pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Remembering

Reading: Micah 6:1-5

Verse 5: “My people, remember… remember your journey… that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”

Yesterday I co-led a workshop at a church about an hour south of where I live and serve. This unique congregation was birthed when four small churches came together. Just over thirty years ago I taught school for two years in one of these communities. As we drove down, I thought about those years and hoped that I would see some familiar faces. It was wonderful to get reacquainted and to remember our time together. I was also reminded that not all was wonderful. I was young and I was inexperienced. I learned a lot, some of it the hard way. Yet this too was good to remember. Even in hard times we learn and grow and change.

As Micah 6 opens God first lodges a case against Israel. Then God invites Israel to remember. The people have wandered from God. They are living outside of the covenant. Micah has come and has worked to call the people back into right relationship with God. To begin that journey, God invites the people to remember their rescue from slavery, to remember Moses, and to remember God’s guidance on their journey. Through Micah, God says, “My people, remember… remember your journey… that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” God is seeking to rekindle their faith, to get the people of God back on track. To remember can also call us into account. To remember can call us back to our roots, to our foundations. Taken together these processed can draw us back into right relationship with God as we find hope once again in our covenant with God.

Where are you today in your relationship with God? Are you walking in covenant love? If so, celebrate and rejoice! Are you wayward, in need of restoration? If so, remember how God has redeemed and guided you in the past. In that remembering, claim again the hope and love of God.

Prayer: Lord God, as I consider these questions, I find myself somewhere in the middle – mostly good in our relationship yet not quite completely devoted. So I ask you to draw me in deeper, to make me more wholly thine. May it be so, O God. Amen.


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Bars and Rods

Reading: Isaiah 9:4 – “For as in the days of Midian, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.”

Devotional writer Hannah Adair Bonner uses a great analogy in her writing on this verse. She invites us to remember a time when we carried too many grocery bags. For me it usually comes from the “I can make it in one trip” thought. She then asks us to recall how we felt when we made it to the kitchen or wherever it was that we plopped the bags down. Bonner then flips the scenario a bit, asking us to think of a time when someone came along and helped, relieving our burden, making sure that we could make it. Bringing her point home, she notes that the burdens many carry in life are “much more complicated than groceries.”

In our short text God was the one who came alongside Israel as she struggled under a burden. The bar and rod of the oppressor was heavy upon the nation’s shoulders. God saw the struggle and responded by shattering the yoke. God broke it into itty bitty pieces. What oppressed people in your circles or in your community? Is it a lack of resources – food, shelter, clothing, heat, water, medical care, education, employment? It is a hard circumstance – addiction, abuse, incarceration, neglect, illness? Or are they under the rod of injustice or racism or sexism or some other evil? And the reality for most folks who are burdened is this: they are not carrying just one bag.

How will you respond to what you see? How will I? Let us begin as God did, coming alongside those who are burdened. Then may we seek to bring relief. And as our relationship and understanding grows, then may we seek to be breakers of rods and bars. May it be so as we seek to reveal God to this hurting and damaged world.

Prayer: Lord God, open my eyes and my heart. Seeing and feeling, put me to doing. Amen.


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God Has Chosen You

Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7

Verse 3: “You are my servant… in whom I will display my splendor.”

The words of Isaiah that we read this week speak to a people in utter defeat. Jerusalem lies in ruins, many have died, and most of the rest of Israel has been driven into exile. Our passage begins with a call to the “distant nations,” to those feeling isolated and alone. It is a call to remember that Israel was God’s “before I was born.” It is a reminder that they are still the people of God, even in the midst of the current darkness.

As the current people of God we too will have times when all feels like it lies in ruins, when it seems pretty dark. We will lose a job or a loved one. We will suffer illness or persecution. We will sin and separate ourselves from God and one another. Our church or our denomination will experience a tearing apart. There is no shortage of the hardships and trials that can and will befall us.

Into Israel’s darkness God promised a return, a redemption, a rescue story. God will be their reward and their strength. God will gather them back from exile. God promises, “You are my servant… in whom I will display my splendor.” This world and its troubles – they are temporary. God is not. On the other side of this darkness – whatever it is – there is light and hope and salvation for Israel and for you and for me. God is faithful and true. “The Holy One of Israel… has chosen you.”

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the reminder that you are every bit as present in the darkness as you are in the light. You have chosen me, you have chosen all of us to be blessed as we walk in the light of your love. Remind us again and again of this truth as we seek to walk as a light to the Gentiles of our day. Amen.


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Unfailing Love

Reading: Jeremiah 4:27-28 and Psalm 14:7

Verse 7: “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion.”

The bulk of this week’s readings from Jeremiah 4 and Psalm 14 is about the people wandering away from God, choosing to live in sin and rebellion. Both of these Old Testament passages reference how these evils actions and choices bring God’s heart sadness and pain. These two ancient texts also speak of the cost of living in sin. It goes deeper than just separation from God. Living in sin is also destructive to our lives.

Another overarching idea in both of these passages is God’s unfailing love. Even though the people have chosen to worship idols and have grown selfish and prideful, God’s love remains. Yes, this is why God’s heart is affected but it goes deeper. God’s love remains because God honors the covenant. Long ago God promised to be Israel’s God – no matter what. No matter how deeply they hurt God, no matter how far they wander… God is faithful and true to the covenant made with Israel. Because of this, God declares, “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion.”

Since God is a God of covenant, God sees things through. In time salvation did come from Zion. Almost 2,000 years ago God-in-the-flesh came, lived, and died for us, bringing freedom from sin and death. It was necessary because we, like those being spoken to in these ancient texts, we struggle with sin and other forms of selfishness. We continue to wander off, to bring God sadness and pain. In the process we do harm to ourselves. Yet God’s covenant love washes over us too. God’s unfailing love remains faithful and true. The promise remains. We are loved beyond our sin. Salvation has come. It is ours to claim and to live into. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for your love that endures all things and continues to love without fail. It is a gift beyond my ability to fully understand, yet it is one I treasure above all else. I know I am a sinner saved by your grace. Thank you for your love. Amen.


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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.