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.

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.

Praying for My Prodigal

I found a word today in the Old Testament story of Elijah vs. the priests of Baal that spoke such comfort to me. If you are so inclined, read 1 Kings 18:16-40. The people thought they could worship both pagan gods and the God of heaven and earth. Elijah called Israel to return to exclusive worship of God. When the Lord God is in the house – or the heart – there is no room for another god. Elijah said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (v. 21).

Elijah proposed a showdown between good and evil – between the Lord God and Baal the pagan god of the people. Each would be given a bull to be sacrificed by fire, but the fire had to be produced by the deity. The priests of Baal prepared their bull and called on Baal from morning till evening. They danced and shouted and slashed themselves in hopes of rousing their god to action. “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (v. 29). Because there was no one there.

Then Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord, dug a trench around it, prepared the bull for sacrifice, and commanded the people to drench the bull and the wood until both were saturated and water filled the trench. Then Elijah called on the Lord, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known today that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant . . . [and] that You O Lord, are God” (v. 36-37). And of course, God answered in a mighty way burning up the bull and the wood and drying up the water in the trench. There was no question anymore as to who was the one true God.

Here’s what jumped out at me. When Elijah called on the Lord he prayed that God would “turn their hearts back again” (v. 37). And He did. And that is the prayer of this Mama’s heart. I have a wandering prodigal. I know many of you do as well. The thing is he was raised in a godly home and in church and he even goes to church with his family on Sunday, but he is drawn to things that are not of God Monday – Saturday. I have prayed and pleaded with God for many years with many tears. But now, this is my simple prayer: “Lord, turn his heart back to You.” And I believe He will. Heavy-hearted Moms and Dads, Grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and friends; keep praying. Keep believing. Keep hoping. God is still in the business of turning hearts around. Watch for miracles up ahead.

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.

Little Lost Lamb

In Luke 15: 3-7 Jesus tells of a shepherd who leaves his safe flock to go after the one sheep who has wandered away. “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home” (15:5-6a). The shepherd had ninety-nine other sheep, but his heart would not let him abandon the one who was lost. I find a lot of comfort in that.

Your Heavenly Father has the same heart for you. Whether you are in a place you never expected nor wanted to be, a situation you chose, or you are in a season of life that is hard, painful, and seemingly unending, God has promised He will find you there and bring you safely home. In truth, He doesn’t have to look very hard, because you never left His sight when you wandered away. That’s because He never left your side. His promise is and always has been: “I will never leave you nor forsake you. Your God will be with you wherever you go” (Jos 1:5, 9). God is always with His child. Whether you get caught up in the glamor of the world and wander, or you run away in outright rebellion. Even if you go so far away from His fold that it seems impossible to get back. No matter where you and I roam, in physical places or seasons of life, God’s heart never leaves us. He never forgets about His children.

Something else I noticed – probably because I’m extra aware of seeing my granddaughter’s name in the Scriptures – He brings the lost sheep home with Joy. Not begrudgingly, not with words of anger or impatience. Not with frustration or resentment over the trouble the sheep caused. He’s just so happy to have His little lamb back with Him.

Are you in a difficult place? Are you in a hard season? Trust in God’s faithful love for you. Did you carelessly wander away because you were distracted by the glitter and lights of the world? Did you stomp your feet and run in outright rebellion? Beloved, God is not mad at you. He wants you to come home. Call His Name from wherever you are right now, then watch for His rescue. There is no place that His love will not reach.

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.

Have Faith

In Mark 4:35-41, when Jesus boarded a boat with His disciples He promptly fell asleep. If you read the preceding verses you will see it was a busy day and He was exhausted. So when a “furious squall” came up on the lake and threatened the boat, He slept right through it. The disciples had to wake Him up in a panic, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” I imagine they expected Him to start helping them bail water, but I don’t think they expected Him to calm the storm with a command. “He rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’” And the wind and waves obeyed Him.

At first, I was going to write about how nature obeys God yet man – His pinnacle of creation – does not. But something else is speaking to me as I meditate on this passage. I encourage you to grab your Bible and read these verses while I gather my thoughts.

In verse 40 Jesus rebuked His disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Faith is the cure for fear. Everything in life is about faith. Because “by faith we understand” and “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:3,6). Faith enables us to stand when we want to give up. Faith is the power of endurance and perseverance. Faith is the fuel of hope and the light of peace. Most importantly, we are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8). Faith matters for this life and for eternal life.

But there’s something else I see here. I’m drawn back to verse 35 when Jesus said, “Let us go over to the other side.” He told them where they were going so they should have realized that no storm was going to stop Him. He knew there was a man on the other side who was possessed by a legion of demons. He was on a mission of supernatural healing. Just a side note: scholars point out that, based on how He spoke to the storm, there was almost certainly demonic activity stirring the wind and waves. When you put it all together, it makes sense that demons would try to stop Jesus from reaching this man. But when you consider who He is . . .

What wonderous thing has Jesus spoken to you? Do you have faith to believe that He is able to achieve it? Whenever He speaks, it is accomplished. Wind and waves and demons cannot stop Him. Have faith Beloved, – even in the middle of the storm.

Hebrews: Who Will You Follow?

Today we’re looking at one of those verses folks love to lift out of its context and make it say something quite different on its own. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” I understand the church’s application as a condemnation of lifestyles that were once rightfully regarded as sinful and are now accepted and even celebrated in many denominations. What God once called sin is still sin today. He hasn’t changed his mind to fit the culture. But that’s really not what this verse is all about. 

The message of the whole book of Hebrews is “Don’t abandon Christ.” From the first chapter to the last, the writer has declared that Jesus is the only way to redemption and eternal life and any other way is a lie that leads straight to hell. He is encouraging his audience to stay with the One who is superior to the angels, greater than Moses, whose ministry was more effective than the priests, who was made like men but wholly unlike men, who presented Himself as the perfect sacrifice and was the object of the faith of their past heroes. “You started with Christ,” the author says, “you must stay with Him to the end.”

So, let’s put this verse back in its original context. Verse 7 indicates that the leaders they had followed had died and they likely felt adrift now. But they were not without a holy and righteous example. They had Jesus Christ who “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” I followed the cross-reference back to Psalm 102:25-27 which declares the eternal nature of God – not only that He lives forever, but He is the same forever.

The Church has been rocked in recent years by very public Christians who have abandoned their faith and “deconstructed.” A powerful apologist and evangelist was posthumously accused of living a sinful life that belied his testimony and teaching. A popular female Bible teacher has shaken her followers recently by changing her personal religious affiliations and taking an unbiblical stance.  Even our beloved local pastors are human – and fallible. So is this Bible teacher. If I haven’t disappointed you yet, stick around. That’s why I want to always and only point you to Jesus Christ. You can follow Him with confidence that He was and is and will forever be faithful and true. Men (and women) will almost certainly let you down. But you really can trust Jesus, Beloved. All the way through eternity.