pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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With the Heart

Reading: 1st Samuel 15:34 – 16:13

Verse 7: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”.

Photo credit: Tom Swinnen

Last week one of our readings was from 1st Samuel 8. In this reading the Israelites demanded a king. They wanted to be like all the other nations around them. God grants their request. But Saul, the first king, soon needed replacement. As Saul’s leadership declined, Samuel spoke out, becoming unpopular and feared. In 1st Samuel 15 God finally rejects Saul as king and, as our reading today begins, God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint the next king of Israel. Saul is not dead yet. He remains king.

Overcoming Samuel’s objections God sends him to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons. When Samuel sees Eliab, Jesse’s oldest, he thinks surely this is the one – eldest, tall, strong. ‘Not this one’, God says. In verse seven we read, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”. Six more sons pass by Samuel – none of these either. Samuel asks Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have”? The youngest is out in the fields tending the sheep. Eliab once tended the sheep. Then Abinadab came along and it became his job. And so it went. These were the norms of the day. The oldest son, the one who inherited a double portion, the one who is tall and strong – surely he will be the anointed one. If you choose as man would choose. God sees things differently. God looks at the heart.

We continue to struggle with the practice of judging by appearance. Or with our preconceived notions or with our inherent prejudices. We look at how someone dresses and dismiss them as a potential friend. We look at how someone looks and we dismiss them as a potential employee. We look at someone’s ethnicity and dismiss them as a potential teammate. We look at someone’s behavior and we dismiss them as a potential brother or sister in Christ. When we judge in these ways, may Samuel’s words echo in our head: “The Lord has not chosen this one either”. And may we realize that the Lord is speaking to us, about us. When we judge another by dress, looks, ethnicity, behavior, or any other human metric, we are far from the heart of God. May it not be so. May we see as God sees: with the heart.

Prayer: Loving God, when my prejudices, my experiences, my notions… rise up and begin to judge another’s worthiness, cut me off. Use the Holy Spirit to draw me up short, to prune me off where I need pruned. Open my eyes and heart to see and love as you see and love. Amen.


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Belonging in God

Reading: 1st Samuel 8: 4-9

Verse 7: “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Our passage for today and tomorrow begins with the elders of Israel coming to Samuel to request a king. In all of their history they have never had a king. They have always had a leader and some have been great ones: Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Samuel. Yet even under these leaders God was clearly the one leading the people. The request for a king is driven by a few “concerns”.

The first concern is for their future. Samuel has led well. Next in line are his sons. But they are corrupt, evil. They “do not walk in your ways”. The elders recognize what a disaster it would be to have Joel and/or Abijah assume Samuel’s role. The second concern is a common human desire – to fit in, to be like others, to feel accepted. All the other nations have a king. The Israelites want one too. They want someone to fight their battles for them. Ironically, Samuel has just subdued the Philistines. The third concern centers on control. Samuel has kept the Israelites on the straight and narrow, best as he can. Samuel carries authority as the voice of God and God seems to just keep sending Samuel around. There is no wiggle room. A king would give them a little more breathing room, a bit of space between them and God. God recognizes this. In verse seven God says to Samuel, “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me”.

As I reflect on these concerns, I realize that they are our concerns too. We all want a good leader, be that a prophet, judge, king, pastor, boss, or political leader. We want to feel safe and secure yet want some freedom and sense of control too. We still want to fit in and to belong, to be accepted. We too can look around and want a new car too, a new job title or position, a fancy vacation experience, or even a pastor like that church down the street. We easily see how “different” we are or how green the grass looks over there – and we want to fix that. These two concerns boil down to the third one when we’re honest. For the Israelites they wanted the freedoms of the people living around them. At times we too feel that God has been holding our feet too close to the fire. We feel conviction instead of realizing that it is refinement and sanctification.

Instead of rejecting God (or our faith or our church) for any or all of these reasons, may we first find our belonging in God. We are each a beloved child of God. This is our identity, our place. That love is more than we will be able to comprehend until we see face to face. In that truth may we walk as a child of God, day by day trusting in God’s provision, content with his care. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, when my eyes or heart strays, remind me of your love and care. Draw me back to the narrow way, to the only way. It is the best path to walk. May I faithfully follow in Jesus’ way each day. Amen.


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Caring Well

Reading: Acts 4: 32-35

Verse 34: “There were no needy persons among them”.

Photo credit: Priscilla du Preez

The early church thrived on Jesus’ love and compassion. Within this group that was of “one heart and mind”, they loved and cared for each other. In verse 34 we read, “There were no needy persons among them”. The early church was like a close-knit family, willingly giving to the community so that all had what they needed. This commitment ran so deep that they even sold significant holdings to provide for one another.

The early church stands in sharp contrast to our society today. In the common view of the world accumulation is the goal. Life is focused on earning more, on buying bigger and newer, on working up the ladder of success. To care deeply for the other, to give selflessly of what one has worked hard to earn – these Christian ideals run counter to much of western culture. Yes, the systems of our day are much different. In the days of the early church and for much of modern history, there were no government assistance programs. The family home was the retirement home. The family cared for the widows and the infirm among them. The church extended this idea, adding a layer of care to the existing norms of the day. Communities cared for those who were unable to care for themselves.

Yet the words of Jesus still call us to care for the widow and orphan, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry… In our communities today there are many in need. While we cannot help every person in need, certainly we can help some? How do we discern how, where, and who? We must begin in our community of faith, caring well for one another. We must also go beyond that, caring well for those in our communities who are in need. Can we meet every need? Can we alone care for all of the needs in our community? Probably not, but we can meet some as we are able. Led by the Holy Spirit, may we seek to model the love and compassion of the early church, caring well for those in need, loving one and all.

Prayer: Lord, your love for us is extravagant. It is generous. It is selfless. As I consider the needs around me and in my community, may I model your love well. Amen.


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Willing to Die?

Reading: John 12: 20-26

Verse 24: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”.

Photo credit: Noemi Pongracz

Our passage begins with some Greeks wanting to see Jesus. They are probably in town for the Passover and are curious about this man. Perhaps they were in the crowd that waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna”! Maybe they’ve just heard a few stories – snipets of his teachings or whispers of miracles. These Greeks know enough to want to know more.

Jesus begins by announcing that his time has come. Soon he will be glorified. Jesus wants them to know that not only he will soon die but that all who follow will also pay a price as well. In verse 24 Jesus says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”. Jesus is paralleling his physical death with the emotional, cultural, spiritual… deaths that all followers of Christ are called to. During the season of Lent the question that Jesus might ask of us today is this: What kernels of wheat do we need to allow to fall to the ground? Is it being greedy with my money? Is it being selfish with my time? Is it judging those who are different than me? What is your kernel of wheat that you need to let go of so that you and those you meet can experience true life?

As a society we have come to see humility and death as the enemies – physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. We do all we can to stave off death. This is the right and godly thing to do with a child or young parent or many others. Yet for each of us there comes a time when our physical death is a welcome friend. As a society we look down on humility. Instead we are taught to be strong, to be independent, to work for success in life. We’re taught that once we accumulate these things, all will be good. Until we do. Then we learn that meaning and purpose and love and contentment and peace and joy and hope cannot be earned or bought. Living as a person of the world, these eternal gifts are elusive.

We must be willing to die to pride, fear, arrogance, anxiety, selfishness, doubt, greed, lust, envy, racism, jealousy, judging, anger, prejudice, worry, elitism, injustice… as we seek to follow Jesus. As Jesus says in verse 25, we must “hate his [or her] life in this world”. Only then will we be willing and able to die to self and to begin to walk as a disciple of Jesus Christ, following him daily and one day into eternal life. May you and I be willing to do the hard work of this call to die to self. May the Lord bless our journeys.

Prayer: Loving God, your Spirit leads and guides me daily, holding up to me those kernels that still need to die. I’ve plucked off leaves now and then. Help me to get to the roots. For those things that still separate me from you and from others, grant me the strength to die to these barriers and sins. Thank you God. Amen.


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The Presence of God

Reading: Mark 1: 4-8

Verse 4: “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.

As we delve into Mark’s gospel we get right into the years of Jesus’ ministry. The first gospel written jumps right in with John the Baptist. Quoting from the Old Testament, John’s authority is established. John is the prophet spoken of long ago and is the one sent to “prepare the way” for the Lord. John was very different in his approach. In verse four we read, “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. He set up out in the wilderness, a place representing the condition of people’s souls at this point. He dressed and ate differently than any other religious leader. His open air, honest, straight forward style was different and was a foreshadowing of the ministry of Jesus.

Many people came out into the desert to hear John. His words brought a quick conviction and a renewed dedication. Many people stepped into the river to confess their sins and to commit to a more devout life. They did so because the presence of God was evident in John’s life. The Spirit if God upon John drew others to want to know God in a more personal, more intimate way. The presence of God could not be ignored.

Wouldn’t that be a great thing for others to say about you? To notice about you? I think so! As we each consider the living out of each day, may we seek to make God known through our words and actions and attitudes. May we be set apart from the world, pointing to the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Prayer: God of all, so fill me with your Holy Spirit that all will see you in me and in my life. May your presence abound in all I say and do and think, bringing you the glory and praise. Amen.


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Baptized into Jesus

Reading: Acts 19: 1-7

Verses 5-6: “They were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus… the Holy Spirit came on them”.

This week we have been looking at God’s creativity and power and strength and majesty found in creation. The call or response has been to praise and give glory to God. The passages from Genesis 1, Psalm 29, and Isaiah 60 were mostly corporate, focusing on God’s love for and interaction with those who believe. In today’s passage that love becomes more personal.

As we begin, we learn that Paul travels to Ephasus to preach and teach. Upon arriving he encounters some disciples of Jesus. There must have been something different about these men. Paul asks them if they have received the Holy Spirit. It is something they have never even heard of. Finding out that they received John’s baptism (a baptism of repentance), Paul points them towards being baptized in Jesus’ name. Desiring this baptism, the men are baptized in Jesus’ name. It is then that the “Holy Spirit came on them”. The result of the indwelling Spirit is that they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There was an obvious change in these twelve men. The baptism in Jesus’ name led to transformation. They were different now.

As we consider the sacrament of baptism about 2,000 years later, the same essentials remain. Whether your faith tradition baptizes mostly infants or mostly adults, whether your tradition immerses or sprinkles with water – it does not matter. It is not the pastor or the priest that changes or transforms the person in any way. God alone has the power. The clergy person is certainly a part of the sacrament but God is the change agent. To think otherwise would be akin to saying the kid who brought the new batch of baseballs to the umpire is responsible for the home run hit two pitches later.

In baptism one is inviting the power of God to be a part of that person’s life. Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior remains the catalyst for baptism. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit remains the result of baptism. Inclusion into the family of God begins the transformation process as one speaks and lives in a new and different way. The language of God’s love becomes the baptized believer’s primary language. It is a language that we become more proficient with as we continue to grow in Jesus Christ as we are led by the Spirit, being transformed day by day.

As we go forth in the world today, may we celebrate our place in the family of God, seeking to speak the language of love to the world. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, you lead and guide me from within and without. Your presence lives in me and your word and example are also a part of my daily life. Thank you so much for calling me and claiming me as one of your own. Amen.


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Eternity Awaits

Reading: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13

Verses 10 and 11: “I have seen the burden God has laid on man. He has made everything beautiful in its time”.

Ecclesiastes 3 is a familiar passage. Most of the passage is about the seasons in life, laid out in a series of contrasts. A time to plant… to uproot. A time to weep… to laugh. A time to keep… to throw away. Verses ten and eleven sum up the passage well: “I have seen the burden God has laid on man. He has made everything beautiful in its time”. Life has both burdens and beauty, sorrows and joys. All people, believers and non-believers alike, live within these realities – birth and death, mourning and dancing, love and hate, war and peace…

This year has been different, unlike any other in our lifetimes. These pandemic times have affected all people – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, men and women, believers and non-believers. Illness and loss and grief have been born by all kinds of people and families. Yet not all is the same. Within the hearts of those with a saving faith there is a different peace, a different hope, a different strength. The rest of verse eleven reads, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of man”. For those who believe in Jesus Christ, we know that the burdens and beauty, the sorrows and joys are but temporary. None of these things that Solomon writes about in Ecclesiastes 3 are the end of the story. Eternity awaits us all. For those who believe, our eternity rests in God’s hands. Thank be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, life is filled with many experiences – some joyful, some full of pain. Seasons come and go; this one that we are in the midst of will one day be a memory too. You are the constant. You remain love and hope and strength. All honor and glory are yours. Amen.


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The Family

Reading: Ephesians 1: 3-14

Verse 13: “You also were included in Christ… Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit”.

The opening section of Ephesians is all about God’s plans to include us all in the family of God. Paul begins by declaring that God chose us to be in Christ “before the creation of the world”. It is in “accordance with his pleasure and will” that all people are “adopted as his sons [and daughters] through Jesus Christ”. God desires for all people to be a part of the community of faith.

Starting in verse seven Paul moves on to why and how God wants us in the family. First, only then do we receive redemption for our sins. Out of love God provided a way for us to be freed from the bonds of sin. Without Christ we remain trapped in the guilt and shame. Second, God lavishes us with wisdom and understanding. The ways of God are not the ways of the world. This gift allows believers to live and see and love the world differently. Created anew in Christ, we pursue the things and ways of God instead of the world. Third, in relationship with Christ we become a part of the fulfillment of all things. Living holy lives we are a part of bringing “all things in heaven and earth together under one head, Jesus Christ”. As part of the family, we seek to help bring others into the family of God.

About three years ago I was serving a church in a small rural community. The hospital called and asked if I would come visit an elderly woman who was nearing death. Soon after arriving I learned from her daughters that she wanted to be baptized. As I left to get the needed supplies, I asked if she wanted to receive communion after being baptized. She nodded “yes”. When I returned we had a short baptism service for a 93-year-old. She had come to know Jesus as Lord later in life but had never been baptized. She knew of Paul’s words: “you were marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit”. Feeling a new sense of belonging, this deposit “guaranteeing her inheritance” led to celebrating holy communion in a new way too.

Taken together, all of the signs and symbols, all the wisdom and knowledge, all the blessings and graces – they reassure us of our place in the community of faith. Thanks be to God for the love that is big enough to want all of us to be saved. To the praise of his glory, amen!

Prayer: Loving God, you so want to include all people in your family. Use me today to move someone a little closer to being a part of the great community of faith. Amen.


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Practicing #1 and #2

Reading: Matthew 23: 1-12

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

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

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

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

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


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Our Dwelling Place

Reading: Psalm 90: 1-6

Verse 1: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations”.

Growing up I lived in a few different places – two in South Dakota, two in Virginia, one in Florida, and two in Connecticut. Each place brought new friends and new experiences. From third grade through graduate school Connecticut was home for me. Almost thirty years ago my wife and I moved to South Dakota. We have lived in seven homes in four different communities. Each town has been unique but all have been in South Dakota and this place is now our home. Add in time at college and seminary and I have many more places that have been at least temporary homes. I have found that for me, home is much more than a physical place. It is that, but it is more about those that are there that make it home.

Psalm 90 opens with this great line: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations”. Since Adam drew his first breath, humankind has been invited to be in a personal relationship with God. As our “dwelling place”, no matter where we are physically, we can experience God’s presence. Places like the sanctuary at church may feel like the place we most naturally encounter God, but our places to dwell with God are certainly not limited to our churches. Just as God is “everlasting”, God is also everywhere present. We can turn to God anywhere we are to draw upon his love, strength, care, guidance, comfort…

The last few verses of today’s passage remind us that, as humans, we are temporary. At some point we will all “return to dust”. Compared to God, our own sense of time is so limited. We think 80 or 90 years is a long time. But as the psalmist reminds us, “a thousand years… are like a day” to God. Our earthly lives are so short compared to God’s eternity. Yet, in this we also know that when our physical bodies return to dust, our spirits go on to dwell with God in his eternal presence. Heaven will one day be our forever home. It too will be all about who we are with. There the Lord and his light and love will be our dwelling place. What a glorious day that will be! Until then, may we be his light and love here on earth, bringing a bit of his kingdom to bear on this world.

Prayer: Lord God, you will ever be my God. Eternity is the goal that I press on towards. Here, keep me on the path. Along the way, help me to always be an example of your light and love. Amen.