pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Questionable

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1: 18-25

Verse 23: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”.

Photo credit: Taylor Smith

Paul is writing in today’s passage to a church that needs some words of wisdom concerning the idea of a crucified Messiah. These last two words just don’t make sense, they just do not fit together in many people’s minds. For Paul this is the overall message of the cross: Jesus died for you and for me. To those who believe that Jesus loved us enough to die for us, the cross offers the power of salvation and of eternal life. But if you cannot wrap your head around that gift and what it means and gives to the believer, then placing one’s trust and life in Jesus’ hands makes no sense.

In verse 23 Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”. The Jews, for the most part, saw Jesus as a good teacher, as one that inspired many people to a better life, as one who even did some amazing things (miracles). But Jesus was not the Messiah that they envisioned. A real Messiah would never allow himself to be crucified. A real king would not eat with sinners, heal on the Sabbath, regularly engage the outcasts and unclean… All of these things were stumbling blocks to most of the Jews. The Gentiles (read ‘Romans’ or ‘pagans’ here) worshiped many gods and saw the cross as the place of punishment for the worst criminals. To cast one’s life in with the lot of a mere human, one that died with such shame and so powerless – foolishness!

As Christians living in today’s world, sometimes we should be stumbling blocks to some, foolishness to others. For our Lenten series this year, we are calling this “living highly questionable lives”. Last week I read a story about a high school basketball player. During a game he noticed that a player on the other team was wearing shoes that were not suitable for basketball. After the game he took off his shoes and have them to this other player. To some this appeared as foolish. To others it may have been a stumbling block. But to those also touched by Jesus Christ that night, it was the love of God being lived out in a real way.

As we encounter those who see our faith as foolish or as a stumbling block to their preferred way of life, may the Spirit give us the words or actions that preaches the cross in a way that reveals the courage and strength of our faith in the Messiah.

Prayer: Loving God, use me today to reveal my faith in ways that draw others into conversation. Let me love so completely that the other is willing to look past what at first seems foolish or to step over what may initially feel like a stumbling block. May the power of the cross draw them in. May it be so. Amen.


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Faith Alone

Reading: Romans 4: 13-25

Verse 25: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”.

Photo credit: Mael Gramain

What does God expect or require of you? What did Jesus expect of his disciples and of those that would follow him? If we were to make a list to answer these questions, would the list be a collection of things to do or would it detail how to live our lives? Paul is answering these questions for the church in Rome in today’s passage.

The church in Rome was falling into the trap that Paul has been caught in for most of his life. Faith was a form of legalism – of checking boxes and staying within the lines defined by the Law. Faith was not a way of life. To help them understand this Paul goes back to Abraham, the father of Israel, the patriarch of all patriarchs in the Jewish faith. In our passage today Paul points out that God credited Abraham as righteous because of his faith in God. Abraham’s faith was demonstrated in his trust and obedience to God’s direction. The Law was not even in existence yet. Entering into this right relationship with God through faith alone made Abraham and his descendants heirs of God’s promises. For Paul, all who believe in Jesus fall into that line of descendants. Belief is what gets one in that line, not following any set of rules or lists that we can make up.

Paul defines belief in Jesus as the only action necessary to be “credited” as righteous – being right with God. He wants to be clear that righteousness does not come from following the Law or any other set of rules, but from faith in Jesus Christ. In verse 25 Paul reminds those in the church in Rome and all who follow Jesus why belief in him is essential: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”. In dying for our sins, Jesus removed the weight of the Law – that sacrifice for this sin, this sacrifice for that sin… – and he paid the price through his blood. A final sin sacrifice was offered by one for all. Through Jesus’ sacrifice we are made righteous before God. In being raised from the dead, Jesus defeated death, opening the way for us to receive eternal life. Both are gifts, given to us without price, without any requirement except believing that Jesus did this for each of us. These is no law or rules that we can follow to receive or earn these gifts. They come through faith alone. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: God, I am so grateful for these gifts of love – born to the cross and into the grave for me. You stood in my place and took the punishment for me. And you did not stop there. You walked out of the grave, breaking those chains too. Thank you for the gifts of love that make it possible to experience joyful and abundant life now and to enter eternal life one day through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.


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Covenant God

Reading: Genesis 17: 1-7

Verse 7: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant… to be your God and the God of your descendants”.

Photo credit: Geda Zyvatkauskaite

Yesterday as we looked at this passage we focused on how we are to keep the covenant. We are to “walk before God and be blameless”. God set this as the goal and Jesus lived out the example, giving us a goal to aim for, a model to follow. This is “how” we are to live out the covenant. Today we turn to the “why”.

God chose Abram to be the father of not only many nations but of God’s children. This was not something Abram decided and then set out to accomplish. God is the one who offers covenant relationship to Abram and Sarai. God is the one who invites them to be a partaker in the covenant. God is the one who upholds the covenant as God rules over the earth. The question for Abram and Sarai is this: will they trust God to be the covenant keeper?

Abram falls face down before God. He recognizes that God is supreme, almighty, all-powerful. This is Abram saying “yes” to God’s invitation into covenant relationship. In response God changes his name to Abraham, which means “father of many”. Later in the story God also changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, reflecting her role as the mother of nations. God defines the covenant this way: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant… to be your God and the God of your descendants”. God will be the God of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants forever. The time frame of the covenant again reinforces who is in control and who is the covenant keeper. Like Abraham and Sarah, we are finite, limited, human, flawed. God is eternal and forever and perfect. Abraham and Sarah would seek to walk blamelessly before God, just as we try to do. They would not be perfect, just as we are not perfect. Down through the generations, Abraham and Sarah’s descendants would break the covenant over and over. Again and again, God would keep the covenant of grace, loving us forever. Over and over we end up at the table of grace, being made right again, being restored back into relationship again. This is God’s nature, it is his character. God remains our God. God will always be our God. This is his covenant promise, sealed by his love. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, you are forever, you are in total control. You are steadfast and true in keeping the covenant to be our God – to be my God. You love us no matter what. Thank you, God, for loving even me. Amen.


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The Only Forever

Reading: Isaiah 40: 21-26

Verse 26: “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these”?

The section that we will focus on today and tomorrow is titled “Comfort for God’s People” in my Bible. The Israelites have experienced defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Many have been taken into exile. Life feels chaotic and out of control. Many of the Israelites feel abandoned by God and they are questioning their faith. People today feel many of these things. Even though we cannot compare these events that happened 2,700 years ago to today, we can learn from them, we can grow in our faith because of our learning.

Our passage today begins with some questions: “Do you not know? Have you not heard”? Isaiah reminds us right away that since the beginning of time God has sat enthroned over the earth. The one who stretched out the heavens “brings princes to naught” and reducers leaders to “nothing”. The Babylonians, this four or eight year cycle – this too will pass. In the big picture, this ever remains the pattern. In God’s timeline rulers change “no sooner than they were planted”. Today our cycle are even short relative to our average lifespan. The forty or so years in exile was a long time to endure. One can understand why they were struggling with their faith, with their trust in God.

Encouraging the Israelites and us to see the bigger truth, in verse 26 Isaiah guides: “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these”? In four, eight, or even forty years, the stars will still be shining. The one who created each and knows them all by name will still be enthroned over all the earth. God is the only forever. May we trust in our God.

Prayer: Eternal one, thank you for the reminder today. All this earthly stuff, really small potatoes. The bigger bumps in the road – much less noticable when walking closely with you. You who holds the whole world in the palm of your hand – you hold me too. Thank you. Amen.


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Step Out

Reading: Psalm 62: 5-8

Verse 6: “He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken”.

At youth events over the past years we have asked the youth to do a trust fall. The youth stands on a table or platform, closes their eyes, folds their arms across their chest, holds their body rigid, and then falls backwards. They are trusting that the eight or so youth lined up behind them will catch them in their arms. The process is usually the hardest for the one who goes first. For every person, though, there comes a moment, just before they intentionally fall backwards, in which they must decide to trust that the group will catch them.

David is the author of today’s Psalm. He has been on enough “trust falls” to have come to this place of confidence and trust in God. Our section begins with these words: “Find rest, o my soul, in God alone”. David is assured of God’s presence and of his place in God’s kingdom. Each time that David was asked to step out in faith, God has been there. God has been steadfast and true – David knows that he can rest in God. In the next verse David writes, “He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken”. For David, there is no other – no other foundation, no other redeemer, no other protector. He trusts in God alone.

You and I will be asked to step out in faith as we continue to journey with Christ. Sometimes it is like a trust fall – we cannot see where we are going and we must trust in God as we leave the safety and security of our safe place. It can initially feel like a free fall as we cannot sense the way that God is leading. As we learn to trust, as we step out in faith, we come to know the assurance that pours out of David’s words in Psalm 62.

In verse eight we hear these words of encouragement: “Trust in him at all times, O people”. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Leading God, give me the courage to go where you lead, to answer the call each time the Spirit whispers or nudges me. Use me as you will, O God. Amen.


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Forward in Faith

Reading: Mark 1: 16-20

Verse 18: “At once they left their nets and followed him”.

Photo credit: Jillian Werner

In today’s passage Jesus calls the first four disciples. They are just regular people. All four are fishermen, used to a hard life. They work long hours, endure the weather, and rely upon the water for their livelihood. This day began just about like every other day – until Jesus walks along the shore. This scenario is true for most of us. Our days start about the same each day and then sometimes Jesus shows up, calling us into ministry.

First Jesus comes to Simon and Andrew. They are at work when Jesus comes, casting their nets into the sea. He simply says, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for men”. We read that “at once” they left their nets – right there in the water – and followed. The call of James and John is similar. They are mending their nets when Jesus calls them. “Without delay” James and John leave their father and the hired men behind to follow Jesus. Is this the lesson we are to take from today’s reading?

It certainly is one of them. Most of the opportunities we have to “come and follow” are moments unfolding in life at that time. The person the Holy Spirit nudges us towards may not be there any more or the particular need may not be there when we see them the next time. The door or window of opportunity that is open when the Spirit whispers in our ear may close or shut if we say we’ll get to it “tomorrow”. And, honestly, what call would Jesus give to you or me that would compare to the call these four fishermen received today? Well, honestly, each call rises to the level of being a disciple.

The first step for Andrew, Simon, James, and John is the first step for each of us. The first step is to decide if we trust Jesus. When we are nudged to go to that person or when the Holy Spirit whispers into our heart, we have no idea where that step will take us. Yet, just like these fishermen, we are called to step forward in faith. As Jesus calls us today or tomorrow or another day, may we each trust in the Lord. Without delay, may we go where the Lord sends us.

Prayer: Lord God, I’ve come to see that “not now” most often means “no”. Help me to be better in those moments when you call. That “thing” that feels oh so important is never as important as the person or need you are calling me to. Make me more obedient, Lord. Amen.


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Drawing Near

Photo credit: Soul duvOcean

Reading: Mark 1: 14-15

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

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

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

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

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


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Listen and Learn

Reading: 1st Samuel 3: 1-20

Verse 8: “Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy”.

On Monday I focused in on the call part of this passage. Just like Samuel, we all have a story of how God calls us. Samuel might not have known his call story if not for Eli. At this point, Eli is like Samuel’s father figure. Eli has raised Samuel since he was weaned from Hannah. Eli has been serving God a long time and has taught Samuel much, but “Samuel did not yet know the Lord”. Samuel knows who God is and knows a lot about God, but he does not know God. The head knowledge has not yet become heart wisdom. It is Eli that perceives that God is calling Samuel. Eli’s willingness to allow God to speak through another is a testament to his trust in God and to the love and trust that he has in Samuel. It is an example of humble servant leadership.

When Samuel does invite God to speak, the words are difficult to hear. Destruction will fall upon Eli’s household because Eli’s sons are “contemptible” and because Eli failed to “restrain them”. In the morning Eli presses Samuel, wanting to know what God said, probably sensing the bad news. Samuel speaks truth to Eli. Eli accepts the words, humbly acknowledging God’s goodness. I cannot imagine how hard it was for Samuel to say these words to Eli. Yet Samuel loves and trusts Eli enough to tell him.

Both Eli and Samuel understood that there was something bigger than themselves. Both Eli and Samuel loved and trusted God, as well as each other, enough to listen and to learn from each other. To listen and learn from each other. To understand the bigger picture. How our land needs these skills today! Both sides are so polarized that they cannot even hear each other, never mind listening to one another. Listening is essential. It is the only way to discern a good and right way forward. Yes, we can continue to plod down the road we are on, filled with self and contempt and half truths and rancor. We can walk the road of Eli’s household. Or we can choose a better way, one covered in love and peace and trust. These things will not come easy. Surrender never does. Elevating other over self, walking the path of unity and compromise, fighting for our way not my way – all are the work of a humble servant. May it be so Lord. Heal our land.

Prayer: Lord, the wind is howling here in South Dakota. Things are shaking and groaning. It reminds me of our nation right now. The winds can fan the flames or they can usher in something new. Bring a new sense of humble servant leadership to the land, blowing away the chaff. Bless us, O God. Amen.


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Celebrate the Gift

Reading: John 1: 1-18

Verse 16: “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another”.

At Christmas we Christians often want to focus on “the reason for the season” and we want folks to see Jesus as the best gift ever. So why do we celebrate the birth? Why do we equate Jesus to a gift?

More than the actual birth, we celebrate all that surrounds the birth. It is first the story of the creator entering his creation. Leaving the glory and perfection of heaven, the light and love of God entered the world more fully. It was in the flesh – where we could see and hear and feel it. Second, it is the story of prophecy fulfilment and of miraculous conception. Things written hundreds and hundreds of years before predicted the events of Jesus’ birth and life as if written in real time. And it is the first story of birth through the Holy Spirit. As followers we too experience this birth. We call it “being born again”. Third, it is the story of God acting in our world through a faithful teenage girl. Mary will always be the mother of Jesus. But she could have been Sue or Beth or Dawn or Erica. God’s penchant for using the ordinary and humble is exemplified here in this story. Fourth, and perhaps most, as John writes, “we have seen his glory”. The birth story reveals God’s glory – his control over all things, his omnipotence and omnipresence, his love for you and me and all the world. We celebrate the birth because it is holy and sacred and because it reveals God’s love and grace and truth.

As wonderful as the birth story is, though, it pales in comparison to the gift that Jesus is to the whole world. First, if one believes in Jesus, they are given the “right to become children of God” – to be born into a new creation, born again into a new relationship with the Lord. Becoming a child of God, we receive the light and love of Jesus into our hearts. This forever changes how we live in this world. We see the world, we see others, and we even see ourselves through this lens of love. Illuminated by his light, we love honestly, purely, unconditionally. Seeing with his eyes, loving with his heart, we live beyond the law of Moses and beyond the law of man. Beyond does not mean outside of these laws. It reflects Jesus’ emphasis that he was “the fulfillment of the law” (Matthew 5:17). For example, Jesus taught over and over that the command to love one another did not just include the Jews but it extended to sinners and to Gentiles and to the sick and the imprisoned and to Samaritans and to the possessed and… Jesus reveals what a life of love and grace and truth looks like when lived out in the world.

Living life as a Christ follower amplifies our hope, peace, joy, contentment; it betters our relationships with others and with the world; and, it deepens our faith and trust in God. We celebrate the birth because Jesus is truly the greatest gift ever. Life lived through and with Christ is simply better. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: God, you are the giver of “one blessing after another”. As I reflect on the ways that the world and that life is better with you, it humbles me. Surrender to your will and way is the path to true life, to full life. Thank you for all of your blessings. Amen.


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Faithful Too

Reading: Psalm 126

Verse 3: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy”.

In our Isaiah 61 passage for this week God speaks hope to the people living in exile. In today’s Psalm, the people have returned home, they have experienced that joy. The psalmist recalls, “We were like men who dreamed”. They had heard the words of hope and it felt like a distant future. And then God moved and they were back home. They were filled with laughter and joy when they reflected on what the Lord has done for them. If we pause and give thought to our own journeys of faith, we too will recall times when God rescued us in an amazing or unexpected way. The God of Israel remains active in our lives.

Just as the psalmist writes “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy” we too can say. Our experiences with a faithful God fill us with joy. It also builds up our faith and trust in God. Life will happen again. And again. Each time, if we turn to God, we will find that God is still faithful. The end or the result might not immediately be what we wanted or desired – that is not what the psalmist is saying. In God’s big picture, in God’s plan, God is in control, looking our for our good. Sometimes it takes years to see how that thing was good, but eventually we will if we continue to remain faithful too.

We can read into the Psalm that something has happened again. Whatever life has brought, the psalmist asks, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord”. There is sadness or perhaps hunger in the family of God. There is also hope and faith and trust in God. From past experiences with God, the psalmist knows there will once again be joy. He knows this because he knows God is faithful. If you are in the midst of trial or suffering, remember that the God of Israel remains active and alive. Turn to the Lord your God. God is faithful.

Prayer: Lord God, I lift up all who are struggling these days. Fill them with your presence, reassure them of your love and care. Bring them joy. In the power of the Holy Spirit may they know you are near. Amen.