pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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“Hear this…”

Reading: Amos 8:1-6

Verse 4: “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.”

Photo credit: Nick Sarro

We continue this week with Amos. Last week God used a plumb line to reveal how askew or crooked the Israelites had become. In this week’s reading from Amos 8, God reveals some details. As our passage opens, God shows Amos a basket of fruit. The fruit is ripe, maybe even appealing – at first glance. When one looks closer, however, one can see the rot along the edges. Using this analogy, God says, “The time is ripe for my people; I will spare them no longer.” We all know what happens when you leave rotting fruit in the bowl with good fruit. It will all go bad. It is time to deal with the rot.

In verse 4 God speaks to the rot: “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.” The Sabbath is a farce. The powerful go through the motions, anxious for it to end so that they can return to making dishonest profits and to trading on the lives of the poor and needy. Selfishly living they ignored the needs of their brothers and sisters. We too can play these games. I’ve gone to church and spent the whole time thinking about that afternoon or the week ahead. I’ve given the homeless man a granola bar or a bottle of water while tightly clinging to that wad of cash in my pocket.

God declares that their songs will turn to wailing. Bodies will be strewn everywhere. This brings to mind recent images of responses to times when those with power have abused or oppressed those without power. Punishment will surely come for being selfish and ignoring the plight of those on the margins. God will not stand for such evil. What would Amos tell us about how we live and about how we treat those in need around us? How could we better reflect God’s heart for all people?

Prayer: Lord, guide my eyes to look beyond myself. Lead me to be more generous, more willing with all that you’ve blessed me with. Amen.


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Present and Steadfast

Reading: Proverbs 8:1-4

Verse 4: “To you I call out; I raise my voice to all humanity.”

Photo credit: Josh Marshall

Wisdom calls out to you and to me and to all people. Wisdom raises her voice. She positions herself at a strategic crossroads, at a place where her presence seems obvious. Here Solomon points out Wisdom’s desire to be known. Yet God’s wisdom is not limited to one street corner or to any specific time. The Spirit is present everywhere, all the time. The Spirit is eternal – here since the beginning of time and to be through the end of this age and on through eternity.

Wisdom continues to call out. You and I, we hear wisdom’s call. But like when we were kids ignoring our Mom or Dad’s call to come home until we heard that certain tone or phrase, we too can try and ignore the voice or the nudge of the Holy Spirit, of God’s wisdom. And like I was when a teen, ignoring Mom or Dad’s advice or counsel, I have had to learn a thing or two the hard way. I can choose my own way, thinking it better than God’s way. Perhaps you too have learned the hard way now and then. Yet even then, wisdom continues to call out, to raise up her voice.

Wisdom does seem to call out louder at times. We often think so, at least. The Holy Spirit’s voice seems loudest when I am at a crossroads in life or when at a crisis moment. Is it louder? Or am I just a bit more willing to listen because I’m more desperate? And when I’m in the valley, I’ve found my ears and heart to be more wide open for something, for someone, for anything that will help. In those times the Spirit is right there, just like it is at all times. The constant presence of the Spirit always calls out with God’s wisdom, always seeks to walk hand in hand with us. May we grow to be as present and steadfast.

Prayer: Lord God, ever-present Spirit, be with me this day. As the day unfolds, pour your wisdom into my heart and mind. May your wisdom and Spirit be reflected in all I say and do and think. Amen.


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“Why do you…?”

Reading: Acts 9:1-9

Verse 4: “He fell to the ground and heard a voice say, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'”

Our passage today begins with Saul “breathing our murderous threats” against those who follow Jesus. Saul has a zeal for keeping the Jewish faith as he believes it should be. Born a Jew and educated to the level of Pharisee, he was fighting to keep the faith pure. Saul saw those who followed Jesus as detracting from or as lessening the Jewish faith. So he took to arresting and even killing the early Christians as a means to snuff out this upstart religion. Armed with letters from the high priest he set out for the synagogues in Damascus, eager to arrest more Christians.

Along the way a light from heaven knocks Saul to the ground and a voice asks, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” To Jesus, this is personal. The question is not about the church or those who follow Jesus. He asks Saul, “Why do YOU persecute ME?” This question aligns with who and what Jesus was and is throughout his ministry. This question to Saul reiterates what he taught in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25), in the teaching on the vine and the branches (John 15), and in the teaching about unity in the name of Christ (Mark 9). In short, we are one in Christ and one in each other. To do (or not to do) to one another is to do (or not do) for Christ himself. To persecute a believer is to persecute Christ himself. This, “Why do you persecute me” Saul?

Jesus also asks us this question or a form of it. When I do something that lessens the name of Christ, Jesus asks me why I persecute him. When I ignore a need before me, Jesus asks why I’m ignoring him. When I choose to overlook an injustice, Jesus asks why I’m being disobedient. When I choose to be selfish or petty or stingy, Jesus asks why am I denying him.

It is easy for us to condemn Saul as a Jesus hater. It is much harder to honestly look within to see how we too fail in our walk of faith. May we each look within today for that is where confession and repentance and new life begins for each of us.

Prayer: Lord God, draw me to an honest look into my heart today. Reveal to me the ways that I am less than you call me to be. Give me the courage and Holy Spirit power to grow to be more like Christ. Amen.


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Stay the Course

Reading: Luke 13:31-35

Verse 32: “Go and tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.'”

Photo credit: Shane

In response to a warning from the Pharisees, Jesus tells them he is staying the course. Whether Herod really was looking to kill Jesus or if the Pharisees just wanted him out of town or if there was some other reason, Jesus remained focused on his mission. Jesus chooses to keep faithful to his calling, no matter what the cost.

We too are called to be faithful. We are called to love God and to love neighbor as we seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ so that lives and the world may be transformed. Voices all around and within us tell us to be selfish, to ignore the needs of others, to think it is someone else’s job to offer Christ to the world. We can even blame the victim when the fire gets a little too close to home for us to be comfortable. We can be good at circling the wagons, at clinging to the good old status quo.

With so much on the line – yes, Jesus knew he was going to be the another in the long line of prophets killed by the Jews – he still chose to carry out his mission. He still stayed the course. In those moments when self-interest rises up, fighting against the compassion and love for the other also being whispered into our hearts, may we remember Jesus’ commitment to God and to the least and the lost. May we too choose to stay the course, bringing Jesus’ love to all people.

Prayer: Lord God, use me to bring your light and love out into the darkness. When fear or selfishness rises up, remind me of my Savior. Empower me to love well each day. Amen.


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Faithful Ministers

Reading: Luke 4:21-30

Verse 28: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.”

As we turn again to Luke 4, it seems things were going well with Jesus and the people of Nazareth. He teaches in the synagogue; they are impressed. Some there question. We usually assume their questioning was caused by doubt or skepticism. But maybe it was out of greed – imagine what Jesus could do for us, those of his own hometown! Maybe it was from a place of pride – how important we’ll be if Jesus stays here with us! Whatever was motivating their thoughts, it must’ve been evil or selfish. Jesus himself challenges their limited or errant thinking.

Jesus reminds the people of two Old Testament stories. One is of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and the other is of Naaman the Syrian. Both stories were about God’s miraculous work in the lives of strangers, of pagans, of outsiders. Standing in his hometown, taking square aim at whatever evil thoughts were stirring inside of these folks, Jesus challenges them to see outside of themselves, to see beyond their own needs. They get what Jesus is saying. They become angry, even to the point of wanting to kill him.

When has the word of God or the example of Jesus or the nudge of the Holy Spirit or the voice of a pastor or friend challenged your understanding of who is worthy of God’s love or your willingness to see how all people are inside the circle of God’s love? In these moments sometimes our response is anger too. We can feel like circling the wagons instead of opening the circle for those people. We can try and ingore the voice telling us to reach out beyond the comfortable, working instead to maintain the status quo. Yet the feeling remains. The compassion, the empathy, the desire to love – it remains because God is there within us. As one of today’s devotionals reminded me: “Faithful ministry always looks for the outsider, the neglected, the oppressed.” Looking is an active, love filled, intentional effort. May we each be faithful ministers of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, when I want to look down and pretend that they are not there, lift my eyes to see. When I want to keep them in that bubble, set apart and isolated, guide me to step within that place of isolation, bringing community. Once there, once present, move me to action, use me to love as Christ loves. Amen.


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Share the Blessings

Reading: 1st John 3: 16-18

Verse 17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother [or sister] in need but has no pity on him [or her], how can the love of God be in him [or her]”?

Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon

As a disciple, John witnessed firsthand the power of Jesus’ love. For three years John was present to a life that held loving God and loving neighbor as the highest commands. These two actions defined who Jesus was at his core and define who all who follow Jesus should be at our core.

Love can be revealed many ways. John begins with this way in today’s passage: “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us”. To accomplish God’s purposes in establishing the new covenant, Jesus died on the cross. Taking on the world’s sins, with his blood Jesus paid the atoning price, breaking sin’s grip on humanity. Rising from the grave he conquered death, opening the way to life eternal. This was a great sacrifice. While on occasion a person will give his or her life to save another, our acts of sacrifice are most often much less than these.

In verse seventeen John writes, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother [or sister] in need but has no pity on him [or her], how can the love of God be in him [or her]”? If you or I have any material possessions and ignore the needs of others, then we must ask ourself: Is the love of God really in me? Can we ignore the needs that God brings before us? Yes, we can and do. But at a cost. The cost is both to us and to the person or persons we ignored or chose not to serve. When this happens, we are both less than God intends us to be. The agape love of Jesus Christ within us is made more complete when we give sacrificially to the other. The other begins to experience the transforming love of Jesus Christ in and through us. They begin to know the voice of the good shepherd.

Every day we have opportunities to share what God has blessed us with. Each day “let us not love with words or tongue, but with truth and action”.

Prayer: Lord God, grant me the will to meet the needs that you place before me today. You have blessed me with the ability to do so. May I be willing to release the blessings to others. Amen.


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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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The Presence of God

Reading: Mark 1: 4-8

Verse 4: “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.

As we delve into Mark’s gospel we get right into the years of Jesus’ ministry. The first gospel written jumps right in with John the Baptist. Quoting from the Old Testament, John’s authority is established. John is the prophet spoken of long ago and is the one sent to “prepare the way” for the Lord. John was very different in his approach. In verse four we read, “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. He set up out in the wilderness, a place representing the condition of people’s souls at this point. He dressed and ate differently than any other religious leader. His open air, honest, straight forward style was different and was a foreshadowing of the ministry of Jesus.

Many people came out into the desert to hear John. His words brought a quick conviction and a renewed dedication. Many people stepped into the river to confess their sins and to commit to a more devout life. They did so because the presence of God was evident in John’s life. The Spirit if God upon John drew others to want to know God in a more personal, more intimate way. The presence of God could not be ignored.

Wouldn’t that be a great thing for others to say about you? To notice about you? I think so! As we each consider the living out of each day, may we seek to make God known through our words and actions and attitudes. May we be set apart from the world, pointing to the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Prayer: God of all, so fill me with your Holy Spirit that all will see you in me and in my life. May your presence abound in all I say and do and think, bringing you the glory and praise. 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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Pray, Listen

Reading: 2nd Samuel 7: 1-11 and 16

Verse 2: “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent”.

At this point in his story, David is at a good place. He has conquered all of his enemies. He has established Jerusalem as the capital. He has a beautiful home made of expensive wood. Life is good. David calls in his advisor, the prophet Nathan, and says to him, “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent”. Nathan thinks it a splendid idea to build God a big fancy home. But before David can even begin to line up all the workers and start gathering up all the materials, God reigns him in.

God begins with a question. He asks David, “Are you the one”? God reminds them that he has not had a house, well, ever. God once had a garden… But God has never once even asked for a house. A house is, after all, a human construct. God is perfectly content with a tent. It is adequate. It is simple. It is humble. In this season, it reminds me of the manger.

David does something here in today’s passage that I can do too. I can set my plans out before God’s plans. This happens one of two times and both are equally dangerous. Like with David, when things are going well, I can strike off with my own grand idea for ministry or service. On the other end of the spectrum, when things are going really bad, I can try quick fixes, much like firing darts at the dartboard while blindfolded. In both cases I fail to do what David failed to do: pray. Include God at the planning and thinking stages instead of at the point that the ship is sinking. Too often our plans can be formed and executed without God’s help and guidance. Usually these end with God reigning me back in, with me learning another hard lesson. Step one: pray.

As I read and pondered this passage this morning, at first I thought, ‘If only I had a Nathan’, one sent by God to guide me, to help me, to lead me, to walk with me. And then I realized that I do. The Holy Spirit is my personal connection to God. Thinking back on my hard lessons, I can see when I ignored the quiet whisper, when I shoved back against the gentle nudge. Step two is to listen, to hear.

To pray and to listen are two key steps on our walk of faith. Both align us and keep us in tune with God. May all we do and say and think begin with these two steps: pray and listen. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for this reminder today. In my too frequent battles with pride and wanting to be in control, reminders of your ways are always needed. Thank you for the reminder today. Amen.