pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Really That Simple

Reading: Galatians 5:1 and 13-21

Verse 14: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Paul begins our passage today with a word of encouragement: “Christ has set us free. Stand firm.” No longer living under the Law, Paul has found freedom in Christ. Yes, he still wrestles with sin, as we all do, but he has been freed from the guilt and shame. No longer remaining stuck there, Paul has been freed to follow Jesus Christ and to live captive to Christ. No longer hindered by that old “yoke of slavery” to the Law, Paul stands firm in his faith in Jesus Christ and invites us to join him.

The freedom Paul finds is not a “you can do anything you want” freedom but a freedom lived within the bounds of Christ’s words and example. Paul identifies the filter for determining this line in verse 14. Here he reminds us: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Is he speaking of the old Jewish Law or of the new law of Jesus Christ? Or is it both? I believe it is both. Jesus himself said that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5). He fulfilled it by being God’s love lived out in the world. Doing so, Jesus was led by God or the Spirit, as Paul refers to in verses 16-18. Led by the Spirit, Christ was not captive to the desires of the sinful nature. We too can claim this Holy Spirit power and the freedom it brings.

In verse 19-21 Paul gives quite the list of “acts of the sinful nature.” Even though quite the list, it is quite incomplete. That maybe being a given, the sins on Paul’s list and on any other list we can generate come down to following the single command given in verse 14. If we truly love our neighbor more than self, we will not sin against them or against God. It’s really that simple: love unconditionally and fully.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to see with your eyes of love. This is where so many of my relationships and my interactions begin, with what I see. So let me see all as you see them, as a beloved child of God. Then lead me to love them – all of them – in a way that they come to better know your love. Amen.


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Living Under Christ

Reading: Galatians 3:23-25

Verse 23: “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the Law, locked up until faith should be revealed.”

As we join Paul in Galatians 3 he is guiding people to transition from living under the Law to living under Christ. This is a transition almost all believers make (or should make). This is a very hard transition – harder the longer one lives under the Law. Paul knows this from his own experience. He described himself as a “Pharisee of Pharisees.” The Pharisees were known to keep the Law and to look down harshly on those who failed to keep all of the Law. These folks remain in many of our churches. Yet this All-Star Pharisee was changed and can look back on those days and can write, “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the Law, locked up until faith should be revealed.” Prisoners… Locked up… No one could ever keep all 600+ laws all the time. One was always guilty of something.

In the next verses Paul writes of how one is freed from prison. Freedom comes through faith in Christ. Through faith in Christ as Lord and Savior we are justified – made right before God. Forgiven in and through the blood of Jesus, we are no longer held captive to our sin or to its associates, guilt and shame. In Christ we are forgiven. No longer under the Law, we fall under Christ’s leadership and example, allowing Jesus to be our “supervisor”, our lead and guide.

As immature Christians we can struggle with this transition. I can remember the struggles I had. Starting to grow out of my parent’s faith and into a faith I could claim for myself, I saw faith as a list of do’s and don’ts. A faith that checks off this box and avoids checking off that box – that is not uncommon. It is present in our churches today. Long time, every Sunday attenders sit in their place for an hour and walk out the door unchanged, unchallenged, uninspired. They came in intending to check that box off the to-do list. Walked through the door and checked off that box.

A mature faith is so much more. A mature faith lives the way of Jesus Christ, not the way of the Law. A mature faith seeks to be changed, transformed more and more into the image of Christ day by day. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, strip away my people-pleasing nature and replace it with a Jesus-pleasing desire. Lead me to a place of full surrender to your will and your ways, O God. May you truly be my audience of one. Amen.


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Freedom in Christ

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Verses 17-18: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom… We who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord.”

Photo credit: Mitchel Lensink

Once we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior we welcome the constant presence of the Holy Spirit into our hearts and lives. The presence of the Holy Spirit lifts the “veil” from our eyes, helping us to see ourselves as we truly are. This unimpeded vision opens our hearts to the reality of who and what we are as well as helping us see the world around us more clearly. The Spirit leads us to become more and more like Jesus both inside and outside.

The inner process of restoration and redemption is addressed in the two verses from chapter 4. We “renounce secret and shameful ways.” The pledge to be freed from sin is step 1. Then Paul calls believers to “set forth the truth plainly.” We do this two ways – one internal and one external. In our own lives we allow the word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of Christ. This refining and transforming process isn’t always easy. It requires work and sacrifice. As this work is being done in our lives we begin to live Jesus’ truths out in our world. We share Christ’s love, forgiveness, compassion, grace, peace… with others, revealing to them the glory of God.

In verses 17-18 we read these words: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom… We who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord.” When we are filled with the Spirit we are free to live and love as Christ did. Without the limitations that this world tries to place on our love, kindness, and generosity we can live in ways that reflect God’s glory to others. By being freed from the cares and concerns of this world we live as witnesses to Jesus Christ. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, unshackle me from the things of this world. Strip me of the pride and greed that so easily binds. Bind me instead to the way of love, to the way of Christ. Amen.


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The Sweep and Scope

Reading: Luke 4: 16-21

Verse 21: “He began by saying, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'”

Photo credit: Gian D.

As we continue in Luke 4, Jesus returns home to Nazareth. On the Sabbath day Jesus went to the synagogue to teach. In his short time in ministry this has already become his habit: teaching on the holy day. As Jesus stands up to read the scroll of Isaiah is brought. Turning to the verses that he wanted to read for that day, Jesus reads two verses. There is great purpose in Jesus’ selection. For his audience that day he is declaring who and what God incarnate is all about and he is preparing them for what is said in the next few verses. For all who will read these words, Jesus is giving a mission statement for all who will seek to follow as disciples.

The Spirit will lead Jesus to do five things: “to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind… to release the oppressed… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is a sweeping mission statement. It is intended to be. There is always more to Jesus’ teaching than just what we get on the surface. For those there that day, they would have heard these words as words of liberation from the oppressive Romans and from the oppressive religious leaders. As all eyes were “fastened on him” Jesus says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Smiles all around! But the scope and sweep of the mission is not fully realized quite yet.

Re-read those words again: “to preach good news…” These words make me smile too. It is right and good for people to hear the good news, to be freed from sin and addiction and oppression and injustice, to experience the Lord’s favor. Hooray! Go Jesus! Oh wait. That was almost 2,000 years ago. Here is where the sweep and scope are important. The sweep covers more than the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed of Jesus’ day. “Poor” is not just in terms of economics, “prisoners” are not just those incarcerated… “Poor” as in poverty, yes, but also the poor in spirit, the poor in health, the poor in power, the poor in relationships… The sweep of this statement covers all people everywhere who are in need in any way. That’s how broad the love of God is.

Most of us are still smiling, still cheering on the mission statement in all of its fullness. Now, the scope. This mission statement does not just apply to Jesus and his three years of ministry. Jesus will train the disciples and others how to love God and the world this way. The scope widens. The training and examples of living out the mission will be recorded. The words and actions and example set will be written down so that all who read them will know that they were written as instructions for us too. We become part of the mission of Jesus. Oh.

Who will you or I encounter today that needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ? Who will experience freedom or recovery or release today through our words or actions? Who will come to know the Lord’s favor, grasping the joy of salvation for the first time? In our very soul, with our words and actions, may we too tell others, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Prayer: Lord God, delving down into the scope and sweep of these words, of this Jesus, is challenging, even intimidating. But you don’t call us part way. You call us to be all in. Bring me closer and closer to being fully yours. Day by day, Lord, day by day. Amen.


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Freedom, Justice, Righteousness

Reading: Jeremiah 33: 14-15

Verse 15: “I will make a righteous branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land”.

This week’s readings begin with two days in Jeremiah 33. This chapter is titled “Promise of Restoration” in my Bible. Jeremiah was a prophet who spoke to Israel during a time of difficulty. The Israelites were under the domination of the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. They longed for freedom and a time when they could fully live as the people of God. The Israelites desired to live under God’s leadership alone, to return to a time when justice and goodness were the norm. These desires are some of the deepest desires of every human being. All of humanity desires freedom, justice, and goodness to be the hallmarks of their society and communities.

Speaking to these people living in captivity, Jeremiah proclaims these words from God: “I will make a righteous branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land”. The just and good leader will be Jesus Christ. Born in the city of David, born in the family tree, will be the baby Jesus. About 600 years before God arrived in the flesh, Jeremiah points to this fulfillment of God’s promise made to David. Jeremiah speaks of a leader who will be “just and right”. In the healings and restorative works that he offered, Jesus certainly treated those on the edges and margins with justice. He valued them; he saw them as worthy and beloved. He freed them from the bonds that separated them from community. In all he said and did, Jesus modeled righteousness. Being fully obedient to God, Jesus gave us the perfect example of what it looks like to love God with all that we are and to love neighbor as self. Jesus embodied freedom and justice and goodness.

As we draw near to the season of Advent may we seek to follow Jesus’ example, living a life of freedom in Christ, bearing justice for all, and bringing goodness to all. May it be so!

Prayer: Lord God, what an awesome example Jesus set for us. Use me today to share your love with others, enabling them to experience and know the freedom, justice, and righteousness that you offer to the world. Amen.


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The Kingdom of Love

Reading: Psalm 48

Verse 9: “We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of the temple”.

Today we return to Psalm 48. For the psalmist, for the Israelites, God and nation were almost one. Kings were truly anointed by God and the scriptures were to guide all of life, from the highest king to the lowest peasant. This Psalm celebrates God’s presence with the people and with the nation of Israel. They were God’s “chosen people” and Zion was viewed as God’s dwelling place. Reading verse nine from this perspective, we can see and understand the connection between God and the Israelites. It was an intimate relationship, a personal and communal connection.

On this day when we celebrate our nation’s birth and the ideals that it was founded on, may we first celebrate our Christian roots. May we celebrate our high views of justice, equality, democracy, and fairness. May we rejoice that we are able to freely worship the Lord our God without fear and without threat of oppression. Thanks be to God.

Yet we cannot stop with celebration. As people of faith, we know that all people and all nations are held in God’s grace and are within his judgment. Our greatest purpose as believers and as communities of faith is to fulfill and to help realize Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God here on earth. That kingdom is one that truly practices and upholds justice, equality, and fairness as it values and cares well for all of creation. It is a kingdom ultimately built upon love, not on power or might or human strength. As citizens of heaven first, may we celebrate the freedom we find in Christ as we seek to build the kingdom of love here on earth.

Prayer: Lord God, you are my all in all. In you I find my identity and my worth. In you is my hope and my salvation. Use me to help build a kingdom here on earth that always reflects your love and grace. Amen.


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Belonging in God

Reading: 1st Samuel 8: 4-9

Verse 7: “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Our passage for today and tomorrow begins with the elders of Israel coming to Samuel to request a king. In all of their history they have never had a king. They have always had a leader and some have been great ones: Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Samuel. Yet even under these leaders God was clearly the one leading the people. The request for a king is driven by a few “concerns”.

The first concern is for their future. Samuel has led well. Next in line are his sons. But they are corrupt, evil. They “do not walk in your ways”. The elders recognize what a disaster it would be to have Joel and/or Abijah assume Samuel’s role. The second concern is a common human desire – to fit in, to be like others, to feel accepted. All the other nations have a king. The Israelites want one too. They want someone to fight their battles for them. Ironically, Samuel has just subdued the Philistines. The third concern centers on control. Samuel has kept the Israelites on the straight and narrow, best as he can. Samuel carries authority as the voice of God and God seems to just keep sending Samuel around. There is no wiggle room. A king would give them a little more breathing room, a bit of space between them and God. God recognizes this. In verse seven God says to Samuel, “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

As I reflect on these concerns, I realize that they are our concerns too. We all want a good leader, be that a prophet, judge, king, pastor, boss, or political leader. We want to feel safe and secure yet want some freedom and sense of control too. We still want to fit in and to belong, to be accepted. We too can look around and want a new car too, a new job title or position, a fancy vacation experience, or even a pastor like that church down the street. We easily see how “different” we are or how green the grass looks over there – and we want to fix that. These two concerns boil down to the third one when we’re honest. For the Israelites they wanted the freedoms of the people living around them. At times we too feel that God has been holding our feet too close to the fire. We feel conviction instead of realizing that it is refinement and sanctification.

Instead of rejecting God (or our faith or our church) for any or all of these reasons, may we first find our belonging in God. We are each a beloved child of God. This is our identity, our place. That love is more than we will be able to comprehend until we see face to face. In that truth may we walk as a child of God, day by day trusting in God’s provision, content with his care. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, when my eyes or heart strays, remind me of your love and care. Draw me back to the narrow way, to the only way. It is the best path to walk. May I faithfully follow in Jesus’ way each day. Amen.


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The Family of God

Reading: Romans 8: 12-17

Verse 14: “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”.

Photo credit: Priscilla du Preez

Chapter 8 in Romans is all about the new life we find in Christ. Paul begins the chapter by speaking of the freedom from sin found in and through Christ. He talks of the Holy Spirit’s power that leads us to live not in sin but in righteousness. As our verses begin today, Paul writes of our “obligation” to live according to the way of Jesus Christ. Sometimes the word ‘obligation’ rubs us the wrong way. It can imply something we have to do not something we want to do. Paul is connecting back to what he shared in verse three – that God sent Jesus as a “sin offering” for those who were powerless against sin – for us! To live for the desires and pleasures of the flesh would fly in the face of Jesus’ offering for us. So Paul urges us, obliges us, to live by the Spirit of God.

In verse fourteen Paul writes, “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”. When we live by or allow the Holy Spirit within to guide us, then we are living as a child of God. This is a great place to be. Yet many people choose to live as a child of the world. The lures of money and power and status, as well as the pleasures of the flesh, are powerful draws to our human, worldly selves. It can feel “good” to accumulate and enjoy these things. Yet when we live unto ourselves we focus only inward, lessening even our most important relationships. Our sense of belonging and our sense of worth become connected to how we “feel”, which is connected to superficial, shallow, temporary things. It is a fragile place to live.

When we choose to live by the Spirit, by the way of Christ, we find a different source of joy, contentment, peace. Our relationships are not guided by self but by the love of Jesus Christ welling up inside of us. Self fades away as love of God and neighbor becomes our purpose, our source of meaning and worth. Living as a child of God, as a part of the body of Christ, we find eternal belonging. Knowing we are loved forever by our Lord, we can go forth into the world to live out that love, drawing others toward their place in the family of God. May it be so for you and for me today.

Prayer: Lord God, your family is beautiful, generous, loving. Thank you for making space for me in your family. When I am not these things, lift up the voice of the Holy Spirit within me, drawing me back into the depth of your love. Amen.


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A New Covenant

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Verse 33: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people”.

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

In Jeremiah 31 we see that God is a covenant God. Our passage opens with God promising a new covenant. In verse 31 we read, “The time is coming…” The Lord then references the last covenant – the one given as God led them out of slavery in Egypt. Here the covenant relationship takes on the husband-wife analogy. God led the Israelites to freedom as a husband would lead his wife, gently taking her by the hand and walking with her. During the time in the wilderness God was a constant companion to the Israelites. God guided and protected and provided for Israel. Despite this intimate and personal relationship, Israel wandered soon thereafter. They worshiped other gods, forgetting all that God had done for them.

Instead of breaking the relationship and moving on from Israel, God declares that he will make a new covenant, a better covenant. Instead of writing the covenant on stone tablets, God declares, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people”. The covenant will shift from external to internal. God’s ways will be in our mind and on our heart. The new covenant will be mediated through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit will internalize God’s ways in heart and mind and soul.

Even with such an extraordinary gift, we too can become like the Israelites at times. We forget our true love and chase after the gods and idols of this world. We allow other things to supplant our primary relationship with God. Yet our covenant God remains, continuing to say ‘I love you’ over and over. Instead of allowing the distance that we create to define the relationship, God pursues us, draws us back into relationship. No matter our response, God still says, ‘I love you’. God remains our God. We are his people. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Covenant God, you love me far beyond what I can even begin to comprehend. Your love goes on and on and on. My love for you is fragile, tenuous, limited. Yet you love me without reserve, without condition. What a wonderful example you give me to follow. Lead me in your love, O God. Amen.


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Drawing Near

Photo credit: Soul duvOcean

Reading: Mark 1: 14-15

Verse 15: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”.

Jesus steps into his ministry as the one who prepared the way has been arrested. John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod. John spoke truth against the power of the day and it would cost him his life. Jesus travels to Galilee to begin his ministry. This region to the north was isolated, away from the power structures of the day, home to many in need of the good news. As he begins his ministry Jesus announces, “The time has come”. John had prepared the people for this very moment.

Jesus continues with the message that John had preached. It is one of the constant messages of the entire Bible. The practice of repentance always remains central to the walk of faith. In verse fifteen Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”. In Jesus, God draws near to us. This is what draws us to him, it is what drew the first disciples into following Jesus. In our lives today we have moments when this is especially true. These are the times when we can tangibly feel God’s presence with us. To have any relationship, change is necessary. It is true of our relationship with Jesus. This relationship begins in a place of humility, in the place where we recognize our need for a Savior. Sensing that we are entering a holy space, stepping into the presence of the Messiah, we are naturally led to repentance. Entering that space we feel that we need to be our best. Part of that involves laying aside our imperfections, our sins, our selfishness. Looking within, we see that which separates us from the one we want to draw near to. Repenting of these we draw nearer to the kingdom of God. It is in our moments of closeness to Jesus that we come to belief as we surrender our lives to him. As we continue to draw near we experience grace and mercy and forgiveness as we are made new over and over. We experience freedom from the things of this world as our focus and love shifts toward the eternal. We come to live out the joy and hope and peace that grows from belief and trust in Jesus. We come to see Jesus as the “good news”, as the way, the truth, and the life, as the one who gives us the final victory over sin and death.

This day may we spend time in his very presence, allowing the good news to permeate our very being. May the kingdom of God draw near to you this day!

Prayer: Loving God, you draw near to me in so many ways – in these quiet moments, in the interactions with others, in the ordinary of life. In love you fill me with a peace and hope and joy that nothing in the world can give. Thank you, Lord. Amen.