pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Like a Mighty River

Reading: Ezekiel 34: 20-24

Verse 22: “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another”.

In today’s reading Ezekiel turns his focus to those who are leading, to those who are in charge. The Babylonians were powerful. They exerted their might and took many Israelites into captivity. In exile, the Israelites lived in a society that favored the privileged and wealthy, that allowed greed to exploit the weak, that turned a blind eye to injustice. Those who were wealthy, greedy, unjust are the “fat sheep” that Ezekiel refers to. As one considers our nation today, Ezekiel could very well be writing in 2020.

The ways of greed and inequity and oppression are not the ways that God intends for us to live. God therefore pledges to judge between the fat and lean sheep. God sees how the wealthy and powerful “shove with flank and shoulder”, forcing their agendas, manipulating the weaker, the less powerful. God will intervene, God will put an end to the sins being committed against his children. In verse 22 we read, “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another”.

Plunder is an interesting choice of words. It maybe feels like an old term, an outdated term. Yet it is very relevant today. A man in our community invested many years earning an advanced degree in college. He is a skilled professional in the medical field. The major corporation that he works for unilaterally cut all people in his profession to 30 hours a week. He, like his colleagues, now has no benefits. This corporation has plundered these people.

God promises to save his flock, to judge between the sheep. There is a promise to end greed, oppression, and injustice. To those living in exile, to those living in unjust systems today, these words speak hope. To the fat sheep, these words should be a warning, a call towards self-reflection. But only the sheep with ears to hear will be changed.

Just as God sent Ezekiel to the exiles in Babylon, we read that God will send David to the Israelites who are surrounded by enemies, who live daily under threat of assault. In time God will come in the flesh, bringing hope and salvation to the people oppressed by the Romans and their own religious leaders. Jesus charged his followers to do as he did: feed the hungry, tend to the sick and lonely and imprisoned, clothe the naked, unbind the captives, bring sight to the blind. It is no wonder many Jews thought Jesus the second coming of Ezekiel.

As we seek to do these things, to follow the example of Christ, we do so with the realization that they run counter to our culture, against the ways of greed and power, in defiance of the oppression and injustice that is too prevalent in our nation. May the Lord our God empower us as we seek to be light and love, peace and compassion, mercy and justice to the world.

Prayer: Lord God, give me feet to walk the narrow road, the hard path. Give me courage to stand for those who are weak, lean, powerful, voiceless. May your justice roll down like a mighty river. 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.


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Remaining Connected

Reading: Genesis 25: 19-34

Verse 21: “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren”.

Last week we looked at the miraculous story of finding a wife for Isaac. The baby born when mom and dad were 90 and 100, respectively, marries a wife that clearly God had a hand in selecting. Remember how the servant’s prayer was exactly how things unfolded in finding Rebekah? It seemed like a fairy tale beginning to a storybook marriage. But then, in today’s passage, we find that it is not exactly the case. They cannot have children. Rebekah is barren.

One of the main reasons for marriage was to have children, to produce heirs. Children were a couple’s pride and joy. They were a sign of God’s blessings. But Isaac and Rebekah were without children. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, like Zechariah and Elizabeth and many other couples to follow, this barrenness was like a cross to bear. And like all the other cases of barrenness that we read about in the Bible, God chooses to intervene in their behalf. In verse 21 we read, “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren”. God responds with twins! As it was with all of these couples, God has a plan and will work it out in his time and in his way.

Although for most of us barrenness is not our issue, for some couples it is. Others deal with sickness or disease. Some struggle with an addiction. Anger, doubt, anxiety, pride, selfishness, loneliness, singleness – the list of things we bring to God is long. We all need God’s intervention. Whatever valley we are in or whichever sin we are currently dealing with, we all need God to answer our prayer. For us, as it well may have been for Isaac, the waiting is the hardest part.

In the passage it sounds so easy: he prayed and they become pregnant – all in one verse. We’d all like our prayers answered in what appears to be expediency. But more often our reality is like Isaac and Rebekah’s reality – married when he was 40, the twins are not born for another 20 years. For us there is often a span of time that falls between our initial prayer and God’s response. Isaac and Rebekah remain connected to God and God remains connected to them. They trust in God’s plan. May we do so as well.

Prayer: God of all, you created this world and continue to create, to form, to shape, to guide. Help me to have a faith that is trusting and patient, content and assured. Lead me to a faithful and long walk with you. Amen.


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The End?

Reading: John 11: 1-27

Verse 17: “On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days”.

Each time I read this passage from John 11, I have the same initial reactions. Why didn’t Jesus heal Lazarus from afar? This is clearly within his options as Jesus has done this before for another who was ill (John 4). Adding depth to the question is the relationship that Jesus enjoyed with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus – they were good friends. If he were to heal anyone from afar, wouldn’t it be a good friend? Jesus does “heal” Lazarus after all. But that is for tomorrow’s part of the story.

Today’s passage largely centers around the idea of time. Here we see Jesus operating in one aspect of time while the disciples, Mary and Martha, and all those mourning operate in another aspect of time. Once in a while we step into Jesus’ time, but most often we live like the rest of the people in the passage. Mary and Martha send out the call for their good friend, Jesus, to come heal their brother Lazarus. They want Jesus to come now. They think Jesus needs to come now. The disciples probably think Jesus should leave now. Jesus stays two more days before beginning the journey to Bethany.

We often want things now too. We, as a general rule, do not like to wait. We all want COVID-19 to be over last week, right? We have all wanted the new job, the wedding or due date, the first day of college… to be here now. If we are ill or suffering, we want God to intervene now. We are also familiar with being on the other of the spectrum. If Lazarus were our brother, we would want death to come never. Yet it does come. In Martha’s words we hear words we have spoken or at least thought: “Lord, if you had been here…”

When Jesus arrives we learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days. The time for healing has surely passed. At least in Mary and Martha’s minds, in the disciples’ minds, in all the mourner’s minds, even in our minds – unless you know the end of the story. Jesus does. He knows the end of our story too. He reveals it in verses 25 and 26: “I am the resurrection and the life… whoever lives and believes in me will never die”. Jesus is not just talking of our earthly time. He is also speaking of unbounded time – of God’s time. Believing in Jesus brings true life to this side of time. But he is also saying that our last breath here is only the end of our earthly time and life. The moment of death is just the beginning of our eternal life with God. This is the resurrection that all who believe cling to. It shatters our limited understanding of time. Thanks be to God for this “ending” to our story.

Prayer: Father of all, thank you for your eternal claim on me and upon all who call your Son our Lord and Savior. It brings hope in today and on the hardest of days. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Compassion

Readings: Psalm 29 and Psalm 72: 1-7 and 10-14

Psalm 72, verse 4: “He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy”.

Beginning in Psalm 29 one feels the glory and strength and splendor of God. There is power and might in God’s voice. It is like thunder that breaks the cedars and strips the forest bare. God’s voice thunders over the waters and the whole earth. David closes by remembering that the God who resides far above us, the one enthroned forever, will also give strength and blessings of peace to his people.

Turning to Psalm 72 Solomon adds depth to God’s character. For Solomon, God is a God of justice and righteousness. The powerful and somewhat distant God of the heavens in Psalm 29 is also a God that cares personally for the afflicted. In Psalm 72, verse four, we read: “He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy”. Those that many in society will look past or over, God sees and will intervene on their behalf. God incarnate, Jesus in the flesh, echoes this compassion for the outcast and downtrodden. Jesus often speaks of feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners… In Matthew 25 Jesus even defines such actions as part of the sorting process for admission into eternal life.

Even though God and later Jesus are compassionate and loving towards “the least of these”, in our world today this just does not seem like a high priority for most Christians. There seems to be plenty of time to go hunting or to a sporting event or ten, but when the call goes out to be in mission at the jail or to serve a meal to those in need, the line is noticably shorter.

Too often our busyness feels consuming and too easily becomes the excuse we give when the voice of the Holy Spirit comes calling. Think about all the passages in the Bible that speak of the times that Jesus was too busy to heal the blind man or to build faith in one who came at night or… Oh ya – there aren’t any. There shouldn’t be any in our lives either. May it be so.

Prayer: Compassionate God, your heart goes out to the needy and it is closely followed by your hands. The heart of Jesus always had time for the powerless and the outcast. Make my heart more like that too, O God. Pour your heart into mine. Amen.


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Faithful God

Reading: Acts 16: 25-34

Verse 34: “He was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole family”.

Paul and Silas find themselves in prison. They were falsely accused, beaten, and thrown into prison. They could have been angry at the magistrates or the people who falsely accused them. They could have been mad at God. Either of these would have been our reactions. But instead we find them praying and singing hymns. We do not know if they were joyful in their spirits, having suffered for Jesus’ name. We do not know if they were fervrently praying for God to intervene in their bleak situation. We do not know if they were seeking the next opportunity to witness for Jesus Christ. We do know that in spite of their circumstances their faith was still very strong and was what they looked to first in this time of need.

We probably will not be falsely accused, beaten, and imprisoned today. We might face hardship or a difficult situation though. Maybe there are big stressors at work. Maybe an illness or disease has beset us or a loved one. Maybe we are dealing with a loss or a major change in life. There are many things that can befall us. These trials and tribulations can easily lead us to be angry or upset or to blame God. We often teeter on that line when we face distress. We can also tend to try everything but prayer and faith, turning to these options only when all else has failed. Today in our passage it is what Paul and Silas turn to first.

Paul and Silas are faithful to God and the calling that God has placed upon their lives. They see faith as primary and mission as secondary. All else does not matter too much. Because they are faithful, so too is God. A violent earthquake opens cell doors and unlocks chains that bind. The jailer fears the worst but Paul seizes the opportunity and offers a better solution. The jailer seeks what Paul and Silas have to offer, asking, “What must I do to be saved”? They preached Jesus Christ to him and “He was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole family”. God worked in another unexpected way, bringing one and his whole family to faith in Jesus Christ.

Who will we encounter today that will recognize the faith we have? Will we be prepared to share the joy and hope we have in Jesus Christ, encouraging another to believe and to be saved?

Prayer: Lord of salvation, give me a faith that overflows into all that I do and say and think today. May I turn first and only to you in all things – good and bad. Let my faith in you open doors and break chains today. May it be so. Amen.


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A New Thing

Reading: Isaiah 43: 16-19a

Verses 18-19: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing”.

Isaiah was a prophet of the Lord God who lived in the 7th century BC, at the time of the rise of the Assyrian empire. As a prophet he often wrote or spoke about Israel’s disobedience towards God and the consequences thereof. Isaiah also reminded the people of God’s covenant love for them. The opening verses of today’s passage, which point towards hope, are an example of this. Isaiah’s words are often referenced in the New Testament and are found in songs and other writings used in worship today.

In our passage God speaks to the people, through Isaiah. The passage begins with a reminder of a time when God’s hand was at work to save the Israelites. Just after their exodus from Egypt, Pharaoh sent the army to bring them back. But God parted the sea, allowed the Israelites to pass through, drew the Egyptians in, and closed the waters in over them, killing the entire army. It was a dramatic and powerful movement of God on behalf of His chosen people. During our lives we too experience times when God has done the same for us – intervened in a powerful way. Sometimes God rescues us, sometimes God restores us or renews us or provides for us. Each of the become a touchstone moment in our faith. Like the Red Sea experience for the Israelites, these are times we can look back on to find hope and strength for our current battle or struggle or trial.

God then changes directions and says, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past”. The people must have been having a “woe is me” moment. They are aware of the storm rising on the horizon as the Assyrians grew in strength. Their current and soon to be circumstances must have felt overpowering. We too find ourselves here now and then. A life change ahead leaves us worried and fearful. Like the Israelites, we look for God to do another big thing.

But God is not going there. In verse 19, God says, “See, I am doing a new thing”. Be patient. Keep your eyes open. Look for how God is at work. What will God do in the midst of or in the aftermath of the storm? Don’t always expect grand and earth-moving. Trust and see what the Lord God is doing. Dig deep, allow God to work in God’s ways, transforming you along the way. See how God is at work in you!

Prayer: God of all possibilities, you are ever at work – in the world, in those around me, in me. Continue to be alive and active in my life, helping me to see the new thing. At times, help me to trust, to be patient, to wait upon you. Amen.


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Love, Bless, Value

Reading: Mark 10: 13-16

Verse 16: “He took the children in His arms, and He blessed them”.

Our short passage today is about many things. It begins with a desire for a blessing. It includes a desire to see the “real work” of God being done. It includes an invitation with a nod to having such simple faith. It concludes with welcome, love, and blessing.

The passage begins with parents bringing their children to Jesus. It was the norm to have the rabbi bless the child. This usually occurred at the temple, much as baptism occurs in many of our churches. To bring them to this itinerant rabbi was similar – except there was something special about this Jesus. As parents we all want our children to be blessed, so we can relate to their motives here.

But the disciples try to intervene. Children were at the bottom of the social ladder, of little worth in society’s eyes. This was part of their trying to ‘protect’ Jesus. The larger part, though, was that this would distract Jesus from the ‘real work’ of ministry: preaching, teaching, healing. This was the disciples angle, to allow Jesus to work. We can all relate here too. How often we ignore or wish we could have avoided those trivial or unimportant things or people. That phone call, that knock on the door, that email – yes, maybe distractions. But maybe opportunities to minister to another.

Preventing the children from coming to Him upsets Jesus. He elevates their status – the kingdom belongs to these – and He recognizes their inner value – examples of how to receive love and God and faith. To demonstrate this, Jesus takes them in His arms and He blesses them. I envision this being a robust hug and a personal engagement with each child. I imagine the blessing is compassionate and loving and focused on each child. It is dedicated and intentional time. It is how we too should see and receive and treat all people, especially those that society deems unworthy and of little or no value. To these belong the kingdom of God.

Father God, how you love the children! Help me to love them as you do. May I never be too busy or too selfish – for then I miss the opportunities to love and bless those you send my way. In your name I pray. Amen.