pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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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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Jars of Clay

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 4: 5-12

Verse 6: “For God… made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of… Christ”.

Photo credit: Freestocks

In our passage today Paul works out the idea that we have “this treasure in jars of clay”. Paul is using a metaphor that would have stood out and caught his audience’s attention. Clay jars were common, everywhere. It was the every day container for storing all sorts of things. Clay jars were cheap, easily replaced. So who would put their treasure in a jar of clay? It could be easily smashed, the treasure removed quickly.

In the metaphor we are the jars of clay. Our faith is fragile – easily broken by the cares of this world and by the temptations of the evil one. We are over seven billion strong – commonplace and too often treated as easily replaced. Just as no one would put their valued treasures in clay jars, why in the world would the God of the universe place his treasure in us human beings?

Well, the treasure is not gold or any other temporal, earthly thing of value. The treasure God places in our heart is the Spirit of his Son, Jesus Christ. Paul puts it this way in verse six: “For God… made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of… Christ”. This “all-encompassing power”, this treasure, gives us strength when hard pressed – so we are not crushed. It gives us the wisdom of God when we are perplexed – so that we will not despair. It gives us courage and support when we are persecuted, reminding us that God never abandons us. It keeps hope alive in us when we are struck down, whispering into our heart that nothing in all of creation can destroy our place in God’s family – here or in the time to come. This is but a short list of what the all-surpassing power of God does in our lives.

As we rejoice in what the power of God’s Spirit does in our lives, let us also pause to think of those we know who are jars of clay – perhaps a bit broken, definitely fragile, maybe seen as worthless or commonplace at best. As we think of these, how can this “light of Christ” within us shine into their lives, bringing that same strength, wisdom, courage, support, hope, sense of belonging… that we treasure?

Prayer: Lord God, I am so grateful for your presence in my life. The ways you touch and are present to me make walking a life of faith possible. May your light and love shine out of me, revealing your glory for all to see. Amen.


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In the World

Reading: John 17: 6-19

Verses 16-17: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth”.

Our passage today is a prayer that Jesus prays over his disciples. As one reads the prayer, Jesus’ love for his disciples pours out of his words. There is also a clear sense of the connection to God and of a disconnect from the world. Jesus understands that the disciples are set apart from the world and that this status will cause hardship and persecution.

Jesus has taught the disciples the words that came to him from God and they have accepted these words. They believe Jesus is the Savior and have anchored their relationship in God’s love lived out. They have been transformed. They are now not of the world but are of God – “they are yours”. Jesus prays for this connection and the unity that it brings to continue. In verse eleven he prays, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name… so that they may be one as we are one”. The transformation from being “of God” instead of “of the world” is made clearer in verse fourteen: “They are not of the world any more than I am of the world”. The disciples citizenship is with God eternal.

Yet the disciples remain in the world. Jesus knows the difficulties and challenges that lie ahead so he prays for God to protect the disciples from the “evil one” – the prince of darkness, the ruler of the world’s passions and desires. Jesus asks God to “sanctify” the disciples – to make them holy, to fill them with his light and love. The darkness cannot overcome the light; hatred will never triumph over love. Standing on God’s truths and in his love, all the powers of evil will not prevail against the faithful. Jesus knows these truths, these promises. These remain today. As you and I are sent out into the world, this prayer and these truths cover us. Living in but not of the world, we too belong to God. May we step forth boldly in these promises today!

Prayer: Lord God, you hem me in, you go before me, you are my rear guard. Your abiding presence gives me peace and your unending love builds up my courage. Send me out, use me today. Amen.


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Both… And

Reading: John 3: 19-21

Verse 19: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness”.

Today’s verses from John 3 speak of light and darkness. John uses the analogy that has been used since the creation story found in Genesis 1. From the dark and chaotic God brought forth light and called it “good”. Since the beginning, light has stood for God and goodness, dark for Satan and evil. Often in scripture this tension is represented as an either/or proposition. Our reality is that it is both/and.

In verse nineteen John writes, “This is the verdict”. There is an implied choice here. Choices have been weighed on a balance. John observes that men prefer the darkness. Humanity is by nature selfish, concerned with success and pleasure. If left without God it is hard to imagine what the world and humanity would degenerate into. We are not left without God. At the very minimum, all are born with the spark of the divine within. In some folks that is snuffed out and in others it us pushed so far down that it appears to be non-existent. In most of humanity the light of God remains present. And in most of us, the light of God is ever competing with the darkness of the world. This is the both/and reality that Christians live in.

In the season of Lent we are invited to look within, to see and root out the darkness in our hearts and in our lives. We are called to bring the sinful or evil parts into the light. There we see ourselves as we truly are. Depending on where we are on the light-darkness spectrum we either drag them into Christ’s presence and we seek to die to self or we quietly slide that part of us back into a dark corner so that the flesh can visit it again.

Light and dark exist in all of us. Deepening our faith and our connection to God draws us increasingly into the light. This is the hopeful final destination of our journey of faith. As we continue to seek to be in the light may we rejoice in verse 21. May we each “see plainly that what has been done has been done through God”. All that we are in Christ has and will be done through God alone. It is not through our own efforts or by our works. Faith is a gift from God. Thanks be to God for this gift.

Prayer: Lord God, each day we find ourselves at places along the spectrum of light and darkness. At times pride or some other manifestation of self rises up, drawing me towards the darkness. In those times, send the Spirit of truth, calling me back towards the light. Help me to walk each day more in the light. Amen.


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Great in Love, Rich in Mercy

Reading: Ephesians 2: 1-5

Verse 4: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ”.

Today’s passage is all about the change that God has made in us. Before Christ we were as Paul writes: “dead in our transgressions and sins”. We lived a life focused on self and on doing whatever we wanted to please self and our earthly desires. We lived according to the “ways of the world” and we were “disobedient” to God. For many of us older folks that meant distancing ourselves from the faith of our childhood and from the faith of our parents. For the younger readers, a larger segment grew up without a childhood church or faith. For all who came to faith the realization came that the things of this world are temporary. They never really satisfy or bring meaning and purpose to this life. Peace, contentment, joy… only come through the eternal relationship that we find in Jesus Christ.

Why didn’t God leave us there, dead in our sin? Why did God continue to pursue us even when we were running from him? We find our answer in verse four: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ”. God’s love is greater than our sin. We were created to be in relationship with God and with one another. God calls and woos and chases us until we make the choice to invite him into our hearts or until we draw our last earthly breath. Faith, however, does not stop at our decision for Christ. Once we accept Christ we are not finished. It is just the beginning of our faith journey. We are not suddenly sinless. Satan continues to pursue us, often with renewed passion, enticing and tempting the flesh still within us. Yet the battle is different, it is changed. The field is no longer level. With Christ alive in us, we do not fight alone. The Holy Spirit leads and guides, convicts and corrects, ever helping us to choose Christ over the world, good over evil, light over darkness.

Lent is a season that reminds us of this battle, that draws us into combat. In Lent we are called again and again to look within, to seek out the parts of us that still need to yield to Christ’s authority and reign. In this seeking and yielding it is grace and mercy that provide the way. In love it is God’s grace and mercy that say our past doesn’t matter, that our selfishness or pride or fear doesn’t control us anymore, that we are loved just as we are. In the season of Lent and in the hard work that we are called to, this is the good news: we are loved, we are forgiven, we are saved by grace. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for your love that is so deep that I cannot ever reach the bottom. Thank you for your love that is so wide that I cannot ever see the other side. Thank you for your love that always surrounds me, even when I stumble and fall. What great love. Amen.


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Filled with Zeal

Reading: John 2: 13-17

Verse 17: “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me'”.

Photo credit: Tobias Rademacher

The story of Jesus clearing the temple can be found in all four gospels. It is different than almost all the other stories. The story takes place in the days leading up to the celebration of the Passover. The city is already getting crowded. The Roman authorities are probably getting more nervous by the day as the Jews prepare to celebrate how God freed them from slavery in Egypt long ago. The religious leaders, who are also the Jews’ political leaders, are well aware of the growing tensions.

The temple will be the place where all will gather to remember God’s saving acts, to worship their God, and to offer sacrifices. As Jesus arrives at the temple it is being made ready for the crowds that will soon come. Vendors are beginning to fill every nook and cranny of the temple courts, looking to sell their animals. The money changers are setting up tables, eager to exchange Roman coins for the necessary temple coins. Jesus takes all this in and then makes a whip and begins to drive the people and animals out of this make-shift market. Watching this unusual behavior from Jesus, the disciples recall a verse from Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me”. In the other gospels Jesus speaks of the temple being a house of prayer, not a den of thieves and robbers. The vendors and money changers have corrupted a place that is holy. It is this fact that so upsets Jesus. With Zeal he restores his father’s house to what it should be – a holy and sacred place.

As ones seeking to follow Jesus 2,000 years later, we are called to follow this Jesus too. All that God created is good. Much has been corrupted just as the temple courts were in today’s passage. We do not need to look far to see corruption, oppression, injustice, poverty, marginalization… These evils have no place in the kingdom of God. As we live out our daily lives we will encounter places where these evils exist and we will meet people suffering from these evils. When we do, may we be filled with zeal for God’s creation, drawing the kingdom of God near as we bear his light and love into these places and lives. In the presence of light, darkness flees. May we be the light.

Prayer: God of light and love, as I encounter the evils of this world, fill me with zeal and compassion for those affected. Guide me by the power of the Holy Spirit; use me as a light in that darkness. Through me may the light and love of Jesus shine, driving out the evil. Amen.


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News Spread Quickly

Reading: Mark 1: 21-28

Verse 28: “News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee”.

Our gospel reading for today and tomorrow centers on Jesus’ authority. After arriving in Capernaum, Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. As Jesus begins teaching, the people are “amazed” because he was “one who had authority”. Jesus spoke and taught in a way that clearly set him apart from the local scribes and teachers of the law that usually taught in the local synagogue. Jesus had a knowledge that was inherent, not learned or taught. Jesus, therefore, possessed a God-given, divine authority.

During his time in the synagogue a man possessed by an evil spirit cries out, recognizing Jesus as “the Holy One of God”. The spirit acknowledges the divine power in Jesus – “are you going to destroy us”? In response Jesus quiets the man and tells the evil spirit to come out of him. With a shriek the man is freed from his demon and is made well. This action adds a layer of amazement for those in the synagogue that day. As one might expect, “News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee”.

Although not possessed, we each have moments when an evil spirit rises up within us, tempting us to sin. In those moments we also bump up against the Holy One – the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. In that moment, competing voices speak into our decision. Good and evil vie for control, for the outcome of that moment. The deceiver whispers lies, the Spirit speaks truth. In that moment, do we give Jesus authority in our lives? In the decision, do we allow the Holy One to have power over self?

These moments happen over and over on our journey of faith, many times every day. Each outcome determines how others see us and how they see our faith. As we walk out our days may we do so in a manner that causes “news about him” to spread quickly.

Prayer: Lord God, in each word and in each action, guide me to be attuned to the living presence of Jesus Christ within me. Tune my heart to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Bend my will to your will. Amen.


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Oh Nineveh

Reading: Jonah 3: 5-10

Verse 8: “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence”.

Jonah has made his proclamation known. For three days he walked around Nineveh proclaiming the coming destruction. The words of his warning – or the power of God behind them – hit home, leading the people to repentance. “From the greatest to the least” they fasted and put on sack cloth, both signs of repentance. When word got to the king he too was moved to action. The king issued a decree. In addition to calling for these sign of repentance, he also declared, “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence”. He hoped that if they changed their evil ways, that maybe in his compassion God might relent. God did have compassion. God did not destroy the great city of Nineveh.

As we consider the application of this passage today, how often are we Nineveh? How many times have we had to repent of our evil ways and our violence? As I consider these questions, I realize that sin is a constant battle in my life. Like the prophet Jonah, the Holy Spirit is ever on duty, proclaiming the coming destruction, calling me away from my sin and into faithful prayer and holy living. The same mercy and grace and love that brings renewal and forgiveness to my life are the ones all people can experience when they “fast” from their sins and “put on sack cloth” as a sign of their humility. This mercy, grace, love, renewal, and forgiveness is something God offers to all people.

Taking another angle, who is your Nineveh? Who is that person or group that most needs God’s transforming power to be at work in their lives? You see, at times we are to be like Jonah too, going to “that” person or to “those” people. We are to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all people, sometimes even with words. We are to bear God’s transforming power into all the world, even to our Ninevehs.

By the power and grace of God, may we be aware both of the times when we need to repent and to turn from our evil ways AND of the times when we are called to proclaim that to those who are walking without the God of mercy and grace. May we each faithfully live out both sides of God’s love.

Prayer: God of grace, humble me and convict me when I am living in sin. Walk me to your throne and lead me to kneel there, in that place of love. Use me today to help others to know that place of love so that they too can know your healing and renewing power. Amen.


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In Our Hearts

Reading: Psalm 139: 1-6

Verse 1: “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me”.

Psalm 139 speaks of the intimate and personal connection that we each have with God. The psalmist begins by telling of the heart and mind connection, perhaps because this is the most important. In the first verse David writes, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me”. It is both scary and comforting to really consider what this means. On the one hand, nothing is hidden from God. Our unkind or selfish or evil thoughts are all known by God. On the other hand, when we are hurting so bad that we cannot even form thoughts, God knows our pain and grief. I would not have it any other way. I can work on the condition of my heart and on the words of my mouth. I am helpless at times and then only God can help.

The tongue is difficult to tame. It is a good reminder to know that “before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely”. While it is still ruminating or festering or boiling in my heart, God knows the words I am pondering speaking. This is as unfiltered as it gets. It is God knowing me at my very core. It is where we are our most authentic selves. If we want to be right with God, we must begin by being right with God in our hearts – in the place no one else in the world truly sees or knows anything about.

It is in the secret place of our heart that we most need God’s guidance and direction, conviction and restoration. In public we tame our tongue to avoid looking bad or to not hurt others… This is good. But in the secret place we need help. The voice of the Holy Spirit is what will refine us and form us more and more into God’s image – if we but listen and hear. The Holy Spirit is God’s truth and love living inside our hearts. It is what will “hem me in – behind and before” if we allow it to. The voice, the nudge, the whisper, the shove – these will help keep us on the narrow road if we allow them to. David speaks of this in the rest of verse five, where he writes, “you have laid your hand upon me”. May we be aware of those thoughts rumbling in our hearts, feeling the hand of God upon us. And may we be aware of his truth and love welling up in us, also feeling the hand of God upon us. In all we think and say, may we be led by God.

Prayer: Loving and kind God, help to form my very thoughts. Begin them in a place of love and truth. Guide them to come forth in kindness and with compassion. May all I think and say be pleasing in your sight, bringing you the glory. 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.