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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Righteous God

Reading: Psalm 119: 137-144

Verse 137: “Righteous are you, O Lord”.

There are several words used by the psalmist to describe God and the law in our verses for today. God is described as righteous. The law is described as right, trustworthy, tested, and true. The relationship between the psalmist and the law is also revealed in these verses. He loves the law, does not forget the law, is his delight, and gives him understanding. The psalmist clearly appreciates his relationship with the law. Conversely, he is distressed by those who do not have the same relationship with the law.

Many people relate to the feelings of the psalmist. I am one of them. My nature is to be a rule follower. Yet a part of me will also struggle with rules that seem unjust or that are just ends unto themselves. In general we have laws or rules to keep us safe, to keep us in right relationship with one another, to govern our society and our institutions. But when it feels like we are crossing the line into legalism, I struggle. Take, for example, our confirmation class at church. We have a covenant that the youth, parent(s), and I all sign. The covenant, of course, spells out the “responsibilities” we each have. In reality, it establishes the rules for being in confirmation. The process leads to being confirmed and likely to joining the church. At times it is necessary to re-emphasize one or more of the rules. Each and every time I do so I feel like I am stepping across the line of legalism. Yes, it is good and likely a positive thing to remind them to be in worship, to turn in their sermon notes, to read and come to class prepared for a discussion… But at some point I fear the loss of the love of God. The rules or law becomes a requirement instead of a means to fall more in love with God. The letter of the law replaces the forming of a relationship.

For me, the psalmist borders on this idea in our passage. The verses feel more about loving the law rather than loving the writer of the laws. Yes, the law comes from God and carries God’s authority. But we cannot reverse the order. We must follow and obey God’s laws because we love God. We do not love God because we follow and obey the laws. Loving God must come first. Living out and obeying the laws must flow from our love of God. Righteous are you, O Lord.

Prayer: Loving God, continue to pull me deeper and deeper into relationship with you. Grow my love of prayer and worship, of reading and study and meditation upon your love and your word. May it be so. Amen.


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Love the Word

Reading: Psalm 118: 97-104

Verse 103: “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth”!

Today we join the psalmist for “Mem”, the thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the successive eight verses in this Psalm accompany the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet, going from alpha to omega, A-Z. Mem stands for “mayim” in Hebrew, which means “water”. To the Israelites, water was vital both to life and to their faith. The rabbinic statement “There is no water but Torah” speaks to the great value the Jewish people place on the laws of God. This idea of essential water is what Isaiah refers to in 55:1, where he writes, “Come, all who are thirsty, come to the waters”. He is inviting them to drink from the scriptures, the word of God that brings life. Turning to the New Testament, Jesus also references himself as “living water”, as the water needed for life. In John 37:7 he says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink”.

As we read this thirteenth section of Psalm 119, let us do so from all of these perspectives. Read it like living water, like that which is essential to your life. Read it like you would die without it. Feel the passion for and love of God that the psalmist has for the word of God. The section opens with, “Oh, how I love your law”! The writer finds great value in meditating upon, in studying, in obeying the words of scripture. God’s word is what guides his path and keeps him from departing from God. I love verse 103, which reads “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth”! I wish this were always my attitude each and every time I read from the Bible. The love of scripture revealed in these verses is a great example for me to try and emulate.

Just as it was for the psalmist, the Bible remains alive and active. It functions like living water for the soul. Each day may we drink deeply, rejoicing in all that God does in and through the word.

Prayer: Holy God, thank you for the words of life that pour forth from scripture. Make me dance and sing with delight whenever I spend time with you in the holy scriptures. Thank you God. Amen.


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The Embodiment

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Verse 33: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people”.

God is a God of perfect love. Through that perfect love we are forgiven and made new over and over again. We, humanity, are far from perfect. We struggle to always be faithful to God, breaking our relationship with God again and again. If we were involved in a relationship with a person that displayed these same dynamics, the relationship would end quickly. Thankfully, God is the God of perfect love.

In our reading from Jeremiah, God promises Israel that a new covenant is coming. A covenant is an absolute agreement. A covenant says I will keep my side of the agreement no matter what you do or do not do with your side. In the old covenant God said ‘I’ll love Israel whatever they do or do not do’. The nation of Israel pledged faithful obedience and love to God. At times the Israelites generally kept the covenant, but this was not their norm. Yet God still loved them and remained their God. A time came, however, when something new must come about. At the time of Jeremiah 31, the new birth was about 600 years away.

The new covenant will be different. In verse 32 God reveals that the new will not be like the old. In the new covenant God declares, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people”. The new will not be based on just the words on stone tablets or on scroll after scroll of parchment. Instead, it will first be lived out amongst humanity. Then, looking at Jesus, one will see what obedience to God looks like. Through Jesus’ example people will know what the intent of all the laws are: to love God with all that one is and to love neighbor just as Jesus loved us. But we do not just have an example. Believers in Jesus Christ also receive a deposit, a gift: the Holy Spirit. The embodiment of God’s laws and ways and love comes to reside in each of us. In verse 33, again God says, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people”. God does so with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God!!

Prayer: Loving and forgiving God, I do not know where I would be without the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yes, I read and meditate on your word. I pray daily and worship regularly. But the whisper or the nudge is that first line of defense – leading, guiding, correcting, convicting. Thank you for this awesome gift! Amen.


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Led by Compassion

Reading: Luke 10: 29-37

Verse 36: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers”?

Traditions and stereotypes are great influencers. They are a part of life. Growing up we inherit and learn about the world and people around us from our parents and families. Systems and institutions also influence us as we begin to go to school… These influencers can be good and they can be bad. We can learn to be compassionate and generous, to be honest, to work hard, to be a person of faith. We can learn to be selfish, to take advantage of others, to be prejudiced and biased.

In this familiar parable, the priest and Levite both pass by on the other side of the road. Depending on the influencers that we grew up with, their action can be seen poorly or as acceptable. These two men are also products of the families, groups, and institutions that they grew up in. Most certainly they too felt compassion for the man. Who wouldn’t? But the stronger force was the years and years of training and teaching that said to avoid becoming ceremonially unclean. It would break a law. Life for them was all about their position and living within the guidelines of the law.

I too have been guilty of passing by someone I could have helped. The “law” of ‘don’t be late for work’ has led me to pass by on more than one occasion. The “law” of ‘you have something more important to do, someone else will stop’ has also led me to pass by. Stereotypes and being judgmental have also led me to pass by at times. This parable is so hard because we’ve all walked many times in the shoes of the priest and Levite.

We do not know much about the Samaritan. We do not know if he was rich or poor. We do not know if he was a Godly man or if he worshipped idols. What we do know is that he allowed the compassion that all of us would have felt to become what drove his decisions and actions. He invested both time and money in caring for the one in need. We do not know much about the Samaritan, but we do know that if we were in Jesus’ story, we sure hope we’d stop too. It is a matter of choice. The lawyer knew who the neighbor was. So do we. Jesus encourages the lawyer to “go and do likewise”. May we do so as well.

Prayer: Lord, you call me to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you. Fill me with compassion for those in need. Lead me to stop and care for those I meet today. Amen.


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A Plumb Line

Reading: Amos 7: 7-9

Verse 8: “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer”.

God has called Amos out of the field to be a prophet to his people. The people have been living in ways that are displeasing to God. The king has led the people astray and the priest has followed along. The king and priest and the people are comfortable, even happy, in the lifestyle that they have settled into. The practices of caring for the other – the widows, orphans, needy… – have all been laid aside. Amos has been sent to pronounce judgment.

Today’s passage begins with God standing by a wall that has been built perfectly true. The wall and it’s perfection represent the law. The law is what is just and true and right. God stands by his wall. He asks Amos what he sees. Amos is still faithful to God and to the law. He sees a plumb line showing the wall to be true. God says to Amos, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer”. Amos is the plumb line. It is his voice that will try to call the people back to right and holy living. God will not spare them. Their hearts have become hard because they have come to love other things. Destruction and ruin will come. The voice of the prophet is not enough to fix all that is wrong.

In our world and perhaps in our lives we find much that is askew and wrong. For a long time the world has preached power and wealth and popularity. These things have been emphasized so long that they are the norm and they are embraced. To say that accumulating excessive wealth is wrong is looked at as abnormal today. The world sees self as #1 so to encourage people to care deeply for the needy draws odd looks. Amos’ world and our world are pretty similar.

In our world and in our lives, where is God calling us to apply the plumb line? Where can we make things align better with God and his plans?

Prayer: Lord, help me to search deeply within, to search for what needs to be set right. Give me the courage to change what needs changed. Go with me, O God. Amen.


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Free to Love

Reading: Galatians 5: 1 & 13-15

Verse 14: “The entire law is summed up in one command: love your neighbor as yourself”.

Paul speaks a lot of freedom. While it is true that in Christ we find much freedom, it is a freedom that is bound by love. We are free to live a full and wonderful life, but Paul is clear that there are lines that we are not to cross. In Paul’s way of thinking, we are free to love others. Paul describes the love we are to have for one another as “becoming slaves to one another”. That means we place the needs of others far ahead of our own needs.

In verse 14 Paul makes an important statement. He writes, “The entire law is summed up in one command: love your neighbor as yourself”. This is a big and bold statement. As Saul, he would have never made this statement. The law and keeping every letter of the law was very important to the former Pharisee. For most Jews, the law was a key focus and was the underpinning of life. Paul has come to understand what Jesus meant when he talked about love. It was a complete and sacrificial love that gave all for the other.

When we are willing to live out this sacrificial love for the other, we are building up or pouring into the other. Instead of giving ourselves away and emptying ourselves, we find that we too are filled up and we feel more freedom to love others. As we give ourselves away, we gain more and more. Our freedom in Christ abounds!

Prayer: God, grant me the opportunity to pour into another today. As I do so, thank you for your giving love that overflows my heart. Amen.