Monthly Archives: December 2012

Christmas, 2012: When Christmas Breaks In…

8 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 ”Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” – Luke 2:8-14

There is something that feels awkward about celebrating Christmas this year in light of the tragedy that took the lives of twenty school children and eight adults in Connecticut earlier this month.  I read where some of the residents of Newtown took down their Christmas decorations following the tragedy or decided not to put them up.  Nevertheless, it seems that not even intense, complicated grief can prevent Christmas from coming.  The Newton Post Office has been inundated with cards, letters, and gifts for the residents of the small community.  In addition, thousands of toys have come to the town for all the children to know that the world is not a frightening evil place.  It seems that Christmas is bursting through the grief of Newtown.

Back on December 26, 1942, The Saturday Evening Post cover featured a Norman Rockwell Christmas painting of a man reading the desperately depressing news of World War II.  Bursting through the paper was a red-mittened Santa Claus with the simple message, “Merry Christmas.”  That’s the way Christmas is breaking in again this year – not only in Newtown, but in your town and my town too.  Aching anxiety over senseless killings, the financial cliff, and weird weather patterns can rob our lives of joy and peace.  But greater than any crazed killer, greater than political maneuvering, greater even than the forces of nature is God’s great gift of Christ Jesus.

A baby’s cry broke through the silence of the night when Jesus was born, and angels burst on the scene to sing God’s glory to a group of unsuspecting shepherds.  So too God’s grace breaks through our guilt, God’s truth breaks open our error, God’s love breaks into our loneliness, God’s light breaks into our darkness.  Celebrating Christmas may seem a bit awkward with heavy hearts for any number of reasons, but don’t be surprised  if Christmas invades your life.  Christ has a way of showing up in unexpected places, undeserving lives, and unsuspecting hearts.  Let us rejoice with the angels and give glory to God in the highest.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Friday, December 21, 2012: What Can I Give Him…

4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, 5 ”Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. 8 The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” John 12:4-8

John’s Gospel records the extravagant offering by Mary, who washed Jesus’ feet by anointing them with costly perfume and then drying them with her hair.  Such a personal and extravagant expression of devotion shows the depth of Mary’s love for her Lord.  We can imagine that the house was filled with the strong musk smell from the nard, such that no one could overlook the act.  The house must also have been filled with that uncomfortable feeling of witnessing a public display of affection.

John reports that Judas was quick to take issue with Mary’s offering.  It seems that no good deed goes unpunished.  “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” Judas inquired.  John tells us that Judas had little regard for the poor; his motives were more self-serving.  Judas’ criticism was based on the opportunity cost of the gift.  If Mary didn’t want the ointment, she could have sold it for a full year’s worth of wages, and that money could have been given to alleviate suffering.  Jesus swiftly and strongly rebuked Judas.  First, Jesus seemed to recognize that Mary anointed his feet with nard not because she did not want the costly ointment, but because it was likely the most expensive thing she owned.  She treasured it and was giving it freely to him as an extreme act of sacrifice and devotion.  Second, Jesus made it clear that the greater opportunity cost was to miss the moment at hand.  “The poor you will always have with you, but you do not always have me,” Jesus told him.  Of course, the setting of this event in Bethany just six days before the Passover tells us that Jesus would be crucified within the week.   Mary may have been more aware of this opportunity than anyone else.

The truth is that we all face opportunities – some economic, some vocational, some relational, etc.  Wisdom is knowing which opportunities have eternal value, and which ones simply advance our own narrow interests.  Mary, it seems, was wiser than most, even though her action came under scrutiny and attack.

“What can I give him, poor as I am?  If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.  If I were a wise man, I would do my part.  What can I give him – give him my heart.”  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Wednesday, December 20, 2012: An Extravagant Offering…

1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Laz’arus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Laz’arus was one of those at table with him.3 Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. – John 12:1-3

John records that Jesus returned to Bethany, this time six days before the Passover – less than a week before Jesus would be crucified.  As the Passover approaches in John’s Gospel, every detail takes on eternal significance, including that Jesus returns to the home of the very man he raised from death.  John tells us that Lazarus was there and that Martha served, but the focus of this narrative is on sister Mary.

It was a customary expression of hospitality for a servant of the host to wash the feet of guests.  A basin of water and a towel were commonly used to wash off dust and perhaps to soothe tired feet.  Mary offered just such an act of hospitality, but her expression was both extravagant and intimate.  First, it was not her servant who attended to this task.  She took the role of a servant.  Second, she did not use water but “a pound of costly ointment of pure nard.”  Nard, sometimes called spikenard, nardin, or muskroot, was used in Jesus’ day as incense in such places as the Temple and also as a sedative and medicinal herb.   It was incredibly expensive, a pound costing as much as a year’s worth of wages.  The fragrance is similar to muskoil, and a single drop could fill an entire room with its aroma.

John tells us that Mary took a pound of pure nard and anointed Jesus’ feet – an extreme act of hospitality and an extravagant expression of love.  However, the act became even more extreme when she used her own hair to wipe his feet.  Such intimacy is shocking even to us as we read of it 2,000 years later.  We can only imagine the feelings of awkwardness of those who witnessed such an extreme, intimate, and extravagant gesture.   Mary seemed to be little concerned with the thoughts and feelings of others.  Her actions were motivated only by her deep affection for her Lord.

Mary’s extravagant offering marks the beginning of the passion narrative, the final events of Jesus’ life, as he journeys to the cross to make his own extravagant offering.

Lord Jesus, help me accept your extravagant love and share it through acts of service.  Amen.

A Bible Study devotional by Gorman Houston

Monday, December 17, 2012: Lazarus, Come Out…

43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Laz’arus, come out.” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”- John 11:43-44

One of the most dramatic scenes depicted in all of the scriptures is the account of the raising of Lazarus.  Remember, this friend of Jesus had died before Jesus arrived in Bethany.  In fact, we are told over and again that Lazarus had been buried in the tomb for four days.  After greeting Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, Jesus then went to the tomb – not to grieve, but to perform the seventh and final miracle recorded in John’s Gospel.  Amid protests of hopelessness, Jesus called for the tomb to be opened.  Amid concerns of the stench of death, Jesus spoke words of life.  The tomb was opened; Jesus prayed; then he called for Lazarus to come forth.

John records that Lazarus responded to Jesus’ command, “The dead man came out.”  He was still wearing the trappings of death, so Jesus’ next command was to those who were grieving, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  This command carries meaning as well – remove the signs of death, the things that bind him, those items that prepare him for death, and set him free to live.

It seems that Jesus’ commands were actually to all who believe in him.  Perhaps he is calling us all out of the death traps of life – addictions, hatred, anger, bitterness, small-mindedness, doubt, despair, fear, self-pity, disbelief.  And perhaps he is calling us to cast aside the trappings of these killers that we may be free to live fully in Jesus’ name and under Jesus’ authority.

John tells us that this miracle is a sign of God’s kingdom of light and life, that in it we come to understand more fully God’s kingdom.  It is also the last sign Jesus will perform until the ultimate sign following his death and burial.  There Jesus will not simply be returned to life.  He will be resurrected to eternal life.  The raising of Lazarus just before Jesus enters Jerusalem, therefore, prepares the reader for the showdown between Life and Death in the events that follow in the Holy City.

Lord, let me hear your command to come out of the deathtraps that imprison me, to let go of the habits and attitudes that bind me, and to live freely and fully in your name.  Amen. 

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Weekend Devotional, December 14-16: Weep with those who weep…

Jesus wept – John 11:35

The shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which left twenty children and eight adults dead, is an unthinkable tragedy.  There is no way to measure the grief of the community, nor can we make sense of the actions that brought about such devastation.   We grieve in a general way because innocent people have been gunned down in a supposedly safe place.  We grieve in a general way because if this can happen in Newtown, Connecticut, then who is safe?  We grieve in a general way because of the loss in particular of young children whose lives were just beginning and because of the loss of those adults who had invested themselves in developing children for a grand future.  But our grief becomes specific and intense when we come to know the individuals who were killed, when we learn their names and hear their stories, when we look at their faces and see their smiles, when we learn of their child-like wonder and see the pictures they colored in school, when we think of their empty desks in classrooms and their empty beds at home, when we come to know their families.  That kind of grief is almost unbearable.

How do we respond to such tragedy?  Perhaps the best thing we can do initially as people experience any kind of grief is be present with them.  We join them in their sorrow.  We do as Jesus did – we weep with them.  In just such situations, I encourage people to tell me about their loved one, to talk about what made them special, to tell me about their personalities, to share their tender memories.  I find that’s the kind of thing that is most on people’s minds when they experience loss like this.  It is gut-wrenching; it is tear-jerking; it is genuine empathy.  “Jesus wept.”

What is rarely helpful when people first experience loss is to try to make sense of tragedy or to try to explain it.  It is generally not helpful to talk theology even if the grievers are asking, “Why?”  They are not seeking an answer; they are just crying out in pain.  It is rarely helpful to assure people that things will get better.  Most people who are genuinely engaged in loss do not even want things to be better – not at first anyway.  They want and need to feel the devastating pain of loss, and they will resent anyone who tries to rob them of that.  The time will come for them to gain understanding and for them to move forward in their grief toward healing.  Right now they simply need to experience the pain of loss.

When Lazarus died, Jesus was present with Mary and Martha. He listened to their grief and shared it.  He wept with them.  So too, when we show up, when we evoke memories and share pain, and when we refrain from quick answers and worn-out clichés, we are being present with those who grieve.

The people in Newtown are grieving.  If you know them, ask them about their children.  Ask how they lived.  Ask how they died.  Listen, cry, hug, attend to immediate concerns and needs…be present.  Leave deep questions unanswered for now.  Leave thoughts of what they are going to do unresolved for now.  Help them get through this day… help them handle the present.  And pray with and for them as one who genuinely shares their grief with them.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever and love me I pray.  Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit them for heaven to live with thee there.  Amen

“…weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15b

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Thursday, December 13, 2012: Take away the stone…

39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”– John 11:39-40

John records that Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha following the death of their brother Lazarus brought them to a faith crisis.  Jesus told those who were grieving to reopen the grave.  The idea horrified Martha, and she reminded Jesus that Lazarus was dead as a doornail and had been for four days.  Opening the grave would cause a stink.  Jesus did not yield.   In fact, he seemed to push the point, “Either you believe or you don’t.”  His challenge was to require more faith than just words.  He was looking for courageous, decisive action.  In fact, Jesus tells Martha that she will see and experience the glory of God not merely by holding on to a belief but by living in the confidence that God is very present.

When we read John’s account, we become aware that Jesus’ words and actions are not just about Lazarus.  He seems to be talking to everyone who is bound by past hurts, imprisoned by fears, shackled by addictions, brain-washed by prejudice, or engaged in any of the other death-traps that surround us.  As we read these words and genuinely encounter Christ Jesus, we too face a faith crisis that moves us from mere words to courageous action.  Jesus’ words, “Take away the stone” may be as threatening to us as they were to Martha.  It may horrify us even to think of allowing Jesus to see, touch, or heal the parts of our lives that bring us pain or shame.  Just as he was with Martha, so too with us, he is unyielding.  The command is one of grace, not judgment, and Jesus assures us that only by exposing the death-places in our lives to his touch, can we experience healing, can we truly live fully and free, and can God’s glory be revealed.

Jesus’ command is an invitation to life.

Lord Jesus, give me courage to entrust to your healing touch my fears and failures, my hurts and hang-ups, my sins and sorrows. Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Wednesday, December 12, 2012: Faith in Christ, not the Crowd…

36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” John 11:36-37

People say some of the strangest things in times of grief.  Perhaps you’ve noticed.  In seeking to offer comfort, people will say ridiculous things, trite things, awkward things, even untrue things.  Well-meaning comments like, “It was just God’s will” often offer more resentment and confusion than comfort during times of tragedy.  It’s tough at times of extreme emotion to discern God’s will or interpret God’s purposes.  Such is the case in our verses from John’s Gospel today.  Lazarus has died, and a crowd of well-meaning friends and neighbors have gathered about his sisters, Mary and Martha.

When Jesus arrived, the two sisters were fully engaged in their grief.  They longed to see Jesus, and they rushed to meet him when they heard he was there.  Jesus was moved both by the death of one friend and by the grief of two others.  John tells us that when the crowd saw Jesus weep over Lazarus’ death, they acknowledged Jesus’ love for his friend, but they immediately voiced doubt about Jesus.  Their words were something like, “It seems that someone who could open the eyes of the blind could have healed Lazarus, especially if he loved him so much.”  We can almost detect a smirk in their comments, a smug, self-satisfaction in doubting this Jesus all along.

But Martha and Mary did not doubt.  They continued to express faith in Jesus, even in the face of overwhelming grief and confusion.  They remind us that it is not by following the crowd that we find Jesus and experience the fullness of life in his name.  It’s only as we trust in Christ Jesus in spite of the surrounding doubters and even in spite of the circumstances of life that we come to truth.  Just as Nicodemus left the crowd and came to Jesus earlier in the Gospel, and just as the young boy emerged from the crowd to offer his lunch of bread and fish for Jesus to multiply, so too Mary and Martha distance themselves from the prevailing folly and doubt of the mourners and lay claim to Jesus’ offer of life.

Lord Jesus, give me courage to believe your truth and to find life in your name.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Monday, December 10, 2012: We Do Not Weep Alone…

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; 34 and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” - John 11:33-36

John’s Gospel clearly reveals Jesus as the Messiah of God who self-identifies as the one who fulfills the longings of Israel…the true Jew, the true Temple, the true law-giver, the true Shepherd, the true Light, and on it goes.  But John also includes in his gospel expressions of Jesus’ humanity.  John tells us that Jesus grew weary from his journey, that Jesus was thirsty as he asked for a drink, and in our passage today, that Jesus wept at the sorrow of Mary and Martha and the death of Lazarus.

It is tempting for us to think that Jesus would be unmoved by life’s joys and sorrows because he is above the fray,because he has super powers and an eternal perspective.  Yet John reminds us throughout his Gospel of that which he wrote in the beginning of his work, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Jesus did not stay above the fray.  He entered the fray.

We also might wonder what made Jesus divine if he became fully human.  Was it was his power or his knowledge of the future?  Such is not the case, according to John’s Gospel.  Jesus did not have super powers to use as he wanted as John tells us.  He prayed for the Father to work the miracles, to perform the signs.  What made Jesus divine was his divine nature, his pure love for God and for others.  It was in his perfect relationship with God the Father that he was able to trust God fully and completely in every circumstance, and God’s presence was made manifest in powerful ways.

So, Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus.  He felt the pain of loss and empathy for the broken hearts of his friends.  Having faith and assurance that God would raise Lazarus did not keep Jesus from experiencing great sorrow and grief.  The same is true for us all.  Our faith may assure us that nothing of value is lost in God’s kingdom, but that does not keep us from experiencing healthy emotions of sorrow and grief when we experience losses.  The Gospel assures us that we do not weep alone.

Lord, thank you for caring for us, for loving us, even for weeping with us and for us.  Help me trust you with all my thoughts and feelings that you may purify them and purify me.  Amen. 

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.. – Isaiah 53:4-5

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Thursday, December 5, 2012: God’s Timing…

17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Laz’arus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off,19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” – John 11:17-21

Time is an important theme throughout John’s Gospel.  Everything has a certain order, a certain time in God’s plan, and John makes it clear that Jesus is completely in control of his time.  All of which makes the timing of Jesus’ response to the request to help Lazarus seem strange.  We are told in verse 6 that when Jesus heard that Lazarus, his friend, was sick he remained in Galilee two more days before he began his journey to Bethany.  John tells us that when Jesus finally did arrive in Bethany, it was too late.  Lazarus was dead and buried.  In fact, John reports that Lazarus had been dead for four days by then.  What’s more, John reports that both Martha and Mary lamented that Jesus did not arrive in time to heal Lazarus.  All of this makes it somewhat obvious that there is more going on here than a run-of-the-mill healing miracle.

What can we learn here? First, Jesus is Lord.  Jesus is Lord even over terrible circumstances.  Jesus is Lord even over grief.  Jesus is Lord even when he does not respond as quickly as we would like.  Jesus is Lord even over death. 

The other lesson we can learn is that God’s timing is not our own.  We view life in a narrow, linear fashion with one event preceding another.  God’s timing is fuller and richer, above and beyond our understanding, less like a limited line segment and more like a geometric plane.  Even when we are anxious and fretful over the shortness of time, God remains patient, calm, unhurried.   God is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 103:17), and our faith in Christ Jesus empowers us to calibrate our lives to God’s eternal timing and thereby find peace and assurance.  In Christ, we are no longer bound by a line segment; our lives are included in an eternal plane which knows no end.  God’s timing, though often confusing to us, is actually complete…and perfect.

Eternal Father, Ancient of Days, help us trust you with every minute of every hour of every day. Amen.

 A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Tuesday, December 4, 2012: Best Friends Forever…

“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.”- John 11:11

Jesus and Lazarus were friends.  In fact, John may be telling us that they were “best friends forever.”  As we read John’s Gospel, we find that Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were all very close to Jesus.  The siblings freely shared their home with Jesus when he was in the Jerusalem area, since they lived in Bethany, a short distance from the Holy City.  It is in the context of deep friendship that Jesus is summoned to Bethany, that Mary and Martha find comfort and hope, that Jesus experiences great sorrow, and that Lazarus is raised from death to life.

In this account we find the key to experiencing abundant life – intimate friendship with Jesus.  Intimate friends freely share their lives with each other.  Perhaps you have a close friend with whom you so freely and joyously share your possessions that you lose sight of who actually owns certain items.  Sometimes friends buy things together, go on trips together, or live together, creating shared moments, shared memories, shared lives.  In the same way, we experience abundant life as we share a deep abiding intimate friendship with Jesus.  In the context of such a friendship with such a friend we find our faith quickened, our hopes stirred, our sorrows comforted, our vision raised, our sins forgiven, our possibilities unfettered.

Jesus’ great desire is to be our friend and to share with us his love and life so fully that we no longer can tell where our lives end and his life begins.  We simply share life.  In this context, we share our joys and sorrows; our hopes and dreams; our successes and failures.  So too Jesus shares with us his will and purpose, his grace and strength, his peace and comfort.  Everything we have we share with him; everything he has he shares with us.  His loves become our loves; his concerns become our concerns; his cross becomes our cross; his death becomes our death; his resurrection becomes our resurrection.

Reflecting on this relationship, Charles Wesley wrote these words, “Made like him; like him we rise/Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.”

Lord Jesus, I want to be your best friend forever.  Amen.

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…” (John 15:15)

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston