Advent 2022: What Should I Give to Baby Jesus?

“They opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh,” (Matthew 2:11)

What kind of gift do you bring to a newborn King? When royals or celebrities have babies, gifts pour in from all around the world. Lavish, expensive presents like giant stuffed animals, beautiful baby clothes, and the very latest in baby paraphernalia. Only the best will do for these little ones of such high standing. When the wise men came to visit Jesus, they brought gifts worthy of a first-century king – gold, incense, and myrrh. Many scholars believe there is significance in each of these gifts. “Gold might represent His deity and purity, incense the fragrance of His life, and myrrh His sacrifice and death (myrrh was used as an embalming spice)” (Louis A. Barbieri, Jr. “Matthew” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1984. 22). These gifts would have provided for the family as they escaped Herod by fleeing to Egypt. I love the story of the little boy who, during the offering at church, set the plate on the floor and stood in it. His embarrassed mother pulled him back to his seat and  whispered “What are you doing?” He replied in a very loud voice, “But Mommy, I don’t gots no money, so I wanted to give Jesus myself!” Image the sermon that might have followed that! But our little friend is right on target.

So back to our original question? What kind of gift do you give to a newborn King? Just as the magi presented Jesus with gifts, the Bible tells us that we are to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—which is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:1-2). Paul said our gifts to God are our bodies (v. 1) and our minds (v. 2) – what we do and how we think. Then add Jesus’ words about the great commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). This covers our affections, our emotions, our convictions, and our life-focus.  In other words, we are to give every bit of ourselves to the Lord in total surrender. We give Him ourselves, inside and out. Just as He did for you and me. Beloved, let all of you be your gift to Jesus this Christmas.

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.

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.

Jesus in Your Shoes

All across this nation, the anti-Christian machine is working to shut out every mention of God and deny the rights of Christians to express our beliefs. Nativity scenes are banned from the public square, or equal space must be given to anti-Christian displays. The Ten Commandments are being removed from government facilities, and students in school are forbidden to give reference to their faith. Lawmakers are pushing to ban all teaching of “religious doctrine.” God is unwelcome and unwanted in this country.

But don’t miss what John said, “The One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Brothers and sisters, don’t forget that the Spirit of Christ dwells in you. Everywhere you go you take Jesus with you. So as believers, we take Jesus into the marketplace and the government sector. Students take Jesus into their school. Employees bring Jesus to work.

The Lord declared that His followers are ”the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt 5:13, 14). Salt is our witness in the world. Light’s purpose is to shine in the darkness (John 1:5a). Salt is essential for life in general. It is one of the oldest and most universal food seasonings and methods of food preservation. Saltiness is one of the basic human tastes and it makes us thirsty. Here in the deep south, boiled peanuts are a favorite snack, but you’d better have a drink nearby because properly prepared boiled peanuts are very salty.  A salty Christian seasons the world with love, Joy, kindness, grace, compassion, and the good news of the gospel. They preserve the character of Christ in a tasteless culture and a properly prepared Christ-follower makes others thirsty for the Living Water.

From creation, light’s purpose is to shine in the darkness (John 1:5a). Light has power over darkness (John 1:5b) because darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. When light is introduced into the darkness, darkness no longer exists. That means you and I have power over darkness – not our own power, but Christ’s. The world is a very dark place. Evil is everywhere. But you and I have the His light to overcome evil and darkness. When we shine with His light, the darkness has no choice but to flee. And when we shine with His light every eye will be drawn – not to us – but to the Source of the Light.  

Sure, they can ban public displays of Christianity, but by your presence as a Christian, Beloved, Jesus still walks through this nation – in your shoes.

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.

Sit Up Straight!

I am wearing a Holter monitor for the next thirty days. It is a mobile telemetry system that works like a continuous EKG. The monitor is stuck to my chest over my heart by a patch with leads that sends signals to a cellphone that records what the monitor detects. When I bend over or sit less than straight, the phone emits a piercing sound that tells me the monitor is out of position. All. The. Time. It just went off again. It’s driving me crazy.

But it’s also doing something else. It’s making me very aware of my posture. If I want to keep this thing quiet – and Lord knows I do – I have to sit very straight. That’s not natural to me. I tend to slump when I’m sitting, especially when I’m studying or working on my laptop, as I am now. I remember my mother constantly telling me to sit up straight as a kid. It clearly didn’t stick with me. Slumping is my norm – and it’s got to change or I will be a basket case when my thirty days are up.

What possible spiritual application can I get from a heart monitor? Simply this – some of us are going through our lives with a spiritual slump, and that’s got to change. One of Paul’s mantras was “once you were” – “but now you are” (Col 1:21-22). He contrasted life before and after Christ. But he said some of us are still behaving by our old nature. Once we were sexually immoral, evil, full of rage and malice, slanderous, idolaters, drunkards, practicing witchcraft. Those are pretty extreme aren’t they, but what about being impure and lustful, greedy, angry, using filthy language, lying, jealous, selfish, and causing disagreements (Col 3:5-9; Gal 5:19-21 adapted)? Did you squirm at a few of those like I did? Some of us are still slumping because it’s an old habit.

“But now,” he said, we “live a life worthy of the Lord, pleasing Him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power” (Col 1:22). Because of Jesus and His Spirit in us, now we are full of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). We don’t have to be who we were. We can be who we are now.

This monitor has gone off three more times as I’ve been writing this. I keep forgetting to keep my back straight. By the end of this though, I bet it will be my new normal. I wonder if the Spirit had a monitor on me how many times it would go off in a day. Beloved, let’s become very aware of our spiritual posture and start living like who we are now. “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Eph 5:8).

Feed Me!

Isn’t it amazing how God can speak to our hearts through anything? That is, if we’re willing to listen. My cat, Celina is often one of my most practical spiritual mentors. She doesn’t really have a lot to say, but she beats one drum constantly: Feed me. When anyone walks into the kitchen she stands by her food dish and meows – even when there is plenty of food in there. She expects a fresh scoop every time.

Where am I going with this? How often do you and I approach our daily Bible reading without our whole heart’s focus? I’m guilty. I look at the words on the page but my mind is elsewhere. I have to go back and re-read a verse – sometimes multiple times – because I wasn’t paying attention to it the first time around. The prophet Jeremiah said, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my Joy and my heart’s delight” (Jer 15:16). What a different perspective from most of us.

Maybe we need a reminder that when we come to the Bible we are coming to our Creator’s own Word, emanating from His own heart. What could be more important? Certainly nothing on FaceBook or Twitter. Why aren’t we giving the Scriptures our undivided attention? I’m preaching to myself here. One of the reasons I started writing the Scriptures out is to slow myself down and focus on every word. Oh, my goodness, the wonders we are missing because we’re so distracted.

Here’s what I am going to do – and I challenge and encourage you to do it too: First I will get up early to spend focused time with the Lord. When I sit down to take in God’s Word, I will silence and cover my phone. I will turn off the sound on my laptop. I will pray two things specifically: that the Holy Spirit will protect my mind from distractions, and that God will “open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Ps 119:18). Then I will dig in.

The Bible is not just “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” This is the Word of God. This is the heart of God. Beloved, “These are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut 32:47). Like Celina, come to the Bible expecting a fresh and tasty Word. He will feed you as often as you want.

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.

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.