pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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New and Improved

Reading: 2nd Kings 5:1-14

Verse 12: “So he turned and went off in a rage.”

Elisha and Naaman are the main characters in our passage from 2nd Kings 5. Elisha is the prophet in Samaria referred to by the slave girl. He too is confident in God and has a strong faith. Hearing of the king of Israel’s distress over the letter, Elisha sends a message: “Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” Naaman and his entourage are directed to Elisha’s house.

Instead of going out to greet this important general, Elisha sends out a messenger with this simple prescription: “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan…” Naaman, however, expects to be greeted. He expects something showy from the prophet. He has a deeply pressing need – to be healed of his leprosy – and he expects a matching response. Naaman receives none of this. He is insulted and angered by Elisha’s interaction with him. “So he turned and went off in a rage.”

Do you suppose Elisha was peeking out the window the whole time, evaluating how the scene played out? He was patient. Perhaps God told him Naaman needed more than a physical healing. Or maybe it was easy to see that Naaman needed an attitude adjustment. As he’s about to storm off, Naaman’s servants reel him back in. Convinced that he should at least try this simple thing, Naaman finds “his flesh restored.” His skin “became like that of a young boy.” Naaman isn’t just healed. He is new and improved. He is healthier than he could have ever hoped for. I suppose Elisha smiled broadly as he watched Naaman’s reaction to God at work in his life. How would you react if you were Naaman?

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the reminder that you are a God who does more than. More than we expect. More than we can imagine. More than we deserve. More than we could ever earn. Thank you for your abundant and generous love that makes us new and improved. Amen.


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Jesus’ Charge

Reading: Luke 8:26-39

Verse 39: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”

Today’s passage from Luke 8 is powerful. Jesus and the disciples come ashore and are met be a man who is possessed by many demons. These evils spirits have driven him out of community. He lives alone and naked, out in the tombs. These evil spirits immediately recognize Jesus and they fear his power. After freeing the man from these many demons – notice that Jesus does not force them out but that they leave the man because he is in Jesus’ presence – the man is found sitting at Jesus’ feet, “dressed and in his right mind.”

How easy it is for us to become hardened and possessed by things. Sometimes it comes from within me – pride, anger, jealousy, control, addiction… These things can possess me. Sometimes it is from without – racism, ageism, sexism, politics… These things too can possess me. When these things, or a combination of them, become my focus, my driving force, they indeed take possession of the Spirit in me, leaving me naked, wretched, blind. But even in this state Jesus will come, will be present, reminding me of who and whose I am.

After healing the demon possessed man, there is fallout. There is a financial cost. But the loss of the pigs is not what drives the villagers to ask Jesus to leave. No, it is fear. Fear that Jesus might drive their demons out too. Fear that Jesus might change their lives too. We must also be prepared for the same response. Yes, people are glad that we’re no longer angry or controlling or biased or prejudice. But don’t “force” that stuff on them, don’t “make” them change. Like with the man in our passage, Jesus’ presence leads to change. So we’ll be asked to leave too. Yet in that moment may we remember who and whose we are and may Jesus’ charge ring in our ears too: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”

Prayer: Lord God, please continue to work in me, refining me, reshaping me, transforming me into who you want me to be. Empower me to tell the good news of what you’ve done for me. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Faithful Ministers

Reading: Luke 4:21-30

Verse 28: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.”

As we turn again to Luke 4, it seems things were going well with Jesus and the people of Nazareth. He teaches in the synagogue; they are impressed. Some there question. We usually assume their questioning was caused by doubt or skepticism. But maybe it was out of greed – imagine what Jesus could do for us, those of his own hometown! Maybe it was from a place of pride – how important we’ll be if Jesus stays here with us! Whatever was motivating their thoughts, it must’ve been evil or selfish. Jesus himself challenges their limited or errant thinking.

Jesus reminds the people of two Old Testament stories. One is of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and the other is of Naaman the Syrian. Both stories were about God’s miraculous work in the lives of strangers, of pagans, of outsiders. Standing in his hometown, taking square aim at whatever evil thoughts were stirring inside of these folks, Jesus challenges them to see outside of themselves, to see beyond their own needs. They get what Jesus is saying. They become angry, even to the point of wanting to kill him.

When has the word of God or the example of Jesus or the nudge of the Holy Spirit or the voice of a pastor or friend challenged your understanding of who is worthy of God’s love or your willingness to see how all people are inside the circle of God’s love? In these moments sometimes our response is anger too. We can feel like circling the wagons instead of opening the circle for those people. We can try and ingore the voice telling us to reach out beyond the comfortable, working instead to maintain the status quo. Yet the feeling remains. The compassion, the empathy, the desire to love – it remains because God is there within us. As one of today’s devotionals reminded me: “Faithful ministry always looks for the outsider, the neglected, the oppressed.” Looking is an active, love filled, intentional effort. May we each be faithful ministers of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, when I want to look down and pretend that they are not there, lift my eyes to see. When I want to keep them in that bubble, set apart and isolated, guide me to step within that place of isolation, bringing community. Once there, once present, move me to action, use me to love as Christ loves. Amen.


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Good and Perfect Gifts

Reading: James 1: 17-21

Verse 17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights”.

Photo credit: Erik Van Dijk

As we begin delving into the book of James, we begin a journey with the brother of Jesus and one of the early leaders of the church. The book of James will focus on two main ideas: putting our faith in action and being aware that our words have power. As we begin today, James reminds us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights”. All good things come from God. Every gift, talent, ability… that we have is a gift from God. In the picture above, for me, the many rays of light represent the generous abundance of God’s gifts. For James, the first or primary gift from God is the new birth we experience through the “word of truth” – the Lord Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus we know that Christ is the greatest gift that God has given to humanity. In and through Christ we receive grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, salvation, eternal life… What an amazing gift Jesus Christ is to you, to me, to all people.

This gift is not one to be received and cherished, put up on the shelf to be admired from time to time. No, we are to be “first fruits” – we are to live as an offering to others, as a conduit of the gifts we have received from God, sharing these gifts with the world. We are to be the living examples of Jesus Christ’s grace, mercy, love, forgiveness… In order to help us live this way, James gives us some practical advise: “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger”. These three guidelines are effective tools for using the power of our words for good instead of for evil. When we are quick to listen we are giving value and worth to the other. We are taking the time to invest in them and in the relationship. We are seeking to better understand the other. When we are slow to speak we measure and weigh our words. Words of encouragement and affirmation become more genuine and heartfelt. When our thoughts or opinions differ, being slow to speak allows our words to be filled with consideration and meekness. Love is still present even though we disagree. Both of these tools or practices help us to be slow to anger. When we think more of the other than of self, not only are we fully present, but we are less likely to be angry or hurtful in our conversations, whether in person or online.

Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger reveals the condition of our heart. James’ advice to “get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent” improved the condition of our hearts. If we guard our hearts against the filth and evil of this world, then we are better able to be quick to listen… If we “humbly accept” the word of God into our hearts, then the words we speak will be filled with love and grace and mercy and kindness and humility and… Simply put: what we fill our hearts with is what will overflow from our hearts and mouths out into the world. May God’s righteousness and love guide us today.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the many, many blessings – those good and perfect gifts that you rain down from above. Most of all, thank you for the new life in Christ available for all people. Open my ears to hear as you hear, open my mouth to speak your words, and work within my heart to temper my anger. Fill me with your generous love. Amen.


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Known by Love

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Verse 33: “I will be their God, and they will be my people”.

The new covenant that God is speaking of in today’s passage is different than the old covenants established through Noah, Abraham, and Moses. These older covenants were with the Israelites. They were God’s chosen people, set apart for God. The new covenant will come into being through Jesus’ final sacrifice – the one we read about yesterday. The new covenant is like the old in these ways: it is centered on God’s unconditional love and we cannot reciprocate it. Unlike the old covenants, the new one is not limited to the Israelites. The new covenant extends to all people.

God declares, “I will be their God, and they will be my people” and “all will know me”. The new covenant extends to rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, saint and sinner. All are invited to the table of grace and to a place in God’s family. Jesus invited all people into the covenant of love. Called to model Jesus to the world, the charge is to love all people. Instead of holding onto our anger or judging others, we are called to be a people of forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead of categorizing and stereotyping, we’re to be people of hospitality and grace. Instead of competition and accumulation, we are to be people of generosity and community.

Each day may we be people of the new covenant, loving all people with all that we are. May all we meet know the love of God that is in us. May it flow out into all the world.

Prayer: Great God of love, your love is both unconditional and unlimited. Help me to love more like you. Give me eyes that see all as worthy of your love and of my love. Bind my heart to the least and the lost. Fill me with your love today as I go into the world. Amen.


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Willing to Die?

Reading: John 12: 20-26

Verse 24: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”.

Photo credit: Noemi Pongracz

Our passage begins with some Greeks wanting to see Jesus. They are probably in town for the Passover and are curious about this man. Perhaps they were in the crowd that waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna”! Maybe they’ve just heard a few stories – snipets of his teachings or whispers of miracles. These Greeks know enough to want to know more.

Jesus begins by announcing that his time has come. Soon he will be glorified. Jesus wants them to know that not only he will soon die but that all who follow will also pay a price as well. In verse 24 Jesus says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”. Jesus is paralleling his physical death with the emotional, cultural, spiritual… deaths that all followers of Christ are called to. During the season of Lent the question that Jesus might ask of us today is this: What kernels of wheat do we need to allow to fall to the ground? Is it being greedy with my money? Is it being selfish with my time? Is it judging those who are different than me? What is your kernel of wheat that you need to let go of so that you and those you meet can experience true life?

As a society we have come to see humility and death as the enemies – physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. We do all we can to stave off death. This is the right and godly thing to do with a child or young parent or many others. Yet for each of us there comes a time when our physical death is a welcome friend. As a society we look down on humility. Instead we are taught to be strong, to be independent, to work for success in life. We’re taught that once we accumulate these things, all will be good. Until we do. Then we learn that meaning and purpose and love and contentment and peace and joy and hope cannot be earned or bought. Living as a person of the world, these eternal gifts are elusive.

We must be willing to die to pride, fear, arrogance, anxiety, selfishness, doubt, greed, lust, envy, racism, jealousy, judging, anger, prejudice, worry, elitism, injustice… as we seek to follow Jesus. As Jesus says in verse 25, we must “hate his [or her] life in this world”. Only then will we be willing and able to die to self and to begin to walk as a disciple of Jesus Christ, following him daily and one day into eternal life. May you and I be willing to do the hard work of this call to die to self. May the Lord bless our journeys.

Prayer: Loving God, your Spirit leads and guides me daily, holding up to me those kernels that still need to die. I’ve plucked off leaves now and then. Help me to get to the roots. For those things that still separate me from you and from others, grant me the strength to die to these barriers and sins. Thank you God. Amen.


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Restore Us, O Lord

Reading: Psalm 80: 1-7 and 17-19

Verse 7: “Restore us, O God Almighty, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved”.

Today’s Psalm is a plea to God. In the opening verses the psalmist pleads with God to “Hear us” and “awaken your might, come save us”. There is an urgency to the plea, a sense of desperation just below the surface of these words. As we have journeyed through life we have each felt these feelings at times. In our current world more and more people are feeling these emotions every day.

These feelings become clearer in the next verses. The psalmist wants to know how long God’s anger will “smoulder against the people”. He asks God how long they will have to eat “bread of tears”. There is a lot of hurt going on in this Psalm. A lot of pain and heartache are being experienced by the people of God. In verse seven the psalmist begs, “Restore us, O God Almighty, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved”. This is a familiar refrain used in Psalm 80. It is a refrain that many could offer up to God on a frequent basis in this season of illness and pain and loss.

In verses seventeen thought nineteen the writer asks for God’s hand to rest upon “the man at your right hand, the son of man”. The psalmist is likely referring to an earthly king or to a prophet of God. The people need one to lead them. From our New Testament eyes we read these words and think of Jesus Christ. On our faith journeys Christ is the one we turn to, the one on whom we call. Jesus is the source of our salvation, the cornerstone of our hope, the example of love lived out. In our Christian faith we look at the Lord Jesus Christ and pray, “Restore us, O God Almighty, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved”. May the Lord restore you and shine his face upon you today.

Prayer: Lord God, awaken your might and bring healing to our land and to our souls. Heal us of our COVID, heal us of our prejudices and injustices, heal us of our pride and consumerism, heal us of our sin. Restore us and make us more faithful disciples, better neighbors, people of love. Amen.


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We All Sleep

Reading: Matthew 25: 1-13

Verse 5: “The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep”.

Today’s and tomorrow’s passage takes place at a wedding. The Jewish wedding of Jesus’ day was different than the weddings we attend today. The ceremony itself would be at the bride’s home. The wedding banquet would be at the bridegroom’s home. In our passage we find the bridesmaids awaiting the groom and his side of the wedding party. They are waiting to parade him into the wedding space with some celebration and excitement. But the bridegroom is delayed, so they wait into the night. We are not sure why he is delayed. One suggestion I read is that the groom and bride’s father could not agree on the bride’s price – another custom that we do not practice in many parts of the world today.

In our passage we learn that some of the bridesmaids are wise and some are foolish. Some were prepared for a lengthy wait and some were not. For some, this was probably not their first wedding. Some brought extra oil in jars and some did not. This fact will have a dramatic affect on both the wise and foolish bridesmaids. The hour gets late. In verse five we read, “The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep”. All ten fell asleep. None stayed awake the whole time. All ten fell asleep.

In terms of our faith, we all fall asleep. Even the most devout Christian has moments or even seasons when they walk in the ways of the world, when they allow anger or pride or some other non-Christian emotion to control their words or actions. Whether just a few minutes or a couple of hourss or a few days or many years, we can all allow or push or choose to lay aside our faith for a time. Sometimes it is almost innocent, like the ten bridesmaids who literally fell asleep. Sometimes it is more planned, more fully considered, more thought through. Sin can be like that.

Then came the call that awakened all ten. Five trimmed their lamps, righted the ship, got back on the narrow path. Five could not. Yes, we’ve all been there – in both scenarios. The Holy Spirit whispers to us, gently nudges us, reminding us of our faith, that treasure in a jar of clay. We return to our walk of faith. But we’ve all also ignored the Holy Spirit conviction and kept on living in sin. We had slept too long and there was no oil to refill our lamps at that point. Today’s story begs two questions for me today. First, when temptation comes, is their sufficient faith to turn sin away? Second, when temptation leads to sin and faith slumbers, will there be enough oil to relight my walk of faith?

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the reminder and for the call to introspection today. Daily discipline is essential to continue on the walk of faith. Keep me diligent. Also needed is a humble spirit and a willing heart. Only then will I hear well the Holy Spirit. Strengthen my faith day by day, Lord, filling my jar with faith each day. Amen.


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Intercessors

Reading: Exodus 32: 7-14

Verses 9-10: “They are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them”.

Yesterday we read about the making of and worshipping of the golden calf. Today we hear God’s response and the rest of the story. As God looks down upon the revelry, he sends Moses back down the mountain. God notes that the people have “become corrupt” and that they were “quick to turn away” from all that he has commanded. There is an anger that is beginning to build. The emotions in his voice and the decibel level must have changed as God continues, saying, “They are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them”. The first part of this statement certainly remains true, at least concerning me. I am stubborn and willful. Maybe you too? And, sometimes, we might not cause God’s anger to burn, but we at least quicken his pulse or cause that vein to pop out on occasion. At this point in Israel’s wilderness journey, God is ready to “destroy” the whole lot, to start over with just Moses.

As I consider how the people got God to this point, I am cognizant of many times when I have probably done the same. I have worshipped idols. No, I have not literally danced around a man-made image in the wilderness. I have done worse. I have definitely allowed the things of the world to take the place of God at times in my life. I have pursued wealth and titles, recognition and wins on the court – all to the neglect of my relationship with God. We all have our lists. God’s anger must burn against us at times. God must feel like destroying us at times. But the punishment does not come raining down from heaven. We too have an intercessor, an advocate, one who speaks for us. Just as Moses stands between God and the execution of his anger and wrath, Jesus stands between God and us. Jesus speaks words of empathy and compassion, of love and understanding. Some of the time, Jesus probably has to remind God, “I already paid the price”.

In the end, God relents and the journey towards the Promised Land continues. Grace wins. Grace continues to win in our lives as well. Thanks be to God for our intercessor, Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Loving God, I, like those living in the wilderness, am so grateful for your mercy and grace. Each time I deserve punishment, your love lived out stands in my defense. His sacrifice allows me to be made new again. Over and over. Thank you, God. Amen.


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A Story of Love

Reading: Psalm 105: 1-6 and 37-45

Verse 40: “They asked, and he brought them quail and satisfied them with the bread of heaven”.

Today’s Psalm passage is part of a larger Psalm that tells the early history of Israel. In the verses we did not read it speaks of the covenant and of God’s protection when they were small in number. It also speaks of Joseph and of the plagues that led to the exodus. Our passage today picks up the story of the actual exodus and of God’s saving acts out in the wilderness. The Psalm would have been sung on the way to worship or in worship. It would have been heavy in the song rotation in the period after returning from exile in Babylon.

As we reflect on our days reading from Exodus 16 this week, we get a different feel for the story. In the Psalm we read, “They asked, and he brought them quail and satisfied them with the bread of heaven”. This is much different from the repeated grumbling directly against Moses and indirectly against God. The story has been polished up a bit. But that is a common practice. When we, for example, tell of how God answered our prayers during a hard time or season in our lives, we do not include much about the days of doubt and frustration or anything about our anger at experiencing said trial or suffering. We don’t tell the story as one of weak or faltering faith and of God finally answering. Why do we tend to do that? Why did the psalmist?

The point of the story is not to recount our human weakness or failures but to tell of God’s love and care, of God’s investment in our lives. For the Israelites, this story played out in the covenant and the Law. For us, it plays out in our saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Both are great stories to be told. What song can or would you sing, telling others of God’s love for you? May our lives be that song today.

Prayer: Living God, thank you for the story of my life. It is of your love and care, of your guidance and direction, and even of your correction and protection. It is not always pretty. It is not always neat and tidy. But it is the story of your love for me. Thank you. Amen.