Advent 2022: Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

Try to wrap your head around this: the baby in the manger was the son of a virgin woman 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. In researching the word this means that He filled Mary with creative energy, much the same way He worked in the creation of the universe. 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. Under the old covenant, sacrifices had to be made every year to atone for the people’s sins.   Only a divine sacrifice could guarantee salvation. Only holy blood  – divine blood – could atone for the human race. There’s just one problem: God cannot die. That is why Jesus had to be both divine and human. Thus Jesus came from the union of God and humanity. It was the only way to provide the perfect blood sacrifice required to redeem mankind from their sinful 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.

Count Your Blessings

Even without my pint-sized sidekick, my life is very busy. I work four full-time days a week, I am a graduate student, I write these daily devotionals, and am trying to pull them together to publish. I teach two different Bible classes every week for which I study and write the lessons. Oh, and somewhere in there, I (sorta) clean my house and give my sweet, supportive hubby some attention. And occasionally I sleep. I say all that to say, unoccupied time is hard to come by. But it is something I sense God pressing on me lately. It came to me – as every good thought does – from His Word.

“Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said: ‘Who am I, O Sovereign Lord . . . that you have brought me this far?’” (2 Samuel 7:18). Nathan the prophet had just reported God’s prophecy to the King: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (v. 16). David was awestruck. Once a shepherd boy, now a king with an everlasting throne. All he could do was sit before the Lord in worship and astonishment. So should we.

Have you ever stopped to consider all God has done for you? First, He gave you life and breath – that in itself is beyond comprehension (Gen 2:7). Then, despite your sin, He gave you grace that has drawn you to Him – you would not have sought Him out on your own (John 6:44). And wonder of wonders, He gave His One and Only Son who then gave His perfect life to redeem yours out of the pit of sin and death. That’s mercy (John 3:16).  Then He raised Him from the dead to give you eternal life (1 John 5:10-12). If you stopped right there that would be more than enough.

But think of all the ways He pours out His love and blessings on you. I think of my family and the Joy they bring. I have the most wonderful friends, a job I love, the opportunity to continue my education, a loving, caring church family, food on my table, a roof over my head, a soft bed to sleep on – oh, I could go on and on. And so could you. Beloved, come and sit before the Lord and ponder His goodness to you. “Count your many blessings; see what God has done.”

Wonder and Awe

Piggy-backing on my post from yesterday, I once read an article about awe. There was actually a three-year research project done on awe at UCal Berkley, their report included such awesome findings as “Awe binds us together,” “Awe helps us see things in new ways,” “Awe makes us nicer – and happier,” and “Awe alters our bodies.” It also touted “the healing potential of awe.” Suggestions for finding awe included observing nature, listening to music, and one I heartily agree with – putting down the ever-present cell phone and simply looking up. I don’t dispute any of their findings or suggestions, but the article failed to ask and answer some very important questions, such as “Why do we feel awe?” and “What makes something awe-inspiring?” I’d like to take a stab at them myself – with the help of the Scriptures.

We feel awe because we were created for worship – and worship is at its purest and truest when it is accompanied by awe. The article says “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things.” (Dacher Keltner) Is there anything more vast or farther beyond our human understanding than the God of the Universe? David declared “You are awesome, O God, in your sanctuary” (Psalm 68:35)!

What makes something awe-inspiring is when we, in our smallness, stand in the presence of greatness. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, and it is awesome because it is huge and beautiful. Deuteronomy 7:21 says “The Lord your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God.” When we sense the presence of God we have no other response but awe. Actually, when we truly sense the awesome presence of God we cannot stand at all. As one of my spiritual mentors said, “There is nothing to do but stand in awe and bow in worship” (J.D. Walt). Still, the most important question is, “What happened to our sense of awe?” Sin happened. Pride happened. The sin of Adam and Eve, at its root, is the sin of pride. Where pride reigns, we lose the necessary humility to be awed. Beloved, if you ponder the fact that the holy, exalted, sovereign God of heaven and earth has singled you out for salvation and relationship and eternal life you should be humbled and awed. Could anything be more incredible, more grand and glorious, more awe-inspiring than that?

Jesus is [not] my Homeboy

When I took an Apologetics course in my undergrad, I had to interview five non-Christians and ask them specific worldview questions. I also did a little experiment. I asked each one to repeat one simple, three-word phrase: “Jesus is Lord.” None of them would. In fact, one of them said, “I can’t. Those words just won’t come.”  

When we take a very nonchalant approach to Jesus, it shows in how we identify Him. Evangelist Greg Laurie said, “Sometimes I think people in the church are far too casual with God. They have a relationship with God, but they’ve forgotten the holiness of God. They say Jesus is their “homeboy,” but their so-called homeboy created the universe. Let’s show some respect. This is God Almighty we’re talking about.” I understand that we want to present Jesus as approachable and relevant. But if we fail to see and acknowledge Him as Lord, we have missed the point of who He is.

The writer of Hebrews got it. He said, “Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28b-29). That’s very different from the soft-hearted God that is preached from many pulpits today. Don’t get me wrong – our God is a God of love and mercy – two of His most enduring traits. God’s love is evident in His mercy. His mercy is driven by His love. But both His love and His mercy must acknowledge His holiness – and His wrath. Without it, His love is as mushy – and useless – as a Hallmark movie.  You and I need a love that is powerful enough to snatch us from the edge of hell.

While the culture today wants to worship only the God of love, love, love they have no real context. His love is His mercy. His love is the cross. They don’t understand that because they fail to see the danger they are in because of their sinfulness. And they fail to see the consuming fire of His holiness. Remember what the angels proclaimed in Isaiah’s vision: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty (Isa 6:3). His holiness is His glory – a brilliant radiance that consumes everything that is not as holy as He. Unless you have the protective covering of the blood of Jesus.

God’s mercy against the backdrop of man’s sin is like threads of gold and silver on black velvet. They just show up better. You were meant to carry the light of God to a dark world that longs for love but doesn’t understand it. Beloved, let Him set you ablaze with His glory.

Hebrews: An Unshakable Kingdom

If it seems like the past few years have left us all shaken, I don’t think that’s by accident.  I believe the enemy has taken hold of the pillars on which our human ideology is built and is having a rocking good time. I have not seen so much confusion and turmoil and unrest in my lifetime. The devil is on a mission to upend the world in which humans exist.  Makes you wonder if God has left us to fend for ourselves.  Let me put your mind at ease. God is still very much with us and He has not lost control- even for a moment.

Listen to what He said: “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens. The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken – that is created things – so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire'” (Hebrews 12:26-29).

I believe God has been allowing this shaking for His own purposes. For the church and believers, He is shaking loose everything that does not have eternal value. Things like our fine buildings and traditions and systems and structures. Our weak sermons and half-hearted worship. Our surface-level relationships. Our fluffy feel-good “discipleship.” Our wealth and opulence. Our finery and frivolity. Our individuality and autonomy. Our worldly wisdom. Our selfishness. Our self-righteousness. Our attraction to sin. Our whining and grumbling. Our unbelief. Our pride.

What will remain? Humility. Real Love. Real Power. The Cross. The empty tomb. Holiness. Faith. Perseverance. Righteousness. Truth. Purity. Wisdom. Obedience. Surrender. And Hope. And Peace. And Joy. And from these God will build an unshakable Church. When God shakes the heavens and the earth all that remains will be strong, sure, and eternal – the unshakable Kingdom of God.

Every time God shakes up my life – and that’s happened quite a lot in the last few years – it is to shake loose everything I trust in that is unstable so I am left with the only thing I can depend on – Him. So shake me, God. Shake Your church. Shake the dust and the cobwebs that have overtaken us in our ease and slumber. Shake loose everything that will not have a place in your Kingdom. Then cause your Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

You Asked for it – You Got it!

As I was reading the book of Amos an old commercial from the 70s came to mind.  You might remember the jingle: “You asked for it, you got it. Toyota!” Amos was a prophet to Israel just before the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians. God sent him with a message of warning and destruction because Israel had rejected Him. But they told Amos, “Do not prophesy against Israel and stop preaching against the house of Isaac” (7:16). In other words, stop giving us God’s Word.

Well, they asked for it and they got it. The Lord said he was sending a famine – “not of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord” (8:11). That chills my heart. I do not think I could survive without God’s Word. But the present culture is making the same demands. “Don’t tell us what that antiquated fairy-tale book says! It has no authority over us. It is intolerant, racist, and sexist.” Isn’t it strange that the generation that shouts for “tolerance” is intolerant of the truth?

But let’s flip this. What would our world be like – what would our churches and homes and hearts be like if we sought the Word of God? If we store it up in our hearts (Ps 119:11), rejoice in it (v. 14), and meditate on it (v. 15), What if we delight in and never neglect it (v. 16)? What if we choose the way of truth and set our hearts on the Scriptures (v. 30)? What if we obey it with all our hearts (v. 34)? How might it change us if we love the Word of God (v. 47)? What if we put our hope in God’s Word (v. 81) and let it light our way (v. 105)? What if we stand in awe of the Holy Scriptures (v. 120)? What if we faithfully walk in God’s Word (v. 133)?

My goal as a Bible teacher is to teach myself out of a job. It is to help you see the wonder and beauty and truth in the Scriptures and fall in love with the Bible all on your own. Do you want that kind of passion for God’s Word? Ask Him for it, Beloved. And you’ll get it.

The Story of God

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The first four words of Scripture tell you everything you need to know about the Bible: “In the beginning God . . .”(Gen. 1:1). The Bible, for all the people and stories it contains, is a book about God. We like to say it is about God and man, God and Abraham, God and Israel. We point to all God’s creative activity, which is worthy of note and awe. But the Bible isn’t about all God did and the humans he worked through. The Bible is about God. The story of Moses is the story of God. The story of David is the story of God. The stories of Jonah and the Apostles are all the stories of God. He is on every page, in every verse, and behind every story, even if His name is not mentioned.

That is because God is the creator and sustainer of all existence. If He were to somehow cease to be, which can never happen because He is eternal, the heavens and the earth – every mountain and tree, every planet and star would disappear. Paul said of Christ (who is fully God) “By Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). And John the Revelator recorded the angels’ praise: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:11).

Get this – your story and my story is also the story of God. Paul said, “We live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28). We would not exist without Him. We should seek every day to know Him. That is why I teach the Bible. That is why I encourage you to read and study for yourself. Listen to His amazing promise: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:13, 14). You don’t have to hope to know God, you just have to look for Him in the pages of His Word. Beloved, will you open your Bible and seek out the One who created you and loves you?

Christmas in Heaven’s Eyes

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I’ve often wondered about heaven’s reaction when Jesus was born on earth. What was the Father thinking? Were the angels rejoicing? Or were they silent with wonder? The Bible doesn’t tell us specifically, but I expect the Father looked on the scene with love for His Son now cradled in a young woman’s arms. And the angels? Some were tasked with delivering the good news in message and song. But I also believe there was wonder and astonishment and worship in haven.

Peter said, “Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12). The word Peter used for “look” means “to bend over to look intently.” Can you picture it with me – tens of thousands of angels bending over the edge of heaven to gaze upon the Son of God in human flesh? The One who, with the Father and the Spirit, created the first human being had now become one of them. The omnipotent was now a helpless infant, subject to cold and hunger and pain. The One who provided all men with all things now needed a young woman to provide for Him. He who called the light forth now squinted His eyes at the brightness of Joseph’s lantern. He had spoken the animals into being; now they were His only companions at His birth.

No doubt they marveled at the sight before them, but they were in absolute awe pondering the purpose of it all. The context in which Peter used the word “look” means to have knowledge of. The Sovereign Lord God Almighty had sent His One and Only Son to pay the penalty for humanity’s sin. They had always known that God is complete love, they had experienced that love for themselves. But grace. Grace was something foreign to them. These earthly creatures had rejected and abandoned their Creator; they deserved destruction. But God offered forgiveness and was willing to accept these rebellious humans. To the angels it was extraordinary – they recognized the greatness of God’s offer. But it is a gift only human beings can receive.

This Christmas Beloved, I pray you will consider with fresh eyes the gift of God’s favor.  In heaven – where all is wonderous, this thing called “grace” is truly a wonder. It is, in fact, the very heart of Christmas.

Awe

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“Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28).

A few years ago there was a three-year research project done on awe at U Cal Berkley, their report included such awesome findings as “Awe binds us together,” “Awe helps us see things in new ways,” and “Awe makes us nicer – and happier.” It also touted “the healing potential of awe.”  Suggestions for finding awe included observing nature, listening to music, and one I heartily agree with – putting down the ever-present cell-phone and simply looking up. [1]

I don’t dispute any of their findings or suggestions, but the article failed to ask and answer some very important questions, such as “Why do we feel awe?” and “What makes something awe-inspiring?” 

We feel awe because we were created for worship – and worship is at its purest and truest when it is accompanied by awe.  The article says “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things.” (Dacher Keltner)[2]  Is there anything more vast or farther beyond our human understanding than the God of the Universe?  David declared “You are awesome, O God, in your sanctuary” (Psalm 68:35)!

What makes something awe-inspiring is when we, in our smallness, stand in the presence of greatness.  I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, and it is awesome because it is huge and beautiful. Deuteronomy 7:21 says “The Lord your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God.”  When we sense the presence of God we have no other response but to stand in awe.  Actually, when we truly sense the awesome presence of God we cannot stand at all.

But I think the most important question is, “What happened to our sense of awe?”  Sin happened. Pride happened.  The sin of Adam and Eve, at its root, is the sin of pride.  Where pride reigns, we lose the necessary humility to be awed.  Beloved, if you ponder the fact that the holy, sovereign God of heaven and earth has singled you out for salvation and relationship and eternal life you should be humbled and awed.  Nothing is more incredible, more grand and glorious, and more awe-inspiring than that.

[1] Paula Spencer Scott, “Feeling Awe May Be the Secret to Health and Happiness,” Parade, Sunday, October 9, 2016, 6-8.

[2] Dacher Keltner is a psychologist who heads the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab, and helped create the new Facebook response button emojis.

When God Inturrupts Your Life

 

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She stood in the dim light of the early morning with her hand over her belly and her heart full of awe and wonder at the life growing within her. It was all so surreal. She tried to remember every detail but it was so wonderful and frightening at the same time. She had heard a rustling beside her and turned to see a man – but not a man – an angel? Yes, it was an angel; he said his name was Gabriel and he called her “highly favored,” but surely he meant someone else. She was a peasant girl from the nothing town of Nazareth. Her highest goal was to marry Joseph and have a family. She pulled her cloak tighter around her and noticed that she was trembling – fear mixed with excitement ran like shockwaves through her small frame. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:30). Mary pointed out that she was a virgin, wondering – not if – but how this would happen. He spoke of the Holy Spirit and an overshadowing and the impossible becoming a reality. Then the angel said the most remarkable thing – that this child would “be called the Son of the Most High God” (v. 35). Oh my! Did he mean that she – Mary of Nazareth – would be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah? It was every Jewish girl’s dream.

In the stillness of the morning, the angel’s announcement still rang in her ears. She repeated aloud the words she said to him that day as if reassuring herself and reaffirming her willingness, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said” (v. 38).

Mary’s quiet, well-planned life was suddenly interrupted by God. She was put in a most scandalous situation, one that could have cost her her beloved Joseph, and possibly even her life. It was an inconvenience to say the least. Yet she humbly surrendered herself to the will of God and embraced an unknown future with awe and wonder and faith. Beloved, has God interrupted your life with something unexpected – something inconvenient, perhaps even shocking? It may be a person, a diagnosis, a major change, or a great sorrow. How will you respond? With fear and anxiety? Or with faith and humble surrender? Are you willing to be the Lord’s servant?