pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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The Fast You Choose?

Reading: Isaiah 58:1-5

Verse 2: “They seem eager to know my ways… seem eager for God to come near them.”

The title to Isaiah 58 is “True Fasting” in my NIV Bible. This chapter begins with God telling Isaiah, “Shout it aloud, do not hold back... Declare to my people their rebellion… their sins.” It is not a good day for Israel. We too have these days once in a while. In the next verse God observes, “They seem eager to know my ways… seem eager for God to come near them.” To me, “seem” is the important word here. Israel is kinda pursuing God, but not really.

Evaluating their fasting God declares, “Yet on the day of your fasting you do as you please.” It is not a time set apart to honor God and to draw close to God. It’s almost become the opposite. The Israelites “exploit all your workers” and they are “striking each other with wicked fists.” We too can fall into this trap. We can claim we’re ‘Christian’ or we can do something ‘religious’ and neither bring God glory nor draw closer to God ourselves. We can seem to be faithful when we are anything but.

In verses 4 God tells the people, “You cannot fast as you do today and expect to be heard on high.” The walking of the walk must be consistent and steady. Going on, God asks a rhetorical question: “Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” There is no good answer to this question. So we must ask: reflecting on our religious practices, when or why might God ask us the same question?

Prayer: Lord God, when I am tempted to play the game, to just show up in body, but not in mind, heart, and spirit, convict me quickly. Use the Holy Spirit to call my selfishness and sin out, to wake me up to my falsehood. Help me, O Lord, to be authentic to you in all of my ways. Amen.


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Good Grapes?

Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7

Verse 2: “He looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.”

Photo credit: Nacho Dominguez Argenta

The first 7 verses of Isaiah 5 are titled “The Song of the Vineyard.” In the opening verse we learn that it is a song “for the one I love.” As the song begins we see that the loved one found a fertile hillside and tilled the soil, clearing the stones. Into this perfect soil the choicest vibes are planted. A watchtower and wine press are built. The vineyard planter awaits sweet, juicy grapes. It all sounds so beautiful. What awesome plans God has for the chosen people!

At the end of verse 2 we read, “He looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” What a taste it would leave in the mouth! Everything was given great attention, down to the smallest detail. What should have been the pride of all the world was far from it. It was foul! The only chosen people on all the earth – yet God now laments, saying, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” God provided the Promised Land, clearing away every enemy, removing every stone. God provided laws to guide them and built walls for their safety.

But instead of holiness and righteousness shining forth from the city on a hill, they were yielding bad fruit. Greed, injustice, religious indifference – this was the bad fruit. In verses 5-7 we see the consequences, both physically and spiritually. All will be lost. This same scenario, this same choice plays out in our lives. God nurtures us and cares for us, protects us and provided for us. How will we respond? Will we reflect God’s holiness and care and compassion and righteousness? We too must decide. How will you respond?

Prayer: Lord God, prune away anything that is unholy or impure within me. Trim it away so that my life produces good fruit – fruit that is pleasing to you. Amen.


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What Counts

Reading: Galatians 6:1-16

Verse 15: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.”

Paul’s letter to the Galatians focused on being the community of faith. It was a “how to” letter about being the church. The natural way churches formed was sometimes a barrier to unity and acceptance. Paul’s initial audience in most places were Jews. It is natural to begin conversations about Jesus with folks who are religious in some way. They are more open to the conversation. We follow suit. For example, we’re a lot more likely to invite a new neighbor to church if they tell us they’re looking for a new church home. A lot more likely than when the new neighbor doesn’t fit our idea of someone who is “churchy.” For the Jews that became Christians, they had certain boxes that they thought needed checked. That’s the danger of starting a church with religious people.

The focus of today’s passage is circumcision/uncircumcision. That’s not really a thing anymore. But we have lots of things that we substitute today: white/nonwhite, upper class/lower class, educated/uneducated, conservative/liberal, neat and tidy/rough around the edges, Christian/nonbeliever, orthodox/unorthodox… The thing is, as it was with circumcision, these are all outward signs. God straightened us out on this argument way back in 1st Samuel 16, when Samuel anointed David. God said, “Man looks at outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Today we have identifiers that read “Christian.” We include things like: goes to church on Sunday, reads the Bible, prays before meals in public. In the initial look, these too are just outward signs. The bigger question – and the one that I believe concerns God – is this: Do these practices lead to inner transformation? Asked another way, does our worship on Sunday morning affect how we treat someone on the other side of one of those substitute pairings? Does our Bible study impact how we love someone who is different than us? Does our prayer life fundamentally change how we see and welcome the “other”? If not, we are not becoming “new creations.” That’s what counts, according to Paul. May we be transformed day by day, becoming more and more like Jesus each step of the journey.

Prayer: Lord, help me to see as you see. Help me to see the heart. Doing so, may I love as you love. Amen.


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Not Far

Reading: Mark 12: 28-34

Verse 34: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

As the religious quiz Jesus and he debates with them a scribe (or teacher or lawyer – depending on your translation) comes and listens to the banter. He is impressed with Jesus’ answers so he asks his own question: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” He is not seeking to argue or banter with Jesus. He simply wants to know this wise man’s answer.

Jesus responds with the two great commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength AND love your neighbor as yourself. Any nominally faithful Jew would know these commands very well. They were the foundation of a daily prayer said in the morning and in the evening. We could relate this to our connection to this prayer: Our father, who art in heaven… Just those few words and we are off, speaking in the familiar rhythmic pattern. Like many of the religious of Jesus’ day, do we simply say the words, going through the motions, blah-blah-blah?

The scribe says to Jesus, “Well said, teacher.” He acknowledges the correctness of Jesus’ answer. Then he pushed beyond the religious politeness and adds that following these two commands are “more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Whoa! That would be like your pastor saying that feeding your hungry neighbor is more important than bringing food to the pantry or that helping with that single mom’s electric bill is more important than writing that check to the church or that being present to the coworker that just lost his dad is more important than being in church that particular Sunday morning. There is a huge difference between knowing the two great commandments (or the Lord’s Prayer) and really living them out. Because the scribe moved beyond appearing religious, to the place of recognizing that faith must really be lived out, Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, make the words of my mouth and the prayers of my lips just the beginning of my faith. Do not allow these words to be the end or the goal. Actually use me to show my faith in the ways I express my love of you and of all my neighbors. May I be faith lived out. Amen.


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Hosanna!

Reading: Mark 11:1-11 and 15-18

Verse 10: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest”!

Photo credit: Valentin Salja

After having two disciples fetch a colt, Jesus rides into Jerusalem. People spread their cloaks on the ground, along with branches that they had cut. It is an ancient version of the red carpet. The crowd cheers for Jesus as he enters. They offer praise mixed with hopeful expectations. They express both as they shout, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest”!

The people expect a Messiah that is a great king, much as King David was. He brought peace to Israel – through his great military exploits that were blessed by God. Israel was the big dog in their small corner of the world during David’s reign. To be rid of the Romans, to again be the big kid on the block – that was the peoples’ hope. Jesus rode into Jerusalem to be king – just not their type of king.

The second section of our reading today reveals how different Jesus’ kingdom will be. Driving the action towards its culmination on Maundy Thursday, Jesus goes to the temple and begins to announce the new kingdom. It is not a kingdom of power and privilege and gain. The sellers and money changers are driven out. The religious leaders get the message that such is not the proper use of God’s house. The line is drawn in the sand. The religious leaders begin to look for a way to kill Jesus. It has begun. As we enter Holy Week, we too begin the journey to the cross.

Prayer: Lord God, we too welcome Jesus with great hope and expectation. He is worthy of our praise. But how will we react when he overturns the tables in our hearts? Will we look within and see how we’ve wandered or will we seek to maintain the status quo? Guide and bless our journey through Holy Week, draw us deeper into Jesus’ kingdom of love and grace. Amen.


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Habits and Practices

Reading: John 2: 18-22

Verse 20: “It has taken 46 years to build this temple”.

Yesterday we read about Jesus clearing the temple and we’re asked to consider where we could stand against some wrongs or evils in the world around us. In today’s passage we see the reaction of the religious leaders – those in charge of the temple. They want to know by what authority Jesus can do what he has done. In a way, they are asking if they can just go back to business as usual tomorrow, when he is gone. They ask for a sign and Jesus does give them one. They will just have to wait to see the truth of him rising after three days in the grave. Most of the religious leaders will deny that event too. Almost all will fail to connect Jesus’ resurrection to his answer to the question about his authority.

The market place in the temple courts probably began simply – some guy looking to help out travelers from afar by selling doves for sacrifices. And then another guy set up shop selling sheep. Eventually the sellers moved out inside the temple courts and some priest thought about requiring temple coins for their purchases. Money changers became a necessity and soon enough a thriving enterprise was born. Jesus challenged the corruption of this system. In response to Jesus’ cryptic answer the religious leaders say, “It has taken 46 years to build this temple”. In a way they are saying that the temple and the market place have always been here. In our churches and other organizations we say, “We’ve always done it that way”. So what it has become broken or corrupt or no longer is effective or isn’t holy or sacred anymore? One of the good things about the pandemic is that it has forced us to examine the practices and routines of the church. This season has been a time to let some things die, to imagine new possibilities, and to make changes to things that were ineffective, irrelevant, or outdated. Many of us have gone through the same process in our own lives and in our faith. This season of Lent invites us to do that hard work, to go deeper.

Although perhaps not 46 years, what habits or practices have you fallen into or out of that have lessened your walk with the Lord? What needs changed?

Prayer: Dear Lord, you still have the ability to do wonders and to work miracles. What in me needs addressed? Open my eyes to see and bind my will to yours. Make me more like you. Amen.


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Work in Progress

Reading: Mark 8: 31-33

Verse 33: “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man”.

Photo credit: Tom Barrett

Our passage for today begins with Jesus telling his disciples that he will suffer, be rejected, and be killed by the religious leaders. All is not to be lost, though. After three days he will rise again. These words must have been hard for the disciples to hear. But they are not totally shocking either. Jesus was often at odds with the religious leaders. Peter is the one to try and correct Jesus. He tries to tell Jesus that these things will never happen. He has to stay with them, he has to keep ministering to the people. It makes perfect sense that Peter is among those who will soon see Jesus transfigured on the mountain.

Jesus turns to Peter and says perhaps the harshest words to ever come from his lips: “Get behind me, Satan”! I imagine Peter fell back a step or two. This was the disciple who walked on water, who will pledge to die with Jesus, who will draw his sword to defend Jesus. Satan? This is also the disciple who chased the little children away, who will fall asleep in the garden, who will deny even knowing Jesus three times in the courtyard. Oh how I see myself in Peter. Do you?

In verse 33 Jesus lays this charge on Peter: “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man”. It is so easy to become focused on what I think matters, on what I want to do (or not do), on what I feel like in that moment, on what I think is right. Jesus is speaking to me too. Yes, too often I am not thinking first of the things of God. I am thankful that just as Jesus did with Peter, he does with me. The Holy Spirit convicts me, yes, but then leads me deeper into relationship, deeper into my commitment to following Jesus, as I seek to ever walk in the light. Like Peter, we are all a work in progress. We are all growing closer to our Lord and Savior. Jesus never gives up on us. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, you are ever at work in me. You are a loving but refining teacher. I so need both. Thank you for your patience and love, for your commitment and steadfastness. Amen.


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Gift of the Spirit

Reading: Mark 1: 6-8

Verses 7 and 8: “After me will come one more powerful than I… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”.

John the Baptist chose the wilderness as his ministry setting. He dressed the part, wearing camel hair clothes. He lived a wilderness life, eating locusts and wild honey. In these ways he was about as far from a typical religious leader as he could be. But this was his destiny. John was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth when both were well beyond the children stage of life. In Luke 1 we find the story of the angel visiting Zechariah in the holy of holies, telling him of John’s special role in preparing the way for the coming Messiah.

Large crowds came out to see John, to hear his message, to confess their sins, to be baptized. It would have been easy for John to forget his main task. It would have been easy to get caught up in the crowds and growing number of followers. Maybe that is part of why John did not operate out of the temple. There he might have heard whispers of how great he was, of how much he was doing for God. Or maybe the religious leaders would not have ever even let John in the door. He was wild, after all, ministering outside the religious structures of the day. In this way John was much like his cousin Jesus.

John was like Jesus in another important way. He understood the role he came to play. John preached and baptized, called people to repent of their sins, not to build up a following, but to prepare people to follow Jesus. We see and feel John’s humility and dedication to God in verses seven and eight. Here he says, “After me will come one more powerful than I… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”. The one who will baptize with the long awaited Holy Spirit is coming.

After baptizing Jesus, John will become less so that Jesus can step into and live out his role according to God’s plan. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as he emerges from the waters of baptism. For three years, Jesus will play his role, defining what it looks like to love God and neighbor with all that you are. As Jesus’ ministry and time on earth comes to a close, he promises to pass on the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who believe. Like many disciples who have come before us, we too have received the gift of the Spirit. This gift allows and empowers us to play our roles, guiding us to be live love and light in the world. May we too play our roles, preparing others to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Prayer: Loving God, we all have a role to play. We are all called to be ministers of the good news of Jesus Christ. Fill us all with the power of the Holy Spirit, guiding us to ever point to your son, the Savior of the world. Amen.


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Calling Them to Come

Mark 1: 1-5

Verse 4: “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.

Last week we began Advent with the end of the story – the end of the age when Jesus will return in power and might. This week we jump back to the beginning of the story, with the ministry of John the Baptist. Mark begins his gospel quoting from two of the many Old Testament passages that point to Jesus Christ, the full revelation of God. Mark describes John’s ministry simply: “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. John set up outside of the temple, outside of Jerusalem – outside of all civilization for that fact. He was calling people back to a simpler way of life from a simple place: the wilderness. It was not a place to come and stay. It was a place to come to, to do what needed done, and to return home from.

As I try to imagine John out there in the wilderness, my mind thinks of “bullhorn guy”. He is that person standing on the street corner, yelling at people through a bullhorn, telling folks that they will end up in hell because of their sins. People tend to go the long way around street corners such as these. We, in general, do not like to consider our sins, much less confess them in public on a street corner. Although the basic message is the same – repent of your sins – John must have been as far from the bullhorn guy as one could get. Mark writes, “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to see him”. There were, of course, some curious folks who went out to see what all this was about. These folks appear in our churches once in a while. A bump in life leads them to check out this faith thing. Others come to appease a significant other or their family at the holidays. The religious leaders showed up too. Not to be prepared or to confess or to be baptized, but to assess the threat to their own power. A lot of people were going to see John. But most people, large numbers of people, went to see John to be made right with God. In verse five we read, “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him”. They emerged from the waters ready to live a new, more faithful life.

There was a hunger to be close to God, to be a better person, to live a more holy life. This is what drew people out into the wilderness to hear John’s message and to be changed. John called the people to more. As we too live out our days, may our witness call people to more. This day and each day, may our friends and neighbors, our co-workers and classmates – may they see the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christ within us, calling them to more.

Prayer: Lord God, may I be an example of your will and way. May all I do and say and think point people to you and to the saving relationship that you offer in and through Jesus Christ. Amen.


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Practicing #1 and #2

Reading: Matthew 23: 1-12

Verse 3: “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach”.

Jesus has been ministering for about three years at this point. He has had ample opportunities to interact with and to observe the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus and these religious leaders have the same audience, teach from the same source materials, live in the same society. Much like today, when you can get two radically different approaches from two medical experts concerning the safest way to live in these pandemic times, Jesus and the religious leaders had so much in common, but they differed radically in how best to follow God.

The religious leaders occupy a place – “the Moses seat” – that calls for respect and gives them authority, a platform from which to speak into the people’s lives. But this is an earthly platform, given to them by other earthly people. As is the case with many earthly positions of power, they were beholding to others. The leader of the group, the high priest, was appointed by the Romans. There were certain expectations that came with the appointment. The religious leaders were subject to the high priest, which also connected them to the political power of the day. Because these religious leaders held a place of authority, they could exert control over the people. Jesus acknowledges this place of authority. While he recognizes their place of authority, he does not agree with their practices. To this point, in verse three he says: “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach”. They say one thing and do another. They pick and choose what to say based on their current situation. For example, the religious leaders preach about loving your neighbor, but there are many they do not see as neighbors – the Gentiles, the sinners, the sick…

Jesus, by contrast, teaches and practices the belief that everyone is your neighbor. Jesus teaches it and then goes out and live it, loving the lepers and the blind, the tax collectors and the prostitutes… Jesus practices what he preaches, with love as the greatestest commandment of his faith. The religious leaders would cute law #217 or good old #359 (the one that previous religious leaders had made up) to avoid loving certain people. Jesus, instead would preach and practice #1 and #2, loving God and loving neighbor, in their rightful place: first and foremost. As we consider Jesus’ example, may we also do the same as we seek to live out, to actually practice, loving God and loving neighbor above all else. May we be love in the world today.

Prayer: God of love, when I look at Jesus, I see one who did as he taught. He loved one and all, yes, but he loved you most of all. Each day, guide me to live this out, loving you with all that I am, allowing that to lead me to really love others more than myself. Amen.