pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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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.


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Rooted in Love

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1: 18-25

Verse 25: “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength”.

The Corinthian church is struggling to understand Jesus. The Jews in the church want Jesus to have power and might – think of the God of the Old Testament who parted seas and destroyed enemies. The Greek part of the church wants Jesus to have great wisdom – think of a group of philosophers sitting around arguing about which god is smarter. Paul and other apostles came and preached Christ crucified. Those of faith saw the power and wisdom of God in the cross. To them, on the cross Jesus chose humility and love. This was all foolishness to those looking for a God of power or intelligence. But to those who believed, the cross was the power to save.

The world continues to look at the cross and at the one who died on it as foolishness. Just as it seemed so to the secular culture of Corinth, so it is today. The cross meant weakness and death and defeat and failure to the eyes of the world and to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. For the one who came to save the world, the Messiah, dying on a cross seemed like a foolish choice. How could you save anything or anyone if you were dead? To one looking at the whole thing without faith, it makes little sense. Success in the world means accumulating power and possessions and better and better titles. This is not the way of the cross.

Paul’s message does not end at the cross. The story did not start there either. For three years before the cross Jesus taught a message of love. Key to that message was the idea of loving God and others more than oneself. This agape love was revealed by being a humble servant to all. Jesus lived out his love and service on the cross. There, in love, he bore and defeated the power of the sins of the world, performing a final act of service for all of humanity. Then the crucified body was laid in the grave. The story appeared to be finished. But in three days, God revealed true power as Jesus emerged from the grave, defeating the power of death.

On and through the cross Jesus would defeat the two things that all the power and possessions and titles in the world cannot defeat – sin and death. This is foolishness to the world but is the power to save for all who put their faith in Jesus Christ. For those who do believe, we know and live this truth: “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength”. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: God, you revealed yourself through Jesus in ways that many do not understand. Even for the faithful, at times your ways are still higher than our ways. I sometimes fail to understand. But the cross and what it is rooted in – love – is easy to understand. It’s not always easy to walk it out, but love is easy to understand. So I pray that I may too be love in the world, revealing Jesus to others, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to do the deep and real work. May it be so, O Lord. Amen.


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Love and Grace

Reading: Philippians 3: 1-12

Verse 8: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ as my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things”.

The title for today’s passage in my Bible is “No Confidence in the Flesh”. It is a good reminder. In verses four through six Paul reminds us of how we can trust in the old and in the things of this world. We may not connect circumcision or our tribe or our nation as sources of confidence. But we can count our position or title or status as things we place our confidence in. We may claim the tag “Christian” instead of Pharisee and we may go about persecuting all who don’t see or interpret things just as we do. Some even see their confidence in the two areas as just cause for their legalistic righteousness that is far from the love and grace that Jesus exemplifies. Paul sees this in his former life as Saul.

In verse seven there is a shift. All of this earthly confidence Paul now considers a loss for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ. He goes on to explain in the next verse, saying, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ as my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things”. Paul willingly laid aside the titles… in exchange for coming to know the Savior. He calls all that earthly stuff “rubbish” as is willing to throw all that away so that he may “gain Christ”. It amazes me what a little encounter with Jesus did for and to Paul’s life. All that he had grown up knowing and believing and living – holding this above all else – was rubbish once he knew the love and grace of Christ. Today some continue to live out the law without knowing Christ. Some even live with the Christian tag and live a life that does not bear witness to the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

Instead of an earthly, human righteousness based upon the law and strict adherence to the rituals and practices, Paul has found a righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus. It is not the high and mighty righteousness negatively associated with the super religious. It is a righteousness based partly on the resurrection of Jesus. It is also based on the love and grace that comes by “sharing in his sufferings”. In losing all the earthly trappings, through the grace he himself experienced in Christ, Paul was left with a love for Jesus and for all who did not know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

We too can know this love and grace. Like Paul, may we know Christ crucified and risen. And may we share Christ with all we meet, seeking to work out our mandate to make disciples of all nations and peoples. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord, at times I can be a bit like Saul – feeling good about my titles or position or religion. When I do, bring me face to face with the sufferings of Jesus, made real in the realities of a hurting and broken world. There, fill me with only grace and love, that I may represent you well in the world. Amen.