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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Covenant God

Reading: Genesis 9: 8-17

Verse 9: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you”.

Photo credit: Iker Urteaga

Noah is the central character in our passage but he is far from alone. Noah and family have been on the ark with every other living animal, bird, reptile, insect… for almost a whole year. Imagine being confined to a fairly small space for that long! In reality, though, the current pandemic has felt like that for many. For Noah and crew, the waters finally receed and God calls them out of the ark with the imperative to “be fruitful and increase in number”. The earth must be populated again. New life must return. As they exit the ark, God says, “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you”. Never again will the whole earth be destroyed by water. A rainbow will remind God and humanity of the covenant.

If the pandemic has not felt like being locked in an ark for you, we all have had other trials and experiences where we wondered if we’d make it through, where we questioned if we’d survive the storm, where we’ve longed to finally catch our breath… As I’m sure Noah and family did from time to time, we have asked why God would allow this terrible thing to happen. This is a questioning born from grief or pain. After these emotions have passed we realize again that death and disease and illness and natural disasters are all part of life. None of these things are God punishing us or the world. At times maybe you, like me, briefly wondered this about COVID. It can sometimes feel that way. At the time of this writing, 2.43 million have died worldwide, with almost half a million of those deaths in the US. This disease has reminded us that we are powerless in many ways and that we can’t totally control everything. In the midst of the loss and grief we have also been reminded again and again of the hope, joy, strength, peace, assurance… that we find in our faith and in our covenant God.

Just as it did for Noah and family, the world as we once knew it has changed forever. We are in a place we never imagined we’d be. Just as the people of Noah’s day said ‘the rain will stop soon’, so too do we think this cannot last forever. We approach a year living in a pandemic. All of us have lost someone or have been impacted by this powerful disease. Yet Noah’s truths remain for us: God is more powerful than any earthly thing and that God is our covenant God. We too need to remember that God is more powerful than anything, even death. God promises to be our God in this life and in the life to come. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, you are all-powerful and everlasting. You are in total control and you are limitless. Yet you know my name and even the limited number of hairs on my head. You love me. You call me child. Thank you for wanting to be in a personal relationship with even me. Amen.


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Eternity Awaits

Reading: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13

Verses 10 and 11: “I have seen the burden God has laid on man. He has made everything beautiful in its time”.

Ecclesiastes 3 is a familiar passage. Most of the passage is about the seasons in life, laid out in a series of contrasts. A time to plant… to uproot. A time to weep… to laugh. A time to keep… to throw away. Verses ten and eleven sum up the passage well: “I have seen the burden God has laid on man. He has made everything beautiful in its time”. Life has both burdens and beauty, sorrows and joys. All people, believers and non-believers alike, live within these realities – birth and death, mourning and dancing, love and hate, war and peace…

This year has been different, unlike any other in our lifetimes. These pandemic times have affected all people – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, men and women, believers and non-believers. Illness and loss and grief have been born by all kinds of people and families. Yet not all is the same. Within the hearts of those with a saving faith there is a different peace, a different hope, a different strength. The rest of verse eleven reads, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of man”. For those who believe in Jesus Christ, we know that the burdens and beauty, the sorrows and joys are but temporary. None of these things that Solomon writes about in Ecclesiastes 3 are the end of the story. Eternity awaits us all. For those who believe, our eternity rests in God’s hands. Thank be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, life is filled with many experiences – some joyful, some full of pain. Seasons come and go; this one that we are in the midst of will one day be a memory too. You are the constant. You remain love and hope and strength. All honor and glory are yours. Amen.


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Light Still Shines

Reading: Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3

Verse 11: “The sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations”.

Many years ago, early on in my years working with youth, I helped out at a 30-hour famine lock-in at the church. We spent 30 hours learning about poverty in places around the world. We interspersed games and activities as well. And we drank only water. We had no food or snacks. At the end of the lock-in we cooked a meal common to many living in impoverished areas of the world: rice and beans. After 30 hours without food you might think we longer for more, maybe steak and potatoes. Yet the simple meal tasted so good. It was completely filling and satisfying.

In today’s passage Isaiah speaks to a people who have come home from exile. They returned with such joy. They were eager to start the work of restoring Jerusalem and the temple. Their work labored on and outside forces threatened their safety and their ability to continue. Isaiah comes to them and tells them that God is readying “garments of salvation” and “robes of righteousness”. In verse eleven Isaiah speaks hope: “The sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations”. God will be with his people. What joy and hope these words must have brought. To hear that righteousness will “shine like the dawn” and that salvation will be like a “blazing torch” only builds their hope and joy.

There were times that night twenty-something years ago when the hunger gnawed at us. There were moments when the joy and excitement that we began the event with seemed like a distant memory. But times of prayer and worship sustained us and strengthened us to stay the course, to not give up. As I think about our current season, this time of pandemic, it reminds me of that lock-in. We began this season thinking it would all be over in two to three weeks. 30 hours without food isn’t that long, right? The months have drug on, our hard labor continues, enemies seem all around, and our hope and joy are challenged often. Just as times of praise and worship lifted our souls and spirits and just as Isaiah’s words of hope lifted the Israelites, so too will these things lift us now.

In just two days believers will gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Isaiah spoke of him, the one who “will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand”. This Christmas Eve is a chance to renew faith, to praise the one who brings salvation, to worship the one who is righteous, to exult the light who still shines into the darkness. If you do not have a church home, find a church online or near by you to worship on Christmas Eve. Join the faithful throughout the world as we worship Jesus Christ, Lord and King.

Prayer: Living God, continue to sustain us, to encourage us, to walk with us these long days. Draw us in to worship the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Allow all to see the light that is still shining in the darkness. Amen.


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Glory Revealed

Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-11

Verse 2: “Speak tenderly… proclaim that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for”.

Isaiah writes to a nation that experienced defeat, death, and exile because they continued living in sin. These things were the consequences for refusing to listen to the prophets, for refusing to repent, for refusing to turn away from evil and back to God. At times we too will choose to live in our sin. In these seasons we will ignore the whispers of the Holy Spirit, the pleas of loved ones and friends, and even our own awareness of doing wrong. Sin can be powerful. The choice to live in our sin can have consequences for us, just as they did for the Israelites. We may lose a dear friend or even a marriage. We may find ourselves looking for a new job or place to live. We may find ourselves imprisoned or in another form of exile. Just as the nation of Israel did, we will usually come to understand how and why we ended up where we ended up.

When Israel was defeated, many died, many were taken away into exile. Not all of these were living in sin. Innocents were caught up in the “hard service” for the nation’s sins. In our current time I believe many see the world this way. This pandemic has settled in and brought unwanted consequences. While God does not cause evil or death – God is good and holy and just and loving – these things are a part of our world. People feel imprisoned by the pandemic. People are suffering illness and loss. People are feeling the emotional weight of isolation, depression, loneliness, grief…

Just as the word of God brought hope to the exiles, knowing that the time to return to normal was just ahead, so too can the word of God bring hope to those in our neighborhoods and communities. As followers of Jesus Christ we have a great opportunity to minister to those in need. Through our words, through our presence, or through our actions we can bring hope to people’s lives. As we share these gifts with others they will come to know the one who cares for each of us as a shepherd cares for the flock. As they do come to know Jesus, they will find that he walks with them, easing their burdens, taking their pains and griefs, giving them hope. In and through us his glory can be revealed. May it be so.

Prayer: Good shepherd, may I labor with and for you today. Lead and guide me to be light and love in your name. May these things shine brightly in and through me. Amen.


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Our Shepherd

Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-11

Verse 11: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his chest”.

Chapter 40 falls in the second section of the book of Isaiah. The end of the exile and the return to the Promised Land is on the horizon. In our passage today, God gives a word to Isaiah. The prophet casts a vision of what will be. These words speak of their current time, of our present time, and of a time yet to come. For Israel, they would hear “Comfort, comfort my people” as a word of hope for their near future. They would hear that the penalty for their sin has been paid, looking forward to the future with a renewed hope. Right now, in the corporate sense at a very minimum, we feel like we are living in exile. We long for true words concerning an end to the pandemic.

In the middle section of our passage, Isaiah first speaks words of hope, prophesying a day when “the glory of the Lord will be revealed”. Next, in verses six through eight, there is a reality check. There will be years between when the glory is revealed and the present time for Isaiah’s audience. Generations of mankind, which is like grass, will perish. Here the prophet is acknowledging that God’s time is not our time. They await the Messiah; we await the second coming of the Lord. Lastly for today, Isaiah speaks of the Lord who “will come in power”. He calls for a voice to bring “good tidings”, for a voice to speak words that “make straight paths for the Lord”. About 800 years after Isaiah’s time and about 2,000 years before our time John the Baptist will be that voice in the wilderness, preparing the way.

John will be the fulfillment of these words from the prophet Isaiah. He would herald the coming of the Lord, the one Isaiah writes about in verse eleven. Here he writes, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his chest”. Jesus himself will claim the role of the Good Shepherd. He will lead and guide the flock from the beginning to the end of this age. In this way Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s proclamation that “the word of our God stands forever”. Jesus was and is and is to come. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord of Lords, King of Kings, ruler of all creation, thank you for counting me as one of your flock. Thank you for carrying me close to your heart. In this season, I ask you to level out this rugged ground, to make this rugged place we all find ourselves into a plain – a time of peace and joy and hope and love. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.


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Hope in Exile

Reading: Ezekiel 34: 11-16

Verse 16: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak”.

Ezekiel was one of God’s prophets. He ministered to Israel during their time in exile in Babylon. After being defeated by the Babylonians, many Israelites were dispersed throughout the kingdom of their conquerors. These words from God’s prophet would bring hope during a difficult time. These words of God would remind the people that their current experience will not be their reality forever. Both of these circumstances are true today. In our current pandemic, there is no doubt that this is a difficult time for almost everyone. Although it feels like it has been a really long time, we know that the virus and its effects will not last forever. Yet, in the midst of it, we are much like the Israelites in Babylon – isolated, feeling powerless, becoming a bit hopeless, grieving, separated.

Beginning in verse eleven God reveals his plan. In this verse God tells the people that he will “search for my sheep and look after them”. In the next verse God promises to “rescue them” from isolation, from exile, from “all the places where they were scattered”. Then God shares that he will bring them back home. In verse thirteen God states, “I will bring them into their own land”. God will search for his children; God will rescue them and gather them; and, God will bring them back home. Living in a time of defeat, in a time of exile, to hear that God is still God, that God loves and cares for them, that God will once again bring them all back together – these are words of healing and hope.

During these COVID times, just as was the case in exile, some people are coping or doing okay, some are not. Those who are naturally resilient, those who are disposed to optimism, those whose faith has grown in these times – these folks are going alright. There is a middle group who are mostly getting by. They have some of these positive characteristics, but life is now a delicate balance. And there are those who have depleted their reserves of these characteristics. They are struggling emotionally, physically, spiritually, relationally. This last group, especially, needs to hear verse sixteen’s promise: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak”. God has a special love for those hurting the most. Jesus, his son, modeled this love. Jesus, our Lord, calls us to follow his lead. To those around us most feeling like they are in exile, may we share these words of hope and love. And, if we dare, may we be these words of hope and love. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, lead and guide me to the list, to the strays, to the weak. Set my feet towards those hurting in my communities. Break my heart for what breaks yours. Fill my broken heart with your love and care. Use me to bring hope to those without. May it be so. Amen.


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Everyday Faith

Reading: 1st Thessalonians 2: 9-13

Verse 9: “Surely you remember… our toil and hardship… we worked… not to be a burden… as we preached the gospel”.

Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica to encourage them and to help guide them in their walk of faith. In the section that we read from today, Paul is reminding them of the example that he and his companions set when they were there. The reminder is a call to walk this way too. In verse nine we read, “Surely you remember… our toil and hardship… we worked… not to be a burden… as we preached the gospel”. Paul was what we call a bi-vocational minister. Preaching the good news of Jesus Christ was only part of his day. Paul also worked hard as a tent maker. This is the “toil and hardship” that he refers to. It was hard manual labor. Paul worked so that he was not a “burden”. This was absolutely necessary early on. There were no churches yet, there were no Christians living there, there was no support systems established in the towns that Paul first went to. He had to have a means of support for himself. Paul’s companions also modeled this form of ministry. More importantly, though, Paul wanted those in the church to understand that faith was a part of everyday life. Paul lived out his faith at work as a tent maker just as much as he did when preaching the gospel. This is what he is calling the Thessalonians to and it is what he is calling us to as well.

In verse ten Paul draws their attention to the “holy, righteous, blameless” example that he set when he was among them. He does this as a way to encourage them to live the same way. The Thessalonians heard the gospel and believed in Jesus. They saw the model Paul lived out. Now they were being called or even challenged to live the same way. We too are called and challenged to live “holy, righteous, blameless” lives. To do this, like Paul and like the church in Thessalonica, we must work at our faith. When we do so, we will find the encouragement and urgency to live a life worthy of God. For Paul, part of the work takes place within the community of faith. Worship is our primary means of connecting with God and with one another. Gatherings like small groups and service opportunities also connect us. It is from our time in community that we grow in love of God and in love of neighbor. In community we also find comfort and belonging and other things so needed in this pandemic season. Many are feeling helpless and hopeless right now. Being in Christian community reminds those hurting right now that God is their help and their hope. The other part of our work takes place in our personal relationship with God. Time in prayer, study, and meditation draws us deeper into our relationship with God. Like it was for Paul, faith should be practiced and witnessed to in all parts of our life. May it be so for each of us today.

Prayer: Lord God, in the quiet and stillness of the early morning, I can connect to you. When I enter the world, the busyness of the day, it can be a struggle. Slow me down, attune me to those that I cross paths with, lead me to speak hope and peace, light and love. May it be so. Amen.


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Hope in Faith

Reading: Psalm 107: 1-7

Verse 6: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress”.

Today’s Psalm reading begins with a great line: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever”. Every time I read that line I am reminded of a song (Forever) that just makes me happier. This line is found in several Psalms – it is a familiar refrain for the people of God. The thanks in today’s Psalm is centered on the redeeming and gathering power of God in verses two through four, and on the Lord’s deliverance and guidance in verses five through seven. The acts of redeeming and gathering, of delivering and guiding, continue to be reasons we today can also say (or sing), “Give thanks to the Lord…”

Psalm 107 is one of many Psalms of thanksgiving. The nation has wandered and has been dispersed. They have been hungry and thirsty, life “ebbed away”. In his great love, God gathered them back into community, leading them once again by a “straight way”. God’s steadfast love remained strong for his children. God hears their cries and God responded. Through no fault of their own, our current pandemic has caused many to feel difficult emotions. Many are or worry about being hungry and cared for as employment is tenuous in this new time. Many are stressed by anxiety over their health or by the health of loved ones and friends. Many long to be gathered back into community, feeling the pain of isolation and loneliness. Many in our churches and neighborhoods are longing to be redeemed and gathered, to be delivered and guided. Many are crying out, many are hurting. It is a time of struggle, even for some of us.

Verse six reminds us of the promise: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress”. God will hear and deliver. There is hope in these words. Maybe we need to hear them ourselves. If so, spend some time today with this Psalm and in prayer with your loving God. Maybe we are people of faith who can share these words with those who are worried or stressed or anxious or lonely. As we live out and share our faith, may we each be a part of the healing of the nations. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, guide me and the church to the cries of the hurting and breaking. Lead us to respond in love and hope, offering fellowship and community, care and provision – offering faith in you. Use us to bring healing to our communities and neighborhoods. Amen.


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Both New and Old

Reading: Acts 2: 1-21

Verse 4: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them”.

As we continue to look at Acts 2 we focus in today on communication. A small group of Jesus followers is gathered together and the Holy Spirit bursts in and settles on each one. At that moment, “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. The languages that they spoke matched up with the native tongues of the Jews that were drawn there and this helped them to connect to the story of Jesus Christ. As I shared yesterday, we each have our own unique “language” or experience that can speak into another person’s life, drawing them to our source of new life.

In this pandemic time we have had to learn and relearn how to communicate when we cannot be face to face. Many people became familiar with apps like Zoom and FaceTime and Google chat. Some of us even became somewhat proficient at using these platforms to gather for Bible studies and meetings and family birthdays… In many churches the leap was made to provide online worship as YouTube and Facebook Live and other platforms were quickly learned and used. Folks at home also had to adjust to how they heard and participated in online worship – honing their new communication skills.

We have also relearned some skills that we practiced back in the days without social media and cell phones. We call and talk on the phone, catching up and checking in on one another. We send actual notes and cards in the mail. Some have even had conversations with folks from afar – talking through windows and screen doors. It has been good to be reminded that the “old-fashioned” ways to communicate are every bit as good as texting, messaging, … It has been good for me, for us, to be reminded of the value of simply checking in, of reaching out, of connecting in more personal ways.

As we begin to work our way back to whatever our new normal is, may we continue to learn and use the technology when beneficial and necessary. But let us also hold fast to all of these “old” modes of communication as well because they are often more personal, more real, more valued to many. May all these things be so as we seek to share our faith each day.

Prayer: Lord God, sharing your love and hope and grace can happen in many forms. In this season you have reminded me of the value of personal communication in new and old ways. Thank you. Help me to discern how to best communicate these means of faith to others today and every day. Amen.