pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Once New Again

Reading: Judges 4: 1-7

Verses 1 and 2: “The Israelites once again did evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord sold them into the hands of…”

Today’s passage is from the book of Judges. This book covers the time period when there was no king in Israel. One after another a judge rules or leads Israel. In today’s reading Deborah the prophetess is acting as the judge or ruler of Israel. In our opening verses we read, “The Israelites once again did evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord sold them into the hands of…”. In today’s passage it is Canaan who rules over Israel. The … can be followed by many different names – Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans… The process of “doing evil” is familiar: the people sin, there is a period of oppression, this leads to crying out to God, and then God restores Israel. This is an often repeated process for Israel.

This is a process that we are also familiar with, especially on a personal level. In our battles with sin, in our attempts to be obedient and faithful, we often have our “how did I get here again?” moments. How did I let pride get in the way of doing right again? How did I allow anger to win again? How did I give in to ___ again? Our weak, imperfect human condition makes us prone to the same cycle or process that we see scattered throughout the Old Testament and continued into the New Testament. The ministry of Jesus did not fix us; it did not remove our human weakness and our tendency towards the things of this world. It did, however, change the process. The “time in the hands of…” is no longer required. The time in oppression, the time in exile, the loss of freedom is no longer needed. On the cross, Jesus made atonement for our sins. With his life Jesus served the consequence. Sometimes there is an earthly consequence that we must suffer through. Our sin can damage a relationship or can violate earthly laws. There are costs to these things. But through the gift of grace and the giving of mercy, we are made new again, our sin is washed away, we are restored back into right relationship with God. In the process we do learn, we do grow from our failures, we do gain strength in the battle again sin. More importantly we learn just as Israel learned: God never gives up. God keeps working in our lives, keeps restoring us, keeps calling us to deeper obedience and to a more faithful walk. May it ever be so.

Prayer: Dear God, thousands and thousands of times I have stumbled and fallen. Even though it is almost beyond counting, your grace is greater. Even though I struggle to forgive just a few slights, your mercy never ends. So great a love is hard to fathom. In utter humility I thank you for loving a sinner like me. You are truly love and grace and mercy lived out. Thank you, God. Amen.


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Changed?

Reading: Matthew 22: 13-14

Verse 13: “Throw him outside, into the darkness”.

The parable that we began yesterday ends with a hard truth of our faith. Yesterday we read about the invitation to the banquet going out to all – “both the good and bad”. While many folks will hear about Jesus and many of these will hear or sense a call to follow him, many will reject Jesus just as the religious leaders and most Jews did. Jesus speaks to this in verse fourteen, where he says, “For many are invited, but few are chosen”.

The man thrown out of the banquet represents those who hear the invitation but refuse to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They refuse to change, to put on a new self. Instead, they remain a person of the world. The king tells the attendants to bind him and “throw him outside, into the darkness”. The darkness represents hell, where there will be much “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This hard truth reminds us that as we leave this world, there are only two options. Those that fail to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior will experience eternity in a place of torment and anguish. The few that are faithful will be chosen for an eternity in the light and love and joy of the King of kings.

The man made the choice to come unprepared. He put in no effort to be a part of the event, to know the host. He responded to the invite to get out of it what he could. Still today the appearance of faith can be a tool used to gain favor or standing or some other advantage in the world. In the end only a changed heart, a heart fully committed to Jesus Christ, will lead us in into the final wedding banquet. May it be so for you and for me. Amen!

Prayer: Loving God, when I try and get by with a shallow or pious or fake faith, convict me quickly. Continue to walk with me each moment, for the day and your is unknown. In all I say and do and think, may I honor you. Amen.


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Learning to Walk

Reading: Matthew 22: 1-12

Verse 12: “Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes”?

This week’s gospel lesson is the second in a row from Jesus that focuses in on how he is rejected. They are stories of greed and arrogance and selfishness. These two parables are aimed at the religious leaders in their original context, but they certainly have application for us today.

As our passage opens, Jesus is clear that this parable compares the kingdom of God to a wedding banquet. Jesus begins by explaining that those originally invited refuse to come. A second invite is rejected as well. This time those invited mistreat and kill the servants. A voice had called out in the desert. Some came and heard the call to repentance. They were baptized as a symbol of readiness for the coming kingdom. But John’s call fell on many deaf ears as he ministered in the wilderness. Jesus himself came with a second invite, calling the Jews to really love as God commanded. Jesus’ message centered on the two great commandments: love God with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The religious leaders refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah, so the call or invite extended past the Jews. Anyone that can be found will be invited to the wedding banquet.

The religious leaders went out and heard John’s call. They hung around and heard Jesus’ words, saw the miracles. Showing up is something about anyone can do. There are folks that show up on Sunday mornings. Simply sitting in a worship service does not make one into a practicing Christian. In our parable today, a man comes to the banquet, but he is not prepared. He chose to hear the call, but failed to ready himself. In Jesus’ day, to attend a wedding, one must dress in the required wedding clothes. These clothes were special and required effort and preparation. But this man just showed up. He was simply there to consume and indulge, not to really be a part of things, not to celebrate with the bride and groom. The Jews and the religious leaders in particular had received the invitations. They still showed up for the Sabbath, thinking they were honoring God simply be being there. They went about their lofty rituals and wore their fancy clothes. They loved these things, not God. They were arrogant and selfish, loving only self and not the many neighbors who needed both physical and spiritual care. They lived inside their self-constructed walls.

We too do this. We do it on Sundays when we show up and go through the motions instead of being open to and looking for God’s Spirit to change us on a Sunday morning. We do it each day when we rush off into our day without first connecting to God in word and prayer. We do it each time we think ourselves a Christian and then ignore the poverty, oppression, and injustices of our communities and our world. Simply put, it is easy to talk the talk. It is much harder to always walk the walk. May we all better learn to walk the walk as we seek to follow Jesus Christ, loving as he first loved each of us.

Prayer: God of all, help me to more fully love you and all people. Turn me from selfishness and self-righteousness, becoming more and more willing to give myself away, becoming more and more willing to risk for the gospel. Use me as you will. Amen.


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Far to Go

Reading: Psalm 106: 1-6 and 19-23

Verse 6: “We have sinned, even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly”.

Today’s Psalm connects into our Exodus 32 readings of the past two days. The Psalms often recount history as a way to both remember and to learn from it. In today’s case, the Psalm was likely written about 500 years after the Exodus from Egypt. Remembering thier stories was a big part of the Jewish faith. Like our stories or histories, for the Jews it reminded them of their sins and failures and of God’s love and mercy towards them.

Psalm 106 opens with praise to the Lord and with thanksgiving for how God blesses those who champion justice, shows favor and brings aid to his people, and gives a joyful inheritance from to his children. It is important to remember why they sought to live in a right relationship with God. Verse six shifts the focus. Reality enters.

In verse six we read, “We have sinned, even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly”. Despite knowing the story quite well, the Jews of the psalmist’s day struggle with sin just as their forefathers had. Sad to say, even with much more than 500 years gone by, we too continue to struggle with sin. In our society and sometimes in our very lives, golden calves abound. In many ways, our nation had forgotten God, just as the Israelites did from time to time.

Even within the church, we have gotten it wrong. Collectively and individually we have made poor choices, have walked out bad decisions, and have enforced policies that caused more harm – all scattered throughout our 2,000 year history. So often these blemishes, these lowlights, have come when we (the church or segments of the church) were so sure we were right that we could not consider any other possibility. Arrogance and pride and even tradition can be dangerous allies. To this point, I read a great line from Steve Harper in today’s Disciplines devotional: “We allege a certainty about our views apart from the humility to ever call them into question”. So true. Worse yet, we do harm to others from this place of arrogant and prideful certainty. We cast stones and look down long judgmental noses at those that dare speak out, that risk to question. And sometimes, once God forces us to see the error of our actions and words, in pride we refuse to seek forgiveness and to remedy the errors of our sins. Yes, church, we still have far to go.

As the body of Christ universal, may we begin to walk with Christ’s humility. May we each seek to be touched by God’s mercy and grace instead of clinging to our arrogance and pride. May we be a part of God’s stream of justice rolling down upon the earth. May the change begin within as we strive to let love alone be our guide and way.

Prayer: Lord God, when I am wrong and especially when I think only my way is right, bring the powerful conviction of the Holy Spirit fully to bear. Drive me to truly understand the path of Christ, the love filled humble servant who set the example. Strengthen me for the journey. Amen.


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To What Extent? How Far?

Reading: Romans 9: 1-5

Verse 2: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”.

Have you ever been in a situation where you wished you could take someone’s place? Or have you ever been in a situation where you’d give anything to change the final outcome? Maybe someone you love lost a child and you’d take that child’s place in a heartbeat if you could. Perhaps things could have been done or said differently and that person wouldn’t be estranged from the family. I’d guess that almost all of us have been in these situations or have heard stories of others who were in these or similar situations.

Paul is right there with us. In verse two we read, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”. You can feel his pain. Paul grew up in a Jewish home and became a Pharisee, a scholar of the Jewish faith. Paul knows what all of “my own race” know – the covenants and prophecies, the law and temple worship. They have the faith that has been longing for the Messiah. They know the stories and scriptures that point to Jesus as the Messiah. But they will not recognize him as the Savior, as the one, as the Messiah. To one who does accept Jesus as Lord, it is hard for Paul to understand how the Jews do not. Paul believes in Jesus Christ so strongly that he is willing the be cursed to hell, to trade away his salvation for the sake of the Jews believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Paul is willing to take the place of that child. Paul is willing to do anything to change their unbelief.

Paul’s willingness should be our willingness. Like the men with the treasure in the field or the pearl of great worth from last week’s Matthew 13 passage, we should be willing to give up anything or to do anything to see another come to Christ as Lord and Savior. As we ourselves ponder those we know and perhaps love who are living outside of a relationship with Jesus, to what extent are we willing to go so that they may be saved? How far?

Prayer: Lord, we know that at times the cost of faith might be high. The question I wrestle with is how far am I willing to go to bring another to Jesus Christ. Work within me to expand the range of what my answer truly is. Ever push the boundary, Lord. Thank you Jesus. Amen.


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New as Well as Old

Reading: Matthew 13:52

Verse 52: “Therefore every teacher… who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven… brings out new treasures as well as old”.

At what I would consider my “home” church, back when I was still a middle school teacher, I was part of the team that began a contemporary worship service. That was over twenty years ago. At the time it caused a lot of angst and even some division in the church. When the service outgrew the “Upper Room” and needed to shift to the sanctuary, then we really upset the apple cart. Change is hard, especially when it involves something new and relatively unknown to many people in the group or organization. But a quick survey of almost every church offering contemporary worship will reveal that that service is their best attended service. Change can be good and positive and even life giving.

When I moved into full-time ministry just over right years ago, one of my secret inner fears was one day being appointed to a small, rural church with just an organ or piano that only sang hymns on Sunday mornings. Since helping start the contemporary worship service that was the only service I had attended. When we were out of town on a weekend, we would find a church to visit with a contemporary service. But after just a couple of months in pastoral ministry I came to realize that I loved the hymns and liturgy of traditional worship. Holding onto the past, to the tried and true, very often has its place. It is often the key component of a group or organization’s core identity. It is essential to who “we” are.

In today’s verse Jesus is talking about this same idea – the old and the new. Talk about someone with first-hand insight on holding onto the past yet also doing something new. If we keep nothing but the old in our faith and in our churches, then we become old. We all know what eventually happens to the old. But we cannot just change it all overnight either. Then folks look around and wonder where they are. Balance is the key.

The same is true for our lives and for our journey of faith. Growth is most often a slow and steady process that involves melding the good new with the good old. In our faith and in our churches may we be open to the new even as we hold onto the roots and traditions that make us the children of God. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to know, to discern, how and when and where to go in a new direction and why and where to keep the tried and true. Both are central to a healthy and growing faith and to a strong and vibrant church. Lead and guide me, I great Jehovah. Amen.


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God of Patience

Reading: Genesis 21: 8-21

Verse 10: “She said to Abraham, ‘Get rid of that slave woman and her son'”.

Several years after Sarah and Abraham took matters into their own hands, preempting God’s plan, God fulfills his promise to them. Ishmael had been born several years ago and he is now a young boy at the time that Isaac is born. In the story that we read today and tomorrow, there are a lot of emotions flying around. As we have observed over the last few months, this isn’t always the best thing. Emotions can be such a two-edged sword. If allowed to guide the way 100%, it can spell disaster. But emotions are also great fuel to drive action and change in a positive direction.

As our story opens today, Sarah realizes that she has created a bad situation. Part of her had to realize that she found herself where she did because she chose to manipulate the situation instead of allowing God to be in control. This is certainly a familiar scenario for many of us. It is for me. We decide God is taking too long and we decide to take charge and we plunge forward, thinking we can fix or remedy or correct a situation. Often we end up where Sarah does – in a far worse position. To make matters worse, instead of turning to God this time, she again plunges ahead, telling Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son”. But oh how God is patient. Ishmael’s father, Abraham, is greatly distressed by this directive. He has grown to love Ishmael over these years. He has been and still is his son.

Perhaps you too have done what Sarah does. Realizing that you have gone far astray of God’s plan, instead of now turning to God, you try to re-correct what you failed at in attempt #1. God remains patient with Sarah just as he does with us. God continues to work with the situation, telling Abraham that all will be just fine with Ishmael. Content in God’s words, Abraham does send Hagar and Ishmael away.

The big picture is that God will watch over us as well. God will work in and through our messes and God will be with us when we have to step out into the wilderness. It is all part of our story as well. More on that tomorrow!

Prayer: God of patience, I marvel at how you work good out of situation after situation. I so often wander off on my own but you always work me back around to your will and your ways. Thank you for your faithfulness. Amen.


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As One

Reading: John 17: 1-11

Verse 11: “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name… so that they may be one as we are one”.

Sometimes people think a trial or time of hardship will draw a group closer together. Someone may cite a sacrifice made by someone to save a dear friend or fellow soldiers. Another may tell of how this church surrounded a family that experienced that traumatic event. While all of these things do occur, they are predicated on one fact: there was a bond or sense of team or family or community that had been built prior to the time of testing.

As Jesus prays for his disciples in today’s passage, he is asking God to watch over the bonds that he has built. Jesus knows that “the time has come” and that he will soon complete his work, bringing God the glory. He identifies what makes the disciples into a team or community: “they have obeyed your word” and they believe that Jesus and God are one. Faith in Jesus is what binds them together. Jesus closes the section of the prayer that we read today with these words: “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name… so that they may be one as we are one”. Jesus knows that more trials are to come. He knows that the road ahead will be scattered with persecution and death, with rejection and alienation. So Jesus prays for his friends, for his followers. He prays for unity.

The unity Jesus asks God to give is twofold. First, he knows that they need to remain one with each other. If a group or team or community is not fully bonded to one another in love, then a trial can destroy the unity. Sometimes the group looks for a scapegoat or for someone to blame. Sometimes the group can take an “everyone for themselves” attitude. As this small group heads out to change the world, Jesus knows that they will need God’s protection to stay as one and to remain focused on the goal. The disciples must also remain one with Jesus. Jesus taught them often about the need to remain in him – the vine, the root, the cornerstone. This unity is paramount. In the trials that lay ahead, the disciples must remain one in Jesus Christ. He is their only hope. The same remains true for us. As followers of Jesus Christ we must do the same. May we seek to be one with each other as we are one in Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, you call us to yourself. You ever draw us in. We are not called alone though. Help us to see those around us who we can walk this journey with. May your love lead and guide us as we seek to build your kingdom here on earth. Amen.


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Life to the Full

Reading: John 10: 1-10

Verse 10: “I have come so that they may have life, and have it to the full”.

Jesus claims to have come so that we who follow him can have “life to the full”. Other translations use the phrase “abundant life”. The ideal of living abundantly or fully is what Jesus was all about. Many pursue this today. But in today’s world, living abundantly brings to mind big homes with swimming pools, private jets, six figure cars, and lots of frills and bling – all surrounded by beautiful people. Some see these things as the goal or as something to dream about. Most of us just want a newer car or the latest model of our cell phone. None of this is what Jesus had in mind when he promised life to the full. Now, most of us have probably pursued our share of things or other forms of earthly success. And we have all found them lacking or wanting in the end.

To truly find life to the full, we have to step into Jesus’ upside-down world. I have experienced this most often when serving others. It has been a consistent experience on the dozen or so short-term mission trips that I have been on. At the start we collectively think we are about to change peoples’ lives. Yes, the new roof or repaired walls are nice. But the ones truly blessed, the ones really changed, are those doing the serving, not those being served. When you give yourself away solely to help another, you find that God changes you for the better. You become more caring, more loving, more empathetic, more inclined to give to others. It makes perfect sense in Jesus’ eyes.

Jesus came to be a humble servant, to empty himself for others. Jesus exemplified this idea in both his words and in his actions. How do you become truly great? How do you experience life to the full? You give yourself away; you become the servant to all. You kneel and wash the disciples’ stinky feet. It seems paradoxical. But when you loosen your grip on the things of this world – money and things and popularity and such – they seem to matter less and less. This allows space – space to be filled with love and friendship and joy and peace and contentment and Jesus. Here we find abundant and full life. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Father of light and love, fill me with these today. Lead me to places to serve and to be emptied for others. Whether in person or in some other form of connection, use me to fill others this day. Amen.


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Moments of Glory

Reading: John 11: 28-45

Verse 40: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God”?

Expectations are a funny thing. When life is good, when things are going well, our expectations are reasonable. We trust that God is in control and we are usually content and at peace. But when a time of trial or unwanted change comes upon us, our expectations can suddenly change. We see these two scenarios lived out in the relationship between Jesus and Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Most visits were unrecorded – just pleasant stops on the way here or there filled with good food and good conversation. Early on there was the incident with Martha – the sister that expected Mary to help with the work. Jesus’ expectations were different though. And then there was the time that Mary chose to care for Jesus’ feet. Some present were upset with her, but, again, Jesus’ expectations were different. To him, her action was a gift of preparation.

Today’s story is full of expectations. Mary mirrors Martha’s expectation, saying, “Lord, if you had been here…”. The crowd expected that Jesus would have saved Lazarus. Martha protests moving the stone. She expects death to go unchanged. In the midst of all this Jesus maintains the expectation that he shared with the disciples before they left for Bethany. In verse forty he says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God”? Jesus still expects the glory of God to be revealed to the sisters, to the disciples, to the crowd of mourners. Letting them know something is about to happen he thanks God for what is about to be done. Jesus calls out and Lazarus walks out of the grave. In a flash the decay and stench are gone as the breath of life is restored.

At moments in our faith journey we too have these experiences. When we walk with God we too have moments when God does the unexpected, when God breathes new life into our stench and decay. Like all that were there that day outside the tomb, we too stand amazed as God’s glory is once again revealed. In those moments we too hear those words of Jesus: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God”? With joy and praise and awe on our lips, we are amazed by our God – the one who seems to have a habit of going above and beyond our expectations. May we praise that God today.

Prayer: Lord, today as we gather and recall what you did in the valley of dry bones and what you did outside the tomb, may we also reflect on how you bring each of us new life over and over. As we praise and worship you today, may our faith grow. Amen.