pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Drawing Near

Reading: Mark 1: 9-15

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

Mark’s gospel quickly moves to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The prophecies and birth of John the Baptist and Jesus gets zero verses in Mark’s story. John the Baptist’s whole ministry gets seven verses. Jesus’ baptism gets three and his time being tempted in the wilderness gets two. John’s imprisonment and the start of Jesus’ ministry gets two verses combined. Mark moves quickly through these events. Mark’s compact gospel gives key quotes that often pack a punch. Verse 15 is one of those verses. These are the first words spoken by Jesus in Mark’s gospel.

Jesus begins by stating, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near”. It is time to begin public ministry. This ministry will involve the kingdom of God, incarnate in the person of Jesus, coming near to people. It will come near enough to touch people and to speak with people, to eat with people and to bless their lives. It will come near enough to enter into relationship with people. Jesus continues by saying, “Repent and believe the good news”! In another translation this reads, “Change your heart and lives” (CEB). This is closer to the original text. The word translated ‘repent’ implied expanding one’s mind to a new reality. Jesus engaged and lived in a whole new way, more fully expressing God’s love for each of us, his children. To engage the world as Jesus did, to love others as Jesus did – this requires a new way to see the world and to understand our purpose in it. This mind shift will lead to us living a radical, selfless life that stands out, that draws questions.

To become like Christ in mind and heart, in words and actions, will lead to opportunities to bring the kingdom near and to share our belief in the good news. Not blending in but living a holy and compassionate life will draw others into conversation, giving us the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ. In this way we will partner with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, drawing the love of God into other’s lives. As we seek to be the kingdom here on earth, we too will be changed. God’s blessings on the journey.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to live a life of faith that is noticable, that is radical. May my witness draw others in so that I have the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. Amen.


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Walking Into Places and Spaces

Reading: 2 Kings 2: 1-12

Verses 2, 4, and 6: “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you”.

Photo credit: Lili Popper

As we begin this week we enter into the end of Epiphany, the season that focuses in on the revelation of Jesus Christ. In this season we highlight who and what Jesus is. Our call, however, is to reveal Jesus Christ to the world every day of our faith journey. It is fitting that this season culminates on Transfiguration Sunday, when the Christ is filled with light, revealing him in all of his glory. In each passage this week we enter into the thin spaces of holiness, into the places where God is at work.

As 2nd Kings opens there is turmoil in the land. The king tries to consult Baal, one of the local pagan gods. Elijah, God’s prophet, condemns this action and proclaims that the king will die. It is also time for Elijah to end his earthly life and to cede the role of prophet to Elisha. After clearly demonstrating that God is with him, Elijah comes down the mountain to walk out his final steps. Three times Elijah tries to leave Elisha behind, seeking to spare him. Each time they arrive at a new place, the local prophets come out and tell Elisha that the Lord is going to take Elijah from him. Three times Elisha asks them not to speak of it. Each time Elijah tries to leave him behind Elisha says, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you”. He will not abandon Elijah. He will continue to walk faithfully with him. Elisha chooses to walk into that thin space with Elijah. As he walks through that space, Elisha is transformed from protege to prophet, from student to master, from one who follows to one who leads others into God’s presence.

As believers we too will face times when the Holy Spirit invites us to walk into those thin spaces, into those holy places. We will be called to be the presence of God in the lives of others. We will be asked to walk with another on a difficult journey. We will be asked to sit or pray with another in a time of pain or loss. We will be asked to share our faith and our hope with another who is lost or broken. In these sacred moments we will be called by the Holy Spirit, asked to be the very presence of God to another. Yes, it is scary and hard to step into those places and spaces. We do not go alone. The one who invites goes with us. The Spirit is ever present, ever ready to reveal the power of God’s love, peace, hope, power… through us. As we feel ourselves called and as we stand on the doorstep to these holy and sacred moments, may we too say, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you”.

Prayer: Lord God, each time that I have stepped into that thin space, you have been right there with me. Your Spirit leads and guides, strengthens and encourages. Each experience has been holy and sacred. Yet each first step is always hard. It ever requires trust and faith. Continue to give me the courage and belief to step into those places and spaces. Walk with me day by day. Amen.


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Prophets

Reading: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20

Verse 18: “I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him”.

In today’s passage we see some long term planning. In order to continue to help the people walk faithfully with God, he will raise up prophets like Moses to teach and guide them. In their desert experience, the people were amazed at God’s power and authority, but they were also afraid of God. They feared talking directly with God. They thought only Moses could do so and live. So they asked God for an intermediary, for a prophet to communicate God’s words to the people. God appreciates their idea and decides to continue to raise up prophets like Moses to be his voice to the people. In verse eighteen God says, “I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him”. Prophets will speak on behalf of God, using the words God gives them. They will be an extension of God’s power and authority. Joshua, Samuel, Nathan, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Ezekiel, the judges, Isaiah, Daniel… – just a small sampling of God’s prophets.

We are in the season of Epiphany, the season that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. The season begins with the visit of the wise men – the first Gentiles to worship Jesus Christ. Jesus is, of course, in the line of prophets in the human sense. God in the flesh lived among us and spoke God’s words to the people, guiding and teaching them (and us) how to live faithfully with God and with one another. As we learn his ways and as we seek to become more and more like Jesus, we ourselves are living out epiphany – revealing Jesus to the world through our words and actions that reveal Christ alive in us. Today and every day, in all we are, in all we say and do, may we share Jesus with others. In this season, may our very lives celebrate Jesus among us, the living word, God in the flesh, the giver of life. As we live into the fullness of our faith, may others come to know Jesus.

Prayer: Living God, today I thank you first for the prophets, each who came and spoke your word. Each has much to offer us today. I also thank you for Jesus, the fullest revelation of your love and power and authority and might. May he reign each day in my life. Amen.


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God Still Speaks

Reading: 1st Samuel 3: 1-20

Verse 6: “Again the Lord called, ‘Samuel'”!

We begin this week’s readings with the calling of Samuel. One night when Samuel lay down in the temple, as he had done for many years, God decided to speak to him. In some ways it must have been a shock but in other ways it was expected. To understand why, a little background from the previous chapter. Samuel was, after all, born to Hannah, the fruit of a desperate prayer to the Lord. This barren woman had taken her case to God and he responded. Eli was there that day in the temple as she poured our her heart and her pain. After understanding her prayer, Eli blessed her, saying, “May the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him”. When he is born, Hannah names him ‘Samuel’ “because I asked the Lord for him”. After Samuel is weaned he is brought to the temple so that “his whole life is given over to the Lord”. Samuel is raised in the temple by Eli, learning much about God. So, it is not a shock when God calls, “Samuel”!

Samuel’s story reminds me of my story and perhaps it also reminds you of your story. Long before I began to remember things for myself, my parents brought me before the Lord and baptized me, committing my life to a faithful walk with the Lord. My birth was an answer to prayer, some comfort to hurting hearts. Although I did not live at the church, worship and Sunday school were regular parts of my childhood. Youth group eventually replaced Sunday school. I was confirmed and became a member of the Congregational church. During my high school years I made the personal decision to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Perhaps your faith journey is similar to mine and, therefore, to Samuel’s. God has long been at work in our lives. God knows us well.

It took Samuel a while to realize that God was speaking to him and he needed Eli’s help to realize it. This too I recognize in my life. I do not always recognize that it is God “speaking” to me. At times I too need others to help me recognize the whispers, the nudged, the guidance. Sometimes three calls are just the beginning of the process for me.

Just as with Samuel, God has plans for our lives. God will call and call, full of patience and love. As we live out our faith each day, may we grow in our connection to the Lord so that we too are faithful in responding, “Speak, for your servant is listening”.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for your faithful and persistent call upon my life. I am grateful for each person that has helped me to hear the call throughout my life. Open my eyes and heart to hear you better and better each time you call. Give me a willing spirit, ever ready to respond. Amen.


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The Light Has Come

Reading: Isaiah 60: 1-6

Verse 1: “Arise, shine, for your light has come”.

The chapter that we read from today is entitled “The Glory of Zion” in my Bible. Zion was another name for Israel and for God’s chosen people. In this, the third section of Isaiah, the prophet writes of hope. He writes of hope because the people are in need of hope. The long years in exile have been difficult. The time in a foreign land has challenged their faith. Life feels dark and dreary. The hope that Isaiah wrote about 800 years before Christ are good words for today.

Chapter 59 leads into today’s passage. At the end of this chapter we find these words: “he will come like a pent-up flood… the Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Judah who repent of their sins”. These words, read during the era of Jesus Christ, speak of the Messiah. The love of God revealed in Christ swept through Israel and then was carried out across the known world. City by city were swept into faith in Christ as the disciples and apostles brought the good news to those eager to confess and to be baptized into faith. In today’s reading we began by reading, “Arise, shine, for your light has come”. As we read these words just after Christmas we hear these words speaking of Jesus, of our light, of our redeemer.

This week we also read part of the creation story from Genesis 1. It is awesome to think of the complexity and diversity and organization of a world that God simply spoke into being. Passages like today’s remind me that the Bible is much like creation. Today, for example, we encounter a prophet who lived about 800 years before Jesus writing as if he lived right alongside Jesus. It is but one of hundreds of passages that speak of Jesus and of events that will unfold just as they were foretold. Clearly the Bible is part of God’s grand and detailed plan.

As God’s children, as part of the family and community of faith, these 2,800 year old words speak to us. Verse two continues with these words: “the Lord rises upon you, and his glory appears over you”. Yes, the light has come. It continues to shine. May it shine in you today as the Lord’s glory rests upon you.

Prayer: God of glory, the light that brought creation into being was the light that came through the stable almost 2,000 years ago. The light continues to shine. May the light of Christ shine brightly in the world today. Amen.


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Practicing #1 and #2

Reading: Matthew 23: 1-12

Verse 3: “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach”.

Jesus has been ministering for about three years at this point. He has had ample opportunities to interact with and to observe the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus and these religious leaders have the same audience, teach from the same source materials, live in the same society. Much like today, when you can get two radically different approaches from two medical experts concerning the safest way to live in these pandemic times, Jesus and the religious leaders had so much in common, but they differed radically in how best to follow God.

The religious leaders occupy a place – “the Moses seat” – that calls for respect and gives them authority, a platform from which to speak into the people’s lives. But this is an earthly platform, given to them by other earthly people. As is the case with many earthly positions of power, they were beholding to others. The leader of the group, the high priest, was appointed by the Romans. There were certain expectations that came with the appointment. The religious leaders were subject to the high priest, which also connected them to the political power of the day. Because these religious leaders held a place of authority, they could exert control over the people. Jesus acknowledges this place of authority. While he recognizes their place of authority, he does not agree with their practices. To this point, in verse three he says: “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach”. They say one thing and do another. They pick and choose what to say based on their current situation. For example, the religious leaders preach about loving your neighbor, but there are many they do not see as neighbors – the Gentiles, the sinners, the sick…

Jesus, by contrast, teaches and practices the belief that everyone is your neighbor. Jesus teaches it and then goes out and live it, loving the lepers and the blind, the tax collectors and the prostitutes… Jesus practices what he preaches, with love as the greatestest commandment of his faith. The religious leaders would cute law #217 or good old #359 (the one that previous religious leaders had made up) to avoid loving certain people. Jesus, instead would preach and practice #1 and #2, loving God and loving neighbor, in their rightful place: first and foremost. As we consider Jesus’ example, may we also do the same as we seek to live out, to actually practice, loving God and loving neighbor above all else. May we be love in the world today.

Prayer: God of love, when I look at Jesus, I see one who did as he taught. He loved one and all, yes, but he loved you most of all. Each day, guide me to live this out, loving you with all that I am, allowing that to lead me to really love others more than myself. Amen.


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Far to Go

Reading: Psalm 106: 1-6 and 19-23

Verse 6: “We have sinned, even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly”.

Today’s Psalm connects into our Exodus 32 readings of the past two days. The Psalms often recount history as a way to both remember and to learn from it. In today’s case, the Psalm was likely written about 500 years after the Exodus from Egypt. Remembering thier stories was a big part of the Jewish faith. Like our stories or histories, for the Jews it reminded them of their sins and failures and of God’s love and mercy towards them.

Psalm 106 opens with praise to the Lord and with thanksgiving for how God blesses those who champion justice, shows favor and brings aid to his people, and gives a joyful inheritance from to his children. It is important to remember why they sought to live in a right relationship with God. Verse six shifts the focus. Reality enters.

In verse six we read, “We have sinned, even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly”. Despite knowing the story quite well, the Jews of the psalmist’s day struggle with sin just as their forefathers had. Sad to say, even with much more than 500 years gone by, we too continue to struggle with sin. In our society and sometimes in our very lives, golden calves abound. In many ways, our nation had forgotten God, just as the Israelites did from time to time.

Even within the church, we have gotten it wrong. Collectively and individually we have made poor choices, have walked out bad decisions, and have enforced policies that caused more harm – all scattered throughout our 2,000 year history. So often these blemishes, these lowlights, have come when we (the church or segments of the church) were so sure we were right that we could not consider any other possibility. Arrogance and pride and even tradition can be dangerous allies. To this point, I read a great line from Steve Harper in today’s Disciplines devotional: “We allege a certainty about our views apart from the humility to ever call them into question”. So true. Worse yet, we do harm to others from this place of arrogant and prideful certainty. We cast stones and look down long judgmental noses at those that dare speak out, that risk to question. And sometimes, once God forces us to see the error of our actions and words, in pride we refuse to seek forgiveness and to remedy the errors of our sins. Yes, church, we still have far to go.

As the body of Christ universal, may we begin to walk with Christ’s humility. May we each seek to be touched by God’s mercy and grace instead of clinging to our arrogance and pride. May we be a part of God’s stream of justice rolling down upon the earth. May the change begin within as we strive to let love alone be our guide and way.

Prayer: Lord God, when I am wrong and especially when I think only my way is right, bring the powerful conviction of the Holy Spirit fully to bear. Drive me to truly understand the path of Christ, the love filled humble servant who set the example. Strengthen me for the journey. 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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Expressing Love

Reading: Romans 12: 9-21

Verse 17: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody”.

In our passage today Paul is speaking of how to live as a Christian. He does not separate how to live within the faith community from how to live in the world. How we act and speak and do within our faith communities should be how we act and speak and do out in the world. In this letter, Paul is speaking to the church in Rome. They are a diverse church, just like many of our churches. Our bodies of Christ represent many ages, occupations, politics, and so forth. In an ideal world, our church would reflect or match our community and vice versa.

As he gets down to the actual practice of love, Paul encourages the church to share with those in need and to practice hospitality. He encourages them to walk through life together – weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who are rejoicing. Paul lifts up the goal of living in harmony with each other. He warns them not to be proud but to associate with everyone. These are all ways that we express or demonstrate the genuine and sincere love that he spoke of at the beginning of this section. While some of these can be challenging or can stretch us a bit, they are all things we can accomplish for our family and friends and fellow church members. But Paul is not concerned just with how we treat this group of people.

Sprinkled into today’s passage are also some exhortations that we might prefer to read past. Paul exhorts us to bless those who persecute us and warns us about our responses: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody”. He also cautions us against seeking or taking revenge. Paul is directing us to love sincerely those who are not showing us love but disdain, dislike, and even hatred towards us. This can be quite the challenge. There is ample proof of this on many social media platforms. Instead of walking the road of evil, Paul encourages us to love and care for our enemies. Mirroring Jesus’ words concerning heaven-worthy behavior, Paul directs us to feed our enemies when they are hungry and to give them a drink when they are thirsty. The burning coals are the angst they will feel inside about giving poor treatment to the ones who show them love.

“As far as it depends on you”, may we heed Paul’s words, seeking today and every day to “live at peace with everyone”. As far as it depends on you… In our own little worlds, it all depends on us. May we each be the light and love, the hands and feet, the eyes and hearts of Christ each day.

Prayer: Loving God, guide me to be obedient to you in all ways and at all times. May who I am at home and at church and at the ballgame… be the same. May I be your love lived out in all ways, in all places, and for all people. Help me to treat one and all with your same love and compassion. Amen.


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God Speaks

Reading: Genesis 28: 10-19a

Verse 17: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God”.

As today’s passage opens we find Jacob leaving home, headed for Haran, the home of his mother’s family. Jacob is fleeing in fear because he stole the birthright from his twin brother Esau. By returning to the ancestral lands, he will first be safe and, second, Isaac and Rebekah hope he will find a wife from among the relatives. They hope that God will provide a good wife, just as he had done for Isaac.

At the end of his first day’s journey, Jacob finds a stone for a pillow and lays down for the night. In his sleep, God brings Jacob a vision and a message. The vision is a stairway or ladder from heaven to earth. The angels are coming and going. God stands at the top. From there he gives Jacob a message. God first reiterates the promise made to Abraham and Isaac. This land will be covered by many of your descendents and they will be a blessing to the earth. God then gets personal, saying to Jacob, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go”. With confidence and with assurance of God’s presence in his life and in his future, Jacob will travel on. But first he responds by saying, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God”. In the morning Jacob builds a small pillar to remember and commemorate this place.

In the middle of nowhere, in a very ordinary place, God became present to Jacob. It is not with big fanfare; God is just suddenly and simply there. It could have been on day two or six of the journey. But it was at the beginning because that is when Jacob needed it most. God also appears along our journey. Sometimes it is in a way that is similar to Jacob’s experience. Through a thought or insight or maybe through the words of scripture or of a friend, God speaks into our lives. Often it is an after-the-fact realization. Looking back or reflecting on an experience, we can see God’s fingerprints. It is because we have the same promise as Jacob’s. Jesus said and says to all of his disciples, “I will never leave you or forsake you”. He will be with us forever. So we too can journey on today, knowing that Jesus goes with us. Thanks be to God. May it be so.

Prayer: Leading God, it is so awesome that you came to Jacob at just the right time. I am grateful that you do the same for me. Sometimes it isn’t in my time but in yours – which is always best. Continue to walk with me day by day. Amen.