pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Pleasing to God

Reading: Isaiah 58: 1-12

Verse 4: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”.

Photo credit: Jordan Wozniak

Today is Ash Wednesday. This is a great passage to consider as we prepare to journey into the season of Lent. The words of this Psalm are a wake up call to Israel and to all who approach their relationship with God superficially.

The ashes that we will place on our foreheads reminds us of our mortality. Ashes were used for this same purpose in the days of Isaiah. Remembering our mortality reminds us that we are finite, limited, imperfect. Today begins the season that culminates the Saturday before Easter Sunday. On Easter Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ triumph over the grave. In his resurrection we find our eternal hope. We are invited to walk through Lent as a season of preparation for that day. These forty days are a time of reflection, introspection, refining.

The people of Isaiah’s day were putting ashes on their foreheads, wearing sack cloth, bowing their heads to God. They were exhibiting all the outward signs of fasting. Today we can show up at church and have a cross drawn on our foreheads. We too can go through the motions. In our passage God’s people fasted, yes, but also continued to exploit the marginalized, to strike one another with “evil fists”, and to ignore the injustices and the oppression all around them. Verse four sums up God’s response: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”. We cannot come to church and go through the motions of worship or Bible study or youth group and then go out and live as the world lives.

In verses six and seven God shares the kind of fast that is pleasing to him. As fast pleasing to God changes our hearts and leads us to fight injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share food with the hungry, to give shelter to the wanderer, to clothe the naked. In Lent we are called to look within, to repent of our sins, our selfishness, our indulgences. Doing so we will come to have a heart focused on drawing God’s kingdom near.

Verse eight reveals what happens when God’s people turn towards him and become like him: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear”. May it be so.

Prayer: God of the brokenhearted, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the needy – lead me to the place of honest confession and sincere repentance. Make me aware of how I contribute to the pain and misery of the world and turn me from my harmful and hurtful ways. Kill in me all that keeps me from fully loving and serving you and all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.


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Love and Strength

Reading: Isaiah 40: 27-31

Verse 29: “He gives strength to the weary and his understanding no one can fathom”.

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

The second half of our passage from Isaiah 40 continues the theme of yesterday’s verses: God is everlasting. Isaiah again asks, “Do you not know? Have you not heard”? Just as we need to be reminded over and over, so too do the Israelites. God is still our God, unchanging and eternal. When we get weary and when we feel isolated and alone, we too need to hear again that “the Lord is the everlasting God”. Isaiah goes on to remind the faithful that God doesn’t get weary or tired and that God’s understanding is unfathomable. How often we grow weary and fail to understand the depth of God’s love and wisdom and might!

Although almost none of our trials or struggles or even seasons of separation from God or one another are as long as the forty years Israel spent in exile, we can all relate to their situation. We’ve all walked through the valley for so long that we feel like we cannot take another step forward. Sometimes, though, we are to blame for the weariness and/or the isolation that we “suddenly” find ourselves in. We get caught up in chasing the things of this world until the moment we find ourselves wrung out and exhausted and alone, hitting the wall and realizing it was all for naught. However and why we got to the place of weariness or isolation, verse 29 speaks balm to our souls: “He gives strength to the weary and his understanding no one can fathom”. Our everlasting, eternal God is right there. God understands. Our wise and mighty God is right there to give us his understanding and his strength.

This is goods news for us, yes, but it is also good news that we are meant to share. When God gives us strength and understanding, it is a wonderful gift. It is life changing for us to realize that we are not alone, that the God of the universe is on our side. Experiencing those touches of God draw us deeper into our relationship with God. In that place, we know what it means to be truly loved. Filled by that love and strength we are equipped to share that with a broken and needy world. Going out into the weariness and loneliness of the world, we bear God’s presence into the lives of those who are hurting and who are thirsty. May we each bring hope into the world today and every day.

Prayer: Loving and almighty God, guide me today to those who are weary, to those who are lonely, to those who need to feel and experience your love and strength, even if they do not know it. Fill me with the words or actions to help others know you today. Amen.


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Ministers of the Gospel

Reading: 1st Corinthians 9: 16-23

Verse 19: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible”.

Photo credit: Priscilla du Preez

Our passage today begins with a part of Paul’s call story. Because of his encounter with the risen Christ he has a clear mission to preach the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ. In Acts 9 it is revealed that Paul is Jesus’ “chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel”. This is why Paul is “compelled to preach” the gospel. Although most of us do not have the singular, radical life changing moment like Paul had, as people who declare Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we fall under the great commission that Jesus gave in Matthew 28 to “make disciples of all nations”.

Some are called to be preachers, some to be teachers, some to be worship leaders, some to be ushers, some to be worker bees… All are called the be ministers. Under the great commission we are all called to minister to the world, sharing the good news with a world in need. While most of us are not evangelical missionaries like Paul was, all of us have a story of faith and all of us can share our love of Jesus with others. Some of us will share through formal roles in the church, some will share through volunteer roles, some will share through specific encounters with friends and neighbors. All of us should share our faith in the ways that we live our day to day lives.

Paul was one who lived out his faith in all he did and with all he met. It was an intentional choice he made after Jesus worked a 180° change in his life. This radical change led Paul to spend the rest of his days telling others about the Lord. In verse nineteen we read, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible”. A slave was the very bottom of the social order. It was a place of total subservience. Paul was willing to be a slave to Jesus in order to save as many people as he could. Paul would become like his audience so that he could best communicate Jesus’ saving power to them. With the Jews, for example, Paul drew on his Jewish upbringing to help the Jews come to Christ. He found common ground. This is the most natural and comfortable way to share faith with others. Today, for example, a young Christian mom would most naturally share her faith while spending time with another young mom. Similarly, a recovered Christian alcoholic would most comfortably share his or her faith with a seeker just beginning the path to recovery. Common interests, shared experiences, similar places in life… provide great opportunities for natural gospel conversations.

Knowing why Jesus matters in our lives is the beginning of being able to share our faith. Step two is a willingness to have the conversation when the Holy Spirit nudges us and provides an opportunity. We are all called to be ministers of the gospel. Do you know your story of faith? Are you willing to share the story of what Jesus means to you? It is our call. May we all choose to be willing slaves of Jesus Christ, seeking to “win as many as possible” by sharing our love of Jesus Christ with the world.

Prayer: Lord God, I am not too sure where I would be without you. With you, I know my days and my future lie in your hands. Make me a willing slave, willing to share my love of you whenever and wherever the Holy Spirit gives opportunity. As always, use me as you will. Amen.


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Hope in Exile

Reading: Ezekiel 34: 11-16

Verse 16: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak”.

Ezekiel was one of God’s prophets. He ministered to Israel during their time in exile in Babylon. After being defeated by the Babylonians, many Israelites were dispersed throughout the kingdom of their conquerors. These words from God’s prophet would bring hope during a difficult time. These words of God would remind the people that their current experience will not be their reality forever. Both of these circumstances are true today. In our current pandemic, there is no doubt that this is a difficult time for almost everyone. Although it feels like it has been a really long time, we know that the virus and its effects will not last forever. Yet, in the midst of it, we are much like the Israelites in Babylon – isolated, feeling powerless, becoming a bit hopeless, grieving, separated.

Beginning in verse eleven God reveals his plan. In this verse God tells the people that he will “search for my sheep and look after them”. In the next verse God promises to “rescue them” from isolation, from exile, from “all the places where they were scattered”. Then God shares that he will bring them back home. In verse thirteen God states, “I will bring them into their own land”. God will search for his children; God will rescue them and gather them; and, God will bring them back home. Living in a time of defeat, in a time of exile, to hear that God is still God, that God loves and cares for them, that God will once again bring them all back together – these are words of healing and hope.

During these COVID times, just as was the case in exile, some people are coping or doing okay, some are not. Those who are naturally resilient, those who are disposed to optimism, those whose faith has grown in these times – these folks are going alright. There is a middle group who are mostly getting by. They have some of these positive characteristics, but life is now a delicate balance. And there are those who have depleted their reserves of these characteristics. They are struggling emotionally, physically, spiritually, relationally. This last group, especially, needs to hear verse sixteen’s promise: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak”. God has a special love for those hurting the most. Jesus, his son, modeled this love. Jesus, our Lord, calls us to follow his lead. To those around us most feeling like they are in exile, may we share these words of hope and love. And, if we dare, may we be these words of hope and love. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, lead and guide me to the list, to the strays, to the weak. Set my feet towards those hurting in my communities. Break my heart for what breaks yours. Fill my broken heart with your love and care. Use me to bring hope to those without. May it be so. Amen.


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Hope in Faith

Reading: Psalm 107: 1-7

Verse 6: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress”.

Today’s Psalm reading begins with a great line: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever”. Every time I read that line I am reminded of a song (Forever) that just makes me happier. This line is found in several Psalms – it is a familiar refrain for the people of God. The thanks in today’s Psalm is centered on the redeeming and gathering power of God in verses two through four, and on the Lord’s deliverance and guidance in verses five through seven. The acts of redeeming and gathering, of delivering and guiding, continue to be reasons we today can also say (or sing), “Give thanks to the Lord…”

Psalm 107 is one of many Psalms of thanksgiving. The nation has wandered and has been dispersed. They have been hungry and thirsty, life “ebbed away”. In his great love, God gathered them back into community, leading them once again by a “straight way”. God’s steadfast love remained strong for his children. God hears their cries and God responded. Through no fault of their own, our current pandemic has caused many to feel difficult emotions. Many are or worry about being hungry and cared for as employment is tenuous in this new time. Many are stressed by anxiety over their health or by the health of loved ones and friends. Many long to be gathered back into community, feeling the pain of isolation and loneliness. Many in our churches and neighborhoods are longing to be redeemed and gathered, to be delivered and guided. Many are crying out, many are hurting. It is a time of struggle, even for some of us.

Verse six reminds us of the promise: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress”. God will hear and deliver. There is hope in these words. Maybe we need to hear them ourselves. If so, spend some time today with this Psalm and in prayer with your loving God. Maybe we are people of faith who can share these words with those who are worried or stressed or anxious or lonely. As we live out and share our faith, may we each be a part of the healing of the nations. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, guide me and the church to the cries of the hurting and breaking. Lead us to respond in love and hope, offering fellowship and community, care and provision – offering faith in you. Use us to bring healing to our communities and neighborhoods. Amen.


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Stories

Reading: Psalm 78: 1-4 & 12-16

Verse 4: “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord”.

On those days or in those seasons in life when it is cloudy and gloomy and stormy we desperately need a ray of sunshine. In those times when we feel stuck or trapped in the dark, we need the door to be cracked open, for a sliver of light to slice into our darkness. At times in my life there has been a weight upon me or a darkness and gloom hanging over me. It feels oppressive and defeating. On my own I was unable to move past that place. Looking back, though, I can recall specific conversations, lovely notes or letters, small acts of love – all done by family, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ – that lifted me up. Each person was living out the love of Jesus Christ, bringing light into my darkness.

Psalm 78, much like other similar Psalms, was a way for the people of Israel to tell one another and their children of times when God’s love lifted them up or was light in their darkness. Just as me recalling those times when God’s love rescued me, by singing or teaching the Psalm, the Israelites were reminded of God’s love for them. To be reminded, to remember that you are loved, is especially important in those times of trial and hardship. Instead of withdrawing and turning within, which is our natural tendency, by remembering we are turned outward and upward – to others and to the Lord. It is then that we become receptive to the love and hope offered by others and by God. Living in exile, Psalm 78 would be salve to their situation. The Israelites needed to remember that God loved them and to believe that God would provide a way through the darkness. By keeping that hope alive, the Israelites got to the day that allowed them to begin returning home.

My stories of when I was lifted up are like Psalm 78. I can recall them for myself and I can tell them to others walking in gloom and darkness. I can remind them of God’s love and care for them. Your stories work the same way. Who in your life needs a little encouragement or an act of kindness? They are all around us. May we be the love today.

Prayer: Most loving God, this day lead me to those who need to be reminded of your love. Bring to mind the story to tell or the Bible passage to share. Use me to open another’s eyes and hearts to your love. Amen.


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Granted

Reading: Philippians 1: 27-30

Verse 29: “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”.

As we did earlier in the week, we again hear the call to “conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel”. For Paul this includes steadfast faith, lived out in unity, sharing the good news. Paul also calls us to trust in God. Trust in God will help combat the fear we feel when others oppose the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul names two signs that indicate that the followers will be saved. In verse 29 he writes, “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”.

“Granted” implies something that is given, a gift of sorts. A belief in Christ as Lord and Savior is where our faith begins. Trusting in Jesus as our Lord means that we look to him to guide our lives in the here and now. Through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus does just that. As Savior, it means that we trust Jesus to one day redeem us – to bring us on to our eternal home. As Christians we find assurance and comfort in these aspects of our faith. As Christians we find worth and contentment as well as peace and strength in these two aspects of our faith. Because Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior we live with joy and hope. All of this is granted to us through our relationship with Jesus. It truly is a gift.

Then we come to the “but” in this verse: “but also to suffer for him”. This too is a gift. Jesus called upon us to follow him by taking up our crosses and by dying to self. These acts entail giving up our preferences, our wants, our natural inclination to selfishness. We do so in order to see, to feel, to respond to the needs of the list and the broken and the suffering. In doing so, in coming into connection with and into relationship with those we serve, we draw closer to Christ. When we live love out loud, as Jesus so often did, then we enter into the lostness, brokenness, and suffering of the world. The cost may be physical, it may be emotional, it may be financial, it may be social. There are many ways that the Spirit may lead us to suffer when we place the call of Christ and the needs of others ahead of ourselves. Walking alongside these who suffer, including these in our personal relationships, we might be granted the privilege of sharing the gospel with them. We might be. As we strive to engage the world around us, may we surrender and walk the paths that the Spirit leads us upon. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, use me as you will today. Put me to the tasks that build relationships and build your kingdom. Amen.


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Expressing Love

Reading: Romans 12: 9-21

Verse 17: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody”.

In our passage today Paul is speaking of how to live as a Christian. He does not separate how to live within the faith community from how to live in the world. How we act and speak and do within our faith communities should be how we act and speak and do out in the world. In this letter, Paul is speaking to the church in Rome. They are a diverse church, just like many of our churches. Our bodies of Christ represent many ages, occupations, politics, and so forth. In an ideal world, our church would reflect or match our community and vice versa.

As he gets down to the actual practice of love, Paul encourages the church to share with those in need and to practice hospitality. He encourages them to walk through life together – weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who are rejoicing. Paul lifts up the goal of living in harmony with each other. He warns them not to be proud but to associate with everyone. These are all ways that we express or demonstrate the genuine and sincere love that he spoke of at the beginning of this section. While some of these can be challenging or can stretch us a bit, they are all things we can accomplish for our family and friends and fellow church members. But Paul is not concerned just with how we treat this group of people.

Sprinkled into today’s passage are also some exhortations that we might prefer to read past. Paul exhorts us to bless those who persecute us and warns us about our responses: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody”. He also cautions us against seeking or taking revenge. Paul is directing us to love sincerely those who are not showing us love but disdain, dislike, and even hatred towards us. This can be quite the challenge. There is ample proof of this on many social media platforms. Instead of walking the road of evil, Paul encourages us to love and care for our enemies. Mirroring Jesus’ words concerning heaven-worthy behavior, Paul directs us to feed our enemies when they are hungry and to give them a drink when they are thirsty. The burning coals are the angst they will feel inside about giving poor treatment to the ones who show them love.

“As far as it depends on you”, may we heed Paul’s words, seeking today and every day to “live at peace with everyone”. As far as it depends on you… In our own little worlds, it all depends on us. May we each be the light and love, the hands and feet, the eyes and hearts of Christ each day.

Prayer: Loving God, guide me to be obedient to you in all ways and at all times. May who I am at home and at church and at the ballgame… be the same. May I be your love lived out in all ways, in all places, and for all people. Help me to treat one and all with your same love and compassion. Amen.


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Take Courage!

Reading: Matthew 14: 22-27

Verse 22: “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get in the boat and go on ahead of him”.

Jesus’ actions in today’s passage have an immediate teaching moment for the disciples as well as application for all who follow as disciples. Jesus sends the disciples on ahead of him so that he can pray in solitude. They head out into the waters and a storm arises. As the night progresses, the disciples are increasingly battered and afraid. Into their fear and tiredness, Jesus walks across the water. He comes through the storm to be with them, to calm their fears, to reassure them. As he nears, Jesus echoes the words that God spoke to Moses during a storm in his leadership, saying, “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid”. The winds and waves calm as Jesus enters the boat, validating who he is: the Son of God.

In the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first disciples and the early church would read this passage and see themselves as the ones in the boat. Jesus commissioned all disciples to go into the world to share the good news. For the early church the storm was the Jews and Romans. Today, for us, it is secular culture that defines the post-Christian world that we live in. For the early followers, the harassment and ridicule were the early wind and waves. As the storm increased they endured persecution and prison and even death. It felt like a storm raging against their boat. The same God who came to Moses, the same Jesus who came to the disciples in the storm – the same Holy Spirit continued to be with the early disciples and continues to come to you and me when the storms of life rise up.

Jesus continues to call us out into the world. In response, as followers we seek to live out the gospel, to share our faith when opportunities arise, and to be examples of the humble servant whenever we can. At times we too will find ourselves in the storm, battered and afraid. But we will not be left alone. Jesus continues to come to us, to walk right through the storms, to bring us peace and strength and assurance. Through the whisper of the Holy Spirit, Jesus repeats over and over, “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid”. May we ever remember, Jesus is with us. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, your abiding presence is always with me. Ever guide me, ever walk with me. Help me to remember, especially in the storms, that I am never really alone. No matter how bad the storm, Jesus is by my side. Help me to cling to his power and strength. Amen.


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Share the Story

Reading: Psalm 105: 1-5

Verse 1: “Give thanks to the Lord… make known among the nations what he has done”.

Just as today’s Psalm is a method to remember all that God has done for Israel, we too should often recall what the Lord has done for us. The Israelites recounted the stories of God’s love and action and they told them over and over. Each generation and people coming into the faith would know the story of God and faith. In telling the stories they built up one another’s faith and found a deeper connection to God in their own trials and struggles. Our personal experiences of God’s love and action are also important moments in our faith journeys. Such experiences are scattered throughout our lives.

There was the time in my junior year of high school, when we were praying for a friend involved in a horrific car accident, when I felt God’s presence in the church balcony. There was the time about six years ago, when present in the hospital room when a man passed, when I saw a group of lights hovering over us in the corner of the room before his soul flew away. There are other smaller but no less significant moments when God was fully and tangibly present in times of worship, in moments on mission trips, in a prayer room at a Promise Keepers event. Each of these connection points with God built my faith. But they are not just for me. As I recall them and write or talk about them, I am doing what the psalmist is doing. When you remember your God moments and share them with others, you too are building up your faith and the faith of others. We are living into the psalmist’s words: “Give thanks to the Lord… make known among the nations what he has done”.

Many years later Jesus used similar words to give the great commission. Our call, no, our task as followers of Jesus Christ is to share the story. We are commanded to tell the good news of what Jesus Christ has done – both during his ministry and in all the years since – even those that include our lives. As we each consider the wonderful things that God has done, may we each be moved to share our stories of faith. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the moments when faith has been so personal, when you have drawn so close to me that I could feel you. Give me words to share these experiences with others, helping them to become aware of your presence in their lives. Amen.