pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Step Outside, See

Reading: Jeremiah 29:1 and 4-7

Verses 4 and 5: “Build houses and settle down… Marry and have sons and daughters.”

Photo credit: Josh Calabrese

In this week’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah brings news to the people. When I think of the news today, we tend to curate the news we hear or see. We do it by the channel we choose to watch (or not), by the feeds we pay attention to on social media (or don’t), and by the places and people that we choose to interact with (or not). When we are selective in these ways, we tend to get a shewed or biased news. This was the choice that those living in exile wanted to make. Some yet in Jerusalem were saying that the exile would be short-lived, that God will restore them soon. This was the news they wanted to tell and that the exiles wanted to hear.

But the great truth-teller, God, had much different news. It was not the news the people wanted to hear. Through Jeremiah, God says, “Build houses and settle down… Marry and have sons and daughters.” Settle in. Get used to this place. This is going to be a while. The exiles just want to go home. Not so fast, God says. Like their forefathers in the wilderness, there are lessons to learn, reshaping to be done. I too am this same way. When I find myself in a place of discomfort or refining, I just want it to end. I want to go back to “normal” as soon as possible.

Even though this news of an extended stay had to be startling, the implications of God’s instructions and what God says next is even more shocking. God is instructing them to become a part of their new home and in a good way. It was a radical shift from the old draw the circle tight, don’t interact with the Gentiles mentality. And God says to pray here and to pray for their new home – but not just for yourselves. Pray for Babylon and its people. Not for God’s wrath to fall but for God to prosper the nation and the people. This is an invitation to step outside their small circle and to see God as the God of all people. How might God be challenging you and me to do this same thing?

Prayer: Lord God, reveal to me the uncomfortable but needed steps that I need to take. Help me to go where or to whom you’d have me go. Give me eyes to see as you see and a heart to love as you love. Amen.


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Repaid

Reading: Luke 14:12-14

Verses 13-14: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

As we continue in Luke 14, Jesus turns from instructions on how the invited guests should act to who the invited guests should be. If the Pharisees or us modern readers struggled with the idea of practicing humility, then today’s words will be really tough. At the core of the red letter words today is the idea of loving without strings attached.

Jesus looks at the guest list for this dinner at a prominent Pharisee’s house and says – you’ve got it all wrong. Don’t invite those just like you. They’ll invite you to come over sometime too and that’ll be your reward. This scenario reminds me of many moves we’ve made. You invite 6-8 friends to help you move. The help is great. But you know you’ll get 6-8 invites to help them move one day.

Jesus offers this guest list suggestion: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Jesus offers a radical and generous vision of loving neighbor. This list is exactly who the Pharisees avoided. It is exactly who Jesus sought to have dinner with. Where does our guest list fall along this continuum?

While you or I may not have the crippled, lame, blind, or poor in our circle of friends and acquaintances, they are in our communities. We need to be willing to expand our circles. Inviting and including those that society tends to ignore and exclude is exactly what Jesus is calling us to do. Then we will be “repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” This will not be a part on the back and an “atta-boy” from Jesus. This will be the joy of seeing the lost who were found and we’re saved by Jesus.

Prayer: Lord God, make me brave enough to step outside my normal circles. Empower me to invite those outside into those circles. Widen them out so that all are welcome. Amen.


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Always… Praise!

Reading: Psalm 148:13-14

Verse 14: “God has raised up for the people a horn… Praise the Lord!”

Photo credit: Greg Rakozy

We return to Psalm 148 today to again be reminded that God gave us Jesus, the horn and king. Because of this gift we are so blessed, so loved. Our response is to praise the Lord!

This horn connects to all of our other passages for this week. In John 13 it is the Lord who demonstrated what it means to love in noticeable and extraordinary ways – so much so that Christians are known by their love for one another. In Acts 11 it is this horn that began to pry open the circle, inviting all people to enter into a saving relationship with the Lord of life. And in Revelation 21 it is the king who will return in glory, establishing a new kingdom here on earth. In this new kingdom the time will be filled with praise and worship of the Lord.

He who was and is and is to come is at the center of faith and all life. He who always was and is and always will be invites us to praise him, bringing Christ the glory always. May it be so!

Prayer: Lord God, show me little ways to praise you today – a thousand small acts of love! Provide small opportunities to practice your radical love today! Amen.


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A God For All People

Reading: Acts 11:1-18

Verse 9: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Today’s passage from Acts 11 is about God opening hearts and minds. There were many laws from the Torah concerning dietary restrictions, circumcision, and interaction with outsiders. Devout Jews had followed these laws for years, for centuries as a people. While some were aimed at remaining healthy, many were to keep the circle drawn in tightly around God’s “chosen people.”

Peter grew up practicing these laws. He is astounded when God – yes, God – tells him to kill and eat things that are unclean according to the law. He says, “Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” And it’s not about to start now God! How dare God say such a thing! Yes, it does sound a bit ridiculous to question God, doesn’t it? But that’s how deeply ingrained these laws are. God repeats the message three times to make sure pious Peter hears it.

Just after this God encounter, some men come, asking Peter to come to Cornelius’ home. Led by the Spirit, Peter goes. He enters the home of an uncircumcised (pop!) Gentile (pop!). There goes two more “I never…” moments. Once there, Peter begins to share the good news of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit suddenly “comes on them as he has come on us at the beginning” (pop!). This was proof that God was at work, leading and guiding this widening of the circle. Peter and the other church leaders understood that God and salvation is for all people.

When have you experienced such a thing? When were you witness to someone receiving Christ that you had thought outside of his love? If you haven’t witnessed this, who could you begin sharing the good news with that you might have previously seen as outside of God’s love?

Prayer: Lord God, open my heart and mind to further realize and understand and practice the width and breadth of your love. Help me to see, to treat, to engage all people as your beloved creation. Amen.


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Trust into God’s Plan

Reading: Acts 9:10-20

Verse 13: “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.”

As our story continues in Acts 9, Ananias also receives a visit from the Lord. He is called to go to a home where he will find Saul. Saul will be expecting him. Ananias is to lay hands on him to heal Saul’s blindness. Say what?! That is pretty much Ananias’ response: “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” Ananias is well aware of Saul’s reputation.

In your life, who has the Holy Spirit led you towards that you would consider dangerous or evil or otherwise difficult to go to? Over the years the Spirit has led me to folks I’d rather not engage. God always has a purpose. Sometimes it is for me and sometimes it is for the other. When were you last led towards a Saul?

God lets Ananias know that there is a purpose. God has selected Saul as his “chosen instrument” to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the known world. What a role reversal! Going from one with great zeal to keep the circle drawn really tight to one who will invite one and all into Jesus’ love. Bam! Once again God strikes.

Would’ve anyone possibly seen this coming? No. That is often how God works. So the next time that you or I are led to one we’d rather not see, may we too trust into God’s plan.

Prayer: Lord God, your plans and wisdom are far greater than mine. Nothing is impossible with you. Help me today to trust your plans and to step into your wisdom. Amen.


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More Open, More Accessible

Reading: Acts 5:27-32

Verse 31: “God exalted him… that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.”

As we begin in Acts 5 today we focus on Jesus’ gifts of repentance and forgiveness. This was the primary conflict point between Jesus and the religious leaders. To the Jews, forgiveness came through the priests, the temple, the sacrificial system. It has been that way since Moses led the people on the 40 year wander. To the Israelites it feels like this has been the way back to God for, well, forever. It is practically all they’ve ever known. The rituals, the sacrifice, the role of priests – it was all threatened by Jesus and now is being challenged by his followers. The apostles were teaching and preaching about repentance and forgiveness and they were healing and forgiving sins in Jesus’ name.

There has always been and definitely remains a personal aspect to repentance and forgiveness. In Protestant denominations these are things we practice on a daily (or more frequent) basis. While we remember and celebrate Holy Communion, we believe that we can repent and receive forgiveness anytime, anywhere, on our own. The shift away from priests and the temple and the whole sacrificial system was a seismic shift in Jesus’ day and in the years to follow. This radical change to a more open and accessible church created great tension with the powers that be – enough to kill Jesus, enough to persecute and eventually martyr many who would follow Jesus.

How does the church today maintain this spirit? How do we as Christians stand up to keep the church open and accessible? How do the powers that be seek to work against these things? In many ways this is our charge to resist and oppose evil and injustice in the world. It is our call to stand with the widows and orphans, with all who are marginalized or oppressed by our culture, society, and even the larger church. It is therefore also our call to continue to move the church forward, ever drawing the circle wider, ever making the church more open and more accessible. O Lord, may it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to be one who opens the door just a bit wider, who makes welcome just a bit more real. Empower me to do this again tomorrow and again the days after. Give me eyes and heart to see and connect to all of your beloved children. 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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To All of Creation

Reading: Psalm 147: 12-20

Verse 12: “Extol the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion.”

Psalm 147 is a song of praise for all that the Lord has done. In the first half of the Psalm God is praised for “healing the brokenhearted” and for binding up people’s wounds. God is celebrated for the rains sent to water the earth and for the grasses that the livestock eat. The psalmist continues to lift up praise to the Lord for all that God does for Israel. The Lord strengthens them and grants them peace. The Lord satisfies them with “the finest of wheat,” echoing the words we read from Jeremiah 31.

The psalmist rejoices in God’s continuing provision in verses 15-18. With a word God provides water for the earth and for their crops and animals. Then, in verses 19 and 20, the psalmist reminds the people of their chosen status. God revealed the word to Israel – “to no other nation.” Early in the story of faith this was true. The chosen people were to be set apart, separate from all other peoples. But as the story evolves, the circle grows wider. Jesus himself ministered to the Samaritan woman at the well and to the Canaanite woman’s daughter – because of her great faith. He lifts up the Samaritan traveler as the one who stops to care for the injured man. As the New Testament continues, the circle gets drawn even wider as the resurrected Christ sends the disciples out to all peoples. Since then the word has been brought out to the ends of the earth.

God remains all-powerful. God continues to heal, redeem, restore. God continues to invite those who fear the Lord to partner up, offering our gifts, talents, resources, prayers, and service as we extol and praise the Lord. As faithful followers may we offer all of ourselves as we seek to be a part of the healing and restoration of all of creation. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, your word is no longer confined. It is not for just one group of people. Your chosen people are all people. The circle has been broken wide open. Let my love and faith be limitless too. Help me to see and to love as you see, O chooser of all people. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Healing and Wholeness

Reading: 2nd Samuel 6: 14-19

Verse 16: “When she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart”.

Photo credit: Noah Silliman

The Ark enters Jerusalem to a great and joyous celebration. There are sacrifices and singing and dancing and music and rejoicing. In verse fifteen we read, “the entire house of Israel” was present to celebrate this event. It seems that everyone is enjoying this time of celebration.

Some nights at youth group we are playing a game or singing worship songs and a kid is off by themselves, either physically or emotionally. They do not want to participate. More often than not they have been hurt by something someone did or said and rightly so. Some of the time it is because of something that happened at school or at home. The same thing can happen with us as adults. We wall up when we are hurting. We’re just better at hiding it. People are hurting all around us.

As the Ark proceeded we read of Michal watching from a window. She is not down in the street with the crowd. As she watches David we read, “When she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart”. To see her husband, the king, celebrating when she was grieving, it hardened her heart. She had just lost her father and three brothers.

At youth group that young person looks at us playing or worshipping and wonders how we could do that when they’re hurting. In church the one who has lost a job or a loved one or… wonders how we can be joyous when they are in such pain. There are hurting people all around.

Our task is to notice – to connect with that kid at youth group or that person in church or that stranger on the bench. We are to have eyes that see and hearts that feel – gifts that allow and help us to draw others into the circle of God’s love. Doing so, may God’s love and our love bring healing and wholeness to our broken and hurting world.

Prayer: Lord God, grant that I may see and sense those who need to know your love today. May your love flow in and through me. Amen.


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Pleasing Him

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 5: 6-15

Verse 9: “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it”.

As we continue today in 2nd Corinthians today and tomorrow we see and feel Paul’s longing for heaven in tension with his call to faithfully minister where God has placed him. Over the course of the past few weeks we have read of the trials and sufferings of Paul and the early church – hard pressed, persecuted, struck down. One can understand why Paul longs to finish his race.

In verses six through ten Paul speaks of living by faith (and not by sight) and of pleasing God on our journey of faith. If Paul or we lived by sight, the trials, persecutions, and sufferings would have ended our journey with Christ long ago. If the hardships of life fueled our spiritual journey we would have run out of gas long ago, leaving faith by the roadside. Making the choice to live by faith allows us to see beyond the trials of this life and on into the hope that we find in Christ Jesus. As faith guides Paul and us to see beyond this life, we can live with confidence and assurance as we seek to please God by bringing him the glory in all we say and do.

In these five verses Paul also speaks much of being “in the body”. Paul is using this phrase in both a literal and figurative sense. In the literal sense Paul is speaking of being in our human bodies as opposed to being with Jesus in heaven. I believe that this second option would be Paul’s preference if it were solely up to him. The figurative body that Paul speaks of is the body of Christ – the church. For those in the Corinthian church and for many in the church today, it is easier, preferred, more comfortable to please God within the walls of the church. But when Paul writes, “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it”, he is saying that we should live the same way in the world too. Our faith should not be limited to our church circles but should be evident in all areas of our life. When we stand before the “judgment seat” all of our life will be on display, not just the hour or two we spent at church most weeks. Therefore may we live all of our moments striving to bring God the glory, building up the kingdom of God in all places.

Prayer: Lord God, while I look forward to heaven, I do not long for it quite yet. I pray that you continue to use me as you will for many years. Day by day guide me to please you in all I do and say and think. Amen.