pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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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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A New Earth?

Reading: Isaiah 65: 21-25

Verse 24: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear”.

God’s vision for a new heaven and earth begins with caring for basic needs. The people of God will have houses to live in and food to eat. This leads to enjoying the work of their hands and to a better quality of life. People will live longer and children will not experience misfortune. In Isaiah’s day this vision gave hope to those living without these basics. The realization of this vision would bring hope to many yet today.

Many in our community and likely in yours struggle to meet basic needs. It is currently 7° outside. There are families that are cold this morning because there is no propane in the tank. They are running the oven with the door open for heat. In many pantries and freezers there is food aplenty. Yet many children will go to school hungry. There they will receive breakfast but the adults back home do not. The vision in Isaiah is wonderful. But we cannot be content with waiting for that future reality. It is too distant from many people’s daily reality. In our communities this should not be so. As people of faith, we should not be comfortable with the poverty and inadequacy of food and safe shelter in our midst. Bringing a better version of life for all could be more of our vision.

Father God is casting a vision for all of his children. God promises, “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear”. God is eager to be in connection with us. In my mind’s eye I see God leaning in, hand cupped to ear, waiting to hear our prayers and our praise. The vision we find in Isaiah ends with a beautiful image – all of creation living in harmony and peace. There will be no harm or destroying on God’s holy mountain. This is a reference to the new Jerusalem, the new earth.

Can this not be an image for today, for our communities? Caring for and meeting basic needs begins to build a relationship. The building of a relationship can lead to sharing God’s hope and peace. As people of faith, may we seek to enter the lives of the hurting and broken, first meeting basic needs and then sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to bring hope. May it be so.

Prayer: Father God, we have so much and are blessed over and over. Make us aware of and responsive to the needs around us. Bend my heart towards what breaks yours. Lead me to action. Use me to make this place more like Isaiah’s vision. Amen.


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Each a Beloved Child

Reading: Luke 16: 19-31

Verse 29: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them”.

In our passage today Lazarus is a person in need. He is a person in need of food and medical care. These are his immediate physical needs. If we are willing to go to certain places and to engage certain folks, we can find people like Lazarus – people with basic needs. Food, shelter, clothing, medical care – people in our land of plenty lack many of these basics. The rich man lived in luxury. In ths life, he never once thought about Lazarus and his needs.

Lazarus also had emotional needs. To be ignored, to be passed by every day, creates a sense of isolation. To know others are avoiding you, averting their eyes to not even make eye contact, negatively impacts one’s self-image. It is hurtful and harmful to have one’s need for companionship, compassion, and conversation to go unmet. Lazarus was a man in need of relationship. We all need to belong.

For many years I was like the rich man. I tried to avoid and ignore those struggling with poverty and homelessness. I’d move to try and walk on the other side of the street. I’d look the other way if I couldn’t avoid the person. I allowed a gap to exist between myself and those who were not like me. In terms of sharing my faith, I thought, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them”. They can read the Bible. They can come to church if they want to know about Jesus. How wrong I was.

Then one day I met Dee and Joel. Soon I met Pat and Rob and Georgia and… I got to know a few who were like Lazarus – people who were like me in so many ways. They all had a story to tell. They all had moms and dads and many had children. We had so much in common. Most of all, I learned that they too were each a beloved child of God. We became friends. It was from this place that not only physical and emotional needs could be addressed, but spiritual needs as well. Once we were friends, Moses and the prophets and Jesus could become part of the conversation.

Those living without Jesus don’t have to end up like the rich man. They can, but they don’t have to. May we each be willing to step across those barriers, real and imagined, to engage our fellow children of God, sharing our hope and Jesus’ love with them.

Prayer: God, thank you for continuing to work on me. Thank you for opening my eyes and my heart to those is need. Continue to lead and guide me to be Jesus’ hands and feet, to speak your word, to meet needs as I can, to be a light shining in the world. Amen.


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Healing and Freedom through Trust in God

Reading: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Verse 22: “Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people”?

Much of Israel is in exile. They are living in a foreign land. The people want to be restored, they long for freedom. Jeremiah pleas with God to “listen to the cry of my people”. The people feel as if God were no longer there. Jeremiah mourns and cries right alongside the people. Today many people feel trapped and long for freedom. The things that enslave are many and are quite varied. Some feel that the systems of the world are entrapping them. For example, those struggling with the poverty of the inner cities and reservations cannot see hope. Those dealing with addictions live often with a sense of hopelessness. Those who return to the same sin over and over question God’s presence and power. No one wants to live in these valleys. All want to be restored. Every one longs for freedom and a future with hope.

The people that Jeremiah is serving want freedom, but are still being influenced by and are still clinging to the world around them. God remains angry because the Israelites are still worshipping foreign idols. They say they want God to free them but they are still holding onto those idols with one hand. We fall into this trap too. We pray to God to intervene or give guidance or direction and then we blast out the door to do our own thing. We ask God to help while still keeping one hand on the steering wheel. When we fail to allow God to be the one in control, when we take matters into our own hands, when we still trust at least partly in our abilities or in the ways of the world, we too will end up asking, “Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people”? Tears in heaven are shed because we cannot quite turn it all over to God.

Jeremiah sees this in the people and he mourns as horror grips him. He wishes his head were a spring so that he could cry more tears. In heartfelt prayer Jeremiah longs to pour out his heart and his sorrow to God. We too mourn at times. It may be for ourselves, for one we love, for our church, or for events in the world. When we do mourn, may we be like Jeremiah, asking God with all that we are, trusting in God alone to bring the freedom and healing that is so needed. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, my heart grieves for those hurting and for those who feel alienated. My heart pours out tears for the church. Help me to put my trust in you alone to lead and guide us. It is only through your love and power that we have a future with hope. O great Jehovah, make me fully yours. Amen.


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Evildoers and the Poor

Reading: Psalm 14

Verse 6: “Evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge”.

The second half of Psalm 14 speaks of evildoers. These are the folks who will do anything to become more powerful or wealthier. In order for anyone to gain more power or wealth, someone has to have less. What was true in David’s time remains true today.

Verse four speaks of evildoers as people who “devour” God’s people as “men eat bread”. In this verb there is an implication of greed and gluttony. It brings to mind the memory of placing a pizza before a group of teenagers who had been eating backpacking food for a week. The pizza was gone in the blink of an eye and I could see the look of “more?” in their eyes. But the evildoers that David writes of are not seeing “real food” for the first time in a week. They are folks who will eat and eat and eat – not because they are hungry but because they can. The lust for power and money is never satisfied. Getting some just wets the appetite for getting more.

Verse six reads, “Evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge”. For those living in poverty, it is an enending battle to simply stay afloat, nevermind getting ahead. Decisions like buying gas to get to work or buying food for the kids competes with decisions to buy your medication or to pay the electric bill. It is a world of decisions foreign to most of us. These thoughts draw me back to a prayer walk we were on during a mission trip to Racine. A large pile of belongings was soaking up a heavy rain on the curbside. The pastor explained that someone else had been evicted. Among the belongings was a mattress – no box spring or rails or frame. The mattress was all this person could scrape and save for thus far. It was now ruined because they chose another necessity over rent. Yes, there are legitimate reasons to evict someone and, yes, poor decisions could have led to the eviction. The deeper issues that need to be addressed are why the person cannot earn a living wage or find affordable housing.

Where do we fit into this world of evildoers? As Christians, we are called to stand with and for the poor and marginalized. We are called to speak out against low wages and other practices that intentionally and unintentionally keep the poor poor. We are also called to help alleviate suffering wherever we find it by feeding, clothing, visiting, teaching, training… May we each discern both the changes that need to happen and the differences we can each make in our neighborhoods and communities today. May it be so. Amen.


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Very Nice Folks

Reading: Mark 2: 23-28

Verse 27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.

The Pharisees lived by a lot of rules. The many, many rules had become their way of life and their religion. Following the rules had even obscured their common sense. They were rule followers instead of God followers. This concept is sometimes seen in our churches today.

Jesus’ disciples are walking along and they are hungry. They pick a few heads of grain to snack on. To us this does not seem to serious, but the Pharisees asks, “Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath”? You see, picking grain was work and work is illegal on the Sabbath. It does not matter if they were hungry. It wouldn’t even have mattered to the rule followers if the disciples were starving to death. It does not matter. They should have planned ahead – they know when the Sabbath is!

Jesus takes this in and responds thusly, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. He is saying to look beyond the rule so they can see the need. Look past being rule followers and become God followers. Have compassion. Show mercy. Extend love. But these are hard choices because this goes against the rules. Sometimes we see this in our churches too.

On Sunday mornings we are a pretty homogeneous bunch. On the last Sunday evening each month, we offer a free community meal. There is not a lot of homelessness in the community, but there is some poverty. Last night we had a struggling family come to the meal. Really nice folks – husband and wife and six young kids, plus Grandma in tow. Kids had big smiles on their faces and I had a nice chat with Mom and Dad. Very nice folks.

As I consider the Sabbath rules that caused so much tension in today’s passage, I wonder how things would go if this family showed up next Sunday morning at 9:00 for worship. Sometimes we can allow rules to get in the way of love and compassion and empathy. Sometimes we can be rule followers instead of Jesus followers. Sometimes it is hard. I hope these very nice folks come this Sunday morning. It is good for us to practice being Jesus followers. Sometimes what we practice becomes what we are. Very nice folks, hope to see you this Sunday morning!


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Presence

Reading: Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, & 45

Verse Four: Look to the Lord and His strength, seek His face always.

Our Psalm today opens as a song of praise, recalling the works and wonders that God has done for His people.  The psalmist encourages the people to remember in song and to retell of God’s activity among the people through music.  It is through music that we best rejoice and give glory to God.  In verse four we read these words: “Look to the Lord and His strength, seek His face always”.  In looking to God and in remembering God’s mighty acts in song, we are reminded over and over of God’s strength and we are drawn back again.

Giving thanks and singing praises to God is not limited to the times when life is good.  It is also not limited to singing about just the times of blessing either.  The entire Psalm recalls both times of abundance and power as well as times of want and oppression.  In fact, it is often in and through trying times that we see God’s hand at work.  When God enters into our pain or when He relieves our burdens are experiences where we feel especially close to God and His strength.  They are moments that really remind us to look to God and to seek His face always.

Just as in Israel’s past and at points in our lives when life was hard, in some communities and neighborhoods life is hard.  Poverty and lack of decent employment opportunities couples with violence and substance abuse to create difficult environments to live in.  Poor schools and inadequate housing add to the hardships that exist in many inner cities and on some reservations.  All of these factors lead to higher levels of crime and gang activity and to higher rates of incarceration.  These places can be difficult places to seek His face.  Yet there God is, working in and through people’s lives, being worshipped in vibrant faith communities that joyfully sing of God’s goodness and love.  God’s presence is there in full force, allowing faithful disciples to both trust in God in the midst of hardship and also to go forth to be used by God to bring healing and hope and love.  May we all be encouraged and uplifted by God’s presence so that we can share His love and hope and peace today.