pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Audience of 1

Reading: Matthew 23: 1-12

Verse 5: “Everything they do is done for me to see”.

Yesterday we looked at the warning to do as the scribes and Pharisees teach, not as they do. There is a disconnect between what they preach to the people and how they themselves are living their lives. The middle section in our reading today begins with verse five. Here we read, “Everything they do is done for me to see”. This can be a trap we too fall into. Being human, we like recognition. When we do something “good” and no one notices, we feel hurt or let down or we can even question why we did it. Some of the time, we can also be like these religious leaders, waiting for an audience before we do our good deed, insuring publicity or recognition for our actions.

The scribes and Pharisees loved to be seen and recognized. It reinforced both their authority and their ego. They wore large phylacteries and long tassels – two symbols of their deep connection to God. Today, one may give a large donation, thinking the size of the gift will reflect the depth of their faith for others. Some will want it announced in church or published in the bulletin or will want a plaque placed on the item so that all will know of their good and generous gift. The scribes and Pharisees wanted the best seats or places at events or in worship. This prime real estate is where others will notice they are there. In a similar way, they loved to be called ‘rabbi’ – a title that was revered, respected, honored. It pumped up the ego to see all bow a bit as the people acknowledged the religious leaders. The title separated them from the rest of society. It also insulated them from those outside of their religious circles.

Today, some still like to have a title connected to their name – doctor, professor, reverend, pastor, officer… Titles convey power and authority. These titles can be used to gain admittance and to avoid consequences. It is a good thing, for example, when the pastor title gains entry to pray with a dying person during these pandemic restrictions. Yet it would be a bad thing, for example, to pull out my pastor ID card first, instead of my driver’s license, if pulled over for speeding. Titles can be abused, they can separate, they can be used to manipulate, they can be used for personal gain. Jesus is warning us against such things, to check our egos, and to be aware of our motives and intentions.

When we practice our faith, when we offer acts of kindness, may it always be for an audience of one – for the Lord our God.

Prayer: Lord, when I am tempted to shine the light on me, remind me of the call to humble service. When I want others to notice or see what I’m doing, check my pride and remind me of humble service. When I’m drawn to playing the pastor card, remind me of the call to humble service. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Practicing #1 and #2

Reading: Matthew 23: 1-12

Verse 3: “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach”.

Jesus has been ministering for about three years at this point. He has had ample opportunities to interact with and to observe the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus and these religious leaders have the same audience, teach from the same source materials, live in the same society. Much like today, when you can get two radically different approaches from two medical experts concerning the safest way to live in these pandemic times, Jesus and the religious leaders had so much in common, but they differed radically in how best to follow God.

The religious leaders occupy a place – “the Moses seat” – that calls for respect and gives them authority, a platform from which to speak into the people’s lives. But this is an earthly platform, given to them by other earthly people. As is the case with many earthly positions of power, they were beholding to others. The leader of the group, the high priest, was appointed by the Romans. There were certain expectations that came with the appointment. The religious leaders were subject to the high priest, which also connected them to the political power of the day. Because these religious leaders held a place of authority, they could exert control over the people. Jesus acknowledges this place of authority. While he recognizes their place of authority, he does not agree with their practices. To this point, in verse three he says: “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach”. They say one thing and do another. They pick and choose what to say based on their current situation. For example, the religious leaders preach about loving your neighbor, but there are many they do not see as neighbors – the Gentiles, the sinners, the sick…

Jesus, by contrast, teaches and practices the belief that everyone is your neighbor. Jesus teaches it and then goes out and live it, loving the lepers and the blind, the tax collectors and the prostitutes… Jesus practices what he preaches, with love as the greatestest commandment of his faith. The religious leaders would cute law #217 or good old #359 (the one that previous religious leaders had made up) to avoid loving certain people. Jesus, instead would preach and practice #1 and #2, loving God and loving neighbor, in their rightful place: first and foremost. As we consider Jesus’ example, may we also do the same as we seek to live out, to actually practice, loving God and loving neighbor above all else. May we be love in the world today.

Prayer: God of love, when I look at Jesus, I see one who did as he taught. He loved one and all, yes, but he loved you most of all. Each day, guide me to live this out, loving you with all that I am, allowing that to lead me to really love others more than myself. Amen.


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Do Not Worry

Reading: Matthew 10: 1-23

Verses 19-20: “Do not worry about what to say or how to say it… it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit”.

Yesterday we read and heard about the harvest being plentiful but the workers being few. Today Jesus gathers the twelve disciples and sends them out to the towns and villages to minister to the Jews. Jesus empowers them to preach that the kingdom is near and to heal and to drive out demons. The disciples are to travel light and to rely on the hospitality of worthy persons. But Jesus also warns them of the hardships to come. Some will not accept the disciples’ teaching and they will be like sheep among wolves – not an imaginary scenario anyone would want to step into. As modern day disciples we can relate to what Jesus is talking about. We too can experience these hardships when we try and share our faith. The way of the Lord is often rejected and the messengers endure criticism and rejection and worse. We can feel like we too have been drug before the authorities.

Just as the twelve were probably about to start questioning their assignment, Jesus reassures them that they do not go alone. He says to them, “Do not worry about what to say or how to say it… it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit”. Jesus in Spirit will go with them. He will strengthen and encourage them. He will give them the words to speak and will show them how to best present the message. Jesus also reminds them that “he who stands firm to the end will be saved”. No matter what they face out there in the world, Jesus will be with them. Trust as you go today and Jesus will be with you as well!

Prayer: Leading God, as I seek to stand firm and to share the good news of Jesus Christ, strengthen and encourage me by the power of your Holy Spirit. May the words I speak be your words and may the actions I take reflect and shine the love of Christ into the world. Amen.


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Preaching, Teaching, Healing

Reading: Matthew 9: 35-38

Verse 35: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching… preaching… and healing”.

Today’s short passage sums up Jesus’ ministry quite well. In verse 35 we read about the things that occupied most of his time: teaching, preaching, and healing. I believe that these three practices remain the core practices of ministry today. These three practices often work together to shape and form who we are as people of faith.

Teaching can occur in many settings and can cover many topics. In ministry, we most often think of Bible studies and other topical small groups as the main ways that teaching occurs. This tends to be the focus of teaching in our churches. There are other ways to teach faith. In intentional conversations and in the things we regularly do and say we teach about faith. For example, as parents our everyday words and actions are the main methods of passing our faith along to our children. In this time of COVID there has been a great deal of teaching in our churches on how to safely minister while honoring the need to social distance and stay at home. We have begun to teach about safely gathering again. More recently there has been an increase in teaching on racism and prejudice in America. These teachings have centered on understanding racism and on recognizing how we are all implicit in and impacted by this evil. Social justice has always been a cornerstone of Christianity.

Preaching is something we think just happens on Sunday morning or maybe on a Wednesday or Saturday night. These are the primary delivery times but it also occurs at various times in a variety of settings. These can range from a one-on-one conversation to retreats and camps and even to impromptu gatherings in a bar or the local coffee shop. In almost all cases, preaching centers on sharing, understanding, and applying faith to our daily lives.

Healing was the third aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Today we do not see as many physical healings as we read about in the New Testament. But the Holy Spirit is very active, working in and through Christians all over the world. Healing included restoration to wholeness, redemption from sins and bondage, being drawn into a community of faith, and finding new life in Jesus Christ.

In our passage we read that Jesus preached, taught, and healed for one reason: compassion. He saw those who were in need – the “the harassed and helpless” – and he ministered to them. Our very understanding of who is harassed and helpless has certainly grown over these last few months. In verse 37 Jesus notes, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”. May we all be workers for Jesus Christ today!

Prayer: Leading God, day by day help me to use all three of these practices to minister to my congregation and to my community. Empower me by the Holy Spirit to bring fullness and wholeness of life to those in need. Amen.


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To All the World

Reading: Luke 24: 44-53

Verse 48: “You are witnesses of these things”.

Today is Ascension day. We are forty days after Easter and Jesus is returning to the Father. Just as his own earthly ministry began with forty days of preparation and testing in the wilderness, so too does he prepare his own with forty days of teaching and challenge. In today’s passage Jesus begins by reminding the disciples of his eternity. One can trace the fingerprints of Jesus from Malachi right back to Genesis 1. The Old Testament is filled with words about Jesus and all of it has now been fulfilled. It is now time for Jesus to return to heaven, to once again be “home”.

Jesus is ever the teacher. In verses 46 and 47 he reminds the disciples of their last days with him. He reminds them of their new assignment: “preach in his name to all nations”. This remains the assignment. Sometimes it feels daunting just in our neighborhoods and communities, nevermind “to all nations”. For taking on this collective task there are two important facts that Jesus uses to encourage them. First, “you are witnesses of these things”. The disciples have seen and heard all that Jesus has done and taught. We too become witnesses through our journey of faith. We do this in worship, in study, in prayer, and through our own personal experiences with the risen Christ.

The second fact is the giving of the power to accomplish the task. Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to send the Holy Spirit. This will fill them with Jesus – in a way they’ve never felt or experienced. Just as he did during his earthly ministry, the Spirit will lead and guide, teach and remind, unpack and apply the scriptures, convict and lead to repentance, heal and comfort, build up and restore. The Spirit will do what Jesus has done for three years. This same Holy Spirit remains the gift of Christ to all who believe. As followers of Jesus Christ, there is not some checklist of obligations or a long list of rules to adhere to. It is simply about following the voice and nudge of the Holy Spirit, Christ within us. It is through the Holy Spirit that we are made one with Jesus Christ. In that unity may we go forth into all the world, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: God of all grace, today we rejoice in the heavenly reunion. We rejoice also in the gifts Jesus left: his witness of humble servant obedience and his Spirit to continue to dwell in our lives. In the time as one of us Jesus fully revealed your love. May I do so today as well. Amen.


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Big Questions, Individual Answers

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1: 1-9

Verse 9: “God, who called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful”.

On Paul’s second missionary he went to Corinth and helped establish a church there. As was typical, he would begin by preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. When there was a small group who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, Paul would help them to become a faith community. Then he moved on to another place, starting the process over. On this journey, Ephesus would be his next stop. Other apostles and disciples were out and about preaching and encouraging as well. As they would pass through Corinth…, they would bring news to Paul as they crossed paths.

The news that was shared would sometimes prompt Paul to write a letter, to go visit again, or both. This would be what happens with the church in Corinth. The body of Paul’s letters usually offered teaching, correction, and encouragement. Almost all of Paul’s letters begin with a greeting, which was and remains the custom. In our letter today Paul continues from there with a few words of thanksgiving. He thanks God that they know Jesus Christ and that Christ has been enriching them in every way. Paul is thankful for their spiritual gifts. He encourages them to wait patiently for the Lord’s return, reminding them that God will strengthen them. Paul then closes the opening with this eternal truth: “God, who called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful”. In short: God is faithful.

These words from Paul make me wonder what would be said about our churches. Would an observer note that the members are being enriched by Jesus Christ, empowered and using the gifts the Holy Spirit has bestowed on each one? Or does the 90/10 rule apply at your church too? Would the observer find folks eagerly awaiting an encounter with the risen Lord? Or would he or she find pew-sitters waiting to be entertained? Stepping outside the Sunday morning hour, would the observer see disciples living out their faith as they trust all things to a faithful God? Or would they be hard to even identify out there in the world?

These are hard questions that are generally corporate questions. But each one’s answer lies with the individual. God is faithful. Would the same be said of you?

Prayer: Dear God, trusting fully is not always easy for me when life feels a little unsure. Giving fully of my gifts is a little harder as circumstances are unknown. Yet I know that you are in control. You are the only one in control. Draw me into this truth. Help me to be faithful – I know you are. Teach, correct, and encourage me as needed, O Lord my God. Amen.


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Come and See

Reading: Psalm 66: 1-12

Verse 5: “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works on man’s behalf”.

Psalm 66 speaks of God’s love for the faithful. The psalmist encourages us to shout with joy and to sing the glory of his name. When we consider the deeds of God, they are very awesome. Verse five invited us into praise and into these deeds, saying, “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works on man’s behalf”. Rejoice in what the Lord has done!

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading worship at the two assisted living facilities in town. The message I shared was based on 2nd Timothy 4. In this passage, Paul encourages Timothy to preach the good news with patience. As I was working on the message earlier in the week, it occurred to me that the second half of the passage, verses six through eight, spoke not only of how Paul had “fought the good fight” but of how many who would gather in those rooms had done so as well. I shared with them how it brought me great joy and how it encouraged me as I thought of the witness to the faith that they have lived out their 70, 80, and even 90+ years. With slightly teary eyes I thanked them for their examples of faith.

In Psalm 66 the writer first focuses in on when God led the people through the waters on dry land. Whether this refers to the parting of the sea or of the Jordan River or both does not matter. Either way it recalls the story of when God acted on behalf of the people. A little later, in verses ten through twelve, the psalmist recalls another time when God acted. It could refer to the exodus from Egypt or the return from exile in Babylon. Again, in either case, these were seasons of difficulty that ended with God’s action and in the long run increased their faith.

In our faith journeys we have these experiences too. We have all been rescued by God. We have all come through a trial with a stronger faith. We too have “come and see” stories of the awesome things that God has done in our lives. Like the psalmist, may we also share the story of our God who reigns forever.

Prayer: O God of all the earth, how wonderful are the works of your hands. I rejoice in the words of the Bible when I read of your actions. I also rejoice in the ways you have been and are at work in my life. Thank you for your abiding presence and for your constant love. Amen.


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Guard the Deposit

Reading: 2nd Timothy 1: 8-14

Verse 14: “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in you”.

Paul opens our passage today by reminding Timothy that he should not be ashamed of the gospel. Paul even invites Timothy to suffer with him for the gospel. Because of their call by God, they are seeking to live out a holy life. To do so, he reminds Timothy to rely on the grace that is found in Jesus Christ. Paul then reminds Timothy that Jesus Christ also “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to life through the gospel”.

In these few verses Paul has covered the essentials of the faith. He has also spoken of a reality: at times believers suffer for their faith. No one wants to suffer but at times we will because the world is sometimes opposed to the truth of the gospel and to the living out and sharing of our faith. Paul states in verse twelve that he is not ashamed because he knows “whom I have believed” and he also knows that Jesus is able to guard what Paul has entrusted to him. Paul has given his whole life – all that he is – to serve Jesus Christ. The gospel that Paul preaches has the power to save him. Of this Paul is convinced.

As the mentor, Paul encourages Timothy to “keep the pattern” that he demonstrated. He wants Timothy to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ with the faith and love of Jesus Christ himself. In the suffering and in the joy, Paul has trusted in Jesus Christ. To that end Paul says, “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in you”. The good news of the gospel is the deposit. It is the rock solid truth upon which Timothy must stand. Timothy, like us, does not have to stand alone. The Holy Spirit helps the disciple to guard the deposit so that the world does not overcome. The voice of the Spirit guards against all other voices as it guides us to live out that holy life. May we ever seek the guidance and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Prayer: Lord God, the pull of the world is constant. Make the voice of the Holy Spirit even more constant. Open my ears and heart to always seek you and your Spirit. Amen.


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Open Heart

Reading: Acts 16: 11-15

Verse 14: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message”.

As we read the second half of this week’s passage from Acts, a theme continues: God is at work. A vision came to Paul and he obediently followed it. In today’s section Paul travels and comes to Philippi, the leading city in Macedonia. Likely having no synagogue yet, Paul and his companions head to a likely place for people to gather for prayer – along the river. Beside the river they find a group of women praying and they sit down to talk with them. Paul starts to preach about Jesus.

The group of women gathered at the river are a group of God-worshippers. On the Sabbath, the holy day, they have gone to a special place to pray. Among them is a woman named Lydia. She is from another town but her business has brought her to the bigger city. There is more of a market for her purple cloth. This is a luxury item so we can assume Lydia is a person of wealth. At some point in her life she has encountered the Jewish faith and became a proselyte, a convert to faith. Lydia goes to the river to practice her faith by worshipping and praying to God. Her she encounters the man called by God in a vision to “come… and help us”. As Paul shares the good news of Jesus Christ, “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message”. God goes to work and opens Lydia’s heart to respond to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Lydia’s response leads to two actions. First, Lydia and her whole household are baptized into Christ. She makes a public profession of Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She and her household join the family of faith. Second, Lydia extends hospitality to Paul and his companions by inviting and persuading them to come and stay at her house. Both of these actions are also the hand of God at work in Lydia’s life.

Like with Paul, part of today’s story is about our response. God nudges or prompts Lydia by opening her heart. It is up to Lydia to invite Jesus to step through that opening, to allow Jesus to come into her heart. The next nudges come and again Lydia is responsive – being baptized and then generously offering her home to Paul and his companions. What a willing heart Lydia has!

As we live out our days, may we be as receptive and responsive and open to God’s lead as Lydia was. May we too seek to be obedient to God’s hand at work in our lives.

Prayer: Leading God, open my heart too. Pry wide open my tight control and my love of order and routine. Free me to respond more quickly and more obediently to the opportunities in my life to preach the good news and to help others commit to you. Amen.


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Open and Obedient

Reading: Acts 16: 9-10

Verses 9-10: “Paul had a vision… ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’… We got ready at once”.

The book of Acts is the story of the growth and building of the early church. In today’s passage Paul receives a vision from God, calling him to go to Macedonia. The man asks him to come and “help us”. Paul is an apostle who preaches the good news of Jesus Christ. He is also a tent maker who practices his trade to support his missionary efforts. When Paul receives a call from God, it is not to make tents or to mow lawns or to paint houses or to fix roofs or to sort clothing. Paul is sent to do what he does best – to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.

You and I probably won’t have such visions. We might. But we are more likely to be nudged or whispered to by the Holy Spirit. God remains just as active today as He was in Paul’s day. God continues to lead and guide His people to humbly share the good news and to serve others. It might be to mow a lawn or to paint a house or to fix a roof or to sort some clothing. The way God nudges or whispers can also come in many forms. It can be in a conversation with another, in an observation as we pass by or consider a situation, in an invitation from a stranger or friend to help them with an opportunity to serve.

After Paul receives his vision, “we got ready at once”. There was no delaying, there was no procrastination, there was no fear or doubt. “We got ready at once”. God called, they responded. Immediately. They were ready to fulfill the mission that God had given them. Paul and his companions began the journey to Macedonia so that they could “preach the gospel to them”.

Paul’s vision and our nudges… have some common threads. First, it is a call from God to share His love. Second, it is God asking us to respond as a humble servant, seeking to bring God glory and to make His name known. To accomplish the mission, we, like Paul, must be open to hearing God (or feeling the nudge…). Then we must be obedient to respond in faith and in trust. When we step out in faith we find that, like Paul, God will lead and guide us well, walking step by step with us. May we be open to God’s call and obedient to follow. May both be true each day.

Prayer: Jehovah God, you provide over and over. This day, when I feel the nudge or hear the call, may I respond faithfully and obediently. May I step forward, trusting in your love and care. Amen.