pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Limitless Love

Reading: Acts 10: 44-48

Verse 45: “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”.

Today’s passage is a great example of the growing circle of God’s love. Throughout the Bible we see that God’s love is much more expansive than was currently realized. At first it was just God and Adam and Eve. Then the immediate family grew. It was just Noah and family on an ark, then it grew. It was just Abram and family that headed out, following God’s promise. Eventually the people of God end up as slaves in Egypt. God redeems them and under Moses’ and then Joshua’s leadership the Israelites were God’s “chosen people”. For many years, one was a Jew or one was not. One was beloved by God or one was not. Even during most of Jesus’ ministry his focus was on his fellow Jews. There were hints of God’s love being bigger than that but the prevailing feeling was still one of exclusivity.

Peter was born and raised a Jew, steeped in this understanding of the Jews being THE chosen people. They were all that really mattered to God. And then God’s says, ‘Excuse me, Peter, but…’. In two visions that come in the first part of Acts 10 God shows Peter that his love is bigger. God begins by revising the traditional Jewish dietary restrictions – one of the big exclusivity definers. All that God created is clean. This is followed up by the Holy Spirit instructing Peter to go with three men to Cornelius’ home. Wait for it… Cornelius is a Roman centurion, a Gentile!

Turning to today’s passage, at Cornelius’ house Peter tells of the good news of Jesus Christ. During his teaching the same Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and all who are present. All that God created is clean, acceptable, valued and loved by God. Preparing to baptize these new believers, an astonished Peter declares, “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles”. In God’s sight the whole world is the mission field. All people are beloved by God. All people are created by God to be in the family of God. All people.

When I think about Peter being astonished, initially I feel a bit superior. I think, ‘Of course God loves the Gentiles. How silly of Peter to try and limit God’s love’. And then the Holy Spirit convicts me too – slaps me upside the head. There are folks I’d be astonished to see in the family of God. There are times I try and limit God’s love. I too need to better understand the limitless and unconditional nature of God’s love. Like Peter, I am still a work in progress. May God continue to break my heart for what breaks his.

Prayer: Loving God, this day help me to love more fully, to love more openly, to love deeper and wider. Keep praying open the circle of my love too. Your love knows no bounds, no barriers. Make my love the same. Amen.


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Known by Love

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Verse 33: “I will be their God, and they will be my people”.

The new covenant that God is speaking of in today’s passage is different than the old covenants established through Noah, Abraham, and Moses. These older covenants were with the Israelites. They were God’s chosen people, set apart for God. The new covenant will come into being through Jesus’ final sacrifice – the one we read about yesterday. The new covenant is like the old in these ways: it is centered on God’s unconditional love and we cannot reciprocate it. Unlike the old covenants, the new one is not limited to the Israelites. The new covenant extends to all people.

God declares, “I will be their God, and they will be my people” and “all will know me”. The new covenant extends to rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, saint and sinner. All are invited to the table of grace and to a place in God’s family. Jesus invited all people into the covenant of love. Called to model Jesus to the world, the charge is to love all people. Instead of holding onto our anger or judging others, we are called to be a people of forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead of categorizing and stereotyping, we’re to be people of hospitality and grace. Instead of competition and accumulation, we are to be people of generosity and community.

Each day may we be people of the new covenant, loving all people with all that we are. May all we meet know the love of God that is in us. May it flow out into all the world.

Prayer: Great God of love, your love is both unconditional and unlimited. Help me to love more like you. Give me eyes that see all as worthy of your love and of my love. Bind my heart to the least and the lost. Fill me with your love today as I go into the world. Amen.


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Prophets

Reading: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20

Verse 18: “I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him”.

In today’s passage we see some long term planning. In order to continue to help the people walk faithfully with God, he will raise up prophets like Moses to teach and guide them. In their desert experience, the people were amazed at God’s power and authority, but they were also afraid of God. They feared talking directly with God. They thought only Moses could do so and live. So they asked God for an intermediary, for a prophet to communicate God’s words to the people. God appreciates their idea and decides to continue to raise up prophets like Moses to be his voice to the people. In verse eighteen God says, “I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him”. Prophets will speak on behalf of God, using the words God gives them. They will be an extension of God’s power and authority. Joshua, Samuel, Nathan, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Ezekiel, the judges, Isaiah, Daniel… – just a small sampling of God’s prophets.

We are in the season of Epiphany, the season that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. The season begins with the visit of the wise men – the first Gentiles to worship Jesus Christ. Jesus is, of course, in the line of prophets in the human sense. God in the flesh lived among us and spoke God’s words to the people, guiding and teaching them (and us) how to live faithfully with God and with one another. As we learn his ways and as we seek to become more and more like Jesus, we ourselves are living out epiphany – revealing Jesus to the world through our words and actions that reveal Christ alive in us. Today and every day, in all we are, in all we say and do, may we share Jesus with others. In this season, may our very lives celebrate Jesus among us, the living word, God in the flesh, the giver of life. As we live into the fullness of our faith, may others come to know Jesus.

Prayer: Living God, today I thank you first for the prophets, each who came and spoke your word. Each has much to offer us today. I also thank you for Jesus, the fullest revelation of your love and power and authority and might. May he reign each day in my life. Amen.


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Celebrate the Gift

Reading: John 1: 1-18

Verse 16: “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another”.

At Christmas we Christians often want to focus on “the reason for the season” and we want folks to see Jesus as the best gift ever. So why do we celebrate the birth? Why do we equate Jesus to a gift?

More than the actual birth, we celebrate all that surrounds the birth. It is first the story of the creator entering his creation. Leaving the glory and perfection of heaven, the light and love of God entered the world more fully. It was in the flesh – where we could see and hear and feel it. Second, it is the story of prophecy fulfilment and of miraculous conception. Things written hundreds and hundreds of years before predicted the events of Jesus’ birth and life as if written in real time. And it is the first story of birth through the Holy Spirit. As followers we too experience this birth. We call it “being born again”. Third, it is the story of God acting in our world through a faithful teenage girl. Mary will always be the mother of Jesus. But she could have been Sue or Beth or Dawn or Erica. God’s penchant for using the ordinary and humble is exemplified here in this story. Fourth, and perhaps most, as John writes, “we have seen his glory”. The birth story reveals God’s glory – his control over all things, his omnipotence and omnipresence, his love for you and me and all the world. We celebrate the birth because it is holy and sacred and because it reveals God’s love and grace and truth.

As wonderful as the birth story is, though, it pales in comparison to the gift that Jesus is to the whole world. First, if one believes in Jesus, they are given the “right to become children of God” – to be born into a new creation, born again into a new relationship with the Lord. Becoming a child of God, we receive the light and love of Jesus into our hearts. This forever changes how we live in this world. We see the world, we see others, and we even see ourselves through this lens of love. Illuminated by his light, we love honestly, purely, unconditionally. Seeing with his eyes, loving with his heart, we live beyond the law of Moses and beyond the law of man. Beyond does not mean outside of these laws. It reflects Jesus’ emphasis that he was “the fulfillment of the law” (Matthew 5:17). For example, Jesus taught over and over that the command to love one another did not just include the Jews but it extended to sinners and to Gentiles and to the sick and the imprisoned and to Samaritans and to the possessed and… Jesus reveals what a life of love and grace and truth looks like when lived out in the world.

Living life as a Christ follower amplifies our hope, peace, joy, contentment; it betters our relationships with others and with the world; and, it deepens our faith and trust in God. We celebrate the birth because Jesus is truly the greatest gift ever. Life lived through and with Christ is simply better. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: God, you are the giver of “one blessing after another”. As I reflect on the ways that the world and that life is better with you, it humbles me. Surrender to your will and way is the path to true life, to full life. Thank you for all of your blessings. Amen.


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Practicing #1 and #2

Reading: Matthew 23: 1-12

Verse 3: “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach”.

Jesus has been ministering for about three years at this point. He has had ample opportunities to interact with and to observe the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus and these religious leaders have the same audience, teach from the same source materials, live in the same society. Much like today, when you can get two radically different approaches from two medical experts concerning the safest way to live in these pandemic times, Jesus and the religious leaders had so much in common, but they differed radically in how best to follow God.

The religious leaders occupy a place – “the Moses seat” – that calls for respect and gives them authority, a platform from which to speak into the people’s lives. But this is an earthly platform, given to them by other earthly people. As is the case with many earthly positions of power, they were beholding to others. The leader of the group, the high priest, was appointed by the Romans. There were certain expectations that came with the appointment. The religious leaders were subject to the high priest, which also connected them to the political power of the day. Because these religious leaders held a place of authority, they could exert control over the people. Jesus acknowledges this place of authority. While he recognizes their place of authority, he does not agree with their practices. To this point, in verse three he says: “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach”. They say one thing and do another. They pick and choose what to say based on their current situation. For example, the religious leaders preach about loving your neighbor, but there are many they do not see as neighbors – the Gentiles, the sinners, the sick…

Jesus, by contrast, teaches and practices the belief that everyone is your neighbor. Jesus teaches it and then goes out and live it, loving the lepers and the blind, the tax collectors and the prostitutes… Jesus practices what he preaches, with love as the greatestest commandment of his faith. The religious leaders would cute law #217 or good old #359 (the one that previous religious leaders had made up) to avoid loving certain people. Jesus, instead would preach and practice #1 and #2, loving God and loving neighbor, in their rightful place: first and foremost. As we consider Jesus’ example, may we also do the same as we seek to live out, to actually practice, loving God and loving neighbor above all else. May we be love in the world today.

Prayer: God of love, when I look at Jesus, I see one who did as he taught. He loved one and all, yes, but he loved you most of all. Each day, guide me to live this out, loving you with all that I am, allowing that to lead me to really love others more than myself. Amen.


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Our Battle

Reading: Psalm 149: 5-9

Verse 6: “May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands”.

The Psalm that opens talking about singing, rejoicing, and praising God appears to take a turn in verse six. It begins with “the praise of God” but then a “double-edged sword” enters the picture. There is a call to action in the second half of the Psalm. The praise and worship must always lead to some sort of action. Faith must affect and effect us. In the Psalm there is vengeance and punishment and carrying out of sentences. Taken at face value, it is violent and perhaps offends readers today.

In literal terms, warfare and battle and violence were much more common in ancient times. For Israel, there were clear lines between themselves and the rest of the world. Many of the laws given by God kept the Israelites within their own community. To venture into the world risked being led astray, being made unclean. Even in the New Testament there is an “us versus them” feel hanging in the air every time words like “Gentile” and “Samaritan” are used. For Israel, they were led by God. Guidance, direction, action came through a prophet or by seeking God in prayer. The “carrying out the sentence” would be that which came from God. As the people of God entered the Promised Land, there was much “carrying out the sentence” against the people’s who had inhabited the land “flowing with milk and honey”. They did not go willingly or peaceably.

In the New Testament the writer of Hebrews references a double-edged sword. In chapter four it is described as the word of God. It pierces “soul from spirit” and it “judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart”. It is a refining and purifying action being described by the author. Taken in this sense, for us the sword would slash through the sin and evil in our hearts, much as the Israelites’ swords defended them from the evil in the world around them. We too seek to “bind up” those things that seek to sit on the throne of our heart, replacing Jesus as Lord. Our “sentence” is to live as Christ, being light and love in the world. In doing so we too experience the “glory of the saints”. Our battle is not with flesh and blood but with the dark powers of this world. May we too emerge victorious, singing praises to God as the Lord leads the way.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, lead me to triumph over all that seeks to separate me from you. Help me see what is within that needs to die; be a hedge about me, keeping me from the evils of this world. Fill me with Holy Spirit power for the battle belongs to the Lord. 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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Epiphany Moments

Reading: Matthew 2: 1-12

Verse 11: “They saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him”.

Today is Epiphany!! An epiphany is a “sudden and profound understanding” of something. In the Christian church, Epiphany, or the feast of the Magi, celebrates the visit of the wise men to the Messiah. The original Epiphany had celebrated the baptism of Jesus, when God gave those present and all who would read the account the sudden and profound understanding that Jesus Christ is God’s son. With said understanding came the directive to listen to him.

The visit of the Magi became the focus of Epiphany in early church times. Looking back on the early story, the church came to realize the true epiphany in the story – Jesus Christ came for the whole world. These men from the far east would certainly be seen as Gentiles. They were clearly outside the Jewish faith. Yet God called them. Through a sign in the heavens – a new star – one that God knew would get their attention, God called. Using their belief that the world and nature reveal things to humanity, God led the Magi to come and see the newborn Jesus.

Following the star was the Magi’s natural instinct. Once they arrived, something else took over. We read, “They saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him”. Jesus was not on a throne. He did not dwell in a palace. Nothing about his surroundings or his mother or his economic status would ever suggest “king”. Yet in great joy they knew – this is the one! They worshipped and gave gifts. Guided by God, they then return to their country.

Today or tomorrow or the next day, when we have an epiphany moment, seeing God anew or in the face of one we encounter, will we too stop and praise God? Will we even recognize the hand of the divine at work? If we, like the Magi, head out seeking God, then God will find us. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord of all nations and all people, thank you for being such an inviting and welcoming God. You brought the Magi in, you welcome sinners like me. Your love abounds for all people. May my love look a little like your love. Amen.


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Praise the Lord!

Reading: Psalm 147: 12-20

Verse 15: “He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly”.

Our Psalm of praise comes from a time of joy and draws praise for God. The exile has ended and the people are back in the Promised Land. Jerusalem and Zion extol their praise to God. God has restored them, has strengthened their gates, and has provided them with the finest wheat. It is indeed a time to praise the Lord!

Fresh from the consequential time in exile, the people of Israel reconnect to God and to the law. In verse fifteen we read, “He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly”. The people rejoice now in what was rejected just a couple of generations before. The psalmist compares God’s word to the snow and hail that completely covers the land. But the word and the law are not hard or burdensome. Through understanding the precepts flow and bring life to the people. The psalmist rejoices in Israel’s role as God’s chosen people. To them alone has God revealed the word and the law.

Reading today’s passage from a 21st century Christian lens, we understand that the fuller revelation of God has expanded the circle greatly. The direct descendants of Abraham are not the only people to enjoy the word of God. Jesus Christ revealed the breadth and depth of God’s love as he broke down barriers and defeated the power of sin that had so long kept God’s children enslaved. Jesus burst the circle wide open as he sent the disciples to all people and to all nations. The incarnate word of God was not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, for the slaves and the free, for men and women,… Because we too have been drawn into the circle of God’s love in Jesus Christ, we praise God for his word that guides us as well as for the gift of the Holy Spirit that leads us. With all that we are, may we too praise the Lord!

Prayer: Heavenly Father, your love continues to extend. Through Jesus Christ it has grown to encompass even sinners like me. As the disciples of Jesus Christ continue to carry the good news to every corner of the world and to each neighborhood in our communities, your love continues to grow. Use me today to share the good news with others. Amen.


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Overflow

Reading: Romans 15: 7-13

Verse 7: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God”.

Stop. Read verse seven again. Slowly. The words “as Christ accepted you” are powerful. Jesus accepted me as I am. That includes my sin, yes. But, more than that, Jesus accepted me knowing that I would sin again. And again. And again. A love so perfect, accepting me as I am, is a powerful love. The “you” is also universal. Jesus’ love and acceptance knew no bounds. Many rejected Jesus. But that did not stop him from loving even these.

Rejection is something we must consider if we are to really live out this verse. To the proper Jews, the Gentiles were base and vile. They were to be avoided. But to Jesus, to Paul, to the early Christians, the Gentiles became ones to accept, to love as Jesus had first loved them. The Gentiles were simply people in need of Jesus’ saving love. The rejection did not come from the Gentiles. It came from those proper religious folks who would not go there themselves. Jesus experienced this kind of rejection too. He ate with the sinners, touched the lepers, healed on the Sabbath. Oh the things Jesus would do to love another.

That’s what this passage is calling us to. It is so easy to love those like us, those that fit the same boxes we fit. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God”. For Jesus, the “you” was universal. Ours should be as well. But be prepared – some will ridicule you for ministering to that people or in that neighborhood. Some will reject you because you love and accept those kinds of people. Do not worry – Jesus was rejected too. To those who accepted Jesus, he was life. That is what brought praise to God.

I close with Paul’s closing: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”.

Prayer: Oh God! Fill me with that hope, joy, and peace. Fill me so much that I overflow. Use me today as you will, O Lord my God. Amen.