pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Pleasing to God

Reading: Isaiah 58: 1-12

Verse 4: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”.

Photo credit: Jordan Wozniak

Today is Ash Wednesday. This is a great passage to consider as we prepare to journey into the season of Lent. The words of this Psalm are a wake up call to Israel and to all who approach their relationship with God superficially.

The ashes that we will place on our foreheads reminds us of our mortality. Ashes were used for this same purpose in the days of Isaiah. Remembering our mortality reminds us that we are finite, limited, imperfect. Today begins the season that culminates the Saturday before Easter Sunday. On Easter Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ triumph over the grave. In his resurrection we find our eternal hope. We are invited to walk through Lent as a season of preparation for that day. These forty days are a time of reflection, introspection, refining.

The people of Isaiah’s day were putting ashes on their foreheads, wearing sack cloth, bowing their heads to God. They were exhibiting all the outward signs of fasting. Today we can show up at church and have a cross drawn on our foreheads. We too can go through the motions. In our passage God’s people fasted, yes, but also continued to exploit the marginalized, to strike one another with “evil fists”, and to ignore the injustices and the oppression all around them. Verse four sums up God’s response: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”. We cannot come to church and go through the motions of worship or Bible study or youth group and then go out and live as the world lives.

In verses six and seven God shares the kind of fast that is pleasing to him. As fast pleasing to God changes our hearts and leads us to fight injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share food with the hungry, to give shelter to the wanderer, to clothe the naked. In Lent we are called to look within, to repent of our sins, our selfishness, our indulgences. Doing so we will come to have a heart focused on drawing God’s kingdom near.

Verse eight reveals what happens when God’s people turn towards him and become like him: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear”. May it be so.

Prayer: God of the brokenhearted, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the needy – lead me to the place of honest confession and sincere repentance. Make me aware of how I contribute to the pain and misery of the world and turn me from my harmful and hurtful ways. Kill in me all that keeps me from fully loving and serving you and all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.


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Love God, Love Neighbor

Reading: Matthew 22: 34-46

Verses 37 and 39: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and love your neighbor as yourself”.

The Pharisees loved the law. It was a tool to maintain their position and their appearance of goodness. With the law they could judge and shame and control others. The law could be used to define who had value and worth and standing. Jesus chose love. That is the key word in the two great commandments. Boiled down to their simplest form, Jesus said, “Love God, love neighbor”. The highest form of love welcomes the other, serves all, extends mercy and grace and forgiveness without cost, and is generous with all one has and is. And, in the end, it is not the law that saves us, it is love that saves.

Love saves us because it is greater than our sin. Love saves us because it is stronger than the power of death. Love washes us clean when we stumble and give in to the lures of the world and to the pleasures of the flesh. Love makes us new again over and over, allowing us to continue to be in right relationship with the Lord our God. The love that grows within also extends outward, leading us to offer grace and mercy and forgiveness not only to others but to ourselves as well. Love leads us to see others as valued, as worthy, as beloved children of God. Love leads us to care for the sick, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the imprisoned and the lonely, to provide for the orphan and widow and stranger. Love calls us to die to self again and again, surrendering our lives to Jesus Christ, the one who modeled what it is to fully love God and neighbor. Each day may we seek to share Christ’s love with others as we bring love into the world.

Prayer: Lord of love, deepen my relationship with you each day, empowering me to be love lived out. Capture my whole heart and open it to all I meet. In these encounters, may others see you. Amen.


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Godly Living

Reading: 1st Timothy 6: 6-19

Verses 11-12: “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith”.

Paul speaks to us today about the focus of our lives. Will the focus be on God or will it be on the things of this world? This battle is very real and is fought out throughout our lives. It is a temporal versus eternal battle. The world and Satan try and tell us that we find our happiness and joy in the material and in the pleasures of this world. The material can be possessions or money in the bank. The pleasures can be an extravagant vacation or prostitutes. It can be drugs or it can be in image enhancement surgery. All of these things require money. The pursuit of money to fuel our desires and pleasures can easily become “a root of all kinds of evil”.

Advising his young friend Timothy, Paul speaks against the pursuit of money… Our passage today begins with “godliness with contentment is great gain”. When our focus is on godly living we trust that God is good and that God provides all that we need. In this mindset we find real contentment. Paul points out the obvious – we take nothing with us when we leave this world. So why waste time chasing after these things? When we do we find that we do “wander from the faith” and we are “pierced with many griefs”. When our love is focused on money… it is not focused on God.

Instead, Paul encourages Timothy and us to “flee from all of this” and to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness”. When we do this, then we “fight the good fight of faith”. When we pursue these godly ways, then our focus shifts. Instead of focusing on ourselves and on our wants, we can see the other and their needs. It helps us to look outward in love instead looking inward in greed. It is a trust in God alone instead of a reliance on the next “thing” to bring us happiness that does not last.

The passage closes with some commands: do good, be rich in good deeds, be generous and willing to share. All of these come naturally when God is leading our lives. To cede that control is the first step of faith that leads to godly living. Once we take those first steps, we begin to build our lives upon the firm foundation of Jesus Christ. On that journey of faith we “take hold of the life that is truly life”.

Prayer: Dear God, stuff. Does stuff really matter? Well, no. But oh how I can chase after it sometimes. Turn my selfish desires away and build up in me more of a heart for others. Help me to trust in you alone. Be my all in all. Amen.


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We Are Messengers

Reading: Malachi 3: 1-4

Verse 1: “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me”.

Malachi closes out the Old Testament with a reminder and a warning and a call. These three are interconnected. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are reminded that Jesus will suddenly come; therefore, we must be ready to stand when He appears. We are warned – Jesus will refine and cleanse, purifying us. Will we make the grade? We also find a call. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to spread the good news to prepare all people for the coming of the Lord.

The first two are inward. When Jesus comes “like a thief in the night”, will we be ready or will our faith be asleep? Jesus calls for us to be ready. He expects to find it well with our souls. If so, we will survive the refining process. It will only purify us. It will not destroy us. It will be the final cleansing before we enter eternity. If, day by day, we seek to be in a right relationship with Jesus, repenting as need be, then we have no worries.

The last message we hear in our passage is outward. We cannot practice the first two just to live in our own ivory tower, in “holy solitary” as John Wesley put it. That is not God’s purpose for us. Verse 1 again reminds us: “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me”. In Malachi we can read this as John the Baptist. Yes, it does speak of John. But it also speaks of you and me. We too are messengers of the good news. We are phase 2, so to speak. We await the return of Christ. As we wait, we use our voice to prepare the way for the Lord bless in the lives of those who do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This should lead us to the question: who are they?

In verse 5, Malachi identifies a few and Jesus certainly does as well throughout His ministry. We are called to the widows and the fatherless, to the aliens, to the lost, to the broken, to the poor. If we just look around a bit, we will find them. They are in all communities and in most neighborhoods. We will not likely find them in our ivory towers or at our Sunday morning country clubs. They are across the street or alley; they are on the other side of town.

Messengers are sent to proclaim the news. You and I, we are sent to those who do not know the good news of Jesus Christ. May we engage those who do not know Jesus. May we be the gospel and may we share the gospel with those on the margins, with those on the fringes. In doing so, we prepare the way before Jesus, so that He may enter in.

Prayer: Lord, make me a messenger, as hands and feet of Christ, as well as love lived out loud, drawing all to the Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.


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Upward

Reading: Luke 18: 9-14

How would you finish this line: “Thank God I a not like __”?  For the Pharisee in today’s story, the tax collector is nearby and is an easy target to compare himself with.  Everybody looks down on the tax collectors!  But on another day it could be a struggling widow or the town beggar.  When one steps outside the temple the possibilities of how one could finish that line grows quickly: Gentile, Samaritan, prostitute, slave, foreigner, Roman…

For the Pharisee, he finds great comfort in who he is, or at least in how he appears to others.  He is, of course, playing a game that we are quite good at too.  By comparing himself to another who is an ‘obvious’ target in society, he is elevating himself.  But it is shallow and self-centered.  It is also far from pleasing to and honoring of God.

So, how would we finish that line?  Who in our communities would go on that line?  Our answers could be political, ethnic, racial, socio-economic, emotional, moral, or simply learned.  Our answers could be intimate friends, family members, co-workers, fellow pew mates, neighbors, and strangers.  We find no shortage of others we could compare ourselves to.  We are also quick to look away from those to whom we do not compare to favorably.  The game can cut both ways.

For the Pharisee, and all too often for most of us, the focus is not on God and the many things we should be grateful for.  Our focus is too easily inward and not upward.  May we be grateful for who we each are in God and for the unique gifts and talents we all possess.  May we offer praise and thanksgiving for the many blessings we have.  May empathy and compassion be what fills our eyes, minds, and hearts.  May generosity and humility guide our response to those God places in our lives.  May our gaze be ever upward.