pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Belonging in God

Reading: 1st Samuel 8: 4-9

Verse 7: “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Our passage for today and tomorrow begins with the elders of Israel coming to Samuel to request a king. In all of their history they have never had a king. They have always had a leader and some have been great ones: Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Samuel. Yet even under these leaders God was clearly the one leading the people. The request for a king is driven by a few “concerns”.

The first concern is for their future. Samuel has led well. Next in line are his sons. But they are corrupt, evil. They “do not walk in your ways”. The elders recognize what a disaster it would be to have Joel and/or Abijah assume Samuel’s role. The second concern is a common human desire – to fit in, to be like others, to feel accepted. All the other nations have a king. The Israelites want one too. They want someone to fight their battles for them. Ironically, Samuel has just subdued the Philistines. The third concern centers on control. Samuel has kept the Israelites on the straight and narrow, best as he can. Samuel carries authority as the voice of God and God seems to just keep sending Samuel around. There is no wiggle room. A king would give them a little more breathing room, a bit of space between them and God. God recognizes this. In verse seven God says to Samuel, “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

As I reflect on these concerns, I realize that they are our concerns too. We all want a good leader, be that a prophet, judge, king, pastor, boss, or political leader. We want to feel safe and secure yet want some freedom and sense of control too. We still want to fit in and to belong, to be accepted. We too can look around and want a new car too, a new job title or position, a fancy vacation experience, or even a pastor like that church down the street. We easily see how “different” we are or how green the grass looks over there – and we want to fix that. These two concerns boil down to the third one when we’re honest. For the Israelites they wanted the freedoms of the people living around them. At times we too feel that God has been holding our feet too close to the fire. We feel conviction instead of realizing that it is refinement and sanctification.

Instead of rejecting God (or our faith or our church) for any or all of these reasons, may we first find our belonging in God. We are each a beloved child of God. This is our identity, our place. That love is more than we will be able to comprehend until we see face to face. In that truth may we walk as a child of God, day by day trusting in God’s provision, content with his care. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, when my eyes or heart strays, remind me of your love and care. Draw me back to the narrow way, to the only way. It is the best path to walk. May I faithfully follow in Jesus’ way each day. Amen.


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Our Salvation

Reading: Acts 4: 11-12

Verse 12: “Salvation is found in no one else”.

Photo credit: Hans Heiner Buhr

Peter makes a bold proclamation – salvation is through Christ alone. He is remembering the words Jesus himself said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This bold claim asserts that faith in Christ is the only way to eternal life. All other paths end in condemnation. For all of its love and mercy and grace and forgiveness… this is Christianity’s hinge point. “Salvation is found in no one else”.

Belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is essential to gaining eternal life, but the offer of a relationship and of belief is not exclusive. Jesus made it clear in how he lived his life and in his teachings that all who are willing to profess faith in him will be received into his kingdom. Jesus ministered to all, regardless of who or what they were. Prostitutes, adulterers, rebels, thieves on crosses – all were within his love. Jews, men, women, rich, poor, young, old, Samaritan – all were within his love. Did all accept his love? No. Did all enter into a saving relationship? No. Did he call out to all he met? Yes. Does Jesus call out to all people today, regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, occupation…? Yes. Do some still reject Jesus as Lord and Savior? Absolutely.

As ones assured of our salvation, how should we respond to the answers to these questions? We should respond as the good shepherd would. Love should lead and guide all we say and think and do. Grace and mercy should abound in our lives. All should see and experience our humble and sacrificial servant’s heart. Everyone should see the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ active within us. May Jesus, our salvation, use each of us to bring others to the gate of the sheep fold.

Prayer: Loving God, use me today as a conduit of your love and grace. In and through me may others see your son, the giver of salvation. Amen.


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Good Works

Reading: Ephesians 2: 6-10

Verse 10: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”.

In our passage yesterday we focused on how God saved us from our sins through his grace and love. Paid for by Christ, grace is available to all who call on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Grace rests upon God’s no-matter-what love. God loves us no matter what we do, no matter what we do not do. This unconditional love is the core of who and what God is. Once we accept this love, Christ becomes alive in us. God’s love comes and dwells in our hearts in the Holy Spirit.

In today’s passage we hear about our response to God’s love and grace. In the gospels Jesus was clear that the highest calling of a disciple is to love -> love God, love one another. Jesus himself defined this as the mark of a disciple. Paul begins today by reminding us that grace is a gift. It is not something we can earn or work for. This is a humbling thought. Because it is a gift, freely and generously given, we are not to boast. We can be tempted to boast about things that God has given us: beauty, strength, physical or intellectual abilities… Humility is the key here too.

Paul does suggest we respond to the gift of grace and to the unconditional love of God. In verse ten Paul writes, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”. What are “good works”? Jesus identifies some: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, housing the wanderer, loving our neighbor. Good works also include lifting the other, alleviating or sharing other’s burdens, walking through the valleys, sharing food and other blessings, standing with the powerless and marginalized, including others in our faith communities… Simply put, it is being Christ to the world. It is being light and love in the world, sharing the gifts that we have received. May we be generous as we spread his love today.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to love well today. In all I do and say may I share your love with others, helping each to feel the kingdom of God drawing near. Amen.


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The Lord’s Servant

Reading: Luke 1: 26-38

Verse 38: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said”.

As Gabriel appears to Mary he tells her that she is “highly favored”. The creator of the universe, the author of all life, the one true God looks upon Mary and covers her in grace and blessing. Because of this Gabriel says, “The Lord is with you”. This is both a present and a future promise of God’s presence with Mary. All of this is awesome news for Mary. But they are unusual words to Mary and she is troubled, wondering about what all of this means.

Gabriel explains that God’s favor means that she has been selected to bear a very special child who will be “the Son of the Most High”. This child of God will be given the throne of David and will reign forever. The long awaited one will be born of the Spirit and of the flesh. This is a lot to take in, to wrap her head and heart around. To provide time and space for all of this to sink in and process Gabriel tells Mary that Elizabeth, although barren and well past child bearing years, is also with child. As a relative, Mary would have known of Elizabeth’s disgrace over not being able to have a child. Gabriel closes his side of the conversation with these words: “For nothing is impossible with God”.

Mary responds with humility and understanding. She responds. Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said”. Mary has found favor with God and accepts what God has to offer. She is willing to be a part of God’s plan. She steps forward in faith. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord, you continue to speak through your word and through the Holy Spirit. You continue to pour out favor upon your people and to call them into service. May I respond as Mary did: humbly and faithfully. Amen.


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Learning to Walk

Reading: Matthew 22: 1-12

Verse 12: “Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes”?

This week’s gospel lesson is the second in a row from Jesus that focuses in on how he is rejected. They are stories of greed and arrogance and selfishness. These two parables are aimed at the religious leaders in their original context, but they certainly have application for us today.

As our passage opens, Jesus is clear that this parable compares the kingdom of God to a wedding banquet. Jesus begins by explaining that those originally invited refuse to come. A second invite is rejected as well. This time those invited mistreat and kill the servants. A voice had called out in the desert. Some came and heard the call to repentance. They were baptized as a symbol of readiness for the coming kingdom. But John’s call fell on many deaf ears as he ministered in the wilderness. Jesus himself came with a second invite, calling the Jews to really love as God commanded. Jesus’ message centered on the two great commandments: love God with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The religious leaders refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah, so the call or invite extended past the Jews. Anyone that can be found will be invited to the wedding banquet.

The religious leaders went out and heard John’s call. They hung around and heard Jesus’ words, saw the miracles. Showing up is something about anyone can do. There are folks that show up on Sunday mornings. Simply sitting in a worship service does not make one into a practicing Christian. In our parable today, a man comes to the banquet, but he is not prepared. He chose to hear the call, but failed to ready himself. In Jesus’ day, to attend a wedding, one must dress in the required wedding clothes. These clothes were special and required effort and preparation. But this man just showed up. He was simply there to consume and indulge, not to really be a part of things, not to celebrate with the bride and groom. The Jews and the religious leaders in particular had received the invitations. They still showed up for the Sabbath, thinking they were honoring God simply be being there. They went about their lofty rituals and wore their fancy clothes. They loved these things, not God. They were arrogant and selfish, loving only self and not the many neighbors who needed both physical and spiritual care. They lived inside their self-constructed walls.

We too do this. We do it on Sundays when we show up and go through the motions instead of being open to and looking for God’s Spirit to change us on a Sunday morning. We do it each day when we rush off into our day without first connecting to God in word and prayer. We do it each time we think ourselves a Christian and then ignore the poverty, oppression, and injustices of our communities and our world. Simply put, it is easy to talk the talk. It is much harder to always walk the walk. May we all better learn to walk the walk as we seek to follow Jesus Christ, loving as he first loved each of us.

Prayer: God of all, help me to more fully love you and all people. Turn me from selfishness and self-righteousness, becoming more and more willing to give myself away, becoming more and more willing to risk for the gospel. Use me as you will. Amen.


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Being Kingdom Builders

Reading: Matthew 21: 42-46

Verse 43: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce fruit”.

Our section for today opens with Jesus quoting from the Old Testament. This is one of many passages that point towards the Messiah. Jesus is the fulfillment of these passages. When he says “the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone (or cornerstone)” he is referring to himself. Jesus will be the stone that is the foundation, the stone that holds all things together. The religious leaders fail to see Jesus this way. For them, this is not “marvelous in our eyes”.

Jesus’ quotation from the scriptures leads into a declarative statement: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce fruit”. The key attribute is producing fruit. Today we mainly call this “making disciples” but it also includes growing deeper in our faith. The task of making disciples, of growing the early church, will fall mostly to fishermen and other ordinary people. It will also be carried out by healed lepers, recovering prostitutes, reformed tax collectors, and the like. They all lack formal training but have first-hand experience with the cornerstone. It is the story that they tell that continues to draw others in. Theirs are the stories of transformed lives and new hearts. They are stories of love and hope, of mercy and forgiveness, of acceptance and welcome. As these stories drew others in, the church grew. Fruit was being produced.

The chief priests and Pharisees know Jesus is referring to them. They are not at work building the kingdom of God. They are about maintaining the status quo and limiting access to only the holy and righteous – the religious elite. Jesus is differentiating himself from the religious elite. The truth he speaks stings and angers them – “they looked for a way to arrest him”.

When we act like these religious leaders – being judgemental, accepting only those like us, keeping our faith to ourselves – then we are standing at odds with Jesus Christ. When we do not love the marginalized and the broken, the hurting and the lost, then we are not practicing the faith that Jesus modeled. To such as these belong the kingdom of God. Therefore, as disciples of Jesus Christ, may we cast open wide the gates and may we help all to enter into God’s love.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to build the kingdom today. Lead me to tear down walls that separate and limit access. Lead me to open doors that feel closed and to shine light onto the path to your love and grace. Enable me to be love lived out in the world, so that in me others see Jesus. Amen.


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Forgiven and Forgiving

Reading: Genesis 45: 1-15

Verse 5: “Do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you”.

Today’s passage centers on forgiveness. In the Christian faith we understand that forgiveness is a two-way street. Each Sunday most of us pray these words: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. If we want to partake of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness, we need to extend these same things to one another. For me, and perhaps for you, at times I struggle with each side of this equation.

It can be hard to admit we are wrong. It can be hard with both God and with others. There are times when it is difficult to admit I am wrong or have done harm. It can be easy to justify myself or to be self-righteous. Wanting to seek revenge or to get even can be tempting. But the way of love calls us to more. Jesus calls us to humility and honesty and transparency, to vulnerability and weakness, to confession and repentance. To enter and walk the path of Jesus, one must first practice forgiveness when we have sinned or caused harm. This was the first step for both Joseph and his brothers. For Joseph, it was to reckon with his younger self – the bratty, spoiled, arrogant Joseph – and the role that played. For the brothers it was to accept responsibility for what they did. Yes, God was at work behind the scenes, but they still harmed Joseph.

Sometimes it is difficult to extend forgiveness. At times it would seem easier just to keep that person on the outside, to keep them in a place where they cannot have a chance to be hurtful or harmful. (And, yes, there are times when it is necessary to end a relationship – in an abusive situation, for example.) As Jesus told Peter, we are not to forgive seven times, but seventy times seven! Just as we are each a work in progress before God, so too are all of God’s children. God has no limits or a quota on forgiving us. May we be the same, forgiving just as we are forgiven.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to ever be a person of grace. Help me to see and believe the best in everyone. Lead me to give my best and to recognize when I have given less, especially when I need to ask for or extend grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Guide me, O God. Amen.


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Way of Life

Reading: Romans 8: 1-11

Verse 1: “There is now no condemnation… because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death”.

Once a person accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, life is forever changed. Before accepting Jesus we are tied to the flesh, to the sinful nature within us. Without Christ we live for ourselves, seeking to fulfill selfish desires and pleasures. Our focus is totally inward. The law of sin and death has almost full control of our minds and actions. Only social norms and the legal code keep us from being a frightful society.

In faith terms, before accepting Christ we are dead in our sins and our only future is one of death. We cannot remove the sin in our lives. The guilt and shame remain. But once we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ we find there is no longer any condemnation. God defeated the power of sin by “sending his son” as a “sin offering” – paying the price once for all. Through this gift we find new life, “because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death”. Through the Spirit’s power and presence we are able to live by the Spirit instead of by the sinful nature inherent within us all. Yes, it is still present and ever seeks to rise up and lead us into sin. But the Spirit of life leads and guides and empowers us to walk according to the new way of life found in and through Jesus our Lord. This day and every day we rejoice in our new life in Christ!

Prayer: Thank you God for the Spirit within. It makes it possible to walk a walk of faith. On my own I would be so lost. The gift of life in Jesus Christ brings joy and peace, contentment and connection to God and to one another. It is the only way to truly live. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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Freely Offered

Reading: Genesis 24: 58-67

Verse 58: “So they called Rebekah and asked her, ‘Will you go with this man'”?

In the last section of our passage from Genesis 24 we see a model of God’s love. In the culture of the day the father had the authority to choose who and when a daughter would marry. Arranged marriages were simply the norm. Yet Abraham allows for another option. The chief servant asks the family for a decision and they, in turn, ask Rebekah, “Will you go with this man”? In a radical move, Rebekah is given the power to decide her own fate.

An invitation is given and Rebekah is free to make her choice. This is the model of God’s love too. We are invited into a relationship with God. God’s prevenient grace – the grace that goes before – woos us and draws us towards God. But, like Rebekah we have a choice. We are not forced or coerced. We do not have to love God. If we were forced or had no other choice, then it would not be love. In his ministry, Jesus also modeled this love. With the Pharisees, with the rich young man, with the people of Gerasenes, with Nicodemus… Jesus offered himself and God’s love, but he did not force anyone to accept it or him. On several occasions he was saddened by the rejection, but the choice is always ours to make.

When love and relationship are freely offered, we can accept or reject them. As God in Jesus Christ seeks to share his love with and through you today, what will your response be?

Prayer: God of love, I am aware of your love for me and for all of creation in so many ways. The care you took to create the world and to form each of us – it is so beautiful. Thank you, God. May I respond by being love and by sharing love in the world today. Amen.


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Put to the Test

Reading: Genesis 22: 1-14

Verse 5: “We will worship and then we will come back to you”.

In yesterday’s reading, we focused on Abraham’s trust and obedience. There is also a second person who demonstrates a great deal of trust and obedience. Isaac accompanies his father Abraham and plays his role as son, obedient to the father. In other ways we see Isaac as an example of the kind of faith and trust that Jesus modeled on his way to death. Only then, the son was not spared.

Throughout the story in Genesis 22, Isaac does the will of his father. He carries the wood up the mountain to the place of sacrifice. He does not struggle when he is bound up. He is quiet and at peace with the role that he is playing. Each of these things are reminiscent of Jesus’ trip to the cross on Calvary.

As followers of Jesus we are often asked to step into places or to do things for Jesus that may be uncomfortable or may involve some risk. To step outside of our comfort zone, to engage with someone who is not just like us, to give generously when we are led to be selfless – these are our moments when faith is put to the test. Do we, like Isaac, completely trust the father? And are we as willing to accept and play our role to fulfill the will of God? May we, like Isaac and many other faithful followers, turn towards the Lord in trust and obedience, becoming willing servants of our God most high.

Prayer: Father God, help me to trust in you – to follow your lead and to go willingly and obediently, even into a place or situation where I am unsure or am uncomfortable. Guide me to step forward in faith as my act of worship. Amen.