pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Choose Glory

Reading: Ephesians 1: 11-14

Verses 11-12: “In him we were also chosen… in order that we… might be for the praise of his glory”.

Photo credit: Jeremy Perkins

As we continue in Ephesians 1 today Paul begins by stating, “In him we were also chosen”. Other translations say “made heirs”. Paul is reinforcing the idea that we are adopted, made part of the family of God. Although we are created in God’s image, created to be in relationship with God, there still must be a choice made on our behalf. Because of how and why we were created, we have an innate sense of God, a natural desire to connect to God. Yet we still must make an intentional choice to live into and in that relationship.

Paul provides the argument for why the Ephesians (and us) should make that choice. In verse twelve we read, “in order that we… might be for the praise of his glory”. Choosing to live in relationship with God, we bring God the glory. The focus shifts from bringing self glory to bringing God glory. Instead of focusing on the things that falsely elevate self (titles, possessions, popularity…), we focus instead on things that bring God the glory (compassion, kindness, service, generosity…).

Paul also emphasizes that the challenge of living for God’s glory comes with assistance. When we believe, when we choose to enter into relationship with God, we are “marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit”. The continuing presence that Jesus Christ promised becomes a part of us, guiding us, leading us, redirecting us. Again, all of this is for “the praise of his glory”.

We are chosen. We are adopted. We are marked with a seal. We are part of God’s family, redeemed and forgiven. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, you created every single one of us. You created us to be in relationship with you. Use me today to help those on the outside realize the place you have for them. Amen.


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Giants

Reading: 1st Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 19-23, and 32-49

Verse 32: “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him”.

Photo credit: Steve Halama

We enter today into a familiar story. Israel and the Philistines are at war again. They are encamped across the valley from one another and each day Goliath comes out to challenge the Israelites: “Choose a man and have him come down to me”. No one from the Israelite camp is raising a hand; no one is jumping up and down saying to King Saul, ‘Pick me! Pick me’! At the sight of this nine foot tall behemoth the Israelites are “dismayed and terrified”. Day after day this scenario plays out. Day after day Israel is dismayed and terrified.

We all have our giants. In 7th grade it was a bully named Leo. He towered over me in many ways. When I was nineteen it was going to my parents to tell them I’d failed out of college. At three stops in my twenties I worried and stressed about being a good father for these three little human beings. At 47 I was a bit terrified and a lot unsure about the future as I left my career of 23 years to enter vocational ministry. In my mid fifties now, I still worry and stress about being good enough, about letting go and letting God lead, and about the upcoming rupture in my denomination and most likely in my church. There are days when the old giants come back and haunt me. There are days now when my current giants hold me back in fear. We all have our giants.

David arrives at the battle front just as Goliath is once again shouting down the Israelites. Brought before Saul, David says, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him”. The Spirit of the Lord that came upon David when he was anointed by Samuel remains strong as ever in him. With full trust in God, David slays Goliath “in the name of the Lord Almighty”. The battle truly belonged to the Lord.

This is true for you and for me too. Yet in our battles with our giants we try and fight on our own. Some days I flail against my fears and doubts and other days I don’t even step near the battle line. On these days my giants win without a fight. But what if we did not fight alone? What if we “gave it all” into God’s hands – ourselves and our giants? If we would but do this then our giants would fall “facedown on the ground”. May it be so for you and for me. The battle belongs to the Lord.

Prayer: God of heaven’s armies and my little battles, go with me today. Remind me that I too am anointed by your Holy Spirit. Remind me that you are the only one in control so that I can fully trust in you, the Lord Almighty. I fight on my knees now, giving it all to you. Amen.


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Humbly Turn

Reading: Psalm 20

Verses 1 and 2: “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress… protect you… send you help… grant you support”.

Returning to Psalm 20 today, we focus in on our need for God’s presence in our lives. To enter into the presence of God one must begin with a posture of humility. To recognize and admit our limitations and our inability to do all things opens space in our hearts to turn to the God who can do anything. This is what allowed David to enter the sanctuary to pray and to offer sacrifices. The focus of these actions was to align his heart with God’s heart, to check his own motives, to seek divine guidance. As decisions arise and as challenges come our way, a time of sincere prayer and soulful introspection engage God in the process.

The Psalm begins with a blessing prayer for our times of distress. It prays that the Lord will answer, protect, help, and support us in those times of hardship. David trusts that God will be there for him. His prayer reflects that same truth concerning all faithful people’s relationship with God. To trust requires belief, of course, but it also requires a willingness to submit to God’s will and ways. It places self behind the divine. Although to some surrender indicates weakness, to those who call upon the Lord, it provides access to the source of our true strength. God is the ultimate ally. In all things may we humbly turn to the Lord our God, trusting into his power and strength.

Prayer: Lord God, when I am weak, you are strong. When I am humble, you are glorified. When I am less, you become more. In all things, in all ways, make me obedient to you. Amen.


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The Vine

Reading: John 15: 1-8

Verse 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit”.

Photo credit: Rohit Tandon

Jesus begins John 15 with a familiar analogy. Vineyards were common in Israel – a good topic to use to describe the connection between disciples and the divine. In the first verse Jesus establishes himself as the vine and God as the one who tends the vine. You and I are branches.

Over the years, on my walk of faith, I have found it very important for me to stay closely connected to Jesus. Has this been true for you? When I am faithful about my personal disciplines – early morning prayer, reading and study, reflection, journaling – then my daily life is better aligned with Jesus’ mission. In those seasons when I am just going through the motions, my connection weakens and my faith begins to get dry and stale. Challenges and difficulties arise during both seasons. Working through these with Jesus is much different than going it on my own. Has this been your experience too?

A grape vine, like all living organisms, is either growing or it is dying. Seeing the leaves and then the grapes appear and mature is easy. Noticing the vine growth is not so noticeable. Left unchecked a vine will grow and grow. If left on its own, the vine growth will decrease fruit production. This reminds me of something that I must guard against. In ministry it can be easy to say ‘yes’ to many things. I’m active and am a doer, so this is my natural tendency. I want to try new things, to offer more opportunities, to just keep adding. Because of this tendency, I am thankful for the gardener. At times God prunes me. The Holy Spirit reveals a busyness that can be let go. A fellow Christian questions my latest, greatest idea or impulse. A colleague in ministry helps me to return to the focus of my calling. Each of these persons reminds me of the truth of verse five: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit”. To bear fruit you and I must remain closely connected to Jesus Christ, the source of our faith and love. May it ever be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Loving God, day by day, draw me to you. Fill me each mourning, nourishing me for the day ahead. Guard my heart and mind, leading me to walk the path you purpose for me. Connected to your son, may we bear much fruit. Amen.


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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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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.