pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Set Free!

Reading: John 8: 31-35

Verse 31: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples”.

Photo credit: Pablo Heimplatz

In this passage from John 8, Jesus is talking about the freedom we find in Christ. In our text today he is speaking to some Jews who has believed in him. Because of some hard teachings they have fallen away. In the opening verse he says to them, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples”. To be a disciple one must follow the teachings and the example of the teacher or rabbi. In this case, it was Jesus.

The Jews were people of the Law. The words of Moses and future religious leaders guided all of life. By Jesus’ day the following of the Law – over 600 statutes – had become one of two things. For the select few who could adhere to the Law, it became a source of pride and exclusion. For all else it became a burden – something impossible to attain, something covered in guilt and shame. While Jesus did not come to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17), he did come to reveal the heart of the Law: to love God and to love neighbor. These two commands were the heart of the Law. According to Jesus, all of the Law hung on these two (Matthew 22:40).

Trying to live under the Law, many were “slaves” to sin. They were always worried about breaking some law and they were ever being reminded to do and be better. This led to many being outside the family, outside the temple or synagogue, outside the community of faith. Jesus offered and still offers a better way. In and through the blood of Jesus we are set free. If we are in Christ sin no longer has the power to condemn. In faith we are forgiven and cleansed, restored back into family. The guilt and shame that kept one outside are no more. Jesus wants all people to understand this gift. Because of the blood of Jesus Christ we are set free. This is the truth that Jesus offers. It is our truth. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord God, you are the way and the truth and the life. Your love breaks every chain and ushers me into the family of God. In you is freedom; in you is hope. Thank you Jesus! Amen.


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Eternity Awaits

Reading: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13

Verses 10 and 11: “I have seen the burden God has laid on man. He has made everything beautiful in its time”.

Ecclesiastes 3 is a familiar passage. Most of the passage is about the seasons in life, laid out in a series of contrasts. A time to plant… to uproot. A time to weep… to laugh. A time to keep… to throw away. Verses ten and eleven sum up the passage well: “I have seen the burden God has laid on man. He has made everything beautiful in its time”. Life has both burdens and beauty, sorrows and joys. All people, believers and non-believers alike, live within these realities – birth and death, mourning and dancing, love and hate, war and peace…

This year has been different, unlike any other in our lifetimes. These pandemic times have affected all people – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, men and women, believers and non-believers. Illness and loss and grief have been born by all kinds of people and families. Yet not all is the same. Within the hearts of those with a saving faith there is a different peace, a different hope, a different strength. The rest of verse eleven reads, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of man”. For those who believe in Jesus Christ, we know that the burdens and beauty, the sorrows and joys are but temporary. None of these things that Solomon writes about in Ecclesiastes 3 are the end of the story. Eternity awaits us all. For those who believe, our eternity rests in God’s hands. Thank be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, life is filled with many experiences – some joyful, some full of pain. Seasons come and go; this one that we are in the midst of will one day be a memory too. You are the constant. You remain love and hope and strength. All honor and glory are yours. Amen.


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Redemption

Reading: Luke 2: 36-40

Verse 38: “She spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”.

Today as we read this short section from Luke 2 we focus in on Anna and her words concerning Jesus. Anna is an old woman, a prophet with a deep devotion to God. She has been a widow for a long time and the focus of her life is praying and fasting in the temple. After thanking God – for the encounter, for seeing the Messiah, for what Jesus means to her people – Anna “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”. At this point in their history, all Jews are looking forward to Jerusalem’s redemption.

The act of redeeming has always been a part of the Jewish faith. Mary and Joseph have just redeemed Jesus, Boaz was the kinsman redeemer, and the Jews celebrated the Year of Jubilee every 50 years. In each of these acts, one is released or freed – from their debts, from their slavery, from a burden that forced them to sell family land. This idea of being freed from that which binds us is very much a part of Jesus’ ministry and healing. Jesus healed both relationships and physical ailments. Often these were tied together. Physical healing often led to relational healing. By revealing the depth of God’s love, mercy, and grace, Jesus drew many back into relationship with God and with one another. He brought a wholeness to life that invited people to live with joy, peace, and hope. Jesus also healed people physically – lepers, the blind, lame, mute, deaf, the possessed – also inviting people back to God and back into society, family, and community. Jesus brought a completeness and unity to life that was freeing and welcoming, that was unconditional and full.

When I think about this side of redemption that Jesus offered, I am drawn to my community and to my neighborhood. Nearby, there are folks who are bound up in or with addiction and abuse, folks who feel enslaved to financial debt, folks who feel isolated and alone, folks who are grieving because of loss. Jesus offers the same redemption, the same healing, the same freeing today. He offers it through you and through me. May we be a part of building other’s faith, seizing the opportunities that God gives us to share our faith with others, inviting them into the love, hope, peace, and joy of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Loving God, you seek to redeem, to free all people. You are a God of love and justice and community. Use me this day to draw others in, to add to the family of faith, to bring your healing and freeing love to those who need to know you. Amen.


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God’s Design

Reading: 1st Thessalonians 5:11

Verse 11: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing”.

On our faith journeys, we can try and go it alone. We are embarrassed by or ashamed of our sins and failures. We go through the motions of faith and pretend we are doing okay when our faith feels dry or when a trial has beset us. We try and push through seasons of doubt because society tells us we just need to try harder. Our pride and ego refuses to ask for help. But God did not design faith to be this way. God designed faith to be a communal pursuit. Yet if we are to truly be a part of the community of faith, if we are going to have real and deep relationships, then we must be honest and transparent, authentic and vulnerable, committed and compassionate.

Our passage today is just one verse. Again, it reads: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing”. Because the world is challenging, because the dark and evil are ever present, Paul knows that the believers need to be surrounded by Christian community. Paul begins by telling us to encourage one another. To be able to encourage one another, we need to really know how we each are doing. This is where honesty… comes into play. We must be willing to share our burdens with one another. We must also be willing to carry another’s burdens at times. We must be willing to tell others when our faith feels thin, allowing them to pour into us and to fill us up. Similarly, we must be willing to give of ourselves, to pour into another as we are able. Paul also urges us to build one another up. We do this by sharing our faith. This can be actual teaching or it can be living the faith so others can see what it looks like. Pastors and teachers and small group leaders and mentors are all a part of this process. We also build one another up by being present. We celebrate successes and achievements, we rejoice when a baby is born, we bring food and love and presence in times of hardship and suffering and loss.

The church in Thessalonica was living as a community. It was how God designed the church. As we ponder these thoughts today, may we each consider how we could encourage and build up the body of Christ this week.

Prayer: Living God, lead me by the power of the Holy Spirit to be an encourager and a builder. Help me to see the ways that I can help the community of faith to be like a family, like the heavenly fellowship that we all await. Bind us together in your love. Amen.


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Step by Step

Reading: Matthew 11: 25-30

Verse 29: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart”.

In the second section of this week’s passage from Matthew 11, Jesus begins by reminding us that faith comes to those who are pure in heart and who have a childlike heart. Faith is, after all, a thing of the heart, not of the head. The wise of this world have no need for faith in Jesus – at least in their minds. Only those whom God chooses to reveal the Son to will know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

In verse 28 we hear the invitation to come to Jesus, to turn over our weariness and burdens to him. When we give these things to Jesus, we find relief. When we trust him with our worries and fears, with our doubts and concerns, he will help to lift these things. When we are worried and burdened by our sin, when we confess and repent of these things, he will lift these as well. This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart”. A yoke implies a pair, a team, a partner. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked to him. He is inviting us into a relationship with him where we walk side by side, sharing the load together. As we do so, we do learn from him. We learn first that Jesus is gentle and humble. Love comes first with Jesus, followed quickly by grace and mercy, peace and joy, forgiveness and restoration. He is the gentle shepherd. Being humble comes next. Jesus teaches us to think less and less of self and more and more of God and other. He models a servant’s heart that is willing to serve one and all.

As we walk, yoked to Jesus, we do find rest for our souls. The burdens and cares of this world begin to pale. This happens as our trust in God grows to become more and more like Jesus’ trust in God. The further we journey, the more we come to understand that his “yoke is easy” and that the “burden is light”. As we mature in faith, the walk of faith becomes easier as our trust grows and following becomes more natural as we learn to walk step by step with Jesus Christ. Today and every day may we be yoked to Jesus, learning to walk more and more like him.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for walking with me daily, for showing me the way that leads to abundant life. Your love and kindness amaze me. Your grace and mercy astounds me. Guide my feet and my heart today as I seek to walk in step with Jesus. Amen.


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Thanks and Restoration

Reading: Psalm 66: 8-20

Verse 10: “For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver”.

The opening stanza in today’s Psalm feels a lot like life: times when I feel assured of God’s presence and times when I feel like I am being tested. In verse nine God preserves life and keeps feet from slipping and in verse ten we read, “For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver”. In verse eleven and the first half of twelve there is prison and burdens and hardship; in the second half of twelve God brings them “to a place of abundance”. Sometimes I wish every day were a good day. But the reality is that I need a day of struggle and testing and refining now and then. Both kinds of days remind me of God – one of my need for God and one of my gratitude for God’s blessings and love.

I appreciate the psalmist’s response that we find in verses thirteen through fifteen. It was the custom then to brings animals to offer on the altar to fulfill various responsibilities and to seek to be made right with God. The psalmist will offer rams and bulls and goats to God. Although we do not practice animal sacrifice, it is good to consider what we bring to God to offer our thanksgiving and to seek to restore our relationship when we have created separation due to sin. Giving time and efforts to both of these practices is good spiritual discipline. Giving can come in the physical form of a tithe or other support or it can come through service to the church and it’s ministries. We must also set aside time to address thanksgiving and restoration personally. Whether morning, noon, or night each day should include some time set aside to thank the Lord for specific blessings in our day and in our life as well as giving time to the acts of confession and repentance. Both practices remind us of our connection to and of our dependence on God. May we all do so today!

Prayer: Lord God, each day has moments when you intercede, when you guide, when you bless, when you convict… Each works to shape me more into your son’s image. Thank you for your ever-present hand, voice, nudge. May they always show me the path you seek for me to walk each day. Amen.


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Guiding and Leading

Reading: John 10: 1-10

Verse 4: “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice”.

In today’s application of the shepherd-sheep metaphor, the focus is on Jesus, the shepherd. In today’s passage Jesus claims to be both the gate and the shepherd. There is both an eternal and a temporal component to both of these roles. Transitioning from talking about spiritual blindness with the Pharisees, Jesus begins his next teaching by noting that some do and try to enter the pen by evil means. Their goal is to rob and to steal. Perhaps foreshadowing the ending verse of today’s passage, is Jesus saying religion can steal joy and can rob people of what God really intends faith to be all about?

Getting into the heart of our passage today, Jesus states that the shepherd enters through the gate as the watchman opens it for him. Using only his familiar voice, the shepherd calls out to his sheep and they follow him out of the pen. Only the sheep belonging to the shepherd will follow. To the other sheep his voice is that of a stranger and it represents danger to them. So only the shepherd’s sheep know his voice. As Christians, to be followers of Jesus, we must know his voice and discern it from all of the other voices we hear. We learn it by being around it, over time becoming familiar with it. We learn to trust it through the ways it leads us to green pastures and safe waters. We follow because we learn that his voice keeps us safe and protects us. In verse four we read, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice”. Once Jesus has called us and we know his voice, he walks out ahead of us, setting for us an example. He calls out and invites us to follow. In this life Jesus’ voice, the Holy Spirit, leads and guides us. Following that voice, we are blessed in this life and are guided towards the next life as well.

Jesus also stated that he is the gate. At night, the sheep must pass through the gate to find safety and rest. It is the only way in. Then the gate is shut, guarding the sheep, keeping them safe during the darkness, preventing the thieves and robbers from reaching them. Jesus remains present to us in Spirit in this life, doing just these things. He also lifts our burdens and cares, giving us rest. His Spirit prays for us and speaks to us, reminding us of his words. It is a shield about us, protecting us against the attacks of the evil one. As we near the end of our road and transition into the next life, Jesus is the gate to eternity. He will judge us worthy of heaven or deserving of hell. He will open the gate of one for our eternity.

As we follow our good shepherd today may we take some time to rejoice in his leadership and in his provision. May we praise the Lord for his love and care for each of us, the sheep of his pasture.

Prayer: Loving God, as I stop and look back over each day, I praise you for all the ways you led and guided, provided and protected me. It is my greatest joy to praise you and to give you thanks for who you are to and for me. Amen.


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To Love

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Psalm 119:1-8

Verse 16: “For I command you today to love the Lord your God… then you will live and increase”.

Both the passage from Deuteronomy 30 and the one from Psalm 119 call us to walk in God’s ways. Both speak of life or blessings or prosperity or obedience as the goal. Both also warn of the cost of deciding not to walk upright and blameless. There is a clear call to make the choice to walk with God. It is a choice we must make over and over as the lures and temptations of this world are ever before us.

Walking daily with the Lord is the goal but it is not as easy as a paint-by-numbers project. It is not like when we were children and we tried to take giant steps to walk in someone’s footprints. We are called not to a set pattern or to a predetermined path but to a lifestyle built on loving God and loving one another. To me the first is often easier than the second. God is fully good and loving and holy. God is steadfast and true. I, like the rest of humanity, am not always good and loving and… I get selfish. I get jealous. I can be hard to love at times.

Both Moses and the psalmist call for us to follow the commands, decrees, laws, statutes. From the Old Testament perspective this was the understanding. Keep all the rules and receive God’s blessings. As the Bible moves into the New Testament we see that this task has become burdensome. The Pharisees and other religious leaders have become legalistic. Religion has become a huge code to follow and the connection to God’s heart has paid the price. It has made the circle smaller. Jesus reveals a better way. Jesus took the two great commands – to love God and to love one another – seriously. Jesus entered into life with people, engaging them where they were at both spirituality and physically. Out there, in the midst of life, it was often messy. When we are willing to walk in Jesus’way, letting love of God and love of one another guide us, it might get messy for us too. I’d rather be in a messy place filled with love than in a nice, clean, tidy box filled with rules. How about you?

Loving God, your love is so expansive. The deeper I peer into your heart, the greater the love. In your son’s life I so clearly see the call to love the marginalized and the overlooked. Yes, it was messy. But that didn’t bother Jesus in the least. Help me to feel the same way. Amen.


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God’s First Love

Reading: Micah 6: 1-3

Verse 2: “The Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge”.

God is a god of relationship. All of the covenants, the agreements that give structure to the Bible, are all about living in right relationship with God. The fuel of relationship is love. We can see how love fuels a relationship when we look at marriage or parenting. In a marriage covenant we pledge to love no matter what – in sickness, in poverty… When we assume the role of parent we commit to loving our children unconditionally, no matter what they do or do not do. These models are human versions of the covenant love that God has for each of us, his children. But even these human models are lacking. The greatest marriage ever, for example, pales in comparison to God’s love for us.

In the opening verses of Micah 6 we can see that God is not happy. God calls on Israel to “plead your case”. He is calling them to task because they are failing miserably at their side of the covenant relationship. We have all had friendships and even relationships that have not lasted. Maybe it was because of them, maybe it was because of us, maybe it was both. One or both sides came to the conclusion that the relationship was not worth the effort to keep it sustainable. So the friendship or relationship ended. We have also all had or have friendships or relationships that we have invested in and developed and grown over time. They are so valued by us that we will even risk calling the other out when they are lacking in effort or commitment. In those cases we are saying that we love deeply enough to risk calling the other out.

In verse two today we read, “The Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge”. Israel has not been keeping up their part of the covenant. God is calling them to task. It is a love that is unconditional so God calls on the mountains as witnesses to the case. They have been silent witnesses since the beginning of creation as the relationship between God and humanity has unfolded. The people Israel have been disobedient and God is calling them out. The relationship that is life-giving has become like a burden to the people. They have forgotten their first love. God has not forgotten. God never forgets us, his first love.

Prayer: Lord of all, as I think about this passage, I look within and I search for times when I have not loved you fully, for times when I have been disobedient. I find them too easily. And yet you love me, you call out to me. Against me too you could bring a charge. But you don’t. Help me to bring mercy and love to those who I could bring a charge. Make me more like you. Amen.


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Strength, Hope, Power

Reading: 2nd Thessalonians 2: 1-5 and 13-17

Verse 13: “From the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth”.

Paul opens chapter two by addressing the return of Jesus. Some have claimed that Jesus has returned and the Thessalonians fear they missed out. Paul encourages them not to be deceived but to remember what they were taught. The basic plan has been laid out. The time has not yet come. At times we too can wonder if we are on the brink of the return. Natural disasters and plagues and wars and violence have led people to wonder if the end is near. After all, these are signs to look for. We must also balance this with what Jesus said – he will come again like a thief in the night. The accompanying advice was to always be prepared and ready. If we are stuck in worry and fear, we are not prepared and ready.

In Paul’s time and in our time many live with fear and anxiety and worry over happenings in our world and in their lives. To hear and understand the truths and promises is not the same thing as living into them. I can hear and understand Jesus’ words to be prepared and ready to meet him at any moment. But can I live my life always within that reality? Therein lies the struggle.

In today’s passage Paul reminds the Thessalonians that “from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth”. God has chosen each who believed on the gospel and in Jesus. Because of their good confession of Jesus as Lord, they are saved. Paul goes on to encourage them to “stand firm and to hold onto the teachings”. The promises and truths that Paul and others taught will help them to stand firm in the face of fear and anxiety and worry. Paul closes this chapter by praying to the Lord Jesus Christ for the Thessalonians. Paul seeks encouragement and hope and strength for them as they continue to live out their faith.

These words of Paul speak to us as well. When the clouds seem to be rising, may we too remember that we who have confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior are saved. Our salvation is secure. Nothing in this world can separate us from that. May we also remember that the Holy Spirit and Jesus himself, the mediator, continues to offer prayers and intercessions on our behalf, keeping us ever before the throne of God. Knowing all this to be true, may we lay our worries and burdens down before the Lord as we call upon his strength, hope, and power to live this day for the glory of the Lord God. May it be so!

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you for all you have done and for all that you continue to do. Thank you too for the gift of your constant presence in my life. As the Holy Spirit lives and dwells in me I am reminded again and again of your love and truth. Thank you Jesus! Amen.