pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Questionable

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1: 18-25

Verse 23: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”.

Photo credit: Taylor Smith

Paul is writing in today’s passage to a church that needs some words of wisdom concerning the idea of a crucified Messiah. These last two words just don’t make sense, they just do not fit together in many people’s minds. For Paul this is the overall message of the cross: Jesus died for you and for me. To those who believe that Jesus loved us enough to die for us, the cross offers the power of salvation and of eternal life. But if you cannot wrap your head around that gift and what it means and gives to the believer, then placing one’s trust and life in Jesus’ hands makes no sense.

In verse 23 Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”. The Jews, for the most part, saw Jesus as a good teacher, as one that inspired many people to a better life, as one who even did some amazing things (miracles). But Jesus was not the Messiah that they envisioned. A real Messiah would never allow himself to be crucified. A real king would not eat with sinners, heal on the Sabbath, regularly engage the outcasts and unclean… All of these things were stumbling blocks to most of the Jews. The Gentiles (read ‘Romans’ or ‘pagans’ here) worshiped many gods and saw the cross as the place of punishment for the worst criminals. To cast one’s life in with the lot of a mere human, one that died with such shame and so powerless – foolishness!

As Christians living in today’s world, sometimes we should be stumbling blocks to some, foolishness to others. For our Lenten series this year, we are calling this “living highly questionable lives”. Last week I read a story about a high school basketball player. During a game he noticed that a player on the other team was wearing shoes that were not suitable for basketball. After the game he took off his shoes and have them to this other player. To some this appeared as foolish. To others it may have been a stumbling block. But to those also touched by Jesus Christ that night, it was the love of God being lived out in a real way.

As we encounter those who see our faith as foolish or as a stumbling block to their preferred way of life, may the Spirit give us the words or actions that preaches the cross in a way that reveals the courage and strength of our faith in the Messiah.

Prayer: Loving God, use me today to reveal my faith in ways that draw others into conversation. Let me love so completely that the other is willing to look past what at first seems foolish or to step over what may initially feel like a stumbling block. May the power of the cross draw them in. May it be so. Amen.


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Two Actions

Reading: Mark 8: 34-38

Verse 34: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”.

Continuing on from yesterday’s passage, Jesus gathers his disciples and the crowd to explain the cost of following. Having just explained the price that he will pay, Jesus details what will be expected of those who choose to follow him as Lord and Savior. The words that Jesus speaks are powerful and challenging. His words will become even more so as the disciples reflect on the events of the last week of Jesus’ life.

Jesus identifies two actions one must take to “come after” or to “follow” him. The first is to “deny self”. This is what Jesus lived out his whole ministry. He placed the needs and wants of God first, closely followed by the needs and wants of others. Self was a very distant third. If we were to follow Jesus today, what would this look like? It would begin with listening to the Holy Spirit, the indwelling presence of God in our lives. The second step would be to respond to the guidance and direction of said Spirit as we respond to the needs of those we meet day by day. Jesus saw the other, the lonely, the hurting, the hungry… and ministered them as he encountered them. May we too have ears to hear and eyes to see.

The second action is to “take up” our cross. The cross represents the way of Jesus. For Jesus it was ultimately walking the path to suffering and death for the sake of others – for you and me. Along the way Jesus often took up the cross for others. He took up the cause of the marginalized and the sinners and the outcasts and declared them worthy of his time and of the kingdom of God. Each of these encounters against the powers of the world came with a price too. The way of Jesus calls us to sacrifice as well. Jesus calls us away from the things of this world by reminding us that the cost of trying to “gain the whole world” is to “forfeit” our soul. In contrast, following Jesus will save our soul. Giving up our selfish desires and leanings and focusing on Jesus’ example of sacrificial service will lead us to bless others as we live out the good news or gospel of Jesus Christ. May it be so as we seek to bring God the glory.

Prayer: Lord God, tune me in to the Holy Spirit within me. Guide me to not only hear but to respond, offering all I can to those I meet in the world around me. Empower me to shine your light in all I do and say. Amen.


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May They Know

Reading: 2 Kings 2: 1-12 (and 13-14)

Verse 9: “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit”.

Continuing from yesterday we see that Elisha and Elijah have at last arrived at the Jordan River. This is a place of transitions – it is where Joshua took on leadership from Moses as the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land. Joshua struck the water with Moses’ staff and they crossed over on dry land. Elijah takes his cloak and strikes the water – Elijah and Elisha cross over on dry land.

Elijah knows the time has come. He asks Elisha what he can do for him before he is taken from him. Elisha responds, “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit”. He wants to continue the work of his master and to do so to an even greater degree. Elisha wants to be twice as connected to God. Elijah understands the request and the enormity of the request. He tells Elisha that it will be so if he sees him being taken away. After the chariots of fire whisk Elijah away to heaven, Elisha tears his clothes in grief.

In verses thirteen and fourteen we see that the cloak has been left behind for Elisha, just as the staff was given to Joshua. Asking, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah”? he strikes the Jordan with the cloak and crosses over on dry land. Clearly God is now with Elisha. The mantle has been passed. The Spirit of the Lord is upon Elisha.

At the close of Jesus’ ministry he too passed the mantle on to his disciples. To each of his disciples Jesus gave the gift of the Holy Spirit. In this way, Jesus passed on the mantle – the task of being God’s love lived out in the world. Joshua would go on to lead as Moses had led, Elisha would go on to prophecy as Elijah had. In the same way, as disciples we are to go on as Jesus taught us to. Led by the Spirit we are to continue in his footsteps, offering sacrificial service, radical welcome, unconditional love, undeserved grace… Just as Jesus stood out from the religious and political leaders of his day, we too are to stand out.

The fifty prophets stood at a distance watching. As Elisha struck the Jordan and crossed over on dry land, they knew a prophet was in the land. As folks stand and watch us, may they know that Jesus is in the land. May they know.

Prayer: Lord God, pour out your Spirit. May it be evident in me. As others see me, watch me, hear me, spend time with me, may they sense the presence of Jesus within me. May this presence lead to questions, to conversation, and to the sharing of faith. Amen.


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Reverence and Awe

Reading: Psalm 111

Verse 2: “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them”.

Psalm 111 is all about praising God. We can be drawn to praise in a variety of ways. Two days ago, for example, my wife and I were on a hike. There was about four inches of snow blanketing the ground. The sky was so blue. At times we would pause – sometimes along the path after a long uphill stretch and sometimes at a place that afforded a view. At both kinds of stops we were amazed by God’s creation. Along the path we stopped and could take in the small details and could hear all of the quiet sounds of nature. At the viewing stops, we could see out across the plains to the east or we could look west across the rolling hills covered in snow and pines. Here we could sense God’s grandeur and the majesty of creation. Here too we were reminded of our awesome God. We were able to praise God for the work of his hands.

In verse two the psalmist declares: “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them”. On Sunday afternoon it was God’s creation that led us to delight in him. On Sunday morning it was a man’s testimony about God’s work on a mission trip that led us to praise and delight. In the first half of Psalm 111, God’s grace and compassion and provision are what draws the writer to praise God. These gifts of God are wrapped in the covenant, which also connects to the reasons to praise God found in the second half of the Psalm. Working out the covenant to Abraham, the psalmist remembers how God gave them the Promised Land. Recalling the steadfastness, faithfulness, and uprightness of God, the psalmist looks to the redemption that God provides, ordaining his covenant forever. Here I connect to the Psalm most personally. The redemption of God came in the person of Jesus, he who established the new covenant forever through his blood shed on the cross.

The Psalm closes by reminding us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. In the Biblical sense, fear is not being afraid of God. It is a fear in terms of reverence and awe. It was what I felt as I was awestruck gazing out at the scene pictured above. It is what you have felt when you have been caught by God’s power or love or grace at different times in your life. As our response today, may we too offer words of thanksgiving and praise to the Lord our God!

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the many, many times when I have been amazed by your great works. These revelations, these epiphanies, are such a blessing. You are an amazing and awesome God! Amen.


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Forward in Faith

Reading: Mark 1: 16-20

Verse 18: “At once they left their nets and followed him”.

Photo credit: Jillian Werner

In today’s passage Jesus calls the first four disciples. They are just regular people. All four are fishermen, used to a hard life. They work long hours, endure the weather, and rely upon the water for their livelihood. This day began just about like every other day – until Jesus walks along the shore. This scenario is true for most of us. Our days start about the same each day and then sometimes Jesus shows up, calling us into ministry.

First Jesus comes to Simon and Andrew. They are at work when Jesus comes, casting their nets into the sea. He simply says, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for men”. We read that “at once” they left their nets – right there in the water – and followed. The call of James and John is similar. They are mending their nets when Jesus calls them. “Without delay” James and John leave their father and the hired men behind to follow Jesus. Is this the lesson we are to take from today’s reading?

It certainly is one of them. Most of the opportunities we have to “come and follow” are moments unfolding in life at that time. The person the Holy Spirit nudges us towards may not be there any more or the particular need may not be there when we see them the next time. The door or window of opportunity that is open when the Spirit whispers in our ear may close or shut if we say we’ll get to it “tomorrow”. And, honestly, what call would Jesus give to you or me that would compare to the call these four fishermen received today? Well, honestly, each call rises to the level of being a disciple.

The first step for Andrew, Simon, James, and John is the first step for each of us. The first step is to decide if we trust Jesus. When we are nudged to go to that person or when the Holy Spirit whispers into our heart, we have no idea where that step will take us. Yet, just like these fishermen, we are called to step forward in faith. As Jesus calls us today or tomorrow or another day, may we each trust in the Lord. Without delay, may we go where the Lord sends us.

Prayer: Lord God, I’ve come to see that “not now” most often means “no”. Help me to be better in those moments when you call. That “thing” that feels oh so important is never as important as the person or need you are calling me to. Make me more obedient, Lord. Amen.


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Undeserved? YES!

Reading: Matthew 20: 1-16

Verse 1: “The kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard”.

Today’s parable in Matthew is the second in a row where Jesus teaches about God’s upside-down kingdom. If we were the workers who were hired early in the morning, we too would be upset when we received the same pay as those who worked only one hour. Like these workers, it would not matter a whole lot to us that we agreed to our pay before we even started working or that it was a fair days wage. Similarly, those who worked nine hours would be pretty upset, those who worked six hours would be kind of upset… On the surface level we struggle with this story just as we can sometimes struggle with the story of the thief on the cross found in Luke 23.

Jesus’ actual behavior also reflects this upside-down feel. He did not spend most of his time in the temple. He did not recruit his followers from elite rabbi schools. Jesus himself was not even trained as a professional rabbi. The religious leaders were much like the full day workers in our parable. They cringed and recoiled when Jesus forgave the sins of adulterous women and greedy tax collectors and the lame and deaf and mute – those obviously carrying the lifelong burden of some unrepentant sin. Like the thief on the cross and the workers who only came at the last hour, people like these do not deserve such easy grace, such free flowing forgiveness.

Do we sometimes cringe and recoil at who God continues to invite into the kingdom of God? Do we ever walk into church on a Sunday morning and wonder, Who let them in? If so, we need to check the inner religious snob hiding inside of us too.

I do not know about you, but I am glad that God is the God of late in life professions of faith and death bed confessions of Jesus as Lord. That expression of generous and unconditional grace is the same exact grace that forgives my struggle with pride for the zillionth time. Yes, yes, we rejoice at that grace. Whether one comes at the first hour or at the last hour, may all hear about and come to experience that same extravagant and wonderful grace.

Prayer: Loving and generous God, it is so wonderful to live within your abundant and generous grace. Even though I may not deserve to experience it over and over, you continue to pour it over me time and time again. Thank you for your love of a sinner like me. Amen.


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Sincere, Devoted, Selfless

Reading: Romans 12: 9-21

Verse 10: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves”.

The section for today is titled “Love” in my Bible. If I had to choose just one word to describe or define God or Jesus, love would be the word. Love guides all that the divine does and says. In today’s passage, Paul encourages us to live the same way.

“Love” is a word that has many applications and even more degrees at the human level. Love, like most words, can be tossed around and can be easily manipulated. It can be twisted for our own purposes. These types of uses fall under the “hate what is evil” part of verse nine. Paul begins today by slicing through all of this by writing “love must be sincere”. Other translations use pure or genuine. It is a calling to love as God and as Jesus love. As Paul urges us to “cling to what is good”, I am reminded of the WWJD slogan. Well, Jesus would love.

In verse ten Paul writes, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves”. The first part of this verse mainly covers agape or brotherly love but the same ideas are essential with all forms of love. Being devoted means commitment and investment in the relationship. It means always honoring and respecting the other person. This approach naturally leads into the second part of this verse. Genuine or sincere love makes the intentional and purposeful choice to place the other person’s needs and wants ahead of our own. This is a call to selfless love. Often it is a sacrificial love. Here too we are reminded of the love that Jesus Christ modeled throughout his ministry and especially on the cross. There he put the needs of the entire world before his own wants as he conceded “not my will but your will be done” to God in the garden.

As we consider what sincere, devoted, selfless love looks like today, may we be thankful for Christ and for others who have loved and who love us this way. And may we strive to love in this model ourselves. May it be so with all we meet.

Prayer: Lord God, to have such a love is admittedly not always easy. The easier path is selfish and inwardly focused. Open my heart to love as you love. Help me to deny self and to even die to those parts of myself. Mold me and shape me to love as you first loved me. Amen.


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Pressing On

Reading: Matthew 16: 21-28

Verse 24: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”.

In today’s passage Jesus is preparing his disciples for a radical change – his death, followed by him being “raised to life”. The time the twelve have spent with Jesus must have been the best time of their lives. They have witnessed all kinds of miracles and have been a part of a few. They have been side by side with love lived out to the full. They have been blessed with the wisdom of God. If I could just have dinner with anyone in the world, far and away my choice would be Jesus.

The news Jesus delivers is hard to fathom. How could this even happen to the Messiah? How could that be the end of the story? There had to have been a personal side to the emotions the twelve felt too. Peter says, “Never, Lord”! This is the same Peter who was proclaimed the “rock” upon which Jesus would “build my church”. Following these new words from Peter, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan”. Imagine how that must have stung Peter. The Lord has a way of keeping us humble. Peter is not thinking of the “things of God” – of the plan laid out for Jesus and for humankind. He is not thinking of the Messiah of love, mercy, compassion, sacrifice. Peter is thinking of what Peter wants – to just continue as it has been. We never want to lose someone or something we love.

Jesus then turns to all of the disciples and says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. For Peter and probably for all of the disciples, the initial denial will be the desire for Jesus to stay with them. The death and resurrection are critical pieces of the plan. They will also be asked to deny self in many more ways as they follow the risen Lord. They will each take up the cross and sacrifice many things along the journey. Such is the cost of discipleship. It is a sobering thought.

Like the twelve, we prefer life to be good, to move along smoothly. It is well with our souls when we are surrounded by those we love, enjoying life, feeling closely connected to the Lord. But the storms of life come, we are drawn to crossroads, we too face death and loss. And at times we too must take up our faith, stand with or for Jesus, and count the cost. This is how we carry our cross. With God, it is always one we can bear, always a path we can tread. It is so because we do not walk alone. As we long for our reward, may we each press on toward the goal of heaven, trusting in God each step of the way.

Prayer: Redeeming and saving God, strengthen me for the journey ahead. Grant me the power to walk the path you place before me. Fill me with your love, mercy, compassion, sacrifice. Each day may I offer all that I am in service to you, my Lord and King. Amen.


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Faithful Sons and Daughters

Reading: Romans 8: 12-25

Verse 15: “You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship”.

In today’s passage we continue with Paul’s words concerning our struggle with sin. Over the past few weeks the readings from Romans have focused on our inner conflict with good and evil. In this week’s verses Paul begins by speaking of an “obligation” that we have. That obligation, using Paul’s word, is to live in alignment with God. What allows us to fulfill our obligation is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

Once we choose Christ over self and all the other things of this world, we are then led by the Spirit. In verse fifteen Paul writes, “You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship”. It is wonderful that we do not have to be slaves to fear or sin any longer. But what does it mean to receive “sonship”? In that culture your name meant everything. Just consider how often the Bible refers to someone as ___, son of ___. In that culture the son(s) almost always followed in their father’s footsteps. Why was Jesus a carpenter? Why were his brothers carpenters? Because Joseph was a carpenter! And it was also about more than your occupation. Jesus would have learned how to be a skillful and honest and hard-working and humble carpenter. Character and faith were passed along too.

What is Paul implying then about us receiving a spirit of sonship? As we read on Paul tells us that it means we are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ”. As believers in God and as followers of Jesus we seek to be like Jesus. His main occupations were humble servant and obedient son. The qualities that Jesus exhibited are to be our qualities as well: loving, kind, patient, gentle, self-controlled, merciful, gracious, generous, forgiving… This is the obligation when we choose to be called children of God.

Following isn’t always easy or comfortable. At times we will also be called or led to “share in his sufferings”. Placing self after God and others will lead to times of suffering. That is the way of the cross. But the cross also led to glory. We too are promised that we will share in that glory one day. The “redemption of our bodies” brings us hope. One day we too will experience our final adoption into our heavenly home. Until that day, may we all walk as faithful sons and daughters of the Lord our God.

Prayer: Father God, thank you for inviting me into the family. There is no place I’d rather be. Grant that I may walk as a faithful child of yours today, sharing your love and grace and mercy with all that I meet. May it ever be so. Amen.


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Remaining Connected

Reading: Genesis 25: 19-34

Verse 21: “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren”.

Last week we looked at the miraculous story of finding a wife for Isaac. The baby born when mom and dad were 90 and 100, respectively, marries a wife that clearly God had a hand in selecting. Remember how the servant’s prayer was exactly how things unfolded in finding Rebekah? It seemed like a fairy tale beginning to a storybook marriage. But then, in today’s passage, we find that it is not exactly the case. They cannot have children. Rebekah is barren.

One of the main reasons for marriage was to have children, to produce heirs. Children were a couple’s pride and joy. They were a sign of God’s blessings. But Isaac and Rebekah were without children. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, like Zechariah and Elizabeth and many other couples to follow, this barrenness was like a cross to bear. And like all the other cases of barrenness that we read about in the Bible, God chooses to intervene in their behalf. In verse 21 we read, “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren”. God responds with twins! As it was with all of these couples, God has a plan and will work it out in his time and in his way.

Although for most of us barrenness is not our issue, for some couples it is. Others deal with sickness or disease. Some struggle with an addiction. Anger, doubt, anxiety, pride, selfishness, loneliness, singleness – the list of things we bring to God is long. We all need God’s intervention. Whatever valley we are in or whichever sin we are currently dealing with, we all need God to answer our prayer. For us, as it well may have been for Isaac, the waiting is the hardest part.

In the passage it sounds so easy: he prayed and they become pregnant – all in one verse. We’d all like our prayers answered in what appears to be expediency. But more often our reality is like Isaac and Rebekah’s reality – married when he was 40, the twins are not born for another 20 years. For us there is often a span of time that falls between our initial prayer and God’s response. Isaac and Rebekah remain connected to God and God remains connected to them. They trust in God’s plan. May we do so as well.

Prayer: God of all, you created this world and continue to create, to form, to shape, to guide. Help me to have a faith that is trusting and patient, content and assured. Lead me to a faithful and long walk with you. Amen.