pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Justice, Mercy, Humility

Reading: Micah 6:6-8

Verse 8: “God has shown you… what is good… what is required… To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Photo credit: Simon Berger

As we turn to the second half of this week’s Old Testament passage, Micah asks what he should bring before the Lord. He wonders if burnt offerings would be enough. Maybe so if it were “thousands of rams” followed by “ten thousand rivers of oil?” That sounds like a lot. Or maybe something closer to home? Perhaps sacrifice a child – “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” That feels like a lot. It felt like a lot was needed. The sin of Israel was great. Yet for God, restoring a relationship wasn’t about volume or about a huge but isolated proof of faith. It was much simpler. It was about the heart. In Micah’s day the Israelites were going through the motions required by the sacrificial system. To go through them a thousand or ten thousand times mattered not. To offer your firstborn and then to return to sinful living? Worthless.

Instead of hands and feet going through meaningless motions, God desired the heart of the people. God wanted to see hearts committed to what really mattered to God. In verses 8 we read, “God has shown you… what is good… what is required… To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” God sought people with hearts focused on justice, mercy, and humility. This is what is good. This is what is required. This is what really matters to God. The challenge for us is this: in our modern world, how do we live this out?

We live in a time when people are selfish and focused on material goods and social status. From this place it is difficult to see injustice, oppression, and pride as bad things. They are the means to achieving success. Yet these practices leave a wake of poverty and division and need. It is to these things that the eyes and heart of God are drawn. What is our response, our good and required response? It is not to write a check for $1,000 or to donate 10,000 meals or to sell our house to give money to some great cause. While good and likely helpful to others, these motions do not align our eyes and heart with God’s eyes and heart. Our response is really much simpler than these things. Very hard in our culture, yes, but simpler. What is good, what God required? A daily walk that focuses on justice for all, mercy and kindness to all, and humility as we seek to walk hand in hand with our God. Walking this way, our eyes and hearts will be drawn to the places and people that draw God’s eyes and heart. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, it really is pretty basic, isn’t it? Step away from self and from all that the world says matters. Step into the circumstances and lives of people that matter to you – those needing to experience justice, those needing mercy, those requiring a humble servant’s presence. Use me in all of these ways, O God. Amen.


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All My Days

Reading: Psalm 27:4-5

Verse 4: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”

Photo credit: Kyle Johnson

As we focus on Psalm 27 again today, we hone in on two verses. These verses express David’s trust in God and his desire to be with God. For David and for the Jewish people for much of the time covered in the Old Testament, God dwelled in a place. For many years, beginning in Moses’ time, God dwelt in the tabernacle. Then, in Solomon’s day, the temple was built and this became God’s dwelling place. From this frame of understanding David writes, “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” Connection was found in the house of the Lord, be that the tabernacle or the temple. To “be” with God, one went to the house of the Lord.

With the incarnation of Jesus there was a shift in this understanding and in our relationship with God. Yes, today many, myself included, will enter a sanctuary to spend time with God. It is a space filled with the holiness and presence of God. There are many such sanctuaries, some indoors and some outdoors. The shift, though, was that Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, came to us. God in Jesus walked and lived among humanity. This “with us” relationship was continued after his earthly death as Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts. God’s constant presence in our life became an option as our hearts became the new temple of God.

God’s presence, though everywhere, is an option. At times we can and do choose to sit on the throne of our own hearts. We get greedy or selfish or jealous or angry or anxious or doubtful or… and we step in to lead or guide the show. Or, like David, we can choose a better option. We can seek and ask daily, desiring above all else to walk in relationship with God all of our days. God is faithful. God is ever present. The choice is ours. May we daily seek and desire God, the one who is as close as our next heartbeat.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to daily seek your presence. By the power of your Spirit living inside of me, remind me again and again to search you out, to follow your guidance and direction for my life. All my days, may you alone sit on the throne of my heart. Amen.


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Blessed with an Epiphany

Reading: Matthew 2:9-12

Verse 9: “They went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them.”

Today, on Epiphany, we return to the story of the Magi. In this time and space we will focus on the revelations of God and why we see them at times and miss them at other times. In the passage the Magi see the star that is the sign of a newborn king of the Jews. Herod cannot see the star. Yes, he claims to want to go and “worship” this new king. In reality he wants to go and eliminate a potential competitor.

What allowed the Magi to see the sign? And what kept it ever before then? The Magi were attuned to the prophecies and to what they meant for humankind. They were not Jewish but they did understand that the Messiah was not a king in the earthly sense. If it were so, they would not have come that far to worship a future king of a tiny, insignificant nation. They came to worship one who would transform the world. The Magi brought gifts of great wealth. The Magi were focused upward. At the opposite end was Herod. He was focused only on self and on earthly power and control. The star bright enough to follow for hundreds of miles was well outside of Herod’s vision.

I’ve experienced what Herod did. I’ve been around people with a vision, with a God-driven purpose in sight but have failed to see what they could see. My doubts or selfish concerns kept me from seeing the signs of God’s hand at work. Maybe you’ve been there too. Maybe you too have been inwardly focused or prideful or unsure. Only when our heart is tuned to God will we be blessed with an epiphany of what God is doing or wants to do in our lives or community or world. So may we choose to live with a heart turned toward God. Then we will be in a place to see and experience the power and glory of God. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the times that you’ve opened my eyes and heart to your presence, plan, and purpose. When I start to turn inward, when I begin to get selfish, pry open my faith and trust in you. Remind me again that you are the God who moves mountains, who heals the hurting, who rescues the lost, who mends the broken, and who redeems the wayward. Amen.


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Love Mercy Grace

Reading: Luke 23:39-43

Verse 43: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

As we continue today with our Luke 23 passage for this week, let’s just begin by being honest: folks struggle with this passage. Christians almost universally love the words of forgiveness that Jesus speaks in verse 34. They are evidence of Christ’s love, mercy, and grace. We cherish these gifts that we receive in faith from Jesus. Some, however, can struggle with the words of forgiveness that come in verse 43.

There is a third person on a cross. This other thief joins in with the mocking of Jesus. He basically says that if Jesus is really the Messiah, then save yourself – and us! He is selfish. There is no belief. In this moment he’d just like enough of that love, mercy, and grace to get him out of this situation. “Just give me what I want right now and I might see you again when I need something” is his mantra. And as much as we feel disdain for this character, the truth is that at one point we have lived this kind of faith. Hard as that is to admit, here is a deeper truth. Once we think ourselves worthy of Jesus’ love, mercy, and grace, we begin to draw a line for others. We judge, we place conditions, we set up unspoken expectations, we limit access to Christ’s love, mercy, and grace. Welcome to thief two.

The second thief speaks up too. Only he recognizes what love, mercy, and grace looks like as it hangs beside him on the middle cross. He hears Jesus do the unthinkable: he offers it all to those who unjustly placed him on this cross. He is drawn to this Jesus. As a declaration of faith he asks to be remembered. Jesus tells him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” This is where some struggle. They get rankled at this deathbed confession and the ease with which Jesus accepts this man into faith. No judgement, no conditions, no expectations, no limits. In an instant the man sees Jesus’ love, mercy, and grace and is drawn into a relationship with the Savior. He steps into paradise in that very moment. Friends, may our love, mercy, and grace be as generous, accepting, and welcoming as Christ’s is.

Prayer: Lord God, what love! Anyone, everyone, anytime, anywhere. A lifetime, part of a lifetime, just a moment as death stands at the door. Relationship. This is where we come to see and understand your love, mercy, and grace. Relationship. It is where we are equipped and empowered to live these things out. May it be so. Amen.


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Living Abundantly

Reading: Joel 2:23-27

Verse 27: “Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other.”

Photo credit: Zac Harris

When was the last time that you really messed up? When was the last time that a poor decision or a sinful action created separation or distance between you and God or another that you love? If you are like me, you don’t have to think very far back to come up with a time that you were selfish or spiteful or sinful in some other way. Thinking back reminds us: we don’t want to go there again. That is verse 25 in today’s passage. Amidst the good news of how God will restore Israel is a reminder of why that’s necessary. “The years the locusts have eaten” reminds Israel of the time spent in exile, separated from God. We too can have seasons or even years when life is difficult because we have chosen to live outside of relationship with God.

Most of the verses in today’s reading – before and after verse 25 – speak of the abundant life that God offers. In verses 23-24 Joel speaks of the abundant rains that God will bless the people and the land with – rains that will yield grain and wine and oil. This will lead the people to praise God, to rejoice in the wonders that God has worked among them. Israel can be glad and can rejoice when life is good, when they are blessed with abundant provision. Just as we at times mess up and experience hardship in life and in our relationship with God and/or with others we love, so too have we experienced living abundantly within God’s love and provision. We too have lived verse 27: “Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other.” Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, my walk is not always hand in hand with you. Sometimes I let go and head off on my own path. This often leads to a time in the wilderness, filled with locusts and worse. When I begin to venture away, call me back quickly, restore me to abundant life. Amen.


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Unfailing Love

Reading: Jeremiah 4:27-28 and Psalm 14:7

Verse 7: “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion.”

The bulk of this week’s readings from Jeremiah 4 and Psalm 14 is about the people wandering away from God, choosing to live in sin and rebellion. Both of these Old Testament passages reference how these evils actions and choices bring God’s heart sadness and pain. These two ancient texts also speak of the cost of living in sin. It goes deeper than just separation from God. Living in sin is also destructive to our lives.

Another overarching idea in both of these passages is God’s unfailing love. Even though the people have chosen to worship idols and have grown selfish and prideful, God’s love remains. Yes, this is why God’s heart is affected but it goes deeper. God’s love remains because God honors the covenant. Long ago God promised to be Israel’s God – no matter what. No matter how deeply they hurt God, no matter how far they wander… God is faithful and true to the covenant made with Israel. Because of this, God declares, “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion.”

Since God is a God of covenant, God sees things through. In time salvation did come from Zion. Almost 2,000 years ago God-in-the-flesh came, lived, and died for us, bringing freedom from sin and death. It was necessary because we, like those being spoken to in these ancient texts, we struggle with sin and other forms of selfishness. We continue to wander off, to bring God sadness and pain. In the process we do harm to ourselves. Yet God’s covenant love washes over us too. God’s unfailing love remains faithful and true. The promise remains. We are loved beyond our sin. Salvation has come. It is ours to claim and to live into. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for your love that endures all things and continues to love without fail. It is a gift beyond my ability to fully understand, yet it is one I treasure above all else. I know I am a sinner saved by your grace. Thank you for your love. Amen.


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Lead in Light and Love

Reading: Jeremiah 4:11-12 and 22-28

Verse 22: “My people are fools; they do not know me… They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.”

As I read and reflect on these words in Jeremiah 4, there is a sadness. It is a sadness both for the people of God in Jeremiah’s day and a sadness for our time as well. In the opening two verses God tells Israel that a “scorching wind” is coming. It will not be to “winnow or cleanse” however. It is a destroying wind that comes from the north. In our time it feels like the scorching wind comes from the edges, from the extremes.

Verse 22 sums up the state of the people. Here God says, “My people are fools; they do not know me… They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.” This is quite the charge. The people of God have chosen idols over God, evil over good. They are now like “senseless children.” These words mirror our society today. Our nation as a whole has lost its connection to God and to faith. We have become like senseless children, intent on getting our own way, no matter who it hurts, not the least bit interested in other people’s perspectives. We, as a nation, have grown faithless, becoming polarized and divided along the way.

Verses 23-26 present an interesting image. Using the language of the creation story found in Genesis 1, here God deconstructs the story. It is a regression story now. Just as the people have regressed in their faith and in their actions, so too will the earth regress. The light, the people, the plants and animals – they will all be gone. All will be a desert, left in ruins. It is where that path of evil and selfish behavior leads – to death and destruction.

This image does not have to be the end of our collective story. We can learn to do good, to honor the other, to understand and value differing perspectives. We can once again seek to build up, choosing not to tear down and create division. We can extend a hand instead of a fist, a smile instead of a scowl. We, as the people of God, can lead, letting the light and love of God guide our words, thoughts, and actions. It is a choice. May we choose God. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, you never give up on us. You ever call us to living and walking as your children, reflecting your goodness into the world. Help us to change the world and its ways, making space for and truly valuing all people. Amen.


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Oh the Depths

Reading: Psalm 81:1 and 10-16

Verses 11-12: “My people would not listen to me… I gave them over to their stubborn hearts.”

Psalm 81 is a song of celebration, disappointment, and promise. The first verses, 1-2, prepare the people to worship and sing and play. The next verses, 3-7, celebrate how God rescued Israel and led them out of Egypt and through the wilderness. Then, in verses 8-9, God reminds and warns Israel: no foreign gods! We did not read most of these verses.

Verse 10 again promises provision and rescue by God. God longs to care for Israel. But it is not to be so. In verses 11-12 we read, “My people would not listen to me… I gave them over to their stubborn hearts.” They would not submit to God. They followed their own wants and desires. We can almost hear and feel God’s frustration and disappointment. At times we too must make God feel this way. I’ve often thought that God must be shaking God’s head at some of the things I’ve said and done and thought – like a parent with a foolish child.

In spite of all that rebellion and self-centeredness, God still longs to care for and to provide for the children. In verses 13-16 God reminds Israel and us that God will subdue our enemies and fill us with the finest wheat and honey – if one will follow God’s ways. If one “would but listen to me.” God will subdue our rebellious and selfish ways, will defeat our sin, if we will turn our hearts back towards God. Oh the depths of God’s love for you and for me. “Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob!”

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for loving me even though I can be selfish and inwardly focused. Thank you for your no-matter-what love that is always ready to restore and redeem me, to care for and guide me. What great love! You are an amazing and awesome God. I love you too! Amen.


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How Long?

Reading: Amos 8:7-12

Verse 8: “Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn?”

Photo credit: Yusuf Evli

Today’s portion of Amos 8 begins with God stating that “I will never forget anything they have done.” Through my New Testament eyes, this is a hard verse to read. Yes, I realize that there may be consequences to my/our sin. Yes, I recognize that God can punish. But my New Testament eyes see God as a God of love and mercy and grace and compassion and forgiveness. So I want to add a “…” to this verse. “… until they repent and turn back to God.” In fact, if one reads on in the Biblical narrative, this is what happens. Death and destruction will come. Exile will occur. But God will restore and redeem the people of faith.

In the next verse we read, “Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn?” The wake up call is coming. As the enemy floods and totally overwhelms Israel then Judah, there will be much weeping and mourning. This chapter will end “like a bitter day.” Because of the punishment, because of the consequences, there will be a “famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” Yet the time in exile will work like the forty years wandering in the wilderness, readying the people of God to return to just and holy living.

On days when there are readings like these, I wonder: are we as a nation and world on this same path? It seems that those who have get more and those with less have even less. How long will God tolerate our collective selfish and uncaring hearts?

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for today’s reality check. Continue to work and stir in me, leading me toward acts of justice and liberation. Show me the way to a better world. Amen.


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“Hear this…”

Reading: Amos 8:1-6

Verse 4: “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.”

Photo credit: Nick Sarro

We continue this week with Amos. Last week God used a plumb line to reveal how askew or crooked the Israelites had become. In this week’s reading from Amos 8, God reveals some details. As our passage opens, God shows Amos a basket of fruit. The fruit is ripe, maybe even appealing – at first glance. When one looks closer, however, one can see the rot along the edges. Using this analogy, God says, “The time is ripe for my people; I will spare them no longer.” We all know what happens when you leave rotting fruit in the bowl with good fruit. It will all go bad. It is time to deal with the rot.

In verse 4 God speaks to the rot: “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.” The Sabbath is a farce. The powerful go through the motions, anxious for it to end so that they can return to making dishonest profits and to trading on the lives of the poor and needy. Selfishly living they ignored the needs of their brothers and sisters. We too can play these games. I’ve gone to church and spent the whole time thinking about that afternoon or the week ahead. I’ve given the homeless man a granola bar or a bottle of water while tightly clinging to that wad of cash in my pocket.

God declares that their songs will turn to wailing. Bodies will be strewn everywhere. This brings to mind recent images of responses to times when those with power have abused or oppressed those without power. Punishment will surely come for being selfish and ignoring the plight of those on the margins. God will not stand for such evil. What would Amos tell us about how we live and about how we treat those in need around us? How could we better reflect God’s heart for all people?

Prayer: Lord, guide my eyes to look beyond myself. Lead me to be more generous, more willing with all that you’ve blessed me with. Amen.