pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Big Plans

Reading: Isaiah 49: 1-7

Verse 6: “I will make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”.

Isaiah 49 begins with Isaiah’s call. Before he was born God called him. Prophet is his destiny. Isaiah was God’s voice – “a sharpened sword”. He was God’s servant, “in whom I will display my splendor”. He was filled with confidence and felt God with him. And then he experienced what Moses and other prophets experienced – the people were stubborn and willful. Beginning in verse four, we can see that Isaiah hit the proverbial “wall”. He sees no purpose, he feels like he has spent his strength in vain, “for nothing”. God did not leave Isaiah here. We too can feel spent and like we’ve been treading water, getting nowhere. Like Isaiah, we focus back inward, we begin our own pity party.

God does not leave his servant Isaiah here. He will not leave us there either. God’s plans are always greater. His plans so often exceed our vision or dreams. In verse six God says, “It’s too small a thing” to simply have Isaiah help restore Jacob and Israel. No, no. Continuing, God proclaims, “I will make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”. Yes, the prophet Isaiah will help lead Israel home, out of exile. But he and his words will also be a part of the salvation of the whole world. God’s plans go far beyond Isaiah and Israel. Ultimately, God’s love and saving grace will extend to the whole world.

Where are you feeling stuck? In what situation do you feel like you’re not having an impact? Our faith is often like Isaiah’s. We question, we doubt, we feel ineffective or adrift. And like with Isaiah, God will use us as a light to the lost and as part of bringing salvation to the broken and hurting. God is faithful. God has big plans for you and for me. We were born to be a child of God. May we step out in faith and trust, knowing that God leads the way.

Prayer: Lord God, when I question, fill me with your Holy Spirit. When I doubt, fill me with your Holy Spirit. When I fear, fill me with your Holy Spirit. When I feel less than, fill me with your Holy Spirit. When I am tired and worn, fill me with your Holy Spirit. Fill me, O God, use me for your glory. Amen.


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Our Shepherd

Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-11

Verse 11: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his chest”.

Chapter 40 falls in the second section of the book of Isaiah. The end of the exile and the return to the Promised Land is on the horizon. In our passage today, God gives a word to Isaiah. The prophet casts a vision of what will be. These words speak of their current time, of our present time, and of a time yet to come. For Israel, they would hear “Comfort, comfort my people” as a word of hope for their near future. They would hear that the penalty for their sin has been paid, looking forward to the future with a renewed hope. Right now, in the corporate sense at a very minimum, we feel like we are living in exile. We long for true words concerning an end to the pandemic.

In the middle section of our passage, Isaiah first speaks words of hope, prophesying a day when “the glory of the Lord will be revealed”. Next, in verses six through eight, there is a reality check. There will be years between when the glory is revealed and the present time for Isaiah’s audience. Generations of mankind, which is like grass, will perish. Here the prophet is acknowledging that God’s time is not our time. They await the Messiah; we await the second coming of the Lord. Lastly for today, Isaiah speaks of the Lord who “will come in power”. He calls for a voice to bring “good tidings”, for a voice to speak words that “make straight paths for the Lord”. About 800 years after Isaiah’s time and about 2,000 years before our time John the Baptist will be that voice in the wilderness, preparing the way.

John will be the fulfillment of these words from the prophet Isaiah. He would herald the coming of the Lord, the one Isaiah writes about in verse eleven. Here he writes, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his chest”. Jesus himself will claim the role of the Good Shepherd. He will lead and guide the flock from the beginning to the end of this age. In this way Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s proclamation that “the word of our God stands forever”. Jesus was and is and is to come. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord of Lords, King of Kings, ruler of all creation, thank you for counting me as one of your flock. Thank you for carrying me close to your heart. In this season, I ask you to level out this rugged ground, to make this rugged place we all find ourselves into a plain – a time of peace and joy and hope and love. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.


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The Power of Touch

Reading: Deuteronomy 34: 1-12

Verse 9: “Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the Spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him”.

At a Promise Keepers event many years ago I ended up in a prayer room. I must admit that my attitude was not good as I entered that room. After a brief conversation the prayer team surrounded me, laid hands upon me, and prayer over me. We were connected by touch. After we finished praying I began to leave. A young woman stopped me and asked if she could share something with me. She shared that God gave her a vision of me while we were connected in the circle. God had joined our circle, touching her heart. In turn, what she shared with me left me shaken in the moment but then very much helped to shape my ministry. Touch is a powerful way to connect to one another and to God.

In our passage today there is a change of leadership. In verse nine we read, “Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the Spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him”. Moses knew his journey was over. He did not sulk off or pout. His ministry and mission were now complete. He taught and molded the people’s faith as he led them to the edge of the Promised Land. Another would now lead. So Moses lays hands on young Joshua, prayer a blessing over him, and passes the mantle of leadership to the one who will lead the Israelites forward. Joshua becomes filled with the Holy Spirit, the key to being a wise and good leader.

The practice of laying on of hands and praying and blessing with the Spirit is a long tradition in the church. Early in life we lay hands on an infant or child, anoint them with or place them in the waters of baptism, and invite the Holy Spirit into their lives. At other stages – first communion, 3rd grade Bibles, confirmation, marriage, ordination, mission trips… – we lay hands upon the person or persons and pray God’s blessings over them. In many of our churches we will gather around someone or a family and lay hands upon them as we pray for healing or a safe move or…

Jesus promised, “Where two or more gather in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). Whether simply holding hands as we pray or as we lay on hands as we surround one with the tangible touch of God’s love and care, may the powerful presence of the Lord be on you and may it work through you as you minister in his name.

Prayer: Lord God, it is powerful to connect to one another as we pray. In those times in the circle, whether at the center or around the center, your power has been made known so many times. Please continue to join us as we gather in your name. Amen.


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Struggle with God

Reading: Genesis 32: 22-31

Verse 28: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome”.

For most of his adult life Jacob has been a schemer and a taker. As a young man his mother taught him how to steal Isaac’s blessing through the use of deception and dishonesty. During his time in exile he learned some hard lessons from his father-in-law Laban and then learned to out-scheme and take much more than he gave. When this caused his relationship with Laban to grow very tense, Jacob did what schemers do – he fled the scene of the crime. Now Jacob is not all bad. There is some good in him. He knows who God is too. On his initial flight from Esau and the land of Canaan, God showed him a vision at Bethel, where God promised to watch over Jacob and to bring him back to possess the land promised to Abraham and Isaac.

As Jacob is alone on the far side of the stream all that is his is on the other side. The stream is a symbolic line as well as a geographical line. Jacob means “grabber” or “schemer”. He has certainly lived into his name. Yet at a point all wheeler-dealer, schemer types want to step off the carousel. The wondering about who will catch up with you, the fear of finally being out- hustled, the unease at living a shady life – they weigh upon the heart and soul and mind. Alone, Jacob is ready for some soul-searching. Just as God had done twenty years ago when Jacob was in need of divine intervention, this night God comes and engages Jacob. The wrestling is real but also symbolic – man versus God, unethical versus ethical, taker versus giver.

Jacob is where we are at when we have been living for self and the things of this world. A part of us knows we are in a place we should not be. That part of us knows we should stop sinning and return to our walk with God. But there is still a struggle. That lifestyle, the sin, it is enticing and powerful. For Jacob, the battle goes on all night. Even after having his hip wrenched, Jacob will not let go of God this time without a blessing, a reassurance of his future. He has come to the point of surrender. Jacob is told, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome”. No longer “schemer” and “grabber”, he is now “he struggles with God”. Leaving his old ways behind Jacob will now focus on the things of God and not of man. The new walk will not be easy. The limp will be a constant reminder of the “cost” of following. It is the “narrow way” that Jesus spoke of.

It is a new beginning for Israel, just as it was the day we said yes to Jesus. That next morning Israel walked forward, ready to overcome whatever lay ahead, assured of God’s abiding presence. This too is our story. May we too walk forward in faith, assured of God’s loving presence in our lives.

Prayer: Loving God, each time that I have wrestled with you, in the end you always prevail. It is because of your great love. In that love you allow me to stumble and sometimes even to fall. But your love is always greater than my sin and is better than all the world has to offer. So you draw me back in. Thank you for your love. Amen.


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Search Me, Know Me

Reading: Psalm 139: 11-12 and 23-24

Verses 23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart… and lead me in the way everlasting”.

As we wrap up Psalm 139 today we begin with a reminder that we cannot hide from God. In the opening ten verses we were reminded that God is everywhere and is at all times present. Today the psalmist reminds us that not even darkness can hide us. To God, the night shines like the day. God’s vision is 20/20 all the time.

It is in the dark that we get astray from God’s word and God’s ways. In our human minds we think that we can find cover in the dark and there can pretend that God does not know or see that we are sinning. We are only fooling ourselves when we think and act this way. With God, “darkness is as light to you”. Nothing is hidden from God.

In verses 23 and 24 the psalmist writes, “Search me, O God, and know my heart… and lead me in the way everlasting”. This is really personal. To invite someone to search your heart and mind, to test and know your innermost thoughts, fears, sins… To extend this invitation is to acknowledge our desire for deeper relationship, for greeter honesty. It is a necessary step if this is what we want with God. It is necessary for us, not for God – God already knows us completely. But when we take the actual step to invite God into ourselves in this way, we are admitting our need to be closer to God. It draws us into introspection and reflection, to confession and repentance, to a more devout life. This first step is what moves us closer to the “way everlasting”. To go deeper on our journey, may we all invite God to search and know us, to guide and lead us. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, it’s a bit scary to invite you in, to be that honest with myself. To invite you in like this is to open myself more to your will and your way, to your direction in my life. In this act of dying to self, draw me deeper into love with you. Amen.


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Search Me, Know Me

Reading: Psalm 139: 11-12 and 23-24

Verses 23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart… and lead me in the way everlasting”.

As we wrap up Psalm 139 today we begin with a reminder that we cannot hide from God. In the opening ten verses we were reminded that God is everywhere and is at all times present. Today the psalmist reminds us that not even darkness can hide us. To God, the night shines like the day. God’s vision is 20/20 all the time.

It is in the dark that we get astray from God’s word and God’s ways. In our human minds we think that we can find cover in the dark and there can pretend that God does not know or see that we are sinning. We are only fooling ourselves when we think and act this way. With God, “darkness is as light to you”. Nothing is hidden from God.

In verses 23 and 24 the psalmist writes, “Search me, O God, and know my heart… and lead me in the way everlasting”. This is really personal. To invite someone to search your heart and mind, to test and know your innermost thoughts, fears, sins… To extend this invitation is to acknowledge our desire for deeper relationship, for greeter honesty. It is a necessary step if this is what we want with God. It is necessary for us, not for God – God already knows us completely. But when we take the actual step to invite God into ourselves in this way, we are admitting our need to be closer to God. It draws us into introspection and reflection, to confession and repentance, to a more devout life. This first step is what moves us closer to the “way everlasting”. To go deeper on our journey, may we all invite God to search and know us, to guide and lead us. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, it’s a bit scary to invite you in, to be that honest with myself. To invite you in like this is to open myself more to your will and your way, to your direction in my life. In this act of dying to self, draw me deeper into love with you. Amen.


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God Speaks

Reading: Genesis 28: 10-19a

Verse 17: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God”.

As today’s passage opens we find Jacob leaving home, headed for Haran, the home of his mother’s family. Jacob is fleeing in fear because he stole the birthright from his twin brother Esau. By returning to the ancestral lands, he will first be safe and, second, Isaac and Rebekah hope he will find a wife from among the relatives. They hope that God will provide a good wife, just as he had done for Isaac.

At the end of his first day’s journey, Jacob finds a stone for a pillow and lays down for the night. In his sleep, God brings Jacob a vision and a message. The vision is a stairway or ladder from heaven to earth. The angels are coming and going. God stands at the top. From there he gives Jacob a message. God first reiterates the promise made to Abraham and Isaac. This land will be covered by many of your descendents and they will be a blessing to the earth. God then gets personal, saying to Jacob, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go”. With confidence and with assurance of God’s presence in his life and in his future, Jacob will travel on. But first he responds by saying, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God”. In the morning Jacob builds a small pillar to remember and commemorate this place.

In the middle of nowhere, in a very ordinary place, God became present to Jacob. It is not with big fanfare; God is just suddenly and simply there. It could have been on day two or six of the journey. But it was at the beginning because that is when Jacob needed it most. God also appears along our journey. Sometimes it is in a way that is similar to Jacob’s experience. Through a thought or insight or maybe through the words of scripture or of a friend, God speaks into our lives. Often it is an after-the-fact realization. Looking back or reflecting on an experience, we can see God’s fingerprints. It is because we have the same promise as Jacob’s. Jesus said and says to all of his disciples, “I will never leave you or forsake you”. He will be with us forever. So we too can journey on today, knowing that Jesus goes with us. Thanks be to God. May it be so.

Prayer: Leading God, it is so awesome that you came to Jacob at just the right time. I am grateful that you do the same for me. Sometimes it isn’t in my time but in yours – which is always best. Continue to walk with me day by day. Amen.


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Praying Today

Reading: Acts 2: 12-15

Verse 12: “Amazed and perplexed they asked on another, ‘What does this mean”’?

The Jews from all over the world were drawn to the place where the Holy Spirit manifested itself and they heard these Galileans speaking God’s wonders in many languages. Many were amazed and perplexed. These asked, “What does this mean”? What was God saying to them? Yet there were others in the crowd. Jesus would describe these as those without ears to hear. They did not want to recognize the fact that God was at work and they wanted to dismiss the whole thing, accusing the believers of being drunk.

There have been several nights of violence and protest in the city of Minneapolis. Much of it represents the outpouring of emotions long felt in the African American community. The trigger was the murder of an innocent man. A vast, vast, vast percentage of the police force in Minneapolis would absolutely condemn the actions of the officer responsible for the death. We hope that it would be all, but we know that this is not the reality. Racism exists. Some would say it is better than it used to be. Perhaps it is less frequent and it probably infects less people today, but it will only be better when racism is gone.

A few summers ago a few fellow students and I were walking to the frozen custard place. Suddenly a police car driving by us turned on its lights and siren and drove part way up onto the sidewalk. The two officers leapt from the car in hot pursuit. Almost all of us became instant lookie-loos. We wanted to see what the officers were up to. In a class at the seminary we had been discussing racism in America. As we sat and enjoyed our custard like nothing had just happened, one in our group said, ‘You guys just don’t get it’. He went on to share that while our first reaction was to be curious onlookers, his first reaction was to run. He had done nothing wrong and knew it full well. Yet his brain said to run. He did well in school all his life and had never had a run-in with the police. Yet his first instinct was to run. His Latino upbringing had instilled that response in him. I finally felt how deeply ingrained racism was in our society.

This morning in Minneapolis, ad it has been the last two days, there are volunteers cleaning up the mess. They are black and white, brown and all shades of humanity’s beauty. They too ask, ‘What does this mean’? and they know that there must be change in our society. They are investing in one another and in their city. They are teaching their children well. They see visions and dream dreams about a better community – one without racism and hatred. May we join their actions today by praying for healing in our nation and for an end to these evils.

Prayer: Lord of all, I pray today for the healing of my nation and of my community. May the voices of love and empowerment and equality rise up and speak long after the grief and outrage have faded away. Continue the conversation and the learning that we are all created in your image until all forms of racism and oppression are no more. God, bless and heal our nation. Amen.


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God Alone Knows

Reading: Ezekiel 37: 1-3

Verse 3: “Son of man, can these bones live”? … “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know”.

Today’s reading centers on a vision that God gave to Ezekiel the prophet about 2,600 years ago. Reading these words in our current context gives us ears to hear these words in a new way. The devotional book that I physically read each morning is based upon the weekly lectionary readings and was available for order in late September 2019. Yet as I read the author’s words this morning, it feels as if they were written for this very day. Together, these are just one more evidence that God’s word is active and alive.

Ezekiel is led out into a valley of bones that are very dry. The bones have been strewn across the valley floor for quite a while. Ezekiel describes the quantity as a “great many bones”. A great devastation had occurred. On December 31, 2019, an unknown “pneumonia” was first reported to the World Health Organization in China. Not even three months in and it feels like a long time, doesn’t it? In this season of isolation and safe distancing, some are beginning to feel a bit dry.

Ezekiel walks among the bones for some time. “Back and forth” is the way my Bible describes it. After Ezekiel had surely absorbed the vast loss that had occurred, God asks him this question: “Son of man, can these bones live”? My initial response would have been doubt or maybe to consider the sanity of the question. But Ezekiel is aware that he is in the midst of this valley for a God purpose. He replies in faith, saying, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know”. It is an honest and sincere answer.

In this season that we find ourselves in presently, we too, as people of faith, must approach all the uncertainties, fears, worries… with this same attitude. God alone knows where all this is heading. Even though I do not have the slightest clue, I do know that God has all the answers. This is his world, God has a plan. All things eternal are under his control. In faith may we each step forward, loving one another as we best can, trusting God to bring forth something good.

Prayer: Lord God, in these days, help me to trust fully in you. May I discern what I can do to be help and love to others. Lead me to shine your light into all the places I can. Amen.


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Build the Kingdom

Reading: Isaiah 11: 6-10

Verse 10: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for all the people; the nations will rally to him”.

Isaiah writes of a kingdom that seems hard to wrap our minds around. This vision of endless peace is difficult to contemplate in our day and age. Verses six through eight are filled with images that are very unlike the relationships that exist today. Wolves do not live with lambs; cows do not feed alongside bears. We shudder at the image of a child putting its hand into the den of poisonous snakes. What if this vision of harmony and peace were a metaphor for what God’s kingdom could look like today? What would this kind of world look like today?

We do catch a glimpse of it now and then. When the families of the children slain at school went and offered forgiveness and mercy to the shooter and his family, we saw a glimpse. When the concentration camp survivor hugged and offered grace to the camp guard, we caught a glimpse. It remains fully possible for the power of God to break in even in this day and age. That is part of what Advent is all about. As we live into and practice peace, hope, love, and joy we are drawn closer to the vision laid out in Isaiah 11. In verse ten we read, “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for all the people; the nations will rally to him”. Right now we await this day. The kingdom described here has not yet been fulfilled. We live in the “not yet”. It is a time of building, a time of drawing nearer to its culmination.

The question for us is this: what role will we play? Will we be but observers? Or will we have an active role in the building of the kingdom? If we are to be builders we must actively engage those we see as wolves and lions and bears and vipers. If we want to build the kingdom of peace, hope, love, and joy, we must be examples of these things in the darkness of the world. What barriers must we cross? What risks must we take? Are we willing to step bravely forth with God’s peace, hope, love, and joy? May it be so.

Prayer: Lord, reveal to me the darkness into which you are calling me to bring light. Encourage me and fill me with your Spirit to go where you want to send me. May I be your peace, hope, love, and joy today. Amen.