Advent 2022: What Should I Give to Baby Jesus?

“They opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh,” (Matthew 2:11)

What kind of gift do you bring to a newborn King? When royals or celebrities have babies, gifts pour in from all around the world. Lavish, expensive presents like giant stuffed animals, beautiful baby clothes, and the very latest in baby paraphernalia. Only the best will do for these little ones of such high standing. When the wise men came to visit Jesus, they brought gifts worthy of a first-century king – gold, incense, and myrrh. Many scholars believe there is significance in each of these gifts. “Gold might represent His deity and purity, incense the fragrance of His life, and myrrh His sacrifice and death (myrrh was used as an embalming spice)” (Louis A. Barbieri, Jr. “Matthew” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1984. 22). These gifts would have provided for the family as they escaped Herod by fleeing to Egypt. I love the story of the little boy who, during the offering at church, set the plate on the floor and stood in it. His embarrassed mother pulled him back to his seat and  whispered “What are you doing?” He replied in a very loud voice, “But Mommy, I don’t gots no money, so I wanted to give Jesus myself!” Image the sermon that might have followed that! But our little friend is right on target.

So back to our original question? What kind of gift do you give to a newborn King? Just as the magi presented Jesus with gifts, the Bible tells us that we are to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—which is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:1-2). Paul said our gifts to God are our bodies (v. 1) and our minds (v. 2) – what we do and how we think. Then add Jesus’ words about the great commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). This covers our affections, our emotions, our convictions, and our life-focus.  In other words, we are to give every bit of ourselves to the Lord in total surrender. We give Him ourselves, inside and out. Just as He did for you and me. Beloved, let all of you be your gift to Jesus this Christmas.

Look How Much You’ve Grown!

Joy has grown so much this last year. It’s obvious when you look at her. She’s taller and stronger. Her legs and arms are longer. Even her hair is longer. Her vocabulary is incredible, she doesn’t use baby talk and she annunciates her words very well. She can do more things for herself like spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. And she’s learning how to calm herself when she gets upset. (I hope she will teach me.) Potty training is still a work in progress, but I know she will get that too. One thing hasn’t changed – that mega-watt smile can still melt Nana’s heart. She’s a growing, beautiful, amazing little girl.

Which makes me wonder, how do we know that we’re growing spiritually? We don’t get taller, but we should see signs that mark spiritual maturity. Like Joy, our speech is a clear indication of growth. Jesus said it’s in our words. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt 12:35). We talk about God and the things of God. We reject profanity and gossip and complaining (Eph 4:29; Phil 2:14).

It’s also seen in what we desire. Growing in God means we want the things that He wants and we are repulsed by the things that offend Him (Ps 40:8; Col 3:5). We look and act more like Jesus, which is God’s goal all along – “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Rom 8:29). We are compassionate (2 Cor 1:3-4), kind and gentle (2 Tim 2:24-25), loving (1 Cor 13), self-controlled (1 Pet 1:13), and “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (Jas 1:19).

Perhaps the most visible sign of spiritual maturity is how we deal with sin in our lives. As spiritual babes, we sin and the Spirit convicts us of our sin. We confess, repent, and receive forgiveness. But we go back to it again. And we repeat the cycle, sometimes multiple times. The true evidence of spiritual growth is when we stop going back to our sin. When the Spirit helps us recognize the pattern and break the cycle, we’ve made a major step in spiritual maturity.

I look at myself and see some signs of growth as well as places where I’m still a toddler in Christ. You too? Growth comes when we take in the things that nurture our spirit, like God’s Word, fellowship with other believers, prayer, and resting in the Lord. And trust. Paul said, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6). God’s not going to give up on you, Beloved. Don’t give up on yourself.

God is For You

“It’ll all be made right in heaven.”

I remember so well the sweet lady who spoke those words to me at my mom’s funeral. She followed a theme that many others had said to comfort me and my family in our grief. And they are right. God will set all wrong things right one day. All the hard things. All the sad things. All the things that were unfair and unkind. Even all the things that were caused by evil. Paul assures us: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). All our tears will be replaced with shouts of Joy.

But in your present moment of pain, heaven seems pretty far away, doesn’t it? Is there any hope for you now? I believe there is. Listen to what David said when he was in a difficult place: “How great is Your goodness, which You have stored up for those who fear You, which You bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in You” (Ps 31:19). In the sight of men. Men here on earth. God’s goodness, David said, is not just for the hereafter; it’s for the here and now. It’s for today.

How can I be so sure? Because, in Paul’s words, “God is for us” (Rom 8:31). No, I don’t think you get the whole gest of that phrase. “For us” means on our side, but not just on our side; He is, in the Greek, exceedingly, abundantly on our side. Now take that personally and say with me, “The God of heaven and earth is exceedingly, abundantly on my side.” I can also be sure because I have seen Him at work many times in the hard places in my life. He has taken what others have done against me and brought something good out of it.  He has taken the unexpected trials in my life and blessed me in awesome ways.  He has even taken my sin and foolishness and brought wisdom and ministry out of them. That’s how I can be so sure.

Another verse is marked in my Bible with dates and memories of a time that was so hard I honestly thought it was going to kill me. “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13). I clung to those words like a man in an ocean clings to a life preserver. And I did see the goodness of the Lord. And many years later I can testify that I still see His goodness every day. So will you, Beloved. God is for you. Right here in the land of the living.

Stop Looking Back

I have a lot in common with Moses, the hero of God’s people. No, I’ve never parted a sea or made water come from a rock. I’ve never led a nation out of slavery nor floated down the river in a basket as a baby. What I have done that Moses also did was argue with God.

After Moses fled Egypt as a wanted man, he settled down and started working for his father-in-law as a shepherd. Then he saw a burning bush and heard God say, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex 3:10). And he argues with God. Moses starts giving all the reasons why he can’t do what God has called him to do. “They won’t listen to me. They won’t believe me. I’m not an eloquent speaker. I stutter.” Finally, Moses says, “O, Lord, please send someone else to do it!” (Ex 4:1-13).

My version of Moses is: “I’m not good enough. “I’m not smart enough. And then the sure kicker: “I have an ugly, sinful past, God, I’ve done so many shameful things.” Then I pull out my carefully cataloged and categorized list of all my failures so that He can see why I am the absolute wrong person for the job. I was recently struck by what Bob Goff, lawyer, speaker, and New York Times best-selling author said, “We spend a lot of time memorizing failures that God spent a lot of love saying we could forget.”

He’s right. John said that the Father lavishes great love on us and calls us His children (1 John 3:1). Even before we called Him our Father. Paul said, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). God loved you while you were doing the very things that sent His Son to the cross. When you accepted Christ, all your sins went under the blood of Jesus and left nothing but the Father’s love.

You are no longer a sinner in the eyes of God. You have been cleansed and reborn and filled with His Spirit so that you are enabled and empowered to do that thing for which He created you. Oh, Beloved, don’t look back when God calls you to move forward. He knows who you were – and who you are now. You are His child.

Fill My Cup, Lord

“He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things” (Psalm 107:9)

I used to spend my days wandering around with my empty cup of needs, imploring everyone I met to pour a little something in. No, I didn’t have an actual tin cup and I didn’t beg for alms. What I needed money could not fix. “Might you have some peace you could give me? “Can you spare a little hope?” “I could really use some Joy.” “You sure seem happy – could you share some of that with me?  And the gaping hole in my soul kept me constantly asking, “Please, do you have some love for me?” I cringe now when I realize how needy and desperate – and probably annoying – I was.

I’d like to claim that those were “pre-Jesus days” when I didn’t know Christ, but it wasn’t. I was in church every Sunday, sang in the choir, attended every women’s ministry event, and wore a cross on a chain every day. But I still felt like I had to run to people and beg for what I needed. If a kind soul put something in, I came back to them again and again and again. One, because I had found a source, and two because whatever they put in didn’t last very long. And that was by design. It wasn’t supposed to last because their offerings were human. I needed something more. One day I heard a song and the lightbulb went off.

Fill my cup Lord, I lift it up, Lord!

Come and quench this thirsting of my soul;

Bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more–

Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole!

Richard Blanchard – “Fill My Cup, Lord”

I realized that only He could fill my empty cup – and keep it full. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6). How? By His Spirit. Acts 13:52 says, “the disciples were filled with Joy and with the Holy Spirit.”  He alone can fill the holes in my heart and soul because He is what I need. He is my source of peace and hope and Joy and love. 

I pray you have found Him to be yours too. And I pray that His Spirit fills you and spills out on those around you. “May the God of all hope fill you, Beloved, with all Joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13).

When I Stand Before Jesus

I wrote this several years ago, and as I was reading this passage this morning, the Holy Spirit revealed something new to me (which is why we read the Scriptures over and over and over – there’s always something new to learn.)

I have always been drawn to the story of the woman caught in adultery (see John 8:1-11), mostly because I can see myself in two of the main characters.  So many times I am part of the judgmental crowd.  Like the religious leaders, I catch someone and call them out, accusing them and looking on with scorn.  Oh, I’m never obvious about it mind you – it’s all done in my head – but I might as well have drug them before the church because I’ve declared them guilty.  Yet, I have also been the woman, the sinner caught in the act standing before Jesus shamed and ashamed.  I know I am guilty as I stand clutching my sheet of self-reproach, trying to cover my nakedness and my sin.

Here is where something new came to me. I initially said that Jesus sees me in both roles and reminds me of my own sinfulness as He calls me to drop my rock of condemnation. But I realized that I was wrong.  Because I am washed in His blood, my sin has been removed – “As far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12) never to be remembered again. He will never throw my sin back in my face. He may gently chastise me for my judgmental attitude, but He does not remind me of my past transgressions because He has forgotten them. That’s huge to me, because I have an enemy who loves to taunt me with my past – and I have a past that gives him lots of ammunition. But Jesus steps in with His scars and declares me forgiven and free.

After He turned her accusers away, Jesus told the woman He did not condemn her. He didn’t even condemn her accusers. He condemns no one.  Paul said that He is the only one who rightly could, but He doesn’t (Rom 8:34). Instead, He sacrificed Himself to take away the condemnation our sin has heaped on us. Yes, sometimes you and I are both the accused and the accuser, but oh, to be like the One who pours out grace and mercy to all who believe. Lord, help me to be more like you and less like me.

Hebrews: Daddy’s Hands

Parents aren’t supposed to play favorites with their children, but sometimes they do.  Just ask Esau or all of Joseph’s brothers. Or me. My Dad’s favorites were my two older brothers. They loved to tinker on cars just like he did. My Mom’s favorite was my younger brother. He was sick a lot as a kid and so she was closer to him. I always felt like nobody’s kid.  Until God told me His special name for me in Luke 8:48.

Before we dig in, please grab your Bible and read Hebrews 12:5-10. The heart of this passage is the believer’s position as a child of God. How do you know that you are God’s child? The writer said we know it because He disciplines us. In the first-century world, it was common for men to have wives and concubines and to father children with both. But they did not involve themselves in the lives of the children of the concubines. These were illegitimate children and they were on their own as far as their “father” was concerned. He did not take any responsibility for their care or discipline. It’s not unlike our culture today, is it?

Good fathers discipline their children. They don’t berate and abuse their children but they also don’t let them run amuck, getting into all kinds of trouble and danger. Good fathers guard and guide their children. They teach them the right way and then redirect them when they get off track. Good fathers pay attention to their children and notice when they need help or correction. (Dad – put down your cell phone/game controller/remote control!)

Discipline involves both training and punishment. A good father will use both, in the correct measures. Paul reminded fathers to “not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Now, this is not a parenting devotional – I am far, far from the expert on raising kids. I want you to see how God “parents” us – His children. He follows the counsel He gave to Paul – He uses correction as well as positive reinforcement. And sometimes, the writer says He has to use punishment. Because He loves us too much to let us run headlong into self-destruction.

The goal of a good father is to raise mature, healthy, responsible children. The goal of our Heavenly Father is to raise children who reflect His Son (Rom 8:29) and share in His holiness ( v. 10). How does our Father know when He has succeeded? When He can say, “I have no greater Joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn 4).

“Lord, I’m Tired”

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

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

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

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

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

Faithful

Do you remember when grown-ups would ask you as a kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It often changed for me from year to year. I wanted to be a dancer, a teacher, a garbage collector (what?), a singer, a mommy, and a writer. I often look at Joy and wonder what the future holds for her. We have already determined that she will be a preacher (I know, she’s a girl and we’re Baptists), a dancer, a singer, a chef, and the President of the United States. And she’ll be awesome (and cute) at all of them.

I didn’t follow all those dreams and went in some very different directions at times. I’ve had stints working in retail and the medical field and enjoyed a year as a floral clerk. I hung onto writing and teaching as my calling and I’m exploring the idea of counseling. but I’ve worked in religious administration for most of my career. It’s been sweet and a perfect fit for my skills.

But I’ve discovered something else I want to be. Faithful. Just faithful. Not only in a career or ministry but faithful in my life. I want to love God with all my heart and mind and soul and strength (Mark 12:30). I want to find hope and Joy and peace in Christ (Rom 15:13) and walk in step with the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:16-18). I want an undivided, unrelenting, unquenchable zeal for my Creator (Rom 12:11). I want to pursue Him with reckless abandon (Phil 3:12-14). Then I want to rest in Him (Mark 6:31). I want Christ to be my life (Col 3:4). I want my life to be all about Christ (Col 1:10-12).

One day I will stand before the Lord. I don’t want Him to compliment me on the pretty bouquets I created or the nice bulletins I produced or how well I managed the faculty files and textbooks at the college.  I don’t Him to tell me how much He enjoyed my writing and that I was a solid teacher of His Word. As much as I love her, I don’t even want Him to tell me I was a good grandmother to Joy. I only want to hear one thing: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt 25:21). That will be enough. That will be everything.

The God of the Bible

We’re New Testament Christians – why should we read the Old Testament? What good does it do me to study old laws and rituals? Why should I learn about people so far removed from my own life? Because we don’t study the Bible to learn about laws and rituals and long-dead people – we study the Bible to learn about and draw hope from God. I am in a group that is writing through the Bible, we’ve been mired in Job for months. Lots of misery and grumbling and arguing. But by slowing down the pace and paying attention to the text, we’ve come to understand Job – and God – from a whole new perspective.

Paul said, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). He’s talking about the Old Testament. When I am discouraged, I go to the stories of God’s deliverance in Exodus. When my life has fallen apart I turn to Nehemiah where God enabled His people to rebuild the broken-down walls. When I face a frightening situation Esther is my go-to book as I remember how God rescued His people. And when the world looms dark and evil, I turn to Daniel and witness God’s sovereign control over human events.

The Old Testament is filled with evidence of God’s power, purpose, love, and faithfulness. The same power, purpose, love, and faithfulness is found in the New Testament and in my life two-thousand plus years later. In the Old Testament, I find the God who delivered Israel, rebuilt Jerusalem, and rescued the Jews. In the New Testament, I see the same God who delivered mankind, broke the bonds of sin and death, and changed the world. He is the same God I call to in this present season of struggle. I know He is able to do for me today all that He did then. I put my name in those verses of rescue and promise and the God of the Hebrew people, of Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel becomes the God of Dorcas Elizabeth. He hasn’t forgotten how to rescue and restore. His power hasn’t diminished one bit. This God is your God too if you have trusted in Jesus. Beloved, get to know the God of the whole Bible. Get to know the God of your life.