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.

God’s Got This

“Well, I didn’t see that coming.”

“Why this? Why now?”

“I never dreamed this would happen.”

“Not again! I thought this was all over.”

Ever said any of the above?  Sure you have. I have too – very recently in fact. We all experience it. The curve ball. The surprise. The “What is this?!”  The shocks of life are constant – and not always pleasant. But I have learned two things along the way: My heavenly Father is never caught off-guard, therefore I need not worry. He is never frantic over the epic ups and downs of my life. God never sits on His throne wringing His hands over the foolish situations I’ve put myself in – or that someone else has put me in. He’s never said, “I didn’t expect that! Now how am I going to work around the mess she’s in?”

How can I be so sure? Because His Word says that God knows “the end from the beginning” (Is 46:10). There is nothing coming, nothing I will do, nothing someone else will cause, and absolutely nothing that satan can attempt that God doesn’t already know. Every event, situation, circumstance, hardship, trial, and trouble has long been taken into consideration in His purpose and plan for my life. Do you know what that means? God figured out the resolution before I ever encountered the problem. This most recent bomb that dropped on me did so with His full knowledge and understanding. And here is something I am sure of to the marrow of my bones, if it was going to derail His plan for my life He would not have let it happen.

So what now? I honestly have no idea. But I have peace. Even in the unexpected, I know God is not worried. So why would I be? I don’t know what has hit your life and thrown you for a loop, but I know that God saw it coming before you did. The diagnosis. The failure. Your kid’s actions. Your spouse’s affair. The end of your career. The injury. The broken heart. Your loved one’s death. Whatever it is, He knew first and He’s got it figured out so that you are blessed and He is glorified. My constant mantra in times like these is: “I have rested that matter into the hands of my Father.” I offer it to you today. Say it as often as you need to. Then do it. He’s got this, Beloved, and He’s got you.

Jesus is in it for the Long Haul

Do you ever feel like a heavy weight on your family and friends? I know I have. In long-running seasons of difficulty, I have had friends turn away from me because they just couldn’t deal with me and my problems. It’s a hurtful thing, but honestly, I get it. They have their own struggles and responsibilities, and they can’t be expected to carry the extra weight of me. If I’m honest, I’ve done the same. We all have limited energy and resources, and we can’t allow one person to drain us dry.

I’m so glad that God has no such limitations. Isaiah said, “He will not grow tired or weary” – in fact, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (40:28-29). God’s compassion is endless. He has boundless energy and ceaseless love. “His compassions never fail. They were new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22,23). As the God-man
Jesus, He bore the whole weight of all your sins and mine on the cross. Surely, He can bear the weight of our “light and momentary troubles” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Charles Spurgeon said, “If Christ were only a cistern, we might soon exhaust His fullness, but who can drain a fountain?” He is a continual source of love and help in our time of need. His goodness toward you and me overflows and we will never use up His kindness. You can come to the well of His mercy over and over and over again. There’s no bucket big enough nor a rope long enough to drain His grace.

Whatever struggle you are in, He is in it with you – for the long haul. Others may not be able to bear the weight of your burdens, but He willingly carries you the full length and depth of it all. He is strong and He is compassionate. He is your Father, your Shepherd, your Forever Friend. He will never give up on you, Beloved. I’m living proof.

The Display of His Splendor

I couldn’t understand why I was in such a difficult trial. I had committed no grave sin that warranted discipline. I was being obedient to what the Lord had called me to do. And unlike so many other seasons of suffering, I hadn’t caused this one. “What is up with this God? What am I missing?” Then, as He loves to do, the Spirit took me to the Word for a word.

I was in the gospel of John. Jesus and His disciples encountered a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples, like me, looked for someone to blame. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2). Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (v. 3). Then the Lord healed the man. His eyes were opened and he could see.

When you read on in this account, the man’s healing drew a lot of attention. Many questioned the validity of the healing and the religious leaders pressed him for answers. They foolishly claimed that the healer was a sinner. The man proclaimed, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know.  One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see” (v. 25).

And that’s the point. People were talking about this miracle and about Jesus. The work of God was displayed in his life. From this account, I realized that I was not being punished or disciplined. I was being set up to display the glory of Christ Jesus, my Lord and Savior. And isn’t that the point of our lives – to be “A planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor” (Is 61:3)? When I was younger my Mom always warned me about my behavior because “We don’t want people to talk.” Well, I’m sorry Mom, but you’re wrong about this one. We want people to talk. We want them to ask questions. We want His name repeated all over town because of what He has done in our lives. “Did you see what God did? She had the worst reputation in town and now she shares Jesus with other women on the streets.” Or “He was so sick, no one thought he would survive that, but look at him now – so healthy and strong and praising God.” Or my own testimony: “She was such a negative, bitter, unhappy person and now she overflows with Joy!” I don’t know your story or your particular struggles but I know the Author of it, and I know that He is writing His name all over your life. You, Beloved, are the story of God.

Defense!

My football team lost yesterday. We’re not used to losing. We are winners. It has left a very bitter taste in our mouths. My husband will probably wear all black to church today. Why did we lose? Because we let them into our “house” – our end of the field. But even more so, because we didn’t defend the gate.

Isaiah was a prophet of the Lord to Judah. He continually warned the nation about their sin, idolatry, and disobedience. He prophesied the nation’s fall to Babylon as God’s punishment. But he also implored them to turn from their sin and return to God. He insisted that they guard their lives as fiercely as they guarded their city. The walls around Jerusalem were thick and strong and wide enough for armed sentries to stand guard all around. The troops had a high vantage point so they could see the enemy coming and warn the rest of the city. Immediately they shut and fortified the gates and put all their effort into defending that strategic point. If the enemy ever got past the gate, the city was all but defeated.

Isaiah called for Judah to be strong and “turn back the battle at the gate” (28:6). The defense point was the gate – not their doorstep. They kept the enemy away from their homes and families by keeping them out of the city. In football the gate is not the goal line – it is the 50-yard line. Almost every time the other team crossed the midpoint of the field they steamrolled into the endzone. If we’d never allowed them to get past the fifty-yard line, we would have won. The principle of defending the gate works in war, in football, and our lives.

You and I have to defend our gate. If we wait to battle sinful thoughts and desires after they’ve infiltrated our hearts and minds, we’ve already lost. What is the gate? It’s eyes and ears. It’s what we see and what we hear. No. Wait. The gate goes farther back than that. The gate is our choices – what we choose to see and hear and even what we choose to think about. When we choose well (see Philippians 4:8-9) we shut the gate. When we choose poorly – inappropriate websites, movies, books, t.v. shows, music with sexually explicit lyrics – we swing the gates wide open and leave ourselves with no defense. There’s so much this world throws at us that we can’t choose, but when you can, you need to keep your heart and mind secure with godly things. It’s not a game. Beloved, don’t lose the battle at the gate.

I Know That Voice

One morning Poppy and I took Joy out to breakfast, then to her favorite park. She was excited to see other children on the playground. She quickly made a few buddies and they were off to the races. Us old folks found a shady place to rest and watch her. I love watching children play. I love their delight at zooming down the slide and climbing high into the sky on the swings. I love to hear their squeals and laughter.  With so many kids talking and shouting and laughing you would think it would be difficult to tell when my kid was speaking, but as every parent and grandparent knows, you just know your child’s voice. Your ears are attuned to them. There were several “Nanas” on the playground that morning, but I knew when Joy called my name– even when she was on the other side of the lot because I was well familiar with her voice.

Isaiah 30: 21 says, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” The most common lament I hear is “How do I know it’s God speaking?” That’s a good question, especially in this noisy world where everyone has a megaphone and an opinion. We know that the “still, small voice” Elijah heard came out of the whirlwind, the earthquake, and the fire (1 Ki 19:12). How can we know that voice?

The same way I know my granddaughter’s voice over all the other kids on the playground – familiarity. I spend time with her. I listen to her constant chatter. I can recognize her pitch and tone from a hundred paces.  You and I can know God’s voice when we spend time with Him in His Word, in prayer, and the fellowship of the Church.  You will not only recognize the pitch and tone of His voice, but you will recognize the content of His message. God will never speak anything contrary to Scripture. God’s voice is in His Word.

There’s one other important thing – to recognize God’s voice you have to have a personal relationship with Him. I didn’t know any other child on the playground, but I knew mine, and her voice rings in my heart. A personal relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ – who is The Word – is the first step to knowing His voice. And one more – obedience to what you’ve heard enables you to hear more. Priscilla Shirer says, “God doesn’t just speak to be heard, He speaks to be obeyed.”

Know God, personally. Spend time with Him and become familiar with His voice and message. Obey what He says. Beloved, are you willing to hear from God?

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.

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: 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.