pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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The Divine Heart

Reading: Luke 1: 47-55

Verses 52-54: “He has… lifted up the humble… filled the hungry… remembering to be merciful”.

As we read this beautiful song offered up by Mary, I can’t but wonder if the baby in her womb and connected to her heart heard these words and began to internalize them. As a young man Jesus would have been raised by this faithful soul. He would have been taught the faith by Mary and Joseph, learning of how God loved the people and of his great mercy towards them. In her song Mary also personalizes these aspects of God – “called me blessed”… “done great things for me”. In her song Mary glorified both the God of Israel and the God of her heart.

Towards the end of the song Mary recognizes God’s preference for the lowly and meek, for the simple and ordinary. Mary’s God is one who “scatters the proud” and “brings down rulers”. In Jesus’ ministry we certainly see evidence of these actions being lived out and we hear of their completion in his return. In verses 52 through 54 Mary glorifies her God who “lifted up the humble… filled the hungry… remembering to be merciful”. Again, Jesus will live out the heart of his mother and the heart of his God as he ministers to the poor, the lost, the broken, the least, the sinners.

The divine heart clearly connects to and values and loves those who are suffering, those on the fringes, those without power or voice. Just as Mary sings, the divine heart has always loved and cared for such as these. You and I were created with this spark of the divine within us. We hear it beating in Mary’s song and we feel it beating in our own hearts. May we live it out each day.

Prayer: God of the outcast and marginalized, help me to draw close to those you love. Lead me to be your hands and feet and voice in our hurting world. Use me as part of your desire to bring healing and hope. Amen.


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“L” is for…

Reading: Matthew 25: 31-40

Verse 40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”.

In today’s passage Jesus sounds a bit like an Old Testament prophet. His words and what I imagine his tone to be evoke visions of Ezekiel or Isaiah. Jesus is once again speaking of heaven and hell. Passages like this naturally bring to our mind the question: am I in or am I out? Reading this passage I’ve often fallen into these ways of thinking. In my rule-following mind it was and sometimes still is hard not to feel some condemnation when I read this passage.

Jesus is clear in the overall message today. There is a right or faithful way to live with one another. Therefore, there is also a wrong way. The right way is to care for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned. The wrong way is to ignore them, to not care for them. In verse forty we read, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”. In verse 45 we read the result of failing to care for such as these: “you did not do for me”.

Reading this passage we can tend to think: Am I a sheep or am I a goat? The judge living inside of us can easily start to scroll through our lives, weighing the evidence for and against. The ‘in or out?’ question can become a balance scale of sorts. But then I stop and ask: does this align with the Jesus we see in the Gospels? Can you really see Jesus judging you this way when you one day stand before him? This is not the Jesus revealed to me in the New Testament or along my faith journey.

Then what is the point of the teaching? We cannot simply toss it or skip by it because it makes us uncomfortable or because it causes us to wrestle with our faith and how we live it out. In a way this was the underlying point of all of Jesus’ teachings. These words were spoken by the one that always calls us deeper into relationship, deeper into loving God and one another. So what if this teaching is about a way to live, about a rule of life? Jesus was one who sought to connect to the least, the lost, the last, the lonely. What drove him to do so was another “L”: love. Yes, the ideal is to always care for others, in whatever form that may be.

I struggle less with this parable than I used to. Now I see it as the model that Jesus set. I still fail at times. I don’t always feed the hungry… I do not always visit the lonely… But I do strive to love each to the best of my ability and capacity – to the best of my faith. When I fail, the Holy Spirit always goes to work within me, leading and prompting me to love deeper the next time God presents an opportunity. I am a work in progress. I’d guess you are too. May the shepherd continue to lead you and me.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for a heart that yearns to love more each day. Guide and lead my heart to be more and more like yours. Amen.


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Hope in Exile

Reading: Ezekiel 34: 11-16

Verse 16: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak”.

Ezekiel was one of God’s prophets. He ministered to Israel during their time in exile in Babylon. After being defeated by the Babylonians, many Israelites were dispersed throughout the kingdom of their conquerors. These words from God’s prophet would bring hope during a difficult time. These words of God would remind the people that their current experience will not be their reality forever. Both of these circumstances are true today. In our current pandemic, there is no doubt that this is a difficult time for almost everyone. Although it feels like it has been a really long time, we know that the virus and its effects will not last forever. Yet, in the midst of it, we are much like the Israelites in Babylon – isolated, feeling powerless, becoming a bit hopeless, grieving, separated.

Beginning in verse eleven God reveals his plan. In this verse God tells the people that he will “search for my sheep and look after them”. In the next verse God promises to “rescue them” from isolation, from exile, from “all the places where they were scattered”. Then God shares that he will bring them back home. In verse thirteen God states, “I will bring them into their own land”. God will search for his children; God will rescue them and gather them; and, God will bring them back home. Living in a time of defeat, in a time of exile, to hear that God is still God, that God loves and cares for them, that God will once again bring them all back together – these are words of healing and hope.

During these COVID times, just as was the case in exile, some people are coping or doing okay, some are not. Those who are naturally resilient, those who are disposed to optimism, those whose faith has grown in these times – these folks are going alright. There is a middle group who are mostly getting by. They have some of these positive characteristics, but life is now a delicate balance. And there are those who have depleted their reserves of these characteristics. They are struggling emotionally, physically, spiritually, relationally. This last group, especially, needs to hear verse sixteen’s promise: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak”. God has a special love for those hurting the most. Jesus, his son, modeled this love. Jesus, our Lord, calls us to follow his lead. To those around us most feeling like they are in exile, may we share these words of hope and love. And, if we dare, may we be these words of hope and love. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, lead and guide me to the list, to the strays, to the weak. Set my feet towards those hurting in my communities. Break my heart for what breaks yours. Fill my broken heart with your love and care. Use me to bring hope to those without. May it be so. Amen.


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Being Kingdom Builders

Reading: Matthew 21: 42-46

Verse 43: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce fruit”.

Our section for today opens with Jesus quoting from the Old Testament. This is one of many passages that point towards the Messiah. Jesus is the fulfillment of these passages. When he says “the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone (or cornerstone)” he is referring to himself. Jesus will be the stone that is the foundation, the stone that holds all things together. The religious leaders fail to see Jesus this way. For them, this is not “marvelous in our eyes”.

Jesus’ quotation from the scriptures leads into a declarative statement: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce fruit”. The key attribute is producing fruit. Today we mainly call this “making disciples” but it also includes growing deeper in our faith. The task of making disciples, of growing the early church, will fall mostly to fishermen and other ordinary people. It will also be carried out by healed lepers, recovering prostitutes, reformed tax collectors, and the like. They all lack formal training but have first-hand experience with the cornerstone. It is the story that they tell that continues to draw others in. Theirs are the stories of transformed lives and new hearts. They are stories of love and hope, of mercy and forgiveness, of acceptance and welcome. As these stories drew others in, the church grew. Fruit was being produced.

The chief priests and Pharisees know Jesus is referring to them. They are not at work building the kingdom of God. They are about maintaining the status quo and limiting access to only the holy and righteous – the religious elite. Jesus is differentiating himself from the religious elite. The truth he speaks stings and angers them – “they looked for a way to arrest him”.

When we act like these religious leaders – being judgemental, accepting only those like us, keeping our faith to ourselves – then we are standing at odds with Jesus Christ. When we do not love the marginalized and the broken, the hurting and the lost, then we are not practicing the faith that Jesus modeled. To such as these belong the kingdom of God. Therefore, as disciples of Jesus Christ, may we cast open wide the gates and may we help all to enter into God’s love.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to build the kingdom today. Lead me to tear down walls that separate and limit access. Lead me to open doors that feel closed and to shine light onto the path to your love and grace. Enable me to be love lived out in the world, so that in me others see Jesus. Amen.


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Granted

Reading: Philippians 1: 27-30

Verse 29: “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”.

As we did earlier in the week, we again hear the call to “conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel”. For Paul this includes steadfast faith, lived out in unity, sharing the good news. Paul also calls us to trust in God. Trust in God will help combat the fear we feel when others oppose the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul names two signs that indicate that the followers will be saved. In verse 29 he writes, “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”.

“Granted” implies something that is given, a gift of sorts. A belief in Christ as Lord and Savior is where our faith begins. Trusting in Jesus as our Lord means that we look to him to guide our lives in the here and now. Through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus does just that. As Savior, it means that we trust Jesus to one day redeem us – to bring us on to our eternal home. As Christians we find assurance and comfort in these aspects of our faith. As Christians we find worth and contentment as well as peace and strength in these two aspects of our faith. Because Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior we live with joy and hope. All of this is granted to us through our relationship with Jesus. It truly is a gift.

Then we come to the “but” in this verse: “but also to suffer for him”. This too is a gift. Jesus called upon us to follow him by taking up our crosses and by dying to self. These acts entail giving up our preferences, our wants, our natural inclination to selfishness. We do so in order to see, to feel, to respond to the needs of the list and the broken and the suffering. In doing so, in coming into connection with and into relationship with those we serve, we draw closer to Christ. When we live love out loud, as Jesus so often did, then we enter into the lostness, brokenness, and suffering of the world. The cost may be physical, it may be emotional, it may be financial, it may be social. There are many ways that the Spirit may lead us to suffer when we place the call of Christ and the needs of others ahead of ourselves. Walking alongside these who suffer, including these in our personal relationships, we might be granted the privilege of sharing the gospel with them. We might be. As we strive to engage the world around us, may we surrender and walk the paths that the Spirit leads us upon. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, use me as you will today. Put me to the tasks that build relationships and build your kingdom. Amen.


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One Rule

Reading: Romans 13: 8-10

Verse 9: “The commandments… are summed up in this one rule: love your neighbors as yourself”.

Our passage for today comes from an early church understanding that we do not generally hold to today. This section is titled “Love, for the Day is Near” in my study Bible. Paul and the early church thought Jesus’ return imminent – certainly in their lifetimes. The urgency we hear in today’s passage and in much of Paul’s writings is driven by this thought. For many of us in the church today, we do not operate with this same sense of urgency to save souls before the day comes. Yes, we think it sad if someone dies without knowing Jesus, but we view Jesus’ return as a far off event. We’ve lost our fire. Because of that, Paul’s words to us today and tomorrow may cause a little discomfort.

Paul begins in verse eight by writing, “Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another”. I love the sentiment and depth of connection in these words. They strike deep at my core when I do not feel like helping that person again. They challenge me when I have to be around those people that I disagree with. No matter how often or how deeply we love others, Paul says we remain indebted to love even more. There is a reason. For as long as I have been able to make some sense of faith on my own, I’ve believed that love is the defining emotion AND action of God. Therefore it makes perfect sense when I read, “The commandments… are summed up in this one rule: love your neighbors as yourself”. Of course they are. God is love. Now, making perfect sense and having total obedience to this command are two different things.

If only this great commandment were something simple like ‘give 10% of your income to the church’. But its not. To really and fully love our neighbors as ourselves is hard. Really hard – especially when we understand that Paul’s definition of neighbor came from Jesus. All people are our neighbors.

Our three verses for today close with perhaps a simpler command: do no harm. Maybe we can start here for today. As we live out our faith today, may we seek to do no harm to anyone or anything. May this be the way we bless our neighbors and our world today.

Prayer: Loving God, guide me to walk the path of love today. Fill me with your love and allow it to pour out into the world today. Amen.


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To What Extent? How Far?

Reading: Romans 9: 1-5

Verse 2: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”.

Have you ever been in a situation where you wished you could take someone’s place? Or have you ever been in a situation where you’d give anything to change the final outcome? Maybe someone you love lost a child and you’d take that child’s place in a heartbeat if you could. Perhaps things could have been done or said differently and that person wouldn’t be estranged from the family. I’d guess that almost all of us have been in these situations or have heard stories of others who were in these or similar situations.

Paul is right there with us. In verse two we read, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”. You can feel his pain. Paul grew up in a Jewish home and became a Pharisee, a scholar of the Jewish faith. Paul knows what all of “my own race” know – the covenants and prophecies, the law and temple worship. They have the faith that has been longing for the Messiah. They know the stories and scriptures that point to Jesus as the Messiah. But they will not recognize him as the Savior, as the one, as the Messiah. To one who does accept Jesus as Lord, it is hard for Paul to understand how the Jews do not. Paul believes in Jesus Christ so strongly that he is willing the be cursed to hell, to trade away his salvation for the sake of the Jews believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Paul is willing to take the place of that child. Paul is willing to do anything to change their unbelief.

Paul’s willingness should be our willingness. Like the men with the treasure in the field or the pearl of great worth from last week’s Matthew 13 passage, we should be willing to give up anything or to do anything to see another come to Christ as Lord and Savior. As we ourselves ponder those we know and perhaps love who are living outside of a relationship with Jesus, to what extent are we willing to go so that they may be saved? How far?

Prayer: Lord, we know that at times the cost of faith might be high. The question I wrestle with is how far am I willing to go to bring another to Jesus Christ. Work within me to expand the range of what my answer truly is. Ever push the boundary, Lord. Thank you Jesus. Amen.


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A Heart for the Weary

Reading: Psalm 68: 1-10 and 32-35

Verse 9: “You gave abundant showers, O God; you refreshed your weary inheritance”.

Reading the first few verses of Psalm 68, one gets a sense of God’s powers. God can scatter the enemies and can make the wicked perish before him. David has experienced these things happening and has a confidence that God remains capable. When these things have happened, the righteous have been made glad, they have rejoiced. In our own lives we experience this as well. We might not see the walls of Jericho fall or see the sea swallow up the whole Egyptian army, but we so see sins fall away as we seek to deny self and to live for God’s glory as a new creation. We experience the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives, giving us the same confidence in God’s love for us.

God’s love is, of course, not limited to us. In verse four there is a shift in God’s care, provision, protection. David begins with praises to God. As one reads verses four through six, there is a connection to Jesus, the shoot of David’s line. Jesus came to more fully reveal God to humanity and in doing so more fully revealed the special place in God’s heart for the orphans and widows, for the lonely and the prisoners. The list in the Psalm is just a partial list. To get a fuller list we turn to the gospels. God has a special love for the broken and the lost, for the marginalized and the powerless. Verse nine sums this up: “You gave abundant showers, O God; you refreshed your weary inheritance”. God pours out his love on the weary… From this love God also “provided for the poor” from “his bounty”.

As people created in God’s image we too should hold a special place in our heart for the weary, the poor, the broken… In verse 35 of our Psalm we read, “the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people”. This remains true today. When we seek to partner with God, when we allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, we too can pour out abundant blessings on the outsiders, on those on the edges, on those who are imprisoned. May we seek to praise God not only with our voices, but with our hands and feet as well.

Prayer: Loving Father, break my heart for what breaks yours. Fill me with your compassion for those often overlooked or pushed aside. Empower me to be your hands and feet today. Amen.


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Come and Listen

Reading: Psalm 66: 8-20

Verse 16: “Come and listen, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me”.

The first half of our Psalm text dealt with the times when hardship or trial came and with how God was with the people of Israel. Each of these times of suffering or refining are part of the story of God’s people, just as are the stories of how God acted on our behalf. Each of our churches and each of us as followers of Jesus have these same experiences. When was a time that God acted on behalf of your church, reminding the congregation of his faithfulness and love? When were some times when God has done this for you personally?

In verse sixteen the psalmist gives an invitation: “Come and listen, all you who fear God; let me tell you what he has done for me”. He is inviting the family of God to gather around, to hear his stories of God’s goodness. Most often when we think of sharing our faith story it is with someone who is lost, broken, or unsaved. Yes, this is part of our call as disciples. Yet at times it is also important to tell our stories of faith to one another. The communal sharing of stories builds up the bonds of community. It reminds us of our common journey. Speaking our faith stories builds up our own faith as it strengthens the faith of our brothers and sisters. When we tell of what God has done it opens eyes and hearts to the possibility of what God can and will do in their lives or churches. Times of sharing with fellow believers also builds up our ability to share the stories with people outside our churches. It is practice, so to speak. All of this is wonderful. But there is also one other way that God’s Holy Spirit becomes active in times of sharing.

Often our struggle or time of testing or refining is one that a brother or sister is just entering or is in the midst of. In a general sense, all sin in common to mankind. It is hard to admit that we struggle as Christians, and it is especially true when newer to the faith. By naming where we have needed God’s help it opens a way for others to name their struggles and trials. It opens the way for us to walk with one another.

There are many reasons to “come and listen”. May we be storytellers, seeking and taking each opportunity that God provides to share our stories of faith with others.

Prayer: Father God, there have been many times when another’s story of faith has encouraged or empowered me. There are times when it has led me to admit my struggles and to find one who will walk with me. You have always been faithful. Always. Lead me to share my stories with others. May my stories be of encouragement and may others find hope in them. Amen.


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The Light Remains

Reading: Matthew 4: 12-17

Verse 17: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”.

Our passage begins with some news that signals a transition. Two events have already occurred to facilitate this transition. As the voice in the desert continues to preach a baptism of repentance, Jesus is baptized and then spends his time in the wilderness. Both of these events were preparing him to begin his public ministry. As John the Baptist is arrested, there is now space for the one to whom John always pointed. What was is passing on and the new is taking its place.

To begin his ministry, Jesus moves to Galilee, to a town that would be his base for ministry. Capernaum is located on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. This location is a bit removed from Jerusalem and the southern half of Israel. It is adjacent to Samaria. At times it will be a place of refuge for Jesus and his disciples. But as his ministry begins, Jesus announces a different reason for being there. It is according to God’s plan. Quoting from a prophet that spoke 700 years prior, Jesus announces that he has come to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy: he is the light that shines into the darkness.

Just as John had done, Jesus picks up the call to follow God and to walk in his ways. Jesus’ initial theme echoes John’s message. Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. The focus is now fully on Jesus as the light begins to shine out into the world. In him, the kingdom has drawn near. The Messiah, the Christ has come. The Good Shepherd has arrived to tend the flock of lost sheep.

The light remains with us, continuing to shine light into the darkness in our lives and in the world. Jesus remains present, healing and restoring the broken, reaching out to the lost, guiding us as we walk the narrow way. The Christ, the light, is here. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for being my light in the darkness, my hope in times of despair. Thank you for your abiding presence and gentle guidance. Thank you for pulling me back when I drift, for redeeming me when I slip. Ever be my light! Amen.