Advent 2022: The King is Coming

Joy to the world!

The Lord is come; Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room

And heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and nature sing,

And heav’n and heav’n and nature sing.[1]

“Joy to the World” is one of our most beloved Christmas songs, but it isn’t about Christmas at all.  Isaac Watts originally penned these words in anticipation of the return of Jesus.  Notice that verse 1 above calls Him the King, if you read the full hymn, you will see that verse 2 celebrates His reign, verse 3 tells of the end of the curse and verse 4 proclaims Him as the righteous Ruler of the world.

In Jacob’s blessings over his sons (Gen 49), he said of Judah, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is His” (v. 10). Jacob was declaring the coming of the Eternal King – Jesus. He is the one to whom the royal scepter belongs and all the kingdoms of the earth will bow at His feet.

We love the Baby in the manger; He is the embodiment of God’s holy love for mankind and the fulfillment of His promise to free us from bondage to sin.  But we must let Jesus grow out of the swaddling clothes and into the crown of thorns to understand the full impact of Christmas on the world.  We must see Him as the risen Lord standing in the Garden and look to the skies as He ascends back to heaven to grasp the fullness of His promised resurrection.

And we must see Him as the coming King in Watts’ song.  Zechariah 14:4-9 describes His glorious return: “On that day, His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west” (v. 4).   The world missed His first advent, but there will be no missing His second.  “Every eye will see Him” (Revelation 1:7).  Christmas brings us Joy as we remember Jesus’ birth, but the greatest rejoicing will come when the King of kings returns to earth.

Jesus promises “Behold, I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22:7).  And so we say with the Bride and the Spirit: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus” (v.20).

[1] Words: Isaac Watts, 1674-1748; Music: George Frederick Handel, 1658-1759; Arr.: Lowell Mason, 1792-1872

Advent 2022 – Blessed are You Among Women

Image: “Jump for Joy” by Corby Eisbacher corbysart.blogspot.com

Advent day 2 – Read Luke 1:39-45

“Did that really happen? It must have been a dream. I have been so anxious over all the preparations Joseph and I are making – it must have caused me to have this strange dream.”  Mary was traveling through the hill country of Judea on her way to visit her dear relative, Elizabeth.  The angel had also said something strange about her cousin – that she was going to have a child – in fact – he said she was in her sixth month. Elizabeth – of all people. She and Zechariah were too old to have a baby. Yes, this had to have just been a dream.

But what if it wasn’t?

Could she really be with child – with THE child – the Messiah?  Why would he have chosen her? She was nothing special, wouldn’t God have chosen the wife of the high priest for such an honor?  Someone in a high position in the temple, someone more mature, more wealthy, more righteous. No.  She shook her head as if to shake loose the crazy idea.  This was just not possible.  She saw the familiar house and spied her relative in the doorway with her back turned toward the road. “Elizabeth!” Mary called out and gasped as the older woman turned to face her.  The smile on her face was warm and welcoming, but the bulge under her dress was a shock to Mary’s heart.  It was true!  Elizabeth was pregnant!  If that were true – then . . .

“Mary! Dear Mary!” Elizabeth exclaimed, and then as if from deep within her spirit she began to speak. “Bless are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:42-44).

Oh, it was true! It was all true!  Elizabeth was pregnant. That meant she really was pregnant too – with the Messiah!

Then, as if reading the thoughts the younger woman had carried with her along the journey, Elizabeth took Mary’s hands in her own and said, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (v. 45).

Beloved, believing is the sweetest blessing of all.

Advent 2022 – Gabriel’s Announcement

“The Annunciation” by Leonardo da Vinci

Day 1: Read Luke 1:26-38

She stood in the dim light of the early morning with her hand over her belly and her heart full of awe and wonder at the life growing within her.  It was all so surreal.  She tried to remember every detail but it was so wonderful and frightening at the same time.  She had heard a rustling beside her and turned to see a man – but not a man – an angel?  Yes, it was an angel; he said his name was Gabriel and he called her “highly favored,” but surely he meant someone else.  She was a peasant girl from the nothing town of Nazareth.  Her highest goal was to marry Joseph and have a family.  She pulled her cloak tighter around her and noticed that she was trembling  – fear mixed with excitement ran like shockwaves through her small frame. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:30).  Mary pointed out that she was a virgin, wondering – not if – but how this would happen.  He spoke of the Holy Spirit, an overshadowing, and the impossible becoming a reality.  Then the angel said the most remarkable thing – that this child would “be called the Son of God” (v. 35).  Oh my!  Did he mean that she – Mary of Nazareth – would be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah? It was every Jewish girl’s dream. 

In the stillness of the morning, the angel’s announcement still rang in her ears.  She repeated aloud the words she said to him that day as if reassuring herself and reaffirming her willingness, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said” (v. 38).

Mary’s quiet, well-planned life was suddenly interrupted by God.  She was put in a most scandalous situation, one that could have cost her her beloved Joseph, and possibly even her life. It was an inconvenience, to say the least. Yet she humbly surrendered herself to the will of God and embraced an unknown future with awe and wonder and faith. Beloved, has God interrupted your life with something unexpected – something inconvenient, perhaps even shocking?   It may be a person, a diagnosis, a major change, or a great sorrow.  How will you respond? With fear and anxiety? Or with faith and humble surrender?  Are you willing to be the Lord’s servant?

Grow Up With Jesus

Mary. Mother of Jesus. Most honored of women. Most humble of women. And most associated with the Christmas season. But did you know that Mary was there for more than just His birth? Once they got out of the smelly stable, they took Jesus – now forty days old – to the Temple to fulfill the rites of consecration according to Jewish law. There Simeon and Anna spoke of the salvation of the Lord and the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:25-38). When He was twelve years old, they took Him again to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover – and they lost Him. After a three-day search, they found Him in the Temple deep in conversation with learned men who were astonished at His depth of understanding (vs. 41-52). Mary was there, storing up treasures in her heart (v. 51).

Jesus and His disciples would accompany Mary to a wedding where she would see yet another unexpected side of her son as He turned water into wine. And she would worry over Him like any other mother. Mark 3 records Mary and her other sons going to check on Jesus out of concern for His sanity. When told that His mother and brothers were outside, He said that His family – His mother and brothers – were those who did the will of God (vs 20-35). That was not a dismissal of Mary, but she understood that He was becoming less her son and more His heavenly Father’s Son.

And then there was the day that Mary watched Him from the foot of a wooden cross. I imagine she took out all of those precious treasured memories she had stored up – of angels and shepherds and wonder and awe – and hugged them to her breast as His life ebbed away. For a moment, Jesus was just her son again as He appointed John to care for her in His absence (John 19:25-27).

There’s one more time we see her. After His resurrection and ascension, the disciples gathered in a room in Jerusalem, and Mary – and Jesus’ brothers – were there (Acts 1:12-14).

Mary grew in her relationship with Jesus, and so must we. Every stage of Jesus’ life and every step he took toward fulfilling His purpose changed Mary’s experience with her son.

She was a woman of faith and surrender – Jesus was the Promised Son

She was a brand new mother – Jesus was her firstborn son.

She was a seeking mother – Jesus was her surprising son.

She was a mother in need – Jesus was the One who met her need

She was a worried mother – Jesus was the Son of His heavenly Father

She was a grieving mother – Jesus was her lost son

But

She was also a sinner and Jesus was her Savior

She became a disciple and Jesus was her Lord.

Beloved, have you grown in your relationship with Jesus?

Hebrews: Just Be Kind

I love kind people. They are some of my favorite people in the whole world. When someone is kind, I am immediately drawn to them like a kid to a candy store. I believe kindness was one of Jesus’ most attractive traits.

The writer of Hebrews was thinking about kindness when he said, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:2-3). The early Christ-followers were often persecuted for their faith. At best, they were ostracized, and some suffered grievous physical abuse and even death. Many believers were driven from their homes, lost their jobs or businesses, and they certainly weren’t welcome in their former places of worship. Some were even thrown into prison.

The writer was urging Christ-like kindness in practical ways such as hospitality and compassion. Genesis 18 tells of Abraham who, following the custom of the day, offered rest, food, and refreshing for a group of travelers. Only they weren’t nomads, they were angels – and one of the trio was the Lord Himself. The wandering Christians needed a place to land when they were driven out. They needed refreshing and rest. Those who had been imprisoned for their faith needed encouragement and human contact. In all of these, the writer called for empathy – put yourself in their sandals. What would you need? Go, and do likewise.

Do we still “entertain angels?” I wouldn’t be surprised. God is certainly still at work in His world and He often sends angels to get the job done. But you and I don’t have to wait for celestial beings to be kind. When we had to move back home a few ago during a difficult season, my sister-in-love opened her home – and even gave up her bed –as we traveled back and forth trying to put our lives back together. She took me to her house when I was very ill and shuttled me to doctors and clinics. And she fed us well. That was gracious hospitality. But hospitality can be as simple as a cup of coffee and a listening ear. If you add some cheesecake, I’m your friend for life.

Maybe you don’t know anyone in prison, but you may know a shut-in or a caregiver, or a stay-at-home mom with no transportation. That can feel like a prison. My husband had major surgery several years ago and many friends texted their support, but the ones who stuck their head in the door of his room brought us some much-needed sunshine. One friend brought plates from the church’s fellowship meal to us in the hospital. Several other friends took in my son while I was tied up with the patient. A double dip of kindness!

Kindness is Christlikeness. It doesn’t cost a dime, but it is incredibly valuable. Don’t wait for angels, Beloved. Be hospitable. Be compassionate. Be generous. Be kind. Be like Jesus.

Jesus is [not] my Homeboy

When I took an Apologetics course in my undergrad, I had to interview five non-Christians and ask them specific worldview questions. I also did a little experiment. I asked each one to repeat one simple, three-word phrase: “Jesus is Lord.” None of them would. In fact, one of them said, “I can’t. Those words just won’t come.”  

When we take a very nonchalant approach to Jesus, it shows in how we identify Him. Evangelist Greg Laurie said, “Sometimes I think people in the church are far too casual with God. They have a relationship with God, but they’ve forgotten the holiness of God. They say Jesus is their “homeboy,” but their so-called homeboy created the universe. Let’s show some respect. This is God Almighty we’re talking about.” I understand that we want to present Jesus as approachable and relevant. But if we fail to see and acknowledge Him as Lord, we have missed the point of who He is.

The writer of Hebrews got it. He said, “Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28b-29). That’s very different from the soft-hearted God that is preached from many pulpits today. Don’t get me wrong – our God is a God of love and mercy – two of His most enduring traits. God’s love is evident in His mercy. His mercy is driven by His love. But both His love and His mercy must acknowledge His holiness – and His wrath. Without it, His love is as mushy – and useless – as a Hallmark movie.  You and I need a love that is powerful enough to snatch us from the edge of hell.

While the culture today wants to worship only the God of love, love, love they have no real context. His love is His mercy. His love is the cross. They don’t understand that because they fail to see the danger they are in because of their sinfulness. And they fail to see the consuming fire of His holiness. Remember what the angels proclaimed in Isaiah’s vision: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty (Isa 6:3). His holiness is His glory – a brilliant radiance that consumes everything that is not as holy as He. Unless you have the protective covering of the blood of Jesus.

God’s mercy against the backdrop of man’s sin is like threads of gold and silver on black velvet. They just show up better. You were meant to carry the light of God to a dark world that longs for love but doesn’t understand it. Beloved, let Him set you ablaze with His glory.

For the Name of Jesus

She looked at me with disgust, “Keep that stuff to yourself” she snarled. “God bless you!” I called out to her as she stormed away. I was young in my faith and bold – maybe brazen is the better word. I was sitting in the food court of the local mall with a friend who was giving witness to God’s work in her family. I raised my hands and shouted, “Wooo! Praise God!” That’s when the woman at the next table picked up her bags and launched her bomb at me. I wasn’t fazed. In fact, I wore it as a badge of honor. I counted it as “religious persecution,” and for the time and the culture, I suppose it was.

But what I called persecution was not even a slap on the wrist compared to believers in China, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Nigeria, Cuba, and dozen more. There the threats are not merely verbal but physical, economic, and relational, and often end in violence and death. I dare say their faith has been forged in the fire. Just as the apostles’ was.

Even after being ordered to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus, His followers didn’t quit. The religious leaders were filled with jealousy and ordered them to be arrested (Acts 5:17-18). They responded by escaping jail with the help of an angel who said, “Go, stand in the temple courts and tell the people the full message of this new life” (v. 20). After being brought again before the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of the Jews – they declared, “We must obey God rather than men!” (v. 29). In return they were flogged and the Bible says they “left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (v. 41).

In our modern, western culture, religion is regarded as a personal preference, not a life-giving entity.  It is kept private and should not be allowed to spill over onto others.  In schools, workplaces, among our peers, and even in the food court at the mall we are told to keep our religion to ourselves, or “save that stuff for church.”  And we do because we don’t want to rock the boat.  But true Christianity – the kind that changes the world – is all-or-nothing. Beloved, it’s time for you and me to not only rock the boat but get out of it and walk on the water.

Hebrews: See You on the Mountain

When last we met over the book of Hebrews I told you about my childhood neighbor, Mr. Estes. Tall, broad-shouldered, and gruff of voice. I was terrified of him. One day I kicked my ball to my friend and it rolled across the road, down his driveway, through the open gate, and into his backyard. Right where he was watering Mrs. Estes’ plants. It stopped when it bumped his foot. Well, that’s one ball I would never see again. Petra was so terrified she ran back to her house at the end of the street. I started walking toward my house when I heard him call out to me. At least his lips were moving, but it wasn’t his gruff voice. This voice was kind and gentle. “Hey little girl, your ball rolled over here. Come get it, I’ll meet you at the end of the driveway.” Something in this different voice told me I could trust him and so I cautiously walked over. He handed me the ball and then asked me about school and my baby brother and stuck his hand in his pocket to pull out a butterscotch candy – my favorite.  We stood there for several minutes chatting and when I walked back to my yard I had a new friend who always kept a pocket full of butterscotchies for me.

The writer of Hebrews had talked about Mount Sinai, the mountain on which God descended with “fire, darkness, gloom, and storm” and the fearsome voice of the Lord (Heb 12:18-21). But he contrasted that mountain with another – Mount Zion. “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in Joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (Heb 12:22-23a). Mount Zion is a reference to the heavenly Jerusalem that will be the eternal home for all God’s people in the coming age. This is the place that John saw in Revelation 21:1-2. Unlike Mount Sinai, Mount Zion was a place of absolute Joy – “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (v. 23b ).

Here we will be welcome to approach God – not just in prayer (Heb 10:22) but physically – even face to glorious face. This is where believers will dwell in the presence of God, where we can once again walk in the cool of the day with our Creator (Gen 3:8). This is where my mom and dad and brother wait for me. This is where I will meet my heroes of the Bible: Deborah, Dorcas, Anna, and Ezra. And this is where I will throw my arms around my Savior’s neck and thank Him for saving a wretch like me. I have a question for you: Will I see you there too? Beloved, is your name written in heaven?

Hebrews: Holy

Mr. Estes lived across the street when I was a kid. He was a big man, very broad-shouldered and taller than my dad, who was himself over six feet. Just looking at him told me he was a scary guy. But it was his voice that really terrified me. Deep and loud and gruff. I heard him yell at his dog once and that was all it took for me to stay far away from him.

The writer of Hebrews wanted his readers to remember their history with God. Stop here and read Hebrews 12:18-21. This is referencing the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinia (Exodus 19). God came down to the mountain amid thunder and lightning and fire and smoke and a “very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled” (Ex 19:16). I reckon so. The people were commanded to not touch God’s mountain under penalty of death. Animals were forbidden to approach it.  Even Moses trembled with fear. Why? Because the presence of God made the mountain holy.

We’ve lost the concept of “holy” today. The word is often combined with farm animals and even gross bodily functions and vulgar euphemisms for sex as an expression of surprise or even a curse. This should not be. Holy is not just four letters strung together – holy is God. It is the word the angels declared thrice before His throne: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;” (Is 6:3). “Holy” is His own self-description: “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (Lev 20:26). Even within the church, the word is not held with honor and reverence. This is one of my most fervent frustrations. If you use the word “holy” flippantly, I hope you are convicted and pay attention when it is on the tip of your tongue.

Wherever God goes, whatever He touches becomes holy. Remember Moses and the burning bush? God told him to take off his sandals because the ground surrounding the bush was holy. When God spoke to the Israelites at Mt. Sinia, they begged Him to stop because even His voice was holy. Their sinful ears could not bear to hear it. Whatever is set apart unto God is also holy and anything that touches the consecrated thing was also considered holy.  That includes you. Just a couple of chapters back we learned that “we have been made holy” through Christ (Heb 10:10). If you are in Christ, you are holy – set apart unto God for a relationship that will last forever. That, Beloved, should make you tremble with Joy.

A Brand New Day”

It is a brand new day. Maybe, like me, you’re up before the sun, or you may have slept in and it’s mid-morning – or even afternoon. But it’s a day that the Lord has made, so be glad and rejoice in it (Ps 118:24). God has given you a gift today.

It is a day filled with new opportunities and new mercies (Lam. 3:23). Yesterday’s failures are buried. Today is a new slate, bright and clean.

You do not face this day alone; Jesus is present with you (Matt. 28:20).

He is Your Shepherd (Ps. 23:1).

His Father is your Father (Matt. 20:17).

He is your Comfort (2 Cor. 1:3)

Your Rock (Ps 18:2).

Your Strength (Ps 19:14).

Your Shield (Deut. 33:29).

Today keep your heart and mind focused on Him and the worries of your life will seem small because He is so great. Your heavenly Father knows what you need, even before you ask Him (Matt 6:8) and your life is more valuable to Him than anything else in creation (Matt 6:25). He is sufficient for all your needs (Phil 4:19).

He is your Peace (Judg 6:24).

He is your Helper (Ps 54:4)

Your Light (Ps 27:1)

Your Exceeding Joy (Ps 43:4).

He is the God of your Life (Ps 42:8)

Consider how extraordinary it is that the gracious, mighty, sovereign God sang you to sleep last night (Zep. 3:17) and He sent you word this morning of His unfailing love (Ps. 143:8). His is an everlasting (Jer 31:3), unfailing (Psalm 52:8), never-ending (Psalm 107:1) love.

The angels declare that the whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord. (Isaiah 6:3). Keep your eyes fixed on Him (Heb. 12:2),  Beloved, all through this day and you will see His glory all around you.