pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Pleasing to God

Reading: Isaiah 58: 1-12

Verse 4: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”.

Photo credit: Jordan Wozniak

Today is Ash Wednesday. This is a great passage to consider as we prepare to journey into the season of Lent. The words of this Psalm are a wake up call to Israel and to all who approach their relationship with God superficially.

The ashes that we will place on our foreheads reminds us of our mortality. Ashes were used for this same purpose in the days of Isaiah. Remembering our mortality reminds us that we are finite, limited, imperfect. Today begins the season that culminates the Saturday before Easter Sunday. On Easter Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ triumph over the grave. In his resurrection we find our eternal hope. We are invited to walk through Lent as a season of preparation for that day. These forty days are a time of reflection, introspection, refining.

The people of Isaiah’s day were putting ashes on their foreheads, wearing sack cloth, bowing their heads to God. They were exhibiting all the outward signs of fasting. Today we can show up at church and have a cross drawn on our foreheads. We too can go through the motions. In our passage God’s people fasted, yes, but also continued to exploit the marginalized, to strike one another with “evil fists”, and to ignore the injustices and the oppression all around them. Verse four sums up God’s response: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”. We cannot come to church and go through the motions of worship or Bible study or youth group and then go out and live as the world lives.

In verses six and seven God shares the kind of fast that is pleasing to him. As fast pleasing to God changes our hearts and leads us to fight injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share food with the hungry, to give shelter to the wanderer, to clothe the naked. In Lent we are called to look within, to repent of our sins, our selfishness, our indulgences. Doing so we will come to have a heart focused on drawing God’s kingdom near.

Verse eight reveals what happens when God’s people turn towards him and become like him: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear”. May it be so.

Prayer: God of the brokenhearted, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the needy – lead me to the place of honest confession and sincere repentance. Make me aware of how I contribute to the pain and misery of the world and turn me from my harmful and hurtful ways. Kill in me all that keeps me from fully loving and serving you and all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.


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Redemption

Reading: Luke 2: 36-40

Verse 38: “She spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”.

Today as we read this short section from Luke 2 we focus in on Anna and her words concerning Jesus. Anna is an old woman, a prophet with a deep devotion to God. She has been a widow for a long time and the focus of her life is praying and fasting in the temple. After thanking God – for the encounter, for seeing the Messiah, for what Jesus means to her people – Anna “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”. At this point in their history, all Jews are looking forward to Jerusalem’s redemption.

The act of redeeming has always been a part of the Jewish faith. Mary and Joseph have just redeemed Jesus, Boaz was the kinsman redeemer, and the Jews celebrated the Year of Jubilee every 50 years. In each of these acts, one is released or freed – from their debts, from their slavery, from a burden that forced them to sell family land. This idea of being freed from that which binds us is very much a part of Jesus’ ministry and healing. Jesus healed both relationships and physical ailments. Often these were tied together. Physical healing often led to relational healing. By revealing the depth of God’s love, mercy, and grace, Jesus drew many back into relationship with God and with one another. He brought a wholeness to life that invited people to live with joy, peace, and hope. Jesus also healed people physically – lepers, the blind, lame, mute, deaf, the possessed – also inviting people back to God and back into society, family, and community. Jesus brought a completeness and unity to life that was freeing and welcoming, that was unconditional and full.

When I think about this side of redemption that Jesus offered, I am drawn to my community and to my neighborhood. Nearby, there are folks who are bound up in or with addiction and abuse, folks who feel enslaved to financial debt, folks who feel isolated and alone, folks who are grieving because of loss. Jesus offers the same redemption, the same healing, the same freeing today. He offers it through you and through me. May we be a part of building other’s faith, seizing the opportunities that God gives us to share our faith with others, inviting them into the love, hope, peace, and joy of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Loving God, you seek to redeem, to free all people. You are a God of love and justice and community. Use me this day to draw others in, to add to the family of faith, to bring your healing and freeing love to those who need to know you. Amen.


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Freed

Reading: Galatians 4: 4-7

Verses 4-5: “When the time had fully come, God sent his son… to redeem those under the law”.

What a passage we have today! In just four verses, Paul packs some great theological truths. In summary: at just the right time God sent Jesus to redeem us from the law and then sent the Spirit to lead us to live as children of God, destinying us for eternal life. It is quite the summary of the good news.

As we draw nearer to Christmas Eve it is a good reminder that Jesus came at just the right time. When God’s time to send the son arrived, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. While the example that Jesus set concerning how to live out God’s love is important, the main purpose of Jesus’ time on earth was to redeem us, to make heaven our destiny. This is both a present and a future realityy. Let me say that again: heaven is both a present and a future reality. While we await eternity in the Lord’s presence we live to build his kingdom here on earth.

Paul’s emphasis in the letter to the Galatians is the freeing power of Jesus Christ in this life. In Christ we are made into new creations, freed from “the law”. The church in Galatia was struggling with the application of the Jewish law, the Torah. The Christians who had been Jews believed the new Christians should first follow the laws of Judaism. For example, they wanted Gentile believers to be circumcised and to follow the dietary and purification laws. The new believers just wanted to follow Jesus. This was causing division and strife in the church. Paul wants to end this reliance on the old laws of the Jewish faith. For Paul, being created new in Christ Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit, believers no longer fall under the old laws.

Even though we do not live under the Jewish law and even though we are Spirit-filled new creations in Christ, we still live with division and strife. We still need redeemed. Although Christ died to free us from the laws of sin and death, we all still wrestle with sin in our lives and many of us are anxious and fear death.

Our journey of faith is one of redemption after redemption. Even though I believe in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and even though I am led by the Spirit, my old self is alive and well within me. My pride and ego, my judgmental attitude, my driven personality all can rise up and lead me to sin. My old self can ignore the Holy Spirit quite easily at times. Yet, thanks be to God, I am “no longer a slave”. Redemption, forgiveness, grace, and mercy are always ready to make me new again. I am a child of God. I am loved. I am an heir to eternal life in Christ. You are too. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord of life, thank you for your love that is always greater than any and all of my sin. Continue to lead and guide me and to better atune me to the voice and the way of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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Undeserved? YES!

Reading: Matthew 20: 1-16

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Best News Ever

Reading: Romans 10: 5-15

Verse 12: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him”.

Christianity can be exclusive. Since day one it is something we have struggled with. In the very earliest church they thought one had to first be Jewish before one could become a Christian. Soon enough the Gentile Christians were trying to exclude the Jewish Christians. That is partially what Paul is addressing today. To the church in Rome and to all Christians today, Paul says, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him”. All people are loved by God. In similar writings Paul adds slave and free, young and old… to illustrate that God is for all people.

Religion in general has a long history of using beliefs and sacred texts as a means to justify exclusivity and sometimes violence. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and a host of other religions have fought wars, conducted purges, persecuted, imprisoned, … others outside of their faith. This is a fine line we walk. To have a belief system inherently makes one feel that their belief system is “right” or “correct”. If you didn’t, would your faith be worth having and following? But to use those beliefs to do harm of any kind crosses a line that Jesus clearly drew. A quick look at Jesus’ ministry, teachings, and life reveal a God who loves all people.

Tension existed between Jesus and the dominant religion because of his inclusiveness. Jesus interacted with all kinds of people deemed unclean, unholy, and unwelcome. His inclusion of prostitutes and Samaritans, of tax collectors and adulterers, of lepers and other infirm revealed the depth and breadth of God’s love.

Paul ends today’s passage with an encouragement to be like Jesus – preaching and teaching. It is also a claim to exclusivity: to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the whole world. We are called to go and tell of God’s love found in Jesus Christ. It is the best news ever. May we go and tell one and all.

Prayer: Lord of all creation and of all people, may I be a bearer of the good news. May I always tell of a love that conquers all things, defeats all barriers, and welcomes all people. Amen.


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Pleasing

Reading: Romans 8: 1-11

Verse 9: “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you”.

Paul continues in today’s passage to flesh out how life with Christ is different than life without Christ. Choosing to invite and live with Jesus in our hearts, we are freed from the law and the confines of this world. In the opening verses of chapter eight Paul also reminds us that Jesus paid the price for our sin. These two things allow us to become new creations in and through and with Christ. Once made new we live with a new mind – the mind of the Spirit. This mind is “life and peace”. Our primary focus turns from self towards pleasing God.

After stating that the sinful mind cannot please God, Paul declares, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you”. Once we proclaim Jesus the Lord and Savior of our lives, the Holy Spirit becomes his indwelling presence. Jesus’ Spirit lives within us, helping us to control our nature and our actions. When Christ is in us, we begin to live the abundant and full life that God offers us through Christ. In Paul’s words, “your spirit is alive because of righteousness”. Jesus himself is righteousness. He was the perfect example of a life lived to please God. In all that Jesus did and said and prayed, his purpose was to please God. In times of worship and prayer, in times of engagement and ministry, in times of fellowship and healing – in all times – Jesus sought to please God by being a living example of love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, joy, and peace. As we seek to follow Jesus Christ, as we seek to be little Christs in the world, may we ever seek to please God, bringing God the glory and honor in all we do.

Prayer: Living and loving God, may my life be an offering to you. May all of my words, thoughts, and actions raise up an aroma that is pleasing to you. May all these things shine the light on your holy name, drawing others to you. Amen.


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The Lord’s Renown

Reading: Isaiah 55: 10-13

Verse 11: “My word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty”.

Isaiah was a prophet that wrote to a nation who was astray from the Lord. Chapter 55 opens with a beautiful invitation from God to his wayward children: “Come, all who are thirsty, come to the waters”. God is flinging open the doors for his people to return, to come and drink of his mercy and love. Isaiah encourages the people to “seek the Lord while he may be found”. They have the opportunity to turn back to God so that they can experience God’s mercy and free pardon. In today’s passage we hear God speaking through the prophet. In these words we can hear God’s hope for his children.

In verse ten God says that just as the rain and snow that come down from heaven brings life to the earth, so too will “my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty”. As Isaiah and others share the word of God, it too will bear fruit. God has prepared Israel’s soil. He has made it into good soil – into soil ready to receive the word. God’s purposes will be accomplished. Israel’s soil has been prepared through the trial and sufferings of defeat and exile. This experience has made them aware of their sins and of their need for God. We too know this experience. Times of pain and loss have driven us to God. Times of sin and suffering from it have driven us to our knees. Times of hardship and testing have driven us to cry out to God. We have all had our soil tilled by the hand of God as a means to ready us to hear his word. It has then filled us. It does not return empty.

In verses twelve and thirteen we see the result of God’s word. People who receive God’s word will “go out in joy” and will be “led forth in peace”. The earth will also rejoice and bring forth good life – the pine tree and myrtle will replace the thorns and briers. It will all be for the Lord’s renown.

As you reflect on your life, how and when has God’s word brought you new life? How did God work within and through you to accomplish his purposes? How did this all bring God the glory and renown? As we ponder these thoughts today, may we seek opportunities to share the story of what God has done.

Prayer: Loving God, each time I thirst, each time I cry out, each time I wander a bit – you are right there. Your Spirit reminds me of your promises, it brings gentle mercies, it leads me to kneel at your throne of grace. May your word dwell richly in me, yielding a crop that brings you the glory and renown that you desire. Amen.


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Freely Offered

Reading: Genesis 24: 58-67

Verse 58: “So they called Rebekah and asked her, ‘Will you go with this man'”?

In the last section of our passage from Genesis 24 we see a model of God’s love. In the culture of the day the father had the authority to choose who and when a daughter would marry. Arranged marriages were simply the norm. Yet Abraham allows for another option. The chief servant asks the family for a decision and they, in turn, ask Rebekah, “Will you go with this man”? In a radical move, Rebekah is given the power to decide her own fate.

An invitation is given and Rebekah is free to make her choice. This is the model of God’s love too. We are invited into a relationship with God. God’s prevenient grace – the grace that goes before – woos us and draws us towards God. But, like Rebekah we have a choice. We are not forced or coerced. We do not have to love God. If we were forced or had no other choice, then it would not be love. In his ministry, Jesus also modeled this love. With the Pharisees, with the rich young man, with the people of Gerasenes, with Nicodemus… Jesus offered himself and God’s love, but he did not force anyone to accept it or him. On several occasions he was saddened by the rejection, but the choice is always ours to make.

When love and relationship are freely offered, we can accept or reject them. As God in Jesus Christ seeks to share his love with and through you today, what will your response be?

Prayer: God of love, I am aware of your love for me and for all of creation in so many ways. The care you took to create the world and to form each of us – it is so beautiful. Thank you, God. May I respond by being love and by sharing love in the world today. Amen.


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Light in the Darkness

Reading: Isaiah 9: 1-2

Verse 1: “In the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles”.

We have all experienced times of isolation and darkness. These can be caused by an illness. For example, when the flu or other sickness drags on and on, we reach a point that feels like we’ve been sick forever. Isolation or darkness can also be caused by mother nature. A fierce winter snowstorm can leave us stuck in the house for a number of days. Soon enough we begin to feel closed in upon and cut off from the rest of the world. In these and other similar experiences, we long to be reconnected with others, to be freed from that which binds us. In this sense we can relate to Zebulun and Naphtali, the two lands that Isaiah writes to in our passage today.

These two tribes were conquered and have been living under a foreign power’s oppression for many years. It has been so long that they feel like this is just life. Their time of isolation and darkness has gone on for generations. Many of the people have given up hope for a different tomorrow, slowly coming to accept this situation as the new normal. Isaiah indicates that this situation was God’s way of humbling these two tribes. It is into this situation that Isaiah brings today’s words of hope.

The passage opens with this declaration: “there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress”. The oppression will not be forever. Isaiah continues with words of hope, adding, “in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles”. The time is not right now but it is coming. God has a plan to rescue and restore Zebulun and Naphtali. And not only these two tribes but the Gentiles as well. In verse two Isaiah goes on to write, “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light”. In the future the light will dawn. They are, in fact, a long way from the end of the tunnel – 700 years. But there is hope now because there is light at the end of the tunnel.

We too can claim this hope and promise as well as helping others claim it as well. Isaiah speaks of a God who will not allow suffering to be endless. According to God’s plan, all things will be made new. In the interim, we are promised life abundant. We will suffer and feel isolation and darkness at times. This is unavoidable in our earthly life. But the light is close. God’s love never fails. The Spirit’s presence is always with us – we are never alone. We can lean into God, trusting in his plans, holding to the light and love of Jesus. We know the great light. May we cling to Jesus every day. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, you are my strength and my shield, my light and my hope. In all times, but especially in the hard times, remind me over and over of your love and care. Help me to be these things to people walking in isolation and darkness, that they might get a glimpse of you. Amen.


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Our Call

Reading: Isaiah 42: 1-9

Verse 6: “I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles”.

As Christians, we see the Bible as God’s continuing revelation of who God is. The love story between God and humanity unfolds from Genesis through Revelation. We receive the fullest revelation of God in the incarnate Jesus. He is our Immanuel – God with us. Jesus was physically present for about 30 years and has been spiritually present in the Holy Spirit ever since.

When we read our passage for today, as Christians we see and identify Jesus in these words. We cannot be 100% sure that the servant of whom Isaiah writes is Jesus. But we can be sure that Jesus himself takes on this identity and these qualities. At the time, Jesus did not appear to be the Messiah most Jews were looking for. They expected and longed for another leader like King David – one who would slay giants and enemies alike, one who would restore Israel to greatness on the world stage. Jesus was and is instead a servant who builds a very different kingdom one lost soul at a time.

In verse six Isaiah writes, “I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles”. Reading with New Testament eyes we see these words fulfilled in the new covenant founded upon Jesus’ sacrifice. When thinking of justice, the justice that God offers is not the justice of the world. Here justice means you pay and/or spend time incarcerated, depending on your offence. Jesus suffered and died to pay the price for our sins. Because he made atonement, God grants us mercy and grace and forgiveness. God’s justice seeks to restore and redeem, to bring back wholeness and abundant life. Jesus picks up these themes and runs with them. He ministers to those in need, giving sight to the blind, freedom to the captives, shining light into the darkness. Jesus fulfills God’s justice for all people. He will commission the disciples and all else who follow him to continue to bring the good news to the ends of the earth. As believers, this too is our call.

Maybe you call begins at home with a non-believing spouse or child or parent. Maybe it begins down the street, in your neighbor’s front yard. Maybe your call begins at school with your classmates or teammates or at work with your coworker or employee or boss. Most often the mission field is close to home. But maybe yours is far away. Step one is still the same: follow where God leads. May it be so for us all.

Prayer: God of abundant love, you are ever inviting more and more people into your love. Through me may some outside the family of God hear your invitation to wholeness and abundant life. Use me as you will, O God. Amen.