pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Fringes and Edges

Reading: Matthew 9: 9-13

Verse 11: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners”?

Photo credit: Marten Newhall

Our passage today opens with Jesus calling another disciple as he walks along the road. The man he calls us named Matthew. He was sitting in his tax collector’s booth when Jesus said, “Follow me”. It’s hard to say what an equivalent calling would be today. Tax collectors were almost universally disliked and hated. They worked for the occupying force, the Romans, collecting taxes to pay for the enemy to stay in power. Most tax collectors gathered well above and beyond what the Romans required. Becoming rich was a side perk of this government job. Being wealthy was nice but the occupation limited one’s circle of friends. Matthew’s crowd would be limited to other tax collectors and others who took advantage of others. Money lenders, prostitutes, slave traders… would have been among the crowd at Matthew’s house as Jesus joined them for dinner.

Upon seeing the crowd that Jesus has chosen to become a part of, the Pharisees ask, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners”? Why would Jesus call one of these to discipleship, to following him? Why would Jesus sit amongst this crowd of sinners? I suppose some people today think the same thing when they see their pastor emerging from the hymn sing at the local brewpub or when they see members of the outreach team exiting the local strip club. In response Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”. Jesus did not come to just sit around the temple or local synagogues chatting with the faithful about the scriptures. Yes, Jesus did this and this habit continues to be a very important part of our faith journey. But Jesus also spent the majority of his time doing ministry out in the world – among the tax collectors and sinners, among the hurting and broken, among the Gentiles and others who were marginalized by the religious establishment. These are the ones in need of a “doctor”. These are the ones in need of healing, wholeness, love, a sense of community.

Who are the tax collectors of your neighborhood or community? Who are those on the fringes and edges? How can you minister to these that Jesus surely would have?

Prayer: Lord God, make my heart and will more like yours. Guide my feet to those in need of your love and care. Bring me past the barriers and fears in my mind, trusting more fully in your guidance and direction. Amen.


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A Pure Heart

Reading: Psalm 51: 1-17

Verse 10: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me”.

Photo credit: Adrien Olichon

In Psalm 51 the psalmist begins by asking for God’s mercy to wash away their sins. The psalmist admits that “my sin is ever before me”. The author recognizes that his sin is against God and God alone. God has a right to judge him. We can all relate to what the writer of this Psalm is expressing and feeling. We’ve all been there.

The commonly accepted context for this Psalm is the aftermath of David’s affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. There was certainly a need for God’s grace and forgiveness at this point in David’s life. Although most of our sins are not this egregious, all sin separates us from God and damages our relationship with God and others. God’s mercy and forgiveness are universal needs.

In verse seven David begins to ask for God’s help in restoring the relationship that David broke. He cannot do this on his own. Here he asks God to “cleanse me with hyssop” and then, in verse nine, to “blot out all my iniquity”. These ideas, these phrases, resonate with the sacrament of holy communion. Once forgiven, once cleansed, David can ask God to “create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me”. In New Testament terms, the old is gone and the new has come. The old sinful self is washed away, replaced by a new self fully turned toward God. As a new creation in God, David desires to feel again the joy of salvation and to have a willing spirit within – one totally obedient to God.

This Psalm also resonates with our Ash Wednesday practices. Many Christians will seek to be restored and to dedicate themselves to a more holy and devout walk with the Lord as we begin our Lenten journey. The imposition of ashes reminds us of our finite nature and draws us to reflect upon our journey with Christ. It calls us to critically evaluate the condition of our souls. It draws us towards living with a more pure heart.

Our reading for today ends with these words: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise”. As we prepare to enter Lent may we find a new path to walk with Jesus, a path guided by just such a heart. With a pure heart we will be pleasing in his sight. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, bring me to that place of contrition, to the place of confession and repentance; show me the path to a closer walk, reveal the things I need to leave along the side of the path. Create in me a pure heart with a desire to be yours alone. Break my heart for what breaks yours, O God. Amen.


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Consumed with Light

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 4: 3-6

Verse 6: “God made… his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”.

Photo credit: Karen Alsop

Paul writes today about the reality that not all people will understand the gospel. To some the message of the “good news” is veiled. For Paul, the lost, or those without faith in Jesus Christ, are “perishing” – doomed to an unpleasant eternity. Paul recognizes that those without Christ have been “blinded” by the gods of this world. These gods remain a barrier or a stumbling block to many people today. The love of money, power, status, recognition, popularity, privilege and other worldly things prevent people from “seeing the light of the gospel”. One does not have to look very hard to find folks who are like this. They are focused only on self and the gods of this world. Their focus is inward and upward, personally and socially.

For Paul, the focus was also inward and upward. But the inward focused on knowing the Lord Jesus Christ and the upward focused on bringing God the glory. Paul had always called others to Jesus Christ. In his humble and confident manner Paul preached the good news of Jesus Christ to lots of people. Some have allowed the light and love of God to shine into the darkness and selfishness of their hearts. Others have been blinded, the gospel remained veiled. Like Paul, we encounter both types of people as we live out our faith, “preaching” in whatever way we can, sometimes with words.

For those who choose Jesus as Lord and Savior, we know the truth of verse six: “God made… his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. The light that God shines into our hearts reveals the glory of God as demonstrated in the life and witness of Jesus Christ. Jesus, like us, lived in this world. His world certainly had its share of brokenness, marginalization, injustice, oppression… Jesus spent his years in ministry bringing healing and welcome, justice and compassion. Doing so he built community and he fostered a culture of other over self. Love was the core value of this community and its culture. Paul lived each day as a servant to the gospel “for Jesus’ sake”. Paul was consumed with sharing Jesus with all he met, whether by words or actions or simply by the way he lived his life. May we be consumed in the same way.

Prayer: Light of the world, illumine my heart today with the light of your love and grace. Allow that light to open my eyes to the places and people and circumstances that need to know and walk in your light and love. Guide my words, actions, and life to reveal Jesus to others. Amen.


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Love and Strength

Reading: Isaiah 40: 27-31

Verse 29: “He gives strength to the weary and his understanding no one can fathom”.

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

The second half of our passage from Isaiah 40 continues the theme of yesterday’s verses: God is everlasting. Isaiah again asks, “Do you not know? Have you not heard”? Just as we need to be reminded over and over, so too do the Israelites. God is still our God, unchanging and eternal. When we get weary and when we feel isolated and alone, we too need to hear again that “the Lord is the everlasting God”. Isaiah goes on to remind the faithful that God doesn’t get weary or tired and that God’s understanding is unfathomable. How often we grow weary and fail to understand the depth of God’s love and wisdom and might!

Although almost none of our trials or struggles or even seasons of separation from God or one another are as long as the forty years Israel spent in exile, we can all relate to their situation. We’ve all walked through the valley for so long that we feel like we cannot take another step forward. Sometimes, though, we are to blame for the weariness and/or the isolation that we “suddenly” find ourselves in. We get caught up in chasing the things of this world until the moment we find ourselves wrung out and exhausted and alone, hitting the wall and realizing it was all for naught. However and why we got to the place of weariness or isolation, verse 29 speaks balm to our souls: “He gives strength to the weary and his understanding no one can fathom”. Our everlasting, eternal God is right there. God understands. Our wise and mighty God is right there to give us his understanding and his strength.

This is goods news for us, yes, but it is also good news that we are meant to share. When God gives us strength and understanding, it is a wonderful gift. It is life changing for us to realize that we are not alone, that the God of the universe is on our side. Experiencing those touches of God draw us deeper into our relationship with God. In that place, we know what it means to be truly loved. Filled by that love and strength we are equipped to share that with a broken and needy world. Going out into the weariness and loneliness of the world, we bear God’s presence into the lives of those who are hurting and who are thirsty. May we each bring hope into the world today and every day.

Prayer: Loving and almighty God, guide me today to those who are weary, to those who are lonely, to those who need to feel and experience your love and strength, even if they do not know it. Fill me with the words or actions to help others know you today. Amen.


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Falling Short

Reading: 1st Corinthians 8: 1-6

Verse 3: “The man who loves God is known by God”.

Paul begins this section on food sacrificed to idols by speaking of knowledge. He is talking about what is inside our heads. This is usually where faith begins. Most Christians follow the same path: learning about God, Jesus, and faith in Sunday school, youth group… as they mature in faith until one day the head knowledge becomes heart truth. As is true with almost everything in life, in our faith we understand more and more the longer we journey in faith. Within the Corinthian church some were relying their superior knowledge and it was causing division and it was hindering the faith journey of the new believers. In our churches today, we still do this at times. We allow our knowledge to “puff” us up.

The first way this happens is when we make our churches feel exclusive. We all look and talk alike, we act alike, we appear to be perfect Christians. We have those that we gravitate to each Sunday morning. A visitor can feel like an outsider very quickly, especially when they are not like the homogeneous crowd. Someone who comes because they are struggling with something really feels out of place when they enter a room full of people without any faults or issues. To further create a sense of “us” and “them” we use insider language and big fancy words. Maybe most regulars know what sanctification, justification, atonement, sacrament… mean. But if you are new to the faith, these terms can make you feel like an outsider very quickly.

In the Corinthian church the mature believers knew “that an idol is nothing at all”. To them, idols were just carved pieces of stone or wood. The mature believers knew that there was only one God, only one Lord. But for the new believers, the ones who had grown up worshipping these idols all their lives, this idea was a struggle. The mature believers were saying, in essence, “just get over it”, “just believe what I say I believe”. They were not willing to walk in love with their new brothers and sisters in Christ. They were not willing to enter the struggle, to walk alongside the one wrestling with their conscience.

We do this in our churches when we fail to talk about our sins and struggles. Church becomes a social club for the perfect and for the saints. Nope, no sin here. We know all we need to know to be good little Christians. In verse three Paul writes, “The man who loves God is known by God”. Loving God must lead to loving others. Jesus unpacks the truth of this idea in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). When we say we love God, when we say all are welcome in our churches but do not really welcome the sinners and broken people into our communities of faith, we are falling short. When we look down on those “obviously” dealing with sin by making them feel unwelcome, we are falling short. When we indirectly but clearly say come back when you have your life together, we are falling short. May it not be so church. May it not be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to truly love others as a witness to my love for you. Strip away my pride and judgmental tendencies, guide me to walk side by side in love with those in struggle, with those living outside of your love. Give me the courage to admit my struggles and sins within the body of Christ. Grant me a welcoming and compassionate spirit. Amen.


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Forever and Ever

Reading: Psalm 111

Verse 9: “He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever”.

Photo credit: Oscar Ivan Esquivel Artega

In the second half of Psalm 111 the focus shifts from the great works of God to the everlasting nature of God’s love. In verse seven the psalmist declares that God’s precepts or ways are trustworthy and are steadfast “for ever and ever”. Then in verse nine the writer speaks of the redemption that God provided as “he ordained his covenant forever”. Forever is always the nature of God’s covenants. They are not like a contract – that which we prefer. Contracts can be broken, renegotiated, bought out… when we no longer want to live under that arrangement. Not so with a covenant. God’s covenant states that he will be our God, our love, our hope forever. No matter what.

Marriage would be the closest thing we have to a covenant relationship. As one takes their marriage vows, one gets a sense of the forever, no matter what, unconditional love that God offers and gives in his covenant with us. As one says, “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…” they are really saying “forever” in terms of this earthly relationship. Marriage is an earthly relationship that models our eternal relationship with God. In fact, husband-wife and groom-bride language describes the relationship between Jesus and church, between follower and redeemer. Jesus chose this language intentionally. It both elevated our human marriages and it placed our covenant relationship with God in terms that we could grasp and understand.

Humans prefer contracts over covenants. They better suit our selfish hearts and our changing wants and desires. God prefers covenants. God is unchanging, steadfast, and true. God has chosen us forever. God created us for that purpose. Even though I may waver, even though I may stumble, even though I may fail, God remains eternally our God. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, I am so grateful for your “no matter what” love – for the love that is always there for me. Thank you for redeeming me again and again, working in me to shape me and to transform me more and more into your image. Amen.


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The Divine Heart

Reading: Luke 1: 47-55

Verses 52-54: “He has… lifted up the humble… filled the hungry… remembering to be merciful”.

As we read this beautiful song offered up by Mary, I can’t but wonder if the baby in her womb and connected to her heart heard these words and began to internalize them. As a young man Jesus would have been raised by this faithful soul. He would have been taught the faith by Mary and Joseph, learning of how God loved the people and of his great mercy towards them. In her song Mary also personalizes these aspects of God – “called me blessed”… “done great things for me”. In her song Mary glorified both the God of Israel and the God of her heart.

Towards the end of the song Mary recognizes God’s preference for the lowly and meek, for the simple and ordinary. Mary’s God is one who “scatters the proud” and “brings down rulers”. In Jesus’ ministry we certainly see evidence of these actions being lived out and we hear of their completion in his return. In verses 52 through 54 Mary glorifies her God who “lifted up the humble… filled the hungry… remembering to be merciful”. Again, Jesus will live out the heart of his mother and the heart of his God as he ministers to the poor, the lost, the broken, the least, the sinners.

The divine heart clearly connects to and values and loves those who are suffering, those on the fringes, those without power or voice. Just as Mary sings, the divine heart has always loved and cared for such as these. You and I were created with this spark of the divine within us. We hear it beating in Mary’s song and we feel it beating in our own hearts. May we live it out each day.

Prayer: God of the outcast and marginalized, help me to draw close to those you love. Lead me to be your hands and feet and voice in our hurting world. Use me as part of your desire to bring healing and hope. Amen.


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Partners of God

Reading: Psalm 99: 1-5

Verse 4: “The King is mighty, he loves justice”.

The psalmist’s love of and awe for God are obvious. In the opening verses the psalmist recognizes God’s reign over all the earth as well as God’s great and awesome power. God is exalted over all the nations of the earth because God is holy. It is a good and right thing to have a holy reverence for the Lord our God. Humility is then drawn forth from within us as we acknowledge the might and power of God as he reigns over the whole earth.

In the next two verses, however, we are reminded that God does not just reign with power and might. Yes, his voice can make the earth shake. But his gentle touch can also break the bonds of injustice and oppression. In verse four we read, “The King is mighty, he loves justice”. In our world today this is an odd combination. Often those powerful enough to rise into places of authority have done so on the backs of others and have lost their sense of justice and equity on their way to the top. They become insensitive or even callous to the plight of the poor and the marginalized and the powerless. Not so our God!

Our God loves justice and seeks to stand with the oppressed, the broken, the hurting, the downtrodden. God has always been a protector of these as well as of the widow, the orphan, and the imprisoned. Nowhere has this love been more evident than in the incarnation. Jesus, God in the flesh, fully lived out this love of justice and all who were oppressed or pushed to the edges of society. Providing the example of what God’s justice and love looked like when lived out to the full, Jesus then invited us to “come and follow me”. In our awe and love of God and as our response to our loving Savior’s invitation, may we too be lovers of justice and sharers of salvation from all that binds. May we become partners with God, working daily to bring wholeness and restoration and reconciliation to a world in need.

Prayer: Loving and awesome God and blessed son Jesus Christ, fill me with your love and passion for the least among us. Guide me to those places and people who need to know your healing love and your freeing grace. May I be an instrument of your peace and love this day and every day. 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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Granted

Reading: Philippians 1: 27-30

Verse 29: “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”.

As we did earlier in the week, we again hear the call to “conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel”. For Paul this includes steadfast faith, lived out in unity, sharing the good news. Paul also calls us to trust in God. Trust in God will help combat the fear we feel when others oppose the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul names two signs that indicate that the followers will be saved. In verse 29 he writes, “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”.

“Granted” implies something that is given, a gift of sorts. A belief in Christ as Lord and Savior is where our faith begins. Trusting in Jesus as our Lord means that we look to him to guide our lives in the here and now. Through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus does just that. As Savior, it means that we trust Jesus to one day redeem us – to bring us on to our eternal home. As Christians we find assurance and comfort in these aspects of our faith. As Christians we find worth and contentment as well as peace and strength in these two aspects of our faith. Because Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior we live with joy and hope. All of this is granted to us through our relationship with Jesus. It truly is a gift.

Then we come to the “but” in this verse: “but also to suffer for him”. This too is a gift. Jesus called upon us to follow him by taking up our crosses and by dying to self. These acts entail giving up our preferences, our wants, our natural inclination to selfishness. We do so in order to see, to feel, to respond to the needs of the list and the broken and the suffering. In doing so, in coming into connection with and into relationship with those we serve, we draw closer to Christ. When we live love out loud, as Jesus so often did, then we enter into the lostness, brokenness, and suffering of the world. The cost may be physical, it may be emotional, it may be financial, it may be social. There are many ways that the Spirit may lead us to suffer when we place the call of Christ and the needs of others ahead of ourselves. Walking alongside these who suffer, including these in our personal relationships, we might be granted the privilege of sharing the gospel with them. We might be. As we strive to engage the world around us, may we surrender and walk the paths that the Spirit leads us upon. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, use me as you will today. Put me to the tasks that build relationships and build your kingdom. Amen.