pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Commitment and Connection

Reading: Mark 3: 20-35

Verse 35: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”.

Photo credit: Hans Heiner Buhr

In our passage from Mark, Jesus looks at community and connections. The religious leaders are challenging his authority and his biological family is worried about his health – physically and perhaps mentally. In verses 23-27 Jesus focuses in on division and the impact thereof. Whether a kingdom, a household, or even Satan himself, division spells disaster for that entity. This remains true today. We can see many examples of division in our society and some of us experience it in our own lives. In all cases division is a detriment, lessening whatever it touches.

In the second half of our passage Jesus turns to the more personal. In response to his earthly family’s concern for him, Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers”? Jesus is not totally discounting his own family with his response but is elevating the value or place of Christian community. Answering his own rhetorical question Jesus says, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”. Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God to earth. His response reflects this priority. In the twelve men that followed Jesus we see this same choice. They left all behind to follow. There was no division in their hearts. It was clear that for Jesus and those who followed him, God was first, loving the other was second, and family… fell somewhere down the line. May our commitment to and connection with God be the same!

Prayer: Lord, may my life reflect an undivided commitment to you and your will. May my love for you rise above all else. Amen.


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Falling Short

Reading: 1st Corinthians 8: 1-6

Verse 3: “The man who loves God is known by God”.

Paul begins this section on food sacrificed to idols by speaking of knowledge. He is talking about what is inside our heads. This is usually where faith begins. Most Christians follow the same path: learning about God, Jesus, and faith in Sunday school, youth group… as they mature in faith until one day the head knowledge becomes heart truth. As is true with almost everything in life, in our faith we understand more and more the longer we journey in faith. Within the Corinthian church some were relying their superior knowledge and it was causing division and it was hindering the faith journey of the new believers. In our churches today, we still do this at times. We allow our knowledge to “puff” us up.

The first way this happens is when we make our churches feel exclusive. We all look and talk alike, we act alike, we appear to be perfect Christians. We have those that we gravitate to each Sunday morning. A visitor can feel like an outsider very quickly, especially when they are not like the homogeneous crowd. Someone who comes because they are struggling with something really feels out of place when they enter a room full of people without any faults or issues. To further create a sense of “us” and “them” we use insider language and big fancy words. Maybe most regulars know what sanctification, justification, atonement, sacrament… mean. But if you are new to the faith, these terms can make you feel like an outsider very quickly.

In the Corinthian church the mature believers knew “that an idol is nothing at all”. To them, idols were just carved pieces of stone or wood. The mature believers knew that there was only one God, only one Lord. But for the new believers, the ones who had grown up worshipping these idols all their lives, this idea was a struggle. The mature believers were saying, in essence, “just get over it”, “just believe what I say I believe”. They were not willing to walk in love with their new brothers and sisters in Christ. They were not willing to enter the struggle, to walk alongside the one wrestling with their conscience.

We do this in our churches when we fail to talk about our sins and struggles. Church becomes a social club for the perfect and for the saints. Nope, no sin here. We know all we need to know to be good little Christians. In verse three Paul writes, “The man who loves God is known by God”. Loving God must lead to loving others. Jesus unpacks the truth of this idea in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). When we say we love God, when we say all are welcome in our churches but do not really welcome the sinners and broken people into our communities of faith, we are falling short. When we look down on those “obviously” dealing with sin by making them feel unwelcome, we are falling short. When we indirectly but clearly say come back when you have your life together, we are falling short. May it not be so church. May it not be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to truly love others as a witness to my love for you. Strip away my pride and judgmental tendencies, guide me to walk side by side in love with those in struggle, with those living outside of your love. Give me the courage to admit my struggles and sins within the body of Christ. Grant me a welcoming and compassionate spirit. Amen.


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Look Upon Us

Reading: Isaiah 64: 5b-9

Verse 8: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter”.

As we continue in Isaiah 64 today, the second half of the passage begins in verse 5b with an admission: “When we continued to sin, you were angry”. Yes, God will come to the help of those who do right, but the sinners? Isaiah asks the correct question: “How then can we be saved”? As a people living in sin, the Israelites were taken into exile. God still loves them, but what can God do with his children who continue in their rebellion? The prophet laments that they have become “unclean” and that their faith has “shriveled up” like a dry leaf. In verse seven his words are honest: “No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you”. The situation, the condition of the people’s faith, is not good. Yet there is hope. There is always hope with God.

In verse eight Isaiah speaks of that hope: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter”. Our God never gives up on us. Yes, we may choose to distance ourselves from God and from our relationships with one another. Our sin leads to separation. Even in the midst of our sin, even then we can cry out to God. Like a petulant child, we cry out only half-heartedly because we remain unclean. We want our way and we want God to do our will too. At that point God hears but does not respond. This is where almost all of Isaiah’s audience is at spiritually. Yet the one who speaks for God has hope. Isaiah knows that God can and will reshape the people. Through the process of defeat and exile, God will fashion Israel back into obedient children once again. Our passage ends with a humble plea: “Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people”.

In this season, especially in this time of division and discord, in this time of online worship and personal distancing, in this time of illness and loss, Lord, look upon us. We pray for all of your people. Great potter, shape us into something new.

Prayer: Lord God, show us the way. Help me to work through this discord in my soul, through this time of unease. Bring healing to our land, O God. Not just physical healing but also spiritual and emotional and relational healing. Unite us, O Lord, in your love and grace and mercy. Amen.


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Wholeness and Unity

Reading: Philippians 4: 1-3

Verse 2: “I plead with ___ and ___ to agree with each other in the Lord”.

Paul is imprisoned in Rome as he writes these words. The man who founded many churches and who was a key figure in bringing many people into a saving faith in Jesus Christ has been imprisoned for preaching the gospel. Paul is highly respected in the Christian communities spread throughout the known world. His words and writings carry weight. As he sits under house arrest in Rome, word of a dispute in the church in Philippi comes to his attention. Philippi is about 800 miles from Rome. Word would be carried across land, then sea, then land again. As he closes the letter to the Philippians, Paul takes time to address the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche, two prominent women in the church. In the opening verse above I left two blank lines because for most churches today we could fill in the lines. The spat may be past tense in some of our churches, but it is alive and well in too many others.

The fact that two women are in a sharp enough disagreement to merit mentioning means that it had significance for that church. Such disagreements often do. We do not know the source or cause of the disagreement, we just know it was doing what these things do – causing division and hostility. Paul knows these are bad for relationships and for churches so he asks a third party, believed to by Syzygus, the “loyal yokefellow”, to mediate. Again, in our churches it could be Bob or Anne or anyone skilled at bringing reconciliation. This is often a necessary step.

Division in the body of Christ does harm in so many ways. When we dig in and hunker down and refuse to enter into dialogue, we allow division to exist. When we in the church allow this, Satan is winning the day. Our community is weakened and our witness to the world is lessened. Whether one person is wrong or if both are wrong or if neither is wrong, all parties had a hand in creating division. Understanding and healing and forgiveness and grace and reconciliation must be found. Just as Paul pleads for these people to “agree with each other in the Lord”, may that be the prayer that we lift whenever needed in our churches and communities of faith. May the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of our hearts bring wholeness and unity to the body of Christ.

Prayer: Father God, where there is division, bring me words of healing and peace. Where and when there are disagreements in the body of Christ, give me words of understanding and love, words of grace and forgiveness. When hearts are hard, lead me to foster openness and care for the other. God, draw churches of all flavors into the unified church that will better resemble eternity. Walk with me as I seek to lead in that direction. Amen.


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New as Well as Old

Reading: Matthew 13:52

Verse 52: “Therefore every teacher… who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven… brings out new treasures as well as old”.

At what I would consider my “home” church, back when I was still a middle school teacher, I was part of the team that began a contemporary worship service. That was over twenty years ago. At the time it caused a lot of angst and even some division in the church. When the service outgrew the “Upper Room” and needed to shift to the sanctuary, then we really upset the apple cart. Change is hard, especially when it involves something new and relatively unknown to many people in the group or organization. But a quick survey of almost every church offering contemporary worship will reveal that that service is their best attended service. Change can be good and positive and even life giving.

When I moved into full-time ministry just over right years ago, one of my secret inner fears was one day being appointed to a small, rural church with just an organ or piano that only sang hymns on Sunday mornings. Since helping start the contemporary worship service that was the only service I had attended. When we were out of town on a weekend, we would find a church to visit with a contemporary service. But after just a couple of months in pastoral ministry I came to realize that I loved the hymns and liturgy of traditional worship. Holding onto the past, to the tried and true, very often has its place. It is often the key component of a group or organization’s core identity. It is essential to who “we” are.

In today’s verse Jesus is talking about this same idea – the old and the new. Talk about someone with first-hand insight on holding onto the past yet also doing something new. If we keep nothing but the old in our faith and in our churches, then we become old. We all know what eventually happens to the old. But we cannot just change it all overnight either. Then folks look around and wonder where they are. Balance is the key.

The same is true for our lives and for our journey of faith. Growth is most often a slow and steady process that involves melding the good new with the good old. In our faith and in our churches may we be open to the new even as we hold onto the roots and traditions that make us the children of God. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to know, to discern, how and when and where to go in a new direction and why and where to keep the tried and true. Both are central to a healthy and growing faith and to a strong and vibrant church. Lead and guide me, I great Jehovah. Amen.


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Only in Surrender

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1: 18-31

Verse 18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”.

Paul is writing to the church in Corinth to address a division that has arisen. On one side of the divide are the Greeks. They love learning and discussing ideas. They look for and prize wisdom above all else. They want to know their way into believing in Jesus Christ. On the other side are the Jews. The Jews look for signs. This is how they had always recognized and identified the power of God at work. Way back the power of God was revealed in the manna and in the wall of Jericho falling down, just to name a couple of examples. More recently it shown as Jesus and the disciples healed and cast out demons. The Jews wanted to be awed into believing in Jesus.

Paul tells both sides that they are wrong. Both the Greeks and the Jews are looking in the wrong place if they want to find the power of Jesus Christ. In our opening verse Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. To the world the cross represents weakness and shame and wrong doing. To the world it was foolishness for Jesus to die on a cross like a common criminal. But the world is perishing. Paul instead reminds the Jews and Greeks that true power is found in the cross. It was on the cross that Jesus demonstrated servanthood and obedience. It was there that he became humble to death as he died to save us all. In his death and resurrection Jesus defeated the powers of sin and death and paved the way for us all to experience “righteousness, holiness, and redemption”.

Just as Jesus was humble, we too must be humble as we approach faith. We cannot think our way into believing. Nor can we argue another into faith. We cannot “genie” our way to believing either. We cannot try and force God to prove he is real. We find faith when we come to the point of kneeling before Jesus, aware of our sin and our need for his grace, humbly asking him to be the Lord of our life. Only when we surrender do we find victory in Christ. It is more of that upside-down kingdom. When we are weak, he is strong. May we walk in surrender to our Lord and Savior today.

Prayer: Loving Father, you took me as I was, broken and filled with so many sins and weaknesses. Just like a potter, you went to work reforming and reshaping me, guiding me to your purposes. I am far from perfect. I beg you to continue to be at work in me. I surrender all to you for your glory. Amen.


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God Alone

Reading: 1st Corinthians 3: 1-9

Verse 3: “You are still worldly… there is jealousy and quarreling among you”.

Paul is known as the apostle to the Gentiles and as the person who spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the known world. He traveler east and north and west of Palestine, preaching about Jesus and planting churches as he went. Paul helped plant the church in Corinth and he continued to tend to it through letters. In these letters Paul continues to teach them about the faith and he also addresses issues and conflicts that arise. The portion of the letter that we read today addresses a division that has risen up in the church.

Paul begins by addressing the believers as “worldly” and as “infants in Christ”. These terms would have stung a bit and maybe started to bring them to their senses. In essence Paul is calling them to grow up and to act like the mature Christians that they can be. In verse three he identifies the issue: “You are still worldly… there is jealousy and quarreling among you”. Since they are struggling with worldly sins Paul implies that they have lost sight of the main thing: Jesus Christ. Paul himself then demonstrates his own spiritual maturity in the way he advises them. Instead of trying to elevate himself over Apollos he acknowledges that they have both played a role in developing the church. He identifies himself simply as a “worker”. Paul uses the farming analogy saying that he planted and Apollos watered. Then, in verses six and seven, Paul reiterates an important truth: only God can make someone’s faith grow. It is the action of God alone that changes lives. Yes, Paul and Apollos have a function in the process, but the real authority and power rests in God alone.

At times in our churches we can devolve into being small or into being focused on our own agenda. These things only lead to discord and possibly to division. At times a wise and mature Christian will lead the way and peace will be restored. At times the Holy Spirit will nudge and whisper and pull at our hearts, working us towards reconciliation and the restoring of relationships. Just as only God can make faith grow, only God can bring true healing. So in all things may we look to God, being attuned to the Holy Spirit, seeking to walk his path of love. May it be so for all of us.

Prayer: Father God, heal our churches and heal this nation. Heal our hearts and heal our relationship with you and with one another. Amen.


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Fellowship with Christ

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1: 1-9

Verse 5: “In him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge”.

Paul begins his letter to the church in Corinth with some positives. He thanks God for the grace given them in Jesus Christ. He reminds them that they have been blessed with many spiritual gifts. He reminds them that they will be strengthened by God as they eagerly await Christ’s return. He reminds them that God is faithful. Paul reminds them that in Christ they have been “enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge”. All of this is true – or can be – in the church in Corinth and in every church. As the letter to the Corinthian church unfolds Paul addresses their failures to live into these positives and the consequential division that has occurred in the church.

When a church loses focus on the main thing, division is inevitable. If following Jesus becomes secondary, then division is sure to occur. When Jesus is secondary, self has become first. The core of the gospel is that Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected to save us and to heal a broken world. He lived so that we can know what God’s love looks like lived out upon this earth. Jesus died to defeat the power of sin – taking upon himself all the sin of the world, dying as the perfect atoning sacrifice – once for all. In the resurrection Jesus defeats death, showing us the way we too can live eternally with God in heaven. If Jesus is primary, a church will live and love as Jesus did, hoping and trusting in Christ alone for their example, salvation, and redemption, as they seek to draw others into a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

When a Christian or a church loses this focus, individual voices begin to speak and to elevate other “knowledge” to primacy. This can happen in many ways. If one cannot honestly say that the agenda they are driving glorifies God and elevates Jesus, then a reordering of focus is necessary. There are a host of secondary focuses that can lead to disunity and division. When we allow ourselves to get there, we are weakening the power to save.

Paul closes the section for today by reminding the church that God has called them and us into fellowship with Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Sandwiched around this idea is the truth and promise: “God is faithful”. May we trust this truth, walking together in fellowship with Christ and with one another, glorifying and praising Jesus Christ in all our words and actions.

Prayer: Lord God, bring healing to your church and to your world. Where there is division, lead us to see how secondary it is compared to walking faithfully in Jesus Christ. Focus us in on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The gospel is the power to save. May I stand on this alone. Amen.


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Faith in Christ

Reading: Luke 12: 49-53

Verse 51: “From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other”.

In about 30 AD, when Jesus was speaking these words, Israel was a very unique nation. They were a monotheistic people surrounded by and ruled over by polytheistic peoples. They were under the control of the world power, the Romans. The nation was relatively small and had little freedom. Their religion was all that was holding them together. Many of their laws were intended to keep the Jews their own people. Intermarriage with outsiders was frowned upon, they did not evangelize. Their circle was very small.

Jesus ministered in this setting. He caused a disturbance when he are with sinners and outsiders. He told stories that included and sometimes elevated the Samaritans. As Jesus taught and did miracles, he drew followers. His claim to be the Messiah was not accepted by most Jews. He fell outside of their small circle.

One or two in a given family might choose to follow Jesus and become a part of what would become known as Christianity. They would then live what Jesus is talking about today: “From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other”. It was a very hard decision to make. It usually meant now living outside of one’s biological family. It was a very weighty decision to make. It was risky and there was a cost for stepping outside the circle.

In many parts of the world, this is still true. To follow Jesus brings division in families, or worse. We too often forget that Jesus did not come just for America or just for the western world or just for our segment of the world. Recently, even in the US, we have felt the fire that Jesus brings. Persecution and trial and suffering are more frequent events as people of faith stand up for what they believe. In some cases, there is division and fire, lines are drawn.

Whether within our families or churches or society, when fire and division come, may we always choose faith in Jesus Christ. Through prayer and study may we stand for Christ. Above all, may love lead the way.

Prayer: Lord, persecution and division seem to be more and more of a reality. Keep me focused on the task at hand: helping one more person to know you. And then, connect me to the next one… Amen.


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A Wonderful Day

Reading: Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5

Verse 26: “On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there”.

Today’s passage comes at the end of the Bible. The world that we see outside our windows and will step into just outside our doors today will not exist any longer. Our passage opens today with John seeing the Holy City coming down. It is a city of light and love. There is no temple – God and the Lamb are the temple. There is no sun or moon – God is the light and Jesus is the lamp. Only the children of God will inhabit the city and “on no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there”. All whose names are in the “Lamb’s book of life” will come and go freely. The river of life will feed the tree of life. It will bring healing to the nations – there will “no longer be any curse” – no pain, no tears, no grief… God and Jesus will reign forever. It will be a wonderful day.

Yet today, in the world just outside our window, just beyond our door, there is brokenness and evil and despair and division. This vision of heaven in Revelation is a someday vision. We live in this earthly reality. Our task as followers of Christ is to work to bring vision and reality closer together today and each day. We are to seek to build the kingdom here on earth. This heavenly vision draws us and helps us to focus on the task at hand. Our primary focus is how we live our day to day lives, striving to bring healing and hope and love and light to the world we inhabit. In building the kingdom here on earth we seek to end division and to break down barriers that separate us from one another. When we live together, celebrating our differences, not in spite of them, then the peace and love of God and Jesus will reign. If we can live and love and bring hope and light into the world each day, then each day will be a wonderful day. May it be so for me and for you.

Prayer: Bringer of light and love, of hope and peace, use me as an instrument of yours today. Help me to walk side by side with all of my brothers and sisters in the world today. Enable me to break down all that separates in order to build up your kingdom here on earth. Guide me, O Lord. Amen.