pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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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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The Body and Work

Reading: Romans 12: 3-8

Verses 4 and 5: “These members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body”.

In today’s reading Paul gives some guidance on how to be (and not to be) “living sacrifices”. He begins with a warning: “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought”. He is warning against arrogance and pride. When talking about gifts or talents, we can tend towards comparison and competition. For each of the gifts that Paul lists in verses six through eight there are ways to wrongly use each gift. For example, if a leader refuses to listen to others, then his or her pride soon leads to them leading a group of one. Or if God has blessed someone financially or otherwise and their gift is generosity, then giving can become a public display or it can come with strings attached. Both of these examples are getting away from the example set by Jesus.

Before reminding us that we are each uniquely gifted, Paul reminds us that the church is like the human body. He writes these words in verses four and five: “These members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body”. Although unique, as the church we still form one body of believers. He continues in verse five to write, “and each member belongs to all the others”. Imagine if we truly lived this out in our churches and in our own personal faiths! Paul is implying, rightly so, that we are all of equal worth or rank or value – whatever word you prefer. That means the newly confirmed or newly converted member has the same place as the 40-year member, as the pastor, as the lead elder… If the church as a whole lives into this kind of unity within its diversity, God’s power is at work.

In these types of churches each member feels like they matter and that they have something to offer to the whole. If all are valued and seen as bearers of God’s gifts, then all members seek to help others find, develop, and use their gifts. Doing so, the work of kingdom building becomes the work of the whole church. May we all seek to be a part of both sides of this equation: first, offering our gifts and talents as a living sacrifice and, second, helping others to do the same through words of encouragement, support, and love.

Prayer: God, as I consider this new body of Christ to which I belong, help me to lead well and to get to know and understand the gifts and talents of each sheep. Guide me with Holy Spirit discernment to how to best build up the body for your glory. Amen.


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Good and Pleasant

Reading: Psalm 133

Verse 1: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers [and sisters] live together in unity”.

Psalm 133 is a song of praise. It begins with a reminder of the fellowship of believers: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers [and sisters] live together in unity”. I did add ‘sisters’ in because God’s inclusive love revealed in Jesus has shown us that all people have innate value and sacred worth in God’s kingdom. It is good and pleasant not only for God when humanity lives in harmony, but it is good and pleasant for us as well. Faith is not meant to only be a solo pursuit. While there are times for personal prayer, study, meditation, and worship, God designed humanity as social beings. We were created to live and worship in community. Communal worship and Christian fellowship are important parts of our faith.

For the Israelites worship was led by the priests. Aaron was the first high priest. He would lead worship in the tabernacle out in the desert. Aaron’s descendants would continue to serve in the temple, leading worship, offering the sacrifices, caring for the place of worship. The oil referred to by the psalmist would be the fragrant consecration oil used yearly to anoint the priests. It carried a beautiful aroma that was also good and pleasant to God and to God’s people. The oil signified the pouring out of God’s blessings upon his people. The fragrance was a tactile reminder of God’s love.

Gathering together for worship is another tactile reminder of God’s love. To gather in the sanctuary, to look around at our diversity – young and old, single and married, rich and poor, men and women… – does good for the soul. To see the diversity gathered together to praise and worship the Lord is a good and pleasant thing for God and for each worshipper. It is a visual reminder that we are all God’s children. As you consider your church family and recall the last time you gathered together, smile and rejoice as you thank God for how good and pleasant your family of faith is to you!

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for my church family. Thank you for my immediate congregation as well as for brothers and sisters from past congregations and for fellow believers from other traditions. Together we are a beautiful tapestry. Thank you God. Amen.


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All Good

Reading: Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a

Verse 25: “And God saw that it was good”.

Today we read the story of creation. It is a summary of how our world was created. Within the account there is a beauty and an order. These two enduring characteristics of God leap out of his creative acts. One thing at a time is created – night and day; sky, land, and seas; vegetation and trees; sun, moon, and stars; sea and air creatures; and, land creatures. Once all the groundwork is created, God makes human beings in his own image. Their task, our task, is to watch over and care for what God has made.

As God gets into the third day on, the creation explodes. On day three, for example, all the vegetation and trees are created, each “according to its kind”. This is a vast amount of life forms. It speaks of the power and might of God. The same is true when we think of the different species of the sea and air creatures and of all the land creatures – not to mention the unthinkable number of stars and planets and moons in the universe. The sheer greatness of God is revealed in all of creation. It is a greatness that is hard to even begin to wrap our minds around. And, yes, it was all good! Let us praise the Lord our God for all of the created world.

Prayer: Father of all, thank you for the diversity and beauty of your creation. Each and every thing has your fingerprints upon them. Because of that, all things have sacred worth. Thank you for that reminder today, O God. Amen.


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Unity and Diversity

Reading: 1st Corinthians 12: 3b-13

Verse 12: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts… they form one body”.

Paul is writing today about the balance of unity and diversity. Whether in church or politics, whether on a team or in a family, this balance is essential if that organization or group is going to be its best. An organization or group can function in total unity but it is less than it would be with some diversity. Yet if one swings to the other extreme and only diversity is honored, it can challenge the functioning of the organization or group. When an organization or group is sure of those essential beliefs or elements that bring unity, there is often space created for diversity.

We have all been in an organization or group where everyone was or wanted to be the same or equal. On Pentecost all the believers were given the same gift – to speak in different languages. Imagine, though, how incomplete the church would be if that was the only gift of the Spirit. Imagine if the Spirit did not give wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, and prophesying too. If everyone in the church was exactly the same, how hard it would be to learn and grow in the faith. So instead the Spirit “gives them to each one, just as he determines”. Our diversity of gifts allows the church to accomplish far more for the kingdom of God.

In verses twelve and thirteen Paul speaks to the idea of unity and diversity existing in balance. Here he writes, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts… they form one body”. Think about what you would be without a heart or without a spine or without a foot or without ears. You would definitely be less – if you were anything at all. The church is the same. Through the gifts of the Holy Spirit each and every one of us has something to offer that makes the whole better. Yes, when people withhold or do not use the gifts that they have been given, the church is less.

Paul reminds us that we were all baptized into one body by the one Spirit. May that be evident in our words, thoughts, and actions each day.

Prayer: God of all, help me to cherish diversity amidst our unity. Guide me to value each person for the gift that they are and for the gifts that they bring. Lead me to help folks see and develop and use their gifts for the better building of your kingdom. Amen.


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Light and Love

Reading: Isaiah 60: 1-6

Verse 3: “Nations will come to your light, and Kings to the brightness of your dawn”.

As Isaiah writes today’s words, most of Israel remains in exile in Babylon. Some of those have melded into the culture there and will not return to Israel. Exile has become home. A small remnant has returned to rebuild Jerusalem, but they feel like foreigners in a strange land. They are not strong or powerful; they feel weak and helpless. Yet Isaiah reminds them that God is with them.

Sometimes I think this is what many Christians feel like in this post-Christian era. We feel like we are in the minority. Much of the time our beliefs and understandings clash with today’s cultural norms. It feels like we are a small remnant. And often we feel powerless in the world, like strangers in a foreign land.

Isaiah speaks words of hope to Israel. He writes, “The Lord rises upon you and His glory appears over you”. Even though they feel powerless and a bit out of place, God’s presence rises over them. Their power is not in arms or swords or thick walls around Jerusalem. Their power is in God’s presence with them.

We too can claim this message from Isaiah. In a world too easily filled with darkness, we too are surrounded by God’s presence. God’s presence in our lives fills us with a light and love that we can share with those we know and encounter who are living in darkness. In a nation where diversity and differences seem to be the priority, God’s light and love offer unity and cooperation. Verse 3 reads, “Nations will come to your light, and Kings to the brightness of your dawn”. As Christians, we know God’s light and love. May we bring that light and love into the broken and dark world, bringing hope and peace. May this verse be our prayer for the day and for the new year that lies just ahead. May our lives and our faith be a blessing to our world.

Prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of peace and hope, of light and love. May your light and love shine out brightly every day. May the light and love of Jesus in my heart become a beacon of light to all who are lost and living in darkness. May it be so O God! Amen.


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Creation

Reading: Psalm 104: 24-34 & 35b

Verse 24: “How many are your works, O Lord! In your wisdom you made them all”.

Here in south central South Dakota it looks a little gloomy this morning. It is overcast and breezy and a little cool. Outside my window I can hear the chorus of many birds filling the morning air. Along the front and side of the house flowers are blooming, bursting forth with color. The leaves on the trees are vibrant colors of green and the lush grass sways rhythmically in the gentle breeze. The world outside testifies to today’s opening verse: “How many are your works, O Lord! In your wisdom you made them all”. Thanks be to God!

If one steps outside my little corner of the world, the diversity of God’s creation grows exponentially. God’s creativity and wisdom brought us thousands of kinds of birds and thousands of kinds of fish and animals and trees and crops and flowers and… and… and… God designed a world that nourishes itself with rains and floods and cleanses itself with fires. He created the seasons not just to bring us variety but also to guide patterns of life. Our world is really an amazing place, all under God’s loving care. As verse 30 says, “You send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth”.

As creatures if this creation, as stewards, we play a role in helping to love our earth and all its creatures. Verse 31 reads, “May the glory of the Lord endure forever”. May it indeed! To this end, may we each play our role well, caring for all that God has blessed us with this day. May our praises to God give thanks for this gift of life all around us and may we rejoice in God’s creation today!


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Barriers and Boundaries

Reading: Acts 8: 26-40

Verse 27: “He met an Ethiopian eunuch… this man had gone to Jerusalem to worship”.

I would love to know the faith back story of the eunuch. He lives in a place far from Jerusalem yet worships God. I would love to know how this man came to know and worship God. Did he learn of God from a Jewish person living in Ethiopia? Did he hear of God from a merchant or businessman passing through the court of the queen?

Whatever the case, his faith in God leads him to come to Jerusalem, the home of God, to worship. But he clearly did not know all the ins and outs of the Jewish faith as he left Ethiopia. He now understands a bit more. The eunuch traveled all that way only to discover that he was not welcome at the temple. He did not meet their requirements. Many others did not either.

Exclusion remains an issue today. Even in the modern world some institutions and places and groups of people exclude others based on color of skin, gender or sexual preference, language, social class, educational level… We can also exclude because “that’s not how we do it here” types of traditions and practices. There are many other ways that we can create barriers and draw boundaries.

Amazingly, the eunuch’s faith is stronger than the rejection he felt at the temple. He is found reading from Isaiah 53. Led by the Spirit, Philip engages the man and answers his question. Philip explains that the passage is speaking of Jesus and then he goes on to share the good news that a relationship with Jesus Christ offers. As they near some water, the eunuch asks to be baptized. Philip baptizes the eunuch. This foreigner, this eunuch, this rejected man is fully accepted by God. In this passage we see that God does not draw barriers or boundaries. All are His beloved and all are welcome to a saving relationship with His Son, Jesus.

The story ends with Philip being taken away to evangelize elsewhere and the eunuch continues his journey, rejoicing in his newfound faith in Jesus Christ. It is a good ending, but we cannot stop here. We must take time to look within and ponder how our churches exclude others. When I look at my church, I see that it does not match the diverse demographics of the community. Does your church match your community’s diversity? If not, you have the same question as I do: why?


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Diverse and Inclusive

Reading: Revelation 7: 9-17

Verse Nine: There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

The opening verse for our passage today again paints a beautiful picture of heaven.  It is the heaven that each who call on the name of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will inherit.  Verse 9 reads, “There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language”.  It is a vast crowd, one so large that it cannot be counted.  It is a very diverse crowd, just as God desires.  This gathering that represents wonderful diversity and open inclusion draws people from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe.  It is the result of the Great Commission.

If this is what heaven will be and look like, is this what our churches and our circle of friends should be and look like?  Absolutely.  Most churches think they are welcoming and open and, indeed, most are.  Most people think of themselves as caring and loving and friendly people, and most of us are.  But being welcoming and caring and loving and friendly doesn’t necessarily include or draw in those who are the least and the lost of our communities and our neighborhoods.

Our church is like most.  There are two main tribes of people in our community, but only one tribe is represented in our church.  There are rich and poor and people in between in our community, but not many who are struggling economically call our church home.  These two examples are but two of the many who are missing from our body of Christ.  A snapshot of worship on a Sunday morning would reveal that we are very homogeneous.  Our community is not.  Our question may be asked at many other churches as well: how do we become more wonderfully diverse and openly inclusive?

It begins by getting to know those in our community who are not present in our churches.  We then must shift to being continually invitational with those we meet and get to know.  As Christians, we must be invitational, inviting others into Jesus’ love.  Then we must be willing to offer radical hospitality.  It is the hospitality practiced by Jesus.  It is the live modeled by Jesus.  It is the love of a humble servant, willing to give of oneself for the other.  It is a love that seeks to make people’s lives better – spiritually, emotionally, economically, socially,…  It is a love that engages people from all walks of life and from every neighborhood in our communitied.  May this be the love that is in us and is in our churches.  May this be the love that flows out of each of us and out of all of our churches.


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One – Unity and Diversity

Reading: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-13

Verse 13: We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body… and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

The church today is made up of many different parts.  Paul uses the body as an analogy for the church.  Our bodies have many, many parts that all come together to form a cohesive and functioning body.  Within the body, each part is necessary and needed for the body to function at its best.  So it is with the body of Christ we call the church.

When we look at the world of Christian churches out there, there are hundreds and hundreds of different denominations. As with all things, diversity is both good and bad.  In most ways, our faith diversity is good and healthy.  Diversity provided options and leaves room for personal thought and opinion and belief.  If every single church were exactly alike, then it would not appeal to nearly as many people as our many denominations do.  But diversity can also work against unity.  It can be too easy to get caught up in our differences.  And sometimes we do.

Verse 13 reads, “We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body… and we were all given the one Spirit to drink”.  The key words in this verse are: all, baptized, one Spirit, one body.  To me, “all” implies a high level of unity.  No matter what our denominational preference, we should all, first and foremost, be Christians – Christ-followers.  Christian first, denomination second.  We are all “baptized” into Christ’s one body.  We are not baptized into a particular denomination.  We are baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, into the universal Christian church.  This work is done by the Holy Spirit alone.  It is “the Holy Spirit”, not the Episcopal Holy Spirit or the Baptist Holy Spirit or …  By the Holy Spirit.  There is just one Holy Spirit just as there is only one God and one Jesus.

Yes, the body of Christ is indeed diverse denominationally, yet we are unified as Christians.  May we rejoice as much in our unity as in our diversity.  May we all focus on Christ and our common call to build His kingdom here on earth.