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Monday, August 21, 2017 – “Shine On Us, O Lord!”

“O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” – Psalm 4:6

As the solar eclipse makes its rare “path of totality” from coast to coast across the United States, we pause to reflect on the wonder of the natural order, the precise movement of the elements in the universe, and the amazement that an object as relatively small as our moon could totally block the sun’s light from reaching Earth.  Indeed, this world is a wondrously made!

I’m intrigued by the eclipse and the idea that darkness falls on the earth – not because the sun refuses to shine, but rather because its light is blocked by a comparatively small object, just close enough to throw us into temporary darkness.  In all of this, I can’t help relating this eclipse and its causes to recent troubling and deadly events.

Our news has been filled with horrid images of white supremacists, chanting angry, ugly, offensive refrains both on the grounds of my Alma Mater, the University of Virginia, and in downtown Charlottesville, as they waved Nazi and Confederate flags and promulgated hatred until it all escalated into a violent terrorist act which inflicted physical harm and death.

The expressions of hate and intolerance throw darkness onto our land, not because the light of truth, justice, and liberty refuses to shine, but because that light is eclipsed at least in certain places at specific times by these angry, misled folk.  No wonder they carry torches; they have to light their way through the darkness cast by their ideology.  There is no place for such beliefs in American discourse, let alone in God’s mighty movement of truth and grace.

The word of hope is that God’s light continues to shine, and these eclipses of hatred are as short-lived as they are troubling.  Nevertheless, the scripture compels us to denounce the darkness and to open our lives to the light.  “O that we might see some good!” The psalmist cries out and then prays, “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”

We do pray that we might see some good come out of the hatred, violence, and bloodshed not only of these last days but throughout human history, and we daily ask for the light of God’s face to shine upon us to lead us into the paths of justice and peace.

“O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” Amen!

A Bible-study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

 

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017 – Inheriting the World’s Hatred

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” – John 15:18-19

It is shocking to read Jesus’ words about the world’s hatred of him and his followers.  This is no melodramatic hyperbole on Jesus’ part; he is in fact interpreting the events of his own cruel death before those events transpire.  Jesus would be killed by the people he came to save, and he offers little comfort when he tells his followers that they could expect the same treatment if they remain loyal to him.  Why would the world hate Jesus – the healer, the teacher, the miracle-worker, the reconciler, the giver and the forgiver?  We may try to make sense of it by chalking it up to jealousy or fear or partisan politics.  The real answer it seems is more fundamental – and haunting – than any of these explanations.

Way back in the first chapter of the Gospel, John describes Jesus as the incarnate Word of God, and in an unforgettably beautiful expression, he writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). While these words sound comforting and strong, they actually hold the key to understanding the world’s hatred both of Jesus and of all the prophets of God – those who came before him as well as those who follow after.

Grace is the unearned love, forgiveness, acceptance, and inclusion of all persons – even the stranger, the peculiar, and the offender.  Grace offends in its reckless hospitality and unmeasured generosity – giving without concern for cost, forgiving without inflicting shame, including without regard for status.  Grace is inherently unfair and incredibly offensive, especially to those who are certain of their own righteousness.  The world, preoccupied with scarcity and addicted to power, runs on an operating system in which grace is neither known nor welcomed.

It may be that the only thing more offensive to the world than grace is truth.  The Bible calls a truth-teller a prophet.  Throughout the ages, God has raised up prophets not to tell the future, but to tell the truth, and the world, which prefers nuance, innuendo, and alternative facts, has worked to silence them all.  It seems that the world has little tolerance for inconvenient truth.

As the bearer of “grace and truth,” Jesus was despised and rejected by the world.  Those who follow him will join the long line of “trouble-makers” and “agitators” hated by the world.  The consolation comes only in knowing that they are alone and in remembering Christ Jesus’ words, “I have chosen you out of the world.”

Lord Jesus, I do love you, but I do not want to be hated by the world.  Give me courage to follow you as a bearer of your grace and truth.  Amen.

A Bible-study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Monday, June 19, 2017 – You Are My Friends

You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. – John 15:14-15

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Christian faith is the relationship between the followers of the faith and the object of their worship, Jesus Christ.  Most religions define the divine-human relationship as master/slave or king/subject.  In such faith structures, followers are to obey without question, and it is their duty to satisfy their far-distant and unattainable gods by following rigid rules and offering sacrifices.  While there is some master/slave, king/subject imagery in Christian teaching, Jesus reveals that through his incarnation, God has chosen to make himself fully known and fully available to his creation. Even more amazing is Jesus’ revelation that God has chosen not to lord over his people by executing harsh judgment, but instead to develop an intimate, loving relationship with them through a transforming friendship. “You are my friends,” Jesus says plainly, “I do not call you servants.”

What do we make of Jesus’ offer of friendship?  To begin with, we need to be clear that Jesus is not seeking to become our buddy.  It is not that God wants to pal around with us.  The relationship is far more probing, powerful, and transforming that that.  Jesus’ offer of friendship is an expression of grace and an indication that God has no interest in ruling over subjects but in loving them.  God seeks to create a beloved community, through which the hearts of his people are transformed and the entire creation is redeemed.

Friendship on Jesus terms – a deep, challenging, transforming friendship – allows God’s grace to work within a follower, not simply to modify their behavior, but to change their very nature – so that they don’t merely obey God, they become like God.  Purged of the all-consuming, narrow self-love, they now are free to love purely and offer genuine hospitality, generosity, and compassion.

It seems that God believes the world does not need judging or even correcting; it needs loving, redeeming, transforming, perfecting.  The key to God’s movement of grace and truth is captured in Jesus’ words, “You are my friends.”

Lord Jesus, I want to be your friend, to spend time in your transforming presence, and to become more like you in thought, word, and deed.  Amen.

A Bible-study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

 

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Monday, June 12, 2017 – Greater Love

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. – John 15:12-13

In Jesus’ farewell discourse, he lays out the expectations he has of his followers and the divine community they create.  He has already told them that the community is to be rooted and bound to God just as branches are bound to a life-giving vine.  His followers bear the good fruit of transformation, as long as they are united with the vine under the care of the vine dresser.  As Jesus extends the discussion to his followers’ relationships with one another, he offers clear instruction, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

The Bible is famous for its commandments – the Ten Commandments, the Great Commandments, and Jesus’ final commandment.  These commandments are not unrelated. The Great Commandment, which is recorded in Mark 12:29-31, draws from the Jewish Torah – Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” and Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  This “Great Commandment” gives rise to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17), in which the first four commandments concern love for God (righteousness) and the final six commandments concern love for neighbor (justice). The final commandment, which Jesus offers in John 15, defines the love which makes every other commandment possible.

Jesus’ words are not just “that you love one another,” but rather “that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Jesus is calling his followers to a higher, purer, costlier love than mere affection.  He is calling for sacrificial love, an others-oriented love, a love that is greater even than death, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  This kind of pure, others-centered, sacrificial love is unknown in human nature, in which love is self-directed, often in toxic ways.  It is only as his followers feed on his divine nature, just as a branch is fed from the nutrients of the vine, that they are capable of living out this final commandment and live as part of God’s mighty movement.

Christ Jesus, help me love as you love and live as you live.  Amen

A Bible-study devotional blog by Gorman Houston.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017 – “I Am the Vine”

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  - John 15:1-5

John records the seventh and final “I Am” saying as Jesus addresses his followers on their last evening together.  The hour is approaching for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Within 24 hours, he will be dead.  He speaks to his followers about life.  He is about to leave his disciples.  His words compel them to “abide in” him.  His arrest, trial, and death will show the barrenness of the religious leaders’ faith.  Jesus’ offer is abundant fruitfulness.

“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and my Father is the vinegrower.”  The imagery of the vine is rich both in the Jewish scriptures and in Jewish self-understanding.  Both Jeremiah and Isaiah speak of Israel as a “choice vine.”  Hosea calls the People of God a “luxuriant vine.”  All three use the image to speak of how the very people God planted have produced, not a fruitful harvest, but sour, even poisonous, grapes.

As Jesus prepares his disciples for his death, he expresses to them that he will be closer to them in death than he has been to them in life, that they will find life in him, and that as they abide in him – in his love and in his life-giving spirit – they will indeed bear good fruit.

In this extended metaphor John reveals that Jesus is the “true vine,” not replacing, but fulfilling Judaism.  Jesus’ followers are grafted into the vine and receive abundant life from him.  Just as a branch bears fruit by drawing its nourishment from the life-giving vine, so too Jesus’ followers will bear the fruit of love and unity as they draw grace and truth from Christ Jesus.  Just as branches cannot live if severed from the vine, so too Jesus tells his followers, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

Jesus’ expression and final “I am” saying offer assurance that he is not merely ushering in a new philosophy or a new theology.  His offer is newness of life – full and abundant, transcending even death.

Lord Jesus, I draw my very sustenance from you.  May you be glorified, as my life blossoms in grace and truth and bears the good fruit of abiding love.  Amen

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston