pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Who Matters Most?

Reading: Mark 1: 29-39

Verse 35: “Very early in the morning… Jesus got up… went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”.

Photo credit: Cathryn Lavery

We are still in chapter one of Mark’s gospel. Much has already happened – John the Baptist prepared the way and baptized Jesus, Jesus is tempted by Satan, the first disciples are called, and then Jesus teaches and drives out a demon. And chapter one is not even over! Each of these events could be a whole chapter. Mark moves along at a quick pace, providing just enough detail for us to follow his story of Jesus. Sometimes life feels like this, doesn’t it? There will be stretches where it feels like we move from one thing to the next to the next…

After all of the busyness of ministry, it is not surprising that we read these words in verse 35: “Very early in the morning… Jesus got up… went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”. Jesus got up when everyone else was sleeping and slipped off to a quiet place. It has been a late night healing many and driving out many demons. Sleeping in would have probably felt good. But Jesus had a deeper need, a spiritual need. Having given much over that last few days he needed to reconnect to God, to be filled up by time with God, to be in conversation with God. Prayer is not meant to be a monologue but an enriching and fulfilling conversation. Considering Jesus’ example, it begs the question: do we follow? Do we take time each day to find our solitary place to connect with the Lord our God? Do we dedicate the time and energy to read and meditate on his word, to consider how God’s word applies to our life? Do we spend some uninterrupted quiet time talking with God each day?

Busyness is one of our greatest challenges on our journey of faith. Saying “no” or “later” to God’s call in big and small ways is so often rooted in our busyness. Listening to a quick podcast or audio devotional while driving to work or school is how many try and wedge in some God time. Uttering a quick prayer walking from the car to the office, school,… suffices for our daily prayer time. Did Jesus just pray as he and the disciples traveled to the next village? It did not matter one bit that the disciples said, “Everyone is looking for you” when they found him. Jesus knew who and what mattered most. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, day by day connect me to you. Day by day meet me in the quiet and dark. Day by day whisper your words of life into my heart and soul. Day by day fill me with more and more of you. Amen.


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The Light Has Come

Reading: Isaiah 60: 1-6

Verse 1: “Arise, shine, for your light has come”.

The chapter that we read from today is entitled “The Glory of Zion” in my Bible. Zion was another name for Israel and for God’s chosen people. In this, the third section of Isaiah, the prophet writes of hope. He writes of hope because the people are in need of hope. The long years in exile have been difficult. The time in a foreign land has challenged their faith. Life feels dark and dreary. The hope that Isaiah wrote about 800 years before Christ are good words for today.

Chapter 59 leads into today’s passage. At the end of this chapter we find these words: “he will come like a pent-up flood… the Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Judah who repent of their sins”. These words, read during the era of Jesus Christ, speak of the Messiah. The love of God revealed in Christ swept through Israel and then was carried out across the known world. City by city were swept into faith in Christ as the disciples and apostles brought the good news to those eager to confess and to be baptized into faith. In today’s reading we began by reading, “Arise, shine, for your light has come”. As we read these words just after Christmas we hear these words speaking of Jesus, of our light, of our redeemer.

This week we also read part of the creation story from Genesis 1. It is awesome to think of the complexity and diversity and organization of a world that God simply spoke into being. Passages like today’s remind me that the Bible is much like creation. Today, for example, we encounter a prophet who lived about 800 years before Jesus writing as if he lived right alongside Jesus. It is but one of hundreds of passages that speak of Jesus and of events that will unfold just as they were foretold. Clearly the Bible is part of God’s grand and detailed plan.

As God’s children, as part of the family and community of faith, these 2,800 year old words speak to us. Verse two continues with these words: “the Lord rises upon you, and his glory appears over you”. Yes, the light has come. It continues to shine. May it shine in you today as the Lord’s glory rests upon you.

Prayer: God of glory, the light that brought creation into being was the light that came through the stable almost 2,000 years ago. The light continues to shine. May the light of Christ shine brightly in the world today. Amen.


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Light Still Shines

Reading: Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3

Verse 11: “The sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations”.

Many years ago, early on in my years working with youth, I helped out at a 30-hour famine lock-in at the church. We spent 30 hours learning about poverty in places around the world. We interspersed games and activities as well. And we drank only water. We had no food or snacks. At the end of the lock-in we cooked a meal common to many living in impoverished areas of the world: rice and beans. After 30 hours without food you might think we longer for more, maybe steak and potatoes. Yet the simple meal tasted so good. It was completely filling and satisfying.

In today’s passage Isaiah speaks to a people who have come home from exile. They returned with such joy. They were eager to start the work of restoring Jerusalem and the temple. Their work labored on and outside forces threatened their safety and their ability to continue. Isaiah comes to them and tells them that God is readying “garments of salvation” and “robes of righteousness”. In verse eleven Isaiah speaks hope: “The sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations”. God will be with his people. What joy and hope these words must have brought. To hear that righteousness will “shine like the dawn” and that salvation will be like a “blazing torch” only builds their hope and joy.

There were times that night twenty-something years ago when the hunger gnawed at us. There were moments when the joy and excitement that we began the event with seemed like a distant memory. But times of prayer and worship sustained us and strengthened us to stay the course, to not give up. As I think about our current season, this time of pandemic, it reminds me of that lock-in. We began this season thinking it would all be over in two to three weeks. 30 hours without food isn’t that long, right? The months have drug on, our hard labor continues, enemies seem all around, and our hope and joy are challenged often. Just as times of praise and worship lifted our souls and spirits and just as Isaiah’s words of hope lifted the Israelites, so too will these things lift us now.

In just two days believers will gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Isaiah spoke of him, the one who “will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand”. This Christmas Eve is a chance to renew faith, to praise the one who brings salvation, to worship the one who is righteous, to exult the light who still shines into the darkness. If you do not have a church home, find a church online or near by you to worship on Christmas Eve. Join the faithful throughout the world as we worship Jesus Christ, Lord and King.

Prayer: Living God, continue to sustain us, to encourage us, to walk with us these long days. Draw us in to worship the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Allow all to see the light that is still shining in the darkness. 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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Serve with All Faithfulness

Reading: Joshua 24: 1-3 and 14-25

Verse 14: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped”.

As we enter the story at the end of the book of Joshua, the Israelites have entered and taken full possession of the Promised Land. God has led them to victory after victory under Joshua and now there is peace in the land. In chapter 23 Joshua says goodbye to the leaders of Israel. As a final act, in today’s and tomorrow’s readings, Joshua calls the people together to renew their covenant with the Lord our God.

Faithfulness to God has always been a challenge. In the wilderness, the Israelites whined and grumbled, they questioned Moses and God, they even fashioned and worshiped an idol. On the brink of entering the Promised Land, they doubted and feared that what lay ahead was too big even for God. Now that peace reigns, will the people lose focus on the God who has led them so far? Yes! We do too. I pray really well when in the midst of a struggle or time of suffering. I am dialed in. But when life is good, when all is well in my world, the bright and shiny of the world begins to look better. Joshua knows the people’s history and perhaps he knows about our tendency to drift. So his final action as the leader of God’s people is to gather them all together to tell them: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped”. This is Joshua’s version of “love the Lord our God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”. Focus on God, throw away all those idols you have stashed at the bottom of the moving box… Idols are always there, however. The peoples living around the Israelites will always have idols to worship. Marriages and other interactions will bring these idols before their eyes and hearts over and over. The temptation will always be present. And so it is with us. The world and the people living around us promote and worship all sorts of idols – money, possessions, popularity, titles… Our modern culture ever calls us towards more, better, bigger, newer… We too need to hear the call to “fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness”. As we hear this call again today, may we, like Joshua, choose to declare: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”. May the Lord our God bless each of us today as seek to live out this statement of faith.

Prayer: Lord God, this is a lovely statement, a lofty goal. Make it more than sentiment, more than an ideal. This day – this very day – may I serve you only. Tomorrow will be another day. I’ll have to ask again tomorrow. Today, Lord, today may I serve you only. Amen.


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Everyday Faith

Reading: 1st Thessalonians 2: 9-13

Verse 9: “Surely you remember… our toil and hardship… we worked… not to be a burden… as we preached the gospel”.

Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica to encourage them and to help guide them in their walk of faith. In the section that we read from today, Paul is reminding them of the example that he and his companions set when they were there. The reminder is a call to walk this way too. In verse nine we read, “Surely you remember… our toil and hardship… we worked… not to be a burden… as we preached the gospel”. Paul was what we call a bi-vocational minister. Preaching the good news of Jesus Christ was only part of his day. Paul also worked hard as a tent maker. This is the “toil and hardship” that he refers to. It was hard manual labor. Paul worked so that he was not a “burden”. This was absolutely necessary early on. There were no churches yet, there were no Christians living there, there was no support systems established in the towns that Paul first went to. He had to have a means of support for himself. Paul’s companions also modeled this form of ministry. More importantly, though, Paul wanted those in the church to understand that faith was a part of everyday life. Paul lived out his faith at work as a tent maker just as much as he did when preaching the gospel. This is what he is calling the Thessalonians to and it is what he is calling us to as well.

In verse ten Paul draws their attention to the “holy, righteous, blameless” example that he set when he was among them. He does this as a way to encourage them to live the same way. The Thessalonians heard the gospel and believed in Jesus. They saw the model Paul lived out. Now they were being called or even challenged to live the same way. We too are called and challenged to live “holy, righteous, blameless” lives. To do this, like Paul and like the church in Thessalonica, we must work at our faith. When we do so, we will find the encouragement and urgency to live a life worthy of God. For Paul, part of the work takes place within the community of faith. Worship is our primary means of connecting with God and with one another. Gatherings like small groups and service opportunities also connect us. It is from our time in community that we grow in love of God and in love of neighbor. In community we also find comfort and belonging and other things so needed in this pandemic season. Many are feeling helpless and hopeless right now. Being in Christian community reminds those hurting right now that God is their help and their hope. The other part of our work takes place in our personal relationship with God. Time in prayer, study, and meditation draws us deeper into our relationship with God. Like it was for Paul, faith should be practiced and witnessed to in all parts of our life. May it be so for each of us today.

Prayer: Lord God, in the quiet and stillness of the early morning, I can connect to you. When I enter the world, the busyness of the day, it can be a struggle. Slow me down, attune me to those that I cross paths with, lead me to speak hope and peace, light and love. May it be so. Amen.


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Moving Forward in Trust and Faith

Reading: Joshua 3: 7-17

Verse 11: “The ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you”.

In today’s passage the nation of Israel is finally to the point of stepping into the Promised Land. Their forty year trek in the wilderness comes down to this bookend event. As their journey began, with Pharaoh’s army pressing down on them, in fear they fled on the path that God provided as they walked through the waters. This time, they are not the same people. They now step forward towards danger in trust and with faith in God. The walled city of Jericho stands just across the Jordan.

In the years since they left Egypt the Israelites have been shaped, formed, taught, and brought into community. In our passage today, God assures Joshua that he will go with him, promising to “exalt you in the eyes of all Israel”. God does this by giving Joshua the words to speak and the actions to take as he leads the crossing of the Jordan. Joshua does not lead alone. God has been preparing him and the nation of Israel for this time. The Israelites have a priestly order and they have the ark – the physical item that represents God’s presence with them. In verse eleven we read, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you”. With God leading, the priests carry the ark into the waters. One leader from each tribe steps forward with the ark. Symbolically this represents two important truths: God goes before the people and the people go forth together.

The Jordan River is at flood stage. There could not have been a worse time to attempt to cross the river. Yet the entire nation once again passes through the waters on dry ground. In faith and trust, the people follow Joshua’s lead and the example set by the priests and leaders of each tribe. The journey into the land that God has promised continues.

At times in our faith journeys we too will stand on the edge of moving forward to where God is calling us. There will be a Jericho right there on the other side. It may be a challenge, it may be something we fear, it may be the unknown that lies behind the wall. The call to step forward remains. As you prepare to step forward, answering God’s call or following his lead, who will you call upon to stand with you? And as you make your crossings, how will you become one who stands with others as they step forward in faith and trust?

Prayer: Leading God, sometimes the steps forward are clear – into a promised land where we can see the way. Sometimes it feels more like the unknown. The call forward is there, but the path or where it might lead is unclear. In both cases you still call me forward in trust and faith. May I always sense or hear your call and may I follow where you lead. Amen.


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Opening the Commandments

Reading: Exodus 20: 12-20

Verse 13: “You shall not…”

Today we continue with the Ten Commandments. We read the last six today. These govern our relationships with others. The commandment to honor our father and mother is like a connector. The fourth commandment, to keep the Sabbath holy, calls us to honor God, our creator and heavenly parent. The fifth call us to do the same for our earthly parents. Just as honoring the Sabbath will bless our faith and life, so too will honoring our parents bless us and lead to a good, long life.

The last five commandments all begin with the familiar phrase, “you shall not”. These five come in the form of prohibitions. God, through Moses, tells the people not to murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony, or covet. For most folks, keeping the first of these five is relatively easy compared to the last couple. Yet even this one can be a thought that crosses our mind in a flash of extreme anger or in a moment of deep hurt. In fact, when one looks at the heart level, at the private thoughts we all have, each of these “you shall not” commandments have and/or will be challenges for us. When one opens up each one just a bit, this truth hits home. For example, Jesus taught that when we look lustfully at another we have committed adultery in our hearts. If one takes more than one should or if one unfairly uses their employees or if one buys from a company known to do so, haven’t we stolen? Gossip, white lies, half truths – all forms of false testimony. And who hasn’t looked at a neighbor’s new car or boat or… and wished longingly that it could be ours? Coveting! On these levels, all of the interpersonal commandments can be hard to keep, just as are the four dealing with our relationship with God.

In our passage the power and glory of God present on the mountain causes the people to fear God. They fear dying. But Moses sees the fear as a good thing. In verse twenty he explains: “the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning”. This fear is not a fear of spiders or heights, for example, but a fear that brings awe and reverence. It is a healthy thing. Knowing the power and glory of our loving and omnipresent and omnipotent God, may we too have a healthy awe and deep reverence for the Lord our God. From that place of love, may we ever seek to walk faithfully all of our days.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for your guidance and direction in my life. Your will and ways both hem me in and give me freedom. So great is your love! Bless me today with the presence of the Holy Spirit, leading me to walk your road today. Amen.


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Hear, Listen, (Follow)

Reading: Psalm 78:1

Verse 1: “O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth”.

Just one simple verse today. It is God’s plea for our attention and focus. It is spoken to you and to me: “O my people”. To adhere to this plea anchors our life in something more important than anything else: our relationship with God. This, in turn, anchors all of our other relationships, leading us to walk each of our days in truth and love.

“O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth”. It is such a simple plea. Hear and listen – take in and understand the words of life, make them your guiding light. I’ve often thought that I could do better if I lived in a monastery. But even there, isolated from the world, there’d be the longing to be the next head monk. The thoughts that I was the most pious or hardest working would creep in. At times I’d long for the things of the world. Even in an isolated place I would be driven to gain the approval of others. Most all of us would struggle with these things.

No matter where we lay our heads down and no matter where we spend our working hours, we must all strive to be “in the world but not of it”. Defining what is most important in our lives and then living by it is a challenge to us all. Tuning out the other voices, the distractions, the shiny and the enticing – for all of us this is a constant battle. God longs for us to stop each day, to be still, to hear his voice, his word. When we do stop and hear, we are better able to listen and then to follow. May it be so. Amen.

Prayer: O great teacher, life is found in you and in your words. In your son’s example we see what it looks like to really hear and listen and live the words out. May I understand and follow the words of life each day. Amen.


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One Rule

Reading: Romans 13: 8-10

Verse 9: “The commandments… are summed up in this one rule: love your neighbors as yourself”.

Our passage for today comes from an early church understanding that we do not generally hold to today. This section is titled “Love, for the Day is Near” in my study Bible. Paul and the early church thought Jesus’ return imminent – certainly in their lifetimes. The urgency we hear in today’s passage and in much of Paul’s writings is driven by this thought. For many of us in the church today, we do not operate with this same sense of urgency to save souls before the day comes. Yes, we think it sad if someone dies without knowing Jesus, but we view Jesus’ return as a far off event. We’ve lost our fire. Because of that, Paul’s words to us today and tomorrow may cause a little discomfort.

Paul begins in verse eight by writing, “Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another”. I love the sentiment and depth of connection in these words. They strike deep at my core when I do not feel like helping that person again. They challenge me when I have to be around those people that I disagree with. No matter how often or how deeply we love others, Paul says we remain indebted to love even more. There is a reason. For as long as I have been able to make some sense of faith on my own, I’ve believed that love is the defining emotion AND action of God. Therefore it makes perfect sense when I read, “The commandments… are summed up in this one rule: love your neighbors as yourself”. Of course they are. God is love. Now, making perfect sense and having total obedience to this command are two different things.

If only this great commandment were something simple like ‘give 10% of your income to the church’. But its not. To really and fully love our neighbors as ourselves is hard. Really hard – especially when we understand that Paul’s definition of neighbor came from Jesus. All people are our neighbors.

Our three verses for today close with perhaps a simpler command: do no harm. Maybe we can start here for today. As we live out our faith today, may we seek to do no harm to anyone or anything. May this be the way we bless our neighbors and our world today.

Prayer: Loving God, guide me to walk the path of love today. Fill me with your love and allow it to pour out into the world today. Amen.