Advent 2022: Asleep on the Hay

“To us a Child is born,” Isaiah 9:6

To watch a child sleeping is to see the sweet face of innocence. Eyes closed to the world, mouth soft in repose as a tranquil, near-holy hush settles over their whole being. They say that when a baby smiles in his sleep, he has been kissed by an angel. If that is true—and why would we doubt it—the Infant Jesus must have smiled the whole night through. This Child was loved and adored on earth and in heaven.

Every baby brings a sense of promise to his family. Mother and father have dreams in their hearts of who this child will be—a doctor, a teacher, a missionary, or a dancer, perhaps even a leader who will one day change the world. One mother knew that her baby indeed would. One mother held the true Child of Promise, the Messiah who would bring peace on earth.

Oh, He looked like any other baby lying there in her arms, small, helpless, and beautiful. But she had heard the angel say that her child would be the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Joseph said that the angel had come to him too, and told him that this Child “will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Her cousin Elizabeth had declared “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear” (Luke 1:43). And what about the shepherds that came from the fields with a wild and glorious story of singing angels (Luke 2:8-18)? It is any wonder that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19)?

To the rest of the world, it was just another night. To anyone who might have come upon the stable, he was just another baby. But a young mother—and all of heaven knew—peace had come to the earth, wrapped in rough cloths, sleeping in a manger.

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.

Give Thanks

On this Thanksgiving Day I am drawn to 1 Chronicles 16:41: “With them were  . . . those chosen and designated by name to give thanks to the Lord, ‘for His love endures forever.’” Let me set the scene for you.  The Ark of the Covenant, the one element of the tabernacle that was God’s special seat, had been captured by Israel’s enemy, the Philistines.  David set out to bring the Ark home, and the people and their king were ecstatic. They celebrated the return of the Ark with sacrifices, offerings, praise, and joyful thanks. David crafted a beautiful Psalm of Thanks, which I encourage you to read in its entirety (1 Chronicles 16:7-36).

After the Ark was securely in its place in the tabernacle, David chose a group of priests to minister daily before the Lord, “To present burnt offerings . . . morning and evening, in accordance with . . .the Law” (v. 40). That was a crucial position in the spiritual life of the nation. But look again at verse 41.  Do you see that there were specific priests who were “chosen…to give thanks to the Lord”?  Their sole responsibility was to express gratitude to the Lord who was again dwelling among His people. They led the Israelites in exclamations of thanks with trumpets and cymbals and sacred songs. Theirs was a sacred responsibility.

Did you know that you and I are chosen by God to be His royal priests?  Peter said, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Pet 2:9). Jesus has provided the sacrifice, so the only priestly duty that is left is thanksgiving.  We have been chosen to lead our families, churches, communities, and nations in gratitude to the God who created us, sustains us, provides for us, and, most importantly, saved us.  We have been chosen to be thankful people. In the days of King David, the Ark was the assurance of God’s presence with His people, and they were grateful for His return. Today we have God’s presence in the indwelling Holy Spirit – and no one can take Him away. He will always be with us. And one day we will forever be with Him. Now that, Beloved, is something to be thankful for.

More Than Words

The more tired she is the more Joy fights sleep. I suppose she doesn’t want to miss a thing around her. When she was just a baby I would snuggle her close in the rocking chair and give her her bottle. She would drink just a little, pull away, then immediately complain because she didn’t have her bottle. I’d plug it back in and say, “You’re the one who turned away from it sweetie.” We would repeat this cycle several times until she finally gave up and drifted off.

This little ritual reminds me of people who complain, “I don’t feel God anymore. I don’t think God cares about me. Why does God not love me?” The first thing I ask them is, “What is God saying to you in His Word?” And they answer, “Oh, I haven’t read the Bible in a while – I know I should, I just haven’t felt like it.” DING-DING-DING! They just answered their own question. They don’t “feel” God or think he cares about nor loves them because they have turned away from the very place they find Him.

God gave the Israelites His commandments and His Law so that they would obey Him. But it was about more than just compliance, it was about knowing Him. The closer they lived to the commands of God, the more He revealed Himself to them. They came to know God by knowing and obeying His Words. Moses declared to them, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” (Deut 30:14).

The Word of God has never been more readily available than it is today. The Scriptures are literally at our fingertips, in printed form, electronic media, by audio and video – and in almost every language on earth. You can have it any way you want it. But you have to want it. You have to pick up the book or open the app or pull up the podcast. You have to make God’s Word a priority in your life. The less you read, the less you want to read.  And the converse is true: the more you read, the more you want to read.

The Bible is not just a bunch of stories and rules and words on paper. It is the true and living Word of God (Heb 4:12), inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God (2 Pet 1:20-21) and embodied in Jesus Christ, the Son of God (John 1:14). Have you turned away from the very thing your spirit is craving? Come back to the Bible, Beloved. “These are not just idle words for you, they are your life” (Deut 32:47).

Wonder and Awe

Piggy-backing on my post from yesterday, I once read an article about awe. There was actually a three-year research project done on awe at UCal Berkley, their report included such awesome findings as “Awe binds us together,” “Awe helps us see things in new ways,” “Awe makes us nicer – and happier,” and “Awe alters our bodies.” It also touted “the healing potential of awe.” Suggestions for finding awe included observing nature, listening to music, and one I heartily agree with – putting down the ever-present cell phone and simply looking up. I don’t dispute any of their findings or suggestions, but the article failed to ask and answer some very important questions, such as “Why do we feel awe?” and “What makes something awe-inspiring?” I’d like to take a stab at them myself – with the help of the Scriptures.

We feel awe because we were created for worship – and worship is at its purest and truest when it is accompanied by awe. The article says “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things.” (Dacher Keltner) Is there anything more vast or farther beyond our human understanding than the God of the Universe? David declared “You are awesome, O God, in your sanctuary” (Psalm 68:35)!

What makes something awe-inspiring is when we, in our smallness, stand in the presence of greatness. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, and it is awesome because it is huge and beautiful. Deuteronomy 7:21 says “The Lord your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God.” When we sense the presence of God we have no other response but awe. Actually, when we truly sense the awesome presence of God we cannot stand at all. As one of my spiritual mentors said, “There is nothing to do but stand in awe and bow in worship” (J.D. Walt). Still, the most important question is, “What happened to our sense of awe?” Sin happened. Pride happened. The sin of Adam and Eve, at its root, is the sin of pride. Where pride reigns, we lose the necessary humility to be awed. Beloved, if you ponder the fact that the holy, exalted, sovereign God of heaven and earth has singled you out for salvation and relationship and eternal life you should be humbled and awed. Could anything be more incredible, more grand and glorious, more awe-inspiring than that?

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.

Sin in the Camp

I don’t want to write this devotional. I’ve tried to talk God out of it, but He is persistent. This is His word to the Church – and the individual parts of it. Get your boots on and read Joshua 7.

Joshua and the army of Israel had just taken the city of Jericho. It was an extraordinary victory. Now they prepared to take Ai and the spies come back saying “Just send two or three thousand men to take it, for only a few men are there” (v. 3). But those three thousand were routed by the few men of Ai, and thirty-six were killed. The Israelites were in mourning – and in shock. Joshua went before the Lord and accused Him of bringing them out to destroy them (vv. 6-9). God corrected him saying, “Israel has sinned” (v. 11).

When the army went into Jericho they were commanded to not take any of the “devoted things” – the precious metals and other costly things – for themselves. All of those things were to be designated as “sacred to the Lord and put into His treasury”. Joshua said anyone who took them would bring about their own destruction and bring trouble on the whole camp of Israel (6:18-19). But somebody ignored that command. Through a process of elimination, Achan was found to be the guilty party. He saw a beautiful robe and silver and gold and he took them and hid them under his tent. He was the reason for Isreal’s defeat by a much smaller army. One man. One sin. But God regarded it as the whole nation’s sin. Achan and his entire family and even his animals were stoned to death and God’s curse was lifted from the nation.

Here’s what the Lord keeps speaking to me. The reason the Church today has so little power and has lost her godly influence in the world is because there is sin in the camp. The Church – the bride of Christ – has failed to keep herself pure and devoted only to Him. She has taken on lovers and allowed them to infiltrate His holy place. She has welcomed what God has called an abomination. She has championed perversion. She has fought for the slaughter of innocent babies. She has become like the world.

But here’s the other part of the problem. You and I are the church. You and I share the guilt because our personal, private lives affect the faithfulness of the camp, just as Achan’s did. You and I are joined to the whole body. We don’t live one life at church and a separate life outside of it. We cannot invite sin into our private lives and think it won’t matter. It all matters. To all of us.

So here is my pointed question – and believe me, I’m asking it of myself as well. What is buried under your tent Beloved? “You cannot stand until you remove it” (Joshua 7:13).

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?

Christ in You

It’s in the music on Christian radio. It’s in the studies on the shelves of Christian books stores. It’s in the podcasts and messages by Christian speakers. What is it? Me, me, me. I recently discovered a 90’s channel on my favorite Christian radio station. I’m a sucker for nostalgia so I listened to the music of my early days in the faith and quickly noticed a huge difference in the songs. The older music was much more Christ-centric. It was true worship music – who Jesus is and what He has done in His power and holiness. I flipped back to the current channel and the theme of the music was who Jesus is – to me, and what He has done – for me, and how He makes me feel. The studies that Christian publishers produce follow the same format. It’s all designed to invoke feelings, but it falls short of truth. Now I’m not a fuddy-duddy here to complain about the younger generation. I am a Bible teacher and I’m here to turn your focus from self to the Savior.

Charles Spurgeon said, “My faith rests not upon what I am or shall be or feel or know, but in what Christ is, in what He has done. Hallelujah!” So should ours. In his letter to the Colossian church, Paul said the most glorious mystery man can ever know is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Think about that. Christ. In you.

Christ in you means that “your spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10). The very same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead now lives in you (v. 11). Christ in you means that you can live by faith and walk in God’s love (Gal 2:20). Christ in you means that His power is at work within you, strengthening you in your inner being (Eph 3:16). Christ in you means that God’s glory is yours. Jesus said, “I have given them the glory that You gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and You in me” (John 17:22-23).

Christ in you means that have “the mind of Christ” (I Cor 2:16). Whoa! And Christ did not think about Himself. Listen to Paul again: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself . . . “ (Phil 2:5-8). And so must we. Sing about Christ. Study Christ. Hear the words of Christ. Christ is in you, Beloved. Now that’s something to sing about!

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.