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.

The Day Will Come

Psalm 126

A song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem.

When the Lord brought back his exiles to Jerusalem,
    it was like a dream!
We were filled with laughter,
    and we sang for joy.
And the other nations said,
    “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.”
Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us!
    What joy!

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    as streams renew the desert.
Those who plant in tears
    will harvest with shouts of joy.
They weep as they go to plant their seed,
    but they sing as they return with the harvest.

Let’s paint a mental picture that also can serve as a prayer for today.

A day will come when we once again ascend and enter our places of worship, knowing we will bare our faces and sing unrestrained praises to our savior.

At first, it will seem like a dream. We will recognize this unfettered form of worship, but it also will seem new. Thanks to a very hard reminder about the value of group worship, we will praise God with a heightened sense of joy.

Some who have never entered such holy places of communion will feel the urge to join us. The Holy Spirit is working in them now, readying them for salvation, and the outline of our figures climbing our hills and steps and standing in the open doors of our churches will be an irresistible invitation for the lonely, the disconnected, the seekers.

“Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us. What joy!”

Restore our fortunes, Lord. Restore our worship. Amen.

The Lovers

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Song of Songs 2:8-13 (NLT)

Preachers and theologians have struggled through the centuries to interpret the biblical book Song of Songs, sometimes called Song of Solomon. Why is the book even in the Bible?

If you read it in a straightforward manner, there is very little instruction about God or humanity’s relationship to God. Traditionally, preachers have “allegorized” Song of Songs, reading it as if it is all symbolic of God’s love for humanity and humanity’s pursuit of God.

Some modern preachers, myself included, struggle with that approach, however. While I respect my predecessors’ efforts, I find it a huge leap to consistently turn what is sometimes very sexual imagery into allegory. When we do so, we dodge the direct meaning of the text.

And then there are all those unanswered questions about the lovers. Who are they? (Traditionally, one of them is King Solomon, but that seems a bit of a stretch, too, as we’ll see shortly.) Why do they speak so boldly of their passionate desire for each other? Did they or didn’t they? (Yes, I’m talking about sex.) And if they did, were they married? (There’s no clear evidence in the text.)

I’m going to offer you my conclusion about how to read Song of Songs. It’s an opinion I formed after marking up the text, making some observations about speakers, characters, and the nature of Hebrew poetry, and then consulting the writings of a lot of scholars I respect. Your eternal salvation is not dependent on your agreeing with me—I just want to share with you what I think.

First of all, I doubt Song of Songs was ever intended to be read as a cohesive story. Instead, it’s a collection of sexually charged love poems. Think of Song of Songs like a box of snapshots from a relationship. The pictures tell us much about the relationship, but they’re likely not in chronological order, and there are lots of details missing.

That’s not a radical idea; it simply makes Song of Songs more like the collections of psalms, proverbs and other wisdom literature preceding it in the Bible.

We also can glean a few interesting-if-vague details. In at least some of the poems, the woman is a working girl. She makes it clear her family has forced her to work in the fields, the sun tanning her so deeply that she describes herself as very dark. Her beloved is fairer-skinned and described as her “king-lover,” but that may just be poetic language, a deliberate effort to juxtapose him with King Solomon rather than make him out to be King Solomon.

Of course, I still haven’t made it clear why Song of Songs belongs in the Bible. Again, I’m having to trust the research of better-trained scholars.

What’s particularly helpful is that in modern times, researchers have found that Song of Songs is not unique. There were lots of similar collections of sexually charged love poetry in the cultures that surrounded the Israelites. The major difference is the polytheistic approach to sex these cultures took. (Polytheists worship many gods; monotheists, like the Israelites, worship one all-powerful God.)

Sex in polytheistic cultures tended to be about control. All sorts of sexual rituals evolved in these cultures to encourage the rain to fall, the crops to grow, and the livestock to multiply. Sex often was ritualized at temples with prostitutes in some of these cultures, and it certainly served as a way for men to control women.

The Israelites were radically different from their neighbors because they officially followed the One True God. Song of Songs is a good indicator of how the Israelites’ understanding of God affected their attitudes about sex.

The poems here consistently talk about passionate, long-term love between one man and one woman. They seek each other not for control, but for mutual satisfaction and ultimately, procreation. (The woman speaks of mandrakes in 7:13, a plant associated with fertility.) Sex is not to control a god; sex is a gift from God.

Marriage may not be a definable event in these poems, but it is easily assumed considering the deep commitments the lovers are making to each other. Their love takes us back to the creation story in Genesis, where one man and one woman are depicted as dependent on each other, inseparable.

King Solomon may even appear in these poems now and then as a kind of literary foil, present to make the lovers’ commitment to each other more commendable. We cannot forget King Solomon’s downfall in the eyes of God. In 1 Kings 11, Solomon is condemned for his many foreign wives and his willingness to introduce their polytheistic worship to the Israelites.

Song of Songs reminds us that proper worship of the One True God changes our relationships for the better. This includes our sexual relationships, the most joyous physical gift God has given us, a gift that is celebrated in Jewish tradition and now Christian tradition.

Lord, may we live out all our relationships as reflections of holiness and in appreciation of the tremendous grace we are given. Amen.