pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Spirit of Unity

Reading: Romans 15: 4-7

Verse 4: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that… we might have hope”.

In the early church in Rome they were struggling to all be the church. One dominant group, the Jewish Christians, were clinging to the Torah and other writings and teachings of the Jewish faith. The “newer” believers, who were called “Gentiles”, did not have this long history with God. Their entrance to the faith was based upon believing that Jesus was the Messiah and then being baptized and receiving the Holy Spirit (not necessarily in this order for the last two). The central issue in this early church came down to how much of the Hebrew scriptures… were essential to being a Christian. The answer to this question has played itself out for two thousand years.

The people in the church in Rome basically fell into three groups. One group wanted to use all of the Jewish scriptures… for “membership” in the church. One group did not want to use any of these as benchmarks for membership. In the middle was a group that felt some was useful and some was not essential. Paul, in general, fell into this middle group. This was quite a change for Paul. Up until pretty recently, Paul was known as Saul. As Saul he was a Pharisee – an uber follower of all the laws and Jewish teachings from the scriptures. In verse four we read Paul’s words to the church. Here we read, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that… we might have hope”. We can learn from all of the Hebrew scriptures… But that does not necessarily mean following every single law and writing. And it does not mean that we willy-nilly pick what we like and do not like. With endurance and with encouragement from the entirety of scripture, we find our way forward. This has been the Jewish practice for thousands of years. They learned that the black letters do not always tell us how to interpret and apply something written to another time or context. So they dig down deep and find the intent or the purpose or the meaning of the law… To say “we’ve always done it this way” and to insist that’s the only option is sometimes harmful and sometimes limits the fruit produced for the glory of God. But that is what the Jewish Christians were saying. They wanted the Gentiles to first become good Jews – follow all of the law, do things as we have always done them. The early church did find the way forward. A spirit of unity prevailed and led them to move forward, accepting one another. God was glorified, the church grew, Christ was taught and followed. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Dear God, as it was, so it remains. It is not always easy being the church. Made up of fallible human beings, we still struggle with what it means to simply love you and to love one another as Jesus Christ loved us. Lead and guide us, as you did the early church, to be one in you. Amen.


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Simple Relationships

Reading: Mark 7: 1-8

Verse 6: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”.

Today’s passage deals with who we are as opposed to who we want to appear to be. This passage applies to us as individuals and to our churches as well.

The Pharisees and religious leaders notice Jesus’ disciples doing something that they think shouldn’t be done. They are eating with unclean hands. The disciples did not wash their hands before eating. Yes, there is a practical side to this. But the religious folk aren’t concerned with this aspect. They are concerned with the spiritual implications of eating with unclean hands. By simply being in the world, one can possibly touch something that itself is unclean. If you then eat without ceremonially washing, then the sin or impurity enters you. So they ask, “Jesus, why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders”?

Jesus does not really answer their question. He turns the subject back on them. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13, saying, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”. The religious folks know what to say. They also ought to know why they are saying it. They have lost their connection with the source of the Law. Over the years the Torah or law has grown to the point of being cumbersome. Many of the traditions or rules are things that man has added over time. The intent was to help people follow the law, but it has become a long list of things to do or to check off the list. It has moved far away from worshipping God. Jesus reflects, “You have let go of the commandments of God and are holding onto the traditions of men”.

We too can fall into following man-made traditions or rules and can allow these to drag us far from God. If we go to church on Sunday morning but it becomes a burden or hardship, is it really worshipful to God? If we go up and eat the bread and drink the juice but do not confess and repent of our sins, is it really holy communion? If we say we are a welcoming church but do not engage the stranger who enters our midst, are we really loving all people? If we read our Bibles each day but do not apply the Word to our lives, is it really a meaningful discipline? Yes, this is just the beginning of a long list of questions.

O Lord, give us faith and not religion. Give us relationships and not lists of rules. May our faith be about simple relationships – loving you and loving neighbor. And may all we say and do and think flow from these two central commands. May it be so. Amen.


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Understand, Apply, Live

Reading: James 1: 22-27

Verse 27: “Religion… pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”.

In James 1, verses 17 to 21, we are reminded that all good things come from God, that we should listen way more than we speak, and that we should humbly accept the Word planted in us. All of this leads up to the main purpose of our passage today: to do the things that God says to do. Today, James focuses on a few things to do.

In addressing his contemporaries, James is speaking to a problem that he must have witnessed. Jesus also addressed this problem often when dealing with the Pharisees and other religious leaders. These folks knew all of the letters of the Law inside out and could go on and on about it – they just struggled to live it out. Our words from James begin with this same issue too: “do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says”. An example today would be the person who leaves church to go to the bar. The person proceeds to get drunk and to curse at their team on TV. The next morning they scoff at the homeless beggar as they drive to work scheming how to dishonestly earn a few extra bucks. And, yes, they are listening to the Christian radio station as they drive. Instead, James suggests to look intently into the Word of God – to study it and to understand it so that we can live it. In doing so we discover a freedom as we live God’s ways instead of the ways of the world.

In the closing verses today, James gets to the heart of living out our faith. He returns again to the idea in verses 19 and 20, reminding us to keep a “tight rein” on our tongues. Then James gives us two more action points. In verse 27 James writes, “Religion… pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. First, look after those in need. Orphans and widows would have been shorthand for all in need. Not coincidentally, we see this concept as a major emphasis in Jesus’ life and ministry. Second, live in the world but do not be of the world. Be the example of God’s love amidst the pain and brokenness. Be the light that shines hope into the darkness. Be the hand that offers a hand up and not just a hand out. Have an active and engaging faith. Don’t just read the Word, but understand it, apply it to your life, and live it out. May it be so.


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New But Unchanging

Reading: Mark 1: 21-28

Verse 27: “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority!”

The people who have been listening to Jesus talk are amazed by both His insights and by the authority with which He teaches. They asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority”! Jesus is revealing the scriptures perhaps in a new way, but He is teaching from an old source. We do not know what scroll Jesus is teaching from, but even if it was the newest it is at least 400 years old!

Have you ever read a passage of scripture that you thought you knew fairly well only to discover something fresh or unnoticed jumping out at you? I often wonder how I missed that the last time I read the passage. Have you ever sat down on Sunday, heard a familiar passage read, thought ‘here we go again’, and then had the pastor apply it in a whole new way? Once in a while it even feels like he or she is preaching just to you. Have you ever done your small group homework, come to class feeling confident in your preparations, and then been amazed by someone else’s different but spot-on insights? Yes, indeed, the Word of God is alive and, therefore, it often feels new to us in amazing ways.

Yet at its core, the message of the Bible does not change. The Bible is God’s ongoing love story with generation after generation of sinful and often disobedient children. It seems that no matter what we do, God’s love for us remains steadfast and true. As Jesus enters the story, we gain a fuller understanding of God’s love. In Jesus, we see what God’s love looks like lived out between us. Jesus gives us the model to follow. At the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly time, we see what the ultimate gift of love looks like as Jesus dies for you and me. It was Jesus’ final act of love and service. Through the grave defeated the power of sin and death and made a way for us all to inherit eternal life.

While the Word can be new to us every time we delve in, these core truths remain the same. Our faith foundation will always rest upon God’s love. Yet we are still blessed to experience that love in new ways every day. Thanks be to God for new but unchanging living Word.


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Ears to Hear

Reading: Matthew 13: 1-9

Verses 3 and 9: A farmer went out to sow his seed… He who has ears, let him hear.

The parable of the sower is very familiar.  Most folks who have been Christians very long have read it as they’ve read their Bibles or have heard it discussed in a sermon or small group study.  But what about those who heard it sitting by the lake, directly from Jesus?  For many of them there, the answer is the same as it would be for someone encountering the parable for the first time today.  It is about what Jesus began with: “A farmer went out to sow his seed”.  On this level it kinda makes sense.  Poor soil yields a poor crop and good soil yields a good crop.  But the middle soils and the widely varying yields?

Jesus concludes with, “He who has ears, let him hear”.  The people who are really listening and searching for meaning in the words of Jesus will be able to hear what He is trying to tell them.  Others will only hear His words and walk away shrugging their shoulders.  I think this is one reason Jesus spoke in parables.  It applies today as well.  For those seeking meaning for their faith and application for their lives, there is much to learn from the parables.  But we too must have ears to hear.  A second reason I think Jesus spoke in parables is because they connect earthly things that all people can understand and relate to with heavenly things that require a little more time and effort on our part to fully grasp and then live into.

Sometimes when we read or hear a parable, we too may scratch our heads a bit.  But let us not leave it there.  Go to a commentary or some other resource.  Discuss it with a friend or your pastor or with your small group.  Pray for discernment and guidance.  Every word that Jesus spoke has relevance and meaning for our walk of faith.  Let the one who has ears hear Jesus’ message today.


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Living Right

Reading: Psalm 119: 137-144

The psalmist declares that God’s righteousness lasts forever.  Because of this, all of God’s laws and ways are also righteous.  Since God’s laws and ways are always righteous, we should ever seek to understand and live out God’s statutes and precepts.  If we do so, then we draw near to loving them as the psalmist does.  Even in times of trouble and distress, the writer declares that God’s commands bring delight.

To this understanding from the Old Testament, we can apply our understanding of Jesus.  Jesus was the fuller revelation of God as He lived in the flesh.  Jesus allows us to see what it looks like to live out God’s laws and ways.  Even though Jesus was in the flesh, He was still divine and lived a life without sin.  In the life of Jesus, in the things He taught, and in how He lived, we have the example of what it means to live fully in God’s righteousness.  Jesus defined and lived out the essence of all of God’s laws and precepts that we find in the Old Testament.  He did so by loving God with all He was and by loving others as God loves them.  Jesus saw all as beloved children of God and treated each accordingly.

Jesus exemplified verse 142: “Your righteousness is everlasting and your law is true”.  God does not change.  God’s love never ends.  God’s ways are true.  Within these truths we seek to live as Jesus lived.  Living out our faith us living right.  Living out the love that Jesus pours into us is living right.  Living out the truth of God so that God’s word spreads to those around us and so God’s love and light grows is living right.  Whether filled with joy because of God’s blessings or struggling through a trial, these truths do not change.  No matter what life may bring, God’s love and God’s ways remain true.  May we always follow Jesus’ example, seeking to be God’s love and truth lived out.


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Mary Time

Reading: Luke 10: 38-42

“Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken from her”.  What is better is to sit at Jesus’ feet, to listen to His words, to meditate on their meaning, and to apply them to our lives.  Just as Mary did this, we too are called to daily do the same.  We are called to what is better, to spend time with Jesus.

Life is busy and there is always much to do.  We can easily fill our days up with a long to-do list.  There are so many people and things we are committed to.  We can all relate to Martha in this story.  She is feeling the pressure to always be on the move so that all gets done.  She is a doer and a worrier.  One cannot read this story without feeling at least a little like Martha and without feeling at least a little conviction.

I think a little conviction is good now and then.  It allows us to examine our lives, our practices, our priorities.  There is no need for guilt.  The story simply allows us to evaluate if we are spending enough ‘Mary time’s or not.  Deep inside we all feel the pull to spend time daily with God and we all know that life is better when we do so.  Once the habit is established, our daily personal time with God is closely guarded and kept sacred.

It does not matter if our Mary time is early in the morning, during our noonday break, or in the evening sometime before bed.  It does not matter if our time with God is relatively short or if it is really long.  Each of us are unique and need to find our own best way to come and sit at Jesus’ feet, to connect our heart and soul to His.  If you do not have Mary time each day, try it for a few weeks.  Pick a spot in the New Testament and read and reflect and pray for a little while each day.  If you do have some Mary time each day, blessings on your time each day in His presence!