pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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A New Covenant

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Verse 33: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people”.

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

In Jeremiah 31 we see that God is a covenant God. Our passage opens with God promising a new covenant. In verse 31 we read, “The time is coming…” The Lord then references the last covenant – the one given as God led them out of slavery in Egypt. Here the covenant relationship takes on the husband-wife analogy. God led the Israelites to freedom as a husband would lead his wife, gently taking her by the hand and walking with her. During the time in the wilderness God was a constant companion to the Israelites. God guided and protected and provided for Israel. Despite this intimate and personal relationship, Israel wandered soon thereafter. They worshiped other gods, forgetting all that God had done for them.

Instead of breaking the relationship and moving on from Israel, God declares that he will make a new covenant, a better covenant. Instead of writing the covenant on stone tablets, God declares, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people”. The covenant will shift from external to internal. God’s ways will be in our mind and on our heart. The new covenant will be mediated through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit will internalize God’s ways in heart and mind and soul.

Even with such an extraordinary gift, we too can become like the Israelites at times. We forget our true love and chase after the gods and idols of this world. We allow other things to supplant our primary relationship with God. Yet our covenant God remains, continuing to say ‘I love you’ over and over. Instead of allowing the distance that we create to define the relationship, God pursues us, draws us back into relationship. No matter our response, God still says, ‘I love you’. God remains our God. We are his people. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Covenant God, you love me far beyond what I can even begin to comprehend. Your love goes on and on and on. My love for you is fragile, tenuous, limited. Yet you love me without reserve, without condition. What a wonderful example you give me to follow. Lead me in your love, O God. Amen.


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Great in Love, Rich in Mercy

Reading: Ephesians 2: 1-5

Verse 4: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ”.

Today’s passage is all about the change that God has made in us. Before Christ we were as Paul writes: “dead in our transgressions and sins”. We lived a life focused on self and on doing whatever we wanted to please self and our earthly desires. We lived according to the “ways of the world” and we were “disobedient” to God. For many of us older folks that meant distancing ourselves from the faith of our childhood and from the faith of our parents. For the younger readers, a larger segment grew up without a childhood church or faith. For all who came to faith the realization came that the things of this world are temporary. They never really satisfy or bring meaning and purpose to this life. Peace, contentment, joy… only come through the eternal relationship that we find in Jesus Christ.

Why didn’t God leave us there, dead in our sin? Why did God continue to pursue us even when we were running from him? We find our answer in verse four: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ”. God’s love is greater than our sin. We were created to be in relationship with God and with one another. God calls and woos and chases us until we make the choice to invite him into our hearts or until we draw our last earthly breath. Faith, however, does not stop at our decision for Christ. Once we accept Christ we are not finished. It is just the beginning of our faith journey. We are not suddenly sinless. Satan continues to pursue us, often with renewed passion, enticing and tempting the flesh still within us. Yet the battle is different, it is changed. The field is no longer level. With Christ alive in us, we do not fight alone. The Holy Spirit leads and guides, convicts and corrects, ever helping us to choose Christ over the world, good over evil, light over darkness.

Lent is a season that reminds us of this battle, that draws us into combat. In Lent we are called again and again to look within, to seek out the parts of us that still need to yield to Christ’s authority and reign. In this seeking and yielding it is grace and mercy that provide the way. In love it is God’s grace and mercy that say our past doesn’t matter, that our selfishness or pride or fear doesn’t control us anymore, that we are loved just as we are. In the season of Lent and in the hard work that we are called to, this is the good news: we are loved, we are forgiven, we are saved by grace. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for your love that is so deep that I cannot ever reach the bottom. Thank you for your love that is so wide that I cannot ever see the other side. Thank you for your love that always surrounds me, even when I stumble and fall. What great love. Amen.


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The Family

Reading: Ephesians 1: 3-14

Verse 13: “You also were included in Christ… Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit”.

The opening section of Ephesians is all about God’s plans to include us all in the family of God. Paul begins by declaring that God chose us to be in Christ “before the creation of the world”. It is in “accordance with his pleasure and will” that all people are “adopted as his sons [and daughters] through Jesus Christ”. God desires for all people to be a part of the community of faith.

Starting in verse seven Paul moves on to why and how God wants us in the family. First, only then do we receive redemption for our sins. Out of love God provided a way for us to be freed from the bonds of sin. Without Christ we remain trapped in the guilt and shame. Second, God lavishes us with wisdom and understanding. The ways of God are not the ways of the world. This gift allows believers to live and see and love the world differently. Created anew in Christ, we pursue the things and ways of God instead of the world. Third, in relationship with Christ we become a part of the fulfillment of all things. Living holy lives we are a part of bringing “all things in heaven and earth together under one head, Jesus Christ”. As part of the family, we seek to help bring others into the family of God.

About three years ago I was serving a church in a small rural community. The hospital called and asked if I would come visit an elderly woman who was nearing death. Soon after arriving I learned from her daughters that she wanted to be baptized. As I left to get the needed supplies, I asked if she wanted to receive communion after being baptized. She nodded “yes”. When I returned we had a short baptism service for a 93-year-old. She had come to know Jesus as Lord later in life but had never been baptized. She knew of Paul’s words: “you were marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit”. Feeling a new sense of belonging, this deposit “guaranteeing her inheritance” led to celebrating holy communion in a new way too.

Taken together, all of the signs and symbols, all the wisdom and knowledge, all the blessings and graces – they reassure us of our place in the community of faith. Thanks be to God for the love that is big enough to want all of us to be saved. To the praise of his glory, amen!

Prayer: Loving God, you so want to include all people in your family. Use me today to move someone a little closer to being a part of the great community of faith. Amen.


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Intercessors

Reading: Exodus 32: 7-14

Verses 9-10: “They are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them”.

Yesterday we read about the making of and worshipping of the golden calf. Today we hear God’s response and the rest of the story. As God looks down upon the revelry, he sends Moses back down the mountain. God notes that the people have “become corrupt” and that they were “quick to turn away” from all that he has commanded. There is an anger that is beginning to build. The emotions in his voice and the decibel level must have changed as God continues, saying, “They are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them”. The first part of this statement certainly remains true, at least concerning me. I am stubborn and willful. Maybe you too? And, sometimes, we might not cause God’s anger to burn, but we at least quicken his pulse or cause that vein to pop out on occasion. At this point in Israel’s wilderness journey, God is ready to “destroy” the whole lot, to start over with just Moses.

As I consider how the people got God to this point, I am cognizant of many times when I have probably done the same. I have worshipped idols. No, I have not literally danced around a man-made image in the wilderness. I have done worse. I have definitely allowed the things of the world to take the place of God at times in my life. I have pursued wealth and titles, recognition and wins on the court – all to the neglect of my relationship with God. We all have our lists. God’s anger must burn against us at times. God must feel like destroying us at times. But the punishment does not come raining down from heaven. We too have an intercessor, an advocate, one who speaks for us. Just as Moses stands between God and the execution of his anger and wrath, Jesus stands between God and us. Jesus speaks words of empathy and compassion, of love and understanding. Some of the time, Jesus probably has to remind God, “I already paid the price”.

In the end, God relents and the journey towards the Promised Land continues. Grace wins. Grace continues to win in our lives as well. Thanks be to God for our intercessor, Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Loving God, I, like those living in the wilderness, am so grateful for your mercy and grace. Each time I deserve punishment, your love lived out stands in my defense. His sacrifice allows me to be made new again. Over and over. Thank you, God. Amen.


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Arise, Beloved

Reading: Song of Songs 2: 8-13

Verse 10: “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me”.

The Song of Songs is about love. On the literal level it is the story of young love, of courtship, of desire. In today’s six verses we see the beloved, the young woman, being sought by her lover. Twice in today’s passage he calls out, saying, “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me”. The earth itself is coming to life as spring begins. The flowers and vines are blossoming, the doves coo, the figs begin to form. Life is bursting all around. The two lovers can sense the energy in creation and want to be a part of that.

In the metaphorical sense, the Song of Songs is the story of how God seeks to be in relationship with us. This relationship is also built upon love. God’s love is not the “I love my brother” kind of love from childhood. It is not the pinky swear “I’ll do anything for my BFF” kind of adolescent love. It is not even the wild and passionate love of two twenty somethings who have fallen madly in love. Even this love pales in comparison to the love that God desires to lavish upon us. God’s love is unconditional, unfailing, unending. The best of human love is conditional, fickle, wavering.

God pursues us like the young man pursues his love. God leaps the mountains, walks across the seas, peers through any opening that he can find, calling out to each of us, his beloved. Today, be aware of how God is calling out to you, seeking to deepen your relationship with him. Will you arise and go with God?

Prayer: Loving and compassionate God, make me aware of each way that you reach out to me today. Create in me a sensitive heart, a willing heart. Help me to take in and to pour out your love this day. Amen.


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Walk in the Light of Christ

Reading: Ephesians 5: 8-14

Verse 14: “Wake up, o sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you”.

As we come to the fourth Sunday in Lent we have been on a journey since Ash Wednesday. Over the course of these 21 days we have sought to look within, to identify that which hinders our relationships with God and with one another. Today’s passage speaks of light and darkness. These elements have always been a part of who we are and of our journey of faith.

Before we became a follower of Jesus Christ we did live in the darkness. Once we accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, his light shown in our lives, bit by bit exposing our darkness. His light continues to expose our selfish and sinful desires and deeds. Still, every once in a while, we try and turn our backs and seek to please self instead of God. We know well what Paul speaks of when he mentions being shameful and disobedient.

Over the course of our Lenten journey we have been reminded again and again of what is pleasing and holy and true. As our desire to pursue these things – the things of God – increases, our worldly desires slowly die. In this process the light shines brighter and brighter and it becomes less tempting to turn our backs against God. Being in the light brings us joy. It is a journey to get to that place.

Paul ends today’s passage, probably quoting from Isaiah, with these words: “Wake up, o sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you”. May we ever walk in the light of Christ, fully aware of our sinful nature that leads to death. May we ever turn to Christ, allowing his light to lead and guide us.

Prayer: Father God, when I do slip or begin to wander, send the light of Jesus Christ blazing into my heart and mind. Shine your light into my life, drawing me back into your love. 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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Faithful

Reading: Hebrews 11: 29-40

Verse 39: “These were all commended for their faith”.

Today we continue with the “Faith Hall of Fame” that we found last week in Hebrews 11. The people, both named and unnamed, are heroes of the faithful. Those we find in today’s reading are like those we read about last week in the first 28 verses of chapter eleven. Although on the list, the people on the list are not perfect examples of faith. Remember, for example, the Hebrews complained about ever leaving Egypt as Pharaoh’s army closed in on them in Exodus 14. And then God parted the sea and they walked through on dry land. Don’t forget about David either, who after living quite the blessed life and becoming king stooped to adultery, abuse of power, and murder.

Those in the Hall of Fame are not perfect. Much like you and me, they are rather imperfect people. Like us, their faith waivers at times. In general they are followers who desire to be faithful that stick close to a faithful God when life really presses in. Yes, Gideon doubted and Barak questioned God. Yes, Samson murdered innocents and Samuel failed miserably as a father. But these and all on the list were like David in one key way: they were people after God’s own heart. It was not in spite of their human weaknesses and failures, but rather because of them, that they pursued a relationship with God. They knew that their extraordinary God was faithful. Each stepped out and stepped up in faith. Because of that, “these were all commended for their faith”.

When I look in the mirror I too see imperfection. As I think about this past week – nevermind over the course of my lifetime – I see failures and sins. I am not without blemish. None of us are. But God is. And God is the one who can take imperfect vessels and can work amazing and awesome results. I can do all things with the one who strengthens me. So too can you. May we walk in faith today.

Prayer: Lord, my name will never be added to this list that I read in Hebrews 11. That is OK! Yet this I ask: use me as you will today. Then do the same tomorrow. And keep on going. Amen.


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When I Fear…

Reading: 1 Kings 19: 1-9a

Verse 3: “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life”.

Elijah is threatened by Jezebel, the queen of Israel. He has angered her and she pledges to take his life. Like most of us would do, he assesses the situation and immediately flees. Elijah flees out into the desert and tells God that he has had enough. He just wants to die. Elijah fears dying at Jezebel’s hand, but out in the quiet and peacefulness of the desert would be just fine.

I have a hard time relating to all of Elijah’s decisions. If I were in such a position, threatened by someone powerful, I would flee too. I probably would. But my next thoughts would turn to resolving the issue or doing something about it. I feel like there is a lot of productive life ahead of me. Elijah feels old and tired at this point. Maybe in 30 or 40 years this will be my response too.

When I consider Elijah’s story to this point though, I realize that he has seen the power of God over and over and over. He has just finished seeing God defeat 950 prophets of Baal and of Asherah in a sacrifice showdown. Slaughtering all of these prophets is what draws Jezebel’s threat. In spite of his history with God, Elijah reacts with fear. We read, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life”. If anyone should trust God, it’s Elijah. Yet he fears and flees. Instead of turning to God, he fears and flees. Instead of calling on the power that he has seen demonstrated over and over and over, he fears and flees. How like Elijah I am.

What is God’s response when Elijah fears and flees instead of turning and trusting? God meets Elijah where he is at – right in the middle of his very real human emotions. God provides food and water and rest. God gives Elijah what he needs. God does not condemn or judge or scold him. Elijah is accepted as he is and is strengthened for the journey ahead.

What is God’s response when I fear and flee? It is the same. God loves me and cares for me, encouraging me for the journey ahead. May you allow God to do the same for you.

Prayer: Providing God, you never give up on me. In spite if my human weakness and emotions, you pursue me, you find me, you sustain and encourage me. Thank you God. Amen.


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Either Or

Reading: Psalm 1 and Luke 6: 22 and 26

Verses 1 and 2: “Blessed is the man… delight is in the law of the Lord… he meditates day and night”.

In both readings today there is a distinct “this or that” choice to make. There is no middle ground. According to the psalmist and according to Jesus in Luke’s gospel, you are blessed when your life is aligned with God. Conversely, you are not blessed when your life is not aligned with God. In both readings, the blessings are God’s blessings, not the world’s rewards.

The psalmist connects meditating on God’s word to being blessed. In the reading of scripture we come to know God and how God desires for us to live our lives. For the psalmist, the scriptures nourish the soul. The faithful follower is like a tree planted by the stream, growing and yielding fruit in season. Fruit is the work of God evident in one’s life. For the Jews, this would look like devout worship, giving to and caring for the needy, studying the law, teaching and modeling love for God to family and neighbor.

The inward change that comes with and through the daily study of scripture is then reflected in outward behavior. Inner change, drawing closer to God, causes us to change how we act. Loving God more necessarily leads to loving neighbor more. Luke picks up on this idea too. In our two verses from Luke, Jesus addressed that fact that these inner changes and outward manifestations do not always sit well with the world. In verse 22 we are reminded that at times our faith will draw persecution from the world. When we speak out against injustice and violence, when we speak up for equal treatment and just laws, then we can draw some negative attention. In verse 26 Jesus contrasts this with how the world treats us when we act like a false prophet – speaking the world instead of God. The world likes us then and speaks well of us. But inside we are far from the ways of God.

This faith thing is an either-or choice. We can strive to live for God or we can choose to live for self and the world. We might like to try, but we cannot walk the middle road. We cannot waver between discipleship and the ways of the world. We cannot love two masters – we will come to love one and hate the other (Matthew 6). This day and every day, may we choose to love God and to pursue God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Prayer: Lord, give me a heart that loves you alone. Break me of my fleshy desires. Cast them out of me! Daily draw me more and more into your love. Amen.