pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Good Works

Reading: Ephesians 2: 6-10

Verse 10: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”.

In our passage yesterday we focused on how God saved us from our sins through his grace and love. Paid for by Christ, grace is available to all who call on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Grace rests upon God’s no-matter-what love. God loves us no matter what we do, no matter what we do not do. This unconditional love is the core of who and what God is. Once we accept this love, Christ becomes alive in us. God’s love comes and dwells in our hearts in the Holy Spirit.

In today’s passage we hear about our response to God’s love and grace. In the gospels Jesus was clear that the highest calling of a disciple is to love -> love God, love one another. Jesus himself defined this as the mark of a disciple. Paul begins today by reminding us that grace is a gift. It is not something we can earn or work for. This is a humbling thought. Because it is a gift, freely and generously given, we are not to boast. We can be tempted to boast about things that God has given us: beauty, strength, physical or intellectual abilities… Humility is the key here too.

Paul does suggest we respond to the gift of grace and to the unconditional love of God. In verse ten Paul writes, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”. What are “good works”? Jesus identifies some: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, housing the wanderer, loving our neighbor. Good works also include lifting the other, alleviating or sharing other’s burdens, walking through the valleys, sharing food and other blessings, standing with the powerless and marginalized, including others in our faith communities… Simply put, it is being Christ to the world. It is being light and love in the world, sharing the gifts that we have received. May we be generous as we spread his love today.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to love well today. In all I do and say may I share your love with others, helping each to feel the kingdom of God drawing near. Amen.


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Reverence and Awe

Reading: Psalm 111

Verse 2: “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them”.

Psalm 111 is all about praising God. We can be drawn to praise in a variety of ways. Two days ago, for example, my wife and I were on a hike. There was about four inches of snow blanketing the ground. The sky was so blue. At times we would pause – sometimes along the path after a long uphill stretch and sometimes at a place that afforded a view. At both kinds of stops we were amazed by God’s creation. Along the path we stopped and could take in the small details and could hear all of the quiet sounds of nature. At the viewing stops, we could see out across the plains to the east or we could look west across the rolling hills covered in snow and pines. Here we could sense God’s grandeur and the majesty of creation. Here too we were reminded of our awesome God. We were able to praise God for the work of his hands.

In verse two the psalmist declares: “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them”. On Sunday afternoon it was God’s creation that led us to delight in him. On Sunday morning it was a man’s testimony about God’s work on a mission trip that led us to praise and delight. In the first half of Psalm 111, God’s grace and compassion and provision are what draws the writer to praise God. These gifts of God are wrapped in the covenant, which also connects to the reasons to praise God found in the second half of the Psalm. Working out the covenant to Abraham, the psalmist remembers how God gave them the Promised Land. Recalling the steadfastness, faithfulness, and uprightness of God, the psalmist looks to the redemption that God provides, ordaining his covenant forever. Here I connect to the Psalm most personally. The redemption of God came in the person of Jesus, he who established the new covenant forever through his blood shed on the cross.

The Psalm closes by reminding us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. In the Biblical sense, fear is not being afraid of God. It is a fear in terms of reverence and awe. It was what I felt as I was awestruck gazing out at the scene pictured above. It is what you have felt when you have been caught by God’s power or love or grace at different times in your life. As our response today, may we too offer words of thanksgiving and praise to the Lord our God!

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the many, many times when I have been amazed by your great works. These revelations, these epiphanies, are such a blessing. You are an amazing and awesome God! Amen.


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Joyful Response

Reading: Deuteronomy 8: 7-18

Verses 10 and 14: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord… or… your heart heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord”.

As the people are nearing the end of their time and training in the wilderness, Moses speaks these words of wisdom. Today we are fast forwarding from last week’s story of the golden calf to the point where they are ready to enter the Promised Land. In this passage I hear a Moses who is emotional and compassionate as he prepares to say goodbye to these people. In today’s passage, Moses reminds first of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac,… The Israelites are about to enter the land “flowing with milk and honey”. Just as God has provided for almost forty years, God will lead them into a land that will provide for all their needs.

Starting in verse ten, Moses implores the people not to forget all that God has done or to neglect to recognize what God will continue to do. In these verses we read, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord”. First we note the assurance that Moses has that God will continue to be with the people. God will be their God. Then he begs them not to forget the many, many ways that God has blessed and will bless them. Moses encourages them to always be thankful lest “your heart heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord”. It is so easy to assume responsibility for our success, for our accomplishments,… Moses warns against this tendency which we too are prone to. Taking time each and every day to be thankful for our families, our jobs, our friends, our homes, our communities of faith… is the best antidote to pride and arrogance. So, this day, may we each pause before going on to thank the Lord our God for his presence and blessings in our lives. Happy praying!

Prayer: Lord God, you are so good to me. I am so grateful for those you surround me with – family and friends, mentors and teachers. I am thankful for this time and place in a wonderful community of faith set in the beauty of your creation. Thank you, God. May all of my life be a joyful response. Amen.


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Intercessors

Reading: Exodus 32: 7-14

Verses 9-10: “They are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them”.

Yesterday we read about the making of and worshipping of the golden calf. Today we hear God’s response and the rest of the story. As God looks down upon the revelry, he sends Moses back down the mountain. God notes that the people have “become corrupt” and that they were “quick to turn away” from all that he has commanded. There is an anger that is beginning to build. The emotions in his voice and the decibel level must have changed as God continues, saying, “They are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them”. The first part of this statement certainly remains true, at least concerning me. I am stubborn and willful. Maybe you too? And, sometimes, we might not cause God’s anger to burn, but we at least quicken his pulse or cause that vein to pop out on occasion. At this point in Israel’s wilderness journey, God is ready to “destroy” the whole lot, to start over with just Moses.

As I consider how the people got God to this point, I am cognizant of many times when I have probably done the same. I have worshipped idols. No, I have not literally danced around a man-made image in the wilderness. I have done worse. I have definitely allowed the things of the world to take the place of God at times in my life. I have pursued wealth and titles, recognition and wins on the court – all to the neglect of my relationship with God. We all have our lists. God’s anger must burn against us at times. God must feel like destroying us at times. But the punishment does not come raining down from heaven. We too have an intercessor, an advocate, one who speaks for us. Just as Moses stands between God and the execution of his anger and wrath, Jesus stands between God and us. Jesus speaks words of empathy and compassion, of love and understanding. Some of the time, Jesus probably has to remind God, “I already paid the price”.

In the end, God relents and the journey towards the Promised Land continues. Grace wins. Grace continues to win in our lives as well. Thanks be to God for our intercessor, Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Loving God, I, like those living in the wilderness, am so grateful for your mercy and grace. Each time I deserve punishment, your love lived out stands in my defense. His sacrifice allows me to be made new again. Over and over. Thank you, God. Amen.


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Freely Offered

Reading: Genesis 24: 58-67

Verse 58: “So they called Rebekah and asked her, ‘Will you go with this man'”?

In the last section of our passage from Genesis 24 we see a model of God’s love. In the culture of the day the father had the authority to choose who and when a daughter would marry. Arranged marriages were simply the norm. Yet Abraham allows for another option. The chief servant asks the family for a decision and they, in turn, ask Rebekah, “Will you go with this man”? In a radical move, Rebekah is given the power to decide her own fate.

An invitation is given and Rebekah is free to make her choice. This is the model of God’s love too. We are invited into a relationship with God. God’s prevenient grace – the grace that goes before – woos us and draws us towards God. But, like Rebekah we have a choice. We are not forced or coerced. We do not have to love God. If we were forced or had no other choice, then it would not be love. In his ministry, Jesus also modeled this love. With the Pharisees, with the rich young man, with the people of Gerasenes, with Nicodemus… Jesus offered himself and God’s love, but he did not force anyone to accept it or him. On several occasions he was saddened by the rejection, but the choice is always ours to make.

When love and relationship are freely offered, we can accept or reject them. As God in Jesus Christ seeks to share his love with and through you today, what will your response be?

Prayer: God of love, I am aware of your love for me and for all of creation in so many ways. The care you took to create the world and to form each of us – it is so beautiful. Thank you, God. May I respond by being love and by sharing love in the world today. Amen.


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For All

Reading: Romans 8: 6-8

Verse 8: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”.

As the second half of our Romans reading opens, we are reminded again of how God is in control. We read, “at just the right time”. Not a moment too soon, not a few days too late. Perhaps it was when humanity needed saving the most. Maybe it was when things lined up just right from God’s perspective. Possibly it was a tipping point that none of us can see from this side of the veil. But at just the right time, “Christ died for the ungodly”. That is me and that is you and that it all people everywhere. Christ died for all.

The act of sacrificial death born out on the cross begs the question: Why? Paul answers the question in verse eight: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. Why? Because God loved you and me and all of humanity so much that he was willing to send his son to die a painful death. Why? Because the price had to be paid for the sins of the world – mine, yours, all of ours. Why? Because resurrection can happen only after death. It is quite the demonstration of love.

If Christ was willing to die for us while we were still sinners, what should our response be to those we encounter that need healing or redemption or restoration or new life? Should we be willing to go as far as Jesus went to minister to those he met? If not death, then how far should we be willing to go to end injustice in all forms, to break bonds and addictions, to cross unspoken barriers, to offer forgiveness and grace? Should we even have a line?

When Jesus encountered someone in need, he did not have them fill out a questionnaire to determine if they qualified or fit certain parameters. He did not evaluate them to see if they were worth his time and energies. No, Jesus came for all and he loved all. We see this reflected in his death – he died for all. And before his final departure, Jesus instructed his followers to go and do likewise. Today, may we seek to model that same love – no conditions, no qualifications, no strings attached. May we simply love and serve all we meet today.

Prayer: Loving God, open my heart to your love, that in receiving I may give. Bind my will to your will and my ways to your ways. Empower me to love and serve others well today. Amen.


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Lead in Love

Reading: John 20: 19-23

Verse 19: “When the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and said, ‘Peace be with you!'”

Following his death the disciples gathered together in their small community and were present to one another. The recent events left them feeling powerless and vulnerable. There was a sense of fear hanging over them. If this could happen to him, it could happen to any of them. If the Jews, the ones filled with power and fears of their own, could flex their muscles and cause this to happen to Jesus, the disciples were well within their reach.

Fear is certainly present in our society today. COVID has created many: fear of dying, fear of sickness, fear or losing a business, fear of financial failure, fear of isolation… Fear is also very present right now in some of our cities and in some of our social groups. Another senseless death has sent another ripple of fear through affected communities. The ripple had become a flood of emotion and response in some places. Even though there is no place for hate in God’s kingdom, it remains something that humanity is struggling with in this world.

As the disciples gathered on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, locked behind some closed doors, he came and said, “Peace be with you”! They were overjoyed. Speaking directly into their fear he said, “I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit”. Jesus encourages them to walk into the world tinged with hate and oppression as people filled with love and power. The Spirit would be the source of love and power and strength and hope. It was a presence the disciples would need as they set out to transform the world.

The Holy Spirit continues to lead with love. It is a love for all people, not just for some. It is a love that leads to compassion and understanding and empathy and unity. It is a love that is both culture blind and colorblind. Just yesterday I read a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “Protest is the voice of the powerless”. Yes, often it is. The root cause is powerlessness. Feeling powerless leads to feeling hopeless and helpless. In moving forward may the disciples of Jesus Christ continue to allow the Holy Spirit to lead in love. We with power must choose to be voices for those without. For the healing of our communities and of our world, may God’s love lead the way. May it start with each of us.

Prayer: Lord God, the Holy Spirit empowered the first disciples to transform their world. It began with them loving you above all else and then spread to loving one another. The community was based upon love and grace and mercy and compassion and justice. Their love changed the world. Make it happen again, Lord. Empower your disciples today to be change agents once again, leading the way across divides and through barriers. Let love be our guide, bringing healing and restoration. May it begin with me, O God. Amen.


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As Long As I Live

Reading: Psalm 116: 1-4

Verse 2: “Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live”.

Psalm 116 opens with our four verses for today. These verses are verses that I feel I could proclaim often. As I think back over my faith journey, verse one cries out as a thought that I have expressed many times. This verse reads, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy”. In both difficult situations of my own makings and in times when life just “happened” I have cried out to God and God has heard and responded. These experiences have served to deepen my love for God. Each time that I felt myself in a place like the one described in verse three, I have cried out and God was present in response.

In verse two the psalmist writes, “Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live”. The love that God demonstrates for me has built up my trust in God. It builds upon itself. God’s faithfulness and steadfast love leads my love and faith to be more assured, to be stronger and deeper. That, in turn, leads me to turn to God more quickly. Now, that is not to say that God’s response is always what I thought I wanted it to be. Admittedly it has been a process at times and a sorting out of emotions at times. But one thing that I have learned is this: God’s response is always right and just. God’s good plans for me are always best for me. Using hindsight I have come to understand that this is how God operates. For this, I am grateful. This leads me to say as the psalmist said: I will call upon the name of the Lord as long as I live! Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, your love is amazing, steady, unchanging, everlasting. It always guides me in the paths I should walk. It ever reminds me too of how I should respond – by sharing that love with all I meet. May it be so each day. Amen.


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First and Always

Reading: Exodus 17: 1-7

Verse 3: “Moses replied, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test'”?

Moses is leading the people on a journey to the Promised Land. It will be a forty years journey. When I think of the length of the journey, it reminds me of the long drives to Montana. Sometimes before we even left South Dakota, the “Are we there yet?” refrains would begin. When that happened I knew it was going to feel like a long trip. Even though it was only an eleven hour drive, I think it felt a little bit like Moses was feeling in our passage today.

The Israelites have recently been rescued from slavery in Egypt. In this process, God brought plague upon plague, finally breaking Pharaoh’s spirit with the death of the firstborn. The Israelites were passed over by the angel of death. This miracle became an event they celebrate every year, to this day. The hand of God continued to be upon Moses as he parted the sea and saved the Israelites from the pursuing Egyptian army. God has just provided manna, quail, and water to all the people. As they set out once again the people find themselves at a place with no water. Instead of turning to God in prayer, thanking him for the many saving acts that they have just experienced and seeking one more, they choose to grumble at and quarrel with Moses. In response Moses asks, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test“? I imagine God was thinking the same thing, don’t you?

At times I’m sure I’ve made God think that. I know God loves and cares for me, provides for and protects me, leads me and guides me. Even so, trust in God is not always my default response when a need arises or when I find myself in a time of trial. Seeking God is usually my first response, but not always. And it should be always. Maybe you are like me and know your need to turn to God first and always. As we remember how dearly loved we are by God may we make intentional efforts this week to rely first on God in all things. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord, I know no one loves me like you do. No one has good plans for me like you do. May the Spirit remind me of these things over and over as I seek to follow Jesus more closely. Thank you, Lord. Amen.


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By Faith Alone

Reading: Romans 4: 1-5 and 13-17

Verse 13: “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise… but through the righteousness that comes by faith”.

As Paul and the rest of the earliest church were sorting out just how Jewish one must first be to become a follower of Jesus Christ, he penned these words that we read today. Before becoming an apostle, Paul was known as Saul. In that phase of his life he was a self-proclaimed Jew among Jews. He was a very devout Pharisee who knew and followed the letter of the law. As the early church grew and began to add Gentile believers, a huge debate arose over just how much of the Jewish faith must be followed to become a Christian.

In our reading for today Paul points to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Paul chooses him for two reasons. First, he is one of the pillars of Judaism. His faith is one of the models. God declares Abram righteous because of his faith. As we’ve been reading, God called and in obedient faith, Abram went where God led. He stepped out and followed God. Second, at the time there was no law. It had not been given yet. Paul is saying that one can be saved by faith apart from the law. Paul, known as the apostle to the Gentiles, is not in favor of applying Jewish laws to the Christian faith. Paul himself became a believer when he met the risen Lord and then entered into a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ. For Paul it had nothing to do with the law. In the next chapters Paul will go on to argue this point further. Martin Luther will pick up these texts many hundreds of years later as he works out his “justification by faith alone” doctrine that will rock the church.

Even though the New Testament clearly spells out that one is saved by faith alone we can often feel like we must do good works or follow some set of prescribed steps to be saved. God does not have a giant balance scale that one day weighs out our good versus bad. We know from the scriptures that as soon as we confess and give our sins to God, they are wiped away – they are no more. Nothing is being stacked up on the “bad” side of some mythical scale. Yes, our faith will lead us to do good things. That is how we live out the love of God within us. It is the model Jesus set for us. As we follow Christ, living out our faith, may his ‘why’ become our ‘why’. Jesus loved others because the love of God within him overflowed into the lives of others. May we do the same. May the sharing of God’s love be our grateful response to our God who saves.

Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for your unconditional love and grace. It is certainly not deserved but you pour it out upon me anyway. I definitely cannot earn yet it is still there in unending abundance. It is an amazing love, an amazing grace. Thank you. Amen.