Sin No More

When I read the Gospels, I marvel at Jesus’ patience and understanding with sinful people. No, He was not (is not) gentle with sin – He called it out for what it was. He didn’t excuse it or call it a disease or disorder. He didn’t accept it or tolerate it or celebrate it. Sin was and is appalling. It needs to be confronted – and Jesus did. Yet even while correcting sin, was always gracious to those lost souls caught in the devil’s snare. “He had compassion on them because He saw that they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:6).

While walking through Jerusalem one day, Jesus passed by a pool that was believed to have healing properties when the waters were stirred by “an angel.” A helpless invalid had laid by the side of the pool for thirty-eight years, waiting and hoping for his chance to slip into the waters at just the right moment. But he was alone and never managed to get there. Along came Jesus who healed Him. At a later encounter, Jesus told the man, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (John 5:1-14). He healed first, then corrected. We need to take notes.

On another occasion, Jesus was teaching in the temple and the religious leaders brought to him a woman caught in adultery. But just the woman – isn’t that interesting? He defended her against her accusers – but he did not defend her actions. When Jesus confronted the men with their hypocrisy they left in shame.  After assuring her that He did not condemn her, Jesus told the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:1-11). I have no doubt that she did. Grace and correction always work hand in hand.

I often look up words to build a devotional and that is what I was doing as I was developing a different point when God turned this in a whole other direction. When I looked up “sin no more” I found these two stories – and something else. Those same words appear again in the Scriptures when the writer of Hebrews talked about the new covenant in Christ. The Lord said, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Heb 8:12). No more. No more guilt. No more shame. No more condemnation. Because all your sins are washed away by the blood of Jesus. The affair. The abortion. The sexual immorality. The lies. That sin you don’t want to remember? You won’t have to Beloved, because in Christ your sins are “no more.”

Hebrews: Outside the Camp

“We’re New Testament Christians, why are we studying the Old Testament? This stuff doesn’t apply to us anymore.” “One reason,” I answered “is because the New Testament writers used it quite a bit in their books and letters.  If we want to understand what they were saying, we need to understand their references.” That’s what we’re going to do in today’s passage.

“The high priest carried the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp” (Heb 13:11). It was Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish year. The day when the sins of the nation were atoned for. It was a day for fasting and prayer and confession. It was the day that the slate was wiped clean and the people were declared righteous – at least until they sinned again.  The high priest took the blood of the slaughtered animal into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle/Temple as a sin offering and sprinkled it on the mercy seat of the Lord. The carcass of the animal would be carried outside of the camp/city to be burned because it represented the sin of the people. Sin must not be allowed to remain among God’s holy nation.

The writer makes the new covenant connection in verse 12: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood.” Jesus was the sacrificial animal. Jesus’ blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Lord. And Jesus was crucified and buried outside of the city of Jerusalem because He bore the sin of all humanity. And by His blood, those who believe and receive His atonement are made holy.

An interesting aside here is that the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus and had Him crucified at Golgotha because of His radical message. But by putting Him outside of the city proper they were unknowingly confirming that He was indeed the sacrifice for the sins of the people. Because his original audience was believing Jews, the writer urged them to “go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore,” symbolically rejecting the old ways of Judaism (v. 13).

As believers in Christ, you and I will often have to “go outside the camp” of popular opinion and cultural relevance, even within the church, to live in holiness. But we’re in good company. We’re out there with Jesus. Remember what He said: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18).

Oh, and there’s one more reason why we need to study the Old Testament, even as New Testament Christians – because Jesus is all over it and all in it. It’s worth digging into the early texts to know Him better. All of history, including the entire Bible, is His story. It’s the greatest story ever told.

Little Lost Lamb

In Luke 15: 3-7 Jesus tells of a shepherd who leaves his safe flock to go after the one sheep who has wandered away. “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home” (15:5-6a). The shepherd had ninety-nine other sheep, but his heart would not let him abandon the one who was lost. I find a lot of comfort in that.

Your Heavenly Father has the same heart for you. Whether you are in a place you never expected nor wanted to be, a situation you chose, or you are in a season of life that is hard, painful, and seemingly unending, God has promised He will find you there and bring you safely home. In truth, He doesn’t have to look very hard, because you never left His sight when you wandered away. That’s because He never left your side. His promise is and always has been: “I will never leave you nor forsake you. Your God will be with you wherever you go” (Jos 1:5, 9). God is always with His child. Whether you get caught up in the glamor of the world and wander, or you run away in outright rebellion. Even if you go so far away from His fold that it seems impossible to get back. No matter where you and I roam, in physical places or seasons of life, God’s heart never leaves us. He never forgets about His children.

Something else I noticed – probably because I’m extra aware of seeing my granddaughter’s name in the Scriptures – He brings the lost sheep home with Joy. Not begrudgingly, not with words of anger or impatience. Not with frustration or resentment over the trouble the sheep caused. He’s just so happy to have His little lamb back with Him.

Are you in a difficult place? Are you in a hard season? Trust in God’s faithful love for you. Did you carelessly wander away because you were distracted by the glitter and lights of the world? Did you stomp your feet and run in outright rebellion? Beloved, God is not mad at you. He wants you to come home. Call His Name from wherever you are right now, then watch for His rescue. There is no place that His love will not reach.

Stop Looking Back

I have a lot in common with Moses, the hero of God’s people. No, I’ve never parted a sea or made water come from a rock. I’ve never led a nation out of slavery nor floated down the river in a basket as a baby. What I have done that Moses also did was argue with God.

After Moses fled Egypt as a wanted man, he settled down and started working for his father-in-law as a shepherd. Then he saw a burning bush and heard God say, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex 3:10). And he argues with God. Moses starts giving all the reasons why he can’t do what God has called him to do. “They won’t listen to me. They won’t believe me. I’m not an eloquent speaker. I stutter.” Finally, Moses says, “O, Lord, please send someone else to do it!” (Ex 4:1-13).

My version of Moses is: “I’m not good enough. “I’m not smart enough. And then the sure kicker: “I have an ugly, sinful past, God, I’ve done so many shameful things.” Then I pull out my carefully cataloged and categorized list of all my failures so that He can see why I am the absolute wrong person for the job. I was recently struck by what Bob Goff, lawyer, speaker, and New York Times best-selling author said, “We spend a lot of time memorizing failures that God spent a lot of love saying we could forget.”

He’s right. John said that the Father lavishes great love on us and calls us His children (1 John 3:1). Even before we called Him our Father. Paul said, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). God loved you while you were doing the very things that sent His Son to the cross. When you accepted Christ, all your sins went under the blood of Jesus and left nothing but the Father’s love.

You are no longer a sinner in the eyes of God. You have been cleansed and reborn and filled with His Spirit so that you are enabled and empowered to do that thing for which He created you. Oh, Beloved, don’t look back when God calls you to move forward. He knows who you were – and who you are now. You are His child.

Count Your Blessings

Even without my pint-sized sidekick, my life is very busy. I work four full-time days a week, I am a graduate student, I write these daily devotionals, and am trying to pull them together to publish. I teach two different Bible classes every week for which I study and write the lessons. Oh, and somewhere in there, I (sorta) clean my house and give my sweet, supportive hubby some attention. And occasionally I sleep. I say all that to say, unoccupied time is hard to come by. But it is something I sense God pressing on me lately. It came to me – as every good thought does – from His Word.

“Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said: ‘Who am I, O Sovereign Lord . . . that you have brought me this far?’” (2 Samuel 7:18). Nathan the prophet had just reported God’s prophecy to the King: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (v. 16). David was awestruck. Once a shepherd boy, now a king with an everlasting throne. All he could do was sit before the Lord in worship and astonishment. So should we.

Have you ever stopped to consider all God has done for you? First, He gave you life and breath – that in itself is beyond comprehension (Gen 2:7). Then, despite your sin, He gave you grace that has drawn you to Him – you would not have sought Him out on your own (John 6:44). And wonder of wonders, He gave His One and Only Son who then gave His perfect life to redeem yours out of the pit of sin and death. That’s mercy (John 3:16).  Then He raised Him from the dead to give you eternal life (1 John 5:10-12). If you stopped right there that would be more than enough.

But think of all the ways He pours out His love and blessings on you. I think of my family and the Joy they bring. I have the most wonderful friends, a job I love, the opportunity to continue my education, a loving, caring church family, food on my table, a roof over my head, a soft bed to sleep on – oh, I could go on and on. And so could you. Beloved, come and sit before the Lord and ponder His goodness to you. “Count your many blessings; see what God has done.”

In My Father’s Hands

The Bible is filled with hope. The actual word appears 180 times (NIV) and there are hundreds more that illude to hope in some way. There’s a Psalm where I find hope – even though the word is not used at all. “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, He makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with His hand” (Psalm 37:23-24). This gives me great hope because – please, don’t be shocked by this – I tend to stumble in my walk. I get angry. I get anxious. I get lazy and selfish. I struggle to resist temptation. No – that’s not true. Sometimes I don’t struggle at all – I just give in without a fight. I say things Jesus would not say.  I don’t watch where I’m walking and trip over my own spiritual feet. A lot.

This verse tells me that while God may allow me to stumble, He will not let me fall so far that I am unredeemable.  I need that assurance. It tells me two important things.  One, I may stumble, but he will not cast me away (KJV). He will not give up on me. He will not abandon me to the wretched consequences of my actions. Oh somebody say “Hallelujah!” That’s good –  not that’s awesome news!

And two, He will never let go of my hand. Last weekend when we visited Joy she wanted Nana to walk with her. Several times she started going toward moving cars and even into the dumpster area. She wanted to turn knobs on pipes. But I had her hand in mine and could steer her away from danger. She almost fell off the curb a couple of times, but I held tightly to her hand and kept her steady. And I kept her from running into people she didn’t see but I did because I had her hand.  I’m sure you see all the spiritual truths there.

There’s one thing that isn’t in the Scriptures but is a picture God put in my heart. It is of me standing on a small rise and as the scene starts to pan out and widen the view, I realize I’m standing in the palm of His hand – a hand that is so big I will never reach the edge. I may wander and I may stumble, but I will never fall off. Beloved, He’s got you and me in His hands. We may not be perfect, but we’re safe.

The Best Gift

“In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in Him, and He saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in Him; let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.’” Isaiah 25:9

What was the best gift you ever received?  A favorite toy? A special doll or musical instrument? A treasured book?  A picture, tickets to a sporting event or concert? For me, it was a “walking Betsey doll” as a child, and the Christmas my husband purchased every color of embroidery floss that DMC made for my cross-stitch “addiction.”  Sometimes the best gift is something that we need and cannot get for ourselves.  This is the heart of God’s gift of salvation.  We needed to be saved from punishment due to us sinners.  We cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we try to be “good enough,” no matter how much we work, no matter how much we give – we are helpless to secure our own salvation.

Popular theology says that God saw His creation falling away from Him, into the clutches of sin and Satan, and He sent His Son in response.  But God’s salvation through Jesus Christ was His plan for the ages, from before the creation of man or the earth (ref. 1 Peter 1:20). Before God said “let there be light,” His Son was destined for the cross.  Why would God sentence His Son to die for you and me?  David answered in Psalm 22:20 – “He rescued me because he delighted in me.”  It’s that simple – God delights in you – He loves you, and He rescued you from the penalty of sin and the power of death because He delights in and loves His children.  God’s gift of salvation is available to every person. No one is exempt. No one is left out.  But the choice to receive or reject God’s gift is ours and ours alone.

What Joy is ours when we choose this gift, when we accept this great salvation offered to us by the blood of Jesus.  Hear the words of Isaiah as he proclaims, “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.  For He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).  Do you hear the delight and rejoicing?  God takes away our filthy garments of sin and shame and condemnation and exchanges them for royal garments of salvation and drapes our shoulders with the robe of righteousness – His righteousness.  If you have accepted this gift, rejoice my friend in Christ, REJOICE! If you have not Beloved, will you open your heart to receive the greatest gift ever given, the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ?

Hebrews: This is the Gospel

Tupac Shakur said, “Only God can judge me.” Coming from a guy who portrayed a “gansta” life and sang about violence, rape, drugs, and destruction, he was spot on. I don’t know if he ever read the Bible, but he’s paraphrasing Paul: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court . . . It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3,4). The writer of Hebrews echoed him saying, “you have come to God the judge of all men . . .” (Heb 12:23). That is part of the gospel story that has fallen out of favor in recent years, but it’s the bad news that makes the good news so good.

I am sure you know John 3:16 well. It reveals the heart of the gospel: God loves sinners. But Jesus also said: “Whoever does not believe [in Him] stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (v. 18).  Here’s the rest of the story (nod to Paul Harvey).  God sent His Son because all of mankind is condemned because of sin.  Not because of our sinful actions, but because sin is the human condition since the fall.  We’re not sinners because we sin – we sin because we’re sinners. It’s not just what we do – it’s who we are. The destiny of all people is eternal condemnation – the wrath of God. Unless we believe in Jesus – and then our destiny is eternal life. That is what Paul means when he says: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Hebrews continues the thought saying, “You have come . . . to the spirits of righteous men made perfect” – just as we will one day be. “You have come to Jesus . . .” Just stop right here and rest in that statement. That changes everything. “You have come to Jesus – the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (v. 24). The new covenant is a covenant of mercy – of a love that saves through holy blood that was shed, not from jealousy and rage, but from divine providence. Abel’s blood brought about a curse on Cain. Jesus’ blood brings freedom from the curse of sin for everyone who believes.

In 279 words I have told you the gospel. Here’s the summary: You are a sinner. God loves you. Jesus died to save you. Beloved, won’t you come to Jesus?

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.

I Can Love

Joy and her friends at church. Photo by Wanda Williams

My granddaughter preached a sermon the other night. As I was taking her to her mommy to settle in for the night we were rehearsing all the people that she loves. She loves Mommy and Daddy. She loves Nana and Poppy. She loves Mimi and Papa. She loves Aunt Linda and Uncle Wayne and Aunt Rhonda and Uncle Mike and Aunt Alta. She loves Granny. And she turned to me and said, “And I can love Uncle R (name redacted). Her mommy and I looked at each other with a “Wow!” Uncle R is not a nice person. He has been mean to the rest of his family. He has a history of violence and cruelty. And the last time he was around Joy, he took delight in sneaking up behind her and scaring her. He is not allowed around her anymore. But she said, “I can love him.” Out of the mouths of babes . . .”

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43-44).  I want to ask Him, “Love him? Why? I mean, who gets their kicks from scaring a little girl?” And Jesus’ words continue: “that you may be sons [and daughters] of your Father in Heaven (v. 45). And there it is. God said that His children are called to live in a radically different way. They love – even their enemy.

“Love your enemy” sounds good on paper, but it’s not always easy to do. That’s by divine design. Love –genuine love – has to come from God. John said, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God” (1 John 4:7), and “We know and rely on the love God has for us” (v.16). We can only love those who mistreat us because God loved us first, and His love fills us up and spills out onto the one we cannot love on our own. I know that Joy’s parents have the good sense to keep a distance between her and Uncle for her safety. But what if – someday –she’s the one who will love him to Jesus? Isaiah prophesied, “a little child will lead them” (Is 11:6). I don’t think Uncle R stands a chance against a little girl who is determined to love him.