pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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With the Heart

Reading: 1st Samuel 15:34 – 16:13

Verse 7: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”.

Photo credit: Tom Swinnen

Last week one of our readings was from 1st Samuel 8. In this reading the Israelites demanded a king. They wanted to be like all the other nations around them. God grants their request. But Saul, the first king, soon needed replacement. As Saul’s leadership declined, Samuel spoke out, becoming unpopular and feared. In 1st Samuel 15 God finally rejects Saul as king and, as our reading today begins, God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint the next king of Israel. Saul is not dead yet. He remains king.

Overcoming Samuel’s objections God sends him to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons. When Samuel sees Eliab, Jesse’s oldest, he thinks surely this is the one – eldest, tall, strong. ‘Not this one’, God says. In verse seven we read, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”. Six more sons pass by Samuel – none of these either. Samuel asks Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have”? The youngest is out in the fields tending the sheep. Eliab once tended the sheep. Then Abinadab came along and it became his job. And so it went. These were the norms of the day. The oldest son, the one who inherited a double portion, the one who is tall and strong – surely he will be the anointed one. If you choose as man would choose. God sees things differently. God looks at the heart.

We continue to struggle with the practice of judging by appearance. Or with our preconceived notions or with our inherent prejudices. We look at how someone dresses and dismiss them as a potential friend. We look at how someone looks and we dismiss them as a potential employee. We look at someone’s ethnicity and dismiss them as a potential teammate. We look at someone’s behavior and we dismiss them as a potential brother or sister in Christ. When we judge in these ways, may Samuel’s words echo in our head: “The Lord has not chosen this one either”. And may we realize that the Lord is speaking to us, about us. When we judge another by dress, looks, ethnicity, behavior, or any other human metric, we are far from the heart of God. May it not be so. May we see as God sees: with the heart.

Prayer: Loving God, when my prejudices, my experiences, my notions… rise up and begin to judge another’s worthiness, cut me off. Use the Holy Spirit to draw me up short, to prune me off where I need pruned. Open my eyes and heart to see and love as you see and love. Amen.


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Rooted

Reading: Psalm 52

Verses 8-9: “I trust in God’s unfailing love… in your name I will hope, for your name is good”.

As is the case with many Psalms, Psalm 52 is a response to a historical event. Before becoming king, David was viewed by King Saul as an enemy. Saul tried to kill David and pursued David and his supporters, forcing them to flee into the wilderness. On one occasion in the wilderness, David went to see a priest. The priest, Ahimelech, gave David and his men bread and gave David a sword. When Saul heard about this, he ordered the killing of Ahimelech and all his family… Over 85 were killed. Verses 1-7 are David’s reaction to this tragedy.

We may have or feel a similar reaction to the events we hear about in our world. Each day there are stories of murder and violence, of irrational behavior with tragic ramifications. These events lead us to see the perpetrators as evil and as deserving of God’s justice. It is not uncommon to want to see them “snatched” up and brought to “everlasting ruin”. While we may feel much of what David felt toward Saul, we too must do as David did: turn to God and rest in him.

In verses 8-9 David returns to his bedrock. He writes, “I trust in God’s unfailing love… in your name I will hope, for your name is good”. No matter what goes on in the world around him and no matter what happens to him, David knows his roots are sunk deep in God. David knows that God’s love is unfailing. God is his portion for ever and ever. God is David’s guide and protector. For all of this, David praises God. At the end of each day, David’s hope remains rooted in God because God is good.

When we, like David, observe or even experience violence or some other tragic event, may we too keep rooted in God, trusting in his goodness and love. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, the world is full of hurt and pain and violence. So much of it is senseless. Help me, like David, to remain fully rooted in you, trusting in you alone. Amen.


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More Like You

Reading: Acts 9: 16-20

Verse 17: “The Lord… has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit”.

The Bible is full of people willing to suffer for their faith. A long line of prophets walk through the Old Testament and into the New to set the stage for Jesus. Like each prophet before Him that suffered for the word of God, Jesus preaches and heals and ends up being crucified. In the book of Acts, the early church also assumes the role of suffering for the good news of God. They are flogged and beaten and eventually stoned and crucified for sharing the name of Jesus.

In our passage today, Saul suffers a little reverse suffering. He is struck blind by Jesus. He spends three days fasting and praying. In verse 16 we learn that Jesus will reveal to Saul the extent that he will suffer for the name of Jesus. After the revelation and three days are over, Ananias arrives at the house and tells brother Saul, “The Lord… has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit”. Before Saul ever speaks a word in Jesus’ name, he is identified as a brother in Christ. He has been claimed by God. Saul receives his sight and is then baptized. Through the waters of baptism the old Saul is washed away and the new Saul e emerges. We read that he spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. During this time he must have learned the truth about Jesus because he proceeds to begin to preach in Jesus’ name.

The waters of baptism begin Saul’s new life in Christ. The old is washed away and he emerges a new child of God. We too are made children of God through our baptisms. We are marked and welcomed into the family of God as we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For Saul, this is a jumping off point. Baptism is for us as well. It renews who we are at our core and begins our walk if faith. Baptism is just one of the ways that God renews us. For example, each time we confess our sins and receive grace we are made new again through the blood of Jesus.

The suffering endured by the believers is also a way to experience new life. For those who offer the ultimate gift, their lives, they experience new life in eternity. For those who suffer in this present age, we also experience new life. When we give sacrificially or when we suffer persecution or trial because of our faith, we are refined and made more into the image of Christ. Through suffering we become more like Him, bring made new, more in His image, over and over again. We too rejoice because we are growing in our faith and in our likeness to Christ. Each day may we become more like Jesus.

Prayer: God, you draw us closer in so many ways. Each day we are called to take up our cross and to follow Jesus. As I try to walk in His footsteps today, may I become more like Christ. Amen.


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Straining, Straining, Straining

Reading: Philippians 3: 4b-14

Verse 12b: “… I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”.

Paul opens this section of Philippians with a long list of his accomplishments in his “past life”. At times we can do this. The “back in the good old days” stories can be fun to relive or they can be good reminders of what or who we used to be. For Paul, they are the latter. Before knowing Jesus, Paul was known as Saul. Saul was a very devout rule follower. Saul checked all the boxes of obedience to religion and was very respected among other rule followers. Saul and his fellow religious folks knew the Law inside out but did not follow the Law-giver. They had tons of head knowledge with no heart change.

Then Saul met Jesus one day and had a radical change of heart. In an instant he knew all of those past accomplishments we’re “rubbish”. He came to understand that righteousness comes not from following the letter of the Law – from checking off the boxes – but from faith in Christ alone. Saul took the Gentile-based version of his name and, as Paul, set about introducing as many people to Jesus as he possibly could. Knowing Christ and helping others to know Christ became Paul’s only goal, no matter the cost. He writes the letter we read from today while he is in prison. Where he is does not matter to Paul. His focus remains the same. Even as Paul sits in chains he writes, “… I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”. Yes, his freedom has been taken, he is barred from speaking in the square and the synagogue, but Paul still writes to encourage the church in Philippi and churches ever since. His words are of great encouragement today.

Paul’s words can become our words. In verse 13 he speaks of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead”. I love his choice of “straining”! In spite of opposition or trial or suffering or cost, with all that he is Paul is giving everything he has to spread Jesus’ name so that all can know the good news. Paul strains for the same reason we should strain: the goal, the prize “for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus”. May we keep our focus on the goal too, straining ahead, straining to share Jesus Christ with as many as we can.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me to strain more often. Push me a bit more out of my safe, comfortable places. Amen.


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Even Me

Reading: Ephesians 3: 1-4

Verse 2: “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given me for you”.

Paul experienced God’s hand in a powerful way. He had not always been Paul though. He was born Saul and was raised in the Jewish faith. Saul excelled at learning the Law and eventually became a Pharisee, one of their religious leaders. He was very devout and followed the Law inside out. When the Christians began to try and spread the good news of Jesus Christ, Saul made it his personal mission to persecute them, to stomp out this new religion. Saul was enemy #1 of the early church.

And then, one day as Saul traveled to Damascus to arrest and persecute the Christians there, he met Jesus. In a jarring encounter, Jesus changed Saul forever. The #1 enemy became the #1 evangelist, travelling all over the known world preaching about Jesus Christ and His love. Saul took on the name Paul, the Gentile version, and became the apostle to the Gentiles – all who were outside the Jewish faith. His conversion story is what Paul is writing about when he writes, “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given me for you”. His name alone struck fear into Christians; now, by God’s grace, he was one of them!

As I think about and reflect on this mystery, I am convinced of the fact that God can and will use anyone for His glory. He chose Saul. That means that God can do anything with anyone. God can turn the hardest-hearted atheist into a preacher of the gospel. He can take the most vile criminal and turn them into a leader in a church. God can grab ahold of the one we least expect and use them in amazing ways.

Yes, we are all within reach of God’s grace. We are all available ammunition in God’s battle with the evil and darkness in our world. God desires to use us all for the building of His kingdom of love and grace. Thank you God for using even me.

Prayer: Lord, you call me by name. You ask that I lay down my selfish desires, that I take up my cross, and that I follow you. May it be so. Use me as you will, O God. Make me fully yours. Amen.


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He Is Our Peace

Reading: Micah 5: 2-5a

Verses 4 & 5a: “They will live securely, for then His greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And He will be their peace”.

The prophet Micah identifies tiny Bethlehem as the place that will bring forth something great. The One will rule over Israel with an authority that is from “ancient times” – the beginning of time, as a matter of fact. The One will stand and “shepherd His flock”. He will be filled with the strength of the Lord. Yes, this great King will come from tiny Bethlehem.

God always has been and always will be a God who uses the unlikely and the least. Sometimes the enemy is mighty. God chose stuttering, shy Moses to take on Pharoah and to lead the people through the wilderness. God chose the youngest – still just a shepherd boy – to anoint and to defeat the giant, rescuing Israel from the Philistines. God chose Saul, the greatest opponent of the early church, to become Paul, one of the greatest apostles of that same early church.

God chose an unwed teenager from tiny Bethlehem to bear the Savior of the world. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary gave birth to a baby, wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger. Christ was born to save us all. God incarnate, the One who would bring salvation through the cross, entered the world as a helpless little baby.

Jesus does not stay a baby. He grows up and ministers to the people, giving us an example of how to live out God’s love. Jesus also reveals what it looks like to be fully obedient to God, trusting all things to God. Micah writes, “They will live securely, for then His greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And He will be their peace”. His greatness is making its way to the ends of the earth, one new believer at a time. As the good news spreads, so too does His peace. Today, may we each contribute to the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ, sharing His peace and love with all we meet.

Prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace today. Amen.


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Complete Relationship

Reading: Romans 8: 12-25

Verse 17: We are heirs with God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory.

Paul began life as Saul.  His faith was rooted in being one of the “chosen people” and there was a certain exclusiveness to this.  As he studied and came to know more he became a Pharisee.  He became part of a very exclusive group within an exclusive faith.  His view of faith was based on lineage and a long list of rules to keep to maintain good standing with God.  But then Saul met Jesus.

Jesus got ahold of him and, as Paul, he came to understand God and our relationship with God from a whole new perspective.  Instead of the God of the Old Testament, Paul came to know and preach the God embodied in Jesus.  He came to see Jesus as the fuller revelation of God’s presence and being.  Just as the Old Testament continued to develop the relationship between God and His people, so too does the New Testament – through the love and witness of Christ and then through the continued development of the church.

Paul came to understand that all people are God’s people.  He saw a universal love instead of a limited or select love.  Paul also came to understand that grace and love were universal and free to all.  To access this love and grace, to become part of this family of God, all one had to do was accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  It was Paul’s route and he lived to help all he met to make the same decision.  He came to live out the indwelling Holy Spirit that led and guided him as he shared the good news of Jesus with all he met.

Paul also grew to understand that it was a complete relationship.  It was an all-in, all day, for better or worse type of a relationship.  In verse 17 Paul writes, “We are heirs with God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory”.  Yes, once we join the family we are heirs with God and co-heirs with Christ – heirs to salvation and eternity in a glorious heaven.  But Paul was writing to the church in Rome.  They were facing suffering and Paul wanted to encourage them in and through this as well.  The early followers of Jesus, especially the disciples and apostles, rejoiced when they suffered for Christ.  They felt like Jesus in His suffering.  They also knew that suffering would lead to a time in glory.  Like the groanings of birth, Paul knew that the trials and suffering would lead to new life.  It is a good reminder to us as well.  Like Paul, may we be encouraged and remain in God’s love, openly accepting the free gift of mercy, grace, forgiveness, and new life.  For this great love we join the saints in saying, thanks be to God!


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Us?

Reading: Acts 7: 55-60

Verse 58: …and the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Oddly enough, in the middle of our passage today, the author mentions that Saul is there.  That people laid their clothes at his feet would indicate that maybe Saul is “in charge” of the stoning of Stephen.  He may not cast a stone, but he is there to make sure the job is done right.  Saul is becoming the leading figure in the efforts to persecute and eliminate this fledgling church.  In Stephen we find one absolutely willing to die for his faith.  Saul is just as passionate and dedicated to upholding Mosaic Law as he and many others interpret it.  Just as much as Stephen loves Jesus, Saul hates Him.  It is quite a contrast, but it is a contrast we can relate to.  While we may never “hate” Jesus, at times our lives may look like we certainly don’t love Him.

As Saul’s story unfolds, his reputation for attacking the church and all followers of the Way grows to the point that the mere mention of his name brings shudders to all believers.  It is quite the shock to the young church when Saul suddenly becomes Paul just a couple of chapters later in Acts 9.  Many asked the question people may ask if us: him?  How could this man who killed and arrested so many Christians become one of Jesus’ greatest apostles and champions?  How could this man so filled with hate become so filled with love?  Jesus.

Once Jesus got ahold of Saul and changed him into Paul, he was fully dedicated to the good news.  This leads us to ask, what about me? Maybe we do not need the 180° change that Saul needed, maybe we do.  But let us ask, what about me?  What would Jesus like to change in me?  If Jesus could change Saul into such a way, imagine what He could do with us.  May it be so.


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Rooted

Reading: Psalm 52

David is in the midst of a trial in Psalm 52.  King Saul has become crazed with jealousy and paranoia and is pursuing David to kill him.  David is on the run for his life.  He knows in his heart that he is in the ‘right’ and that God is with him, yet he faces this trial.  Despite being physically on the move, David states that he is like “an olive tree flourishing in the house of God”.  In the midst of this crazy pursuit by Saul, David remains rooted in his faith in the God he loves.

In the song “Always”, artist Kristian Stanfill sings, “My foes are many, they rise against me, I will hold my ground”.  In our life we can often relate to David’s trial and to the thoughts expressed in this song.  At times we can feel beset on all sides.  In these moments it can be easy or tempting to pull up the roots we have in God and to turn to other means to deal with the fear or pain or doubt or whatever else we are facing.

David wrote, “I will trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever”.  The songs says, “I will not fear, His promise is true, my God will come through always, always”.  In both we find the blessed assurance that God will always live us and will always be there for us.  For our part, we must stay rooted in God.

It can be hard to do this.  The song goes on to day, “Trouble surrounds me, chaos abounding, I will test in You”.  It is a faith deeply rooted in God that can rest in Him in the midst of a trial.  To be deeply rooted requires daily watering and fertilizing.  This day may we water our faith in the Word of God and allow it to permeate our faith, to fertilize it as its message sinks deep down into our soul and strengthens our faith.  May we do this day by day do that when the winds and rain of life come, our faith will be deeply rooted on the true foundation, Jesus Christ.


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Good News

Reading: Acts 9: 1-9

Saul had quite the dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus.  Ever since Jesus’ death and resurrection, Saul had been persecuting and often killing followers of “the Way” – those who followed Jesus and His teachings.  ‘Zealous’ is the word often used to describe Saul’s pursuit of Christians.  The mention of his name brought fear and caused Christians to slip into the shadows and to go into hiding.  Saul was one who needed a dramatic encounter with the Light.

In our lives, we often have encounters with the truth and light as well. In general they are nothing like Saul’s – but at times they can be.  For the most part, our encounters come as gentle nudges and soft whispers as we are guided back to the path God calls us to and away from the path of the world.  On occasion the nudge is more like a shove as we strayed a little too far away and something stronger is needed to bring our life back into alignment with Christ’s desires for us.

For some the encounter is much like Saul’s.  We have been wandering far and wide and God must also bring us to our knees.  It usually comes in the form of hitting rock bottom.  It comes at the end of a long road of addiction or a trail of dishonesty and lies that leaves us wondering how in the world we ended up ‘here’.  One little step after one little step has added up to a journey into the wilderness.  Amazing thing about God though – He can call us back just as quickly from a long detour as He can from a temptation to a much lesser evil.

The great gift is a love from God that never ends, a mercy that never stops, and a grace that always is given.  Saul became Paul and we too will always be rescued, always brought back into a righteous relationship with Him.  No matter where we are or who we are, God wants to use us just like Paul – to go forth and share the good news of Jesus Christ with others on their own detours.  Only one way leads to eternal life.  May we share this news today!!