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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Prayer of Peace

Reading: Psalm 122

Verse 7: “May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadel”.

In many churches we begin the season of peace, hope, love, and joy tomorrow. Advent begins tomorrow and many churches will read a liturgy and perhaps some scripture and some will offer a prayer as they light the candle of peace. Peace is something we all seek.

Here in rural South Dakota the snow is gently falling, the world is quiet and beautiful outside. As the sun brings more light to the day, it will become even more beautiful. It is a good day for something warm to drink and a good book to enjoy.

While it is a good day for peace in my household, I must also recognize that it is not so in all places. So from my place of peace I raise a prayer of peace for all who are struggling to find or experience peace today. For those who do not have a warm home or a place to go as snow blankets our state, I pray for open doors and generous hands. For those with strife and discord in their relationships, I pray for peace in their homes, businesses, or communities. For those who are lonely and for those facing uncertainties because of health, I pray for community and for your healing touch. These are but a few of the prayers that could bring peace to others.

The psalmist wrote “May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadel”. The prayers for peace seek to reach into hearts and into homes and community, our places where we build walls and where we feel peace. May this be our prayer for all of these above and for all others on your heart and mind. May we be people of prayer, seeking for God’s peace to reign.

Prayer: Prince of Peace, thank you for the peace in my heart, knowing you and your love. This day may you use me to bring your peace to whomever I can today. Use me to be an instrument of your peace. Amen.


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Offer Joy and Thanksgiving

Reading: Colossians 1: 10-20

Verse 10: “Live a life worthy of the Lord… please him in every way”.

Today and tomorrow we will look at this passage from Colossians. Today we spend time with the first five verses and then tomorrow we turn to the last six verses. Paul is writing to the Colossians to first encourage them. Paul acknowledges in verse six that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing all over the world, just as it is in the Colossian church. Paul has been praying for the church too. He prays that God will fill them with the knowledge of God’s will. Paul prays this for a purpose: so that they may “live a life worthy of the Lord… please him in every way”. This is a great prayer for us to pray for the church universal, for our own churches, and for ourselves.

Paul goes on to unpack what this worthy and pleasing life entails. The first mark is “bearing fruit in every good work”. Fruit is both growth in personal faith AND making new disciples. How are you and your church each doing in these two areas? This first mark ties into the second. The second is being strengthened (or maturing) in the faith so that we have “great endurance and patience”. We must exercise to grow stronger. We exercise our faith by practicing it. As a simple example, did you read Colossians 1:10-20 or did you just read the verse listed at the beginning of this devotional? In a bigger sense, will you worship God with all that you are tonight or tomorrow or will you just show up? We get out what we put in. A good effort with the means of grace (prayer, study, meditation, fasting, worship) will produce much fruit in our lives and for the kingdom of God.

The third mark is to “joyfully” give thanks to God. This also is tied to the first two marks. We are blessed in so many ways. Whether the blessing is family or health or financially or occupationally or all of these, joyfully thanking God should be our response. Paul also points to another blessing: our inheritance in the kingdom of light. Paul is not speaking of heaven here. Yes, that too is an inheritance. Today he speaks of the privilege of walking in the light in this life. This has two parts. First, Jesus rescues us from the darkness of this world. In the light we have hope, joy, peace, love, contentment, and so much more. Second, Jesus redeems us from our sins, bringing salvation to our souls. Wiping away our sins, Jesus removes the guilt, shame, regret… freeing us to walk as children of the light. This allows us to grow in our faith, to bear fruit for the kingdom, and to joyfully thank God for our place in his kingdom of light. Let us offer our joy and thanksgiving to the Lord!

Prayer: Living God, you are so, so good to me. Your grace draws me in, deeper and deeper. Your Spirit strengthens and encourages me for the day to day journey and for the long journey through life. Your mercy makes me new every morning. All praise to you, O God! Amen.


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Know Jesus Well

Reading: Luke 21: 5-8

Verse 8: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am he'”.

Jesus knows that the end of his time on earth is drawing near. A large part of his ministry has been preparing the disciples to be ready and to be able to carry on the work. Jesus knows that the road will not always be easy. Yes, there will be times when God and the Spirit will do amazing things and the disciples will be filled with awe and wonder. But there will also be persecution and trial and even death. These will be some of the things that will test their faith.

The passage today opens with Jesus foretelling the destruction of the temple. Some there that day will surely witness this and will recall Jesus’ words. According to Jewish understanding, God resides in the temple. The disciples equate the destruction of the temple to the end of the world as they know it. But it will not be so. Because he knows this, Jesus goes on to give them a warning.

In verse eight he says, “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am he'”. Jesus knows that much will unfold before the new heaven and earth are established. In the interim Jesus also knows that the deceivers pose one of the greatest threats to the disciples and to the early church. The gospel itself is a pretty simple message. The call to follow Jesus is fairly easy to understand. But because we live in a world with many other philosophies and religions and in a world where Satan is at work, being a disciple is challenging. Those that Jesus is speaking to face these same challenges. Jesus tells them, “Do not follow them”. The disciples know Jesus well. If they remain connected to Jesus and to his teachings and example, then they will easily see the deceptions. The same is true for us.

If we will invest in our faith and in our relationship with Jesus Christ, we will know him well. If we are committed to knowing and living out our calling, we will be strong in the faith. Then we too will discern false teaching and will reject the false prophets and the deceivers. May we ever cling to Jesus, the good news, and the example that he lived out for us to follow.

Prayer: Father God, draw me in more and more. Deepen my connection to you. Amidst the storms and trials, may I turn to you alone. Amen.


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Work… Eat

Reading: 2nd Thessalonians 3: 10-13

Verse 10: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat”.

As interconnected people we often have to work together to accomplish or achieve things. This is true at work, in sports, and in our churches. If four people are each working on a part of a project and one person fails to do their part, then the project remains incomplete. In team sports all members on the court or field must each perform their specific duties if the play is to be run well. In church, each member needs to contribute in some way or the church is less than it could be.

When I was still teaching, at times I would have my students work in groups. Occasionally one would not do much. Often the others would pick up the slack because they wanted to succeed. They might finish, but the end product would be less than if all four had done their part. Once in a while the lazy student would become disruptive, taking away from the group’s effort. If redirection did not work, the last resort was to form a “group of one”. This is what Paul is hinting at today’s passage as he addresses the sin of idleness.

In verse ten Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat”. When one fails to contribute and also draws away the resources of the group, this negative balance brings the organization down. But this is just one consequence. It seems the idle folks have found something to do. They have become busybodies. This most likely involves gossip and other forms of negative behavior. They have become the student in the group not only failing to contribute but also being a barrier to the rest of the group completing their work. Paul urges them to get with the program – to “settle down and earn the bread they eat”. Be a contributor and not a taker. In the following verses Paul goes on to offer the “group of one” advice: “do not associate with him”.

The danger of being idle can also affect our personal faith. If we become willing to hit the snooze button instead of getting up to pray and study the Bible, then we inhibit our faith growth. If we become willing to allow a friend to take us fishing on a Sunday morning, then we are missing out on an opportunity to grow closer to God. If we choose or place worldly things or people ahead of our faith, we are being spiritual busybodies. When we do these things, we are choosing not to eat the bread of life. We are also likely filling ourselves with things that negatively affect our relationship with God. When we stray from our spiritual disciplines, our connection to God and to others suffers. Instead, let us each be encouraged by Paul’s words: “Never tire of doing what is right”. Then we will be pleasing to the Lord our God.

Prayer: Lord God, when I am tempted to skip my quiet time or to not go to that study or meeting, remind me of Paul’s warning and encouragement. Whenever I choose you, life is so much better. May it be so. Amen.


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A Model to Follow

Reading: 2nd Thessalonians 3: 6-9

Verse 9: “We did this in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow”.

As the church in Thessalonica begins to develop, there are some growing pains. It is to be expected with most new organizations. Paul and others have come and taught the good news of Jesus Christ. They have taught new believers what it looks like to live out the gospel in a community of faith. Paul and the others could not stay there forever, so now the church continues along on their own. As it does so, new churches need occasional reminders and sometimes they need the ones who planted it to come back for a refresher course.

Most of the content of Paul’s letters falls into two categories. He often writes to continue teaching both churches and individuals about how to live out the faith. These instructions can be applied to most churches and to the lives of most believers. Paul also writes to bring correction or to address as issue. These passages tend to be more direct and address a certain church, believer, or group of believers. Yet, at times, even these can be applied to churches and people. Our struggles are often the same. We find both of these categories in 2nd Thessalonians.

In the section we read today, Paul is addressing two groups that are having a negative impact on the church. There are some who are idle – they are not willing to work. They are simply relying on the generosity of others to get by. Paul reminds them that this was not the example that they set. Paul and friends “worked day and night” so that they could contribute rather than be a burden. Churches today have idle folks. Some are those that come around only when they need something. Others are those who are present but never give. They do not serve in the church and they do not give financially. They come and take and go back home.

Paul also addresses those who “do not live according to the teaching” that was given. Being idle would be one example. Similarly, in churches today, there are people who fall into this category. They come on Sunday morning or Saturday night and worship and bow their heads and listen to the message. Then they go out the door and live a worldly life. Their faith has little or no impact on the other 167 hours of their week.

To all of these Paul says, “We did this in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow”. We, like the church in Thessalonica and like the believers that made up that church, are all works in progress. At times we must pause and consider our progress and seek out areas where we are falling short. Is Paul speaking to you today? Could you offer more to your church? Could your walk of faith be more consistent or be closer to the example set by Jesus Christ?

Prayer: Lord God, as I consider these questions, I know I am far from the example set by Paul and especially far from the example set by Jesus. Draw me deeper into you and your love today. May this love be reflected out in all of my life. May it be so, O God. Amen.


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In Mission?

Reading: Haggai 1:15b – 2:5

Verse 5: “This is what I covenanted with you… my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear”.

Haggai the prophet is sent to the people who have returned to Israel and are working to restore the city and the temple. The bulk of the exiles remain in Babylon. The work has been slow and has had plenty of obstacles and challenges. God sends Haggai to Zerubbabel the governor, to Joshua the high priest, and to the remnant – the people who have come back to Jerusalem. God’s purpose in sending Haggai is to encourage, to remind, to recommit them to the task at hand. The temple is not what it once was. Some there now can remember the beauty and splendor and glory of the old temple. What appears to be shaping up pales by comparison.

The situation into which Haggai speaks brings to my mind the current state of affairs in my denomination, the United Methodist Church. Many cannot or will not consider that maybe God is doing a new thing. An equal number believe God is in the process of doing just this thing. One group seeks to hold fast to the Biblical truths that have always been truth. Others believe God is speaking a new word into our time. Both sides have dug in and their agenda has become their focus. What has been sacrificed is the mission of the church: to make disciples for the transformation of the world.

For Zerubbabel and Joshua and the remnant, the voices of doubt and discouragement, the pressures applied by those not wanting to see things rebuilt, the weight of continuing to work for God in the midst of all the turmoil – it led them to a place of resignation and despair. I am sure there were still some that held onto God’s vision of rebuilding, but the majority had lost it. To the majority, God said, “Be strong… I am with you”. The Lord Almighty goes on in verse five to say, “This is what I covenanted with you… my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear”. Through Haggai, God’s message is to be strong, to take courage, and to know that God is present and in control.

The message remains true today. As Christians we are called to follow Jesus as we seek to grow in our faith in him and as we seek to be in mission to the world. Yes, some still visit the jail and others care for those in the care centers. But the majority has lost the focus on mission. The eyes and hearts are largely turned inward. The mission of the Christian church universal remains the same that it always has been: to make disciples for the transformation of the world. This was Jesus’ driving focus. May it be ours as well.

Prayer: God of heaven and earth, when I too get sucked down by all that surrounds the church, pour your strength and courage upon me. Remind me over and over that you are in control. Lead me to step where you guide as I seek to live in mission to the church and to the community. Use me today O God. Amen.