pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Rebirth, New Life

Reading: John 3: 1-17

Verse 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”.

Photo credit: Frank McKenna

In the dark of night Nicodemus comes to Jesus. He is one of the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is a “teacher who has come from God”. Nicodemus is seeking, searching, wanting to know more about Jesus, the one pulling on his heart. Jesus responds by telling him that to “see the kingdom of God” one must be “born again”. Nicodemus does not understand. He is stuck in his head, trying to figure out Jesus. Jesus speaks to the heart. Jesus presses on, explaining that it is not a physical rebirth but a spiritual rebirth. To be born of the Spirit one must believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. He plainly tells Nicodemus that “everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”.

Jesus brings it all together in verses sixteen and seventeen. Verse sixteen is well known: “For God so loved the world…” You probably know the rest. “God gave his one and only Son… whoever believes… shall not perish but have eternal life”. The love of God poured out in the giving of his Son for us is amazing, awesome, wonderful. In verse seventeen we see the “why” – why God sent Jesus: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”. Jesus came not to condemn but to save. Not to judge but to show the way to eternal life. The kingdom of God in Jesus Christ is based on love, mercy, grace, forgiveness. Jesus came not to condemn us, not to tell us that we’re not good enough, not to tell us we are unworthy, but to tell us that he loves us, values us, wants to save us. This is the good news.

As we seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, may rebirth and new life come in and through the saving power of God’s only Son. May his light shine today!

Prayer: God of love, may your light shine brightly today. In all I do and say may your glory be lifted up, exalted for all to see. Amen.


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Touch and See, Question and Wrestle

Reading: Luke 24: 36-43

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

Photo credit: Jennifer Araujo

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

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

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

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

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


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Falling Short

Reading: 1st Corinthians 8: 1-6

Verse 3: “The man who loves God is known by God”.

Paul begins this section on food sacrificed to idols by speaking of knowledge. He is talking about what is inside our heads. This is usually where faith begins. Most Christians follow the same path: learning about God, Jesus, and faith in Sunday school, youth group… as they mature in faith until one day the head knowledge becomes heart truth. As is true with almost everything in life, in our faith we understand more and more the longer we journey in faith. Within the Corinthian church some were relying their superior knowledge and it was causing division and it was hindering the faith journey of the new believers. In our churches today, we still do this at times. We allow our knowledge to “puff” us up.

The first way this happens is when we make our churches feel exclusive. We all look and talk alike, we act alike, we appear to be perfect Christians. We have those that we gravitate to each Sunday morning. A visitor can feel like an outsider very quickly, especially when they are not like the homogeneous crowd. Someone who comes because they are struggling with something really feels out of place when they enter a room full of people without any faults or issues. To further create a sense of “us” and “them” we use insider language and big fancy words. Maybe most regulars know what sanctification, justification, atonement, sacrament… mean. But if you are new to the faith, these terms can make you feel like an outsider very quickly.

In the Corinthian church the mature believers knew “that an idol is nothing at all”. To them, idols were just carved pieces of stone or wood. The mature believers knew that there was only one God, only one Lord. But for the new believers, the ones who had grown up worshipping these idols all their lives, this idea was a struggle. The mature believers were saying, in essence, “just get over it”, “just believe what I say I believe”. They were not willing to walk in love with their new brothers and sisters in Christ. They were not willing to enter the struggle, to walk alongside the one wrestling with their conscience.

We do this in our churches when we fail to talk about our sins and struggles. Church becomes a social club for the perfect and for the saints. Nope, no sin here. We know all we need to know to be good little Christians. In verse three Paul writes, “The man who loves God is known by God”. Loving God must lead to loving others. Jesus unpacks the truth of this idea in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). When we say we love God, when we say all are welcome in our churches but do not really welcome the sinners and broken people into our communities of faith, we are falling short. When we look down on those “obviously” dealing with sin by making them feel unwelcome, we are falling short. When we indirectly but clearly say come back when you have your life together, we are falling short. May it not be so church. May it not be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to truly love others as a witness to my love for you. Strip away my pride and judgmental tendencies, guide me to walk side by side in love with those in struggle, with those living outside of your love. Give me the courage to admit my struggles and sins within the body of Christ. Grant me a welcoming and compassionate spirit. Amen.


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Listen and Learn

Reading: 1st Samuel 3: 1-20

Verse 8: “Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy”.

On Monday I focused in on the call part of this passage. Just like Samuel, we all have a story of how God calls us. Samuel might not have known his call story if not for Eli. At this point, Eli is like Samuel’s father figure. Eli has raised Samuel since he was weaned from Hannah. Eli has been serving God a long time and has taught Samuel much, but “Samuel did not yet know the Lord”. Samuel knows who God is and knows a lot about God, but he does not know God. The head knowledge has not yet become heart wisdom. It is Eli that perceives that God is calling Samuel. Eli’s willingness to allow God to speak through another is a testament to his trust in God and to the love and trust that he has in Samuel. It is an example of humble servant leadership.

When Samuel does invite God to speak, the words are difficult to hear. Destruction will fall upon Eli’s household because Eli’s sons are “contemptible” and because Eli failed to “restrain them”. In the morning Eli presses Samuel, wanting to know what God said, probably sensing the bad news. Samuel speaks truth to Eli. Eli accepts the words, humbly acknowledging God’s goodness. I cannot imagine how hard it was for Samuel to say these words to Eli. Yet Samuel loves and trusts Eli enough to tell him.

Both Eli and Samuel understood that there was something bigger than themselves. Both Eli and Samuel loved and trusted God, as well as each other, enough to listen and to learn from each other. To listen and learn from each other. To understand the bigger picture. How our land needs these skills today! Both sides are so polarized that they cannot even hear each other, never mind listening to one another. Listening is essential. It is the only way to discern a good and right way forward. Yes, we can continue to plod down the road we are on, filled with self and contempt and half truths and rancor. We can walk the road of Eli’s household. Or we can choose a better way, one covered in love and peace and trust. These things will not come easy. Surrender never does. Elevating other over self, walking the path of unity and compromise, fighting for our way not my way – all are the work of a humble servant. May it be so Lord. Heal our land.

Prayer: Lord, the wind is howling here in South Dakota. Things are shaking and groaning. It reminds me of our nation right now. The winds can fan the flames or they can usher in something new. Bring a new sense of humble servant leadership to the land, blowing away the chaff. Bless us, O God. Amen.


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That Whoever Believes…

Reading: John 3: 1-17

Verse 16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life”.

Nicodemus is a man steeped in religious knowledge. His head is full of a lot of information. He lives mostly in the world of his head, but something is tugging at his heart. That is why he has come to see Jesus. His mind cannot identify the feeling he has but it cannot deny it either. We all have been where Nicodemus is. We want to try and think our way through it, but we cannot. We must experience it by allowing ourselves to feel it. Too often our reaction is to resist or deny or avoid. To go where the Spirit is leading is unknown, out of control, scary – so we do not allow ourselves to go there.

In today’s passage Jesus drives the conversation with Nicodemus. The Pharisee struggles with the idea of being born of the Spirit. Yes, the Old Testament speaks of a prophet who was guided by or even carried by the Spirit. But to be born again? To be born of the Spirit? Being made new and becoming part of God’s family sounds so familiar to our ears. But consider Nicodemus’ context for a moment. He was a part of Judaism since birth. There was no need for rebirth – you were born into the Jewish faith. No outreach or evangelism branch exists in the temple. The circle was closed. Converting to Judaism is a much more modern phenomena. In Nicodemus’ day one was either born a Jew or one was a Gentile. To be born again, into the family of God, just would not fit their context.

So Jesus shifts gears. He sees this is too big a step for Nicodemus to take at once. So he plants a seed. In verse fourteen Jesus connects what Moses offered in the desert to what he will offer from the cross. Nicodemus does not get it yet. But he will one day. In the desert Moses offered relief from the consequences of their sin. Look up at the snake and be saved from this sin. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he will also be lifted up, not just to atone for one sin but for all sins. He tells him that all who look in faith to Jesus can have eternal life. Jesus sums up his mission in verses sixteen and seventeen. Out of love Jesus came to save us from sin and death. All who believe in him as Lord and Savior will receive the gift of eternal life. Jesus shares that he did not come to condemn the world but to save it. Through Christ, God offers love and mercy, grace and forgiveness, and the promise of eternal life in his presence. This is offered to one and all. Jesus came to save the whole world. In parting he asked all disciples to join him in this task. May we do so each and every day.

Prayer: Loving God, as I enter the day, may I be light and love in the places I dwell. May I be the light that shines the focus on your Son, my Savior, Jesus Christ. To you be the glory! Amen.


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Straining, Straining, Straining

Reading: Philippians 3: 4b-14

Verse 12b: “… I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”.

Paul opens this section of Philippians with a long list of his accomplishments in his “past life”. At times we can do this. The “back in the good old days” stories can be fun to relive or they can be good reminders of what or who we used to be. For Paul, they are the latter. Before knowing Jesus, Paul was known as Saul. Saul was a very devout rule follower. Saul checked all the boxes of obedience to religion and was very respected among other rule followers. Saul and his fellow religious folks knew the Law inside out but did not follow the Law-giver. They had tons of head knowledge with no heart change.

Then Saul met Jesus one day and had a radical change of heart. In an instant he knew all of those past accomplishments we’re “rubbish”. He came to understand that righteousness comes not from following the letter of the Law – from checking off the boxes – but from faith in Christ alone. Saul took the Gentile-based version of his name and, as Paul, set about introducing as many people to Jesus as he possibly could. Knowing Christ and helping others to know Christ became Paul’s only goal, no matter the cost. He writes the letter we read from today while he is in prison. Where he is does not matter to Paul. His focus remains the same. Even as Paul sits in chains he writes, “… I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”. Yes, his freedom has been taken, he is barred from speaking in the square and the synagogue, but Paul still writes to encourage the church in Philippi and churches ever since. His words are of great encouragement today.

Paul’s words can become our words. In verse 13 he speaks of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead”. I love his choice of “straining”! In spite of opposition or trial or suffering or cost, with all that he is Paul is giving everything he has to spread Jesus’ name so that all can know the good news. Paul strains for the same reason we should strain: the goal, the prize “for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus”. May we keep our focus on the goal too, straining ahead, straining to share Jesus Christ with as many as we can.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me to strain more often. Push me a bit more out of my safe, comfortable places. Amen.


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Head Over Heels

Reading: Psalm 63: 1-5

Verse 1: “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you”.

In our Psalm today, David is in the desert and he is seeking God. He offers a prayer to God that gives thanks for God’s power and glory and love. In the desert, in “a dry and weary land”, David’s soul longs for God. In the opening verse we read, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you”. David earnestly seeks God. This is not a casual search for God. It is a search filled with passion and a sense of commitment, maybe even with a little urgency added in.

Yesterday at noon I gathered around the table with the usual crew that makes up the noon Bible study. Earlier in the morning some men of the church gathered to work through our church’s Lenten study. This afternoon I’ll gather with the book club as we discuss our chapters for the book that we have been reading about prayer. Tonight I will gather with about 8 high school boys to talk about being a man of God. Then after that I’ll gather with a different group of men to work through our Lenten study. The people that make up these groups ranges from teenagers through those well into retirement. There are men and women, some single, some married, some divorced, some widowed. One of the beautiful things they have in common is the very thing that David writes about today: a thirst for God, a longing for God.

The teen boys are just beginning their journeys of faith and are just getting to know God. Many of the people I gather with have been walking with God longer than I have been alive. I often have said to the youth I work with that there is nothing much more beautiful to me than the 90-year-old still showing up for Bible study each week. This image reflects what all of our journeys of faith should look like.

When we are pursuing God, our thirst and longing for God is never quite satisfied. We study and learn more and more about God. We grasp a new truth and deepen our faith. But along the way we also see new areas of darkness in that corner of our life and we discover that we still have some work to do. Along the way we also come to new questions and to new places of understanding that call us on to more prayer, seeking, and study. Being in love with God draws us to want to know God more and more. As we continue to thirst and long for God, we find that our pursuit leads us to fall head over heels in love with God. When we seek God, we will find God, deepening our relationship with God. May it ever be so.

Prayer: God, thank you for the parts of yourself that you have revealed to me. What I have come to know draws me to want to know even more. Keep me ever hungry, ever seeking. Keep me hungry and thirsty for you, O God. May I never be satisfied but always want more of you. Always. Amen.


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Step Two

Reading: Acts 8: 14-17

Verse 17: “Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit”.

The early church fascinates me. All they knew was Jesus. They preached about salvation – the blessing that came with entering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They told others about how Jesus changed their lives and offered Him to them so that they too could be born anew. The early church lived out their faith boldly and as a witness to Jesus and His love. They lived out in and with the world, sharing the good news with any and all. In them we can see just how easy it is to share the good news – we just have to tell others what Jesus has done and is doing in our lives, opening their eyes to what Jesus can do in their lives.

The early church learns that some in Samaria have accepted the word of God and were baptized with water. The Spirit had not yet come. So Peter and John are sent to help these new believers through step two. There, in Samaria, “Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit”. It was simply an invitation to go one step further, one step deeper – to not only be baptized into Jesus’ name, but to invite and accept into themselves Jesus’ living presence, the Holy Spirit. This second step brought the relationship with Jesus to fullness.

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is still the second necessary step. One can come to understand that Jesus is the way, truth, and life. One can come to know that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone. We can share Jesus and people can comprehend that Jesus is the Messiah. All of this is just head knowledge. Until they claim Jesus as their own and invite Him into their heart, to dwell in them, then Jesus is just head knowledge. This second step – inviting Jesus to be a daily presence – is essential. The invitation brings the daily guidance and presence of Jesus into a believer’s heart. Then Jesus becomes king not only of their mind but also if their heart. We can lead people to know who Jesus is and we can share the power He has to change lives, but only that person can invite Jesus into their heart.

Prayer: God, allow others to know Jesus through my life – my words, my actions, my teaching. Allow my witness to draw others closer to you so that they can invite indwelling presence of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, into their lives, making them fully yours. If I am but one step in their journey to you, thank you for allowing me to play that role too. Thank you Jesus! Amen.


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18″ Journey

Reading: Job 42: 1-6

Verse 5: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you”.

In our passage today, for Job, God has made that 18″ journey. Previous to his great trials, Job was a righteous man. He was obedient in following the Law. He worshipped God on the Sabbath, he gave to his local synagogue, he spoke to God daily. In life, Job was an honest man, a hard worker, a person who could be counted on. Job lived a blessed life – a wife, lots of children, large herds and flocks, many servants, good friends. Job was blessed and saw God as the source of his blessings.

Then one horrible day the storm hit and Job’s world was rocked. It was not a doctor saying they had found cancer. It was not a spouse saying they were done with the marriage. It was not a boss handing him a pink slip. These are horrible things that we and those we love experience. For Job, it was losing all of his kids, flocks, herds, and servants. And then being covered in painful sores.

Job succeeded in two things during his trial: he knew that God was still with him and he knew that God was ultimately in control. Yes, Job questioned why all this was happening to him – much like we do in our trials. But Job held onto God. In the wrestling with and questioning of God, Job was transformed. Verse 5 speaks of this: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you”. Job knew who God was and he followed all His rules – because that is what you do. He knew who God was and he followed out of obedience. But then Job experienced God up close and personal. He got to know God because of and through the trial. God made that 18″ journey from head to heart. Job now had a personal relationship with God.

If God exists in your head, may the Lord bless you with a season of wrestling and questioning, drawing you into relationship. If God dwells in your heart, join me in rejoicing as we shout “thanks be to God”!

Lord, I thank you for dwelling in my heart. I thank you for such a great love that loves even me. I pray for my fellow brothers and sisters who have begun their journey but gave yet to surrender their heart. Move in them, Lord, to become the king of the throne of their heart as well. May it be so. Amen.


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In Love

Reading: Ephesians 4: 15-16

Verse 15: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the head, that is, Christ”.

Words are powerful. James compares our tongues to the rudder of a giant ship. This small piece of equipment can easily direct a huge ship. He also compares the tongue to a spark – with just a quick flash it can set a whole forest on fire. Perhaps like me you too have said a word or two in anger or in the heat of the moment and have just been engulfed in a firestorm. Words are powerful.

In today’s passage Paul advises us to “speak the truth in love”. There are two parts to this statement. The first is to speak the truth. We have all been in situations where this is hard. We will all encounter times and situations when truth needs to be spoken. Perhaps a child has gone a little astray or a brother or sister in Christ is struggling with some poor choices. They need us to be prophets, reminding them of God’s ways and to call them back to faithful living.

The second half of Paul’s advise is to speak the truth in love. Yes, at times it is harder to speak in love. Yes, at times it is downright challenging. Yet it is still what we are called to do. This may require taking a deep breath or even stepping away for a little while. It will definitely include swallowing our pride or our inclination to judge or condemn now and then. In spite of the difficulties, we can make the choice to speak truth in love. In the Gospels we have a wonderful example to follow: Jesus Christ. He is also the “why” behind speaking the truth in love.

The rest of verse 15 reads, “We will in all things grow up into Him who is the head, that is, Christ”. When we practice Paul’s advise, we will grow in all things to be more and more like Jesus Christ. That is ever our goal on this journey of faith. Our short passage today concludes with this: “From Him the whole body grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work”. Each of us – each of us – doing our part, helps to build up the whole body. May we each be connected to Him, the head. May we each allow His Holy Spirit to lead and guide our words and actions today so that they will build up our family of faith. Amen.