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.

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.

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: Holy

Mr. Estes lived across the street when I was a kid. He was a big man, very broad-shouldered and taller than my dad, who was himself over six feet. Just looking at him told me he was a scary guy. But it was his voice that really terrified me. Deep and loud and gruff. I heard him yell at his dog once and that was all it took for me to stay far away from him.

The writer of Hebrews wanted his readers to remember their history with God. Stop here and read Hebrews 12:18-21. This is referencing the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinia (Exodus 19). God came down to the mountain amid thunder and lightning and fire and smoke and a “very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled” (Ex 19:16). I reckon so. The people were commanded to not touch God’s mountain under penalty of death. Animals were forbidden to approach it.  Even Moses trembled with fear. Why? Because the presence of God made the mountain holy.

We’ve lost the concept of “holy” today. The word is often combined with farm animals and even gross bodily functions and vulgar euphemisms for sex as an expression of surprise or even a curse. This should not be. Holy is not just four letters strung together – holy is God. It is the word the angels declared thrice before His throne: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;” (Is 6:3). “Holy” is His own self-description: “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (Lev 20:26). Even within the church, the word is not held with honor and reverence. This is one of my most fervent frustrations. If you use the word “holy” flippantly, I hope you are convicted and pay attention when it is on the tip of your tongue.

Wherever God goes, whatever He touches becomes holy. Remember Moses and the burning bush? God told him to take off his sandals because the ground surrounding the bush was holy. When God spoke to the Israelites at Mt. Sinia, they begged Him to stop because even His voice was holy. Their sinful ears could not bear to hear it. Whatever is set apart unto God is also holy and anything that touches the consecrated thing was also considered holy.  That includes you. Just a couple of chapters back we learned that “we have been made holy” through Christ (Heb 10:10). If you are in Christ, you are holy – set apart unto God for a relationship that will last forever. That, Beloved, should make you tremble with Joy.

Be Like Jesus

“Look at this pretty dress,” my Mom said, “this silhouette would look so nice on you.”
“It’s okay, but it’s not exactly the style today, nobody’s wearing stuff like that now.”
My mom was a master seamstress and made a lot of my clothes; we were in the fabric department, looking at patterns. Or she was. I was impatiently trying to drag her to the young women’s section to buy the things my peers were wearing. My mom wanted me to be different – or as she said, “to be yourself.” I didn’t want to be myself – I wanted to be like everyone else. The thing is, on those rare days when I did wear something my mom wanted me to wear, I got the most compliments. Most days, I was just one more face in a look-alike crowd.
When God called the nation of Israel to be His people he said He had “set you apart from the nations, to be My own” (Leviticus 20:26). He wanted them to be distinct – holy – like Him. His people were meant to reflect Him to the nations. They resisted this throughout their history, and when they had settled in the Promised Land, they demanded a king “then we will be like all the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:19). They did not want to be like God, they wanted to be like everyone around them.
Not much has changed. God’s people, now under Jesus’ sacrifice, are called to be different, to be like Christ – distinct, set apart – holy. But we try our best to fit in – to be like everyone around us. We don’t want to “stand out from the crowd.” But the crowd needs to see you and me looking like Jesus, talking like Jesus, loving like Jesus – not a mirror image of themselves. You may not get compliments, but you will be noticed, and that allows you to “give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

Do you blend in with the world, or do you stand out from the crowd? Do people see their own weary reflection when they look at you – or do they see the hope of Christ? The truth is, you cannot be a follower of Christ and look like the world. You are either one or the other. Which will it be Beloved? 

Why Do You Worship God?

Sunday morning as I walked Joy to her “Honey School” class we walked past the sanctuary and she asked me if I was going to the big church to sing. I said yes. Then, like all good three-year-olds should do, she started peppering me with “Why’s.” “Why do you want to sing” “To worship God.” “Why do you want to worship God?” “Because I love God and because He is great,” I answered.

All of creation worships its Creator. David said, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands” (Ps 19:1). Every rumble of thunder is a call to praise. The trees clap their hands in worship (Is 55:12). The rocks cry out His praise (Luke 19:40). Birds sing. Crickets chirp. Frogs croak. The sound of their worship fills the skies. I love to worship. Corporately, privately, with shouts, and through tears. I love Sundays with my church family, all our voices blending together to praise the One who saved us. If you see me when I’m driving you may catch me belting out a song with one hand on the steering wheel and the other raised to the roof. You might want to proceed with caution. And worship is not just music. I usually write out my private worship – words are my love language. But the sweetest worship is singing of the goodness of God in lovely harmony with my granddaughter.

We are commanded in Scripture to worship God but the purest worship is voluntary – no, more than voluntary – it is drawn out of us from deep within. Like the angels in Isaiah’s vision who called to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory” (Is 6:3). It is the response of our spirits to the Spirit of God. I think that when we get to heaven and stand in His presence, worship will be more than something we want to do, it will be something we have to do just by the sheer majesty of His glory.

Joy’s question stuck with me all day.  I mulled it over and over: Why do I worship God?  I realized the answer I gave her was true. I worship God because I love Him. I worship God because He is great. I worship God because He is worthy. Beloved, I encourage you to ponder her question: “Why do you worship God?” Then do it.

Death vs. Love

“In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” Romans 8:37.

It was the rallying cry of the martyr in the early church, the prayer of the saint drawing his last breath. It is the hope and promise for God’s people. “We are more than conquerors.” But what does that mean? And what are “all these things,? Trouble. Hardship. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Danger. Sword. Death. Where does your life fall on this list? Do you have trouble? Do not despair – God will help you. Are you under hardship? Do not faint – God will bring you through. Are you being persecuted? Do not shrink back – God will give you strength. Not many of us are experiencing famine or nakedness – most of us live in plenty to one degree or another. Nor do we face danger or threats to our lives, though that day seems not far off.

But all of us – sooner or later – will meet death. And here is where our Conquering Hero leads the way. Jesus made an astounding promise: “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). The greatest threat we face is death – but not the end of our mortal lives. No, our enemy is eternal death – separation from God forever.

Jesus drew a final breath. His heart stopped beating. He was placed in a tomb. But He rose from death to complete life. And in doing so, He conquered our chief enemy. Because of His resurrection, we too have the promise of eternal life. Oh, most of us will likely draw a final breath, and our mortal heart will cease its beating. But another life is coming for those who believe in Jesus – a life that cannot end. A life that will never be taken away. A life that cannot be touched by trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. Not even by death.

What is the power that overcomes? Love. Holy love. Love that went to the cross. Love that succumbed to death. Love that lay in the tomb. And love that rose again. Paul said that “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). The empty tomb proves it. In Christ, dear one you are more than a conqueror – you are the Beloved. What could possibly be greater than this?

Holy Father

When I pray, whether written or spoken, I use my favorite name for God: “Holy Father” (John 17:11).  It comes from Jesus’ prayer just before his arrest. I love that name because it is expressing the two most important aspects of who God is. Taken separately, each word speaks volumes.

“Holy” describes the highest moral quality, something or Someone set apart and sacred. I think of the Most Holy place in the Tabernacle where God dwelled among His people. It was a sacred space and entry by man was forbidden – except once a year and then only by the high priest who came to make sacrifices for the sins of the nation. A holy thing would never be used for common purposes by common people. The angels in Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room constantly called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” (Is 6:3). Not just holy, but thrice holy.

“Father” is, of course, a male parent or significant leader to a family, a nation, or an individual. It is a title of honor and reverence. It is also a title of endearment – at least for some. My Dad and I didn’t have the best relationship when I was growing up and we were estranged for much of my adult life. (We did reconcile a few years before his death.) “Father” was not a warm fuzzy thought for me. But coming from the lips of Jesus, the affection was deep and sincere. Most Jews would not dare refer to God in such familiar ways. Remember He is holy – set apart from common, sinful people. But after His resurrection, Jesus told the disciples, “I am returning to my Father and your Father . . . (John 20:17). And He is our Father.

But together “Holy Father” serves as bookends with all the wonder and awe and majesty of God in between.  And together they are the complete picture of this God who is both holy and dear, who both demands perfection and makes us perfect through the blood of His own Son. The words speak to my heart of a Father who will never wrong me, never leave me, never hurt me or shame me but will always love me with the holiest of love. With perfect love (1 John 4:18). Because He is a perfect Father (Matt 5:48). Yes, “Holy Father” says it all.

The Lord spoke to me

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“The Lord spoke to me with His strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people. He said, “The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, He is the one you are to fear, He is the one you are to dread, and He will be a sanctuary” (Isaiah 8:11, 13-14). The Lord commanded Isaiah – as He commands us – to reject the way of the people and to fear Him alone. To stand firm against ungodliness and unrighteousness. To stand courageously when all around you bows to the gods of this world. That same command has run through the history of Christianity since the resurrection of Christ. It is the heartbeat of the saints through the ages till today who faced beatings, prison, exile, stonings, lions, burnings, beheadings, and all manner of persecution for their faith. It has always been the rallying cry of the people of God.

But for Isaiah and the martyrs of the faith – and for you and me – this word is not a call to arms, it’s not a call to protest and public rebuttal. It is a call to personal holiness. Notice that the prophet says “The Lord spoke to ME, with His strong hand upon ME, warning ME . . . the Lord Almighty is the one YOU are to regard as holy . . . the one YOU are to fear . . . the one YOU are to dread . . . This is first and foremost a command for the individual to stand firm in the faith in the solitary moments of our lives when no one else sees or hears. Who we present to the world is rarely who we are in our private moments. Which should give us pause before we speak. Before I call out the sins of the world, before I confront the ungodliness around me, I must call out the sin in my own life and confront the ungodliness within me.

Beloved, we have a command to shine the light of Christ wherever there is darkness, but we must first let it shine in the darkness of our own hearts. The message we carry is too valuable and too important to bury it under our own sin. The Lord spoke to ME . . .