pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Bars and Rods

Reading: Isaiah 9:4 – “For as in the days of Midian, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.”

Devotional writer Hannah Adair Bonner uses a great analogy in her writing on this verse. She invites us to remember a time when we carried too many grocery bags. For me it usually comes from the “I can make it in one trip” thought. She then asks us to recall how we felt when we made it to the kitchen or wherever it was that we plopped the bags down. Bonner then flips the scenario a bit, asking us to think of a time when someone came along and helped, relieving our burden, making sure that we could make it. Bringing her point home, she notes that the burdens many carry in life are “much more complicated than groceries.”

In our short text God was the one who came alongside Israel as she struggled under a burden. The bar and rod of the oppressor was heavy upon the nation’s shoulders. God saw the struggle and responded by shattering the yoke. God broke it into itty bitty pieces. What oppressed people in your circles or in your community? Is it a lack of resources – food, shelter, clothing, heat, water, medical care, education, employment? It is a hard circumstance – addiction, abuse, incarceration, neglect, illness? Or are they under the rod of injustice or racism or sexism or some other evil? And the reality for most folks who are burdened is this: they are not carrying just one bag.

How will you respond to what you see? How will I? Let us begin as God did, coming alongside those who are burdened. Then may we seek to bring relief. And as our relationship and understanding grows, then may we seek to be breakers of rods and bars. May it be so as we seek to reveal God to this hurting and damaged world.

Prayer: Lord God, open my eyes and my heart. Seeing and feeling, put me to doing. Amen.


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God’s Abiding Presence

Reading: Psalm 124

Verse 1: “If the Lord had not been on our side…”

Photo credit: Shane

Although the Psalm is filled with times of trial, it is a song of ascent, a song of praise. These words of David recognize the difficulties and hardships of life and also remind us of God’s abiding and constant presence. God’s presence does not isolate or shield us from pain or grief or conflict or unwanted change but does walk with us through all of life.

The phrase “if the Lord had not been on our side…” leads into a series of times of challenge. If not for the Lord, when the enemy attacked and their anger rose, then they would have “swallowed us alive.” The attack was like a flood that would have engulfed them and swept them away – “if the Lord had not been on our side…” When my loved one died suddenly and the grief began to paralyze me, if not for the Lord I would have become totally overwhelmed. If not for the Lord, I could not have moved on after unexpectedly losing my job. When the diagnosis rang in my ears, I would have spiraled down and down if not for the Lord’s abiding presence. We too can sing of the Lord’s presence in our times of trial and hardship. We too can say over and over: “If the Lord had not been on our side…”

The Psalm connects well into yesterday’s call to know and share our faith story. Each of these moments when God walked through the valley with us strengthens our faith. Each of our experiences with God’s abiding presence reinforces the truth that “our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” When God places another in our path that is walking through a valley that we’ve been through, may we come alongside them to share the story of God’s abiding presence.

Prayer: Lord God, I don’t like walking through the valleys. Yet I know that they are a part of life. Thank you for being there with me in those times of pain and loss and hurt. Empower me to walk with others through their valleys. Amen.


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Known by Justice

Reading: Psalm 9: 9-20

Verses 15-16: “The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug… The Lord is known by his justice”.

Photo credit: Kalea Morgan

David begins our passage by declaring the Lord a refuge and stronghold. God is a God of all peoples yet has a heart for those on the edges. This was clearly visible in the life and ministry of Jesus, God in the flesh. Jesus gravitated towards and attracted the marginalized, the outcast, the lost, the least. As a nation we have wandered far from the example set by Jesus.

In verses fifteen and sixteen we read, “The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug… The Lord is known by his justice”. In most “modern” nations individualism and greed have guided our culture and leaders. Finding a humble servant on that stage is rare today. Success and profit margins, status and power, appearances and materialism – all have become woes of our nation. Elevating these values and goals has clearly decreased how we as a society value those without these things. Worse yet, those with see it as their right to exploit, oppress, and manipulate these unjust economic and political dynamics to increase the gap between the haves and have nots.

How would God look upon our land today? “The Lord is known by his justice”. As Christians are we known for our stance against injustice, for our work to end oppression in whatever form it presents itself?

Later in the Psalm David writes, “The needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted perish”. As God’s people, may we walk alongside those in need; may we walk hand in hand with those being afflicted. May we join the Lord in the healing of the nations.

Prayer: Lord God, open my eyes to the needs and afflictions in my little corner of the world. The work must begin at home. Lead and guide me to stand for justice and equality for all. Amen.


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A Bit More

Reading: Isaiah 9: 3-4

Verse 4a: “You have shattered the yoke that burdens them”.

The opening section of Isaiah 9 is titled “Into Us a Child Is Born” and it references the birth of the “wonderful counselor… the prince of peace”. Isaiah begins earlier in the chapter stating “a light has dawned” as he explains how the people walking in darkness see the light. In his time, Isaiah is writing to a people living in exile. The coming of the light will occur in about 700 years and the exile will last about 200 years – until at last the people return to the promised land. Isaiah calls the people to look forward to the time when God will restore them. In doing so, Isaiah casts a vision of hope.

In our time, when we see people struggling, some living in darkness, we can also help bring light, casting a vision for hope. Maybe all we can do is provide for a basic need like fuel for the heater or food for the stomach. Maybe all we can do is to contribute to the offering for toiletries for the elderly or to donate to the coat drive at school. Maybe all we can do is to walk alongside a friend as they seek to walk the steps of a recovery program. Maybe all we can do is to be present and to sit with someone in the pain of grief and loss.

In our passage today, in verse four, Isaiah writes about how God “shattered the yoke that burdens them”. This will happen for Isaiah’s audience as God leads the people out from under the oppression of exile and back into the land that God intended them to live in. This act brought freedom to the Israelites. Many years later, Jesus modeled how to bring freedom to broken and hurting souls. Some if it did begin by meeting basic needs – like when he fed the large crowds. Some if it began by hearing their brokenness and then doing something about it, helping them find hope – like with the woman caught in adultery. In love, Jesus brought light to many people’s darkness.

When we offer assistance, when we help out, when we encourage and support, when we walk with another, when we bring comfort, we too are bringing light into darkness, we too are removing the yoke that burdens. It may only be temporary in many cases. Perhaps tomorrow or yet another day we can lift it a bit more and then a bit more, opening the door one day for Jesus to come into their hearts. May it ever be so.

Prayer: Father God, even in our small community there is much need. There are many who feel a yoke across their backs. Guide me today to help lift those burdens where I can. Give me eyes to see and hands to act and words to bring light and hope. Thank you, God. Amen.


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A Simple Thanks

Reading: 2nd Kings 2: 8-12

Verse Eleven: “As they were walking along and talking together…”

In one devotional I read today, it referred to the term “outlier”. Immediately my mind went back to many years teaching 7th grade math. We identified outliers when we were studying mean, median, and mode. An outlier in math is a piece of data that stands out from the other data. Outliers can really impact the mean, or the average. In its original content in the book my devotional referenced, an outlier was a regular person who practiced a skill or talent or job thousands and thousands of times. The result was extraordinary skill or proficiency at their chosen pursuit.

Using both of these understandings of outlier, the term pertains much to our faith. In today’s passage, Elijah is an outlier. He was a prophet who stood far outside the norm. At times, he was practically the last one standing for God. He spoke the truth no matter the risk, always being obedient to God. Accordingly, Elijah is widely accepted as the greatest Old Testament prophet. In our passage, Elisha shows the dogged persistence required to become an outlier. He has personally witnessed Elijah’s absolute faith in God and his total trust to go where God sent and to say what God said to say. It is something he wants for himself, so he follows closely as Elijah’s end draws near. Elisha’s persistence pays off as he sees Elijah taken, thus receiving the reward: a double portion of his spirit.

It is interesting to me that Elijah is taken not in some suspenseful moment but simply as they are “walking along and talking together…”. Elijah had just nonchalantly yet miraculously parted the Jordan so they could cross, allowing them to continue to simply walk and talk. These ideas remind me of our faith journey. We too walk and talk through life alongside God. Much of the time life is routine or normal. Yet by walking close and talking consistently, we grow deep in our relationship with God. And we do have moments, times God parts the waters, allowing us to safely pass through. Some of the time we do not even know God has intervened. Other times, it is right there for us to see. At times God gives us these moments that awe and uplift us. These too build our relationship.

As I ponder my daily walk with God, blessed here and there with those “God moments”, I am humbled and awed. I simply say: thank you God!


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Reap

Reading: John 4: 27-38

Verse 35b: I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields!  They are ripe for harvest.

The disciples return just as Jesus finishes His initial conversation with the Samaritan woman.  It is an unusual scene by the norms of the day, but the disciples have seen Jesus engage any and all time after time.  He does not appear to be a man with any barriers.  The woman heads back to town to tell others of her encounter with Jesus and people from town head to the well to meet Jesus.  As the disciples have returned with food, they offer Jesus some.  His response puzzles them: “I have food to eat that you know nothing about”.  Staying on the surface level, they wonder if someone else has brought Jesus some food.  Further explanation is clearly needed.

Jesus then explains that the true ‘food’ that feuls Him is to do the work of God.  Perhaps knowing that the townspeople are heading their way, Jesus says, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields!  They are ripe for harvest”.  Jesus and the disciples are about to be joined by people who are searching for the Messiah, the Savior of the world.  Jesus has down the seeds, now the harvest is at hand.  He tells them that the hard work is done – He planted faith in the woman who has in turn planted seeds in the people who approach.  The disciples will now “reap what they did not work for”.  Where do we fit in the story?

First, Jesus’ call to look to the fields applies to us.  There are many in our lives ‘ripe’ for the truth and saving grace of Jesus Christ.  It is our role to help people to the well so that they can drink of the ‘living water’ that Jesus offers.  Second, we need to be ready to reap what the Holy Spirit works in someone’s heart once they accept Jesus as Lord.  This “work” is the work of the Spirit.  We can only plant seeds and inspire searching.  God alone makes the seeds grow into faith.  Lastly, we need to be ready to step in and walk alongside that new believer, nurturing and guiding their growth.

As we look at those in our lives, who is searching, who is ripe to meet Jesus Christ?  What can we do today to sow seeds of faith?  How can we be ready to reap and walk with those new to faith?


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Bringing Christ 

Reading: Colossians 1: 24-28

One of the reasons Christ became flesh was to be like one of us.  Jesus Christ walked the earth in a human body and set for us an example of how we are to live.  Once we come to the point of accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior, then His Spirit comes to dwell in our fleshy bodies.  With the indwelling of Christ in us we know the hope of our eternity.  We know that once Christ dwells in us and lives in us, that one day we too will experience resurrection and will rejoice in the hope of eternal life in the heavens.  This is wonderful news for all believers.

Paul also writes of suffering.  He rejoices in what he has suffered in order to continue advancing the gospel.  Paul is always ready to suffer for others.  He is so willing to do so because Jesus Christ first suffered for him.  Through the ultimate suffering on the cross, Jesus provided the path to our hope of glory, to eternal life.

Once we come to have Christ in us and to live our lives in Christ, we begin to take on and then seek to emulate all aspects of Christ.  Suffering is one aspect of Christ that we, like Paul, are called to take on.  As His followers we too must be committed to suffering as Christ suffered.  It is a willingness to both suffer for and to suffer with those who suffer.  It is a willingness to have less so that another may have some.  It is a willingness to enter into relationships with those who suffer and to walk alongside them to alleviate some of the suffering.  It is a willingness to give one of the things we hold most dear: time.

In willingly offering ourselves in suffering for another, we bring Christ himself to those most in need.  As Paul wrote, we share Christ so that “we may present everyone perfect in Christ”.  It is living out our great commission to bring all people in all nations to kneel at the foot of the cross.  This day and each day may we embrace each opportunity God brings to suffer as Christ suffered, all for the building of the kingdom and all for the glory of God.


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Shaped to Share

Reading: John 12: 1-8

Mary and Martha’s brief season of pain ended when Jesus resurrected their brother.  In today’s story, they are hosting a meal to honor Jesus.  They had been followers since ling before the miracle that brought Lazarus back to life, but experiencing such a thing in person will forever change you.  Now they gather to offer back what they can.

Each sister has been blessed with certain gifts.  Martha’s gift is to cook and serve.  She seems to have become comfortable with this.  Mary’s gift is a little harder to define but perhaps we could define her gift as insight or discernment.  Like in the earlier story in the Bible, Mary chooses to simply be in Jesus’ presence.  But this time the Spirit moves inside of her and leads her to anoint Jesus’ feet with some very expensive perfume.  In a way it is acknowledgement that death will come to Jesus as she begins to prepare Him for burial.

Like Mary and Martha we are each gifted in unique ways to serve Jesus as well.  And like them, we too have impactful and life-changing experiences that shape us.  These events can often eventually become a start to our own personal areas of ministry as we are now intensely more aware of and sensitive to this experience.  Through this we are able to coach or mentor or walk alongside someone else experiencing something similar to what we experienced.  For example, a couple who unexpectedly lost a child may later be able to reach out to another couple now going through that same trial.

Mary was preparing others close to Jesus to begin to consider what His death would mean.  This came from her experience with losing Lazarus.  We too are shaped by our experiences so that we can share them with others.  In those trials we found that God remained close, carried us when needed, and guided us through the trial.  At times, we too will be lead or nudged by the Spirit to take action.  May we first be aware of the opportunities we have to walk alongside others, to offer them our love and support, and to draw them closer to God in their time of trial.


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God’s Presence and Promise

Jeremiah was writing from a prison cell.  At times he must have felt like the situation was hopeless.  Yet in the midst of this bad situation, he heard God’s promise to send a just and righteous ruler to lead Israel.  In his time of trial, God brought Jeremiah a word of hope.

As Advent nears, our longing builds for the coming of Christ, which we celebrate on Christmas Eve.  Advent calendars count down the days for children and visions of school vacation and presents dance in their heads.  To be honest, as adults we looked at the vacation schedule long ago as we too anticipate some time off.  But it is also undeniable that as we wait, in Advent, the longing builds within us for the night to arrive when we all gather together, when we sing the familiar songs, and when we celebrate our Lord and Savior’s birth.

While almost all have a sense of waiting, many feel this sense of longing as well.  But for some, there is also a sadness hanging over this season of joy and hope and love.  If within the last year trauma or loss has occurred, then the Advent season brings struggle as well.  If it is the first Christmas after the loss of a loved one or after a divorce or job loss or after a serious illness, then there is pain, grief, and hurt as well.  In these times and with these emotions, God can feel distant.  It is important for those struggling to be reminded of God’s presence and His promises.

For some battling these sad emotions, they can connect to God and find hope and love and peace.  For those that are struggling may we be aware and may we find ways to come alongside them and to bring God’s presence and promises to life through our words, actions, and presence.

Scripture reference: Jeremiah 33: 14-17