Advent 2022: Joseph – A Man of Mercy

In the telling of the Christmas story, Joseph, the earthly “step-father’ of Jesus doesn’t get much attention. Little is recorded about him other than he was a carpenter by trade (Matthew 13:55) and a descendant of David (John 2:4). But I learned something recently about him that had previously escaped my attention in the rush to get to the birth story.

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

In the eyes of the Jewish community, Mary had committed a grievous sin – becoming pregnant as an unmarried woman was bad enough but to conceive a child with someone other than her betrothed was unforgivable. According to the religious law, the “righteous” thing to do was to “bring her to the door of her father’s house, and there the men of the town shall stone her to death” (Deuteronomy 22:21). It was a sin that merited public execution. Instead, Joseph chose to handle the situation quietly to spare her from disgrace and punishment. And because he acted mercifully, God, through the pen of Matthew, declared Joseph “a righteous man.”

Jesus esteemed mercy; He said the merciful will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7) and declared that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 12:8). His brother James proclaimed, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). I think, sometimes the church has it backward. Much like the Jewish religious leaders, we think that righteousness means always doing the right thing; Joseph shows us that righteousness is doing the Jesus thing – showing mercy. After all, that is the heart of the Christmas story: God’s love poured out in mercy to sinners like you and me through Jesus Christ.

This Christmas season, is there someone in your life that needs mercy – someone who needs love? No, they probably don’t deserve it – but neither did you. It will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, Beloved, but it is the Jesus thing. Let’s commit to being righteous people – let’s be people of mercy.

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.

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.”

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.

Hebrews: Daddy’s Hands

Parents aren’t supposed to play favorites with their children, but sometimes they do.  Just ask Esau or all of Joseph’s brothers. Or me. My Dad’s favorites were my two older brothers. They loved to tinker on cars just like he did. My Mom’s favorite was my younger brother. He was sick a lot as a kid and so she was closer to him. I always felt like nobody’s kid.  Until God told me His special name for me in Luke 8:48.

Before we dig in, please grab your Bible and read Hebrews 12:5-10. The heart of this passage is the believer’s position as a child of God. How do you know that you are God’s child? The writer said we know it because He disciplines us. In the first-century world, it was common for men to have wives and concubines and to father children with both. But they did not involve themselves in the lives of the children of the concubines. These were illegitimate children and they were on their own as far as their “father” was concerned. He did not take any responsibility for their care or discipline. It’s not unlike our culture today, is it?

Good fathers discipline their children. They don’t berate and abuse their children but they also don’t let them run amuck, getting into all kinds of trouble and danger. Good fathers guard and guide their children. They teach them the right way and then redirect them when they get off track. Good fathers pay attention to their children and notice when they need help or correction. (Dad – put down your cell phone/game controller/remote control!)

Discipline involves both training and punishment. A good father will use both, in the correct measures. Paul reminded fathers to “not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Now, this is not a parenting devotional – I am far, far from the expert on raising kids. I want you to see how God “parents” us – His children. He follows the counsel He gave to Paul – He uses correction as well as positive reinforcement. And sometimes, the writer says He has to use punishment. Because He loves us too much to let us run headlong into self-destruction.

The goal of a good father is to raise mature, healthy, responsible children. The goal of our Heavenly Father is to raise children who reflect His Son (Rom 8:29) and share in His holiness ( v. 10). How does our Father know when He has succeeded? When He can say, “I have no greater Joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn 4).

Mistakes – I’ve Made a Few

When I study, I write with a pen in hand and put ink on paper – old school. It helps me remember things like I’m writing stuff directly in my brain. I was writing down a Scripture reference the other day and wrote the wrong number, (I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I do make mistakes) so I wrote the correct number over it. I traced it several times to make the right number show up better and cover over the wrong number, and in the process, I made the right number unreadable. I finally had to just scribble out the whole thing and rewrite it correctly and clearly.

Some of us are trying to fix our own mistakes. We’re trying to write over our sins and failures. We think, “If I just do enough things right, no one – especially God – will notice what I did wrong.” The problem is, the more we try to fix it, the worse we make it. Yep, I see you nodding your head. You’ve done it too.  And what we mess up is not a written word but ourselves.  If we keep going we will not even know who we are. Here’s the hard truth folks, you and I cannot overwrite our sins. God is not fooled. So stop trying.

God has a better plan. He said, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgression, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25). The idea here is that all your sins are written down in a book and God erases them, No, even better than erasing them, He removes them forever by washing our sin-page – and us – with the blood of His Son. John put it like this: “The blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). All of it. Every. Single. One. Jesus’ blood makes us spotless, innocent, and pure with no trace of our former sin left behind. Does that seem too good to be true? Trust me, it is true. Better yet, trust Him.

 Give your mistakes to Jesus. Give Him every sin and every failure. Give Him the shame and the guilt. Give Him the pain and regret. Let Him cover over it all with His precious blood and rewrite your story with His grace. Then, Beloved, you will be who God created you to be. His.

Do You Know Who You Are?

I have several pet names for my granddaughter like “Pumpkin,” “Sunshine,” or “Sweetie Pie.” Every time I call her by any of those names she will say, “I’m not a Pumpkin/Sunshine/Sweetie Pie. I’m a SWEET GIRL!” From the day she was born, I’ve told her constantly, “You are a sweet girl,” so that she knows exactly who she is. I wonder if you know who you are?

You are God’s beloved child: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 1:12-13). His is an unbreakable, unshakable, never-ending love (Romans 8:35-39).

You are chosen and adopted into His family forever: “We know, brothers [and sisters] loved by God, that He has chosen you . . . (1 Thess 1:4); “In love, He predestined us to be adopted as his sons [and daughters] through Christ Jesus (Eph 1:5).

You are His masterpiece: “God’s workmanship” (Eph 2:10), made in His image (Gen 1:26-27), continually being conformed to the likeness of His Son (Rom 8:29).

You are redeemed – purchased at a very high price: “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed . . . but with the precious blood of Christ, (1 Peter 1:18-19). That means you are very valuable.

You are a new person: “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new creation; the old has gone the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). You are accepted (Rom 15:7), one with Christ (Gal 3:27-28), God’s special possession (1 Pet 2:9). You are an heir (Gal 4:7), hidden in Christ (Col 3:1-3), baptized into Christ, clothed with Christ and one in Christ (Gal 3:26-29). And you are blessed (Eph 1:3).

I don’t do the “I’m a princess because my Daddy is the King” thing. But it is important to know your true identity in Christ for at least two reasons. First, the world and satan will try to make you doubt who you are and give you a different, false identity. You need to be as sure of yourself as my granddaughter is. And secondly, you need to act like who you are, which is another reason I remind her constantly that she is a “sweet girl.” Paul said, as a child of God we must put away our old identities and put on Christ (Rom 13:14). Why? Because, Beloved, THAT is who you are. Don’t forget it.

Beloved of God

I have learned more about the love of God as a grandmother than almost anything else in my life. Last night Joy leaned her head against my shoulder and said, “I love you, Nana.” And Nana melted into a puddle. Oh, how my heart sang with – well – Joy. But she loved me because I loved her first. I fell in love with her the day she was born. I told her so the first time I held her in my arms. I’ve told her multiple times a day for the last three years and 52 days. I will tell her I love her every day for the rest of my life.

When I told her “I love you” on that first day of her life, she had no love to offer me. She was a helpless, tiny baby. I didn’t love her because of what she could do. I loved her because it welled up in me like a tidal wave. She was about a year old when she first started saying “I love you.” But she wasn’t expressing her own affection – she was just parroting me. She didn’t really understand what “love” meant. She just knew it made Nana happy when she said it back to me. But in time, through showing her my love, she understood, and when she says “I love you” now she is speaking from her heart.  

Paul said that God loved us when we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). When we had nothing to offer Him in return for His love. John said that is because “God is love” (1 John 4:16). He wrote, “We love because He first loved us” (v. 19). John knew a thing or two about God’s love through Jesus. He called himself, “The disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23, 20:2, 21:7, 20). Of course, Jesus loved all of His disciples (John 13:1), but John took that personally. He made it his identity. It fueled his ministry and his life. Whatever befell him, whatever the world did to break him – like exiling him to the Isle of Patmos – John took that assurance with him.

So can you. I hope you’ve noticed that I always refer to you as “Beloved”. That’s because you are. I want you to hear that and believe it with all your heart. I want you to take it personally and make it your identity. I want you to write it on your heart forever. You are the Beloved of God.

This Little Light of Mine

The power went out at our house for five hours during a very strong storm last week. We immediately started grabbing flashlights. There’s something about darkness that is unnerving. Maybe because the Bible equates darkness with sin and evil and emptiness. Before God created all that exists, there was only darkness (Gen 1:2); the first thing He did was call forth light (v. 3-4). But He didn’t create the sun and moon and stars until day four (v. 14-19). So where did that first light come from? From Himself. It was His light breaking through the dark, empty void.

When men were lost in darkness and sin, and could no longer see the light of God, He brought His light down to us. John said that Jesus, the very Son of God, is “the true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9). John also said, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). When we turned on the flashlights and lanterns the darkness dissipated. It was driven away because darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. Wherever light shines, darkness cannot exist.

The same is true spiritually. Consider this – Jesus declared that He is “the light of the world.” He added, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Did you catch that – “will never walk in darkness?” That is both a hopeful promise and a statement of character. Jesus brought the light of God so that we won’t stumble in darkness and sin. But John also said, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth” (1 John 1:6). Simply put – Christ-followers WON’T walk in darkness. And if we do we should recheck the validity of our claim. If we have the light of Christ, there should be no place for darkness in our lives.

Paul says that we are “sons [and daughters] of the light . . . We do not belong to the darkness” (1 Thess 5:5). We belong to Christ. Darkness and all it implies have no authority over the believer. Our testimony in the world is the light of Christ. Jesus said that now “we are the light of the world” (John 5:14). That means that you, Beloved, need to let your little light shine.