Into 2021!

John 3:16 (NLT)

For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.


If there’s anything we’ve learned from 2020, it’s that we have no idea what a year might have in store for us. With one exception.

I have no insight regarding when the pandemic will end. I do have high hopes for the vaccine, and I’m praying for something resembling normal worship during the Easter season. (Easter Sunday will be April 4.)

I’m also praying that wonderful events during 2021 will lift us up globally. Perhaps a powerful outbreak of the Holy Spirit, another true Great Awakening regarding Jesus Christ’s work in this world? I would so like to see that happen.

About that exception I mentioned: I can promise you this, the grace poured out on us by God will remain available. It has remained available in 2020, and it will always be available, until we turn off the calendar and simply stand before God in full, rejoicing and worshiping our savior into eternity.

By “grace,” I mean the love God continually shows us despite the fact we do not deserve it. It is a great, continuous gift, one we simply have to agree to receive.

Grace is available even before people acknowledge God exists. It tugs at us; it exists as a feeling there is more to life than what we simply see.

Grace washes over us and into us at the moment we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. From then on, grace changes us, as much as we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.

Based on the truth of ever-present grace, I can say that 2021 will be an important, powerful year. People will find Jesus Christ and eternal life through simple belief. People will grow to be more like what God would have them be.

Any more good news will simply be additional evidence of how much God loves us.

Have a blessed, grace-filled 2021!

Hope

For the rest of this week, let’s consider the four themes of the Advent season—hope, peace, joy and love—which are usually captured in readings during the lighting of candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday.

As odd as it might seem, Romans 5:1-4 ties hope among the believers to suffering:

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

I find it helpful to realize that suffering can have a point, so long as we continue in our faith that God’s promises have come true and will continue to come true.

Whatever we are experiencing, we learn to say in stronger and more authoritative ways, “Yes, this situation is bad, but it is temporary. God has promised that evil and all of its effects will be overcome.”

The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train. There’s no trick in store for us. The light of Christ is bearing down on us, coming to our rescue.

Hope also serves as a great evangelism tool. When people look at a Christian and say, “I want what that person has,” odds are the believer is exhibiting hope. People long to know that there is a potential happy ending to every story, and they particularly want to know how to ensure they can take part in that ending.

It is the basic role of every Christian to project hope where people may find themselves in despair. Where will we demonstrate hope today?

Lord, we don’t like to suffer, but thank you for being there in the midst of suffering, helping us to turn it into something good on behalf of your kingdom. Amen.

How Shall We Give Thanks?

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 100

A psalm of thanksgiving.

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth!
    Worship the Lord with gladness.
    Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
    He made us, and we are his.
    We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
    go into his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good.
    His unfailing love continues forever,
    and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

Our national day of Thanksgiving is a week away. Many of us won’t have our usual experiences, particularly where family gatherings are concerned.

We still need to give thanks, however—powerfully! Even in these less-than-ideal times, we remain a blessed people. I believe the freedom and hope we experience here flows from God.

Today’s psalm, which we will continue to meditate upon until next Thursday, reminds us of the deepest meaning of Thanksgiving. Thankfulness has to be directed somewhere, and God is the most appropriate recipient.

God is, after all, the source of life. God holds the blueprint of the universe, and it is drawn in the color of love.

God saves us despite our turning away from our creator. Lift up praises each day for Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, and the hope we receive in the resurrection!

During the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I’m going to offer us a short exercise in thankfulness to try each day. Check back here, or subscribe by entering your email in the subscription box found on any page of Methodist Life.

Lord, may a new sense of thankfulness overwhelm us this day and all the remaining days we have. Amen.

Hope!

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 78:1-7

O my people, listen to my instructions.
    Open your ears to what I am saying,
    for I will speak to you in a parable.
I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—
    stories we have heard and known,
    stories our ancestors handed down to us.
We will not hide these truths from our children;
    we will tell the next generation
about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
    about his power and his mighty wonders.
For he issued his laws to Jacob;
    he gave his instructions to Israel.
He commanded our ancestors
    to teach them to their children,
so the next generation might know them—
    even the children not yet born—
    and they in turn will teach their own children.
So each generation should set its hope anew on God,
    not forgetting his glorious miracles
    and obeying his commands.

As I write this, election results remain unclear in several states, and I suspect this uncertainty will be ongoing as you read this. Several people have expressed to me how anxious they feel.

It helps, I think, to stay on task, to control what is actually within our sphere of influence. Regardless of the political climate, a particular responsibility remains for those of us who follow God. Having experienced hope, we pass along hope to others, something a lot of people seem to be lacking lately.

Hope in God’s plan, as expressed in Psalm 78, also is an effective sedative for those overly elated with a moment of worldly victory, and a boost for those who hang their heads, thinking political defeat spells looming disaster.

People of God carry within them big-picture hope, but we simultaneously are called to a daily kind of work. Back when Barack Obama was running for his second term, a panicked church member cornered me one day, tugging at my sleeve and saying something that made his political views obvious: “Pastor Chuck, what are we going to do if Obama wins the election?”

“Well,” I said, “I plan to do what I will do if he loses. I’m going to preach Jesus.”

Christians, more than anything else, we share the Good News. Day in and day out, we need to find ways to tell others about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Politics may have consumed our thoughts recently, but we need to focus on our most pressing, immediate problem. A new generation is failing to learn the critically important story found in Scripture, mostly because those of us who know it are not telling it deliberately and well.

This story should excite any generation. It is ancient; the psalms are ancient to us, and our psalm for today speaks of lessons from what its author considers a distant past. We work from millenia to millenia, not term to term.

Our story describes who God is: The one who has always been and always will be, holy from before time to beyond the end of time. It also explains why we are the way we are—broken, sinful and often full of regret.

Our story declares a mysterious, fundamental truth. God loves us despite our sins. He loves us so much that he came among us in flesh to redeem us from our deliberate decisions to reject our creator’s will. Believing this story draws God directly into our midst, changing how we see every aspect of our lives.

Wherever you stand politically, do all you can to inject hope into the lives of others in these coming days, weeks, months and years.

Lord, as your followers, we commit ourselves to the truth that we are yours first. Help us to tell your story of hope to people who are on edge. Amen.

Get Real

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 22:23-33 (NLT)

That same day Jesus was approached by some Sadducees—religious leaders who say there is no resurrection from the dead. They posed this question: “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children, his brother should marry the widow and have a child who will carry on the brother’s name.’ Well, suppose there were seven brothers. The oldest one married and then died without children, so his brother married the widow. But the second brother also died, and the third brother married her. This continued with all seven of them. Last of all, the woman also died. So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her.”

Jesus replied, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven.

“But now, as to whether there will be a resurrection of the dead—haven’t you ever read about this in the Scriptures? Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ So he is the God of the living, not the dead.”

When the crowds heard him, they were astounded at his teaching.


If you’re a cynic, you have to be careful when you’re near Christ. You may find yourself confronted with the grittiness of your world view.

Just ask the Sadducees, a party within the Jewish religious-political structure in Jesus’ day. What made the Sadducees unique was their belief that there was no afterlife, and that in particular God would never raise people from the dead.

The Sadducees enjoyed publicly making fun of Jesus’ teachings about resurrection and an afterlife with God. They did so in what sounds like a riddle, one designed to expose what they considered the silliness of the resurrection.

The riddle also opened the door to some off-color humor at Jesus’ expense. It relied on the image of a pitiful woman passing from the arms of one brother to another. The riddle was rooted in the Jewish tradition that if a man were to die childless, his brother was to marry the widow and impregnate her so the dead brother would have an heir.

All seven brothers tried, and all seven brothers died, the riddle went. Finally, the woman died, too. “So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” the Pharisees asked Jesus. “For all seven were married to her.”

When I imagine this ribald theological challenge, I see the Sadducees snickering, or at least suppressing a smirk. Any Jews standing nearby may have laughed out loud.

In modern terms, Jesus’ response can be boiled down to two words: “Get real.” He ignored the intricacies of the Sadducees’ earthy riddle. Instead, he affirmed the resurrection and tried to help them see that their theology was as coarse as their humor.

Jesus wanted them to see the glory and hope God offers us through Jesus Christ. “For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven,” he said.

We are reminded that we are so much more than what day-to-day life reveals to us. Jesus went on to prove his assertions by dying on the cross for our sins and then rising from the dead transformed, demonstrating that the power of sin and death had been defeated.

God promises us the same resurrection experience if only we believe in the effectiveness of Jesus’ work on the cross to save us. In fact, all of creation will be reworked to fit God’s view of how things should be.

Such belief does more than give us a future. It gives us a present we can interpret with hope and optimism rather than cynicism.

Even where we see pain and death, we can say, “I know the ugliness of this world is temporary. I know God hates what I’m seeing even more than I do, and that he’s provided a way out.”

The world may remain gritty, but knowing the situation is temporary changes everything.

Lord, may today bring us a special experience of your very present, resurrection-rooted kingdom. Amen.

A Sprig Held High

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor
Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)

Thus says the Lord God:

I myself will take a sprig
   from the lofty top of a cedar;
   I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
   from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
   on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
   I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
   that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
   I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
   and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish it.

As you may have noticed reading the Bible, prophets can be strange folk. Ezekiel is one of the strangest, but his story should encourage us when we seek renewal. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would really like to see some renewal in this world.

Born a little over six centuries before the birth of Christ, Ezekiel spent much of his time helping the people of Israel understand why their world had fallen apart. In short, they had turned on God, falling into idolatry, and God had given them up to their enemies. Ezekiel eventually was dragged off to captivity in Babylon, along with most of the brightest of God’s people.

Here are some of the odder things Ezekiel did to communicate God’s wrath to a very stubborn people:

  • He lay on his left side for 390 days, one day for each year the kingdom of Israel had existed in sin. He then lay on his right side for 40 days, one day for each year the kingdom of Judah had sinned.
  • During this time on one side or the other, he ate bread cooked over cow dung, to show how the people of Israel would be forced to eat in an unclean way as captives. He also ate very sparingly, to show how the people of Jerusalem would suffer from famine during the occupation.
  • Later, whenever he ate he had to tremble and shake with fear to show the people what they would feel when their towns were attacked and stripped of possessions.
  • He was not allowed by God to publicly mourn the death of his wife, as a sign of how the people would lose all they treasured with no recourse or way to complain.

It’s depressing stuff. But again, there is this powerful message of hope in the midst of so much suffering. We see that hope in our Scripture today, the prophecy of the sprig.

For the people of Israel, the prophecy is about the restoration of the line of David, the great king of their history. A cedar tree was the sign of royalty.

Clearly, the tree had become twisted and corrupt, having moved its roots away from God as the source of life, but God was promising the people through Ezekiel that he still planned to fulfill the great promises he had made. God was in control; God is in control.

We have this image of a tiny sprig at the top of the tree, new life being plucked from the old and being moved to a high and lofty place. A new king would come, one who would fulfill the promise from God that all the world would be blessed by the people of Israel, the line descended from Abraham.

This fulfillment has already happened. As Christians, we live to celebrate the great event. Jesus Christ is the sprig broken off Israel, establishing a new kingdom as he was held high on the cross.

And if God is transforming the world through Christ—if he is making all things new, as we know he is—then we can find new life, too.

Perhaps our habits are not what God would have them be; like the ancient Israelites, we can find ourselves living in defiance of God. Perhaps our families or others important to us are corrupted in some way, suffering under the influence of the world rather than seeking God’s will, and we find ourselves pulled down with them.

Know this: Through belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we allow God to pluck off what is fresh and good in us and replant our lives in fertile soil. I’m talking about a life rooted in God’s holy word and refreshed daily by God’s Holy Spirit.

The first step is to offer ourselves, branches held high.

Lord, take from within us what still has the potential for holiness and eternal life, and use that to grow us into what you would have us be. Amen.

Psalm 119, Day 2

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Let’s continue our meditation on Psalm 119:105-112. Yesterday, we got through the first two verses; we’re picking up at verse 107.

I have suffered much, O Lord; restore my life again as you promised.

Our lives exist in the midst of a sin-broken world, and suffering is a given. Absent an understanding of God, life at times might not seem worth living. But we know God, and we know he is the God of hope.

Almost immediately after human sin fractured this world, God went to work making our restoration possible. He made promises in the process. For example, he told Abraham that eventually, “All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”

The culmination of that work is in Jesus Christ, God in flesh walking among us and dying on the cross to break the hold sin had on us. Restoration is ours.

Lord, accept my offering of praise, and teach me your regulations.

We do not fully understand God’s plan or God’s timing, of course. First Corinthians 13:12: “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”

But it is enough to know we are saved! The gift of eternal life and its accompanying joy, a joy we can experience now, should trigger great acts of praise. It also should be natural for us to want to understand God’s will and abide by it. The pursuit of holiness is the obvious way to say thanks and signal others that our lives are truly changed.

My life constantly hangs in the balance, but I will not stop obeying your instructions. The wicked have set their traps for me, but I will not turn from your commandments.

Hey, back to the here and now. Life with God currently can still be hard—bad things happen to good people. Preachers of the so-called prosperity gospel mislead their flocks.

We find ourselves thrown into a spiritual war, a battle for the souls of those who have yet to commit to God through Jesus Christ, and the enemy will shoot back. Like soldiers, we must discipline ourselves. Some commitment is required.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk a little more about joy.

Lord, we thank you for the salvation and hope we are given. Again, guide us down the paths you would have us follow! Amen.

Put in Place

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor
Psalm 131:1-3

Lord, my heart is not proud;
    my eyes are not haughty.
I don’t concern myself with matters too great
    or too awesome for me to grasp.
Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself,
    like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk.
    Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, put your hope in the Lord—
    now and always.

Scripture can be tough on free thinkers. The Bible reminds us from time to time that our thoughts must be kept in place.

If you’re an American, even a Christian American, there’s a good chance you’re already wriggling with discomfort. The idea of submission can sound very negative to us—it seems in conflict with favorite words like “freedom” and “independence.”

And yet, the notion of humility before God is a constant theme of the Bible. With no reference to the Garden of Eden or forbidden fruit, the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1 about haughty, foolish thinking being the root of sin. Paul’s account does us a great service—he helps us see how we personally cause the cycle of sin to continue.

We also could categorize our problem as “overthinking.” We take our eyes off plain revelations about God to create notions of our own, a process that inevitably leads to idolatry. Our desire to be novel can quickly cut us off from what is eternal.

Real freedom, the psalmist tells us, is found when we humble ourselves, maintaining proper perspective about who we are in relationship to God. As Christians, we know we cannot grasp God in full, but we can cling to what God has shown us through Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture. 

God is the maker of all things, standing outside of creation and ruling over creation. God also is love, and because of love God keeps intervening to pull us back into a righteous relationship with our creator and with each other, despite our ongoing foolishness.

In particular, God has come among us as Jesus Christ, dying on the cross and demonstrating the defeat of death in the resurrection. We are restored to right relationships simply by believing Christ’s sacrifice is real.

Belief also should lead to enhanced creativity—it opens the door to the eternal mind of God. When we submit to the truth of the cross, the Spirit of God rushes into our lives, penetrating our souls and our minds. We become more than we ever could have been on our own, and we are freed to grow into the images of God we were intended to be.

These are broad concepts, but they have very current, specific applications. As a nation, we are embroiled by a serious, important debate, one that goes to how we best ensure that people have the same rights and opportunities regardless of skin color. The debate has been deeply complicated by a piling on of ideas and causes, some possibly holy, some likely foolish.

Is there any way we can take a step back and humble ourselves, putting our opinions and decisions in the context of who God is and what God has revealed? I cannot ask that of nonbelievers, but I certainly can ask it of people who claim the name “Christian.”

The ongoing debate is sometimes summarized in the question, “Should I take a knee?” Perhaps the Christian answer should be to get down on both knees, head bowed. That posture best prepares us for any conversation.

Lord, may we take time today to seek eternal wisdom, and may the Holy Spirit give us the strength we need to carry our understanding of your will to the places and people we affect. Amen.