Love One Another

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It is very compelling to me that in all the Gospels, there is only one time that Jesus declared a commandment: “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17). A command means it’s not up for debate. Ah, but we do debate it, don’t we? “Who are the ‘others’?” “Did Jesus just mean fellow Christians?” “Did He mean everyone everywhere?” “And what did He mean by ‘love’?” We are much like the lawyer who asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told Him the story of the Good Samaritan. You know this parable from Luke 10: 25-37.

A man was beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road where two very religious men passed him by on the way to do their religious duties. But a Samaritan, whom the Jews despised, stopped and helped the man, took him to an inn, and paid for his care.  When the lawyer asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” he wanted to know whom he was “required” to love. Jesus turned his question around by defining the neighbor as the one who gave love, not the one who received it. The one giving love is living out the second great commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

So love your neighbor. But God doesn’t allow us to pick and choose our neighbors. He commands us to love the person He places in front of us. Sometimes that’s a hard love because they are prickly and unpleasant and downright hateful. They take and never give. They growl and complain. Does that mean we are excused from the love command? I think they are the very ones Jesus had in mind.

Several years ago I read something in “Reader’s Digest” that has stuck with me ever since: “Don’t be afraid to be the one who loves the most.” I think sometimes we withhold love because are afraid we will be “cheated” – giving more love than we receive. But the very act of loving others fills the one who gives it all away. Here’s how John said it: “If we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us” (1 Jn 4:12).  Beloved, the more love you give away the more of God’s love you have to give. Love each other – all the others – the way Jesus loves you (John 15:12).

A Pure Heart

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When my son was younger, he was determined to do something he knew was wrong. When I caught him before he could put his plan into action he protested, “But Mom I didn’t actually do it!” “That’s not the point.” I told him, “You wanted to do it – that’s the heart of the problem.

Human nature has reduced “sin” to an act – a thing we do, while the Bible tells us that sin is a condition of the heart – our desires. When Jesus taught about adultery in Matthew 5:27-28 He said that the sin of adultery is committed when the desire arises – “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” James identified the pattern of sin in 1:14-15 as a progression from one’s “own evil desire,” to enticement, then to the action. Sin clearly starts in the heart. After his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Urriah, David pleaded for God to “create in me a pure heart” (Ps. 51:10) for he knew that it was his heart that had led him astray. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mat. 6:21), meaning we will pursue at all costs what our heart desires. If that desire is for sin, you can bet your hands, feet, and body will follow. Jesus also said only “the pure in heart . . . will see God” (Mat. 5:8). That should be incentive enough.

A pure heart recoils at the thought of disobeying and dishonoring God and breaking fellowship. It pursues the heart of God, which never leads to sin. A pure heart runs from temptation (2 Tim 2:22). Does that mean if you struggle with sinful desires You don’t have a heart for God? No – Paul attested to the battle within himself (Rom. 7:15-23) and I know well my own tug-of-war with sin. But it’s not unwinnable. You just need some Help.

Beloved, Are you weary of toying with the sinful desires of your heart? Victory comes as you allow the Word of God and the Spirit of God to purify your heart day by day. God isn’t just after your behavior Beloved, He is after your heart.  When you “delight yourself in the Lord,” that is when He is all your heart longs for, then “He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps 37:4). He will give you Himself.

Who I am in Christ — or Whose?

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There is a trend in Christianity that both excites me and makes me wary. “Discipleship” is the command of our Lord and Savior: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Discipleship is Jesus’ marching orders for the church. But what are we to teach? Everything He commanded. Everything He taught. Everything He did. But above all, everything He is. The focus of all our teaching and discipleship should always be centered on Christ.

And that’s why I have had a wariness in my spirit. For the past several years the content of our discipleship, especially to women has taken a spiritually unhealthy turn.  This morning I was reading in Colossians, where Paul said: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved . . .” (3:12) and immediately my mind went to the manta of women’s Bible studies: “Who I am in Christ.” Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I am all for us claiming our identity as sons and daughters of God. As one who grew up rejected by both sides of the kickball teams, it is a great comfort to know that I am chosen in Christ. Because my former husband said, “I don’t love you anymore,” it is a balm to my heart to know that I am dearly loved by God. But the focus has turned in recent years from awe at what God has done for a wretch like me, to how God has elevated me, to it’s all about me. It reminds me of an advertisement I heard once for a “Christian” talent agency whose tagline was “Become famous for God!” No! No! No! We make God famous, not ourselves.

All the verses that we claim as our identity labels, when taken in their full context, are teaching us who we are so that we can then walk appropriately. The rest of Colossians 3:12 says “clothes yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Paul goes on to talk about forbearance (patience) and forgiveness and the unity that comes with love. He said, “because you are this, your character should be this.” The Scriptures never tell us “who we are” to boost our ego but to humble us in our relationships with one another and with Christ. When we pick out select words to focus on ourselves, we miss the point entirely.

Beloved, I encourage you to learn what the Bible says about you because above all else, you are God’s image-bearer. Now act like it.

Don’t Pack Up the Christmas Spirit

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Christmas Day has come and gone and my living room looks like a toy store exploded all over the place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So what now? Well, I’ll clean up the blast zone and eventually pack away the ornaments on the tree. We’ll finish off the last of the Christmas dinner leftovers today. But, where does the Christmas spirit go for the next 11 months?

You probably know by now that Joy abides in my house year-round in my precious granddaughter. But what of the peace the angels declared? According to Jesus, that peace was His gift to me, something the world can’t offer (John 14:27). It doesn’t belong in a box in the shed. It belongs in my heart to rule over my relationships (Col. 3:15). 

Is there a box in my shed for the “Hope” of Christmas? The Hope that God is who He claimed to be, that He is trustworthy and faithful (2 Thess 3:3), that His love is unfailing (Ps. 136) and His promises are as sure as His Name (Heb. 6:13). Hope that His eye is ever on me and His ear is tuned to my cries (Gen. 21:13, 11). Hope that one day this wicked world will be turned right-side-up (Rev. 21:5). I am hanging on to hope – it is my word from the Lord for the coming year. I need it desperately; this past year has drained most of my hope.

And then there is love – the greatest of all gifts (1 Cor. 13:13). Love slept in a manger (Luke 2:7). Love walked the dirty streets, healing and lifting up the downtrodden (Matt. 8:1-3). Love died on a cross (Mark 15: 37) and love brought life from death (Mark 16:6). Love must never be packed away for the world needs it more than any other thing. Love – holy love – is the only thing that can save mankind. And it is the only thing that will draw men out of darkness into the light.

I don’t know if your Christmas was merry or jolly or less than you’d hoped, but I know that the spirit of Christmas lives in the hearts of God’s people all year long. Beloved, pack up the decorations but don’t pack away the Joy and peace and hope and love. Set it out for all the world to see.

The (Complete) Nativity Creche

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When we set up our nativity scenes, we place the star above the stable, and we add the animals – cows and sheep (but no pigs, this is a good Jewish family) – and an angel or two (which the Bible doesn’t mention in the birth scene) and the shepherds. We set Mary and Joseph beside the manger where the little baby sleeps. We even add the wise men, though they didn’t actually come on the scene until some 2 years later. Now everyone is present and accounted for.

The truth is, Satan is also part of the Christmas story, for the Holy Child in the manger was born to break the curse of evil. He was born to set men free from their sins (Romans 6:18). He was born to bring light and life where death and darkness reigned (John 1:4-5). He was born to set right what had been made horribly wrong (Romans 8:22-24). This little baby was the fulfillment of God’s promise, the seed that would crush the head of the enemy (Genesis 3:15). When this newborn baby’s cry pierced the silent night, all of hell trembled.

As you celebrate Jesus, the reason for the season, remember the reason Jesus came and praise God for the greatest gift ever given. The Savior of the world is born.

Mary’s Treasure

I love Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth because, according to church tradition, it is Mary’s own recollections. Only Mary could recall intimate details about Gabriel’s visit the remarkable announcement: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (vs. 31-32). She remembered her question “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (v. 34), and the angel’s reply about the Holy Spirit’s part in the conception.

She even included the report about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy and her aged cousin’s joyful greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed I the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (vs. 42, 43). And “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (v. 45). She remembered the song she sang: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . .”  (vs. 46-55).

Mary was the one who included Caesar Augustus’ decree that sent them to Bethlehem where her Son was born among the beasts of domestic life, bound up in rags, and laid to sleep in the animal’s feed trough.

Mary told about the shepherds who surely reported the angel’s proclamation to the parents. And the angel’s song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (2:14). Mary also remembered when Jesus was presented in the temple according to the law and the old man and woman who spoke powerfully about her son (2:25-38). Mary remembered Jesus when he was twelve years old, being separated from her and Joseph, and how He amazed the Jewish teachers by speaking with wisdom and authority beyond His years (2:41-50). And he amazed His mother by answering her scolding by saying, “Did you know I had to be in my Father’s house? (v. 49). Oh, how I wish Luke had picked her memory for more details of His childhood – clearly He was no ordinary child. Or maybe He was and the details are much the same as your childhood and mine.

Luke said that Mary, “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). I’m so glad she did because we have the most detailed, intimate account of our Savior’s birth and early glimpses of His ministry. Here’s my question for us both: What marvelous things has God done for you? Have you treasured them up in your heart (or written them down in a journal)? When someone (a grandchild, perhaps) asks you about your relationship with Jesus you will be glad you did.

The Gift

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“The Gift of the Magi” was published in 1905 and is a sweet tale of love and sacrifice at Christmas focused on a young couple who wanted to give their beloved a gift. But money was scarce and so, unbeknownst to the other, the gift-givers sold their prized possessions to buy something special for their spouse. Della sold her long, beautiful hair to buy Jim a chain for his pocket watch. Jim sold his heirloom pocket watch to buy Della a set of bejeweled hair combs. O. Henry finished his story with a nod to the Magi – the Eastern wise men who traveled long to bring gifts to the Christ Child. He wrote: “The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

While I appreciate this lovely story, I think O Henry got one thing wrong – Christmas presents didn’t originate with the Magi – the first Christmas present was given by God. The story of the Young’s Christmas is a shadow of the real story of Christmas. The young lovers sacrificed their most treasured possessions to give to their beloved, God’s sacrifice was far greater. He gave His One and Only Son to redeem men from their sin. The gifts they gave one another were costly – the gift God has given is priceless. “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:18, 19). Jim and Della’s gifts – and the sacrifice that enabled them – were given from love, but their love pales in comparison to the great love of God. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .” (John 3:16). In O. Henry’s story, the sacrifice is part of the gift. In the Gospel story, the sacrifice is the gift.

Have you received this gift? Watch chains and hair combs can never express love like the cross can. Have you received Jesus Christ as your Savior Beloved? He is the greatest gift of all.

A Baby Changes Everything

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“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born, a son” (Luke 2:6).

They say that having a baby will change your life completely, and every parent knows that is true. You give your whole self away to your child and you never get yourself back. Your time is no longer your own – your days are filled with feedings and diaper changes, and more of the same through the night. Your money is not yours anymore – whoever imagined someone so tiny would need so much stuff? Your priorities are different, your goals are reshaped, and your entire identity is redefined. And you wouldn’t have it any other way.

There is a baby who will change your life in far greater ways. This baby will give your life direction and purpose. This baby will bring you peace in the midst of a storm. He will comfort you when you are weary and broken. He will lift you up when you fall. This baby will bring you immeasurable Joy. He can wash away the stain of guilt and shame and make you new. This baby brings hope where all hope is faded. He brings light into the darkest night. This baby brings healing of body and mind and heart. This baby will change the way you think and the way you live. He will transform your heart and cause you to love in ways you never expected. And if all that wasn’t enough, this baby will change your life beyond this life.

This baby left the glory of heaven to save the entire human race. He brought peace between God and man. He broke the chains of sin. He erased the curse of death. This baby took on your sin and mine; He bore the punishment that you and I rightly deserved. He surrendered His body to the cross and the grave. He did it all so that you and I could have life – full and abundant and eternal. He gave Himself away so that you could get yourself back. This baby – the Lord Jesus Christ – changes everything.

Why Was a King Born in a Stable?

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“While they were there the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7)

When I was a kid the Christmas story made me sad because Jesus was born in a nasty stable. He should have been born in a palace! He was the King of kings for Pete’s sake! It was a shame that Mary and Joseph were forced to seek refuge in such an ugly, smelly place. She should have had the best doctors tending her as she gave birth instead of dumb animals. This was the Son of God! It was so unfair.

Or maybe, that was just how He planned it all along. Perhaps, in His divine purpose, Jesus chose the stable as His birthplace and a manger as his bed to make a statement that no place is too lowly for Him. Not the slums of the city or the farthest backroads of the country. Not a crack house or a bar or a brothel.  And I believe he wanted to assure humanity that no person is too sinful for Him. Not an alcoholic or drug addict. Not the girl who had an abortion or the young man who sits in a prison cell. Not the woman with the worst reputation in town nor the man who drove away everyone who ever loved him. Not me. Not even you.

Aren’t you glad to know that there is no place that is too smelly or ugly that Jesus will not go? There is no person too far gone that Jesus cannot love.  The Bible says His closest friends were smelly fishermen and hated tax collectors and healed demoniacs and lepers and people at the lowest rungs of society.  I think there was no room in the inn because Jesus wanted to show that there was enough room in His heart for the whole world – wherever and whomever you are.

The Face of God

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The ancient blessing from God contained the words: “The Lord make His face shine on you . . . The Lord turn His face toward you . . .”  (Numbers 6:26). In the terminology of the Old Testament, to “turn one’s face toward” someone was to signify favor and blessing from the greater to the lesser.  A king might show favor to a trusted soldier or advisor and shower him with gifts and position—he had turned his face toward him.  It was a mutual benefit as the king gained greater loyalty from the one he favored.  For the nation of Israel, the God of heaven and earth turned His face toward them and promised His blessing, His grace, and His peace (see vs. 24-26).  This weary group had just escaped from Egypt after four hundred years of slavery.  They had nothing to offer that would garner His favor, they had no country of their own, no wealth or treasure, and no political or military power.  When God turned His face toward them, it was purely an act of unmerited favor on the part of the Lord.

As we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the favor of the Creator poured out on us, His creation.  We celebrate the gift of His mercy and His grace given in the Baby in the manger. Our celebrations are meager compared to this gift. We hang lights in our homes to honor the Light of the World.  We give gifts just as the Magi gave gifts to the Christ Child.  We sing songs remembering the song of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:14).  We rejoice at the Joy of the shepherds who first saw this wondrous gift from heaven.

But let us not forget that God showed His highest favor toward us at Calvary.  The gift given at Jesus’ birth was made complete in His sacrifice.  At the cross, the Father turned His away from His one and only Son so that He might turn His face toward sinful humanity – toward you, Beloved – and give you peace.  It is the highest act of benevolence and it is the greatest gift you will ever be given.