pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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God’s Gifts

Reading: Psalm 147: 12-20

Verse 12: “Extol the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion”.

Today’s Psalm reading is all about praising God for the gifts that he gives to his children. In the year we’ve had collectively, it is necessary to stop and to thank God for his gifts to us, even in 2020.

The first gift that we are to extol and praise God is for how he strengthens us and for how he gives us peace. God’s watch over us does not mean life will be free of pain or worry. We can face the sufferings and struggles of life with God’s presence, though. With God we have a companion for the journey, one to lean on at times, one to carry us in times when we cannot walk on our own.

The second gift to us that we are to extol and praise God for is our sustenance – the “finest wheat” and a whole variety of other foods and drinks. The third gift is the earth and ecosystem that God designed. The seasons along with their accompanying snow, hail, and rains… are all part of God sustaining us.

The last gift is his word. In the Jewish mindset this is the written word, the Torah. The law of Moses guides all of life. The holy scriptures are how they know God. This all is true for Christians as well. But we also have Jesus, the fuller revelation of God to humanity. Just as the Jews were God’s chosen people – blessed like “no other nation” – Christians are also blessed and set apart from the world. We are “in the world but not of it”. Our true home is in heaven with the Lord.

As we turn the page from 2020 and step forward into 2021, may we take a moment to extol and praise God for his presence, for his provision, and for his Son whom he shares with us every day. Praise the Lord!

Prayer: Lord, I thank and praise you for your presence in my life – in the highs, in the lows, and in everything in between. You are always there. I thank you for the many ways that you provide and care for me and my family. You are so loving and generous. And I thank you most of all for the gift of your living word, Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. Amen.


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Patient

Reading: 2nd Peter 3: 8-15a

Verse 9: “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”.

2nd Peter focuses on reminding the believers that the second coming of Jesus Christ is still coming. As time has passed, some of the followers have started to doubt, to question the promised return. Our passage today begins with this truth: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day”. God’s timing and sense of time are not our timing. Our 60, 80, or even 100 years is but a blip in God’s eternity. In our instant gratification, me-first culture we still identify with the struggle to wait with faith.

The reason we continue to wait for the second coming is identified in verse nine: “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. God is patient. Out of the depths of his love for humanity – the least and the lost just as much as the saved and redeemed – God waits because God does not want to see anyone die without the opportunity to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In this way, God has a “just one more” mentality: just let the good news of Jesus Christ get into one more heart, into one more home, into one more community, into one more nation… People cannot and will not repent of their sins until they have a chance to know the saving grace offered by the Lord.

God is patient, but it is not a passive patience. It is an active patience that we are called to live out. The great commission is the call to make disciples of all peoples. Patience must be a part of how we collectively and individually live out this call. Reflect inward for a moment. Are there sins that you continue to struggle with? Do you want God to be patient with you? When I consider these questions, I recognize my struggle with pride and wanting to be in control. Yes, God could get a bit frustrated with me. God could say, ‘Its been 2,379,647,704 times that your pride has caused you to sin, John. I’m not sure about forgiving #2,379,647,705’, but he doesn’t. Instead God reminds me that pride sin 2,379,647,703 was cast as far as the east is from the west. It was forgotten by God the moment I confessed… We are called to that same patience as we seek to share the good news with unbelievers. One more conversation about faith, one more gesture or act that shows God’s love, one more…

As we seek to bear witness to our faith today, as we seek to bring one more person to Christ today, may we be patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”.

Prayer: God of love and mercy, remind me again and again how patient you are with me. Turn that reminder into a drive to see all enter into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. As you love me, may I love others. Amen.


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His Ways

Reading: Isaiah 64: 1-5a

Verse 5a: “You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways”.

Our passage comes from the third section in the book of Isaiah. In the first section the people struggle to remain faithful even though God remains faithful. The prophet calls the people back to God over and over. In the second section the wandering grows, as do the consequences of their sins. The Babylonians defeat Israel and many are carried into exile. Here the prophet speaks of hope and of a return home. In the third section, the trip home begins. It is a slow trickle of people. They find new inhabitants in and around Jerusalem. These folks are not friendly to the return and rebuilding of Jerusalem. Today’s passage offers words of encouragement to those trying to rebuild amidst opposition and hardship. The words asking for God’s intervention are longings for God to make things right once again.

In the opening verse the prophet writes, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down”. The prophet looks to the days of old when God’s presence was visible in the pillars of cloud and fire and in the mighty acts of God. The powerful image of God protected the people and it reminded them (and their enemies) of God’s presence with Israel. Isaiah also recalls the “awesome things” that they did not expect – the parting of the sea, the food and water in the wilderness, the walls tumbling down, the defeat of the mighty Assyrians… Isaiah is recalling the God “who acted on behalf of those who waited for him”. This is the God they now await. This is the God they long for, hope for. These words are calling the people to remain faithful, to trust in God and his ways.

In our last verse for today, Isaiah speaks these words: “You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways”. Isaiah knows that the relationship has two sides. The people must remain faithful. The Israelites must keep their eyes on God and their faith in God. In his steadfast love, God will come. God will act. Like us in this time of unease and difficulty, waiting can be hard. Yet, like Israel, we must remain faithful, trusting in the Lord our God. May we ever remember his ways as we seek to walk faithfully day by day.

Prayer: Lord God, just as the Israelites’ strength waned at times, so too is our strength being tested right now. In these difficult times, remind us of your steadfast love; help us to walk in your ways. Guide us, great Jehovah. Amen.


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Serve with All Faithfulness

Reading: Joshua 24: 1-3 and 14-25

Verse 14: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped”.

As we enter the story at the end of the book of Joshua, the Israelites have entered and taken full possession of the Promised Land. God has led them to victory after victory under Joshua and now there is peace in the land. In chapter 23 Joshua says goodbye to the leaders of Israel. As a final act, in today’s and tomorrow’s readings, Joshua calls the people together to renew their covenant with the Lord our God.

Faithfulness to God has always been a challenge. In the wilderness, the Israelites whined and grumbled, they questioned Moses and God, they even fashioned and worshiped an idol. On the brink of entering the Promised Land, they doubted and feared that what lay ahead was too big even for God. Now that peace reigns, will the people lose focus on the God who has led them so far? Yes! We do too. I pray really well when in the midst of a struggle or time of suffering. I am dialed in. But when life is good, when all is well in my world, the bright and shiny of the world begins to look better. Joshua knows the people’s history and perhaps he knows about our tendency to drift. So his final action as the leader of God’s people is to gather them all together to tell them: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped”. This is Joshua’s version of “love the Lord our God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”. Focus on God, throw away all those idols you have stashed at the bottom of the moving box… Idols are always there, however. The peoples living around the Israelites will always have idols to worship. Marriages and other interactions will bring these idols before their eyes and hearts over and over. The temptation will always be present. And so it is with us. The world and the people living around us promote and worship all sorts of idols – money, possessions, popularity, titles… Our modern culture ever calls us towards more, better, bigger, newer… We too need to hear the call to “fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness”. As we hear this call again today, may we, like Joshua, choose to declare: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”. May the Lord our God bless each of us today as seek to live out this statement of faith.

Prayer: Lord God, this is a lovely statement, a lofty goal. Make it more than sentiment, more than an ideal. This day – this very day – may I serve you only. Tomorrow will be another day. I’ll have to ask again tomorrow. Today, Lord, today may I serve you only. Amen.


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The Image of…

Reading: Matthew 22: 19-21

Verse 21: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”.

Today’s short passage reminds me of the saying, ‘In the world but not of the world’. As Christians we know that this place is not our home. Yet we also clearly see in Jesus’ example and teaching that our task as disciples is to engage the world – especially the spaces and places where God’s love can bring healing and wholeness and community. Jesus sought to bring people into the circle of God’s love. As he departed this world he gave us instructions to do the same as we seek to make disciples of all people.

In the first half of today’s key verse, Jesus calls us to respect our earthly authorities. It does not matter if they are oppressive and insure that peace is kept via the threat of violence. It does not matter that they worship different gods. It doesn’t even matter that it will be Romans who whip him and drive nails through his hands and feet. The Romans are in authority. God has allowed them that role for a season. Therefore, “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. This same concept applies today. None of us totally agrees with our bosses or teachers or leaders, but we are called upon to respect them, to pray for them, to honor them – whether or not they totally align with our values and beliefs.

Hard as this may be at times, the second half of this verse is even more challenging to truly live out. [“Give unto] God what is God’s”. Well, it all belongs to God. Without God we would not draw breath or inhabit these bodies. Without God we would not know true peace, joy, hope, love, comfort, contentment, grace, mercy… All that we have and all that we are belongs to God. This is what Jesus Christ is calling us to give – our all. Yes, this is a struggle. I fail every day in many ways. Sometimes it is withholding something small that I hope God doesn’t notice, sometimes my rebellion is more out in the open. What then? What then? The Holy Spirit intercedes. Sometimes quietly, sometimes with more conviction than I think I can bear at the time. The Holy Spirit reminds me of who I am and of whose I am. Yes, I am created in the image of God, just as you are. But the mirror works both ways. God sees in us the image of his son. God sees in us one of his children. In endless love, God calls us back into right relationship, back into our place in the family. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, it is good to be reminded that I am a beloved child of yours. It is a blessing to be a part of your family, where love reigns over all, covers over all, sustains all. Help me to reflect and share that love each day as I seek to make you known. Amen.


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Hear, Listen, (Follow)

Reading: Psalm 78:1

Verse 1: “O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth”.

Just one simple verse today. It is God’s plea for our attention and focus. It is spoken to you and to me: “O my people”. To adhere to this plea anchors our life in something more important than anything else: our relationship with God. This, in turn, anchors all of our other relationships, leading us to walk each of our days in truth and love.

“O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth”. It is such a simple plea. Hear and listen – take in and understand the words of life, make them your guiding light. I’ve often thought that I could do better if I lived in a monastery. But even there, isolated from the world, there’d be the longing to be the next head monk. The thoughts that I was the most pious or hardest working would creep in. At times I’d long for the things of the world. Even in an isolated place I would be driven to gain the approval of others. Most all of us would struggle with these things.

No matter where we lay our heads down and no matter where we spend our working hours, we must all strive to be “in the world but not of it”. Defining what is most important in our lives and then living by it is a challenge to us all. Tuning out the other voices, the distractions, the shiny and the enticing – for all of us this is a constant battle. God longs for us to stop each day, to be still, to hear his voice, his word. When we do stop and hear, we are better able to listen and then to follow. May it be so. Amen.

Prayer: O great teacher, life is found in you and in your words. In your son’s example we see what it looks like to really hear and listen and live the words out. May I understand and follow the words of life each day. Amen.


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Undeserved? YES!

Reading: Matthew 20: 1-16

Verse 1: “The kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard”.

Today’s parable in Matthew is the second in a row where Jesus teaches about God’s upside-down kingdom. If we were the workers who were hired early in the morning, we too would be upset when we received the same pay as those who worked only one hour. Like these workers, it would not matter a whole lot to us that we agreed to our pay before we even started working or that it was a fair days wage. Similarly, those who worked nine hours would be pretty upset, those who worked six hours would be kind of upset… On the surface level we struggle with this story just as we can sometimes struggle with the story of the thief on the cross found in Luke 23.

Jesus’ actual behavior also reflects this upside-down feel. He did not spend most of his time in the temple. He did not recruit his followers from elite rabbi schools. Jesus himself was not even trained as a professional rabbi. The religious leaders were much like the full day workers in our parable. They cringed and recoiled when Jesus forgave the sins of adulterous women and greedy tax collectors and the lame and deaf and mute – those obviously carrying the lifelong burden of some unrepentant sin. Like the thief on the cross and the workers who only came at the last hour, people like these do not deserve such easy grace, such free flowing forgiveness.

Do we sometimes cringe and recoil at who God continues to invite into the kingdom of God? Do we ever walk into church on a Sunday morning and wonder, Who let them in? If so, we need to check the inner religious snob hiding inside of us too.

I do not know about you, but I am glad that God is the God of late in life professions of faith and death bed confessions of Jesus as Lord. That expression of generous and unconditional grace is the same exact grace that forgives my struggle with pride for the zillionth time. Yes, yes, we rejoice at that grace. Whether one comes at the first hour or at the last hour, may all hear about and come to experience that same extravagant and wonderful grace.

Prayer: Loving and generous God, it is so wonderful to live within your abundant and generous grace. Even though I may not deserve to experience it over and over, you continue to pour it over me time and time again. Thank you for your love of a sinner like me. Amen.


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God’s Way

Reading: Exodus 1: 8-22

Verse 17: “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do”.

As followers of the most high God, we must place the reign of God above or ahead of the reign of man. At times there may be a cost for this choice. We may lose a friend or a job. It may even cost us a bit more – a family member or significant other. In our lives, though, the cost does not usually rise to the cost faced by Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives.

As the years have passed since the arrival of Joseph’s family, the Hebrews grew in great numbers. Their large population was seen as a threat by the new Pharaoh, so he enslaved them. In spite of harsh treatment and hard labor the number of Hebrews continued to grow. God was blessing his people. In another attempt to slow population growth, Pharaoh ordered Shiphrah and Puah to kill all the male babies born to Hebrew women. In verse seventeen we read, “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do”. They could not kill the boy babies – they were God’s children. When summoned before Pharaoh to explain, God provides the words that guide them away from death. Shiphrah and Puah are also blessed for their faithfulness with their own families.

Early on in life I was faced with a dilemma. The person I worked with wanted to make a little extra money on the side on many jobs. It was dishonest to the customers and was displeasing to God. After a short time I objected to this practice. I enjoyed the job and we were making good money. This person was a good friend. It was a risk to say something. God led my choice of words and I believe he worked in my friend’s heart. We began to run an ethical business. God blessed it for many years.

For many people, it is a daily struggle to choose the ways of God over the ways of the world. For some, the struggle is less often. Maturity of faith has a lot to do with where we fall along this spectrum. For all, though, there is only one right way. It is God’s way. Shiphrah and Puah made the right choice. May we do so as well.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to discern when I am being pulled in a way that is less than your way. Fill me with Holy Spirit wisdom and guidance and courage to always choose your will and way over all else. Amen.


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Loving the Outsiders

Reading: Matthew 15: 21-28

Verse 22: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me”.

Today’s passage is one with layers. A simpler version would tell of a woman who came to Jesus and received healing for her daughter. That is the basic story. But our story is layered with cultural prejudice and years of dislike and distrust. The story contains relatively few words between Jesus and the woman and the disciples. It does not get unpacked later in a private moment with the twelve.

By identifying her as a Canaanite woman Matthew is pointing out a barrier. In his world, you were either a Jew or you were not. If you were, you were in. If you were not you were an outsider, a heathen, unclean. Yet she identifies Jesus as “Lord” and as the “Son of David” – she recognizes him as the Messiah, as the Savior of the world. She begs for healing for her daughter. She at least knows that Jesus is a healer. Jesus does not answer her. She persists. What do we make of his silence? Maybe Jesus is testing her sincerity, her level of commitment, her faith. Perhaps he is struggling within with the cultural biases that he grew up with. Or maybe the time is allowed for the disciples’ benefit. The disciples buckle first, asking Jesus to “send her away”. Instead he replies, engaging her while putting her off. Jesus tells her that he came to the Jews only. He is reminding her that she is an outsider. Or… is he reminding the disciples? Or himself? Or us? She begs again.

Jesus adds insult to his next “no”, calling her a “dog”. This is cultural slang for all those below or outside of the pure Jewish religion. It is a degrading and demeaning term. This is not the Jesus we know and love, is it? So we must ask “why?” Is the human inside struggling? Is it to force the disciples to reconsider their own prejudices? They will soon enough be going out into the world of the Gentiles with the good news. Or is it to add emphasis to the healing of the other?

The Canaanite woman sticks to it, noting that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. She again identifies Jesus as the One, as the Lord of all, as the master. She does not want to take Jesus from the ones he is sent to, she just wants a little of him too. Her great faith is applauded by Jesus and the daughter is healed.

This is a powerful and complex story of how Jesus loves even the outsider. How will our love reflect his love today?

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for this story that challenges and forces my love and welcome a bit wider. Continue to work in me and in my heart, removing all that hinders and limits how I love others. Amen.


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Forgiven and Forgiving

Reading: Genesis 45: 1-15

Verse 5: “Do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you”.

Today’s passage centers on forgiveness. In the Christian faith we understand that forgiveness is a two-way street. Each Sunday most of us pray these words: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. If we want to partake of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness, we need to extend these same things to one another. For me, and perhaps for you, at times I struggle with each side of this equation.

It can be hard to admit we are wrong. It can be hard with both God and with others. There are times when it is difficult to admit I am wrong or have done harm. It can be easy to justify myself or to be self-righteous. Wanting to seek revenge or to get even can be tempting. But the way of love calls us to more. Jesus calls us to humility and honesty and transparency, to vulnerability and weakness, to confession and repentance. To enter and walk the path of Jesus, one must first practice forgiveness when we have sinned or caused harm. This was the first step for both Joseph and his brothers. For Joseph, it was to reckon with his younger self – the bratty, spoiled, arrogant Joseph – and the role that played. For the brothers it was to accept responsibility for what they did. Yes, God was at work behind the scenes, but they still harmed Joseph.

Sometimes it is difficult to extend forgiveness. At times it would seem easier just to keep that person on the outside, to keep them in a place where they cannot have a chance to be hurtful or harmful. (And, yes, there are times when it is necessary to end a relationship – in an abusive situation, for example.) As Jesus told Peter, we are not to forgive seven times, but seventy times seven! Just as we are each a work in progress before God, so too are all of God’s children. God has no limits or a quota on forgiving us. May we be the same, forgiving just as we are forgiven.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to ever be a person of grace. Help me to see and believe the best in everyone. Lead me to give my best and to recognize when I have given less, especially when I need to ask for or extend grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Guide me, O God. Amen.