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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Drawing Near

Reading: Mark 1: 9-15

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

Mark’s gospel quickly moves to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The prophecies and birth of John the Baptist and Jesus gets zero verses in Mark’s story. John the Baptist’s whole ministry gets seven verses. Jesus’ baptism gets three and his time being tempted in the wilderness gets two. John’s imprisonment and the start of Jesus’ ministry gets two verses combined. Mark moves quickly through these events. Mark’s compact gospel gives key quotes that often pack a punch. Verse 15 is one of those verses. These are the first words spoken by Jesus in Mark’s gospel.

Jesus begins by stating, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near”. It is time to begin public ministry. This ministry will involve the kingdom of God, incarnate in the person of Jesus, coming near to people. It will come near enough to touch people and to speak with people, to eat with people and to bless their lives. It will come near enough to enter into relationship with people. Jesus continues by saying, “Repent and believe the good news”! In another translation this reads, “Change your heart and lives” (CEB). This is closer to the original text. The word translated ‘repent’ implied expanding one’s mind to a new reality. Jesus engaged and lived in a whole new way, more fully expressing God’s love for each of us, his children. To engage the world as Jesus did, to love others as Jesus did – this requires a new way to see the world and to understand our purpose in it. This mind shift will lead to us living a radical, selfless life that stands out, that draws questions.

To become like Christ in mind and heart, in words and actions, will lead to opportunities to bring the kingdom near and to share our belief in the good news. Not blending in but living a holy and compassionate life will draw others into conversation, giving us the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ. In this way we will partner with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, drawing the love of God into other’s lives. As we seek to be the kingdom here on earth, we too will be changed. God’s blessings on the journey.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to live a life of faith that is noticable, that is radical. May my witness draw others in so that I have the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. Amen.


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Pleasing to God

Reading: Isaiah 58: 1-12

Verse 4: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”.

Photo credit: Jordan Wozniak

Today is Ash Wednesday. This is a great passage to consider as we prepare to journey into the season of Lent. The words of this Psalm are a wake up call to Israel and to all who approach their relationship with God superficially.

The ashes that we will place on our foreheads reminds us of our mortality. Ashes were used for this same purpose in the days of Isaiah. Remembering our mortality reminds us that we are finite, limited, imperfect. Today begins the season that culminates the Saturday before Easter Sunday. On Easter Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ triumph over the grave. In his resurrection we find our eternal hope. We are invited to walk through Lent as a season of preparation for that day. These forty days are a time of reflection, introspection, refining.

The people of Isaiah’s day were putting ashes on their foreheads, wearing sack cloth, bowing their heads to God. They were exhibiting all the outward signs of fasting. Today we can show up at church and have a cross drawn on our foreheads. We too can go through the motions. In our passage God’s people fasted, yes, but also continued to exploit the marginalized, to strike one another with “evil fists”, and to ignore the injustices and the oppression all around them. Verse four sums up God’s response: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”. We cannot come to church and go through the motions of worship or Bible study or youth group and then go out and live as the world lives.

In verses six and seven God shares the kind of fast that is pleasing to him. As fast pleasing to God changes our hearts and leads us to fight injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share food with the hungry, to give shelter to the wanderer, to clothe the naked. In Lent we are called to look within, to repent of our sins, our selfishness, our indulgences. Doing so we will come to have a heart focused on drawing God’s kingdom near.

Verse eight reveals what happens when God’s people turn towards him and become like him: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear”. May it be so.

Prayer: God of the brokenhearted, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the needy – lead me to the place of honest confession and sincere repentance. Make me aware of how I contribute to the pain and misery of the world and turn me from my harmful and hurtful ways. Kill in me all that keeps me from fully loving and serving you and all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.


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A Pure Heart

Reading: Psalm 51: 1-17

Verse 10: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me”.

Photo credit: Adrien Olichon

In Psalm 51 the psalmist begins by asking for God’s mercy to wash away their sins. The psalmist admits that “my sin is ever before me”. The author recognizes that his sin is against God and God alone. God has a right to judge him. We can all relate to what the writer of this Psalm is expressing and feeling. We’ve all been there.

The commonly accepted context for this Psalm is the aftermath of David’s affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. There was certainly a need for God’s grace and forgiveness at this point in David’s life. Although most of our sins are not this egregious, all sin separates us from God and damages our relationship with God and others. God’s mercy and forgiveness are universal needs.

In verse seven David begins to ask for God’s help in restoring the relationship that David broke. He cannot do this on his own. Here he asks God to “cleanse me with hyssop” and then, in verse nine, to “blot out all my iniquity”. These ideas, these phrases, resonate with the sacrament of holy communion. Once forgiven, once cleansed, David can ask God to “create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me”. In New Testament terms, the old is gone and the new has come. The old sinful self is washed away, replaced by a new self fully turned toward God. As a new creation in God, David desires to feel again the joy of salvation and to have a willing spirit within – one totally obedient to God.

This Psalm also resonates with our Ash Wednesday practices. Many Christians will seek to be restored and to dedicate themselves to a more holy and devout walk with the Lord as we begin our Lenten journey. The imposition of ashes reminds us of our finite nature and draws us to reflect upon our journey with Christ. It calls us to critically evaluate the condition of our souls. It draws us towards living with a more pure heart.

Our reading for today ends with these words: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise”. As we prepare to enter Lent may we find a new path to walk with Jesus, a path guided by just such a heart. With a pure heart we will be pleasing in his sight. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, bring me to that place of contrition, to the place of confession and repentance; show me the path to a closer walk, reveal the things I need to leave along the side of the path. Create in me a pure heart with a desire to be yours alone. Break my heart for what breaks yours, O God. 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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Strong, Loving

Reading: Psalm 62: 9-12

Verse 12: “You, O God, are strong… You, O Lord, are loving”.

In our reading today David begins by acknowledging that all of us are “nothing”, “only a breath”. We are each but a blip on God’s timeline. Therefore, David advises us not to trust in the things of this world, saying, “Do not set your hearts on them”. These are sobering thoughts. Yet they do not need to be frightening or to make us anxious. Our passage concludes with these words concerning God: “Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done”. We each have control over this reality. We are who controls and has influence over how God rewards us.

We are God’s creation, made in his image, born with the spark of the divine within us. We are also flesh and bone, drawn to the things of this world. David has experienced both sides of this, just as we have. As he writes from a place of maturity in his life and in his faith, he states, “You, O God, are strong… You, O Lord, are loving”. These two characteristics of God are what allow us the opportunity to receive an eternal reward that continues our relationship with the Lord. God’s strength is what guides us and empowers us to withstand the temptations of this world most of the time. God’s love is what forgives and redeems us when we fail to withstand. Thanks be to God for both his love and his strength!

Prayer: Lord God, as strong as you are, you understand my weakness. As loving as you are, you understand my selfishness. You understand both because in Jesus you walked both out in the world. So your love is always stronger than my weakness against the powers of the world. Guide me as I go out into the world; use me to help others know of your love and strength. Amen.


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Come and See

Reading: John 1: 43-51

Verse 46: “Come and see”.

Today’s passage opens with the call of Philip. Jesus “found” Philip and said to him, “Follow me”. The fact that Jesus found him implies that Jesus is looking for certain people. Just as God had Jesse’s older sons pass before Samuel until David – the one after God’s own heart – came and was anointed. Jesus must have seen a similar heart in Philip. Then, just as Andrew had done with Peter, Philip goes and finds Nathanael and says, “come and see” as he invites him to come meet Jesus. Philip too saw or felt something special in Jesus. All of these things that Philip experienced are a part of our call too. Jesus saw something special in our hearts, he knew we were ready at that moment. We saw something special in Jesus and he called, we followed.

Philip describes Jesus as “the one Moses… and the one about whom the prophets wrote”. He sees Jesus as part of the big story of God. After meeting Jesus, Nathanael calls him the “Son of God” and the “King of Israel”. He recognizes both Jesus’ divinity and authority. Earlier in John 1, John the Baptist calls Jesus the “lamb of God” and Andrew calls him the “Messiah”. How was Jesus introduced to you? Was it one of these names or was it Savior or healer or redeemer or comforter? Was it something else?

For the first disciples, each would come to know the many names for Jesus. Just as I am son, pastor, husband, follower, father, musician, brother, and so on, Jesus is not any one thing. As they grew in their faith and belief, just as we do, who and what Jesus is to us grows. Along our journey of faith others have taught us another “part” of Jesus, just as we in turn have taught others. In doing so we become part of the long line of disciples following the Christ.

Today, may we pause to praise God for three things. First, thank and praise him for your place in this family. Second, thank God and pray blessings upon all who have helped you to know Jesus. And, third, ask for guidance and discernment about who to share your Jesus with today as your life and words say, “Come and see”.

Prayer: Father God, thank you for all Jesus is as the head of this happy family. Thank you God for each who has helped me to know you more. Bless each and every one of them, O God. And, Lord, lead me to the one or ones who need to see you in and through me. 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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To Know and to Be Known

Reading: Psalm 139: 13-18

Verse 17: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God”!

Psalm 139 is about how well God knows us. Today’s section opens with “for you created my inmost being”. God first creates our heart, our soul, and then “knits” us together in the womb. There is not much that is more personal and intimate and connected than that. Next, David sees a parallel in the created world. He has observed that God’s works in the world are “wonderful”, stating, “I know that full well”! Then, thinking introspectively, David praises God because humanity is also “fearfully and wonderfully made”. These thoughts, of course, extend to you and to me. Knowing that the God of all creation has lovingly formed each of us should lead us to praise.

The other side of God knowing us is that we come to know God as well. As God searches us, God reveals who he is by leading us to be who he created us to be. As God hems us in, guiding us in his ways, we come to know God and his way. As we see ourselves as created by his hands and in God’s image, glimpses of God are revealed. As we awake each day and come to know that God is with us, we come to know of God’s faithfulness. Each day of living is another opportunity to know God more. May we rejoice today in the God who knows us and who wants to be known by us. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord, you know me inside out. You can finish my thoughts, you can predict my steps. Continue to guide my thoughts and to lead my steps, drawing me ever closer to you and your love. Amen.


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In Our Hearts

Reading: Psalm 139: 1-6

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

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

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

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

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