pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Rebuild and Restore

Reading: Psalm 85:1-7

Verse 4: “Restore us again, O God our Savior, and put away your displeasure towards us.”

Psalm 85 is written after the punishment and exile that Hosea foretold. God has allowed the people to begin returning and rebuilding what had been destroyed, both physically and relationally. Leaving Babylon, God “showed favor” and “restored the fortunes of Jacob.” God forgave their sins and “turned away from your fierce anger.” Things have gotten better, but…

Have you ever had a really big fight with your spouse or with a good friend? After some time apart, you begin to talk again. Yet all is not fixed, right? Reconciliation and restoration is the goal but you’re not quite there yet. Words must be spoken, behaviors demonstrated in order to begin to repair what was wounded or broken. Often trust must be rebuilt. This is where God and Israel are in their relationship.

In verses 4-6 the psalmist expresses a longing to get back into right relationship with God. There is an implication that Israel feels ready. Lessons have been learned. Humility and reverence are again present. It is usually the party that is at fault who first longs to re-enter relationship and to put the ugliness behind them. In verse 7 the writer asks God to “Show us your unfailing love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.” Israel longs to be made whole again.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all sinned and created separation between God and ourselves. Today’s text is a good reminder of how we can reapproach God as we seek to rebuild and restore our relationship with God.

Prayer: Lord God, I long to live in a full and complete relationship with you. So often, though, I get in the way. My pride, my selfishness, my desires create a distance between us. Help the me inside to become less and less so that you can become more and more. Amen.


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The Holy Seed

Reading: Isaiah 6:9-13

Verse 13: “The holy seed will be a stump in the land.”

In today’s section of our Isaiah passage the Lord gives the prophet a message to bring to the people. In verses 9 and 10, is the Lord calling the people to not understand, to not perceive, to have calloused hearts? This would be a gloomy and hard message to hear from God’s prophet. It is as if this road of sin that leads to destruction is inevitable. It is if the people continue on as they are, living with hard hearts and a mind closed to the word of God.

Recognizing the uphill battle, Isaiah asks, “For how long, O Lord?” How long do I have to preach this message? How long will the people choose to be far from the Lord? This message cannot be popular. It will not be well received. Rarely does a person living in sin or one making poor choices like to be called out, especially after making this choice for a long time.

God’s response to Isaiah’s question matches the tone set in the opening verses. “Until the cities are ruined… the land utterly forsaken.” The consequences of the people’s choices will not be pretty. These are hard words to hear too. But at some level we all know that our poor choices will cost us, that we will face some consequences. Yet that doesn’t mean we always listen.

One of the difficult parts of the pandemic for me personally has been those who have drifted from the church. Letters, notes, texts, phone calls have been made. Words of invitation, of welcome, of encouragement have been given. Yet separation remains. If I’m honest I too have wondered, how long? I’ve felt like surrendering. But the prayers continue to be lifted to God. The end of this passage brings hope, both to me and to Isaiah in his day. “The holy seed will be a stump in the land.” The roots are there. One day God will cause growth to occur. The seed will not be snuffed out. The remnant will not be extinguished. God is good. By God’s grace faith will grow again. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, your vision is longer and greater than ours. When our hearts begin to harden and when our ears and eyes want to shut, flood us with your love and hope and grace, reviving the soul, bringing life anew. Amen.


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Greater Still

Reading: Zephaniah 3: 18-20

Verse 19: “I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered.”

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

Continuing to point towards the day when the Lord God will restore Judah and Jerusalem, Zephaniah speaks hope to those who are separated from God. The people’s disobedience offended God’s sense of justice. Because of their great sin they were almost unrecognizable to God. Disaster would befall the people. But God’s love was greater still. The God who is mighty to save will one day restore Israel as well as the other nations of the world.

In verse nineteen we read, “I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered.” The army that Zephaniah predicted will come and destroy, leaving behind a small remnant while carrying many off into exile. The remnant was a shell of what was and will struggle to survive. They are the lame that God will rescue. Those carried off will lose connection with God. Living in a foreign land they will be unable to worship in the temple; they will not be able to celebrate the annual holy feasts. They too will become a shell of what once was. These are the scattered that God will gather. Reflecting back upon Zephaniah’s words many years later, the Israelites will see and better understand the need for both God’s justice and God’s love.

At times we too can find hope in these words. At times life will leave us struggling – illness or disease, unwanted change, bad decisions… We can find ourselves in need of rescue. At times we will wander off, straying from our faith. We too can end up far away from God, as if we were living in a foreign land. Once there, we need God to gather us back in. At times these forces can intertwine and build one upon the other. “Life” happens and we begin to doubt or to question God, leading our faith into a place of uncertainty or maybe even separation from God. In this place we need both rescue and gathering. As it was with God’s people of old so it will be with us today. “At that time I will gather you: at that time I will bring you home.” God’s love is greater still. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, when I find myself in a place that feels void of your presence, stir up the Holy Spirit in my heart. Remind me of your living presence and of your great love for even me. Thank you for your steadfast love. Amen.


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Look Upon Us

Reading: Isaiah 64: 5b-9

Verse 8: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter”.

As we continue in Isaiah 64 today, the second half of the passage begins in verse 5b with an admission: “When we continued to sin, you were angry”. Yes, God will come to the help of those who do right, but the sinners? Isaiah asks the correct question: “How then can we be saved”? As a people living in sin, the Israelites were taken into exile. God still loves them, but what can God do with his children who continue in their rebellion? The prophet laments that they have become “unclean” and that their faith has “shriveled up” like a dry leaf. In verse seven his words are honest: “No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you”. The situation, the condition of the people’s faith, is not good. Yet there is hope. There is always hope with God.

In verse eight Isaiah speaks of that hope: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter”. Our God never gives up on us. Yes, we may choose to distance ourselves from God and from our relationships with one another. Our sin leads to separation. Even in the midst of our sin, even then we can cry out to God. Like a petulant child, we cry out only half-heartedly because we remain unclean. We want our way and we want God to do our will too. At that point God hears but does not respond. This is where almost all of Isaiah’s audience is at spiritually. Yet the one who speaks for God has hope. Isaiah knows that God can and will reshape the people. Through the process of defeat and exile, God will fashion Israel back into obedient children once again. Our passage ends with a humble plea: “Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people”.

In this season, especially in this time of division and discord, in this time of online worship and personal distancing, in this time of illness and loss, Lord, look upon us. We pray for all of your people. Great potter, shape us into something new.

Prayer: Lord God, show us the way. Help me to work through this discord in my soul, through this time of unease. Bring healing to our land, O God. Not just physical healing but also spiritual and emotional and relational healing. Unite us, O Lord, in your love and grace and mercy. Amen.


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Heart Condition

Reading: Matthew 15: 10-20

Verse 18: “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean”.

In response to the Pharisees, Jesus addresses what it is that makes a person ‘unclean’. A person who was unclean was cut off from or had to live outside of community. In terms of faith, it meant separation from God. For the Pharisees being clean or unclean boiled down to whether or not one followed all of the law. For Jesus, being clean or unclean came down to the condition of one’s heart.

At the start of chapter fifteen the religious leaders question Jesus about the disciples eating without following the ceremonial cleansing rituals. They did not properly wash their hands before they ate. The implication was that the disciples were now unclean. That meant seven days outside the temple, seven days outside of community – according to the religious leaders. Responding to their lack of understanding, he says, “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean”. Jesus bases the condition of our relationship with God not on what we eat but on what our heart is filled with. The “dull” disciples are sharp enough to know that these words jab at the religious leaders. Their man-made traditions and overemphasis on following the law of Moses has left them with a rule following, box checking religion. But no faith.

Today’s passage calls us to consider the condition of our heart. Does your heart contain some of what Jesus lists in verse nineteen – evil thoughts, false testimony, adultery, slander, theft? Or perhaps others – gossip, greed, lust, jealousy, pride? Or maybe doubt, fear, worry, stress, anxiety? What we have in our hearts will eventually come out of our mouths. Jesus’ point here is more about what is in our heart than about what comes out of our mouth. In the heart is where sin is born or is where we choose to stomp it out. If, instead of filling our heart with evil, what if we fill it with love and compassion, with mercy and grace, with generosity and a vent towards service, with kindness and self-control? Then there is less room for sin and evil.

What is the condition of your heart?

Prayer: Lord God, fill me daily with your word and your will. Send the Holy Spirit to whisper words of life into my heart. Guide me to be filled with your love so that I can be love in the world. Amen.


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Trust

Reading: Psalm 13

Verse 5: “I will trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation”.

David follows the typical pattern found in lament Psalms: pouring out his heart and his pain and then coming to the Lord in praise. I think that this pattern is typical of many of our deepest relationships. At times we need to express the hurt or frustration or anger that we are experiencing and then we can move on in that situation or relationship. On a smaller scale that is “venting” or “letting off steam”. On a bigger scale it can be finally having that really good cry. Both bring relief or cleanse our thoughts and emotions enough so that we can focus on what really matters. For persons of faith, that means focusing first on God and on our relationship with God.

In verse five David finally gets to this point. Here he writes, “I will trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation”. Head and heart being expressed, he can now turn to the more eternal, more powerful force: God. I too can get bogged down in the worldly stuff from time to time. It can be a difficult situation or it can just be from too much busyness. In those times the focus becomes more on me and my concerns. God seems to take more of a back seat. Then I end up where David is in the first few verses of Psalm 13 – feeling distant from God and wondering where God went. Soon enough God reminds me that it was me who created distance, me who allowed something else to take priority in my life or heart or mind. In a passage or something I read, in a song or in the words of a friend, I am reminded of that unfailing love and of the hope I have in his saving grace. It is then that a song or prayer of praise fills my heart.

Songs of lament are good reminders that life will be hard at times. We will struggle, especially when we shift our eyes and focus from the one who is worthy of our praise. Today’s Psalm reminds us to allow ourselves to feel and to express our emotions to God, trusting in his love and care. May we ever turn to God, the rock of our salvation.

Prayer: Lord of all creation, in the highs and lows, you are the same. Whether I am on the mountaintop or in the depth of the valley, you are steadfast and true. Remind me over and over to turn to you, to hold fast to you. You are my rock and only hope. Amen.


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Path of Life

Reading: Acts 2:28

Verse 28: “You have made known to me the paths of life: you will fill me with joy in your presence”.

Today’s reading was just one verse. It has two parts which are interrelated. The first half of the verse centers on the “paths of life”. What does David mean by this phrase? Just as it was for David, so it was for the man quoting him in this verse. Peter was a man who was a work in progress as he learned the path of following Jesus. That path, after all, is the path of life. Like David and Peter, we too are a work in progress. As Methodism founder John Wesley put it, we are on a “journey to perfection”. What he meant by this is that faith is an ongoing journey to become more and more like the perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ.

Also like David and Peter, we too have failures in our walk with the Lord. Our failures might not reach the level of adultery and murder or of total denial of our faith, but in our own ways we break our relationship with the Lord. Whether that comes a million times through what we think are “small” sins that we struggle with or through a season pursuing the things of this world or caught up in an addiction that feels like a “big” sin, it does not matter. All sin separates us from God. The path of sin is not the path of life. The Lord never gave up on David or on Peter. He will not ever give up on you or me either.

The second half of the verse today centers on joy. Joy and happiness are not the same thing. The world wants us to be happy. We think possessions or titles or popularity will bring us joy. Pursuit and attainment of these earthly things does make us feel good. But the feeling does not last. There is no joy in things. As we study and learn the ways of Jesus, we see that his life revolved around serving others, sharing a relationship with others, healing the brokenness and isolation of others, forgiving other’s sins. His life as a loving and humble servant is our model. We will find what he found when we walk his path. When we give ourselves away, we do not lose but we gain. When we humbly serve God and others, we are filled with a joy that is everlasting. This is the path of life. May we give of ourselves freely and generously today, in whatever form that may be.

Prayer: Father God, help me to walk on the path of your son, Jesus Christ. Help me to love extravagantly today. May I be poured out in service to you and to all I meet today. Amen.


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Servant

Reading: Isaiah 49: 1-7

Verse 3: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor”.

At the time of Isaiah, the Israelites are in exile in Babylon. They are living in a foreign culture that worships many gods. They are far outside of their normal ways of life and all the comfort and routine that it brings. The Israelites long for what was. Even though they know the temple and Jerusalem have been destroyed, it is still home. It is where God is found.

On our journeys of faith we can experience times in exile, times when we feel distant or separated from God. Depending on the root cause of our exile, the time there can vary. If it is a “small” sin, for example, one that we can confess and repent of easily, then our time of separation can be short. But if we sit in our sin or if the guilt or shame becomes too great, then the exile can lengthen. In these cases we come to the place the Israelites find themselves – we long to be restored and forgiven, but we feel stuck or trapped.

Today’s passage is the third of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs”. These songs tell of a servant who will draw the people back to Israel, restoring the twelve tribes. For the Israelites, they would find hope and promise in these words. Their first and immediate question would be: when? In verse three we read, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor”. The people long for God’s splendor to once again be shown in and through them. They long to be back home, back to living in right relationship with God.

The words of the prophet Isaiah ring true with us too. God desires to shine in and through us, his servants. God longs to be in right relationship with each of us, to restore and redeem us. The Holy One has chosen us too. May we walk in the light of Christ, the Redeemer, helping others to walk in the light of Christ too.

Prayer: Lord God, you called me by name. You have restored me and brought me back over and over. In my human weakness you have been so strong. You guide and lead me. Today, as I seek to walk with you and to shine your light into the world, guide my words and thoughts. Fill them with all of you. This day, once again, use me as you will. Amen.


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God Invites Us Deeper

Reading: Lamentations 1: 1-6

Verse 2: “Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks”.

One cannot hardly help reading these verses and being drawn into the sadness of the situation. God has been just in exiling the people because of their sins. Yet the barrenness and emptiness of Jerusalem evoke feelings of sadness and mourning in us thousands of years later. In our hearts we can easily empathize when we read, “Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks”. Perhaps tears roll down our cheeks.

In our own lives we too will experience hardship, loss, death, change, separation, and maybe even exile. Sometimes these experiences come upon us not because of anything we have done or not done. We simply find ourselves present in the valley. These experiences can be hard and painful. They vary too. There is grief and sadness, for example, when a 92-year-old faithful saint passes on. Yet our reading from Lamentations feels more like the unexpected loss of a young child. In such instances we weep like the woman who cries bitter tears, not quite understanding the reality that she finds herself in.

At other times we have a hand in the calamity that brings us to the valley. There were many who went into exile and some left behind that were guilty of the sins that precipitated God’s action. When we have been guilty and experience hardship or worse because of our choices or actions, we must acknowledge the role we played before offering repentance and seeking reconciliation. This can be a process. Denial and blame shifting can prolong the exile. For Israel, the exile lasted a long time. There was much work to do. We too can remain there for a period of time if we refuse to admit our role or to acknowledge our imperfections.

Whether we are “innocent victims” or if we had a role in the hardship or failure or “exile”, these experiences offer us the opportunity for transformation and growth. In the valleys we are reminded both of our inability to solve all things and of God’s omnipotent ability to do anything. From the valley, God invites us into deeper relationship as we walk the shadows. God’s hand reaches out in love, seeking to heal and transform us into something new. In faith may we reach out to God, our rock and redeemer, our rescuer and restorer, our healer and our salvation.

Prayer: Lord of Lords, the valley is an uncomfortable place to be. The feeling of isolation and grief are hard to bear. Help me to walk with you, to lean upon you. I know you do not want me to bear them alone. Bend my face to yours, hold my hand tightly. Guide me through to once again walk fully in your light and love. Amen.


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Go

Reading: 1 Kings 19: 9b-15

Verse 9b: “What are you doing here”?

Earlier this week I looked at verses 1 through 9a in this same chapter. To review quickly, Elijah angered the queen, fled in fear, and was cared for and guided by God to the cave on Mount Horeb. In the morning, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here”? This is a question that I think God asks often.

Fear and worry and doubt and job fatigue led Elijah to flee – to hide from the world. I can relate to some of these emotions and to Elijah’s response to them. Once in a great while monastic life seems like a great idea. His loving God leads Elijah to a safe place, to a cave atop a mountain, far away from his enemies and from the world. Until God asks this question, the cave is a comfortable place for Elijah.

When I retreat it is not usually to a cave or to any other physical place. When I do retreat it is usually into myself. In those moments when the world seems against me or when it seems to be closing in, I withdraw emotionally. In my mind I disconnect. I try and create felt distance and separation. But soon enough, God asks, “What are you doing here”?

Elijah has a response. He has been thinking about it. He knows the question is coming. This process is familiar to me too. Elijah tells God that he has been “very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” – I’ve been working really hard for you God. And these people – these Israelites – they have broken the covenant. Why would I want to be with those sinners? And then the ice cream atop the cake – “I am the only one left”. Woe is me. Have you been here? I certainly have.

The God says, in essence, ‘Come here. Come here Elijah’. Elijah goes to the entrance to the cave and the noise of the world passes by. The wind, the earthquake, the fire – those are the threats of Jezebel, the fears of the world, the self-pity. Then Elijah hears a gentle whisper. Ah, God has arrived. It is significant that God comes in the calm, in the quiet.

But once again Elijah tries the “I’ve been so busy…” excuses. God simply says, “Go…”. Return to the world, go where I am sending you. I will be with you. God knows we will stumble and falter too. God says the same thing to us: go, go where I lead. I will be with you. God continues to lead Elijah every step of the way. God will do the same for us. So, go.

Prayer: God, in those moments when I too doubt or fear or feel wrung out, come and push me back out into the world. Use me for what you will. Strengthen and encourage and fill me for the task at hand. Help me to ever step forth in faith. Amen.