pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Faith Alone

Reading: Romans 4: 13-25

Verse 25: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”.

Photo credit: Mael Gramain

What does God expect or require of you? What did Jesus expect of his disciples and of those that would follow him? If we were to make a list to answer these questions, would the list be a collection of things to do or would it detail how to live our lives? Paul is answering these questions for the church in Rome in today’s passage.

The church in Rome was falling into the trap that Paul has been caught in for most of his life. Faith was a form of legalism – of checking boxes and staying within the lines defined by the Law. Faith was not a way of life. To help them understand this Paul goes back to Abraham, the father of Israel, the patriarch of all patriarchs in the Jewish faith. In our passage today Paul points out that God credited Abraham as righteous because of his faith in God. Abraham’s faith was demonstrated in his trust and obedience to God’s direction. The Law was not even in existence yet. Entering into this right relationship with God through faith alone made Abraham and his descendants heirs of God’s promises. For Paul, all who believe in Jesus fall into that line of descendants. Belief is what gets one in that line, not following any set of rules or lists that we can make up.

Paul defines belief in Jesus as the only action necessary to be “credited” as righteous – being right with God. He wants to be clear that righteousness does not come from following the Law or any other set of rules, but from faith in Jesus Christ. In verse 25 Paul reminds those in the church in Rome and all who follow Jesus why belief in him is essential: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”. In dying for our sins, Jesus removed the weight of the Law – that sacrifice for this sin, this sacrifice for that sin… – and he paid the price through his blood. A final sin sacrifice was offered by one for all. Through Jesus’ sacrifice we are made righteous before God. In being raised from the dead, Jesus defeated death, opening the way for us to receive eternal life. Both are gifts, given to us without price, without any requirement except believing that Jesus did this for each of us. These is no law or rules that we can follow to receive or earn these gifts. They come through faith alone. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: God, I am so grateful for these gifts of love – born to the cross and into the grave for me. You stood in my place and took the punishment for me. And you did not stop there. You walked out of the grave, breaking those chains too. Thank you for the gifts of love that make it possible to experience joyful and abundant life now and to enter eternal life one day through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.


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Bearing the Light

Reading: Psalm 8

Verse 4: “What is man that you are mindful of him”?

Psalm 8 begins and ends with the same words: “O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth”. For David, God was an active and vibrant part of his life. If we are looking, if we are seeking it, we too can and will see God’s majesty all around. Like David, we can see it in the glory of the heavens and in the “work of your fingers”. For example, as I write the sun is creeping up, casting a beautiful light on the ridges west of the house. God’s beauty and majesty are all around us if we but have eyes to see.

In light of the beauty and majesty of creation that David celebrates in Psalm 8’s opening verses, he poses a question in verse four. Here David asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him”? It is a great question to ponder, especially when we consider that God made you and me in his image, like the incarnate Jesus, just “a little lower than the heavenly beings”. David speaks of the works of God’s hands, of all things, being under his rule. Is David here talking of humanity or of Jesus? Or is he referring to both?

The pine tree outside my window is now bathed in a golden light. There is a glow as the light spreads over the tree. I believe “both” is the correct answer to the question above. You are I were created in God’s image to be like Jesus, to bear his light into the world, just as Jesus witnessed to God’s light in the world. May each day of our lives be a part of helping the whole world to see God’s light and love, leading all people everywhere to declare, “O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth”.

Prayer: Lord of all, how majestic is your name! Use me today and each day to bear witness to the light. Through me may others come to know your love. Amen.


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The Family

Reading: Ephesians 1: 3-14

Verse 13: “You also were included in Christ… Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit”.

The opening section of Ephesians is all about God’s plans to include us all in the family of God. Paul begins by declaring that God chose us to be in Christ “before the creation of the world”. It is in “accordance with his pleasure and will” that all people are “adopted as his sons [and daughters] through Jesus Christ”. God desires for all people to be a part of the community of faith.

Starting in verse seven Paul moves on to why and how God wants us in the family. First, only then do we receive redemption for our sins. Out of love God provided a way for us to be freed from the bonds of sin. Without Christ we remain trapped in the guilt and shame. Second, God lavishes us with wisdom and understanding. The ways of God are not the ways of the world. This gift allows believers to live and see and love the world differently. Created anew in Christ, we pursue the things and ways of God instead of the world. Third, in relationship with Christ we become a part of the fulfillment of all things. Living holy lives we are a part of bringing “all things in heaven and earth together under one head, Jesus Christ”. As part of the family, we seek to help bring others into the family of God.

About three years ago I was serving a church in a small rural community. The hospital called and asked if I would come visit an elderly woman who was nearing death. Soon after arriving I learned from her daughters that she wanted to be baptized. As I left to get the needed supplies, I asked if she wanted to receive communion after being baptized. She nodded “yes”. When I returned we had a short baptism service for a 93-year-old. She had come to know Jesus as Lord later in life but had never been baptized. She knew of Paul’s words: “you were marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit”. Feeling a new sense of belonging, this deposit “guaranteeing her inheritance” led to celebrating holy communion in a new way too.

Taken together, all of the signs and symbols, all the wisdom and knowledge, all the blessings and graces – they reassure us of our place in the community of faith. Thanks be to God for the love that is big enough to want all of us to be saved. To the praise of his glory, amen!

Prayer: Loving God, you so want to include all people in your family. Use me today to move someone a little closer to being a part of the great community of faith. Amen.


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Walking the Path Ourselves

Reading: Matthew 23: 1-12

Verse 12: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”.

For our third day in our Matthew 23 reading, we turn to the last section – verses eight through twelve. On Friday we looked at the call to living authentic faith. We must practice what we teach. If we say we are a Christian, we must do as Jesus Christ did. On Saturday we looked at motives and intentions. If we do good just to be seen or to draw attention to ourselves, then we are not really living out our faith. Our faith should center on an audience of one – the Lord Jesus Christ. In today’s passage Jesus centers our faith on the Master, on the Messiah – Jesus Christ himself. Letting us know the value of titles and accolades in God’s economy, in verse eleven Jesus says, “The greatest among you will be your servant”. Talk about an upside-down economy! Yes, the one willing to humbly do for others is demonstrating their faith well. They are living out the two great commandments to love God with all that we are and to love neighbor as yourself.

Today in our church and in many churches we will celebrate All Saints Day. We will pause to remember and name those that have gone on to eternity. These persons have finished their race and today we remember them and are thankful for their service to God, to the church, to the community, to the building of the kingdom of God. We rejoice in the ways that they have witnessed to faithful living. Our passage today closes with these words: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”.

May we exalt the Lord our God only. May we recognize humble service as the model that Jesus Christ set and as the way that the faithful saints have walked, seeking to walk the path ourselves. May we too one day hear the words, “Well done good and faithful servant”.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the call to humble service. Thank you for all who have set and are setting the example for me. Jesus Christ is the ultimate example but we are ever surrounded by a great cloud if witness too. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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Love God, Love Neighbor

Reading: Matthew 22: 34-46

Verses 37 and 39: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and love your neighbor as yourself”.

The Pharisees loved the law. It was a tool to maintain their position and their appearance of goodness. With the law they could judge and shame and control others. The law could be used to define who had value and worth and standing. Jesus chose love. That is the key word in the two great commandments. Boiled down to their simplest form, Jesus said, “Love God, love neighbor”. The highest form of love welcomes the other, serves all, extends mercy and grace and forgiveness without cost, and is generous with all one has and is. And, in the end, it is not the law that saves us, it is love that saves.

Love saves us because it is greater than our sin. Love saves us because it is stronger than the power of death. Love washes us clean when we stumble and give in to the lures of the world and to the pleasures of the flesh. Love makes us new again over and over, allowing us to continue to be in right relationship with the Lord our God. The love that grows within also extends outward, leading us to offer grace and mercy and forgiveness not only to others but to ourselves as well. Love leads us to see others as valued, as worthy, as beloved children of God. Love leads us to care for the sick, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the imprisoned and the lonely, to provide for the orphan and widow and stranger. Love calls us to die to self again and again, surrendering our lives to Jesus Christ, the one who modeled what it is to fully love God and neighbor. Each day may we seek to share Christ’s love with others as we bring love into the world.

Prayer: Lord of love, deepen my relationship with you each day, empowering me to be love lived out. Capture my whole heart and open it to all I meet. In these encounters, may others see you. Amen.


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Friends and Fairness

Reading: Matthew 20: 1-16

Verse 13: “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius'”?

When the landowner hires the first group, early in the morning, they agree on a denarius for their pay. With each subsequent group the landowner says, “I will pay you whatever is right”. It was an agriculturally based economy and a denarius was the accepted wage for a days labor. The ones hired at noon, for example, would expect a half denarius for their efforts. To have good workers in your vineyard, fair pay was essential. To be able to provide for your family, a fair wage was essential. This remains how the world works.

At the end of the day the foreman is directed to pay the ones who only worked one hour first and to work his way to the ones who worked twelve hours. The story would have a totally different feel, a different impact, if told the other way around. If paid first, the twelve hours crew would go home with their denarius, happy to have earned a whole days wage. Those hired later would be happy about receiving more than they deserved, especially the three and one hour crews. But this is not a story about happiness. It is a parable about God’s grace and love towards us and about God’s sense of fairness and contentment. The parable is aimed at the religious, at those who think it unfair that a lifelong sinner could be suddenly saved and forgiven. The religious disliked how easily and freely Jesus welcomed sinners into the family of God. He was so generous with his time and love. The religious wanted the sinners to live right first – meeting all the requirements, following all the rules, jumping through all the right hoops – before entering the family of God. They wanted the sinners to get all cleaned up before joining the family. Jesus was too much of a “take you as you are” kind of guy for their particular taste.

In verse thirteen the landowner responds to the angry twelfth hour folks by saying, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius”? There are two things to note here. First, the owner calls the employee “friend”. That would be like God calling you and me ‘friend’. Wait, God does. God does not rule from on high, looking down on us, condemning us if we fail to be perfect. No, God invites us to walk and talk with him, to be his companion, to be our friend – warts and sins and all. Second, the landowner reminds the workers that he is not being unfair. I need to be reminded of this over and over when my inner Pharisee rises up and tried to look down on the humble tax collector over in the corner. God promised us grace (among many other things). God’s grace is not a finite quantity. When another receives God’s grace, there isn’t suddenly less for me. Yet sometimes I begrudge others receiving grace. Because of God’s endless love for all of humanity, there is always more than enough grace for us all. Instead of worrying about what others received, we should be thankful that we are blessed by God’s grace. I always receive way more than I deserve. Today may we each give thanks for God’s abundant grace and for our personal relationship with God, giver of grace.

Prayer: Lord God, this journey is not about happiness or getting my “fair” share relative to others. There’s no earning my way into relationship with you. So turn me from the world’s sense of happiness and from the earthly desire to compare. Help me to simply trust in my relationship with you. You desire to be my all in all. Guide me to live like I believe that and trust into that all of the time. May I rest today in your love and grace. Amen.


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Best News Ever

Reading: Romans 10: 5-15

Verse 12: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him”.

Christianity can be exclusive. Since day one it is something we have struggled with. In the very earliest church they thought one had to first be Jewish before one could become a Christian. Soon enough the Gentile Christians were trying to exclude the Jewish Christians. That is partially what Paul is addressing today. To the church in Rome and to all Christians today, Paul says, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him”. All people are loved by God. In similar writings Paul adds slave and free, young and old… to illustrate that God is for all people.

Religion in general has a long history of using beliefs and sacred texts as a means to justify exclusivity and sometimes violence. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and a host of other religions have fought wars, conducted purges, persecuted, imprisoned, … others outside of their faith. This is a fine line we walk. To have a belief system inherently makes one feel that their belief system is “right” or “correct”. If you didn’t, would your faith be worth having and following? But to use those beliefs to do harm of any kind crosses a line that Jesus clearly drew. A quick look at Jesus’ ministry, teachings, and life reveal a God who loves all people.

Tension existed between Jesus and the dominant religion because of his inclusiveness. Jesus interacted with all kinds of people deemed unclean, unholy, and unwelcome. His inclusion of prostitutes and Samaritans, of tax collectors and adulterers, of lepers and other infirm revealed the depth and breadth of God’s love.

Paul ends today’s passage with an encouragement to be like Jesus – preaching and teaching. It is also a claim to exclusivity: to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the whole world. We are called to go and tell of God’s love found in Jesus Christ. It is the best news ever. May we go and tell one and all.

Prayer: Lord of all creation and of all people, may I be a bearer of the good news. May I always tell of a love that conquers all things, defeats all barriers, and welcomes all people. Amen.


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God Over All

Reading: Romans 9: 1-5

Verse 5: “From them is traced the human ancestry of Jesus, who is God over all, forever praised”!

As our passage turns to verse five Paul is beginning a shift in his thinking and understanding. It reminds me of a prayer shift I sometimes make. For example, when a loved one or someone I know is battling a health issue, I will pray for healing and wholeness. But sometimes the person does not win their battle with the illness or disease. My prayers shift to petitions for peace, comfort, strength, God’s abiding presence. The shift represents a new understanding in how God can work in their lives and in the lives of their loved ones. Paul is turning a similar corner. He is beginning to understand that opening the gospel to a wider audience is part of God’s plan for the good news of Jesus Christ.

In verse five we get a hint at this shift. In verse five we read, “From them is traced the human ancestry of Jesus, who is God over all, forever praised”! Out of the line of Israel, God became incarnate in the person of Jesus. When Paul acknowledges that God is the God of all, there is an opening of Paul’s thinking. God is not just the God of the chosen people; God is the God of all people. As Romans continues to unfold, this is the direction Paul leans into.

As we consider these words today we must think about the implications for our lives and for how we practice our faith. We can no longer look at this person or that group of people and decide that their soil is too hard or rocky or thorny, to use Jesus’ terminology from Matthew 13. Jesus’ words from the end of the gospel of Matthew are echoing in my head. In 28:19 we hear the charge to “make disciples of all nations”. Paul is beginning to work into a fuller understanding of what Jesus meant with these words. May we seek to do so as well.

Prayer: Loving God, as time has unfolded, your love has grown into more and more people’s hearts. Christ and then the disciples and apostles began the journey to take faith to “the ends of the earth”. Each day may I strive to be a part of that team – even if just in my neighborhood or in this valley. May all I do and say and think draw people to you. Amen.


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Seeds and Yeast

Reading: Matthew 13: 31-33

Verse 33: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast… worked all through the dough”.

As we consider these two teachings about what the kingdom of God is like we get the sense that it is growing and active and alive. These words should describe our journey of faith as well.

In the mustard seed teaching Jesus compares our faith beginnings to a small seed being placed into the ground. The reality for most of us is that our faith is the result of many seeds being planted in us – some by parents and grandparents, some by Sunday teachers and pastors, some by friends… Once the seed of faith begins to grow in us Jesus begins to take root in our heart. As our faith grows and becomes active and alive, it branches out and provided places for others to come and find rest, sustenance, support…

In the second teaching, Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast… worked all through the dough”. Like the slow and steady growth of the seed, the yeast works inside the dough in a similar manner. As the yeast begins to work it isn’t really noticable. This is like the initial stages of our faith too. God is at work in us in ways that are not noticable to the outside world and sometimes not even to us. Yet God is at work. Over time we can see the dough rise as the yeast works throughout the dough. Like most of our faith journeys the process is slow and steady. And like the yeast in the dough our faith is intended to affect all parts of our lives. As we mature and our faith spreads it should come to influence all areas of our lives – family, friends, work, social activities, personal disciplines… Just as the seed grows into a tree and as the yeast spreads throughout, may our faith continue to be alive and active, always growing, ever maturing. May each day bring us one step closer to the example of our faith, Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, looking back I can see those seed planters. I am thankful for my parents, for those who taught and mentored me in youth group and on Sunday mornings, and for my many brothers and sisters in Christ who have journeyed with me. Thank you for the rich and powerful community of faith. Amen.


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For All

Reading: Romans 8: 6-8

Verse 8: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”.

As the second half of our Romans reading opens, we are reminded again of how God is in control. We read, “at just the right time”. Not a moment too soon, not a few days too late. Perhaps it was when humanity needed saving the most. Maybe it was when things lined up just right from God’s perspective. Possibly it was a tipping point that none of us can see from this side of the veil. But at just the right time, “Christ died for the ungodly”. That is me and that is you and that it all people everywhere. Christ died for all.

The act of sacrificial death born out on the cross begs the question: Why? Paul answers the question in verse eight: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. Why? Because God loved you and me and all of humanity so much that he was willing to send his son to die a painful death. Why? Because the price had to be paid for the sins of the world – mine, yours, all of ours. Why? Because resurrection can happen only after death. It is quite the demonstration of love.

If Christ was willing to die for us while we were still sinners, what should our response be to those we encounter that need healing or redemption or restoration or new life? Should we be willing to go as far as Jesus went to minister to those he met? If not death, then how far should we be willing to go to end injustice in all forms, to break bonds and addictions, to cross unspoken barriers, to offer forgiveness and grace? Should we even have a line?

When Jesus encountered someone in need, he did not have them fill out a questionnaire to determine if they qualified or fit certain parameters. He did not evaluate them to see if they were worth his time and energies. No, Jesus came for all and he loved all. We see this reflected in his death – he died for all. And before his final departure, Jesus instructed his followers to go and do likewise. Today, may we seek to model that same love – no conditions, no qualifications, no strings attached. May we simply love and serve all we meet today.

Prayer: Loving God, open my heart to your love, that in receiving I may give. Bind my will to your will and my ways to your ways. Empower me to love and serve others well today. Amen.