pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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The Kingdom of Love

Reading: Psalm 48

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

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

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

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

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


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After God’s Heart

Reading: 2nd Samuel 5: 1-5 and 9-10

Verse 2: “You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler”.

Today’s passage begins with leaders from the tribes of Israel coming to David, asking him to be their king. David has already been made king over Judah and Simeon, the two southern regions of what was once a united nation. After Saul’s death David took up residence in Hebron, a major city in this region. A civil war had torn the nation apart. The ten northern tribes retained the name “Israel” and were under the control of Saul’s army and family. During the war David’s position grew stronger and Saul’s forces grew weaker and weaker. As the ugly civil war ends, representatives of the northern tribes come to David and ask for him to rule them too. They quote from the time when the prophet Samuel anointed a young shepherd boy, saying, “You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler”.

God’s words come to fruition as David moves his capitol to Jerusalem and builds up the city and the fortifications. God continues to bless David as he grows “more and more powerful”. The one who anointed him and led him all these years continues to guide David.

David is one of my favorite Bible characters. While God was always with David, as he is with us, David was not perfect. The civil war and the establishment of Jerusalem as the capitol are filled with stories that turn the stomach. David’s affair with Bathsheba, the murder of her husband, and his poor parenting techniques reveal plenty of flaws in David. Yet just as grace and forgiveness are not about us, so too was the case with David. Grace and forgiveness come from God, a free gift to us. Over and over David experiences God’s grace and forgiveness not because he was perfect but because he had a repentant heart. David remained a man after God’s own heart. May it be so for us as well.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the example of David, one who was truly a man after your own heart. Even though he stumbled and failed at times, he always came back to you, the source of his hope and strength. When I stumble and fail, draw me back to you over and over. Thank you for your great love. Amen.


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Giants

Reading: 1st Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 19-23, and 32-49

Verse 32: “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him”.

Photo credit: Steve Halama

We enter today into a familiar story. Israel and the Philistines are at war again. They are encamped across the valley from one another and each day Goliath comes out to challenge the Israelites: “Choose a man and have him come down to me”. No one from the Israelite camp is raising a hand; no one is jumping up and down saying to King Saul, ‘Pick me! Pick me’! At the sight of this nine foot tall behemoth the Israelites are “dismayed and terrified”. Day after day this scenario plays out. Day after day Israel is dismayed and terrified.

We all have our giants. In 7th grade it was a bully named Leo. He towered over me in many ways. When I was nineteen it was going to my parents to tell them I’d failed out of college. At three stops in my twenties I worried and stressed about being a good father for these three little human beings. At 47 I was a bit terrified and a lot unsure about the future as I left my career of 23 years to enter vocational ministry. In my mid fifties now, I still worry and stress about being good enough, about letting go and letting God lead, and about the upcoming rupture in my denomination and most likely in my church. There are days when the old giants come back and haunt me. There are days now when my current giants hold me back in fear. We all have our giants.

David arrives at the battle front just as Goliath is once again shouting down the Israelites. Brought before Saul, David says, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him”. The Spirit of the Lord that came upon David when he was anointed by Samuel remains strong as ever in him. With full trust in God, David slays Goliath “in the name of the Lord Almighty”. The battle truly belonged to the Lord.

This is true for you and for me too. Yet in our battles with our giants we try and fight on our own. Some days I flail against my fears and doubts and other days I don’t even step near the battle line. On these days my giants win without a fight. But what if we did not fight alone? What if we “gave it all” into God’s hands – ourselves and our giants? If we would but do this then our giants would fall “facedown on the ground”. May it be so for you and for me. The battle belongs to the Lord.

Prayer: God of heaven’s armies and my little battles, go with me today. Remind me that I too am anointed by your Holy Spirit. Remind me that you are the only one in control so that I can fully trust in you, the Lord Almighty. I fight on my knees now, giving it all to you. Amen.


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Belonging in God

Reading: 1st Samuel 8: 4-9

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

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

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

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

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

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

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


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Put the Spirit on Me!

Reading: Isaiah 42: 1-9

Verse 1: “I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations”.

Isaiah writes and speaks to the defeated, hopeless nation of Israel. They have been in exile for almost a generation. Many are beginning to wonder if this is their new reality. The people need to be reminded that God’s love still burns bright and that God’s promises remain true. We too can get to this point after being too long in the valley of trial or grief or suffering. As we begin Holy Week, I think of the disciples as they spent that first Sabbath without Jesus. He has just been crucified, swallowed up by the grave.

Beginning in verse one of Isaiah 42, God speaks of a coming servant, of one in whom God will delight. God foretells, “I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations”. This servant will not break a “bruised reed”, he will not snuff out a “smouldering wick”. No, the servant will bring healing and love just as God will bring back the exiles, bruised and smouldering as they are, back to Israel, back to life. The servant will bring life. He will “open eyes that are blind, set free captives, … release those who sit in darkness”. Jesus will be the new covenant and the light to the Gentiles. All will fall within God’s circle of love as revealed by Jesus Christ. In and through Jesus a “new thing is declared”: you are loved! These words will be poured out to one and all through God’s radical, unconditional love.

As I consider these words and the example set by Christ, the one who loved Jew and Gentile, slave and free, saint and sinner, rich and poor…, I ask myself who I struggle to love. As I search my heart, preparing it to allow Jesus to wash my feet and to share the bread and cup with me on Maundy Thursday, I find ones who I struggle to love. How would Jesus love such as these? Jesus would love without limit, without condition, without requirements. Who comes to mind for you?

May God put his Spirit on me and on you. May we shine the light of Jesus’ love on one and on all.

Prayer: Lord God, this is a tough thing to consider today. Who do I fail to love as you love them? What limits my ability to love as Jesus loved? Lord, I want to be an instrument of justice, a bearer of your love. Convict me by the power of the Holy Spirit when I fall short, when my love fails. Empower me by the same Spirit to love more like you love. Amen.


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Marvelous

Reading: Psalm 118: 1-2 and 19-29

Verse 22: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone”.

Have you ever been driving down the road and, as you looked ahead, thought there was water or oil across the road? Or have you ever approached someone, thinking it was a friend, only to have them turn at the last second, revealing the face of a stranger?

Psalm 118 is a song of God’s love for Israel. The psalmist writes of God as helper, refuge, defender. The psalmist rejoices in God’s strength, righteousness, joy, salvation. The Psalm speaks of the blessings of the one who comes in God’s name and of the festive parade when the faithful process to the temple. Is that King David we see in our mind’s eye? Or is that Gideon returning after defeating the Midianites? Or is it Ezra welcoming the exiles back to a rebuilt city and temple? Perhaps that is Jesus coming up the hill on the colt.

In verse 22 we read, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone”. These words do not fit David or Gideon or Ezra or any other king or prophet that rode into Jerusalem. Only one’s “festal parade” would end with him being the sacrifice. The parade, the palms, the celebration of tomorrow is a bit of an illusion too. The cheering crowds of Palm Sunday will soon be the taunting and jeering crowds at week’s end. Many who shout “Hosanna”! and wave palm branches are caught up in the excitement. Soon enough many will reject Jesus Christ, enabling the religious leaders in their quest to be rid of Jesus. There is an illusion here too. They are not eliminating Jesus; they are an essential part of the glory that will be revealed on Easter, on resurrection day. There are many plot twist and turns in the week ahead. Much is not as it seems to appear. The tide rolls along, ever guided by the hand of God.

We begin tomorrow with the celebration, the palms, the joy of Jesus’ triumphal entry. Knowing the end of the story allows us to walk with Jesus, knowing the truth of verse 23: “The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes”. Yes, Easter is coming. God is in control. Give thanks to the Lord! His love endures forever!

Prayer: God, you are the creator, the one who sets all things in motion. You sent Jesus knowing he’d be rejected and killed. You did so knowing he is the capstone of the kingdom you are building. You sent him to us, knowing what we’d do. Thank you for your great love, O God. Amen.


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A New Covenant

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

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

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

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

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

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

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


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The Wilderness

Reading: Psalm 107: 1-3

Verse 1: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever”.

Psalm 107 is a Psalm that reminds us of God’s faithful love. It is a song of thanksgiving to the God that never abandons or leaves his people. The Israelites and individuals within the faith community have experienced this faithful love. The nation has experienced exile, slavery, and times of oppression and conflict with those living around them. Individuals like Joseph, David, Samuel, and Job have had their own wilderness experiences. Each time that the community has found themselves in the wilderness, whatever that may be, God has remained present and connected to his people. At times the connection was to a small remnant, but God was always faithful. Experiencing this over and over has led them to “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever”.

As we experience life we also find ourselves in the wilderness from time to time. We find ourselves there in many ways. Loss and grief can lead us into the wilderness. Moving, job loss, and other forms of unwanted change can lead us to this place. Sudden bouts of physical or mental illness can take us to the place of isolation and fear. Yes, there are many ways that we can find ourselves in the wilderness. If we choose to remain connected to God, then we experience what the psalmist and the Israelites experienced. God remains present. God sustains us. God’s faithful love endures the trials with us. From these experiences we too can proclaim: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever”. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, your love is grander than the mountains and deeper than the ocean’s depths. Your faithfulness stretches past the furthest star. I am but a tiny speck in the cosmos, but you love me as if I were the only speck. Thank you, God. Amen.


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He Will Gather

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 7-14

Verse 10: “He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd”.

Our passage from Jeremiah feels very relevant for the time in which we live. It begins with the Lord inviting the faithful to “sing with joy” and to “make your praises heard”. Then, God reveals what they are to sing: “O Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel”. It would maybe seem odd to sing with joy when the chosen people are but a remnant, a fraction of what they once were. But God has plans to restore them, to bless them once again. In verse eight God tells the Israelites that he will gather them “from the ends of the earth”. In fact, a “great throng” will be gathered back together. Sometimes, for me, this is what church feels like in these COVID times. We feel scattered. Just a remnant gathers. I, perhaps we, long for the Lord to regather the flock, to end this exile.

Verse nine brings a bit of reality. God tells them that they will “come with weeping” and that they will pray as they return. The children of God will weep tears of joy as they come home, as they are finally where they belong. I remember well the tears of joy and the emotions that stirred within me back in August when the church regathered in the sanctuary for the first time in what felt like forever. Once again we have been isolated, in exile if you will. It feels like we might gather again soon, ending the online only of December. I do not believe that I will be alone in my tears of joy when the people of God are once again brought back home.

In verse ten we read, “He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd”. The promise was kept – God gathered Israel from their places of exile. God remained faithful and lovingly watched over his people Israel. God redeemed them and made them strong again. God was faithful. The people’s mourning was turned into gladness. Their sorrow was replaced with joy and comfort. The good shepherd remains faithful. The Lord will gather the church; he will lead us to sing for joy as we make our praises heard. God is good. We await the day in trust, sure of his love for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, you have always guided and cared for your people. I ask that you continue to lead and guide us as we consider gathering again as your people. Fill us with wisdom, O God. Amen.


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God’s Mercy

Reading: Luke 1: 54-55

Verse 54: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful”.

As we begin this week’s readings, we begin with the closing lines to Mary’s song. After receiving a visit from the angel Gabriel, letting her know that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you”, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who confirms that Mary will indeed be “blessed among all women”. Becoming fully aware that she will be the one who will give birth to the one whose “kingdom will never end”, Mary bursts forth in song. The song ends by recognizing one of the universal truths of the faith: God is merciful.

Mary recognizes that she is part of something that has been long awaited and that she is part of God’s ongoing story. The coming of the Messiah is something that Israel has longed for. The one who will redeem and restore Israel has been a hope for generation after generation. Mary knows that she is part of that plan, now coming into reality. She also acknowledges that her part, as significant and important as it is, to Israel and to the world, is but part of God’s ongoing gifting of mercy to the whole world. At an unexpected time and in a most unexpected way, the one who will save Israel and all who believe is about to enter the world through a most humble servant.

In today’s passage Mary sings, “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful”. God has chosen to help Israel once again, demonstrating his great mercy and love. A humble, very ordinary woman was chosen by God to be a part of his continuing revelation. Mary recognizes that this is something that God has done and will do “forever”. As we reflect today on these words from Mary, we must consider how God might use us too, ordinary as we are, to further reveal his mercy and love to the world. In what small yet significant way might God use you or me today or this week to further reveal his great mercy?

Prayer: Loving and most merciful God, thinking about Mary’s circumstances and about how she humbly stepped into what you called her to, I am amazed. To think that you call and seek to use even me is most humbling. Like Mary, guide me by the power of your Holy Spirit, using me as you will for the further revelation of your mercy and love for all the world. Amen.