pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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A Gift from God

Reading: Mark 4: 26-29

Verse 28: “All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head”.

Photo credit: Noemi Pongracz

In today’s parable Jesus compares the growth of faith to the planting and raising of a crop. In faith and trust we scatter seeds of faith through our words and our witness. We hope that the seeds take root in our children, in those we share faith with, and in the strangers we meet. In the literal sense we also plant seeds. In the back yard we planted seeds in beds and large tubs and pots. We hoped that plants would grow, yielding carrots, lettuce, potatoes… It is a small labor of love. We go out each day to water, to weed, to tend the plants. And they grow!

One small row is beans. Of the dozen or so seeds that I planted, about half are now tender young plants. My beans are a good reminder of two things. First, not all seeds take root and grow. Second, I am not responsible nor can I take the credit for the growth. The same is true when we plant or scatter seeds of faith. In verse 28 Jesus says, “All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head”. There is a mystery to seeds of faith taking root in someone; there is a miracle when God grows that faith into maturity. All is a gift from God. While we do and must play a role, it is God who starts, develops, grows, matures, and sustains our faith. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Loving and tender God, thank you for the gift of faith. Yes, you call me to sow seeds and may I ever be faithful. Yet you alone are the giver of life and faith, of growth and relationship. Use me today Lord to scatter seeds of faith. Amen.


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Multiplied

Reading: John 15:26 – 16:11

Verse 26: “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send… he will testify about me”.

Photo credit: Joshua Eckstein

In our passages for today and tomorrow, Jesus promises a continuing presence that will be with the disciples. In this section of John’s gospel, known as the ‘Farewell Discourse’, Jesus is preparing his followers for life without his physical presence. In the three years of his ministry they have grown close to Jesus – moving from strangers to disciples and on to friends.

In verse 26 Jesus begins to explain the transition from physical presence to spiritual presence. Here he says, “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send… he will testify about me”. The Holy Spirit will come and it will testify in their hearts about Jesus. The voice of the Spirit will teach and guide the disciples, yes, for their own benefit but moreso that they will testify to others. Since the disciples have been with Jesus since the beginning of his ministry they have witnessed the miracles and they have heard his teachings. This, plus the constant presence of the Holy Spirit, will equip and empower them to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Jesus goes a step further in verse seven. Here he says, “It is for your good that I am going away”. In the moment it must have been hard to hear these words. But soon – just a few days after he will ascend into heaven – this promised Holy Spirit will fall upon the believers at Pentecost. In a powerful demonstration of how it is better, the believers speak the good news to a large crowd, all in their native languages. It would have taken Jesus hours and hours to do this work. His power, multiplied by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, is magnified greatly. This will continue to be the pattern as the disciples, apostles, and other believers take the gospel to the ends of the known world. In and through the power of the Holy Spirit, the transformation of the world begins. In and through the power of the Holy Spirit, may we continue to tell the good news of Jesus Christ, multiplying his power and presence in the world!

Prayer: Lord God, use me today to be light and love wherever and whenever I can. Through the power of the Holy Spirit within me, may I bring transformation to the world. Amen.


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Discipleship

Reading: Mark 11: 1-7

Verse 7: “When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it”.

Photo credit: Juan Gomez

Our passage for today opens with an act of discipleship. In the literal sense Jesus instructs two disciples to go and do something for him. The two are instructed to go and get a colt for Jesus. They are told to enter the village ahead, there they will find a colt. They are to untie it and, if anyone asks, to tell the people that Jesus needs it. And, yes, don’t worry – we’ll return it when we’re done with it. They are not borrowing a cup of flour from the neighbor. Culture must have been much different back then.

Up to this point in Jesus’ ministry his popularity has risen and fallen. Many were initially attracted to the miracles but the more he spoke of the cost of discipleship, the more the crowd thinned. Yet his name was known. In whose name could we go today to commandeer a car or even a bike? Who among us would be so daring to even attempt such a thing? We would be so full of doubt and questioning. But what of these two disciples?

The disciples do as Jesus says. They find the colt just as he said they would. They answer the question that Jesus said might be asked just as Jesus told them to. And they return to Jesus with the colt that “no one has ever ridden”. What impression or effect did this act of faith have on these two disciples? How did this shape their faith moving forward? Verse seven tells us, “When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it”. Seeing Jesus there, assuming a place and position new for him, how did they see their role?

At times the Holy Spirit calls us to action. It whispers or nudges us to an action or to speak words. We too often ask, “Say what?” or “Do what?” How would our faith and our lives be different if we simply did as these two disciples did? Where would our faith take us if we truly lived with Jesus Christ as the Lord of our life?

Prayer: Lord God, your call is persistent, your love is unchanging. In those moments when I begin to question, when I try to hesitate long enough for the opportunity to pass, spur me to action. When I fail to respond immediately, well up in me a quick compassion and an unquenchable love for those you place before me. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Willing to Die?

Reading: John 12: 20-26

Verse 24: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”.

Photo credit: Noemi Pongracz

Our passage begins with some Greeks wanting to see Jesus. They are probably in town for the Passover and are curious about this man. Perhaps they were in the crowd that waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna”! Maybe they’ve just heard a few stories – snipets of his teachings or whispers of miracles. These Greeks know enough to want to know more.

Jesus begins by announcing that his time has come. Soon he will be glorified. Jesus wants them to know that not only he will soon die but that all who follow will also pay a price as well. In verse 24 Jesus says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”. Jesus is paralleling his physical death with the emotional, cultural, spiritual… deaths that all followers of Christ are called to. During the season of Lent the question that Jesus might ask of us today is this: What kernels of wheat do we need to allow to fall to the ground? Is it being greedy with my money? Is it being selfish with my time? Is it judging those who are different than me? What is your kernel of wheat that you need to let go of so that you and those you meet can experience true life?

As a society we have come to see humility and death as the enemies – physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. We do all we can to stave off death. This is the right and godly thing to do with a child or young parent or many others. Yet for each of us there comes a time when our physical death is a welcome friend. As a society we look down on humility. Instead we are taught to be strong, to be independent, to work for success in life. We’re taught that once we accumulate these things, all will be good. Until we do. Then we learn that meaning and purpose and love and contentment and peace and joy and hope cannot be earned or bought. Living as a person of the world, these eternal gifts are elusive.

We must be willing to die to pride, fear, arrogance, anxiety, selfishness, doubt, greed, lust, envy, racism, jealousy, judging, anger, prejudice, worry, elitism, injustice… as we seek to follow Jesus. As Jesus says in verse 25, we must “hate his [or her] life in this world”. Only then will we be willing and able to die to self and to begin to walk as a disciple of Jesus Christ, following him daily and one day into eternal life. May you and I be willing to do the hard work of this call to die to self. May the Lord bless our journeys.

Prayer: Loving God, your Spirit leads and guides me daily, holding up to me those kernels that still need to die. I’ve plucked off leaves now and then. Help me to get to the roots. For those things that still separate me from you and from others, grant me the strength to die to these barriers and sins. Thank you God. Amen.


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Questionable

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1: 18-25

Verse 23: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”.

Photo credit: Taylor Smith

Paul is writing in today’s passage to a church that needs some words of wisdom concerning the idea of a crucified Messiah. These last two words just don’t make sense, they just do not fit together in many people’s minds. For Paul this is the overall message of the cross: Jesus died for you and for me. To those who believe that Jesus loved us enough to die for us, the cross offers the power of salvation and of eternal life. But if you cannot wrap your head around that gift and what it means and gives to the believer, then placing one’s trust and life in Jesus’ hands makes no sense.

In verse 23 Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”. The Jews, for the most part, saw Jesus as a good teacher, as one that inspired many people to a better life, as one who even did some amazing things (miracles). But Jesus was not the Messiah that they envisioned. A real Messiah would never allow himself to be crucified. A real king would not eat with sinners, heal on the Sabbath, regularly engage the outcasts and unclean… All of these things were stumbling blocks to most of the Jews. The Gentiles (read ‘Romans’ or ‘pagans’ here) worshiped many gods and saw the cross as the place of punishment for the worst criminals. To cast one’s life in with the lot of a mere human, one that died with such shame and so powerless – foolishness!

As Christians living in today’s world, sometimes we should be stumbling blocks to some, foolishness to others. For our Lenten series this year, we are calling this “living highly questionable lives”. Last week I read a story about a high school basketball player. During a game he noticed that a player on the other team was wearing shoes that were not suitable for basketball. After the game he took off his shoes and have them to this other player. To some this appeared as foolish. To others it may have been a stumbling block. But to those also touched by Jesus Christ that night, it was the love of God being lived out in a real way.

As we encounter those who see our faith as foolish or as a stumbling block to their preferred way of life, may the Spirit give us the words or actions that preaches the cross in a way that reveals the courage and strength of our faith in the Messiah.

Prayer: Loving God, use me today to reveal my faith in ways that draw others into conversation. Let me love so completely that the other is willing to look past what at first seems foolish or to step over what may initially feel like a stumbling block. May the power of the cross draw them in. May it be so. Amen.


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Refined and Reshaped

Reading: Exodus 16: 2-8

Verse 3: “You have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death”.

As the nation of Israel travels in the desert it is a time of testing and refining and reshaping. The journey began with a great freeing miracle in the Passover. The possibility of new life lay ahead as they exited Egypt. They were no longer slaves living in a foreign land. Shortly after leaving God again intervened on their behalf, providing a way through the sea. They were spared a return to slavery. But the experience of these powerful miracles soon gave way to the reality of their situation. The first grumbling for water was satisfied but it came with the first warning to “listen carefully to the voice of the Lord”.

About 45 days after leaving Egypt, the nation has now run low on food. Water and food are essential to life. The people begin to once again grumble against Moses and Aaron. Remembering the good old days – the days when they sat around pots of food as SLAVES – they say to them, “If only we had died at the hand of the Lord in Egypt”. Continuing on, the Israelites say, “You have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death”. They are once again testing God. When they feared dying when trapped against the sea, they complained and God provided the way. When they complained about the bitter water, again God provided the way. God will respond. God’s intent was not to bring his nation out of slavery just to die in the desert. But there are provisions this time. It will be necessary to begin listening to that voice of the Lord. As Moses speaks God’s commands, they must begin to listen. God is beginning to refine and shape their obedience. They are being readied for what lies ahead.

Our journeys with God include similar elements. There are times in our lives when needs are not being met. After one too many nights of Ramen noodles, it can be easy to slip into grumbling or complaining or having a “woe is me” attitude. We also have experiences where God provides a way – literally sending food our way or opening a door at other times. Like the parting of the sea and like water from the rock, as God reigns down food from heaven, it will reassure the people, it will refine their faith, it will begin to shape them into obedient people. Even so, the Israelites will again doubt, will again turn to fear instead of trust. We too are a work in progress. Our faith journey has its share of times when we need refined and reshaped too. We all need reminded from time to time that God is faithful and that God loves us dearly. Each time we are drawn a little closer, we are more assured of his love, and we emerge walking a bit closer, more obediently. May our loving and faithful God continue the good work that he has begun in each of us.

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for your continual work in my life. There was that time in the hospital when you were tangibly present. And there was that time when you opened a door when I couldn’t see a way. And, and, and… Through my doubt and worry, through my questioning and even anger, you provided the way. Thank you, God. Amen.


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Pause to Praise

Reading: Psalm 105: 1-6

Verse 4: “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always”.

Today’s Psalm is a song of remembrance and celebration. As a whole the Psalm recounts God’s covenants with Israel and the period in Egypt. It is part of the story of God’s ongoing faithfulness to Israel. The song would be sung as a way to help remember God’s love for his people. Most often it would be a song of worship and praise, but sometimes it also served to lift up their faith and spirit in times of personal or communal trial or testing or suffering.

Verse one begins with giving thanks to God for all that he has done. The charge is to make this “known among the nations”. The next two verses are about singing praises and bringing glory to God. Again, the context is to “tell of all his wonderful acts”. These ideas of making God known among all the nations and of sharing what God has done for us continues to be our charge as we seek to fulfill Jesus’ commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

As we turn to verse four we are reminded that our faith is not just rooted in the past. The past is our foundation and the future is our hope, but we live in the present. In verse four we read, “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always”. We remember God’s mighty acts from both the word of God and from our own faith journeys to build upon our foundation of faith. This base allows us to live day by day, looking to the Lord for strength and seeking his presence with an assurance that God will be there for us. We come to learn that the Lord was, is, and always will be present to and for us. Remembering and praising God for our experience with this truth builds up our faith.

As the psalmist reminds us to “remember the wonders… the miracles” that God has done, may we pause to praise God today for the ways he has touched our lives. In our own way may we each rejoice in God’s love today.

Prayer: Loving and merciful God, in the word I find the unfolding story of your love for us. Thank you for the stories and teachings that encourage me, that lift me, that grow my faith. On my journey you have been a constant presence. Yet some points stand out – in a church balcony, in an ER room, in a prayer space. They are easy to identify – milestones. But even in the day to day your love and mercy remember me. They touch my life each day. In the small and mundane, even there I find you. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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Only in Surrender

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1: 18-31

Verse 18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”.

Paul is writing to the church in Corinth to address a division that has arisen. On one side of the divide are the Greeks. They love learning and discussing ideas. They look for and prize wisdom above all else. They want to know their way into believing in Jesus Christ. On the other side are the Jews. The Jews look for signs. This is how they had always recognized and identified the power of God at work. Way back the power of God was revealed in the manna and in the wall of Jericho falling down, just to name a couple of examples. More recently it shown as Jesus and the disciples healed and cast out demons. The Jews wanted to be awed into believing in Jesus.

Paul tells both sides that they are wrong. Both the Greeks and the Jews are looking in the wrong place if they want to find the power of Jesus Christ. In our opening verse Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. To the world the cross represents weakness and shame and wrong doing. To the world it was foolishness for Jesus to die on a cross like a common criminal. But the world is perishing. Paul instead reminds the Jews and Greeks that true power is found in the cross. It was on the cross that Jesus demonstrated servanthood and obedience. It was there that he became humble to death as he died to save us all. In his death and resurrection Jesus defeated the powers of sin and death and paved the way for us all to experience “righteousness, holiness, and redemption”.

Just as Jesus was humble, we too must be humble as we approach faith. We cannot think our way into believing. Nor can we argue another into faith. We cannot “genie” our way to believing either. We cannot try and force God to prove he is real. We find faith when we come to the point of kneeling before Jesus, aware of our sin and our need for his grace, humbly asking him to be the Lord of our life. Only when we surrender do we find victory in Christ. It is more of that upside-down kingdom. When we are weak, he is strong. May we walk in surrender to our Lord and Savior today.

Prayer: Loving Father, you took me as I was, broken and filled with so many sins and weaknesses. Just like a potter, you went to work reforming and reshaping me, guiding me to your purposes. I am far from perfect. I beg you to continue to be at work in me. I surrender all to you for your glory. Amen.


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Walking Closer

Reading: Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

Verse 26:14 – “And while they were eating, he said, ‘I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me'”.

Jesus has been in ministry for three years. All of the men who sit around the table with him have been with Jesus for those three years – hearing the teachings, seeing the miracles, observing his example. It is hard to imagine any of these twelve men turning on Jesus. They have gathered to celebrate the Passover, an ancient tradition in the Jewish faith. On this sacred night when they remember and celebrate God’s mighty saving acts that led the Israelites to freedom, Jesus will be arrested, tried, and beaten. As they share the Passover meal, Jesus shares these words: “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me”.

It amazes me that Jesus could share this sacred and special time of faith and fellowship with the one who betrayed him. It is hard for me to even see someone who has betrayed me, never mind to sit and share a meal with them. It is hard to be kind and pleasant to one who has turned on me, never mind serving them the bread and cup. In passages like these I see face to face with my reality: I have a long ways to go in my walk with Jesus.

As we celebrate Palm Sunday and the triumphal entry today, we are on the edge of Holy Week. On Thursday we will again come face to face with this story and then with the crucifixion on Good Friday. Events along this week’s journey will again serve to remind me of my love of Jesus as well as of my areas of needed growth. I can envision what it would look and feel and be like to fellowship with my Judases and to offer them the Lord’s Supper. As I walk the road to Calvary with Jesus this week, may I come nearer to the place of loving those who harm and hurt me and those I love. As I follow in Jesus’ footsteps, may I come one day to walk in them.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for where I am in my journey of faith. I am grateful for my place in your family and for the walk so far. I know I am not what I was, but can also see that I have far to go. Lead and guide me to follow closer and closer, day by day. Amen.


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See the Father

Reading: John 14: 8-17

Verse 9: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”.

When asked questions about my mentors or people who had serious influence on my life, my first thoughts are always my parents. My mom was a teacher and for my first career I taught middle school for 23 years. My dad had a great work ethic and was a planner, an organizer. These traits I have inherited from my dad. Both of my parents had a great influence on my second career as a pastor. My parents both have a big heart for others and a heart for mission and service. As a pastor, the “other” is often a focus of mine, both in the church and in the community. Much of who I am comes from my parents. This idea is the focus of today’s passage.

In our passage today Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”. In essence Jesus is saying if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God. He goes on to explain that the words He is saying are not His words but God’s words. Jesus also makes clear that the works, the miracles, are because He is in the Father and the Father is in Him. The disciples struggle with this idea. It is not easy to fit this idea into their understandings of God. All these years later we see Jesus as God incarnate, as God in the flesh. We draw these understandings from the birth stories that we have in the gospels. For the disciples, they have known Jesus just a few years. It is one thing to be sent by God – like the prophets. It is another thing to be one with God.

As if this were not enough for the disciples to wrap their heads around, Jesus goes on in verse 12 to say, “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing”. The greatest person they have ever known, their hero, says they will be doing what He has done if only they have faith. Not only that, but “even greater things because I am going to the Father”. Imagine being a follower and hearing all of this.

In our last few verses, Jesus starts to offer the “how” – the explanation. To all who obey Jesus’ commands, to all who love Him, God will send the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Jesus will come to them and dwell in them. Although not fully sure of what this really means, it does begin the explanation for the disciples. Like a good parent, the Holy Spirit will come to lead and guide, to direct and correct, to teach and remind, to strengthen and encourage the followers of Jesus Christ as they grow to become more like Him. This too is our journey and our mission. Through the Holy Spirit, may we become more like Jesus and more like the Father.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for my parents and for all who have poured into me, influencing my walk of faith. Continue to send people into my life that call me closer to you. Thank you also for the Spirit, the presence of Jesus and you in me. May it speak clearly in my life each day. Amen.