pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Always, Always

Reading: Psalm 51: 7-12

Verse 11: “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me”.

Photo credit: Jonas Jacobsson

Originally the Psalms were songs or prayers used to worship God. The Psalms express the collective whole of our human emotions, the challenges of our faith, and the depth of God’s love for us. Psalm 51 is David’s prayer to God that encompasses all three of these expressions.

Lent is a time when we also express these things as we look within and seek to live a more faithful life. When we do as David does in this Psalm – bearing his heart and soul to a holy and just God – there is a deep trust that God will cleanse us and will bring us healing, that God will “restore to me the joy of your salvation”. There is also a hard reality too. To “create in me a pure heart” and to cleanse me, God has to get a good, clear look at my sins and failures. That is humbling. That feels vulnerable.

Have you ever messed up really bad and you know that you have to go and apologize? You know you need to try and make things right again. You want to restore the relationship. But you really messed up. In your heart and mind you wonder if they’ll forgive you or if they’ll send you packing. Even though David has walked a long time with God, there is a part of him cautious about bringing these sins before God. David really messed up. This feeling runs beneath the surface of the Psalm. In his mind, great is his sin. A part of David wonders if God will restore those “crushed bones”… In verse eleven David pleads, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me”. God, don’t send me packing. These words of David acknowledge God as the one with the power and ability to cleanse and restore, as the one who renews and sustains us. And these words express a desire to be in God’s presence, to continue in relationship with God. This desire connects into David’s request for knowing again the joy of salvation and of having a “willing spirit” within that sustains him.

In our human relationships we do sometimes wonder if they’ll forgive us. Did we mess up too bad this time? With God there really is no doubt, no questioning, no point of being “too bad”. God always, always seek to cast the net wide, to guide us back into a right relationship with him. As David did, we must enter into his holy and just presence, trusting in a love that is greater than all of our sin. Thanks be to God for his love.

Prayer: God, create in me a willing spirit, a deep desire to have a pure heart. Cleanse me daily of my iniquities, restore me often to the joy of your salvation. Grant me a willing spirit that seeks to be in an intimate and personal relationship with you. Amen.


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Habits and Practices

Reading: John 2: 18-22

Verse 20: “It has taken 46 years to build this temple”.

Yesterday we read about Jesus clearing the temple and we’re asked to consider where we could stand against some wrongs or evils in the world around us. In today’s passage we see the reaction of the religious leaders – those in charge of the temple. They want to know by what authority Jesus can do what he has done. In a way, they are asking if they can just go back to business as usual tomorrow, when he is gone. They ask for a sign and Jesus does give them one. They will just have to wait to see the truth of him rising after three days in the grave. Most of the religious leaders will deny that event too. Almost all will fail to connect Jesus’ resurrection to his answer to the question about his authority.

The market place in the temple courts probably began simply – some guy looking to help out travelers from afar by selling doves for sacrifices. And then another guy set up shop selling sheep. Eventually the sellers moved out inside the temple courts and some priest thought about requiring temple coins for their purchases. Money changers became a necessity and soon enough a thriving enterprise was born. Jesus challenged the corruption of this system. In response to Jesus’ cryptic answer the religious leaders say, “It has taken 46 years to build this temple”. In a way they are saying that the temple and the market place have always been here. In our churches and other organizations we say, “We’ve always done it that way”. So what it has become broken or corrupt or no longer is effective or isn’t holy or sacred anymore? One of the good things about the pandemic is that it has forced us to examine the practices and routines of the church. This season has been a time to let some things die, to imagine new possibilities, and to make changes to things that were ineffective, irrelevant, or outdated. Many of us have gone through the same process in our own lives and in our faith. This season of Lent invites us to do that hard work, to go deeper.

Although perhaps not 46 years, what habits or practices have you fallen into or out of that have lessened your walk with the Lord? What needs changed?

Prayer: Dear Lord, you still have the ability to do wonders and to work miracles. What in me needs addressed? Open my eyes to see and bind my will to yours. Make me more like you. Amen.


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The Faithful Road

Reading: 1st Thessalonians 5: 16-24

Verses 21 and 22: “Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil”.

In his closing Paul reminds the Thessalonians of some basics of the faith. In short order he gives them three: live with joy, pray always, and be thankful in all things. As we each consider this short list, we quickly recognize one or two, maybe three, as challenging. Living joyfully, for example, is pretty easy when things are good. But on a really bad day or during a season of loss, living with joy can be a real effort. Similarly, in difficult times it can be hard to give thanks. After we’ve prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed about someone or something, it can be trying to keep praying to a God who doesn’t seem to care enough to answer. Faith is not always easy. It was not meant to be easy. Jesus described the road as “narrow”. These are just some of the reasons we have company on the road.

In verse nineteen Paul warns us against putting out the fire of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has always been represented as fire since that first Pentecost Sunday when “what seemed to be tongues of fire” came upon the followers of Jesus (Acts 2:3). The Holy Spirit is our main divine companion for our journey of faith. The indwelling presence of Jesus Christ lives inside of us, leading and guiding, teaching and correcting. We also walk the road with our brothers and sisters in Christ. They help and encourage us, challenge and uplift us, teach and mentor us. And we do the same for others.

In verses 21 and 22 Paul tells us to “Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil”. We are to allow the Spirit to do its work, yes, but we too must be an active participant on our own journey of faith. We are called to test things and situations and people against the truths of God. When unsure on our own, we turn to prayer and to good Christian counsel. We must hold onto the good – keeping those things and practices and people that help us stay close to Jesus and on the path of following him, well, close to us. Paul also admonishes us to avoid evil – don’t go to those places, events, web sites… that cause temptation, don’t hang out with those folks who cause you to sin…

As he closes Paul prays that God would “sanctify” or make us holy and righteous, blameless on the day we stand before the risen Lord. It is the hope for us all. Our passage for today closes with these great words of encouragement: “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it”. God is faithful. He will sanctify the faithful. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for these great reminders today. In the Spirit, walk with me day by day, being present until I meet you face to face. Amen.


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First and Always

Reading: Exodus 17: 1-7

Verse 3: “Moses replied, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test'”?

Moses is leading the people on a journey to the Promised Land. It will be a forty years journey. When I think of the length of the journey, it reminds me of the long drives to Montana. Sometimes before we even left South Dakota, the “Are we there yet?” refrains would begin. When that happened I knew it was going to feel like a long trip. Even though it was only an eleven hour drive, I think it felt a little bit like Moses was feeling in our passage today.

The Israelites have recently been rescued from slavery in Egypt. In this process, God brought plague upon plague, finally breaking Pharaoh’s spirit with the death of the firstborn. The Israelites were passed over by the angel of death. This miracle became an event they celebrate every year, to this day. The hand of God continued to be upon Moses as he parted the sea and saved the Israelites from the pursuing Egyptian army. God has just provided manna, quail, and water to all the people. As they set out once again the people find themselves at a place with no water. Instead of turning to God in prayer, thanking him for the many saving acts that they have just experienced and seeking one more, they choose to grumble at and quarrel with Moses. In response Moses asks, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test“? I imagine God was thinking the same thing, don’t you?

At times I’m sure I’ve made God think that. I know God loves and cares for me, provides for and protects me, leads me and guides me. Even so, trust in God is not always my default response when a need arises or when I find myself in a time of trial. Seeking God is usually my first response, but not always. And it should be always. Maybe you are like me and know your need to turn to God first and always. As we remember how dearly loved we are by God may we make intentional efforts this week to rely first on God in all things. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord, I know no one loves me like you do. No one has good plans for me like you do. May the Spirit remind me of these things over and over as I seek to follow Jesus more closely. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Our God Remains

Reading: Psalm 23: 1-4

Verse 4: “I will fear no evil, for you are with me”.

Today’s passage is one of three this week that draw upon the image of shepherd and sheep. This is a common illustration in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. In today’s passage, God is the shepherd and we are the sheep. The opening three verses detail the care that the shepherd provides. “I shall not be in want” – God will provide for our basic needs. “He makes me lie down” – God gives us periods of rest. “He restores my soul” – God brings us back into right relationship with Himself and with others in our lives. “He guides me” to learn more and more about God. God, our shepherd, offers good, loving care to each of us, the sheep of His fold.

Because of this daily and constant care, we come to trust in our God. Over and over and over our God has been present. This develops a deep sense of trust and reliance. Because of the trust, we will go where we would not. Because of the reliance, we turn quickly to God when we feel uncomfortable or are in unpleasant situations. Verse four reminds us of this. At times we walk in the “darkest valleys”. The loss of a loved one, a move to a new community, the ending of a relationship or employment, depression, anxiety, addiction – they all can feel like the darkest of valleys. These are not places we choose to go. But God chooses to go with us. In those dark valleys, God remains steadfast and true. Even there our God cares for, provides for, gives us peace and rest, even restores us. Because God remains with us always, we can always say, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me”. From our past experiences with our God, we can trust in Him.

Yesterday in church we sang a song called “You Never Let Go”. The pre-chorus contains these very words: “I will fear no evil, for my God is with me. And if my God is with me, whom then shall I fear”? Like Psalm 23, this song’s source, it is a great reminder that God remains present. The chorus goes on to remind us that “in every high and in every low” God never lets go of us. Whether today, tomorrow, or sometime down the road, when we find ourselves in the valley, may we always draw upon both the promises of God that we find in Psalm 23 and upon our own experiences of God’s steadfast presence, rejoicing in God’s love and care for us. You are our God. We will fear no evil. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: God, over and over you remain present. In the valleys you are there. When I stumble and sin, you remain present, calling me back into your presence. Even in the best of days, it is your hand that guides. Thank you, God. Remain ever present to me, each and every day. Thank you, God. Amen.


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focus

Reading: Luke 21: 25-36

Verse 36: “Be always on the watch… that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.

Advent begins this Sunday. It is a season of anticipation and expectation. It reminds us that we live in a now-not-yet space. Last week’s passage from Revelation reminded us that Jesus “was, is, and is to come”. This connects to our passage today and is a great pre-Advent thought. The Latin word that we derive “Advent” from is itself derived from the Greek word “parousia” – a term commonly used to describe the second coming of Jesus. Our passage today opens with signs that will proceed Jesus “coming in a cloud with power and great glory”. We are encouraged to “stand up and lift your heads” as we await His return. We are encouraged to stand up and declare our faith – to wish people a joyous “Merry Christmas” (instead of the secular “Happy Holidays”) and to focus ourselves and others on Jesus Christ during Advent.

Jesus uses the illustration of the fig tree to keep us focused and looking up and forward. Just as the buds indicate summer is near, we are to look for signs of the kingdom near us. Where can we see hope and love lived out this week? Where can we experience mercy and grace and forgiveness this week? Where can we be signs of the nearness of God’s kingdom, bringing hope and love, mercy and grace and forgiveness to other’s lives this week?

Our passage today closes with another good reminder. It ties back into the “stand up” idea. Maybe Jesus knew what Christmas would become. He warns us to be careful lest we become”weighed down” and filled with anxiety. As a parent I can remember times when I was weighed down and filled with anxiety over the gifts and reactions to them. It can be easy to go there. When our focus shifts away from God and His kingdom, then yes, the day will close upon us “like a trap”.

Instead, Jesus encourages us to “Be always on the watch… that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”. Jesus must ever be our focus during the Advent season. Our eyes and heart must remain fixed on the Son of Man. Our lives will reveal what is truly in our heart and soul this Advent season. May Jesus Christ be what people experience in and through us.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to focus in on you alone this Advent season. Keep my eyes and heart on you and the coming of your kingdom. May my life reveal your Son as the focus of Advent and of Christmas. Amen.


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Deliverer and Redeemer

Reading: Psalm 34: 1-8 & 19-22

Verse 19: “A righteous man may have troubles, but the Lord delivers him from all of them”.

Today’s Psalm ties in well with the readings from Job that came to us the last two days. Verse one today’s begins with, “I will extol the Lord at all times”. The psalmist wants to continually praise the Lord and goes on to invite the afflicted to join him in this pursuit. Even on our bad days, the psalmist invites us to praise God.

Verse 4 continues with the ‘why’ we are to ever praise God: “I sought the Lord and He answered me”. God answers the faithful. Initially, we may not be aware of the answer, but we are always answered with God’s presence. This was the story with Job. Through both the psalmist’s testimony and through Job’s experience, we can trust that God will be with us too. Yes, trouble will find us at times, but we are encouraged to continue to praise the Lord.

When we continually praise the Lord we are ever reminded of God’s presence in our lives – in both the times of joy and in the times of sorrow. Both the good and the bad shape who we are, but the difficult times also remind us of our need for and dependence on God, helping us to be humble and to be aware of our own weakness. Our praise can be both for God’s power and might and also for the strength that He brings us in our weakness.

Verse 19 reminds us, “A righteous man may have troubles, but the Lord delivers him from all of them”. How true it is that we will all have our share of trials in this life! But even truer is God’s promise of presence and deliverance. The Psalm concludes with one more assurance: “The Lord redeems His servants”. Praise be to the Lord our God, our deliverer and our redeemer!

Lord of all time and place, thank you for being with me all the time, no matter my circumstances. You are with me in the good, in the bad, and everywhere in between. May I ever sing your praises with my words, my actions, and my thoughts, always bringing you the glory. Amen.


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Always Near

Reading: Job 42: 10-17

Verse 12: “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first”.

Job’s trial has transformed him. He looks at life much differently than before. Job values life itself, all the small things, and everything in between. As his suffering began, Job acknowledged that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. It was matter of fact, simply how things were. But now Job has gratitude for all that the Lord does in his life. He is now personally connected to God.

We see the change in Job first as he prays for his friends. We recall that the three friends were not supportive or encouraging during the trial. Yet Job prays for them. For what? Probably to experience what he has experienced. The friends know God’s laws and rules, but they do not know God. Their interactions with Job show a lack of God’s love, compassion, and mercy. The second way we see Job transformed is in his interactions with his daughters.

Job gives each daughter a name that reflects God’s beauty in the world. Their names recall God’s grace and the blessings that He pours out on mankind. Job reflects this by also giving his daughters a share of the inheritance. In doing so, Job is making them equal to his sons. He is also giving them power and independence. Job’s daughters do not have to rely on others.

Job’s story is familiar to us. We have experienced pain and suffering in our lives. We have emerged closer to God. Yes, at times we too can doubt God and/or be angry at God. Often, like Job, we realize that we cannot nor ever will understand some of the ways of God. And like Job, we also experience God’s abiding presence, especially in the trials. Always, God is near. Thanks be to God.

God, you are the Creator of all things. Your power and might are far beyond my understanding. Your ways are far above my ways. Yet you are ever present, your love and care always surrounding me. You are ever present, both in the joys and in the sorrows. Thank you God for always being there. Amen.


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We’ve Always

Reading: Ephesians 3: 1-12

Paul begins our passage by reminding his audience of how he got to where he is at right now: by revelation of God.  He was met by Jesus on the road to Damascus, was struck blind for three days, and turned his life around 180 degrees.  Paul went from greatest persucutor of the church to the champion proclaimer of the church almost overnight.  It was a transformation that only God could lead.  The change God wrought in Paul gives him some authority to speak on God’s behalf.

But the news Paul is now sharing is difficult for many to accept.  At the core of this new church are ancient Jewish roots.  Almost all of the leaders and members of the church are Jews.  So, forever they have been “God’s chosen people”.  Of all the people in the world, only the Jews are chosen by God.  Since the time of creation, the Jews have been the one and only people of God.  This is one of the great “we’ve always done it this way” stories.  And now, Paul is preaching another story.

Today we still run into the “we’ve always…” stories.  A church I was at a while back ran a day center for the homeless and economically challenged.  Several people from the church volunteered at the center.  So, every once in a while, a volunteer would bring a guest with them to church.  This worked out OK because there was a buffer there.  But every so often a guest would respond to an invitation and would come on their own.  It was then that we learned who the few “we are God’s chosen people” followers were.  Yup, these guests are not just like us.  Yup, these guests are just like us: dearly loved children of God.

This was the revelation of God to Paul: all people are God’s people.  Red and yellow, black and white, rich and poor, white collar and blue collar, …  This is the continuing story of God.  It is, of course, the ultimate “we’ve always…” story.  Jesus loved and welcomed whoever came to Him.  There were no applications or interviews or screenings.  Come one, come all.  All were worthy of His love and care because all are children of God.  As Jesus said, “Go and do likewise”, may we also seek to be the light in the darkness to bring healing and salvation to the world in need.


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Rooted

Reading: Psalm 52

David is in the midst of a trial in Psalm 52.  King Saul has become crazed with jealousy and paranoia and is pursuing David to kill him.  David is on the run for his life.  He knows in his heart that he is in the ‘right’ and that God is with him, yet he faces this trial.  Despite being physically on the move, David states that he is like “an olive tree flourishing in the house of God”.  In the midst of this crazy pursuit by Saul, David remains rooted in his faith in the God he loves.

In the song “Always”, artist Kristian Stanfill sings, “My foes are many, they rise against me, I will hold my ground”.  In our life we can often relate to David’s trial and to the thoughts expressed in this song.  At times we can feel beset on all sides.  In these moments it can be easy or tempting to pull up the roots we have in God and to turn to other means to deal with the fear or pain or doubt or whatever else we are facing.

David wrote, “I will trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever”.  The songs says, “I will not fear, His promise is true, my God will come through always, always”.  In both we find the blessed assurance that God will always live us and will always be there for us.  For our part, we must stay rooted in God.

It can be hard to do this.  The song goes on to day, “Trouble surrounds me, chaos abounding, I will test in You”.  It is a faith deeply rooted in God that can rest in Him in the midst of a trial.  To be deeply rooted requires daily watering and fertilizing.  This day may we water our faith in the Word of God and allow it to permeate our faith, to fertilize it as its message sinks deep down into our soul and strengthens our faith.  May we do this day by day do that when the winds and rain of life come, our faith will be deeply rooted on the true foundation, Jesus Christ.