The Ministry of Experience

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Ever done anything foolish in your life? Yeah, me too. What do we do with the failures of our past? We put them in God’s hands so that others can benefit from our hard-earned wisdom. I believe that’s what Paul meant when he said, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). As survivors redeemed by Christ we reach back and help someone else who is fighting the same battle. Why is AA so powerful? Because it is built on experience and a shared struggle. It is one person who has found freedom from addiction walking alongside someone who is trying to break free.

I can minister to a child who is bullied by her peers, to a teenager suffering sexual abuse, to a woman abandoned by her husband, to a person who struggles with depression, to someone battling anxiety and fear, to a mom with a wayward child, to a couple who has lost everything, but most of all, I can reach out to someone suffering the consequences of their own foolish actions because I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt to prove it. And because I have the grace of God to show how He ministered to me in the midst of it all.

It is the deepest belief of my heart that God will take what the enemy meant to harm me and turn it into a means of blessings for others. When I allow God to turn my misery into ministry, Satan loses.  Then I can say with Joseph, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

This is how we redeem our foolish past—we take our experiences, our failures, and our sins to the table and say to another struggling soul, “I know where you are, I understand what you’re feeling and I will walk with you until you are free in Christ.” Beloved, don’t let the enemy bury you in shame. Let God use you and your scars to turn mistakes into ministry and heartbreak into hope.

Ordinary People in the Hands of God

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Moses said to the Lord, ‘O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since You have spoken to Your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue’” (Exodus 4:10).

Think you have nothing to offer to God and His kingdom? You’re too young or too old (60!) or have no gifts or talents? You’re just a mom wiping dirty noses, or a regular guy at a regular job, or a college student trying to survive your classes. You’re in very good company my friend!

A young slave sat in a prison, unjustly accused of rape. But God lifted Joseph up and used him to save the founding family of Israel through whom the Savior of mankind would come.

A widow had nothing to offer God but a loyal heart. She humbly out to gather grain to feed them herself and her mother-in-law. But God interceded and Ruth became the great grandmother of God’s anointed King of Israel and part of the lineage of Jesus.

Esther had no influence in the politics of Persia – but she had courage. Because she stepped up and stepped into the King’s court, the Jewish people throughout the Persian empire were saved.

A young captive in a foreign land, Daniel had nothing of value. But he did have integrity. God used him to show His sovereignty and power to Nebuchadnezzar and Darius.

Jesus called twelve men from fishing boats and tax booths and used them to turn the entire world upside down.

Two women did what women throughout the ages have done – raised children and grandchildren. God used Lois and Eunice to shape young Timothy into the Apostle Paul’s right-hand man and true son in the faith.

You may not be in a position of importance, but you are important to the Kingdom of God. You may see yourself as small and insignificant or past your prime, and that’s just fine with Him. He likes to use the least likely people to accomplish the most amazing things. That way He gets all the glory.

If you think you have nothing of value to offer God, you’re wrong. You have yourself. That’s all He needs. He will take you and use you in the most ordinary – and yet extraordinary – ways. He’s got an important task, and you’re just the person He’s been looking for.  All you need to do, Beloved, is be available and watch Him work.

Of Septic Tanks and God

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My son says that I can take anything and find a spiritual application to it. I suppose that’s so but it’s because I see God in everything. He is the Creator and Sustainer of everything. Nothing exists that He did not create with His powerful word or fashion with His divine hand. If he could somehow cease to exist, which He will not, everything in heaven and earth would also cease to exist. So yeah, I see spiritual things in everything and every situation.  

There is this spot in my yard that is especially lush and green. You city people won’t understand, but the country folk know that this is where the septic tank sits.  The “contents” of the tank become fertilizer for the soil so that the grass and bushes in the immediate vicinity are “nurtured.” How can I find a spiritual application in a septic tank?  In God’s hands, the crappiest parts of our life often become the most fruitful for the Kingdom. Ask Joseph whose horrible brothers sold him into slavery. He was taken to Egypt where he was falsely accused of sexual assault and thrown in prison. There, he interpreted a dream for a fellow prisoner who promised to remember him to the Pharoah but promptly forgot. Until two years later when Pharoah had a dream and the ex-prisoner remembered Joseph and recommended him. Joseph not only told the Pharoah the meaning of his anxious dream but how to resolve the problem that the dream was prophecying. Impressed, Pharoah appointed him to the second-highest position in his kingdom and Joseph saved the lives of the Egyptians and became very wealthy in the process. He also saved the lives of his family – including the brothers who had betrayed him. And in doing so, he saved the lineage through which the Savior of all mankind would come.  Had Joseph not made it to Egypt to stand before the Pharoah – however harsh the circumstances – there would be no nation of Israel, no Jewish people, no Jesus, and no salvation for you and me.  Joseph told his brothers, “ You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

Beloved, if life feels like a septic tank right now be encouraged. God has a way of taking the crappiest things and bringing unexpected good out of them.

You Must be Righteous

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Continuing our study of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s gospel is all about the Kingdom of Heaven and revealing Jesus as the rightful King. So far we’ve learned about who the Kingdom people are in the Beatitudes. We’ve learned about the influence Kingdom people should bring to the world in 5:13- 20. In Matthew 5:17-26, Jesus taught about Kingdom righteousness. I’ll jump ahead and give you the key to this passage: “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). The Pharisees and teachers of the law were considered the most righteous people in Jerusalem. They built their righteousness on following every jot and tittle of the law – and most of those jots and tittles had been added to God’s Law by man. Their lives were consumed with following rules and rituals, even washing their hands was an elaborate process that was more about the show than about cleanliness.

Who does the Bible point to as “righteous?”  Matthew 1:19 says, Joseph [Mary’s husband-to-be] was a righteous man, but not because he adhered to the letter of the law. When Mary announced that she was pregnant, and he knew this baby was not his, by the Law he should have taken her out to be stoned to death. But “he did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Joseph chose to treat Mary with mercy. That is why the Scripture called him “a righteous man.”

Jesus later called the religious leaders hypocrites (and a brood of vipers!) because, though they did everything right, they did it all for the wrong reasons. He said “You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matter of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matt 23:23).  They obeyed the letter of the Law but neglected the heart of the Law, which is love.

So how could anyone be more righteous than the religious hierarchy? By understanding that God commanded obedience to the Law, but not for obedience’s sake. The Israelites were to obey the law because they loved God. And love changes everything.

Mary’s Little Baby Boy

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To watch a child sleeping is to see the sweet face of innocence. Their eyes are closed to the world; mouth in soft repose as a tranquil, near-holy hush settles over their whole being. They say that when a baby smiles in his sleep, he has been kissed by an angel. If that is true—and why would we doubt it—the Infant Jesus must have smiled the whole night through. This Child was loved and adored on earth and in heaven.

Every baby brings a sense of promise to his family. Mother and father have dreams in their hearts of who this child will be—a doctor, a teacher, a missionary, or a dancer, perhaps even a leader who will one day change the world. One mother knew that her baby indeed would. One mother held the true Child of Promise for all mankind, the Messiah who would bring peace on earth.

Oh, He looked like any other baby lying there in her arms, small, helpless, and beautiful. He cried like other babies. He needed to be fed and changed like other babies. But she had heard the angel say that her child would be the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Joseph said that the angel had come to him too, and told him that this Child “will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Her cousin Elizabeth had declared “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear” (Luke 1:43). And what about the shepherds that came from the fields with a wild and glorious story of singing angels (Luke 2:8-18)? It is any wonder that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19)?

To the rest of the world, it was just another night. To anyone who might have come upon the stable, he was just another baby. But a young mother—and all of heaven knew—peace had come to the earth, wrapped in rough cloths, sleeping in a manger.

What Does it Mean to Be Righteous?

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

In the telling of the Christmas story, Joseph, the earthly “step-father’ of Jesus doesn’t get much attention.  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 had previously escaped my attention in the rush to get to the birth story.

“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 – conceiving a child as an unmarried woman with someone other than her betrothed. 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).  Instead, Joseph chose to handle the situation quietly to spare her from disgrace and punishment.  And because he acted 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 judgment” (James 2:13).  I think, sometimes the church has it backward.  Much 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 poured out in mercy to sinners like you and me through Jesus Christ. 

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.  It will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, but it is the Jesus thing. Let’s commit to being righteous people – let’s be people of mercy.

Signs of Christmas

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On the day of Pentecost (I know, this is an Advent devotional – bear with me) Peter stood up and said, “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs . . .” (Acts 2:22). Signs were important to the Jews, and they are important to the church today. Signs are markers, signals, symbols, or events that communicate the authenticity of God’s message and messenger. Many miracles and wonders were performed by the prophets of the Old Testament to prove the truthfulness of their message. Likewise, Peter said, Jesus’ miracles and the wonderful things He did were to confirm that He was whom He said He was.

The first confirming sign was not even about Jesus directly. Isaiah said, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call Him Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). The first sign was caused a scandal for Mary, a peasant girl from the nothing town of Nazareth. Her highest goal was to marry Joseph and have a family. Suddenly she finds herself an unmarried young woman with a child in her belly that is not her fiancé’s.  Mary’s quiet, well-planned life was suddenly interrupted by God. How does a supposed virgin explain her condition? To say God’s call on her life was an inconvenience would be an understatement. She was put in a most shameful situation, one that could have cost her her beloved Joseph, and possibly even her life. Yet she humbly surrendered herself to the will of God and embraced an unknown future with awe and wonder and faith. Her reply to the angel who brought the incredible news was a simple, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:37). The first sign was a young woman with a God-sized problem and the faith to entrust her life to His plan.

Beloved, has God interrupted your life with something unexpected – something inconvenient, something hard, or perhaps even shocking? It may be a person, a diagnosis, a major change, or great sorrow. How will you respond? With fear and anxiety? Or with faith and humble surrender? Are you willing to be the Lord’s servant?

Friday the 13th

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It’s Friday the 13th – does that make you a little nervous? Why are we so fearful of this day? Tradition refers back to the fact that Jesus was the 13th person at the table on the night before His crucifixion on a Friday. So, does that mean that Jesus’ death was just bad luck? Absolutely not! Jesus’ death was the perfect plan of God from before the foundation of the world.  (Rev. 13:8).

Do bad things happen to good – yes even godly – people? Of course. But that’s not bad luck. Nothing in the life of the person devoted to God is ever “lucky” or “unlucky.” Did Joseph consider being sold into slavery and falsely imprisoned to be a stroke of bad luck? If so then he would have had to conclude that luck put him in the second-highest position in Egypt. But he told his brothers – the very ones who sold him out – “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

Sometimes it’s very hard to believe that God, not luck or “karma,” is directing the path of our lives, especially when things go awry.  When the diagnosis is bad, when the loved one doesn’t recover, when the car is repossessed, when the kid brings his troubles back home with him, when the business shuts down, when the election goes the wrong way. Either we are very unlucky, or we are in the good hands of a good God with a good plan. As for me – I’m trusting in the providence and sovereignty of God. Yes, even in 2020.

Beloved, wherever you are today, whatever your situation, it’s not because of luck or happenstance. God has you. He has not surrendered control for even a millisecond. Nothing – not one single thing – escapes His notice or His charge. So lay down your 4-leaf clover and your rabbit’s foot and stop avoiding ladders and black cats. Who knows? Friday the 13th may turn out to be the best day of your life!

The Real Joy of Christmas

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Christmas isn’t always a Currier and Ives painting. Some Christmases are hard, saturated in grief, exhaustion, disappointment, loneliness, struggle, and family drama. I’ve had some of those Christmases – no doubt you’ve had them too. I remember Christmases when my Dad was stationed far away from us, the first Christmas after my Mom died, and Christmases with no tree and no presents because there were no funds. Those were sad holidays, but they were not joyless. I know – that sounds like a contradiction, but the joy of Christmas is not in trees and presents. And while they are (usually) a blessing and a delight at Christmas, our family is not the heart of our joy. Christmas Joy is not found in stores – you can’t even order it from Amazon. And I can guarantee you that it isn’t in “Christmas” themed movies or T.V. specials or over-produced “Christmas” songs.

The true joy of Christmas is the assurance of God’s faithfulness to redeem His people from their sins. That’s exactly what Matthew said in his gospel. The angel who appeared to Joseph said, “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This baby wasn’t just born to be a king who would rule on a throne. He was born to be the sacrifice for the sins of the world. He was born to break the power of death. John said He came to bring light into our darkness (John 1:4-9). Joy at Christmas comes from understanding our desperate situation before God and then recognizing what He did for us. The truest expression of Christmas joy is not a party or a present – it’s worship. That’s how Mary saw it. She said “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46). Christmas should be a holy celebration, a time when we put aside the tinsel and trappings and bow low before the Baby in the manger. It may never be as perfect as the picture on your Christmas cards, but Beloved, no matter your circumstances in this season, may your Christmas be full of real joy.

When God Inturrupts Your Life

 

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

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

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