pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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The Way of Jesus Christ

Reading: Revelation 1: 4b-5

Verses 4-5: “Grace and peace… from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

The greeting in the book of Revelation begins with a description of Jesus. As the book unfolds the power and majesty of Jesus becomes more and more evident. John begins our passage today by extending the grace and peace of the Lord to those who will read his book. These two things are needed as one reads and ponders this book. May grace and peace be ours as we delve deeper.

Jesus is first described as “the faithful witness.” Taking on flesh, walking among humanity, teaching and healing as extensions of God’s love, Jesus gave us the model for how to live in the world. Ever faithful to the will and way of God, witnessing to the power of love to transform lives, Jesus calls each of us to follow in his footsteps as we daily walk out our faith.

Jesus is also “the firstborn from the dead.” Able to live a perfect life, one without sin, one filled with obedience to God, Jesus was able to be the perfect sacrifice. In offering himself for us, Jesus broke the power of sin. Taking sin upon himself, paying the price for our sin with his life, Jesus entered the tomb. This grave could not contain him either. On the third day he rose to life, once again joining God in heaven. Returning to God’s side Jesus intercedes for us, continuing to love humanity unconditionally.

Lastly, Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Yes, one day every knee will bow. One day this will be totally and obviously true. In our day and age, though, this seems a long way off. Many leaders today are focused on their own truths, on their own will and way. When these two things do not align, they bend the truth to fit their needs. Humble servant and ruler (or leader) do not seem to go together any more. As people and as communities of faith, we have a role to play in bending this back towards God. It begins by us modeling the way of Jesus in all we do – at work or at school, in our activities and hobbies, in our relationships and in our families. We too are to be a “faithful witness.” When we live with unconditional love for God and for neighbor we naturally are humble servants. Beginning with the reign of Christ fully evident in our own lives may we draw others into his kingdom of love and grace and peace.

Prayer: Lord God, guide me to be unconditional love to all I meet. Use me to spread your love abroad in the world. May your grace and peace also flow from me, out and into the lives of those needing your transforming power. Amen.


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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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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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His Plan

Reading: 2nd Samuel 7: 1-14a

Verse 2: “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent”.

Photo credit: Erik Van Dijk

As King David has time to reflect – God has settled him in the palace and has given him “rest from all his enemies” – he thinks of his home and God’s home. David lives in a beautiful palace of cedar and God Almighty lives in a tent. This strikes David as wrong. Consulting with Nathan the prophet a decision is made to build God a proper home. Then, in the night, God says, ‘Hold on a minute’.

Have you ever been down this road? Have you ever thought you’d do something nice for God – without asking God? God speaks to Nathan in a vision and he relays it to David. God basically says, ‘When did I ask for a house’? The short answer is ‘never’. God then turns the tables, reminding David that God is in charge. He’s the one who took David from shepherd to king, from pasture to palace.

When have you felt like doing something for God because God has blessed you or because you were comfortable? Or… when have you thought you should do something for God because you felt guilty about the above? It is a fine line, isn’t it?

I think David’s heart was in the right place. Realizing all that God had done for him, he wanted to express his thanks. We find ourselves here too. Sometimes we will be moved by the Spirit to offer an act of kindness or some other expression of gratitude. If not and we feel as David did, let us begin with prayer, seeking the will of God. It will then be according to his plan, not ours. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, keep me closely connected to you. Whisper to me through the Holy Spirit, respond to bended knee. Lead and guide me to do your will. 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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Commitment and Connection

Reading: Mark 3: 20-35

Verse 35: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”.

Photo credit: Hans Heiner Buhr

In our passage from Mark, Jesus looks at community and connections. The religious leaders are challenging his authority and his biological family is worried about his health – physically and perhaps mentally. In verses 23-27 Jesus focuses in on division and the impact thereof. Whether a kingdom, a household, or even Satan himself, division spells disaster for that entity. This remains true today. We can see many examples of division in our society and some of us experience it in our own lives. In all cases division is a detriment, lessening whatever it touches.

In the second half of our passage Jesus turns to the more personal. In response to his earthly family’s concern for him, Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers”? Jesus is not totally discounting his own family with his response but is elevating the value or place of Christian community. Answering his own rhetorical question Jesus says, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”. Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God to earth. His response reflects this priority. In the twelve men that followed Jesus we see this same choice. They left all behind to follow. There was no division in their hearts. It was clear that for Jesus and those who followed him, God was first, loving the other was second, and family… fell somewhere down the line. May our commitment to and connection with God be the same!

Prayer: Lord, may my life reflect an undivided commitment to you and your will. May my love for you rise above all else. Amen.


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What an Advocate!

Reading: Romans 8: 22-27

Verse 26: “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”.

Photo credit: Tobias Rademacher

In two days many churches will celebrate Pentecost. This day recalls the moment that God’s Spirit filled the first believers. In our passage today Paul unpacks some of what the Spirit does with and for those who believe.

Paul begins by describing our longing to be forever with God. He is speaking of that inherent longing in all of humanity. In the opening verse Paul describes this as all of creation groaning as we “wait eagerly for our adoption… for the redemption of our bodies”. For Paul, this is the ultimate hope we find in our faith – to one day be redeemed fully, to be transformed into our heavenly and forever form. Living in difficult times, often facing persecution and hardship, even death, Paul and his fellow Christians often had to hold onto this hope found in Jesus Christ. At times, in our deepest valleys, we too hold onto the hope of eternal life.

In verse 26 Paul writes, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness”. In the same way that the Spirit raises up hope in our hearts, the Holy Spirit also strengthens and encourages us. Paul also describes how the Spirit goes a step further. When we are so weak (or ill or lonely or sorrowful or upset or…) that we cannot even put our prayer into words, then “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”. When we cannot even form the words, the Holy Spirit prays for us. The indwelling presence of Jesus Christ in our hearts takes over and takes our pleas to God on our behalf. In the moments when we are simply overwhelmed, the Spirit speaks to God for us. When we are as weak as weak can be, the Spirit “intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will”. To me, it doesn’t get any better than that. The Spirit prays for you and me in alignment with God’s perfect plans for our lives. What an advocate we have! Thanks be to God!!

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for loving me so much that you chose to send your Spirit to dwell in me. Thank you for being willing to know and abide in imperfect and sinful me. That is a deep, deep love. Thank you. Amen.


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The Sovereign Lord

Reading: Isaiah 50: 4-9a

Verse 7: “Because the sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced”.

Today’s passage from Isaiah has many layers to it. Much of the Bible is written in this way. It spoke to the people of Isaiah’s day, it spoke to the people of Jesus’ day, and it speaks to us. Today’s passage is one of four “Servant Songs” – four writings that can be read and meditated upon from the perspectives of Isaiah and Israel as well as from that of Christ and Christianity. For example, the one given the “instructed tongue” and who is “wakened morning by morning” to listen to God was originally Isaiah and his prophetic words were applied to Israel. These same words are connected to Jesus and therefore are applied to Christians past, present, and future.

Prophets have always reminded the faithful of God’s will and ways and have ever called the people back when they have wandered and sinned. Isaiah spoke the word of God to Israel, guiding them out of exile and back into right relationship with God. In turn, the nation of Israel sought to be the “light upon the hill”, revealing God to the peoples living all around them.

Isaiah embodied the idea of a suffering servant. Verse six encapsulates this sacrificial service. Many years later this same verse would be applied to Jesus and the newly forming Christian faith. Like Isaiah, Jesus “offered his back to those who beat me” and he “did not hide my face from mocking and spitting”. Just as Isaiah claimed power and voice in God’s name, so too did Jesus. The words of verse seven apply equally: “Because the sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced”.

The Servant Songs remain a call to the family of God. The word of God and the teachings of Jesus continue to instruct us, to sustain us, to guide us. As we take in, study, and apply the word we become people of love and justice and mercy and salvation. We begin to take on the role of suffering servant as we minister to a world in need. The more we follow the way of Christ, the more we hear his instructions, the more we awaken day by day with listening ears, the more we offer our back to those who oppress and abuse – the more we draw the kingdom of God near in our own hearts and in the lives of those in our world. The sovereign Lord remains with us. May we ever be his light and love in the world.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for pouring out your word each morning, for wakening my heart to your light and love. In times of suffering may I never waver. May I ever trust in you, knowing that you are working to bring all things together. Amen.