That’s Not Who I Am Anymore

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Some time ago I ran across some old photos of myself.  I laid them out in the progression of ages from about 3 to my high school years, watching myself grow taller, with a variety of hairstyles and some really strange fashion sense.  I saw something else. Somewhere between 10 and 15, the girl in those photos took on a dark demeanor and I remembered my past – things that had been done to me, and things I did to myself..  Glancing up into the mirror on my dresser, I thought how much I physically looked like the girl in the pictures, but I no longer recognized those dark eyes. God said, “That is because that’s not who you are anymore. Now you are mine.”

In Ephesians 5:8, Paul said, “You were once darkness…”  Then he gives the contrast: “but now…you are light in the Lord.”  Like painting a before and after portrait he said,  “You are not who you once were.  Now you are in Christ.”

One of Satan’s favorite ploys is to assault us with our past, to tell us that we will always be who we were and there is no point in trying to resist those old familiar sins.  “You know deep down, you still want it.  You haven’t changed. You are bound to your past.  You are bound to me.”  But if you belong to Jesus Christ, you are free from your past. You are a child of light, purified from all your sins (1 John 1: 7).  Where you were once held captive to sin, you are now bound up in God’s love. You have the power to say no to sin.

In Philippians 3:13, Paul gives us the secret to walking in our new identity when he says, “one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on…”  We can forget what is behind because “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)” 

Beloved, I want so much for you to understand that because Jesus Christ has completely removed all your transgressions; you are a new creation in Christ, no longer bound to a painful, sinful past or those dark desires.  You have light in your eyes, and God’s love shines on your face.  Because you are not who you once were.  Now you are His.

Forgiveness

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Matthew called them “debts,” Luke called them “sins.” Either way, debts and sins require forgiveness. Both for us and from us.  In “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus taught His disciples that forgiveness is “a two-way street” which oddly always leads to the same destination: righteousness. It is something we must request from God and something we must give to others.  Sin always leaves the sinner in debt – to God ultimately, but also to the one that was sinned against.  Forgiveness is the only remedy for the debt of sin.

We like to be forgiven. We want that feeling of relief when the weight of our sin is lifted off our shoulders. It is a gift not to be taken lightly or for granted. Peter reminds us that our redemption was more costly than “perishable things such as silver or gold . . . but [was bought] with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18, 19). So when we confess our sins and repent from them – which is part of seeking forgiveness – we are cashing in on the blood of Christ Jesus to cleanse us of our sins and pay the debt we owe to God because of them. That sense of freedom is breathtaking.

But Jesus also said that we must forgive the debts of those who have sinned against us. We must give to others the same grace that has been given to us. What’s more, He said, “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matt 6:14-15). That’s pretty sobering. Matthew also recorded the parable of the servant who, after receiving mercy from the king to whom he was deeply indebted, refused to give the same to a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller debt. The king withdrew his mercy and threw the servant into prison. Jesus said, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (18:35).

Consider the debt you owe God for your sins. Now consider the debt someone owes you. Which debt is greater? Forgiveness is not just a nice thing to give, it is commanded of us on the basis of God’s forgiveness. If God has forgiven you, Beloved, what can you hold against anyone? To whom will you give the gift of forgiveness?

Out With the Old Man (and His Mouth)

“Who in the Bible do you most identify with?” the teacher asked. Most of the class said they are most like Peter, the brash, impulsive, reckless disciple.  In many ways, I think I am as well. In fact, I identify with several Bible characters for a variety of reasons, but I truly believe I am most like Paul in at least one way: Paul was under the grace of God but he still struggled with sin. He said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). In that statement, he perfectly expressed the battle within me of the old (wo)man and the new. Though I am a new creation in Christ, the old me who lived for sin and self is still hanging around. That showed itself very clearly this week.

A few nights ago I had rocked my granddaughter to sleep and was carrying her to her bed when she shifted in my arms and whacked her head against my shoulder – the one I had surgery on just a few weeks ago. The expression that came out of my mouth was very un-Christlike – very much like the old man. The Holy Spirit quickly reminded me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:18: “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart.” In other words, there is still some ungodly, impure stuff in my heart. Mind you, I am careful with my words  But it’s at my most unguarded moments – when I respond out of fatigue, pain, or raw emotion – that the ugly stuff comes out of my mouth. But the answer is not just watching what I say – the issue is much deeper than that.

My prayer since that night has been David’s prayer: “Create in me a pure heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10). Watching my mouth only masks the root of the problem. I need God to take my impure heart of stone and replace it with a pure, soft heart so that I speak worthy words at all times, especially when my guard is down.  My desire in those moments is that when I “open my lips, my mouth will declare God’s praise” (51:15). Even when pain rocks my body and my life.

Beloved, what do your unguarded moments reveal about your heart?

Yeah, Right, a “Virgin Birth”

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Wrap your head around this: the baby in the manger was the son of a virgin and the Son of God. The Scriptures say “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son . . . “ Matthew 1:23/Isaiah 7:14.  I know – you’ve heard this scripture a hundred times at least. But have you stopped to consider what it really means? The Protestant Church refers to it as “the virgin birth.” The Roman Catholic church calls it “The Immaculate Conception.” We tend to fly over it but we need to give it some time and attention because it is important.

The word “immaculate” means spotless, without flaw or error, stain or blemish – perfectly pure. That could never happen with two human parents. Joseph was a righteous man, but he had a sin nature like every other human being. Mary was a virgin and she was“highly favored” by God, but she had the same sin nature. Joseph would be Jesus’ earthly father, but not his “biological father.” Mary, however, would be His biological mother – therefore she had to be a virgin – sexually pure. The Scripture said that Mary was “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit as the “male party” to conception. More importantly, He provided spiritual purity so that the child would be the only human born without a sin nature. Now I am a Bible teacher. I like to make difficult things understandable. But I cannot explain how this occurred. It was a divine action that we must accept with wonder.

Why does this matter? Because you and I are unholy people in need of a holy Savior. Only holy blood  – divine blood – could save the human race. There’s just one problem: God cannot die. That is why Jesus had to be both divine and human. It was the only way to provide the perfect blood sacrifice required to redeem mankind from their sin nature. It is the only hope you and I have.

Beloved, I encourage you to slow down through the familiar Christmas account. Take in every scene and ponder every word. This is not just a warm, fuzzy story to tell around the tree. This story is life. Eternal life. It is wonder and awe. It is Jesus – the God-man who came to save you. Indeed it is good news.

We Want to See Jesus

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The teacher asked the boy. “What are you drawing?” “I’m drawing a picture of Jesus,” he answered. “But nobody knows what Jesus looked like,” she said. “They will when I’m done!” he replied.

That’s been one of the naysayer’s most fervent arguments against the existence of God: no one has ever seen Him. How can we believe in someone we’ve never seen. Or have we? The Old Testament prophet declared, “The glory of the Lord will be revealed and all mankind together will see it” (Isaiah 40:5). God revealed His glory in His Son, the man Jesus. Paul said, “He [Jesus] is the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15). John wrote, “The Word [who was God] became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn: 1,1, 14).  Jesus is God and He revealed God to mankind.  But “nobody knows what Jesus looked like., so we still don’t know what God looks like. Ah, but we’re looking for the wrong thing. Jesus – and thus God – looks like glory. The Greek word for glory is doxa, meaning the awesome, brilliant light that radiates from God’s presence.

If you had been at the manger in Bethlehem two thousand years ago you would have seen it shining brightly. But you haven’t missed out on it entirely, it’s still visible today. No, it’s not in the candles in the church or the lights on your Christmas tree. It’s in the faces of every person who has bowed their heart and received Jesus as their Savior. Jesus – who is “the Light of the World (Jn. 8:12) transfers His light – His glory –  to those who believe that He is the Son of God – “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being,” (Heb. 1:3). That is why Jesus said to His followers, “You [now] are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). Something happens when we let go of our guilt and shame and sin and receive the forgiveness and love of God through Jesus – the Baby in the manger. The glory of God lights up our hearts and our faces. Beloved, can the world see Jesus through you?

The Wondrous Love of God

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“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46)

Joy. Peace. Hope. Love.  These are the words we most associate with Christmas and for good reason, the birth of Christ ushers in all of these good things.  Joy abounds in this season, especially on the faces of little children.  The angel brought “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10).  And he declared “peace on earth” (v. 14) to the stunned shepherds.  Many a war has called for a “Christmas cease-fire” so that there might be peace, at least for a moment.  The birth of Christ is the promise of the hope of God for all men everywhere.  And Jesus is the embodiment of perfect, holy love.  Those who believe and receive Him are filled with holy love for God and the world.  These are perfect words for the Christmas season.  But one word gets forgotten during this holy time of the year. 

Mary’s song – called The Magnificat – is a beautiful and moving oration inspired by the Holy Spirit in the heart of a humble girl.  Mary’s song doesn’t focus on joy or peace or hope or love.  Mary sings of the mercy of God.  She says “His mercy extends to those who fear Him” (Luke 1:50).   Mercy is as much a part of the Christmas story as the “big four.” 

God’s mercy and His love are interchangeable and intertwined in Scripture.  In the Old Testament, the word ḥesed is often used for both “love” and “mercy.”  You can’t describe the love of God without His mercy and vice-versa. Mercy is love. Love is mercy. Mercy is the outward, active evidence of God’s love.  His love prompted Him to act in mercy.  Love moved the heart of God, mercy built the bridge.  Love saw the suffering of humanity, mercy came down to help.  Love couldn’t bear to be without us, so mercy went to the cross.  And that is where the Christmas story truly becomes a love story.  Because Christmas, with all its joy and celebration, is meaningless without the cross. The story of Christmas is the story of the love – and mercy – of God displayed in the tiny Baby in the manger who would grow up to be the Man on the cross.

What wondrous love is this,

That caused the Lord of bliss

To bear the dreadful curse

Oh, my soul!

All Tangled Up

tangled Christmas lights - a photo on Flickriver

It’s almost that time! Thanksgiving is only two days away and many people are already decorating for Christmas.  In this year from . . . well you know – lots of folks are making ready for the holidays early to lift their spirits and bring some much-needed Joy to their homes. You know what that means, don’t you? The annual untangling of the Christmas lights. How many hours have we spent trying to turn that snarl of wires and bulbs into a smooth strand? “Pull that end through this loop. No! THIS loop! Wait, the bulb is stuck. Why didn’t you put them away right last year?” How many times did we chunk them and go out and buy new lights?  More than I want to confess.

Tangled lights are frustrating.  Tangled lives are heartbreaking. You didn’t mean to get so deep into that sin, that relationship, that dark situation, that addiction, but here you are and you can’t figure out how to get free.  I know of a few people in the Bible that would understand. Like the man in Mark 5 who lived in the tombs in the Gerasenes. He was possed by multiple demons – so many that they called themselves “Legion.” The townspeople tried to chain him, but he broke free of them every time. Yet he could not free himself from the demons. Or a woman named Mary (probably) from Magdala who was also possessed by seven demons (Luke 8:2). Or an unnamed woman from Samaria who had been entangled in sin with multiple men (John 4). Or a little man named Zacchaeus who was tangled up in greed with the Roman rulers (Luke 19). Or a very religious man named Saul who was so caught up in self-righteousness that he set out to persecute Jesus’ followers (Acts 9). Jesus set each one of them free from the things that bound them.

Or if you need a more recent example, look at the one who is writing these words right now.  Oh, the chains that Christ has broken in my life! He has set me free from a life tangled up in sin, selfishness, depression, fear, self-hatred, unforgiveness, abuse, anxiety, foolishness, and so much more. Beloved, whatever you’ve gotten yourself tangled up in – God can unravel your mess. It’s why Jesus came. So that you might know the truth – that God loves you – and be set free (John 3:16, 8:32).

But I Like My Sin

“I know the Bible says this desire is wrong, but why do I have to give it up?  Doesn’t God want me to be happy?”  Yes. And no. Happy in God’s vocabulary isn’t the same as our 21st-century “it’s all about me” understanding. In the Bible, the word “happy” is interchangeable with the word “blessed.” Happiness is a blessing from God. It is not something you can attain from circumstances, pleasures, or emotions. And especially not from sin.

In the last half-century, the church has flung the doors wide open and said, “You don’t have to give up anything – just come sing a few songs and sip some coffee and God will make you happy.” That is nothing less than an outright lie. Before you throw your Bible at me – yes, God accepts us as we are, but His purpose in accepting us is to conform us into the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29).  One who has no love for sin. A more conservative answer is, “You don’t have to give up your sinful desire, just don’t act on it.” It is an attempt to live in the tension between the holiness of God and your flesh. Two things will happen:  you will withhold the most important part of yourself – your heart – from God, and you will eventually give up the pretense.

Here’s the deal, God isn’t after your cooperation, He’s after the desire of your heart.  I Chronicles 28:9 says, “The Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought.”  He knows when your outward obedience masks a heart that still yearns for sin. Friend, the reason you and I fall back into sin over and over again is that we hold on to those fleshly, sinful, evil urges and don’t make Him the complete desire of our heart  That’s what the Bible calls “cherishing sin (Psalm 66:18).  It’s also called a divided heart.  And you can’t survive with less than a whole heart – physically or spiritually. Believe me when I tell you God is stomping all over my toes right now.

Beloved, you may think the sin you desire so much will make you happy, but that’s a lie. When God is your heart’s greatest desire sin cannot compare. When your heart delights in Him He will bless you. That’s true happiness.  

Wise Up!

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I am a few weeks from my 60th birthday. I know, many of you reading this are well ahead of me, but this number has really caught my attention. What have I done with those 60 years? Did I do anything I set out to do with my life?  The truth is, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a very long time. I thought life would just unfold before me and the choices would make themselves. I never knew that my life had a purpose. I often wish someone would have told me that when I was younger.  It might have changed everything for me. What I studied in school, the people I hung out with, the choices I made.

I came across Moses’ Psalm and one verse, in particular, that is highlighted in my Bible. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). I’ve been told that I am wise (that’s a shock to me!). I wish I could say it was because I numbered my days and carefully evaluated my life with every decision. The truth is, any wisdom I’ve gained has come through blood, sweat, and tears (No not, the 60’s rock group). It has come with scars and pain.  I’ve often quoted my mom who said: “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons.” I have paid dearly for any small measure of wisdom I have. But I’ve learned some valuable life lessons this way. I’ve learned there are some things that I don’t want to ever do again because the cost was way too high. If that’s wisdom then, I guess I am wise. Maybe you, like me, look back over years of mistakes and failures and self-destructive behavior. We did more wrong than we did right. If we wallow in our misery then we learned nothing from it.  But if those hard lessons brought about good changes and especially brought us to the cross of Christ, then we’ve invested well. Here’s where I hang my hope: God can take every mistake I’ve made, every failure, every sin and teach me more than I could learn in scholarly books and classrooms. And they become common ground to reach out to other mistake-prone souls. Will put your mistakes and scars in the hands of your good and loving Father? They tell a powerful story the world needs to hear. It’s time to wise up, Beloved.

The ABC’s of Gratitude

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I started this little November challenge: The ABC’s of gratitude – one letter per day of the month. It’s a neat way to keep an attitude of gratitude and my friends on Facebook have had fun with it. For November 1 – A – I am thankful for the Andrews family – of which I’ve been a part for 35 years. I’m also thankful for Air Conditioning – I do live in the deep south. November 2 – B I am thankful for the Bible – God’s Holy Word which is Light and Life to me and nourishment to my soul. I am thankful for fellow Believers in Christ. I am also thankful for bacon, butter, and The Baptist College of Florida.  Today is November 3rd – C. I noted that I am thankful for clean sheets, chocolate, Cheetos, children, and church. I started to add, “And it goes without saying that I am thankful for Christ and His Cross.” And the Spirit said, “Then say it.”

So here it is: I am thankful above all things for Christ Jesus – my Savior, the Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords. I am thankful that He who is fully God became fully man, and “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 and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7-8). I am thankful for the scars on His hands and feet and head and back. I am thankful that He is sufficient to save me and grant me eternal life.

I am thankful for the Cross on which He died. The symbol of Roman power and cruelty in the first century became the symbol of Divine power and Holy love. I am thankful for the cross because it was where the cleansing blood of Christ flowed freely over me. Beloved, I pray that you are also thankful for Christ and the Cross. I pray that, of all the things you are grateful for – from A to Z – Christ and the Cross are at the top of your list. And I hope you say it.  Not just on November 3rd – Day “C” in the ABC’s of gratitude. Say it every day. The world needs to hear it. And so do you.