pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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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.


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Living or Practicing?

Reading: Matthew 22: 34-46

Verse 36: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law”?

If one spends some time reading the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – one sees that the religious leaders and Jesus did not always see eye to eye. As the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others in the religious circles increases, these religious power holders begin to look for ways to discredit Jesus. As these attempts fail, they begin to plot to eliminate him. Today’s testing of Jesus begins with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law”?

Much like he did with last week’s question about paying taxes, Jesus gives two answers to this week’s question. Often we too ask pointed questions, ones worded just the right way to force the answer we want to hear. The religious leaders think they know the correct answer to their question. And, in fact, Jesus begins with their correct answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. Quoting from Deuteronomy 6, Jesus gives the #1 answer. From even the religious leaders perspective, keeping this commandment is essential to keeping all the rest. To possibly keep all 600+ commandments found in the law, one must love God with all of one’s being. To keep them all, of course, is impossible (except for Jesus). This aim or focus became the goal for the religious leaders, especially the Pharisees. It became so much their focus that Jesus had to add the second commandment to his answer.

Quoting from Leviticus 19, Jesus adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. This commandment takes the love of God and puts it into action, into motion, takes out into the world. Here we begin to see the source of the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders. They were all about knowing and following the laws. Jesus was all about knowing and applying or living out the law. Jesus chose not to live by the letter of the law but by the spirit of the law. He lived out his faith. The religious leaders practiced theirs. As we too face this decision, may we choose to allow the word of God to bring life and feet to our faith as we seek to model Jesus for others.

Prayer: Lord God, it is so much easier to just read and study and even to appreciate the life of Jesus rather than to strive to live it out. So much easier. It is safe and comfortable and warm here at my desk, just down the road at the church. Jesus’ road is hard, it is narrow. Guide my heart to that road. Amen.


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Who and What?

Reading: Matthew 22: 15-22

Verse 20: “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription”?

As the end of Jesus’ ministry draws to a close, the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders has escalated. Early in the final week of his life the Pharisees send some folks to test Jesus, to try and trap him. Even when they are flattering Jesus to soften him up, their words have truth in them. The words of these envoys belie their dilemma. Jesus is a man of integrity – so why are they trying to trap him? Jesus is one who teaches the truth – so why begin with words that are not believed by the ones that sent them? Jesus is not swayed by men – so why try to trap him with a political and religious question? Because Jesus is all of these things, to find or catch him sinning is not possible. So the religious leaders distress to trickery.

After calling out the hypocrisy, Jesus asks for a coin to use in his answer to their question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not”? A “yes” would anger many Jews. They resent the Romans and their oppressive taxes. A “no” would be seen as treason by the Romans. Jesus chooses a better answer than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. After receiving a denarius, he asks the questions, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription”? Before going on to hear Jesus’ answer to the original question (that is for Sunday), let us apply these questions to ourselves.

If our lives were held up for all to see and examine, what would be the answer to the question of whose image we bear? This question gets at the root or core of who we really are. When others look at us, do they see the image of Jesus Christ? Do they see one who has integrity, who speaks truth, who is not swayed by the things of the world? Or do they see one who is willing to be a little immoral at times, one who will occasionally bend the truth, one who sometimes does chase after the things of the world, or one who does all three?

Who and what we are matters. It matters to God and it matters to the witness that we have to the world. Who we are, and, more importantly, whose we are really are great things to consider. May our reflection today upon these questions lead us closer to living in the image of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Prayer: Lord of all people and of all the earth, in each of my words, in each of my actions, in each of my thoughts, may I bring you the glory. May all that is selfish and prideful and sinful be laid aside in the pursuit of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.


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The Harvest

Reading: Matthew 21: 33-41

Verse 38: “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance”.

Today’s reading comes as part of a quick succession of stories. Chapter 21 begins with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem followed by Jesus clearing the temple, which had been turned into a marketplace, a “den of robbers”. This is a challenge to the religious leaders’ authority. After Jesus curses the fig tree for not producing fruit, the chief priests and elders question Jesus’ authority. He does not answer their question directly. Instead he tells two parables. In the first one son agrees to work in the field but does not. The other son says “no” but ends up working in the field. The religious leaders identify the one who does the will of the father as the son who obeyed. Jesus then points out that the tax collectors and prostitutes, those who originally said no to God, are entering the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and elders because they listened and repented. To further illustrate God’s displeasure with their hard hearts Jesus tells the parable we read today.

In the parable of the tenants, the tenants harvest a vineyard they did not plant. At harvest, a share is due to the owner of the vineyard. Twice the tenants abuse, kill, and stone those sent to collect the owner’s share. Then the owner sends his son. As the tenants see him approaching they say, “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance”. Indeed they do kill him. Jesus then asks the religious leaders how the owner will respond. They say that the owner will bring those wicked “wretches to a wretched end”. In our reading for tomorrow, Jesus quotes from Psalm 118. These verses would have triggered a connection for the religious leaders. Verses 19-21 speak of a triumphal entry and the Lord bringing salvation to those who believe. The religious leaders would not have missed what Jesus, the capstone being rejected, was implying. We will explore this further tomorrow.

The religious leaders and Jews often rejected the ones sent by the one who establisheded them in the Promised Land – a place they did not plant or build. Some of the prophets were rejected, beaten, even killed by leaders who did not want to hear God’s truths. These leaders would continue the pattern, this time crucifying the one who had come to save. Our question to consider is this: what do we do when the Lord gives us opportunity to produce a harvest? Do we hold tightly to all we have, refusing to let some go to build up the kingdom of God?

When the owner comes looking for us to contribute to the harvest, may we be a part of a fruitful harvest. May we be faithful tenants, giving unto the Lord, as we are led, to build the kingdom of God here on earth.

Prayer: Lord of all, as you give me opportunity to plant seeds or to nourish growth, lead me to be faithful and obedient. Guide me to step forward into those opportunities as I seek to be a part of building your kingdom in this time and place. Amen.