The Best Gift

“In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in Him, and He saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in Him; let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.’” Isaiah 25:9

What was the best gift you ever received?  A favorite toy? A special doll or musical instrument? A treasured book?  A picture, tickets to a sporting event or concert? For me, it was a “walking Betsey doll” as a child, and the Christmas my husband purchased every color of embroidery floss that DMC made for my cross-stitch “addiction.”  Sometimes the best gift is something that we need and cannot get for ourselves.  This is the heart of God’s gift of salvation.  We needed to be saved from punishment due to us sinners.  We cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we try to be “good enough,” no matter how much we work, no matter how much we give – we are helpless to secure our own salvation.

Popular theology says that God saw His creation falling away from Him, into the clutches of sin and Satan, and He sent His Son in response.  But God’s salvation through Jesus Christ was His plan for the ages, from before the creation of man or the earth (ref. 1 Peter 1:20). Before God said “let there be light,” His Son was destined for the cross.  Why would God sentence His Son to die for you and me?  David answered in Psalm 22:20 – “He rescued me because he delighted in me.”  It’s that simple – God delights in you – He loves you, and He rescued you from the penalty of sin and the power of death because He delights in and loves His children.  God’s gift of salvation is available to every person. No one is exempt. No one is left out.  But the choice to receive or reject God’s gift is ours and ours alone.

What Joy is ours when we choose this gift, when we accept this great salvation offered to us by the blood of Jesus.  Hear the words of Isaiah as he proclaims, “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.  For He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).  Do you hear the delight and rejoicing?  God takes away our filthy garments of sin and shame and condemnation and exchanges them for royal garments of salvation and drapes our shoulders with the robe of righteousness – His righteousness.  If you have accepted this gift, rejoice my friend in Christ, REJOICE! If you have not Beloved, will you open your heart to receive the greatest gift ever given, the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ?

Bitter or Better?

In my younger days, I was a very negative person. I could always find something to complain about. When everyone else saw the rainbow, all I saw was the wet, muddy ground. My mom said as I child I worried like an old woman. Even after I became a Christian, negativity was my constant focus. When a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age I prayed for her and said, “What a waste of a beautiful life it will be if she dies this young.” And the Lord replied: “No more a waste than if you live for 100 years with a bitter, miserable heart.”

What makes us bitter? Life in a fallen world. There’s so much evil and sin and hurt and grief and loneliness and – well, I don’t have to tell you – you know. You’ve seen it and experienced it for yourself. The bigger question is what makes us better? What can turn a bitter, broken heart into a healed, whole heart? I can tell you it’s not anything the world can offer. It’s not the perfect spouse, the perfect kids, the perfect house or job or ministry – if they even existed. It’s one word. Faith.

In Psalms 106 the psalmist is relaying Israel’s history with God. On one hand, the Scripture says, “they sang His praises” but on the other “they grumbled in their tents” (vs. 12, 25). What made the difference? Faith. Listen: when “they believed His promises they sang His praise .” When “they did not believe His promise, they grumbled in their tent.” Believing God changes everything, including – especially – our hearts.

What does it mean to “believe God?” It’s more than intellectual assent. James said, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (Jas 2:19). Faith – believing God is knowledge combined with trust. The writer of Hebrews said that faith that pleases God “believes that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb 11:6 – emphasis mine). Believing God, by definition means to trust, to be certain, and – get this – to be quiet. No more grumbling in the tent.

Believing God also means obeying Him. The psalmist noted that the grumblers “did not obey the Lord.” James said that faith and actions work together (2:18-26). That’s the difference between demons and God’s redeemed people. We believe in God – more than that – we believe God and we act on it. Sometimes that means marching around the city wall or stepping out into a raging river. Sometimes it’s singing His praises and sometimes it’s being quiet and still before Him. That’s where I’m putting my faith in this difficult season. Beloved, do you believe God?

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).

Hebrews: Holy

Mr. Estes lived across the street when I was a kid. He was a big man, very broad-shouldered and taller than my dad, who was himself over six feet. Just looking at him told me he was a scary guy. But it was his voice that really terrified me. Deep and loud and gruff. I heard him yell at his dog once and that was all it took for me to stay far away from him.

The writer of Hebrews wanted his readers to remember their history with God. Stop here and read Hebrews 12:18-21. This is referencing the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinia (Exodus 19). God came down to the mountain amid thunder and lightning and fire and smoke and a “very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled” (Ex 19:16). I reckon so. The people were commanded to not touch God’s mountain under penalty of death. Animals were forbidden to approach it.  Even Moses trembled with fear. Why? Because the presence of God made the mountain holy.

We’ve lost the concept of “holy” today. The word is often combined with farm animals and even gross bodily functions and vulgar euphemisms for sex as an expression of surprise or even a curse. This should not be. Holy is not just four letters strung together – holy is God. It is the word the angels declared thrice before His throne: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;” (Is 6:3). “Holy” is His own self-description: “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (Lev 20:26). Even within the church, the word is not held with honor and reverence. This is one of my most fervent frustrations. If you use the word “holy” flippantly, I hope you are convicted and pay attention when it is on the tip of your tongue.

Wherever God goes, whatever He touches becomes holy. Remember Moses and the burning bush? God told him to take off his sandals because the ground surrounding the bush was holy. When God spoke to the Israelites at Mt. Sinia, they begged Him to stop because even His voice was holy. Their sinful ears could not bear to hear it. Whatever is set apart unto God is also holy and anything that touches the consecrated thing was also considered holy.  That includes you. Just a couple of chapters back we learned that “we have been made holy” through Christ (Heb 10:10). If you are in Christ, you are holy – set apart unto God for a relationship that will last forever. That, Beloved, should make you tremble with Joy.

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: A Costly Trade

Warning: this post is not culturally correct.

Sin is such an antiquated notion. Its meaning has changed from generation to generation. The present generation – if they consider sin at all – see it as causing offense by denying someone’s right to celebrate their personal truth. But previous generations rightly understood sin as an action that is offensive to God.

While sin isn’t limited to one specific action, sexual immorality seems to be the favorite. And we don’t have to ask why. But we do need to understand what it means. The Greek word is pornos – you know what English word that corresponds to. It comes out of a root word that means “to sell into slavery,” and that gives sexual immorality a whole new tone. Sexual immorality is any sexual act that deviates from the biblical presentation of the loving physical intimacy between a husband and wife.

The author of Hebrews tied that sin to Esau, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. He said, “See that no one is sexually immoral, or godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son” (Heb 12:16). Even though he was a twin, Esau made his entrance minutes ahead of his brother Jacob, making him the elder. By rights, he got the blessing of their father and a greater portion of the inheritance – called “the birthright.” But Esau came in from a hunting expedition one day, “famished.” He smelled the food his brother was cooking and sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. He threw away who he was – the eldest son – and all he stood to gain – the birthright – to fill his belly momentarily. He didn’t have proper regard for the gift that was rightfully his. When it was time to bestow the blessing, Jacob cashed in. “Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears” (v. 17).

Sex between a husband and wife is a beautiful, God-honoring thing. But any other expression of sex is sexual immorality. It is a moment of pleasure that will cost you dearly. In a culture where anything goes, Beloved, don’t sell your blessing to satisfy your flesh. God has so much more for you than that.

I Can Love

Joy and her friends at church. Photo by Wanda Williams

My granddaughter preached a sermon the other night. As I was taking her to her mommy to settle in for the night we were rehearsing all the people that she loves. She loves Mommy and Daddy. She loves Nana and Poppy. She loves Mimi and Papa. She loves Aunt Linda and Uncle Wayne and Aunt Rhonda and Uncle Mike and Aunt Alta. She loves Granny. And she turned to me and said, “And I can love Uncle R (name redacted). Her mommy and I looked at each other with a “Wow!” Uncle R is not a nice person. He has been mean to the rest of his family. He has a history of violence and cruelty. And the last time he was around Joy, he took delight in sneaking up behind her and scaring her. He is not allowed around her anymore. But she said, “I can love him.” Out of the mouths of babes . . .”

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43-44).  I want to ask Him, “Love him? Why? I mean, who gets their kicks from scaring a little girl?” And Jesus’ words continue: “that you may be sons [and daughters] of your Father in Heaven (v. 45). And there it is. God said that His children are called to live in a radically different way. They love – even their enemy.

“Love your enemy” sounds good on paper, but it’s not always easy to do. That’s by divine design. Love –genuine love – has to come from God. John said, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God” (1 John 4:7), and “We know and rely on the love God has for us” (v.16). We can only love those who mistreat us because God loved us first, and His love fills us up and spills out onto the one we cannot love on our own. I know that Joy’s parents have the good sense to keep a distance between her and Uncle for her safety. But what if – someday –she’s the one who will love him to Jesus? Isaiah prophesied, “a little child will lead them” (Is 11:6). I don’t think Uncle R stands a chance against a little girl who is determined to love him.

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.

Say Your Prayers

Do you believe God answers prayers? How about your prayers? Do you believe God even hears you when you pray? I think about the mighty prayer warriors of the church. People like George Mueller, an evangelist and the director of Ashley Down orphanage in Bristol, England. Mueller lived on his knees. Anytime a need arose at the orphanage he didn’t make a public plea for help – he prayed. On one occasion, thanks were given for breakfast when all the children were sitting at the table even though there was nothing to eat in the house. As they finished praying, the baker knocked on the door with sufficient fresh bread to feed everyone, and the milkman gave them plenty of fresh milk because his cart had broken down in front of the orphanage. That’s giving thanks for your daily bread – even before you get it.

I also think about the saints in the Bible. They never walked away from prayer doubting God had heard and would answer. David said, “In the morning, O Lord, You hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before You and wait in expectation” (Ps 5:3). David prayed and then he waited, but it wasn’t waiting with anxiety, it was waiting with the expectation that God heard and God would act on his behalf. The New King James Version of Psalm 5:3 says, “I will look up in expectation.” I will not look around at my circumstances.  I will not look for ways to answer my prayers myself. I will look to the One to whom I am praying and I will keep looking at Him until He answers.

I believe the key for David and George Mueller is that both men knew to whom they were praying and they knew that the Lord would be faithful. That sounds so simple, doesn’t it? This is one of those devotionals I’m really writing to myself because I so often follow up my prayers with worry. Did He hear me? Did I say all the right things in the right way?  Will He or won’t He? All those questions add up to one: “Can I trust Him.” David and George Mueller and a host of other saints will tell you without hesitation, “YES!” And when I look back over my life, when I read my old prayer journals and see the history of God’s faithfulness in my life, I can say the same. You can trust God, Beloved, say your prayers, and keep looking up.

Peace

God promised us the gift of peace, and if you have received Jesus Christ as your Savior, that peace is yours. We’ve seen that He has made peace possible between us and God, and that He is our peace when we are afraid. But what about now, when the real issue is simply my thoughts and attitude? How do I find peace when my mind is anything but peaceful? I have to choose peace.
The peace of Christ is there for me, but it is my choice to receive and apply it, or to leave it on the shelf and continue to stew. Where will I allow my thoughts to roam – to the wasteland of anxiety or to the peace of Christ? Two verses of Scripture offer me important keys. From the Old Testament, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast because he trust in you” (Is. 26:3). And from the writings of Paul, “the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). I can have the peace of God by focusing my mind on Him, trusting Him, remembering His faithfulness and His character; and by submitting my mind to the control of the Holy Spirit. I cannot just grit my teeth and force myself to be at peace. Peace is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), and it only comes when I am surrendered to the Spirit. Ephesians 4:23 tells us to “be made new in the attitude of your minds.” This will only happen when we fill our minds with the things of God; things that are “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8). Isn’t it interesting that when we consider all these characteristics we are to think on, they all add up to one thing. Jesus.