pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Words and Actions Most Unlikely

Reading: Luke 23:32-38

Verse 34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In Luke’s gospel we enter the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion this week. As we draw near to “Reign of Christ” Sunday and then the season of Advent that begins a week later, we come to the cross. Here Jesus demonstrates his kingship, not in earthly power and might, but in an act of humble sacrifice and mercy.

On what we commonly call “Good Friday,” Jesus is nailed to the cross, a criminal on either side. They are at Golgatha, “the Skull.” It was along a busy street just outside the city. Crucifixion was a public spectacle, one meant to deter other would-be criminals. Yet Jesus does not fit this description. He is innocent. Being without sin, he couldn’t have been more innocent. Yet the religious leaders ramrodded their accusations through Pilate and Herod, with Pilate finally caving into their demand to crucify.

Jesus had every right to be angry or bitter or resentful about what was happening to him. That’s where I’ve gone when unjust or unfair or cruel things have happened to me. Yet Jesus is filled instead with love and mercy. His first words from the cross are these: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” At a time when these words seem most unlikely, Jesus offers words of mercy and grace. Those hearing these words must’ve taken pause, at least for a moment. That’s what unconditional love does: it makes others notice. This day, may we too love others this way.

Prayer: Lord God, when I’m tempted to fling words right back, give me peace. When I’m tempted to get even, remind me of mercy. When I’m tempted to withhold forgiveness because of the pain or anger, place this picture of Jesus in my heart. Again and again, lead me to practice unconditional love. Amen.


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Standing Firm

Reading: Luke 21:12-19

Verse 12: “They will lay hands on you and persecute you.”

In the opening verses of this week’s gospel lesson, Jesus told the disciples of the false prophets and difficult events that will come. Shifting to a much more personal focus Jesus tells his followers, “They will lay hands on you and persecute you.” Those who follow Jesus will be imprisoned and will stand trial before earthly powers. The way of Jesus runs counter to the ways of the world. Instead of accumulating more and more for self, Jesus calls for generosity towards those without. Instead of using power to dominate relationships, Jesus calls for love to guide all we do and say. Instead of using others to further our own interests and desires, Jesus calls us to walk alongside and to lift others up.

In and of themselves, these things that Jesus calls us to are not likely to land us in hot water. But living this way shines a light on the darkness of the world. That creates tension with power. Standing for justice and equality and redemption are also all good things – until they challenge systems that work against these values of God. It is then that power rises against the followers of Christ.

Jesus offers the disciples and us today words of encouragement. First, these trials will be opportunities to witness to our faith. Second, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will “give you words and wisdom.” Opponents will not be able to speak or stand against us. And third, “by standing firm you will gain life.” This is a both/and promise. Because of the Holy Spirit power within, we will be freed from the cares and worries of this world. And because of that, we are able to live towards the eternal glory found in Christ.

Jesus warns us that it will not be an easy road. But he also promises us that the path of discipleship will transform our life and the world around us. May we ever be faithful.

Prayer: Lord God, fill me with Holy Spirit power each day. Give me a holy compassion for all who are held down, held back, held below. Through your power and presence, use me to lift others up and to free them from the darkness of this world. Amen.


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Resurrection Life

Reading: Luke 20:27-38

Verses 35-36: “Those who are considered worthy of taking part in the resurrection… are God’s children… are children of the resurrection.”

Photo credit: Greg Rakozy

In our gospel lesson this week the Sadducees come to Jesus and pose what they believe to be an impossible scenario. We read that they do not even believe in the resurrection. Yet they ask to solve a riddle about the resurrection. Their question is really about legacy and power – two things that they think are in their hands, not God’s. Jesus, as he often did, answers the impossible question as well as the real but unasked question.

Jewish law required a brother to marry a dead brother’s wife if they had no children. There were two factors behind this law. First, the family name would be carried on (legacy.) Second, children were produced to provide needed labor (which equals power.) In their wild scenario, 7 brothers marry the woman and none produce children. They all die. The Sadducees want to know whose wife she’d be in this resurrection thing. Again, this is a question of power for these religious leaders. Who would have full authority over this woman in your imaginary place, Jesus?

Jesus explains that the resurrection life isn’t like our earthly life. He begins by clarifying who will experience resurrection: those who are “worthy.” Jesus tells them that in the resurrection all are alive in God, all there are God’s children – not yours or mine or anyone else’s. Then Jesus turns to the unasked question. Yes, gentleman, there is a resurrection. He quotes from Moses, the one in whom the Sadducees place all authority, pointing out that Moses himself speaks of resurrection, naming God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses did not say God was their God, but the God IS their God. Gentlemen, the soul, the spirit, our essence – who we are at our core – this remains alive in God.

In verses 39-40, the non-Sadducee religious leaders score one for Jesus. Debate over. Jesus 1, Sadducees 0.

Prayer: Lord God, to stand one day in your presence, a day without equal. It is so without equal that we can only begin to imagine how awesome it will be. We’re at maybe a 1 or 2 out of a million in our understanding. Yet we trust absolutely in the promise of life eternal. Day by day may we live worthy of the resurrection. Amen.


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Glorified

Reading: 2nd Thessalonians 1:1-4 and 11-12

Verse 11: “We constantly pray for you… so that by God’s power God may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.”

Photo credit: Uta Scholl

In our Epistle reading Paul expresses his gratitude for the faith shown by the church in Thessalonica. He gives thanks for their growing faith and for the love that they show for one another. Paul even adds that he boasts about their steadfast faith in the midst of trial and suffering. It is easy to have faith when life is great. Paul recognizes and gives thanks for their faith when things are hard. I can praise God on good days and question or doubt God when bad things happen. To have the constant and steady faith that Paul sees the today’s text remains a goal for me and maybe for you too.

In the second part of today’s passage Paul offer up this prayer: “We constantly pray for you… so that by God’s power God may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.” The prayers are constant because the battle is ever present. There are ample opportunities to choose ease over discomfort, status quo over change, power over service. The world works to hard wire us to think of self first. So we need the presence and strength of God to live faithfully each day. We need help to fulfill the “good purposes” that God has for us. We need encouragement from the Holy Spirit to respond in faith each time we are prompted or nudged to act or speak on behalf of another. To stand against an injustice, to step into the gap to prevent abuse, to act and speak against racism, prejudice, sexism, inequality… – all of these place us face to face with those who have power and authority and privilege. To do these things, to walk this walk, it is to follow Christ.

Paul ends today’s passage with the “why” of his prayers: “So that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified.” As the Spirit stirs and as our faith leads, may we speak and act in ways that glorify the Lord.

Prayer: Lord God, in those moments when I teeter, when I’m tempted to be quiet or to try to preserve self, inspire me to speak or act in ways that elevate the powerless, the marginalized, the weak. Fill me with your power and presence, shining a light to the love and grace and glory of your son. Amen.


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Gather to Worship

Reading: 2nd Timothy 1:8-16

Verse 12: “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”

Today is World Communion Sunday in my denomination. Although apart physically, we share in communion with people all over the world. Each person will come today as unique individuals yet in spirit we will all gather around the one common table. We will gather and come as we are. Some will come in secret and some will come because another insisted. Some will come with joy and some will come with heavy burdens. Some will come to praise, others to find solace. Some will come seeking faith; some to celebrate their saving faith. We gather with many different stories.

Perspective is an important part of our stories. In the culture of his day, to be arrested usually brought shame. The shame fell upon the criminal and upon their family. Such was not the case with Paul and his family in Christ. He tells Timothy not to be ashamed of his faith or of where it has landed him. Quite the opposite – he invites Timothy to join him in his suffering. The invitation is based upon his faith in Jesus Christ. In verse 12 Paul declares, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” Paul knows that Jesus has the power to save and to raise him to new life. He knows that Jesus will protect him in this trial and will keep safe the promise of eternal life. Paul invites Timothy and us to live into this trust.

As we come and gather as the community of faith, both in person and online, both as local churches and as the global body of Christ, we join as one to worship our risen Savior. We celebrate and worship the one who died to pay the price for our sins and who rose from the grave to pave the way to life eternal. We rejoice today in the truths and we step into our tomorrows “with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord God, today as we gather, help me to be aware of those around me. We all gather, coming from many places and spaces. Draw us together, being generous and loving to one another. Draw us to you, our all in all. Amen.


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Relationships

Reading: 2nd Timothy 1:1-7

Verse 5: “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois… and now lives in you also.”

Photo credit: Wylly Suhendra

Today and tomorrow’s passage from 2nd Timothy 1 is a great example of one of the things I love about the Bible: it is real. It’s not just a story of God’s love and nice miracles that Jesus performed. Yes, it is partly this but there is real life in there too. There is adultery and betrayal and murder. There is sin and falling away. There is denial and dishonesty too. And today we begin a passage that speaks of the hard realities of faith and of the means that God provides to continue walking faithfully through the trials. We’ll delve into the trials tomorrow. Today we’ll look at the means that God provides to get us through the hard things of life.

Paul begins by reminding Timothy of the relationships in his life. He encourages Timothy by telling him that he prays for him. Paul then recalls the closeness of their relationship and the tears that bore evidence of this at their parting. He next lifts Timothy up by saying, “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois… and now lives in you also.” His grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice have both poured into Timothy and have helped him to grow in his faith. Paul encourages Timothy to “fan into flame” his faith, this “gift of God.” His mentor Paul and his family have planted and nurtured this gift in Timothy. Who comes to mind for you as we consider these relationships and how they guided Timothy? Who mentored and nurtured your faith?

Paul backs this relationships up with another vital relationship. In verse 7 he reminds Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity.” No, the Holy Spirit is not timid. Quite the opposite. The Spirit is a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline. The Holy Spirit, the spirit of Christ living in us, fills us with all we need to walk faithfully in and through the times of trial and suffering. The constant presence of Christ walks with us always. Reflect upon this too. When has the Holy Spirit given you power or love or self-discipline or whatever it was that you needed to get through a difficult thing?

Prayer: Lord God, you fill my life with vital relationships for my walk of faith. Thank you for the people in my life that teach and encourage and support me. Thank you for those who hold me accountable. And thank you for the Holy Spirit, my constant friend and guide. Amen.


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Markers of Success

Reading: Luke 16:19-31

Verse 19: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linens and lived in luxury every day.”

Photo credit: Falaq Lazuardi

Today we begin to look at a parable called “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” We will first focus on the rich man. We will turn to Lazarus and other aspects of the story later in the week. In the opening verse we read about the rich man. To dress in purple was a sign of wealth and power. To wear fine linens implied a life of leisure. Both of these are signs of success. Living in luxury every day was a sign of great wealth. The rich man has arrived. He has the life. That is how society would see him, right?

The standards haven’t changed much. Our culture looks at someone in fancy clothes, jetting here and there, living large as the epitome of success. In worldly terms, yes, they have achieved a certain status. For the rich man, this became his focus. Living for self became his goal. In the story it doesn’t sound like he gave Lazarus much thought. He does know his name. At some point he at least noticed the poor beggar lying outside his door. But Lazarus wasn’t worth much attention. Too busy enjoying and living life!

While I certainly don’t jet around or dress in fine linens, I do struggle at times to “see” those in need. I can get caught up in my version of success. By nature, I’m a doer, a checklist maker. These are my markers of success – getting things done, accomplishment, focus. I can get so busy chasing after these things that I can blow past the person in need that God has placed at my door. I can get frustrated when a person or circumstance is forced, rightly so, upon my organized and planned out life. What are your markers of success that can compete with loving the one that God places in your path?

Prayer: Lord God, when I get a bit too self-absorbed, bring me back down to the heart of love that lives inside of me. Gently nudge me, smack me upside the head – do what you need to do to remind me to love others as Jesus loves me. Lessen the self inside me so that others become my focus. All for your glory. Amen.


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The Lord is our Refuge

Reading: Psalm 14

Verse 3: “All have turned aside… There is no one who does good, not even one.”

Photo credit: Nick Fewings

The psalmist looks at the world and sees many who live as if there was no God. They are “corrupt” and “vile.” God looks down from heaven and struggles to find any who truly seek God. In verses 3 we read, “All have turned aside… There is no one who does good, not even one.” In our minds we may be tempted to add, ‘All but me.’ Yet that line – “there is no one who does good, not even one” – it is also in verse 1. The repetition draws us to consider our place in this phrase. David’s“no one” includes us.

Our society is driven to achieve success and popularity and power over. Those who have these things exert a great amount of influence and control, especially over those without. While we may not be directly responsible for systems and laws that benefit those at the top, we often benefit too. And then we become reluctant to speak against unjust systems and corrupt ways. We want for ourselves and forget about those on the margins. For example, many of our churches received and were forgiven large PPP loans. Yet some who sit in those same pews complain about the forgiveness of relatively small student loan debt.

In verses 5 and 6 we read, “God is present in the company of the righteous… the Lord is their [the poor] refuge.” When we strive for justice and seek to end or fix systems that favor those with much, then we are working to build God’s kingdom, not our own. We may suffer a bit along the way. Yet just as God is a refuge to the poor, God will be our refuge too. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, give me the courage to see the ways that I benefit from or participate in unjust systems and practices. Give me the courage to stand for what is right, being willing to count the cost of discipleship. Amen.


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Humble

Reading: Luke 14:1 and 7-11

Verse 11: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Photo credit: Kyle Johnson

Jesus is at the home of a prominent Pharisee for dinner. As the guests arrive, Jesus observes how they picked the places of honor at the table. The closer one sat to the host or special guest, the more honor one would receive. After observing for a time, Jesus tells today’s parable. All parables have a main point. The point of today’s is this: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

What did Jesus observe that led him to tell this parable? As he sat and watched others jockey for the best places at the table, how the arrogance and pride and ego must have been on full display. The Pharisees were a religious order. All organizations have hierarchies – some structural or organizational, some organic, some perceived. There are often times when those who are not the “boss” think they know more than the boss. Some in places of authority have to power to walk up to another, to point down the row of seats, forcing someone else down the pecking order. It really mattered to these Pharisees where they say at the table. Pride, arrogance, and ego were on full display.

We live in a world where pecking orders and hierarchies still very much exist – from the board rooms right on down to the school lunch table. The desire to rise up the order, to gain more control and power, to elevate oneself are temptations many of us face. When we allow our arrogance and pride and ego to drive our words and actions, then we are no better than these Pharisees. So the question for us to ponder today is this: when we feel we deserve better, how do we instead choose to practice the humility that Jesus so gracefully displayed?

Prayer: Lord God, when I am tempted to judge others as a means to elevate myself or to gossip or critique others as a means to raise my own self-esteem, remind me that all I am is found in you alone. Lead me to focus on you as my purpose and meaning. Guide me in humble service. Amen.


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Even Though

Reading: Hosea 11:1-7

Verse 2: “The more I called Israel, the further they went from me.”

As God speaks at the start of Hosea 11, we are reminded that God loved Israel and rescued them from slavery in Egypt. This is but one of many stories of God redeeming and guiding the beloved family of God. Another aspect of this familiar pattern comes in verse 2: “The more I called Israel, the further they went from me.” This is the other half of the cycle. For the Israelites, their relationship with God was often one of sin and repentance, forgiveness and restoration. Our faith can follow a similar path.

God laments how the people have turned to false gods. It is a choice we all make in our lives. Whether it is pursuing wealth or popularity or power, at times our focus is askew. We prioritize something other than God. God laments that the people do not recognize who healed them, who led them in love, who lifted the yoke, and who bent down to feed them. At times we too fail to see the work of God in our lives. We can miss the fact that the door that opened or the hole we avoided falling into was God’s hand at work. The verses for today close with a reality: “My people are determined to turn from me.” How often God must think this of me.

Even though we are not always what God designed us to be or who God wants us to be, God’s love remains. Even though we must sorely disappoint God at times, God’s compassion never fails. God ever desires to wrap us in love and kindness. It is a no-matter-what love. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, you formed me in my mother’s womb. You’ve loved me since the thought began. I know your love, your compassion. You’ve rescued me and have forgiven me, again and again. Even so, I stray, I wander, I sin. Thank you for a love that always, always reached out, ever drawing me back into right relationship. Amen.