pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Freedom, Justice, Righteousness

Reading: Jeremiah 33: 14-15

Verse 15: “I will make a righteous branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land”.

This week’s readings begin with two days in Jeremiah 33. This chapter is titled “Promise of Restoration” in my Bible. Jeremiah was a prophet who spoke to Israel during a time of difficulty. The Israelites were under the domination of the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. They longed for freedom and a time when they could fully live as the people of God. The Israelites desired to live under God’s leadership alone, to return to a time when justice and goodness were the norm. These desires are some of the deepest desires of every human being. All of humanity desires freedom, justice, and goodness to be the hallmarks of their society and communities.

Speaking to these people living in captivity, Jeremiah proclaims these words from God: “I will make a righteous branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land”. The just and good leader will be Jesus Christ. Born in the city of David, born in the family tree, will be the baby Jesus. About 600 years before God arrived in the flesh, Jeremiah points to this fulfillment of God’s promise made to David. Jeremiah speaks of a leader who will be “just and right”. In the healings and restorative works that he offered, Jesus certainly treated those on the edges and margins with justice. He valued them; he saw them as worthy and beloved. He freed them from the bonds that separated them from community. In all he said and did, Jesus modeled righteousness. Being fully obedient to God, Jesus gave us the perfect example of what it looks like to love God with all that we are and to love neighbor as self. Jesus embodied freedom and justice and goodness.

As we draw near to the season of Advent may we seek to follow Jesus’ example, living a life of freedom in Christ, bearing justice for all, and bringing goodness to all. May it be so!

Prayer: Lord God, what an awesome example Jesus set for us. Use me today to share your love with others, enabling them to experience and know the freedom, justice, and righteousness that you offer to the world. Amen.


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The Kingdom of Love

Reading: Psalm 48

Verse 9: “We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of the temple”.

Today we return to Psalm 48. For the psalmist, for the Israelites, God and nation were almost one. Kings were truly anointed by God and the scriptures were to guide all of life, from the highest king to the lowest peasant. This Psalm celebrates God’s presence with the people and with the nation of Israel. They were God’s “chosen people” and Zion was viewed as God’s dwelling place. Reading verse nine from this perspective, we can see and understand the connection between God and the Israelites. It was an intimate relationship, a personal and communal connection.

On this day when we celebrate our nation’s birth and the ideals that it was founded on, may we first celebrate our Christian roots. May we celebrate our high views of justice, equality, democracy, and fairness. May we rejoice that we are able to freely worship the Lord our God without fear and without threat of oppression. Thanks be to God.

Yet we cannot stop with celebration. As people of faith, we know that all people and all nations are held in God’s grace and are within his judgment. Our greatest purpose as believers and as communities of faith is to fulfill and to help realize Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God here on earth. That kingdom is one that truly practices and upholds justice, equality, and fairness as it values and cares well for all of creation. It is a kingdom ultimately built upon love, not on power or might or human strength. As citizens of heaven first, may we celebrate the freedom we find in Christ as we seek to build the kingdom of love here on earth.

Prayer: Lord God, you are my all in all. In you I find my identity and my worth. In you is my hope and my salvation. Use me to help build a kingdom here on earth that always reflects your love and grace. Amen.


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Belonging in God

Reading: 1st Samuel 8: 4-9

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

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

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

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

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

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

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


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The Family of God

Reading: Romans 8: 12-17

Verse 14: “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”.

Photo credit: Priscilla du Preez

Chapter 8 in Romans is all about the new life we find in Christ. Paul begins the chapter by speaking of the freedom from sin found in and through Christ. He talks of the Holy Spirit’s power that leads us to live not in sin but in righteousness. As our verses begin today, Paul writes of our “obligation” to live according to the way of Jesus Christ. Sometimes the word ‘obligation’ rubs us the wrong way. It can imply something we have to do not something we want to do. Paul is connecting back to what he shared in verse three – that God sent Jesus as a “sin offering” for those who were powerless against sin – for us! To live for the desires and pleasures of the flesh would fly in the face of Jesus’ offering for us. So Paul urges us, obliges us, to live by the Spirit of God.

In verse fourteen Paul writes, “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”. When we live by or allow the Holy Spirit within to guide us, then we are living as a child of God. This is a great place to be. Yet many people choose to live as a child of the world. The lures of money and power and status, as well as the pleasures of the flesh, are powerful draws to our human, worldly selves. It can feel “good” to accumulate and enjoy these things. Yet when we live unto ourselves we focus only inward, lessening even our most important relationships. Our sense of belonging and our sense of worth become connected to how we “feel”, which is connected to superficial, shallow, temporary things. It is a fragile place to live.

When we choose to live by the Spirit, by the way of Christ, we find a different source of joy, contentment, peace. Our relationships are not guided by self but by the love of Jesus Christ welling up inside of us. Self fades away as love of God and neighbor becomes our purpose, our source of meaning and worth. Living as a child of God, as a part of the body of Christ, we find eternal belonging. Knowing we are loved forever by our Lord, we can go forth into the world to live out that love, drawing others toward their place in the family of God. May it be so for you and for me today.

Prayer: Lord God, your family is beautiful, generous, loving. Thank you for making space for me in your family. When I am not these things, lift up the voice of the Holy Spirit within me, drawing me back into the depth of your love. Amen.


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A New Covenant

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Verse 33: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people”.

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

In Jeremiah 31 we see that God is a covenant God. Our passage opens with God promising a new covenant. In verse 31 we read, “The time is coming…” The Lord then references the last covenant – the one given as God led them out of slavery in Egypt. Here the covenant relationship takes on the husband-wife analogy. God led the Israelites to freedom as a husband would lead his wife, gently taking her by the hand and walking with her. During the time in the wilderness God was a constant companion to the Israelites. God guided and protected and provided for Israel. Despite this intimate and personal relationship, Israel wandered soon thereafter. They worshiped other gods, forgetting all that God had done for them.

Instead of breaking the relationship and moving on from Israel, God declares that he will make a new covenant, a better covenant. Instead of writing the covenant on stone tablets, God declares, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people”. The covenant will shift from external to internal. God’s ways will be in our mind and on our heart. The new covenant will be mediated through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit will internalize God’s ways in heart and mind and soul.

Even with such an extraordinary gift, we too can become like the Israelites at times. We forget our true love and chase after the gods and idols of this world. We allow other things to supplant our primary relationship with God. Yet our covenant God remains, continuing to say ‘I love you’ over and over. Instead of allowing the distance that we create to define the relationship, God pursues us, draws us back into relationship. No matter our response, God still says, ‘I love you’. God remains our God. We are his people. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Covenant God, you love me far beyond what I can even begin to comprehend. Your love goes on and on and on. My love for you is fragile, tenuous, limited. Yet you love me without reserve, without condition. What a wonderful example you give me to follow. Lead me in your love, O God. Amen.


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Drawing Near

Photo credit: Soul duvOcean

Reading: Mark 1: 14-15

Verse 15: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”.

Jesus steps into his ministry as the one who prepared the way has been arrested. John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod. John spoke truth against the power of the day and it would cost him his life. Jesus travels to Galilee to begin his ministry. This region to the north was isolated, away from the power structures of the day, home to many in need of the good news. As he begins his ministry Jesus announces, “The time has come”. John had prepared the people for this very moment.

Jesus continues with the message that John had preached. It is one of the constant messages of the entire Bible. The practice of repentance always remains central to the walk of faith. In verse fifteen Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”. In Jesus, God draws near to us. This is what draws us to him, it is what drew the first disciples into following Jesus. In our lives today we have moments when this is especially true. These are the times when we can tangibly feel God’s presence with us. To have any relationship, change is necessary. It is true of our relationship with Jesus. This relationship begins in a place of humility, in the place where we recognize our need for a Savior. Sensing that we are entering a holy space, stepping into the presence of the Messiah, we are naturally led to repentance. Entering that space we feel that we need to be our best. Part of that involves laying aside our imperfections, our sins, our selfishness. Looking within, we see that which separates us from the one we want to draw near to. Repenting of these we draw nearer to the kingdom of God. It is in our moments of closeness to Jesus that we come to belief as we surrender our lives to him. As we continue to draw near we experience grace and mercy and forgiveness as we are made new over and over. We experience freedom from the things of this world as our focus and love shifts toward the eternal. We come to live out the joy and hope and peace that grows from belief and trust in Jesus. We come to see Jesus as the “good news”, as the way, the truth, and the life, as the one who gives us the final victory over sin and death.

This day may we spend time in his very presence, allowing the good news to permeate our very being. May the kingdom of God draw near to you this day!

Prayer: Loving God, you draw near to me in so many ways – in these quiet moments, in the interactions with others, in the ordinary of life. In love you fill me with a peace and hope and joy that nothing in the world can give. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Loving God…

Reading: 1st Corinthians 6: 12-20

Verse 15: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself”?

As followers of Jesus Christ we have a freedom that guides our living. Through Jesus Christ we are freed from the things of this world. Earthly pleasures still entice us, yes, but we find our joy and peace, our very identity, in and with Jesus. Yes, we will sin and one day face death, but in Christ we are freed from the shame and guilt of our sin and we are freed from worry or fear or anxiety over death. We see the things of the world as temporary and we see our life in Christ as eternal. But the freedom that we find in Christ is not permission to do anything and everything, knowing that Jesus forgives our sins. Faith calls us first to holy living and to humble service. Some in Corinth had this backwards. They were confused. Some were sinning openly and knowingly under the claim that “everything is permissible” because of the grace and mercy and forgiveness offered by Jesus.

Today’s passage centers on the sexual immortality present in some of the church members’ lives. Promiscuity and the use of prostitutes were the earthly pleasures that some were indulging in. Others in the church did not think these behaviors were in line with holy living. Instead of simply telling those who were sinning to stop, though, Paul helps them to think through this scenario so that they can think like this for themselves when other issues or questions arise. Paul uses “do you not know…” three times to frame their thinking. He reminds them that their bodies are “members of Christ himself”, that sexual union makes the two people “one flesh”, and that the body is the “temple of the Holy Spirit”. Ultimately Paul is reminding them that they are connected to Christ and that what they do with our bodies should honor him. To enter into sexual unions outside of marriage, to overindulge in food and drink, to lord one’s status or wealth over others, to do other unhealthy things with our bodies – all dishonor our bodies and therefore dishonor God. All of these issues were things that the Corinthian church would wrestle with and through using Paul’s framework. In the end, each issue would come down to loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self. Doing these well, the church brought honor and glory to God. May it be so with each of us as well.

Prayer: Lord God, in so many ways faith is about love. Does this thought or word or action show my love of God? Does it reveal my love of neighbor? Does is reflect a holy and righteous love of self? Guide me in your ways of love. Amen.


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Light Is Coming

Reading: Isaiah 61: 1-4

Verse 3: “…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”.

Today’s words from Isaiah burst with hope and the promise of new life. It is easy to relate these words to the time in which we now find ourselves. Just as the Israelites felt powerless and hopeless against the Babylonians and the exile, so too do we feel against the coronavirus and social isolating. At the time of the prophet Isaiah, the people so needed a light in the darkness. Today, this remains our need as well.

Our passage begins with God empowering Isaiah to bring good news and healing, freedom and release. Neither you or I need to think very long to come up with a lengthy list of folks who desire these things today. We yearn for the “year of the Lord’s favor” in the way the Israelites did. Most of 2020 does not feel like there was very much favor. If not us ourselves, we are surrounded by folks who need comfort in their grief. Each of these needs the blessings of verse three: beauty instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning, praise instead of despair. Today, as in Isaiah’s day, almost all long for these – beauty, gladness, and praise. Yes, we are much like Isaiah’s original audience.

In verse four the empowerment extends to God’s people. It is not just God or Isaiah that have roles to play. Today we fall into this call as well. Isaiah prophesies that the people will help rebuild the ruins and restore the places that were devastated. The people will help renew that which was ruined. The people will not sit idle. Once they are released from their current circumstances, once the light again shines, they will be a part of the year of the Lord’s favor.

We are empowered by the Holy Spirit and we are called by the Lord to be active participants in the sharing of the good news, in caring for the brokenhearted, in bringing freedom to the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. We are not to sit idly by in this time of exile and social isolation. We, as people of faith, must bring beauty and gladness and praise to our neighbors and to our communities. The light is coming. May we help prepare those in ashes, mourning, despair, and darkness to receive the light. May it be so.

Prayer: Living God, use me as part of your healing work. Guide me to those needing good news, to those needing healing of body, mind, or spirit. May each find freedom through your light and love. Amen.


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Your Presence, Lord

Reading: Psalm 114

Verse 3: “The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back; the mountains skipped like rams”.

Psalm 114 is a song of remembrance that would be sung every year at Passover. It is like “Silent Night” for Christians – sung every year at Christmas Eve as worship concludes, filling the sanctuary with candlelight. Psalm 114 is a song of freedom, of God’s provision and power and might, of faith leading to the impossible, and of God’s presence. It is a song that reminds us about our relationship with God.

Almost from the moment that Moses returned to Egypt to face Pharaoh, God provided signs of his power and might. The plagues were the first signs – relatively small at first, but growing in power until the culmination with the death of the firstborn. This last plague occurred the night of the first Passover, when Israel was spared and protected by the blood of the lamb. This plague led to Pharaoh releasing the Israelites. As they went, God went with them. God dwelled daily with the people in the pillars of cloud and fire. Israel became God’s dominion.

In verse three we read, “The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back; the mountains skipped like rams”. These awesome and mighty demonstrations reveal God’s absolute power. The sea, the river, the mountains – the immovable – all behave according to God’s command. Have you ever tried to hold back water, to use your hands to stop a flow or water? It seems through, it finds the smallest cracks, it seems to keep coming from nowhere. And not once, but twice, the people of God walk through on dry ground. God did not just stop most of the water so only their feet got wet or just a little muddy – it was dry ground.

The Psalm reminds us that anything is possible with God. Even the mountains move and tremble at God’s command, at his presence. Thousands of years later, as we reflect on these acts of God, let me remind you that God is the same God. God still remains present in powerful and mighty ways. God still moves the mountains in our lives and continues to stop up the tears of sorrow and pain with his love. God still walks with us through the valleys and up to the mountain top once in a while. This day may we each sing a song of rejoicing and remembering as we bow in the presence of the living and eternal God.

Prayer: Living God, this morning I raise a hallelujah, I whisper a song of praise. My heart is full as I think back to those moments in your presence, to those times when I could tangibly feel you there with me. I exult your holy name as I rest in your love for me. Hallelujah! Amen.


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Perfect Love

Reading: Exodus 14: 19-22

Verses 21-22: “The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground”.

The Passover had been the final miracle before the Israelites packed in haste and fled Egypt. Amidst Egyptian cries of grief and heartbreak the people of God left behind slavery and oppression. Their mighty and powerful God has intervened and freedom lay ahead. After 430 years in Egypt about two million Israelites began a journey to their new home. After just a short time, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and his army heads out to bring the Israelites back. Camped up against the sea, they are filled with fear as Pharaoh’s army approaches.

As we pick up the story today, God acts quickly to protect his people as the pillars of cloud and fire both move between the Israelites and the Egyptians, creating a barrier neither will cross. Moses stretches out his hand and God drives back the waters of the sea. In verses 21 and 22 we read, “The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground”. As the people of God walked through on dry ground, a wall of water stood on either side. Talk about seeing God’s power up close and personal!

This image brings up two things for me. The first is the song “No Longer Slaves” by Bethel Music. In the bridge they sing, “You split the sea so I could walk right through it, my fears were drowned in perfect love”. It is such a beautiful lyric. The second thing I am reminded of are the many ways that God has acted in powerful and mighty ways in my life and in the lives of people I know. God has a habit of doing what he did that day in the desert – of entering our fear and doubt and worry, of walking with us to a place of safety, and of protecting us as we journey. God’s perfect love does indeed surround us and assured us of his presence. As you consider how and when our powerful God has intervened in your life, please take a moment or two to recall when God has led you through. Rejoice and thank God for his perfect love.

Prayer: Lord God, your power is amazing. Thank you for the times when you have provided a way when I could not see one. Thank you for the times when you led me, even though I did not think I could step forward. Thank you for your abiding and perfect love. Amen.