pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Focus

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10

Verse 20b: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God”.

In our passage for today, Paul implores us to be reconciled to God. To reconcile means to restore the relationship. Paul is writing to those in the church who have drifted from the faith, to those who have allowed other things to rise above their commitment to the Lord. Unless we are intentional and disciplined concerning our habits of faith, then this can happen to us too. A daily, focused walk with God supplemented by time with the community of faith have always been essential for solid Christian discipleship.

Moving into verses three through seven, Paul shares with the church how he and Timothy have lived out their faith. Note there is both good and bad, both joy and sorrow. Paul and Timothy have endured trials and hardships, persecution, abuse, and slander, as well as sleepless nights. In and through all of this, Paul and Timothy have practiced purity and patience and kindness. They have relied on the Holy Spirit and have sought to practice love above all else. They have always been truthful. Paul wants the church (including us) to know that a walk of faith is not always easy. He also wants to remind us that to walk or live out our faith we must rise above the norms of the world.

As we prepare to enter into Lent, a season of introspection and preparation, it is good to consider how we are walking out our faith. Have we allowed other priorities to rise above our faith commitment? During Lent some people give something up. What in your life could or should you give up to make room for a closer walk with God? Is there a habit or behavior that lessens your walk or your witness? Some people add a habit or practice during Lent. Some join a Lenten study, some read a book that enriches their faith. Some fast, finding new time to pray or to read their Bibles. And some do both – giving something up, adding something in. The point is to reflect on your current walk with Jesus and to find a way to deepen that walk with the Lord during this holy season.

In the last few verses of our passage Paul shares the beauty of a faithful walk. God has sustained he and Timothy in times of need, guiding them through the trials and hardships. Because of the presence of Jesus Christ in their daily lives they are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything”. Paul and Timothy have their eye on God’s goodness and on the salvation of their souls. As we prepare to enter this holy season of Lent may this be our focus as well.

Prayer: Lord God, prepare me to journey deeper with you during this season of Lent. Guide me to walk closer and more intimately. Show me the way. Reveal the path to walk. Amen.


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Living or Practicing?

Reading: Matthew 22: 34-46

Verse 36: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law”?

If one spends some time reading the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – one sees that the religious leaders and Jesus did not always see eye to eye. As the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others in the religious circles increases, these religious power holders begin to look for ways to discredit Jesus. As these attempts fail, they begin to plot to eliminate him. Today’s testing of Jesus begins with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law”?

Much like he did with last week’s question about paying taxes, Jesus gives two answers to this week’s question. Often we too ask pointed questions, ones worded just the right way to force the answer we want to hear. The religious leaders think they know the correct answer to their question. And, in fact, Jesus begins with their correct answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. Quoting from Deuteronomy 6, Jesus gives the #1 answer. From even the religious leaders perspective, keeping this commandment is essential to keeping all the rest. To possibly keep all 600+ commandments found in the law, one must love God with all of one’s being. To keep them all, of course, is impossible (except for Jesus). This aim or focus became the goal for the religious leaders, especially the Pharisees. It became so much their focus that Jesus had to add the second commandment to his answer.

Quoting from Leviticus 19, Jesus adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. This commandment takes the love of God and puts it into action, into motion, takes out into the world. Here we begin to see the source of the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders. They were all about knowing and following the laws. Jesus was all about knowing and applying or living out the law. Jesus chose not to live by the letter of the law but by the spirit of the law. He lived out his faith. The religious leaders practiced theirs. As we too face this decision, may we choose to allow the word of God to bring life and feet to our faith as we seek to model Jesus for others.

Prayer: Lord God, it is so much easier to just read and study and even to appreciate the life of Jesus rather than to strive to live it out. So much easier. It is safe and comfortable and warm here at my desk, just down the road at the church. Jesus’ road is hard, it is narrow. Guide my heart to that road. Amen.


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Friends and Fairness

Reading: Matthew 20: 1-16

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

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

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

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

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


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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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Family

Reading: Ephesians 1: 11-14

Verse 13: “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance”.

Paul writes today about belonging. We all want to belong, to have a place we fit into, to be loved. For most of us, we belong in three groups – family, church, and friends. Sometimes there is overlap in these, sometimes there is not.

The traditional family we belong to is generally biological. We add to that though. My immediate family would include my parents, my wife and children and daughter-in-law, and my brother and his wife and children. Connected from there are cousins, aunts, uncles… My family of friends is a little different but is still based on some common characteristics: love, trust, care, investment in relationship. With friends we can pick and choose more as things like common interests and personality also play into who we allow into our family of friends.

Our church family falls somewhere in between these two other families. There is a certain admission process that occurs, like with our friends. But it is different in that we in the church were first chosen by God, according to his plan. When we accept God’s invitation – “having believed” in Paul’s words today – then we are “marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance”. This process places us within a family that is more like our traditional family. We are connected to one another as the body of Christ. These connections are like those we find in our traditional families. Our local church is like our nuclear family – closely connected, strong bonds of love, trust, care… Our denomination or connectional system is like the next circle out – aunts, uncles, cousins… There is still a sense of community and we call each other family. The worldwide church of Jesus Christ is the outer circle. We should look at all Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m afraid we look at some of these as our sixth cousin twice removed or like Uncle Fritz – the one no one talks about or mentions anytime. Sadly this also happens in our closer circles as well.

There is but one God, one Lord Jesus Christ, one abiding Holy Spirit. We who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are all baptized into one inheritance, eternal in the heavens. May our lives and our connections to one another reflect these basics, all to the praise of his glory.

Prayer: Lord God, lead me on the path of love. Root me in the core essentials of faith. Grant me grace in all other differences. Amen.


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Love the Word

Reading: Psalm 118: 97-104

Verse 103: “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth”!

Today we join the psalmist for “Mem”, the thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the successive eight verses in this Psalm accompany the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet, going from alpha to omega, A-Z. Mem stands for “mayim” in Hebrew, which means “water”. To the Israelites, water was vital both to life and to their faith. The rabbinic statement “There is no water but Torah” speaks to the great value the Jewish people place on the laws of God. This idea of essential water is what Isaiah refers to in 55:1, where he writes, “Come, all who are thirsty, come to the waters”. He is inviting them to drink from the scriptures, the word of God that brings life. Turning to the New Testament, Jesus also references himself as “living water”, as the water needed for life. In John 37:7 he says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink”.

As we read this thirteenth section of Psalm 119, let us do so from all of these perspectives. Read it like living water, like that which is essential to your life. Read it like you would die without it. Feel the passion for and love of God that the psalmist has for the word of God. The section opens with, “Oh, how I love your law”! The writer finds great value in meditating upon, in studying, in obeying the words of scripture. God’s word is what guides his path and keeps him from departing from God. I love verse 103, which reads “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth”! I wish this were always my attitude each and every time I read from the Bible. The love of scripture revealed in these verses is a great example for me to try and emulate.

Just as it was for the psalmist, the Bible remains alive and active. It functions like living water for the soul. Each day may we drink deeply, rejoicing in all that God does in and through the word.

Prayer: Holy God, thank you for the words of life that pour forth from scripture. Make me dance and sing with delight whenever I spend time with you in the holy scriptures. Thank you God. Amen.


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One in Christ

Reading: John 17: 20-26

Verse 20: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message”.

Today’s prayer from Jesus is a prayer for unity. It is a prayer not just for His current disciples and immediate followers but for all people who will hear the good news and come to faith. The opening verse reads, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message”. The prayer continues asking God to make all believers one. Jesus prayed for a church universal. He also prayed that they would be unified to God through Himself. Jesus is speaking of the essentials of the Christian faith. To call on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the central idea of Christianity.

The idea that we are all children of God runs throughout the Bible. Our oneness is revealed in many ways in different communities. In some it is shown in churches that gather people from all walks of life to worship and share life together. In some it is revealed in the outreach efforts of some churches. They aim to be the hands and feet of Jesus to others. In some it is shown in the cooperative efforts of churches working together to have community events and ecumenical services sprinkled throughout the year. There are many ways that we can witness God building unity in the diverse body of Christ.

Jesus’ prayer also asks “that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me”. May it be so today.

Prayer: God of all people, this day may I reach across the gap to include others in the unified kingdom of God. Amen.


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Generously and Joyfully

Reading: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

Verse 10: “I will bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me”.

Being thankful or grateful is such an important part of our faith. It was so important to God that this practice is one of the key tenets of the chosen people’s faith. Every year it was celebrated. Today we read, “I will bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me”. By bringing the first fruits we act in faith and trust. Abel brought the first lambs of his flock trusting that God would give him more. In faith Abraham offered his only son Isaac on the altar trusting that God would provide.

In our passage today, the first fruits are being offered as a “thank” offering. The first grapes or wheat or olive oil or lamb or goat or… was brought and sacrificed to God along with prayers of thanksgiving for the blessings in their lives. It was a time of joy. Our passage closes with, “rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given you”. These offerings also acknowledged that it is God alone who provides. This is still an important perspective for us to keep.

These two practices remain essential to healthy faith. Our first fruit is often referred to as a tithe in the church. We usually think of it as money but it can also be our time or our talents too. Either way, God still calls for it to be the first fruits. In practice that means we write the check or give the gift at the start of the month. This demonstrates trust and faith in God. It requires much less to wait until the end of the month to give what is left. No one wants leftovers. To give thankfully and joyfully is also an essential. To give willingly with a heart that rejoices in all that God has done is pleasing to God. Remember cleaning your room grudgingly because you had to? Don’t give that way.

Lest we think it too easy, we must remember that God calls us to this thankful giving so that we learn to always live with a generous and giving heart. In the day to day of life we are also called to give of ourselves when opportunity arises. It may be time for a lonely friend, it may be a meal for a hungry person, it may be watching a young mom’s kids so she can go to the grocery store. In all we do may we be thankful to God and may we share richly with others.

Prayer: Lord, may I hold loosely to all you bless me with so that it may freely go to those in need. Amen.


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Essential to Life

Reading: John 6: 47-51

Verse 51: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world”.

Jesus speaks words of hope today. Verse 47 reads, “he who believes has everlasting life”. What a promise! Next to speaking before a crowd, the fear of death is our greatest fear. It is the end. It is unknown. It is the loss of connection with those we love. Unless you believe in Jesus Christ. The gift of eternal life removes all these fears. It changes the outlook to joy and even anticipation.

In our passage today Jesus is sharing the path to eternal life. Believe in Jesus. Confess Him as Lord of life and gain eternal life. For the Jews, He contrasts this with their experience with the physical bread that God had sent down. Their ancestors are the manna that God sent in the desert and they were sustained physically, but in the end they died. By contrast, the bread that Jesus offers is spiritual nourishment. Take in this bread and you will not die, Jesus says.

Verse 51 sums it up: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world”. This is such a powerful verse. Jesus was sent by God. If we become one with Jesus, if we “eat of this bread”, we will be indwelled by His Spirit. This is a new relationship that not only sustains us in this life but leads to eternal life as well. This bread, His flesh, will indeed be given for the life of the world. We know that the wages of sin is death. Jesus took on the sins of the world on the cross and through His blood we find forgiveness of our sins. His blood washes us clean. Sin is no more and we are once again restored to life. Each time we take communion we remember this gift.

This idea of Jesus being the bread of life that came down from heaven may have been a stumbling block to the Jews, but it is our hope and promise. It is foundational to our faith. It is essential to our life. Thank you God for sending Jesus, the gift of the bread of life.


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Word

Reading: Isaiah 55: 6-13

Verse 11: My Word that goes out from my mouth, it will not return empty…

Our passage today opens with a great invitation: “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call on Him while He is near”.  This is an open-ended invitation, but the writer goes on to encourage even the wicked to seek the Lord ‘for He will freely pardon’.  The invitation to be in God’s presence is open to all.  It remains so today.

Then, in verse eight, God reminds us of the difference between us and God.  God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”.  The word God uses to define the difference is “higher” – as in too big or too expansive for us to fully understand.  We love and worship a huge God.  Yet God loves little us.  That is an amazing love.

The passage then shifts to nature.  God speaks of the rain and snow that doesn’t simply fall from the sky and return to the sky.  It falls for a purpose.  It waters the earth.  In doing so the rain and snow bring forth new life and seed for the sower.  Water is an essential for all life.  Life cannot exist or continue without water.

The the Lord says that His Word is like the water.  It does not return empty to God but “will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it”.  It is like water in that it nourishes our souls and brings life to us.  And life water to all life, God’s Word is essential to our spiritual life.  We must drink deeply and God will accomplish whatever He wants through us.

The end of Isaiah 55 speaks of the new life we find when we drink of God’s Word.  Verse 12 says, “you will go out in joy and be led forth in peace”.  When we dwell in the Word of God we do go out into life full of joy and resting in His peace.  As we dwell in the Lord’s Word, may we allow it to settle deep down in us to achieve and accomplish God’s purposes in our life.