pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Blessed with an Epiphany

Reading: Matthew 2:9-12

Verse 9: “They went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them.”

Today, on Epiphany, we return to the story of the Magi. In this time and space we will focus on the revelations of God and why we see them at times and miss them at other times. In the passage the Magi see the star that is the sign of a newborn king of the Jews. Herod cannot see the star. Yes, he claims to want to go and “worship” this new king. In reality he wants to go and eliminate a potential competitor.

What allowed the Magi to see the sign? And what kept it ever before then? The Magi were attuned to the prophecies and to what they meant for humankind. They were not Jewish but they did understand that the Messiah was not a king in the earthly sense. If it were so, they would not have come that far to worship a future king of a tiny, insignificant nation. They came to worship one who would transform the world. The Magi brought gifts of great wealth. The Magi were focused upward. At the opposite end was Herod. He was focused only on self and on earthly power and control. The star bright enough to follow for hundreds of miles was well outside of Herod’s vision.

I’ve experienced what Herod did. I’ve been around people with a vision, with a God-driven purpose in sight but have failed to see what they could see. My doubts or selfish concerns kept me from seeing the signs of God’s hand at work. Maybe you’ve been there too. Maybe you too have been inwardly focused or prideful or unsure. Only when our heart is tuned to God will we be blessed with an epiphany of what God is doing or wants to do in our lives or community or world. So may we choose to live with a heart turned toward God. Then we will be in a place to see and experience the power and glory of God. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the times that you’ve opened my eyes and heart to your presence, plan, and purpose. When I start to turn inward, when I begin to get selfish, pry open my faith and trust in you. Remind me again that you are the God who moves mountains, who heals the hurting, who rescues the lost, who mends the broken, and who redeems the wayward. Amen.


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Looking from Outside…

Reading: Isaiah 42:8-9

Verse 9: “See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare.”

Photo credit: Clay Banks

In today’s two verses from Isaiah 42 God is making a declaration. It begins by stating, “I am the Lord.” This is a reminder of God’s identity and character and it is a call to remember the Lord in both word and action. The invitation to “see, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare” is an invite to recall God’s history, to remember the promises and prophecies and to recall how many have come to be. And it is a call to trust in faith that the rest will come to be in God’s time.

Looking back and remembering builds trust in God’s integrity, love, character, steadfastness, faithfulness… Recalling how God has rescued, redeemed, restored, rebuilt, and so on reveals God’s track record and establishes a trust and faith in God based upon the reality of God’s past. This is a practice that we use too, whether by reading the stories of the Bible or by recalling all the times that God has interceded, intervened, guided, corrected, redirected… our lives. Together these build our faith and trust in God.

Looking in from the outside, does the world see us and our churches mirroring the character of God? Do they see and experience us actually loving our neighbors? Do they visit and feel truly welcomed and highly valued? Do we and our churches work to bring healing and wholeness to our communities? Are we champions of mercy and justice, practitioners of grace and love? If so, we are building heaven here on earth. If not, there’s true work to be done.

Prayer: Lord God, help me, help us, help our churches to honestly look in the mirror. Are we really living as you call us to live? Are we following the example of love and grace and mercy and humble service set by your son Jesus Christ? By the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit empower and lead us to better reflect you in our lives and in our world. Amen.


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Living Out Love

Reading: Hebrews 2:10-18

Verse 14: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.”

Our text from Hebrews focuses on Jesus’ connection to us, to his brothers and sisters. Our connection begins in the garden, where God formed humankind in God’s own image. Perfection fell away quickly as temptation led to sin and to a new dynamic in our relationship with God. From that point on, temptation and sin would be part of our human nature. At just the right moment, God came in the flesh. Jesus, God incarnate, came and lived among our sin and suffering, among the pain and brokenness of life. Verse 14 puts it this way: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.”

In order to be the provision for our sin Jesus had to know what he was dying for. He had to know the depth of our need. Jesus had to be made like us “in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest” for us in heaven. Because of this experience Jesus can intercede for us and can stand between us and God’s wrath over our sin. And because of this experience, Christ “is able to help those who are being tempted.” Because he too felt temptation, in Spirit he helps us in our battles with sin. In Spirit, Christ is right there with us.

In his earthly life Jesus was face to face with suffering and hardship. Here too is another connection. In love he fully engaged this side of life. Jesus touched the sick and the unclean. He walked and ate with the outcasts and the shunned. Christ sought relationship with those outside the family of God. Jesus identified all of these as the ones he came to save, as the ones that he shared humanity with. Being brothers and sisters with Christ, may we too seek to live out love, caring for and ministering to the needs among us.

Prayer: Lord God, I am so grateful that in Christ you came and lived among us, experiencing all aspects of this life. You know our weaknesses and our proclivity towards self. In response you gave life for our sins and then you gifted us the Holy Spirit, your presence alive in our hearts. In and through this we find life – both here and now as well as one day in eternity. May my grateful response be to love as you love, especially amongst those most in need of your love, mercy, and care. Amen.


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Names

Reading: Matthew 1:21-25

Verses 21 and 23: “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins… they will call him Immanuel.”

Continuing on in Joseph’s dream, we learn of the names that will be given to the one conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel first says that Mary will give birth and then tells Joseph, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” This name will be his earthly name. Under this name, Jesus will minister to the people, saving many from their sins. At the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus will give his life for the sin of the world, saving us all from our sins. Jesus is the Savior of the world.

Two verses later we learn of another name: “Immanuel.” This name means “God with us.” In the incarnation, Jesus was literally God living with the people. Setting aside the glory of heaven, God took on flesh and came as a helpless baby. In ministry, Jesus revealed what God’s love looks like when lived out here on earth. In this way Jesus brought heaven to earth, showing us what it looks like to live daily with God. Towards the end of his ministry Jesus promised his followers a gift. He told them that after he left he would send the Holy Spirit, his living presence, to dwell in their hearts – literally, “God with us.”

In this Advent season we rejoice in Jesus’ first coming and we look forward to the second Advent, when he comes again. We celebrate the coming of the Savior and we praise God for the gift of the Spirit within us. And may we, like Jesus, live in ways that encourage and invite others to experience God’s saving grace and holy presence in their lives. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, in this season of Advent, use me to share your love and presence with others. May my joy overflow and may your love be seen and felt in all I do and say. Amen.


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Grounding Moments

Reading: Psalm 42

Verse 5: “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?… Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise God.”

Photo credit: Sophie Walker

Psalm 42 is written by the Sons of Korah. Korah was a Levite priest who led a rebellion against Moses, upset over Aaron being appointed to the role of high priest. Korah and his followers were swallowed up by the earth after losing a showdown before God. The Sons of Korah express their sorrow through songs of hope such as the one we read today.

The Psalm begins by expressing a longing to draw near to God and to meet with God. Tears have wet their faces day and night. Those around them ask, “Where is your God?” In verse 4 the emotions take a positive turn as they recall leading the procession to worship in the house of God. They recall the joy and offer thanksgiving for being a part of worship. Almost in response they ask and answer a rhetorical question: “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?… Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise God.” Even though they feel isolated and alone, the Sons of Korah know that God is faithful. They know that they will again worship God with joy.

We all have experiences in life when we long for God or when God feels distant or when we feel alone and isolated. Maybe you’ve not led a joyful procession into worship, but when have you felt joy from your faith or when have you enjoyed time in God’s divine presence? These are your grounding moments – the moments that you can reflect upon and find assurance and hope. Take a little time now to reflect on these experiences and then to praise God for these experiences.

Prayer: Lord God, those times when you have been tangibly present to me – these are like anchors for my soul. In the valley and other trials, they are like lights shining in the darkness, guiding me back to you. Thank you for your faithfulness and steadfast love. Amen.


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Blessed Are

Reading: Luke 6:20-23

Verse 20… – “Blessed are you who…”

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Today we continue in Luke 6 as we read the first half of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Today we cover the “blessings” and tomorrow the “woes” or curses. To the average person Jesus would seem to have these backwards. God’s ways are almost always upside-down, backwards, countercultural… in the world’s eyes.

In today’s text we find four “Blessed are you who…” statements. Jesus says blessed are the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, the persecuted. In we’re honest, as Christians even, our first reaction is, “What?!” Taken at face value, that is most people’s reaction to these statements. Jesus is at a deeper level. In this life we all experience tragedy and loss, suffering and grief. We all experience times when we are left out and when we are picked on, maybe even abused. As believers, though, we experience these things differently, compared to the world. When we grieve, for example, the pain is just as deep and as real as it is for a non-believer. But in our grief and in our weeping, we have hope and we find strength and support from our God. This is how we find joy and laughter and celebration even in the midst of death. This is how we experience the kingdom of God in the middle of pain and loss.

Walking faithfully through all that life brings helps or blessed us today and each day. Trusting in God, leaning into our faith, we find that we never walk alone. I cannot imagine going through some of the things I’ve experienced without God or without my brothers and sisters in Christ. As awesome as this presence has been and will be, in verse 23 Paul says there is more: “great is your reward in heaven.” A faithful walk in this life will yield a time in God’s eternal presence. The best day ever here on earth will pale greatly in comparison. Won’t even be close. Until that most glorious day, may we choose to live each day as part of the growing kingdom of God here on earth and in our lives.

Prayer: Lord God, we never want to enter the valleys and darkness. We desperately want to avoid the pain and hurting. But emerging from those times we can see growth – in us and in our relationship with you. I pray that you would be with all in the valley today. Lead me to walk with them. Amen.


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Trust and Confidence

Reading: Psalm 138

Verse 8: “The Lord will fulfill God’s purpose for me; your love, O Lord, endures forever.”

This week’s Psalm is both a celebration of God’s deliverance and a rejoicing over God’s continued presence in all of life. David begins by praising God for God’s love and faithfulness. David celebrates the place of God’s name and of the words spoken by God. They are both “above all things.” There is nothing more worthy of our praise and adoration.

In verse 3 David acknowledges how God heard and answered his prayers. Because of this David has become “bold and stouthearted.” He is filled with trust and confidence in the Lord. We too experience these feelings when God answers our prayers. David then thinks outside of himself, praying that “all the kings of the earth” would know and praise God. David wants others to know his God, to be touched by the glory of the Lord.

As the Psalm closes, David brings it down to reality. Although God is great and mighty, “God looks upon the lowly.” God is concerned with the downtrodden and the outcast, with the orphan and the widow. The implication here is that we should be concerned too. What is on God’s heart should be on our heart. In verse 7 David recognizes that God is with him. Over and over God has preserved David’s life as he walks “in the midst of trouble.” Over and over, “with your right hand you saved me.” These experiences also build David’s trust and confidence in the Lord. Because of this, David can boldly proclaim, “The Lord will fulfill God’s purpose for me; your love, O Lord, endures forever.” God is with him; God is on David’s side. God’s love endured forever!

As we journey in faith we come to understand what David is proclaiming. As we walk long with God we too build a trust and confidence in God. And we, like David, are called to proclaim our faith in the Lord. May our witness in the world bring glory and honor to God, the one who is worthy of all of our praise.

Prayer: Lord, you are my redeemer and the rock of my salvation. Your constant presence leads and guides, protects and defends. You alone are worthy of my praise. Use me today to glorify your name. Amen.


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Holy Spirit Filled

Reading: Acts 2: 14-21

Verse 17: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people”.

Photo credit: Emily Crawford

In our passage for today Peter responds to the amazed and perplexed crowd. They are amazed by the word of God that has been placed in their hearts and are perplexed by the means of receiving this word. Amazed and perplexed is an uncomfortable place to be. Some in the crowd try and wiggle out of this place, trying to dismiss this phenomenon to “too much wine”. Peter quickly dismisses this notion and turns to scripture to explain what has just happened. Using scripture to make sense of this experience to the Jews, the people of the book, is Spirit inspired. It is perfect. Peter connects something they know well to something new that they just experienced to help them make sense of their new reality.

Joel speaks of all people – men and women, young and old, even servants – receiving the Holy Spirit. Filled, they will dream dreams, have visions, and prophesy. The same Holy Spirit fills us with all of these things. Joel also speaks of blood, fire, smoke, and darkness. These signs and wonders are symbolic of change. There is a present reality as well as a future promise to these words. The present reality is that Spirit led disciples will work for the transformation of the world. The future promise is that Jesus Christ will one day return in glorious fashion to complete this transformation, making all things new.

You and I are called to live at the intersection of Joel’s words. You, me, and all disciples are called to be Spirit led Christians seeking to transform lives and this world. Our work foremost is to love God and one another. It includes making our world a more just and equitable place. Our work calls us to be humble servants and bold proclaimers of truth. Led by the Spirit we too will be transformed as we transform those around us as we bring the kingdom of God to earth. May you and I be filled with the Holy Spirit each day, bringing love, hope, peace, justice, mercy, and salvation in the name of the Lord. May it be so!

Prayer: God and Spirit in one, fill me with your powerful wind today. Rush into my heart and then lead and guide me to do your work in this time and place. Use me to draw others into your love and saving grace today. Amen.


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Love Forever

Reading: Psalm 118: 1-2 and 19-29

Verse 1: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever”.

Photo credit: Christopher Beloch

Psalm 118 is a song of remembrance, victory, celebration. The historical context is the story of exodus, of God freeing Israel from years of slavery in Egypt. The song would be sung during the three yearly festivals as a way to thank God for his presence with the people. As the people marched into Jerusalem, recalling God’s saving acts, there is much joy and expectation as they enter the gates of the city. Years and years of doing this is what lends such energy to the day we know as Palm Sunday, the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry.

Even though the exodus story is the foundation, the theme of being freed from slavery is the main theme of this Psalm. There is much messianic language in the second part of the Psalm: salvation, stone, rejection, light. We will delve deeper into this aspect later in the week. Today we celebrate what the Lord has done for Israel, for you, and for me.

In the opening verse we read, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever”. You or I may not have walked out of slavery in Egypt, but we have experience after experience with the Lord’s freeing and saving acts. Time and time again we have been freed from the lures and temptations of this world. Over and over we have been made new again, leaving behind the chains and guilt and shame of our sins, being cleansed by his mercy and grace. Again and again God has reconciled and restored our relationships – sometimes with God, sometimes with one another. We too can joyously approach the Lord our God, thanking God for his goodness and for his love that endures forever. May we, like the Israelites, say, “His love endures forever”!

Prayer: Lord God, over and over… again and again… time after time… Yes, you are so good to me. Yes, your love is amazing. With wonder and awe I praise you and offer my humble thanksgiving. Amen!


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Transform Us

Reading: Mark 9: 2-9

Verses 2 and 3: “There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white”.

Peter, James, and John go up the mountain with Jesus. Jesus is transfigured before them. He is still Jesus but he has been changed, elevated, further revealed. His glory and power shine out from him. To the disciples, this appears or is described as “dazzling white”. Even though their words paint an image that we can form in our mind, we too know that their human words and description fall short of the fullness of this divine moment. Their words provide but a glimpse of what they saw and felt and experienced in that moment.

We too have moments when we are blessed by the very presence of the divine. Once, when I was in high school, I was praying with two friends in the church balcony. We were praying for a friend of mine whose life hung in the balance. In that balcony, God touched me. I felt surrounded, loved, assured that no matter the outcome my friend would be alright. These words relate my experience to you but they do not fully capture what I felt and experienced that night. It too is but a glimpse into someone else’s encounter with God. Just as Peter, James, and John’s moment was transforming for their faith, so too was that balcony moment. What moments have you had that have transformed you?

As we consider that question, we are on the verge of entering into the season of Lent next week. It is a season of introspection and reflection. When and if we are open and honest with God, he will meet us in those places of need or brokenness or hurt as well as in the ordinary moments of life. He will surround us and lift us and remain with us if we are but willing to go up the mountain or through the valley or to simply recognize him in the ordinary of life. May we be willing and may Christ transform us during this holy season.

Prayer: Lord God, you seek to be with us in all of our moments – the highs and lows and the moments in between. Help me to recognize your presence in each moment of my life and draw me deeper into that connection point and into our relationship. Thank you, Lord. Amen.