pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Grounded in Love

Reading: Exodus 20: 1-17

Verse 2: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you… out of slavery”.

Today’s passage centers on Moses sharing the commands that God gave him on Mount Sinai. These commands would form the backbone and would be the beginning of the Law – the commands, statutes, and rules that would govern the life of the Israelites. Moses first shares the introduction: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you… out of slavery”. While we have not come out of slavery in the same sense that the Israelites just did, our relationship with Jesus does free us from many things.

The Ten Commandments begin to define the relationship between God and his people as well as the relationships between the people. The first four commands define our relationship with God and the last six define the relationships that we are to live in with one another. All ten are great guides for how to live with God and with each other. Yet they are just a start. The list would grow to 600+ laws and rules by the time Jesus Christ walked the earth. These laws shaped who and what the Israelites were, giving them an identity and a way to live in harmony.

Today we live in a world that also has a code of law that governs how our society rules itself, functions, and it also defines how we are to live with one another. Our civil law, in general, governs our political and societal practices and norms. While some civil laws interact or are influenced by moral or religious concerns, the way we live our day to day lives is still governed largely by our faith. As Christians we seek to live peaceably under the laws of our nation, state, and local community. We engage in the political process too – voting, working to add or amend laws to better society, and, sometimes, by serving. Yet the core of who and what we are still resides in our faith. As we live out our daily lives it is the “rule of life” that we have developed from our faith that truly guides us. For many believers this rule of life is modeled after Jesus’ life. Jesus modeled what living in right relationship with God and with others looked like when lived to the full. For Jesus, a right relationship was always grounded in love. Each of the Ten Commandments was grounded in love.

As you consider your rule of life – the way you act, the way you interact with and treat others, the way your faith is lived out, the way you love God throughout your day… – is it all grounded in love? In the spirit of Lent, consider this question deeply. What in your rule of life needs to change or die to better reflect Christ to the world? What needs to grow to better witness to the faith you profess?

Prayer: Lord, my mind is drawn to search and examine the habits and practices and things in me that define how I live each day. Help me to truly see as you would see, dying to that within that works to separate me from you or others. May the Spirit also work within me to grow those things that help me to better love you and others. Amen.


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No Matter What

Reading: Mark 1: 21-28

Verse 27: “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority”!

Photo credit: Aron Visuals

After calling the first disciples, Jesus’ ministry quickly grows. In today’s passage Jesus’ teaching ability is only surpassed by his ability to cast out a demon. It is no wonder that as Jesus continues to teach and heal, his fame only grows. Jesus will soon become so popular that he will have to search for opportunities to slip away from the crowds to reconnect with God.

Fame tends to change people. The famous often become isolated or aloof or out of touch. Soon they are disconnected from the world around them. Once in a while, though, someone becomes famous and people say that they are still the same old Joe or Sally. This was the case with Jesus. No matter how big the crowds became, each person in the crowd mattered. We read in many places about how Jesus stayed late to heal all who were brought to him. No matter how hectic or busy things were, Jesus always had time to stop for the widow or the leper or whomever. Jesus always took the time for the other. No matter what.

As we consider this example that Jesus set, how can we seek to model it this week? How can we make each person that we encounter feel like they really matter to us? How can we live in such a way that we can stop and give our full attention to the other who crossed our path?

May we too live our lives in such a way that others say, “What is this?” as they encounter Jesus Christ within us. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, break me of my inward focus, of my need to complete the task. Guide me to be present to others. Slow me down, open my eyes and heart to the world around me. Turn me towards others this week. Amen.


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Forever and Ever

Reading: Psalm 111

Verse 9: “He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever”.

Photo credit: Oscar Ivan Esquivel Artega

In the second half of Psalm 111 the focus shifts from the great works of God to the everlasting nature of God’s love. In verse seven the psalmist declares that God’s precepts or ways are trustworthy and are steadfast “for ever and ever”. Then in verse nine the writer speaks of the redemption that God provided as “he ordained his covenant forever”. Forever is always the nature of God’s covenants. They are not like a contract – that which we prefer. Contracts can be broken, renegotiated, bought out… when we no longer want to live under that arrangement. Not so with a covenant. God’s covenant states that he will be our God, our love, our hope forever. No matter what.

Marriage would be the closest thing we have to a covenant relationship. As one takes their marriage vows, one gets a sense of the forever, no matter what, unconditional love that God offers and gives in his covenant with us. As one says, “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…” they are really saying “forever” in terms of this earthly relationship. Marriage is an earthly relationship that models our eternal relationship with God. In fact, husband-wife and groom-bride language describes the relationship between Jesus and church, between follower and redeemer. Jesus chose this language intentionally. It both elevated our human marriages and it placed our covenant relationship with God in terms that we could grasp and understand.

Humans prefer contracts over covenants. They better suit our selfish hearts and our changing wants and desires. God prefers covenants. God is unchanging, steadfast, and true. God has chosen us forever. God created us for that purpose. Even though I may waver, even though I may stumble, even though I may fail, God remains eternally our God. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, I am so grateful for your “no matter what” love – for the love that is always there for me. Thank you for redeeming me again and again, working in me to shape me and to transform me more and more into your image. 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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The Next Generation

Reading: Psalm 78: 1-7

Verse 4: “We will tell the next generation the praise-worthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done”.

The Psalm for today opens with a plea to “hear my teaching, listen to my words”. The psalmist knows the importance, the value, the impact of knowing the stories of faith. These stories teach or pass along the faith. Asaph has heard the stories, he has learned the faith and has taken it for his own. Now he wants the next generation to do the same. The psalmist promises to tell “what our fathers told us”. For faith to continue into the next generation, we must each tell them of “the praise-worthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done”, just as Asaph did for his children and for generations to come through his Psalms.

This method is still how faith is passed on today. We teach and model faith for our children, planting seeds in them just as our parents, grandparents, and others planted seeds in us. Then we pray that the Holy Spirit Will nurture these seeds and that a young faith will begin to take root and grow in our children, grandchildren, neighbors… This is the pattern that we experienced, it is the pattern we must pass on generation after generation. The call to do so us so important that it is found in Jesus’ final words in Matthew 28. The task of making disciples is our main task.

The Israelites began this task at home, as we must. But it cannot end there. The making of disciples extends out into the world – “to all nations”, to use Jesus’ words. By helping our families and others to know the stories of faith, we are trusting in God that “they would put their trust in God”. We must teach and model what we want others to learn and take for their own. May it be so for all we meet.

Prayer: Lord God, the stories of faith fueled my love for you. As I watched and learned from others, I accepted faith for myself. Remind me of the best story to tell each time I meet one who is needing you, whether they know it or not. Through me, help others to know you, O Lord. Amen.


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Finding Peace

Reading: Philippians 4: 4-9

Verse 8: “Whatever is true… noble… right… pure… lovely… admirable… excellent… praise-worthy – think about such things”.

Yesterday, in the opening verses of this week’s passage from Philippians 4, Paul encourages the resolution of a disagreement in the church. Today Paul works out ways to be unified and at peace within our lives and within our churches.

To be at peace within Paul calls us to first rejoice in the Lord. When we are grateful daily for God’s presence and blessings in our lives, our outlook is changed. We become more positive, even concerning the challenges we face. Paul next reminds us to be gentle. It is a disposition we do not often think of. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, put it this way: “do no harm”. Paul goes on to offer an alternative to our anxious spirits – take everything to God in prayer. Be thankful for the good, be honest and forthright with our requests. From this place of prayer, Paul tells us that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds. This peace of God will guard us against worry and anxiety and fear and doubt and stress and… once we trust these things to God in prayer. Giving them up, acknowledging God’s love and power and control, will bring us peace.

To be at peace in our lives and in the church, Paul gives us a list of what to focus on. In verse eight he directs our thoughts to focus on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praise-worthy. In short, focus on Jesus. Jesus is all these things and more. This is what Paul strived to live out, to model, and what he taught. Continuing on in verse nine, he encourages us to take all of these things and to “put it into practice”. Live out there traits of Jesus and we will find peace in our lives and in our churches. May it be so for us all.

Lord God, guide me in all these things – truth, being noble, righteousness… Focus me in always on the things of Christ, not of the world, not of my inner self. Form me more and more into one who dwells in your peace. Build up the unity in the body of Christ as we all seek to walk in the way of Jesus Christ. 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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Forgive

Reading: Matthew 18: 21-35

Verse 33: “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you”?

Today’s parable in about forgiveness. It begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times he needs to forgive a brother who sins against him. Peter suggests seven as the limit. That would have been a generous number – far beyond the expectations of the day. This number remains far beyond the norm today as well. For one of us to forgive a fellow believer even more than a few times would be considered extreme in today’s world.

Jesus’ response must have shocked Peter so much that Jesus has to tell a parable to explain his answer of 77 times. In the parable a king is owed 10,000 talents – millions of dollars in today’s economy. The servant is unable to repay the debt so the king prepares to sell the man and his whole family into slavery to repay the debt. This action is well within the letter of the law and was expected is such cases. The servant begs for mercy. In an act of great kindness, the king takes pity on the man and forgives the debt.

To this point the parable reflects our relationship with God. We rack up sin after sin in our lives. For example, I am often guilty of pride or wanting to be in control. The Holy Spirit makes me aware of my sin and I confess and repent. But these sins pop up over and over again. If seven times were God’s limit, I would have been condemned to hell long ago. In fact, even at 77, my condemnation would have been sealed long ago. But it is not. God’s love and mercy and grace are boundless, limitless, endless. That is Jesus’ point here: our forgiveness of others should reflect God’s grace with us.

To illustrate the cost of an unforgiving heart, the parable continues in verse 28. Fresh off being forgiven millions, the servant finds a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii – a few dollars. Unable to repay him immediately, the second servant is thrown into prison. Fellow servants see this injustice and report it to the king. He calls the first servant, now called “the wicked servant”, back in. He asks, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you”? Because of his lack of pity and mercy and forgiveness, the king’s pity and mercy and forgiveness is withdrawn and the servant is sent to prison to be “tortured” until he can repay the huge debt. Perhaps the debt is not just the 10,000 talents.

Our parable closes with a sober reminder: this is how God will treat us too if we do not “forgive your brother from the heart”. As we ponder this lesson, may we seek to forgive as we are forgiven, modeling the love of God.

Prayer: Lord God, when I am a little reluctant to forgive another, remind me of this story. Remind me again and again of your great love. Help me to forgive others as you forgive me – over and over and over and… Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Call on God

Reading: Psalm 17: 1-7 and 15

Verse 6: “I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer”.

Today’s Psalm is a prayer to God for help and protection. As I read David’s words, I know that I have prayer similar prayers at times. Just as it is from time to time with my prayers, in David’s prayer there are two angles. The first is mentioned above – a desire for help and protection. We all pray these prayers, usually daily at least. If these prayers are not for ourselves, we certainly raise them for family, friends, and others. These prayers can be sincere petitions for God’s touch or presence or they can be prayers of anguish and desperation.

As we read today’s Psalm, for me there is also a familiarity with the righteousness of David’s prayer. He is assured of his own righteousness and holy living. David claims to have “kept from the ways of the violent” and that his “feet have not slipped”. There is almost an air of ‘Look how good I am God. How can this be happening to me’? Again, I too have prayed this kind of prayer from this place in my heart. When we have been striving to live faithfully and something unjust or unethical happens to us, it is natural to question God as to why it is happening. Even though it may be our natural inclination, it is dangerous ground to try and leverage God or to expect better because of what we perceive as our own superior righteousness or goodness.

In verse six David shows his trust in God. Here we read, “I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer”. David is sure that God will hear and answer. The Psalm also closes with David trusting in God. He believes that in the morning, when all of this has passed, that he will see God’s face. The trust that God will see him through is a trust that we too should model. As we ourselves bring our prayers and petitions to God, may we humbly exhibit the same deep trust in God’s presence and care and love for us. Day by day may we too see God’s face.

Prayer: Lord God, remind me daily of your love and care. In ways small and large grant that I may see your hand at work in my life and in the church. May I ever trust in you alone. Amen.