Advent Day 6 – The Perfect Christmas Gift

“The wise men opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).

I believe the best gifts come from those who know us well.  My favorite Christmas present came from my sweet husband early in our marriage.  I was an avid cross-stitcher (back when my eyesight was better) and my beloved went to the local craft store and bought every color of embroidery floss that DMC® made, along with storage boxes to keep them in.  I LOVED it!  I appreciated the gift itself, but what I loved  most was the fact that he paid attention to what I enjoyed doing and took the time to learn about my hobby and what it involved. The gift was great, but the love that went into the gift was even greater.

Without a doubt, our Heavenly Father is the greatest Gift-giver of all.  He who created you knows you intimately.  He knows your dreams and your joys and sorrows. He knows what delights you and what frightens you. He knows your favorite color and your least-favorite relative.  He knows what makes your eyes light up and what keeps you awake at night.  He knows your every thought, your hopes and wishes and your deepest, truest love.  And because He knows you so well, He knew the perfect gift for you—Jesus.

James 1:17 reminds us that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.”  Could there be a more perfect gift than His precious Son?  Is any gift as good as the “gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17)?  This gift is given with overflowing grace (Romans 5:15).  It is a gift that never wears out, never fades, and never goes out of style – it is the gift of eternal life (Romans 6:23).  It is not something you have to earn – in fact you can’t earn it – you can only receive it by faith (Ephesians 2:8).    It is a gift of immense love given by the One who knows you better than you know yourself.

Have you received God’s priceless, perfect gift?

Read Matthew 2:1-12

 

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Advent Day 4 – Right Time, Right Place

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” Micah 5:2

I am “directionally challenged,” in other words, I get lost easily. My husband and I once took a trip to Atlanta to see Stone Mountain.  He drove and I navigated the map, only I was holding it upside down, and while we did get there, I took us all the way around the opposite side of the city.  I did a little better with Mapquest, but still had to pay very close attention for every turn.  I cannot express how grateful I am for a GPS in my car!

Did you know that you are equipped with a GPS – that is a “God Positioning Spirit.”  It is specially designed to get you exactly where God wants you to be at the precise moment He wants you to be there.  The Bible is full of accounts of the Lord ordering people’s lives to put them in places and times according to His perfect plan.  Think of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther just to name a few.

Four hundred after Micah’s prophecy in our key verse, a young woman was startled to learn that she was with child – and not just any child, but the Son of God, the Promised One – the Messiah.  But wait—she is in Nazareth and the prophecy said the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem, some 80 miles away.  Was the prophecy wrong?  Did God make a mistake?  Not at all.  God had a plan and He would use a pagan ruler to fulfill it. Check it out:

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. Everyone went to his own town to register.  So Joseph went up from Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child” (Luke 2:1-5).

Mary made it to the right place – Bethlehem – at the right time – when her baby was born – and this through the whim of a Roman ruler who probably had no knowledge of the God of Israel.

Beloved, God has a time and place of purpose in His plan for you.  You probably won’t get there via a straight line, He sets many turns in our path.  You may feel you are completely off track, or that God has forgotten all about you.  You’re not sure how you wound up where you are or why.  But be assured that God, who created you with a time and place in mind, is still guiding you.  He knows exactly where you are right now and where He wants you to be and when.  He didn’t fail to fulfill the prophecy of old, and He won’t fail to fulfill the purpose for your life.  Wherever you are today is not the end of the journey.  Trust Him, trust His ways, trust His heart.  He knows the where and the when and the way to get you there.

Read: Micah 5:1-5a

Advent Day 3 – The Righteous Man

“Joseph took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24)

There are so many ways to look at the Christmas story, like turning a diamond to see its beauty from every angle.  Some focus on the Baby, the virgin mother, the shepherds, wise men, the star, and the angels.  Even the animals in the stable become a point of focus.  But I’ve always been intrigued by Joseph, the earthly “step-father’ if you will of Jesus.  Little is recorded about him other than he was a carpenter by trade (Matthew 13:55) and a descendant of David (John 2:4).  But I learned something recently about him that often escaped my attention in the rush to get to the birth story, and it spoke powerfully to me about how God see us.

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

In the eyes of the Jewish community, Mary had committed a grievous sin – she had given her virginity away to another man. According to the religious law, the “righteous” thing to do was to “bring her to the door of her father’s house and there the men of the town shall stone her to death” (Deuteronomy 22:21).  Keep in mind that Joseph didn’t yet understand that Mary’s baby was conceived, not by another man, but by the Holy Spirit.  Still Joseph chose to handle the situation in a quiet manner to spare her from disgrace and punishment.  And in acting mercifully, God, through the pen of Matthew, declared Joseph “a righteous man.”

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

This Christmas season, is there someone in your life that needs mercy – someone who needs love?  I know this theme is playing itself out in my own family right now.  I can tell you that mercy is a lot easier on everyone than the alternative.  Let’s commit to be righteous people – let’s be people of mercy.

Read Matthew 1:18-25

Advent Day 2 – How to Save the World

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Ask a general how to save the world and he will tell you to use military force and control.  Ask a humanitarian and she’ll probably suggest programs to eradicate poverty and hunger.  Pose the same question to politicians and they’ll tell you they need money, money and more money to appoint a committee to study the matter.  If I were going to save the world I would round up the criminals and terrorists and drug lords and shoot them all to the moon in a rocket.  But God had a different plan – He determined to save the world through a baby.

It seems strange to me that a helpless infant would be the answer to the woes of the world.  He couldn’t feed himself or change himself or get from place to place by himself.  He slept all the time like any other baby.  But He wasn’t any other baby.  He who could not feed Himself would feed multitudes. The little one that couldn’t change Himself would change the fate of the human race on a cross.  The babe who had to be carried from place to place will carry all who believe to heaven.  This sleeping child would awake from the sleep of death to stir the souls of men.

This baby left the glory of heaven to save the entire human race.  He brought peace between God and man.  He broke the chains of sin.  He erased the curse of death.  This baby took on your sin and mine; He bore the punishment that you and I rightly deserved.  He surrendered His body to the cross and the grave.

Yes, God used a Baby to do what generals, humanitarians, politicians and you and I could never do.  Jesus brought the promise of salvation to the whole world – and that includes you.

Read John 2:1-7

Advent Day 1 – The Word and the Light

“In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” (1 Samuel 3:1).

To the ancient Hebrew people, silence from the Lord was like living in a world without sunshine.  God spoke with power and purpose and if He were not actively speaking they groped in spiritual darkness.  In Samuel’s early days the Lord had withdrawn His word and with it, His light.  The prophet became the mouthpiece of God to the nation.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Lord had been silent for some 400 hundred years.  It had been such a long drought that the people had grown accustomed to the silence.  Oh they did all the right rituals and followed the letter of the Law, but they were just going through the motions.  They failed to see how hollow their devotion was because they were living in darkness.  They needed to hear from God and they needed His light to help them see the truth.

John opens his gospel declaring Jesus as the Word that brought Light (John 1:1,4-5).  He came as the Logos of God – the living, breathing Word of truth who not only spoke God’s words but lived them before men.  He came not only to bring light but to be Light – the Light of the world.  Through that light He “has made God known” (John 1:18) – “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and the “exact representation of His being” (Hebrews 1:3). And through that Light He is the One who “rescued us from the dominion of darkness” (Colossians 1:13).

The world we live in is a very dark place filled with sin and hate and rebellion.  Jesus is the Word and the Light of God for the world.  He is mankind’s only hope.  Maybe today your own little world is cloaked in darkness – grief, trials, uncertainty, health concerns, financial hardships, depression and despair.  Dear one, Jesus is the Word and the Light of God for you today.  He is your hope, your peace, your joy, your comfort.

As we start this Advent season, may you hear the Him speaking God’s love into your heart and see Him shining God’s grace into your life.

Read: John 1:1-18

Who is This Jesus?

“. . .the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth”  John 1:14b

Ink wells run dry from all the words written about Jesus. Great scholars and theologians have spent their lives studying, not only the Scriptures, but scores of other ancient writings in the hopes of understanding Him.  Still, He is so much more, so much other, than mere words can describe. Thankfully we have the testimonies of those who walked closest to Him, we have His own words, and we have the pronouncement of the God of heaven and earth upon which to study and meditate.  That is more than enough for a life-long pursuit.  Even then, we’ll barely scratch the surface of who this Jesus really is.  I know I can’t do Him justice in a few hundred words, but I write this to whet your appetite to know Him more.

Matthew tells us He is “God with us” – “Immanuel” (Matthew 1:23).  This is not a new concept.  God was with man in the Garden, in perfect communion until sin entered the picture.  He was with the Israelites in a cloud in the desert and in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and later, the Temple.  But when Jesus came, He was “God-in-the-flesh with us,” walking among His people, touching them with hands they could feel, speaking words their own ears could hear, eating and drinking and laughing and crying as any other man.  Yet He was very much God, performing miracles and speaking with divine authority.  If we need any more proof of His God-ness, twice Matthew reports a voice from heaven saying, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (3:17; 17:5).  That’s a ringing endorsement if there ever was one.

Mark shows Him to be a King with uncommon power to drive out demons who recognized Him as “the Holy One of God” (1:24), to heal, to raise the dead, to give sight to the blind, to multiply a few loaves and fishes, and to calm the raging sea.  He also shows Him to be a King who endured uncommon suffering to rescue His people from the sentence of death.

Dr. Luke shines his spotlight on Jesus as the salvation of all people (2:32).  He wrote to give an ordered account of Jesus from reliable eye-witness testimonies.  Luke offers the most detailed version of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, and tradition holds that these were Mary’s own memories.   How incredible that we have the testimony of Jesus’ Father, and the recollections of His mother to confirm that this Jesus was fully God and fully man.

From his opening testimony – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1) – John most powerfully reveals Jesus as the Son of God, the One and Only, divine in nature and one with His Father.  John records Jesus’ “I AM” statements, a direct connection to God’s own self-revelation (Exodus 3:14), and His declaration:  “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9).  John also devotes half of his gospel to Jesus’ final week, His death, burial, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances. (John 12-21).

Paul said that He is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and the writer of Hebrews said “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being’ (Hebrews 1:3).  Revelation shows Him to be the victorious conqueror over evil.

Many, many people have written many, many words trying to elaborate on these accounts.  Popular culture has tried to stretch the story of Jesus far beyond the Scriptures and a great many unbelievers have spilled much ink attempting to discredit and refute His Name. But there is only one place to find the truth about this Jesus. Everything you need to know about Him is recorded in the Bible.  He is present in every book from Genesis to Revelation.

We began this devotional by asking the question, “Who is this Jesus?”  But Jesus has a question for you: “Who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:15).  Is He “God with me?”  Is He your King?  Can you declare, “He is my salvation!”?  Do you recognize Him as the Son of God?  If not, I encourage you to take another look at the Jesus of the Bible.  He is all this and more—and if you believe in Him and confess His Name, He will be all this for you.  Grab your Bible and get to know the one who loves you enough to die for you.  His Name is Jesus.

Lord Jesus, if I could mine the depths of all the Bible I still would barely scratch the surface of who You are.  I want to know You as deeply and truly as I can this side of heaven—I rejoice in knowing I will have all of eternity to fill in the gaps.  Amen.

Image from https://pablorenauld.deviantart.com/art/Jesus-Christ-55567468.

The Lovely Dwelling Place of God

“How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!” Psalm 84:1

Home décor and aesthetics are big business today – and with good reason.  Who doesn’t want a well-appointed home worthy of a magazine cover.  If your family is like mine, that look wouldn’t last more than a day past the photo shoot. What really makes a home beautiful? It’s not the paint or the furnishings or the landscape – it’s the ones who dwell there. It’s the people who call it home.

The Old Testament pointed to the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, as the dwelling place of God. The Tabernacle was made with the finest wood, the richest tapestries and was adorned with gold and silver elements. When Solomon built the Temple, the walls were covered with gold and only the finest stones were used throughout. It was necessary and fitting for the dwelling place of the Lord God to be the very best.  After the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Jewish people rebuilt it and the older generation grieved the smaller, less opulent structure. In time Herod remodeled and expanded the Temple to appease the Jews but, as Jesus predicted,[1] it was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans.

There are many awe-inspiring structures of worship throughout the world. Have you seen St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris? Maybe you’ve seen pictures of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. They are all awe-inspiring structures of worship. But the most beautiful of all God’s dwelling places is YOU. The Scriptures says that if you are in Christ Jesus “The Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you” (Romans 8:11). You are the place where God chose to reside through His Spirit. You are the place God calls home. Whether you are tall or short, light or dark-skinned or any other color in between, no matter your weight or the color of your hair (even if you have none!), despite any scars or imperfections you may see, you are the lovely dwelling place of God in the world today. It’s not your physical appearance nor your clothes and accessories but it is the One who lives within that makes you the beauty you are.

Beloved, if you struggle with your physical image, may I suggest you look deeper than the surface? Look past the garments and flesh and see yourself as the exquisite abode of the Lord of heaven and earth. See the beauty within and let others see it too. My but you’re looking lovely today!

Holy Father, anything good in me is because your Spirit dwells within and makes me into someone beautiful, inside and out. Thank you for moving in – please make Yourself at home in me. Amen

[1] See Matthew 24:2.

Finding Lost Hope

“But as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise You more and more” (Psalm 71:14).

I have a confession to make.

I lost my hope.

I had hoped in a dream that I believed was God’s plan for me – it was exciting and I was filled with anticipation.  But when my life turned in a different direction, I set my backpack full of hope down and shuffled off on this unwanted new path.  It all seemed more like a heavy burden – just another unfulfilled longing.  It was easier to leave it behind than to continue carrying it around like so much dead weight.

The Bible mentions quite a few people who stood at the same crossroads.  Moses, Elijah, and Naomi come to mind.  Peter and several of the disciples, uncertain of where their lives are going after Jesus’ death, dejectedly went back to fishing (John 21).  And then there are two of Jesus’ followers  walking on the dusty road to Emmaus when they encounter a stranger.  They tell him about Jesus (isn’t that a kick), sadly saying: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).  They saw their lives going in a completely different direction than they expected.

Part of the problem is our understanding of the word “hope.”  We say, “I hope it doesn’t rain out the picnic today.”  “I hope he asks me to the prom.”  “I hope you feel better soon.” – but these are spoken like “wishful thinking.”  That’s a “cross-your-fingers” kind of hope.  The Bible portrays hope as “an attitude of confidently looking forward to what is good and beneficial.”  It’s a hope that serves as “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19).  It’s not a hope in circumstances, but rather a hope in the One who called us and sustains us and guarantees a good outcome.  It’s a hope that we can carry with us no matter what twists and turns life takes.  Better yet, it’s a hope that carries us no matter what.  That’s the kind of hope you and I need.

Remember Peter and those disciples on the road to Emmaus – the ones who had lost hope? Their stories didn’t end there.  At the end of that fishing trip was breakfast with the risen Jesus and restored hope for Peter.  At the end of the Emmaus road was the joyful realization that the stranger in their midst was the resurrected Lord Himself.  In the end their hope was renewed, in fact, it was even stronger than before.

One of my favorite verses in seasons like this is Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when dreams come true at last there is life and joy.”  I believe this is an assurance that our God-given dreams don’t get cast aside when life takes an unexpected turn.  Because God expected that turn, even if I didn’t, and somehow my dreams will make the turn too. And when He brings them to reality, they may not look exactly like I envisioned, but they will be full of life and joy.  And hope.

Holy Father, I’m picking my hope back up and I’m going to walk this new path with the assurance that “He who began a good work in me will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6).  My hope is in You.  There’s no better place for it to be.  Amen.

Child of God

Antonio Allegri’s Head of Christ – Public Domain

“Now if we are children then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory” (Romans 8:17)

The story is told of a wealthy husband and wife who traveled around the world collecting wonderful and costly works of art.  Their home was filled with the finest sculptures and paintings.  In time the wife passed away and their son grew up, joined the military and went off to war.  One day a knock at the door brought the terrible news that his son had been killed in battle.  The man shut himself away, alone in the house with all his valuable treasures.  Years later, another knock at the door brought a surprise visitor, a friend of his son from the military.  He held a brown-paper-wrapped package in his hands and told the old man that he had been searching for him for many years to give him a portrait he had painted of his son shortly before he was killed.  The father thanked the friend and unwrapped the package with tears in his eyes.  The painter-friend had captured the essence of his son, especially in the eyes.  He took down his prized painting from above the mantel and placed the painting of his son in its place.

When he finally died his estate announced a great auction and the most important art collectors and dealers from around the world came.  The auctioneer gaveled the auction open and displayed the first painting – the simple portrait of the man’s son.  The auctioneer asked for a bid. No one said a word.  He asked again, who will give me just $25 for this painting?  No one moved.  They weren’t there for sentimentality, they were there for the great sculptures and beautiful paintings.  Finally, one man in the back raised his hand, “I didn’t come here to buy anything, I just wanted to watch, but I’ll take the painting for $25.”

“Going once, going twice, sold to the gentleman in the back for $25.”

Then the auctioneer rapped the gavel on his stand and announced, “The auction is now closed.”

“Closed! How can that be?”  “What about all these paintings and sculptures?  There’s a whole house full of treasures to be sold.”

The auctioneer put down his gavel, “The old man’s will declared that only one painting would be sold – the painting of his beloved son.  Whoever takes the son gets it all.”

God set His beloved Son to redeem lost souls and bring them into His family.  He said that whoever chose to believe in His Son would instantly become His child and would have rights to all He owns – which is heaven and earth and all the universe and eternal life.  The Son is the Way to all the treasures of God – actually, the Son is the greatest treasure of God.  And those treasures can be yours if you put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.  It’s an incredible offer – you trade your sinful life for the glory of Christ.  Don’t pass it up.

Whoever takes the Son gets it all.

Lord, You are far and above the sinful creatures on earth, but in Your great love for us, You gave Your Son so that we could have it all – redemption, hope, joy, peace and eternal life in heaven with You.  Only a fool would pass up such a wonderful offer.  I chose Jesus.

Secret Faith

peekaboo

“But Daniel resolved not to defile himself  . . .” Daniel 1:8

He was part of a group of athletes from out of town.  He and his teammates were seated across the pizza parlor and it was obvious they had been drinking for a while.  Their conversation had been punctuated with profanity and sexual comments, and this young man had been a full participant.  He hoisted his beer above his head and toasted their victory with a few choice expletives.  With his arm raised high, I could see the WWJD bracelet he wore.  It was faded and dirty, but I recognized it right away.

I shook my head as we stood to leave, just as the young man walked to the restroom.  As my husband paid our bill, he walked out and I commented, “You guys must have had a great day today, you’re doing a lot of celebrating.”

“Yeah, we beat everyone today – we’re the CHAMPS!”

“May I ask you a question?” I queried.  He nodded his assent.  “What’s that bracelet you’re wearing all about?”  He glanced down and his wrist and quickly pulled his shirt sleeve down over the bracelet.

“Awe, it’s just something I got at church a while back.  My mom likes for me to wear it.”

“What does it mean?”

“It says WWDJ I think.  It just means . . . well I guess it means I’m a Christian.”

“Really?  Wow, that’s great! I didn’t know Christians could get drunk and cuss like that!  I guess it’s no big deal anymore is it?”

He shifted his weight back and forth on his feet.  “Hey, I’m still a Christian in my heart, isn’t that where it matters?”

“I don’t know.  Is it?”

In contrast to the young man in the pizza parlor, consider Daniel and his friends.  They were part of the exile to Babylon and had been taken with a group of elite young men to be indoctrinated into the culture of their captors.  They were given “royal food and wine” (Daniel 1:8), food which was forbidden for a Jew.  They asked to be excluded from the meal plan in favor of foods that would not compromise their faith.

Now you might ask, what harm would there be in eating and drinking the provided food as long as they remained true to their faith in their hearts?  As the young athlete said, “Isn’t that where it matters?” Couldn’t they set aside their convictions since they were captives, just go along with the others who had no such qualms?  While they chowed down they could tell God, “This doesn’t change who I am. You know I’m still a Jew at heart.”

Or when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were ordered to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, what harm would there have been to go along on the outside, as long as they still claimed their Jewish status in their hearts?[1]  Maybe Daniel could have outwardly pretended to pray to the King, but kept his heart for God?  It sure would have kept him out of the lion’s den.[2]

Jesus gives us the answer: “By their fruit you will recognize them,” (Matthew 7:16).  Fruit in Scripture is evidence of what is inside.  If a tree has the sap of a peach, it’s not going to produce a pear.  Likewise if we are truly Christians in our hearts, we will not exhibit ungodly behavior.  That’s not to say that Christians don’t occasionally stumble in their walk.  But they feel the sting of conviction and repent in sorrow for their failing.  A Christian cannot be comfortable living like the world.  I would even go so far as to say, it you can live like the world while claiming to be a Christian, you might want to re-examine your relationship with Christ.

Secret faith – faith that only exists in your heart but not in your words and actions – is a contradiction in terms.  Genuine inward faith has an outward expression.  It can’t be kept hidden away or tucked up under a shirt sleeve when it’s not convenient or popular to be a Christian.  Faith has to be lived out loud.  I don’t mean standing on a street corner with a Bible and a sign, but rather standing apart from the culture and the influences of the world.  I mean not participating in ungodly behavior.  I mean saying “No” when you are enticed to compromise your faith.  I mean making choices that may seem odd to others, but that reflect Christ in your heart.

Had Daniel and his friends compromised with the food issue, it would have been easier to give in with the statue or prayer.  They would have blended in to the culture and had no influence for the Lord.  They certainly would not have encouraged us with their example of uncompromising faith.  Likewise, the stand you take today in small things will determine the stand you take tomorrow with larger issues.

In other words, your outward faith matters.  It really, really matters.

[1] Daniel 3

[2] Daniel 6