pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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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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True Light

Reading: John 1: 1-14

Verse 9: “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world”.

John’s gospel introduces us to Jesus in a way that is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There is a holiness, a divinity, a wonder to John’s words. “In the beginning was the Word…” rings with an eternal truth. Jesus’ divine nature is revealed in a powerful way. John wants us to understand the significance of the creator of all things stepping into that creation. The most perfect being that there ever was, the most powerful force in all of existence laid all that aside and became one of us.

Jesus did not come to spend a few years or even a long life just to see what life here was like. He came to reveal God’s plan for what life should be like. In verse nine we read, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world”. The way, the truth, and the life came to show us the way to love our neighbors, to reveal the depth of God’s love for us, and to demonstrate a life lived in total surrender to God. We read how this is possible in verse twelve: “To those who believe he gave the right to become children of God”. This gift came through his sacrificial death. Through death and resurrection Jesus defeated the power of sin, paying the price to redeem us from our sin. Only through the forgiveness that Christ offers can we be made new again, holy and perfect in his presence. Only then can we stand as a child of God.

Thank you, true light, for coming into the world. Thank you, holy Word, for being a part of my life.

Prayer: Dear God, a simple “thank you” today. Amen.


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Gift of the Spirit

Reading: Mark 1: 6-8

Verses 7 and 8: “After me will come one more powerful than I… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”.

John the Baptist chose the wilderness as his ministry setting. He dressed the part, wearing camel hair clothes. He lived a wilderness life, eating locusts and wild honey. In these ways he was about as far from a typical religious leader as he could be. But this was his destiny. John was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth when both were well beyond the children stage of life. In Luke 1 we find the story of the angel visiting Zechariah in the holy of holies, telling him of John’s special role in preparing the way for the coming Messiah.

Large crowds came out to see John, to hear his message, to confess their sins, to be baptized. It would have been easy for John to forget his main task. It would have been easy to get caught up in the crowds and growing number of followers. Maybe that is part of why John did not operate out of the temple. There he might have heard whispers of how great he was, of how much he was doing for God. Or maybe the religious leaders would not have ever even let John in the door. He was wild, after all, ministering outside the religious structures of the day. In this way John was much like his cousin Jesus.

John was like Jesus in another important way. He understood the role he came to play. John preached and baptized, called people to repent of their sins, not to build up a following, but to prepare people to follow Jesus. We see and feel John’s humility and dedication to God in verses seven and eight. Here he says, “After me will come one more powerful than I… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”. The one who will baptize with the long awaited Holy Spirit is coming.

After baptizing Jesus, John will become less so that Jesus can step into and live out his role according to God’s plan. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as he emerges from the waters of baptism. For three years, Jesus will play his role, defining what it looks like to love God and neighbor with all that you are. As Jesus’ ministry and time on earth comes to a close, he promises to pass on the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who believe. Like many disciples who have come before us, we too have received the gift of the Spirit. This gift allows and empowers us to play our roles, guiding us to be live love and light in the world. May we too play our roles, preparing others to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Prayer: Loving God, we all have a role to play. We are all called to be ministers of the good news of Jesus Christ. Fill us all with the power of the Holy Spirit, guiding us to ever point to your son, the Savior of the world. Amen.


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Perfect Love

Reading: Exodus 14: 19-22

Verses 21-22: “The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground”.

The Passover had been the final miracle before the Israelites packed in haste and fled Egypt. Amidst Egyptian cries of grief and heartbreak the people of God left behind slavery and oppression. Their mighty and powerful God has intervened and freedom lay ahead. After 430 years in Egypt about two million Israelites began a journey to their new home. After just a short time, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and his army heads out to bring the Israelites back. Camped up against the sea, they are filled with fear as Pharaoh’s army approaches.

As we pick up the story today, God acts quickly to protect his people as the pillars of cloud and fire both move between the Israelites and the Egyptians, creating a barrier neither will cross. Moses stretches out his hand and God drives back the waters of the sea. In verses 21 and 22 we read, “The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground”. As the people of God walked through on dry ground, a wall of water stood on either side. Talk about seeing God’s power up close and personal!

This image brings up two things for me. The first is the song “No Longer Slaves” by Bethel Music. In the bridge they sing, “You split the sea so I could walk right through it, my fears were drowned in perfect love”. It is such a beautiful lyric. The second thing I am reminded of are the many ways that God has acted in powerful and mighty ways in my life and in the lives of people I know. God has a habit of doing what he did that day in the desert – of entering our fear and doubt and worry, of walking with us to a place of safety, and of protecting us as we journey. God’s perfect love does indeed surround us and assured us of his presence. As you consider how and when our powerful God has intervened in your life, please take a moment or two to recall when God has led you through. Rejoice and thank God for his perfect love.

Prayer: Lord God, your power is amazing. Thank you for the times when you have provided a way when I could not see one. Thank you for the times when you led me, even though I did not think I could step forward. Thank you for your abiding and perfect love. Amen.


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Loving the Outsiders

Reading: Matthew 15: 21-28

Verse 22: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me”.

Today’s passage is one with layers. A simpler version would tell of a woman who came to Jesus and received healing for her daughter. That is the basic story. But our story is layered with cultural prejudice and years of dislike and distrust. The story contains relatively few words between Jesus and the woman and the disciples. It does not get unpacked later in a private moment with the twelve.

By identifying her as a Canaanite woman Matthew is pointing out a barrier. In his world, you were either a Jew or you were not. If you were, you were in. If you were not you were an outsider, a heathen, unclean. Yet she identifies Jesus as “Lord” and as the “Son of David” – she recognizes him as the Messiah, as the Savior of the world. She begs for healing for her daughter. She at least knows that Jesus is a healer. Jesus does not answer her. She persists. What do we make of his silence? Maybe Jesus is testing her sincerity, her level of commitment, her faith. Perhaps he is struggling within with the cultural biases that he grew up with. Or maybe the time is allowed for the disciples’ benefit. The disciples buckle first, asking Jesus to “send her away”. Instead he replies, engaging her while putting her off. Jesus tells her that he came to the Jews only. He is reminding her that she is an outsider. Or… is he reminding the disciples? Or himself? Or us? She begs again.

Jesus adds insult to his next “no”, calling her a “dog”. This is cultural slang for all those below or outside of the pure Jewish religion. It is a degrading and demeaning term. This is not the Jesus we know and love, is it? So we must ask “why?” Is the human inside struggling? Is it to force the disciples to reconsider their own prejudices? They will soon enough be going out into the world of the Gentiles with the good news. Or is it to add emphasis to the healing of the other?

The Canaanite woman sticks to it, noting that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. She again identifies Jesus as the One, as the Lord of all, as the master. She does not want to take Jesus from the ones he is sent to, she just wants a little of him too. Her great faith is applauded by Jesus and the daughter is healed.

This is a powerful and complex story of how Jesus loves even the outsider. How will our love reflect his love today?

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for this story that challenges and forces my love and welcome a bit wider. Continue to work in me and in my heart, removing all that hinders and limits how I love others. Amen.


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Come

Reading: Genesis 45: 1-15

Verse 4: “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me'”.

In Genesis this week we flash forward from chapter 37, when his brothers sold Joseph into slavery. Time has passed and Joseph has been through more trials. But God has been clearly at work and through these experiences a faithful and mature Joseph now stands before his brothers. Now 40, he has risen to the second in command in all of Egypt. Only Pharaoh has more power. What shall Joseph do with these treacherous brothers who now stand powerless before him begging for favor? He has used his power to manipulate them but has done them no harm.

In today’s passage, his emotions finally overtake Joseph. He can play the game no longer. He feels his brothers are still family and they have proven themselves to now be good and honest. After clearing the room of all the Egyptians, Joseph weeps loudly. He is releasing much pent up emotion. He weeps so loudly that those outside the room can hear him. It is a gut wrenching, shaking all over kind of cry. And then in a sudden outburst Joseph reveals his true identity and asks if Israel, his father, is still alive. His brothers’ response? Stunned and terrified silence. This powerful, powerful man has just revealed that he is the younger brother that they sold into slavery twenty plus years ago.

Sensing their fear and shock, Joseph says to them, “Come closer to me”. Come and get more personal. Draw close and really see me. There needs to be no distance between us. Jesus said the same to Peter in last week’s reading from Matthew 14: “Come”. Step out of the boat and onto the raging sea. Walk across the water. Trust me. What went through Peter’s mind must have been what Reuben and Judah and… felt when Joseph asked them to walk across that beautiful floor. All their fear and worry dissipate as Joseph says, “Come”. It is an invitation to do the unlikely – to enter his presence, to be forgiven and reconciled, to have things put right again.

Many years later Jesus would offer the same invitation. In Matthew 11:28 he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”. Jesus invites us too – come into the presence, receive mercy and grace and forgiveness, find rest. Come, fellowship with the Lord.

Prayer: Gracious God, you continue to call, to invite me into your presence. Because you are holy and just and pure, you cleanse me, removing all that separates so that I can be with you. Thank you for your immense love and unending grace. Amen.


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Strong and Powerful

Reading: Genesis 29: 15-28

Verse 18: “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel”.

After stealing Isaac’s blessing from his brother Esau, Jacob runs away to his mother’s family in Haran. His mother, Rebekah, had schemed to get the son she loved more the coveted birthright. Her love for Jacob led her to place him before his older brother Esau. Once Jacob safely arrives in Haran, he soon meets Laban, Rebekah’s brother. Laban says to Jacob, “You are my own flesh and blood”. All seems to be going well.

After staying with and working for Laban a month, Jacob is asked to name his wages. Being in love with Rachel, Jacob names his price: “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel”. He must love Rachel very much. The time flies by – “they seemed like only a few days” – and Jacob asks for her. After a big feast Laban sends Leah, the older sister, to lie with Jacob. In the light of morning he realizes he has been tricked. In that moment he must have known what Isaac and Esau felt when they found out what Jacob and Rebekah did to them. Just as Rebekah’s love for Jacob led her to do what she thought she had to do, so too does Laban’s love lead him to do for Leah, his oldest daughter. To Jacob’s protest, Laban replies that it is custom to marry off the oldest daughter first. He grants Rachel to Jacob too, in exchange for seven more years of labor. Jacob willingly agrees.

Love is a strong and powerful emotion. We have all done things for love too. And we’ve all had people look at us and question our decision. That is the path of sacrificial love too. It is a love that leads one to place the other before one’s own needs… It is the kind of love Jesus practiced and calls for from his followers. May we seek to love well today.

Prayer: Living God, your call is to do anything in the name of your great love. Give me a servant’s heart today. Make my love pure and generous. Guide me to be love in the world. Amen.


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Consuming Fire

Reading: Exodus 24: 12-18

Verse 17: “The glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire”.

Fire is often associated with God. As Moses ascends the mountain in response to God’s call, he walks into the fire. In verse seventeen we read, “The glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire”. The consuming fire is not destructive or life-taking. God’s fire is transforming and life-giving. In this sense it is like a forest fire. Fire is nature’s way of renewing and sustaining life in the forest. Fire consumes all the old, dead wood, allowing space for new growth. Fire also causes some seeds to germinate, bringing new life. At times, God’s fire is also like a forest fire in another way. It may run wild through our lives, moving quickly and powerfully, burning up the old and dead parts of us, leaving us prepared for renewal.

Fire is also a refining tool. In the world of precious metals fire is used to burn off impurities, leaving behind something much more valuable. God’s fire also works this way in the life of a believer, consuming all of our sins and selfish ways, leaving us more like the Lord. By removing our impurities, God is making us more into his image. Even the “small” sins that we hold onto as immature Christians are touched by the power of God’s fire. The fire changes us from within, reshaping our hearts, over and over, each time making us more like our Lord.

Moses walked up the mountain without fear. He knew the fire to be an extension of God’s love. Entering into God’s presence always resulted in positive change in his life. In our humanity we sometimes are reluctant to enter into God’s fire. Quite bluntly, at times we like to hold onto our sin. Yet we too are called to walk into the fire. As God’s love grows within us, we mature in the faith and become willing to place ourselves within God’s consuming and refining fire. We come to know that there we are made into someone better. There we are made new again. There our old ways are consumed and we are able to be filled with even more of God’s love. In this process, we are made more like him, coming to shine a little brighter, to bring more glory to God. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, may your fire burn hot in me, consuming all of me that is not pleasing to you. Consume the chaff, the sins, the selfishness, the pride – all that needs to go. May your fire purify me, each time leaving behind something more and more useful in your kingdom. May the fire of your love burn strongly within me. Amen.


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Overflow

Reading: Romans 15: 7-13

Verse 7: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God”.

Stop. Read verse seven again. Slowly. The words “as Christ accepted you” are powerful. Jesus accepted me as I am. That includes my sin, yes. But, more than that, Jesus accepted me knowing that I would sin again. And again. And again. A love so perfect, accepting me as I am, is a powerful love. The “you” is also universal. Jesus’ love and acceptance knew no bounds. Many rejected Jesus. But that did not stop him from loving even these.

Rejection is something we must consider if we are to really live out this verse. To the proper Jews, the Gentiles were base and vile. They were to be avoided. But to Jesus, to Paul, to the early Christians, the Gentiles became ones to accept, to love as Jesus had first loved them. The Gentiles were simply people in need of Jesus’ saving love. The rejection did not come from the Gentiles. It came from those proper religious folks who would not go there themselves. Jesus experienced this kind of rejection too. He ate with the sinners, touched the lepers, healed on the Sabbath. Oh the things Jesus would do to love another.

That’s what this passage is calling us to. It is so easy to love those like us, those that fit the same boxes we fit. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God”. For Jesus, the “you” was universal. Ours should be as well. But be prepared – some will ridicule you for ministering to that people or in that neighborhood. Some will reject you because you love and accept those kinds of people. Do not worry – Jesus was rejected too. To those who accepted Jesus, he was life. That is what brought praise to God.

I close with Paul’s closing: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”.

Prayer: Oh God! Fill me with that hope, joy, and peace. Fill me so much that I overflow. Use me today as you will, O Lord my God. Amen.


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God’s Call

Reading: Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Verse 5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart”.

Today we hear God’s call on a young Jeremiah. It is a call to be a prophet to the people of God. Jeremiah is living in a time right before and into when Jerusalem falls and the people are carried off into exile. The people’s unfaithfulness leads to being conquered and taken into exile. It is into this situation that God calls Jeremiah. The call begins with these words: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart”. In these words we clearly hear that God has long had a plan for Jeremiah. Even before his body began to form in the womb, God knew him and had identified him as a prophet. That is a powerful call.

Jeremiah immediately tries to avoid the call. How like Jeremiah we all are! Jeremiah tries to put up two barriers to serving. He does not know how to speak and he is just a child. We too can quickly come up with reasons. We tend to do this much more quickly than we say ‘yes Lord’. Whether the call is a momentary call, like helping out a neighbor one afternoon, or if it is a call to full-time ministry, we too can find lots of reasons to not answer the call. Many times I have not stopped to help or engage someone the Spirit is prompting me to serve. I’m too busy, there is something more pressing… The reasons come so easy. Often I have chosen not to give when I could have or to volunteer when when I had both the time and the ability.

When I began to feel the call to leave teaching to become a pastor, the decision was hard to make. It required trust in God and it took a step of faith. God kept working on me, gradually leading me to take the step. After we made the decision, my wife and I told our three children. The oldest, then in college, simply said, “It’s about time”. It was one more reminder that, like Jeremiah, God knew me and had appointed me to serve his church.

Each of us hears God’s call upon our lives over and over. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ invites each of us into ministry with him. Whether as a pastor or school teacher or business person or coach or retired person or… God calls us all and leads us all into service. In whatever way God has created and equipped us, we are all called to follow Jesus’ commission to “go and make disciples of all people”. May we each answer the call today.

Prayer: God, thank you for where you have called me. The road is not always easy, the task is often challenging. Yet thank you for where you have planted me. I know you walk with me. Help me each day to be faithful in the small things that build up your kingdom here. Lead and guide me. Amen.