pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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The Journey

Reading: Psalm 25: 1-10

Verse 9: “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way”.

Photo credit: Jan Huber

Today’s Psalm is about the trust and assurance that King David has in God. David begins Psalm 25 by lifting his soul up to God. This is what we do in Lent – this season of reflection and introspection. David asks not to be put to shame by God or by his enemies and perhaps not by himself. David then asks God to “teach me your paths”. David wants to know God’s ways, to be guided by God’s truths. His heart desires a closer walk with God. This desire is a the heart of the Lenten season as well.

In verse nine David writes, “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way”. Humility is an essential part of our journey. If we are not humble we can get caught up in the shame that comes with our failures and sins, especially when we internalize the shame. Humility reminds us that we are not perfect and that we do not have to live out our faith on our own. God’s Spirit and the Word and our brothers and sisters in Christ walk alongside us. Humility allows us to learn and grow, both from our mistakes as well as our successes because both are grounded in the goodness and steadfastness of God.

Just as life was for King David, our Lenten journey will not be one steady ascent to the pinnacle of Easter Sunday. While we hope to continue growing closer and closer and to be more and more like Jesus during these forty days, we will have setbacks and pauses. We are limited and imperfect. In verse ten we read, “All of the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful”. All. Each day of our Lenten journey may we keep these truths in mind, allowing them to guide and empower our journey together with God and with one another. May it always be so.

Prayer: Lord God, as I lift up my soul to you, refine it as you may. Teach me your ways so that I may faithfully walk the path to the cross. When I stumble, as I know I will, lift me up and set me back upon your path. Amen.


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Focus

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10

Verse 20b: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God”.

In our passage for today, Paul implores us to be reconciled to God. To reconcile means to restore the relationship. Paul is writing to those in the church who have drifted from the faith, to those who have allowed other things to rise above their commitment to the Lord. Unless we are intentional and disciplined concerning our habits of faith, then this can happen to us too. A daily, focused walk with God supplemented by time with the community of faith have always been essential for solid Christian discipleship.

Moving into verses three through seven, Paul shares with the church how he and Timothy have lived out their faith. Note there is both good and bad, both joy and sorrow. Paul and Timothy have endured trials and hardships, persecution, abuse, and slander, as well as sleepless nights. In and through all of this, Paul and Timothy have practiced purity and patience and kindness. They have relied on the Holy Spirit and have sought to practice love above all else. They have always been truthful. Paul wants the church (including us) to know that a walk of faith is not always easy. He also wants to remind us that to walk or live out our faith we must rise above the norms of the world.

As we prepare to enter into Lent, a season of introspection and preparation, it is good to consider how we are walking out our faith. Have we allowed other priorities to rise above our faith commitment? During Lent some people give something up. What in your life could or should you give up to make room for a closer walk with God? Is there a habit or behavior that lessens your walk or your witness? Some people add a habit or practice during Lent. Some join a Lenten study, some read a book that enriches their faith. Some fast, finding new time to pray or to read their Bibles. And some do both – giving something up, adding something in. The point is to reflect on your current walk with Jesus and to find a way to deepen that walk with the Lord during this holy season.

In the last few verses of our passage Paul shares the beauty of a faithful walk. God has sustained he and Timothy in times of need, guiding them through the trials and hardships. Because of the presence of Jesus Christ in their daily lives they are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything”. Paul and Timothy have their eye on God’s goodness and on the salvation of their souls. As we prepare to enter this holy season of Lent may this be our focus as well.

Prayer: Lord God, prepare me to journey deeper with you during this season of Lent. Guide me to walk closer and more intimately. Show me the way. Reveal the path to walk. Amen.


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Consumed with Light

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 4: 3-6

Verse 6: “God made… his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”.

Photo credit: Karen Alsop

Paul writes today about the reality that not all people will understand the gospel. To some the message of the “good news” is veiled. For Paul, the lost, or those without faith in Jesus Christ, are “perishing” – doomed to an unpleasant eternity. Paul recognizes that those without Christ have been “blinded” by the gods of this world. These gods remain a barrier or a stumbling block to many people today. The love of money, power, status, recognition, popularity, privilege and other worldly things prevent people from “seeing the light of the gospel”. One does not have to look very hard to find folks who are like this. They are focused only on self and the gods of this world. Their focus is inward and upward, personally and socially.

For Paul, the focus was also inward and upward. But the inward focused on knowing the Lord Jesus Christ and the upward focused on bringing God the glory. Paul had always called others to Jesus Christ. In his humble and confident manner Paul preached the good news of Jesus Christ to lots of people. Some have allowed the light and love of God to shine into the darkness and selfishness of their hearts. Others have been blinded, the gospel remained veiled. Like Paul, we encounter both types of people as we live out our faith, “preaching” in whatever way we can, sometimes with words.

For those who choose Jesus as Lord and Savior, we know the truth of verse six: “God made… his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. The light that God shines into our hearts reveals the glory of God as demonstrated in the life and witness of Jesus Christ. Jesus, like us, lived in this world. His world certainly had its share of brokenness, marginalization, injustice, oppression… Jesus spent his years in ministry bringing healing and welcome, justice and compassion. Doing so he built community and he fostered a culture of other over self. Love was the core value of this community and its culture. Paul lived each day as a servant to the gospel “for Jesus’ sake”. Paul was consumed with sharing Jesus with all he met, whether by words or actions or simply by the way he lived his life. May we be consumed in the same way.

Prayer: Light of the world, illumine my heart today with the light of your love and grace. Allow that light to open my eyes to the places and people and circumstances that need to know and walk in your light and love. Guide my words, actions, and life to reveal Jesus to others. Amen.


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Falling Short

Reading: 1st Corinthians 8: 1-6

Verse 3: “The man who loves God is known by God”.

Paul begins this section on food sacrificed to idols by speaking of knowledge. He is talking about what is inside our heads. This is usually where faith begins. Most Christians follow the same path: learning about God, Jesus, and faith in Sunday school, youth group… as they mature in faith until one day the head knowledge becomes heart truth. As is true with almost everything in life, in our faith we understand more and more the longer we journey in faith. Within the Corinthian church some were relying their superior knowledge and it was causing division and it was hindering the faith journey of the new believers. In our churches today, we still do this at times. We allow our knowledge to “puff” us up.

The first way this happens is when we make our churches feel exclusive. We all look and talk alike, we act alike, we appear to be perfect Christians. We have those that we gravitate to each Sunday morning. A visitor can feel like an outsider very quickly, especially when they are not like the homogeneous crowd. Someone who comes because they are struggling with something really feels out of place when they enter a room full of people without any faults or issues. To further create a sense of “us” and “them” we use insider language and big fancy words. Maybe most regulars know what sanctification, justification, atonement, sacrament… mean. But if you are new to the faith, these terms can make you feel like an outsider very quickly.

In the Corinthian church the mature believers knew “that an idol is nothing at all”. To them, idols were just carved pieces of stone or wood. The mature believers knew that there was only one God, only one Lord. But for the new believers, the ones who had grown up worshipping these idols all their lives, this idea was a struggle. The mature believers were saying, in essence, “just get over it”, “just believe what I say I believe”. They were not willing to walk in love with their new brothers and sisters in Christ. They were not willing to enter the struggle, to walk alongside the one wrestling with their conscience.

We do this in our churches when we fail to talk about our sins and struggles. Church becomes a social club for the perfect and for the saints. Nope, no sin here. We know all we need to know to be good little Christians. In verse three Paul writes, “The man who loves God is known by God”. Loving God must lead to loving others. Jesus unpacks the truth of this idea in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). When we say we love God, when we say all are welcome in our churches but do not really welcome the sinners and broken people into our communities of faith, we are falling short. When we look down on those “obviously” dealing with sin by making them feel unwelcome, we are falling short. When we indirectly but clearly say come back when you have your life together, we are falling short. May it not be so church. May it not be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to truly love others as a witness to my love for you. Strip away my pride and judgmental tendencies, guide me to walk side by side in love with those in struggle, with those living outside of your love. Give me the courage to admit my struggles and sins within the body of Christ. Grant me a welcoming and compassionate spirit. 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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True Light

Reading: John 1: 1-14

Verse 9: “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world”.

John’s gospel introduces us to Jesus in a way that is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There is a holiness, a divinity, a wonder to John’s words. “In the beginning was the Word…” rings with an eternal truth. Jesus’ divine nature is revealed in a powerful way. John wants us to understand the significance of the creator of all things stepping into that creation. The most perfect being that there ever was, the most powerful force in all of existence laid all that aside and became one of us.

Jesus did not come to spend a few years or even a long life just to see what life here was like. He came to reveal God’s plan for what life should be like. In verse nine we read, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world”. The way, the truth, and the life came to show us the way to love our neighbors, to reveal the depth of God’s love for us, and to demonstrate a life lived in total surrender to God. We read how this is possible in verse twelve: “To those who believe he gave the right to become children of God”. This gift came through his sacrificial death. Through death and resurrection Jesus defeated the power of sin, paying the price to redeem us from our sin. Only through the forgiveness that Christ offers can we be made new again, holy and perfect in his presence. Only then can we stand as a child of God.

Thank you, true light, for coming into the world. Thank you, holy Word, for being a part of my life.

Prayer: Dear God, a simple “thank you” today. Amen.


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Freed

Reading: Galatians 4: 4-7

Verses 4-5: “When the time had fully come, God sent his son… to redeem those under the law”.

What a passage we have today! In just four verses, Paul packs some great theological truths. In summary: at just the right time God sent Jesus to redeem us from the law and then sent the Spirit to lead us to live as children of God, destinying us for eternal life. It is quite the summary of the good news.

As we draw nearer to Christmas Eve it is a good reminder that Jesus came at just the right time. When God’s time to send the son arrived, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. While the example that Jesus set concerning how to live out God’s love is important, the main purpose of Jesus’ time on earth was to redeem us, to make heaven our destiny. This is both a present and a future realityy. Let me say that again: heaven is both a present and a future reality. While we await eternity in the Lord’s presence we live to build his kingdom here on earth.

Paul’s emphasis in the letter to the Galatians is the freeing power of Jesus Christ in this life. In Christ we are made into new creations, freed from “the law”. The church in Galatia was struggling with the application of the Jewish law, the Torah. The Christians who had been Jews believed the new Christians should first follow the laws of Judaism. For example, they wanted Gentile believers to be circumcised and to follow the dietary and purification laws. The new believers just wanted to follow Jesus. This was causing division and strife in the church. Paul wants to end this reliance on the old laws of the Jewish faith. For Paul, being created new in Christ Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit, believers no longer fall under the old laws.

Even though we do not live under the Jewish law and even though we are Spirit-filled new creations in Christ, we still live with division and strife. We still need redeemed. Although Christ died to free us from the laws of sin and death, we all still wrestle with sin in our lives and many of us are anxious and fear death.

Our journey of faith is one of redemption after redemption. Even though I believe in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and even though I am led by the Spirit, my old self is alive and well within me. My pride and ego, my judgmental attitude, my driven personality all can rise up and lead me to sin. My old self can ignore the Holy Spirit quite easily at times. Yet, thanks be to God, I am “no longer a slave”. Redemption, forgiveness, grace, and mercy are always ready to make me new again. I am a child of God. I am loved. I am an heir to eternal life in Christ. You are too. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord of life, thank you for your love that is always greater than any and all of my sin. Continue to lead and guide me and to better atune me to the voice and the way of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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Who and What?

Reading: Matthew 22: 15-22

Verse 20: “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription”?

As the end of Jesus’ ministry draws to a close, the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders has escalated. Early in the final week of his life the Pharisees send some folks to test Jesus, to try and trap him. Even when they are flattering Jesus to soften him up, their words have truth in them. The words of these envoys belie their dilemma. Jesus is a man of integrity – so why are they trying to trap him? Jesus is one who teaches the truth – so why begin with words that are not believed by the ones that sent them? Jesus is not swayed by men – so why try to trap him with a political and religious question? Because Jesus is all of these things, to find or catch him sinning is not possible. So the religious leaders distress to trickery.

After calling out the hypocrisy, Jesus asks for a coin to use in his answer to their question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not”? A “yes” would anger many Jews. They resent the Romans and their oppressive taxes. A “no” would be seen as treason by the Romans. Jesus chooses a better answer than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. After receiving a denarius, he asks the questions, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription”? Before going on to hear Jesus’ answer to the original question (that is for Sunday), let us apply these questions to ourselves.

If our lives were held up for all to see and examine, what would be the answer to the question of whose image we bear? This question gets at the root or core of who we really are. When others look at us, do they see the image of Jesus Christ? Do they see one who has integrity, who speaks truth, who is not swayed by the things of the world? Or do they see one who is willing to be a little immoral at times, one who will occasionally bend the truth, one who sometimes does chase after the things of the world, or one who does all three?

Who and what we are matters. It matters to God and it matters to the witness that we have to the world. Who we are, and, more importantly, whose we are really are great things to consider. May our reflection today upon these questions lead us closer to living in the image of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Prayer: Lord of all people and of all the earth, in each of my words, in each of my actions, in each of my thoughts, may I bring you the glory. May all that is selfish and prideful and sinful be laid aside in the pursuit of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.


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Hear, Listen, (Follow)

Reading: Psalm 78:1

Verse 1: “O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth”.

Just one simple verse today. It is God’s plea for our attention and focus. It is spoken to you and to me: “O my people”. To adhere to this plea anchors our life in something more important than anything else: our relationship with God. This, in turn, anchors all of our other relationships, leading us to walk each of our days in truth and love.

“O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth”. It is such a simple plea. Hear and listen – take in and understand the words of life, make them your guiding light. I’ve often thought that I could do better if I lived in a monastery. But even there, isolated from the world, there’d be the longing to be the next head monk. The thoughts that I was the most pious or hardest working would creep in. At times I’d long for the things of the world. Even in an isolated place I would be driven to gain the approval of others. Most all of us would struggle with these things.

No matter where we lay our heads down and no matter where we spend our working hours, we must all strive to be “in the world but not of it”. Defining what is most important in our lives and then living by it is a challenge to us all. Tuning out the other voices, the distractions, the shiny and the enticing – for all of us this is a constant battle. God longs for us to stop each day, to be still, to hear his voice, his word. When we do stop and hear, we are better able to listen and then to follow. May it be so. Amen.

Prayer: O great teacher, life is found in you and in your words. In your son’s example we see what it looks like to really hear and listen and live the words out. May I understand and follow the words of life each day. Amen.