Monthly Archives: December 2013

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Tuesday, December 31, 2013 – A Final Blessing

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:8-9

As we come to the close of the year, we find Paul’s final instructions and blessings to those who are in Christ in the town of Philippi.  His word is straight-forward, as he simply encourages the faithful to elevate their minds.  Note that Paul’s focus is on thoughts, not actions.  This is an important distinction, since the oppressive law focused not on thoughts or feelings but only on behavior.  Paul assures us, the “law of Christ” uses love, mercy, and grace to transform human action by transforming human minds.

Marketers and human-behavioral scientists often refer to “The Hierarchy of Effects” or the “AIDA” model.  Closely related, these models relate the progression that takes place within people to create action, as well as to create loyalty and habits.  The movement is from thinking (cognition) to feeling (affect) to doing (behavior).  To elevate our motives and actions, Paul encourages us to elevate our thoughts.

Paul seems to be closing his letter by saying, “This is how you can live a life worthy of the Gospel.  Focus your mind not on things that are untrue and unfair and tainted and base and self-serving, and faulty and distasteful.”  Instead, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  That mental exercise, Paul assures us, will lead us in the paths of righteousness.

The injunction is empowering.  We cannot control others.  We often cannot control our circumstances.  However, even in the worst of situations, we can control our thoughts.  We can choose to think Christ-like thoughts, and simply by setting our minds on those lofty things, our desires and actions will likewise be transformed.

It was not Paul, but Lao Tse who wrote, “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

Paul surely recognized the power of thoughts, and he assures the faithful that by elevating our thoughts and staying true to his teachings, we will experience the presence and power of the God of Peace.

Paul’s “final” word offers a good word (a bene diction) for us to end the year.

Good Father, purge my mind of base, mean-spirited, and errant thoughts.  Help me align all that I am – my thoughts, words, and deeds – with your will, to the glory of your name.  Amen.

A Bible-study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Friday, December 27, 2013 – Paul’s Secret

Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:11-13

Few life lessons are learned in times of abundance.  Most of the lessons of wisdom come when times are difficult, when things are not as we want them to be.  Wisdom, you see, is knowing the true value of things.  Wisdom is a matter of knowing what is truly important and what is not. It is easy for us to lose sight of the value of anything when we have more than enough of everything.  Wisdom’s lessons tend to come during seasons of want.

My grandmother used to say the most ridiculous thing.  She said, “I was fortunate.  I grew up during the depression when no one had much of anything.”  It has taken maturity for me to understand that my grandmother was talking about wisdom, about knowing the true value of things.  She had learned what was important in life and what was not at a very early age.

As the Apostle Paul was in a Roman prison, awaiting martyrdom, he wrote strong words, which are both personal and profound.  Perhaps reflecting on his life as a gifted, zealous Pharisee and on his life as a struggling, wanted evangelist for his Lord, he writes, “I know how to be abased and how to abound…I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.”  What was the secret which Paul learned?  Perhaps that life is more than a full belly, more than personal pleasure, more than winning.

The secret the Apostle had discovered was wisdom.  He knew that we will never be content if our contentment is based on getting our way.  If that’s the way we live, our lives will be filled with anxiety and fear and envy and arrogance. The secret to being content in “whatever state” we are in comes from anchoring our lives in that which is eternal and unchanging.

The secret comes in binding ourselves to the one who binds himself to us.  When we find new life in Christ, we can keep in beautiful perspective all of life’s joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, triumphs and tragedies.  Not that we are detached – not at all.  We are fully invested in life’s adventure, but we are not dependent upon getting our way for our well-being.  Our well-being comes from the source of life, the author of beauty, the granter of salvation, the finisher of faith, the wisdom of the ages, and when we claim that wisdom, we can proclaim with Paul, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one. (link to Youtube - skip the ad)

A Bible-study Devotional Blog by Gorman Houston


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Thursday, December 26, 2013 – Transcendent Gifts

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7

Did you get everything you were hoping for this Christmas?  If not, before you spend the day in the returns line, know that Paul has a good word for you.  Hidden among personal greetings to the Philippians in chapter 4, Paul enjoins the Philippians to live joyfully, prayerfully, thankfully, and peaceably.  And Paul’s word assures us that such a life is not only possible; it is a gift which God loves to give.

We begin by looking at Paul’s instruction to “rejoice in the Lord always.”  The idea of being joyful “always” may seem at best to be a bit naive and at worst to be an endorsement of shallow, self-serving theology, which connects faith to self-gratification.  A quick study of the life of the author of this verse allows us to rule out both naivete and superficiality.

So what is Paul getting at when he instructs us to “rejoice in the Lord always”?  Well, notice that he does not write, “rejoice in your circumstances.”  It seems that Paul is telling us that when we are “in the Lord,” or as he often says, “in Christ,” our life is defined primarily by our relationship with God through Christ.  We still face difficulties and sorrows; we still encounter disappointments and failures, but none of these circumstances is able to rob us of the joy we have “in the Lord.”

We have joy, not because everything goes our way, not because we get everything we want, not because everything about life is good, but only because transcendent joy is God’s gift to those in Christ. Transcendent joy is wholly independent of the circumstances we face, which assures us that no circumstance can take our joy away.

Paul goes on to write that it is not just transcendent joy which is experienced by those who are “in Christ.”  He adds that God also gives transcendent peace “which passes all understanding.”  Paul assures us that everything which has been said about God’s gift of joy can be said about God’s gift of peace.

All that is left to ask is, “Did you get everything you were hoping for this Christmas?”

Good Father, in this season of gift-giving and gift-receiving, may we open our hearts and lives to receive your gracious gifts which transcend and transform.  Amen.

A Bible-study Devotional Blog by Gorman Houston.


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Monday, December 23, 2013 – “Christmas in the Dark” – sermon

Christmas in the Dark
a sermon by
Gorman Houston
John 1:1-5

Preached at First United Methodist Church of Tuscaloosa
Longest Night Service, 2013

What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops. – Mt 10:27

The Christmas holiday is a mixture of hope and dread, of joy and sorrow, of faith and doubt, of light and darkness.  In many ways it is the best of times… it is the worst of times.

Of course the same thing could be said of all of life, couldn’t it?  But the emotions of Christmas are extreme – it’s as if our nerve endings are bare – we can feel the great joy and the deep depression, a grand warmth and a bitter cold; we can feel dearly loved, and we can feel completely forgotten.

Through the years I’ve ended up counseling a fair number of folks on Christmas Eve – not in an office or in a clinical situation – usually just on the back pew in a candle-lit sanctuary at the close of a worship service.  It just seems that on Christmas Eve we can come to church, and in the beauty of the sanctuary, amid the sounds of Christmas carols and familiar scripture readings songs… our hearts can grow strangely still.  And in the quiet reflection on that holy night, as we turn our hearts toward a helpless babe in a crude stable, we confront our own vulnerabilities.  Our hurts and brokenness and deep longings just lie exposed.

With Louise it was a decision to call her dad, who had deserted her family when she was a child.  At 58 she was no longer a child.  Oh, but there was still a dark place in her soul, a shadow that fell across her heart, and on Christmas Eve she was ready to bring it to light.  It was time to forgive, time to try to understand decisions made a half-century before, time perhaps to reconcile.

With Mickey it was grief.  Her only son had been killed in a car accident when he was twenty.  It was unbelievably tragic.  Mickey had decided never to feel joy again… only pain, only grief.  It was all she had left, a dark place in her soul.  The shadow that fell across her heart was deep unresolved, compounded grief, but on Christmas Eve nearly twenty-five years after her son died, Mickey was finally ready to bring those dark places to light.  It was time to find peace, time to find hope, time perhaps to feel loved again.

With Craig it was guilt.  His addiction was killing him, destroying his family, consuming his life.  Some nights, like the night before, he just did not go home.  He didn’t want his family to see him the way he was, so he just stayed out all night.  Oh, the holidays were always tough on him… too many parties, too much unstructured time, too many temptations.  The dark place in his soul, the shadow that fell across his heart was like a cancer, and on this Christmas Eve he was ready to bring it to light.  It was time to face the truth, time to say no to his addiction, so he could say yes to his family, yes to his work, yes his life, yes to his Lord.  For Craig it was time to quit dying and time to start living.

Oh, and there are more, many more… people who come to the Christmas season with dark places in their hearts, shadows of grief and loss and pain and hardship and moral failure and addiction and disappointment and illness and death.  And for a host of reasons – good and bad – this season causes us to be acutely aware of the darkness in our lives, the shadows that fall across our heart, and we are drawn beyond the garish decorations of the season to the light of the savior, the true light which dispels the darkness.

In many ways, that is the essence of Christmas.  It always has been.  The truth is that like just about every other movement of God, Christmas was born in darkness.  Christmas came in the dark.  I’m not talking about the time in which Christ Jesus was born.  I have no idea whether the Christ was born at night or at noontime.  But I do know that Christmas was born in the dark.  It was a time when the People of Israel felt powerless, a time of occupation, a time when all seemed lost… it was a time of unsettling turmoil in the life of the principle characters in the saga – Mary, Joseph… it was a time of deep darkness for God’s people.  Faith had been boiled down to nothing more than an oppressive moral code unevenly enforced by self-righteous authorities.  This was a dark time.

Christmas, you see, – like all other movements of God was born in the dark.  And one of the most empowering lessons we learn from the Christmas saga is that God does some of his best work in the dark.

Have you ever thought about it?  God does some of his best work in the dark.  We read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void and darkness spread over the face of the deep.  And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light, and God saw that the light was good.”

And in our text tonight, “In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God and without him was not anything made that was made.”  And listen to this, “In him was life, and the life was the life of humanity.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The darkness of chaos could not thwart God’s creative genius, and out of darkness – out of nothingness, God created everything that exists – everything that is.   And, of course, that’s not all.  When evil had its way, when error was enthroned, when people walked in thick darkness, God shined his light – and the darkness receded, for the darkness could not overcome the light.  Isn’t that the story we read over and again in the scriptures?

“When Israel was in Egypt land/ oppressed so hard they could not stand.”  When God’s people were enslaved, God acted to relieve their suffering, acted to redeem his people from slavery, acted to bring them forth to a good and broad land, a land which he had promised to their ancestors.  It was in the dark, bitter days of slavery that God began his work to set his people free, and it was in the darkness of the Passover night, that God’s work was complete.  His people redeemed and freed from oppression.  God does some of his best work in the dark.

Don’t we see the same thing in the accounts of the prophets?  Just about every prophet was called during dark times to shine the light of truth.  God was at work in his people—even when they rebelled against him.  It was not easy for Jeremiah; not easy for Hosea; not easy for Isaiah not easy for Ezekiel; not easy for Elijah.  It was not easy, because they lived in a dark time.  But they had a message to share, a light to bring to the nations.  God uttered his word in the darkness, and his truth became the light.  God does his best work in the dark.

And certainly we see the same thing throughout the Gospels, do we not?   Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, and Jesus offered light to show him the way of salvation.  And it was in the dark night that the disciples struggled to make headway across the Sea of Galilee – fearful, frustrated, and fretful, but Jesus came to them and his light offered peace and hope, and assurance of God’s presence and care.

And it was a dark night indeed in Gethsemane when the forces of evil were running loose, and Jesus offered himself freely to those who came to destroy him.  He was condemned to die by those he came to save under cover of darkness.  No wonder when he died on the cross, the sun refused to shine – darkness covered the land – darkness covered the universe as Jesus breathed his last on Calvary’s cross.  Oh, but were you there when he rose up from the tomb? The Gospel writers tell us that “before dawn on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” that God raised his son to eternal life – the day of the resurrection.  Oh yes!  God does his best work in the dark.

God does his best work in the dark, because where God is there is no darkness at all.  The night and the day are as one.

And what I want you to know tonight, as we gather on the night of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, as we gather at the darkest time of the year, what I want you to know is that God does his best work in the dark.

Many of us have gathered here tonight because there is darkness in our soul, a shadow falling across our heart.  This can be a very hard season indeed… a dark time.

But God does his best work in the dark.  It has been my experience that often – very often – those whose faith is strong, whose lives are whole, whose witness is compelling, whose testimony is true are simply those among us who have learned personally that God does some of his best work in the dark.  They know what it is like to have darkness in their soul, a shadow fall over their heart.  But they have found the light of life, the one in whom there is light, which the darkness cannot comprehend or extinguish.  God does his best work in the dark.

How many grieving souls have found this to be true?  How many broken hearts can testify to God’s goodness!  How many condemned lives across the land are witness to the amazing grace of God in their darkest hour!  God does his best work in the dark – so much so that sometimes people get the idea that God brings the darkness.  But God does not bring the darkness.  Darkness has no source.  Darkness is the absence of light.  God is the source of truth; God is the source of love; God is the source of light, and when God’s light shines, the darkness flees.

It is amazing how light dispels the darkness, and illumines our hearts with faith and hope and love.  In God’s light, we find courage even in our darkest hour.

So perhaps this night you may light a candle as an outward act in which you invite the light of Christ to dispel the darkness in your soul, to erase the shadow that falls across your heart, to kindle and re-kindle faith and hope and love.  “In him was light, and the light was the life of humanity.”

That is exactly what Janet found to be profoundly true.  Nearly fifty years ago now, Janet was a care-free fifth-grade school girl.  But one December morning, two policemen arrived at Janet’s school; then accompanied the school’s principal, they came to Janet’s math class, and they knocked on the door.  When the teacher came to the door, and they said they needed to see Janet, her eyes filled with tears.  She knew they had come to deliver terrible new.

She took a moment, cleared her throat, and turned and gently called Janet. The young girl did not know whether to be honored or frightened as her name was called so gently by the teacher.  She rose from her desk and walked to the front of the class.  She left her books; she left her coat; she left her lunch, and she never returned – not until after the Christmas vacation. The principal told Janet that her father had just been killed in an automobile accident.  Darkness fell upon Janet’s young life.

Janet told me years later as an adult, that the darkness in her life was compounded the following spring when she learned that her older brother – her only sibling – had been drafted to go to fight in Vietnam.  That would leave just Janet and her mom at home alone and put her brother in constant danger.  Janet’s brother was seven years older than she, and she simply adored him.

Janet said that the day before her brother left to report to basic training the house was filled with relatives and friends who stopped by to see him.  That night, after everyone had left and darkness was setting in, her brother brought his packed bags out of his room and put them by the door.  When Janet saw his bags, she burst into tears and ran outside.  After a short while, he found her out in the back yard.  He put his arm around her, and they talked about all manner of things – what things would be like for him, what things would be like for them at home.  The moon was full and shining brightly – big and beautiful, not unlike the one we’ve seen this week.  “Look at the moon,” her brother said.  Janet looked at it and smiled.  It’s hard to look at a full moon and not smile.  “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “Every night no matter where I am, I’ll look up and find the moon, I’ll tell the man in the moon, ‘when you get over North Carolina, tell Janet I love her.’  And that moon will travel all the way around the world until it shines over our backyard.  When you look out and see the moon, you’ll know I’m thinking of you.”

And so it was.  Janet found that night after night, she looked for the moon, and in the glow of its soft light, she felt the darkness push back.  She felt not fear or dread, but a deepening of faith and hope and love.  Oh my….

  • “A people who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”
  • “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
  • God does some of his best work in the dark. 
  • “Arise, shine for your light has come.”
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Sunday, December 22, 2013 – “Fit Us for Heaven…”

“…Our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.” – Philippians 3:20-21

In these short verses at the end of chapter 3, Paul completes his grand theological sweep in a way that deepens our understanding both of this holy season and of God’s plan for salvation.  Forty-four verses earlier, Paul writes that the essence of the incarnation is that Christ Jesus was transformed – that he changed his form from divine to human.  He became like us.  Here, Paul completes the thought by affirming that the sole purpose of Christ’s transformation was our transformation.  That is, Christ Jesus became like us that we might become like him.

Paul assures us that those who are in Christ have experienced God’s grace, and the transformation of their lives has begun.  As such, Paul writes, they belong to the commonwealth of heaven.  They are claimed by God as God’s own people.  God will continue working in their lives to align them with the divine plans and purposes, so that in every way their lives may reflect and reveal the grace and glory of God.

Until that transformation is complete, those in Christ live as citizens of heaven, while they inhabit the earth.  Note that these people of God are not expatriates, for they have not forsaken their heavenly land.  Nor are they immigrants, who have left their home to adopt a new land.  Nor are they merely tourists who observe but never fully participate in or influence the culture. Instead, those in Christ are, as some have coined the phrase, resident aliens.  They inhabit the earth and participate fully in the culture, but their identity is found in and their allegiance is directed to the Kingdom of God.

So it is that when we experience new life in Christ, we experience the beginning of God’s mighty act in Christ Jesus.  Wfind a new identity in the one who creates and re-creates, the one who sets us free and transforms our lives into the very image of Christ.  We become citizens of God’s commonwealth, and that kingdom becomes our hope, our joy, and our destiny. 

All of this gives us much to consider as we approach the manger of Bethlehem.

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 us for heaven to live with thee there.  Amen.

A Bible-study devotional blog by Gorman Houston



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Monday, December 16, 2013 – I Press On…

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. – Philippians 3:12

God’s gift of salvation can seem rather complicated as we delve deep into faith, but the basics of the offer are rather pure and simple.  We start by remembering that God has created all things to work together in perfect harmony under God’s authority and to God’s glory.  However, our human experience reveals in every generation that we are sinners both by nature and by choice.  We are hard-wired to be self-serving, which causes us to chafe under God’s life-giving authority.  The result is that we rebel.  Our actions to free us from God only serve to enslave us to self, which ultimately undermines every meaningful relationship and leaves us alone and spiritually lost.

The law serves to manage humanity’s sin.  While laws work to constrain behavior, they are powerless to control the thoughts and mindset which give birth to harmful speech and wrongful actions.  The law, therefore, serves as a crutch to prevent us from inflicting harm, and works as a guide to help us learn right from wrong, but it is ultimately powerless to make us righteous.

Christ Jesus came to reveal humanity in its fullness – fully human and fully divine.  He lived among us as the paragon of righteousness, and he lived and taught God’s judgment – a life-giving blend of truth and grace.  Christ Jesus invited everyone who would hear his call – young and old, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free – to follow him and to become like him.  His offer is to be fully reconciled with God, to experience a new life of freedom from sin’s oppression, and to claim a full life of meaning and purpose.  In his work on the cross of Calvary, Christ Jesus took upon himself the sin of the world, experienced for himself the death which sin produces, and rose from death, freed from sin and death’s dominion by the power of God.  This act of crucifixion, death, and resurrection opens to all persons the pathway to faith.  As we crucify our sinful nature and die to its claim upon us, we rise to new life in Christ, fully reconciled to God.

The new life we find in Christ is sealed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which lives in us to perfect our lives, that we may have purity of heart and simplicity of lifestyle.  It is the Holy Spirit which allows us to live beyond our human nature, to make righteous choices in the midst of temptation, to live in truth and grace, to act courageously to advance justice, to be bound both to God and to God’s people, to be perfected – re-made into God’s very image.

Such is the path of salvation.  Just like in any journey, it is not completed by making just one decision.  The essential decision to begin the journey presents us with other decisions to follow where Christ leads, to grow into Christ’s likeness, to become godly in motive, word, and deed.

The Apostle Paul began this life-changing, world-changing journey of faith, perhaps as a child and youth as he learned scripture and sought godliness.  His faith was quickened in a way that produced new life when he encountered Christ Jesus.  And by the power of the Holy Spirit he boldly set out to accomplish the call upon his life.  But Paul’s journey was not complete.  Even as he sat in a Roman prison, awaiting martyrdom, he recognized that God was not finished with him yet.  It was here, that he offered a great lesson of faith.  He did not claim to know it all, to have done it all, or to have completed the transaction of salvation in which his life was fully God’s.  However, in a healthy, honest approach to faithful living, Paul simply writes, “I press on.”

What a beautiful expression of daily faith.  ”I press on.”

My friends, let us learn this lesson from Paul.  None of us is able to do it all, but that should not cause us either to live in despair or to give up.  Instead, let us stay true to the journey, let us take the next step, let us press on in faith, hope, and love.  With Paul, we may then humbly yet boldly proclaim, “I have not already obtained God’s kingdom, and I am far from perfect, ‘but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’”

Lord Jesus, I want to become more and more like you.  I admit I am far from it now, but help me every day to press on in faith.  Amen.

A Bible-study blog by Gorman Houston

Monday, December 9, 2013 – I Count Everything as Loss…

Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.  But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… – Philippians 3:4-9a

Paul had every reason to boast as a righteous man among righteous men in terms of living under the law. In this passage he enumerates his meritorious claims.  He was “circumcised on the eighth day,” in accordance with the scriptures.  Paul begins his claim by pointing out that he was born into a righteous family, “of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin.”  Paul’s lineage can be traced back to Benjamin, the younger child of Jacob and Rachel, and on back to Abraham and Sarah.  In short, Paul asserts that he was “a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”

However, Paul’s birth right was only the beginning of his claim to righteousness.  By his own faithfulness, Paul lived in obedience to the law.  ”As to the law,” he writes, “a Pharisee.”  Paul makes it clear that he was not just a follower of the law, but a keeper of the law, an interpreter of the law.  And Paul claims he was more than just a Pharisee.  He was a zealous Pharisee, so zealous that he actively defended the faith against any enemy. “As to zeal,” he writes, “a persecutor of the church.”  All in all, his former faith allowed him to boast, “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

But Paul makes it clear that when he encountered Christ Jesus, when he experienced the love and grace of God, his eyes were opened to see that all the religious trophies he had accumulated were of no more value than street filth.  ”Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” Paul writes to the Philippians.  One sentence later, Paul continues, “I… count them as refuse.”  Here the translation is gentle.  Paul actually uses a much stronger term which means he counts his own attempts at righteousness as dung.

When Paul received acceptance, forgiveness, love, and status as a free, unearned gift from God, he realized just how insignificant his claims to righteousness were.  He had mastered the meaningless.  Now those trophies were not merely tarnished, they were toxic.  They had created a false certainty of faith, a false pride in self, a false righteousness – for they had become to him a false god.  They had no place in his faith, no place in his self-identity, no place in his his life.

Lord God, purify my heart of all my self-serving sanctimony.  Empty me of pride, that I may hunger and thirst for righteousness and that I may be wholly unsatisfied with anything less than the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  Amen.

A Bible-study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

Thursday, December 5, 2013 – Emptied, Humbled, Obedient, Exalted

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.                                                                                                                                     - Philippians 2:5-9

Paul presents us with the centerpiece of his letter, the centerpiece of the New Testament, the centerpiece of the Gospel of God.  In these few verses, Paul captures in flowing eloquence the essence of the incarnation, the essential aspects of Christ’s story, and the paradigm for all those who follow Christ Jesus.  Let’s work through it briefly.

“Have this mind among yourselves” – Paul is calling for his readers never to lose sight of this, never to forget, always to remember the central truth of the Gospel.

“…though he was in the form of God…(Christ) emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” The Christ story is about giving up glory to reclaim a lost treasure, God’s action to empty God’s self to take the lowly position of one who serves.  The central paradox of faith is that the one who is complete in himself made himself nothing; the one rightfully to be served chose to become the one who serves.  Christ “emptied himself.”

“…he humbled himself” – Paul calls to our minds the central truth that Christ Jesus chose to be humiliated, he voluntarily humbled himself.  There was no arrogance, no pride, no bravado about Christ Jesus, only a pure heart programmed for humble service.

“…(he) became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” – Christ Jesus’ life served not only to offer salvation to God’s creation but primarily to glorify God.  God is glorified through Christ’s absolute obedience, through Christ Jesus’ desire and determination to live not to his own pleasure and pursuits but always to the greater glory of God.  He was obedient all the way to death, even the humiliating, shameful, despicable death of public execution.

“God has highly exalted him…” – None of Christ Jesus’ actions – becoming empty, living a humble life, being obedient unto death – none was lost or served no purpose.  Instead, every thing in his life of powerlessness and poverty, service and obedience both revealed God’s character and defined abundant human life for all who are in Christ.

“Every knee should bow… and every tongue confess the Jesus Christ is Lord…” – Christ jesus was exalted as the true manifestation of God and the ultimate destiny of all persons who are willing to bow and confess to him – to come under his authority, to be transformed into his image by emptying self of vain glory, humbling self in genuine service, and living joyfully in absolute obedience to our living Lord.

In short, Paul proclaims that Christ Jesus has given up everything to become like us that we might give up everything to become like him – all to the glory of God.

Dear Lord, let it be so with me.  Amen.

A Bible-study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Getting Out-Fished

Getting Out-Fished

A sermon preached by Gorman Houston

The Bridge - First United Methodist Church of Tuscaloosa, Alabama

November 24, 2013

Luke 5:1-11

1 While the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennes’aret. 2 And he saw two boats by the lake; but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, 7 they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zeb’edee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.


We read that Jesus came to the Sea of Galilee.  Luke prefers to call it the Lake of Gennesaret.  After all, it really is just a lake – only 13 miles long and 7½ miles wide – bigger than a pond, smaller than a sea. It’s a lake. Luke paints the picture with ordinariness — not only of the Lake, but also of the fishermen, the context, the entire event.  There is nothing extraordinary about this series of events, no hint that this lake, these people, this day would be transformational.  Of course, that’s the genius of the story.  The extraordinary hidden in the ordinary. That’s the genius of the Gospel.  The divine hidden in a human.

The Gospel message isn’t that there are super people out there who are without sin and without hangups and without problems, whom Jesus calls to service.  No, the Gospel message is not that there are certain holy places which will transform us if only we will make the pilgrimage.  No.  The Gospel message is not even that there are certain events or rituals which have power if only we will submit to them.  No, the Gospel is about how God transforms that which is ordinary into something extraordinary, how God transacts his business in the regular routines of life.

So the Gospel is filled with stories in which Jesus encounters ordinary folks in ordinary places and does something extraordinary.  This morning we see it in fishermen and fish.  Luke tells us that Jesus was walking by the Lake of Genneseret, and he was surrounded by people who longed to hear his teachings, so he got into Simon Peter’s boat.

Simon Peter, of course, was a fisherman.  At least that’s what he thought.  That’s all he had ever done, fish.  It’s what his father did.  It’s what his brother did.  They were fishermen.  And perhaps Simon Peter would have simply remained a fisherman if he had never let Jesus in his boat.

Now let me stop right there.  If you are just looking for a little religion to make you respectable, a little religion that will never make much a difference, a little religion that won’t cost you much, a little religion that you can tuck in your pocket, then don’t ever let Jesus in your boat.  First it’s a teaching or two, and the next thing you know you’re in over your head.

That’s what happened to Peter.  He should have seen it coming.  Jesus needed a boat, just to teach in, and he asked Peter.  You see, here’s the problem – when we let Jesus in our boat, he doesn’t just stay in our boat.  He gets in our family, he gets in our business, he gets in our finances, he gets in our relationships, he gets in our friendship circles, he gets in our church.  It happens every time.  It happened to Peter.  Peter let him in his boat, and before the day was out, everything in Peter’s life had changed.

So Peter let Jesus into his boat.  He certainly wasn’t using it.  He was through fishing for the day.  He was cleaning up, washing out his nets.  He was finished, at least he thought.  So Jesus got in and pushed out a little from the shore so that the crowds might hear him clearly.  Luke tells us not a word about Jesus’ teaching.  What he tells us is that after he had taught the people, he said to Simon Peter, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

What Peter didn’t know was that this is the great invitation of Christ to us all.  It is the invitation to everyone who comes to faith, “Put out into the deep water.”  Do you hear the invitation?  So often we choose to stay in the shallow waters, don’t we?  In the safe water, don’t we? We may think that it is prudent to stay in the shallow water; we may think that things are predictable when we stay in the shallow waters, but Christ Jesus will have none of it.  The call of our Lord is out to the deep – out where it’s not safe, out where it’s not predictable.

And Peter responded with deference and logic, with a fisherman’s insight, with reasoned caution.  “Master,” he said, “We toiled all night and took nothing!”  What Peter did not know was that Jesus’ invitation is almost never intuitive.  Jesus’ invitation is not a safe, easy way to live.  It’s always risky, always counter-cultural, always frightening.  And here’s the reason.  We are hard-wired to think of ourselves, to plan for ourselves, to look after ourselves, and Jesus’ invitation is always for us to think beyond ourselves, to plan beyond ourselves, to live beyond ourselves.

Peter responded to Jesus’ invitation with logical resistance, but perhaps even to his own amazement, his obedience trumped his logic.  “At your word I will let down the nets.”  And in that act of folly, in that act of outlandish obedience, this seasoned fisherman went out into the deep, he got in over his head, and… he got out-fished.  Oh he caught a huge haul of fish.  But really it was Peter who got caught in this story.  He just got out-fished.   it was there that they got caught by God’s great plan.  They just got caught.

It started when he let down the nets, the same nets which had been empty every time they had pulled them up all night long, but this time they were filled.  In fact, the nets were suddenly in danger of breaking from the great haul of fish…even the boat was in danger of sinking from sheer volume of fish.  The deep water is where God does his best work – deep water where we are in over our heads, where we are living beyond our understanding, where we are living beyond our own abilities, where we are living beyond ourselves.

And in that moment, Luke reports, Peter realized that he’d been caught by something great and frightening, and he knew that he would never be the same.  His ordinary life had been caught up in the mighty movement of God.  And right there in the boat — out in the deep water surrounded by flopping, smelly fish — he fell to his knees, and he confessed his unworthiness.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Peter thought his sin, his limitations would disqualify him from God’s great plan.  But Jesus wasn’t vetting Peter to see if he would fit in.  Jesus knew whom he had caught.  “Do not be afraid.” Jesus said.  “You think your destiny in life is to catch fish.  No.  That’s just because you have been living for yourself – you’ve narrowed the world down to your own little concerns.  But you’re not in the safe, shallow water any more.  From now on, you will be out in the deep water, you will be in over your head, you will be living beyond yourself… no longer are you simply one who catches fish.  You are the one who will be catching disciples.”

And Luke tells us in simple sentences, as if it were the kind of thing that happened every day, “When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”  Oh my.  Do you see what happened, Peter left everything – the boat, the fish, his old life.  He left everything and followed Jesus.  Peter had been outfished… He’d been caught.

What happened to Peter, happens every time someone truly comes to faith in Christ.  I mean, that’s what following Jesus Christ is about – pushing out into the deep water, trusting God enough to get out of the superficial, petty concerns in life, and getting in over our heads – living beyond ourselves, experiencing the wonder of God’s grace.

It’s not just Peter.  We see it throughout the scriptures.   Just thumb through your Bible, you’ll see that it is filled with stories of folks who got out fished, who got caught, folks who encountered the grace and power of God, quit living in shallow superficiality, began to live beyond themselves, and experienced transformation. Just call the roll.

Abraham and Sarah — called to give birth to a new nation at the age of 100.   Joshua.  Conquer a hostile land.  Daniel stand faithful and strong. Esther, save the entire Hebrew people.  David.  He spent his entire life taking on jobs too big for him — killing Goliath as a child, conquering lands as a military leader, establishing a great and powerful nation as King.  And the list goes on and on.  They all got out-fished, they got caught — every one of them, no longer living for their own petty purposes, but for the great and grand purposes of God.

So, you see, when it comes to you and me, we should not expect our faith to be easy and safe.  It never has been.  If your faith is not challenging you to take outrageous risks, you might need to check it out to make sure you have the real thing and not a knock-off, some cheap substitute.  Jesus just gets in the boat with us, out-fishes us, catches us, pushes us into the deep water, and calls us to live way beyond ourselves.  It’s the same message.  Jesus did not say, “take the broad and easy way.”  No his word has always been, “narrow the gate and straight the way that leads to life.”  He never said “play it safe,” no his word was “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel will save it.”  Jesus never said, “Just worry about yourself.”  His word was “Tend the sick, feed the hungry, care for the poor, visit those in prison, welcome the stranger…”  He never lets us stay in the shallow water, he calls us to go deep… to give and not count the cost, to forgive and not keep score, to trust God and not be anxious, to seek “first the kingdom of God.”  You see, it’s never a matter of playing it safe.  It’s never a matter of doing the expedient thing.  It’s never a matter of taking the road most travelled.  It’s always, “Push out into the deep; get in over your head, live beyond yourself.”  That’s where we encounter God… that’s where our lives are transformed, that’s where we quit living for ourselves, that’s where we join God in his world-changing work.  That’s where we get out-fished!

Sometimes we may hear people say things like, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  I want to say, “You obviously do not know the same God I do.  You obviously have not read the Bible?”  We may want to believe such things, but the greater truth is that God always gives us more than we can handle.  This is the way I see it.  God does not make the task small enough for his people.  God makes his people big enough for the task.  That’s the message of the scripture.  That’s truth you can count on.  God does not make the task small enough for you.  God makes you big enough for the task.  God calls you into the deep water; he calls you to live beyond ourselves.

If we stay in the shallow water, we will never get caught – not by Jesus.  We’ll never experience his grace as it cleanses our heart and soul of evil, never experience the wonder of his love as it moves us to reach out to the wretched and powerless and desperate, never experience his Holy Spirit as it surges within us to empower us to face a challenge, to comfort us in our deepest despair, to unite us in spite of our differences.  We can be a church in the shallow water, but not if we are going to be faithful to Jesus Christ.  He calls us out of the superficial and into the deep.  He wants us to experience the abundance of God’s grace and love and truth.  He wants to catch us.  “From now own,” he told Peter, “You will be catching disciples.”

Today is the climax of our stewardship campaign – “Tithe Pride.”  Haha.  Today, we are asked to commit ourselves to the work of God in our midst through this church.  Sometimes we think that stewardship is just about raising money.  It is about raising money, but to think that’s all it is, is like thinking that this story in Luke about the call of Peter is just about the fish.  A stewardship campaign is a time for us to take a spiritual inventory, to see where we are in faith.  Where are you?  Are you trying to play it safe by living in the shallow waters?

Well, let me tell you.  No matter what else you do.  No matter how many possessions you have.  No matter how much power you wield.  No matter how prominent or popular you become.  None of it has any ultimate value. You will always be out-fished.  But here’s what I want you to know.  The one who out-fishes us all, wants to catch you.

henceforth you will be catching men.”…when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.