pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Respond to the Call

Reading: Isaiah 55:1-9

Verse 6: “Seek the Lord while God may be found; call on the Lord while God is near.”

Isaiah 55 begins with an invitation: “Come, all who are thirsty… you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” God is inviting all who are thirsty or hungry to come near, to be filled. This is an open invitation, a call to all people. Continuing on in verse 3 we read, “Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.” God is inviting us to a spiritual feast, to come and nourish our souls.

With this free and open invitation, wouldn’t all people come to the Lord? Although we hope the answer is a resounding “Yes!”, the truth is that not all people will come. Just as some won’t come to receive free food because there’s got to be a catch or because they fear being rejected or being asked for something at the end of the line, some hesitate to answer the call of God in their lives. In addition to these previous reasons, some think themselves unworthy of God’s free gifts. And still others are not willing to surrender their lives or that sin or two, yielding to God’s control.

There is a vulnerability required to come into God’s presence. We’ve all experienced times when we’ve allowed sin or anger or other things to separate us from God. We can all remember the trust and courage we had to muster up to admit our need for God. It takes vulnerability and humility to admit our need and it takes trust that God will not turn us away or judge us unworthy after all. Even though we know it is an open invitation to receive freely, we too can hesitate, we too can refuse to step into God’s love and mercy. Like the beggar that doesn’t quite trust the hand offering bread, we too can fear or doubt the vastness of God’s love and mercy.

In verse 6 we read, “Seek the Lord while God may be found; call on the Lord while God is near.” Trust in God. Respond to the call and to the invitation. God’s unconditional love and unending mercy is boundless. God is faithful. Let us drink deeply of God’s faithfulness and goodness so that “your soul will delight in the richest of fare” – God’s love and mercy.

Prayer: Lord God, move my hesitant feet a little closer to your throne of love and grace. Open my hands and my heart to receive what you freely offer. Pour out your love and mercy, making me more like Jesus. Amen.


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May We Too Believe

Reading: Genesis 15:1-6

Verse 5: “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them… So shall your offspring be.”

Photo credit: Greg Rakozy

At 75 Abram was called by God to leave Haran, the place he had lived all his life, to travel to an unknown land. Abram and company traveled until God told them they’d arrived. There Abram built an altar and gave an offering to God. Years later God comes to Abram in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your great reward.” Children were seen as one’s reward. One’s impact, one’s legacy, one’s worth was evaluated through their offspring. Abram says to God, “but I remain childless.”

We can find ourselves saying something along these lines. Our struggle may be having children too. It may be finding love or contentment in a relationship. It may be finding fulfillment and satisfaction in our work. It may be limited resources even when we’ve been so faithful. It may be illness or unwanted change even as we’ve sought to be righteous and humble. We too can, do, and will say, “but… um… God?”

In response to Abram’s questions and doubts, God takes him outside and says, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them… So shall your offspring be.” Have you ever tried counting the stars? “If indeed you can count them…” It is impossible. To Abram, that task could feel as impossible as him having descendants like those stars. God was inviting Abram to see with God’s eyes, to trust in God’s vision.

When God asks us to be faithful in where we’re being led, to see with God’s eyes, are we willing? Do we choose to trust the path that God is asking us to step onto? If our eyes remain focused on the seemingly impossible that God has laid before us, we will not experience the miraculous that God has in store. In his moment with God, Abram chose to believe. God credited Abram with righteousness. In our moment, may we too believe.

Prayer: Lord God, give me the courage to step forward in faithful witness. Give me eyes to see your possibilities, trusting in you alone. Amen.


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Faithful Ministers

Reading: Luke 4:21-30

Verse 28: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.”

As we turn again to Luke 4, it seems things were going well with Jesus and the people of Nazareth. He teaches in the synagogue; they are impressed. Some there question. We usually assume their questioning was caused by doubt or skepticism. But maybe it was out of greed – imagine what Jesus could do for us, those of his own hometown! Maybe it was from a place of pride – how important we’ll be if Jesus stays here with us! Whatever was motivating their thoughts, it must’ve been evil or selfish. Jesus himself challenges their limited or errant thinking.

Jesus reminds the people of two Old Testament stories. One is of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and the other is of Naaman the Syrian. Both stories were about God’s miraculous work in the lives of strangers, of pagans, of outsiders. Standing in his hometown, taking square aim at whatever evil thoughts were stirring inside of these folks, Jesus challenges them to see outside of themselves, to see beyond their own needs. They get what Jesus is saying. They become angry, even to the point of wanting to kill him.

When has the word of God or the example of Jesus or the nudge of the Holy Spirit or the voice of a pastor or friend challenged your understanding of who is worthy of God’s love or your willingness to see how all people are inside the circle of God’s love? In these moments sometimes our response is anger too. We can feel like circling the wagons instead of opening the circle for those people. We can try and ingore the voice telling us to reach out beyond the comfortable, working instead to maintain the status quo. Yet the feeling remains. The compassion, the empathy, the desire to love – it remains because God is there within us. As one of today’s devotionals reminded me: “Faithful ministry always looks for the outsider, the neglected, the oppressed.” Looking is an active, love filled, intentional effort. May we each be faithful ministers of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, when I want to look down and pretend that they are not there, lift my eyes to see. When I want to keep them in that bubble, set apart and isolated, guide me to step within that place of isolation, bringing community. Once there, once present, move me to action, use me to love as Christ loves. Amen.


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Greater Still

Reading: Zephaniah 3: 18-20

Verse 19: “I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered.”

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

Continuing to point towards the day when the Lord God will restore Judah and Jerusalem, Zephaniah speaks hope to those who are separated from God. The people’s disobedience offended God’s sense of justice. Because of their great sin they were almost unrecognizable to God. Disaster would befall the people. But God’s love was greater still. The God who is mighty to save will one day restore Israel as well as the other nations of the world.

In verse nineteen we read, “I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered.” The army that Zephaniah predicted will come and destroy, leaving behind a small remnant while carrying many off into exile. The remnant was a shell of what was and will struggle to survive. They are the lame that God will rescue. Those carried off will lose connection with God. Living in a foreign land they will be unable to worship in the temple; they will not be able to celebrate the annual holy feasts. They too will become a shell of what once was. These are the scattered that God will gather. Reflecting back upon Zephaniah’s words many years later, the Israelites will see and better understand the need for both God’s justice and God’s love.

At times we too can find hope in these words. At times life will leave us struggling – illness or disease, unwanted change, bad decisions… We can find ourselves in need of rescue. At times we will wander off, straying from our faith. We too can end up far away from God, as if we were living in a foreign land. Once there, we need God to gather us back in. At times these forces can intertwine and build one upon the other. “Life” happens and we begin to doubt or to question God, leading our faith into a place of uncertainty or maybe even separation from God. In this place we need both rescue and gathering. As it was with God’s people of old so it will be with us today. “At that time I will gather you: at that time I will bring you home.” God’s love is greater still. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, when I find myself in a place that feels void of your presence, stir up the Holy Spirit in my heart. Remind me of your living presence and of your great love for even me. Thank you for your steadfast love. Amen.


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Stumbling Unbelief

Reading: Mark 6: 1-6

Verse 6: “He was amazed at their unbelief”.

As we begin with Mark 6 today Jesus returns home to Nazareth. Jesus had lived there for most of thirty years. He was a local kid that almost everyone knew. Most of his family still lived there. On the Sabbath Jesus goes to the local synagogue and begins to teach. As the people take in what Jesus is teaching about, they are “astounded”. His teaching is good; they are impressed.

But then they begin to question, to ask how Jesus acquired such knowledge, such power. They ask, “Is this not the carpenter”? Isn’t this just the kid who grew up down the street? Isn’t that the one who our daughter babysat back in the day? In the original Greek, the word Mark used to describe what was going on here was “skandalizo”. You might recognize the root word here. In the Greek it meant to ‘stumble’. Jesus had and would continue to cause many to stumble, to turn away, to leave the faith that they had found in him.

To his credit, Jesus recognizes what is going on here. He does not get angry or resentful. He understands it for what it is as he identifies the cause of their unbelief. He says, “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown”. Because of this Jesus’ power is limited. He is unable to do any “deeds of power” except a few small healings. We too can dismiss Jesus’ power at times. We can withhold our needs from him. We can think Jesus unable or unwilling to respond to our prayers and petitions. When unbelief and doubt rises in our hearts, we too rend power from Jesus. In our passage today, we see that Jesus was “amazed at their unbelief”. When we are tempted to limit Jesus, may we hear the warning in today’s passage, lest we stumble too.

Prayer: Lord God, when doubt creeps in, when the world begins to speak into my spirit, call me back with your gentle whisper. Draw me back into close relationship with my Savior and Lord. 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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Perfect Love and Fear

Reading: 1st John 4: 16-21

Verse 18: “There is no fear in love… perfect love drives our fear”.

Photo credit: Christopher Beloch

Today we continue in love as John further develops the connection between God and love. In the opening verse for today John writes, “God is love”. It is a simple yet profound statement. It is the truest and best description of God. God = love! John goes on to write, “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him”. Now, some may be thinking, ‘Love, love, love, … blah, blah, blah…’. Yes, faith is about more than saying we love God or that God is love. Yes, faith is more than believing God’s grace will forgive anything and everything because God loves us so much. These shallow or limited understandings of faith fall far short of the example set by Jesus.

When we love God and the other as Jesus loved these we allow love to guide all we say and do. Following Jesus’ model, love always places our relationship with God and our relationships with one another ahead of our relationship with self. When we fail to love as Jesus loved we have elevated love of self above all else and we slip into lesser emotions – lust, envy, greed, jealousy, pride, judging… Our sin works to separate us from God and from one another, sometimes even from ourselves. Here the guilt and shame can work to bring up fear and doubt in our hearts and minds. We fear that God’s love is smaller than our sin; we doubt that God still loves us that much. In those moments we need the Holy Spirit to remind us of John’s words that we read in verse 18: “There is no fear in love… perfect love drives our fear”. John acknowledges that our fear is rooted in being punished because of our sin. Here we reveal our humanity. John calls us beyond that; he calls us to “perfect love”. That is God’s love, not our love. God’s perfect love says the price has already been paid. God’s perfect love drives out the fear and guilt and shame, again reminding us that the cross says his love is greater than all of these emotions, greater than all of our imperfections.

This perfect love also calls us to more. As we live deeper into the perfect love of God, our love grows and is refined. God’s perfect love empowers us more and more to do as God commands: love one another. The deeper we grow into God’s love, the more we reflect that love towards others. Each and every day may we walk in God’s perfect love, bringing God the glory as we spread that love.

Prayer: Lord God, when my mind slips into things lesser than your love, remind me by the power of the Holy Spirit just how much you love me. Remind me again and again of your perfect love, of your no-matter-what love. Lead me to walk in that love. Amen.


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Touch and See, Question and Wrestle

Reading: Luke 24: 36-43

Verse 39: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see”.

Photo credit: Jennifer Araujo

What was the last thing you saw or read or heard about that you had to find out more about before you believed or accepted it? For me it was and is a personality test that I learned about on Thursday. It was interesting so I read more about it on my own. I took the test yesterday and am just starting to unpack the results. I am starting to think this could be a useful and helpful tool to understand myself better.

Jesus appears for the third time in Luke’s gospel. The first appearance was to the women outside the tomb and the second was to two followers on the road to Emmaus. The disciples have heard from these folks that Jesus is alive – he is risen! In our reading for today, Jesus appears to the disciples. Hearing that he has risen must have prepared them at least a little bit. Yet when they actually see Jesus, standing among them, they are startled and frightened. Maybe this is a ghost. Jesus senses their doubts. He says, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see”. This physical proof moved them to joy and excitement. But not to full belief.

It would have been a lot to take in. Heads and hearts must have been spinning if not reeling. Jesus slows things down for the disciples. He asks, “Do you have anything here to eat”? He pauses, receives the fish, and eats it in their presence. Jesus joins them in a tangible way, around food and the table. More present to him, Jesus then goes on to explain all that has happened and then to paint the picture of what will soon happen. More on that tomorrow!

Our faith journey is similar to that of these disciples. We hear and even read about Jesus. We experience pastors and teachers and even the Holy Spirit unpacking the scriptures for us. We have times of fear and doubt and questioning. We too are on a journey. We too must take the time to read and study, to explore and wrestle, to touch and see Jesus. Like these disciples, we will be greatly blessed. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Living God, continue to draw me in more and more, deeper and deeper. As I learn and grow, study and wrestle, question and doubt, walk with me, illumine me, refine me. 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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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.