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.

In The End

I wrote yesterday about God’s pre-knowledge of the ups and downs, blessings and tragedies, and Joys and heartaches in our lives. The question then comes, “Why would He allow us to go through these very hard things?”  “Why does He set us on a path when He knows it leads to hardship?” I confess, I’m far from an expert and I certainly can’t read God’s mind, but I can read His Word and glean some things that might help us to understand.

When the Israelites escaped Egypt they rejoiced, yet “on the fifteenth day of the second month [figure about 6 weeks] after they had come out of Egypt . . . the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron” (Ex 16:1,2). They missed the plentiful food of Egypt. So God sent them food – manna. It was their daily diet for forty years (v. 35). After a long steady run of the stuff, they complained, “we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Num 11:6). It became a source of contention for the Hebrew people.

But God knew all this. He knew when He sent Joseph to Egypt to save his family they would become enslaved for four hundred years. He knew that Pharaoh would oppress and abuse them. He knew Moses would be born at a time when Hebrew baby boys were killed. He knew that Mama would make a basket to float him down the river just as Pharaoh’s daughter would bathe in the same river. He knew that Moses would run after he killed an Egyptian for abusing a Hebrew slave. He knew right where to send him where a bush waited. He knew Pharaoh would forbid the Hebrews to leave. He knew they would be pinned between the river and the enemy. He knew they would rebel. He knew they would wander. He knew they would make a golden calf. He knew they would get hungry. He knew they would eventually grow sick of the manna.

He knew all this. Yet He worked in it all. And Moses declared, “He gave you manna to eat in the desert . . . to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you” (Deut 8:16). All of it, from Joseph to the manna was part of God’s plan. God used the manna to humble them and test them and bring them to a place of blessing. And that’s what He’s up to in your life too. In the good, the bad, and the ugly, He’s working to make you useful and usable in His kingdom. He’s working for your good. That season you’re questioning is part of His plan. And His plans never fail. Be encouraged, Beloved, God is up to something. And in the end, it will go well with you.

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: A Sacrifice of Praise

Several years ago I had a serious mental and emotional crash. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. I descended into a pit of depression and despair that was so deep I thought I would never see the sun again. Oh, I continued to go to church every Sunday and stood with the congregation during praise and worship. But I couldn’t sing. I wept. One day as I was driving, Crowder’s song, “Oh Praise Him” came on the radio. I felt a nudge in my spirit, “Sing child.” “I can’t” I replied, as tears began to burn my eyes. “Sing anyway.” So I choked out the first chorus, “Oh, praise Him. O praise Him. He is holy. He is holy.” I kept singing – or croaking – to be honest. But by the end of that song, I was singing clearly, “Oh, la, la, la, la, la, la” with tears streaming down my face. That was the day my healing began.

The author of Hebrews wrote, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name” (Heb 13:15). I understand this verse. Sometimes praise is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Remember, this was written to Jewish believers in Christ who were facing extreme oppression and persecution for their faith. Many were turning away from Christ and abandoning the faith because it was just getting too hard. The author implored them to instead offer praise to God in their suffering, even if it came at a high cost.

I won’t deny that life is hard and pain is real. But God is still worthy of praise. He is still good. He is still sovereign. He is still awesome in power. He is still holy. And He is with us in our pain. David said, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted . . .” (Ps 34:18). If that’s you today, let me assure you that God is near. He has not abandoned you in your heartache. He has tenderly drawn you close. If you’re still you can feel His breath ruffling your hair. If you listen you can hear His heart beating. Then you may hear Him say, “Sing, child.” I know. It’s not easy. But sing anyway Beloved, even if all you can do is whisper through your tears. He’ll hear you. He’s not listening to your words; He’s listening to your heart.

The Display of His Splendor

I couldn’t understand why I was in such a difficult trial. I had committed no grave sin that warranted discipline. I was being obedient to what the Lord had called me to do. And unlike so many other seasons of suffering, I hadn’t caused this one. “What is up with this God? What am I missing?” Then, as He loves to do, the Spirit took me to the Word for a word.

I was in the gospel of John. Jesus and His disciples encountered a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples, like me, looked for someone to blame. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2). Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (v. 3). Then the Lord healed the man. His eyes were opened and he could see.

When you read on in this account, the man’s healing drew a lot of attention. Many questioned the validity of the healing and the religious leaders pressed him for answers. They foolishly claimed that the healer was a sinner. The man proclaimed, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know.  One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see” (v. 25).

And that’s the point. People were talking about this miracle and about Jesus. The work of God was displayed in his life. From this account, I realized that I was not being punished or disciplined. I was being set up to display the glory of Christ Jesus, my Lord and Savior. And isn’t that the point of our lives – to be “A planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor” (Is 61:3)? When I was younger my Mom always warned me about my behavior because “We don’t want people to talk.” Well, I’m sorry Mom, but you’re wrong about this one. We want people to talk. We want them to ask questions. We want His name repeated all over town because of what He has done in our lives. “Did you see what God did? She had the worst reputation in town and now she shares Jesus with other women on the streets.” Or “He was so sick, no one thought he would survive that, but look at him now – so healthy and strong and praising God.” Or my own testimony: “She was such a negative, bitter, unhappy person and now she overflows with Joy!” I don’t know your story or your particular struggles but I know the Author of it, and I know that He is writing His name all over your life. You, Beloved, are the story of God.

Consider it All Joy (part 2)

Yesterday’s devotional started a conversation about God’s purposes in our suffering. We’re going to continue today in part two. I’ll post a link to part one in the comments.

Sometimes trials are a means of discipline in our lives – I know this one well.  The psalmist declared, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word” (Psalm 119:67).  Hebrews adds, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).  Trials that come as a consequence of our sinful and foolish behavior are meant to teach us valuable life lessons.  Or as my mother said, “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons.”  If you can connect your trial to your actions, take that as a means of discipline and training. The writer of Hebrews also said that discipline identifies us as God’s true children. “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” (See Hebrews 12:5-10). Discipline means that God is being a good Father to you.

Our trials reveal God to the world.  When Jesus and His disciples encountered a man who had been blind from birth, He said, “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). When the Lord healed this man everyone knew it, and he became a living testimony to the power of God.  You and I are the canvas on which God paints His own portrait for the world to see.  Just as silver and gold show up most brilliantly against a dark backdrop, the power and glory of God are on vivid display in our trials.  Our difficulties become the means by which God shows up and shows off.

Beloved, I don’t know what trial you are facing today, but I know that God has brought you to it for a good purpose.  He is at work in your life, stretching your faith, moving you into His will, preparing you to minister to someone else, teaching you discipline, and making your life a display of His glory.  Every trial is an opportunity for you and me to draw closer to our Father, to walk by faith, and to point others to Him.  Yes, we can count it all Joy when trials come, because we know God has a purpose and a plan – and we will be the richer for it.

“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).

Consider it Pure Joy (part 1)

Check this out – James says that as believers we are to greet every trial as a cause for Joy.  “Consider it pure Joy, my brothers [and sisters], when you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). Excuse me? Joy is not my default reaction when life gets hard. I don’t like trials and I’ll bet you don’t either.  But the Bible says that we can have Joy because our trials are not without purpose.  God has a reason for every trial we face.

James follows up our key verse by saying, “Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4).  We know that we become physically stronger when we work our muscles, and any trainer will tell you that resistance training is the best strengthening exercise.  Our faith becomes stronger when we have opportunities to exercise it as we strain against some resistant force – like a trial.  How will you know that you can trust God if you never have to?  Trials strengthen our faith and lead us into spiritual maturity.

Trials also accomplish God’s wider purposes.  Joseph was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape, and unjustly imprisoned.  But all of those very hard things positioned him to be in the right place at the right time – God’s place and God’s time.  Joseph was used in Egypt to save thousands of lives during the famine, most importantly the life of his own people – the Jews, through whom our Savior, Jesus, would come. Through some pretty hard trials in our life, God moved us back home positioning us for many good blessings including placing me in a great job with the opportunity to further my education – for free.  Trials often become the catalyst for a God-ordained redirection into His good plan.

Our trials prepare us to minister to others.  Paul said, “The Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). I have benefited greatly from the wise counsel and comfort of others who have “been there, done that” and survived.  Their testimony brought me hope and confidence in God and they gave good advice drawn from their own experience.  Perhaps your trial today will give you the wisdom to come alongside someone in a similar situation one day and offer them hope.

This is part one. Part two will post tomorrow.

Jesus is Praying for You

Perhaps the sweetest words in all the world (after, “I love you, Nana”) are “I’m praying for you.” Oh, what a blessing are the prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ. James said, “The prayer of a righteous man [or woman, boy or girl] is powerful and effective” (Jas 5:16). I am blessed with dear friends and family members who are prayer warriors.

But what strength and peace would be yours if you knew that Jesus was praying for you? That is what He promised Peter just before the enemy put the disciple through a sifter. Jesus said, “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31-32). Peter was about to endure perhaps the fiercest trial of his life; Jesus wanted him to know that he would not face it alone. I believe that we can take reassurance in knowing that Jesus does the same for us.

Pay attention to two things here. Jesus prayed before Peter’s trial – He knew what was ahead for his friend. Rarely do you and I know what is about to come into someone’s life – our prayers are most often reactionary. But Jesus knows ahead of time and His prayers are covering us before the trouble ever reaches us.  Also, notice what He prayed for—that Peter’s faith would not fail. Because the most important thing in this life is faith. And Peter learned the value of faith through his trial. In 1 Peter 1 he writes: “Though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may prove genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (v. 6-7).

As a side note, did you notice that Jesus said, “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32). When. Not if. Jesus knew Peter would turn back – because He was praying for him.

Jesus is praying for you in your hard time. He is praying that your faith would not fail. He is praying that you will be a source of strength for others when you get to the other side. And you will get to the other side, Beloved. Because Jesus is praying for you.

God is For You

“It’ll all be made right in heaven.”

I remember so well the sweet lady who spoke those words to me at my mom’s funeral. She followed a theme that many others had said to comfort me and my family in our grief. And they are right. God will set all wrong things right one day. All the hard things. All the sad things. All the things that were unfair and unkind. Even all the things that were caused by evil. Paul assures us: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). All our tears will be replaced with shouts of Joy.

But in your present moment of pain, heaven seems pretty far away, doesn’t it? Is there any hope for you now? I believe there is. Listen to what David said when he was in a difficult place: “How great is Your goodness, which You have stored up for those who fear You, which You bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in You” (Ps 31:19). In the sight of men. Men here on earth. God’s goodness, David said, is not just for the hereafter; it’s for the here and now. It’s for today.

How can I be so sure? Because, in Paul’s words, “God is for us” (Rom 8:31). No, I don’t think you get the whole gest of that phrase. “For us” means on our side, but not just on our side; He is, in the Greek, exceedingly, abundantly on our side. Now take that personally and say with me, “The God of heaven and earth is exceedingly, abundantly on my side.” I can also be sure because I have seen Him at work many times in the hard places in my life. He has taken what others have done against me and brought something good out of it.  He has taken the unexpected trials in my life and blessed me in awesome ways.  He has even taken my sin and foolishness and brought wisdom and ministry out of them. That’s how I can be so sure.

Another verse is marked in my Bible with dates and memories of a time that was so hard I honestly thought it was going to kill me. “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13). I clung to those words like a man in an ocean clings to a life preserver. And I did see the goodness of the Lord. And many years later I can testify that I still see His goodness every day. So will you, Beloved. God is for you. Right here in the land of the living.

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?