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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The Journey

Reading: Psalm 25: 1-10

Verse 9: “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way”.

Photo credit: Jan Huber

Today’s Psalm is about the trust and assurance that King David has in God. David begins Psalm 25 by lifting his soul up to God. This is what we do in Lent – this season of reflection and introspection. David asks not to be put to shame by God or by his enemies and perhaps not by himself. David then asks God to “teach me your paths”. David wants to know God’s ways, to be guided by God’s truths. His heart desires a closer walk with God. This desire is a the heart of the Lenten season as well.

In verse nine David writes, “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way”. Humility is an essential part of our journey. If we are not humble we can get caught up in the shame that comes with our failures and sins, especially when we internalize the shame. Humility reminds us that we are not perfect and that we do not have to live out our faith on our own. God’s Spirit and the Word and our brothers and sisters in Christ walk alongside us. Humility allows us to learn and grow, both from our mistakes as well as our successes because both are grounded in the goodness and steadfastness of God.

Just as life was for King David, our Lenten journey will not be one steady ascent to the pinnacle of Easter Sunday. While we hope to continue growing closer and closer and to be more and more like Jesus during these forty days, we will have setbacks and pauses. We are limited and imperfect. In verse ten we read, “All of the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful”. All. Each day of our Lenten journey may we keep these truths in mind, allowing them to guide and empower our journey together with God and with one another. May it always be so.

Prayer: Lord God, as I lift up my soul to you, refine it as you may. Teach me your ways so that I may faithfully walk the path to the cross. When I stumble, as I know I will, lift me up and set me back upon your path. Amen.


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Remember Your Baptism

Reading: 1st Peter 3: 18-22

Verse 21: “This water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also… the pledge of a good conscience toward God”.

Today’s reading connects Jesus’ saving act on the cross to our baptism and to Noah’s experience in the great flood. Peter begins by reminding us that Christ died for us all – “the righteous for the unrighteous” – so that we could be in right relationship with God. Peter reminds us that not only did Jesus pay the atonement or price for our sins, but through the resurrection Jesus also opened the way to eternal life for all who believe in him as Lord and Savior.

In the middle of our passage Peter speaks of Noah and family, those who were “saved through the water”. Baptism is often associated with the washing away of our sins. Jewish rituals of purification involved water in the cleansing process. In Noah’s experience, the water was also the saving agent. The sinful world perished in the flood but through the waters God saved Noah, his family, and all the living creatures. Peter reminds us that “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also”. Through baptism we are brought into the family of God, into the community of faith. We are marked or claimed by God. Baptism becomes or leads to “the pledge of a good conscience toward God” – whether made by parents and sponsors or by the person being baptized. The pledge is to live a life worthy of Christ, the one who died for us. This life is revealed through our participation in the community of faith and through the ways we share our faith with the world by our witness, our prayers, our worship, our actions, our service…

The “good conscience” that Peter speaks of is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. This is a promised gift from Jesus that is connected to baptism. In the early church and in some denominations today, the believer’s baptism is the standard practice. The Holy Spirit comes into that person’s life after they confess Jesus as Lord and as they are baptized into the faith. For those traditions that practice infant baptism, the child is marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. Usually during confirmation (or a similar process) the young adult professes their own faith in Jesus Christ. This confession marks the point of entry for the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

On this first Friday of Lent may we each remember our baptism and may we rejoice in our place in the family of God.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for claiming me as an infant and then waiting patiently for me to decide to follow Jesus. The gift of the Holy Spirit empowers and enables me to follow day by day. Thank you for this gift. Amen.


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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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One Day

Reading: Psalm 50: 3-6

Verse 3: “Our God will come and will not be silent”.

Photo credit: Bill Oxford

The reality of God is on full display in these verses from Psalm 50. While we prefer to avoid this truth about God, in fact he will one day judge us all. Whether we stand or kneel before him all by ourselves or whether we come to the throne of judgment following the rapture or the final days, we will all find ourselves in the place of judgment. The psalmist opens with “Our God will come and will not be silent”. The creator of this world and all that is in it has the right to determine our worthiness to enter his perfect eternity. God will not be silent on that day.

Continuing into verse four the psalmist declares that God will indeed “judge his people”. As the fire devours some, God will bring before him the “consecrated ones” – those who chose to enter the covenant to live in right relationship with God and with one another. Ultimately the comparison will be made with Jesus, the one who came and showed us what it means, what it looks like to love God and neighbor with all that we are. We have no better example. While God does not expect us to be perfect, to never sin, to always get it just right, God does expect us to strive to be more like Christ, to resist sin, and to ever answer and follow the call of the Holy Spirit. To use a John Wesley term, we are ever “going on to perfection”. Day by day we are to seek to grow in our love of God and in our love of neighbor, coming closer and closer to the perfection that we find in Jesus Christ so that one day we may be perfected.

The day and hour remain unknown. One day the righteous one will come, God himself as judge. As we consider the condition of our soul and as we ponder our daily walk with Jesus, where will we be judged worthy? Where are we still falling short? Day by day may we honor the covenant more and more, ever bringing increasing glory to the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

Prayer: Lord God, walking day by day with you is such a joy. Yet some days I fail to love you completely. Other days I fail to love my neighbor as Jesus would have loved them. Each day become more of me so that I may reflect more of you to the world. Grow in me so that I may grow in you. Amen.


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News Spread Quickly

Reading: Mark 1: 21-28

Verse 28: “News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee”.

Our gospel reading for today and tomorrow centers on Jesus’ authority. After arriving in Capernaum, Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. As Jesus begins teaching, the people are “amazed” because he was “one who had authority”. Jesus spoke and taught in a way that clearly set him apart from the local scribes and teachers of the law that usually taught in the local synagogue. Jesus had a knowledge that was inherent, not learned or taught. Jesus, therefore, possessed a God-given, divine authority.

During his time in the synagogue a man possessed by an evil spirit cries out, recognizing Jesus as “the Holy One of God”. The spirit acknowledges the divine power in Jesus – “are you going to destroy us”? In response Jesus quiets the man and tells the evil spirit to come out of him. With a shriek the man is freed from his demon and is made well. This action adds a layer of amazement for those in the synagogue that day. As one might expect, “News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee”.

Although not possessed, we each have moments when an evil spirit rises up within us, tempting us to sin. In those moments we also bump up against the Holy One – the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. In that moment, competing voices speak into our decision. Good and evil vie for control, for the outcome of that moment. The deceiver whispers lies, the Spirit speaks truth. In that moment, do we give Jesus authority in our lives? In the decision, do we allow the Holy One to have power over self?

These moments happen over and over on our journey of faith, many times every day. Each outcome determines how others see us and how they see our faith. As we walk out our days may we do so in a manner that causes “news about him” to spread quickly.

Prayer: Lord God, in each word and in each action, guide me to be attuned to the living presence of Jesus Christ within me. Tune my heart to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Bend my will to your will. Amen.


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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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Drawing Near

Photo credit: Soul duvOcean

Reading: Mark 1: 14-15

Verse 15: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”.

Jesus steps into his ministry as the one who prepared the way has been arrested. John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod. John spoke truth against the power of the day and it would cost him his life. Jesus travels to Galilee to begin his ministry. This region to the north was isolated, away from the power structures of the day, home to many in need of the good news. As he begins his ministry Jesus announces, “The time has come”. John had prepared the people for this very moment.

Jesus continues with the message that John had preached. It is one of the constant messages of the entire Bible. The practice of repentance always remains central to the walk of faith. In verse fifteen Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”. In Jesus, God draws near to us. This is what draws us to him, it is what drew the first disciples into following Jesus. In our lives today we have moments when this is especially true. These are the times when we can tangibly feel God’s presence with us. To have any relationship, change is necessary. It is true of our relationship with Jesus. This relationship begins in a place of humility, in the place where we recognize our need for a Savior. Sensing that we are entering a holy space, stepping into the presence of the Messiah, we are naturally led to repentance. Entering that space we feel that we need to be our best. Part of that involves laying aside our imperfections, our sins, our selfishness. Looking within, we see that which separates us from the one we want to draw near to. Repenting of these we draw nearer to the kingdom of God. It is in our moments of closeness to Jesus that we come to belief as we surrender our lives to him. As we continue to draw near we experience grace and mercy and forgiveness as we are made new over and over. We experience freedom from the things of this world as our focus and love shifts toward the eternal. We come to live out the joy and hope and peace that grows from belief and trust in Jesus. We come to see Jesus as the “good news”, as the way, the truth, and the life, as the one who gives us the final victory over sin and death.

This day may we spend time in his very presence, allowing the good news to permeate our very being. May the kingdom of God draw near to you this day!

Prayer: Loving God, you draw near to me in so many ways – in these quiet moments, in the interactions with others, in the ordinary of life. In love you fill me with a peace and hope and joy that nothing in the world can give. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Oh Nineveh

Reading: Jonah 3: 5-10

Verse 8: “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence”.

Jonah has made his proclamation known. For three days he walked around Nineveh proclaiming the coming destruction. The words of his warning – or the power of God behind them – hit home, leading the people to repentance. “From the greatest to the least” they fasted and put on sack cloth, both signs of repentance. When word got to the king he too was moved to action. The king issued a decree. In addition to calling for these sign of repentance, he also declared, “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence”. He hoped that if they changed their evil ways, that maybe in his compassion God might relent. God did have compassion. God did not destroy the great city of Nineveh.

As we consider the application of this passage today, how often are we Nineveh? How many times have we had to repent of our evil ways and our violence? As I consider these questions, I realize that sin is a constant battle in my life. Like the prophet Jonah, the Holy Spirit is ever on duty, proclaiming the coming destruction, calling me away from my sin and into faithful prayer and holy living. The same mercy and grace and love that brings renewal and forgiveness to my life are the ones all people can experience when they “fast” from their sins and “put on sack cloth” as a sign of their humility. This mercy, grace, love, renewal, and forgiveness is something God offers to all people.

Taking another angle, who is your Nineveh? Who is that person or group that most needs God’s transforming power to be at work in their lives? You see, at times we are to be like Jonah too, going to “that” person or to “those” people. We are to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all people, sometimes even with words. We are to bear God’s transforming power into all the world, even to our Ninevehs.

By the power and grace of God, may we be aware both of the times when we need to repent and to turn from our evil ways AND of the times when we are called to proclaim that to those who are walking without the God of mercy and grace. May we each faithfully live out both sides of God’s love.

Prayer: God of grace, humble me and convict me when I am living in sin. Walk me to your throne and lead me to kneel there, in that place of love. Use me today to help others to know that place of love so that they too can know your healing and renewing power. Amen.


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Steadfast and True

Reading: Jonah 3: 1-4

Verse 2: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you”.

Today and tomorrow we will look at Jonah’s calling and at how the sinful city of Nineveh responded. Just as Samuel was called and just as we are called, there was no mistaking God’s call upon Jonah. God wanted to use Jonah for a specific purpose. Unfortunately, I am sometimes like Jonah – a little reluctant, a lot influenced by my own sense of what is right or who is worthy of God’s love. Remember Jonah’s initial response to God’s call? He ran in the opposite direction. Spit out on the shore, this is God’s second attempt to use Jonah to save Nineveh from its sins. In verse two God directs Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you”. God’s message to Nineveh is like Paul’s message to the church in Corinth. Like Paul was in 1st Corinthians 6, God is direct with his message: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned”.

Sometimes this is how I need God to talk to me: short and direct, not much wiggle room, hard to misunderstand. Sometimes I need words that communicate the gravity or importance of the message. Just as we will see with the Ninevites tomorrow, God’s direct and clear message compels me to action. It is in these moments that I hear and feel God’s love and care for me. It would surely be easier to just let me continue off on my own path. It would be easier to let Nineveh continue down the road to self-destruction. But this is not God’s nature. God loves all of creation and wants to see all redeemed, all brought within his abundant love and gracious care. So God, like with Nineveh, pursues us. Often God pursues us over and over, just like he did with Jonah.

God is steadfast and true. His love never fails. His pursuit is endless. Being reminded of all this today, knowing once again of God’s love and care for all people everywhere, may we respond by going where we are led today. May we hear the call and may we bear God’s love and care to the people and places where God sends us.

Prayer: Lord God, it is good to be reminded of your steadfast love and grace and mercy. Open my ears to your call and my ears to where you want to send me. Guide my hands and feet to share your love and care and mercy with others. Amen.