pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Choose Glory

Reading: Ephesians 1: 11-14

Verses 11-12: “In him we were also chosen… in order that we… might be for the praise of his glory”.

Photo credit: Jeremy Perkins

As we continue in Ephesians 1 today Paul begins by stating, “In him we were also chosen”. Other translations say “made heirs”. Paul is reinforcing the idea that we are adopted, made part of the family of God. Although we are created in God’s image, created to be in relationship with God, there still must be a choice made on our behalf. Because of how and why we were created, we have an innate sense of God, a natural desire to connect to God. Yet we still must make an intentional choice to live into and in that relationship.

Paul provides the argument for why the Ephesians (and us) should make that choice. In verse twelve we read, “in order that we… might be for the praise of his glory”. Choosing to live in relationship with God, we bring God the glory. The focus shifts from bringing self glory to bringing God glory. Instead of focusing on the things that falsely elevate self (titles, possessions, popularity…), we focus instead on things that bring God the glory (compassion, kindness, service, generosity…).

Paul also emphasizes that the challenge of living for God’s glory comes with assistance. When we believe, when we choose to enter into relationship with God, we are “marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit”. The continuing presence that Jesus Christ promised becomes a part of us, guiding us, leading us, redirecting us. Again, all of this is for “the praise of his glory”.

We are chosen. We are adopted. We are marked with a seal. We are part of God’s family, redeemed and forgiven. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, you created every single one of us. You created us to be in relationship with you. Use me today to help those on the outside realize the place you have for them. Amen.


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Belonging in God

Reading: 1st Samuel 8: 4-9

Verse 7: “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Our passage for today and tomorrow begins with the elders of Israel coming to Samuel to request a king. In all of their history they have never had a king. They have always had a leader and some have been great ones: Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Samuel. Yet even under these leaders God was clearly the one leading the people. The request for a king is driven by a few “concerns”.

The first concern is for their future. Samuel has led well. Next in line are his sons. But they are corrupt, evil. They “do not walk in your ways”. The elders recognize what a disaster it would be to have Joel and/or Abijah assume Samuel’s role. The second concern is a common human desire – to fit in, to be like others, to feel accepted. All the other nations have a king. The Israelites want one too. They want someone to fight their battles for them. Ironically, Samuel has just subdued the Philistines. The third concern centers on control. Samuel has kept the Israelites on the straight and narrow, best as he can. Samuel carries authority as the voice of God and God seems to just keep sending Samuel around. There is no wiggle room. A king would give them a little more breathing room, a bit of space between them and God. God recognizes this. In verse seven God says to Samuel, “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

As I reflect on these concerns, I realize that they are our concerns too. We all want a good leader, be that a prophet, judge, king, pastor, boss, or political leader. We want to feel safe and secure yet want some freedom and sense of control too. We still want to fit in and to belong, to be accepted. We too can look around and want a new car too, a new job title or position, a fancy vacation experience, or even a pastor like that church down the street. We easily see how “different” we are or how green the grass looks over there – and we want to fix that. These two concerns boil down to the third one when we’re honest. For the Israelites they wanted the freedoms of the people living around them. At times we too feel that God has been holding our feet too close to the fire. We feel conviction instead of realizing that it is refinement and sanctification.

Instead of rejecting God (or our faith or our church) for any or all of these reasons, may we first find our belonging in God. We are each a beloved child of God. This is our identity, our place. That love is more than we will be able to comprehend until we see face to face. In that truth may we walk as a child of God, day by day trusting in God’s provision, content with his care. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, when my eyes or heart strays, remind me of your love and care. Draw me back to the narrow way, to the only way. It is the best path to walk. May I faithfully follow in Jesus’ way each day. Amen.


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Is God the Focus?

Reading: 1st Corinthians 7: 29-31

Verses 29 and 31: “…the time is short… For this world in its present form is passing away”.

Paul writes today of the constant tension that Christians have and always will live in. Our passage today begins with “What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short”. Here Paul is first thinking in terms of Jesus’ return. The first believers believed that his return was imminent. Paul is also thinking of our time here on earth. Our lives, even if we live into our eighties or nineties, is but a mist compared to eternity. Under both of these arguments, Paul is calling the Corinthians and all believers to really focus in on what matters most during our lives so that our eternity is spent in heaven with God.

In the body of this passage Paul tells his readers not to focus on family or on happiness or mourning or on the things we own. He warns us not to become too “engrossed” with the things of this world – status, wealth, titles, popularity… As folks who live in this day and age, we know the lures of this world quite well. Society and culture elevates these very things that Paul warns about as the meaning and purpose of life. Society and culture seek to tie our value and our identity and our “success” to what we own and to the power we have because of our title or position or wealth. According to Paul, all of these things are not to be our focus. He sums up our passage and his argument with these words: “For this world in its present form is passing away”. One day all of this will be no more. One day a new heaven and earth will be the reality. My house, my car, my bank account, my job, my titles, my accomplishments – all will be no more. And if I die before Jesus returns, I will not keep or take any of these things with me. They do not matter.

Paul reminds us today to focus on God as our first love, as our main connection, as the focal point in this life. The wisdom of the ages has taught us that where we spend our time and our money truly reveals what is most important to us. As you consider your allocation of these resources, do they reveal God as your focus? Is God your priority?

Prayer: Lord God, while I begin my day in time with you and while I “work” at a church, too often I am concerned with the things of this world. Draw me away from these concerns and desires and pull me deeper into love with you. Delve into my heart, be my all in all. Amen.


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Serve with All Faithfulness

Reading: Joshua 24: 1-3 and 14-25

Verse 14: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped”.

As we enter the story at the end of the book of Joshua, the Israelites have entered and taken full possession of the Promised Land. God has led them to victory after victory under Joshua and now there is peace in the land. In chapter 23 Joshua says goodbye to the leaders of Israel. As a final act, in today’s and tomorrow’s readings, Joshua calls the people together to renew their covenant with the Lord our God.

Faithfulness to God has always been a challenge. In the wilderness, the Israelites whined and grumbled, they questioned Moses and God, they even fashioned and worshiped an idol. On the brink of entering the Promised Land, they doubted and feared that what lay ahead was too big even for God. Now that peace reigns, will the people lose focus on the God who has led them so far? Yes! We do too. I pray really well when in the midst of a struggle or time of suffering. I am dialed in. But when life is good, when all is well in my world, the bright and shiny of the world begins to look better. Joshua knows the people’s history and perhaps he knows about our tendency to drift. So his final action as the leader of God’s people is to gather them all together to tell them: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped”. This is Joshua’s version of “love the Lord our God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”. Focus on God, throw away all those idols you have stashed at the bottom of the moving box… Idols are always there, however. The peoples living around the Israelites will always have idols to worship. Marriages and other interactions will bring these idols before their eyes and hearts over and over. The temptation will always be present. And so it is with us. The world and the people living around us promote and worship all sorts of idols – money, possessions, popularity, titles… Our modern culture ever calls us towards more, better, bigger, newer… We too need to hear the call to “fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness”. As we hear this call again today, may we, like Joshua, choose to declare: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”. May the Lord our God bless each of us today as seek to live out this statement of faith.

Prayer: Lord God, this is a lovely statement, a lofty goal. Make it more than sentiment, more than an ideal. This day – this very day – may I serve you only. Tomorrow will be another day. I’ll have to ask again tomorrow. Today, Lord, today may I serve you only. Amen.


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Audience of 1

Reading: Matthew 23: 1-12

Verse 5: “Everything they do is done for me to see”.

Yesterday we looked at the warning to do as the scribes and Pharisees teach, not as they do. There is a disconnect between what they preach to the people and how they themselves are living their lives. The middle section in our reading today begins with verse five. Here we read, “Everything they do is done for me to see”. This can be a trap we too fall into. Being human, we like recognition. When we do something “good” and no one notices, we feel hurt or let down or we can even question why we did it. Some of the time, we can also be like these religious leaders, waiting for an audience before we do our good deed, insuring publicity or recognition for our actions.

The scribes and Pharisees loved to be seen and recognized. It reinforced both their authority and their ego. They wore large phylacteries and long tassels – two symbols of their deep connection to God. Today, one may give a large donation, thinking the size of the gift will reflect the depth of their faith for others. Some will want it announced in church or published in the bulletin or will want a plaque placed on the item so that all will know of their good and generous gift. The scribes and Pharisees wanted the best seats or places at events or in worship. This prime real estate is where others will notice they are there. In a similar way, they loved to be called ‘rabbi’ – a title that was revered, respected, honored. It pumped up the ego to see all bow a bit as the people acknowledged the religious leaders. The title separated them from the rest of society. It also insulated them from those outside of their religious circles.

Today, some still like to have a title connected to their name – doctor, professor, reverend, pastor, officer… Titles convey power and authority. These titles can be used to gain admittance and to avoid consequences. It is a good thing, for example, when the pastor title gains entry to pray with a dying person during these pandemic restrictions. Yet it would be a bad thing, for example, to pull out my pastor ID card first, instead of my driver’s license, if pulled over for speeding. Titles can be abused, they can separate, they can be used to manipulate, they can be used for personal gain. Jesus is warning us against such things, to check our egos, and to be aware of our motives and intentions.

When we practice our faith, when we offer acts of kindness, may it always be for an audience of one – for the Lord our God.

Prayer: Lord, when I am tempted to shine the light on me, remind me of the call to humble service. When I want others to notice or see what I’m doing, check my pride and remind me of humble service. When I’m drawn to playing the pastor card, remind me of the call to humble service. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Living the Way

Reading: Philippians 3: 4b-11

Verse 8: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord”.

What little “list” do you have in your head that makes sure you are a good Christian? Is it something like this: church on Sunday, read Bible and pray each day, volunteer at the church bazaar? Maybe too many items? Maybe missing going to small group and doing one mission project a year? This idea is what Paul is getting at in our initial few verses today. Paul lists all the things that appear to make him a great Jew. But these things are just titles or “rules” he followed. The list we may keep is much like Paul’s list. If it is little more than going through the motions, our list is “rubbish”, to use Paul’s word.

In verse eight Paul declares, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord”. Paul knew that doing all the right things, that being who the religious order thought he should be, that checking off all the boxes – it was all for loss until he knew Jesus Christ as Lord. Paul came to know faith ad a matter of the heart, not the head. When his faith was a matter of the mind, he was living to please others. Saul’s faith was transformed one day when he encountered the risen Christ. That day he opened his heart to Christ and invited Jesus to dwell within him. In Matthew 23 Jesus referred to the scribes and Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs”, implying they looked good on the outside but we’re dead on the inside. Paul came to understand that this is who he was. He did and was all the right things according to man, but his faith had no life. Like many still today, he was trying to earn his way into heaven, to check enough boxes to merit entry. He grew to understand that faith was all about living his way into heaven.

For Paul, faith became knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and then trusting into “the power of the resurrection”. This trust allowed grace and mercy to mingle with love. These are matters of the heart, not the mind. It is about Christ dwelling within us. It is about inviting the Spirit to guide of walk of faith and to strengthen our relationship with God day by day, step by step. We, like Paul, will also come to know the joy of sacrifice, of “sharing in his sufferings”. This is what happens when we love God and others more than self. Like Christ and like Paul’s witness, may our walk of faith be both humble and generous so that we may experience the joy of salvation and the gift of abundant life, both in the here and now and one day in eternity. May it be so.

Prayer: God of love and grace, fill my heart with your presence. Fill my steps and words with your love. Transform my heart into a heart for others. Empty me of all that binds me to this earth and its things. May I know the power of your love and the gift of salvation more and more each day. Amen.


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Whose Are You?

Reading: Matthew 21: 23-27

Verse 23: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority”?

Today’s passage is about identity. It is about who we are and whose we are. So often our identity comes from what we do. When asked who we are, we often respond with words like pastor, doctor, student, teacher… We allow what we do to define who we are. Too often our work also defines whose we are. Many are beholding to their job. Some of the time we will describe who we are using other parameters – grandparent, oldest child, widow, free spirit… Perhaps, if feeling particularly brave or if in a comfortable crowd, we might say something like “child of God”.

Who we are in society’s eyes often is the basis of our authority or of how we see our authority. For many, their position or title at work grants them some measure of authority. The manager, for example, is in charge of the employees. Within that group a more veteran employee feels that they have a degree of authority over a new hire. When a person tries to take authority or when someone has better natural leadership… then the organizational structure begins to feel strain and unease. This is what leads to today’s two questions: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority”? The religious leaders were feeling threatened by Jesus, just as they had been by John the Baptist. The religious leaders were the ones with the years of training and with the titles: Pharisee, Sadducee, scribe. Who was this carpenter from a small town? What did he think he was doing? What right did he have? Who does he think he is?

Instead of answering, Jesus asks a parallel question. Instead of asking what they thought about Jesus’ authority, he asks them about John the Baptist’s authority. In many ways, John and Jesus fit into the same box: untrained in the normal sense, clearly being empowered by God, speaking truth that drew crowds to them, changing lives. The leaders cannot “win”. To say John, and therefore Jesus, is from God would imply the hierarchy has shifted. That threatens their identity, who they are. To say John (or Jesus) is from men also threatens their place. Too large a crowd believes John was a prophet and that Jesus is from God. How else do you explain the miracles? The religious leaders place in society rests upon their answer. It is a hard question to answer truthfully while holding on to who you are.

Before we think too little of the religious leaders, let us consider how we would answer the question if someone questioned our faith or our place in God’s family. If we were asked whose we were, would we answer the same way at church as we would out in the public square?

Prayer: God of all, lead and guide me today to live under your authority and rule. May all I do and all I am be grounded in you. May my purpose and my identity come from you alone. Amen.


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Authority

Reading: Matthew 28: 16-20

Verse 18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”.

Jesus begins his final words reminding the disciples that he has authority over all things – both in heaven and on earth. He has demonstrated this authority. In walking on the water and with the calming of the storm he demonstrated authority over nature. By raising Lazarus and others and by walking out of the tomb Jesus demonstrated authority over life and death. Through many healings he showed power over disease and illness. In many encounters Jesus revealed the authority to restore brokenness and to redeem sinners. Jesus has authority over all things.

Authority is a powerful thing. As we have talked and read about this week, humanity can struggle with properly exercising our authority over the created world. As we have seen once again, authority can be abused. Using one’s title and position of authority to kneel upon a man’s neck until life has ebbed out of his body is clearly a case of extreme abuse of authority. In the MeToo movement we also witnessed what unchecked abuses of authority can lead to. There is no place for any of these types of abuse of authority.

How did Jesus use and define his authority? As one considers Jesus’ ministry, his authority was used to bring healing, restoration, wholeness, and true life to people. Jesus always sought to connect people to God and to one another in the community of faith. That is the task he sets the disciples to in our passage today. Jesus defined his authority as being total – over all things. In his ministry he clearly demonstrated the scope of his claim. His authority applied to all things and to all people. There was never anyone Jesus turned away from, never anyone he refused to minister to.

In the call to make disciples of all nations, may we claim and employ the authority that Jesus gives us. Jesus holds out the authority to love as he loved, to serve as he served, to minister as he ministered – without conditions, without barriers, without strings attached. Jesus’ authority allows us to walk as his disciples, following his example. May we faithfully love God and neighbor just as Jesus did this day and every day.

Prayer: Loving God, may I fully claim the authority you give me to love and serve as Jesus did. May all I do and say and think reflect you within my heart and to all I meet each day. Amen.


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Path of Life

Reading: Acts 2:28

Verse 28: “You have made known to me the paths of life: you will fill me with joy in your presence”.

Today’s reading was just one verse. It has two parts which are interrelated. The first half of the verse centers on the “paths of life”. What does David mean by this phrase? Just as it was for David, so it was for the man quoting him in this verse. Peter was a man who was a work in progress as he learned the path of following Jesus. That path, after all, is the path of life. Like David and Peter, we too are a work in progress. As Methodism founder John Wesley put it, we are on a “journey to perfection”. What he meant by this is that faith is an ongoing journey to become more and more like the perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ.

Also like David and Peter, we too have failures in our walk with the Lord. Our failures might not reach the level of adultery and murder or of total denial of our faith, but in our own ways we break our relationship with the Lord. Whether that comes a million times through what we think are “small” sins that we struggle with or through a season pursuing the things of this world or caught up in an addiction that feels like a “big” sin, it does not matter. All sin separates us from God. The path of sin is not the path of life. The Lord never gave up on David or on Peter. He will not ever give up on you or me either.

The second half of the verse today centers on joy. Joy and happiness are not the same thing. The world wants us to be happy. We think possessions or titles or popularity will bring us joy. Pursuit and attainment of these earthly things does make us feel good. But the feeling does not last. There is no joy in things. As we study and learn the ways of Jesus, we see that his life revolved around serving others, sharing a relationship with others, healing the brokenness and isolation of others, forgiving other’s sins. His life as a loving and humble servant is our model. We will find what he found when we walk his path. When we give ourselves away, we do not lose but we gain. When we humbly serve God and others, we are filled with a joy that is everlasting. This is the path of life. May we give of ourselves freely and generously today, in whatever form that may be.

Prayer: Father God, help me to walk on the path of your son, Jesus Christ. Help me to love extravagantly today. May I be poured out in service to you and to all I meet today. Amen.


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Deeper

Reading: 1st Samuel 16: 1-13

Verse 7: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart“.

In today’s passage, David is anointed to be the next king of Israel. At the time, Saul is the king. He is in good health and will remain the king for some time. David is going to learn and grow and mature before stepping into this role that God has selected him for. It is a process. The process will be guided by God. In verse thirteen we read, “from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David”. From God’s perspective this all made sense. After all, it is his plan.

From the human perspective, it was confusing at best. Once the hurdles were all crossed and Samuel is present with Jesse and most of his family, the parade of prospects begins. One by one Jesse’s sons pass before Samuel, horn of oil at the ready. The oldest son is Eliab. Seeing him Samuel immediately thinks he is the one. Eliab must have been tall and handsome, muscular and refined. But God tells Samuel “no”. I imagine the horn of oil dropped a little bit just then, going further and further down as each son passes by, until at last it dangles by his side.

We too can fall into the trap that Samuel and Jesse and probably all the elders and sons fell into. We too judge by appearance. The appearance may be physical, it may be based on the college they attended, it may be by the car they drive or the home they occupy, it may be by the title that hangs outside their office door, it may be by the position they play on the team. These would be valid tools for judgment if all that mattered was their drive to get to the top. Sadly, though, when we judge by what we can first see, then we often fail to go any deeper. Too often that first judgment prevents us from going deeper and prevents us from seeing who and what someone really is. God had a word for us today when this is our first tendency: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart“.

Tying this thought into the model set by the one we follow, we see what this good word from God looks like lived out in the world. Jesus never ever stopped at tax collector or Samaritan or woman or leper or prostitute or blind or possessed or… Jesus always pressed deeper, developing a relationship that went far beyond some surface-level label. Going deeper, the labels always fell away. May we too strive to go deeper, to go way past labels and first appearances. May we too strive to get to know the heart of each we meet, for there we begin to see as God sees. May it be so.

Prayer: Father God, help me to practice you counter-cultural and counter-intuitive love today. Help me to see those needs that you place before me and to fill them with your love. Amen.