pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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A Pure Heart

Reading: Psalm 51: 1-17

Verse 10: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me”.

Photo credit: Adrien Olichon

In Psalm 51 the psalmist begins by asking for God’s mercy to wash away their sins. The psalmist admits that “my sin is ever before me”. The author recognizes that his sin is against God and God alone. God has a right to judge him. We can all relate to what the writer of this Psalm is expressing and feeling. We’ve all been there.

The commonly accepted context for this Psalm is the aftermath of David’s affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. There was certainly a need for God’s grace and forgiveness at this point in David’s life. Although most of our sins are not this egregious, all sin separates us from God and damages our relationship with God and others. God’s mercy and forgiveness are universal needs.

In verse seven David begins to ask for God’s help in restoring the relationship that David broke. He cannot do this on his own. Here he asks God to “cleanse me with hyssop” and then, in verse nine, to “blot out all my iniquity”. These ideas, these phrases, resonate with the sacrament of holy communion. Once forgiven, once cleansed, David can ask God to “create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me”. In New Testament terms, the old is gone and the new has come. The old sinful self is washed away, replaced by a new self fully turned toward God. As a new creation in God, David desires to feel again the joy of salvation and to have a willing spirit within – one totally obedient to God.

This Psalm also resonates with our Ash Wednesday practices. Many Christians will seek to be restored and to dedicate themselves to a more holy and devout walk with the Lord as we begin our Lenten journey. The imposition of ashes reminds us of our finite nature and draws us to reflect upon our journey with Christ. It calls us to critically evaluate the condition of our souls. It draws us towards living with a more pure heart.

Our reading for today ends with these words: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise”. As we prepare to enter Lent may we find a new path to walk with Jesus, a path guided by just such a heart. With a pure heart we will be pleasing in his sight. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, bring me to that place of contrition, to the place of confession and repentance; show me the path to a closer walk, reveal the things I need to leave along the side of the path. Create in me a pure heart with a desire to be yours alone. Break my heart for what breaks yours, O God. Amen.


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Seeing Jesus

Reading: Matthew 25: 31-46

Verse 45: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”.

Today we again wrestle with this teaching. In the agriculturally based world of Jesus’ day, all would understand the need to separate out one flock or herd from another. There were times when you just did that. This practice continues today everywhere farming or ranching is done. For Jesus’ audience the idea of separating the sheep from the goats would not raise an eyebrow. The “why” is what makes his audience pause. It is what makes us take a pause. This makes us uncomfortable. It makes us squirm. It gives us an uneasy feeling in our soul. These things are part of following Jesus.

One of the points of this teaching is that we are to care for our brothers and sisters. In this sense it mirrors the second great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is a familiar command to most every Christian. We do not always succeed, but we all understand that loving all of our neighbors is part of the gig. Today, though, Jesus goes deeper. In verse 45 he says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”. When we have failed to love those who are hungry, thirsty, lonely – the least – we have done so because we failed to see Jesus in them. How could Jesus Christ be in the addict? In the homeless? In the murderer? He is there because each of these is just like us – created in the image of God, born with a spark of the divine within us. Jesus may not be readily evident in such people. But, hey, once in a while, folks have a hard time seeing Jesus in you and in me. Yet Jesus is still there. We are all and ever will be a child of God. If we all saw Jesus in every single other person, we would be much better at feeding, clothing, and including the least of these. May it be so.

Prayer: Loving God, fill my heart so with love that it colors all I see. Give me eyes that see you in others first, and only then, to see the hunger or other needs. The hunger… are just things. The person is your son or daughter, Christ’s brother or sister, my brother or sister. Help me to live this truth out more fully. Amen.


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Rejoice in the Love

Reading: Psalm 107: 33-37

Verse 35: “He turned the desert into pools of water and parched ground into flowing springs”.

While many of the Psalms are often songs of thanksgiving overall, they do have their honest moments too. The psalmists, to their credit, acknowledge the failures and sins of the past. This is the case in today’s passage. In verses 33 and 34 the rivers turn into deserts and the fruitful land becomes a wasteland. This happens, we read, because of the people’s wickedness. In our own way, we experience this when we sin. Our sin separates us from God. In that place, our joy and hope seems to “dry up” and life feels empty and barren. This is not God’s doing, but our doing. As we ourselves are still present, it just feels like God has left.

This state of drought or dryness, of being parched and hungry – it does not last. Through God’s steadfast love and unending mercy, the desert becomes a pool and there is food for the hungry. In our Psalm, as God sometimes does, things are not just restored to what they were. If that were the case, the Psalm would end in verse 35. God blesses the people, giving them a place to live and providing good land to plant fields and vineyards. Life will not just be bearable or tolerable – it will be good and it will be blessed. God’s generous spirit will be evident to the people of faith.

We too rejoice in the love of God. I close with verse 43 from this same Psalm: “Whoever is wise, let him [or her] heed these things and consider the great love of God”. Yes, may we too be grateful as we think of God’s great love.

Prayer: Father God, each day you are so good to me. My thanks is ever yours. I too know that in the difficult days, in the times of hardship and suffering, you will be right there. Thank you for your presence and love that are always with me. 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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More Than Conquerors

Reading: Romans 8: 28-39

Verse 37: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us”.

In the second part of our Romans 8 reading Paul emphasizes our ongoing journey of faith. He begins by stating that God works all things for good concerning those who love God. For the believer, something hard like the loss of a loved one can have good come out of it. For example, as God walks through the loss with you, your faith grows. Or God can work in you to make you more empathetic and caring. This can lead to you helping another through a time of loss in their lives.

Both of the examples are part of our being “conformed to the likeness of his Son”. Almost all of our journey of faith is about the process of becoming more and more like Jesus. Prayer and worship and study and fasting and serving and giving work alongside our life experiences to draw us closer to the example set by Jesus. Ultimately our journey ends when we stand in the glory that Paul speaks of in verse 30. Along the journey God walks with us and “graciously gives us all things”. Though we may endure hardship or trial, because God is with us and because God loves us, God will provide the strength and the will, the fellowship and support – whatever we need. This is what Paul speaks of in the last five verses.

Paul asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ”? In the rest of verse 35 and then in verses 38 and 39 Paul compiles a long list of who and what could possibly separate us. In the midst of this list Paul pauses to note, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us”. Through and with Jesus we are not only conquerors of persecution, famine, death, powers… but we grow stronger in our faith as God in Jesus leads us through these things. This is at least part if what Paul meant about God working “for the good”. Thanks be to God that nothing can separate us from the love of God that we find in Jesus Christ. This day and every day may we be more than conquerors.

Prayer: God, thank you for a depth of love that never lets me go, that always works to make me more like Jesus. In the good and in the bad you always have a plan for my good. May I ever trust more and more in you. Amen.


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Call of Faith

Reading: Genesis 2:15-17 through 3:1-7

Verse 6: “the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye… took some and ate it”.

As we prepare to enter into the season of Lent, we face a decision. Will this just be another six weeks that we go to church on Sundays or will it be a season, a time to really wrestle with our faith? Will these forty days be about preparing our soul to meet Jesus at the empty tomb on Easter morning? Will Lent be about becoming fully ready to die to self as Jesus did on the cross or will self remain on the throne of our hearts?

Ever since the first people walked the earth there has been a battle waged in our hearts. It is a battle between doing God’s will versus allowing our own will to make the decisions and choices. To me the garden scene is like the Last Supper scene. Someone was going to betray Jesus. It did not really matter who. In the garden someone was going to eat from the forbidden tree. In both cases, evil found a way to winnow in and create separation between a person and God. Isn’t that the same way sin works in our lives?

The fruit just hung there. It looked good and had some benefits. A piece was taken and eaten. Eyes that had been innocent now saw themselves and the world around them differently. Selfishness had been elevated over the relationship with God. Humanity’s will had been chosen over God’s will. This is a choice we wrestle with over and over every single day. Our sense of self is engrained in us from an early age. The call of faith to walk this life as a humble servant is constantly at odds with this sense of self.

The journey of Lent is about the lessening the self-will and the increasing of God’s will. It is about looking deep within our souls and seeing that which separates us from God and doing God’s will. What we each see will be vast and varied. Some things will die relatively easily and others will require great effort. May we each resolve to admit that we are fallen and broken and may we seek God’s love and mercy so that we can be made into new creations.

Prayer: Lord God, as I enter the season of repentance and introspection, give me the courage to look deep and grant me the strength to purge those things that separate me from you or that limit my walk with you. Take me and make me fully thine. Amen.


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Love God and One Another

Reading: Psalm 15

Verse 1: “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill”?

The opening questions in verse one of today’s Psalm deal with who may be in God’s presence. The broad answer to these questions is “anyone”. But it is not that simple. While it is true that anyone can be in God’s presence, not all are able to. Anyone who is in a right relationship with God can be in his presence. But if we are separated from God because of the sin in our lives, then we cannot be in a right relationship with God. This Psalm is intended to help worshippers look within, to confess and repent of the sins they bear, before they enter into God’s holy presence.

Verses two through five give us a short list of who may or may not enter God’s presence. Those who are blameless, righteous, and who speak the truth – “even when it hurts” – are welcome into God’s presence. Those who slander or gossip, cast slurs, or lend with usury (high interest) are not able to stand in God’s presence. This, of course, is a short list. There are many more ways to do right in God’s eyes and there are many more ways to sin. But the list does serve to get us thinking about the condition of our relationships with God and with one another. We must consider both because they are intertwined.

This is not just an Old Testament or just a Biblical times issue. In the New Testament, for example, Jesus says not to come to the altar of God if there is an issue between you and another. Jesus instructs us to set that right before coming to God. We reflect this idea in communion, confessing and repenting of our sins before coming forward for the cup and the bread. In our own personal prayers we should also practice confession before bringing our requests and thanks to God.

This idea of righteous living is at the core of how one is able to come into God’s sanctuary or into his presence in any other place or time. Righteous living is based upon our love of God and of one another. Our love of God is reflected in how we love one another. How we love one another reflects how we love God. These two loves are intertwined and inseparable. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus teaches that everyone is our neighbor. The Psalm ends with “he who does these things will never be shaken”. Loving both God and one another, may we never be shaken.

Prayer: God of love, speak into my heart this day. Where I am not loving you or others, convict me. Where self or pride or arrogance are limiting my ability to really love you or others, strip that sin away. Show me, Lord, how to be love to one and all, to you and to each I meet. Amen.


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By Our Love

Reading: Isaiah 63: 7-9

Verse 8: “He said, ‘Surely they are my people’… so he became their Savior”.

Today’s few verses begin by reminding us of God’s kindness and of the many good things God has done for Israel “according to his compassion”. God has been and will always be a God of kindness and compassion. Verse eight speaks of this: “He said, ‘Surely they are my people’… so he became their Savior”. God knew the way to deepen his connection with us was to become like us, so God sent his Son to be our Savior.

Jesus, our Savior, then lived out the next verse. In times when he encountered distressed people – lepers, the woman accused of adultery, Nicodemus, Martha, Peter – in compassion Jesus joined them in their distress. Then, in “love and mercy he redeemed them”. Jesus removed their disease, their stigma, their fear, their worry, their shame… and redeemed them to wholeness. He saved them from all that kept them broken and separated and he restored them to a fullness of life.

In his ministry Jesus mirrored the kindness and compassion of the Father. Jesus Christ lived these things out as he walked the earth. The source of his kindness and compassion was and is love. Love is still what identifies us as Christ’s disciples. By our love, others will know we follow Jesus. By our love, others will come to know Jesus, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. May it be so today and every day.

Prayer: God of love, over and over you redeem and restore me. Over and over. Give me a heart to love like you love, over and over. Give me eyes to see past barriers and stereotypes and all else that can separate. Grant that my hands will always reach out and that my feet will ever step forward in service to you. May this be so, O God. Amen.


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A Sign

Reading: Isaiah 7: 10-14

Verse 12: “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test”.

King Ahaz is an ungodly king who has tried to solve the issues facing him with his own power and intelligence. Ahaz thought himself capable of protecting himself and Judah against the coming tide of Assyria. In spite of his arrogance and disobedience, God still reaches out to him. Out of the depths of his love for this lost soul and for Judah, the remnant of his chosen people, God offers himself to Ahaz. The Lord encourages Ahaz to ask for a sign, indicating that God is still ready to act.

Just as it was with Ahaz, sin separates us from God and from one another. Even when our sin is relatively “short term” we can stay away from or can be reluctant to go to God. Our guilt or shame makes us feel unworthy. When our sin has become a habit or has slid into a season in life, then our alienation grows stronger, the separation deeper. Ahaz has walked disobediently for a while. In his mind maybe he thinks he does not deserve to ask God a question. Or maybe he fears God’s answer. Maybe, just maybe, he does not want to ask because he believes he can still figure it all out.

These possible scenarios might sound familiar. It was not hard for me to imagine why Ahaz might have responded as he did, saying, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test”. We have all been there. Yet in spite of the long disobedience, in spite of refusing to humble himself in God’s presence, in spite of it all, God still reaches out. What a loving God. What an amazing God.

The sign God gives is a sign of hope and promise. In spite of all that Ahaz and Judah have done (and not done), God promises a son, born of a virgin, to be Immanuel – God with us. This sign, this hope, this promise will be much more than God simply reaching out through a prophet. The sign, hope, and promise came and dwelt among us. Thanks be to God. Hallelujah!

Prayer: Lord God, your love is often hard to really understand. Whether it is a little stumble or something more major, your love and grace and mercy are always there, ready to be poured out upon me. It is a love that is hard to comprehend. Even so, it is a love you offer, time and again. Thank you so much for loving a sinner like me. Amen.


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Rise and Go

Reading: Luke 17: 11-19

Verses 12-13: “Ten men who had leprosy… stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us'”.

In our passage today, Jesus has compassion on a group of people living on the edge of society. The lepers are forced to live outside of the village. They are cut off from society. The disease they have has separated them from family and friends. The isolation causes them to call out to Jesus from a distance. The lepers have learned to stay isolated. Jesus simply directs them to go to the priests. As they demonstrate obedience, they are healed as they went. For these people who have been living outside of society, outside of the synagogues and the temple, to take steps toward these people and places – it must have been so hard. As they trust, they are healed by Jesus.

When our lives have been spotted by sin, we too can have a hard time taking those first steps back towards God. Until we get to the point where conviction leads to repentance, we can keep ourselves isolated from God. As people of faith, though, we know that we can repent and find mercy, grace, forgiveness, and restoration. Like the lepers, as we take those first obedient steps to confess and repent, we are cleansed of our sin and we are made new again. Praise be to God, right?

Yes and amen! Of course. But that cannot be all. Like the one leper who returned to Jesus, we too must have some responses. The first is to praise Jesus, to thank him over and over for the many works done in our lives. The second is to help others experience the healing power of Jesus Christ.

Our story of what Jesus has done for us is the story of what Jesus has done and can do for others. We each first live this out in our day to day lives, being Christ in the world. Our lifestyle is our first form of evangelism. But our story is also unique and specific. There are individuals out there that need to hear our story. This is our second response. To a fellow addict, to a fellow absentee father, to a fellow nominal Christian, to a fellow divorcee, to a fellow… our personal story of faith can bring those who are where we once were hope and new life. The leper was told, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well”. This too is our charge. May we live and tell our story well.

Prayer: Lord my God, thank you for your hand that has guided me, redirected me, convicted me, saved me. Your love for me is so amazing. Give me opportunities to share that love with others. Amen.