pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Set Free!

Reading: John 8: 31-35

Verse 31: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples”.

Photo credit: Pablo Heimplatz

In this passage from John 8, Jesus is talking about the freedom we find in Christ. In our text today he is speaking to some Jews who has believed in him. Because of some hard teachings they have fallen away. In the opening verse he says to them, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples”. To be a disciple one must follow the teachings and the example of the teacher or rabbi. In this case, it was Jesus.

The Jews were people of the Law. The words of Moses and future religious leaders guided all of life. By Jesus’ day the following of the Law – over 600 statutes – had become one of two things. For the select few who could adhere to the Law, it became a source of pride and exclusion. For all else it became a burden – something impossible to attain, something covered in guilt and shame. While Jesus did not come to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17), he did come to reveal the heart of the Law: to love God and to love neighbor. These two commands were the heart of the Law. According to Jesus, all of the Law hung on these two (Matthew 22:40).

Trying to live under the Law, many were “slaves” to sin. They were always worried about breaking some law and they were ever being reminded to do and be better. This led to many being outside the family, outside the temple or synagogue, outside the community of faith. Jesus offered and still offers a better way. In and through the blood of Jesus we are set free. If we are in Christ sin no longer has the power to condemn. In faith we are forgiven and cleansed, restored back into family. The guilt and shame that kept one outside are no more. Jesus wants all people to understand this gift. Because of the blood of Jesus Christ we are set free. This is the truth that Jesus offers. It is our truth. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord God, you are the way and the truth and the life. Your love breaks every chain and ushers me into the family of God. In you is freedom; in you is hope. Thank you Jesus! Amen.


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Forever and Ever

Reading: Psalm 48

Verse 1: “Great is the Lord, and most worthy of our praise”.

Photo credit: Giuseppe Famiani

Psalm 48 speaks of God’s presence in Jerusalem, in the city of David. For the psalmist the city of God is beautiful and will stand forever atop Mount Zion. God is present in the city itself – in the citadels that protect her from foreign kings and in her temple, the place the people “meditate on your unfailing love”. For the Israelites, Jerusalem will be God’s home forever and ever. Zion will always stand as the fortress of God.

It was another time and place when the Psalm was written. It was a time when people from all around would move inside the city walls in times of danger. It was a place of constant threats from the outside. A great fortified city was of importance to the many kingdoms of the world. For Israel, though, God was at the center of their power. God defended them, kept their walls secure. Within those towers and ramparts the psalmist felt safe and secure, trusting in God’s presence.

In your world today, where do you feel safe and secure? For many of us, our home is one place of refuge and rest. It is a place we feel protected, a place we can trust. For many, God’s presence is felt in the sacred spaces – sanctuaries, chapels, cathedrals. There we feel safe, secure, loved. Yet God is not limited to these structures either. So, in your world, where else do you sense God’s presence? For me, I sense God’s presence out in the wilderness, where his glory is often on full display. There I sense God’s greatness and am drawn into praise. Wherever we encounter God, may we join the psalmist in declaring, “This God is our God forever and ever”. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Living God, you are present in so many ways. Your strength and care and protection surround me. In you I am loved. Be with me always, O Lord. Amen.


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Hosanna!

Reading: Mark 11:1-11 and 15-18

Verse 10: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest”!

Photo credit: Valentin Salja

After having two disciples fetch a colt, Jesus rides into Jerusalem. People spread their cloaks on the ground, along with branches that they had cut. It is an ancient version of the red carpet. The crowd cheers for Jesus as he enters. They offer praise mixed with hopeful expectations. They express both as they shout, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest”!

The people expect a Messiah that is a great king, much as King David was. He brought peace to Israel – through his great military exploits that were blessed by God. Israel was the big dog in their small corner of the world during David’s reign. To be rid of the Romans, to again be the big kid on the block – that was the peoples’ hope. Jesus rode into Jerusalem to be king – just not their type of king.

The second section of our reading today reveals how different Jesus’ kingdom will be. Driving the action towards its culmination on Maundy Thursday, Jesus goes to the temple and begins to announce the new kingdom. It is not a kingdom of power and privilege and gain. The sellers and money changers are driven out. The religious leaders get the message that such is not the proper use of God’s house. The line is drawn in the sand. The religious leaders begin to look for a way to kill Jesus. It has begun. As we enter Holy Week, we too begin the journey to the cross.

Prayer: Lord God, we too welcome Jesus with great hope and expectation. He is worthy of our praise. But how will we react when he overturns the tables in our hearts? Will we look within and see how we’ve wandered or will we seek to maintain the status quo? Guide and bless our journey through Holy Week, draw us deeper into Jesus’ kingdom of love and grace. Amen.


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Marvelous

Reading: Psalm 118: 1-2 and 19-29

Verse 22: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone”.

Have you ever been driving down the road and, as you looked ahead, thought there was water or oil across the road? Or have you ever approached someone, thinking it was a friend, only to have them turn at the last second, revealing the face of a stranger?

Psalm 118 is a song of God’s love for Israel. The psalmist writes of God as helper, refuge, defender. The psalmist rejoices in God’s strength, righteousness, joy, salvation. The Psalm speaks of the blessings of the one who comes in God’s name and of the festive parade when the faithful process to the temple. Is that King David we see in our mind’s eye? Or is that Gideon returning after defeating the Midianites? Or is it Ezra welcoming the exiles back to a rebuilt city and temple? Perhaps that is Jesus coming up the hill on the colt.

In verse 22 we read, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone”. These words do not fit David or Gideon or Ezra or any other king or prophet that rode into Jerusalem. Only one’s “festal parade” would end with him being the sacrifice. The parade, the palms, the celebration of tomorrow is a bit of an illusion too. The cheering crowds of Palm Sunday will soon be the taunting and jeering crowds at week’s end. Many who shout “Hosanna”! and wave palm branches are caught up in the excitement. Soon enough many will reject Jesus Christ, enabling the religious leaders in their quest to be rid of Jesus. There is an illusion here too. They are not eliminating Jesus; they are an essential part of the glory that will be revealed on Easter, on resurrection day. There are many plot twist and turns in the week ahead. Much is not as it seems to appear. The tide rolls along, ever guided by the hand of God.

We begin tomorrow with the celebration, the palms, the joy of Jesus’ triumphal entry. Knowing the end of the story allows us to walk with Jesus, knowing the truth of verse 23: “The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes”. Yes, Easter is coming. God is in control. Give thanks to the Lord! His love endures forever!

Prayer: God, you are the creator, the one who sets all things in motion. You sent Jesus knowing he’d be rejected and killed. You did so knowing he is the capstone of the kingdom you are building. You sent him to us, knowing what we’d do. Thank you for your great love, O God. Amen.


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In Solitude and Prayer

Reading: Hebrews 5: 5-10

Verse 7: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions… he was heard because of his reverent submission”.

Photo credit: Patrick Fore

Our passage today reminds us of how Jesus was like us and calls us to be like him. In the first verse we are reminded that Jesus did not come as a high priest. Jesus could have been born into the tribe of Levi and could have assumed the role of priest after finishing all his formal training. He would have then served in the temple or maybe in a local synagogue to start out. In this role Jesus would never have gone out to engage the world. He would not have crossed paths with Gentiles and lepers and prostitutes and the many others that he did heal and bring back into community. Most Jews saw themselves as a people set apart from the world and the priests were a group within this people who were even more set apart and isolated.

Jesus was born into the family of a common laborer – a carpenter. After the miraculous birth and exile in Egypt, Jesus was raised as an ordinary kid in a small town. Jesus learned the family business and spent years in the profession. His parents were good Jews and family was where he first found love and belonging. When Jesus began his ministry at about 30 years of age, he had experienced the good and bad, the hard and joyous of life. Once Jesus stepped into the role of Messiah he did not hunker down in the temple, waiting for folks to come hear his great wisdom. His ministry was radical for the time. It remains radical for today. Jesus traveled the country, teaching, healing, preaching, feeding, reconciling… In all he did, Jesus exhibited a love for and devotion to God. If anyone deserved to be the high priest, it was Jesus. Instead, he lived as one of us.

A regular practice of Jesus’ life was solitude and prayer with God. In verse seven we read, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions… he was heard because of his reverent submission”. In times of need, Jesus turned to God for comfort, strength, peace. This too should be our practice: to turn to God in our times of need. In our moments of need, we too want to know that we are beloved children of God. We too want to know that God cares for us. We too want to rest in his presence, in our place in the family of God. As we seek to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, may we be like Jesus, ever seeking the loving presence of our life-giving God.

Prayer: Lord God, hear our cries, alleviate our pain and suffering. Draw us near when we seek you; assure us of our place of belonging. Lead us to bring all things to you in prayer, guide us to rest in your presence. Walk with us all of our days. Amen.


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Habits and Practices

Reading: John 2: 18-22

Verse 20: “It has taken 46 years to build this temple”.

Yesterday we read about Jesus clearing the temple and we’re asked to consider where we could stand against some wrongs or evils in the world around us. In today’s passage we see the reaction of the religious leaders – those in charge of the temple. They want to know by what authority Jesus can do what he has done. In a way, they are asking if they can just go back to business as usual tomorrow, when he is gone. They ask for a sign and Jesus does give them one. They will just have to wait to see the truth of him rising after three days in the grave. Most of the religious leaders will deny that event too. Almost all will fail to connect Jesus’ resurrection to his answer to the question about his authority.

The market place in the temple courts probably began simply – some guy looking to help out travelers from afar by selling doves for sacrifices. And then another guy set up shop selling sheep. Eventually the sellers moved out inside the temple courts and some priest thought about requiring temple coins for their purchases. Money changers became a necessity and soon enough a thriving enterprise was born. Jesus challenged the corruption of this system. In response to Jesus’ cryptic answer the religious leaders say, “It has taken 46 years to build this temple”. In a way they are saying that the temple and the market place have always been here. In our churches and other organizations we say, “We’ve always done it that way”. So what it has become broken or corrupt or no longer is effective or isn’t holy or sacred anymore? One of the good things about the pandemic is that it has forced us to examine the practices and routines of the church. This season has been a time to let some things die, to imagine new possibilities, and to make changes to things that were ineffective, irrelevant, or outdated. Many of us have gone through the same process in our own lives and in our faith. This season of Lent invites us to do that hard work, to go deeper.

Although perhaps not 46 years, what habits or practices have you fallen into or out of that have lessened your walk with the Lord? What needs changed?

Prayer: Dear Lord, you still have the ability to do wonders and to work miracles. What in me needs addressed? Open my eyes to see and bind my will to yours. Make me more like you. Amen.


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Filled with Zeal

Reading: John 2: 13-17

Verse 17: “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me'”.

Photo credit: Tobias Rademacher

The story of Jesus clearing the temple can be found in all four gospels. It is different than almost all the other stories. The story takes place in the days leading up to the celebration of the Passover. The city is already getting crowded. The Roman authorities are probably getting more nervous by the day as the Jews prepare to celebrate how God freed them from slavery in Egypt long ago. The religious leaders, who are also the Jews’ political leaders, are well aware of the growing tensions.

The temple will be the place where all will gather to remember God’s saving acts, to worship their God, and to offer sacrifices. As Jesus arrives at the temple it is being made ready for the crowds that will soon come. Vendors are beginning to fill every nook and cranny of the temple courts, looking to sell their animals. The money changers are setting up tables, eager to exchange Roman coins for the necessary temple coins. Jesus takes all this in and then makes a whip and begins to drive the people and animals out of this make-shift market. Watching this unusual behavior from Jesus, the disciples recall a verse from Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me”. In the other gospels Jesus speaks of the temple being a house of prayer, not a den of thieves and robbers. The vendors and money changers have corrupted a place that is holy. It is this fact that so upsets Jesus. With Zeal he restores his father’s house to what it should be – a holy and sacred place.

As ones seeking to follow Jesus 2,000 years later, we are called to follow this Jesus too. All that God created is good. Much has been corrupted just as the temple courts were in today’s passage. We do not need to look far to see corruption, oppression, injustice, poverty, marginalization… These evils have no place in the kingdom of God. As we live out our daily lives we will encounter places where these evils exist and we will meet people suffering from these evils. When we do, may we be filled with zeal for God’s creation, drawing the kingdom of God near as we bear his light and love into these places and lives. In the presence of light, darkness flees. May we be the light.

Prayer: God of light and love, as I encounter the evils of this world, fill me with zeal and compassion for those affected. Guide me by the power of the Holy Spirit; use me as a light in that darkness. Through me may the light and love of Jesus shine, driving out the evil. Amen.


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Fringes and Edges

Reading: Matthew 9: 9-13

Verse 11: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners”?

Photo credit: Marten Newhall

Our passage today opens with Jesus calling another disciple as he walks along the road. The man he calls us named Matthew. He was sitting in his tax collector’s booth when Jesus said, “Follow me”. It’s hard to say what an equivalent calling would be today. Tax collectors were almost universally disliked and hated. They worked for the occupying force, the Romans, collecting taxes to pay for the enemy to stay in power. Most tax collectors gathered well above and beyond what the Romans required. Becoming rich was a side perk of this government job. Being wealthy was nice but the occupation limited one’s circle of friends. Matthew’s crowd would be limited to other tax collectors and others who took advantage of others. Money lenders, prostitutes, slave traders… would have been among the crowd at Matthew’s house as Jesus joined them for dinner.

Upon seeing the crowd that Jesus has chosen to become a part of, the Pharisees ask, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners”? Why would Jesus call one of these to discipleship, to following him? Why would Jesus sit amongst this crowd of sinners? I suppose some people today think the same thing when they see their pastor emerging from the hymn sing at the local brewpub or when they see members of the outreach team exiting the local strip club. In response Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”. Jesus did not come to just sit around the temple or local synagogues chatting with the faithful about the scriptures. Yes, Jesus did this and this habit continues to be a very important part of our faith journey. But Jesus also spent the majority of his time doing ministry out in the world – among the tax collectors and sinners, among the hurting and broken, among the Gentiles and others who were marginalized by the religious establishment. These are the ones in need of a “doctor”. These are the ones in need of healing, wholeness, love, a sense of community.

Who are the tax collectors of your neighborhood or community? Who are those on the fringes and edges? How can you minister to these that Jesus surely would have?

Prayer: Lord God, make my heart and will more like yours. Guide my feet to those in need of your love and care. Bring me past the barriers and fears in my mind, trusting more fully in your guidance and direction. Amen.


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Loving God…

Reading: 1st Corinthians 6: 12-20

Verse 15: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself”?

As followers of Jesus Christ we have a freedom that guides our living. Through Jesus Christ we are freed from the things of this world. Earthly pleasures still entice us, yes, but we find our joy and peace, our very identity, in and with Jesus. Yes, we will sin and one day face death, but in Christ we are freed from the shame and guilt of our sin and we are freed from worry or fear or anxiety over death. We see the things of the world as temporary and we see our life in Christ as eternal. But the freedom that we find in Christ is not permission to do anything and everything, knowing that Jesus forgives our sins. Faith calls us first to holy living and to humble service. Some in Corinth had this backwards. They were confused. Some were sinning openly and knowingly under the claim that “everything is permissible” because of the grace and mercy and forgiveness offered by Jesus.

Today’s passage centers on the sexual immortality present in some of the church members’ lives. Promiscuity and the use of prostitutes were the earthly pleasures that some were indulging in. Others in the church did not think these behaviors were in line with holy living. Instead of simply telling those who were sinning to stop, though, Paul helps them to think through this scenario so that they can think like this for themselves when other issues or questions arise. Paul uses “do you not know…” three times to frame their thinking. He reminds them that their bodies are “members of Christ himself”, that sexual union makes the two people “one flesh”, and that the body is the “temple of the Holy Spirit”. Ultimately Paul is reminding them that they are connected to Christ and that what they do with our bodies should honor him. To enter into sexual unions outside of marriage, to overindulge in food and drink, to lord one’s status or wealth over others, to do other unhealthy things with our bodies – all dishonor our bodies and therefore dishonor God. All of these issues were things that the Corinthian church would wrestle with and through using Paul’s framework. In the end, each issue would come down to loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self. Doing these well, the church brought honor and glory to God. May it be so with each of us as well.

Prayer: Lord God, in so many ways faith is about love. Does this thought or word or action show my love of God? Does it reveal my love of neighbor? Does is reflect a holy and righteous love of self? Guide me in your ways of love. 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.