pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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A Simple Faith

Reading: 2nd Kings 5:1-14

Verse 3: “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

As we begin the first of two days in 2nd Kings 5 let us focus on the supporting characters. Tomorrow we’ll look at the main characters: Naaman and Elisha. Verse 1 sets the scene. Naaman is a great and powerful man, an army commander from Aram. He is highly regarded by the king of Aram. But Naaman has leprosy, a skin disease.

The main supporting character is a slave girl from Israel. She was taken captive, possibly in a raid led by Naaman. She surveys his condition and declares, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” What an honest and strong faith she has! Just go and see the prophet and be healed. Her declaration leads Naaman to the king, who says, “By all means, go.” He sends a letter along to the king of Israel, expecting Naaman to be healed. This is a lot of trust to place in the faith of a simple slave girl.

The king of Israel receives the letter and tears his robes. He fears that the king of Aram is trying to pick a fight by asking him to do the impossible. What a contrast to the faith of a simple slave girl. Elisha intercedes and Naaman is sent to Elisha. A servant of Elisha – not the prophet himself – comes out and gives instructions. Angry and insulted, Naaman is ready to go home mad. But his servants intervene, calling him to trust in this simple slave girl’s faith. Naaman submits and he is healed. He in made clean.

What a great healing comes from the contagious faith of a simple slave girl! In this big old world most of us are not a Naaman or an Elisha. Yet we can practice a powerful faith, one that trusts in the power of God and invites others to do the same. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, in my heart I know that you can do anything. Help me today to reflect that in my words, actions, and thoughts. Doing so, may others come to know you too. Amen.


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Set Free to Serve

Reading: Hebrews 9: 11-14

Verse 14: “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ… cleanse our conscience from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.”

Drilling down a little deeper into the passage that we began to work with yesterday, today we focus in on the new covenant. In the Old Testament sacrificial system the blood or ashes of sacrificed animals made the people ceremonially clean. Through these sacrifices the people were made outwardly clean and could return to communal life. The life of the animal paid the atoning price for their sin. But the guilt and the shame and the regret remained; the forgiveness was never complete. The sin remained a mark on them. Yes, it was ceremonially covered by the blood or ashes of the animal, but the blemish remained.

In verse fourteen we read about the difference made in the new covenant. Here we read, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ… cleanse our conscience from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.” This unblemished, perfect sacrifice chose to die in our place, taking upon himself the sins of the world. Jesus’ blood, poured out in perfect sacrifice, washes away our sin and the guilt, shame, regret, doubt, fear… connected to our sin. Through the new covenant we are not only forgiven but we are made new. Our sins are no more according to God. Our sins are washed away; no blemish or mark or spot remains. We are made new again, holy and perfect in God’s sight. At least for a time we stand as the image of Christ himself.

The new covenant allows us to go forward to “serve the living God.” We are freed to go out as Christ in the world, offering his words of wholeness, healing, and restoration to others. This gift of mercy and grace and forgiveness and redemption is not ours to simply sit on or to cherish for ourselves. This great gift is ours to share, to proclaim to the world. Christ has set us free! May we share this good news today!!

Prayer: Loving and living God, consuming fire, cleanse the sun from my life. Draw me into your deep grace and fill me with it so that I can bring grace out into the world. As I have been reconciled, use me to reconcile others to you and to one another. Amen.


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Heart Conditions

Reading: Mark 7: 14-15

Verse 15: “It is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.'”

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

As the discussion continues in Mark 7 concerning how Jesus’ disciples were eating, Jesus shifts the conversation. He gets to a much deeper matter: the condition of our hearts. To get their and our attention, Jesus says, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this.” Jesus is not just talking to the Pharisees. Yes, he is certainly talking to them, but he is also definitely talking to his disciples then and now. Sin is something we ALL struggle with.

Yes, it is healthy and wise and good to wash our hands before we eat. Jesus is not condemning or dismissing physical cleanliness. He is addressing inner cleanliness or righteousness. In our passage yesterday Jesus was drawing attention to the hypocrisy in the Pharisees’ hearts, to the harsh and judgmental nature of the way they practiced their religion. In verse fifteen Jesus reminds us that it is not the food or drink that we consume that fills our hearts with good or evil. Food and drink fill the stomach. They pass through our bodies without affecting the spiritual condition of our hearts in any way. Speaking of our mouths, Jesus continues, saying, “It is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.'” The words we speak are powerful. They can bring life and healing. They can bring death and devastation. Our words mirror the condition of our hearts. This is also what James was addressing in our readings earlier this week. What we allow into our hearts, the reservoir of our soul, will form our thoughts, the words we speak, and the actions we take. May we be wise and discerning concerning what we allow and do not allow into our hearts.

Prayer: Lord God, may the Holy Spirit be the filter, the barrier, and the defender of my heart. In that Spirit’s power, shape me and form me into someone who is pleasing in your sight. Amen.


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In God’s Presence

Reading: Psalm 24: 1-6

Verse 3: “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place”?

Photo credit: Steve Horner

As I read the first two verses of the Psalm my mind was drawn to the past three days that I spent in the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. As I saw tranquil lakes, majestic mountains, stunning wildflowers, marmot and moose, I was reminded over and over that “the earth is the Lord’s”. I often voiced praise to the creator for the works of his hands. The picture is our camping spot – a small sample of the beauty of God’s creation.

That small spot of creation was almost seven miles up the trail. Steve, Jeff, and I carried everything we needed to survive three days in the wilderness on our backs. As I read verses three and four today I connected the psalmist’s spiritual quest with my physical quest. As we topped crest after crest as we worked our way up to Lake Marion, on many occasions I questioned my ability to make it to our planned destination. I often thought, ‘What am I doing here’? I think that was what the psalmist was asking when he wrote, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place”? At times we all feel unworthy or unable to enter into the presence of the Lord our God.

The psalmist answers his own questions in the next verse: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart”. To stand in God’s presence we must be made clean. We must have a pure heart. On our own, we are powerless to make ourselves clean and pure. But we do not walk alone. Just as Jeff or Steve walking along ahead of or behind me gave me the power to continue hiking, so too do we have one who walks with us, one who cleanses us from all sin. The grace and mercy and forgiveness that we receive through Jesus Christ is the “blessing and vindication” that we are given in and through our Lord and Savior. Thanks be to God that we do not walk alone.

Prayer: Lord God, creator of all things, the beauty and splendor of the works of your hand are amazing and wonderful. Yet they pale in comparison to your love and grace. Thank you Lord for these blessings and your constant presence in my life. Amen.


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Limitless Love

Reading: Acts 10: 44-48

Verse 45: “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”.

Today’s passage is a great example of the growing circle of God’s love. Throughout the Bible we see that God’s love is much more expansive than was currently realized. At first it was just God and Adam and Eve. Then the immediate family grew. It was just Noah and family on an ark, then it grew. It was just Abram and family that headed out, following God’s promise. Eventually the people of God end up as slaves in Egypt. God redeems them and under Moses’ and then Joshua’s leadership the Israelites were God’s “chosen people”. For many years, one was a Jew or one was not. One was beloved by God or one was not. Even during most of Jesus’ ministry his focus was on his fellow Jews. There were hints of God’s love being bigger than that but the prevailing feeling was still one of exclusivity.

Peter was born and raised a Jew, steeped in this understanding of the Jews being THE chosen people. They were all that really mattered to God. And then God’s says, ‘Excuse me, Peter, but…’. In two visions that come in the first part of Acts 10 God shows Peter that his love is bigger. God begins by revising the traditional Jewish dietary restrictions – one of the big exclusivity definers. All that God created is clean. This is followed up by the Holy Spirit instructing Peter to go with three men to Cornelius’ home. Wait for it… Cornelius is a Roman centurion, a Gentile!

Turning to today’s passage, at Cornelius’ house Peter tells of the good news of Jesus Christ. During his teaching the same Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and all who are present. All that God created is clean, acceptable, valued and loved by God. Preparing to baptize these new believers, an astonished Peter declares, “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”. In God’s sight the whole world is the mission field. All people are beloved by God. All people are created by God to be in the family of God. All people.

When I think about Peter being astonished, initially I feel a bit superior. I think, ‘Of course God loves the Gentiles. How silly of Peter to try and limit God’s love’. And then the Holy Spirit convicts me too – slaps me upside the head. There are folks I’d be astonished to see in the family of God. There are times I try and limit God’s love. I too need to better understand the limitless and unconditional nature of God’s love. Like Peter, I am still a work in progress. May God continue to break my heart for what breaks his.

Prayer: Loving God, this day help me to love more fully, to love more openly, to love deeper and wider. Keep praying open the circle of my love too. Your love knows no bounds, no barriers. Make my love the same. Amen.


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Holy, Just, Loving

Reading: Joshua 24: 14-25

Verse 18: “We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God”.

I closed yesterday’s writing with Joshua’s declaration that he and his house would serve the Lord. The words of this verse still echo in my mind as a song that was frequently sung at Promise Keepers events. It has been 12 or more years since I attended a PK event, but the song is still fresh in my mind. For me, this powerful song was like the unofficial official PK song. From Joshua’s personal declaration for God, he hears the people respond, “We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God”. Recognizing the mighty acts of God found in their exodus stories, the people commit to the Lord. But was it like that old PK song – thousands of men joined in because others were singing?

In response Joshua tells them, “You are not able to serve the Lord”. Huh? These words from Joshua must have been confusing. He goes on to explain his thinking: “He is a holy God… a jealous God”. This is one of those “are you sure?” moments. Joshua reminds them of who God is: holy and just. He reminds them that God will “bring disaster” on them if they forsake God and turn to idols. The people reiterate their pledge to serve the Lord – not once but twice more in our passage. The days ends with Joshua making a covenant and drawing up the law. Both are intended to help the people fulfill their pledge of faithfulness to God.

This pledge is made with the deepest sincerity possible. The people really, really intend to follow God faithfully. This scenario probably sounds familiar. It is my pledge every morning. Is it yours too? We are just like the people of Israel in this sense: we mean to do our best to faithfully follow the Lord each day. We really, really do. Some days we do follow the Lord faithfully – living out our faith well for almost the whole day. And some days we struggle. 2020 had a few more of those days for many of us. God is still holy and just. So why doesn’t he “bring disaster” on us? Why don’t lightning bolts rain down from heaven each time one of us sins?

Well, because of love. Love came and walked among us. And when Jesus returned to heaven, he left us grace and mercy and atonement for our sins. Day by day, sometimes even moment by moment, we live in his grace. Confession and repentance are always as close as our next breath. As we speak these words with a sincere heart, over and over, we are washed clean and made new again, over and over. Then we are ready to again declare our faithfulness and to renew our journey with our holy and just and loving God. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord of love, thank you for your love. It is a love that keeps calling me back into right relationship with you. No matter how many times I fail. Thank you for your grace. It is a gift that always says your love is greater than my sin. No matter how great my sin. Thank you for the atonement paid for me. Through Christ, disaster is averted because the price has already been paid. Talk about love. Guide me today, Lord, as I seek to serve you alone. Amen.


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Friends and Fairness

Reading: Matthew 20: 1-16

Verse 13: “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius'”?

When the landowner hires the first group, early in the morning, they agree on a denarius for their pay. With each subsequent group the landowner says, “I will pay you whatever is right”. It was an agriculturally based economy and a denarius was the accepted wage for a days labor. The ones hired at noon, for example, would expect a half denarius for their efforts. To have good workers in your vineyard, fair pay was essential. To be able to provide for your family, a fair wage was essential. This remains how the world works.

At the end of the day the foreman is directed to pay the ones who only worked one hour first and to work his way to the ones who worked twelve hours. The story would have a totally different feel, a different impact, if told the other way around. If paid first, the twelve hours crew would go home with their denarius, happy to have earned a whole days wage. Those hired later would be happy about receiving more than they deserved, especially the three and one hour crews. But this is not a story about happiness. It is a parable about God’s grace and love towards us and about God’s sense of fairness and contentment. The parable is aimed at the religious, at those who think it unfair that a lifelong sinner could be suddenly saved and forgiven. The religious disliked how easily and freely Jesus welcomed sinners into the family of God. He was so generous with his time and love. The religious wanted the sinners to live right first – meeting all the requirements, following all the rules, jumping through all the right hoops – before entering the family of God. They wanted the sinners to get all cleaned up before joining the family. Jesus was too much of a “take you as you are” kind of guy for their particular taste.

In verse thirteen the landowner responds to the angry twelfth hour folks by saying, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius”? There are two things to note here. First, the owner calls the employee “friend”. That would be like God calling you and me ‘friend’. Wait, God does. God does not rule from on high, looking down on us, condemning us if we fail to be perfect. No, God invites us to walk and talk with him, to be his companion, to be our friend – warts and sins and all. Second, the landowner reminds the workers that he is not being unfair. I need to be reminded of this over and over when my inner Pharisee rises up and tried to look down on the humble tax collector over in the corner. God promised us grace (among many other things). God’s grace is not a finite quantity. When another receives God’s grace, there isn’t suddenly less for me. Yet sometimes I begrudge others receiving grace. Because of God’s endless love for all of humanity, there is always more than enough grace for us all. Instead of worrying about what others received, we should be thankful that we are blessed by God’s grace. I always receive way more than I deserve. Today may we each give thanks for God’s abundant grace and for our personal relationship with God, giver of grace.

Prayer: Lord God, this journey is not about happiness or getting my “fair” share relative to others. There’s no earning my way into relationship with you. So turn me from the world’s sense of happiness and from the earthly desire to compare. Help me to simply trust in my relationship with you. You desire to be my all in all. Guide me to live like I believe that and trust into that all of the time. May I rest today in your love and grace. Amen.


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Heart Condition

Reading: Matthew 15: 10-20

Verse 18: “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean”.

In response to the Pharisees, Jesus addresses what it is that makes a person ‘unclean’. A person who was unclean was cut off from or had to live outside of community. In terms of faith, it meant separation from God. For the Pharisees being clean or unclean boiled down to whether or not one followed all of the law. For Jesus, being clean or unclean came down to the condition of one’s heart.

At the start of chapter fifteen the religious leaders question Jesus about the disciples eating without following the ceremonial cleansing rituals. They did not properly wash their hands before they ate. The implication was that the disciples were now unclean. That meant seven days outside the temple, seven days outside of community – according to the religious leaders. Responding to their lack of understanding, he says, “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean”. Jesus bases the condition of our relationship with God not on what we eat but on what our heart is filled with. The “dull” disciples are sharp enough to know that these words jab at the religious leaders. Their man-made traditions and overemphasis on following the law of Moses has left them with a rule following, box checking religion. But no faith.

Today’s passage calls us to consider the condition of our heart. Does your heart contain some of what Jesus lists in verse nineteen – evil thoughts, false testimony, adultery, slander, theft? Or perhaps others – gossip, greed, lust, jealousy, pride? Or maybe doubt, fear, worry, stress, anxiety? What we have in our hearts will eventually come out of our mouths. Jesus’ point here is more about what is in our heart than about what comes out of our mouth. In the heart is where sin is born or is where we choose to stomp it out. If, instead of filling our heart with evil, what if we fill it with love and compassion, with mercy and grace, with generosity and a vent towards service, with kindness and self-control? Then there is less room for sin and evil.

What is the condition of your heart?

Prayer: Lord God, fill me daily with your word and your will. Send the Holy Spirit to whisper words of life into my heart. Guide me to be filled with your love so that I can be love in the world. Amen.


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Produce Fruit

Reading: Matthew 3: 7-12

Verse 8: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”.

Many people were coming out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist. It was your typical Sunday morning crowd this day in Matthew 3. Many came to hear John’s call to repentance and to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan River, symbolizing being made clean. Some came to support those making a choice to seek a new life. They had walked the narrow road since coming to see John themselves. Some came because they thought they should. Their minds were on a million other things and their hearts were even further from faith in God. But this day, some came to see the show. They would gather later, to ridicule it within the safety of their little circle.

This day the usual preaching and baptizing comes to a screeching halt as John yells out, “You brood of vipers”! I bet you could have heard a pin drop. He asks them who warned them to “flee from the coming wrath”? He is calling them out for coming to the river and then returning to their unrepentant lives later that afternoon. The Pharisees and Sadducees do not even think about stepping into the river. Why would they?

This would be like our communion stewards going to someone who remained in the pew instead of coming forward and being told, “No thanks. I’m good – haven’t sinned since I took communion last month”. We may be taken aback by such a thought, but there will be folks who move with the crowd, who take communion and just go through the motions. They will move through the line, they will take the bread and the juice, without ever searching their hearts, without ever seeking to repent of their sins. They will go through the motions planning on returning to life as it was.

John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”. Live lives that look like you have repented of your sins. Live lives that look like you love God and neighbor more than you love yourself. Don’t just appear to love God and neighbor. Really love them in concrete and practical ways. Love God and neighbor in ways that make them feel loved by you.

John proclaims that one day Jesus will “gather his wheat into the barn”. Live lives worthy of being gathered into Jesus’ barn. Produce fruit that builds the kingdom of God both in your heart and in the hearts of others.

Prayer: Lord, show me today how to love you more and to love others more. Convict me when I fall short of what you call me to. Guide me by your Holy Spirit to be your love in the world today. Amen.


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Freedom and Wholeness

Reading: Luke 8: 26-38

Verse 27: “When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man”.

Our story today is a story of fear. The demoniac is afraid of what Jesus might do to him and the townspeople are afraid of the same thing. Our story today follows another story of fear. In a raging squall the disciples fear they will die. Jesus is awakened and he calms the storm. He then asks the disciples, “Where is your faith”?

In verse 27 we read, “When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man”. The man is possessed by demons, so we can say he has no faith. Yet the demons recognize Jesus and the power that he has over them. If the man himself were able to speak, he would surely plead with Jesus to free him from this legion of demons. But the man is not in control. He has not been for a long time. Now the demons realize that they are not in control.

We read in our passage that at first the townspeople tried to chain the demon-possessed man hand and foot and kept him under guard. But the chains were broken over and over and then demons drove the man to live in isolation out in the “solitary places” – the tombs outside of town. The townspeople probably really appreciated this, except when they had a burial. Then they would have to once again encounter the demoniac. It is by no coincidence that Jesus goes where the world would rather not go. Jesus meets the man right where he is at, both physically and spiritually.

The demons fear Jesus’ power and rightly so. They do not want to return to the Abyss, so they beg to be sent into the pigs. Rather than return to hell, the demons end their existence by drowning themselves in the lake. Mercifully, Jesus allows this. The man is free. The townspeople find him clean, dressed, and sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening. It is an amazing restoration to wholeness that leads to fear of Jesus, not to engagement or even interest on the part of the townspeople. They ask Jesus to leave.

Sometimes the power of Jesus feels like too much. The Bible is full of these stories. We were once at this point ourselves. Many are there today. The idea of freedom in Christ is a little enticing but the power of wealth or the draw of the addiction or the fear of surrender is too great. We know folks who are struggling to take that step towards Jesus. Unlike the demons in our story, their demon tells them that Jesus has no power, that Jesus cannot make them whole again. May we be willing to cross that “lake”, to go to them where and how they are, to share our Jesus and the story of how he set us free.

Prayer: Lord, give me the courage to go across that lake, to be willing to engage those that others would rather not. Grant me words of healing and hope. Amen.