Advent 2022: Christmas Light

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”  Isaiah 9:2

My granddaughter loves Christmas lights. Anytime we drive at night, even in the middle of summer, she is on the lookout for them. We tell her that the Christmas lights are not out yet but she always says, “Maybe we’ll see some.” I love that Joy is always searching for light in the darkness.

When I was a kid we visited a park with beautiful caverns. In one deep, dark cave the park guide turned out all the artificial lights and the room was plunged into total darkness.  For a moment I was overcome by a sense of despair and fear.  In that pitch-blackness, I lost all orientation. I had no idea where the exit was, or where anyone else was.  If my friend had not grabbed my hand, I would have thought I was completely alone – that I had been abandoned.  Then the guide lit one small match.  All eyes were drawn to the light. With that single flickering flame, the darkness was overcome. Darkness is nothing more than the absence of light – but where there is even the smallest light, darkness has lost its power.

Adam and Eve plunged this world into sin and we are disoriented in spiritual darkness.  It is the kind of darkness that makes you feel completely alone and abandoned. Oh, the world offers a distorted light that is all glitz and glitter and flash. But it’s not the kind of light that helps you find your way.  Yet we are not to despair. God had a plan from before the creation of the world – before He called forth the light (Gen 1:3). He sent His One and Only Son to be “the Light of the world” (John 8:12).  His light overcame sin and evil and death. His light has the power to overcome the darkness and despair of living in this sin-sick, evil world with all its struggles and heartaches, and pain. He is “the true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9).

Paul wrote, “God, who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made His light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).  This Advent season, as you enjoy the lights of Christmas, let the light of the Christ Child come in and dispel the darkness.  Beloved, come live in the Light of Jesus Christ.

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

I Can’t . . . But I Know Who Will

In our Scripture writing group, we are working our way through Genesis, specifically the story of Joseph. You know the kid who was sold to slave traders by his brothers, then to a powerful man in Egypt whose wife accused him of attempted rape and he was thrown in prison. While there, he correctly interpreted two of his prison mates’ dreams. When Pharaoh had a dream of his own two years later one of the men suggested Joseph could interpret the dream. He was brought before the highest man in the land who insisted that the prisoner do the same for him. Joseph’s reply is resonating deep within my soul this morning. “I cannot do it,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires” (Gen 41:16).

And that is the story of my life: “I cannot . . . but God will.”  I cannot save myself . . . but God will.  I cannot make a masterpiece out of the mess of my life . . . but God will. I cannot heal my broken heart . . . but God will. I cannot love others who have hurt me . . . but God will. I cannot speak wisdom and truth . . . but God will. I cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit . . . but God will. I cannot be strong in my weakness . . . but God will. I cannot be the wife, mother, grandmother, employee, friend, teacher, and writer that I was created to be . . . but God will.

I hear echoes of Jesus’ words in John 5:19: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by Himself . . .” If Jesus can do nothing by Himself then I should not be ashamed that I can’t either.  It’s what made Jesus human – He had to rely on His Father – just like me.

In this culture where all of our focus is on me, myself, and I, it’s time we shift our attention from what we can’t do and start declaring what God can – and will – do. And of all the things that God will do, the one I count on the most is that God will be faithful. He knows that I am fallible, He knows that I get weary and my shoulders are not strong enough to carry all my burdens. In all the things that I cannot do, God will be faithful to do it. In me. Through me. Despite me. And He will do the same for you. You cannot do it, Beloved . . . but God will.

Consider it Pure Joy (part 1)

Check this out – James says that as believers we are to greet every trial as a cause for Joy.  “Consider it pure Joy, my brothers [and sisters], when you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). Excuse me? Joy is not my default reaction when life gets hard. I don’t like trials and I’ll bet you don’t either.  But the Bible says that we can have Joy because our trials are not without purpose.  God has a reason for every trial we face.

James follows up our key verse by saying, “Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4).  We know that we become physically stronger when we work our muscles, and any trainer will tell you that resistance training is the best strengthening exercise.  Our faith becomes stronger when we have opportunities to exercise it as we strain against some resistant force – like a trial.  How will you know that you can trust God if you never have to?  Trials strengthen our faith and lead us into spiritual maturity.

Trials also accomplish God’s wider purposes.  Joseph was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape, and unjustly imprisoned.  But all of those very hard things positioned him to be in the right place at the right time – God’s place and God’s time.  Joseph was used in Egypt to save thousands of lives during the famine, most importantly the life of his own people – the Jews, through whom our Savior, Jesus, would come. Through some pretty hard trials in our life, God moved us back home positioning us for many good blessings including placing me in a great job with the opportunity to further my education – for free.  Trials often become the catalyst for a God-ordained redirection into His good plan.

Our trials prepare us to minister to others.  Paul said, “The Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). I have benefited greatly from the wise counsel and comfort of others who have “been there, done that” and survived.  Their testimony brought me hope and confidence in God and they gave good advice drawn from their own experience.  Perhaps your trial today will give you the wisdom to come alongside someone in a similar situation one day and offer them hope.

This is part one. Part two will post tomorrow.

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.”

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.

Faith and Fear

If I give my mind just a little rope it will always run into the pit of anxiety and fear. I was very fearful as a child and it stuck with me all my life. “But you’re a Christian,” you say, “and you write often about not giving in to fear.” And you are correct. It’s been a hard lesson for me, and I don’t always get it right, but God has revealed something to me in His Word and I need to pass it on to you.  Please take a moment to read Genesis 32:1-12.

Genesis 32:7 says Jacob was “in great fear and distress,” and with good reason. He was returning home to the brother whom he had years earlier cheated out of their father’s blessing. The brother who had sworn to kill him. The brother who was coming toward him accompanied by four hundred men. I would be in great fear and distress too. Jacob prayed to the God of His father Isaac and grandfather Abraham saying, “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me” (v. 11). Then he immediately follows his confession of fear with a profession of faith – “But You have said, “I will surely make you prosper and make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted” (v. 12).

Do you see the pivot point? “I am afraid…” “But You have said…”(vs. 11,12). Jacob was afraid of his brother, but he trusted God and took Him at His word. “I will believe what You have said, Lord.” Notice that Jacob didn’t say, “My brother is coming after me, but I’m not afraid.” He was honest about his fear – just as I have been many times. Then he picked up his shield of faith – just as the Spirit has taught me to do, too.  David said, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Psalm 56:3). That’s a simple, yet powerful prescription for fear.

Whatever is making you anxious today, Beloved, take your fears to God in prayer. He will not condemn you for being afraid, but He will remind you of His promises and give you the peace and courage you need. Faith is the hinge on which our hearts swing between fear and hope.

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?

Look Up!

Sometimes words and phrases in the Bible will catch my attention in such a way that I know it is God speaking to my heart. That happened last night as I was preparing the Sunday School lesson. It was as if the Spirit took a divine highlighter and marked the words “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look . . .” (Gen 13:14). It started a treasure hunt and I discovered the same text repeated several times in the Bible.

There have been many times in my life when I was so discouraged and downhearted that all I ever saw were my feet. My head was always down along with my spirit. There’s something about our physical position that affects our emotional position. When all you ever see is the bottom of the pit it’s all you think there is. When your shoulders are continually rounded, your heart is pointing towards the floor. It becomes very hard to pick your head up. That’s where this good word helps.

Joy had to go to the dentist this week. She had a horrible experience at a previous dental visit and now she’s very fearful. When she realized where we were she tucked her chin into her little chest and started whimpering. I held her close to me and gently called out her name to get her attention. She wouldn’t raise her head at first but she did cut her eyes up to me and when I told her I loved her and it was going to be okay she eventually lifted her face – and her head – toward me.

That’s the picture I see in this verse. Life gets very hard sometimes and we may find ourselves someplace we don’t want to be. We may be there from our own foolishness and sin, through someone else’s failure, or because God has brought us into a desert for a season. Whatever the situation, “lift up your eyes and look.” Look at what? At Him. He’s there with you. He has promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you (Joshua 1:5). Beloved, when your head and heart are bowed low, when you are afraid or sad or feel lost, lift up your eyes and look for Him. God is as close as a whispered prayer.

Protecting the Promise

I promised this yesterday, and yesterday went sideways on me so here ‘tis. 

Abraham – originally Abram – was a regular guy living a regular life in the ancient near east when God stepped in. Promises were made for “a great nation” (Gen 12:2) and land. Promises that would change the course of world history. But first God would have to guard those promises from the man’s foolishness.

Over and over Abraham put those promises in jeopardy. He went to Egypt and claimed that his wife, Sarah was his sister (a partial truth – but still a lie). He went to Gerar and made the same statement. In both instances, his wife was taken into the harem of the Pharoah and the king (Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-18). Both times God interrupted the setup and protected Sarah – and the promise of a child – by not allowing her to be taken into the royal bed.  Abraham wasn’t the only one who acted faithlessly. Sarah, believing it was up to her to fulfill God’s promise (doesn’t that sound familiar), gave her slave-girl to Abraham to produce an heir – but not the heir of the Divine promise. Once again, God had to step in and send Hagar and Ishmael away to protect the promise.

Abraham eventually figured it out. After Sarah died he realized that it was time for his son, Isaac, to marry. But he must not marry a woman from the surrounding people – the Canaanites – a wicked nation who did not worship God. They would surely lead Isaac away from God. He sent his servant back to his own people to get a wife for his son. The servant asked, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?” (Gen 24:5).  Abraham declared, “Make sure that you do not take my son back there” (v. 6). Why? The Lord had said, “To your offspring I will give this land . . .” (v. 7). The promise was tied to the land. Abraham knew if his son went back to his family the promise would be in jeopardy. This time, Abraham was protecting the promise. His son could not leave “The Promised Land.” There was too much at stake.

What does this mean for you and me today? God still makes promises and He still works to protect those promises. And so must we. Guard your steps. Guard your life. Make God’s promises the beat of your heart, Beloved. All the way to The Promised Land.