pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Blessed Are…

Reading: Psalm 119:1-8

Verse 2: “Blessed are those who keep God’s statutes and seek God with all their heart.”

Photo credit: Greg Rakozy

Turning to the Psalms today we are connected to yesterday’s reading from Deuteronomy 30. In the opening stanza of the longest Psalm the writer focuses in on the blessing side of obeying God’s laws and of striving to live God’s way. There is a joy that can be felt as the psalmist considers living a life of faith.

In verses 2 we read, “Blessed are those who keep God’s statutes and seek God with all their heart.” There is a sense of security when we live within the parameters laid out by our good and holy and just God. Our pursuit of God, our seeking to know, understand, and live out all of God’s laws brings us to a place of praise. There is joy and peace and contentment when we are walking steadfastly with God.

The honesty of the Psalm is so refreshing. In verses 5 we read, “Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees.” I read these words with an emphasis on the “Oh” part. In these words we can feel a longing to always be faithful balanced against the reality that we are human and are therefore imperfect. There is value in looking within and realizing that we’ve fallen short. In recognizing that we fall short regularly we see our need to grow in our faith. And we often experience God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

The closing verses today is such an honest admission. It is part pledge and part humble request: “I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.” I’m going to really try. Please don’t give up on me. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, yes, I want to be faithful and true to you all the time! But I do fail, again and again. Encourage my resolve. Convict and redeem me quickly and often. Help me each day to walk as a child of the light. Amen.


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Rejoice and Be Glad

Reading: Matthew 5:10-12

Verse 11: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

The closing verses of the Beatitudes bring home the reality that the practice of our faith can bring challenge and trial to our life. The demands that Christ places upon us to be love and grace and mercy lived out in the world – these practices will create tension and even angry responses at times. When our faith leads us to take a stand against an injustice or oppression or other evil actions of the world, the one(s) causing these evils will react against our presence and the words of truth that we speak. The reaction often takes the form of some type of persecution.

In verses 10 and 11 Jesus tells us “blessed are” you when we are persecuted. He unpacks what we may experience in verses 11: when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” When we shine the light of truth into the darkness of the world, that darkness tries to snuff out the light. Darkness cannot stand being in the light. Darkness will try anything to avoid being in that light. Jesus tells us to “rejoice and be glad” when the darkness strikes against us. He can say this because he knows the same truth that we do: “great is your reward in heaven.” Living faithfully may we rejoice in this promise always.

Prayer: Lord God, give me the strength and courage to live faithfully at all times, especially in those situations that may bring challenge and hardship. I know you are with me at all times – good, bad, and in between. Use me to stand and speak for those without the power or ability to do so for themselves. Amen.


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Justice, Mercy, Humility

Reading: Micah 6:6-8

Verse 8: “God has shown you… what is good… what is required… To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Photo credit: Simon Berger

As we turn to the second half of this week’s Old Testament passage, Micah asks what he should bring before the Lord. He wonders if burnt offerings would be enough. Maybe so if it were “thousands of rams” followed by “ten thousand rivers of oil?” That sounds like a lot. Or maybe something closer to home? Perhaps sacrifice a child – “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” That feels like a lot. It felt like a lot was needed. The sin of Israel was great. Yet for God, restoring a relationship wasn’t about volume or about a huge but isolated proof of faith. It was much simpler. It was about the heart. In Micah’s day the Israelites were going through the motions required by the sacrificial system. To go through them a thousand or ten thousand times mattered not. To offer your firstborn and then to return to sinful living? Worthless.

Instead of hands and feet going through meaningless motions, God desired the heart of the people. God wanted to see hearts committed to what really mattered to God. In verses 8 we read, “God has shown you… what is good… what is required… To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” God sought people with hearts focused on justice, mercy, and humility. This is what is good. This is what is required. This is what really matters to God. The challenge for us is this: in our modern world, how do we live this out?

We live in a time when people are selfish and focused on material goods and social status. From this place it is difficult to see injustice, oppression, and pride as bad things. They are the means to achieving success. Yet these practices leave a wake of poverty and division and need. It is to these things that the eyes and heart of God are drawn. What is our response, our good and required response? It is not to write a check for $1,000 or to donate 10,000 meals or to sell our house to give money to some great cause. While good and likely helpful to others, these motions do not align our eyes and heart with God’s eyes and heart. Our response is really much simpler than these things. Very hard in our culture, yes, but simpler. What is good, what God required? A daily walk that focuses on justice for all, mercy and kindness to all, and humility as we seek to walk hand in hand with our God. Walking this way, our eyes and hearts will be drawn to the places and people that draw God’s eyes and heart. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, it really is pretty basic, isn’t it? Step away from self and from all that the world says matters. Step into the circumstances and lives of people that matter to you – those needing to experience justice, those needing mercy, those requiring a humble servant’s presence. Use me in all of these ways, O God. Amen.


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Looking from Outside…

Reading: Isaiah 42:8-9

Verse 9: “See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare.”

Photo credit: Clay Banks

In today’s two verses from Isaiah 42 God is making a declaration. It begins by stating, “I am the Lord.” This is a reminder of God’s identity and character and it is a call to remember the Lord in both word and action. The invitation to “see, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare” is an invite to recall God’s history, to remember the promises and prophecies and to recall how many have come to be. And it is a call to trust in faith that the rest will come to be in God’s time.

Looking back and remembering builds trust in God’s integrity, love, character, steadfastness, faithfulness… Recalling how God has rescued, redeemed, restored, rebuilt, and so on reveals God’s track record and establishes a trust and faith in God based upon the reality of God’s past. This is a practice that we use too, whether by reading the stories of the Bible or by recalling all the times that God has interceded, intervened, guided, corrected, redirected… our lives. Together these build our faith and trust in God.

Looking in from the outside, does the world see us and our churches mirroring the character of God? Do they see and experience us actually loving our neighbors? Do they visit and feel truly welcomed and highly valued? Do we and our churches work to bring healing and wholeness to our communities? Are we champions of mercy and justice, practitioners of grace and love? If so, we are building heaven here on earth. If not, there’s true work to be done.

Prayer: Lord God, help me, help us, help our churches to honestly look in the mirror. Are we really living as you call us to live? Are we following the example of love and grace and mercy and humble service set by your son Jesus Christ? By the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit empower and lead us to better reflect you in our lives and in our world. Amen.


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A Light to All, for All

Reading: Isaiah 42:1-7

Verse 6: “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.”

This week we will focus on baptism – both by water and by the Holy Spirit. In our text from Isaiah the prophet points towards Jesus Christ, the “chosen one” in whom God “delights,” the one that God “will put my spirit on,” the one who will “bring justice to the nations,” and the one who is the foundation of both of our baptisms. The prophet also points to the vastness of God’s love revealed in and through Jesus Christ. In verse 4 Isaiah refers to Christ as the one in whom “the islands will put their hope.” Some other translations render ‘island’ as “all nations.” Jesus is the hope of all the world.

Verses 6 and 7 really speak of Jesus! Verse 6 begins with God declaring that God will call Jesus in righteousness and will take Jesus by the hand. What a powerful example of the intimate relationship that God desires to have with all the world. Continuing in verses 6 we read, I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.” What love and vision we find in this verse. God will “keep” Jesus – God will be right there every step, leading, guiding, protecting. God will make Jesus a “covenant” – an everlasting model of love, grace, mercy, forgiveness. Many celebrated this promise yesterday as we celebrated Holy Communion. And God will make Jesus “a light for the Gentiles.” The term ‘Gentiles’ referred to all who stood outside the faith. Again, this means that Jesus extends or offers the covenant and the light to all the world, to all people.

As we read and consider these words and our Lord Jesus Christ, let us not ever forget that we are both “God’s people” and we are “Gentiles.” At times we are the light of Christ to others and at times we are in need of the light of Christ ourselves. Sometimes we “open eyes that are blind,” sometimes we need the Spirit to open our eyes. Sometimes we partner with the Holy Spirit to “free captives” and to release those “sitting in darkness.” Sometimes we are in need of freeing and release from our own sin and darkness. In faith and trust may we both give and receive the light of Christ.

Prayer: Lord God, humble me so that I can recognize where I need your light to shine into my heart. Reveal what needs surrendered, what needs given up. Guide me to yield all this up to the light of your refining fire. Free and release me from all that holds me back from receiving and from being the light to all people. Amen.


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Covenant Love

Reading: Isaiah 63:7-9

Verse 7: “I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord… the many good things God has done… according to God’s compassion…”

Photo credit: Marek Piwnicki

Isaiah 63 comes near the end of the book. The northern kingdom has fallen. Assyria captured Israel and took many away into captivity. Judah escaped this fate but will soon fall to the rising world power, Babylon. That fate, though, is almost 100 years away as Isaiah wraps up his ministry to Judah. Much of this third section, found in chapters 40-66, calls out the people’s rebellion and calls them to repent of their sins. The overall feel is dark and foreboding. Yet there are pockets of hope. One is found in our reading for today.

Even though God is deeply grieved by the people’s rebellion, in today’s text Isaiah reminds the people of God’s faithfulness. In verses 7 we read, “I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord… the many good things God has done… according to God’s compassion…” While the balance of chapter 63 recalls God’s mighty acts with and through Moses, in verses 8 and 9 Isaiah looks to a future time when God will come as Savior, when Christ will redeem them from their sins. The story of Moses was the ultimate story of rescue and redemption for the Israelites. It was the time when God made a way when there was no way. It reveals the heart of God for the people of God. Again and again God loved them through their rebellion and sin and brought them to the promised land.

That is the story that a people headed for defeat and exile needed to hear again. It is the story we need to hear again and again. The Savior rescues us and redeems us when we have rebelled. With love and mercy we are restored. With kindness and compassion our Savior lifts us and carries us in times of distress. God’s love and presence never fail. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, you are faithful and true, even when I stumble and fall. Your love and grace surround me, even when I am selfish and wayward. Your mercy ever extends to make me new again. Your compassion always chases me down. Where would I be without you? I dare not consider the possibilities. Thank you for your covenant love, O God. Amen.


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Grace and Hope

Reading: Titus 2:11-14

Verse 11: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.”

Photo credit: Jazmin de Guzman

This short book that we read from today is from Paul to Titus, a man that Paul trained while on one of his missionary trips. Titus was the leader of the church on the island of Crete. It is a great little letter and well worth the read. Today we look at four verses from the middle of the letter.

In verses 11 Paul references what we will be celebrating in three more days – the gift of Christ to the world. This gift brings both salvation and new life. In these verses, Paul shares that it is grace that guides our lives. Grace teaches us right from wrong, helping us to live “self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.” Grace helps us avoid worldly passions and other evils of the world. As grace works in our lives we mature in our faith as we learn what is pleasing to God. The love poured out through grace is what fuels this growth.

Walking with the Lord, our desire to experience Christ’s glory also grows. We come to long to see Christ – whether in his “glorious appearing” or in our ascension to glory. Hope is what fuels this longing. Knowing that glory will be just incredible, we hope for it as we long to see Christ.

The love and hope that we find in Christ leads us what Paul writes about in verses 14. As followers of Jesus Christ we are “a people that are his own, eager to do what is good.” Acts of kindness and compassion, measures of love and hope, bring good to the world. May we do good today.

Prayer: Lord God, in this Advent season use me to help others to experience the love and grace, the hope and mercy found in Christ. Use me as you will so that those without Jesus may encounter him this Advent season. Amen.


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The Love of God Almighty

Reading: Psalm 80:1-7

Verse 2: “Awaken your might; come and save us.”

Psalm 80 is an expression of lament that calls on God to be God. The words are couched in the Jewish understanding of covenant – God’s no-matter-what love for the children of God. The ‘how long’ feel and questions reflect the understanding that it is God alone with the power to keep the covenant. The great pleas are a recognition of how powerless humanity is and of how powerful and almighty God is.

Experiencing great loss naturally reminds us of these dynamics. For the psalmist and for the Israelites of his day, exile is their great loss and suffering. Their failure to uphold their side of the covenant has resulted in this hardship. They know that the drinking of “tears by the bowlful” is because of their choices and actions. The Israelites need God to rescue them. They need the Good Shepherd to guide them home. They need redemption and restoration from God Almighty.

This cycle of sin and separation followed by repentance and forgiveness is one that is played out again and again in the Bible. It is one played out over and over in our lives. It is in our human nature to struggle with greed, lust, jealousy… It is in God’s nature to love us in spite of and through these times and seasons of disobedience. With this understanding and with the faith and trust that it builds the psalmist can write, “Awaken your might; come and save us.” Because of the covenant love of God, the psalmist can cry out to the Lord Almighty, asking for God’s face to shine upon them, pleading for God’s mercy to save them. We are under this same covenant love. In our brokenness we too can cry out to God. Lord Almighty, come and save us!

Prayer: Lord God, your faithfulness began before creation and it will extend through all generations. Your covenant love knows no bounds, no limits, no exceptions. Hear the cries of your people today. Heal us, restore us, rescue us, redeem us, forgive us. Awaken your might, O God, and fill us with your power and glory. Amen.


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Love Mercy Grace

Reading: Luke 23:39-43

Verse 43: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

As we continue today with our Luke 23 passage for this week, let’s just begin by being honest: folks struggle with this passage. Christians almost universally love the words of forgiveness that Jesus speaks in verse 34. They are evidence of Christ’s love, mercy, and grace. We cherish these gifts that we receive in faith from Jesus. Some, however, can struggle with the words of forgiveness that come in verse 43.

There is a third person on a cross. This other thief joins in with the mocking of Jesus. He basically says that if Jesus is really the Messiah, then save yourself – and us! He is selfish. There is no belief. In this moment he’d just like enough of that love, mercy, and grace to get him out of this situation. “Just give me what I want right now and I might see you again when I need something” is his mantra. And as much as we feel disdain for this character, the truth is that at one point we have lived this kind of faith. Hard as that is to admit, here is a deeper truth. Once we think ourselves worthy of Jesus’ love, mercy, and grace, we begin to draw a line for others. We judge, we place conditions, we set up unspoken expectations, we limit access to Christ’s love, mercy, and grace. Welcome to thief two.

The second thief speaks up too. Only he recognizes what love, mercy, and grace looks like as it hangs beside him on the middle cross. He hears Jesus do the unthinkable: he offers it all to those who unjustly placed him on this cross. He is drawn to this Jesus. As a declaration of faith he asks to be remembered. Jesus tells him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” This is where some struggle. They get rankled at this deathbed confession and the ease with which Jesus accepts this man into faith. No judgement, no conditions, no expectations, no limits. In an instant the man sees Jesus’ love, mercy, and grace and is drawn into a relationship with the Savior. He steps into paradise in that very moment. Friends, may our love, mercy, and grace be as generous, accepting, and welcoming as Christ’s is.

Prayer: Lord God, what love! Anyone, everyone, anytime, anywhere. A lifetime, part of a lifetime, just a moment as death stands at the door. Relationship. This is where we come to see and understand your love, mercy, and grace. Relationship. It is where we are equipped and empowered to live these things out. May it be so. Amen.


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Words and Actions Most Unlikely

Reading: Luke 23:32-38

Verse 34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In Luke’s gospel we enter the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion this week. As we draw near to “Reign of Christ” Sunday and then the season of Advent that begins a week later, we come to the cross. Here Jesus demonstrates his kingship, not in earthly power and might, but in an act of humble sacrifice and mercy.

On what we commonly call “Good Friday,” Jesus is nailed to the cross, a criminal on either side. They are at Golgatha, “the Skull.” It was along a busy street just outside the city. Crucifixion was a public spectacle, one meant to deter other would-be criminals. Yet Jesus does not fit this description. He is innocent. Being without sin, he couldn’t have been more innocent. Yet the religious leaders ramrodded their accusations through Pilate and Herod, with Pilate finally caving into their demand to crucify.

Jesus had every right to be angry or bitter or resentful about what was happening to him. That’s where I’ve gone when unjust or unfair or cruel things have happened to me. Yet Jesus is filled instead with love and mercy. His first words from the cross are these: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” At a time when these words seem most unlikely, Jesus offers words of mercy and grace. Those hearing these words must’ve taken pause, at least for a moment. That’s what unconditional love does: it makes others notice. This day, may we too love others this way.

Prayer: Lord God, when I’m tempted to fling words right back, give me peace. When I’m tempted to get even, remind me of mercy. When I’m tempted to withhold forgiveness because of the pain or anger, place this picture of Jesus in my heart. Again and again, lead me to practice unconditional love. Amen.