pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Trust

Reading: Luke 17:5-10

Verse 10: “We have only done our duty.”

Photo credit: Nathan Lemon

This week’s gospel passage begins with the apostles’ request, “Increase our faith!” I don’t know about you, but I’ve made this request before. Sometimes I’ve said it aloud but mostly it is through prayer that my heart raises this request to God. I think it’s a pretty normal request, both for the apostles and for us. When life gets hard it is natural to ask for a little more God. And to be honest, we feel better in all of life if we think we have a little extra in the tank too!

Jesus’ response is interesting. And challenging. The bulk of his answer comes in a teaching about servanthood. He explains that servants have roles and that the simple expectation is to fulfill that role or roles. When a servant has acted faithfully and obediently, there is no big party or celebration. For the apostles and for all who follow Jesus, the expectation is to live a holy life of humble service, loving God and neighbor. That is his expectation. And according to Jesus, our response should be: “We have only done our duty.”

So how does this illustration relate to the apostles’ request for more faith? Jesus is saying that they have all the faith they need. But what is needed is the living out of that faith. Do what is expected: love well, practice goodness and kindness, be generous and empathetic, help those in need by feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned… Ultimately Jesus is asking us to trust. Trust that our faith is certainly sufficient. Trust that he is more than enough. With trust, use the faith we have to live the life that we are called to. May it be so for you and for me this day and every day.

Prayer: Lord God, in those moments when I begin to waver or to falter or when doubt rises up, remind me again that my faith is more than enough. Lead me to step forward in faith and trust, being bold for you. Amen.


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A Little Willing

Reading: Isaiah 1:1 and 10-20

Verse 17: “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed…”

Turning once again to Isaiah 1, we consider more deeply the call we touched on yesterday. In this opening chapter God clearly lays out the issue and calls the people back to faithful living. The rote rituals and selfish hearts must turn towards God. The evil must stop and the doing of good must begin.

In verse 17 we get a short list of ways to do good in the world. It begins, “Seek justice…” There are 4 things on the list. The list could be 40 or maybe even 400. But if you’re like me, maybe even 4 seems like too much. I cannot seek justice and encourage the oppressed and defend orphans and widows and… It can feel overwhelming to have a list and it can literally wear us out if we try and do all things. We must realize that God isn’t asking each of us to do everything.

Sometimes God places a cause on someone’s heart. It can be a huge thing – like caring for the poor and sick of Calcutta or leading the fight for civil rights. Maybe you have such a call. For most Christians, though, the call is to a neighbor or to a local need. It can be small – like serving on a local board. It can be a little bigger – like leading a drive to collect needed school supplies. It can be calling to check on someone you missed at church. It can be anything that shares or spreads the love of Jesus Christ.

If we are just a little willing, God will surely provide opportunities to be light and love in the world. May we be willing and may the Holy Spirit empower us to witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, what will come my way today? Will it be a neighbor or a family that I meet? Will it be more? Less? Whatever you have for me, O Lord, may I be a faithful servant. Amen.


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“Go and Do Likewise”

Reading: Luke 10:25-37

Verse 29: “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'”

The expert in the Law answers Jesus’ question correctly and is told to love God and neighbor in order to live, to gain eternal life. It would be a nice place to end the story. But it continues and in verse 29 the expert says to Jesus, “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'” The lawyer wanted to be justified, to hear it is okay to love who he wanted to love.

Before we go too deep in our condemnation of the expert in the Law we must admit that we too often ask the same question. It may sound more like “God, do I really have to love that person?” Like with the priest and then the Levite, we see a need or we encounter one who is unloved and we rationalize and we pass by. We have to get to work. I have an appointment. I’m not equipped or trained to deal with that… Oh how we long to be like the Samaritan.

The Samaritan stops and cares for the man. He brings him to an inn and cares more for the injured man. He then pays the innkeeper to care for the man and promises to return to cover any additional costs. What extravagant and generous love!

Turning back to the one who wanted to justify himself, to the one who wanted to limit who all he had to love, Jesus asks him who the neighbor was to the man who was injured. He responds, “The one who had mercy on him.” The one who stopped to love someone who was really hard to love – the one who went out of his way to love extravagantly and generously. May we too “Go and do likewise.”

Prayer: Lord God, open my heart, soul, strength, and mind to love like the Samaritan loved. Guide me to not count the cost and to be generous with all that you’ve blessed me with. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Really That Simple

Reading: Galatians 5:1 and 13-21

Verse 14: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Paul begins our passage today with a word of encouragement: “Christ has set us free. Stand firm.” No longer living under the Law, Paul has found freedom in Christ. Yes, he still wrestles with sin, as we all do, but he has been freed from the guilt and shame. No longer remaining stuck there, Paul has been freed to follow Jesus Christ and to live captive to Christ. No longer hindered by that old “yoke of slavery” to the Law, Paul stands firm in his faith in Jesus Christ and invites us to join him.

The freedom Paul finds is not a “you can do anything you want” freedom but a freedom lived within the bounds of Christ’s words and example. Paul identifies the filter for determining this line in verse 14. Here he reminds us: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Is he speaking of the old Jewish Law or of the new law of Jesus Christ? Or is it both? I believe it is both. Jesus himself said that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5). He fulfilled it by being God’s love lived out in the world. Doing so, Jesus was led by God or the Spirit, as Paul refers to in verses 16-18. Led by the Spirit, Christ was not captive to the desires of the sinful nature. We too can claim this Holy Spirit power and the freedom it brings.

In verse 19-21 Paul gives quite the list of “acts of the sinful nature.” Even though quite the list, it is quite incomplete. That maybe being a given, the sins on Paul’s list and on any other list we can generate come down to following the single command given in verse 14. If we truly love our neighbor more than self, we will not sin against them or against God. It’s really that simple: love unconditionally and fully.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to see with your eyes of love. This is where so many of my relationships and my interactions begin, with what I see. So let me see all as you see them, as a beloved child of God. Then lead me to love them – all of them – in a way that they come to better know your love. Amen.


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The Way of Love

Reading: John 14:8-17 and 25-27

Verse 26: “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

Photo credit: Shane

As Christians and as churches our basic mission is pretty simple: love God and love neighbor. Tracking back through the Old Testament to the days of Moses, this has always been the mission of the people of God. After about 3,300 years of these two great commands being the key tenets of the faith, you think that humanity would be better at this mission.

Now, there has been progress. People of faith have done great things to improve quality of life and to provide access to God’s love. There are more Christians in the world today than ever before. The good news is being shared and lives are being transformed. The Holy Spirit is alive and well and active in our world. Just as Jesus promised, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit… will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

While this is awesome when seen from the global view, is it true in our lives and in the lives of our churches? That is a hard question to really hear and reflect upon, isn’t it? On Wednesday a woman asked me a question made in the form of a statement. She said, “I thought churches were supposed to be a hospital for sinners.” Jesus himself said that he came not for the saved but for the sinners. May the Holy Spirit teach us this way of love and may it remind us of all that Jesus said and did as he practiced the way of love.

Prayer: Lord God, use me to reach the lost, the hurting, the broken in my neighborhoods. Use me to connect those without you to the healer and redeemer and restorer, to the giver of life. May all feel welcomed and loved and valued. Let this feeling begin with me. Amen.


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Stay the Course

Reading: Luke 13:31-35

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

Photo credit: Shane

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

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

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

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


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Not Far

Reading: Mark 12: 28-34

Verse 34: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

As the religious quiz Jesus and he debates with them a scribe (or teacher or lawyer – depending on your translation) comes and listens to the banter. He is impressed with Jesus’ answers so he asks his own question: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” He is not seeking to argue or banter with Jesus. He simply wants to know this wise man’s answer.

Jesus responds with the two great commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength AND love your neighbor as yourself. Any nominally faithful Jew would know these commands very well. They were the foundation of a daily prayer said in the morning and in the evening. We could relate this to our connection to this prayer: Our father, who art in heaven… Just those few words and we are off, speaking in the familiar rhythmic pattern. Like many of the religious of Jesus’ day, do we simply say the words, going through the motions, blah-blah-blah?

The scribe says to Jesus, “Well said, teacher.” He acknowledges the correctness of Jesus’ answer. Then he pushed beyond the religious politeness and adds that following these two commands are “more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Whoa! That would be like your pastor saying that feeding your hungry neighbor is more important than bringing food to the pantry or that helping with that single mom’s electric bill is more important than writing that check to the church or that being present to the coworker that just lost his dad is more important than being in church that particular Sunday morning. There is a huge difference between knowing the two great commandments (or the Lord’s Prayer) and really living them out. Because the scribe moved beyond appearing religious, to the place of recognizing that faith must really be lived out, Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, make the words of my mouth and the prayers of my lips just the beginning of my faith. Do not allow these words to be the end or the goal. Actually use me to show my faith in the ways I express my love of you and of all my neighbors. May I be faith lived out. Amen.


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Hard Heart… or Heart for God?

Reading: Mark 10: 1-12

Verse 5: “It was because your hearts were hard…”

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

Today’s passage in Mark is typical of the ‘conversations’ that the religious leaders had with Jesus. Today’s conversation focuses on the topic of divorce. This was a topic widely debated and interpreted since the time of Moses. Jesus quotes from the beginning times, in Genesis, lifting marriage to a lifelong covenant as the two “become one flesh.” In Deuteronomy 24:1 the Law allows for a man to write a certificate of divorce if his wife “becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her.” At the time, this usually applied to cases of sexual immorality. However, in Deuteronomy 22 the universal punishment for all consensual sex outside of marriage is stoning to death for both parties. If these laws were followed, then divorce caused by sexual immorality would be unnecessary. The muddy waters around the topic of divorce have made it fertile ground for interpretation and debate. For example, in the Mishnah section of the Talmud, a book containing authoritative interpretation of the Law, one rabbi writes that divorce is permissable only for sexual immorality and another rabbi writes that divorce is permissable for something as trivial as burning supper. So for Jesus, there is no 100% right answer.

Jesus answers their question by reminding the religious leaders of God’s intent for marriage. It is to be a relationship where “two become one flesh” as they are united by God. The lifelong commitment is emphasized by Jesus as he says, “what God has joined together, let man not separate.” This is God’s intent for all marriages. In a perfect world every marriage would be ‘happy ever after.’ But we live in an imperfect world, often falling short of the glory of God. Human will has forever fought the will of God. As the ancient Israelites pressured Moses about really, really having to live out God’s intent for marriage, Moses permitted divorce. Jesus points out that it was “because your hearts were hard” that Moses refined the Law. The desires of mankind affected how God’s law was understood and then lived out. The hardening of hearts continues to affect how we as individuals, as communities of faith, and as a society in general live out God’s will for our lives.

Divorce or sexual immorality are far from the only arenas in which humanity says over and over, ‘God, do we really, really have to do this or live just that way?’ Our hard, selfish hearts often lead us to question the will and ways of God. In our passage Jesus is inviting his audience then and us today to better understand and live into the heart of God instead of into our fleshy hearts. God’s heart is a heart first guided by love, but is also backed up with mercy, grace, compassion, empathy, generosity, forgiveness, humility, kindness, gentleness, patience, self-control… May our hearts be filled with these things of God, bringing God the praise and glory. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, Jesus boiled down the Law to two central commands – to love you with all that we are and to love neighbor as self. When we truly live these out, all else falls in line. May we not be people who split hairs over this and that. Instead may we love as generously and universally as you love. Amen.


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Our Response

Reading: Psalm 19

Verse 14: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

Photo credit: Emma Gossett

Psalm 19 begins with a celebration of how God is revealed in the created world. When one simply observes the world – sunrises and sunsets, wildflowers and spider webs, mountains and tiny streams, stars and amoebas… – one cannot but help to feel God’s presence and to sense God’s fingerprints on all of creation. Through the created world, God speaks without words.

God also speaks to us through the written word. The stories, the prophets, Jesus, the apostles – they all tell the story of God. In the middle section of our Psalm, verses seven through eleven, David writes of God’s laws. The law is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, sure, precious, sweet. It also warns us. This idea echoes Solomon’s words from Proverbs 1. Because of all that the law is, it evokes a response from those who seek to live according to God’s will and ways. Walking with God our souls are revived, the simple are made wise, joy comes to the heart, light comes to the eyes. We will experience salvation as we strive to live a righteous life. In walking daily with the Lord there is indeed “great reward.”

In the last section David begins by admitting the struggle. It is the struggle all of us face. We want to be blameless, to always please God. Yet we are not perfect. We falter and we sin. David asks for God to forgive these sins and to shield him from “willful sins.” Then the Psalm closes with these words: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” This is David’s summary, his desired response to God. David prays that the words he speaks will bring life and faith to those who hear his words. He also prays that the things within, his thoughts and intentions, that they would be pleasing to God. These words reflect both love of neighbor and love of God. May this too be our prayer. May all we say and think be pleasing to the Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

Prayer: Lord God, may I walk closely with you this day and every day. In and through me may others see your glory and may they know your love. Amen.


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Building Up

Reading: Ephesians 4: 7-16

Verse 7: “To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it”.

As we continue in Ephesians 4 today Paul speaks about unity and some about diversity. Paul begins this section reminding us that “grace has been given as Christ apportioned it”. Grace is the starting point. Grace allows us to see and walk alongside others just as they are. Grace is what allows us to sit at the table in fellowship with those who don’t see this or that exactly as we do. Grace opens the door to love.

Starting in verse eleven Paul speaks of some of the diversity of gifts folks in the church have: apostles, evangelists, pastors, teachers. Not all are the same. This list is far from complete yet it demonstrates the diversity necessary in the body of Christ. Each person is gifted to “prepare God’s people for acts of service”. As the church lives out its faith in the world, the body is built up towards a “unity of faith”. Spiritual maturity – “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” – is what enables the church or the body of Christ to be of one heart and one Spirit. Growing closer and closer to Christ, grace and love abound more and more.

In verse fifteen Paul writes, “speaking the truth in love, we will grow up into him… Christ”. This truth is not my truth. It is not your truth. It is not any human being’s truth. Jesus boiled the truth down to loving God with all that we are and reflecting that by loving our neighbors as Christ loves us. Covered in grace and love, Jesus set for us the example of what it looks like when we allow our lives to speak truth. May we follow Christ faithfully, being built up and building others up in love and grace, in Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Loving God, may your grace and love abound in me. When I am less than you call me to be, gently whisper your will into my heart and mind. Lead me to walk steadfastly in the steps of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.