Advent 2022: Christmas Light

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”  Isaiah 9:2

My granddaughter loves Christmas lights. Anytime we drive at night, even in the middle of summer, she is on the lookout for them. We tell her that the Christmas lights are not out yet but she always says, “Maybe we’ll see some.” I love that Joy is always searching for light in the darkness.

When I was a kid we visited a park with beautiful caverns. In one deep, dark cave the park guide turned out all the artificial lights and the room was plunged into total darkness.  For a moment I was overcome by a sense of despair and fear.  In that pitch-blackness, I lost all orientation. I had no idea where the exit was, or where anyone else was.  If my friend had not grabbed my hand, I would have thought I was completely alone – that I had been abandoned.  Then the guide lit one small match.  All eyes were drawn to the light. With that single flickering flame, the darkness was overcome. Darkness is nothing more than the absence of light – but where there is even the smallest light, darkness has lost its power.

Adam and Eve plunged this world into sin and we are disoriented in spiritual darkness.  It is the kind of darkness that makes you feel completely alone and abandoned. Oh, the world offers a distorted light that is all glitz and glitter and flash. But it’s not the kind of light that helps you find your way.  Yet we are not to despair. God had a plan from before the creation of the world – before He called forth the light (Gen 1:3). He sent His One and Only Son to be “the Light of the world” (John 8:12).  His light overcame sin and evil and death. His light has the power to overcome the darkness and despair of living in this sin-sick, evil world with all its struggles and heartaches, and pain. He is “the true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9).

Paul wrote, “God, who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made His light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).  This Advent season, as you enjoy the lights of Christmas, let the light of the Christ Child come in and dispel the darkness.  Beloved, come live in the Light of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is in it for the Long Haul

Do you ever feel like a heavy weight on your family and friends? I know I have. In long-running seasons of difficulty, I have had friends turn away from me because they just couldn’t deal with me and my problems. It’s a hurtful thing, but honestly, I get it. They have their own struggles and responsibilities, and they can’t be expected to carry the extra weight of me. If I’m honest, I’ve done the same. We all have limited energy and resources, and we can’t allow one person to drain us dry.

I’m so glad that God has no such limitations. Isaiah said, “He will not grow tired or weary” – in fact, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (40:28-29). God’s compassion is endless. He has boundless energy and ceaseless love. “His compassions never fail. They were new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22,23). As the God-man
Jesus, He bore the whole weight of all your sins and mine on the cross. Surely, He can bear the weight of our “light and momentary troubles” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Charles Spurgeon said, “If Christ were only a cistern, we might soon exhaust His fullness, but who can drain a fountain?” He is a continual source of love and help in our time of need. His goodness toward you and me overflows and we will never use up His kindness. You can come to the well of His mercy over and over and over again. There’s no bucket big enough nor a rope long enough to drain His grace.

Whatever struggle you are in, He is in it with you – for the long haul. Others may not be able to bear the weight of your burdens, but He willingly carries you the full length and depth of it all. He is strong and He is compassionate. He is your Father, your Shepherd, your Forever Friend. He will never give up on you, Beloved. I’m living proof.

Defense!

My football team lost yesterday. We’re not used to losing. We are winners. It has left a very bitter taste in our mouths. My husband will probably wear all black to church today. Why did we lose? Because we let them into our “house” – our end of the field. But even more so, because we didn’t defend the gate.

Isaiah was a prophet of the Lord to Judah. He continually warned the nation about their sin, idolatry, and disobedience. He prophesied the nation’s fall to Babylon as God’s punishment. But he also implored them to turn from their sin and return to God. He insisted that they guard their lives as fiercely as they guarded their city. The walls around Jerusalem were thick and strong and wide enough for armed sentries to stand guard all around. The troops had a high vantage point so they could see the enemy coming and warn the rest of the city. Immediately they shut and fortified the gates and put all their effort into defending that strategic point. If the enemy ever got past the gate, the city was all but defeated.

Isaiah called for Judah to be strong and “turn back the battle at the gate” (28:6). The defense point was the gate – not their doorstep. They kept the enemy away from their homes and families by keeping them out of the city. In football the gate is not the goal line – it is the 50-yard line. Almost every time the other team crossed the midpoint of the field they steamrolled into the endzone. If we’d never allowed them to get past the fifty-yard line, we would have won. The principle of defending the gate works in war, in football, and our lives.

You and I have to defend our gate. If we wait to battle sinful thoughts and desires after they’ve infiltrated our hearts and minds, we’ve already lost. What is the gate? It’s eyes and ears. It’s what we see and what we hear. No. Wait. The gate goes farther back than that. The gate is our choices – what we choose to see and hear and even what we choose to think about. When we choose well (see Philippians 4:8-9) we shut the gate. When we choose poorly – inappropriate websites, movies, books, t.v. shows, music with sexually explicit lyrics – we swing the gates wide open and leave ourselves with no defense. There’s so much this world throws at us that we can’t choose, but when you can, you need to keep your heart and mind secure with godly things. It’s not a game. Beloved, don’t lose the battle at the gate.

I Know That Voice

One morning Poppy and I took Joy out to breakfast, then to her favorite park. She was excited to see other children on the playground. She quickly made a few buddies and they were off to the races. Us old folks found a shady place to rest and watch her. I love watching children play. I love their delight at zooming down the slide and climbing high into the sky on the swings. I love to hear their squeals and laughter.  With so many kids talking and shouting and laughing you would think it would be difficult to tell when my kid was speaking, but as every parent and grandparent knows, you just know your child’s voice. Your ears are attuned to them. There were several “Nanas” on the playground that morning, but I knew when Joy called my name– even when she was on the other side of the lot because I was well familiar with her voice.

Isaiah 30: 21 says, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” The most common lament I hear is “How do I know it’s God speaking?” That’s a good question, especially in this noisy world where everyone has a megaphone and an opinion. We know that the “still, small voice” Elijah heard came out of the whirlwind, the earthquake, and the fire (1 Ki 19:12). How can we know that voice?

The same way I know my granddaughter’s voice over all the other kids on the playground – familiarity. I spend time with her. I listen to her constant chatter. I can recognize her pitch and tone from a hundred paces.  You and I can know God’s voice when we spend time with Him in His Word, in prayer, and the fellowship of the Church.  You will not only recognize the pitch and tone of His voice, but you will recognize the content of His message. God will never speak anything contrary to Scripture. God’s voice is in His Word.

There’s one other important thing – to recognize God’s voice you have to have a personal relationship with Him. I didn’t know any other child on the playground, but I knew mine, and her voice rings in my heart. A personal relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ – who is The Word – is the first step to knowing His voice. And one more – obedience to what you’ve heard enables you to hear more. Priscilla Shirer says, “God doesn’t just speak to be heard, He speaks to be obeyed.”

Know God, personally. Spend time with Him and become familiar with His voice and message. Obey what He says. Beloved, are you willing to hear from God?

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.

The Best Gift

“In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in Him, and He saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in Him; let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.’” Isaiah 25:9

What was the best gift you ever received?  A favorite toy? A special doll or musical instrument? A treasured book?  A picture, tickets to a sporting event or concert? For me, it was a “walking Betsey doll” as a child, and the Christmas my husband purchased every color of embroidery floss that DMC made for my cross-stitch “addiction.”  Sometimes the best gift is something that we need and cannot get for ourselves.  This is the heart of God’s gift of salvation.  We needed to be saved from punishment due to us sinners.  We cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we try to be “good enough,” no matter how much we work, no matter how much we give – we are helpless to secure our own salvation.

Popular theology says that God saw His creation falling away from Him, into the clutches of sin and Satan, and He sent His Son in response.  But God’s salvation through Jesus Christ was His plan for the ages, from before the creation of man or the earth (ref. 1 Peter 1:20). Before God said “let there be light,” His Son was destined for the cross.  Why would God sentence His Son to die for you and me?  David answered in Psalm 22:20 – “He rescued me because he delighted in me.”  It’s that simple – God delights in you – He loves you, and He rescued you from the penalty of sin and the power of death because He delights in and loves His children.  God’s gift of salvation is available to every person. No one is exempt. No one is left out.  But the choice to receive or reject God’s gift is ours and ours alone.

What Joy is ours when we choose this gift, when we accept this great salvation offered to us by the blood of Jesus.  Hear the words of Isaiah as he proclaims, “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.  For He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).  Do you hear the delight and rejoicing?  God takes away our filthy garments of sin and shame and condemnation and exchanges them for royal garments of salvation and drapes our shoulders with the robe of righteousness – His righteousness.  If you have accepted this gift, rejoice my friend in Christ, REJOICE! If you have not Beloved, will you open your heart to receive the greatest gift ever given, the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ?

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.

I Can Love

Joy and her friends at church. Photo by Wanda Williams

My granddaughter preached a sermon the other night. As I was taking her to her mommy to settle in for the night we were rehearsing all the people that she loves. She loves Mommy and Daddy. She loves Nana and Poppy. She loves Mimi and Papa. She loves Aunt Linda and Uncle Wayne and Aunt Rhonda and Uncle Mike and Aunt Alta. She loves Granny. And she turned to me and said, “And I can love Uncle R (name redacted). Her mommy and I looked at each other with a “Wow!” Uncle R is not a nice person. He has been mean to the rest of his family. He has a history of violence and cruelty. And the last time he was around Joy, he took delight in sneaking up behind her and scaring her. He is not allowed around her anymore. But she said, “I can love him.” Out of the mouths of babes . . .”

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43-44).  I want to ask Him, “Love him? Why? I mean, who gets their kicks from scaring a little girl?” And Jesus’ words continue: “that you may be sons [and daughters] of your Father in Heaven (v. 45). And there it is. God said that His children are called to live in a radically different way. They love – even their enemy.

“Love your enemy” sounds good on paper, but it’s not always easy to do. That’s by divine design. Love –genuine love – has to come from God. John said, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God” (1 John 4:7), and “We know and rely on the love God has for us” (v.16). We can only love those who mistreat us because God loved us first, and His love fills us up and spills out onto the one we cannot love on our own. I know that Joy’s parents have the good sense to keep a distance between her and Uncle for her safety. But what if – someday –she’s the one who will love him to Jesus? Isaiah prophesied, “a little child will lead them” (Is 11:6). I don’t think Uncle R stands a chance against a little girl who is determined to love him.

Hebrews: It’s for Your Own Good

My parents had very different approaches to discipline. Dad grounded me once for the rest of my life. I guess he didn’t notice that at some point I snuck out of the house, got married, and lived my own life. Mom, however, did not play so loosely with me. She grounded me once for two weeks and I was stuck at home with no t.v. until I had served my time – to the minute. Yep, she wrote it down and held me to it. Dad disciplined in anger, and once his anger had passed, he stopped paying attention. Mom disciplined with a purpose, to teach me that I had best plan to make it home by curfew.

The writer of Hebrews said that, as hard as it may be, God, too, disciples with a purpose. We touched on verse 10 last time: “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness.” Verse 11 says that God’s discipline “produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.” So God’s purposes are holiness, peace, and righteousness. But look at one other thing in verse 11 – these are benefits “for those who have been trained by it.” My Dad’s discipline was reactionary, Mom’s discipline was to train me to pay attention to the clock. God’s discipline is a training ground.

Now you can look at me and see that I’m not into physical training, but I sure need to be. I need to develop the discipline of exercise and better eating habits so that I enjoy the benefits of more energy and strength.  But I’m flabby and out of shape. The writer has a word for me: “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” (v. 12). Now we know he is not talking about the physical but the spiritual. This comes as Isaiah is prophesying the Babylonian captivity for the nation of Judah. The first part of this book is warnings and woes, but then the tone changes as God promises comfort and restoration. And Joy. He declares to the fearful and weary captives, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come . . . He will come to save you” (Is 35:4).

So as we’re lifting weights let’s lift high the name of Jesus. While we’re running in place on the treadmill, let’s run away from temptation. When we exercise to strengthen our core, we need to also “be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power” (Eph 6:10). The benefits of God’s discipline are worth all the sweat and strain. As my Mom would say – this is for your own good Beloved – and also for God’s glory.

“Lord, I’m Tired”

I looked in the mirror this morning and said, “Who is that tired woman?” And in the same breath, I replied, “It’s me.” I’m not going to lie, we’ve been through some really difficult things in the past several years. I’m worn out. And I know you are too. We’ve all been struggling lately. Between COVID and inflation and our own hard stuff, it’s been a rough time for most of us. This morning a verse from Isaiah came to mind: “ ‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed . . .’” (Isaiah 40:1-2). “Lord,” I asked, “when will my hard service be completed?”

Isaiah was a prophet and in the context of the verse, the people’s “hard service” was the coming Babylonian captivity that would be “payment” for their sin and idolatry (v. 2). But our sin debt has been paid by Jesus on the cross. God will not charge us again for what Jesus has satisfied. Why are we – New Covenant believers – enduring hard things?

James said we “face trials of many kinds” because they develop perseverance which makes us “mature [or perfect] and complete, not lacking anything” (1:3-4). Paul agreed with James adding, “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:4-5).

Most importantly, suffering makes us more like Jesus. The writer of Hebrews said that Jesus was perfected through suffering (5:8-9). (That is the completion of His divine work of salvation.) And Paul continues the idea when he said, “In all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” which is “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Romans 8:28-29). All things include suffering.

So back to my question, “When will our hard service be completed?” When the work of suffering is completed and we look more like Jesus than ourselves. Beloved, I know you’re weary, but your trials are not in vain. Let suffering do its perfecting work. You may not see the difference in the mirror, but God will see it in your heart.