Advent 2022: Mercy

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46)

Joy. Peace. Hope. Love. These are the words we most associate with Christmas and for good reason, the birth of Christ ushers in all of these good things. Joy abounds in this season, especially on the faces of little children. The angel brought “good news of great Joy” (Luke 2:10). And he declared “peace on earth” (v. 14) to the stunned shepherds. Many a war has called for a “Christmas cease-fire” so that there might be peace, at least for a moment. The birth of Christ holds out the hope of God for all men everywhere. And Jesus is the embodiment of perfect, holy love. Those who believe and receive Him are filled with holy love for God and the world. These are perfect words for the Christmas season. But one word gets forgotten during this holy time of the year.

Mary’s song – called The Magnificat – is a beautiful and moving oration inspired by the Holy Spirit in the heart of a humble girl. Mary’s song doesn’t focus on joy or peace or hope or love. Mary sings of the mercy of God. She says “His mercy extends to those who fear Him” (Luke 1:50). Mercy is as much a part of the Christmas story as the “big four.”

God’s mercy and His love are interchangeable and intertwined in Scripture. In the Old Testament, the word ḥesed is often used for both “love” and “mercy.” You can’t describe the love of God without His mercy and vice-versa. Mercy is love. Love is mercy. Mercy is the outward, active evidence of God’s love. Love moved the heart of God, mercy built the bridge. Love desired to save us, so mercy went to the cross. And that is where the Christmas story truly becomes a love story. Because Christmas, with all its joy and celebration, is meaningless without the cross. The story of Christmas is the story of the love – and mercy – of God displayed in the tiny Baby in the manger who would grow up to be the Man on the cross. And He did it all for you, Beloved.

What wondrous love is this,

That caused the Lord of bliss

To bear the dreadful curse

Oh, my soul!

Advent 2022: Joseph – A Man of Mercy

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 is 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 – becoming pregnant as an unmarried woman was bad enough but to conceive a child with someone other than her betrothed was unforgivable. 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). It was a sin that merited public execution. 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? No, they probably don’t deserve it – but neither did you. It will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, Beloved, but it is the Jesus thing. Let’s commit to being righteous people – let’s be people of mercy.

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.

Count Your Blessings

Even without my pint-sized sidekick, my life is very busy. I work four full-time days a week, I am a graduate student, I write these daily devotionals, and am trying to pull them together to publish. I teach two different Bible classes every week for which I study and write the lessons. Oh, and somewhere in there, I (sorta) clean my house and give my sweet, supportive hubby some attention. And occasionally I sleep. I say all that to say, unoccupied time is hard to come by. But it is something I sense God pressing on me lately. It came to me – as every good thought does – from His Word.

“Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said: ‘Who am I, O Sovereign Lord . . . that you have brought me this far?’” (2 Samuel 7:18). Nathan the prophet had just reported God’s prophecy to the King: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (v. 16). David was awestruck. Once a shepherd boy, now a king with an everlasting throne. All he could do was sit before the Lord in worship and astonishment. So should we.

Have you ever stopped to consider all God has done for you? First, He gave you life and breath – that in itself is beyond comprehension (Gen 2:7). Then, despite your sin, He gave you grace that has drawn you to Him – you would not have sought Him out on your own (John 6:44). And wonder of wonders, He gave His One and Only Son who then gave His perfect life to redeem yours out of the pit of sin and death. That’s mercy (John 3:16).  Then He raised Him from the dead to give you eternal life (1 John 5:10-12). If you stopped right there that would be more than enough.

But think of all the ways He pours out His love and blessings on you. I think of my family and the Joy they bring. I have the most wonderful friends, a job I love, the opportunity to continue my education, a loving, caring church family, food on my table, a roof over my head, a soft bed to sleep on – oh, I could go on and on. And so could you. Beloved, come and sit before the Lord and ponder His goodness to you. “Count your many blessings; see what God has done.”

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.

Bought Lessons

If you’ve read my devotionals for very long, you’ve heard me quote my Mom who used to say “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons.” It is the most profound thing she ever told me and I have the scars to prove that she was right. I’ve done some very foolish things in my life that I will never, ever do again. Her mantra reminds me of Psalm 119:67: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word.”

One lesson I bought is that when I ignore the Word of God I will wind up in trouble. Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7:24-27. He said the wise man built his house on the rock and the foolish man built on the sand. The wise builder illustrated a person who built his life on obedience to Jesus’ words. No storm could destroy the house built on the rock, and no storm can destroy the person who builds their life on – not just by reading the Bible – but by putting its teachings and principles into practice. Knowing and obeying the Bible can save us so much trouble and heartache in life.

But I’ve also learned a gentler lesson: God doesn’t give up on us just because we messed up. He won’t write you off, wash His hands of me or turn away from us because we stumble. All through the Bible God tells us that He is patient, forgiving, compassionate, merciful, and full of grace. He loves you, even when your knees are bloody because you fell. He loves me, even when I am covered in the muck of my own choices. Jesus died so you and I can be forgiven, so we could have a second chance at life.

Have you made a mistake somewhere along the way? Have you run in the wrong direction, played with the wrong people, touched something that left you in pain? Take heart, Beloved, God has not given up on you. Take this affliction, this difficulty, and the pain it has caused and place it before your loving Heavenly Father. Then put your hand in the nail-scarred hand of Jesus and start walking, a little wiser, in the right direction.

God of Mercy

For many years I carried a picture in my mind of God. He sat on His throne with a fly swatter in His hand and a scowl on His face. Every time I sinned – which was often – He would slap me down and tell me I was a disappointment to Him. I would ask for forgiveness and He would give it begrudgingly – and always with a warning to straighten up because He was losing patience with me.

Then I began to really study His Word and a different picture of God emerged when I read the Old Testament prophet Micah: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives transgressions . . . You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18).

I saw a God who was patient, gentle, and forgave without limit. I saw a God – the God that Micah saw – who “delights to show mercy.” I realized two things: God doesn’t expect me to be perfect – that is flawless – on my own. If that were possible – and it’s not – He wouldn’t have sent his Son to die for my sins. It is only by His Son that I can be made perfect – that is complete in Christ. I don’t know about you, but that is a huge relief to me.

The second thing I realized is it gives God great pleasure to forgive me. And there is much to forgive. He delights in being merciful. Let me be clear, He doesn’t take please in my sinfulness. He takes pleasure in my dependence on Him for salvation. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .” (Matt 5:3) meaning those who realize their wretched state and come to the only One who redeems wretches. Like me.

I don’t know what you’ve done Beloved, but I know that it would delight God to take all your sin away and show you mercy. There is no scowl on His face when He looks at you – only love. He does not have a fly swatter in His hands – but He does have scars.

Pointing Fingers

I’m studying Job in two groups right now – I am sure by God’s provident timing. In the first two chapters of Job, satan comes before the Lord twice to give an account of what he’s been up to. I have a note jotted beside satan’s second appearance before God: “last mention of satan.” This is the last time that ugly face is seen in this book. But it’s not the last time satan himself shows up. You can bet he is the impetus behind what comes next in Job’s story.

You know the story. God gives satan permission to take all that Job has – his wealth, his children, and his health – to prove that Job will never curse the Lord. Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to “sympathize with him and comfort him” (v. 11). When they see him sitting on the trash heap, covered in sores and misery, “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights” and “No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (v. 13). If only they had kept their mouths shut.

I said that satan’s last mention was in chapter two, but he shows up in Job’s “friends” every time they speak. They all condemn Job for what must be grievous sin in his life. Why else would God bring such harsh punishment on him? But they don’t know what God has said about Job: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (1:8; 2:3). Satan didn’t have to show his face, he just let E, B, and Z do his dirty work. If Job’s friends truly wanted to comfort him, they should have reminded him of God’s faithfulness and love. They should have sang songs of hope, not blasted him with condemnation. Rather than comforting their friend, they added to his suffering.

Here’s my takeaway: Never assume you know a person’s heart before God and God’s reason for their situation. We are called to a ministry of “encouraging, comforting, and urging [one another] to live lives worthy of God” (1 Thess 2:12). We are not called to “straighten one another out.” I don’t want to ever be satan’s tool of misery in someone’s life, no matter how “righteous” my reasoning. Beloved, make sure you are God’s messenger of grace, not satan’s sledgehammer.

Love much

 “First Day in Heaven” by Kerolos Safwat.

Jesus is a dinner guest at the home of a man named Simon. Simon is a Pharisee – that means he is very important in the religious community and very well respected. He is also very arrogant and looks down on people who are not as “holy” as he thinks himself to be. While Jesus sits around the finely decorated table, a woman enters the house. This woman was well known in the community as a “sinful woman.” She has earned a living among men and is an outcast among the ”good” people.  The house has fallen silent as she moves among the crowd with an alabaster jar in her hands. Every eye is on her but her eyes are fixed on one person – Jesus.

As she kneels at His feet she is weeping and her tears make tracks in the dust that clings to Him until His feet have been washed clean. She reaches up and pulls away her head covering and gently wipes His feet dry with her long, cascading hair, then kisses them. Finally, she breaks open the alabaster jar and pours the costly perfume out on those clean feet.

Simon, like all who are gathered there, is shocked that Jesus has permitted such a sinful woman to touch Him. But listen! Jesus is telling Simon a story about a good man who forgave the debts that others owed him.

“Who will love him more?” He asks.

“The one who had the biggest debt canceled,” Simon answers.

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus says.

Then he turns away from Simon to look at the woman. Do you see the love in His eyes? “She had done something very beautiful for me,” He says. “She loves much because she has been forgiven much.”  Then Jesus blesses her and says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50)

This story is your story. You have a sinful past just as she had, but Jesus has forgiven all your sins – just as he forgave hers. You love Him much because you have been forgiven much. Listen carefully to Jesus as He looks at you with love in His eyes and tells you, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Go and fulfill the things that God is calling you to do. You have been washed in the precious blood of Jesus, Beloved. You can leave your past behind and go forward in peace.

For the Foolish People (like me)

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The more I read the Bible the more I am amazed at God’s goodness to fulfill His plan even in the midst of our foolishness. Sarah schemed to give Abraham an heir to fulfill God’s promise. The mess she made of it all is still felt in the world today. Yet, God didn’t abandon His plan in retaliation. He still allowed the foolish Sarah to bear a son – the child of the promise. When Isaac married and his wife finally conceived, God told Rebekah that her younger son would rule over his older brother, but she still schemed to make sure Jacob – the younger son and her favorite – got his father’s blessing. Then he had to run to his uncle far away to protect himself from his brother’s wrath. While there he married two sisters and started a family with them and their maids (and people say the Bible is boring). Out of all this deception, manipulation, and foolishness, God still gave twelve sons to Jacob – sons who became the twelve tribes of Israel and eventually a nation that could not be counted, just as He promised Abraham.

That gives me hope because I have made some major messes in my life, done some foolish and, yes, sinful things.  I have heard God say, “turn to the right,” and I ran instead to the left because the grass looked greener there. It was just an illusion. I have made choices because I thought I knew better than God what would make me happy and only found sorrow and struggle. I have reaped the whirlwind of my stupidity many times. Yet God has never given up on me. He has never turned His back on me in disgust or frustration. He has never left me to rot in the pit of my choosing.  And He has never failed to turn it all around and still fulfill His good, pleasing, and perfect will. Beloved, I know He will be faithful to do the same for you. He is a good and gracious God – even when we mess it all up.