Monthly Archives: August 2014

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Monday, August 25, 2014 – Hosanna!

The next day a great crowd who had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” And Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it; as it is written, ”Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on an ass’s colt!” - John 12:12-15

Just over half-way into John’s Gospel we read of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the Passover feast while riding on a donkey over palm branches amid shouts of “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  The other gospels record the Palm Sunday event toward the end of their accounts.  John places the event in the center of his gospel, for he understands the showdown in Jerusalem to be the centerpiece of the Gospel.

The words  proclaimed by the crowds that day are from Psalm 118, a psalm of assents.  Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for Passover would have recited this psalm as they made their way to the Temple.  “Hosanna!” has added significance as Jesus enters the Holy City.  The word “Hosanna” literally means “save us” or “rescue us.”  It is the type of cry that a peasant might make to a king as he passed by.  The cry of this crowd is more an expression of confidence, as if to proclaim Jesus as their savior.  Added to the words in Psalm 118 is the proclamation, “even the King of Israel.”

Jesus is proclaimed king in several significant moments in John’s Gospel – first by Nathanael in chapter 1, here by the crowds as Jesus enters Jerusalem, and by Pilate in chapter 19 both when he presents Jesus to the crowd with the words, “behold your king,” and later in the passion narrative when he fashions a charge to be nailed on the cross above Jesus, “King of the Jews.”   The kingship of Jesus is a central theological theme in John’s Gospel.

What is overwhelmingly fascinating is that the crowd had little idea what was truly going on.  Jesus, of course, was going to Jerusalem for the final showdown with the institutions of power, to “lay down his life for his friends.”  His journey was to the cross.  The only crown waiting for him was one made of piercing thorns.  Indeed, the crowd was ultimately correct in proclaiming Jesus as the King of Israel and in professing him as their savior.  What they did not expect was that the journey to the throne was by way of the cross.

Hosanna!  Lord save us… from our sin, from ourselves.  May our lives be a blessing to you, the King who comes in the name of the Lord.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Sermon – Happiness, the Wrong Pursuit

a sermon by Gorman Houston
Matthew 5:1-12
First United Methodist Church – Tuscaloosa, Alabama
August 17, 2014

This sermon was given as part of the church’s annual “God on Broadway” series with music and worship centering on the theological themes of the musical, “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.  The wishes and consequences of various characters in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales form the plot and theme of the play.

To sample music from the play, follow the youtube link: Into the Woods

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Monday, August 18, 2017 – Opportunity Costs…

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, ”Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 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. Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. 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.  There is a wisdom that comes from 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.

Good Father, deepen my devotion, my love, my sacrifice, my faith, that I may freely and joyously seize the opportunity and offer you the very best that I have and the very best that I am.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional blog by Gorman Houston

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Thursday, August 14, 2014 – An Extravagant Offering…

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. 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 of hospitality was far more 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 was 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 and 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 blog by Gorman Houston

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Monday, August 11, 2014 – Take away the Stone

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.” 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.  She told Jesus that Lazarus was as dead as a doornail and had been so for four days.  Opening the grave would cause a stink, she reminded Jesus, but he did not yield.   In fact, he pushed the point, “Either you believe or you don’t.”  His challenge was to require faith which was more than just words.  He was looking for courageous, decisive action.  In fact, Jesus tells Martha that she would see and experience the glory of God not merely by holding on to a belief but by living in the absolute confidence that God is actively present.

When we read John’s account, we become aware that Jesus’ words and actions are not just about Lazarus.  His words speak to everyone who is bound by past hurts, trapped in grief, imprisoned by fears, shackled by addictions, brain-washed by prejudice, or engaged in any of the other death-traps which destroy us.  As we genuinely encounter Christ Jesus, we too face a faith crisis, which 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, but the command is one of grace, not judgment.  Jesus assures us that only by exposing the death-places in our lives to his touch, can we experience healing, can we live fully and freely, and can God’s glory be revealed.

Jesus’ command is an invitation to abundant 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 blog by Gorman Houston

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014 – The Courage to Believe

So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 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; and it often requires courage to believe.  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 both prevailing doubt and the circumstances of life, that we come to experience truth.  Just a Nicodemus found courage to leave the crowd and come to Jesus earlier in the Gospel, and just as the young boy with courage emerged from the crowd to offer his lunch of bread and fish for Jesus to multiply, so too Mary and Martha summoned the courage both to distance themselves from the prevailing views of folly and doubt and to 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 blog by Gorman Houston

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Monday, August 4, 2014 – Jesus Wept

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. 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, he has super powers and an eternal perspective.  Yet John reminds us throughout the 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 blog by Gorman Houston