pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Live Agape Love

Reading: John 15: 9-11

Verse 9: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Remain in my love”.

Today is the first of three days in this passage from John 15: 9-17. Each day centers on love – the defining characteristic of God and of Jesus’ life and ministry. As followers of Jesus Christ love should be our leading and defining characteristic as well. As we begin, let us clarify what this love is.

The word for love that Jesus uses in this passage is “agape”. This is not a romantic love or a brotherly love. Agape love is a sacrificial love – it is a love that places the needs and sometimes wants of the other ahead of our own. Agape love is unconditional love – a no-matter-what love. Other loves can be sacrificial or unconditional when elevated to this highest form of love. But agape love will remain sacrificial and unconditional by its nature.

In today’s three verses the focus is on remaining or abiding in God’s love and in Jesus’ love. Verse nine invites us: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Remain in my love”. Here we get a picture of the nature of this love as well as how to remain connected to this powerful and divine love. God loved Jesus and, in the same way, Jesus loves us. The breadth of this love was first demonstrated in the incarnation. Leaving all divinity and power behind, God humbled himself and took on flesh and dwelt among us. This necessary step allowed Jesus to model what God’s love looks like when lived out to the full. In this we see that love is an action, not a noun. The depth of God’s love is demonstrated in sending Jesus to the cross to die for our sins. This sacrifice replaced the old system. In the old system there was a price paid too, but the guilt and shame remained. The offering of a bird or lamb or cow met the price but the animal’s life could not bring forgiveness. Only the blood of the perfect one, Jesus Christ, shed in sacrificial and unconditional love, could wash away our sin and the guilt and shame as well. Only Jesus’ no-matter-what love can do that.

As followers we too are called to live agape love. The commands to love God and to love neighbor are rooted in this agape love. This day may we love God and others as Jesus first loved us.

Prayer: God of love, the breadth and depth of your love is amazing and powerful. It is both humbling and enabling. It is undeserved yet abundantly given. Use me to model and reflect this love to all I meet. Amen.


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The True Kingdom

Reading: John 10: 16-18

Verse 17: “The reason my father loves me is that I lay down my life”.

We turn to John 10 for a second day in a row. Yesterday we were drawn to consider the present reality of God’s kingdom here on earth and to consider how we are each working to include others in said kingdom. Today we focus in on the how and the who of our task to draw others into the kingdom of God.

For Jesus, the how was laying down his life. Jesus did this literally, going to the cross to defeat the power of sin and then to and out of the grave to defeat the power of death. This obedient, sacrificial action reflects both Jesus’ love for God and for us. In turn, it draws God’s love and our love too. While we may not go as far as Jesus did with our obedient and sacrificial actions, we can certainly expect to be called upon to pay a cost as we seek to share the love of God with others. It may be financial, physical, emotional, relational. The ‘how’ will almost always involve giving something for or to the other. While this is often difficult, the real ‘who’ is harder.

When we consider Jesus’ ‘who’, is general they were Jews. The people Jesus spoke with and ministered to were often much like Jesus himself. This too is our general mission field – those we work with, associate with, maybe go to school with. Jesus also welcomed and engaged those from the edges and fringes – those society and formal religion rejected or avoided. Herein lies our real challenge. We like the neat and ordered, the understandable and routine. Our churches like these things too. But for the kingdom of God to be fully revealed, it must reflect our actual communities, in all of their beautiful diversity. To realize this we must be willing to engage and welcome those outside of our normal circles. We must be willing to be uncomfortable and unsure of the places and people we seek to connect with – only in these thin spaces will we really rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us. Only then will the margins and fringes be wiped away by the love of God, opening our community of faith to reflect the true kingdom of God here on earth.

Prayer: Loving God, it’s easy to call upon or engage those like me, those inside the church. It is much harder to engage and love those who are not like me. Give me a willing spirit and a deeper trust in you. Go with me Holy Spirit. Amen.


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Truth… Love

Reading: John 18 and 19

Verse 18:37 – “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth”.

Photo credit: Leighann Blackwood

Under cover of dark betrayer and soldiers and religious leaders come to arrest Jesus. He is questioned by Annas and then Caiaphas. During these events Peter denies Jesus three times and then the cock crows. Early on Friday morning Jesus is brought to Pilate, the Roman ruler. Pilate finds Jesus innocent yet ultimately bows to the pressure of the crowd shouting “Crucify”!

As Pilate and Jesus are talking, Jesus tells him that his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, Jesus says his followers would have fought for him. Jesus goes on to tell Pilate, “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth”. Jesus came to establish a new kingdom, one based on God’s vision for the world. It is not based on force or oppression or political power. So much of Pilate’s life has been wrapped up in these things. Today many people live by these and similar constraints. The steps on the ladder of success are built on the backs of those climbed over, stepped on, taken advantage of, exploited… Pilate is no different. In response to Jesus’ words, he utters, “What is truth”? Pilate clearly finds no joy, no love, no hope, no peace in his current life. Pilate needs Jesus’ kingdom just as much as the lost and broken of today’s world need Jesus.

Pilate fears losing what he has. A riot will cost him dearly so he bows to the pressure of the crowd and hands Jesus over to be crucified. Some today cling to what they have, materially and in title, afraid to trust in someone other than self. To lose this earthly life for one centered on Jesus’ kingdom of love and sacrifice and service feels like too big a step. Without witnesses to the truth of a life lived for Christ, none would take the step of faith. Here is where we take up our crosses and follow in Jesus’ footsteps, revealing the truth of his love and hope and peace and joy to the world.

Even as his own life was ebbing away, Jesus cared well for others. Speaking to John and to his mother, Jesus expresses his love for each by connecting them in a new way. This is his kingdom, one built upon love. As we each encounter others, may we too seek to love well, sharing his love with those in need.

Prayer: Lord, in the moments of trial and pain and even death, Jesus spoke and gave love to others. Though the road was hard, Jesus walked it faithfully. May I do the same. Amen.


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You Chose Love

Reading: John 3: 14-18

Verse 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”.

Our passage today begins with Jesus referencing an Old Testament story. When the Israelites grumbled against God and Moses, God sent poisonous snakes. In response to their cries for help, God had Moses fashion a serpent and place it high on a pole. By looking up to this symbol, the people who had been bitten were saved. Jesus parallels this story with belief in him. If one looks to the “lifted up” or risen Christ, we too are saved.

Verse sixteen details the depth of God’s love: “he gave his one and only Son” so that we could be saved. God incarnate loved us enough to take upon himself the sin of the world and to die on a cross. His loving sacrifice saves us from the consequences of our sins and from the finality of death. Sin and death no longer reign. The cross speaks the final words: you are loved. The Old Testament God who quickly judged the people’s sin and sent snakes as the consequence instead chose to send his Son. The God who judged and condemned the Israelites turns to love.

In verse seventeen we read, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”. God chose to love us as we are and as we always will be on this earth. God chose to save us because of his great love for us. God chose to enter our broken and hurting and messy world in order to save us. Instead of tossing in the towel and giving up on us, Jesus wrapped himself in a towel and knelt at the disciples’ dirty feet. Washing their feet was a symbol not only of humble service but also of the way his death on the cross would wash away our sin.

In many ways Jesus said, ‘You are loved’. As we continue to walk deeper into Lent and to draw closer to the cross may we seek to reveal to one and all that they are loved. May Jesus’ love be our love as we strive to draw the kingdom of God near.

Prayer: God of grace and power and love, you sent Jesus to save. Thank you for the depth of your love. You gave a willing sacrifice. You chose to love when condemning would have been so much easier. Thank you for choosing love. Amen.


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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.