pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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The True Kingdom

Reading: John 10: 16-18

Verse 17: “The reason my father loves me is that I lay down my life”.

We turn to John 10 for a second day in a row. Yesterday we were drawn to consider the present reality of God’s kingdom here on earth and to consider how we are each working to include others in said kingdom. Today we focus in on the how and the who of our task to draw others into the kingdom of God.

For Jesus, the how was laying down his life. Jesus did this literally, going to the cross to defeat the power of sin and then to and out of the grave to defeat the power of death. This obedient, sacrificial action reflects both Jesus’ love for God and for us. In turn, it draws God’s love and our love too. While we may not go as far as Jesus did with our obedient and sacrificial actions, we can certainly expect to be called upon to pay a cost as we seek to share the love of God with others. It may be financial, physical, emotional, relational. The ‘how’ will almost always involve giving something for or to the other. While this is often difficult, the real ‘who’ is harder.

When we consider Jesus’ ‘who’, is general they were Jews. The people Jesus spoke with and ministered to were often much like Jesus himself. This too is our general mission field – those we work with, associate with, maybe go to school with. Jesus also welcomed and engaged those from the edges and fringes – those society and formal religion rejected or avoided. Herein lies our real challenge. We like the neat and ordered, the understandable and routine. Our churches like these things too. But for the kingdom of God to be fully revealed, it must reflect our actual communities, in all of their beautiful diversity. To realize this we must be willing to engage and welcome those outside of our normal circles. We must be willing to be uncomfortable and unsure of the places and people we seek to connect with – only in these thin spaces will we really rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us. Only then will the margins and fringes be wiped away by the love of God, opening our community of faith to reflect the true kingdom of God here on earth.

Prayer: Loving God, it’s easy to call upon or engage those like me, those inside the church. It is much harder to engage and love those who are not like me. Give me a willing spirit and a deeper trust in you. Go with me Holy Spirit. Amen.


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The Faithful Road

Reading: 1st Thessalonians 5: 16-24

Verses 21 and 22: “Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil”.

In his closing Paul reminds the Thessalonians of some basics of the faith. In short order he gives them three: live with joy, pray always, and be thankful in all things. As we each consider this short list, we quickly recognize one or two, maybe three, as challenging. Living joyfully, for example, is pretty easy when things are good. But on a really bad day or during a season of loss, living with joy can be a real effort. Similarly, in difficult times it can be hard to give thanks. After we’ve prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed about someone or something, it can be trying to keep praying to a God who doesn’t seem to care enough to answer. Faith is not always easy. It was not meant to be easy. Jesus described the road as “narrow”. These are just some of the reasons we have company on the road.

In verse nineteen Paul warns us against putting out the fire of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has always been represented as fire since that first Pentecost Sunday when “what seemed to be tongues of fire” came upon the followers of Jesus (Acts 2:3). The Holy Spirit is our main divine companion for our journey of faith. The indwelling presence of Jesus Christ lives inside of us, leading and guiding, teaching and correcting. We also walk the road with our brothers and sisters in Christ. They help and encourage us, challenge and uplift us, teach and mentor us. And we do the same for others.

In verses 21 and 22 Paul tells us to “Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil”. We are to allow the Spirit to do its work, yes, but we too must be an active participant on our own journey of faith. We are called to test things and situations and people against the truths of God. When unsure on our own, we turn to prayer and to good Christian counsel. We must hold onto the good – keeping those things and practices and people that help us stay close to Jesus and on the path of following him, well, close to us. Paul also admonishes us to avoid evil – don’t go to those places, events, web sites… that cause temptation, don’t hang out with those folks who cause you to sin…

As he closes Paul prays that God would “sanctify” or make us holy and righteous, blameless on the day we stand before the risen Lord. It is the hope for us all. Our passage for today closes with these great words of encouragement: “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it”. God is faithful. He will sanctify the faithful. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for these great reminders today. In the Spirit, walk with me day by day, being present until I meet you face to face. Amen.


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Audience of 1

Reading: Matthew 23: 1-12

Verse 5: “Everything they do is done for me to see”.

Yesterday we looked at the warning to do as the scribes and Pharisees teach, not as they do. There is a disconnect between what they preach to the people and how they themselves are living their lives. The middle section in our reading today begins with verse five. Here we read, “Everything they do is done for me to see”. This can be a trap we too fall into. Being human, we like recognition. When we do something “good” and no one notices, we feel hurt or let down or we can even question why we did it. Some of the time, we can also be like these religious leaders, waiting for an audience before we do our good deed, insuring publicity or recognition for our actions.

The scribes and Pharisees loved to be seen and recognized. It reinforced both their authority and their ego. They wore large phylacteries and long tassels – two symbols of their deep connection to God. Today, one may give a large donation, thinking the size of the gift will reflect the depth of their faith for others. Some will want it announced in church or published in the bulletin or will want a plaque placed on the item so that all will know of their good and generous gift. The scribes and Pharisees wanted the best seats or places at events or in worship. This prime real estate is where others will notice they are there. In a similar way, they loved to be called ‘rabbi’ – a title that was revered, respected, honored. It pumped up the ego to see all bow a bit as the people acknowledged the religious leaders. The title separated them from the rest of society. It also insulated them from those outside of their religious circles.

Today, some still like to have a title connected to their name – doctor, professor, reverend, pastor, officer… Titles convey power and authority. These titles can be used to gain admittance and to avoid consequences. It is a good thing, for example, when the pastor title gains entry to pray with a dying person during these pandemic restrictions. Yet it would be a bad thing, for example, to pull out my pastor ID card first, instead of my driver’s license, if pulled over for speeding. Titles can be abused, they can separate, they can be used to manipulate, they can be used for personal gain. Jesus is warning us against such things, to check our egos, and to be aware of our motives and intentions.

When we practice our faith, when we offer acts of kindness, may it always be for an audience of one – for the Lord our God.

Prayer: Lord, when I am tempted to shine the light on me, remind me of the call to humble service. When I want others to notice or see what I’m doing, check my pride and remind me of humble service. When I’m drawn to playing the pastor card, remind me of the call to humble service. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Drawing In

Reading: John 4: 5-26

Verse 9: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink”?

The conversation in today’s passage is refreshing. Two people who do not previously know each other have an open and honest conversation. Wouldn’t it be nice if people who know each other could have at least this open and honest of a conversation? Let’s see how that may be possible.

The conversation we read in John 4 is honest and allows space for the other to speak and be heard. The woman is coming to the well alone in the sixth hour, which would be noon for us. All the other women came as a group in the early morning, in the cool of the day. As they came, drew water, and returned to the village they would have talked and caught up with one another. The woman at the well is alone and is isolated in her own community. After Jesus asks her for a drink, she replies, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink”? Jesus is attempting to cross a few barriers here in order to enter into a conversation. She points out both the Jew-Samaritan and the male-female barriers. He continues the conversation, crossing the barrier of isolation. Jesus chooses to engage someone that most others ignore or avoid. In spite of the initial barriers that she tries to put up, Jesus continues to try and connect with her. Jesus offers her the “living water” and she reminds him that Jacob drank from this well and gave it to the Samaritans. The Samaritan connection to Jacob is their claim to equality with the Jews. She is testing Jesus – will he bite and allow the conversation to be derailed? No, he continues to offer her the water that leads to eternal life. You see, the gift of eternal life is much more important than any earthly defined barrier or difference. How can we model this belief in our efforts to share Jesus with others?

In verses sixteen through eighteen Jesus identifies the thing that keeps her on the fringes of society, outside of community. He does name it but there is no judgment, no taking of moral high ground. She falls back into the Jew-Samaritan barrier in verse twenty, but again Jesus persists, opening her eyes to see how God is working to break down worship and religious barriers, revealing a time when all believers will worship together in spirit and truth. Jesus is again leaning into the eternal. The woman at the well is beginning to sense what Jesus offers, connecting to the day when the Messiah will come. The conversation ends for now with Jesus claiming, “I am he”. Drawn in, the woman will soon draw others in.

This is the pattern of discipleship – sharing faith in Jesus with one person at a time. May we practice this model today.

Prayer: Father God, lead me past any barriers my earthly eyes may see at first. Open my heart and mind to the guiding of your Holy Spirit as I seek to share Jesus with others today. Amen.


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Push Us

Reading: Acts 10: 34-43

Verses 34-35: “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right”.

In our passage today, Peter reveals a heart that has witnessed the widening of God’s circle. Early on in his days following Jesus he was more focused on the chosen people, the Jews. Even though Peter was present when many Samaritans came to believe in Jesus after he spoke to the women at the well, his circle was still small. In Acts 10, Peter has a vision and a powerful moment that leads him to say, “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right”. In this experience God will even challenge Peter’s notion of what is right. (In the reminder of chapter ten the Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentiles before they are baptized – not the “normal” order!)

Peter’s mind and, more importantly, his heart were changed when he allowed himself to be open to God’s voice in the visions and when he followed where God led. Once in a position to do so, Peter shared the good news with his Gentile audience. As God opened up Peter’s circle he came to understand what Jesus really meant by “go and make disciples of all people”. This would not have been possible if Peter was not willing to consider that God might just be doing a new thing in and through him. If Peter stayed stuck in his old understanding of God’s love, he would never have encountered Cornelius and family.

This leads me to wonder: when have I tried to stay in my comfort zone, avoiding the new thing that God is trying to do? When have I been hesitant to see how God is moving and opening up the path to faith to someone I do not think is worthy or ready or acceptable? Sometimes what I have understood previously has been the thing that kept me within my own little circle. At other times my stereotypes and preconceived ideas have been my barrier.

God pushed Peter to new people and to a new understanding of just how big God’s love is. It happened because Peter allowed himself to be pushed. May we each allow God to push us today.

Prayer: Loving Father, your love knows no bounds, does it? You see one and all as worthy of your love. Who and what they are or have been does not matter to you. A heart turned towards you is simply the starting point for us all. Help me today to better be your love in the world. Make my love a love for one and all, Lord. Allow me to follow closer. Amen.


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Overflow

Reading: Romans 15: 7-13

Verse 7: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God”.

Stop. Read verse seven again. Slowly. The words “as Christ accepted you” are powerful. Jesus accepted me as I am. That includes my sin, yes. But, more than that, Jesus accepted me knowing that I would sin again. And again. And again. A love so perfect, accepting me as I am, is a powerful love. The “you” is also universal. Jesus’ love and acceptance knew no bounds. Many rejected Jesus. But that did not stop him from loving even these.

Rejection is something we must consider if we are to really live out this verse. To the proper Jews, the Gentiles were base and vile. They were to be avoided. But to Jesus, to Paul, to the early Christians, the Gentiles became ones to accept, to love as Jesus had first loved them. The Gentiles were simply people in need of Jesus’ saving love. The rejection did not come from the Gentiles. It came from those proper religious folks who would not go there themselves. Jesus experienced this kind of rejection too. He ate with the sinners, touched the lepers, healed on the Sabbath. Oh the things Jesus would do to love another.

That’s what this passage is calling us to. It is so easy to love those like us, those that fit the same boxes we fit. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God”. For Jesus, the “you” was universal. Ours should be as well. But be prepared – some will ridicule you for ministering to that people or in that neighborhood. Some will reject you because you love and accept those kinds of people. Do not worry – Jesus was rejected too. To those who accepted Jesus, he was life. That is what brought praise to God.

I close with Paul’s closing: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”.

Prayer: Oh God! Fill me with that hope, joy, and peace. Fill me so much that I overflow. Use me today as you will, O Lord my God. Amen.


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See and Engage

Reading: Luke 13: 10-13

Verse 12: “When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your infirmity'”.

Perhaps you know someone like this woman. They are limited by some ailment – at least from most people’s perspectives. Like this woman, they mostly live on the fringes of society. She would have been unable to work and would have relied on family or the kindness of others. To some this is a burden, pushing her closer to the fringe. The common understanding is that she is crippled by a spirit – another reason to avoid her. To many on the periphery of her life, she would have long ago blended in. Those in the synagogue probably don’t notice her coming and going most days. Today there are people just like this woman.

Over the years I have helped lead a few high school mission trips. Without fail we meet people like this woman. Their ailment might be physical, like hers. But more often than not it is emotional. They might have a mental illness or a traumatic experience has impacted them. Once in a while the person is simply very different and this creates the barrier. There is also something that happens without fail. A youth or a group of youth will come back from a day of serving and will share that “that guy” or “that woman” is a really neat person or that they have a really cool life story. Almost all of the time they shift to calling them by name part way through the retelling and that almost always ends with some version of a “he/she is just like us” statement.

In order for all that to happen, at least two things must occur. First, the youth(s) must be willing to see the other. Second, they must be willing to engage the other. This is what Jesus did in our story. In verse twelve we read, “When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your infirmity'”. He saw her come in. He chose to engage her. She was absolutely worthy of his time and attention. The barriers that others saw and the Sabbath day barrier did not stop Jesus. He ministered to her that day. Her life was forever changed. On mission trips or whenever we engage those like the woman, we do not heal them. But we do introduce them to the idea that Jesus can.

Today, who will you truly see and engage that others avoid or do not notice?

Prayer: Lord, continue to give me eyes to see the other and a heart to engage them. Lead and guide me by the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.


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Eyes to See

Reading: Luke 21: 25-36

Verses 26 and 26: “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars… nations will be in anguish… men will faint from terror”.

In our gospel lesson for this week, Jesus tells us that there will be signs that signal His second coming. In our opening verses, He says, “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars… nations will be in anguish… men will faint from terror”. These verses make it sound like it will be evident when the time is at hand. Yet for thousands of years people have seen catastrophic wars and diseases and disasters and wondered: is it now?

Since war and violence and pestilence seem to be natural parts of our world that occur with regularity and frequency, it is hard to interpret any of these as the signs that Jesus Christ is speaking of in today’s passage. So how will we know? I think the better question is: how do we see?

In our modern world we often rely on medicine instead of prayer. We turn to prayer as a last resort. We turn to ourselves to solve life’s problems instead of seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When this doesn’t work, we may try and numb ourselves or may turn to other ways to take our minds off the matter. Again, we turn to faith when all of our efforts to solve, avoid, numb, forget, ignore… have failed. We do not always see the world – both the bad as well as the good – through eyes of faith. If we are looking for signs with our human eyes, surely we will miss the signs from God.

To use a simple illustration, I see this revealed at funerals. If the person and family are people of faith, they see the loss with a long-term vision. If the person and/or family is not a person or people of faith, then the death is the end. Both families feel the sting and pain of human loss, but when viewed through eyes of faith, the hurt is tempered by the hope of eternal life and by thoughts of eventual reunion. These same can be said for how people view change, other losses, hard times…

Yes, Jesus will return. If we are looking for, even anticipating this, then we see the world with eyes of faith and our daily lives are so much richer. We will see signs of the kingdom often, being strengthened and encouraged along the way. May we ever be on the watch, seeing with eyes of faith, eager and ready to encounter Jesus here and when we do stand before Him one day. Amen.

Prayer: Lord, prepare me. Lord, give me kingdom eyes to see. Come Lord Jesus, come. Amen.