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?

Joseph’s Christmas Story

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Of all the people in the Christmas story, I think Joseph is the one whom I most admire. He was just a simple carpenter from Nazareth, diligently preparing the home that he and Mary – and hopefully sons and daughters – would share. All was coming together as they had planned – until the day he saw her strained face. Something was troubling her, something that would turn his life upside-down.

“With child? Mary, how can this be? Who Mary? Why Mary?”

She began to spin this fanciful tale about an angel named Gabriel and the Holy Spirit and Jesus. It was all too much to understand. He was heartbroken, dumbfounded, shocked, and shaken. She cried as he walked away from her, but what else could he do?

Then in the night – a dream and an angel and a message just for him. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She 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. 1:20-21).

I admire Joseph not because he stepped in to raise a child that was not his own – millions of men have done the same. I don’t even admire him for making himself part of the scandalous situation Mary was in – a situation not of his making. I admire him because of his faith. He believed – not Mary; Joseph believed God and he acted in obedience and “took Mary home as his wife” (v. 24) and become a father to her son. It takes a very humble man to forgive a seemingly unfaithful woman and love her child as his own. And it takes great faith to believe that God is in the middle of such a big mess. Joseph had great faith and a humble heart.

This Christmas season may find you in the middle of a mess – perhaps not of your own making. I’ve been there. So was Joseph. Beloved, humility and faith will carry you through. Humility lets you enter into another’s troubled world. Faith believes that God is in the midst of it all. Is He calling you to be Joseph to someone you love?

Kanye and the Church

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

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

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

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

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

When God Doesn’t Make Sense

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“He makes everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

When his two co-prisoners had strange dreams, Joseph interpreted them accurately and the men met the fates that Joseph had described. The chief baker was hanged, and the chief cupbearer was restored to his position. Joseph had asked the cupbearer to mention his unjust imprisonment to Pharaoh. “Surely,” Joseph must have thought, “I will finally be released from this prison.” But the Scripture says, “The chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him” (Genesis 40:23). And the very next verse tells us that Joseph was stuck in that prison for another two years. Freedom was so close he could almost touch it, yet it remained just outside of his grasp. Why would God allow Joseph to languish unjustly in prison, especially when He had given him visions of prominent position when he was younger? What purpose could that possibly serve?

Have you asked similar questions about your own life? God, why am I still single? Why am I childless? Why can’t I advance in my career? Why can’t I get healthy? Why am I stuck in ____________. It is so frustrating when we can’t see any logical reason for God not to answer our pleas. If you’ve ever scratched your head and thought, “God, you’re not making much sense here,” you’re in very good company. But dear one, you also don’t know the big picture, just as Joseph couldn’t know how God would unfold His plan.

The Bible says that after those two years, Pharaoh had an unusual dream that no one could interpret. It was then that the chief cupbearer remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh. Joseph not only interpreted the dream, but he so impressed Pharaoh that he was elevated to the second highest position in the land. In that position Joseph was able to save his family from starvation. If he had been released from prison two years earlier, he would have almost certainly high-tailed it out of Egypt and away from the plan of God for his life, for the lives of his family and, ultimately your life and mine, for in rescuing his family, Joseph preserved the nation from which our Savior would come.

When you find yourself becoming anxious about what God is not doing in your life, remember that you can’t see the big picture from your vantage point. Could it be that He is positioning you for a greater purpose than you can imagine? Could He be preparing you – and the situation you’re in – for a miracle? I believe Joseph would counsel you not to fret, but to trust God to move in your life in just the right place at just the right time. When He is directing the lives of His people, God makes every minute count towards His purposes. God has not forgotten about you Beloved; “He makes everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Including your life.

Immanuel – God with Us

 

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“They will call Him Immanuel, which means, ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:23).

One of the most beautiful hymns of Christmas is Emmanuel, Emmanuel:

Emmanuel, Emmanuel,
His name is called Emmanuel.
God with us, revealed in us,
His name is called Emmanuel.[1]

In our modern, New Testament mind the idea of “Immanuel – God with us” is a great comfort as we endure the struggles of life in this fallen world.  To know that God is with us means we are assured of His presence and help.  I am so grateful that God was with us through this difficult year that we experienced.  His presence gave me strength day-by-day and bolstered my faith.

But to truly understand the name and its significance, we have to go back to the Bible.  But don’t stop in Matthew, go back even farther to the book of Exodus, to the most incredible statement by God: “Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:9).  In the ancient near east, the pagan gods of the time did not dwell with human beings.  No, the “gods” were far too important to be bothered with mortals and their petty lives.  But the God who created and sustained and ruled over all things wanted to dwell with His people.  So He gave them instructions to build Him a sanctuary where He could be present with them.  When the structure was built, the Lord came and took up residence in the place.  The same was true of the temple Solomon built for the Lord in Jerusalem to replace the tabernacle.  When the temple was completed, and the ark of the covenant was put in place in the Holy of Holies, “the cloud [of the Lord’s presence] filled the temple of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:11).  And the Lord dwelled among His people there.

Until.  Until their idolatry and sin became unbearable.  Until God said, “Enough.”  Approximately four hundred years after He filled the temple, the Lord withdrew His presence.  The prophet Ezekiel records the terrible sight of the cloud drawing up and away from the Holy of Holies and from the temple and from Jerusalem and the nation of Judah.  God was no longer with His people.  Shortly afterward the people were taken into exile and the temple was destroyed.  And though it was rebuilt when the exiles returned to Jerusalem, the Lord’s presence did not return to the second temple.

Until. Until the angel visited a carpenter, betrothed to a young woman and proclaimed the return of Immanuel.  Joseph would instinctively know what this name meant – God with us.     God came to once again dwell among men – this time in the humblest way – as a human baby born to peasant parents and laid in a feeding trough for animals.  The name “Immanuel” recalls the glorious presence of God in the midst of His people.  But not only in the temple.  No, this time Immanuel would walk among them, eat with them, touch them with human hands – and die for them.  God had been absent and silent for hundreds of years, but now He had returned to His people.

Immanuel was the promise of God’s presence.  And He is still present with His people today.  He is present in the Holy Spirit that dwells in every believer.  He is present in our worship.  He is present when we pray.  He is present when we rustle the pages of the Bible.  He is present when we reach out to touch a suffering soul with His love.  He is present in holy, divine moments and in the everyday events of our lives.  Because He is Immanuel, He is always present. Because He is God with us, we are never alone.

[1] Emmanuel, Emmanuel was written by Bob McGee in 1976 and published by C.A. Music.

Friday the 13th

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.  The day was not by accident either – in the same early morning hour that the Passover lamb was being slaughtered for the sins of the Jewish people, Jesus, the Lamb of God, was being nailed to a cross to die for the sins of all mankind.

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.  As I sit here now, my husband is in the process of medically retiring and I am three days from the end of my job, with no offers in sight.  Either we are very unlucky, or we are in the good hands of a good God with a good plan.  I’m trusting in the providence and sovereignty of God.

Beloved, wherever you are today, what ever 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!

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

In the Waiting

waiting“Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify about me in Rome” (Acts 23:11).

When God calls a person to service, it is not always immediate nor is it a straight path to their place of ministry.  God declared that Abraham would be the roots a great nation, but it took twenty-five years for the child of promise to be born and a couple of generations for the nation to grow.  Young Joseph had a vision from the Lord of himself in a high position, but he got there after several years of treachery, slavery and prison.  Samuel anointed David as king of Israel, but he tended sheep, served in battle and was on the run for many years before actually taking the throne. 

And then there is Paul.  The scene in Acts 23 has Paul under arrest for declaring the name of Jesus.  For years he has been harassed and persecuted for the Gospel, now he is a prisoner, accused by the Romans of inciting riots and by the Jews of blasphemy.  To truly understand Paul’s call, you have to go all the way back to Acts 9:15, when God declared that this man would carry His name before Jews, Gentiles and kings.  At this moment, he is a long way from fulfilling his destiny.  As he sits in his cell, the Lord Jesus comes to him and speaks our key verse to encourage Paul.

Does this mean the apostle will be released and travel directly to Rome to preach in the great halls of the palace?  Not exactly.  Acts tells us that Paul escaped a murderous plot through a midnight run, endured multiple trials under Roman kings, faced a storm at sea, and was shipwrecked and snake bitten along the way.  But Acts 28:14 says, “And so we came to Rome.”  God was faithful to His promise to Paul, and the rest of Acts and church history tells us that Paul did indeed preach the Gospel and declare the name of Jesus in Rome, despite doing so from prison.  But there was a lot of space between the promise and the fulfillment.

I’m going to be bare-bones honest with you – I’m living in that empty “in-between” space right now.  More than ten years ago I heard God’s call to ministry, but in the waiting I’ve nearly lost hope.  I’ve been pursuing seminary to prepare for God’s work.  But as I walk through the aisles of Publix at my job every day, I wonder if I’ll ever get there.  That’s when I return to the stories of Abraham, Joseph, David, and especially Paul.  And that’s when I recall V. Raymond Edman’s words: “Never doubt in the dark what God told you in the light.”  My friend, I don’t know what God has spoken over you, nor how long you’ve waited to see it come to fruition.  But I do know that the God who spoke over your life and mine is faithful.  His word never returns void.  I am praying that you and I will stand firm in the faithful nature of the Lord and believe that what He has declared in the light, will be fulfilled despite the darkness.

“And so we came to . . .”