Advent 2022: Joseph – A Man of Mercy

In the telling of the Christmas story, Joseph, the earthly “step-father’ of Jesus doesn’t get much attention. Little is recorded about him other than he was a carpenter by trade (Matthew 13:55) and a descendant of David (John 2:4). But I learned something recently about him that had previously escaped my attention in the rush to get to the birth story.

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

In the eyes of the Jewish community, Mary had committed a grievous sin – becoming pregnant as an unmarried woman was bad enough but to conceive a child with someone other than her betrothed was unforgivable. According to the religious law, the “righteous” thing to do was to “bring her to the door of her father’s house, and there the men of the town shall stone her to death” (Deuteronomy 22:21). It was a sin that merited public execution. Instead, Joseph chose to handle the situation quietly to spare her from disgrace and punishment. And because he acted mercifully, God, through the pen of Matthew, declared Joseph “a righteous man.”

Jesus esteemed mercy; He said the merciful will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7) and declared that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 12:8). His brother James proclaimed, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). I think, sometimes the church has it backward. Much like the Jewish religious leaders, we think that righteousness means always doing the right thing; Joseph shows us that righteousness is doing the Jesus thing – showing mercy. After all, that is the heart of the Christmas story: God’s love poured out in mercy to sinners like you and me through Jesus Christ.

This Christmas season, is there someone in your life that needs mercy – someone who needs love? No, they probably don’t deserve it – but neither did you. It will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, Beloved, but it is the Jesus thing. Let’s commit to being righteous people – let’s be people of mercy.

Fruit Inspection

Steel-toe boot warning.

“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious . . .” (Galatians 5:19).
If you claim to be a Christian, but you indulge in porn, I question your claim. If you profess to be a Christian, but profanity spews out of your mouth, I’m going to doubt you. If you tell me you’re a Christian, but you’re unfaithful to your spouse (either in act or desire), I find it hard to believe you. If you can sing the old hymns or the latest Christian songs, but you lie and deceive, your songs also lie. If you are sexually immoral, your choices defy your profession. If you go to church on Sunday morning and are yelling at everyone in your house by Sunday evening, I wonder why you bother to go to church at all. If money is your passion and you step on others to climb the ladder, your actions – not your claims – tell the truth about you.


If you claim to be a Christian and you are kind and patient with your elderly, grouchy neighbor, I will tend to believe you. If you say you are a Christian and you turn away from temptation, I’m more apt to agree. If you go to church on Sunday morning and are still full of joy on Thursday, if moral goodness marks your life, if you’re gentle when speaking to your children, if you bring peace instead of strife wherever you go, if you are loving and faithful to your spouse – I will trust you and I will trust what you say about this Jesus you claim to follow. Paul said our actions reveal our true nature. We either confirm or refute our testimony by how we live.

I am not judging anyone – But Jesus did say, “By their fruit, you will recognize them” (Matt 7:16). I’m just inspecting fruit. And yes, I see some bad apples in my own life. So what do I do about them? Do I determine to act better? Grit my teeth and be nicer?  No, this is not about behavior modification, this is about your heart. Jesus also said, “The good man [or woman] brings good things out of the good stored up in him”( Matt 12:35). A good heart – a heart that is set on Christ – is full of good fruit. A bad heart – a heart that is set on the world, self, or pleasure – is full of rotten fruit.

Paul said that “those who live like this [the first paragraph] will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21).  In other words, there won’t be any rotten fruit in heaven. Check your fruit, Beloved. What is true about your life? What is true about your heart? 

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.

This is the Way

Hubby and I went into town yesterday to run some errands. But first breakfast at our favorite breakfast spot. When we got to the 3-way intersection by the church, I expected him to take the middle road, knowing where we were headed. He went to the road on the right. I opened my mouth to say that this was the wrong way, but then I remembered that he grew up driving on these backroads and I settled back in my seat. He loves to take alternate routes. Riding with him is an adventure but we always end up in the right place.

After 400 years of enslavement, the Israelites were allowed to leave Egypt and journey to Canaan, the Promised Land. But there would be alternate routes all along the way. If you look at a map, the easiest way would be due east, hugging the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, but God didn’t lead them that was because they would have crossed through Philistine country and faced a fight they were not strong enough to handle. He said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt” (Ex 13:17). So He detoured them to the south toward the Red Sea.

Then he turned them back the way they came. I’m sure they were thinking, “God, what are you doing here? Where are you taking us?” But He said, “Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’” Thinking he had the upper hand Pharaoh pursued them, but God divided the sea and led the people across on dry ground. Then He closed the waters up over Pharaoh and the Israelite army. And they glorified Him. (Ex 14:1-31).

Of course we know about the detour through the wilderness when the Israelites disobeyed Him, but in the end, they crossed over the Jordan (again in a miraculous way) and into the Promised Land. Even in their sin, God was working to take them where He wanted them to be. Traveling with God is always an adventure. He never directs me the way I expect. But He has never gotten me lost. Every time I think He’s given me a wrong turn it turns out to be a different path to the right place. And when I fail to listen and think I know the way, He guides me back to the place I need to be. He knows every backroad and every detour because He blazed the path long before.  Beloved, you can trust God to lead you well. Whatever path he guides you to, He will always get you Home.

Look How Much You’ve Grown!

Joy has grown so much this last year. It’s obvious when you look at her. She’s taller and stronger. Her legs and arms are longer. Even her hair is longer. Her vocabulary is incredible, she doesn’t use baby talk and she annunciates her words very well. She can do more things for herself like spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. And she’s learning how to calm herself when she gets upset. (I hope she will teach me.) Potty training is still a work in progress, but I know she will get that too. One thing hasn’t changed – that mega-watt smile can still melt Nana’s heart. She’s a growing, beautiful, amazing little girl.

Which makes me wonder, how do we know that we’re growing spiritually? We don’t get taller, but we should see signs that mark spiritual maturity. Like Joy, our speech is a clear indication of growth. Jesus said it’s in our words. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt 12:35). We talk about God and the things of God. We reject profanity and gossip and complaining (Eph 4:29; Phil 2:14).

It’s also seen in what we desire. Growing in God means we want the things that He wants and we are repulsed by the things that offend Him (Ps 40:8; Col 3:5). We look and act more like Jesus, which is God’s goal all along – “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Rom 8:29). We are compassionate (2 Cor 1:3-4), kind and gentle (2 Tim 2:24-25), loving (1 Cor 13), self-controlled (1 Pet 1:13), and “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (Jas 1:19).

Perhaps the most visible sign of spiritual maturity is how we deal with sin in our lives. As spiritual babes, we sin and the Spirit convicts us of our sin. We confess, repent, and receive forgiveness. But we go back to it again. And we repeat the cycle, sometimes multiple times. The true evidence of spiritual growth is when we stop going back to our sin. When the Spirit helps us recognize the pattern and break the cycle, we’ve made a major step in spiritual maturity.

I look at myself and see some signs of growth as well as places where I’m still a toddler in Christ. You too? Growth comes when we take in the things that nurture our spirit, like God’s Word, fellowship with other believers, prayer, and resting in the Lord. And trust. Paul said, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6). God’s not going to give up on you, Beloved. Don’t give up on yourself.

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.

Stop Looking Back

I have a lot in common with Moses, the hero of God’s people. No, I’ve never parted a sea or made water come from a rock. I’ve never led a nation out of slavery nor floated down the river in a basket as a baby. What I have done that Moses also did was argue with God.

After Moses fled Egypt as a wanted man, he settled down and started working for his father-in-law as a shepherd. Then he saw a burning bush and heard God say, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex 3:10). And he argues with God. Moses starts giving all the reasons why he can’t do what God has called him to do. “They won’t listen to me. They won’t believe me. I’m not an eloquent speaker. I stutter.” Finally, Moses says, “O, Lord, please send someone else to do it!” (Ex 4:1-13).

My version of Moses is: “I’m not good enough. “I’m not smart enough. And then the sure kicker: “I have an ugly, sinful past, God, I’ve done so many shameful things.” Then I pull out my carefully cataloged and categorized list of all my failures so that He can see why I am the absolute wrong person for the job. I was recently struck by what Bob Goff, lawyer, speaker, and New York Times best-selling author said, “We spend a lot of time memorizing failures that God spent a lot of love saying we could forget.”

He’s right. John said that the Father lavishes great love on us and calls us His children (1 John 3:1). Even before we called Him our Father. Paul said, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). God loved you while you were doing the very things that sent His Son to the cross. When you accepted Christ, all your sins went under the blood of Jesus and left nothing but the Father’s love.

You are no longer a sinner in the eyes of God. You have been cleansed and reborn and filled with His Spirit so that you are enabled and empowered to do that thing for which He created you. Oh, Beloved, don’t look back when God calls you to move forward. He knows who you were – and who you are now. You are His child.

How to (not)Resist Temptation

I love fall. I love the colors of the leaves (even though they don’t change here in the deep south). I love the cool, crisp bite of the morning air. I love back-to-school season. I love the ground carpeted with shed leaves. I love college football. I love to watch the harvesters at work in the fields, bringing their bounty to bless the world. Except for peanuts. Oh, I love to eat peanuts. But the nut is produced under the soil and the farmer has to turn the plants over to harvest the crop, which releases all kinds of things into the air – like mold – to which I am highly allergic. And I live in the peanut capital of the world. Achoo! And yet I keep the window in my study open to enjoy the aforementioned cool, crisp air. I know. That’s pretty stupid. Just like standing in the path of temptation.

The mainstay of Christian conviction has always been  “Resist temptation!”  But the Bible says we are to run from temptation.  We are told to “flee from sexual immorality” and “idolatry” (1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:14); “flee from greed [the love of money]” (1 Timothy 6:10,11); and “flee from evil desires” (2 Timothy 2:22).  Why flee? James said we are all “tempted when, by [our] own evil desire, [we] are dragged away and enticed” (1:14). Our evil desires are internal. We have to flee from temptation because it is tapping into those desires. That’s why you can’t stand in front of temptation and try to talk yourself out of it – you have to get away from it. If your flesh is agreeing with the thing in front of you, run. You are standing on dangerous ground.

I knew a man who drove six miles out of his way on his daily route just to avoid driving past a bar he used to frequent in his drinking days. He knew the desire was always in him so he detoured away from the temptation. He took Paul’s word to heart: “when you are tempted, [God] will provide a way out” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The way out for him was an alternative – if longer – route. A married woman quit her lucrative job to distance herself from a coworker to whom she was attracted. Another man gave up his smartphone with internet capabilities for a simple call-and-text-only phone to avoid the pull of pornography.

Jesus wants you and me to be victorious over temptation. He gave us His Holy Spirit to empower us to do just that. But we still have to put distance between ourselves and temptation. If I want to stop sneezing I’ve got to close the window. Beloved, If you want to stop falling into sin take the way out. Take the long way home. Change your job. Cancel the subscription. Change your phone. Cry out to Jesus for help. Then run.

Hebrews: The Marriage Bed

Fair warning – this post is NOT politically or culturally correct. But it is biblically correct, so take your issues up with God.

This final chapter of Hebrews is a rapid-fire list of exhortations for the Hebrew church. The writer just states the facts without a lot of added commentary. Paul, James, and Peter did it too. As I’m studying this next passage, I think I figured out why. He is reminding them of something they already knew, something didn’t need explanation as much as it needed obedience. “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb 13:4). In case you’re wondering – yeah, I’m gonna go there. But first . . .

Notice that the writer starts by saying, “Marriage should be honored . . .” By definition, that means marriage should be esteemed, regarded as precious, of great price, held especially dear – and that includes spouses.  The first thing God did after creating man and woman was to establish marriage. That puts it on par with the sun and the stars and human beings in importance.

But it’s also important because marriage is a reflection of Christ’s relationship to the Church (see Ephesians 5:23-33). When the marriage relationship is tainted–for any reason–it spoils that beautiful picture of divine and holy love. Yes, this largely condemns homosexual “marriage,” but when heterosexual marriages are invaded by divorce, unfaithfulness, distrust, dishonesty, abuse, bitterness, and selfishness they are no longer a reflection of Christ and the Church either. The world won’t take seriously the biblical basis of marriage until the church does. (And for the sake of accountability, I’ve been divorced too.)

The church that honors the Word of God will stand against homosexual “marriage” on biblical grounds, and rightly so. Homosexuality is a sin, but so is heterosexual adultery and pre-marital sex and lust in any form – including pornography – which the church is far more lenient about. (So is greed, gluttony, hatred, envy, unbelief, gossip, dishonesty, pride, and a whole host of issues to which the church turns a blind eye.)

I don’t like to offend anyone, but I won’t apologize for this post. It’s the truth from the Word of God. Truth offends those who are living under a lie — regardless of our national laws. But Jesus said when you know the truth you are set free (John 8:32). So, Beloved, stand firm in the truth about marriage – but first make sure your marriage is honoring truth.