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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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.


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Worthy

Reading: 1st Thessalonians 2: 1-8

Verse 8: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well”.

Paul’s letters to the churches and to individuals usually served two main purposes: to build up the community of faith and to teach good Christian living. Paul spent the last few years of his life as an apostle, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever he went. Paul’s missionary efforts in these years was not always easy, as evidenced in verse two: “with the help of God we dared to tell you the gospel”. On his visits, Paul spoke with authority. He was one “approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel”. Because of this, Paul had helped many to follow Jesus and he founded many churches throughout the known world. He dearly loved Jesus Christ and those who were his brothers and sisters in Christ.

The depth of Paul’s love is revealed in verse eight: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well”. Paul himself valued the relationship between believers. He often lifted up the community of faith in his many writings. Fellowship and mutual love were common themes for Paul. In his letters he often shares how he longs to be with his brothers and sisters in Christ – this too is evidence of his love for the family of God. Paul valued each individual because he believed they were a part of the body of Christ. For him, this was a connection stronger than blood and deeper than any other social or political connection. This connection was founded solely upon his love for Jesus Christ – the driving force in his life.

It was this driving force that led Paul to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with all he met. Paul witnessed to about everyone he met. The story goes that he even shared his faith with the Roman soldiers who had him under arrest. Paul saw even these, those who many would consider enemies of God, as children of God worthy of the same love he gave freely to his brothers and sisters in Christ. May we too seek to model this same universal love as we strive to live out our faith day by day, person by person.

Prayer: Lord of all, help me to see others as Paul did – each as your beloved. Help me to see each as you see them. Then may I love them as you do. May it be so. Amen.


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Aware and Attuned

Reading: Psalm 90: 13-17

Verse 16: “May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children”.

The Israelites have always been good historians. But unlike our study of history, which includes kings and wars, victories and achievements… the history of the Israelites centers on God and how God’s hand has been at work in their past. Seeing one’s history as the unfolding hand of God at work in our lives and in our world frames our understanding in a very different perspective. It shifts us from the great things that we or humankind has done (while avoiding or skipping past the failures and ugly things), to looking at the great things that God has done. In the Bible, the history contains the failures and defeats as well as the successes and victories.

Verse thirteen opens with a cry of “Relent, O Lord”! The psalmist next wonders how long it will be. How long will we suffer for our sins? That is really the question being asked. The psalmist begs for God’s compassion and the dawning of a new day when God’s unfolding love will fall upon them. This is a reality that we experience in our own relationship with God. When we sin we cause separation. In that time we are distant from God. The Holy Spirit’s conviction makes us aware of our failure and through repentance God restores our relationship. Once again we feel God’s mercy and love. Like the psalmist and like the Israelites, we long to sing for joy and to know gladness all of our days.

In verse sixteen we read, “May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children”. To know and hear about the deeds of God over and over is to be reminded of God’s best qualities and of our role in bringing those to our own awareness. The more we seek to be aware of and in tune with God, the more we come to be aware of and in tune with God. When we are intentional about seeking God’s “deeds” we become aware of God in the smallest of ways – in a descant added to a song of worship, in the heart of a youth reaching out with love and compassion, in the kindness and generosity shared in a card. Each day may we seek the Lord. In doing so, “may the favor of the Lord rest upon us”.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for revealing yourself in so many ways. I am an imperfect and sinful creature. Thank you for the whispers of conviction and the nudges back into the path of faith. Thank you for the small ways you reveal yourself, always reminding me of your constant presence in my life and in our world. Amen.


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The Foundation

Reading: Exodus 32: 1-6

Verse 1: “Come, make us gods… this fellow Moses… we don’t know what has happened to him”.

As our passage opens today, we learn that Moses is once again up on the mountain speaking with God. This is not the first or last time that Moses speaks to God. Conversations have already happened many times and this is his third or fourth trip up the mountain. Moses’ conversations with God are sprinkled throughout their forty years in the wilderness. But this trip takes longer than usual. The people grow restless and they gather around Aaron, who is second in charge. They say to him, “Come, make us gods… this fellow Moses… we don’t know what has happened to him”. Scholars believe the Israelites have been in the wilderness about three months at this point. The many gods of Egypt are still fresh in their minds. Aaron fashions a golden calf and the people worship as the Egyptians had. The Israelites rise early and offer sacrifices and then proceed to eating and drinking and they party it up.

My initial reading of the passage stirred up feelings of judgment inside of me. How could they so quickly lose their focus on God? Then I remembered that snow day back in college. The weather was so bad that school was cancelled. We walked to the liquor store first thing that morning so we could “celebrate” not having to go to class. Classes the next day weren’t the best. Another reaction I felt was disgust with how easily they abandoned Moses, the one who has led them so faithfully. That triggered another thought, also from college. Sometimes the professor was late for class. In about one minute we were discussing how long we needed to wait. We’d give five minutes if we didn’t like the class and a whole ten minutes if we really like the professor or the class. Moses was “always” correcting them and giving “tons” of rules to follow. Maybe those who chafed at these things were the first voices to stir the pot, rallying the people to abandon this fellow Moses.

These are but two examples of times when I have quickly fallen into poor decisions or have abandoned leaders who had my best interests at heart. I believe we all have these experiences. Like sheep we are easily led astray. Like the Israelites, we can quickly turn to our own “golden calves” – to things or people that we think will make us happy or that we think will do what we want them to do. We too can quickly abandon the Lord our God when it seems to be taking too long for that answer to prayer or when the outcome isn’t to our liking. We quickly turn to our selfish desires and to the things of the world. As we are honest and acknowledge these truths today, may this story serve as both a reminder and as a warning. May it serve to always help us to keep God as our foundation, as our guide and as our way of life. May it be so.

Prayer: Living God, when I begin to look to other things, when my heart starts to wander, send the Holy Spirit’s voice to call me back to your ways. When my will begins to rise up, gently nudge me away from placing self on the throne of my heart. Help me day by day to find peace and joy and contentment in following you. Amen.


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Honest Prayers

Reading: Psalm 13

Verse 3: “Look on me and answer, O Lord, my God”.

When David wrote this Psalm he must have been in a pretty tough spot. He begins by asking, “How long, O Lord”? David feels as if his bad situation has gone on long enough. He even asks if God will forget him or let this go on forever. At times I too have felt like David feels. We can all relate to the emotional and spiritual valley that David finds himself in.

Then, in verse three, David gets really direct with God. Here he says to God, “Look on me and answer, O Lord, my God”. In our times of struggle, when we’ve been praying and praying and praying, when we feel that all of our prayers are falling on deaf ears, we too get to the point of demanding that God hear and answer our prayer. We, like David, feel like giving up. We feel like the situation or the person(s) will triumph in the end.

These emotions are typical of the Psalms of lament. They are honest and forthright prayers of a heart in distress. Even though we experience hardship and suffering in life, we do not often go to God with such prayers unless we are really desperate. Reading such Psalms can even be too much for some. We don’t need to protect God. But maybe we fear being too vulnerable with God.

There is a turning point in verse five. Although his heart is hurting, David remembers God’s love and care. David remembers that God is his salvation. And then, when considering verses one through four, David does an amazing and almost unthinkable thing – he sings to God of the goodness that he has experienced in the past. David knows that God is good and ultimately that God will have the last word. Sometimes it is just hard to wait.

When, not if, we get to the place David is in in the first four verses, may we too pour out our hurt as we declare our need for God. May we also pause to remember how good and loving our God is, trusting into his plans and into his promises.

Prayer: Everlasting God, you have always been faithful and true. In those days and seasons when life feels like it is crashing down, help me to remember that you are a big God. All is under your control. Help me to pour out my prayers and hurt so that you can fill me back up with your love. Amen.


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Honest Prayers

Reading: Psalm 13

Verse 3: “Look on me and answer, O Lord, my God”.

When David wrote this Psalm he must have been in a pretty tough spot. He begins by asking, “How long, O Lord”? David feels as if his bad situation has gone on long enough. He even asks if God will forget him or let this go on forever. At times I too have felt like David feels. We can all relate to the emotional and spiritual valley that David finds himself in.

Then, in verse three, David gets really direct with God. Here he says to God, “Look on me and answer, O Lord, my God”. In our times of struggle, when we’ve been praying and praying and praying, when we feel that all of our prayers are falling on deaf ears, we too get to the point of demanding that God hear and answer our prayer. We, like David, feel like giving up. We feel like the situation or the person(s) will triumph in the end.

These emotions are typical of the Psalms of lament. They are honest and forthright prayers of a heart in distress. Even though we experience hardship and suffering in life, we do not often go to God with such prayers unless we are really desperate. Reading such Psalms can even be too much for some. We don’t need to protect God. But maybe we fear being too vulnerable with God.

There is a turning point in verse five. Although his heart is hurting, David remembers God’s love and care. David remembers that God is his salvation. And then, when considering verses one through four, David does an amazing and almost unthinkable thing – he sings to God of the goodness that he has experienced in the past. David knows that God is good and ultimately that God will have the last word. Sometimes it is just hard to wait.

When, not if, we get to the place David is in in the first four verses, may we too pour out our hurt as we declare our need for God. May we also pause to remember how good and loving our God is, trusting into his plans and into his promises.

Prayer: Everlasting God, you have always been faithful and true. In those days and seasons when life feels like it is crashing down, help me to remember that you are a big God. All is under your control. Help me to pour out my prayers and hurt so that you can fill me back up with your love. Amen.


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Radical Hospitality

Reading: Genesis 18: 1-8

Verse 2: “When he saw them, he hurried… to meet them and bowed low to the ground”.

The church service has run long again and there won’t be much time before the next mini- congregation enters the sanctuary for their time of worship. You know from past similar experiences that the line will now be extra long at your favorite brunch spot. And your tummy is already growling. When the pastor finally says the last “Amen” you are ready to bolt for the exit. It is then that you spot that new young couple you saw moving in a couple houses down your street.

As Abraham stood at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day, he was probably weighing a little nap versus going back out there in the hot sun. It was then that he saw three men standing nearby. Instead of a quick wave on the way to ducking into his tent, we read that this was his response: “When he saw them, he hurried… to meet them and bowed low to the ground”. Abraham welcomed them into his presence and extended generous hospitality. He asks them to stay, bringing water to wash their feet. He invites them to rest in the shade of the tree while having the finest bread and tenderest calf prepared. When this is ready, he serves it with milk and curds. Abraham offers the best that he has to these three strangers.

Would you pretend that you did not see the young couple and rush off to brunch with the regulars? Would you wave and point at your watch, adding a little shrug as you head the other way? Or would you make your way over to them, introduce yourself, and welcome them to the neighborhood and hopefully to the church? Would you, like Abraham, go the extra step to offer them some choice food and drink, extending an invitation to begin a relationship?

As we will see as we continue to read tomorrow, when and perhaps because Abraham extended radical hospitality, he experiences the divine. As we make the choice to offer radical hospitality, maybe we too will experience the power and might of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. May it be so for our churches and for each of us as well.

Prayer: Holy Lord, lead me today to be like Abraham, choosing to offer all of myself to others today. May I give the very best that I can. Meet me in that space, O Lord. Amen.


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Praying Today

Reading: Acts 2: 12-15

Verse 12: “Amazed and perplexed they asked on another, ‘What does this mean”’?

The Jews from all over the world were drawn to the place where the Holy Spirit manifested itself and they heard these Galileans speaking God’s wonders in many languages. Many were amazed and perplexed. These asked, “What does this mean”? What was God saying to them? Yet there were others in the crowd. Jesus would describe these as those without ears to hear. They did not want to recognize the fact that God was at work and they wanted to dismiss the whole thing, accusing the believers of being drunk.

There have been several nights of violence and protest in the city of Minneapolis. Much of it represents the outpouring of emotions long felt in the African American community. The trigger was the murder of an innocent man. A vast, vast, vast percentage of the police force in Minneapolis would absolutely condemn the actions of the officer responsible for the death. We hope that it would be all, but we know that this is not the reality. Racism exists. Some would say it is better than it used to be. Perhaps it is less frequent and it probably infects less people today, but it will only be better when racism is gone.

A few summers ago a few fellow students and I were walking to the frozen custard place. Suddenly a police car driving by us turned on its lights and siren and drove part way up onto the sidewalk. The two officers leapt from the car in hot pursuit. Almost all of us became instant lookie-loos. We wanted to see what the officers were up to. In a class at the seminary we had been discussing racism in America. As we sat and enjoyed our custard like nothing had just happened, one in our group said, ‘You guys just don’t get it’. He went on to share that while our first reaction was to be curious onlookers, his first reaction was to run. He had done nothing wrong and knew it full well. Yet his brain said to run. He did well in school all his life and had never had a run-in with the police. Yet his first instinct was to run. His Latino upbringing had instilled that response in him. I finally felt how deeply ingrained racism was in our society.

This morning in Minneapolis, ad it has been the last two days, there are volunteers cleaning up the mess. They are black and white, brown and all shades of humanity’s beauty. They too ask, ‘What does this mean’? and they know that there must be change in our society. They are investing in one another and in their city. They are teaching their children well. They see visions and dream dreams about a better community – one without racism and hatred. May we join their actions today by praying for healing in our nation and for an end to these evils.

Prayer: Lord of all, I pray today for the healing of my nation and of my community. May the voices of love and empowerment and equality rise up and speak long after the grief and outrage have faded away. Continue the conversation and the learning that we are all created in your image until all forms of racism and oppression are no more. God, bless and heal our nation. Amen.