pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Grounding Moments

Reading: Psalm 42

Verse 5: “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?… Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise God.”

Photo credit: Sophie Walker

Psalm 42 is written by the Sons of Korah. Korah was a Levite priest who led a rebellion against Moses, upset over Aaron being appointed to the role of high priest. Korah and his followers were swallowed up by the earth after losing a showdown before God. The Sons of Korah express their sorrow through songs of hope such as the one we read today.

The Psalm begins by expressing a longing to draw near to God and to meet with God. Tears have wet their faces day and night. Those around them ask, “Where is your God?” In verse 4 the emotions take a positive turn as they recall leading the procession to worship in the house of God. They recall the joy and offer thanksgiving for being a part of worship. Almost in response they ask and answer a rhetorical question: “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?… Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise God.” Even though they feel isolated and alone, the Sons of Korah know that God is faithful. They know that they will again worship God with joy.

We all have experiences in life when we long for God or when God feels distant or when we feel alone and isolated. Maybe you’ve not led a joyful procession into worship, but when have you felt joy from your faith or when have you enjoyed time in God’s divine presence? These are your grounding moments – the moments that you can reflect upon and find assurance and hope. Take a little time now to reflect on these experiences and then to praise God for these experiences.

Prayer: Lord God, those times when you have been tangibly present to me – these are like anchors for my soul. In the valley and other trials, they are like lights shining in the darkness, guiding me back to you. Thank you for your faithfulness and steadfast love. Amen.


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The Holy Seed

Reading: Isaiah 6:9-13

Verse 13: “The holy seed will be a stump in the land.”

In today’s section of our Isaiah passage the Lord gives the prophet a message to bring to the people. In verses 9 and 10, is the Lord calling the people to not understand, to not perceive, to have calloused hearts? This would be a gloomy and hard message to hear from God’s prophet. It is as if this road of sin that leads to destruction is inevitable. It is if the people continue on as they are, living with hard hearts and a mind closed to the word of God.

Recognizing the uphill battle, Isaiah asks, “For how long, O Lord?” How long do I have to preach this message? How long will the people choose to be far from the Lord? This message cannot be popular. It will not be well received. Rarely does a person living in sin or one making poor choices like to be called out, especially after making this choice for a long time.

God’s response to Isaiah’s question matches the tone set in the opening verses. “Until the cities are ruined… the land utterly forsaken.” The consequences of the people’s choices will not be pretty. These are hard words to hear too. But at some level we all know that our poor choices will cost us, that we will face some consequences. Yet that doesn’t mean we always listen.

One of the difficult parts of the pandemic for me personally has been those who have drifted from the church. Letters, notes, texts, phone calls have been made. Words of invitation, of welcome, of encouragement have been given. Yet separation remains. If I’m honest I too have wondered, how long? I’ve felt like surrendering. But the prayers continue to be lifted to God. The end of this passage brings hope, both to me and to Isaiah in his day. “The holy seed will be a stump in the land.” The roots are there. One day God will cause growth to occur. The seed will not be snuffed out. The remnant will not be extinguished. God is good. By God’s grace faith will grow again. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, your vision is longer and greater than ours. When our hearts begin to harden and when our ears and eyes want to shut, flood us with your love and hope and grace, reviving the soul, bringing life anew. Amen.


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Walking Faithfully

Reading: Mark 13: 1-8

Verse 2: “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another.”

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Right after receiving Jesus’ teaching on the trust in God exhibited by the widow who “put in everything” Jesus and the disciples leave the temple. As they are heading to the Mount of Olives one of the disciples draws attention to the grandeur and magnificence of the temple buildings. Straight out of a teaching about relying on God and not on money (or any other earthly thing), a disciple marvels at these earthly structures. At times we too can be drawn away from what really matters. We can marvel at the new house being built by our new neighbor. We can be jealous of the new car our coworker just bought. We can long for the security of a big retirement fund. We can invest a lot of time and energy into finally having “enough.”

Jesus redirects their focus, saying, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another.” All of this – the grand buildings, the wealth of the rich, all we chase after here – all of this will crumble and fade and rust. Arriving at the Mount of Olives, Jesus continues. Jesus answers the disciples’ “When?” question with how and what. What? “Watch out that no one deceives you.” The world and even some in ministry will offer all kinds of answers to what we need, to what ails us, to what ‘success’ looks like. The disciples have come to know the way, the truth, and the life. So have we. Do not be deceived.

How will we know the end is here, Jesus? He gives them some signs that will indicate it is drawing near: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. These signs that have been happening for almost 2,000 years are “the beginning of birth pains.” It has been a long labor. Even though the groans of birth pains persist and grow louder we still await the day of the Lord’s second coming. With a hope placed squarely on Christ alone and with an enduring faith in God’s plans, may we continue walking each day hand in hand with the one who was and is and is yet to come.

Prayer: Lord God, sometimes the world swirls around us and it is hard to focus on faith and trust in you. When the waters rise, part the sea and pull us back in. When the fires rage, walk through them with us. When the doubts and lies of the evil one creep in, wrap your love around us. Day by day, guide us. Day by day, use us to walk as witnesses to your love. Amen.


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Pure and Steadfast

Reading: Psalm 51: 10-12

Verse 12: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me”.

We return to Psalm 51 today. The Psalm comes from the messiness that has just occurred in David’s life. This is something we all experience. We cannot totally avoid sin – we are human.

Sometimes I think I could be less sinful if I lived an isolated life. If I were a monk or hermit maybe I’d sin less. But then I realize that my humanity would creep in. I’d get jealous of that monk who was recognized. I’d be angry that this other monk didn’t do his fair share in the garden. I’d long to be the one asked to lead this or that. Even in that monastic lifestyle I’d still struggle with sin. There too I’d have times when I failed to act, when I chose not to offer kindness, when I’d keep my gifts and talents to myself. I’d not escape these sins either.

David’s prayer for God to “create in me a pure heart… a steadfast spirit within me” needs to be my prayer too. Being pure and steadfast are always things I struggle with. Our section of Psalm 51 closes with these words: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me”. This verse follows David’s plea to not be “cast” away. Yes, our sin is ever before us. But so is God. Out of our repentance God will ever be right there to redeem and restore us. Yes, Lord, give us a willing spirit; sustain us all in this journey of faith.

Prayer: Lord God, so often I fail and yet your mercy remains. So often I harm our relationship or my relationships with others, yet your grace always abounds. Your love is so great. Thank you for loving me beyond myself. Amen.


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Attentive

Reading: Psalm 130: 1-2

Verse 2: “Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications”.

Photo credit: Jon Tyson

The Psalm for today begins at a place of need, a place of hurting – “out of the depths”. This is a place that we’ve all prayer from. Whether death or illness or persecution or unwanted change or… we have felt alone and called out in desperation, “Lord, hear my voice”. And then we’ve longed for a response. At times it’s been immediate. God’s presence becomes tangible, the doorbell rings and God has sent someone heading our way, a song comes on the radio. At times we wait a bit. We do not feel abandoned yet we do not have an answer right then. So we keep on praying and then God answers one day – in a text or note or call, in a verse or devotional that we read, in something we hear at church. Most often in these moments we realize that God has been there all along. We just needed eyes to see or ears to hear.

Some of the time, though, it seems to become an extended period feeling alone, isolated, without love or support. We pray along the lines of the psalmist, crying out, “Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications”. Long enough, O God! Hear the words of my prayer, the need of my heart! We think, if you’ll but hear you’ll listen, you’ll respond God, you’ll be attentive to what I want or think I need. In these moments it is hard to trust, to wait on God. Just as God is faithful, so too must we be faithful. We must be diligent in our prayers, faithful in our daily walk with the Lord, attentive to our place within the relationship. In his time, God will respond, he will attend to our prayers. The Lord will not pass us by. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, in my moments of desperation first lift up me trust in you. Remind me of your faithfulness that has come again and again so that I too may be faithful. I trust in you alone. Amen.


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What an Advocate!

Reading: Romans 8: 22-27

Verse 26: “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”.

Photo credit: Tobias Rademacher

In two days many churches will celebrate Pentecost. This day recalls the moment that God’s Spirit filled the first believers. In our passage today Paul unpacks some of what the Spirit does with and for those who believe.

Paul begins by describing our longing to be forever with God. He is speaking of that inherent longing in all of humanity. In the opening verse Paul describes this as all of creation groaning as we “wait eagerly for our adoption… for the redemption of our bodies”. For Paul, this is the ultimate hope we find in our faith – to one day be redeemed fully, to be transformed into our heavenly and forever form. Living in difficult times, often facing persecution and hardship, even death, Paul and his fellow Christians often had to hold onto this hope found in Jesus Christ. At times, in our deepest valleys, we too hold onto the hope of eternal life.

In verse 26 Paul writes, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness”. In the same way that the Spirit raises up hope in our hearts, the Holy Spirit also strengthens and encourages us. Paul also describes how the Spirit goes a step further. When we are so weak (or ill or lonely or sorrowful or upset or…) that we cannot even put our prayer into words, then “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”. When we cannot even form the words, the Holy Spirit prays for us. The indwelling presence of Jesus Christ in our hearts takes over and takes our pleas to God on our behalf. In the moments when we are simply overwhelmed, the Spirit speaks to God for us. When we are as weak as weak can be, the Spirit “intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will”. To me, it doesn’t get any better than that. The Spirit prays for you and me in alignment with God’s perfect plans for our lives. What an advocate we have! Thanks be to God!!

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for loving me so much that you chose to send your Spirit to dwell in me. Thank you for being willing to know and abide in imperfect and sinful me. That is a deep, deep love. Thank you. Amen.


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Shout for Joy

Reading: Psalm 98

Verse 1: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things”.

Photo credit: Dan de Almeida

Psalm 98 is a song of praise and worship that includes all of creation. The focus of the praise and worship centers on the gift of salvation – God’s most wonderful, marvelous thing. The Psalm points to the salvation worked by God’s “right hand” – Jesus Christ. Salvation was made known and realized through the life and sacrifice of Jesus. As love and righteousness lived out, the Lord Jesus Christ began the redemption and salvation of all of creation.

Because God’s salvation will culminate in the restoration of all things, creation itself joins in the praise and worship. Beginning in verse seven the sea and everything in it resounds with praise. The rivers “clap”, making a joyful noise as they flow towards the sea. The mountains raise a song of praise too. The earth knows what the salvation of the Lord means for all of the created world: new life!

New life is offered to us as well. The salvation of the Lord restores and renews us day by day as well as opening the way to eternal life in God’s new kingdom. While creation awaits that coming day, we experience salvation daily. The sea, rivers, mountains, and all of creation long for the day when the Lord “will judge the world in righteousness”. As followers of Jesus Christ we do not wait – his mercies are new every morning and his compassion never fails (Lamentations 3: 22-23). For this gift of salvation, for this amazing love, what is our response? May we follow the lead of the psalmist! May we “shout for Joy to the Lord”. May all of creation hear our song of praise today!

Prayer: Lord God, just as the rains have fallen, bringing new life to the creation, so too do your mercies rain down on my life, bringing wholeness. Just as the sun springs forth new life in the created world, so too does your Son bring new life in my heart. May all I say and do today reflect my joy and thanksgiving for your love. Amen.


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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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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.