pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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By Faith Alone

Reading: Romans 4: 1-5 and 13-17

Verse 13: “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise… but through the righteousness that comes by faith”.

As Paul and the rest of the earliest church were sorting out just how Jewish one must first be to become a follower of Jesus Christ, he penned these words that we read today. Before becoming an apostle, Paul was known as Saul. In that phase of his life he was a self-proclaimed Jew among Jews. He was a very devout Pharisee who knew and followed the letter of the law. As the early church grew and began to add Gentile believers, a huge debate arose over just how much of the Jewish faith must be followed to become a Christian.

In our reading for today Paul points to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Paul chooses him for two reasons. First, he is one of the pillars of Judaism. His faith is one of the models. God declares Abram righteous because of his faith. As we’ve been reading, God called and in obedient faith, Abram went where God led. He stepped out and followed God. Second, at the time there was no law. It had not been given yet. Paul is saying that one can be saved by faith apart from the law. Paul, known as the apostle to the Gentiles, is not in favor of applying Jewish laws to the Christian faith. Paul himself became a believer when he met the risen Lord and then entered into a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ. For Paul it had nothing to do with the law. In the next chapters Paul will go on to argue this point further. Martin Luther will pick up these texts many hundreds of years later as he works out his “justification by faith alone” doctrine that will rock the church.

Even though the New Testament clearly spells out that one is saved by faith alone we can often feel like we must do good works or follow some set of prescribed steps to be saved. God does not have a giant balance scale that one day weighs out our good versus bad. We know from the scriptures that as soon as we confess and give our sins to God, they are wiped away – they are no more. Nothing is being stacked up on the “bad” side of some mythical scale. Yes, our faith will lead us to do good things. That is how we live out the love of God within us. It is the model Jesus set for us. As we follow Christ, living out our faith, may his ‘why’ become our ‘why’. Jesus loved others because the love of God within him overflowed into the lives of others. May we do the same. May the sharing of God’s love be our grateful response to our God who saves.

Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for your unconditional love and grace. It is certainly not deserved but you pour it out upon me anyway. I definitely cannot earn yet it is still there in unending abundance. It is an amazing love, an amazing grace. Thank you. Amen.


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Now Choose Life

Reading: Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

Verses 19-20: “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him”.

Nearing the end of his life Moses addresses the people one last time. As much as anyone, he has lived “life and prosperity, death and destruction” with the people of God. He has been their mediator and communicator with God. He has worked and worked to get the people to the edge of the Promised Land. In the previous chapter in Deuteronomy they have renewed the covenant and in our passage today Moses urges them to choose obedience to God.

Verse sixteen is the call to obedience: “walk in his ways… keep his commands, decrees, and laws”. Doing so leads to good life, an increase in numbers, and God’s blessings. In verse seventeen Moses details what happens when one turns away from God. Moses defines turning away as being drawn away from God and bowing down to others gods. The consequence is dire: “you will certainly be destroyed”. Given such a stark difference in outcomes, who in the world would choose the second? Well, the world chooses disobedience. The Israelites did in Moses’ day and we continue to do so today. I think that we have more gods than ever to bow down to today.

Moses then calls on heaven and earth as the witnesses to the choices the Israelites will make. The choice is simple: “life or death, blessings or curses”? It seems so simple. But Moses has been around these stubborn, stiff-necked people for forty years now. He has observed how difficult obedience is. Again, it is at least as difficult today. Yet Moses has hope, both in God and for the people. He compels them towards obedience, saying, “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him”. May this be our choice as well. May we love God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to the Lord our God. May it be so.

Prayer: God, you are life. In all else there is but death. Yet sometimes I choose other than you. My thoughts and words and sometimes even my actions can be of the world. I am weak. But you are strong. Bend me ever towards loving obedience. Fill me with your Spirit. Amen.


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May Love Guide

Reading: Matthew 5: 17-20

Verse 17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets… but to fulfill them”.

What does Jesus mean by “to fulfill them”? The Law and the Prophets all had the same basic function: to teach us how to live in right relationship with God and with one another. Beginning with the first laws, for example, this has always been the case. The first part of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship with God and the rest deals with our relationship with each other. In choosing the word “fulfill” though, Jesus is not implying simply following the letter of the Law, but is hinting at how we also fully live out the intent of the Laws.

As the rest of the Sermon on the Mount unfolds, this is just what Jesus does. He begins with “Do not murder” in the next section. Jesus explains that there is so much more to this law than just not killing someone. Jesus, in essence, begins long before this step and tells us that being angry with another or speaking words of contempt put us in danger of “the fire of hell”. When we allow these evils in our heart, Jesus says we are already on the road to murder. It may not end in physical death but maybe it does end in emotional or relational death. All of this violates the rule of love that is supposed to be how one is identified as a disciple of Jesus Christ and as a child of God.

In the rest of the Sermon, Jesus unpacks laws relating to adultery, divorce, honesty, revenge, loving our enemies, giving, prayer, fasting… Each and every one has the same focus. God’s intent is not just the words on the paper but it is more. The Law and the Prophets should lead us into deeper relationship with God and one another. To get to this place, one must allow the words we find in the Bible to become the way we love, see, interact, and treat God and each other at the heart level. Please take some time today to read through to the end of Matthew 7, understanding how Jesus unpacks many more laws.

We fulfill God’s plan by loving unconditionally, by loving just as Jesus first loved us. As we read and seek to understand our Bibles, seeking to discern how to model our lives after our Savior, may love be our guide.

Prayer: God of love, I’ve heard it said that if I do not have love, I am just a clanging cymbal. I’ve heard it said that love can conquer a multitude of sins. I’ve heard it said that if I am your disciple others will know me by my love. May it be so. Amen.


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Praise the Lord!

Reading: Psalm 147: 12-20

Verse 15: “He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly”.

Our Psalm of praise comes from a time of joy and draws praise for God. The exile has ended and the people are back in the Promised Land. Jerusalem and Zion extol their praise to God. God has restored them, has strengthened their gates, and has provided them with the finest wheat. It is indeed a time to praise the Lord!

Fresh from the consequential time in exile, the people of Israel reconnect to God and to the law. In verse fifteen we read, “He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly”. The people rejoice now in what was rejected just a couple of generations before. The psalmist compares God’s word to the snow and hail that completely covers the land. But the word and the law are not hard or burdensome. Through understanding the precepts flow and bring life to the people. The psalmist rejoices in Israel’s role as God’s chosen people. To them alone has God revealed the word and the law.

Reading today’s passage from a 21st century Christian lens, we understand that the fuller revelation of God has expanded the circle greatly. The direct descendants of Abraham are not the only people to enjoy the word of God. Jesus Christ revealed the breadth and depth of God’s love as he broke down barriers and defeated the power of sin that had so long kept God’s children enslaved. Jesus burst the circle wide open as he sent the disciples to all people and to all nations. The incarnate word of God was not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, for the slaves and the free, for men and women,… Because we too have been drawn into the circle of God’s love in Jesus Christ, we praise God for his word that guides us as well as for the gift of the Holy Spirit that leads us. With all that we are, may we too praise the Lord!

Prayer: Heavenly Father, your love continues to extend. Through Jesus Christ it has grown to encompass even sinners like me. As the disciples of Jesus Christ continue to carry the good news to every corner of the world and to each neighborhood in our communities, your love continues to grow. Use me today to share the good news with others. Amen.


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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.