pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Hard Heart… or Heart for God?

Reading: Mark 10: 1-12

Verse 5: “It was because your hearts were hard…”

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

Today’s passage in Mark is typical of the ‘conversations’ that the religious leaders had with Jesus. Today’s conversation focuses on the topic of divorce. This was a topic widely debated and interpreted since the time of Moses. Jesus quotes from the beginning times, in Genesis, lifting marriage to a lifelong covenant as the two “become one flesh.” In Deuteronomy 24:1 the Law allows for a man to write a certificate of divorce if his wife “becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her.” At the time, this usually applied to cases of sexual immorality. However, in Deuteronomy 22 the universal punishment for all consensual sex outside of marriage is stoning to death for both parties. If these laws were followed, then divorce caused by sexual immorality would be unnecessary. The muddy waters around the topic of divorce have made it fertile ground for interpretation and debate. For example, in the Mishnah section of the Talmud, a book containing authoritative interpretation of the Law, one rabbi writes that divorce is permissable only for sexual immorality and another rabbi writes that divorce is permissable for something as trivial as burning supper. So for Jesus, there is no 100% right answer.

Jesus answers their question by reminding the religious leaders of God’s intent for marriage. It is to be a relationship where “two become one flesh” as they are united by God. The lifelong commitment is emphasized by Jesus as he says, “what God has joined together, let man not separate.” This is God’s intent for all marriages. In a perfect world every marriage would be ‘happy ever after.’ But we live in an imperfect world, often falling short of the glory of God. Human will has forever fought the will of God. As the ancient Israelites pressured Moses about really, really having to live out God’s intent for marriage, Moses permitted divorce. Jesus points out that it was “because your hearts were hard” that Moses refined the Law. The desires of mankind affected how God’s law was understood and then lived out. The hardening of hearts continues to affect how we as individuals, as communities of faith, and as a society in general live out God’s will for our lives.

Divorce or sexual immorality are far from the only arenas in which humanity says over and over, ‘God, do we really, really have to do this or live just that way?’ Our hard, selfish hearts often lead us to question the will and ways of God. In our passage Jesus is inviting his audience then and us today to better understand and live into the heart of God instead of into our fleshy hearts. God’s heart is a heart first guided by love, but is also backed up with mercy, grace, compassion, empathy, generosity, forgiveness, humility, kindness, gentleness, patience, self-control… May our hearts be filled with these things of God, bringing God the praise and glory. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, Jesus boiled down the Law to two central commands – to love you with all that we are and to love neighbor as self. When we truly live these out, all else falls in line. May we not be people who split hairs over this and that. Instead may we love as generously and universally as you love. Amen.


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Surrender

Reading: James 3:13-18 and 4:1-3 and 7-8a

Verse 7: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

Photo credit: Ben White

James addresses the selfishness and evil practices that are common to humanity. He cautions us about arrogantly denying that these or other sinful things exist within our hearts. They are like all other negative or harmful emotions – if we try to bury them, they will work their way to the surface, bringing harm to ourselves or to others. When we do acknowledge and name when envy or coveting or cravings rise up, then we will experience two things.

Recognizing our human frailties lessens their power. Honestly acknowledging that we are all human frees us to walk in faith with others. Doing so we find strength and support and encouragement. The second thing we experience is a renewed willingness to turn to God with our needs. Doing so we find the humility needed to submit to God’s will and ways. Naming our failings and weakness is the first step of surrendering them to God. This is also a step of active resistance against the schemes of the devil. Turning towards God will cause the evil one to “flee from you.” Turning towards God also opens us up to the Holy Spirit. Submitting to God is an invitation for Holy Spirit power to be at work in our lives. With the Spirit’s presence we will be filled with God’s love, peace, hope, joy, mercy…

As we enter into this holy and sacred day, what is it that dwells within you that you need to name so that you can surrender it to God today?

Prayer: Lord God, give me clear eyes as I look within. Help me to bravely see all that I need to surrender to you. Grant me the courage to lay it down today, submitting further to your will and ways for my life. Amen.


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The Way

Reading: Psalm 1

Verse 6: “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

Photo credit: Niko Photos

Our week begins with Psalm 1 – a look at living a life that is righteous or living a life that is wicked. In the Psalm it feels like an either/or choice. In reality, though, this Psalm represents our both/and. We desire to “meditate day and night” on the word of God, but we are at times like “chaff” – blown this way and that way by the cares of the world.

For the psalmist, the one who is blessed does not listen to the counsel of wicked and avoids the ways of sinners and mockers. Instead, the one who is blessed seeks God’s counsel. Doing so, the righteous are like trees planted by streams. The waters of God’s word nourishes the soul as roots are sunk deep into God’s ways. This nourishment then produces good fruit, spreading God’s ways. In contrast, the wicked do not have this foundation. The wicked are blown this way and that, pursuing the shifting ways of the world. The outcome of these choices is stated in verse six: “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

We all want to be righteous, to stand on the right side of the line come judgment time. We all want to be seen as a tree, standing firm in our faith, making new disciples as the fruit we bear. But at times the counsel of the world steals into our ears and minds, influencing us, tempting us. We can be drawn into the “way of sinners.” Maybe this is ‘just’ joining the gossip circle or maybe this is unethical business practices that allow us to keep up with the Joneses. It is not always easy to navigate the Jesus way because the world 🌍 offers lots of off ramps. Being human, once in a while we take them.

Yet the promise remains: “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.” When we stray, when we stumble, God provides a way, drawing us back into right relationship. This too is a choice. At this intersection may we choose to delight in the way of the Lord. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord, I so desire to be the tree, rooted in your love and in your ways. Some days, though, I am more like a leaf, tossed about in the wind. On these days, Lord, draw me back in by the gentle whisper of your Holy Spirit. Guide me back home to you. Amen.


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As I Should

Reading: Ephesians 6: 18-20

Verse 18: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests”.

Photo credit: Ben White

We began in Ephesians on Friday, looking at the call to put on the full armor of God in order to stand firm against the attacks of the devil. Yesterday we continued on, looking at the many pieces of armor that Paul suggests, each representing an aspect or trait of our faith. Paul included a belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, and sword. He did not but could have added gauntlets of grace or the wineskin of forgiveness. Paul could have included kneepads or shin guards of prayer. Today’s passage, in fact, does cover prayer, one of our greatest weapons against the evil one.

In verse eighteen Paul writes, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests”. Paul encourages us to pray in the Spirit because then we align our will with God’s will; we pray in accordance with God’s ways. Paul also tells us to pray on all occasions – in the good times, in the bad times, and all the times in between. The apostle also wants us to pray broadly and generously – “with all kinds” of petitions and prayers. Lift all things to God!

After encouraging us to “be alert” and to pray for the saints or leaders of the church, Paul asks for personal prayers. Under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar, he does not pray for freedom or vindication. These prayers would not be in alignment with God’s will. Paul prays for more opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ, the “mystery of the gospel”. This is why he is now an “ambassador in chains”. And he asks for prayers to do this more, even to “proclaim it fearlessly, as I should”. Let us not miss those last three words. No matter the cost, no matter the consequences, no matter what, Paul sought to proclaim Christ, “as I should”. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, it is greatly encouraging to consider the witness to the faith that Paul lived out always. Guide and lead me to live out such a faith. By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit use me to lift up Jesus. Amen.


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The King of Glory

Reading: Psalm 24

Verse 3: “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place”?

Photo credit: Alex Woods

After declaring that the earth is the Lord’s because he created it all, the psalmist asks these two questions found in verse three. Questions like these can make us pause at times. When I have been struggling with sin or when I have felt distant from God, it would be hard to answer these questions in the affirmative. When I have felt stuck, it was hard to imagine going up to God or entering into his holy presence. On those days or in those seasons it is good to remember the encouragement found in Psalm 24.

Psalm 24 reminds us that those who seek his face will receive blessing and vindication. When we seek the Lord, when we lift up our heads, the king of glory will come in. The one who is “strong and mighty” will lead the way. And when we look up we will be reminded of who and whose we are. That king of glory, why yes, that is our inheritance. We were adopted into the family, sealing our place with the promised Holy Spirit. In and through that presence we recognize that we do bear the image of the Son. The mercy, love, grace, compassion, forgiveness… that resided in the Lord Almighty is right there within us too.

May we open wide the gates of our heart today so that the king of glory may come in!

Prayer: Living God, thank you for the reminder that I am created in your image, adopted into your family. Jesus, king of glory, shine in my heart today! Amen.


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Our Refuge and Stronghold

Reading: Psalm 9: 9-20

Verse 9: “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble”.

In today’s Psalm there is a deep sense of trust in God’s power and might. The Psalm begins with David praising God “with all my heart”, rejoicing in the downfall of the enemy, celebrating God’s righteousness and justice. As we begin today in verse nine David writes, “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble”. A refuge is a place of protection, a place of safety. It is a place where one finds peace and respite. One feels secure in a stronghold. One is able to regroup, to catch one’s breath, to ready oneself to reengage.

The danger of a literal refuge or stronghold is that we can want to simply stay there, to remain disconnected or distanced from the oppression or trouble. In the New Testament Jesus told us that we would face trial and abuse and oppression and hatred. A solid walk of faith comes with a cost, a price to pay at times. Amidst the persecution that David is facing he cries out to God, asking, “Have mercy and lift me up”. He turns to God, trusting in God’s power, leaning into his presence, declaring “the Lord is known by his justice”. When we are faithful, when we are walking out our faith in alignment with God’s will and ways, then we too can lean into God in times of oppression and trouble, trusting in our refuge and stronghold to lead us through. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, you are ever present, always hearing the prayers of those who trust in you. In those times of trial or trouble, remind me again and again that you are ever my strength and my shield. Your love always surrounds me. Thank you and amen!


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Humbly Turn

Reading: Psalm 20

Verses 1 and 2: “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress… protect you… send you help… grant you support”.

Returning to Psalm 20 today, we focus in on our need for God’s presence in our lives. To enter into the presence of God one must begin with a posture of humility. To recognize and admit our limitations and our inability to do all things opens space in our hearts to turn to the God who can do anything. This is what allowed David to enter the sanctuary to pray and to offer sacrifices. The focus of these actions was to align his heart with God’s heart, to check his own motives, to seek divine guidance. As decisions arise and as challenges come our way, a time of sincere prayer and soulful introspection engage God in the process.

The Psalm begins with a blessing prayer for our times of distress. It prays that the Lord will answer, protect, help, and support us in those times of hardship. David trusts that God will be there for him. His prayer reflects that same truth concerning all faithful people’s relationship with God. To trust requires belief, of course, but it also requires a willingness to submit to God’s will and ways. It places self behind the divine. Although to some surrender indicates weakness, to those who call upon the Lord, it provides access to the source of our true strength. God is the ultimate ally. In all things may we humbly turn to the Lord our God, trusting into his power and strength.

Prayer: Lord God, when I am weak, you are strong. When I am humble, you are glorified. When I am less, you become more. In all things, in all ways, make me obedient to you. Amen.


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Rebirth, New Life

Reading: John 3: 1-17

Verse 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”.

Photo credit: Frank McKenna

In the dark of night Nicodemus comes to Jesus. He is one of the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is a “teacher who has come from God”. Nicodemus is seeking, searching, wanting to know more about Jesus, the one pulling on his heart. Jesus responds by telling him that to “see the kingdom of God” one must be “born again”. Nicodemus does not understand. He is stuck in his head, trying to figure out Jesus. Jesus speaks to the heart. Jesus presses on, explaining that it is not a physical rebirth but a spiritual rebirth. To be born of the Spirit one must believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. He plainly tells Nicodemus that “everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”.

Jesus brings it all together in verses sixteen and seventeen. Verse sixteen is well known: “For God so loved the world…” You probably know the rest. “God gave his one and only Son… whoever believes… shall not perish but have eternal life”. The love of God poured out in the giving of his Son for us is amazing, awesome, wonderful. In verse seventeen we see the “why” – why God sent Jesus: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”. Jesus came not to condemn but to save. Not to judge but to show the way to eternal life. The kingdom of God in Jesus Christ is based on love, mercy, grace, forgiveness. Jesus came not to condemn us, not to tell us that we’re not good enough, not to tell us we are unworthy, but to tell us that he loves us, values us, wants to save us. This is the good news.

As we seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, may rebirth and new life come in and through the saving power of God’s only Son. May his light shine today!

Prayer: God of love, may your light shine brightly today. In all I do and say may your glory be lifted up, exalted for all to see. Amen.


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Faithful Journey

Reading: Psalm 1

Verse 3: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields it fruit in season”.

Psalm 1 draws a clear distinction between those who walk in the way of the Lord and those who do not. The psalmist describes the faithful as blessed, prosperous, and enduring. The faithful do not join in with the mockers and sinners. By contrast the wicked will be like chaff – they will quickly perish. When presented in these terms, it is easy to identify which destiny one would prefer. Eternal life or be burned up in the fire? Easy choice, right?

Yes, the destination matters, but the journey, the day to day of living, is where the destination is really determined. Because of that our Psalm also speaks of the journey itself. The first area of focus is internal and personal. Blessed is the one who meditates on God’s laws. Blessed is the one who carves out time each day to better know and grow closer to God. The second component of our journey is external or outwardly focused: “He [or she] is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields it fruit in season”. A tree is an excellent choice. A tree has longevity and permanence. Our journey of faith should parallel this. We should drink of Christ’s nourishment steadily and regularly. We should walk faithfully, day after day, all of our lives. This is the “abide in Christ” idea that we have been thinking about lately. The external is revealed in how this daily abiding affects our daily living. It shows in the ways we bear fruit in season. Our “seasons” are the ministries and opportunities that God presents us with as we journey with Christ through this life.

The seasons vary: Sunday school teacher for some, mission team participant for others; serving at the local humane society for some, being on the Trustees or Finance team for others; playing or singing in the band or choir for some, mentoring a person on parole or one in recovery for others. This is but a tiny list of the ways that God can and will use us to “bear fruit” if we are simply willing.

Two questions to ponder: Where do or can you serve on God’s team? How are you rooted in the one who “watches over the way of the righteous”?

Prayer: Blessing God, day by day you seek to walk closely with each of your children. Day by day you bring new opportunities to stand faithfully, to work to build your kingdom one piece of fruit at a time. By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit open my eyes and heart to walk and serve you faithfully all of my days. Amen.


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Our Salvation

Reading: Acts 4: 11-12

Verse 12: “Salvation is found in no one else”.

Photo credit: Hans Heiner Buhr

Peter makes a bold proclamation – salvation is through Christ alone. He is remembering the words Jesus himself said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This bold claim asserts that faith in Christ is the only way to eternal life. All other paths end in condemnation. For all of its love and mercy and grace and forgiveness… this is Christianity’s hinge point. “Salvation is found in no one else”.

Belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is essential to gaining eternal life, but the offer of a relationship and of belief is not exclusive. Jesus made it clear in how he lived his life and in his teachings that all who are willing to profess faith in him will be received into his kingdom. Jesus ministered to all, regardless of who or what they were. Prostitutes, adulterers, rebels, thieves on crosses – all were within his love. Jews, men, women, rich, poor, young, old, Samaritan – all were within his love. Did all accept his love? No. Did all enter into a saving relationship? No. Did he call out to all he met? Yes. Does Jesus call out to all people today, regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, occupation…? Yes. Do some still reject Jesus as Lord and Savior? Absolutely.

As ones assured of our salvation, how should we respond to the answers to these questions? We should respond as the good shepherd would. Love should lead and guide all we say and think and do. Grace and mercy should abound in our lives. All should see and experience our humble and sacrificial servant’s heart. Everyone should see the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ active within us. May Jesus, our salvation, use each of us to bring others to the gate of the sheep fold.

Prayer: Loving God, use me today as a conduit of your love and grace. In and through me may others see your son, the giver of salvation. Amen.