Advent 2022: Asleep on the Hay

“To us a Child is born,” Isaiah 9:6

To watch a child sleeping is to see the sweet face of innocence. Eyes closed to the world, mouth soft in repose as a tranquil, near-holy hush settles over their whole being. They say that when a baby smiles in his sleep, he has been kissed by an angel. If that is true—and why would we doubt it—the Infant Jesus must have smiled the whole night through. This Child was loved and adored on earth and in heaven.

Every baby brings a sense of promise to his family. Mother and father have dreams in their hearts of who this child will be—a doctor, a teacher, a missionary, or a dancer, perhaps even a leader who will one day change the world. One mother knew that her baby indeed would. One mother held the true Child of Promise, the Messiah who would bring peace on earth.

Oh, He looked like any other baby lying there in her arms, small, helpless, and beautiful. But she had heard the angel say that her child would be the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Joseph said that the angel had come to him too, and told him that this Child “will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Her cousin Elizabeth had declared “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear” (Luke 1:43). And what about the shepherds that came from the fields with a wild and glorious story of singing angels (Luke 2:8-18)? It is any wonder that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19)?

To the rest of the world, it was just another night. To anyone who might have come upon the stable, he was just another baby. But a young mother—and all of heaven knew—peace had come to the earth, wrapped in rough cloths, sleeping in a manger.

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: The King is Coming

Joy to the world!

The Lord is come; Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room

And heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and nature sing,

And heav’n and heav’n and nature sing.[1]

“Joy to the World” is one of our most beloved Christmas songs, but it isn’t about Christmas at all.  Isaac Watts originally penned these words in anticipation of the return of Jesus.  Notice that verse 1 above calls Him the King, if you read the full hymn, you will see that verse 2 celebrates His reign, verse 3 tells of the end of the curse and verse 4 proclaims Him as the righteous Ruler of the world.

In Jacob’s blessings over his sons (Gen 49), he said of Judah, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is His” (v. 10). Jacob was declaring the coming of the Eternal King – Jesus. He is the one to whom the royal scepter belongs and all the kingdoms of the earth will bow at His feet.

We love the Baby in the manger; He is the embodiment of God’s holy love for mankind and the fulfillment of His promise to free us from bondage to sin.  But we must let Jesus grow out of the swaddling clothes and into the crown of thorns to understand the full impact of Christmas on the world.  We must see Him as the risen Lord standing in the Garden and look to the skies as He ascends back to heaven to grasp the fullness of His promised resurrection.

And we must see Him as the coming King in Watts’ song.  Zechariah 14:4-9 describes His glorious return: “On that day, His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west” (v. 4).   The world missed His first advent, but there will be no missing His second.  “Every eye will see Him” (Revelation 1:7).  Christmas brings us Joy as we remember Jesus’ birth, but the greatest rejoicing will come when the King of kings returns to earth.

Jesus promises “Behold, I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22:7).  And so we say with the Bride and the Spirit: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus” (v.20).

[1] Words: Isaac Watts, 1674-1748; Music: George Frederick Handel, 1658-1759; Arr.: Lowell Mason, 1792-1872

Advent 2022 – Blessed are You Among Women

Image: “Jump for Joy” by Corby Eisbacher corbysart.blogspot.com

Advent day 2 – Read Luke 1:39-45

“Did that really happen? It must have been a dream. I have been so anxious over all the preparations Joseph and I are making – it must have caused me to have this strange dream.”  Mary was traveling through the hill country of Judea on her way to visit her dear relative, Elizabeth.  The angel had also said something strange about her cousin – that she was going to have a child – in fact – he said she was in her sixth month. Elizabeth – of all people. She and Zechariah were too old to have a baby. Yes, this had to have just been a dream.

But what if it wasn’t?

Could she really be with child – with THE child – the Messiah?  Why would he have chosen her? She was nothing special, wouldn’t God have chosen the wife of the high priest for such an honor?  Someone in a high position in the temple, someone more mature, more wealthy, more righteous. No.  She shook her head as if to shake loose the crazy idea.  This was just not possible.  She saw the familiar house and spied her relative in the doorway with her back turned toward the road. “Elizabeth!” Mary called out and gasped as the older woman turned to face her.  The smile on her face was warm and welcoming, but the bulge under her dress was a shock to Mary’s heart.  It was true!  Elizabeth was pregnant!  If that were true – then . . .

“Mary! Dear Mary!” Elizabeth exclaimed, and then as if from deep within her spirit she began to speak. “Bless are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:42-44).

Oh, it was true! It was all true!  Elizabeth was pregnant. That meant she really was pregnant too – with the Messiah!

Then, as if reading the thoughts the younger woman had carried with her along the journey, Elizabeth took Mary’s hands in her own and said, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (v. 45).

Beloved, believing is the sweetest blessing of all.

Advent 2022 – Gabriel’s Announcement

“The Annunciation” by Leonardo da Vinci

Day 1: Read Luke 1:26-38

She stood in the dim light of the early morning with her hand over her belly and her heart full of awe and wonder at the life growing within her.  It was all so surreal.  She tried to remember every detail but it was so wonderful and frightening at the same time.  She had heard a rustling beside her and turned to see a man – but not a man – an angel?  Yes, it was an angel; he said his name was Gabriel and he called her “highly favored,” but surely he meant someone else.  She was a peasant girl from the nothing town of Nazareth.  Her highest goal was to marry Joseph and have a family.  She pulled her cloak tighter around her and noticed that she was trembling  – fear mixed with excitement ran like shockwaves through her small frame. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:30).  Mary pointed out that she was a virgin, wondering – not if – but how this would happen.  He spoke of the Holy Spirit, an overshadowing, and the impossible becoming a reality.  Then the angel said the most remarkable thing – that this child would “be called the Son of God” (v. 35).  Oh my!  Did he mean that she – Mary of Nazareth – would be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah? It was every Jewish girl’s dream. 

In the stillness of the morning, the angel’s announcement still rang in her ears.  She repeated aloud the words she said to him that day as if reassuring herself and reaffirming her willingness, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said” (v. 38).

Mary’s quiet, well-planned life was suddenly interrupted by God.  She was put in a most scandalous situation, one that could have cost her her beloved Joseph, and possibly even her life. It was an inconvenience, to say the least. Yet she humbly surrendered herself to the will of God and embraced an unknown future with awe and wonder and faith. Beloved, has God interrupted your life with something unexpected – something inconvenient, perhaps even shocking?   It may be a person, a diagnosis, a major change, or a great sorrow.  How will you respond? With fear and anxiety? Or with faith and humble surrender?  Are you willing to be the Lord’s servant?

You Can Say It Now, or Say It Later: Jesus Is Lord

“I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” Mark 1:24

Do you know (without looking it up) who spoke those words? No, it wasn’t Peter or John. Not the wise and righteous spiritual leaders of Israel. It wasn’t even one of the angels. Those words were spoken by a man possessed by an evil spirit, a demon of hell. Someone who certainly had no affection for Jesus, but recognized His divine nature as God in human flesh.

The world is filled with people who refuse to acknowledge Jesus for who He is. They may regard Him as nothing more than a great teacher or prophet. Many consider Him an extraordinary humanitarian. And more than a few claim He is a charlatan who has deceived people for more than two thousand years. Some dismiss Him altogether as a man-made hoax designed to ‘fleece the sheep.”

In my undergrad studies, I had to interview several non-believers and I asked them to just speak three words: “Jesus is Lord” and every one of them refused. One said he “couldn’t” say it, the words wouldn’t form in his mouth. How can two people know of Jesus and one believe and one not? Because “the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith” (Heb 4:2). Demons don’t have faith and neither do people who hear the gospel and walk away from it. But one day they will see what they refused to see in this life.

Paul declared in Philippians 2:10-11 that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The evil spirit in our key verse is proof of Paul’s words. The day will come – very soon I believe – when every human from Adam to the last man standing will kneel and profess Jesus as Lord – the Son of God – the Holy One. It will be an involuntary response to His holiness and majesty. Just as the demon declared it, the words will fall from every person’s lips as all of mankind acknowledges Him. For those who believe today, it will be a shout of celebration. But for those who spurned the Son of God during their lifetime, that confession will be made with deep anguish and terror as they realize that in rejecting Jesus Christ they rejected their only hope for salvation.

You and I have a choice to make today that will determine how we respond in that glorious moment. We can reject Jesus now and make that confession by force, or bow our knees and our hearts and acknowledge Jesus as Lord today, so that great confession will be spoken with Joy. Don’t wait to proclaim the Name of Jesus, Beloved – He is Lord!

Sin No More

When I read the Gospels, I marvel at Jesus’ patience and understanding with sinful people. No, He was not (is not) gentle with sin – He called it out for what it was. He didn’t excuse it or call it a disease or disorder. He didn’t accept it or tolerate it or celebrate it. Sin was and is appalling. It needs to be confronted – and Jesus did. Yet even while correcting sin, was always gracious to those lost souls caught in the devil’s snare. “He had compassion on them because He saw that they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:6).

While walking through Jerusalem one day, Jesus passed by a pool that was believed to have healing properties when the waters were stirred by “an angel.” A helpless invalid had laid by the side of the pool for thirty-eight years, waiting and hoping for his chance to slip into the waters at just the right moment. But he was alone and never managed to get there. Along came Jesus who healed Him. At a later encounter, Jesus told the man, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (John 5:1-14). He healed first, then corrected. We need to take notes.

On another occasion, Jesus was teaching in the temple and the religious leaders brought to him a woman caught in adultery. But just the woman – isn’t that interesting? He defended her against her accusers – but he did not defend her actions. When Jesus confronted the men with their hypocrisy they left in shame.  After assuring her that He did not condemn her, Jesus told the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:1-11). I have no doubt that she did. Grace and correction always work hand in hand.

I often look up words to build a devotional and that is what I was doing as I was developing a different point when God turned this in a whole other direction. When I looked up “sin no more” I found these two stories – and something else. Those same words appear again in the Scriptures when the writer of Hebrews talked about the new covenant in Christ. The Lord said, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Heb 8:12). No more. No more guilt. No more shame. No more condemnation. Because all your sins are washed away by the blood of Jesus. The affair. The abortion. The sexual immorality. The lies. That sin you don’t want to remember? You won’t have to Beloved, because in Christ your sins are “no more.”

Hebrews: Outside the Camp

“We’re New Testament Christians, why are we studying the Old Testament? This stuff doesn’t apply to us anymore.” “One reason,” I answered “is because the New Testament writers used it quite a bit in their books and letters.  If we want to understand what they were saying, we need to understand their references.” That’s what we’re going to do in today’s passage.

“The high priest carried the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp” (Heb 13:11). It was Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish year. The day when the sins of the nation were atoned for. It was a day for fasting and prayer and confession. It was the day that the slate was wiped clean and the people were declared righteous – at least until they sinned again.  The high priest took the blood of the slaughtered animal into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle/Temple as a sin offering and sprinkled it on the mercy seat of the Lord. The carcass of the animal would be carried outside of the camp/city to be burned because it represented the sin of the people. Sin must not be allowed to remain among God’s holy nation.

The writer makes the new covenant connection in verse 12: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood.” Jesus was the sacrificial animal. Jesus’ blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Lord. And Jesus was crucified and buried outside of the city of Jerusalem because He bore the sin of all humanity. And by His blood, those who believe and receive His atonement are made holy.

An interesting aside here is that the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus and had Him crucified at Golgotha because of His radical message. But by putting Him outside of the city proper they were unknowingly confirming that He was indeed the sacrifice for the sins of the people. Because his original audience was believing Jews, the writer urged them to “go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore,” symbolically rejecting the old ways of Judaism (v. 13).

As believers in Christ, you and I will often have to “go outside the camp” of popular opinion and cultural relevance, even within the church, to live in holiness. But we’re in good company. We’re out there with Jesus. Remember what He said: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18).

Oh, and there’s one more reason why we need to study the Old Testament, even as New Testament Christians – because Jesus is all over it and all in it. It’s worth digging into the early texts to know Him better. All of history, including the entire Bible, is His story. It’s the greatest story ever told.

Hebrews: In Remembrance of Me

I hated lunchtime in the school cafeteria. Every day I walked around with my lunch tray looking for somewhere to sit. Classmates would quickly throw their purses and books in all the empty seats at their table – the non-verbal way of saying “We don’t want you.” I eventually found my way to an empty table and ate my meal alone. Now, as an adult, I usually gravitate to an empty table out of habit.

This all came to mind because of the verse we’re focusing on in Hebrews: “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb 13:10). Remember, the author’s audience is believing Jews that are being pulled back into their traditions and away from Christ. The brazen altar in the tabernacle was where blood sacrifices were made. The priests were allowed a portion of the meat from which the blood was taken as their meal portion (Lev 6:26, 29, 7:28-38; Deut 18:3-5; Num 18:10-20). But it could only be eaten by the priests and the males in his family. No one else was welcome at that table.

But Christians have an altar and a portion that no one else can share – not even the tabernacle priests. The altar is Jesus Christ Himself, and the meal is His flesh and His blood – the portion He gave to His disciples in the upper room before His death (Matt 26: 26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:17-21). The portion He commended to us who believe in Him. We observe this as a sacrament we call  Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist.

I was privileged to serve communion one Sunday, and as I repeated the phrase “The Body of Christ, broken for you,” to each partaker it became a very profound and special thing to me.  As I passed the bread to each person in the line I realized that Christ’s body was broken for every single person – even those who don’t believe and haven’t received Him. I thought about the juice and the bread that would be left over after the service.  It would just be discarded – like grace poured down the drain.  It made me sad that the devil has blinded the world to this amazing gift of Jesus’ blood and body. After the service, I realized I had flour all over my clothes from the bread I had served.  I had the visible witness of the gospel all over me!

You and I carry the gospel with us wherever we go. Let’s make it clear and bold and winsome. Let’s bring as many to the table as we can. Beloved, your life is the best testimony to the world of the grace of God.

Seeking Jesus

“Why are you here?” I asked my class asked one Sunday morning. After a minute someone said, “Because it’s Sunday morning and I’ve gone to church every Sunday for my whole life.” Another answered, “I am here for the fellowship of my church family.” Others chimed in: “I’m here because the Bible said ‘Forsake not the assembling of your selves together.’” “I am here to be fed in my spirit.”

I recalled this conversation while reading John 6. Jesus confronted the crowd that followed Him after He had fed more than five thousand people the day before (John 6:1-13). When they came looking for Him Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (v. 26).

Now verse 2 said that the people “saw” the miraculous signs He had performed.” So what did Jesus mean? Here’s where the Spirit stirred up the word nerd in me and said, “Saw?” The word used in verse 2 is to see as a spectator, to view with the eyes. But the word that John used in verse 26 means to discern clearly, to behold – to experience. It’s like the difference between watching a football game from the stands and playing it on the field. You can be a fan, but until you put the pads on and take the hits and cross the goalline with the ball in your hand you haven’t experienced the game. The crowd has seen with their eyes the miracles of Jesus – healing the sick and feeding the multitudes – but they did not understand what the signs were pointing to because they did not see them with their hearts. They were fans, but they hadn’t experienced Jesus.

The Lord said they were back because He fed their bellies and they expected more of the same, but if they had looked with faith – if they had experienced Him – they would know Him. They would follow Him because He is the very Son of God and the only means to eternal life.

You and I need to seek Christ for who He is, not just for what he can do for us – to know Him for the Joy of His presence, and not only for His presents. I can find nowhere in Scripture that God says, “I want You to know all I can do for you.” But I lost count after 200 times that I read “That you may know Me…” In knowing God, we discover what He can do, but if we are only seeking Him for what we can gain we have missed the whole point of the relationship.

Beloved, why are you seeking Jesus?