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.

A Lost Generation

First of all, I apologize that this is the first devotion to run this week. I’ve been with a family member who needed surgery. (All is well.) Today and tomorrow, we will look at Nehemiah, continuing an exploration of books of the Bible this blog has yet to consider.

The Book of Nehemiah

By Chuck Griffin

Go looking for God, and you may get an unexpected result. There’s a good chance you will find your real identity.

The conquered, beaten-down Jews of Nehemiah’s day certainly had lost all sense of who they were. Their once-great city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, abandoned with no wall to protect it. Nehemiah had been living in exile as cupbearer to the conquering king.

It was a role of trust, a role that eventually allowed him to gain permission from the king to rebuild Jerusalem and restore some sense of belonging for the scattered people of God. The best of the Jews had been carried away to distant capitals; the rest had been left defenseless among their enemies, people who despised and abused them.

To get the full story, I would suggest you read all of the book of Nehemiah. Suffice it to say his task was a difficult one. Over time, he managed to organize the Jews there, overcoming intimidation, murder plots, and the constant threat of attack by surrounding tribes who hated the Jews of old and did not want to see them re-establish a foothold in Jerusalem.

As Nehemiah and those who rallied around him rebuilt Jerusalem’s destroyed wall and its gates, they often had to work with swords strapped to sides or a weapon in one hand. And yet, they rebuilt the wall in 52 days, an accomplishment even their enemies considered miraculous. Nearly 50,000 Jews and their livestock poured into the city.

It was not too much later that the process of discovery began. The people gathered to hear the word of God, and they were distraught at what had been forgotten over the long captivity. That moment of discovery is recorded in Nehemiah 8:1-10. Over a day, it is likely they heard the story of creation; they once again learned of the fall. They heard how God established them as a separate, chosen, holy people through Abraham.

They heard what God had done for their ancestors through Moses after the Israelites had fallen into captivity in Egypt. There were stories of miracles, all evidence of God’s great love. And there were detailed explanations of God’s covenant with them and God’s law for them, and they realized how far they had strayed, how godless they had become. Exploring God’s word that day proved to be a life-changing journey for them.

From God’s word, they remembered how to worship, and began to do so again, celebrating forgotten festivals and re-telling forgotten stories. They confessed their sins to God and sought mercy.

As different as we are today, it is a pattern we can follow. It can be a bit of a shock to discover how far we’ve strayed from God, but as we become Bible-exploring people, we find our true selves. Like Nehemiah’s Jews, one of the first lessons we learn in Genesis is that we are made in our creator’s image, meaning we were designed to reflect God’s nature and God’s will. Know God and we know what should come natural for us.

Knowing God and consequently knowing ourselves seems difficult for one reason alone. Sin remains in the world and in us. Upon hearing what God’s word had to say about God’s expectations of them, Nehemiah’s Jews realized they had suffered mightily because they had stopped acting as God would have them act. They had fallen into sin, and they wept. A sense of brokenness and loss always precedes redemption.

The priestly interpreters of the word, knowing God’s word, had an interesting response, however. They told the people not to weep. The Jews of Jerusalem once again saw God for who God is, and they were in worship! The priest Ezra and the Levites knew that God’s grace would once again shine through their darkness, and joy would be restored.

We see them understanding and experiencing the same kind of forgiving, loving grace ultimately expressed in Jesus Christ, God among us in flesh. Christ came to bring us face-to-face with our need for God.

When we look to Christ, we sometimes don’t like what we see in ourselves. But I tell you today, do not weep, but rejoice—in turning to Christ, we find eternal life and take important steps toward holiness in this life. In Christ God offers us new hope and a new identity.

Dear Lord, help us to become the people we would have been had sin never entered the world.

The Prophet Who Never Got It

“Jonah and the Whale,” Pieter Lastman, 1620, courtesy Google Art Project

The Book of Jonah

By Chuck Griffin

Do you ever wish God were different? It sounds like a strange question, but the prophet Jonah could have easily answered, “Yes.”

The story of Jonah opens with the prophet at home somewhere in Israel, hearing from God with the clarity most biblical prophets seem to experience. God gave Jonah a simple command: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

Nineveh was to the east, in what is now the northern part of Iraq. (Its ruins are near the city of Mosul, where modern battles have been fought in recent years.) It was one of the great cities of the Assyrian empire, a wonder to those who beheld it. Jonah had no doubt which direction Nineveh lay, yet Jonah headed west by sea, rather than east by land.

The story tells us Jonah went to the coast and got on a ship bound for Tarshish, a place not easily identified today. In the novel Moby Dick, the clergyman at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel, Father Mapple, preaches on Jonah and asserts that Tarshish must have been a port in Spain, the farthest point west a Jew in Jonah’s day would have known. It’s not a bad notion—we’re told Jonah is trying to go “away from the presence of the Lord,” so what seemed like the end of the earth would have been a logical destination.

Storms soon began to worry the ship on its journey to Tarshish, to the point that the pagan crew cried out to their various gods. The captain implored Jonah to pray, too. They cast lots to determine who was the cause of the problem, and something like a throw of the dice showed the cause was Jonah.

And, very early in the story, Jonah began to understand that God was present regardless of how far Jonah ran or sailed. He admitted to the crew who he was and what he had done, and despite their initial reluctance, he convinced them to throw him in the sea. The sea immediately became calm.

This brings us to the part we know best from childhood: God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Yes, it could have been a whale; the Hebrew word used in the story literally means a large fish, but the Jews would have used this word to include whales.) In the belly of this large sea critter, Jonah prayed a powerful psalm, in part acknowledging that God is everywhere, even capable of hearing one of his rebellious prophets trapped beneath the waves, “at the roots of the mountains.”

In response to this prayer, God had the fish vomit Jonah out somewhere on dry land. And Jonah once again heard his marching orders: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah headed in the right direction, presumably after cleaning himself up.

Once in Nineveh, Jonah preached his message. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And here’s the twist we might not expect when reading this story the first time—those pagan, supposedly godless residents of sprawling Nineveh responded!

Even the king put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. He ordered everyone to do the same, and to fast. They went so far as to cover the livestock with sackcloth and withhold the animals’ food or water. The prayers, wails, bleating and lowing set up a din that had to reach to heaven.

God heard, and God relented from the destruction he had promised. And that, we learn, was precisely what Jonah feared would happen.

“O Lord!” he prayed. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah was so bitter, he prayed that God might kill him. You see, the Israelites considered the people of Nineveh their enemy. The Jews had suffered terribly under Assyrian rule; Jonah had hoped for a scene of destruction worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. And now, here was the God the Jews acknowledged, the God over all things, showing mercy to these people!

All Jonah could do was pout. That pretty much sums up the rest of the story of Jonah. He pouted while God explained his deep concern for the people of Nineveh, using a simple plant as an example.

God is love. God is mercy. Yes, God’s holiness demands justice. But God seems to have this unrelenting desire to let people off the hook, to forgive, to find a way to draw people back into relationships with him.

That truth is best expressed through Jesus Christ, of course. Through the great sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God found a way to extend mercy to all, no matter what evil has been done. Repercussions in this life for our bad deeds may be unavoidable, but a renewed, ongoing relationship with God is constantly available, in any moment, on any day, under any circumstances.

When we find ourselves hoping God will crush someone, we’re wishing God were different. When we think there’s no way God could love us, forgive us, or change us, we’re underestimating who God is.

Why would we want to wish for a different kind of God? The one we have freely offers eternal life. We’ll do no better than that.

Lord, thank you for your incredible, undeserved mercy, expressed most clearly by Jesus Christ on the cross, dying for our sins. Amen.

Trajectory

Paul’s Letter to Philemon

By Chuck Griffin

A few years ago on television, there was a show where a fictional senator and president discussed their discomfort with Christianity. The senator, played by Alan Alda, said, “I couldn’t believe there was a God who had no penalty for slavery. The Bible has no problem with slavery at all.”

Like all good fiction, this show dealt with ideas that trouble real people. Why doesn’t God say in the Bible, “Followers of Christ, it is wrong to own another person!”

The Apostle Paul’s words to an early Christian named Philemon are worth examining if we’re concerned about how effectively the Bible influences society. Philemon was a slave owner. Onesimus, his slave, had run away to Paul, converting to Christianity in the process. Paul then sent Onesimus back to Philemon. 

Paul’s decision to send a slave back to his master hardly seems to condemn slavery. But Paul also gave Onesimus a letter to take to Philemon. And the content of that subtle letter is so powerful that we now call it a book of the Bible.

The official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795, Josiah Wedgwood.

Nowhere in the letter will you find Paul saying, “End slavery now!” There’s one obvious reason. Such a direct attack on a central feature of the society in which early Christians lived would have invited terrible punishment.

Instead, Paul uses gentle coercion to change the situation. First, he speaks lovingly of the slave owner’s faith, found under Paul’s pastoral guidance.

Then Paul speaks of the slave’s faith, calling him “my child” and asking the master to receive the slave as a brother. The implication is obvious—how do you enslave and punish a beloved brother or sister?

As the television senator noted, there is no outright rejection of slavery in the letter to Philemon or anywhere else in the Bible. But we must learn to think of the Bible as more than a rule book from ancient history. It often works like a launching pad for ideas, ideas that God has shot like rockets through time so people are changed.

Now, we do have to be careful; some people would take a concept like scriptural trajectory and use it to argue that the Bible says whatever they want it to say. We have to be certain that we go in the direction God first sent us. Otherwise, we will spin north, south, east and west until we finally hit the ground like an experimental missile.

God used Paul and his little letter to change the world dramatically over several centuries. Certainly, Paul wanted to free Onesimus from slavery. But more importantly, he wanted to free Philemon from any anger he might have been feeling toward his escaped slave and the wrongheaded notions that allowed the enslavement to occur.

If Paul had simply issued a rule for Philemon to follow, he never would have gotten to the heart of the matter. Was the Holy Spirit really changing Philemon? Could this slave owner find himself capable of loving Onesimus as a Christian brother?

And that brings us to the deepest lesson from the letter to Philemon. Christians change the world by changing hearts, not by rigorous rule making. Once hearts are changed, the rules for living become obvious and begin to fall in place.

Dear Lord, help us see the true trajectory of your great plan so we may conform ourselves to the holiness you offer your creation. Amen.

A Prayer of Faith

Habakkuk 3:17-19
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer's;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

By Chuck Griffin

Monday, we looked at how the prophet Habakkuk wrestled with his era’s version of the problem of evil, the questions that arise about God when bad people seem to prosper. The context was very different from our own—God’s chosen people were overrun by brutal conquerors—but the frustration and confusion expressed by the prophet were similar to what we might experience today.

We stopped at Habakkuk 2:1, the point where the prophet took a stand, seemingly demanding answers.

And God answered. Rooting the vision he offered Habakkuk in a seemingly distant but certain end to the divine plan, God asserted that the “righteous shall live by faithfulness.” He also assured Habakkuk that our perception of right and wrong is correct. Those who build wealth out of their own strength and corruption, making idols of objects in this world, will fail, although the patience of the righteous will be required.

It was enough to launch Habakkuk into prayer. We might even say song, as the third chapter has embedded in it instructions that there be musical accompaniment.

Habakkuk shows us the right attitude to maintain, even when the answers aren’t at first satisfying. He declared the greatness of God, poetically recounting the actions of the one who is clearly over all creation.

And even in pain, with all around him seeming lost, the prophet made it clear that God would continue to be worthy of honor and worship. “I will take joy in the God of my salvation,” he said (3:18).

How blessed are we that we have seen so much of God’s great plan play out! With the coming of Christ, we see how the cross marks the end of sin and death, even if we must wait patiently for Christ’s work to come to full fruition.

We will tread the high places.

Dear Lord, when we experience our own times of woe, help us to have the faith and perseverance of Habakkuk, trusting in the end of your plan to come. Amen.

God in Art: Man of Sorrows

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

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

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

Epiphany 2022

Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checking In

My apologies for the lack of devotions these last couple of mornings. Pastoral duties sometimes become demanding, making it difficult to find time to write something thoughtful.

Now is a good time to mention that Methodist Life welcomes submissions from new writers and artists. We tend to work from the daily lectionary readings, but I personally deviate from those texts from time to time, and submissions do not have to be built around them. As editor, all I ask is that you represent traditional Christianity well while not minding some editing when necessary. If you want to submit something, send it to chuck@methodist.life.

For your consideration today, I offer you an article I wrote for the Jonesborough Herald and Tribune while pastor of Fairview United Methodist Church more than a decade ago.


Heart Wide Open

By Chuck Griffin

How open are you to God’s influence?

Most of us who call ourselves Christian would like to think we are very open. And indeed, a lot of Christians allow God to influence them in ways that change their lives dramatically.

Often, you run into Christians who have given up careers and financial security to serve God.

Occasionally, you meet people who for long periods of time give up the comfort and familiarity of home to serve others in far-away places. For example, I once met a missionary who had gone to Papua New Guinea as a young woman in the early 1970s. She had felt God calling her to translate the New Testament for a tribe of people who speak an obscure language.

By 2005, she had finished the work. I met her while she was in Kentucky, a much older woman saying a last good-bye to her relatives. She loved the tribal people so much that she had decided to live with them the rest of her life.

Rarely, you meet people who face death to follow God’s lead. Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, falls in this category.

Stoning was the punishment of the day for a poor, unwed pregnant girl, which is how her neighbors would have viewed Mary. To follow God while facing such dire circumstances required a heart wide open to God’s influence.

God chose Mary, it seems, because she had the right soul for the job. She was young, perhaps as young as 14, but Scripture records in the first chapter of Luke her remarkable understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary said. She was rejoicing with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who carried in her womb John the Baptist, the prophet who would announce the coming of Jesus’ ministry in adulthood.

As Mary continued in her rejoicing, she laid out the radical mission of Christ. He brings mercy to those who believe and follow God. He scatters the proud. He brings down the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and the hungry. He does all of this as a fulfillment of a promise made to the world through Abraham long ago.

And of course, we now understand that Jesus grew up to accomplish this radical realignment of power through his death on the cross, a sacrifice designed to break the grip of sin.

Governments and armies still seem to have power, but none can help you establish a relationship with God. At best, they can keep the relationship freely available.

If you believe, really believe, in the saving work of Christ, it becomes more difficult each day to see your place in the world in secular ways. How open are you to God’s influence?

The answer has a lot to do with how much of this world you’re willing to risk while knowing a better world is guaranteed.

Scripturally Gentle

Hebrews 10:10-18 (NRSV)

By Chuck Griffin

As Christians, we’re always trying to fully absorb the idea that God came among us in flesh to save us from the deadly power of sin.

With the Christmas season drawing near, I also couldn’t help but think of the humble birth of our Savior, cradled and softly placed in a feeding trough as his first bed. There is so much tenderness in that scene, a moment of beauty in the midst of what too often is a horror story, the ongoing story of people disconnected from God.

As traditional Christians, we so want to focus on the beauty of salvation, but we simultaneously want to be vigilant against the damage sin has wrought and continues to cause. The world has trouble understanding the nuanced message we offer; even followers of Christ sometimes struggle with how to offer that message.

At the extreme edges of our faith, some want to ignore the danger of sin, while others legalistically limit the possibilities of grace. Both edges can at times exhibit a surprising amount of anger.

To be successful in our basic mission, traditionalists need to carry with them an attitude rooted in how God is at work in the world. A phrase popped into my head recently: Scripturally gentle. Like Jesus, we need to be scripturally gentle, openly discussing the terrible danger of sin while preaching the power of grace.

It is not judgmental to share with others the warnings God has given us about certain behaviors. Those biblical revelations from God about what counts as sin need to be declared for all to hear. These should be gentle declarations, however, tempered constantly with the Good News that God offers redemption from sin through Jesus Christ.

Jesus gives us great examples of how to live as scripturally gentle people. One of my favorites is in John 8:3-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus. In short, there is sin present in the community, and the legalists want to use the situation as a harsh test. Jesus reminds those present that they all are in need of grace, and the woman’s would-be executioners drift away. Jesus then says to the rescued sinner, “Go your own way, and from now on do not sin again,” pointing her toward a process Methodists call sanctification.

The traditional Methodism I discovered and fell in love with as a young adult has long been filled with scripturally gentle people, setting it apart as a movement within the Kingdom of God. This middle way will continue, even if it has to happen under a new denominational name.

We offer the world an attractive, biblical way to live in faith, and God will bless this approach until the day we see Christ in full.

Lord, thank you for guidance and grace. May the two work hand-in-hand in our lives so we can become holy responses to your great gift of eternal life. Amen.