pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Forever and Ever

Reading: Psalm 111

Verse 9: “He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever”.

Photo credit: Oscar Ivan Esquivel Artega

In the second half of Psalm 111 the focus shifts from the great works of God to the everlasting nature of God’s love. In verse seven the psalmist declares that God’s precepts or ways are trustworthy and are steadfast “for ever and ever”. Then in verse nine the writer speaks of the redemption that God provided as “he ordained his covenant forever”. Forever is always the nature of God’s covenants. They are not like a contract – that which we prefer. Contracts can be broken, renegotiated, bought out… when we no longer want to live under that arrangement. Not so with a covenant. God’s covenant states that he will be our God, our love, our hope forever. No matter what.

Marriage would be the closest thing we have to a covenant relationship. As one takes their marriage vows, one gets a sense of the forever, no matter what, unconditional love that God offers and gives in his covenant with us. As one says, “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…” they are really saying “forever” in terms of this earthly relationship. Marriage is an earthly relationship that models our eternal relationship with God. In fact, husband-wife and groom-bride language describes the relationship between Jesus and church, between follower and redeemer. Jesus chose this language intentionally. It both elevated our human marriages and it placed our covenant relationship with God in terms that we could grasp and understand.

Humans prefer contracts over covenants. They better suit our selfish hearts and our changing wants and desires. God prefers covenants. God is unchanging, steadfast, and true. God has chosen us forever. God created us for that purpose. Even though I may waver, even though I may stumble, even though I may fail, God remains eternally our God. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, I am so grateful for your “no matter what” love – for the love that is always there for me. Thank you for redeeming me again and again, working in me to shape me and to transform me more and more into your image. Amen.


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Reverence and Awe

Reading: Psalm 111

Verse 2: “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them”.

Psalm 111 is all about praising God. We can be drawn to praise in a variety of ways. Two days ago, for example, my wife and I were on a hike. There was about four inches of snow blanketing the ground. The sky was so blue. At times we would pause – sometimes along the path after a long uphill stretch and sometimes at a place that afforded a view. At both kinds of stops we were amazed by God’s creation. Along the path we stopped and could take in the small details and could hear all of the quiet sounds of nature. At the viewing stops, we could see out across the plains to the east or we could look west across the rolling hills covered in snow and pines. Here we could sense God’s grandeur and the majesty of creation. Here too we were reminded of our awesome God. We were able to praise God for the work of his hands.

In verse two the psalmist declares: “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them”. On Sunday afternoon it was God’s creation that led us to delight in him. On Sunday morning it was a man’s testimony about God’s work on a mission trip that led us to praise and delight. In the first half of Psalm 111, God’s grace and compassion and provision are what draws the writer to praise God. These gifts of God are wrapped in the covenant, which also connects to the reasons to praise God found in the second half of the Psalm. Working out the covenant to Abraham, the psalmist remembers how God gave them the Promised Land. Recalling the steadfastness, faithfulness, and uprightness of God, the psalmist looks to the redemption that God provides, ordaining his covenant forever. Here I connect to the Psalm most personally. The redemption of God came in the person of Jesus, he who established the new covenant forever through his blood shed on the cross.

The Psalm closes by reminding us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. In the Biblical sense, fear is not being afraid of God. It is a fear in terms of reverence and awe. It was what I felt as I was awestruck gazing out at the scene pictured above. It is what you have felt when you have been caught by God’s power or love or grace at different times in your life. As our response today, may we too offer words of thanksgiving and praise to the Lord our God!

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the many, many times when I have been amazed by your great works. These revelations, these epiphanies, are such a blessing. You are an amazing and awesome God! 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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Redemption

Reading: Luke 2: 36-40

Verse 38: “She spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”.

Today as we read this short section from Luke 2 we focus in on Anna and her words concerning Jesus. Anna is an old woman, a prophet with a deep devotion to God. She has been a widow for a long time and the focus of her life is praying and fasting in the temple. After thanking God – for the encounter, for seeing the Messiah, for what Jesus means to her people – Anna “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”. At this point in their history, all Jews are looking forward to Jerusalem’s redemption.

The act of redeeming has always been a part of the Jewish faith. Mary and Joseph have just redeemed Jesus, Boaz was the kinsman redeemer, and the Jews celebrated the Year of Jubilee every 50 years. In each of these acts, one is released or freed – from their debts, from their slavery, from a burden that forced them to sell family land. This idea of being freed from that which binds us is very much a part of Jesus’ ministry and healing. Jesus healed both relationships and physical ailments. Often these were tied together. Physical healing often led to relational healing. By revealing the depth of God’s love, mercy, and grace, Jesus drew many back into relationship with God and with one another. He brought a wholeness to life that invited people to live with joy, peace, and hope. Jesus also healed people physically – lepers, the blind, lame, mute, deaf, the possessed – also inviting people back to God and back into society, family, and community. Jesus brought a completeness and unity to life that was freeing and welcoming, that was unconditional and full.

When I think about this side of redemption that Jesus offered, I am drawn to my community and to my neighborhood. Nearby, there are folks who are bound up in or with addiction and abuse, folks who feel enslaved to financial debt, folks who feel isolated and alone, folks who are grieving because of loss. Jesus offers the same redemption, the same healing, the same freeing today. He offers it through you and through me. May we be a part of building other’s faith, seizing the opportunities that God gives us to share our faith with others, inviting them into the love, hope, peace, and joy of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Loving God, you seek to redeem, to free all people. You are a God of love and justice and community. Use me this day to draw others in, to add to the family of faith, to bring your healing and freeing love to those who need to know you. Amen.


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This Child

Reading: Luke 2: 22-36

Verse 34: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many… so the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed”.

The day after Mary and Joseph complete the purification ritual they bring Jesus to the temple to dedicate and redeem him. Mary and Joseph are devout people, following the law according to Moses. Each firstborn son is to be consecrated or given to God. The law also provided a way for a family to keep their son. A poor couple like Mary and Joseph would need Jesus to work in the small family business. They offered the normal gift – two birds – to redeem their son. Having completed the ritual, Mary and Joseph were ready to return to Nazareth. But something extraordinary happens first. Mary and Joseph meet Simeon and Anna, two people closely connected to God.

Simeon and Anna have been waiting to see the one who will bring salvation and redemption. God had revealed to Simeon that he would see “the Lord’s consolation” before he died. This day the Spirit leads Simeon to the temple and to Mary and Joseph. He proclaims, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many… so the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed”. Jesus will be both salvation and a stumbling block, connecting with some hearts, hardening others. Simeon also forewarns Mary of the “sword” that will one day “pierce her own soul too” as she stands at the foot of the cross. And then Anna, an old prophetess who spends all her time in the temple, thanks God for seeing Jesus and tells Mary and Joseph that their child will be the redemption of Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph take in God’s plans for their newborn son. Returning home, we read that Jesus grew up and was filled with wisdom and that God’s grace was upon him.

As we reflect on the one who came, comes, and will come to offer salvation and redemption to all things, where is it that we need to feel his loving touch and his healing mercies on this quiet day after the Christmas celebration? The light remains in the world and in our hearts.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the gift of the one who saves and redeems. Help me to walk daily with Jesus, bringing light and love into the world. Amen.


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Freed

Reading: Galatians 4: 4-7

Verses 4-5: “When the time had fully come, God sent his son… to redeem those under the law”.

What a passage we have today! In just four verses, Paul packs some great theological truths. In summary: at just the right time God sent Jesus to redeem us from the law and then sent the Spirit to lead us to live as children of God, destinying us for eternal life. It is quite the summary of the good news.

As we draw nearer to Christmas Eve it is a good reminder that Jesus came at just the right time. When God’s time to send the son arrived, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. While the example that Jesus set concerning how to live out God’s love is important, the main purpose of Jesus’ time on earth was to redeem us, to make heaven our destiny. This is both a present and a future realityy. Let me say that again: heaven is both a present and a future reality. While we await eternity in the Lord’s presence we live to build his kingdom here on earth.

Paul’s emphasis in the letter to the Galatians is the freeing power of Jesus Christ in this life. In Christ we are made into new creations, freed from “the law”. The church in Galatia was struggling with the application of the Jewish law, the Torah. The Christians who had been Jews believed the new Christians should first follow the laws of Judaism. For example, they wanted Gentile believers to be circumcised and to follow the dietary and purification laws. The new believers just wanted to follow Jesus. This was causing division and strife in the church. Paul wants to end this reliance on the old laws of the Jewish faith. For Paul, being created new in Christ Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit, believers no longer fall under the old laws.

Even though we do not live under the Jewish law and even though we are Spirit-filled new creations in Christ, we still live with division and strife. We still need redeemed. Although Christ died to free us from the laws of sin and death, we all still wrestle with sin in our lives and many of us are anxious and fear death.

Our journey of faith is one of redemption after redemption. Even though I believe in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and even though I am led by the Spirit, my old self is alive and well within me. My pride and ego, my judgmental attitude, my driven personality all can rise up and lead me to sin. My old self can ignore the Holy Spirit quite easily at times. Yet, thanks be to God, I am “no longer a slave”. Redemption, forgiveness, grace, and mercy are always ready to make me new again. I am a child of God. I am loved. I am an heir to eternal life in Christ. You are too. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord of life, thank you for your love that is always greater than any and all of my sin. Continue to lead and guide me and to better atune me to the voice and the way of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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Preaching, Teaching, Healing

Reading: Matthew 9: 35-38

Verse 35: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching… preaching… and healing”.

Today’s short passage sums up Jesus’ ministry quite well. In verse 35 we read about the things that occupied most of his time: teaching, preaching, and healing. I believe that these three practices remain the core practices of ministry today. These three practices often work together to shape and form who we are as people of faith.

Teaching can occur in many settings and can cover many topics. In ministry, we most often think of Bible studies and other topical small groups as the main ways that teaching occurs. This tends to be the focus of teaching in our churches. There are other ways to teach faith. In intentional conversations and in the things we regularly do and say we teach about faith. For example, as parents our everyday words and actions are the main methods of passing our faith along to our children. In this time of COVID there has been a great deal of teaching in our churches on how to safely minister while honoring the need to social distance and stay at home. We have begun to teach about safely gathering again. More recently there has been an increase in teaching on racism and prejudice in America. These teachings have centered on understanding racism and on recognizing how we are all implicit in and impacted by this evil. Social justice has always been a cornerstone of Christianity.

Preaching is something we think just happens on Sunday morning or maybe on a Wednesday or Saturday night. These are the primary delivery times but it also occurs at various times in a variety of settings. These can range from a one-on-one conversation to retreats and camps and even to impromptu gatherings in a bar or the local coffee shop. In almost all cases, preaching centers on sharing, understanding, and applying faith to our daily lives.

Healing was the third aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Today we do not see as many physical healings as we read about in the New Testament. But the Holy Spirit is very active, working in and through Christians all over the world. Healing included restoration to wholeness, redemption from sins and bondage, being drawn into a community of faith, and finding new life in Jesus Christ.

In our passage we read that Jesus preached, taught, and healed for one reason: compassion. He saw those who were in need – the “the harassed and helpless” – and he ministered to them. Our very understanding of who is harassed and helpless has certainly grown over these last few months. In verse 37 Jesus notes, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”. May we all be workers for Jesus Christ today!

Prayer: Leading God, day by day help me to use all three of these practices to minister to my congregation and to my community. Empower me by the Holy Spirit to bring fullness and wholeness of life to those in need. Amen.


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Rock and Refuge

Reading: Psalm 31: 1-5 and 15-16

Verse 5: “Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth”.

When David wrote today’s Psalm he must have been at a difficult point in his life. We do not know what was challenging him at this point, but we do get a sense of his trust in the Lord. For David, this trust has been built on many experiences where God has proven trustworthy. As David seeks refuge and lifts his voice to God, he is counting on God to once again be his rock and refuge.

In this life we all face challenges. Some are small and are mostly within our minds. Others are larger and on the life-altering scale. In each case, how we work our way through the challenge can happen many ways. We can put our head down and try to push through. We can pretend it is not happening. We can fiercely take it on and act brave and strong on the outside. We can allow fear or doubt or worry to freeze us up. We can turn to God like David does in today’s Psalm. Often, especially in our bigger challenges, we can try many of these before we surrender and turn to God. We might recall that David tried this method too. He did not jump straight to fully trusting in God either.

As David journeyed with God he had many opportunities to learn to trust God first, to trust in God alone, to seek refuge and shelter and redemption under God’s care. We too have or will have each of these experiences as we journey with the Lord. We too will develop trust… in God. To frame that idea, what experiences have you had that have led to a deepening in your trust in God? When has God been your rock and refuge? As we recall these moments and file them away as God moments, our faith is strengthened. They become a reserve, a place to draw from as our next challenge arises. We begin to live more often into these words from verse five: “Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth”. As we draw to a close, take a minute or two for yourself and for your faith. Recall God’s trustworthiness and offer God some praise and thanksgiving today.

Prayer: Father God, ever be my refuge and shield. Ever be the one I turn to in both the good and the bad. Ever be the rock upon which I stand. I thank you for your ever-present hand and Spirit that guides, leads, directs, protects… You are an awesome God. Amen.


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Only in Surrender

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1: 18-31

Verse 18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”.

Paul is writing to the church in Corinth to address a division that has arisen. On one side of the divide are the Greeks. They love learning and discussing ideas. They look for and prize wisdom above all else. They want to know their way into believing in Jesus Christ. On the other side are the Jews. The Jews look for signs. This is how they had always recognized and identified the power of God at work. Way back the power of God was revealed in the manna and in the wall of Jericho falling down, just to name a couple of examples. More recently it shown as Jesus and the disciples healed and cast out demons. The Jews wanted to be awed into believing in Jesus.

Paul tells both sides that they are wrong. Both the Greeks and the Jews are looking in the wrong place if they want to find the power of Jesus Christ. In our opening verse Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. To the world the cross represents weakness and shame and wrong doing. To the world it was foolishness for Jesus to die on a cross like a common criminal. But the world is perishing. Paul instead reminds the Jews and Greeks that true power is found in the cross. It was on the cross that Jesus demonstrated servanthood and obedience. It was there that he became humble to death as he died to save us all. In his death and resurrection Jesus defeated the powers of sin and death and paved the way for us all to experience “righteousness, holiness, and redemption”.

Just as Jesus was humble, we too must be humble as we approach faith. We cannot think our way into believing. Nor can we argue another into faith. We cannot “genie” our way to believing either. We cannot try and force God to prove he is real. We find faith when we come to the point of kneeling before Jesus, aware of our sin and our need for his grace, humbly asking him to be the Lord of our life. Only when we surrender do we find victory in Christ. It is more of that upside-down kingdom. When we are weak, he is strong. May we walk in surrender to our Lord and Savior today.

Prayer: Loving Father, you took me as I was, broken and filled with so many sins and weaknesses. Just like a potter, you went to work reforming and reshaping me, guiding me to your purposes. I am far from perfect. I beg you to continue to be at work in me. I surrender all to you for your glory. Amen.


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The Beautiful Cycle

Reading: Psalm 130

Verse 7: “Put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption”.

In verses five and six the psalmist practices something that can be difficult for many of us in the modern world: he waits. The psalmist waits, his soul waits. And he waits with hope! He trusts in God’s word and that brings him hope. It can be harder to wait for the Lord’s word or voice during a time of darkness or grief or suffering. This is what the psalmist might be referring to in verse six, where the watchmen wait for the morning. Envision it: after a long night on watch they long for the first rays to peak up over the horizon, bringing light to the long darkness. Is that not what it feels like during those times when we have been stuck in the valley and we long to see and feel light and love again?

Turning to verse seven we find much encouragement. It reads, “Put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption”. We too can choose to hope in God because the two gifts mentioned by the psalmist are fully ours as well: unfailing love and full redemption. In fact, the two are very much connected. God’s love for you and me leads to the gift of redemption. In love God forgives all that we confess and repent of, welcoming us back into that unfailing love. It is a beautiful cycle to be caught up in. For this, today we shout: thanks be to God!

Prayer: God, your perfection is so much greater than my failures and my imperfection. Yet your love bridges the gap and then draws me back across the bridge, back into your love. Thank you, Lord. Amen.