pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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In God’s Presence

Reading: Psalm 24: 1-6

Verse 3: “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place”?

Photo credit: Steve Horner

As I read the first two verses of the Psalm my mind was drawn to the past three days that I spent in the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. As I saw tranquil lakes, majestic mountains, stunning wildflowers, marmot and moose, I was reminded over and over that “the earth is the Lord’s”. I often voiced praise to the creator for the works of his hands. The picture is our camping spot – a small sample of the beauty of God’s creation.

That small spot of creation was almost seven miles up the trail. Steve, Jeff, and I carried everything we needed to survive three days in the wilderness on our backs. As I read verses three and four today I connected the psalmist’s spiritual quest with my physical quest. As we topped crest after crest as we worked our way up to Lake Marion, on many occasions I questioned my ability to make it to our planned destination. I often thought, ‘What am I doing here’? I think that was what the psalmist was asking when he wrote, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place”? At times we all feel unworthy or unable to enter into the presence of the Lord our God.

The psalmist answers his own questions in the next verse: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart”. To stand in God’s presence we must be made clean. We must have a pure heart. On our own, we are powerless to make ourselves clean and pure. But we do not walk alone. Just as Jeff or Steve walking along ahead of or behind me gave me the power to continue hiking, so too do we have one who walks with us, one who cleanses us from all sin. The grace and mercy and forgiveness that we receive through Jesus Christ is the “blessing and vindication” that we are given in and through our Lord and Savior. Thanks be to God that we do not walk alone.

Prayer: Lord God, creator of all things, the beauty and splendor of the works of your hand are amazing and wonderful. Yet they pale in comparison to your love and grace. Thank you Lord for these blessings and your constant presence in my life. Amen.


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Stumbling Unbelief

Reading: Mark 6: 1-6

Verse 6: “He was amazed at their unbelief”.

As we begin with Mark 6 today Jesus returns home to Nazareth. Jesus had lived there for most of thirty years. He was a local kid that almost everyone knew. Most of his family still lived there. On the Sabbath Jesus goes to the local synagogue and begins to teach. As the people take in what Jesus is teaching about, they are “astounded”. His teaching is good; they are impressed.

But then they begin to question, to ask how Jesus acquired such knowledge, such power. They ask, “Is this not the carpenter”? Isn’t this just the kid who grew up down the street? Isn’t that the one who our daughter babysat back in the day? In the original Greek, the word Mark used to describe what was going on here was “skandalizo”. You might recognize the root word here. In the Greek it meant to ‘stumble’. Jesus had and would continue to cause many to stumble, to turn away, to leave the faith that they had found in him.

To his credit, Jesus recognizes what is going on here. He does not get angry or resentful. He understands it for what it is as he identifies the cause of their unbelief. He says, “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown”. Because of this Jesus’ power is limited. He is unable to do any “deeds of power” except a few small healings. We too can dismiss Jesus’ power at times. We can withhold our needs from him. We can think Jesus unable or unwilling to respond to our prayers and petitions. When unbelief and doubt rises in our hearts, we too rend power from Jesus. In our passage today, we see that Jesus was “amazed at their unbelief”. When we are tempted to limit Jesus, may we hear the warning in today’s passage, lest we stumble too.

Prayer: Lord God, when doubt creeps in, when the world begins to speak into my spirit, call me back with your gentle whisper. Draw me back into close relationship with my Savior and Lord. Amen.


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Small Seeds

Reading: Mark 4: 30-34

Verses 31-32: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed… it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants”.

Today we continue in Mark 4 with the planting of seeds. Yesterday we heard the call to scatter seeds of faith, trusting God to root, grow, and mature both our faith and the faith of others. Yesterday we heard that we are all called to plant seeds. Perhaps knowing that his audience then and that followers down through the ages would question or even balk at their ability to do this, Jesus continues with today’s parable.

Jesus begins by asking, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like”? Well, it is not what we or the world think. Jesus shares this illustration: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed… it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants”. He chooses the smallest of all seeds. And yet the tiny seed produces a large plant which blesses the birds of the garden. Small gifts… big results. That is God’s kingdom at work. In the kingdom of the world, we think size matters. Larger bank accounts, bigger houses, fancier clothes – big seeds. But what difference do these things make in areas that really matter? None. It is the faithful, small gifts and actions that really build the kingdom of God. It is the many small words and humble actions of faithful followers that build the kingdom of God. Yes, you may hear a wonderful sermon today and you may be moved by the beautiful music. But if your time in church does not lead you to be Christ’s light and love in the world for the rest of the week, then how did worship matter?

The Holy Spirit gifts all believers. All of us have gifts to use in the building of God’s kingdom. How will you use the gifts and talents that God has given you to plant seeds for the building of the kingdom here on earth?

Prayer: Lord God, use me today to be a part of transforming the world. May I begin today with each I meet, pouring your love and grace into their lives. Amen.


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The Vine

Reading: John 15: 1-8

Verse 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit”.

Photo credit: Rohit Tandon

Jesus begins John 15 with a familiar analogy. Vineyards were common in Israel – a good topic to use to describe the connection between disciples and the divine. In the first verse Jesus establishes himself as the vine and God as the one who tends the vine. You and I are branches.

Over the years, on my walk of faith, I have found it very important for me to stay closely connected to Jesus. Has this been true for you? When I am faithful about my personal disciplines – early morning prayer, reading and study, reflection, journaling – then my daily life is better aligned with Jesus’ mission. In those seasons when I am just going through the motions, my connection weakens and my faith begins to get dry and stale. Challenges and difficulties arise during both seasons. Working through these with Jesus is much different than going it on my own. Has this been your experience too?

A grape vine, like all living organisms, is either growing or it is dying. Seeing the leaves and then the grapes appear and mature is easy. Noticing the vine growth is not so noticeable. Left unchecked a vine will grow and grow. If left on its own, the vine growth will decrease fruit production. This reminds me of something that I must guard against. In ministry it can be easy to say ‘yes’ to many things. I’m active and am a doer, so this is my natural tendency. I want to try new things, to offer more opportunities, to just keep adding. Because of this tendency, I am thankful for the gardener. At times God prunes me. The Holy Spirit reveals a busyness that can be let go. A fellow Christian questions my latest, greatest idea or impulse. A colleague in ministry helps me to return to the focus of my calling. Each of these persons reminds me of the truth of verse five: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit”. To bear fruit you and I must remain closely connected to Jesus Christ, the source of our faith and love. May it ever be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Loving God, day by day, draw me to you. Fill me each mourning, nourishing me for the day ahead. Guard my heart and mind, leading me to walk the path you purpose for me. Connected to your son, may we bear much fruit. Amen.


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Touch and See, Question and Wrestle

Reading: Luke 24: 36-43

Verse 39: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see”.

Photo credit: Jennifer Araujo

What was the last thing you saw or read or heard about that you had to find out more about before you believed or accepted it? For me it was and is a personality test that I learned about on Thursday. It was interesting so I read more about it on my own. I took the test yesterday and am just starting to unpack the results. I am starting to think this could be a useful and helpful tool to understand myself better.

Jesus appears for the third time in Luke’s gospel. The first appearance was to the women outside the tomb and the second was to two followers on the road to Emmaus. The disciples have heard from these folks that Jesus is alive – he is risen! In our reading for today, Jesus appears to the disciples. Hearing that he has risen must have prepared them at least a little bit. Yet when they actually see Jesus, standing among them, they are startled and frightened. Maybe this is a ghost. Jesus senses their doubts. He says, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see”. This physical proof moved them to joy and excitement. But not to full belief.

It would have been a lot to take in. Heads and hearts must have been spinning if not reeling. Jesus slows things down for the disciples. He asks, “Do you have anything here to eat”? He pauses, receives the fish, and eats it in their presence. Jesus joins them in a tangible way, around food and the table. More present to him, Jesus then goes on to explain all that has happened and then to paint the picture of what will soon happen. More on that tomorrow!

Our faith journey is similar to that of these disciples. We hear and even read about Jesus. We experience pastors and teachers and even the Holy Spirit unpacking the scriptures for us. We have times of fear and doubt and questioning. We too are on a journey. We too must take the time to read and study, to explore and wrestle, to touch and see Jesus. Like these disciples, we will be greatly blessed. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Living God, continue to draw me in more and more, deeper and deeper. As I learn and grow, study and wrestle, question and doubt, walk with me, illumine me, refine me. Amen.


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The Journey

Reading: John 20: 25-31

Verse 29: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”.

Earlier this week we read about Jesus appearing to ten of the eleven disciples. Thomas was not there. As we begin today’s passage, the other disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord”! Thomas questions this, saying, “Unless I see the nail marks…”. He wants tangible proof that it really was Jesus. Because of this passage, Thomas is sometimes referred to as “Doubting Thomas”.

The reality, though, is the faith involves doubt. On our journey of faith, we will have seasons when we doubt, when we wrestle for answers, when we question God, our faith, ourselves… These are the struggles that often produce growth. It is when we dive deep and wrestle with the things of God that we are refined and encouraged. During a very difficult time in ministry, for example, I questioned deeply and often at first. This led to doubt. Much time was spent in prayer and scripture study. The end result was a better grasp of God’s love and mercy as well as a more solid understanding of the depth and breadth of his love and grace.

Jesus returns to the disciples a week later. Thomas is there. After greeting them, Jesus turns to Thomas and invites him to see and touch the proof. As always, Jesus offers what is needed to draw another closer to God. Seeing the scars, Thomas declares, “My Lord and my God”! It is a heartfelt profession of Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

Coming out of that difficult season of ministry, knowing that the living Christ had walked with me and has guided me through, I emerged with a stronger faith and with deeper convictions. God still has a way of meeting us where we are and offering us what we need to continue the journey of faith.

As you continue to seek God and to grow in your faith, may you who have not seen and yet believed be ever moving deeper in your relationship with Jesus.

Prayer: Lord God, great is your faithfulness! How vast is your love! Thank you for walking through the hard times, ever reminding me of your presence and guidance. You are so good to me. Thank you. Amen.


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Drawing Near

Reading: Mark 1: 9-15

Verse 15: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”!

Mark’s gospel quickly moves to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The prophecies and birth of John the Baptist and Jesus gets zero verses in Mark’s story. John the Baptist’s whole ministry gets seven verses. Jesus’ baptism gets three and his time being tempted in the wilderness gets two. John’s imprisonment and the start of Jesus’ ministry gets two verses combined. Mark moves quickly through these events. Mark’s compact gospel gives key quotes that often pack a punch. Verse 15 is one of those verses. These are the first words spoken by Jesus in Mark’s gospel.

Jesus begins by stating, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near”. It is time to begin public ministry. This ministry will involve the kingdom of God, incarnate in the person of Jesus, coming near to people. It will come near enough to touch people and to speak with people, to eat with people and to bless their lives. It will come near enough to enter into relationship with people. Jesus continues by saying, “Repent and believe the good news”! In another translation this reads, “Change your heart and lives” (CEB). This is closer to the original text. The word translated ‘repent’ implied expanding one’s mind to a new reality. Jesus engaged and lived in a whole new way, more fully expressing God’s love for each of us, his children. To engage the world as Jesus did, to love others as Jesus did – this requires a new way to see the world and to understand our purpose in it. This mind shift will lead to us living a radical, selfless life that stands out, that draws questions.

To become like Christ in mind and heart, in words and actions, will lead to opportunities to bring the kingdom near and to share our belief in the good news. Not blending in but living a holy and compassionate life will draw others into conversation, giving us the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ. In this way we will partner with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, drawing the love of God into other’s lives. As we seek to be the kingdom here on earth, we too will be changed. God’s blessings on the journey.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to live a life of faith that is noticable, that is radical. May my witness draw others in so that I have the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. Amen.


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The Only Forever

Reading: Isaiah 40: 21-26

Verse 26: “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these”?

The section that we will focus on today and tomorrow is titled “Comfort for God’s People” in my Bible. The Israelites have experienced defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Many have been taken into exile. Life feels chaotic and out of control. Many of the Israelites feel abandoned by God and they are questioning their faith. People today feel many of these things. Even though we cannot compare these events that happened 2,700 years ago to today, we can learn from them, we can grow in our faith because of our learning.

Our passage today begins with some questions: “Do you not know? Have you not heard”? Isaiah reminds us right away that since the beginning of time God has sat enthroned over the earth. The one who stretched out the heavens “brings princes to naught” and reducers leaders to “nothing”. The Babylonians, this four or eight year cycle – this too will pass. In the big picture, this ever remains the pattern. In God’s timeline rulers change “no sooner than they were planted”. Today our cycle are even short relative to our average lifespan. The forty or so years in exile was a long time to endure. One can understand why they were struggling with their faith, with their trust in God.

Encouraging the Israelites and us to see the bigger truth, in verse 26 Isaiah guides: “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these”? In four, eight, or even forty years, the stars will still be shining. The one who created each and knows them all by name will still be enthroned over all the earth. God is the only forever. May we trust in our God.

Prayer: Eternal one, thank you for the reminder today. All this earthly stuff, really small potatoes. The bigger bumps in the road – much less noticable when walking closely with you. You who holds the whole world in the palm of your hand – you hold me too. Thank you. Amen.


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Draw Others to Him

Reading: John 1: 43-51

Verse 46: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there”?

Philip is sold immediately that Jesus is the one, the Messiah, the Savior. Something about Jesus and something inside Philip connect and he responds to a simple invitation: “Follow me”. Some people come to Jesus this way. In a moment he is what they need or who they find healing or peace or strength or mercy in, and they believe in him. Most of us, however, are more like Nathanael – doubtful, skeptical, questioning. When invited to come to meet this Jesus, he scoffs: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there”? What good could ever come out of that small, insignificant town in Galilee?

People today might not question where Jesus came from, but we do question what he could do for us. What difference could Jesus possibly make in my life? Like Nathanael, we question and we doubt. We scoff. Even some who were raised in the church come to a place of questioning, of doubting. I was raised in the church – Sunday school, worship, confirmation, choir, youth group – the whole nine yards. I knew who Jesus was and I followed on the surface. I followed the parts that I wanted to. In college, I “drifted” even further. Life was just fine sort of being a Christian. Then things were not so good and I found myself seeking the Lord – and he was there. I met Jesus in a way that I hadn’t before. My walk with the Lord began anew.

Nathanael was one without anything false in him. Jesus called him a “true Israelite”. Even though Jesus was not what he expected, and even though he was skeptical, Nathanael went to meet Jesus. He was initially draw by Philip’s testimony. He knew about the Messiah, he had been raised in the “church”. There are many who know about Jesus, even some who have drifted. Today and each day of our lives, may our faith in Jesus Christ draw others to come and see, to meet him in a new way. May we, like Philip, invite others to meet our Jesus so that he can do “greater things” in their lives too.

Prayer: Living God, may your light shine brightly within me, being a light others see and are drawn to. Help me to be invitational, encouraging others to come and meet Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah. Amen.


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God’s Strength

Reading: Psalm 29: 4-11

Verse 9: “All in his temple cry, ‘Glory'”!

David observes the power of God as he sees it revealed in nature. The “voice” of God breaks the cedars and shakes the desert and strips the forest bare. David’s response is for all the people to declare, “Glory”! For the ancients there was a connection between God and all of life. For the Israelites, they worshipped one God. Yet forever all the cultures and people groups living around them worshiped many gods. Although the Israelites worshiped just God, they did connect disasters and other “bad” things to sinful behavior. In Jesus’ day we see this mindset or way of understanding the world in the way religious leaders viewed the blind or deaf or lepers as “unclean”. They or their parents or grandparents had sinned to cause said illness or malady. Similarly, people today can ask God “why?” questions after natural disasters. Others will blame or be angry at “God” for the flood or fire or storm that adversely affected them or their loved ones.

David sees the same power in the storms but instead of fear or anger he recognizes the power of God in the storm. In the storm he sees a parallel to God’s power. Seeing the power and beauty of God in the storm leads David to worship God for his majesty and strength. I can relate. I love to watch and sometimes even sit out in a thunderstorm. In the building of the storm’s power and then in the wind and rain and thunder and lightning, I sense God’s power and might. This too leads me to feel deeply connected to God and to feel in awe of his presence. As the Psalm closes, David makes his most important point.

In verse eleven David reminds us that “the Lord gives strength to his people”. The same physical power and might that I see in a thunderstorm, that same strength, is given to us in our spiritual life too. God’s strength within us will “bless his people with peace”. As people of faith, we face all sorts of things in life with a strength and peace that the world does not have, that the world does not understand. Thanks be to God for the strength and power and majesty that are ours through the Lord our God. All the glory to our almighty God!

Prayer: Loving God, as awed as I am by the energy and power of nature, I am humbled by the power and strength you give to me in this life. You lead me to places I could not go, you guide me through situations I cannot begin to navigate. Thank you for your presence in my life, O most awesome God. Amen.