pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Focus

Reading: 2nd Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10

Verse 20b: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God”.

In our passage for today, Paul implores us to be reconciled to God. To reconcile means to restore the relationship. Paul is writing to those in the church who have drifted from the faith, to those who have allowed other things to rise above their commitment to the Lord. Unless we are intentional and disciplined concerning our habits of faith, then this can happen to us too. A daily, focused walk with God supplemented by time with the community of faith have always been essential for solid Christian discipleship.

Moving into verses three through seven, Paul shares with the church how he and Timothy have lived out their faith. Note there is both good and bad, both joy and sorrow. Paul and Timothy have endured trials and hardships, persecution, abuse, and slander, as well as sleepless nights. In and through all of this, Paul and Timothy have practiced purity and patience and kindness. They have relied on the Holy Spirit and have sought to practice love above all else. They have always been truthful. Paul wants the church (including us) to know that a walk of faith is not always easy. He also wants to remind us that to walk or live out our faith we must rise above the norms of the world.

As we prepare to enter into Lent, a season of introspection and preparation, it is good to consider how we are walking out our faith. Have we allowed other priorities to rise above our faith commitment? During Lent some people give something up. What in your life could or should you give up to make room for a closer walk with God? Is there a habit or behavior that lessens your walk or your witness? Some people add a habit or practice during Lent. Some join a Lenten study, some read a book that enriches their faith. Some fast, finding new time to pray or to read their Bibles. And some do both – giving something up, adding something in. The point is to reflect on your current walk with Jesus and to find a way to deepen that walk with the Lord during this holy season.

In the last few verses of our passage Paul shares the beauty of a faithful walk. God has sustained he and Timothy in times of need, guiding them through the trials and hardships. Because of the presence of Jesus Christ in their daily lives they are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything”. Paul and Timothy have their eye on God’s goodness and on the salvation of their souls. As we prepare to enter this holy season of Lent may this be our focus as well.

Prayer: Lord God, prepare me to journey deeper with you during this season of Lent. Guide me to walk closer and more intimately. Show me the way. Reveal the path to walk. 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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Celebrate the Gift

Reading: John 1: 1-18

Verse 16: “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another”.

At Christmas we Christians often want to focus on “the reason for the season” and we want folks to see Jesus as the best gift ever. So why do we celebrate the birth? Why do we equate Jesus to a gift?

More than the actual birth, we celebrate all that surrounds the birth. It is first the story of the creator entering his creation. Leaving the glory and perfection of heaven, the light and love of God entered the world more fully. It was in the flesh – where we could see and hear and feel it. Second, it is the story of prophecy fulfilment and of miraculous conception. Things written hundreds and hundreds of years before predicted the events of Jesus’ birth and life as if written in real time. And it is the first story of birth through the Holy Spirit. As followers we too experience this birth. We call it “being born again”. Third, it is the story of God acting in our world through a faithful teenage girl. Mary will always be the mother of Jesus. But she could have been Sue or Beth or Dawn or Erica. God’s penchant for using the ordinary and humble is exemplified here in this story. Fourth, and perhaps most, as John writes, “we have seen his glory”. The birth story reveals God’s glory – his control over all things, his omnipotence and omnipresence, his love for you and me and all the world. We celebrate the birth because it is holy and sacred and because it reveals God’s love and grace and truth.

As wonderful as the birth story is, though, it pales in comparison to the gift that Jesus is to the whole world. First, if one believes in Jesus, they are given the “right to become children of God” – to be born into a new creation, born again into a new relationship with the Lord. Becoming a child of God, we receive the light and love of Jesus into our hearts. This forever changes how we live in this world. We see the world, we see others, and we even see ourselves through this lens of love. Illuminated by his light, we love honestly, purely, unconditionally. Seeing with his eyes, loving with his heart, we live beyond the law of Moses and beyond the law of man. Beyond does not mean outside of these laws. It reflects Jesus’ emphasis that he was “the fulfillment of the law” (Matthew 5:17). For example, Jesus taught over and over that the command to love one another did not just include the Jews but it extended to sinners and to Gentiles and to the sick and the imprisoned and to Samaritans and to the possessed and… Jesus reveals what a life of love and grace and truth looks like when lived out in the world.

Living life as a Christ follower amplifies our hope, peace, joy, contentment; it betters our relationships with others and with the world; and, it deepens our faith and trust in God. We celebrate the birth because Jesus is truly the greatest gift ever. Life lived through and with Christ is simply better. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: God, you are the giver of “one blessing after another”. As I reflect on the ways that the world and that life is better with you, it humbles me. Surrender to your will and way is the path to true life, to full life. Thank you for all of your blessings. Amen.


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Be the Church

Reading: 1st Corinthians 1: 3-9

Verse 9: “God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful”.

Paul opens his first letter to the church in Corinth by calling them saints – those “sanctified” and “holy”. As we begin our passage today, Paul extends “grace and peace” from God and from Jesus Christ. Paul gives thanks to God for the grace given the church through Jesus Christ. It is grace that empowers believers to live in a world that brings persecution and offers temptations. Grace also gives believers the ability to love others as they are – without judgment and without barriers. It was grace that led Jesus to pay the price for all sins as he went to the cross. It is grace that welcomes us as sinners into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul also names the way that the Corinthian church has been “enriched in every way”. This is also part of what allows them to bear such a strong witness in the world. Paul identifies the source of their strength and power: “you do not lack any spiritual gift”. They have been blessed by the Holy Spirit with a multitude of gifts and talents. In this way they are like all other churches. Collectively they have all the gifts and talents necessary to be the body of Christ in the world. The same is true of your church and of my church. As the church strives to live out its mission to make disciples, the Holy Spirit uses these gifts and talents to build up the kingdom of God here on earth as we await the revelation of Jesus’ return.

When we, the church, use our gifts and talents we are also strengthening one another. When we give of ourselves, we build up and encourage one another, playing our role in the effort to “keep strong to the end”. In our current season it may be more challenging to be the body of Christ. We may need to find innovative and creative ways to safely care for and love our neighbors. We may need to try new and socially distanced ways to be in fellowship with one another. As has always been the case, we will find Spirit led ways to be the church to one another and to the world. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God will see us through these current challenges because, above all, God is faithful. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, in this season ministry has been challenging. It feels like we are frequently shifting and adjusting. Thank you for the guidance and direction as we work to find ways to minister to others. Please continue to lead and guide us as we seek to be your love lived out. Amen.


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On Our Side

Reading: Psalm 124

Verse 8: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth”.

Have you ever felt like the psalmist feels? Have you ever felt like life was about to topple you over and sweep you away? As we live on this earth and pass through our years, we will have moments where we can relate to our reading for today. There will be days when we feel attacked, when we feel “anger flare against us”, when we feel the raging waters about to engulf us. On these days and in these seasons we too have turned to the Lord for strength, comfort, courage, direction, protection… We too can relate to the opening verse: “If the Lord had not been on our side…”. We would have crumpled, given in, been overwhelmed.

The Israelites would have sung this Psalm while going up to the temple or while traveling to Jerusalem for one of the yearly festivals that worshipped God. It reminded them of how God had spared them, breaking the enemy’s snare. What events in your life could be used to sing a song of God’s deliverance? Looking back over your life, when has God been your rescuer, your helper, your shield? In verse eight we read, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth”. God is indeed our help. Take a moment, collect those times in your mind, and lift a song or prayer of worship and praise to God, thanking the Lord for his presence in times of trial.

Prayer: Living and eternal God, you have been so good to me. When I have felt the fire, you were my shield. When I have wept tears of pain, you were my comforter. When I faced my giants, you have been my strength. When I have wandered in the desert, you were the clear voice calling me back. Thank you, maker of heaven and earth. Amen.


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Sheep of His Pasture

Reading: Psalm 95

Verse 7: “He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care”.

The opening five verses of Psalm 95 are a song of praise. The psalmist encourages us to sing with joy to the rock of our salvation and to come before him with thanksgiving. The words recognize the presence of the King of Kings in all of creation. In verse six there is an invitation to kneel and worship the Lord our maker. There are many days when we are right here with the psalmist, praising God joyfully.

But all days are not sunny and bright. All days are not filled with joy and praise. It is on those days and in those seasons that we must remember our foundation, our rock. The God who created the whole universe is the God who also created you and me. This God does not change. All of this world, including all of humanity, was created by a loving God to be good. Some days and in some situations that can be hard to remember. Sometimes situations and sometimes people make it hard to remember our foundation, our rock. Yet we are called to remember. We are ever wooed by the Holy Spirit to draw close to God, to stand upon the Lord our salvation.

In verse seven we read, “He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care”. Yes, God is our God. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture, kept safe, protected, cared for by our good shepherd. Celebrate that. Cling to that. Shout out a song of praise. Whisper a desperate prayer. He is our God. Always. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, it is so hard to see your children hurting. Bring them strength, remind them of your deep and abiding love for them, place their feet back upon the rock. Help me to remind them too of your love. May my words, actions, and prayers draw back into your pasture the sheep that are hurting and the sheep that have gone astray. May it be so. Amen.


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A Sign

Reading: Isaiah 7: 10-14

Verse 12: “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test”.

King Ahaz is an ungodly king who has tried to solve the issues facing him with his own power and intelligence. Ahaz thought himself capable of protecting himself and Judah against the coming tide of Assyria. In spite of his arrogance and disobedience, God still reaches out to him. Out of the depths of his love for this lost soul and for Judah, the remnant of his chosen people, God offers himself to Ahaz. The Lord encourages Ahaz to ask for a sign, indicating that God is still ready to act.

Just as it was with Ahaz, sin separates us from God and from one another. Even when our sin is relatively “short term” we can stay away from or can be reluctant to go to God. Our guilt or shame makes us feel unworthy. When our sin has become a habit or has slid into a season in life, then our alienation grows stronger, the separation deeper. Ahaz has walked disobediently for a while. In his mind maybe he thinks he does not deserve to ask God a question. Or maybe he fears God’s answer. Maybe, just maybe, he does not want to ask because he believes he can still figure it all out.

These possible scenarios might sound familiar. It was not hard for me to imagine why Ahaz might have responded as he did, saying, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test”. We have all been there. Yet in spite of the long disobedience, in spite of refusing to humble himself in God’s presence, in spite of it all, God still reaches out. What a loving God. What an amazing God.

The sign God gives is a sign of hope and promise. In spite of all that Ahaz and Judah have done (and not done), God promises a son, born of a virgin, to be Immanuel – God with us. This sign, this hope, this promise will be much more than God simply reaching out through a prophet. The sign, hope, and promise came and dwelt among us. Thanks be to God. Hallelujah!

Prayer: Lord God, your love is often hard to really understand. Whether it is a little stumble or something more major, your love and grace and mercy are always there, ready to be poured out upon me. It is a love that is hard to comprehend. Even so, it is a love you offer, time and again. Thank you so much for loving a sinner like me. Amen.


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Enduring Patience

Reading: James 5: 7-10

Verse 8: “You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near”.

Patience, patience, patience. Patience is such a tough thing to practice, especially when the situation is difficult. The difficulty can come from a variety of angles. For the brothers and sisters in Christ that James is writing to, the difficulty comes from the persecution and suffering that they are enduring. When we have been experiencing times of stress or distress, we have known how hard it is to patiently endure. This is what James is addressing in our passage today.

James turns to a familiar test of patience. He encourages them to consider the farmer. The farmer sows the seeds and then he patiently waits. With the sun and the rain that will surely come, he waits, trusting that the land will “yield its valuable crop”. It can be hard to have patience when growing crops. I have had a home garden for many years now. As I reflect back on each season I can now remember a familiar scene playing out. We would plant carrots, lettuce, and so on. Then about a week later I would go out to the garden, sometimes multiple times each day, checking to see if those little green shoots had popped up yet. Soon it became a practice in patience. Early in my gardening career my mind would question or doubt if the shoots took a little too much time to come up.

Our faith is a lot like that too. When the first trials or seasons of suffering come along, we do not have much patience. We quickly cry out, “How long, O God”? But as we spend a few more seasons in the valleys, experiencing God’s presence and strength and guidance… over and over again, we begin to build trust in God. Our doubts and questions and fears ebb away. We soon see these seasons as times of growth and maturing.

In verse eight James writes, “You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near”. Be like the farmer, trust in God. For all who are struggling in the trial right now, cling to these words of hope and promise. To do so yields an unshakable belief that becomes your rock. As the faithful Christian endures the storms with patience and faith, we do come to know the truth of Jesus coming near. He never leaves us or forsakes us, especially in the trials. Be near to us, Lord Jesus, this we pray.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for being my anchor in every stormy gale. In the lows and in the highs and everywhere in between, your Holy Spirit is ever present. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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Diligently

Reading: Revelation 21: 1-6

Verse 4: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”.

I pastor in a rural community where many are involved in agriculture. In a small but real way, the farmers and ranchers live out the idea of a new earth each year. We all experience the seasons in South Dakota, but for me that mostly means I dress differently and such. In general, for me, life in October is much like life in April. But for those tied to the annual renewal of the earth, this is not the case.

As people of faith we live in this present time with a hopeful eye towards the time when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”. We look forward but we do so with patience. Yes, it will be wonderful beyond anything we can begin to imagine, but we are just fine if it a ways down the road. With this hope, though, we are called to live an active faith in the present. Within we are to spend time daily with God and to grow more in love with God in this way. Without we are to allow our faith and God’s love to color all we do and say and think. We are to live as humble servants in this time and place, diligently building the kingdom of God here and now.

In the agricultural community there is a parallel. During the winter months, when the fields are dormant, they do not just sit and stare out the window. They are actively preparing – planning and studying, readying machinery, purchasing the needed seeds… They diligently do all they can to insure the greatest possible success when the new season comes. If they use the best seeds for the season ahead and do all that they can to have the best crop, then a good harvest likely lies ahead.

The same is true of our faith and the journey we are on towards eternal life. May we each tend diligently to the things of God, preparing for the new that is to come.

Prayer: Lord God, this day may I sow good seeds of faith and hope within and without. May I do all I can, empowered by the Holy Spirit, walking closer to you day by day. Amen.


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focus

Reading: Luke 21: 25-36

Verse 36: “Be always on the watch… that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.

Advent begins this Sunday. It is a season of anticipation and expectation. It reminds us that we live in a now-not-yet space. Last week’s passage from Revelation reminded us that Jesus “was, is, and is to come”. This connects to our passage today and is a great pre-Advent thought. The Latin word that we derive “Advent” from is itself derived from the Greek word “parousia” – a term commonly used to describe the second coming of Jesus. Our passage today opens with signs that will proceed Jesus “coming in a cloud with power and great glory”. We are encouraged to “stand up and lift your heads” as we await His return. We are encouraged to stand up and declare our faith – to wish people a joyous “Merry Christmas” (instead of the secular “Happy Holidays”) and to focus ourselves and others on Jesus Christ during Advent.

Jesus uses the illustration of the fig tree to keep us focused and looking up and forward. Just as the buds indicate summer is near, we are to look for signs of the kingdom near us. Where can we see hope and love lived out this week? Where can we experience mercy and grace and forgiveness this week? Where can we be signs of the nearness of God’s kingdom, bringing hope and love, mercy and grace and forgiveness to other’s lives this week?

Our passage today closes with another good reminder. It ties back into the “stand up” idea. Maybe Jesus knew what Christmas would become. He warns us to be careful lest we become”weighed down” and filled with anxiety. As a parent I can remember times when I was weighed down and filled with anxiety over the gifts and reactions to them. It can be easy to go there. When our focus shifts away from God and His kingdom, then yes, the day will close upon us “like a trap”.

Instead, Jesus encourages us to “Be always on the watch… that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”. Jesus must ever be our focus during the Advent season. Our eyes and heart must remain fixed on the Son of Man. Our lives will reveal what is truly in our heart and soul this Advent season. May Jesus Christ be what people experience in and through us.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to focus in on you alone this Advent season. Keep my eyes and heart on you and the coming of your kingdom. May my life reveal your Son as the focus of Advent and of Christmas. Amen.