pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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…For You Are with Me

Reading: Psalm 23

Verse 4: “I will fear no evil, for you are with me”.

Almost all people with a little church background would recognize verse four. Even those without church experience would recognize this verse as a statement of faith. Psalm 23 is one of the most recognizable and beloved Psalms. Verse four would not be most folk’s choice for ‘favorite verse of Psalm 23’. As a whole, the Psalm offers or reminds us of God’s provision and guidance, of his presence and blessings, and of the goodness we experience when we walk with the Lord. And there in the middle we find verse four.

This verse is there because it is part of life. The valley of shadow is one we all walk through. It is certainly one that the Israelites and David himself knew well. The Israelites time in slavery and the trials of wandering the desert for 40 years were valleys. The invasions and occupations by many different world powers and the exile to Babylon were valleys. David had his too – hunted down by Saul, watching God allow his son to die… We also have our valleys. We’ve felt exile and we’ve been overwhelmed. We’ve felt the sting of death and we’ve been left all alone. This is why verse four rings so true. Not that we have not experienced blessings and provision, guidance and protection. We have. Over and over. But those moments when Jesus drew near and walked the valley floor right there beside us – those are the moments. We can join David in saying, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me”. Yes, goodness and love will follow us all the days of our lives. Yes, we will dwell with God forever. But the Lord is also with me when I need him most. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, you have walked with me for many years. Often our footprints are side by side. Sometimes, though, there has been a gap between our paths. But you always pulled me back, close once again. Always. And sometimes, sometimes the footprints seem to be almost one. In the deepest valleys you have been so close. Thank you Lord. Amen.


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A Bit More

Reading: Isaiah 9: 3-4

Verse 4a: “You have shattered the yoke that burdens them”.

The opening section of Isaiah 9 is titled “Into Us a Child Is Born” and it references the birth of the “wonderful counselor… the prince of peace”. Isaiah begins earlier in the chapter stating “a light has dawned” as he explains how the people walking in darkness see the light. In his time, Isaiah is writing to a people living in exile. The coming of the light will occur in about 700 years and the exile will last about 200 years – until at last the people return to the promised land. Isaiah calls the people to look forward to the time when God will restore them. In doing so, Isaiah casts a vision of hope.

In our time, when we see people struggling, some living in darkness, we can also help bring light, casting a vision for hope. Maybe all we can do is provide for a basic need like fuel for the heater or food for the stomach. Maybe all we can do is to contribute to the offering for toiletries for the elderly or to donate to the coat drive at school. Maybe all we can do is to walk alongside a friend as they seek to walk the steps of a recovery program. Maybe all we can do is to be present and to sit with someone in the pain of grief and loss.

In our passage today, in verse four, Isaiah writes about how God “shattered the yoke that burdens them”. This will happen for Isaiah’s audience as God leads the people out from under the oppression of exile and back into the land that God intended them to live in. This act brought freedom to the Israelites. Many years later, Jesus modeled how to bring freedom to broken and hurting souls. Some if it did begin by meeting basic needs – like when he fed the large crowds. Some if it began by hearing their brokenness and then doing something about it, helping them find hope – like with the woman caught in adultery. In love, Jesus brought light to many people’s darkness.

When we offer assistance, when we help out, when we encourage and support, when we walk with another, when we bring comfort, we too are bringing light into darkness, we too are removing the yoke that burdens. It may only be temporary in many cases. Perhaps tomorrow or yet another day we can lift it a bit more and then a bit more, opening the door one day for Jesus to come into their hearts. May it ever be so.

Prayer: Father God, even in our small community there is much need. There are many who feel a yoke across their backs. Guide me today to help lift those burdens where I can. Give me eyes to see and hands to act and words to bring light and hope. Thank you, God. 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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Our Only Hope

Reading: Isaiah 60: 1-7

Verse 1: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you”.

Isaiah writes to a people who have been defeated and the best have been led off into exile. They have seen their holy city destroyed and now they live in a foreign land. The people of Israel must feel like the darkness has closed in around them and they can see no light. Even God must feel distant – how else would they be where they are?

This is their frame of mind as Isaiah speaks these words: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you”. In one way, this would be like telling a 94 year old man who just lost his wife of seventy years, “Look up, you’ll find love again”. From their perspective, it does not sound possible. In the midst of such loss and the grief that accompanies it, finding hope in the darkness can be very difficult. So why would Isaiah try and bring hope?

Isaiah brings hope for the same reason you and I bring hope. For people ravaged and displaced by war, for folks unexpectedly visited by death, for families suddenly uprooted because of an unforeseen event, for the person who experiences loss of a job or something similar – for all of these and more – speaking a word of hope is where our faith response must begin. Immediate needs must often be met first, but in terms of faith, in those darkest of places, all else hinges upon hope.

Isaiah’s words remind the people that God is still with them. The promise is that light will again rise over the people. He encourages them to lift up their eyes and to look about. There are signs of God even in the dark. Isaiah calls them to envision the day when all return to Israel, to imagine the day when all peoples of the earth will come from afar. This is not some “what if” story. God will one day call all people to kneel before the throne. For the faithful, all things will be made new. We too cling to this promise. Whether we enter our rest individually or as part of the final renewal of all things, we hold fast to the promise of eternal life. This is our hope. It is the hope we have to share with those living in darkness. May our light shine!

Prayer: God of light, there is plenty of darkness all around. Many walk in this life without you and without hope. Help me to speak words of hope, bringing a glimpse of light into the darkness. Guide this light to lead others to the only hope in this life: you. Each day, use me as you will. Amen.


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Community

Reading: Jeremiah 31: 7-14

Verse 10: “He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd”.

In a small, small way I can relate to the people that Jeremiah writes to. For two days the blizzard kept most folks at home. I was able to trudge across the street to the church, so I guess I can relate in a small, small, small way! The people in Babylon have been there seventy years. They have built homes, raised families, started businesses. But it is not home. They do not have any power. They long to once again dwell in the Promised Land as God’s children.

Jeremiah offers words of hope and promise. God speaks to the people through his prophet, saying, “He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd”. The end is near. Their weeping will end and they will pray their way home. God will make their paths level – the lame, blind, and pregnant women will travel easily. The children of God will return to a land abundant with grain, grapes, olives, and with lots of livestock. The Israelites’ mourning will turn to gladness; their sorrow will become joy. It all sounds quite good.

For those that return, it will be good. But two generations have died in the time of exile. The oral traditions and the stories of what Jerusalem, the temple, and the Promised Land are all that this new generation will return with. How much will it feel like home?

They will come to understand that home is not just a physical location. Two things will make it feel like home: God and community. God’s presence will return as the temple is rebuilt. The land and all within it will be blessed. They will once again become the family of God, living together, ruling over themselves… Because of these two things, it will feel like home.

The past two days at church were quiet. No one else was around. Today life will return to the church. Once again we will be in community. The time apart helps me realize how much I appreciate my little community at the church. As you ponder your communities, rejoice and thank God for the blessings.

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for all that you surround me with, especially my family and my church community. Each is such a blessing to me. In turn, please bless them, O Lord. Amen.


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Hope in Babylon

Reading: Jeremiah 29: 1 and 4-7

Verse 7: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city… pray for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper”.

The leaders, the craftsmen, those will skills are carried off into exile. Through Jeremiah the Lord God sends them a message of hope. Within this message is an unspoken truth: the exile will be long. This is not an exile that can be endured for just a few years and that will suddenly end, allowing life as they had known it to resume. Life as they had known it will cease to exist for an extended period.

Most of us can relate to what the exiles must have been feeling. In times of loss or unexpected change we too have felt out of sync and out of place, out of control and out of our ability to cope. There must have been a sense of hopelessness and despair hanging over the people. Into the exiles’ situation God gives direction and purpose. Instead of hunkering down and angrily riding out this period, God tells them to buy instead of renting, to intermingle and to intermarry instead of living in isolation. God tells them to find jobs and to start businesses. God says, through Jeremiah, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city… pray for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper”. In this place of exile God tells the people that they will thrive and experience blessing. In the midst of what must have felt like a horrible situation God reminds them that it will not only be okay, but it will be good because even in Babylon God is in control.

This leads me to wonder where there is hope and maybe even new life in my Babylon. How or where do you feel exile? As we ponder this thought, events or people or situations come to mind. These thoughts can cause us to lose hope or to feel a heavy weight upon us. Or… we can remember that God is in control and we can seek to trust in God alone and maybe, just maybe, to thrive in our Babylon.

Jesus himself invites us to lay down our burdens and to trust in him, promising us that he is “gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). In Babylon, God is there and in control. Turn to the Lord, our hope and our deliverer.

Prayer: Providing God, you are the rock in the storm, the sure foundation in this life, my only hope in the life to come. In the tempest, be with me. In the valley, carry me. Shine your face upon me and be gracious to me. Amen.


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Up from the Foundation

Reading: Psalm 137: 5-9

Verse 5: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill”.

In the short-term of life it seems like things never change. The context of our Psalm today is the period of exile that followed the fall of Jerusalem. The people of Israel have been in Babylon for what feels like forever. It feels like their situation will never change. Deep within they long for their past. But at this moment they are stuck in Babylon.

In the long-term of life it often feels like things are always changing. Kings come and go, foreign powers rise and fall, there are times of freedom and times of captivity. Humans in general do not like change. The routines that we fall into in life feel like “forever” after a while. Our faith is one of these routines. In exile, the people of Israel cling to the songs and stories of faith. The telling and retelling of their oral traditions and the singing of their sacred songs connects them both to God and to the past that they long for. The deep desire to always remember is captured in verse five, where we read, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill”. If one forgets the most important thing – God – then all else is lost.

Our faith exists and thrives in between the past and the future, between the constant and the change. The Bible and the practices and traditions that we derive from it keep us connected to God and to Jesus. They remind us of who we are as Christians and as communities of faith. Yet our faith also looks forward. One way we look forward is our trust in the future promises – to one day enter heaven and to one day see all things made new as Jesus Christ returns. The other way we look forward in our faith is the idea of journey. Our faith today is not what it was five years ago. We seek to journey forward, ever becoming more and more like Jesus.

The Bible, the traditions, the practices – these are the solid foundations of our faith. The desire to grow to be more like Jesus – this is the building up from that foundation. We are blessed by both. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Father God, thank you for being who and what you are: unchanging love and mercy and grace. Thank you for showing us all these things lived out in your son, Jesus Christ. Keep me connected to both. 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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Step in Faith

Reading: Jeremiah 32: 1-3a and 6-15

Verse 6: “The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel… is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field at Anatheth'”.

As our passage opens, we learn three important facts. First, the word of the Lord again came to Jeremiah. Second, the Babylonians that Jeremiah had prophesied about are now beseiging Jerusalem. Third, King Hezekiah has imprisoned Jeremiah for said prophecy. Life does not seem very good for Jeremiah. It is with this knowledge that we read verse six: “The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel… is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field at Anatheth'”. In so many ways this does not seem like a good idea. Jeremiah has warned the people – telling them that the Babylonians will win and will haul many off into exile. He knows that the exile will be long. So, buy some land?

God is always at work, often in ways that we either don’t realize or don’t understand. Because of more limited resources and a desire to more efficiently serve a smaller client base, our church lost our client relationship with this agency. The decision was then made to end a fellowship meal that was made possible because of the food we had been receiving from this agency. Almost immediately God began to work in my heart to do something new. The idea of starting a marriage makers group for young couples rose up in my heart. Driving to a conference last weekend, God planted another seed. I had arranged to have coffee or lunch with some youth who were at the college hosting the event. But one that I reached out to shared that they were taking a year off and were actually home. Thinking about her led me to think of other college-aged kids from church who were also in town. God posed this question: what about a Bible study for our young adults? My initial thought to both of these whispers was: now? Maybe not the greatest timing God? Yet in my heart I know God is right. ‘Trust me’ is the echo I keep hearing.

What land purchase as war wages around you is God leading you to? Where is God asking you to take on more when often you feel overwhelmed? God promises to provide the way. When we have the faith and courage to walk where God is leading, God will walk with us. We may not know the whole plan or even the next step, but God does. When the word of the Lord comes, may we step out in faith, finding God’s presence and strength as we go.

Prayer: Guiding God, thank you for giving me a heart for ministry. Reveal to me the next steps to minister to our young couples and to our young adults. Bring me the words of invitation and show me the plan to follow. If it’s just one step at a time, help me to step forward with you. Amen.


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Good News Story

Reading: Psalm 79: 5-9

Verse 9: “Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake”.

As I sit and look across the street at the gray house surrounded by big green trees, the world seems so peaceful. Looking to the left I see the church. The sand-colored bricks and darkened windows present a place of calm and rest. In the little moments like these, when God draws us in, the world feels like such a beautiful place. Then my mind turns to Psalm 79 and to the troubles of today.

The psalmist cries out to God, “How long”? It is a familiar refrain in the Bible and in our lives today. Because of the hard situation of exile, the psalmist cries out for an end to God’s anger. The psalmist asks God to pour it out instead on all those nations that do not believe in God. “May your mercy come quickly to meet us” is the desperate plea. In our time and in our lives we experience all of this. There are times when it feels like God is angry – or at least distant. There are times when a non-believer is living a blessed and enjoyable life and we wonder why the faithful suffer. There are times when God cannot lift us out of our valley quickly enough. We can relate to the psalmist’s words and to the place the Israelites find themselves spirituality and emotionally.

Even in the midst of such times Christians hold onto hope and to the promises that God is near and that we are beloved. Like the Israelites, we have experienced the hand of God intervening and have been brought up out of the pit by our God. But in this window of time, relief has not come. On behalf of the people, the psalmist petitions God, asking God to “Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake”. We pray this prayer or one much like it often. We find ourselves or we get ourselves into a tough place and we too seek God’s mercy and grace. When God finds us and renews us to wholeness and full life, as God surely does, then it becomes part of our good news story. And when we choose to tell that story to others, it brings God the glory. May we rejoice in the Lord our God, sharing the good news with others today.

Prayer: God, your mercies never fail and your love never ends. This I know to be true because over and over you are present to me in my need and in my joys. May my witness today help others to know you more. Amen.