pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Remember

Reading: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Verse 19b: “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols?”

In our time yesterday we looked at Jeremiah’s trust in God’s presence during a time of hardship and trial. Jeremiah’s heart cries out for the wayward people, for those who were crushed. His heart mourns for the suffering and the slain. Through it all is a sure confidence that God is with them. Jeremiah displays a mature faith. Life has taught him that God is there in the highs and lows and in everything in between.

The people of Israel cry out, “Is the Lord not in Zion?” They question if God is even with them. The response should be to seek God, to turn to God. The history of Israel suggests that God will be there. The covenants promise that God is there. In the latter half of verse 19 we hear God’s response: “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols?” Questioning God’s presence, the people turned once again to idols. They decided to trust in something other than the Lord God.

The sad reality is that many of us do the same thing. If an unexpected or difficult tragedy befalls us, we can question if God is real or present or good. If we have a rough day or if something doesn’t quite go our way, we can turn to food or drugs or alcohol. If we are in a season that pinches our finances or some other earthly form of security, we can turn to leaders or systems for help. We too can be slow to turn to God. We too can turn to worthless idols.

When tempted to turn to idols or to someone or something other than God, may we remember that the Lord God loves us, is always seeking our good, and is steadfast and true. May we ever trust in God.

Prayer: Lord, in the pain or the trial, draw me back to you. In the times when I’m drawn to something else, draw me back into your love. Amen.


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Living Under Christ

Reading: Galatians 3:23-25

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Transformed, New, Better

Reading: 1st Corinthians 15:35-38

Verse 37: “When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or something else.”

In our first half of this week’s passage from 1st Corinthians 15 Paul addresses our resurrection bodies. More than telling us what we’ll be like, though, Paul tells us that we will be different, more. Paul also reminds us that death always involves changes; something new emerges.

Paul goes practical in verse 37, reminding his mostly agricultural audience that “When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or something else.” Paul reminds them of this truth of creation that humankind has known for ages: the seed that goes in the ground isn’t the same as the plant that emerges. God determined long ago what the new life – whether wheat or a tomato plant or poison ivy – what it would look like when it sprouts up out of the ground and as it develops. God has a similar plan for us as well. Although we are not exactly sure what we will be like in heaven, we do know that God knows and we do know that we will be transformed, new, better.

In many ways one can argue this about the seed-plant analogy. Sure, the seed can be eaten and it will give you some small nutritional value. But if you plant it and nurture it, one day it will produce abundantly more food or flowers or plants… And one can harvest more seeds to sow even more plants. Almost always the plant is full of life and beauty and energy too – something lacking in the appearance of the seed. So too are we when living out our faith.

Our faith is also like the plant in this way: what the plant is on day 1 is not what it will be on day 30 or day 82 or year 6. If cared for and nurtured, it will grow and produce fruit, flowers, other plants, or, in our faith, disciples. As we walk and grow in our faith, we develop and mature, producing other disciples as we become more and more like Christ day by day and year by year. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the many ways in which you have grown and developed my faith. Continue to be at work in me, maturing me and guiding me to produce fruit for your kingdom. Amen.


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When I Am Weak

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 12: 2-10

Verse 9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”.

Photo credit: Jon Tyson

As our passage today begins, Paul speaks of himself in the third person. He tells of a “man” who has a grand vision of heaven. There he witnessed “inexpressible things”. Paul could choose to tell all about this vision but he refrains. He does not want others to “think more of me” than they should. Paul’s language here reminds me of those ‘just asking for a friend’ questions we give or receive once in a while.

In our time many are drawn to leaders with awesome resumes, excellent credentials, and/or with amazing charisma and leadership skills. It was not any different in Paul’s day. There is never a shortage of people that want to lead or that think they are just the best leader ever. Both are in great supply. Paul could have boasted of his encounter with the risen Lord or of his vision of heaven. Instead he admits his weakness and his brokenness. He chooses the path of humility. Paul shares that he has a “thorn” in his flesh. It torments him and he has begged God to take it away. God will not. The Lord instead tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. The Lord allows the thorn to stay to remind Paul again and again that he’s not perfect, that he’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread. Paul can think back to his Pharisee days and say, ‘I once knew a guy like that…’

Paul was found by Christ and has matured in his faith. He now knows that when he is weak, Christ is strong. When insult or persecution or hardship comes, Paul now relies even more on Jesus Christ. It is then that Paul finds strength. It is then that we are strong too – when we rely on and trust in Christ. In humble faith may we ever turn to the only one who can save: Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, in Paul I see Jesus’ humble servant’s attitude. When I look within, may my life and leadership reflect this same grace and humility. Remind me of my flaws and weaknesses when I think too much of self. Thank you God. Amen.


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Small Seeds

Reading: Mark 4: 30-34

Verses 31-32: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed… it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants”.

Today we continue in Mark 4 with the planting of seeds. Yesterday we heard the call to scatter seeds of faith, trusting God to root, grow, and mature both our faith and the faith of others. Yesterday we heard that we are all called to plant seeds. Perhaps knowing that his audience then and that followers down through the ages would question or even balk at their ability to do this, Jesus continues with today’s parable.

Jesus begins by asking, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like”? Well, it is not what we or the world think. Jesus shares this illustration: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed… it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants”. He chooses the smallest of all seeds. And yet the tiny seed produces a large plant which blesses the birds of the garden. Small gifts… big results. That is God’s kingdom at work. In the kingdom of the world, we think size matters. Larger bank accounts, bigger houses, fancier clothes – big seeds. But what difference do these things make in areas that really matter? None. It is the faithful, small gifts and actions that really build the kingdom of God. It is the many small words and humble actions of faithful followers that build the kingdom of God. Yes, you may hear a wonderful sermon today and you may be moved by the beautiful music. But if your time in church does not lead you to be Christ’s light and love in the world for the rest of the week, then how did worship matter?

The Holy Spirit gifts all believers. All of us have gifts to use in the building of God’s kingdom. How will you use the gifts and talents that God has given you to plant seeds for the building of the kingdom here on earth?

Prayer: Lord God, use me today to be a part of transforming the world. May I begin today with each I meet, pouring your love and grace into their lives. Amen.


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Impact

Reading: 1st Corinthians 8: 7-13

Verse 9: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak”.

In the second half of our 1st Corinthians 8 passage, Paul reveals how our behavior can affect other believers. Some of the mature believers in the community of faith were comfortable eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. They may have been eating at an event in the temple or they may have purchased meat in the market that had been used in a temple sacrifice. To these mature believers, idols were meaningless so eating this meat was fine. But to the new believers, to those who were not far removed from worshipping these idols, this practice was a “stumbling block”. If a new believer ate of this meat, their conscience would get the best of them. They felt like they had defiled themselves. If they chose to abstain and felt guilt or weakness for needing to abstain when others in the church were partaking, this would weaken their faith. Paul says to the mature: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak”. He is asking them to do this for the benefit of their new brothers and sisters in Christ.

Today we must be aware of potentially questionable situations that may also make a new believer stumble. For example, we would not want to talk up or invite a newly recovered person to join us in our bar ministry. If we knew someone had just left behind a sex addiction, we might do harm if we invited them to help in our outreach to sex workers. If we were aware of these conflicts and we asked anyway, we would be doing what those eating food sacrificed to idols were doing. We must also be aware of how our personal decisions and behaviors might adversely affect other believers.

There is a second layer to today’s reading that we as Christians and we as churches must also pay attention to. The mature in Corinth were not demonstrating concern for others. They were meeting their needs, doing their thing without regard for others. Although not explicit in the text, there must have been some conversations or some signal of their felt superiority and inferiority surrounding the eating of this food. Today we use “encouragements” like “if you just had enough faith” or “just trust God” that are hurtful to those new to the faith or to those struggling with their faith. Here we are not building up in love. Love would call us to be present, to listen, to walk with that person, to offer empathy.

Whether by our words or by our example, may we be mindful of our impact on others. May all we do and say build others up in love, for the glory of God and for the building of the kingdom.

Prayer: Lord God, make me aware of my impact. Use me for good in the world. Pull me up short when my example or my words have negative impacts. Guide me to build your kingdom here. Amen.


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Falling Short

Reading: 1st Corinthians 8: 1-6

Verse 3: “The man who loves God is known by God”.

Paul begins this section on food sacrificed to idols by speaking of knowledge. He is talking about what is inside our heads. This is usually where faith begins. Most Christians follow the same path: learning about God, Jesus, and faith in Sunday school, youth group… as they mature in faith until one day the head knowledge becomes heart truth. As is true with almost everything in life, in our faith we understand more and more the longer we journey in faith. Within the Corinthian church some were relying their superior knowledge and it was causing division and it was hindering the faith journey of the new believers. In our churches today, we still do this at times. We allow our knowledge to “puff” us up.

The first way this happens is when we make our churches feel exclusive. We all look and talk alike, we act alike, we appear to be perfect Christians. We have those that we gravitate to each Sunday morning. A visitor can feel like an outsider very quickly, especially when they are not like the homogeneous crowd. Someone who comes because they are struggling with something really feels out of place when they enter a room full of people without any faults or issues. To further create a sense of “us” and “them” we use insider language and big fancy words. Maybe most regulars know what sanctification, justification, atonement, sacrament… mean. But if you are new to the faith, these terms can make you feel like an outsider very quickly.

In the Corinthian church the mature believers knew “that an idol is nothing at all”. To them, idols were just carved pieces of stone or wood. The mature believers knew that there was only one God, only one Lord. But for the new believers, the ones who had grown up worshipping these idols all their lives, this idea was a struggle. The mature believers were saying, in essence, “just get over it”, “just believe what I say I believe”. They were not willing to walk in love with their new brothers and sisters in Christ. They were not willing to enter the struggle, to walk alongside the one wrestling with their conscience.

We do this in our churches when we fail to talk about our sins and struggles. Church becomes a social club for the perfect and for the saints. Nope, no sin here. We know all we need to know to be good little Christians. In verse three Paul writes, “The man who loves God is known by God”. Loving God must lead to loving others. Jesus unpacks the truth of this idea in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). When we say we love God, when we say all are welcome in our churches but do not really welcome the sinners and broken people into our communities of faith, we are falling short. When we look down on those “obviously” dealing with sin by making them feel unwelcome, we are falling short. When we indirectly but clearly say come back when you have your life together, we are falling short. May it not be so church. May it not be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to truly love others as a witness to my love for you. Strip away my pride and judgmental tendencies, guide me to walk side by side in love with those in struggle, with those living outside of your love. Give me the courage to admit my struggles and sins within the body of Christ. Grant me a welcoming and compassionate spirit. Amen.


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Leaders and Mentors

Reading: Judges 4: 4-5

Verse 4: “Deborah, a prophetess… was leading Israel at that time”.

Deborah was a woman who led the nation of Israel for a period of time. Under her leadership and guidance, the people were freed from the rule of foreign kings and enjoyed peace for forty years. Deborah was the leader or judge because of her connection to God. As a prophet Deborah heard the word of God and used God’s direction to lead the people, to settle disputes, to guide military leaders. She relied on God to show her how to lead and to have the words to speak. The people looked up to Deborah and saw her as their leader because God’s connection to her was clearly evident.

As I think back over my life of faith, I can identify people who were Deborahs to me. In times of uncertainty their words guided me and helped me through. In times of suffering or trial, their words brought me comfort and strength. In times of difficult decisions, their words helped discern the correct path. I sought these men and women out because I saw God’s presence in their lives and because they had walked the path I was walking. As I have turned to more mature Christians, God has used their willingness to help me along on my spiritual journey. Like Deborah, they have freely given of themselves, patiently leading and mentoring me in the ways of God. I am grateful for their love and care, for their investment in me as a fellow believer.

As we each continue on our journeys of faith, we too may be called upon to be a Deborah. It might be for our church, for our community, for a family member, for a friend… As we grow in our relationship with God, his presence becomes more and more evident in our lives. When we are called upon as leaders and/or mentors, may we step forward as humble servants, leading and guiding as the Lord our God directs us.

Prayer: Lord God, on my journey of faith, help me to discern when to lead and what to seek the guidance and direction of others. Speak to me by the power of the Holy Spirit, allowing me to live in a way that is pleasing and glorifying to you. Keep me humble, turning to wiser and more mature Christians when other voices are needed. Continue to lead and guide me, O Lord. Amen.


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Come

Reading: Genesis 45: 1-15

Verse 4: “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me'”.

In Genesis this week we flash forward from chapter 37, when his brothers sold Joseph into slavery. Time has passed and Joseph has been through more trials. But God has been clearly at work and through these experiences a faithful and mature Joseph now stands before his brothers. Now 40, he has risen to the second in command in all of Egypt. Only Pharaoh has more power. What shall Joseph do with these treacherous brothers who now stand powerless before him begging for favor? He has used his power to manipulate them but has done them no harm.

In today’s passage, his emotions finally overtake Joseph. He can play the game no longer. He feels his brothers are still family and they have proven themselves to now be good and honest. After clearing the room of all the Egyptians, Joseph weeps loudly. He is releasing much pent up emotion. He weeps so loudly that those outside the room can hear him. It is a gut wrenching, shaking all over kind of cry. And then in a sudden outburst Joseph reveals his true identity and asks if Israel, his father, is still alive. His brothers’ response? Stunned and terrified silence. This powerful, powerful man has just revealed that he is the younger brother that they sold into slavery twenty plus years ago.

Sensing their fear and shock, Joseph says to them, “Come closer to me”. Come and get more personal. Draw close and really see me. There needs to be no distance between us. Jesus said the same to Peter in last week’s reading from Matthew 14: “Come”. Step out of the boat and onto the raging sea. Walk across the water. Trust me. What went through Peter’s mind must have been what Reuben and Judah and… felt when Joseph asked them to walk across that beautiful floor. All their fear and worry dissipate as Joseph says, “Come”. It is an invitation to do the unlikely – to enter his presence, to be forgiven and reconciled, to have things put right again.

Many years later Jesus would offer the same invitation. In Matthew 11:28 he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”. Jesus invites us too – come into the presence, receive mercy and grace and forgiveness, find rest. Come, fellowship with the Lord.

Prayer: Gracious God, you continue to call, to invite me into your presence. Because you are holy and just and pure, you cleanse me, removing all that separates so that I can be with you. Thank you for your immense love and unending grace. Amen.


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Always There

Reading: Romans 7: 15-25

Verse 21: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me”.

Paul’s writing for today is a passage that we can all relate to. Created in the image of God, born with a spark of the divine within each of us – yet we struggle with sin. The human part of us is ever drawn to the desires, pleasures, and other trappings of this world. Inside each of us is both good and evil. A friend once described these as two twin wolves, each fighting for control. His advice was to feed the good wolf because the one you feed is the one that grows.

If this idea were true to the point of starving the evil to death, then eventually we would not sin. Anyone who has sought to walk faithfully with Christ for a number of years knows this is not really possible. As we mature both in age and in faith, yes, some of the sins change or lessen but the evil within never totally disappears. Lust, for example, does not quite have the grip on us at 70 or 80 that it had on us at 20 or 30. But others sins, like fear and worry and control, they seem to gain power as we mature. Even though our journey of faith is one of becoming more and more like Christ, Satan is ever at work in our lives. Good and evil will wage a battle for our hearts and souls until the day we die.

Paul explains his own inner, constant battle in today’s passage. In verse 21 he shares this truth that we all live daily: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me”. As inherently good and loving creations of God, we do want to do good in the world, we do want to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we do want to love one another as Jesus first loved us. Yet evil is always there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for that sliver of fear, that crack of doubt, that fleeting thought of jealousy or anger or envy or pride. Satan is just waiting to take advantage of our weakness.

Paul admits that he is a “wretched man”. We too all feel that way when we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. As one reads Paul’s words today, there is an undercurrent of hopelessness in Paul’s battle. We too are hopeless in our own battle with sin. We alone cannot defeat or overcome sin. On our own we cannot rid ourselves of the sun or of the guilt and shame that makes us feel wretched and unworthy. Yet into our hopeless and powerless situation steps Jesus Christ. Jesus has the power. He defeated both sin and death. In and through him we find forgiveness and grace, mercy and power. We too can join Paul in rejoicing in God’s gift of Christ. Through Jesus our Lord we can be made new again over and over. Sin never has the last word. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Dear Lord, Paul’s words echo as truth in my life. It seems that an evil thought or an unkind word slips out more often than it should. Gird me up with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Fill me with a firm foundation of faith for the daily battle ahead each day. Walk with me Lord Jesus. Amen.