The Promise

Galatians 3:15-22 (NRSV)

By John Grimm

For us, Paul clarifies the promise made to Abraham.  Paul and the rest of us realize it is Jesus Christ who is Abraham’s offspring.  Look in Genesis 12 for the promise made to Abram/Abraham.

What God has promised, He will bring to completion.  Abraham and Sarah did receive a son, as promised.  Now that Christ Jesus has come, we see more of God’s promise being fulfilled.  There is a catch.

We have faith in Jesus Christ to receive the promises of God.  We believe that God delivers us from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  So, why was the law given 430 years later than the promise to Abraham?

So that we would know what Jesus is delivering us from.  Jesus is saving us from our choices to break faith with God.  Once we admit our sins, then we can live our faith in Jesus Christ.  We can accept the promise of God to Abraham through faith in Abraham’s offspring, Jesus Christ.

God, we have sinned.  The multiple sins in our many lives damages our relationship with you.  However, you promised through Abraham for us to have one whom we could believe in.  That one is Jesus Christ!  Increase our faith as we keep pursuing Jesus Christ.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we know our faith can be found in Jesus.  Thank you for making us righteous through faith.  Amen.

God in Art: A Revealing Walk

In one of the resurrection stories, Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, walking unrecognized with them. The story is found in Luke 24:13-35. This depiction by an unknown Flemish painter around 1600 is dependent on pilgrim clothing and imagery familiar to the artist, but it does capture an important theme. The world is a busy place, full of distractions, and as we wander through it we can miss the Savior even as He walks with us. Be sure to zoom in on the tiny details. There’s more going on in this painting that you initially will see.

Psalm 118, Meditation 4

Psalm 118 (NRSV)

By John Grimm

There is nothing more timeless than salvation.  As Chuck pointed out yesterday, the psalms have a timelessness to them.  The timelessness of salvation is what we all want to know.  This desire is ingrained in our lives.  We want to be secure in our living now and our hope for the future.

This salvation comes only from the Lord.  We see verses 21-25 pointing out how God becomes our salvation.

I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!

Jesus was rejected by those who were attempting to build Israel into a great nation.  It is by knowing Jesus as the chief cornerstone of life that we have salvation.  We can sing about Jesus delivering us from our sins and ourselves.  Jesus will give us success over the sins we have committed and the nature of sin in us.

Salvation is not merely being delivered from sin. Salvation involves us discovering how we can be made new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17ff.).  Salvation is lived in our lives during this day and all the following days.  We marvel because, like God’s mercies being new each day, he continues to renew us in the image of Christ.  This is salvation, being made to bear the image of Christ fully and completely in our lives.

Lord God, thank you for Jesus Christ.  We are looking for success in bearing the image of Christ in our lives.  As we seek you, we can rejoice in how you are working in us so that we live like Jesus, even today.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we ask that we may be found to be like him more each day.  Amen.

Psalm 118: Meditation 3

Psalm 118 (NRSV)

By Chuck Griffin

Psalms have a timelessness to them—while they are clearly rooted in a particular era, they also evoke situations that remain very current.

The timing of my reading of Psalm 118 came right on the heels of my looking at the Reuters news site, where there were photo essays on the devastation in Ukraine, particularly in the destroyed city of Mariupol. As you might expect, these words from the psalm leaped out:

All nations surrounded me;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me like bees;
    they blazed like a fire of thorns;
    in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
    but the Lord helped me.
The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

The analogy is not perfect, of course. Ukraine faces an evil attack by just one nation, although the military strength of Russia exceeds what the psalmist was imagining by an order of magnitude I cannot begin to calculate.

And yet, the Ukrainians thus far have managed, while incurring terrible losses, to cut their attackers off. Looking at the photos of their funeral scenes, there is little doubt they have rooted themselves in their faith as they suffer. Of course, the great irony is that their attackers try to justify their acts through the pronouncements of their very nationalized church, which has managed to destroy its credibility in just a few weeks, in the midst of the holiest days in the Christian year.

As psalms often do, these words guide us to a prayer, this one for the Ukrainians: “Lord, be their strength and might; Lord, be their salvation.”

As the psalm continues, there is a victory song, and we certainly pray that all people under siege will be able to sing it one day soon. This can, however, also be a very personal moment for the reader of this psalm.

We all find ourselves under siege from time to time because of temptation. Again, we must rely on the Lord’s strength and might, on God’s freely given salvation.

When we overcome that temptation—when we move toward righteousness not through our own strength, but through what God has granted us—we should sing those glad songs of victory.

Lord, may your strength and might be more readily observable in this world. Move us toward a time when right clearly is seen as right and wrong vanishes because we have lost all desire for it. 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.

What a Savior!

Isaiah 50:4-9 (NRSV)

By John Grimm

Wednesday of Holy Week means we are one day closer to Jesus’ arrest, flogging, trial, crucifixion and death.  Centuries before Holy Week, Isaiah tells us about the servant of God who will be humiliated and vindicated.  Now, almost two millennia after Holy Week, we continue to realize all the servant of God went through.  This prophecy shows how the servant of God did not turn back.

We know this servant of the Lord to be Jesus the Christ.  Yes, he was a teacher.  But he is so much more than that!  Yes, he was obedient to the Lord God.  But he did not turn back when he was abused.  Yes, he had his face set like flint.  But no one could contend with him.

The determination of Jesus the Christ leads us onward.  His willingness to suffer for us is forgotten when we fail to receive the Lord’s Supper.  We can not do any better than our Savior, Jesus the Christ! 

Will we contend with Jesus?  Will we confront Jesus?  Will we declare Jesus guilty?  We are not capable of doing these tasks.  Our life is but a breath.  We will wear out.  The truth about Jesus the Christ will contend with us.  The truth about Jesus will confront us.  The truth about our guilt is known by Jesus the Christ.  When we decide for Jesus in our lives, then there is no condemnation for us! 

What a Savior!  Jesus withstands much abuse (50:6).  Yet, he willingly does so.  Why?  First, because the Lord God vindicates him.  Second, because we need a savior.  We will find as we believe and follow the Savior that God will stand by us as well. 

Holy Spirit, aid us in setting our faces like flint so we may see the goodness of our Savior.  Strengthen our resolve to cling to the Lord God through Jesus the Christ.  As we find the shame of our sin removed through Jesus’ blood, may we have life with Jesus eternally.  In the powerful name of Jesus the Christ, we pray.  Amen.

Empty Space

By Chuck Griffin

In this season of Lent, the word “repent” comes up on a regular basis. Repentance requires more commitment than we may realize.

In the third chapter of Luke, we see how crowds of people responded to John the Baptist’s call to repent and prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. But when they showed up to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers.”

Clearly, there’s a little more to repentance than just showing up. As we read on in Luke, we see more clearly what the hairy, locust-chomping prophet was expecting: a true change of heart, the kind of transformation that results in a change of behavior.

The crowd asked, “What then should we do?”

John the Baptist’s answer was simple. If you’ve got plenty, and the poor around you have none, share! Stop being so greedy. He must have sensed there were a few folks in the crowd who planned to keep their extra cloaks and food despite being baptized.

If you have a job, particularly one where you have power over others, then perform your duties honestly, he went on. The soldiers and tax collectors whom he addressed directly were notorious for abusing their power to commit theft and extortion. Again, he must have seen the desire for sinful gain still glimmering in their eyes.

These were just examples. His main point was, you cannot say “I repent” but then go on with your old, sinful ways. “Repent” means that you regret your past actions and put them aside. Without true repentance, all the water in the Jordan River won’t help you.

Salvation is simple. All you have to do is believe that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient to pay for your sins. True belief by its very nature requires a repentant heart, however. If you don’t think the concept of sin, and in particular, your individual sins, are a problem, how can you take seriously the need for the cross?

Think of it this way: Ongoing sin fills up places in you where God needs to be. True repentance creates empty spaces, allowing God to rush in.

Anyone in church knows that we still have much to repent. Sadly, even the really obvious sins—murderous anger, adultery, theft, deception—go on among Christians, within what we call the body of Christ.

And then there’s the more subtle stuff—gossip, slander, greed and refusals to forgive, just to name a few—that can do as much damage long-term as murder can do short-term.

Yes there’s always plenty of repentance needed, even among those who have submitted to the water and taken on the name of Christ. I won’t go so far as to call us a “brood of vipers,” but I wonder if John the Baptist might.

Fortunately, we worship a patient, loving God, one who will grant us the power to change, if only we repent and ask for God’s help.

Lord, as we open ourselves to you, search us and show us what needs to be surrendered. Amen.

An Honest Searching

Psalm 39
For Jeduthun, the choir director: A psalm of David.
I said to myself, “I will watch what I do
    and not sin in what I say.
I will hold my tongue
    when the ungodly are around me.”
But as I stood there in silence—
    not even speaking of good things—
    the turmoil within me grew worse.
The more I thought about it,
    the hotter I got,
    igniting a fire of words:
“Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
    Remind me that my days are numbered—
    how fleeting my life is.
You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
    My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
    at best, each of us is but a breath.”        Interlude

We are merely moving shadows,
    and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth,
    not knowing who will spend it.
And so, Lord, where do I put my hope?
    My only hope is in you.
Rescue me from my rebellion.
    Do not let fools mock me.
I am silent before you; I won’t say a word,
    for my punishment is from you.
But please stop striking me!
    I am exhausted by the blows from your hand.
When you discipline us for our sins,
    you consume like a moth what is precious to us.
    Each of us is but a breath.        Interlude

Hear my prayer, O Lord!
    Listen to my cries for help!
    Don’t ignore my tears.
For I am your guest—
    a traveler passing through,
    as my ancestors were before me.
Leave me alone so I can smile again
    before I am gone and exist no more.

By Chuck Griffin

This season of Lent is, again, a time for spiritual searching. Today’s psalm is a powerful example of how that search can whip one to and fro, triggering a range of emotions including stoicism, anger, despair and humility.

If you just skimmed over the psalm, please, slow down, or wait until you have time to slow down, and read it carefully. When you reach the words translated as “Interlude,” take time to breathe and to ponder what has been said thus far.

We also could say that the psalmist moves from an effort at self-control to something more valuable—willing surrender to God, to God’s majesty and undeniable power.

And remember, God does not ignore our tears. In fact, he refuses to ignore us, even if we plead with him to do so. Christ came not to ignore us, but to rescue us. There is no reason to fear that we will be gone, that we will exist no more.

Lord, this is a somber time in the Christian year, but we also feel ourselves being pulled toward hope. In our humility and despair, help us to anticipate the freedom to come. Amen.

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”

Eyes Open

A detail from Fedor Bronnikov’s “Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Home,” painted in 1886.

A Parable of Jesus, from Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

“He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

By Chuck Griffin

Having heard the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you may be having trouble seeing yourself in the story. That’s understandable. Lottery jackpot billboards aside, most of us don’t seriously imagine a life of great wealth and constant feasting. I suspect our basic psychological makeup also makes it difficult for us to imagine having fallen so low in life that we could end up lying in the street with festering sores, stray dogs the only creatures who seem to notice us.

And yet, I find this parable to be almost universally applicable.

Certainly, the lesson is taught through extremes of wealth and poverty. But at the same time, it’s not really about the dangers of wealth, nor does it somehow invest poverty with a kind of holiness. Instead, Jesus gives us a lesson for the heart.

Notice something about both men in the first of the parable. They simply are described in their respective states. There’s no evidence they interact; at no point does poor Lazarus actually ask the rich man for anything, and at no point is the rich man portrayed as having rejected Lazarus directly. They simply are in proximity to each other.

The parable points out the danger of a terrible sin, a sin we seldom talk about. It is the sin of self-absorption, of being unable to see a need that is before us. It is the sin of unsearching eyes; it is the sin of walking past someone and not caring.

We tend to think, “It is what I do that could send me to hell, to an eternity separated from God.” Jesus is telling us something very different—there is tremendous danger in what we fail to do.

The extremes of wealth and poverty are in the story for a basic reason. They make clear the rich man has no excuse for his failure to act. With such wealth, he could have easily cared for the poor man who had wandered into his circle of influence. The rich man would not have missed what Lazarus required for restored health and a decent standard of living.

The rich man is not condemned for failing to care for all poor people, just for failing to help the one at his gate. I’m reminded of the story of the thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach, gasping and dying. A little girl walked the ocean’s edge, throwing starfish into the ocean.

A man came along and said, “Little girl, there’s no way you can save all those starfish!”

“You’re right,” she replied, throwing another one in the ocean. “But I saved that one.”

The rich man could have at least said of Lazarus, “I saved that one.”

Some may protest this interpretation by pointing out how we are saved by faith, not works, and on that point, I would agree. We can do nothing without the grace of God at work in us, and we receive God’s saving grace through a belief in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus intertwines faith and action in his teachings, however, presenting them as the rope that pulls us from the pit. This parable has much in common with Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, where he sorts the judged to his left and right—to damnation or eternal joy—based on how they treated the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.

The lesson is the same in both accounts: Our actions best reveal whether our hearts rest near the bosom of Christ.

This teaching is good news! We are actually being invited to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. All we have to do is pray that the Christ who saves us also makes us intentional about seeing the brokenness around us.

I once worked in a nonprofit relief organization with a woman who required a family to allow her to make a home visit before they could receive any significant aid. I asked her one day why she did that—I could tell some of the families felt they were being scrutinized or even judged.

She laughed, telling me that yes, some of them probably felt that way, but the home visits let her see the needs the families weren’t revealing. Even the poorest people in rural Upper East Tennessee are generally a proud bunch, and often the problem was getting them to ask for all the help our little nonprofit could provide.

When I understood what she was doing, I admired her approach. She was actively searching for need so she could see it and address it.

The end of the parable emphasizes the overall point. The rich man’s last request is that Lazarus be sent to his presumably rich brothers as a warning about the danger of their hard-heartedness. Abraham makes it clear that these lessons about compassion have already been delivered by Moses and prophets, and that men who failed to hear those ancient words would continue in their deafness “even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there again is the great danger of unseeing self-absorption. When we fall into it, we miss God entirely. In God’s greatest work in this world, Christ rose from the dead, but self-absorption can leave us blind to even this great miracle.

Lord, make us alert. Show us the broken people in this world and how we can play some small part in undoing their suffering. Amen.