pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Faith Alone

Reading: Romans 4: 13-25

Verse 25: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”.

Photo credit: Mael Gramain

What does God expect or require of you? What did Jesus expect of his disciples and of those that would follow him? If we were to make a list to answer these questions, would the list be a collection of things to do or would it detail how to live our lives? Paul is answering these questions for the church in Rome in today’s passage.

The church in Rome was falling into the trap that Paul has been caught in for most of his life. Faith was a form of legalism – of checking boxes and staying within the lines defined by the Law. Faith was not a way of life. To help them understand this Paul goes back to Abraham, the father of Israel, the patriarch of all patriarchs in the Jewish faith. In our passage today Paul points out that God credited Abraham as righteous because of his faith in God. Abraham’s faith was demonstrated in his trust and obedience to God’s direction. The Law was not even in existence yet. Entering into this right relationship with God through faith alone made Abraham and his descendants heirs of God’s promises. For Paul, all who believe in Jesus fall into that line of descendants. Belief is what gets one in that line, not following any set of rules or lists that we can make up.

Paul defines belief in Jesus as the only action necessary to be “credited” as righteous – being right with God. He wants to be clear that righteousness does not come from following the Law or any other set of rules, but from faith in Jesus Christ. In verse 25 Paul reminds those in the church in Rome and all who follow Jesus why belief in him is essential: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”. In dying for our sins, Jesus removed the weight of the Law – that sacrifice for this sin, this sacrifice for that sin… – and he paid the price through his blood. A final sin sacrifice was offered by one for all. Through Jesus’ sacrifice we are made righteous before God. In being raised from the dead, Jesus defeated death, opening the way for us to receive eternal life. Both are gifts, given to us without price, without any requirement except believing that Jesus did this for each of us. These is no law or rules that we can follow to receive or earn these gifts. They come through faith alone. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: God, I am so grateful for these gifts of love – born to the cross and into the grave for me. You stood in my place and took the punishment for me. And you did not stop there. You walked out of the grave, breaking those chains too. Thank you for the gifts of love that make it possible to experience joyful and abundant life now and to enter eternal life one day through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.


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Impact

Reading: 1st Corinthians 8: 7-13

Verse 9: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak”.

In the second half of our 1st Corinthians 8 passage, Paul reveals how our behavior can affect other believers. Some of the mature believers in the community of faith were comfortable eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. They may have been eating at an event in the temple or they may have purchased meat in the market that had been used in a temple sacrifice. To these mature believers, idols were meaningless so eating this meat was fine. But to the new believers, to those who were not far removed from worshipping these idols, this practice was a “stumbling block”. If a new believer ate of this meat, their conscience would get the best of them. They felt like they had defiled themselves. If they chose to abstain and felt guilt or weakness for needing to abstain when others in the church were partaking, this would weaken their faith. Paul says to the mature: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak”. He is asking them to do this for the benefit of their new brothers and sisters in Christ.

Today we must be aware of potentially questionable situations that may also make a new believer stumble. For example, we would not want to talk up or invite a newly recovered person to join us in our bar ministry. If we knew someone had just left behind a sex addiction, we might do harm if we invited them to help in our outreach to sex workers. If we were aware of these conflicts and we asked anyway, we would be doing what those eating food sacrificed to idols were doing. We must also be aware of how our personal decisions and behaviors might adversely affect other believers.

There is a second layer to today’s reading that we as Christians and we as churches must also pay attention to. The mature in Corinth were not demonstrating concern for others. They were meeting their needs, doing their thing without regard for others. Although not explicit in the text, there must have been some conversations or some signal of their felt superiority and inferiority surrounding the eating of this food. Today we use “encouragements” like “if you just had enough faith” or “just trust God” that are hurtful to those new to the faith or to those struggling with their faith. Here we are not building up in love. Love would call us to be present, to listen, to walk with that person, to offer empathy.

Whether by our words or by our example, may we be mindful of our impact on others. May all we do and say build others up in love, for the glory of God and for the building of the kingdom.

Prayer: Lord God, make me aware of my impact. Use me for good in the world. Pull me up short when my example or my words have negative impacts. Guide me to build your kingdom here. Amen.


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Once New Again

Reading: Judges 4: 1-7

Verses 1 and 2: “The Israelites once again did evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord sold them into the hands of…”

Today’s passage is from the book of Judges. This book covers the time period when there was no king in Israel. One after another a judge rules or leads Israel. In today’s reading Deborah the prophetess is acting as the judge or ruler of Israel. In our opening verses we read, “The Israelites once again did evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord sold them into the hands of…”. In today’s passage it is Canaan who rules over Israel. The … can be followed by many different names – Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans… The process of “doing evil” is familiar: the people sin, there is a period of oppression, this leads to crying out to God, and then God restores Israel. This is an often repeated process for Israel.

This is a process that we are also familiar with, especially on a personal level. In our battles with sin, in our attempts to be obedient and faithful, we often have our “how did I get here again?” moments. How did I let pride get in the way of doing right again? How did I allow anger to win again? How did I give in to ___ again? Our weak, imperfect human condition makes us prone to the same cycle or process that we see scattered throughout the Old Testament and continued into the New Testament. The ministry of Jesus did not fix us; it did not remove our human weakness and our tendency towards the things of this world. It did, however, change the process. The “time in the hands of…” is no longer required. The time in oppression, the time in exile, the loss of freedom is no longer needed. On the cross, Jesus made atonement for our sins. With his life Jesus served the consequence. Sometimes there is an earthly consequence that we must suffer through. Our sin can damage a relationship or can violate earthly laws. There are costs to these things. But through the gift of grace and the giving of mercy, we are made new again, our sin is washed away, we are restored back into right relationship with God. In the process we do learn, we do grow from our failures, we do gain strength in the battle again sin. More importantly we learn just as Israel learned: God never gives up. God keeps working in our lives, keeps restoring us, keeps calling us to deeper obedience and to a more faithful walk. May it ever be so.

Prayer: Dear God, thousands and thousands of times I have stumbled and fallen. Even though it is almost beyond counting, your grace is greater. Even though I struggle to forgive just a few slights, your mercy never ends. So great a love is hard to fathom. In utter humility I thank you for loving a sinner like me. You are truly love and grace and mercy lived out. Thank you, God. Amen.


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The Foundation

Reading: Exodus 32: 1-6

Verse 1: “Come, make us gods… this fellow Moses… we don’t know what has happened to him”.

As our passage opens today, we learn that Moses is once again up on the mountain speaking with God. This is not the first or last time that Moses speaks to God. Conversations have already happened many times and this is his third or fourth trip up the mountain. Moses’ conversations with God are sprinkled throughout their forty years in the wilderness. But this trip takes longer than usual. The people grow restless and they gather around Aaron, who is second in charge. They say to him, “Come, make us gods… this fellow Moses… we don’t know what has happened to him”. Scholars believe the Israelites have been in the wilderness about three months at this point. The many gods of Egypt are still fresh in their minds. Aaron fashions a golden calf and the people worship as the Egyptians had. The Israelites rise early and offer sacrifices and then proceed to eating and drinking and they party it up.

My initial reading of the passage stirred up feelings of judgment inside of me. How could they so quickly lose their focus on God? Then I remembered that snow day back in college. The weather was so bad that school was cancelled. We walked to the liquor store first thing that morning so we could “celebrate” not having to go to class. Classes the next day weren’t the best. Another reaction I felt was disgust with how easily they abandoned Moses, the one who has led them so faithfully. That triggered another thought, also from college. Sometimes the professor was late for class. In about one minute we were discussing how long we needed to wait. We’d give five minutes if we didn’t like the class and a whole ten minutes if we really like the professor or the class. Moses was “always” correcting them and giving “tons” of rules to follow. Maybe those who chafed at these things were the first voices to stir the pot, rallying the people to abandon this fellow Moses.

These are but two examples of times when I have quickly fallen into poor decisions or have abandoned leaders who had my best interests at heart. I believe we all have these experiences. Like sheep we are easily led astray. Like the Israelites, we can quickly turn to our own “golden calves” – to things or people that we think will make us happy or that we think will do what we want them to do. We too can quickly abandon the Lord our God when it seems to be taking too long for that answer to prayer or when the outcome isn’t to our liking. We quickly turn to our selfish desires and to the things of the world. As we are honest and acknowledge these truths today, may this story serve as both a reminder and as a warning. May it serve to always help us to keep God as our foundation, as our guide and as our way of life. May it be so.

Prayer: Living God, when I begin to look to other things, when my heart starts to wander, send the Holy Spirit’s voice to call me back to your ways. When my will begins to rise up, gently nudge me away from placing self on the throne of my heart. Help me day by day to find peace and joy and contentment in following you. Amen.


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Living the Way

Reading: Philippians 3: 4b-11

Verse 8: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord”.

What little “list” do you have in your head that makes sure you are a good Christian? Is it something like this: church on Sunday, read Bible and pray each day, volunteer at the church bazaar? Maybe too many items? Maybe missing going to small group and doing one mission project a year? This idea is what Paul is getting at in our initial few verses today. Paul lists all the things that appear to make him a great Jew. But these things are just titles or “rules” he followed. The list we may keep is much like Paul’s list. If it is little more than going through the motions, our list is “rubbish”, to use Paul’s word.

In verse eight Paul declares, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord”. Paul knew that doing all the right things, that being who the religious order thought he should be, that checking off all the boxes – it was all for loss until he knew Jesus Christ as Lord. Paul came to know faith ad a matter of the heart, not the head. When his faith was a matter of the mind, he was living to please others. Saul’s faith was transformed one day when he encountered the risen Christ. That day he opened his heart to Christ and invited Jesus to dwell within him. In Matthew 23 Jesus referred to the scribes and Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs”, implying they looked good on the outside but we’re dead on the inside. Paul came to understand that this is who he was. He did and was all the right things according to man, but his faith had no life. Like many still today, he was trying to earn his way into heaven, to check enough boxes to merit entry. He grew to understand that faith was all about living his way into heaven.

For Paul, faith became knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and then trusting into “the power of the resurrection”. This trust allowed grace and mercy to mingle with love. These are matters of the heart, not the mind. It is about Christ dwelling within us. It is about inviting the Spirit to guide of walk of faith and to strengthen our relationship with God day by day, step by step. We, like Paul, will also come to know the joy of sacrifice, of “sharing in his sufferings”. This is what happens when we love God and others more than self. Like Christ and like Paul’s witness, may our walk of faith be both humble and generous so that we may experience the joy of salvation and the gift of abundant life, both in the here and now and one day in eternity. May it be so.

Prayer: God of love and grace, fill my heart with your presence. Fill my steps and words with your love. Transform my heart into a heart for others. Empty me of all that binds me to this earth and its things. May I know the power of your love and the gift of salvation more and more each day. Amen.


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Pressing On

Reading: Matthew 16: 21-28

Verse 24: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”.

In today’s passage Jesus is preparing his disciples for a radical change – his death, followed by him being “raised to life”. The time the twelve have spent with Jesus must have been the best time of their lives. They have witnessed all kinds of miracles and have been a part of a few. They have been side by side with love lived out to the full. They have been blessed with the wisdom of God. If I could just have dinner with anyone in the world, far and away my choice would be Jesus.

The news Jesus delivers is hard to fathom. How could this even happen to the Messiah? How could that be the end of the story? There had to have been a personal side to the emotions the twelve felt too. Peter says, “Never, Lord”! This is the same Peter who was proclaimed the “rock” upon which Jesus would “build my church”. Following these new words from Peter, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan”. Imagine how that must have stung Peter. The Lord has a way of keeping us humble. Peter is not thinking of the “things of God” – of the plan laid out for Jesus and for humankind. He is not thinking of the Messiah of love, mercy, compassion, sacrifice. Peter is thinking of what Peter wants – to just continue as it has been. We never want to lose someone or something we love.

Jesus then turns to all of the disciples and says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. For Peter and probably for all of the disciples, the initial denial will be the desire for Jesus to stay with them. The death and resurrection are critical pieces of the plan. They will also be asked to deny self in many more ways as they follow the risen Lord. They will each take up the cross and sacrifice many things along the journey. Such is the cost of discipleship. It is a sobering thought.

Like the twelve, we prefer life to be good, to move along smoothly. It is well with our souls when we are surrounded by those we love, enjoying life, feeling closely connected to the Lord. But the storms of life come, we are drawn to crossroads, we too face death and loss. And at times we too must take up our faith, stand with or for Jesus, and count the cost. This is how we carry our cross. With God, it is always one we can bear, always a path we can tread. It is so because we do not walk alone. As we long for our reward, may we each press on toward the goal of heaven, trusting in God each step of the way.

Prayer: Redeeming and saving God, strengthen me for the journey ahead. Grant me the power to walk the path you place before me. Fill me with your love, mercy, compassion, sacrifice. Each day may I offer all that I am in service to you, my Lord and King. Amen.


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The Body and Work

Reading: Romans 12: 3-8

Verses 4 and 5: “These members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body”.

In today’s reading Paul gives some guidance on how to be (and not to be) “living sacrifices”. He begins with a warning: “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought”. He is warning against arrogance and pride. When talking about gifts or talents, we can tend towards comparison and competition. For each of the gifts that Paul lists in verses six through eight there are ways to wrongly use each gift. For example, if a leader refuses to listen to others, then his or her pride soon leads to them leading a group of one. Or if God has blessed someone financially or otherwise and their gift is generosity, then giving can become a public display or it can come with strings attached. Both of these examples are getting away from the example set by Jesus.

Before reminding us that we are each uniquely gifted, Paul reminds us that the church is like the human body. He writes these words in verses four and five: “These members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body”. Although unique, as the church we still form one body of believers. He continues in verse five to write, “and each member belongs to all the others”. Imagine if we truly lived this out in our churches and in our own personal faiths! Paul is implying, rightly so, that we are all of equal worth or rank or value – whatever word you prefer. That means the newly confirmed or newly converted member has the same place as the 40-year member, as the pastor, as the lead elder… If the church as a whole lives into this kind of unity within its diversity, God’s power is at work.

In these types of churches each member feels like they matter and that they have something to offer to the whole. If all are valued and seen as bearers of God’s gifts, then all members seek to help others find, develop, and use their gifts. Doing so, the work of kingdom building becomes the work of the whole church. May we all seek to be a part of both sides of this equation: first, offering our gifts and talents as a living sacrifice and, second, helping others to do the same through words of encouragement, support, and love.

Prayer: God, as I consider this new body of Christ to which I belong, help me to lead well and to get to know and understand the gifts and talents of each sheep. Guide me with Holy Spirit discernment to how to best build up the body for your glory. Amen.


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Act of Worship: Living Sacrifice

Reading: Romans 12: 1-2

Verse 1: “I urge you… to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God”.

In the book of Romans there is a doxology at the end of chapter eleven. It is Paul’s way of announcing an intentional shift in focus. Starting in chapter twelve Paul addresses how to live a life of faith. In chapter twelve, he begins with how to worship God. He is writing to the church in Rome. It is a mix of Jewish and Gentile believers, many of whom are Romans. In our opening verse, Paul urges them to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices”. The idea of sacrifice would be familiar to all. Jews and pagans alike practiced sacrifices as part of their worship. The idea of giving oneself in sacrifice, however, would be a foreign concept to all.

When Paul uses the term “living sacrifice” he is not referring to what all in the Roman church would initially think of – that cow or ram or dove that is alive when brought to the altar. Yes, it gives its life as the sacrifice. Paul is thinking along these lines, but with one significant change. The physical life of the believer is not taken. As such, a believer can give oneself over and over again in sacrificial worship and service to God. Being a “living sacrifice” does involve dying to self, yes, but it is also about finding new life through this act of worship.

As we continue into verse two, Paul encourages them to step away from the patterns of the world and to allow themselves to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds”. The process of giving of self sacrificially, when repeated over and over, does have a transforming affect. It changes us to be more and more like Jesus Christ. As we walk this road, we become increasingly a part of knowing and living out God’s will and ways. We live his “good, pleasing, and perfect will” out better and better day by day. As we seek to grow closer and closer to our Lord and Savior, may this be our spiritual act of worship.

Prayer: Living God, open my will to your will. Focus my eyes on what you see. Attune my heart to what makes yours sing. This day and every day, guide me to give all of myself so that I can fully experience your transforming power. May it be so. Amen!


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Put to the Test

Reading: Genesis 22: 1-14

Verse 5: “We will worship and then we will come back to you”.

In yesterday’s reading, we focused on Abraham’s trust and obedience. There is also a second person who demonstrates a great deal of trust and obedience. Isaac accompanies his father Abraham and plays his role as son, obedient to the father. In other ways we see Isaac as an example of the kind of faith and trust that Jesus modeled on his way to death. Only then, the son was not spared.

Throughout the story in Genesis 22, Isaac does the will of his father. He carries the wood up the mountain to the place of sacrifice. He does not struggle when he is bound up. He is quiet and at peace with the role that he is playing. Each of these things are reminiscent of Jesus’ trip to the cross on Calvary.

As followers of Jesus we are often asked to step into places or to do things for Jesus that may be uncomfortable or may involve some risk. To step outside of our comfort zone, to engage with someone who is not just like us, to give generously when we are led to be selfless – these are our moments when faith is put to the test. Do we, like Isaac, completely trust the father? And are we as willing to accept and play our role to fulfill the will of God? May we, like Isaac and many other faithful followers, turn towards the Lord in trust and obedience, becoming willing servants of our God most high.

Prayer: Father God, help me to trust in you – to follow your lead and to go willingly and obediently, even into a place or situation where I am unsure or am uncomfortable. Guide me to step forward in faith as my act of worship. Amen.


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Put to the Test

Reading: Genesis 22: 1-14

Verse 5: “We will worship and then we will come back to you”.

In yesterday’s reading, we focused on Abraham’s trust and obedience. There is also a second person who demonstrates a great deal of trust and obedience. Isaac accompanies his father Abraham and plays his role as son, obedient to the father. In other ways we see Isaac as an example of the kind of faith and trust that Jesus modeled on his way to death. Only then, the son was not spared.

Throughout the story in Genesis 22, Isaac does the will of his father. He carries the wood up the mountain to the place of sacrifice. He does not struggle when he is bound up. He is quiet and at peace with the role that he is playing. Each of these things are reminiscent of Jesus’ trip to the cross on Calvary.

As followers of Jesus we are often asked to step into places or to do things for Jesus that may be uncomfortable or may involve some risk. To step outside of our comfort zone, to engage with someone who is not just like us, to give generously when we are led to be selfless – these are our moments when faith is put to the test. Do we, like Isaac, completely trust the father? And are we as willing to accept and play our role to fulfill the will of God? May we, like Isaac and many other faithful followers, turn towards the Lord in trust and obedience, becoming willing servants of our God most high.

Prayer: Father God, help me to trust in you – to follow your lead and to go willingly and obediently, even into a place or situation where I am unsure or am uncomfortable. Guide me to step forward in faith as my act of worship. Amen.