pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Faith Alone

Reading: Romans 4: 13-25

Verse 25: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”.

Photo credit: Mael Gramain

What does God expect or require of you? What did Jesus expect of his disciples and of those that would follow him? If we were to make a list to answer these questions, would the list be a collection of things to do or would it detail how to live our lives? Paul is answering these questions for the church in Rome in today’s passage.

The church in Rome was falling into the trap that Paul has been caught in for most of his life. Faith was a form of legalism – of checking boxes and staying within the lines defined by the Law. Faith was not a way of life. To help them understand this Paul goes back to Abraham, the father of Israel, the patriarch of all patriarchs in the Jewish faith. In our passage today Paul points out that God credited Abraham as righteous because of his faith in God. Abraham’s faith was demonstrated in his trust and obedience to God’s direction. The Law was not even in existence yet. Entering into this right relationship with God through faith alone made Abraham and his descendants heirs of God’s promises. For Paul, all who believe in Jesus fall into that line of descendants. Belief is what gets one in that line, not following any set of rules or lists that we can make up.

Paul defines belief in Jesus as the only action necessary to be “credited” as righteous – being right with God. He wants to be clear that righteousness does not come from following the Law or any other set of rules, but from faith in Jesus Christ. In verse 25 Paul reminds those in the church in Rome and all who follow Jesus why belief in him is essential: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”. In dying for our sins, Jesus removed the weight of the Law – that sacrifice for this sin, this sacrifice for that sin… – and he paid the price through his blood. A final sin sacrifice was offered by one for all. Through Jesus’ sacrifice we are made righteous before God. In being raised from the dead, Jesus defeated death, opening the way for us to receive eternal life. Both are gifts, given to us without price, without any requirement except believing that Jesus did this for each of us. These is no law or rules that we can follow to receive or earn these gifts. They come through faith alone. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: God, I am so grateful for these gifts of love – born to the cross and into the grave for me. You stood in my place and took the punishment for me. And you did not stop there. You walked out of the grave, breaking those chains too. Thank you for the gifts of love that make it possible to experience joyful and abundant life now and to enter eternal life one day through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.


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Covenant God

Reading: Genesis 17: 1-7

Verse 7: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant… to be your God and the God of your descendants”.

Photo credit: Geda Zyvatkauskaite

Yesterday as we looked at this passage we focused on how we are to keep the covenant. We are to “walk before God and be blameless”. God set this as the goal and Jesus lived out the example, giving us a goal to aim for, a model to follow. This is “how” we are to live out the covenant. Today we turn to the “why”.

God chose Abram to be the father of not only many nations but of God’s children. This was not something Abram decided and then set out to accomplish. God is the one who offers covenant relationship to Abram and Sarai. God is the one who invites them to be a partaker in the covenant. God is the one who upholds the covenant as God rules over the earth. The question for Abram and Sarai is this: will they trust God to be the covenant keeper?

Abram falls face down before God. He recognizes that God is supreme, almighty, all-powerful. This is Abram saying “yes” to God’s invitation into covenant relationship. In response God changes his name to Abraham, which means “father of many”. Later in the story God also changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, reflecting her role as the mother of nations. God defines the covenant this way: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant… to be your God and the God of your descendants”. God will be the God of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants forever. The time frame of the covenant again reinforces who is in control and who is the covenant keeper. Like Abraham and Sarah, we are finite, limited, human, flawed. God is eternal and forever and perfect. Abraham and Sarah would seek to walk blamelessly before God, just as we try to do. They would not be perfect, just as we are not perfect. Down through the generations, Abraham and Sarah’s descendants would break the covenant over and over. Again and again, God would keep the covenant of grace, loving us forever. Over and over we end up at the table of grace, being made right again, being restored back into relationship again. This is God’s nature, it is his character. God remains our God. God will always be our God. This is his covenant promise, sealed by his love. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, you are forever, you are in total control. You are steadfast and true in keeping the covenant to be our God – to be my God. You love us no matter what. Thank you, God, for loving even me. Amen.


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Blameless, Walking

Reading: Genesis 7: 1-7 and 15-16

Verse 1: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless”.

Photo credit: Sarah Berriman

Our passage for today and tomorrow begins with these words: “When Abram was 99…” Sarai, his wife, is almost as old. The rest of our passage is about the promise of God’s action in their lives and about what God will require of them. In the rest of verse one God says, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless”. El Shaddai, God almighty, tells them to be faithful and to be blameless. This was God’s desire for Abram’s and for Sarai’s life. It is God’s desire for you and for me too.

What does it mean to “walk before God”? It is the intentional effort to live all of ones life transparently before God. At times we can pretend that God can’t or won’t see what we are doing or want to do. This becomes a pass to give in the the temptation. To walk before God would prevent such decisions and actions. Knowing that God is almighty means that all is laid bare before him anyway, but making the commitment to walk in his presence says we are ready and desire to live in an honest and intimate relationship with God all of the time.

The second command is to be “blameless”. The execution of this command is like the first – it is the target, the goal, our desire, our hope. But just as it is impossible to always walk before God, so too is it impossible to always be blameless. The intent is the same though. We strive to get up each day and to walk with God every moment, being blameless in his sight. This effort and desire also tells God, ‘yes, I want to be in relationship with you; yes, I want to be like Jesus’.

Up to this point in their lives Abram and Sarai were not perfect or blameless – far from it. Nor would they be blameless or walk with God all the time going forward. God already knew this about them yet still made the promise, still offered the covenant. Why? Because God loves his children and created us to be in relationship with him. Nothing is more pleasing to God than when we love him and seek to live in relationship with him. This day and every day may we seek to walk with God, blameless before him.

Prayer: Lord, today may I walk each moment with you. May my steps be on the path you place before me today. Continue to create in me a pure heart and a willing spirit. Amen.


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Covenant God

Reading: Genesis 9: 8-17

Verse 9: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you”.

Photo credit: Iker Urteaga

Noah is the central character in our passage but he is far from alone. Noah and family have been on the ark with every other living animal, bird, reptile, insect… for almost a whole year. Imagine being confined to a fairly small space for that long! In reality, though, the current pandemic has felt like that for many. For Noah and crew, the waters finally receed and God calls them out of the ark with the imperative to “be fruitful and increase in number”. The earth must be populated again. New life must return. As they exit the ark, God says, “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you”. Never again will the whole earth be destroyed by water. A rainbow will remind God and humanity of the covenant.

If the pandemic has not felt like being locked in an ark for you, we all have had other trials and experiences where we wondered if we’d make it through, where we questioned if we’d survive the storm, where we’ve longed to finally catch our breath… As I’m sure Noah and family did from time to time, we have asked why God would allow this terrible thing to happen. This is a questioning born from grief or pain. After these emotions have passed we realize again that death and disease and illness and natural disasters are all part of life. None of these things are God punishing us or the world. At times maybe you, like me, briefly wondered this about COVID. It can sometimes feel that way. At the time of this writing, 2.43 million have died worldwide, with almost half a million of those deaths in the US. This disease has reminded us that we are powerless in many ways and that we can’t totally control everything. In the midst of the loss and grief we have also been reminded again and again of the hope, joy, strength, peace, assurance… that we find in our faith and in our covenant God.

Just as it did for Noah and family, the world as we once knew it has changed forever. We are in a place we never imagined we’d be. Just as the people of Noah’s day said ‘the rain will stop soon’, so too do we think this cannot last forever. We approach a year living in a pandemic. All of us have lost someone or have been impacted by this powerful disease. Yet Noah’s truths remain for us: God is more powerful than any earthly thing and that God is our covenant God. We too need to remember that God is more powerful than anything, even death. God promises to be our God in this life and in the life to come. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, you are all-powerful and everlasting. You are in total control and you are limitless. Yet you know my name and even the limited number of hairs on my head. You love me. You call me child. Thank you for wanting to be in a personal relationship with even me. Amen.


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He Will Gather

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 7-14

Verse 10: “He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd”.

Our passage from Jeremiah feels very relevant for the time in which we live. It begins with the Lord inviting the faithful to “sing with joy” and to “make your praises heard”. Then, God reveals what they are to sing: “O Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel”. It would maybe seem odd to sing with joy when the chosen people are but a remnant, a fraction of what they once were. But God has plans to restore them, to bless them once again. In verse eight God tells the Israelites that he will gather them “from the ends of the earth”. In fact, a “great throng” will be gathered back together. Sometimes, for me, this is what church feels like in these COVID times. We feel scattered. Just a remnant gathers. I, perhaps we, long for the Lord to regather the flock, to end this exile.

Verse nine brings a bit of reality. God tells them that they will “come with weeping” and that they will pray as they return. The children of God will weep tears of joy as they come home, as they are finally where they belong. I remember well the tears of joy and the emotions that stirred within me back in August when the church regathered in the sanctuary for the first time in what felt like forever. Once again we have been isolated, in exile if you will. It feels like we might gather again soon, ending the online only of December. I do not believe that I will be alone in my tears of joy when the people of God are once again brought back home.

In verse ten we read, “He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd”. The promise was kept – God gathered Israel from their places of exile. God remained faithful and lovingly watched over his people Israel. God redeemed them and made them strong again. God was faithful. The people’s mourning was turned into gladness. Their sorrow was replaced with joy and comfort. The good shepherd remains faithful. The Lord will gather the church; he will lead us to sing for joy as we make our praises heard. God is good. We await the day in trust, sure of his love for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, you have always guided and cared for your people. I ask that you continue to lead and guide us as we consider gathering again as your people. Fill us with wisdom, O God. Amen.


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The Lord’s Servant

Reading: Luke 1: 26-38

Verse 38: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said”.

As Gabriel appears to Mary he tells her that she is “highly favored”. The creator of the universe, the author of all life, the one true God looks upon Mary and covers her in grace and blessing. Because of this Gabriel says, “The Lord is with you”. This is both a present and a future promise of God’s presence with Mary. All of this is awesome news for Mary. But they are unusual words to Mary and she is troubled, wondering about what all of this means.

Gabriel explains that God’s favor means that she has been selected to bear a very special child who will be “the Son of the Most High”. This child of God will be given the throne of David and will reign forever. The long awaited one will be born of the Spirit and of the flesh. This is a lot to take in, to wrap her head and heart around. To provide time and space for all of this to sink in and process Gabriel tells Mary that Elizabeth, although barren and well past child bearing years, is also with child. As a relative, Mary would have known of Elizabeth’s disgrace over not being able to have a child. Gabriel closes his side of the conversation with these words: “For nothing is impossible with God”.

Mary responds with humility and understanding. She responds. Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said”. Mary has found favor with God and accepts what God has to offer. She is willing to be a part of God’s plan. She steps forward in faith. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord, you continue to speak through your word and through the Holy Spirit. You continue to pour out favor upon your people and to call them into service. May I respond as Mary did: humbly and faithfully. Amen.


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Life Springing Up

Reading: Isaiah 61: 8-11

Verse 10: “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God”.

As our passage for today opens Isaiah reminds God’s people that God loves justice. As would be expected, God hates robbery and iniquity. Living in a foreign land under much oppression and injustice, these words resounded with hope for the people living in exile. The same is true today for people living in unjust systems of oppression and injustice and inequality. To know that systems that support prejudice and abuse and unequal pay and unfair labor practices and… are not God’s way and are not part of God’s plan brings hope for the future. To the exiles in Babylon and to those today living in unjust systems that deny them true freedom, the promise of an “everlasting covenant” brings hope not only for themselves but also for their children and grandchildren.

As followers of Jesus Christ, as believers in his light and love, we can join the prophet in saying, “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God”. God is our rock and our refuge, our hope and our strength. God clothes you and me in “garments of salvation” and in a “robe of righteousness”. We are adorned in ways that cause the world to notice that through our faith we are blessed by the Lord. We live with hope and peace, with joy and love. Trusting in the Lord, resting and standing upon God’s promises, we look to the future with assurance and confidence. Are you thankful for all that God has done, is doing, and will do for you? Lift up a little prayer of thanksgiving right now!

And then lift up a little prayer for an end to racism and prejudice, for an end to injustice and oppression, for an end to abuse and iniquity. Then consider how you can be a seed planter, a hope waterer, a justice fertilizer. As the people of God delighting in our God, rejoicing in the Lord, may we be a part of God’s plan for justice and equity. May we be part of the kingdom work of our day and age, of our time and place, so that in all nations and communities “the sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up”. May it be so in all the world!

Prayer: Lord God, where will you send me today? Where will you use me today to be a bringer of justice, an energy of robbery and iniquity? Strengthen me to stand with the oppressed, the unjustly treated, the abused, the imprisoned. Use me each day to make your kingdom more and more of a reality in my community and in my world. Amen.


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Light Is Coming

Reading: Isaiah 61: 1-4

Verse 3: “…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”.

Today’s words from Isaiah burst with hope and the promise of new life. It is easy to relate these words to the time in which we now find ourselves. Just as the Israelites felt powerless and hopeless against the Babylonians and the exile, so too do we feel against the coronavirus and social isolating. At the time of the prophet Isaiah, the people so needed a light in the darkness. Today, this remains our need as well.

Our passage begins with God empowering Isaiah to bring good news and healing, freedom and release. Neither you or I need to think very long to come up with a lengthy list of folks who desire these things today. We yearn for the “year of the Lord’s favor” in the way the Israelites did. Most of 2020 does not feel like there was very much favor. If not us ourselves, we are surrounded by folks who need comfort in their grief. Each of these needs the blessings of verse three: beauty instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning, praise instead of despair. Today, as in Isaiah’s day, almost all long for these – beauty, gladness, and praise. Yes, we are much like Isaiah’s original audience.

In verse four the empowerment extends to God’s people. It is not just God or Isaiah that have roles to play. Today we fall into this call as well. Isaiah prophesies that the people will help rebuild the ruins and restore the places that were devastated. The people will help renew that which was ruined. The people will not sit idle. Once they are released from their current circumstances, once the light again shines, they will be a part of the year of the Lord’s favor.

We are empowered by the Holy Spirit and we are called by the Lord to be active participants in the sharing of the good news, in caring for the brokenhearted, in bringing freedom to the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. We are not to sit idly by in this time of exile and social isolation. We, as people of faith, must bring beauty and gladness and praise to our neighbors and to our communities. The light is coming. May we help prepare those in ashes, mourning, despair, and darkness to receive the light. May it be so.

Prayer: Living God, use me as part of your healing work. Guide me to those needing good news, to those needing healing of body, mind, or spirit. May each find freedom through your light and love. Amen.


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Like a Mighty River

Reading: Ezekiel 34: 20-24

Verse 22: “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another”.

In today’s reading Ezekiel turns his focus to those who are leading, to those who are in charge. The Babylonians were powerful. They exerted their might and took many Israelites into captivity. In exile, the Israelites lived in a society that favored the privileged and wealthy, that allowed greed to exploit the weak, that turned a blind eye to injustice. Those who were wealthy, greedy, unjust are the “fat sheep” that Ezekiel refers to. As one considers our nation today, Ezekiel could very well be writing in 2020.

The ways of greed and inequity and oppression are not the ways that God intends for us to live. God therefore pledges to judge between the fat and lean sheep. God sees how the wealthy and powerful “shove with flank and shoulder”, forcing their agendas, manipulating the weaker, the less powerful. God will intervene, God will put an end to the sins being committed against his children. In verse 22 we read, “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another”.

Plunder is an interesting choice of words. It maybe feels like an old term, an outdated term. Yet it is very relevant today. A man in our community invested many years earning an advanced degree in college. He is a skilled professional in the medical field. The major corporation that he works for unilaterally cut all people in his profession to 30 hours a week. He, like his colleagues, now has no benefits. This corporation has plundered these people.

God promises to save his flock, to judge between the sheep. There is a promise to end greed, oppression, and injustice. To those living in exile, to those living in unjust systems today, these words speak hope. To the fat sheep, these words should be a warning, a call towards self-reflection. But only the sheep with ears to hear will be changed.

Just as God sent Ezekiel to the exiles in Babylon, we read that God will send David to the Israelites who are surrounded by enemies, who live daily under threat of assault. In time God will come in the flesh, bringing hope and salvation to the people oppressed by the Romans and their own religious leaders. Jesus charged his followers to do as he did: feed the hungry, tend to the sick and lonely and imprisoned, clothe the naked, unbind the captives, bring sight to the blind. It is no wonder many Jews thought Jesus the second coming of Ezekiel.

As we seek to do these things, to follow the example of Christ, we do so with the realization that they run counter to our culture, against the ways of greed and power, in defiance of the oppression and injustice that is too prevalent in our nation. May the Lord our God empower us as we seek to be light and love, peace and compassion, mercy and justice to the world.

Prayer: Lord God, give me feet to walk the narrow road, the hard path. Give me courage to stand for those who are weak, lean, powerful, voiceless. May your justice roll down like a mighty river. 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.