A Gift From God

Several sweet ladies did something kind and generous for me this week. They not only met my need, but they encouraged me greatly with their love. They were a gift from God to me. The Father loves to give gifts to His children. James said, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . .” (Jas 1:17). The foundation of the Christian faith is the gift of Jesus. “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Eight times in His high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus speaks to His Father of “those you have given me.” (John 17: 2, 6, 9, 11-12, 24). The word for “given” means to bestow a gift. It’s the same word used in John 3:16. The great pastor and scholar Elmer Towns said: “As Jesus is the Father’s gift of love to the world, believers are the Father’s gift of love to Christ.” Imagine that. If you and I are in Christ, the Father has presented us to His Son as a gift to express His love. I am stunned and overwhelmed by that thought.

I always believed I was just a burden to Jesus. The Scriptures are clear, He went to the cross because there was no other way to save me. It had to be done. But when I began studying the Bible deeply I realized that Jesus endured the cross with Joy (Heb 12:2). Oh, I know my sins weighed heavy on his shoulders. I know it was an excruciatingly painful death He experienced on my behalf. But the picture the writer painted in this verse is that Jesus looked into heaven and saw my face there – and yours – and that gave Him Joy.

I’ve struggled my whole life with a low sense of myself and I know I’m not alone in that. Life has a way of beating us down. It’s hard to hold your head up when you’ve been told from childhood all the things that are wrong with you and how you fail to measure up. Beloved, Jesus doesn’t see you as a burden He has to bear. He sees you as a gift He Joyfully received from His Father. And everybody loves a gift – even Jesus.

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?

In a Dry and Weary Land

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Before David became the king of Israel he was a man on the run. He was being pursued by the reigning king, Saul, who was jealous of David’s popularity after the shepherd boy killed Goliath and the women had danced and sang in his honor. He ran for his life, into the desert of Judah. Deserts are harsh places and David lamented this “dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps 63:1b). David was thirsty, but it wasn’t liquid refreshment he craved. Listen to his cry: “O God, You are my God, earnestly I seek You; my soul thirsts for You, my body longs for You . . .” (v. 1a). Water would have been welcome, but David’s greatest desire was for his God.  He said, “Your love is better than life,” (v. 3).

I understand David’s desert season. It’s been a rough couple of weeks with sickness, struggles, responsibilities, and my granddaughter moving away. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You’ve also had struggles of one kind or another. It’s so draining. The result is the same: the heart becomes weary and the soul gets dry. What do we do in these desert seasons? The same things David did.

We earnestly seek God. The KJV says “early will I seek thee” and that’s the best time to start – early. Yes, early in the morning, but also early in the dry spell. Don’t wait until your heart is withered and parched. Seek God early, as soon as you feel the sand on your toes. Earnestly also means diligently. Seek God early and often.

We praise God. “My lips will glorify you. I will praise You as long as I live . . . my mouth will praise You.” (v. 3-5 sel). Praise is like vitamin-infused water to our dry hearts. And praise silences the enemy who loves to hit you when you’re down.

We remember God. “On my bed, I remember you; I think of You through the watches of the night” (v. 6). When my heart is heavy, my brain will not shut up at night. Rather than think about all the things that are going wrong, we can choose to think about what is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). In other words, think about God.

We grab hold of God. “My soul clings to you; (v. 8). Remember the old bandaid song, “I am stuck on Bandaid, cause Bandaid’s stuck on me.” Cling to God because “Your right hand upholds me.” He’s got you.

We rejoice in the Lord. “Rejoice in God; all who swear by God’s name will praise Him” (v. 11). We can rejoice because God is faithful. He will come with His refreshing, comforting, powerful presence. We have His Word on it.

Beloved, if your heart is dry and weary, seek God, praise Him, remember Him, hang on to Him, and find Joy in Him. And “sing in the shadow of His wings” (v. 7).

Does Anyone See Me? Does Anyone Care?

When her cousin Elizabeth blessed the Baby in her womb, Mary broke out in praise. Luke 1:46-55 is called “The Magnificat” for the first word of her song: Magnificat anima mea Dominum – “My soul glorifies the Lord.” Her reasons run from His blessings to her as an individual to His work on behalf of the nation of Israel to His mighty hand in the world – all declaring His faithfulness.

She said, “He has been mindful of the humble state of His servant”. (v. 48) The NLT renders this “He took notice of His lowly servant girl.” Mary was just one more simple girl living in a poor Judean village – she had no wealth, no status, no theological or religious education – but the Lord God of Heaven and Earth was mindful of her. She celebrated the God who “lifted up the humble – the lowly and despised” (v. 52).

I wonder if you feel unnoticed, overlooked, or disregarded. Day after day you do the thing – care for your family, work a long day at your job, pour over the books as you study, sit with sick loved ones (or maybe not-so-loved ones), wipe noses and bottoms (your own littles or someone else’s), clean floors and dishes, carry responsibilities that aren’t yours to bear. Maybe you come home to a quiet empty apartment every day, or to kids looking to you alone to meet their wants and needs. You are probably wondering how to stretch a little money a long way and when you will ever get a break. Does anyone see you? Does anyone care?

Yes, beloved – God sees you and God cares. Mary could praise the God who took notice of her – a lowly servant girl in a poor village. This is the same God who was named “El Roi” – the God who sees me – by a pregnant Egyptian slave girl on the run in the desert. God told her to name her son “Ishmael,” which means “God hears.” This same God sees and hears you – every tear, every sigh, every lonely, exhausting night, every whispered prayer for help and hope and strength. You are not unnoticed Beloved. The God who created you, who sent His Son to die for you, is mindful of you. He loves you. You are precious in His sight.

A Lesson in Love

The man asked a burning question, “What must I do to be saved?” And he knew all the right answers – love God and love your neighbor. He even claimed to practice them regularly. But he wanted to “justify himself,” as the Greek says to “exhibit oneself such as he wishes to be considered.” He wanted to appear supremely righteous – even more righteous than Jesus – so he asked another question: “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus told a story of a wounded, broken man and the “righteous” people who passed him by. But an unlikely person came along – one who was considered most unrighteous.  It was he who stopped and rendered aid – he cared for the man and about the man.

Then Jesus turned the question around. “Which of these was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  See, the man wanted to know, according to the Law, whom he had to love. Jesus said love isn’t done according to the law, but according to the heart. The Lord pointed to the neighbor not as the one in need but as the one who met the need.

People are sad.

Lonely.

Hungry.

Abused.

Hurting.

Broken.

Homeless.

Afraid.

Grieving.

Helpless.

Sick.

Mistreated.

Hopeless.

And yes, angry.

There is no end to the needs in the world.

But I can’t fix everybody. Where do I start?

With the person God sets in front of you.

“Who is the neighbor. . . ?”

“The one who had mercy on him.”

“Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37

Hebrews: How to be a Christian Neighbor

The culture knows Scripture – at least a few verses that they are passionate about. “Judge not” (Matt. 7:1), “God is love” (1 John 4:16), and “Let him who is without sin . . . cast the first stone” (John 8:7). I found them a new one that I think they will really like: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men” (Heb 12:14). What’s interesting about these cultural favorites is that they are only partial verses or plucked out of their context so that their meaning is skewed. It is a favorite ploy of the devil, who knows more Scripture than most people in the pews. When he came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he quoted from Psalm 91:11-12, but he stopped just shy of his own demise in verse 13. (You should go look that up. In fact, I encourage you to look up all of these verses and read their surrounding context.)

Hebrews 12:14 has a second part that colors the whole verse differently. “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord.” Oh. When you add verse 15, it becomes clearer: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Now, before I started digging deeper into this verse, I thought it meant something like “let no ill feelings take root” but I was wrong (that’s not easy to say!). First, the word “bitter” metaphorically means “extreme wickedness” and literally means “poison”. Poison kills.

This reaches directly back to Deuteronomy as Moses was reiterating the covenant they had made with the Lord God. He said, “Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those [pagan] nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison” (Deut 30:18).

I’ll be honest, I’ve wrestled with this all week. It’s not an easy passage. But I believe it means to live in peace with your neighbors, especially your unsaved neighbors, don’t condemn them or harasses them over their lifestyle. Don’t cause them to turn to wickedness because of your self-righteousness. But you – and remember, the writer is speaking to the community, not to individuals – live a holy life, set apart unto God. Because Jesus showed us that a truly holy life is attractive and winsome to a lost world. And so must we be.

When I Stand Before Jesus

I wrote this several years ago, and as I was reading this passage this morning, the Holy Spirit revealed something new to me (which is why we read the Scriptures over and over and over – there’s always something new to learn.)

I have always been drawn to the story of the woman caught in adultery (see John 8:1-11), mostly because I can see myself in two of the main characters.  So many times I am part of the judgmental crowd.  Like the religious leaders, I catch someone and call them out, accusing them and looking on with scorn.  Oh, I’m never obvious about it mind you – it’s all done in my head – but I might as well have drug them before the church because I’ve declared them guilty.  Yet, I have also been the woman, the sinner caught in the act standing before Jesus shamed and ashamed.  I know I am guilty as I stand clutching my sheet of self-reproach, trying to cover my nakedness and my sin.

Here is where something new came to me. I initially said that Jesus sees me in both roles and reminds me of my own sinfulness as He calls me to drop my rock of condemnation. But I realized that I was wrong.  Because I am washed in His blood, my sin has been removed – “As far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12) never to be remembered again. He will never throw my sin back in my face. He may gently chastise me for my judgmental attitude, but He does not remind me of my past transgressions because He has forgotten them. That’s huge to me, because I have an enemy who loves to taunt me with my past – and I have a past that gives him lots of ammunition. But Jesus steps in with His scars and declares me forgiven and free.

After He turned her accusers away, Jesus told the woman He did not condemn her. He didn’t even condemn her accusers. He condemns no one.  Paul said that He is the only one who rightly could, but He doesn’t (Rom 8:34). Instead, He sacrificed Himself to take away the condemnation our sin has heaped on us. Yes, sometimes you and I are both the accused and the accuser, but oh, to be like the One who pours out grace and mercy to all who believe. Lord, help me to be more like you and less like me.

A Brand New Day”

It is a brand new day. Maybe, like me, you’re up before the sun, or you may have slept in and it’s mid-morning – or even afternoon. But it’s a day that the Lord has made, so be glad and rejoice in it (Ps 118:24). God has given you a gift today.

It is a day filled with new opportunities and new mercies (Lam. 3:23). Yesterday’s failures are buried. Today is a new slate, bright and clean.

You do not face this day alone; Jesus is present with you (Matt. 28:20).

He is Your Shepherd (Ps. 23:1).

His Father is your Father (Matt. 20:17).

He is your Comfort (2 Cor. 1:3)

Your Rock (Ps 18:2).

Your Strength (Ps 19:14).

Your Shield (Deut. 33:29).

Today keep your heart and mind focused on Him and the worries of your life will seem small because He is so great. Your heavenly Father knows what you need, even before you ask Him (Matt 6:8) and your life is more valuable to Him than anything else in creation (Matt 6:25). He is sufficient for all your needs (Phil 4:19).

He is your Peace (Judg 6:24).

He is your Helper (Ps 54:4)

Your Light (Ps 27:1)

Your Exceeding Joy (Ps 43:4).

He is the God of your Life (Ps 42:8)

Consider how extraordinary it is that the gracious, mighty, sovereign God sang you to sleep last night (Zep. 3:17) and He sent you word this morning of His unfailing love (Ps. 143:8). His is an everlasting (Jer 31:3), unfailing (Psalm 52:8), never-ending (Psalm 107:1) love.

The angels declare that the whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord. (Isaiah 6:3). Keep your eyes fixed on Him (Heb. 12:2),  Beloved, all through this day and you will see His glory all around you.

I [Don’t] Got This!

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“You hang in there, girl. God will never give you more than you can handle.” I never wanted to call someone a liar as much as I did the woman who made that statement to me.  But I’m southern and we don’t call our elders liars, so I thanked her and hugged her, and flushed her counsel from my brain. While that may sound full of warm fuzzy faith, there’s not a shred of support for it in Scripture. The Bible is clear that God often gives us more than we can handle.  Paul said, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia.  We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (2 Cor 1:8-9a). Not so warm and fuzzy, is it? Friend, if you’re hanging onto that opening statement as a rock for your life, you are going to be very disappointed.

If you’ve walked with Him for very long you know that God indeed allows situations and hardships that are more than we can handle. He does it so that we will turn to the only One who can. Paul continued, “This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (v. 9b). I almost stopped that verse after the comma but I realized that those last four words are pivotal to the passage. What is harder to handle than death? And who is it that overcame death? If you’ve got a problem that’s bigger than raising a dead man to life, then you may have reason to worry.

Paul goes on to say, “He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us” (v. 10). He has. He is. He will continue. He has been faithful. He is still faithful. He will continue to be faithful.  Your circumstances do not define Him. He defines your circumstances. I can’t stress this enough – God WILL give you more than you can handle. But He will never give you more than HE can handle. Stop trying to carry it all yourself, Beloved. Hold tightly to God and He will carry it – and you through. That’s why it’s called FAITH.

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.