pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Earnest Prayer

Reading: Esther 7: 1-6 and 9-10

Verse 3: “Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have found favor with you… grant me my life… and spare my people.'”

Photo credit: Caleb Jones

This week our general focus will be on the power of prayer. Today’s passage is one that has been covered in prayer. Leading up to this interaction with King Xerxes, Esther and all the Jews in Susa have spent three days in prayer and fasting. The three days in prayer and fasting were to seek God’s blessing on Esther’s audience with the king.

Like many of us, Esther and the Jews had been driven to prayer because of a difficult hardship looming in the future. Because of a personal dispute, vengeance was to be extracted upon all of the Jews living in the kingdom. Esther had to choose between the comforts and security of being queen and risking that very life to possibly save her people. She was queen because the last one had been deposed. Questioning one of the king’s decrees could cost Esther her position and maybe even her life.

At times we may face a risky choice – to speak up or to question may cost us more than we may be willing to give. Yet we know the right decision to make. We see the right thing to do. What is it that leads us to do what we know we should do? When in these situations we should look to Esther’s example. She and her people went to God in earnest prayer. They also fasted to demonstrate their commitment to nothing but prayer to God. The God of justice heard their prayers, encouraged the one who could act, and guided her through the difficult conversation.

When the Spirit stirs in us, raising up a cause or concern to bring to the Lord, may we too seek the power of prayer, trusting in the Lord our God.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for this example of faith and courage and trust in you. All was lived out by bathing it in prayer. Lord, draw me to my knees over and over again. Amen.


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Don’t Show Favoritism

Reading: James 2:1-10

Verse 1: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.”

Photo credit: Elena Mozhvili

In our passage from James there is a clear call to be aware of our tendency to judge and stereotype and to make distinctions based on appearances. In verse one we read, “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.” James’ audience came by this tendency naturally, as we do today. Society has always valued those with wealth and status and power. That is why so many people chase after these things. This preference for and to certain people was having a negative impact on the church. If allowed to persist it has damaging effects.

James points out the tendency to welcome the wealthy person, trying to find them a really good seat, a place of honor. He opposes how a poor person is received as they are asked to sit on the floor or to stand in back – places of dishonor. The world treats the wealthy and powerful real well, hoping to get a little something out of it for themselves. In this process we devalue the poorer person, clearly making them feel less than. In verse four James asks us, “have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” The answer is ‘yes we have.’ There is always a driving force that guides how we treat others. In the scenario here in James, those with wealth and power can help out a struggling church. We too easily dismiss the one who is shabbily dressed, letting them know that they don’t matter much to us.

Treating others according to how they look on the surface is the opposite of how Jesus treated people. It ran counter to the Mosaic Law as well. James is clear on the impact of making distinctions: “If you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” These are hard and challenging words. To truly live without favoritism or judging or stereotyping is difficult. It is a call to stop making distinctions, to love and see with the heart of Jesus. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord, the world clearly favors those who have over those who don’t and those who are like us over those who are not. Help me to see as you see: without judgment, without prejudice, without hate. Help me to love all as you love all. Amen.


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What an Advocate!

Reading: Romans 8: 22-27

Verse 26: “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”.

Photo credit: Tobias Rademacher

In two days many churches will celebrate Pentecost. This day recalls the moment that God’s Spirit filled the first believers. In our passage today Paul unpacks some of what the Spirit does with and for those who believe.

Paul begins by describing our longing to be forever with God. He is speaking of that inherent longing in all of humanity. In the opening verse Paul describes this as all of creation groaning as we “wait eagerly for our adoption… for the redemption of our bodies”. For Paul, this is the ultimate hope we find in our faith – to one day be redeemed fully, to be transformed into our heavenly and forever form. Living in difficult times, often facing persecution and hardship, even death, Paul and his fellow Christians often had to hold onto this hope found in Jesus Christ. At times, in our deepest valleys, we too hold onto the hope of eternal life.

In verse 26 Paul writes, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness”. In the same way that the Spirit raises up hope in our hearts, the Holy Spirit also strengthens and encourages us. Paul also describes how the Spirit goes a step further. When we are so weak (or ill or lonely or sorrowful or upset or…) that we cannot even put our prayer into words, then “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”. When we cannot even form the words, the Holy Spirit prays for us. The indwelling presence of Jesus Christ in our hearts takes over and takes our pleas to God on our behalf. In the moments when we are simply overwhelmed, the Spirit speaks to God for us. When we are as weak as weak can be, the Spirit “intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will”. To me, it doesn’t get any better than that. The Spirit prays for you and me in alignment with God’s perfect plans for our lives. What an advocate we have! Thanks be to God!!

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for loving me so much that you chose to send your Spirit to dwell in me. Thank you for being willing to know and abide in imperfect and sinful me. That is a deep, deep love. Thank 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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The Journey

Reading: John 20: 25-31

Verse 29: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”.

Earlier this week we read about Jesus appearing to ten of the eleven disciples. Thomas was not there. As we begin today’s passage, the other disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord”! Thomas questions this, saying, “Unless I see the nail marks…”. He wants tangible proof that it really was Jesus. Because of this passage, Thomas is sometimes referred to as “Doubting Thomas”.

The reality, though, is the faith involves doubt. On our journey of faith, we will have seasons when we doubt, when we wrestle for answers, when we question God, our faith, ourselves… These are the struggles that often produce growth. It is when we dive deep and wrestle with the things of God that we are refined and encouraged. During a very difficult time in ministry, for example, I questioned deeply and often at first. This led to doubt. Much time was spent in prayer and scripture study. The end result was a better grasp of God’s love and mercy as well as a more solid understanding of the depth and breadth of his love and grace.

Jesus returns to the disciples a week later. Thomas is there. After greeting them, Jesus turns to Thomas and invites him to see and touch the proof. As always, Jesus offers what is needed to draw another closer to God. Seeing the scars, Thomas declares, “My Lord and my God”! It is a heartfelt profession of Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

Coming out of that difficult season of ministry, knowing that the living Christ had walked with me and has guided me through, I emerged with a stronger faith and with deeper convictions. God still has a way of meeting us where we are and offering us what we need to continue the journey of faith.

As you continue to seek God and to grow in your faith, may you who have not seen and yet believed be ever moving deeper in your relationship with Jesus.

Prayer: Lord God, great is your faithfulness! How vast is your love! Thank you for walking through the hard times, ever reminding me of your presence and guidance. You are so good to me. Thank you. Amen.


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A New Thing Is Coming

Reading: Isaiah 55: 1-11

Verse 3: “Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live”.

In Holy Week today is a day of waiting. Jesus has been crucified and laid in the grave. This day feels like a day of grief, like a day of defeat. For the followers of Jesus, today must have felt like what most days felt like for the exiles in Babylon. These words of Isaiah are good words for Holy Saturday. I hope the disciples and followers of Jesus recalled or read these words on that difficult day long ago.

Through Isaiah, God calls “all who are thirsty” and then invites those without to come and eat. This is the table of fellowship – a place where all are welcome, a place where we share what we have to offer as a means of caring for the other. Isaiah issues God’s invitation to “eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare”. It is an invitation to blessed community, to a place of belonging. For those in exile, for those struggling through this day in the gospel stories, this is a welcome invitation.

Once connected to this community, the invitation is the extended: “Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live”. God’s words bring life, reviving the soul and the spirit. Reminding us of the everlasting covenant established by Jesus Christ, we again hear the promise that God will draw all people to him, to the Christ. In verse six Isaiah reminds us of our role. Here he writes, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near”. This day, this sacred day, may we seek the Lord. May we seek his voice, for we too have this promise: “My word that goes out from my mouth, it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire”.

God desires connection, relationship, fellowship with you and with me. God desires community – it is there that we find strength, joy, love, support, encouragement. It is there that we find life. All seems lost to the grave on this day of grief. Yet a new thing is coming. Tomorrow the Son rises.

Prayer: Lord God, in your great love you always seek to draw us in, to deepen our relationship with you. On this grey day, thank you for the reminder that all things work according to your purposes. Amen.


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Only with God

Reading: Psalm 70

Verse 5: “I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and deliverer”.

David begins Psalm 70 with a cry for help. Enemies are pressing in on him. They seek to put him to shame, to ruin his life. At times we have probably experienced these situations. If we are living out our faith, it will happen from time to time. Being the light sometimes draws a reaction from the darkness. David turns to God and asks for God’s help. He does not strike back physically or with harsh words. David does not engage them in battle but asks God to take up his cause. It is hard to walk this path. It is difficult to hold the tongue, to stay the anger and hurt. It is also the way of Christ. As we walk with Jesus through these next two holy days, we will see Christ model full trust in God.

In verse four David chooses to seek and to praise God. Instead of hiding his faith, instead of withdrawing from it to avoid those who insult and abuse him, David stands, lifts his arms, and praises the God of his salvation. He sings aloud, “Let God be exalted”! Knowing God’s love and salvation should lead us to praise God as well. In those moments of difficulty, singing a few verses of “How Great Thou Art” or “10,000 Reasons” or your favorite hymn or praise song draws us into God’s presence and reassures us of his great love.

The Psalm closes in honest humility. Turning to God in prayer, David says, “I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and deliverer”. Only with God can David get through this time of trial. Again, as we will see with Jesus, only with God can he face the betrayal, the arrest, the trial, the insults, the denial, the flogging, the shame, and the cross. Only with God. As we too face times of criticism or abuse or accusation or affliction may we too turn only to God. Only with God will we be able to walk the hard and narrow roads of faith and love.

Prayer: Loving God, I rejoice and praise your holy name! Your love for me is so great. You have walked with me, carrying me at times, through every trial. All praise and glory are yours, O God! When the hard days come again, may I trust fully in you. Only with you can I walk the valleys. Amen.


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Walking in Lament

Reading: Psalm 31: 9-16

Verses 14-16: “You are my God… My times are in your hands… Save me in your unfailing love”.

Psalm 31 is one of many Psalms of Lament. These Psalms balance lament and grief and sorrow with God’s love and mercy and presence. To walk with God through trial and suffering and affliction is such a blessing. The journey is much harder for those without faith. Verses ten through twelve sum up well what it feels like to be alone in our sorrow and anguish, alone as people utter contempt and conspire against us. At times we have all felt like David does in these verses. At times we all feel like “broken pottery”.

Psalm 31 shifts in verse fourteen. Here David’s faith begins to take over his emotions. In trust David says, “You are my God”. He is claiming his place within God’s unfailing love. In humility David continues, saying, “My times are in your hands”. Here David is acknowledging that God alone is in control. This humility undergirds his prayers for help and deliverance. David knows that all things work according to God’s purposes. It is freeing to turn it over to God. Inviting God to shine upon him, David asks God to “save me in your unfailing love”. There is an assurance that God’s presence brings salvation. With God, David will walk confidently into all that lies ahead. Even though there is great lament in the Psalm, David’s words also reveal the trust, humility, and assurance that are ours when we walk with God.

Reflecting on this Psalm my mind is drawn a week ahead, to the Garden of Gethsemane. In a time of deep sorrow and lament Jesus will wrestle with what lies ahead as he considers his journey to the cross. He is challenged by the thought of drinking the cup of wrath yet he too trusts in God, submits his will to God’s will, and moved forward, confident of God’s presence with him.

As we face times or seasons of lament, as our faith calls us to walk a difficult road, may we too live within God’s love and care, humbly trusting in the Lord our God. May it be so.

Prayer: Loving and guiding God, when tides rise, when clouds roll in, may I cling to you. Draw me into your presence, surround me with your love, assure me of the plans that you have for me. You are my God. In you I trust. 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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When You See…

Reading: Mark 13: 24-29

Verse 29: “When you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door”.

In Mark 13, verses 1-23, Jesus forewarns the disciples about the difficult times ahead. The temple will be destroyed; wars and natural disasters will come. There will be persecution and many false teachers. Families will be split over the faith and “the abomination that causes desolation” will come. The false Christ will use miracles to deceive many. Jesus warns his disciples to be on guard. As bad as it sounds in these opening verses, though, it gets worse in our passage for today. For generations we have looked at the world and the horrible events happening around us and have wondered if this is the time.

Beginning today in verse 24, things get catastrophic. The sun and moon will go dark and the stars will fall from the sky. All natural light will be gone. The earth will be as dark as it has been since the day God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). The evil, the dread, the fear will be at their climax. Then the heavens will shake – Christ is breaking forth in power and might. Those alive will look up and see Christ coming on the clouds in “great power and glory“. He will send out his angels to gather all believers “from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens”. What a great cloud of witness that will be!

Then Jesus pauses and draws their attention to the fig tree. It too gives signs concerning the times. Even this little tree is a part of God’s grand plan. Year after year the branches get tender as the leaves form and come out. This is a sign that summer is near. It is simply how God designed the tree. Jesus then parallels this thought to the end times – they too will occur and unfold just as God designed them. In verse 29 Jesus says, “When you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door”. At just the right time, God will send Jesus into the world. At just the right time, he will come again. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Dear God, we do not know the exact timing, but we know the signs. They will be unmistakable – darkness and evil will be at their greatest. These days will pale in comparison. As I wait, keep my eyes open, Lord. As I wait, keep my faith strong. Amen.