pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Looking Up

Reading: Numbers 21: 4-9

Verse 7: “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us”.

Photo credit: Carolina Jacomin

As the Israelites near the end of their journey in the wilderness they are tired, impatient, and irritable. Three weeks into Lent and perhaps a few of us grow tired of the themes of reflection and introspection. In the bigger picture, today the source of our weariness and impatience and irritability is the pandemic. As the Israelites grumble against God and Moses, they are expressing these emotions. They long to go back to what was. Tired of their current situation, they let go of their frustration via complaint. This is the fifth complaint story during their wilderness journey. God has had enough. God sends venemous snakes among the Israelites and many die. Consequences.

Like Jesus’ subversive actions in the temple, this response of God makes us feel a little uncomfortable. Our reality, though, is that we have been here too. We have had the tables turned over a time or two or… We have been bitten by our poorly spoken words or via our sinful actions. We too have experienced how the pain drives us to confession and repentance, to turning back toward God. As we look up to the Lord, just like the Israelites did, we find reconciliation and restoration and forgiveness. God is faithful and moves quickly to bring us back into right relationship.

Lent is a wilderness experience, a season of introspection and reflection. In that spirit, let us consider times when our actions have harmed or caused pain for others. Perhaps we are in the midst of such a time. What words spoken have caused harm? What actions have damaged relationships? What words left unspoken or actions left undone have allowed harm or pain to continue? To wrestle with these questions first requires a humble and contrite spirit. On Ash Wednesday we were reminded that this is the posture of Lent – a humble and contrite spirit. It is what leads to a new heart within us and to the place of healing that God so graciously offers.

The Israelites looked up to the reminder that God is in control, to the serpent fashioned by Moses. Today, we lift our eyes to our source of healing and hope, to the one who offers mercy and grace, restoration and wholeness – Jesus Christ. On this Lenten journey, may the God of love continue to sustain you and to give life, even in the wilderness.

Prayer: Lord of life, you are so gracious and merciful and kind. Your love is overwhelming, your patience without end. Just as you continued to walk with the Israelites, walk with me day by day. Reveal to me the ways that I have caused and do cause harm so that I can repent and become more like your son, the Christ. Amen.


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Looking Up to You

Reading: Psalm 123

Verse 1: “I lift my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven”.

In today’s passage the psalmist is looking for mercy. We do not know the cause of the suffering or trial that he is in the midst of. It could be that illness has settled in upon a loved one. It could be that enemy forces threaten their security and safety. It could be a long drought that has brought the nation to its knees. It could be a loss of income due to one of the previous scenarios. It could be that a friend has deeply harmed their relationship. It could be that a deadly disease has spread throughout the land. It could be that the nation has forgotten God, turning instead to idols. There were and are many causes to lead the psalmist and us today to turn to God, to “lift my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven”.

In each of the scenarios and any that come to you that would lead you to look heavenward and to ask for mercy, it could be easy to deny our role or to blame others or even to be angry with God for allowing said thing to happen. If, like the psalmist, we are enduring ridicule and contempt, it can be tempting to strike back, to try and avenge ourselves, to even the score. But if our first response is to look up to God and to seek his mercy, then we will trust the situation or time of suffering into God’s hands. Those loving and kind and merciful and compassionate hands will guide and carry us through. Like the psalmist, may we ever look up to and trust in the Lord our God.

Prayer: God of power and might, ever bend my eyes and heart to you, ever guide me to trust in your plans and in your goodness. Lead me to let things fall from my hands, from my control, into your hands. There, in your hands, is more love, grace, mercy… than I could ever muster. As I look up to you, O God, pour our your mercies, new day by day. Amen.


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Finding Peace

Reading: Philippians 4: 4-9

Verse 8: “Whatever is true… noble… right… pure… lovely… admirable… excellent… praise-worthy – think about such things”.

Yesterday, in the opening verses of this week’s passage from Philippians 4, Paul encourages the resolution of a disagreement in the church. Today Paul works out ways to be unified and at peace within our lives and within our churches.

To be at peace within Paul calls us to first rejoice in the Lord. When we are grateful daily for God’s presence and blessings in our lives, our outlook is changed. We become more positive, even concerning the challenges we face. Paul next reminds us to be gentle. It is a disposition we do not often think of. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, put it this way: “do no harm”. Paul goes on to offer an alternative to our anxious spirits – take everything to God in prayer. Be thankful for the good, be honest and forthright with our requests. From this place of prayer, Paul tells us that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds. This peace of God will guard us against worry and anxiety and fear and doubt and stress and… once we trust these things to God in prayer. Giving them up, acknowledging God’s love and power and control, will bring us peace.

To be at peace in our lives and in the church, Paul gives us a list of what to focus on. In verse eight he directs our thoughts to focus on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praise-worthy. In short, focus on Jesus. Jesus is all these things and more. This is what Paul strived to live out, to model, and what he taught. Continuing on in verse nine, he encourages us to take all of these things and to “put it into practice”. Live out there traits of Jesus and we will find peace in our lives and in our churches. May it be so for us all.

Lord God, guide me in all these things – truth, being noble, righteousness… Focus me in always on the things of Christ, not of the world, not of my inner self. Form me more and more into one who dwells in your peace. Build up the unity in the body of Christ as we all seek to walk in the way of Jesus Christ. Amen.


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Far to Go

Reading: Psalm 106: 1-6 and 19-23

Verse 6: “We have sinned, even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly”.

Today’s Psalm connects into our Exodus 32 readings of the past two days. The Psalms often recount history as a way to both remember and to learn from it. In today’s case, the Psalm was likely written about 500 years after the Exodus from Egypt. Remembering thier stories was a big part of the Jewish faith. Like our stories or histories, for the Jews it reminded them of their sins and failures and of God’s love and mercy towards them.

Psalm 106 opens with praise to the Lord and with thanksgiving for how God blesses those who champion justice, shows favor and brings aid to his people, and gives a joyful inheritance from to his children. It is important to remember why they sought to live in a right relationship with God. Verse six shifts the focus. Reality enters.

In verse six we read, “We have sinned, even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly”. Despite knowing the story quite well, the Jews of the psalmist’s day struggle with sin just as their forefathers had. Sad to say, even with much more than 500 years gone by, we too continue to struggle with sin. In our society and sometimes in our very lives, golden calves abound. In many ways, our nation had forgotten God, just as the Israelites did from time to time.

Even within the church, we have gotten it wrong. Collectively and individually we have made poor choices, have walked out bad decisions, and have enforced policies that caused more harm – all scattered throughout our 2,000 year history. So often these blemishes, these lowlights, have come when we (the church or segments of the church) were so sure we were right that we could not consider any other possibility. Arrogance and pride and even tradition can be dangerous allies. To this point, I read a great line from Steve Harper in today’s Disciplines devotional: “We allege a certainty about our views apart from the humility to ever call them into question”. So true. Worse yet, we do harm to others from this place of arrogant and prideful certainty. We cast stones and look down long judgmental noses at those that dare speak out, that risk to question. And sometimes, once God forces us to see the error of our actions and words, in pride we refuse to seek forgiveness and to remedy the errors of our sins. Yes, church, we still have far to go.

As the body of Christ universal, may we begin to walk with Christ’s humility. May we each seek to be touched by God’s mercy and grace instead of clinging to our arrogance and pride. May we be a part of God’s stream of justice rolling down upon the earth. May the change begin within as we strive to let love alone be our guide and way.

Prayer: Lord God, when I am wrong and especially when I think only my way is right, bring the powerful conviction of the Holy Spirit fully to bear. Drive me to truly understand the path of Christ, the love filled humble servant who set the example. Strengthen me for the journey. Amen.


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Forgiven and Forgiving

Reading: Genesis 45: 1-15

Verse 5: “Do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you”.

Today’s passage centers on forgiveness. In the Christian faith we understand that forgiveness is a two-way street. Each Sunday most of us pray these words: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. If we want to partake of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness, we need to extend these same things to one another. For me, and perhaps for you, at times I struggle with each side of this equation.

It can be hard to admit we are wrong. It can be hard with both God and with others. There are times when it is difficult to admit I am wrong or have done harm. It can be easy to justify myself or to be self-righteous. Wanting to seek revenge or to get even can be tempting. But the way of love calls us to more. Jesus calls us to humility and honesty and transparency, to vulnerability and weakness, to confession and repentance. To enter and walk the path of Jesus, one must first practice forgiveness when we have sinned or caused harm. This was the first step for both Joseph and his brothers. For Joseph, it was to reckon with his younger self – the bratty, spoiled, arrogant Joseph – and the role that played. For the brothers it was to accept responsibility for what they did. Yes, God was at work behind the scenes, but they still harmed Joseph.

Sometimes it is difficult to extend forgiveness. At times it would seem easier just to keep that person on the outside, to keep them in a place where they cannot have a chance to be hurtful or harmful. (And, yes, there are times when it is necessary to end a relationship – in an abusive situation, for example.) As Jesus told Peter, we are not to forgive seven times, but seventy times seven! Just as we are each a work in progress before God, so too are all of God’s children. God has no limits or a quota on forgiving us. May we be the same, forgiving just as we are forgiven.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to ever be a person of grace. Help me to see and believe the best in everyone. Lead me to give my best and to recognize when I have given less, especially when I need to ask for or extend grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Guide me, O God. Amen.


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Best News Ever

Reading: Romans 10: 5-15

Verse 12: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him”.

Christianity can be exclusive. Since day one it is something we have struggled with. In the very earliest church they thought one had to first be Jewish before one could become a Christian. Soon enough the Gentile Christians were trying to exclude the Jewish Christians. That is partially what Paul is addressing today. To the church in Rome and to all Christians today, Paul says, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him”. All people are loved by God. In similar writings Paul adds slave and free, young and old… to illustrate that God is for all people.

Religion in general has a long history of using beliefs and sacred texts as a means to justify exclusivity and sometimes violence. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and a host of other religions have fought wars, conducted purges, persecuted, imprisoned, … others outside of their faith. This is a fine line we walk. To have a belief system inherently makes one feel that their belief system is “right” or “correct”. If you didn’t, would your faith be worth having and following? But to use those beliefs to do harm of any kind crosses a line that Jesus clearly drew. A quick look at Jesus’ ministry, teachings, and life reveal a God who loves all people.

Tension existed between Jesus and the dominant religion because of his inclusiveness. Jesus interacted with all kinds of people deemed unclean, unholy, and unwelcome. His inclusion of prostitutes and Samaritans, of tax collectors and adulterers, of lepers and other infirm revealed the depth and breadth of God’s love.

Paul ends today’s passage with an encouragement to be like Jesus – preaching and teaching. It is also a claim to exclusivity: to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the whole world. We are called to go and tell of God’s love found in Jesus Christ. It is the best news ever. May we go and tell one and all.

Prayer: Lord of all creation and of all people, may I be a bearer of the good news. May I always tell of a love that conquers all things, defeats all barriers, and welcomes all people. Amen.


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Walking Closer

Reading: Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

Verse 26:14 – “And while they were eating, he said, ‘I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me'”.

Jesus has been in ministry for three years. All of the men who sit around the table with him have been with Jesus for those three years – hearing the teachings, seeing the miracles, observing his example. It is hard to imagine any of these twelve men turning on Jesus. They have gathered to celebrate the Passover, an ancient tradition in the Jewish faith. On this sacred night when they remember and celebrate God’s mighty saving acts that led the Israelites to freedom, Jesus will be arrested, tried, and beaten. As they share the Passover meal, Jesus shares these words: “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me”.

It amazes me that Jesus could share this sacred and special time of faith and fellowship with the one who betrayed him. It is hard for me to even see someone who has betrayed me, never mind to sit and share a meal with them. It is hard to be kind and pleasant to one who has turned on me, never mind serving them the bread and cup. In passages like these I see face to face with my reality: I have a long ways to go in my walk with Jesus.

As we celebrate Palm Sunday and the triumphal entry today, we are on the edge of Holy Week. On Thursday we will again come face to face with this story and then with the crucifixion on Good Friday. Events along this week’s journey will again serve to remind me of my love of Jesus as well as of my areas of needed growth. I can envision what it would look and feel and be like to fellowship with my Judases and to offer them the Lord’s Supper. As I walk the road to Calvary with Jesus this week, may I come nearer to the place of loving those who harm and hurt me and those I love. As I follow in Jesus’ footsteps, may I come one day to walk in them.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for where I am in my journey of faith. I am grateful for my place in your family and for the walk so far. I know I am not what I was, but can also see that I have far to go. Lead and guide me to follow closer and closer, day by day. Amen.


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Perfectly Extraordinary

Reading: Matthew 5: 38-48

Once we begin our journey of faith, we are committing to walk in a way of the Lord, to work to become more and more like the perfector of our faith, Jesus Christ.  While we may never reach the perfection that Jesus exhibited, we are nonetheless called to press on towards that goal.  This is God’s desire for each of us.  It is why we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us – to be a constant presence and reminder of our call to live as children of God.

God calls us not to the ordinary, to the run of the mill, but to lives that are extraordinary, to lives that are outstanding.  In the opening verses of today’s passage, Jesus gives some examples that demonstrate going above and beyond.  If one strikes your right cheek (to show insult or offense), then offer your left cheek next (to extend love and friendship).  If someone demands your tunic, then give them your cloak as well.  If a Roman soldier ‘asks’ you to carry their pack one mile (as required by law), offer to carry it a second mile as well.  It is living with a willing and generous heart, even to those who harm, sue, and oppression you.  It is demonstrating extravagant love even to those who are hard to love.

It is a call to be “more” that Jesus issues.  He reminds us that we all love those who love us.  That is ordinary, normal.  Jesus says even tax collectors and pagans do this.  Jesus calls us to more.  In verse 48 He says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.  Jesus himself is our example of what God’s perfect love looks like lived out.  Jesus offered life, hope, healing, forgiveness, and love to all He met – regardless of whether or not they loved Him.

God expects the same of us.  Yes, this is perfection we are called to.  Yes, on our own this is impossible.  We are not alone.  The Holy Spirit leads and guides and corrects and redirects us to love as Jesus first loved us.  Each day God seeks to renew us, to make us each new creations, ‘born of the Spirit, washed in His blood’.  This day may we each offer extravagant love and extraordinary witness to all we meet, bringing glory to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, our risen King.


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God’s Kingdom

Reading: Isaiah 11: 6-10

The vision Isaiah lays out is hard to wrap our minds around.  We can picture a wolf with a lamb or a lion eating straw.  But to imagine this and all the other images Isaiah presents as the daily reality for all of the animals of the world really stretches our minds.  When Isaiah writes, “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my Holy mountain”, he means everyone and everything – man, animals, plants, nature…

We imagine heaven a number of ways.  Some see a beautiful city with streets paved with gold.  Some see us floating up in the sky, lounging on the clouds.  Some imagine a giant mansion with endless rooms in it.  But even more than what heaven will look like, we ‘know’ what it will be like.  We will constantly be in the light and live of God.  There will be no tears, no pain, no hurt, no hunger, no injustice, no oppression, no sin.

Jesus said, “This, then, is how you should pray… your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6: 9-10).  These familiar words from the Lord’s Prayer tie into the vision in Isaiah 11.  When Jesus taught the disciples this prayer, He included the idea of God’s kingdom coming here.  God’s will for the earth is peace, love, understanding, reconciliation, mercy.  God’s kingdom vision for the earth is the same as the vision for heaven.

So, what would our world look like if we put an end to all the harm and destroying?  What would life be like for all people if there was no violence, no abuse, no injustice, no oppression?  What would the world look like if there were no famine or drought or pestilence?  We, as God’s people, are kingdom builders.  What are you going to do today to help bring God’s kingdom to all the people you will encounter this day and to all the places you will be this day?


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God is There

Reading: Habakkuk 1: 1-4

Habakkuk begins by voicing what many of us have voiced as well: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen”?  Sometimes our prayers have been for a loved one, sometimes for a friend, and sometimes they are for a far away someone or a group of people that we do not know personally but are somehow connected to our heart strings.  We see hurt and injustice near and far and we bring it to the Lord.  But is seems to persist anyway.  Like Habakkuk, we cry out, “How long?”

Sometimes we come to a place where we feel we cannot bear the pain or hurt any longer.  Our cries turn to anger and we express our frustration with God’s apparent inactivity.  We hear this cry in Habakkuk’s words.  In our mind it makes no sense why our living God would ‘allow’ it to continue.  In our anger we may even want to turn away, to just forget the situation.  But we cannot.  Deep down we know that God does not ‘allow’ pain…  It is part of the world, just as joy is part of our world.  The Spirit reminds us of Jeremiah’s words, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (29:11).  We may not be able to understand God’s plans, but we still hold onto the promise.  There is comfort in this as we walk through the midst of a time of suffering or pain or injustice.

Even as we cry out, “How long?” we know that God is right there.  Our God of love seeks to bring us peace and strength and comfort and reassurance and whatever else we need right in the midst of our trial.  “I am with you” says the Lord.  In our trials, may we always trust into God and hold tightly to the hope we profess.  God is faithful.  God is love.  May we cling to the Lord our God in the storms.