Waiting for Jesus

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The old man shuffling through the temple courts was a common sight. You could tell exactly what time of day it was when Simeon came around. Same gait, same expression, the same sense of yearning. But today there was something different about him. He was excited, his eyes darted around and his feet moved as if every step was determined by a force outside of himself. Suddenly his weathered face lit up like a thousand candles as his arms extended towards a young couple. With Jesus cradled in his arms the old man began to speak in the sing-song voice of worship: “Sovereign Lord, as You have promised, You now dismiss Your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Your people Israel” (Luke2:29-32).

Just then an old woman came up to the little group, her eyes bright with wonder and fixed on the infant in Simeon’s arms. “This is Him! This is the One! Oh, praise the name of the Lord – He has sent the Redemption of Israel!” Simeon smiled at Anna and nodded his head in agreement with her proclamation. They had both held tightly to the assurance that God would one day comfort and redeem His people and he was glad to share this glorious moment with his friend.

For the two elderly people, the baby was the fulfillment of a promise they had long held to and yearned to see. Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit, had been assured by God that he would see the Hope of mankind before he died. Anna, widowed early in her life, had dedicated her years to worship, fasting and praying for the Messiah to come. It had been such a long time – not just their lifetime, but hundreds of years for the oppressed nation of Israel. In the temple courts that day, their faith was rewarded and they received the child with great joy.

How do you hold on when the promise of God is a long time in coming? Just like Simeon and Anna did – with faith. They never wavered in their expectations. They never stopped believing that every promise God made was as sure as His name – El Emunah, The Faithful God. Beloved, His name still stands today. You can wait in faith because God is still always and forever faithful. Christmas is the blessed proof that He will never fail to do what He says He will do.

Image: “Simeon’s Moment” by Ron DiCianna

Worship the King!

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What kind of faith must you have to chase a star for two years and hundreds of miles based on an ancient prophecy? The wise men – Matthew calls them “Magi” – traveled what scholars suppose to be about 1,000 miles “from the east” (Matt. 2:1), most likely ancient Persia, or our modern Iran. They were probably devout scholars who studied ancient holy texts of many religions. The writings of the Jewish faith – which would include prophecies of a special King – would have likely come to them via Daniel’s time in Babylon. Through their studies, they came to recognize that the star that rose at a specific time signaled the birth of this very King. So they set out on a long, difficult journey with gifts fit for royalty.

Here’s what amazes me about the Magi – it wasn’t curiosity that caused them to leave their homes and families for such an arduous journey. It was worship. Matthew records their words to King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship him” (v. 2). Here’s the other thing that is surprising to me – He wasn’t their king. Remember – they identified Him as the “King of the Jews.” The Magi didn’t owe him homage. Why would they worship a king not their own? They realized from all they had studied that this king was worthy of worship – not just the worship of the Jews, but the worship of all men everywhere.

These Magi took ancient prophecies, looked forward, and recognized that Jesus was a unique king. In faith and awe, they set out on a long journey to worship Him. You and I have not just ancient prophecies, but we have the New Testament Scriptures that testify that Jesus is this King. We have the eye-witness of the Apostles and we have the heart-witness of the martyrs that testify that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The faith of all these should inspire faith in us. Jesus – the baby in the manger, the child in Bethlehem, the man healing lepers and raising the dead and dying on a cross and bursting alive out of the grave – this Jesus is worthy of our faith and worthy of our worship. Let’s give Him all He deserves this Christmas – and every day.

Where do I find Hope?

See the source imageI was looking for a word to share on this last day of the first week of Advent – the week when we traditionally consider hope, as we’ve been doing all week. I was typing along, happy as a lark when I went to find a verse to finish up what I was writing. I checked my list of “hope” verses and went to Psalm 62:5 and something jumped out at me I had never seen before: “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from Him.” Did you see it? David didn’t say, “my hope is IN Him, he said, “my hope comes FROM Him.” No wonder we struggle so much to maintain hope – we are looking within for hope rather than looking to Him for hope. God is our source of hope. He doesn’t expect us to grit our teeth and hope out of our own constitution, He gives us hope – just as He gives us life and breath and our daily bread, just as He gives us peace and Joy and comfort and strength and encouragement.

But how? I believe the answer is a few verses down: “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that You, O God, are strong, and that You, O Lord, are loving” (v. 11, 12). He gives us hope as He speaks to our hearts – but not just assurances that everything is going to be okay – He speaks to us about Himself. He tells us who He is and what He is able to do. He tells us that He will never leave us nor forsake us. He tells us that nothing in all of creation can ever separate us from His love. And He proved it on the cross and in an empty tomb.

I was going to tell you that if hope is hard to find, you need to look for hope by looking to God – kind of like, pulling up your bootstraps of hope. But this verse says that hope comes from Him – so if we are low on hope, we need only to ask. He is a generous, gracious God and He delights in giving His children what they need. Hope is a gift from your loving Father, but you won’t find it under a tree or wrapped in a box with a pretty red ribbon. It’s the whisper in your heart that says, “You are mine Beloved. I will give you all the hope you need.”

Christmas Presents – or Christmas Presence

O Immanuel . . . God is with us.  Isaiah 8:8, 10

My best friend and I are separated by almost a hundred miles.  We chat often on social media and text and talk with one another on the phone, but when I have the chance to see her face-to-face my heart rejoices.  There is something about presence—about being together physically that touches the heart more than a phone conversation ever could.

In the beginning, in the Garden, God and His first children, Adam and Eve enjoyed one another’s presence regularly.  The Bible tells us that they delighted in spending time together “in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8).  But sin forever altered that.  The fellowship was broken by disobedience and man was physically separated from God. A few select people encountered God for specific purposes, like Noah, but God no longer walked with His creation like before. After Noah, the Bible shows no interaction between God and man throughout many generations, until Abraham. God promised His presence with Abraham and his descendants and He was faithful through their escape from bondage and their desert wandering and settling in The Promised Land. He was with them, but still not in the same way as He had been with Adam and Eve. The Israelites built a temple where He could dwell among them, though still separated from them by walls and heavy curtains.  When Israel’s apostasy reached a certain point, the Lord withdrew His presence from the Temple—and the people.  But He promised His presence would one day return to them, in the person of the Messiah.  And as He always does, The Lord kept His promise.

The hope of Christmas is the hope of God with us – in the flesh. It is the fulfillment of the promise of His presence. God – in the person of Jesus was born as a flesh-and-blood baby in a stable in Bethlehem. He had tiny toes and tiny fingers, and He cried for the comfort of His mother.  He walked with His creation. He talked to them. He touched them – healing, comforting, and cleansing them. Imagine being able to reach out and touch God’s own hand. The most wonderful Christmas present is the presence of God. That is the promise of Immanuel—God with us.

I’m Supposed to be Thankful for This?

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One of the most challenging verses in the Bible is 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” In some seasons of my life that is an easy verse to obey – things are good, everyone is healthy, bills are being paid, the pantry is full of food, and the tires on the car have plenty of tread. Then there are those days when that verse is a hard pill to swallow. The medical bills are stacked three inches high, the rent is late, the cupboards are bare, the kid is expelled from school, and the car needs a new oil pump. And I’m supposed to give thanks? The key to gratitude in those hard seasons is being thankful IN all things, not necessarily FOR all things. And the focus of our thankfulness is always God and His faithfulness and sovereignty.

I’m reminded of the story of Corrie and Betsy Ten Boom, the Dutch sisters who endured the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp for the crime of hiding Jews from the German Polizei. The building in which they were crammed was infested with fleas, which cause Corrie to complain. Her sister reminded her that they must “give thanks in everything,” which Corrie could not understand. But because of the fleas, the guards refused to go into their building and they were free from sexual assaults and also free to hold daily prayer and Bible study sessions with their fellow prisoners. The Bible is full of similar stories of God using the hard things to bring about good.

Despite our circumstances, we can be thankful for God’s presence, His faithfulness, and His sovereignty. I have lived through a lot of hard stuff – some really gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, soul-crushing things – but God was always there. He comforted, encouraged, provided, healed, protected, strengthened – and always brought me through. He never let me down. Never. Not one single time. Beloved, if you’re finding it hard to give thanks this year, may I gently remind you to turn your gaze from your circumstances to the God who is able to make even fleas a blessing. He is up to good in your life. In all things.

Painting: “The Thankful Poor” by Henry Ossawa Tanner

More than Puppy Love

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When I was a teeny-bopper I LOVED Donny Osmond. I knew every word of every song he sang. I knew the inflections in his voice. I could imitate perfectly his cry when he sang “Someone help me, help me, help me please!” in “Puppy Love.” I had a binder that contained every article and picture of Donny that “Tiger Beat” magazine published. I slept on a Donny Osmond pillowcase and I wore purple because that was his favorite color. I knew countless facts about his life, his family and his career. I was an expert in all things Donny. But that doesn’t mean that I knew Donny Osmond, and he certainly didn’t know me. Our “relationship” never went any farther than my dreams.
In the Bible, God repeats the phrase “know that I am the Lord” at least seventy-plus times. This “knowing” goes much deeper than my knowledge of Donny Osmond. It means that the Israelites acknowledged that God is their Lord. They made a life-long commitment to him. But it is also a recognition that comes through revelation. You and I cannot know God unless God reveals Himself to us. Moses pleaded with God, “Teach me your ways so that I may know you” (Exodus 33:13). And that is the key. It is important that we learn about God’s ways – His character, His actions, and most certainly His Words, but we do so in order to enjoy a deeper connection to Him. The word “know” is also used in Scripture in the context of the marriage relationship and the most private moments between and husband and wife. It means that nothing comes between them to hinder their intimate connection. That is the depth of relationship God is offering to you and me.
How could I know so much about Donny Osmond and still not know him? Because I never spent time with him. Knowing God is so much more than gathering information; facts don’t make a relationship. Knowing God is spending time with Him, in His Word, in prayer, and in worship. Beloved you have the remarkable opportunity to know God – deeply, intimately, eternally. Don’t settle for a bunch of facts about God – know Him – with all your heart. He’s an even bigger deal than Donny Osmond.

When to Run and When to Stand: How to Fight Spiritual Battles

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We’re working our way through the book of Colossians in our Ladies Bible study group at BCF. Yesterday we looked at Paul’s warning: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2). So we posed the question: what are we watching for? Two points stood out from elsewhere in the Scriptures:

When Jesus confronted his three closest disciples who were asleep in the garden, he admonished them to “watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). So the lure of temptation is one area where we need to be watchful.

Then Peter, who was one of the three, gives us another saying, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The reality and work of the devil is another.

How are we to handle these two?

The conventional wisdom is to resist temptation and flee from the devil; but what does Scripture say?

About temptation, Paul said, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). When we face temptation, we take the way of escape. We flee. We run. We get away from the source of temptation, be it a place, a person, a website, or the office breakroom.

And when it comes to dealing with the devil, Peter’s warning continued: “Resist him, standing firm in the faith . . .” (1 Peter 5:9). We resist the devil, standing firmly and confidently behind our shield of faith in the God of Christ our Lord.

So the conventional wisdom is completely backward – Scripture tells us to resist the devil and flee from temptation. No wonder we’re falling so easily to the enemy.

Why does this matter?

Because as 1 John 4:4 reminds us: “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” If you are in Christ Jesus, then Christ Jesus is in you through His Holy Spirit. The very same Christ who has already overcome the devil. Because of Jesus’ work on the cross, the devil has no authority over you. None. And you need to stand firm and remind him of that when he comes roaring at you. Because all he can do is roar.

And because, as Jesus admonished his sleepy disciples, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Your flesh, the part of you that responds to temptation, is weak, even as a Christian. Though we are set free from the power of sin, we are still bound to our fleshly nature that desires sin. Paul said, “I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep doing” (Romans 7:18,19)

Christ has already defeated the devil, but you and I will battle our flesh every day of our earthly lives.

Understanding the enemy and his tactics is vital – not just to surviving – but to thriving and growing and carrying the cross of Christ into a lost and dying world. You need to know your enemy Beloved. But more than that, you need to know your Savior. He has already claimed the victory over the devil. And He will give you strength – to flee when you face temptation and to stand firm when the lion roars.

“Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).

Kanye and the Church

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What does it mean to be a “righteous person?” Merriam-Webster says that “righteous” means “to act in accord with divine or moral law.” In Scripture, it means to be “right.” But who sets the standards for “right” and “wrong?” In our culture, that standard shifts like a sheet caught in the wind. God gave His law and commandments so that His people would know exactly what He deems to be right and live accordingly. Righteous behavior was rewarded and unrighteousness was punished. In a previous post, I shared how the Prodigal Son would, according to Levitical law, be stoned to death when he returned home for rebelling against his father. Likewise, a woman who was found to not be a virgin when she married would also be stoned to death. The law stated: “She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her Father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). According to the Law, this was the right way to deal with her.

So how is it that Joseph was called “a righteous man” when he decided to disobey this law? When Mary revealed her pregnancy to her fiancé, Joseph “did not want to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, [so] he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Joseph did not want Mary to endure what the law said she deserved. Yet the Scriptures called him righteous. Because Joseph opted for mercy over judgment. No wonder God chose him to be the earthly father who would raise His Son.

A popular entertainer professed to be a Christian recently and just dropped a full gospel album. He has a reputation as a foul-mouthed, wild, arrogant, rebellious guy, but now he says he is a follower of Christ. And the church has judged him and his claim by his past. Where is mercy? Where is righteousness? Who among us has the right to judge his faith? Shouldn’t we instead be proclaiming the saving power of Christ? If the angels are rejoicing that a sinner came to Jesus, why aren’t we? We have an opportunity to show the world the grace and mercy of God by embracing this man and his new-found faith – but we’re showing them that Heaven has slammed the door in his face. And theirs. Why would they want a God like that? The truth is, it took the same amount of holy blood to cleanse my sins as it did to cleanse his. And it takes the same grace to overcome my mistakes as a believer as it will to overcome his. If God can save a wretch like me, no one is outside of the reach of His salvation.

James said it clearly and boldly: “Judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13).

I’m choosing righteousness here. I’m choosing the same mercy that was shown to me. I’m going to believe that my God can save. Anyone.

Seeing the God Who Sees Me

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The angel of the Lord found Hagar…” Genesis 16:7

You know the story of Abraham and Sarah – childless and old, God promised them a son, but in the waiting, they grew impatient and Abraham slept with Sarah’s maid Hagar, and she conceived. But their act of faithlessness caused tremendous grief for the Egyptian slave-girl. Twice Hagar wound up in the desert, weary, hungry and frightened. On her first excursion, Scripture tells us “The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert” (Gen. 16:7). The Hebrew word for “found” means “to cause to encounter.” God purposefully put Himself in Hagar’s path to cause her to have an encounter with Him. He set Himself right where He knew she was going because His heart was tender to her.  Hagar gained precious insight into who God is.  Realizing that the God of her master was very much aware of her and her plight,  She named the Lord El Roi – “the God who sees me” (Gen. 16:13).

After the birth of Ishmael (which- by the way – means The Lord has heard – Gen 16:11) Hagar and her son were forced to leave their home with Abraham and Sarah.  When their meager supplies of food and water ran out, Hagar recognized their inevitable deaths.  She put Ishmael under a tree and walked away, so as not to watch her weakened son die.  She and the boy were both crying, and God once again came to Hagar and assured her that He was aware of their plight.  Genesis 21:19 says, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”  Oh, do you see the beauty of this passage? El Roi – the God who saw Hagar, now opened Hagar’s eyes so she could see.  He showed her a well of life-giving water that would minister to their bodies and to their spirits.

You may find yourself in some difficult places and very hard circumstances, but I can assure you that you have never been out of your Heavenly Father’s sight.  There is no place you can go that God will not be.  Whether they are physical places, emotional pits, and spiritual dark caves – God has promised, “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5) The truth is, it’s often in those hard places that we see the God who sees us. Had Hagar not been lost in the wilderness, running from the hard hand of her mistress, she would have never encountered the Lord and come to know Him.  I know this to be true in my life.  So often I have discovered aspects of God that I would have never known had I not been in difficult circumstances.  When I was unable to put food on our table, I discovered Jehovah-Jireth – the Lord who Provides (Gen. 22:8). When I was desperately ill I found Jehovah Rapha – The Lord our Healer (Ps. 103:3). When I was discouraged and fearful, Jehovah Shalom – The Lord is Peace (Jud. 6:23-24) and Yahweh-Tsuri – The Lord my Strength (Ex. 15:2) came to encourage and strengthen me.  If you are in a difficult season, look for God to reveal Himself to you in a new and encouraging way.

Beloved, if He was faithful to a frightened, lost Egyptian slave girl, and He will surely be faithful to you.

A Beautiful, Imperfect Life

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“If you make a stone altar for me, do not build it out of cut stones. If you use your chisel on it, you will defile it” (Exodus 20:25).

For several years my son and I served with Samaritan’s Purse as the Collection Center Coordinators for Operation Christmas Child. We received thousands of gift-filled shoeboxes from churches in the North Florida region and packaged them in shipping cartons for transport. We quickly learned the most efficient ways to arrange the boxes to get as many as possible in the cartons. We turned them this way and that and searched for small boxes to fit in small spaces. It was like a real-life game of Tetris.

We like it when things fit together well, when there is order and balance. But that’s not always going to happen, especially in life. Things in our lives don’t always fit neatly in place, do they? Like that scary diagnosis or the spouse who walked away. Losing your job didn’t fit in with the structured life you had planned, and that hard-headed, rebellious child of yours has turned your ordered life into chaos. Depression doesn’t sit neatly in your tidy world. If only life cooperated with our well-thought-out plans.

When God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, He commanded them to build an altar for burnt offerings and sacrifices, but they must not cut the stones used in building the altar. Doesn’t that seem odd? Wouldn’t it be nicer to cut the stones to size so that they all fit together neatly? It could be a beautiful monument of perfectly shaped stones. But God did not want man’s “perfection.” To me, this becomes a powerful object lesson – that true worship comes from imperfect lives. Try as we might, we’re not going to make all the pieces fit neatly together. But when God takes the pieces of our lives, the odd shapes and sizes, and even the broken fragments, He makes something beautiful from them, something that speaks of Him to a world full of imperfect people.

Real life is not neat and tidy. It’s messy and misshapen and broken. But God – those are my two favorite words – but God can take your imperfect life and turn it into a beautiful testimony of His grace. Put the pieces of your life in God’s hands Beloved, and worship at the altar of His love.