Do Not Forget the Lord Your God

Deuteronomy 8

By Chuck Griffin

In this season of Thanksgiving—this coming long weekend where we count our blessings and look toward God in gratitude—we Americans find ourselves in a good land.

Some would call such an assertion debatable, citing a pandemic, inflation, a strange job market, and social unrest as their evidence. And these problems do exist, causing suffering.

We still live in a good land, however. If for no other reason, it is good because it remains a place where we can freely remember and worship God. I also think there are many other reasons it remains a good land. Despite the current gloom, I’m an optimist, and I’m mindful that we’ve faced much worse as a nation.

To me, the parallels between our situation and the situation the Israelites were in as they prepared to enter the Promised Land are striking. The book of Deuteronomy largely is Moses reminding the people of their history and their relationship with God, preparing them for Moses’ imminent death and their first steps into a long-anticipated future.

“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper,” Moses told them, his words recorded in the eighth chapter. “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.”

With a few modifications to the types of crops and some additions to the minerals, this could serve as a description of North America.

There also is a warning: “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God,” Moses said. After reminding them once again of all the perils God had brought them through, Moses added, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ “

I would not go so far as to describe the United States as some kind of new Promised Land. Our nation was not designed to relate to God through a direct covenant. It is, however, structured so that individuals can enter into any kind of covenant with God, assembling with those of like mind without fear of persecution. That freedom has allowed Christianity in all its variations to thrive here.

Yes, we debate loudly about politics, and the price of a Thanksgiving meal is up; yes, gas is once again over $3 a gallon where I live, and as high as $6 a gallon in other parts of the country. But this land remains a great blessing to its inhabitants and the world as long as our principles of freedom remain. Less stuff would not diminish our connection to God.

The lesson from Deuteronomy is simple, and as relevant to us as it was to those desert people longing for a little variety in their diets and a constant water supply. Remember God—remember the one you follow, the one you have declared to be above all creation.

Worshiping God in good times and bad is our primary task.

Dear Lord, your first blessing was to give us life; help us to use our lives as ongoing acts of thanksgiving and praise. Amen.

When the Bottom Falls Out, Part 2

Job 2:6-10 (NLT)

“All right, do with him as you please,” the Lord said to Satan. “But spare his life.” So Satan left the Lord’s presence, and he struck Job with terrible boils from head to foot. Job scraped his skin with a piece of broken pottery as he sat among the ashes. His wife said to him, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.” But Job replied, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” So in all this, Job said nothing wrong.


By ‘Debo Onabanjo

As noted yesterday, Job had reason to blame God for the calamity that befell him, but the Bible tells us that Job did not blame God. In fact, in the book’s first chapter, Job habitually offered burnt offerings to the Lord just in case his children “sinned and cursed God in their hearts” (see Job 1:5). Job was a worshiper of God. Through his life and response to the unexplainable evil that befell him, he proved himself worthy of the things that God had said about him. 

The Lord who knows the end from the beginning knew that Job would remain steadfast during severe testing and consequently gave Satan permission to once again attack Job, but without taking his life. Satan subsequently struck Job with terrible boils from head to foot and he became a pathetic sight.

To ease the pain of the boils, Job would scrape his skin with a piece of broken pottery as he sat among the ashes. (Job 2:7-8.) Although we do not have details as to the nature of Job’s illness, it must have so devastating and horrible that even his wife could not bear it anymore. 

While we expect that marriage should be a lifelong experience between the man and the woman until they are parted by death, Job’s wife was done with living with her terribly sick husband, whose sight she could no longer bear. She angrily told him, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.” (Job 2:9.)

Job’s stoic response to his wife demonstrated his unwavering commitment and trust in the Lord: “ ‘You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?’  So in all this, Job said nothing wrong.”  (Job 2:10.) Job’s response should make us reflect on our commitment to the Christian journey.

Is our love for the Lord and our faith based on what we get from the Lord? I know some folks who in the face of terrible tragedy, like the loss of a child or spouse, have walked away from God. They could not understand why a God they trusted would allow their child or loved one to die. Is your faith conditional?

When the bottom falls out of your world and you are faced with unexpected tragedy, how will you respond? This reminds me of the response of my late mother to the tragic news of the death of my younger brother Gbenga on Monday Aug. 25, 2003, at the age of 24 years. My mother went to the Mount Carmel Hospital East in Columbus, Ohio, to identify the lifeless body of my brother, and she later shared with me these painful words she had uttered: “Gbenga, your death will not destroy my faith.” 

We all know that as parents, we are not created to bury our own children, but in the face of a most tragic event that she could not understand, my mother testified to her strong faith in the Lord. Of course, my brother’s death rocked our world as a family, but it did not destroy our faith in the goodness of the Lord, who has continued to sustain us almost 18 years after Gbenga’s demise. This same faith has sustained us since my mother, Ibidunni Onabanjo, succumbed to her illness and joined the saints triumphant on Sept. 4, 2012. 

I have no doubt that most if not all of us have experienced painful and devastating events. As Jesus clearly tells us in John 16:33, in this world we are going to face trials and sorrows, but we can hold on to his peace.

How do you respond in the face of tragedy and bad news? Do you blame God or accept the event as part of the consequences of living in a sin-infested and broken world? It is important to note that while we do not have any control over the things that will be done to us or that will happen to us, we have control over how we react and respond to them.

Job, a man described by God as the finest man in all the earth, blameless and of complete integrity, provides a clear example for those of us living the life of faith. He shows us how we should respond in the face of situations that we have no control over.

The question that I often ask myself when I read the Book of Job is, What will God have to say about me? Is my life pleasing to God? Can God boast about me and ask Satan, “Have you noticed my servant ‘Debo?”

Satan had the wrong idea about Job. Even when all his possessions were taken from him, including his ten children, Job worshiped the Lord instead of blaming the Lord. May that be our approach no matter what comes our way.

Loving God, you became heartbroken because of human sin, but out of love you sacrificed your beloved Son to purchase our pardon. In the face of devastating life situations, help us to remain unwavering in our faith like Job.  Help us to be willing to endure pain and suffering as part of our devotion to you and grant us the grace to witness to the strength you alone provide. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

The Experience

We are moving toward our Sunday, July 11 sermon, “Despising the Celebration,” which will be viewable online and based on 2 Samuel 6.

Today’s Text: Colossians 3:16-17 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

Wednesday, we considered the importance of approaching God reverently, acknowledging his holiness and our unworthiness to be in the divine presence. Thanks to Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we are allowed to enter God’s presence despite our sins, and we find ourselves strengthened and sustained by the Holy Spirit.

So, what is the appropriate response to this remarkable turn of events? A celebration!

I think a lot of people struggle with worship because we don’t spend enough time celebrating. When we fail to celebrate in worship, we miss out on the joy of being Christian, a joy available to us regardless of our circumstances.

I know—we may not always feel like rejoicing. Poor? Sick? Lonely? Broken by sins committed? Victimized by another’s sin? Those aren’t ideal situations to be in, but our current circumstances brighten considerably when we put them in the light of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. The temporary nature of our woes becomes obvious when the Holy Spirit begins to work in us through God’s word, giving us a taste of what it means to be citizens of an eternal kingdom.

The joy of the resurrection—first, Christ’s, and later, our promised own—is something God offers us whenever we immerse ourselves in his story and praise him.

We’re told in Colossians 3:16-17, “Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.”

God’s word begets gratitude, and with gratitude in our hearts, we sing and direct our celebration toward our audience, God. We can rejoice in such ways during appointed worship times, at 11 a.m. on Sunday, for example.

We also can celebrate when gathered in small groups. We can celebrate in our one-on-one time with God. God calls us to such celebratory experiences whenever we stand before him in worship.

Dear Lord, particularly as we have coped with Covid-19, we possibly have forgotten what it means to rejoice in our relationship with you. Help us to celebrate this Sunday, and every day.

The Approach

We are moving toward our Sunday, July 11 sermon, which will be viewable online and based on 2 Samuel 6.

Today’s Text: Matthew 6:9-13 (NLT)


By Chuck Griffin

These devotions began in support of a larger effort to encourage traditional Methodist small groups. The group in which I participate recently revealed to me some connections between what we commonly call the “Lord’s Prayer” and this Sunday’s developing sermon on the nature of worship.

Jesus was teaching his followers how to pray, moving ultimately into an example of prayer straight from his divine lips. It’s perfectly fine to pray the prayer as is—you cannot go wrong quoting Jesus. The prayer also serves a larger purpose, however.

As a model for other prayers, his words remind us of how we are to approach God.

First, God is holy, and we need to stay rooted in that truth as we pray. By “holy,” we mean God is without fault, always perfect and the standard by which creation should be measured.

Sadly, we are sullied by our freely made poor choices. Our sins make us unholy. We need to approach God with expressions of humility and a sense of caution, what the Bible’s English translators sometimes describe as “fear.” That which is unholy historically has not survived direct experiences of God for very long.

As we pray, we also should express our deep desire to align our will with God’s will. We need to declare that we intend for our lives and the world around us to fall in line with what God wants.

That big-picture attitude creates the proper environment for praying about situations large and small. We can confidently approach our holy God as a loving God, knowing he will meet us in any moment as we call upon him with appropriate reverence.

In particular, we pray for relief from the sins tainting us, knowing we can seek forgiveness because of the work Jesus Christ performed on the cross. And we are reminded that the grace we are continually shown should be extended to others.

This all should create in us a humble demeanor that not only benefits us in daily prayer, but also prepares us for proper worship. As we will see on Friday, when properly prepared for worship, we can experience wondrous results.

Lord, keep us in awe, keep us humble, and at the same time let us know that we have many reasons to rejoice in your presence. Amen.

Let the Music Play

Psalm 150 (NLT)

Praise the Lord!

Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty heaven!
Praise him for his mighty works;
    praise his unequaled greatness!
Praise him with a blast of the ram’s horn;
    praise him with the lyre and harp!
Praise him with the tambourine and dancing;
    praise him with strings and flutes!
Praise him with a clash of cymbals;
    praise him with loud clanging cymbals.
Let everything that breathes sing praises to the Lord!

Praise the Lord!

By Chuck Griffin

As someone regularly involved in leading worship, I have to acknowledge where I am and am not gifted. Music is definitely an area where I need to step back and let others take charge.

I love worship music, though, and singing is a critical part of worship. When the singing has to be muted or subdued, as it has been during the pandemic, I am among the first to recognize how we suffer.

Psalm 150 makes it clear how noisy worship should be, at least at times. (There’s a place in worship for deep, meaningful silence, too.) The word “exuberance” comes to mind.

One thing I’ve learned over the years—musical exuberance comes in many forms. I’ve been blessed to pastor churches employing all sorts of music styles, and I’ve seen how every style has the potential to glorify God.

Some rural folk would immediately reject the idea of “high” worship being inspiring, but some of the best worship I’ve ever experienced was at a Methodist church that focused on the organ, the choir, and a highly disciplined, classical sound. These people knew how to inspire worshipers with music that often was centuries old.

I’ve also been blessed to have a similar experience during so-called “contemporary” worship in its many different forms. (This style should significantly change how it sounds every decade or so if it’s going to stay contemporary. Otherwise, it is just a particular generation’s preference.) I have been in services with a bluegrass or southern gospel sound that have brought me to tears, too.

Here’s the key: It’s not the style of the music, it’s the intent of the music leaders and the worshipers as they follow along. If God is praised through the music, if God is glorified, God’s Spirit will flow through what is happening, and we will feel inner transformation during the experience.

If the music comes across like a performance—if someone other than God is glorified—the whole service is likely to fall flat.

I thank God regularly for those of you with musical gifts, whether you are pianists, organists, guitarists, singers, fiddlers, banjo pickers, saxophonists, drummers, cymbal crashers or tambourine shakers. Keep doing what you do to the glory of our Lord and Savior.

Lord, thank you for the gift of music. It touches our souls in places words can never reach. Amen.

Abide

1 John 2:28 (NRSV) And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.


By Chuck Griffin

Holiness is a churchy word meaning we behave as God would have us behave. It’s a difficult concept for people who resist or reject Christianity because they perceive conversations about holiness as evidence of God’s authoritarianism, or worse, a church’s attempt to control society at large.

The call to holiness you hear from God in Scripture and through Holy Spirit-inspired churches has nothing to do with such negative motives, however. We simply are being reminded to live in a way that should be a natural response to God’s overwhelming love, expressed most clearly in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.

A little after today’s text, in 3:6, John goes so far as to make a bold, flat statement: “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” The larger context of the letter helps us to understand the author is talking about ongoing, deliberate sin.

When we find ourselves asking, “Why am I still trapped in sin,” a good follow-up question might be, “How far have I strayed from God?” Odds are, we’re not truly abiding, gazing at him through our study of Scripture or leaning against him in prayer and worship.

John repeatedly refers to us as God’s children. Where are children the safest? Well, when they are near a loving parent, of course. It’s hard to get into trouble when you’re holding a parent’s hand.

In dangerous settings, even the slightest distance between child and parent can mean potential trouble. As good parents, we’re always trying to manage that distance, sometimes literally keeping our children on a short leash.

When our oldest child was beginning to move from toddling to real walking and running, we bought a springy little wrist tether so she would have more freedom to move when we were out in public. I still remember attaching the adult end to my left wrist and the complicated system of velcro and watchband-style straps to her right wrist.

Being spatially gifted, she studied her end for about five seconds and had it undone, proudly handing it back to me. I did the only thing I could do—I went back to holding her hand.

It’s good for children to have that desire to be independent from us. Ultimately, their instinct to go it alone makes it possible for them to grow into independent adults.

Acting like independent-minded children in our relationship with God is a bad idea, though. We are not little gods, needing to pull away in order to grow. We instead are part of God’s creation, designed to abide in our creator for all eternity.

Lord, call us back when we resist our connection to you, and grow us into the kind of Christians who naturally and joyfully abide in your love. Amen.

Worshiping with Abandon

Welcome to Holy Week! We will walk with Jesus this week toward Good Friday and the cross.

John 12:1-8 (NRSV)

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


By Chuck Griffin

It’s not difficult to discern that Mary—the sister-of-Lazarus Mary—did something strange and even shocking when she used a small fortune in perfume on Jesus’ feet.

If you see Christianity as a strait-laced, rules-oriented faith, and you would rather hold on to that view, you might want to avoid a story like this one altogether. The characters in this story had been swelling with emotion for days, and Mary finally exploded in an act of love that defied logic and propriety. The only speaker of earthly logic in this story was Judas, who was a few days from falling under Satan’s complete control.

Siblings and Friends

Bible readers will remember Mary and her siblings Martha and Lazarus. There is a story in the tenth chapter of Luke where Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as Martha worked in the kitchen. When Martha complained, Jesus said Mary had “the better part.”

John tells us all three were Jesus’ friends. It’s likely their home in Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, was where Jesus stayed when he drew near to the heart of Judaism. They also may have been wealthy, and because the sisters are described as living with their brother, they either were young and unmarried or widowed.

The described volume of nard, probably spikenard from India, was worth about a year’s wages to a common laborer. It is unclear why Mary had it. In a world without secure bank accounts, it might have been a compact way for her to maintain some financial security. She may have intended it for her wedding night—the Song of Solomon demonstrates that nard’s warm, musky, intense smell was associated with sex. And, as is clear from the story, it could be used to prepare a loved one for burial.

For whatever reason Mary owned it, the nard represented her concern for the future.

Statements of Faith

At this dinner, Mary, Martha and Lazarus must have felt overwhelmed. Just a few days earlier, Jesus had performed his most astounding miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

As you may recall, Jesus deliberately dallied in going to his friends despite knowing Lazarus was sick, telling his disciples this event was occurring so “the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb four days. In the exchange that occurred between the sisters and Jesus, we see they believed in Jesus fully. Martha went so far as to call Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Jesus, moved by Mary and Martha’s pain, then proved he has power over life and death by calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

We need to keep those events in mind to understand Mary’s seemingly wasteful activity. She was riding an emotional epiphany—she and Martha had a deep understanding of what it means to be friends with someone who has power over life and death. Their beloved brother had been restored. They had experienced the pain and stench of death, and Jesus had replaced all of that with hope and joy.

An Act of Worship

When Mary poured out that overpowering nard and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, she worshiped. There really is no other word adequate to describe her actions. And in her actions, we are reminded why we worship.

I think this woman who had sat at Jesus’ feet to hear his teaching knew in some way that salvation for everyone—ever-present death transformed to everlasting life—was in the works. And knowing this, Mary dropped to her knees before our savior and worshiped, abandoning any concerns or cares she had for this world. She poured out her future on Jesus’ feet, knowing the work he would do as Messiah provided the greatest security.

As we draw nearer to Good Friday and Easter, can we learn to abandon ourselves so? Can we learn to trust so completely?

Those who do so will find true worship, and the scent of eternity will be on them and all who gather around.

Lord, on this Monday of Holy Week, we recommit ourselves to worshiping you as the one with power over life and death. 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.

The Return

Psalm 147:1-11 (NLT)

Praise the Lord!

How good to sing praises to our God!
    How delightful and how fitting!
The Lord is rebuilding Jerusalem
    and bringing the exiles back to Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted
    and bandages their wounds.
He counts the stars
    and calls them all by name.
How great is our Lord! His power is absolute!
    His understanding is beyond comprehension!
The Lord supports the humble,
    but he brings the wicked down into the dust.

Sing out your thanks to the Lord;
    sing praises to our God with a harp.
He covers the heavens with clouds,
    provides rain for the earth,
    and makes the grass grow in mountain pastures.
He gives food to the wild animals
    and feeds the young ravens when they cry.
He takes no pleasure in the strength of a horse
    or in human might.
No, the Lord’s delight is in those who fear him,
    those who put their hope in his unfailing love.

I would never make direct comparisons between our year-long Covid-19 situation and the decades of exile the people of Israel experienced. As we start to see a return to something like normal lives, however, it is easy to borrow a little of their exuberance.

At the church I pastor, Holston View United Methodist, we are resuming in-person worship this Sunday, with safety precautions, of course. (Masks, social distancing, etc.) Several congregants have expressed their joy at the news.

I am looking forward to preaching to a significant number of people, rather than mostly focusing on a distant black lens. Not that I will forget those of you who are out there watching the worship live on the internet, or the recordings. I know many of you will not be able to return to the sanctuary just yet because of Covid concerns, and we always have a population of folks who are homebound. It’s just nice to get back to a good mix of online and in-person worshipers.

The opening of Psalm 147 certainly guides our response as we return to our sanctuaries and other church activities in phases through 2021. We have much to rebuild: our commitment to the Great Commission, the small groups and social networks that sustain us, and our willingness to unabashedly praise God all come to mind.

He is our great and glorious God! Even in places where we cannot yet shout this truth, may our hearts be filled with it.

We also are reminded of our need to approach God with humility. We enter church understanding we are the broken ones, lacking any perfectly pure knowledge. We enter seeking wisdom and correction, knowing we will be blessed in our encounter with the eternal mind.

As we return, let’s continue to put our hope in his unfailing love, expressed perfectly in Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for our sins on the cross.

Lord, as church people we are in different stages of return to our places of worship, depending on our locations and individual situations. As Christians, however, we are bound together by your Holy Spirit, and we pray you empower us to worship you well, wherever we may be. Amen.

Silence

Psalm 62:5-12  (NRSV)
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
    for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
    my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
    pour out your heart before him;
    God is a refuge for us. Selah
Those of low estate are but a breath,
    those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
    they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion,
    and set no vain hopes on robbery;
    if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
Once God has spoken;
    twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
     and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
    according to their work.

Silence.  

It is possible to have silence during worship.  After hearing the joys and concerns of the congregation, I like to begin the pastoral prayer with silence.  There is something about a congregation quieting themselves before God.  When our week has been hectic and uncertain, waiting together to hear from the Lord is beneficial.

No matter whether we are of low or high estate, it is helpful to be silent before God.  To know the power and steadfast love that belongs to God, is for us to know that God is our rock and salvation.  We take a “Selah,” an interlude.  Humbling ourselves, examining our lives, or taking a moment to pause, are what can happen in the silence we have before the God.  Maybe in the silence, we can hear God, again.

God, we know you as our refuge.  The psalmist knew setting aside time in silence was good.  We are learning to be in silence.  As we turn to you, may we once again hear you speak to us.  Thank you for being our rock and salvation.  It is in the name of Jesus that we hope to be found when you repay all of us according to our work.  Amen.