third Sunday of Advent. In some traditions the clergy even wear matching vestments, like these:

Just in case you’re wondering, I don’t want to wear that.

I do, however, want to celebrate joy! And when we talk about biblical joy, we mean an emotion that resides in us in all circumstances, even when we are experiencing what otherwise might be thought of as “bad times.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice,” Paul told the church at Philippi. (Philippians 4:4.)

Why? Think what we have been given:

Eternal life!

The promise that all that has gone wrong, is going wrong and will go wrong will be made right.

The experience of God in this life, now.

Therein lies our joy. We are able to look at any negative situation and say, “You know what? That has already been defeated.”

Lord, may our experience of joy be as emotional as it is intellectual. And again, may others see in us what you are offering them. Amen.

Fuel for the Fire

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Acts 2:37-42 (NRSV)

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “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.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.


We used this text as the basis for a devotional Aug. 4, but it bears further exploration. This time around, let’s consider how we stretch a moment into a lifetime.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter had preached the first fully developed Christian sermon. About 3,000 people accepted Christ as Savior and were baptized. What a day! They would carry memories of that day for the rest of their lives.

Most of us who accept the moniker “Christian” have a similar point in time where the work of Jesus Christ on the cross became very personal. We were “cut to the heart,” expressing sorrow for our sins while simultaneously understanding Jesus gave us a way to put them behind us. We knew God had lovingly committed to save us, so we committed to following God.

I also know from my own experience and the shared experiences of others that it is not unusual over time to feel a little lost again. A day comes when we crave that spiritual fire in the belly we once felt, and simply remembering the specific day we turned toward Christ isn’t enough to fan the flames.

Think of it this way: Christians are like cavemen without fire-making tools. When we find fire, we want to keep it burning through all circumstances, and the only way to do that is to feed it the fuel it needs.

Remember, these early Christians experienced works of the Spirit that astonished them. Yet even they knew what was required to continue their burning faith.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

There’s the fuel for spiritual fire. We are blessed to now have the apostles’ wisdom and experiences captured in the Holy Bible.

Fellowship and the “breaking of bread” are a little more difficult for us right now, but thank God for the technology that keeps us connected, if only we make a small effort.

And of course, we can pray anywhere and anytime. The most totalitarian governments in the world have yet to figure out how to stop people who want to pray from doing so.

If you’re feeling a little cool, feed the flame God placed within you!

Lord, forgive us when we neglect the great gift you have given us, the gift of life lived now with you. Where we have gone very cold, reignite us once again—you are the sole source of spiritual fire. Amen.

Primary Source

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 (NLT)

Therefore, we never stop thanking God that when you received his message from us, you didn’t think of our words as mere human ideas. You accepted what we said as the very word of God—which, of course, it is. And this word continues to work in you who believe.

And then, dear brothers and sisters, you suffered persecution from your own countrymen. In this way, you imitated the believers in God’s churches in Judea who, because of their belief in Christ Jesus, suffered from their own people, the Jews. For some of the Jews killed the prophets, and some even killed the Lord Jesus. Now they have persecuted us, too. They fail to please God and work against all humanity as they try to keep us from preaching the Good News of salvation to the Gentiles. By doing this, they continue to pile up their sins. But the anger of God has caught up with them at last.


Is it from God?

Whenever we hear a pronouncement from another human being regarding what we should believe or do, “Is it from God?” is the obvious question any Christian needs to answer.

All sorts of people claim to speak truth, supposedly looking out for the best interests of their audiences. These people can be quite eloquent at times. Hearing them, we can find ourselves moved intellectually or emotionally.

The Christians of Thessalonica came to their beliefs while living in a politically important trade center, a place where ideas would have flowed as easily as goods. There was much to be heard, and there were many ways to live.

Paul commended them because in the midst of all of that, they had recognized the declaration of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to be a message from God, changing their lives accordingly despite the ongoing persecution they experienced.

Paul and his colleagues obviously had help from the Holy Spirit, whom we believe goes ahead of us as we spread the Good News. With their hearts readied by God’s constant-if-subtle grace, some of the people of Thessalonica were able to perceive Paul’s words about Jesus Christ to be from God. They heard the Christian message despite the general buzz around them.

If a miracle is God intervening in the normal course of events, then it’s a miracle any time such conversion happens. Non-Christians encountering the message of Jesus Christ as Lord have a tough time stepping toward belief. They have to decide first of all if the existence of a loving God makes sense to them.

They then must figure out if they can trust that God loves them despite their sins and accompanying sense of unworthiness. None of us can reach such a state of belief without a little prodding and guidance from the Holy Spirit, and help from Spirit-inspired people.

Having accepted Christ as Savior, we should have an easier path, assuming our discipleship has gone well. “Is it from God?” can be answered using sources we have learned to trust, in particular God’s word as revealed in the Holy Bible.

Once we have established a broad understanding of the Bible’s message, and especially after working our way through the nuances of some of the finer details of Scripture, we have a kind of touchstone, a way to test the purity of what we encounter in the world.

Let’s just remember to use it, particularly in these trying times.

Lord, we thank you that you love us so much that you have revealed yourself repeatedly through the centuries. We recommit ourselves today to the idea that all truth is rooted in action, the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Amen.

Scoffers to the End

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Jude 17-23 (NLT)

But you, my dear friends, must remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ predicted. They told you that in the last times there would be scoffers whose purpose in life is to satisfy their ungodly desires. These people are the ones who are creating divisions among you. They follow their natural instincts because they do not have God’s Spirit in them.

But you, dear friends, must build each other up in your most holy faith, pray in the power of the Holy Spirit, and await the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will bring you eternal life. In this way, you will keep yourselves safe in God’s love.

And you must show mercy to those whose faith is wavering. Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives.


Like many pastors, I get this question now and then: “So, do you think we are near the end of time?”

In response, I usually say, “I can guarantee one thing. We are one day closer today than we were yesterday.” Most people don’t seem to find that very satisfying, though.

The question usually arises because of strife in the world: wars and rumors of wars, or in 2020, a pandemic combined with particularly tense U.S. politics and civil unrest. I try to keep all of that turmoil in perspective, though.

Look at it this way. Would you trade living right now for a life in 14th-century Europe during the Black Plague? Would you instead choose the World War I era (capped off by the Spanish flu pandemic) or World War II?

No doubt, Christians have thought to themselves many times, “This is it—this must be the end!”

Jude obviously wrote his letter to an audience struggling with such thoughts. The date of writing is hard to nail down precisely, but the letter would have been delivered just before or not long after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, which was preceded by insurrection and followed by ethnic dispersion and brutal horrors.

What Jude had to say is interesting, however, not because it is rooted in a particular time, but because it is good advice for all times. In his day, and in the centuries to follow, the church, local or global, has had a basic problem. There always are “scoffers” hanging around the edges or even lurking within as false teachers.

They live for themselves, to satisfy their own desires, so very naturally they bring division to any group of Christians they find.

As Jude said, the cure is relatively straightforward. Christians must worship and live so they remain true as a group to their Savior, Jesus Christ. They must disciple themselves so their churches are guided by the Holy Spirit in all that they do.

We are particularly blessed in our era because we have God’s word so freely available to us in the Bible. Discipleship has a lot of competition in our busy, media-saturated world, but at the same time, discipleship through prayer and the study of God’s word has never been easier.

And while Jude counsels vigilance against those who would tear the church apart, he emphasizes mercy and love for people needing to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That would include those scoffers, who simply are aggressive sinners who got through the door.

Keep sin and the encouragement to sin out of the church, but keep Christ’s mercy continually available to all in need. That’s a strategy to sustain us until the end of time, regardless of when that may be.

Lord, give us discernment to see both obvious and subtle strains of sin, and as we find these in our midst, may we trust in your Holy Spirit to gently guide us toward holiness. 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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Under Water

Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 107:28-30 (NRSV)
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
    and he brought them to their desired haven.

In yesterday’s devotional, I explored how to breathe during prayer, particularly when we find ourselves anxious. Today, I’m going to teach you a particular visualization technique to enhance your connection with God.

Put the two techniques together, and you have a kind of meditative prayer, something a lot of people in our culture don’t practice regularly. Our other, more familiar ways of praying—where we speak our praises, thanks and petitions to God, perhaps focusing on Scripture or a devotional as part of the process—remain critically important to our prayer lives. You may find, however, that meditative prayer techniques are particularly helpful in developing a sense of God’s constant presence.

There are uncountable ways to enter a state of meditative prayer. This is just one I like. I do not remember where I first learned it.

Imagine yourself sitting (or standing or lying, depending on your preferred posture) at the bottom of a deep, clear pool of water. Here’s the good news: God has granted you the ability to breathe comfortably and freely while there. Remember to breathe as discussed yesterday.

If this were a class in Zen meditation, someone might tell you to empty your mind. We’re doing the opposite. We want to be filled with God, and only with God.

As you begin, it helps to think of a word representing what you seek in that holy relationship. I’ve heard people make all sorts of choices: “peace,” “love,” “forgiveness” or “discernment,” for example. I’ve even heard people choose “Jesus” as their word, apparently as they tried to better fathom what it means to be in a personal relationship with God through Christ.

Go ahead and accept that worries and random thoughts will intrude on this time. We’re not going to fight them. Instead, take hold of them, examine them for a brief moment, and then release them, allowing them to float to the surface, far above you. Say your chosen word as part of the next exhale, and settle back into experiencing God.

That’s the technique. Simple, huh?

By the way, the more you do this, the longer you will spend in this state before deciding to surface. In just a few tries, you may have a meditative prayer session where you are surprised at how long you’ve been “under”—half an hour or even an hour might feel like 15 or 20 minutes.

What’s important is that you find yourself deeply aware of God’s presence.

Lord, thank you for the way you meet us in the midst of storms and in quiet places. 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.

Specific Gifts

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Corinthians 12:28 (NLT)

Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church:
first are apostles,
second are prophets,
third are teachers,
then those who do miracles,
those who have the gift of healing,
those who can help others,
those who have the gift of leadership,
those who speak in unknown languages.


Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve referenced spiritual gifts while preaching, and last Friday I issued an invitation to those of you who might want to learn more about your gifts, regardless of whether you’re a regular part of Holston View UMC. Today, please let me provide you with just a little more detail.

There are lots of ways to assess spiritual gifts, some formal, some informal. At previous churches, I’ve used the “3 Colors of Your Gifts” book and tests as part of an introductory church class for visitors and new members. I like these materials, and most people have found them useful. I think such a formal approach is at least a start in the right direction.

These tests usually work best in a small group setting, with a leader who has some training in the materials (I do). If you also have an interest in small groups, it’s fun to use spiritual gifts discovery as a starting point for a group.

Whether your search is formal or informal, you of course want to start with prayer. Simply ask God to reveal to you the gifts that will make you a more effective Christian. If you’re going the informal route, at least talk with a pastor and with other mature Christians around you about how they see God working in you, and consider how what they say lines up with a list of scriptural gifts, like this one:

Trusting your likes and dislikes is an important part of your discernment. If you find yourself on a planning committee and not really happy about it, you’ve learned something—you probably lack the spiritual gifts that go along with such service.

That’s okay! Don’t give up, just change up how you serve, and find what gives you joy while bearing fruit for the kingdom. Again, trust the guidance of mature Christians around you.

I promise you this: No sane pastor or church leader will try to prevent you from exploring different forms of gift-based service. We never have enough people in the church doing kingdom work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We want you to find your place, and in the process, find the kind of joy that helps you experience eternity now.

Lord, thank you for the ongoing grace you pour on us in the form of spiritual gifts. Help us to see how we fit into your plans to change the world. Amen.