pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Falling Short

Reading: 1st Corinthians 8: 1-6

Verse 3: “The man who loves God is known by God”.

Paul begins this section on food sacrificed to idols by speaking of knowledge. He is talking about what is inside our heads. This is usually where faith begins. Most Christians follow the same path: learning about God, Jesus, and faith in Sunday school, youth group… as they mature in faith until one day the head knowledge becomes heart truth. As is true with almost everything in life, in our faith we understand more and more the longer we journey in faith. Within the Corinthian church some were relying their superior knowledge and it was causing division and it was hindering the faith journey of the new believers. In our churches today, we still do this at times. We allow our knowledge to “puff” us up.

The first way this happens is when we make our churches feel exclusive. We all look and talk alike, we act alike, we appear to be perfect Christians. We have those that we gravitate to each Sunday morning. A visitor can feel like an outsider very quickly, especially when they are not like the homogeneous crowd. Someone who comes because they are struggling with something really feels out of place when they enter a room full of people without any faults or issues. To further create a sense of “us” and “them” we use insider language and big fancy words. Maybe most regulars know what sanctification, justification, atonement, sacrament… mean. But if you are new to the faith, these terms can make you feel like an outsider very quickly.

In the Corinthian church the mature believers knew “that an idol is nothing at all”. To them, idols were just carved pieces of stone or wood. The mature believers knew that there was only one God, only one Lord. But for the new believers, the ones who had grown up worshipping these idols all their lives, this idea was a struggle. The mature believers were saying, in essence, “just get over it”, “just believe what I say I believe”. They were not willing to walk in love with their new brothers and sisters in Christ. They were not willing to enter the struggle, to walk alongside the one wrestling with their conscience.

We do this in our churches when we fail to talk about our sins and struggles. Church becomes a social club for the perfect and for the saints. Nope, no sin here. We know all we need to know to be good little Christians. In verse three Paul writes, “The man who loves God is known by God”. Loving God must lead to loving others. Jesus unpacks the truth of this idea in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). When we say we love God, when we say all are welcome in our churches but do not really welcome the sinners and broken people into our communities of faith, we are falling short. When we look down on those “obviously” dealing with sin by making them feel unwelcome, we are falling short. When we indirectly but clearly say come back when you have your life together, we are falling short. May it not be so church. May it not be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to truly love others as a witness to my love for you. Strip away my pride and judgmental tendencies, guide me to walk side by side in love with those in struggle, with those living outside of your love. Give me the courage to admit my struggles and sins within the body of Christ. Grant me a welcoming and compassionate spirit. 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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“L” is for…

Reading: Matthew 25: 31-40

Verse 40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”.

In today’s passage Jesus sounds a bit like an Old Testament prophet. His words and what I imagine his tone to be evoke visions of Ezekiel or Isaiah. Jesus is once again speaking of heaven and hell. Passages like this naturally bring to our mind the question: am I in or am I out? Reading this passage I’ve often fallen into these ways of thinking. In my rule-following mind it was and sometimes still is hard not to feel some condemnation when I read this passage.

Jesus is clear in the overall message today. There is a right or faithful way to live with one another. Therefore, there is also a wrong way. The right way is to care for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned. The wrong way is to ignore them, to not care for them. In verse forty we read, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”. In verse 45 we read the result of failing to care for such as these: “you did not do for me”.

Reading this passage we can tend to think: Am I a sheep or am I a goat? The judge living inside of us can easily start to scroll through our lives, weighing the evidence for and against. The ‘in or out?’ question can become a balance scale of sorts. But then I stop and ask: does this align with the Jesus we see in the Gospels? Can you really see Jesus judging you this way when you one day stand before him? This is not the Jesus revealed to me in the New Testament or along my faith journey.

Then what is the point of the teaching? We cannot simply toss it or skip by it because it makes us uncomfortable or because it causes us to wrestle with our faith and how we live it out. In a way this was the underlying point of all of Jesus’ teachings. These words were spoken by the one that always calls us deeper into relationship, deeper into loving God and one another. So what if this teaching is about a way to live, about a rule of life? Jesus was one who sought to connect to the least, the lost, the last, the lonely. What drove him to do so was another “L”: love. Yes, the ideal is to always care for others, in whatever form that may be.

I struggle less with this parable than I used to. Now I see it as the model that Jesus set. I still fail at times. I don’t always feed the hungry… I do not always visit the lonely… But I do strive to love each to the best of my ability and capacity – to the best of my faith. When I fail, the Holy Spirit always goes to work within me, leading and prompting me to love deeper the next time God presents an opportunity. I am a work in progress. I’d guess you are too. May the shepherd continue to lead you and me.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for a heart that yearns to love more each day. Guide and lead my heart to be more and more like yours. Amen.


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Sing to the Lord

Reading: Psalm 100

Verse 3: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his”.

Psalm 100 is a song meant to be sung in community. It is a song that encourages us to “shout for joy” as we “worship the Lord with gladness”. The Psalm encourages us to bring God our “joyful songs”. Even in times of sadness it is important to worship and sing with joy. At funerals, for example, we sing songs such as ‘In the Garden’, ‘Amazing Grace’, and ‘How Great Thou Art’. The words of our modern hymns, compared to Psalm 100, remind us of God’s goodness and love, even and especially in difficult times.

In verse three we read these words: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his”. There is no god other than the one God. There is just one God, both now and forever. God is our creator. Each and every one of us were envisioned, woven together, and brought to life by our God. We are God’s workmanship. And, “we are his”. What a great reminder. All that we are, all that we possess, all that God has blessed us with – all are really God’s. As the psalmist writes, “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture”. Even this place we dwell, this earth, even it is the Lord’s.

So this day may we come before God, united as brothers and sisters before the Lord, and may we worship his holy name, for “his love endures forever”. With joy and thanksgiving may all we do and say bring glory to the Lord our God.

Prayer: Lord God, you are awesome and wonderful. You are everywhere almighty. There are billions of us, but you know each of us intimately and personally – because you created us. This day may I be a reflection and a spreader of your great love. 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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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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Too Wonderful for Me

Reading: Psalm 139: 1-6

Verse 4: “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord”.

As we begin three days with the reading from Psalm 139, we look today at how intimately God knows us. Notice in the opening six verses how much of the active action is on God’s side of the equation. Yes, the psalmist comes and goes, sits and rises. But it is God who searches and perceives and knows completely. The psalmist understands well the dynamics of a relationship with God. So, on the one hand this Psalm is a great reminder that God is God and, well, we are not. But even moreso it is a reminder of how deep of a relationship God desires to have with every single one of us.

Psalm 139 reveals an intimate relationship. God knows us inside out, from top to bottom. Have you ever had such a good friend that you could finish their sentences and predict to a really high degree what they would say or do in certain situations? Multiply that by about 100 and that is where God is with us. Verse four illustrates this well: “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord”. The word “completely” reveals the depth of God’s knowledge of you and I. Not only does God know the words we are about to speak, God also knows why we are saying it and he knows the thoughts and emotions and all else behind our words. We also read today that God “perceives my thoughts” too – they don’t even have to become words and God knows our inner self, our heart, our mind. Jesus references this level of God’s care for us in Matthew 6 when he compares God’s care for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field to God’s care and love for us, his children. The degree to which God loves us more is hard to fathom.

In verse five we see a demonstration of how God cares for us. The psalmist writes, “You hem me in”. Imagine Jesus saying “I am the good shepherd” and see yourself within the sheepfold, totally safe and secure. The psalmist continues, “you have laid your hand upon me”. There is a guidance and direction, a leading and protection to these words. So much is involved in God’s relationship with us. Today may we reflect on this and may we rejoice with the psalmist as we too exclaim that this love is “too wonderful” for me. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: O Lord my God, indeed how wonderful you are. And how powerful and intelligent and caring. And how searching and probing and discerning. It is hard to fathom how well you know me. And it is a bit scary. Yet I know that it is love that guides our relationship. I am so thankful for my place in your family. You are an awesome and amazing God. Amen.


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Do Not Worry

Reading: Matthew 10: 1-23

Verses 19-20: “Do not worry about what to say or how to say it… it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit”.

Yesterday we read and heard about the harvest being plentiful but the workers being few. Today Jesus gathers the twelve disciples and sends them out to the towns and villages to minister to the Jews. Jesus empowers them to preach that the kingdom is near and to heal and to drive out demons. The disciples are to travel light and to rely on the hospitality of worthy persons. But Jesus also warns them of the hardships to come. Some will not accept the disciples’ teaching and they will be like sheep among wolves – not an imaginary scenario anyone would want to step into. As modern day disciples we can relate to what Jesus is talking about. We too can experience these hardships when we try and share our faith. The way of the Lord is often rejected and the messengers endure criticism and rejection and worse. We can feel like we too have been drug before the authorities.

Just as the twelve were probably about to start questioning their assignment, Jesus reassures them that they do not go alone. He says to them, “Do not worry about what to say or how to say it… it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit”. Jesus in Spirit will go with them. He will strengthen and encourage them. He will give them the words to speak and will show them how to best present the message. Jesus also reminds them that “he who stands firm to the end will be saved”. No matter what they face out there in the world, Jesus will be with them. Trust as you go today and Jesus will be with you as well!

Prayer: Leading God, as I seek to stand firm and to share the good news of Jesus Christ, strengthen and encourage me by the power of your Holy Spirit. May the words I speak be your words and may the actions I take reflect and shine the love of Christ into the world. Amen.


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Good and Faithful

Reading: Psalm 100

Verse 5: “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever”.

Today’s Psalm of praise is one that can be used to give thanks to the Lord for who God is. It could have been sung during the procession to worship or in the worship itself. The psalmist calls for worshiping God with gladness and with joyful songs. There is an exuberance in these words that one can feel. This close connection to God is built upon the words of verse three: “we are his people, the sheep of his pasture”. We are God’s and God is ours. Hallelujah!

The frame of mind and heart found in verse four in one we should practice daily. Enter the holy place with thanksgiving and praise. Whether that is the temple or the sanctuary or your dining room table, enter with thanksgiving and praise. Come into that space recognizing the power and might and majesty of God. Come in acknowledging the blessing after blessing poured out in your life. Both of these practices are essential for keeping the proper view of God and of self.

The Psalm closes with a familiar verse. Verse five reminds us of three essentials of God’s character. First, God is good. Second, his love lasts forever. And, third, God’s faithfulness lasts forever – “through all generations”. This day may we lift voice and prayer to God. May we praise God for his love and faithfulness that never ends!

Prayer: Lord God, you always have been and ever will be. You love me no matter what, your faithfulness is steady and true. God, you are so, so good! Amen.


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Guiding and Leading

Reading: John 10: 1-10

Verse 4: “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice”.

In today’s application of the shepherd-sheep metaphor, the focus is on Jesus, the shepherd. In today’s passage Jesus claims to be both the gate and the shepherd. There is both an eternal and a temporal component to both of these roles. Transitioning from talking about spiritual blindness with the Pharisees, Jesus begins his next teaching by noting that some do and try to enter the pen by evil means. Their goal is to rob and to steal. Perhaps foreshadowing the ending verse of today’s passage, is Jesus saying religion can steal joy and can rob people of what God really intends faith to be all about?

Getting into the heart of our passage today, Jesus states that the shepherd enters through the gate as the watchman opens it for him. Using only his familiar voice, the shepherd calls out to his sheep and they follow him out of the pen. Only the sheep belonging to the shepherd will follow. To the other sheep his voice is that of a stranger and it represents danger to them. So only the shepherd’s sheep know his voice. As Christians, to be followers of Jesus, we must know his voice and discern it from all of the other voices we hear. We learn it by being around it, over time becoming familiar with it. We learn to trust it through the ways it leads us to green pastures and safe waters. We follow because we learn that his voice keeps us safe and protects us. In verse four we read, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice”. Once Jesus has called us and we know his voice, he walks out ahead of us, setting for us an example. He calls out and invites us to follow. In this life Jesus’ voice, the Holy Spirit, leads and guides us. Following that voice, we are blessed in this life and are guided towards the next life as well.

Jesus also stated that he is the gate. At night, the sheep must pass through the gate to find safety and rest. It is the only way in. Then the gate is shut, guarding the sheep, keeping them safe during the darkness, preventing the thieves and robbers from reaching them. Jesus remains present to us in Spirit in this life, doing just these things. He also lifts our burdens and cares, giving us rest. His Spirit prays for us and speaks to us, reminding us of his words. It is a shield about us, protecting us against the attacks of the evil one. As we near the end of our road and transition into the next life, Jesus is the gate to eternity. He will judge us worthy of heaven or deserving of hell. He will open the gate of one for our eternity.

As we follow our good shepherd today may we take some time to rejoice in his leadership and in his provision. May we praise the Lord for his love and care for each of us, the sheep of his pasture.

Prayer: Loving God, as I stop and look back over each day, I praise you for all the ways you led and guided, provided and protected me. It is my greatest joy to praise you and to give you thanks for who you are to and for me. Amen.