pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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A Gift from God

Reading: Mark 4: 26-29

Verse 28: “All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head”.

Photo credit: Noemi Pongracz

In today’s parable Jesus compares the growth of faith to the planting and raising of a crop. In faith and trust we scatter seeds of faith through our words and our witness. We hope that the seeds take root in our children, in those we share faith with, and in the strangers we meet. In the literal sense we also plant seeds. In the back yard we planted seeds in beds and large tubs and pots. We hoped that plants would grow, yielding carrots, lettuce, potatoes… It is a small labor of love. We go out each day to water, to weed, to tend the plants. And they grow!

One small row is beans. Of the dozen or so seeds that I planted, about half are now tender young plants. My beans are a good reminder of two things. First, not all seeds take root and grow. Second, I am not responsible nor can I take the credit for the growth. The same is true when we plant or scatter seeds of faith. In verse 28 Jesus says, “All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head”. There is a mystery to seeds of faith taking root in someone; there is a miracle when God grows that faith into maturity. All is a gift from God. While we do and must play a role, it is God who starts, develops, grows, matures, and sustains our faith. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Loving and tender God, thank you for the gift of faith. Yes, you call me to sow seeds and may I ever be faithful. Yet you alone are the giver of life and faith, of growth and relationship. Use me today Lord to scatter seeds of faith. Amen.


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Light Still Shines

Reading: Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3

Verse 11: “The sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations”.

Many years ago, early on in my years working with youth, I helped out at a 30-hour famine lock-in at the church. We spent 30 hours learning about poverty in places around the world. We interspersed games and activities as well. And we drank only water. We had no food or snacks. At the end of the lock-in we cooked a meal common to many living in impoverished areas of the world: rice and beans. After 30 hours without food you might think we longer for more, maybe steak and potatoes. Yet the simple meal tasted so good. It was completely filling and satisfying.

In today’s passage Isaiah speaks to a people who have come home from exile. They returned with such joy. They were eager to start the work of restoring Jerusalem and the temple. Their work labored on and outside forces threatened their safety and their ability to continue. Isaiah comes to them and tells them that God is readying “garments of salvation” and “robes of righteousness”. In verse eleven Isaiah speaks hope: “The sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations”. God will be with his people. What joy and hope these words must have brought. To hear that righteousness will “shine like the dawn” and that salvation will be like a “blazing torch” only builds their hope and joy.

There were times that night twenty-something years ago when the hunger gnawed at us. There were moments when the joy and excitement that we began the event with seemed like a distant memory. But times of prayer and worship sustained us and strengthened us to stay the course, to not give up. As I think about our current season, this time of pandemic, it reminds me of that lock-in. We began this season thinking it would all be over in two to three weeks. 30 hours without food isn’t that long, right? The months have drug on, our hard labor continues, enemies seem all around, and our hope and joy are challenged often. Just as times of praise and worship lifted our souls and spirits and just as Isaiah’s words of hope lifted the Israelites, so too will these things lift us now.

In just two days believers will gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Isaiah spoke of him, the one who “will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand”. This Christmas Eve is a chance to renew faith, to praise the one who brings salvation, to worship the one who is righteous, to exult the light who still shines into the darkness. If you do not have a church home, find a church online or near by you to worship on Christmas Eve. Join the faithful throughout the world as we worship Jesus Christ, Lord and King.

Prayer: Living God, continue to sustain us, to encourage us, to walk with us these long days. Draw us in to worship the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Allow all to see the light that is still shining in the darkness. Amen.


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Life Springing Up

Reading: Isaiah 61: 8-11

Verse 10: “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God”.

As our passage for today opens Isaiah reminds God’s people that God loves justice. As would be expected, God hates robbery and iniquity. Living in a foreign land under much oppression and injustice, these words resounded with hope for the people living in exile. The same is true today for people living in unjust systems of oppression and injustice and inequality. To know that systems that support prejudice and abuse and unequal pay and unfair labor practices and… are not God’s way and are not part of God’s plan brings hope for the future. To the exiles in Babylon and to those today living in unjust systems that deny them true freedom, the promise of an “everlasting covenant” brings hope not only for themselves but also for their children and grandchildren.

As followers of Jesus Christ, as believers in his light and love, we can join the prophet in saying, “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God”. God is our rock and our refuge, our hope and our strength. God clothes you and me in “garments of salvation” and in a “robe of righteousness”. We are adorned in ways that cause the world to notice that through our faith we are blessed by the Lord. We live with hope and peace, with joy and love. Trusting in the Lord, resting and standing upon God’s promises, we look to the future with assurance and confidence. Are you thankful for all that God has done, is doing, and will do for you? Lift up a little prayer of thanksgiving right now!

And then lift up a little prayer for an end to racism and prejudice, for an end to injustice and oppression, for an end to abuse and iniquity. Then consider how you can be a seed planter, a hope waterer, a justice fertilizer. As the people of God delighting in our God, rejoicing in the Lord, may we be a part of God’s plan for justice and equity. May we be part of the kingdom work of our day and age, of our time and place, so that in all nations and communities “the sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up”. May it be so in all the world!

Prayer: Lord God, where will you send me today? Where will you use me today to be a bringer of justice, an energy of robbery and iniquity? Strengthen me to stand with the oppressed, the unjustly treated, the abused, the imprisoned. Use me each day to make your kingdom more and more of a reality in my community and in my world. Amen.


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Called

Reading: 1st Thessalonians 1: 1-10

Verses 2 and 3: “We always thank God for… your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, your endurance inspired by hope”.

Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica. He founded this church early in his ministry. Paul begins his letter to them with some words of thanksgiving for their faith and witness to Jesus Christ. These folks were living in a pagan culture that had no experience with faith in Jesus Christ. The church represented a very small minority. For most of us, growing up, Christianity was the norm. This was not the case for the early followers of Christ.

If we keep this in mind, we better understand what Paul is being thankful for in verses two and three. Here he writes, “We always thank God for… your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, your endurance inspired by hope”. In the midst of a pagan world, living out the love of Christ was not easy. Yet this early church worked, labored, endured. They were sustained by faith, love, and hope. In spite of suffering, they had “welcomed the message with joy” and their “faith in God has become known everywhere”. In spite of the culture around them, they were living out their faith well, making Christ known in a pagan culture.

In our part of the world, we now live in what has been called the post-Christian era. As the world has become increasingly secular, the overall witness of the church has declined. Yet there is much work, much labor, still to be done. Recent events have drawn attention to the racial tensions, to the oppression, to the unjust systems in our nation, to the economic disparity… The reality is that almost all of our communities contain the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the lonely, the widow… All of our communities have people living within who have experienced injustice, oppression, abuse… All of these conditions have existed for a long time.

Just as the people of the church in Thessalonica were called to be faith, love, and hope in the world, so too are we called. Will we be “imitators of the Lord”, perhaps even “in spite of severe persecution”, as we step out into the world around us? Doing so, through the power of the Holy Spirit, our faith will become known as we share the good news of Jesus Christ through our acts of justice, mercy, and kindness. May it be so as we seek to serve Jesus, the one who rescues.

Prayer: Lord God, help me today to be faith, love, and hope in the world. Open my eyes to the needs of my community and guide me by the power of the Holy Spirit to stand with those in need of your presence. Set me apart for service to the King. Amen.


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Living Fully in Christ

Reading: Philippians 1: 21-30

Verse 27: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”.

As our passage opens today, Paul writes of his inner struggle. He weighs going on to heaven against remaining on earth in service to the Lord. Paul opens with: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”. Living he continues to share the good news of Jesus Christ. But to die is “gain” – he longs to be in glory. At points in life, particularly later in life, we experience this pull. Paul knows that heaven will be “better by far”. Yet he knows that now, at least, “fruitful labor” lies ahead. God still has work for him to do. While some of us lose this perspective, it still remains true for all believers. God can always use us for his purposes and glory.

Paul does not know if he will see the people of the church in Philippi again. Life is tenuous for Paul. The Jews and, at times, the Romans persecute him. He knows that at any point he could die for his faith. The same is true for all followers of Jesus. This reality is what leads him to say, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” in verse 27. Paul knows that the life of a believer is not always easy. Not only is there persecution and suffering, but there are also the desires of the flesh and the lures of the world. Almost 2,000 years later we live within the same realities.

So what does Paul mean by “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”? Part of the gospel life is what Paul alludes to in the opening verses. Faith in Jesus Christ empowers us with the promise of salvation, of eternal life. It will be “better by far”, to again quote Paul. Like Paul, our current life is lived in the here and now. There are gospel implications for that as well. These are mainly to be like Jesus Christ in our daily living. Doing so, we are generous not only with our time and resources but with our love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, patience, kindness, and compassion as well. It means grieving with the hurting and sorrowful and it means rejoicing with the blessed and cared for. It means welcoming the stranger and fellowshipping with the believers. It is a call to live fully in Christ, all the while knowing that to die is gain.

When we choose to live fully in Christ, we too will have “fruitful labor”. In doing so, others will come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. May we each live fully in Christ, bearing fruit for the kingdom of God.

Prayer: Loving God, consume me. Consume me with your love. Consume me so that all I say and do and think reflects your love. Guide me moment by moment, step by step, to share Jesus with others today. Amen.


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True Servants

Reading: Isaiah 49: 1-7

Verse 6: “I will also make you a light to the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”.

Isaiah’s servant song, when read through our New Testament lens, sounds like Jesus. Called long before he was physically born, sword in mouth that cuts through all religious airs and gets to the heart of loving God fully. A polished arrow that surely hits the mark, convicting us of our sin every time. As the servant did, at times Jesus felt as if laboring in vain. More than once he laments over the rejection and hard hearts; more than once he critiques the disciples lack of understanding. He realizes the outcome as described by Isaiah: “my reward is with God”. Jesus returns to the Father to reign forever.

In verse six God pries open the circle a bit. It is not enough for Jesus to go just to the Israelites. In the second half of this verse we read, “I will also make you a light to the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”. In comparison to the world, at that time Israel was small. God’s chosen people were a small segment of humanity. To go to the “ends of the world” was a radical shift in the mission field. Much of the Old Testament law functioned as a means of keeping Israel set apart from the outside world. God also directed some measures early on to insure this. Research the conquest of the Promised Land if you want to know more about this. By Jesus’ day the religious establishment defended itself fiercely. There is no shortage of Jesus clashing with religious leaders concerning the size of his circle – the degree to which he would engage and love the “other”. Eat with sinners?! Allow a prostitute to touch you?! Yes, the religious powers wanted to keep the circle drawn in very tight. Verse seven references all of this: “despised and abhorred by the nation”.

In our Christian life we are called to mirror this opening up of the circle. After being drawn into a relationship with Jesus Christ, we are called to die to self. This act ceases our circle of one as we are led to think of others and their needs before considering our own. We are also called to pick up our cross and to follow Jesus. This means we will do as our example did, suffering for others. These things are what a true servant does. On our journey, we too will be despised when we follow Jesus closely. Jesus is not of the world. He is foolishness to all who live for self and for the things of the world. The servant came for all. One day kings and princes will kneel. May this be our posture every day.

Prayer: Father of all nations and all people, guide me today to love as widely and unconditionally as the model did. Through my words and actions, whatever is needed, may I be a light in the darkness of the world. In humility and submission I kneel before your throne, asking for you to use me as you will today. Amen.


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He Provides

Reading: Psalm 127

Verse 2: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat – for while they sleep He provides for those He loves”.

We can build our own lives. We can labor to build our city or our business or our personal wealth or possessions. But unless God is involved, all is done in vain. If not us, we certainly know folks who rise early and work late, trying to get ahead. They toil for many different reasons and for many different things. But all is in vain unless God is with them.

The passage today is not saying that laboring or working is in vain. It can be in vain, but scripture is pretty clear on the subject – if able, we are to work. Our labor can be in vain for at least two reasons. First, if our work is given to bring us recognition or if it is done to amass wealth or possessions, then it is vanity. In this case, we want the light to shine on us. The second reason that our labor is in vain when we work without God is that none of our earthly stuff will leave this earth. If our life here is simply about amassing stuff, the our stuff becomes our idols.

When we labor with God – following His plans and His ways for our life – then it is not in vain. When our focus is on shining the light on God, then there is no human vanity. When we labor with God, then the rewards or stuff is not found here on earth. Tje treasure we store up is treasure in heaven. Life is good when lived with God. Our passage says, “for while they sleep He provides for those He loves”. God loves and cares for and provides for those that walk with God, those who love God. For the love and care in the here and now and fir the eternal life one day, we rejoice and shout out, thanks be to God!

Lord, keep me humble and focused on you. Keep me in tune with working with you rather than trying to make my own way and my own decisions. Thank you. Amen.


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Represent

Reading: 1st Thessalonians 1: 1-10

Verse Three: Work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, endurance inspired by hope.

Thessalonica was a large city.  It was an economic and political hub.  In the city was a mix of Romans, Greeks, and some Jews.  It was a worldly city – a place with lots of idols worship and plenty of wild living.  Paul had been there on a missionary journey and had begun a church.  It was a challenge to be a Christian in such a setting.  Our world today is still filled with many false idols and it is easy to stray from the faith into the dark side of the world.

Yet the Thessalonicans remain faithful.  Paul commends the church for the faith that they have and live out in the city.  Their faith has drawn some persecution yet they remain steadfast and joyous.  Their faith is known around the city and region.  Paul notes the three ways in which their faith is seen: “Work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, endurance inspired by hope”.  Their faith has gone from their head to their hearts and pours out of their mouths, hands, and feet.  It is a faith that is easy to see.

In our daily lives, is our faith so easy to see?  By simply watching us, can others see the joy of the Lord in us?  When the storms of life come, can others see our endurance that is inspired by our hope in God?  Our faith should pervade our lives in the good and the bad, being on display for all to see.  Do people see us as the hands and feet of Jesus in our daily lives?  Do they see in us a servant’s heart, offering our work and labor as an offering of love and faith?  In our daily living others should see the ways that we serve Christ.  In these three ways, we model Christ and introduce the world to our Lord.  May we represent well today.


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Which Son?

Reading: Matthew 21: 28-32

Verse 28: Son, go and work today in the vineyard.

The priests and elders have just tried to question Jesus about His authority.  In today’s parable Jesus continues the conversation with them.  One son is asked by his father, “Son, go and work today in the vineyard”.  The first son refuses but later goes and works.  The second son hears the same request, says he will go, but does not go and work in the vineyard.

In Luke 10, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”.  Paired with our commission to go forth to make disciples of all nations, we have much to wrestle with in today’s parable.  Which son are we?

Each Sunday we gather in our churches to lift our voices in praise to God and to remind ourselves of how we are to live in the world as followers of Jesus.  We hear the Word proclaimed and the message brings application of the Word.  We offer up prayers of thanksgiving and we bring our requests as well, believing God to be loving and caring and merciful.  At the end of the service we receive a blessing or benediction that sends us out into the world to share Jesus.  We head out the doors to be His light and love in the world.

Jesus asks the priests and elders, “Which of the two sons did what his father wanted”?  We would answer as they did: “The first”.  The one who actually went out and worked in the vineyard.  It is important that he went out and worked in the vineyard because the harvest is indeed plentiful.

As Christians it is much easier to sing the songs, to pray the prayers, and to receive the message on Sunday morning than it is to go out into the world and to love our neighbors or to welcome the stranger.  It is difficult to love all people, to always offer grace and forgiveness, to be a humble servant.  Yet this is what the Lord of the harvest did every day.  The Father asks each of us to go to the vineyard, to labor today for the kingdom.  In reality, which son will you be today?


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Abundant Grace

Reading: Matthew 20: 1-16

Verse Eight: Call the workers and pay them their wages.

In the parable today the going wage is a denarius.  It was the standard pay for a day’s labor.  For the vineyard workers, four of the five groups received generous pay.  They had worked three, six, nine, or eleven hours less then the first ones hired.  All four of these groups walk away happy with their pay.

The fifth group – those who agreed to a denarius and those who worked the longest – receive the same pay.  In a way this too is generous.  They began the day with nothing to do and were fortunate to be hired.  But what they agreed to does not sit so well with them.  As each group of workers receives their denarius, their unhappiness grows as they come to realize all are being paid the same.  In complaining to the owner, they voice their grumbling relative to the ones who worked only an hour.  They speak of the ones who best ‘prove’ their case.  Yet I think they did not think the groups who worked three, six, or nine hours deserved a denarius either.

God’s grace extends to all who labor for the kingdom of God.  There is no minimum time required before one can begin to draw on grace.  There is no cosmic scorecard somewhere in heaven that determines how much grace each person is allotted or tracks how much we have earned.  We are each given as much as we need.  We are each given the undeserved and unlimited gift of grace anytime we need it.

Our churches are filled with people from all five groups.  Some have just begun to draw on God’s grace.  Others have been living in His grace for 10, 30, or 40 years.  Still others have been living in God’s grace for as long as they can remember.  Many of these receive grace like most of the vineyard workers.  They receive more than they deserve and walk away grateful for the owner’s generosity.  May we each respond to God’s grace the same way, realizing we are receiving more than we deserve, walking away grateful for God’s abundant Grace in our lives.