pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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The Faithful Road

Reading: 1st Thessalonians 5: 16-24

Verses 21 and 22: “Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil”.

In his closing Paul reminds the Thessalonians of some basics of the faith. In short order he gives them three: live with joy, pray always, and be thankful in all things. As we each consider this short list, we quickly recognize one or two, maybe three, as challenging. Living joyfully, for example, is pretty easy when things are good. But on a really bad day or during a season of loss, living with joy can be a real effort. Similarly, in difficult times it can be hard to give thanks. After we’ve prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed about someone or something, it can be trying to keep praying to a God who doesn’t seem to care enough to answer. Faith is not always easy. It was not meant to be easy. Jesus described the road as “narrow”. These are just some of the reasons we have company on the road.

In verse nineteen Paul warns us against putting out the fire of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has always been represented as fire since that first Pentecost Sunday when “what seemed to be tongues of fire” came upon the followers of Jesus (Acts 2:3). The Holy Spirit is our main divine companion for our journey of faith. The indwelling presence of Jesus Christ lives inside of us, leading and guiding, teaching and correcting. We also walk the road with our brothers and sisters in Christ. They help and encourage us, challenge and uplift us, teach and mentor us. And we do the same for others.

In verses 21 and 22 Paul tells us to “Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil”. We are to allow the Spirit to do its work, yes, but we too must be an active participant on our own journey of faith. We are called to test things and situations and people against the truths of God. When unsure on our own, we turn to prayer and to good Christian counsel. We must hold onto the good – keeping those things and practices and people that help us stay close to Jesus and on the path of following him, well, close to us. Paul also admonishes us to avoid evil – don’t go to those places, events, web sites… that cause temptation, don’t hang out with those folks who cause you to sin…

As he closes Paul prays that God would “sanctify” or make us holy and righteous, blameless on the day we stand before the risen Lord. It is the hope for us all. Our passage for today closes with these great words of encouragement: “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it”. God is faithful. He will sanctify the faithful. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for these great reminders today. In the Spirit, walk with me day by day, being present until I meet you face to face. Amen.


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Like a Mighty River

Reading: Ezekiel 34: 20-24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Faithful God

Reading: Genesis 37: 12-28

Verse 28: “His brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt”.

A cruel and violent death is avoided – at least for now. The brothers avoid staining their hands with their own brother’s blood. Of the choice between two evils, they have chosen the lesser one. The brothers are twenty shekels richer and rid of their troublesome little brother. Joseph travels south, bound in chains, headed into a life of slavery. It is about as far away from spoiled favorite child as one could get.

Joseph has been separated from his family, but he is not all alone. Although he might have felt all alone as the caravan headed for Egypt, God was with him. God cannot control the decisions humans make or the emotions that drive those poor decisions, but he can work within situations to accomplish his plans. For example, instead of the brothers killing Joseph, along comes a caravan of merchants. Eventually it will be a severe famine that drives all twelve brothers back together again. God will continue to guide and bless Joseph, continuing to work good out of bad circumstances and situations.

This too is our experience when we are faithful and trusting in our God. When we allow God to guide our lives we will never walk alone. God will ever be at work to accomplish his good plans for us. Like it did with Joseph, sometimes life happens and we find ourselves on a road we did not choose to walk. But more often than not, we ourselves choose that other road. We choose the road that deviates from God’s plans. Yet even then God continues to walk with us, to work in our lives. God provides opportunities to return to walking with him. I may take road B instead of God’s road A. But down the line God gives me a chance to take road C or D or E – all of which lead back to God and his good plans for me. Yes, we are ever works in progress. God is a tireless and faithful worker. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving and faithful God, perhaps I deviate less that I used to. And for that I am thankful. (You probably are too!) Yet at times I still go astray, still choose less than the plans you have for me. Keep drawing me back, keep setting my feet upon your path. Thank you God for your love and faithfulness. Amen.


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Burning Hearts

Reading: Luke 24: 28-35

Verse 32: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the scriptures to us”?

On the road to Emmaus Jesus meets and walks with two of his disciples. He meets them where they are at emotionally and spiritually and he makes himself known – first through the scriptures and then in person. Often this is the way that Jesus continues to work in our world. For me, Jesus was first known intellectually. I learned the stories as a child and then, as a teenager, came to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This is the common path to Jesus.

In our passage from Luke 24 we learn some things about Jesus. First, he meets us where we are at. The two disciples were confused and unsure of recent events; they were not clear on all that the scriptures said about the Messiah. Second, Jesus addresses their needs. He explains the scriptures to them. Jesus is also willing to accept their invitation, filling their need for relationship. Third, Jesus reveals himself in meaningful ways when we are ready to receive him. The two disciples had been prepped to know Jesus in a new and deeper way. In the breaking of the bread Jesus opened their eyes. Immediately they asked one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the scriptures to us”? The passage closes with our fourth learning. Our personal encounters with the risen Lord prepare us to go forth to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. The two return to Jerusalem to tell the others that Jesus is alive.

Today, as Jesus burns within our hearts, may we too be witnesses to all that Jesus Christ has done in our lives, helping others to know him and to believe. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, walk with me today, helping me to know you more and more. Pour out your Spirit upon me, leading me deeper into relationship with you. Amen.


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The Call

Reading: Matthew 3: 1-6

Verse 3: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'”.

John the Baptist was an anomaly for his day. He would be so in about any age. He lived a very rustic lifestyle out in the wilderness. He preached a basic message: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near”. His passion and sincerity drew a few at first but soon his ministry led many to go out to see John the Baptist. He was the one of whom Isaiah was speaking when he wrote, “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'”.

John was offering a simple but challenging message. It took some effort to go out to see him. The real work began after you tackled both of these things. John the Baptist’s message did not bring peace, but disruption and change and transformation. To repent, to be baptized, led to a commitment to walk a new road. One was leaving behind a sinful life and seeking to walk the narrow road. Emerging from the waters meant a call to walk a more devout and God-honoring faith.

Maybe through a song, maybe through a prayer, maybe through the message, God will speak into people’s hearts. As they hear the challenge, as they hear the call to something new, will they step forward, willing to risk transformation? Or will they try and ignore the call, seeking instead to remain on the soft and easy path? May the Holy Spirit be at work in our churches today, preparing the way for the coming Messiah. God, may it be so.

Prayer: Lord, give me eyes to see, ears to hear, a voice to speak. Challenge me today to step into the wilderness, into the uncomfortable. May I find you there. Amen.


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Produce Fruit

Reading: Matthew 3: 7-12

Verse 8: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”.

Many people were coming out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist. It was your typical Sunday morning crowd this day in Matthew 3. Many came to hear John’s call to repentance and to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan River, symbolizing being made clean. Some came to support those making a choice to seek a new life. They had walked the narrow road since coming to see John themselves. Some came because they thought they should. Their minds were on a million other things and their hearts were even further from faith in God. But this day, some came to see the show. They would gather later, to ridicule it within the safety of their little circle.

This day the usual preaching and baptizing comes to a screeching halt as John yells out, “You brood of vipers”! I bet you could have heard a pin drop. He asks them who warned them to “flee from the coming wrath”? He is calling them out for coming to the river and then returning to their unrepentant lives later that afternoon. The Pharisees and Sadducees do not even think about stepping into the river. Why would they?

This would be like our communion stewards going to someone who remained in the pew instead of coming forward and being told, “No thanks. I’m good – haven’t sinned since I took communion last month”. We may be taken aback by such a thought, but there will be folks who move with the crowd, who take communion and just go through the motions. They will move through the line, they will take the bread and the juice, without ever searching their hearts, without ever seeking to repent of their sins. They will go through the motions planning on returning to life as it was.

John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”. Live lives that look like you have repented of your sins. Live lives that look like you love God and neighbor more than you love yourself. Don’t just appear to love God and neighbor. Really love them in concrete and practical ways. Love God and neighbor in ways that make them feel loved by you.

John proclaims that one day Jesus will “gather his wheat into the barn”. Live lives worthy of being gathered into Jesus’ barn. Produce fruit that builds the kingdom of God both in your heart and in the hearts of others.

Prayer: Lord, show me today how to love you more and to love others more. Convict me when I fall short of what you call me to. Guide me by your Holy Spirit to be your love in the world today. Amen.


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Our Hope

Reading: Psalm 71: 4-6

Verse 5: “For you have been my hope, O sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth”.

Each who is introduced to Christ must make a personal decision: is this Christ worth getting to know more? If the answer is ‘yes’ then a second decision looms: am I drawn in enough to continue this new journey? Some are curious and invest a little time. But soon they realize the commitment level and return to living in the world. Others go a little deeper but make the same decision in the end. The cost of surrendering is too high. A few decide that yes, Jesus is the only way, truth, and life and decide to surrender their lives and take up their cross to follow Jesus Christ. This process can unfold in just a few days at a place like church camp or it can play out over many years. Everyone’s journey is unique to them.

In verse five we read, “For you have been my hope, O sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth”. Because we have unique journeys, some may say since college or since marriage or since some other event. For a lot of us who grew up in the church, we can echo this basic statement. The early experience with the faith of our parent(s) led us into the process of making faith our own. For some the moment of surrender is a powerful experience that leads to asking Jesus to be Lord of their lives. For others it is a gradual and evolving relationship. One cannot identify the precise moment of total surrender, but one can trace the progression to living a fully committed life of faith.

However we arrive to that personal relationship with Jesus Christ, along the way we all experience those “deliver me” moments along with a host of other trials and sufferings. The road is not always easy, but we do not walk alone. As we turn to Jesus and come to rely on him more and more, he becomes our hope. We get to know a Jesus who is ever faithful and is always loving and is constantly present. We too join the psalmist in declaring, “I will ever praise you”.

Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for sticking with me on my journey. At times I wandered far off the path, but never too far for you. Always you were there, calling me back. Thank you, Lord. Please continue to walk with me through the highs and lows and everything in between. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Do It Quickly

Reading: John 13: 21-32

Verse 21: “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me”.

At the start of John 13, Jesus has just washed the disciples’ feet. He has “set you an example” and encouraged them to do as He has done. Next Jesus goes on to predict that one of His own disciples will betray Him. In verse 21 we read, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me”. The disciples react as we all would in Jesus’ presence – at a loss. They each think in their own hearts – surely not I! They are all curious and Peter prompts John to ask. By sharing the bread with him, Jesus reveals it is Judas Iscariot. Jesus directs Judas to “do quickly” what he will do. At this, Judas slips off into the night.

Reading the story, we think poorly of Judas. Yes, it had to be done to fulfill the scriptures. But we still dislike him because he betrayed Jesus, the one whom he had spent the last three years with. It feels like a worse betrayal than if it had been one of the Pharisees or a stranger. It could have been Matthew or John or James or Bartholomew or Thaddeus or even Peter, the one who most seemed like a leader. In the next section, Jesus predicts Peter’s denial. It could have been any of the twelve.

It is Judas Iscariot that slips off into the night to betray Jesus. John tells us “it is night”. Night and darkness symbolize evil and Satan. By contrast, day and light represent God, Jesus… Because Judas does not question or linger, but acts, we can infer that he has been wrestling with this. He has been brought to the decision point this night: light or dark? Good or evil? When he takes the bread, we read “Satan entered into him”. On this night, the darkness won. The scale tipped in favor of evil.

We are all in this place often. The Spirit works to keep us walking in the light and the evil one tempts us to step off the narrow road and off into the darkness. The temptation may be to gossip or to tell a little white lie. It may be to steal that set of headphones that is just lying there or to cheat on that big test. Maybe it is to turn in a false tax report or to click that pop-up that is so enticing. Perhaps it is to falsely accuse another to paint a better picture of ourselves or it is finally consummating that affair. The degree of sin matters not to God. Yes, the human or earthly impacts and affects will be greater for one scenario versus another. But to God, all temptation that leads to sin is the same. We are choosing dark over light, evil over good, Satan over God. Each week, each day, each hour, we face temptation. May we each turn to God and may we do it quickly. May we allow the light to chase away the darkness. May we strive to walk in the light.

Prayer: Lord, the battle is hard. Satan is ever at work. So I pray that the voice of the Holy Spirit is loud and strong in me today. Quiet the call of the earthly and fleshy desires within me. When they rise up, remind me quickly of your will and your way and your word. Strengthen me, O God. Amen.


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Outside

Reading: Luke 2: 41-52

Verse 49: “Why didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house”?

The Passover pilgrimage is one of those yearly traditions for Mary and Joseph and family. Every year pick up cousin so and so in this place and then add in uncle so and so in that place along the route to Jerusalem. The caravan grows as it makes its way to the city. Yes, there have been changes – someone had a baby and someone has passed on. By 12 or 13 Jesus has gotten the pattern down quite well. It is no wonder that Mary and Joseph assume Jesus is somewhere in the caravan as they head home. After all, they did tell him that they were leaving that morning at 9.

In our passage Jesus appears to be disobeying Mary and Joseph. Instead of leaving Jerusalem He goes to the temple. In a foreshadowing of what it to come, Jesus amazes the teachers and religious leaders with His answers and understanding. But apparently the temple is not the first place Mary and Joseph thought of to look for Jesus. After three days of searching, they find Him. In response to Mary’s question about treating them this way, Jesus says, “Why didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house”? Of course – where else would He be? For now, Mary and Joseph do not understand what Jesus is saying.

In His Jewish upbringing Jesus would have seen the temple as the place where God dwells. At 12 or 13 this is a logical frame of understanding. To us it makes sense as well. In our worship and in times when we want to be alone with God, we too feel connected to God in the sanctuary or chapel. As Jesus grows, however, His understanding of where we meet God expands greatly. It is along the road, in the house, on the mountain, by the lake, beside the well, and about anywhere else you can name. Jesus does spend some ministry time in the temple, but the vast majority of His ministry is spent outside in the world. This puzzled the religious leaders of the day and it continues to puzzle many today. But the unquestionable reality is that Jesus Christ found the least, lost, and last outside of the temple, in everyday life. That is where we will find them too. So may we go out today to share the light and love of Jesus Christ with the world.

Prayer: Lord, unbusy me. Help me to get outside the walls more and more. Help me to be better at doing your work in the world. Amen.


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Offering

Reading: Malachi 3: 1-4

Verse 2: “Who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire”.

The book from the prophet Malachi closes the Old Testament. Like many other Old Testament prophets, Malachi’s words connect to Jesus Christ and the New Testament. Chapter 3 opens with God letting Malachi and all of Israel know that God will send “my messenger”. This messenger will “prepare the way before me”. Malachi is prophesying John the Baptist. As we work through the other readings this week, we will flesh out the story as we learn that John will indeed prepare the way for the coming of God incarnate, Jesus Christ.

Malachi goes on to write, “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come”. As John preaches repentance out in the wilderness, Jesus will come to be baptized. The Spirit of God will descend on Jesus, marking the beginning of His ministry. Jesus will be the “messenger of the covenant”. The new covenant will be written on the cross, where Jesus will die for our sins. This new covenant changes everything – both now and eternally. It frees us from the guilt and shame of our sins as the blood washes them away. It makes a way for us to be saved to eternal life as we are made new again. There is a lot in verse 1: repentance, forgiveness, salvation, life.

Then, in verse 2, there is a shift, a reality check. Malachi writes, “Who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire”. No, Jesus is not all peace and love and flowers. One does not have to spend too much time in the Gospels to discover that there is a cost to discipleship and to find that the road is narrow. When Jesus tells us that we must die to self and take up our cross daily, we find a cost. When Jesus redefines our priorities by telling us that we must first love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and then we must next love our neighbors as Jesus first loved us, then we find the road is narrow and is hard to walk at times.

If we are really following Jesus, we find that the Refiner calls us to die to self over and over and over. Sin after sin falls away as Jesus refines us. Our life gradually becomes the “offering given in righteousness”. May it be so for me and for you.

Prayer: God, take me as I am today and refine me to be more like you. Strip my pride and selfishness and judging – all that leads me to think I am more, making you less. Reverse that O God – help me to die to self so that I may be less so that Jesus is more. Amen.