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.

God’s Got This

“Well, I didn’t see that coming.”

“Why this? Why now?”

“I never dreamed this would happen.”

“Not again! I thought this was all over.”

Ever said any of the above?  Sure you have. I have too – very recently in fact. We all experience it. The curve ball. The surprise. The “What is this?!”  The shocks of life are constant – and not always pleasant. But I have learned two things along the way: My heavenly Father is never caught off-guard, therefore I need not worry. He is never frantic over the epic ups and downs of my life. God never sits on His throne wringing His hands over the foolish situations I’ve put myself in – or that someone else has put me in. He’s never said, “I didn’t expect that! Now how am I going to work around the mess she’s in?”

How can I be so sure? Because His Word says that God knows “the end from the beginning” (Is 46:10). There is nothing coming, nothing I will do, nothing someone else will cause, and absolutely nothing that satan can attempt that God doesn’t already know. Every event, situation, circumstance, hardship, trial, and trouble has long been taken into consideration in His purpose and plan for my life. Do you know what that means? God figured out the resolution before I ever encountered the problem. This most recent bomb that dropped on me did so with His full knowledge and understanding. And here is something I am sure of to the marrow of my bones, if it was going to derail His plan for my life He would not have let it happen.

So what now? I honestly have no idea. But I have peace. Even in the unexpected, I know God is not worried. So why would I be? I don’t know what has hit your life and thrown you for a loop, but I know that God saw it coming before you did. The diagnosis. The failure. Your kid’s actions. Your spouse’s affair. The end of your career. The injury. The broken heart. Your loved one’s death. Whatever it is, He knew first and He’s got it figured out so that you are blessed and He is glorified. My constant mantra in times like these is: “I have rested that matter into the hands of my Father.” I offer it to you today. Say it as often as you need to. Then do it. He’s got this, Beloved, and He’s got you.

Hebrews: “Strange Teachings”

Was Jesus some kind of space alien? Is there really power in sacred underwear? Check out my latest devotional in the series: "Hebrews: Strange Teachings" at Deeper Roots.

If ever there was a word for the church today, I believe this is it: “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings” (Heb 13:9). The writer was referring specifically to dietary regulations to which the Jews strictly held. “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col 2:21). Paul had adamantly preached that “Food does not bring us near to God” (1 Cor 8:8).  Nor did food make them unclean before God. Our writer went on to say, “It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them” v. 9). Jewish believers were torn between trusting in their ability to obey all the rules and trusting in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. That’s so foreign to us in the twenty-first century in the west.

But boy, do we have some weird stuff of our own in the world today – and sadly in the church too. Google “strange religious teachings” and you’ll see all sorts of things from snake handling to sacred underwear that protects believers from spiritual contamination, fire and speeding bullets. You’ll see the prosperity gospel, the humanitarian gospel, the social gospel, the gay gospel, and the feminist gospel – none of which resemble the true gospel at all. You’ll find Bibles that are gender-neutral and exclude certain portions of clear truth so as not to offend. There are so many different religions in the world, it’s impossible to keep up. And so many blatantly unbiblical teachings expressed on social media, published in “Christian” books and “Bible” study resources, and even preached from pulpits.

Is there any doubt that we are the generation of which Paul spoke when He warned Timothy, “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4).  The church today resembles what he called: “infants tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14). That is why way back in chapter 6 he said, “Let us leave the elementary teaching about Christ and go on to maturity” (v. 1) – which is a very nice way of saying “GROW UP!”

Strange teachings, whether about dietary regulations, Kabbalah, or sacred underwear, will always grab those who prefer to be spoon-fed. If all you know about the Scriptures is what you’re told, how can you know you’re being told the truth?  That’s why personal Bible study is like oxygen to a Christian. I love teaching you, Beloved, but I want you to dig into the Word for yourself. Then we can have some incredible conversations over a cup of coffee and the Words of Life we both love.

More Than Words

The more tired she is the more Joy fights sleep. I suppose she doesn’t want to miss a thing around her. When she was just a baby I would snuggle her close in the rocking chair and give her her bottle. She would drink just a little, pull away, then immediately complain because she didn’t have her bottle. I’d plug it back in and say, “You’re the one who turned away from it sweetie.” We would repeat this cycle several times until she finally gave up and drifted off.

This little ritual reminds me of people who complain, “I don’t feel God anymore. I don’t think God cares about me. Why does God not love me?” The first thing I ask them is, “What is God saying to you in His Word?” And they answer, “Oh, I haven’t read the Bible in a while – I know I should, I just haven’t felt like it.” DING-DING-DING! They just answered their own question. They don’t “feel” God or think he cares about nor loves them because they have turned away from the very place they find Him.

God gave the Israelites His commandments and His Law so that they would obey Him. But it was about more than just compliance, it was about knowing Him. The closer they lived to the commands of God, the more He revealed Himself to them. They came to know God by knowing and obeying His Words. Moses declared to them, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” (Deut 30:14).

The Word of God has never been more readily available than it is today. The Scriptures are literally at our fingertips, in printed form, electronic media, by audio and video – and in almost every language on earth. You can have it any way you want it. But you have to want it. You have to pick up the book or open the app or pull up the podcast. You have to make God’s Word a priority in your life. The less you read, the less you want to read.  And the converse is true: the more you read, the more you want to read.

The Bible is not just a bunch of stories and rules and words on paper. It is the true and living Word of God (Heb 4:12), inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God (2 Pet 1:20-21) and embodied in Jesus Christ, the Son of God (John 1:14). Have you turned away from the very thing your spirit is craving? Come back to the Bible, Beloved. “These are not just idle words for you, they are your life” (Deut 32:47).

Defense!

My football team lost yesterday. We’re not used to losing. We are winners. It has left a very bitter taste in our mouths. My husband will probably wear all black to church today. Why did we lose? Because we let them into our “house” – our end of the field. But even more so, because we didn’t defend the gate.

Isaiah was a prophet of the Lord to Judah. He continually warned the nation about their sin, idolatry, and disobedience. He prophesied the nation’s fall to Babylon as God’s punishment. But he also implored them to turn from their sin and return to God. He insisted that they guard their lives as fiercely as they guarded their city. The walls around Jerusalem were thick and strong and wide enough for armed sentries to stand guard all around. The troops had a high vantage point so they could see the enemy coming and warn the rest of the city. Immediately they shut and fortified the gates and put all their effort into defending that strategic point. If the enemy ever got past the gate, the city was all but defeated.

Isaiah called for Judah to be strong and “turn back the battle at the gate” (28:6). The defense point was the gate – not their doorstep. They kept the enemy away from their homes and families by keeping them out of the city. In football the gate is not the goal line – it is the 50-yard line. Almost every time the other team crossed the midpoint of the field they steamrolled into the endzone. If we’d never allowed them to get past the fifty-yard line, we would have won. The principle of defending the gate works in war, in football, and our lives.

You and I have to defend our gate. If we wait to battle sinful thoughts and desires after they’ve infiltrated our hearts and minds, we’ve already lost. What is the gate? It’s eyes and ears. It’s what we see and what we hear. No. Wait. The gate goes farther back than that. The gate is our choices – what we choose to see and hear and even what we choose to think about. When we choose well (see Philippians 4:8-9) we shut the gate. When we choose poorly – inappropriate websites, movies, books, t.v. shows, music with sexually explicit lyrics – we swing the gates wide open and leave ourselves with no defense. There’s so much this world throws at us that we can’t choose, but when you can, you need to keep your heart and mind secure with godly things. It’s not a game. Beloved, don’t lose the battle at the gate.

Faith and Fear

If I give my mind just a little rope it will always run into the pit of anxiety and fear. I was very fearful as a child and it stuck with me all my life. “But you’re a Christian,” you say, “and you write often about not giving in to fear.” And you are correct. It’s been a hard lesson for me, and I don’t always get it right, but God has revealed something to me in His Word and I need to pass it on to you.  Please take a moment to read Genesis 32:1-12.

Genesis 32:7 says Jacob was “in great fear and distress,” and with good reason. He was returning home to the brother whom he had years earlier cheated out of their father’s blessing. The brother who had sworn to kill him. The brother who was coming toward him accompanied by four hundred men. I would be in great fear and distress too. Jacob prayed to the God of His father Isaac and grandfather Abraham saying, “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me” (v. 11). Then he immediately follows his confession of fear with a profession of faith – “But You have said, “I will surely make you prosper and make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted” (v. 12).

Do you see the pivot point? “I am afraid…” “But You have said…”(vs. 11,12). Jacob was afraid of his brother, but he trusted God and took Him at His word. “I will believe what You have said, Lord.” Notice that Jacob didn’t say, “My brother is coming after me, but I’m not afraid.” He was honest about his fear – just as I have been many times. Then he picked up his shield of faith – just as the Spirit has taught me to do, too.  David said, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Psalm 56:3). That’s a simple, yet powerful prescription for fear.

Whatever is making you anxious today, Beloved, take your fears to God in prayer. He will not condemn you for being afraid, but He will remind you of His promises and give you the peace and courage you need. Faith is the hinge on which our hearts swing between fear and hope.

Christ in You

It’s in the music on Christian radio. It’s in the studies on the shelves of Christian books stores. It’s in the podcasts and messages by Christian speakers. What is it? Me, me, me. I recently discovered a 90’s channel on my favorite Christian radio station. I’m a sucker for nostalgia so I listened to the music of my early days in the faith and quickly noticed a huge difference in the songs. The older music was much more Christ-centric. It was true worship music – who Jesus is and what He has done in His power and holiness. I flipped back to the current channel and the theme of the music was who Jesus is – to me, and what He has done – for me, and how He makes me feel. The studies that Christian publishers produce follow the same format. It’s all designed to invoke feelings, but it falls short of truth. Now I’m not a fuddy-duddy here to complain about the younger generation. I am a Bible teacher and I’m here to turn your focus from self to the Savior.

Charles Spurgeon said, “My faith rests not upon what I am or shall be or feel or know, but in what Christ is, in what He has done. Hallelujah!” So should ours. In his letter to the Colossian church, Paul said the most glorious mystery man can ever know is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Think about that. Christ. In you.

Christ in you means that “your spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10). The very same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead now lives in you (v. 11). Christ in you means that you can live by faith and walk in God’s love (Gal 2:20). Christ in you means that His power is at work within you, strengthening you in your inner being (Eph 3:16). Christ in you means that God’s glory is yours. Jesus said, “I have given them the glory that You gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and You in me” (John 17:22-23).

Christ in you means that have “the mind of Christ” (I Cor 2:16). Whoa! And Christ did not think about Himself. Listen to Paul again: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself . . . “ (Phil 2:5-8). And so must we. Sing about Christ. Study Christ. Hear the words of Christ. Christ is in you, Beloved. Now that’s something to sing about!

Exercise Your Faith

I had a conversation with my chiropractor about trying to get off the couch and get moving.  In my defense, I’m not on the couch but I spend my days in office chairs working or studying and in the recliner, rocking my sweet Joy. I know I need to get some exercise but, I complained, “I am so drained. I have no energy!”  He told me that when we only use a small amount of energy every day, our body gets accustomed to that and eventually doesn’t demand any more of us.  That is how a “couch potato” is created.  But if we push past that low physical bar we have set, our body will begin to respond to the demand for additional energy and will build a greater energy reserve.  That drives us to move and the more we move the more energy we gain. But we have to be determined to break the low-energy barrier. 

In the same way, if we allow ourselves to become satisfied with just a little bit of God, we will never want more of Him.  But if we push past that low spiritual bar we have set, everything changes. If we devote ourselves to studying His Word and fellowship with Him in prayer each day our hearts will begin to respond to Him more and more, and we will find that we can never get enough of Him.  We will be filled with His love and His Spirit will give us new life and spiritual energy.

The Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon. He promised to return them to their homeland and restore what had been taken from them. Jeremiah 29:13 my life verse: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” The secret to overcoming those low spiritual reserves is to seek after God with our whole hearts. That’s not a quick glance in God’s direction. The words the prophet used are of the mind, will, and emotions fully dedicated to knowing and worshiping God. The beauty of this verse is in the promise in verse 14: “I will be found by you.” When we set our hearts to seek Him, He sets Himself in our path where we can’t miss Him.

Have you settled for a “couch-potato faith?” Are you ready for more? Put your whole heart into seeking God. He will move you into a deeper, richer, stronger faith. Come on, Beloved, let’s get moving!

Mirror Image

I’ve been a Bible student for at least thirty years, a Bible teacher for more than twenty, and a Bible writer for ten. I’ve taught, studied, or written about every book in the Bible. I have a bachelor’s degree in Theology and Biblical Studies and have almost completed my master’s. But I’ve barely scratched the surface of biblical truth. I have only a minuscule glimpse of God. There’s far more to discover than my finite middle-aged, deep-southern mind can grasp. Still, I will keep digging until I draw my last breath. And then I will know more.

Paul said that in this life, “we know in part . . .” (1 Cor 13:9). We know fragments of truth, and that makes it hard to believe because there is so much we don’t know. The world thinks of us as fools for trusting in what we cannot see and cannot fully comprehend. Yet. One of the most important things God has been teaching me is to keep an eternal mindset. That’s not a Pollyanna “it’ll all turn out okay in the end” attitude. An eternal mindset isn’t focused on the circumstances, it’s focused on the sovereign King of the universe. The Lord God Almighty. The Creator of all that is.

Here is what I believe is at the heart of an eternal mindset. You and I – and every human that was, is, or is to come – is made in the Imago Dei – the image of God. Before He scooped up the dust of the earth God said, “Let us make man in our own image” (Gen 1:26). And that is what He did. We are walking, talking, breathing expressions of our Creator. But sin separated us from our Creator and marred the perfect image we were meant to bear. It’s what Paul meant in verse 12: Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror . . .” We look at our spiritual reflection, knowing we’re supposed to see God, but we see only ourselves – our sinful human selves.

But one day, because of Jesus, we will see that perfect image. No, we won’t be looking into a divine mirror, we will be looking at the Divine Himself. Paul says, “then we shall see face to face.” We will see God. Face to face. I can’t even imagine. But I long for it. It’s my heart’s highest desire. I hope it’s yours too, Beloved.

Hebrews: Keep Your Eyes on Jesus

Two young men were sitting in a football stadium looking at the field covered with snow. They decided to see who could walk the straightest line from midfield toward the goalpost in the end zone.  They both stood on the fifty-yard line and started walking.  When they reached their prospective goals they met back in the stands.  They laughed to see one boy’s trail veer off center and end up several feet from the goal post.  “I don’t know what happened,” he said, “I watched my steps, and put one foot carefully in front of the other.”  The other boy’s trail was dead on, stopping right at the center post.  “I didn’t look at my feet as I walked,” he said “I never took my eye off the goalpost.” 

Hebrews 12:2 says,  “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith . . .”  I see two things here that are worth noting. First, the center of our focus is Jesus. Just Jesus. Why? Because He “wrote the book” on faith. And He is the “one who has in his own person raised faith to its perfection and so set before us the highest example of faith” (from blueletterbible.com). If faith is our goal and Jesus is our highest example of faith it doesn’t make sense to look at anything or anyone else.

The second thing I noticed is that the writer said to fix our eyes – plural. Don’t just keep “an eye” on Him. Keep both eyes on Jesus. When I was a kid I was fascinated by looking at things with dimensions. When I looked at things close up they were clear while distant images were fuzzy. Then when I shifted my focus to the things in the distance, the things close up became blurred. You and I cannot stay fixed on two different things at the same time. One will always be out of focus and more likely than not, that will be Jesus. If Jesus is out of focus our lives will be as well.

Faith that pleases God (Heb 11:6) has a single-minded, single-hearted focus. But what about my family? What about my job? What about my church ministry? You fix your eyes on Jesus, and He will enable you to accomplish all the rest (see Matt 6:33). Beloved, keep your focus on the goal.  Never take your eyes off of Jesus.