Continuing

John 8:31-38 (NRSV)

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So, if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word.  I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”


By John Grimm

As of right this moment, as we are reading this devotion, we are continuing in Jesus’ word.  It takes our time to read the Bible.  It takes our effort to study the words so we can know how free we are in Jesus. 

Over the span of our lifetime, as we continue in Jesus’ word, we can live lives free from sin.

Continuing in Jesus’ word is not only a reference to making time to study the Bible.  Verse 38 points to the fact that our doing what we have heard from the Father is included in the method of continuing in Jesus’ word.  When we know Jesus’ word, we are free from sin and free to obey the Father. This obedience to the Father means we can live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Heavenly Father, thank you for Jesus’ word.  Through Jesus, you have given us freedom from sin.  Show us in Jesus’ word how we can do what we have heard from you.  Guide our steps as Jesus’ disciples so we can know and live the truth that sets us free.  In the name of Jesus, we can be obedient to you.  Amen.

Division

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View UMC in Weber City, Va., will be “A Straightforward Declaration.” It will be based on Mark 8:27-38. If you want to view the sermon but cannot be present, the entire worship service will be available through Holston View UMC’s web page.

Today’s preparatory text:

Luke 12:49-56

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”


By Chuck Griffin

Yesterday, we considered the very exclusive claim Jesus made regarding who he is. That exclusive claim obviously can cause division, something Jesus made clear in our reading from Luke today.

After a reading like that, I suppose I should begin with some comforting words.

Yes, God is love. Yes, grace is freely given. Our God is a patient God, doing all he can to draw lost people to him. Forgiveness and the gift of eternal life are being poured out on us in buckets, despite so many people standing under umbrellas of cynicism.

That said, at this point in Luke, Jesus has clearly gone apocalyptic on us. He uses language designed to remind us of the terrible suffering and sacrifice necessary to make all that grace and love possible. And ultimately, we are reminded that we are called to choose sides in a great cosmic battle, with no regard to what our choice may cost us in this life.

Jesus’ apocalyptic language forces Christians to consider our core beliefs. Fire and baptism are purification words. Jesus was saying that despite his lack of sin, he would go through the purifying fire of crucifixion for us, and that ultimately all of creation will be purified through this act. Humans can actually choose where to stand in all of this—with what is pure and what will remain forever, or with the dross to be burned away.

The great gift of the cross is that we now have a choice. Before, we were all just dross, lacking the purity to be in God’s presence.

I think even Christians struggle with some of this tough language because we confuse adherence to the truth with being judgmental. Clearly, it is God’s business to judge, not ours. My own personal approach to this is to be as laissez-faire (libertarian) in my approach to the secular world as possible, while at the same recognizing that the church in which I choose to live establishes higher standards based on Christ’s teachings. Included in those teachings is a demand that we clearly tell others who Jesus is.

This approach doesn’t satisfy everyone who claims membership in a church. As we discussed yesterday, some would like to dilute or explain away Christ’s very exclusive claims in Scripture regarding his identity, along with related concepts like the importance of a literal resurrection.

This approach does, however, let us focus on messages that have helped Christianity spread cross-culturally for nearly two millennia. Let’s consider those messages:

Christ is the answer. By that, we mean Christ stands at the apex of a sweeping story that answers all the big questions in life, questions like “Is there meaning to life,” “Why do we suffer,” and “Is there more than just this life?”

Being Christian makes you different. Welcome to a great countercultural movement, the one that challenged the most powerful empire on earth and continues to challenge worldly thinking today. It is a movement that truly changed the world, declaring early on that people are the same under Christ regardless of gender, color or social status. Yes, the body of believers can behave like clusters of big institutions, and yes, Christians often fail to act like Christ, but this differentiating truth remains.

There is clear guidance from God available to us. People are craving something to help them steer their lives.  They want something they can trust, something not likely to blow about in the ever-changing social wind. The Bible is God’s long-standing revelation to humanity. Even the newest material in it is nearly 2,000 years old. Its truths about God and how God wants to relate to humanity have served people well in a wide variety of eras and cultures.

Not everyone will agree with these basic messages. Some people, maybe people in your own homes, will become angry upon hearing them, turning on you or at least turning their backs on you.

That’s okay. Jesus said it would happen. He also said he would make it all right in the end. Look it up.

Lord, help us to establish peace wherever we go, unless that peace would force a denial of who you are and what you are doing in this world. Amen.

The Wise and Foolish Builders, Pt. 2

Luke 6:46-49 (HCSB)

46 “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I say? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to Me, hears My words, and acts on them: 48 He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. When the flood came, the river crashed against that house and couldn’t shake it, because it was well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The river crashed against it, and immediately it collapsed. And the destruction of that house was great!”


By ‘Debo Onabanjo

In last Tuesday’s devotional, we learned that the difference between the wise and foolish builders is not what they know, but how they act based on what they know. The wise builder builds on a solid foundation, which represents the teaching of Jesus. The foolish builder serves as a metaphor for ignoring the teaching of Jesus, building his house on sand.

In our focus text for today, we find a slight variation on this teaching of Jesus, although he once again underscores the importance of people coming to him, listening to his teaching and then following through on the instruction they receive.

I have a hard time believing someone would build a house without a foundation, but we do have many people around us who have either chosen to build their lives with no foundation or at best a sandy foundation. Some people have built their lives on their personal careers, their wealth, their position in society, their kids or their fame.  Such lives are in constant danger of collapsing.   

As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was prone to remind us, not all who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ are doing the will of God.

We can deceive others about our faith journey, but we cannot deceive Jesus.  Christ makes it clear that just as a tree is known by its fruit, people will be known by their actions. (Matthew 7:15-23.) Christ warns us that he will shock people when he tells them he never knew them.  People who talk about heaven or appear pious don’t necessarily belong to the Kingdom of God.  Other humans see what we display outwardly, but God sees every heart, and nothing is hidden from God’s all-seeing eyes. 

While there may not be immediate noticeable differences in our lives when we follow Christ, if we are truly building on the right foundation, the genuineness of our faith will be revealed with time.  

Help us heavenly Father to build on Jesus Christ the Solid Rock. Holy Spirit, teach us to build on Jesus the foundation of our faith with the right materials that will withstand the test of time and the challenges that will come along our journey. May we be fruitful and faithful to the end so that when our time here on earth comes to an end, we can hear you say to us, well done good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master. We pray with confident assurance in the name of Jesus the Christ. Amen. 

The Wise and Foolish Builders, Pt. 1

Matthew 7:24-27 (HCSB)

24 “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great!”


By ‘Debo Onabanjo

The world’s tallest building, The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is a staggering 2,716.5 feet tall, more than half a mile high. It easily overshadows the previous tallest building, the Taipei 101 in Taipei, which stands at 1,671 feet.  The Burj Khalifa is nearly double the height of the Empire State Building in New York City. 

While most people are intrigued with the height of the building, perhaps what lies buried beneath the building should attract more attention.  Without a solid foundation, the world’s tallest building would be a disaster waiting to happen.  The foundation for the Burj Khalifa extends 164 feet under the building itself and includes 59,000 cubic yards of concrete weighing over 120,000 tons.  It took a year just to build the foundation.

What is a foundation, and why is it important?  In one sense, it can be described as the lowest load-bearing part of a building, typically below ground.  It is usually a stone or concrete structure that supports a building from underneath. When developing skyscrapers, the building type, design and soil type, along with some other variables, will determine the type of foundation used.

Thankfully, the word of God is a one-size-fits-all type of foundation for the church and all its believers within.

In the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5 -7, Jesus wraps up his teaching with a careful warning.  He uses the analogy of building a house to identify two different sets of people, the wise builder and the foolish builder, one who ends up with a sturdy house, and one who ends up with a heap of rubble.

As we can infer from the passage, both kinds of builders experience the same set of life circumstances—the rain falls, rising rivers causing floods, and blowing winds pound all the houses. These situations represent the different trials and tribulations that we will all face in this world. Yet, the house built on solid ground, which represents faithful and consistent practice of the teaching of Jesus, remains standing, while the house built on sand collapses because the builder failed to put into practice the wise teachings of Jesus. 

When it comes to the word of God, we always have two sets of people–those who merely hear, and those who hear and do. James, the half-brother of Jesus, tells believers, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.” (James 1:22.)

Whatever we become in life is a function of how we faithfully put into practice the teaching of Jesus and the lessons from Scripture. God created us for a purpose, to do his will and bring him glory in all that we do.

It is one thing to listen to or be familiar with the teaching of Jesus and another thing to practice it. We build a life that will endure vicissitudes when we follow through on what Jesus commands. Half obedience is disobedience. 

Our lives are defined by how much of God’s word truly lives in us and what we do with it.  In John 15:7, Jesus tells us, “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you.”

The word of God contains nuggets of truth that will help us in our journeys through life.  Are you a wise builder or a foolish builder? Perhaps today is a good time to reflect on what represents the foundation of your life–the constantly changing culture or the settled teaching of Jesus. We cannot have it both ways. 

Our Father in heaven, thank you for your Son Jesus, who represents your wisdom and the solid rock on whose teaching the wise build. Help us to demonstrate our love for Jesus and affirm his lordship over our lives as we consistently practice his teaching, even when it is unpopular to do so. May we not just be hearers but also doers of your word. This we ask in Jesus’ holy name. Amen. 

Love and Truth

2 John (NLT)

This letter is from John, the elder.

I am writing to the chosen lady and to her children, whom I love in the truth—as does everyone else who knows the truth—because the truth lives in us and will be with us forever.

Grace, mercy, and peace, which come from God the Father and from Jesus Christ—the Son of the Father—will continue to be with us who live in truth and love.

How happy I was to meet some of your children and find them living according to the truth, just as the Father commanded.

I am writing to remind you, dear friends, that we should love one another. This is not a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning. Love means doing what God has commanded us, and he has commanded us to love one another, just as you heard from the beginning.

I say this because many deceivers have gone out into the world. They deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body. Such a person is a deceiver and an antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked so hard to achieve. Be diligent so that you receive your full reward. Anyone who wanders away from this teaching has no relationship with God. But anyone who remains in the teaching of Christ has a relationship with both the Father and the Son.

If anyone comes to your meeting and does not teach the truth about Christ, don’t invite that person into your home or give any kind of encouragement. Anyone who encourages such people becomes a partner in their evil work.

I have much more to say to you, but I don’t want to do it with paper and ink. For I hope to visit you soon and talk with you face to face. Then our joy will be complete.

Greetings from the children of your sister, chosen by God.


By Chuck Griffin

While we call them “books of the Bible,” some of those books really are just short letters. Second John is printed in its entirety above.

The “chosen lady” likely is a personification of the recipient church, with her “children” being the members of that church. The last line of the letter seems to confirm this, showing the letter’s author wrote from a “sister” church.

I have a particular fondness for this letter because it emphasizes the nature of Christian love. Yes, we are to be very open and giving with our love. This agape love for each other does not mean, however, that we forget to first love God. We love God by obeying what he commands of us in Scripture and telling the truth about those commands to others.

Even in Christianity’s earliest days, the church struggled with deceivers, with “antichrists,” people who pose as bringers of a holy message but who actually are looking out for their own unholy interests. They will deny the reality of the resurrection; they will deny other teachings clearly communicated in the New Testament about God’s expectations of us.

No doubt, such deceivers will be with us until Christ returns in full. John the Elder could have written this letter to any of our churches today.

Love and truth walk hand in hand. In fact, it is a very unloving thing to deceive people about God’s expectations for his followers, or to allow these deceptive teachings to happen in the midst of Christian fellowship. Too much is at stake.

Lord, help us to discern clearly what is being spoken in the midst of our congregations, testing what we hear against the revelation found in your Holy Bible. Amen.

The Full Experience

Psalm 84:10-12

For a day in your courts is better
    than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
    than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
    he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
    from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts,
    happy is everyone who trusts in you.

As short as Psalm 84 is, I want to focus on just the closing verses today. Nothing blesses us like the presence of God. Absolutely nothing.

If we could fully grasp this truth and live it out each day, most of our problems would vanish. Idolatry in all its forms, ancient and new, would be a thing of the past. Making a list of priorities would be the simplest act we would ever undertake.

The briefest moment in God’s full presence would transcend time and space, giving us a sense of what eternity is really all about. The substance of our more mundane moments would be altered in ways we can barely imagine.

No wonder the psalmist is willing to simply hang out near the door. Such proximity to God offers safety, as evil will never come near such a place. The tents of wickedness are lovely, even beautiful, but what is inside them is the opposite of what’s across that threshold.

The temple this psalm evokes is gone, but we don’t need it anymore. The presence of God is available in those places God has said we will be met: in prayer, in God’s holy word, in worship and in fellowship with committed Christians. God’s Spirit inhabits all these places, awaiting us.

Don’t just stand at the threshold. Step in!

Lord, may this season of Lent renew our desire to be in your presence, a possibility made so easy by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

Merry Christmas!

Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Ready

Occasionally, a piece of Scripture is so clearly instructional that a preacher or a devotional writer mostly needs to get out of its way and let the original author continue doing his holy work.

Ephesians 6:10-17 is one of those texts. I’ll offer a few starter questions here and there, but please, take time to meditate on the words and hear what they say to you. What a great way to start a work week during a difficult year!

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.

Do we genuinely believe we can draw strength from God? It’s not difficult to see God as simultaneously mighty and inaccessible. How do we know his power is fully available to us?

Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

We tend to imagine other humans when we think of our enemies. How does it affect our outlook when we acknowledge there are unseen powers at work around us, and that these powers are the real enemy?

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm.

Are we bothered by the idea of this being a “battle”? What do warlike images say to us about the focus and commitment required of every Christian? How does God’s armor differ from our own?

Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

These verses continue the battle imagery, but we also need to think about them more literally. How will truth-telling, truth-seeking, and the pursuit of righteousness improve our chances in this world?

Does the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection give us lasting peace? If not, have we considered the story from start to finish recently?

When faced with evil, do we first trust that our faith in Jesus Christ is enough to protect us? Do we have a sense of assurance about our faith that gives us great confidence?

And lastly, do we know and trust God’s word enough that we are confident we can use it to defeat evil?

Dear Lord, thank you for reminding us that we are a people fully equipped to face whatever might come our way. Help us to be a people who trust and tap into the power you offer us every day, making a difference for your kingdom. Amen.

Four Parts of Worship: Word

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

From an ancient church perspective, the sermon and all the Scripture-based events surrounding it come surprisingly late in American worship. In a fourfold worship structure, “Word” follows “Gathering.” I’m not suggesting we change the order of worship, but let’s be certain Scripture is fully present!

Hearing God’s word is the best way to encounter God routinely in a group setting. When a direct encounter with God occurs early in worship, the rest of worship happens in a highly focused manner.

Use of God’s written word to reveal God’s truth goes back to the earliest days of the Christian church, when the words we translate as “scripture” or “word of God” were references to the Jewish Bible, the writings we now group under the Old Testament.

Consider these references from letters that later became part of the New Testament:

2 Timothy 3:14-17: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Hebrews 4:12-13: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

James 1:21-22: “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

In these verses, we see God’s word as living and powerful, something that flows through the pages of a Bible and into a reader. Open the Bible, use what is there, and you’ll find yourself equipped in new ways. God’s word will dissect you, exposing what is of God and not of God. It will even implant itself in your soul, bringing you face to face with salvation through Jesus Christ.

Root worship in Scripture, and we encounter the Holy Spirit as a group, an experience that should always strengthen us.

Fail to root worship in Scripture, and I think it is safe to say we have not worshiped at all.

Lord, as we find ourselves denied worship in the ways we most enjoy, help us to remain deep in your word, committing ourselves to it now and for the worship days to come. Amen.

Witnesses

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (NRSV)

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.


People who doubt the validity of the core Christian message often ask something along these lines: “Okay, what proof do you have other than the Bible?”

The question, however, dodges a consideration of the key evidence. We’ve gotten used to the Bible’s existence, treating its details as if they need to be re-proven. But the Bible in and of itself is astonishing in regard to what it offers in the form of witness accounts and narratives generated by people who had direct access to those witnesses.

Yes, the accounts differ somewhat in detail, but oddly enough, those differences should encourage rather than discourage us.

To recapture how astonishing the Bible is, we first have to remember that it is not one document. Instead, it is a library of writings, tied together with some common themes: God is outside all things and the creator of all things; creation turned against God; God still loved his creation so much he immediately went to work to bring it back into conformity with his will; Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection mark how the work ultimately is completed.

Thought Experiment: An Alternate Timeline

Imagine all these texts had been completely lost. Centuries later, in our day, they are found sealed in clay jars. After a long period of validation, translation and sorting, I think the world would be amazed upon their publication at the radical ideas within, ideas including a loving God who teaches deep, abiding forgiveness.

They also would be astonished at the sheer number of documents and the millennia they span—39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament, assuming we were to count and sort them like Protestants.

And yes, thoughtful people would be encouraged by the minor differences in the accounts, in particular the accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These variations would be clear evidence the documents were written from different perspectives, with no collusion by conspiratorial authors.

The most intriguing revelation, however, would be the repeated, unchanging assertions in the gospels. God came among us in flesh and died for our sins. He was buried, he was raised from the dead, and then he was seen by a remarkable number of witnesses. Who knows, a whole new religion might form around these ideas.

The Joy of Reality

We are so blessed to have the story of Christ before us now, scrupulously translated and searchable, with nearly 2,000 years of interpretive work to aid us. In fact, we would be fools to ignore what is available.

About two decades after Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul recorded in 1 Corinthians the progressive way the risen Jesus availed himself to witnesses before ascending into heaven. Focusing first on the male witnesses—in Paul’s day, only men had legal standing—he went on to note how eventually more than 500 women and men saw and interacted with the risen Christ. Many of them remained alive in Paul’s day, available to repeat their testimony!

Not that we need absolute proof. We do, after all, practice a religion based on faith. As Jesus said to doubting Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And yet, to believe, it helps to have astonishing evidence we can initially trust, a word from witnesses who seemed to have nothing but our best interests in mind.

The Bible is that evidence.

Lord, may we grow in our faith as we trust the witnesses you have given us. Amen.