pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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New as Well as Old

Reading: Matthew 13:52

Verse 52: “Therefore every teacher… who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven… brings out new treasures as well as old”.

At what I would consider my “home” church, back when I was still a middle school teacher, I was part of the team that began a contemporary worship service. That was over twenty years ago. At the time it caused a lot of angst and even some division in the church. When the service outgrew the “Upper Room” and needed to shift to the sanctuary, then we really upset the apple cart. Change is hard, especially when it involves something new and relatively unknown to many people in the group or organization. But a quick survey of almost every church offering contemporary worship will reveal that that service is their best attended service. Change can be good and positive and even life giving.

When I moved into full-time ministry just over right years ago, one of my secret inner fears was one day being appointed to a small, rural church with just an organ or piano that only sang hymns on Sunday mornings. Since helping start the contemporary worship service that was the only service I had attended. When we were out of town on a weekend, we would find a church to visit with a contemporary service. But after just a couple of months in pastoral ministry I came to realize that I loved the hymns and liturgy of traditional worship. Holding onto the past, to the tried and true, very often has its place. It is often the key component of a group or organization’s core identity. It is essential to who “we” are.

In today’s verse Jesus is talking about this same idea – the old and the new. Talk about someone with first-hand insight on holding onto the past yet also doing something new. If we keep nothing but the old in our faith and in our churches, then we become old. We all know what eventually happens to the old. But we cannot just change it all overnight either. Then folks look around and wonder where they are. Balance is the key.

The same is true for our lives and for our journey of faith. Growth is most often a slow and steady process that involves melding the good new with the good old. In our faith and in our churches may we be open to the new even as we hold onto the roots and traditions that make us the children of God. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to know, to discern, how and when and where to go in a new direction and why and where to keep the tried and true. Both are central to a healthy and growing faith and to a strong and vibrant church. Lead and guide me, I great Jehovah. Amen.


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The Path

Reading: Matthew 13: 1-9 and 18-23

Verses 3 and 4: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed…”

Today’s parable is one of my favorites. The parable of the sower is one of my favorites because of the underlying message and directive. On a surface, practical level, it is the story of a farmer who probably wasn’t very successful – at least be farming standards. No farmer worth his weight in seeds would plant seeds in shallow soil or amongst rocks, nevermind on the path. But this is not really a story about how to be a good farmer.

On the figurative level the parable is about the types of souls who hear the message of faith. On this level we all know people with hard hearts, people who “try out” faith but soon return to life as normal, and people who really want to be faithful followers but struggle with the cares and lures of the world. We also know people who live and share a solid faith, leading others to become believers. Some of us have even been the farmer at times, trying to share our faith with others. When doing so we have encountered all of these types of soil. In this sense, the parable is a good summary of the challenges of evangelism and of the reality of the difficulty of a faithful walk with Jesus Christ. For these reasons it is a good parable – lots of application and understanding.

I love the parable, though, for what is implied, especially in the opening lines: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed…” For me, the key word is “scatter”. To me there is a willy-nilly wildness to this method of planting seeds of faith that God prefers. To me, this speaks of the vastness and inclusiveness of God’s love. The parable’s underlying message and directive are to share God’s love and the good news of Jesus Christ with everyone. Hardest of hard hearts all the way to the most eager recipient you’ve ever met. And everyone in between.

This is how Jesus operated. He ministered to the adulterer and to the Pharisee, to the tax collector and to the leper, to the demon-possessed and to the children, to the widow and to the masses… You name the type of soul, Jesus met them where they were at, entered into relationship with them, walked with them, ministered to them. This too is our mission. No, it is not easy. The road is hard and will often place us in uncomfortable situations and places. Such is the path of following Jesus, working to make disciples of all people and nations. May we walk the path well.

Prayer: Lord God, I do love this story but it is also very challenging. It pushes me, it calls me to new people and to new places. Go with me as I seek to follow your Son. Amen.


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Remaining Connected

Reading: Genesis 25: 19-34

Verse 21: “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren”.

Last week we looked at the miraculous story of finding a wife for Isaac. The baby born when mom and dad were 90 and 100, respectively, marries a wife that clearly God had a hand in selecting. Remember how the servant’s prayer was exactly how things unfolded in finding Rebekah? It seemed like a fairy tale beginning to a storybook marriage. But then, in today’s passage, we find that it is not exactly the case. They cannot have children. Rebekah is barren.

One of the main reasons for marriage was to have children, to produce heirs. Children were a couple’s pride and joy. They were a sign of God’s blessings. But Isaac and Rebekah were without children. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, like Zechariah and Elizabeth and many other couples to follow, this barrenness was like a cross to bear. And like all the other cases of barrenness that we read about in the Bible, God chooses to intervene in their behalf. In verse 21 we read, “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren”. God responds with twins! As it was with all of these couples, God has a plan and will work it out in his time and in his way.

Although for most of us barrenness is not our issue, for some couples it is. Others deal with sickness or disease. Some struggle with an addiction. Anger, doubt, anxiety, pride, selfishness, loneliness, singleness – the list of things we bring to God is long. We all need God’s intervention. Whatever valley we are in or whichever sin we are currently dealing with, we all need God to answer our prayer. For us, as it well may have been for Isaac, the waiting is the hardest part.

In the passage it sounds so easy: he prayed and they become pregnant – all in one verse. We’d all like our prayers answered in what appears to be expediency. But more often our reality is like Isaac and Rebekah’s reality – married when he was 40, the twins are not born for another 20 years. For us there is often a span of time that falls between our initial prayer and God’s response. Isaac and Rebekah remain connected to God and God remains connected to them. They trust in God’s plan. May we do so as well.

Prayer: God of all, you created this world and continue to create, to form, to shape, to guide. Help me to have a faith that is trusting and patient, content and assured. Lead me to a faithful and long walk with you. Amen.


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Into Our Hearts

Reading: Romans 5: 1-5

Verse 5: “Hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit”.

Chapter 5 begins by reminding us of some truths of our faith: peace through justification, access to Jesus Christ through grace, and rejoicing in the glory of God. Walking in faith certainly fills this life with peace, grace, and joy. A life of faith, however, does not shield us from the hard or difficult side of life. Because we are humans, made of flesh and bone, we will experience times of illness and even death, times of trial and pain. Paul acknowledges that as Christians we will suffer. But he also points out that we do not suffer as the worldly suffer.

Just as your relationship with your spouse or family or a friend is strengthened when you go through something hard together, so too is our relationship with God strengthened when we walk through a trial with God. When we turn to God, when we lean into God, when we rely on God – we find that God is always right there. In verse five we read about the closeness of God. Here Paul writes, “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit”. The presence and strength and comfort and peace of God is right there within us as the Holy Spirit is “as close as our next breath”.

Paul walks us through the steps or progression of the deepening relationship that we experience as we continually walk with the Lord and Spirit. We first learn to persevere; this is built through Christ’s presence in previous trials. We next learn to maintain a Christly character; this is built both by walking with Christ in our trials and by reflecting on the ways that Jesus himself endured times of suffering. Lastly, we come to have a growing hope. This comes to pervade all of life, but is especially present in the trials. And Paul also reminds us that “hope does not disappoint”. If doubt or fear or anything else begins to creep in, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit whispers, “I am here”, reminding us once again of the Lord’s presence with us and within us. Thanks be to God for the closeness of Jesus Christ in our hearts. May you ever walk in his love, grace, and hope!

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for your constant presence in my life. I am so grateful for the ways that you surround me in the trials. Thank you for the Spirit that so often reminds me that I am not alone, that you are right there with me. All praise and glory and honor are yours, O God! Amen.


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He Laughs

Readings: Genesis 18: 9-15 and Genesis 21: 1-7

Verse 12: “So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure'”?

As the news of an impending birth falls upon Sarah’s ears, a chuckle forms in her heart. She has lived a long life, one full of scorn and shame surrounding her barrenness. Giving a family children was one of the few ways that women were valued by society. For most of her 89 years this barren womb has been her burden to bear. And now, as she is surely nearing her final years of life, the news of a child being born from her womb causes her to chuckle.

We too chuckle at similar news. When I heard that the 92 and 94 year olds were getting married, I chuckled. When I think of the 70 year old pastor finally appointed to his dream church, I chuckle. At times God throws out a curveball. We chuckle because it reminds us that God is sometimes the God of the impossible. Maybe more accurately, sometimes God is the God of the anything is possible. God can take the greatest Christ hater and make him the apostle to the Gentiles, ministering to the people group that he also hated. God can take the most vile addict and turn her into a powerful and effective recovery minister. God can work healing out of tremendous pain. God can raise up the voice of the people, bringing change to a whole nation.

In the second half of our reading for today, the child is born. As he is named, he is given the name Isaac, which translates to “he laughs”. Yes, sometimes God laughs. It is one of God’s ways of saying, “Is anything too hard for the Lord”? No, it is not.

May our faith reflect this truth. In all we do and say and think may we boldly live out our faith, trusting that the God of all things possible is with us.

Prayer: Dear God, when I face a giant or when the molehill feels more like a mountain, fill me with a holy confidence in you. Trusting in you, lead me to step forward in faith. Amen.


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Sheep of His Pasture

Reading: Psalm 95

Verse 7: “He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care”.

The opening five verses of Psalm 95 are a song of praise. The psalmist encourages us to sing with joy to the rock of our salvation and to come before him with thanksgiving. The words recognize the presence of the King of Kings in all of creation. In verse six there is an invitation to kneel and worship the Lord our maker. There are many days when we are right here with the psalmist, praising God joyfully.

But all days are not sunny and bright. All days are not filled with joy and praise. It is on those days and in those seasons that we must remember our foundation, our rock. The God who created the whole universe is the God who also created you and me. This God does not change. All of this world, including all of humanity, was created by a loving God to be good. Some days and in some situations that can be hard to remember. Sometimes situations and sometimes people make it hard to remember our foundation, our rock. Yet we are called to remember. We are ever wooed by the Holy Spirit to draw close to God, to stand upon the Lord our salvation.

In verse seven we read, “He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care”. Yes, God is our God. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture, kept safe, protected, cared for by our good shepherd. Celebrate that. Cling to that. Shout out a song of praise. Whisper a desperate prayer. He is our God. Always. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, it is so hard to see your children hurting. Bring them strength, remind them of your deep and abiding love for them, place their feet back upon the rock. Help me to remind them too of your love. May my words, actions, and prayers draw back into your pasture the sheep that are hurting and the sheep that have gone astray. May it be so. Amen.


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To Love

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Psalm 119:1-8

Verse 16: “For I command you today to love the Lord your God… then you will live and increase”.

Both the passage from Deuteronomy 30 and the one from Psalm 119 call us to walk in God’s ways. Both speak of life or blessings or prosperity or obedience as the goal. Both also warn of the cost of deciding not to walk upright and blameless. There is a clear call to make the choice to walk with God. It is a choice we must make over and over as the lures and temptations of this world are ever before us.

Walking daily with the Lord is the goal but it is not as easy as a paint-by-numbers project. It is not like when we were children and we tried to take giant steps to walk in someone’s footprints. We are called not to a set pattern or to a predetermined path but to a lifestyle built on loving God and loving one another. To me the first is often easier than the second. God is fully good and loving and holy. God is steadfast and true. I, like the rest of humanity, am not always good and loving and… I get selfish. I get jealous. I can be hard to love at times.

Both Moses and the psalmist call for us to follow the commands, decrees, laws, statutes. From the Old Testament perspective this was the understanding. Keep all the rules and receive God’s blessings. As the Bible moves into the New Testament we see that this task has become burdensome. The Pharisees and other religious leaders have become legalistic. Religion has become a huge code to follow and the connection to God’s heart has paid the price. It has made the circle smaller. Jesus reveals a better way. Jesus took the two great commands – to love God and to love one another – seriously. Jesus entered into life with people, engaging them where they were at both spirituality and physically. Out there, in the midst of life, it was often messy. When we are willing to walk in Jesus’way, letting love of God and love of one another guide us, it might get messy for us too. I’d rather be in a messy place filled with love than in a nice, clean, tidy box filled with rules. How about you?

Loving God, your love is so expansive. The deeper I peer into your heart, the greater the love. In your son’s life I so clearly see the call to love the marginalized and the overlooked. Yes, it was messy. But that didn’t bother Jesus in the least. Help me to feel the same way. Amen.


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To All Who Receive…

Reading: John 1: 10-18

Verse 14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”.

Verse fourteen is so full of power and truth when one stops and delves down deep into all that lies behind these ten words. These words, of course, connect back to verses one through five. Yesterday we read these verses that speak of how Jesus is divine and forever and is the light and life of the world. One that powerful became flesh. One who is divine set that aside to become one of us – to dwell among us. I’ve pondered these thoughts dozens and dozens of times and am awestruck once again that Jesus and God would do such a thing for us.

Awesome as this is for me and probably for you too, we still have the realities of verses ten and eleven. Even though all things are created by and through the divine and even though every single one of us has the spark of the divine in us, some in this world do not recognize Jesus. They do not recognize Jesus in the Bible; they do not recognize Jesus in the Holy Spirit that tries to move and speak into their life; and, they do not recognize Jesus in the faces of the poor, the marginalized, the broken… Their hearts are hard and are focused only on self.

Verse eleven remains generally true. Most Jews still have not accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Still they wait. Some have turned to Jesus and Revelation tells us that in the end times 144,000 will come to Jesus as Lord and Savior. This verse is also a truth for some who will sit in pews tonight or tomorrow. They are “Christian” for the hour they are present. They carry the tag with them but live and die for the things of the world and not for the cross of Jesus Christ.

And then we turn to verse twelve – “to all who receive him…”. For all who accept and believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, Jesus gives the right to become children of God. If one but confesses Jesus as Lord, one is given life and light and love and are welcomed into the family of God. In public profession they are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit as they emerge from the waters of baptism, claimed forever as a child of God. Note that there are no exclusions or limitations or strings attached. Just as we have received grace and truth, may we bear that to others, ever working to build the kingdom of God here on earth.

Prayer: What a beautiful thing it is when another enters the family of God! This day and every day may you use me as you will God, bringing the light and love and grace and mercy and healing and truth of Jesus Christ out into the darkness and into the brokenness of the world. Lead me out to draw others into this beautiful family of God. Amen.


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Rise and Go

Reading: Luke 17: 11-19

Verses 12-13: “Ten men who had leprosy… stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us'”.

In our passage today, Jesus has compassion on a group of people living on the edge of society. The lepers are forced to live outside of the village. They are cut off from society. The disease they have has separated them from family and friends. The isolation causes them to call out to Jesus from a distance. The lepers have learned to stay isolated. Jesus simply directs them to go to the priests. As they demonstrate obedience, they are healed as they went. For these people who have been living outside of society, outside of the synagogues and the temple, to take steps toward these people and places – it must have been so hard. As they trust, they are healed by Jesus.

When our lives have been spotted by sin, we too can have a hard time taking those first steps back towards God. Until we get to the point where conviction leads to repentance, we can keep ourselves isolated from God. As people of faith, though, we know that we can repent and find mercy, grace, forgiveness, and restoration. Like the lepers, as we take those first obedient steps to confess and repent, we are cleansed of our sin and we are made new again. Praise be to God, right?

Yes and amen! Of course. But that cannot be all. Like the one leper who returned to Jesus, we too must have some responses. The first is to praise Jesus, to thank him over and over for the many works done in our lives. The second is to help others experience the healing power of Jesus Christ.

Our story of what Jesus has done for us is the story of what Jesus has done and can do for others. We each first live this out in our day to day lives, being Christ in the world. Our lifestyle is our first form of evangelism. But our story is also unique and specific. There are individuals out there that need to hear our story. This is our second response. To a fellow addict, to a fellow absentee father, to a fellow nominal Christian, to a fellow divorcee, to a fellow… our personal story of faith can bring those who are where we once were hope and new life. The leper was told, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well”. This too is our charge. May we live and tell our story well.

Prayer: Lord my God, thank you for your hand that has guided me, redirected me, convicted me, saved me. Your love for me is so amazing. Give me opportunities to share that love with others. Amen.


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Faith Exercise

Reading: Luke 17: 5-6

Verse 5: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith'”!

Faith is an interesting animal. At places in our faith journey, it can be easy to have a solid faith. When life is going well and we have time to nurture our faith through worship, prayer, study, and meditation. At other stops along the road our faith can be really hard to find and stand upon. When life gets busy or when we have been in the valley for a while, faith can be elusive.

In Luke 17 Jesus has just finished talking about the consequences of sin. He encourages the disciples to “watch yourselves” yet also adds a reminder about being generous in offering forgiveness to others. The disciples live in the world so they know how hard the evil one can fight to lead us into sin. They are also of the flesh. They know how ego and hurt feelings and other emotions can make it difficult to forgive someone who has wronged you. Realizing all of this, they say to Jesus, “Increase our faith”! The disciples are very aware of their need to receive holy power in the living out of their faith.

To me, faith is like a muscle. If we exercise it regularly and experience the benefits, then it becomes stronger. It can even grow to the point of being a reservoir for the days of trial. On the other hand, if we do not give regular attention to our faith, then it atrophies and becomes of less and less use in the trials and sufferings of life. Jesus reminds the apostles and us modern day disciples that faith – even a little – is very powerful. Jesus tells us that if we “have faith as small as a mustard seed” we can do amazing things. He tells us that a faith that small is powerful enough to “uproot and plant” a tree into the sea. Imagining what a faith like that could be like, we recommit today to the disciplines of the faith – worship, prayer, study, and meditation – and join the disciples in crying out, “Increase our faith”!

Prayer: Heavenly Father, having a faith that is growing and active and alive requires commitment and diligence. Grant me the strength and love of you that leads me to nurture and mature my relationship with you. In your grace, draw me ever closer to you. Amen.