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.

Advent 2022: Sweet Little Baby Boy

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son” (Luke 2:6).

They say that having a baby will change your life completely, and every parent knows that’s true. Everything changes when a baby comes. Your time is no longer your own – your days are filled with feedings and diaper changes, and more of the same through the night. Your money is not yours anymore – whoever imagined someone so tiny would need so much stuff? Your priorities are different, your goals are reshaped, and your entire identity is redefined. And you wouldn’t have it any other way.

There is a Baby who will change your life in far greater ways. This Baby will give your life direction and purpose. This Baby will bring you peace in the midst of a storm. He will comfort you when you are weary and broken. He will lift you up when you fall. This Baby will bring you immeasurable Joy. He can wash away the stain of guilt and shame and make you new. This Baby brings hope where all hope is faded. He brings light into the darkest night. This Baby brings healing to body and mind and heart. This Baby will change the way you think and the way you live. He will transform your heart and cause you to love in ways you never expected. And if all that wasn’t enough, this Baby will change your life beyond this life.

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. He did it all so that you and I could have life – full and abundant and eternal. He gave Himself away so that you could get yourself back. This Baby – the Lord Jesus Christ – changes everything.

I pray you know this Baby, not just know about Him. I pray that His birth is more than a familiar story to you – that it is truth that is firmly rooted in your heart. I pray that His name is sweet on your lips and even sweeter to your soul. I pray that this Baby is your Savior, Beloved, and the Lord of your life.

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: The Joy of the Cross

I always thought my mom was super-human. She could power through any sickness and keep going and going and going. Even when she was undergoing cancer treatments. I hardly slowed her down – until the end. Either she had an uncommon strength – or she was a mom.

I always imagined Jesus facing the cross with His divine strength in full force. Surely the Son of God just shut out the pain and powered through. But the writer of Hebrews refutes that thought. He said that Jesus, “for the Joy set before Him,  endured the cross, scorning its shame . . .” (Heb 12:2) Endurance implies difficulty. Jesus endured the difficulty of the cross. It was all very real to Him. He felt the nails rip through His flesh, crush His bones, and tear His veins open. He felt the sharp points of the thorns dig deeply into His head. He felt the whip shred the skin on His back. His shoulders screamed with firey pain every time He took a breath. Jesus felt it all. He suffered.

He also suffered shame. The cross was a disgraceful way to die in the first century. But the shame that Jesus endured wasn’t personal embarrassment; the writer said that He “scored the shame” of the cross. He didn’t consider it as humiliation, though it was. He endured the cross with Joy because His suffering meant our freedom. The shame He experienced was bearing all the sins of all mankind throughout all the ages. Adam’s sin. Eve’s sin. Cain’s sin. David’s sin. Hitler’s sin. My sin. Your sin. It was the shame of the Father’s face turning away from the Son because He can not look on sin.

But I found something mind-blowing when I dug into the words used in this verse. Jesus endured it all. But He didn’t have to. The secondary meaning of the word “endure” means “to remain, to not flee.” Jesus could have ditched the cross and escaped the physical, emotional, and spiritual agony. Then I understood His words when He was arrested: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:53). Jesus could have escaped it all but He stayed. He suffered. He died. Why? To save you, Beloved.  The Joy set before Him was seeing your face in heaven. That’s how much He loves you.

Mistakes – I’ve Made a Few

When I study, I write with a pen in hand and put ink on paper – old school. It helps me remember things like I’m writing stuff directly in my brain. I was writing down a Scripture reference the other day and wrote the wrong number, (I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I do make mistakes) so I wrote the correct number over it. I traced it several times to make the right number show up better and cover over the wrong number, and in the process, I made the right number unreadable. I finally had to just scribble out the whole thing and rewrite it correctly and clearly.

Some of us are trying to fix our own mistakes. We’re trying to write over our sins and failures. We think, “If I just do enough things right, no one – especially God – will notice what I did wrong.” The problem is, the more we try to fix it, the worse we make it. Yep, I see you nodding your head. You’ve done it too.  And what we mess up is not a written word but ourselves.  If we keep going we will not even know who we are. Here’s the hard truth folks, you and I cannot overwrite our sins. God is not fooled. So stop trying.

God has a better plan. He said, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgression, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25). The idea here is that all your sins are written down in a book and God erases them, No, even better than erasing them, He removes them forever by washing our sin-page – and us – with the blood of His Son. John put it like this: “The blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). All of it. Every. Single. One. Jesus’ blood makes us spotless, innocent, and pure with no trace of our former sin left behind. Does that seem too good to be true? Trust me, it is true. Better yet, trust Him.

 Give your mistakes to Jesus. Give Him every sin and every failure. Give Him the shame and the guilt. Give Him the pain and regret. Let Him cover over it all with His precious blood and rewrite your story with His grace. Then, Beloved, you will be who God created you to be. His.

A Light in the Darkness

I don’t want you to think I am some super-Christian through the words I write.  I am just as prone to the difficulties and hardships of life as anyone.  I love Jesus with all my heart – but I struggle often with depression. It has been my constant companion since I was young. I see you nodding your head. You understand. Depression is a bully. One that is hard to escape. That’s why you and I need encouragement and hope. The truth is, I always write to encourage myself as much as to encourage you.  Someone reading this is in the dark place of depression. I don’t know your name, but I am writing to you today.

You are doing your best to be a good, faithful Christian.  But you’re questioning your faith because of the darkness.  And the enemy is using that to his advantage.  I hear the accusations too: “If you were really a Christian you wouldn’t be depressed.  God is so disappointed in you.” You hear the reminders that Christians are supposed to be full of joy, joy, joy!  But you’re not.  I am writing this so that you, my weary and hurting friend, will know that there is no shame in depression – even for Christians.  The Bible shows that we are in very good company in this cave – Moses, Elijah, David, Jeremiah, and Paul all expressed similar emotions and seasons.  Many of the great men and women throughout Christian history struggled with depression.

I am also writing this to let you know that God loves you – even in the pit or desert or cave of depression.  He is not angry or disappointed with you.  He has not written you off.  He has drawn near to you like a caring parent does when their child is hurting.  He speaks gentle whispers of love and encouragement, and He tenderly wipes away the tears on your face. Let Him love you – it is His greatest delight.  Let Him minister grace to you.  

Beloved, there is hope for you and for me in the face of depression.  God is too good to leave His dear child in pain. David said, “You, LORD, are my lamp; the LORD turns my darkness into light.” 2 Samuel 22:29. And He will.  We have His Word on it.

Know Thine Enemy

Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher in the early 6th Century wrote the classic, “The Art of War,” From which we have taken the phrase “Know thine enemy.”  Paul cautioned believers with similar words saying that satan will not outwit us if we are aware of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11 paraphrased). We need to know our enemy to the degree that we recognize his evil hand in situations we face.

I thought of this yesterday as I was writing out a passage from Job. “God has found fault with me;” Job 33:10. This is one of Job’s detractors summarizing Job’s lament. Yet in the very beginning of his story, God said of him: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3). The truth is, God didn’t find fault with Job. Satan did.

One of Satan’s favorite schemes goes like this: he presents a temptation, dangling the carrot of pleasure or power or wealth before us, enticing us until we bite. And as soon as we do he changes his tactic from temptation to condemnation. “Look at you! You call yourself a Christian? God is disgusted with you! He will never love you after what you’ve done!” Pretty soon we’re crying, “God has found fault with me.”  Sound familiar?

You and I need to know the difference between satan’s guilt trips and the Spirit’s conviction. When the Spirit speaks to us about our sin he does so with the goal of restoration. Conviction from the Holy Spirit brings “godly sorrow [which] brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. But satan brings “worldly sorrow [that] brings death”  (2 Cor 7:9-10). Satan just wants to tear us down and bury us under a load of shame. Here’s how you can recognize one from the other. Satan’s attacks turn our attention to ourselves and what horrible creatures we are. The Spirit will always turn your attention to God and His mercy, forgiveness, and grace. And love.

In heaven, satan is called “the accuser of [God’s people], who accuses them before our God day and night” (Rev 12:10). But God’s not buying it. And neither should you Beloved. If you are in Christ, God sees His Son when He looks at you. Not your sin. And so should you.

You can be Free from Shame

If your life has always been sunshine and rainbows, you can skip it today. But if you have scars on your body or on your heart, if you carry a backpack of sorrow and shame, please stay. God has a word for you.

Isaiah prophesied the coming Babylonian captivity. Why was all this happening? Because they were a “sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They [had] forsaken the Lord; they [had] spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on Him” (Is 1:4). They were steeped in sin and idolatry. Judgment was coming.

Can you relate? I sure can. I have a past filled with regret and shame. I have been places, done things, and been with people I should have given a wide berth. I have made some foolish, disastrous decisions. I hurt people. I hurt myself. You may be nodding your head right now. You understand. You’ve done the same. Maybe you’re still doing it.

But maybe your past wasn’t your foolish actions, but someone else’s. You were abused, misused, rejected, stepped on, then stepped over. I understand that too. Mixed in with my own sin is the stain of others’ sins. A counselor once told me that my actions were a reaction to others’ actions against me. If you hear, “You’re so stupid!” enough you start to act stupid. If you’re treated like you’re worthless you believe you’re worthless and you act like you’re worthless. This is my life story, but I bet I’m ringing some bells.

However you got your backpack of shame, I want you to listen to God’s words: “Do not be afraid, you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace, you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth” (Is 54:4). “How?” you ask, “it’s a huge, heavy burden”. Jesus. Jesus is how you can be free from shame. Because Jesus took it all to the cross. And to the grave. And when He rose to life three days later, He left it all in the ground. God declared, “The former things will not be remembered; nor will they come to mind” (Is 65:17). In Jesus you are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17). That’s your story now, Beloved. Set your backpack down and go live like who you are. Forgiven and free.

Real-Life Wisdom

What do we do with the failures of our past? Now that we have survived some of the trials and struggles of life, now that we have lived through the results of our own mistakes, now that we have found that sowing wild oats doesn’t bring much of a harvest—what do we do with all that hard-earned wisdom?  Paul offers the best advice: “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).  We reach back and help someone else who is struggling in the same manner.  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. The best counselors (either formal or informal) are the one who have “been there, done that, and have the T-shirt to prove it.” 

I have a lifetime of experience with the consequences of my own foolishness. But I also have a lifetime of experience with God’s faithfulness and mercy. The Lord has rescued me many, many times and now I am able to offer a hand up and a bit of wisdom and encouragement to someone else in the same kind of pit.  When God rescues us and we in turn lead others to Him for freedom, we have turned the devil’s handiwork against him.  We 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). 

Dear friends, 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 take you to the One who rescued me. I will walk the whole way with you until you are free.”  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.

Put that Burden Down

Bill and Gloria Gaither wrote a powerful and beautiful song called “He Touched Me” and the first lines go like this: “Shackled by a heavy burden, ‘neath a load of guilt and shame.”

I can relate to that. I carried guilt and shame for most of my life. It weighed a ton. I know many of you are nodding – you have carried the same load.  We know what we’ve done and we’re mortified.   What misery is ours when we just stop there – shacked and bound, burdened and ashamed. But listen to the next lines:

“Then the hand of Jesus touched me, and now I am no longer the same!”

Oh, the blessed release when we allow the hand of Jesus to reach out and take away our burdens and shame and break the shackles from our feet.

Jesus came into this sinful world to set us free – as He read from Isaiah – “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because He has anointed me to preach the Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”( Luke 4:18-19). He told Nicodemus, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him” (John 3:17). Jesus came, not to point to you with all your bags and say “I AM ASHAMED OF YOU!” He came to say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Rest from the weight. Rest from the shame. Rest from the guilt.

Maybe this morning you come to God, with your head and eyes downcast, ashamed and guilty, expecting chastisement and rejection. Beloved, Jesus is reaching out His nail-scarred hand to take your bags of misery and shame. There is love in His eyes, not condemnation. He bids you rise and face the day, forgiven, freed, and radiant in Him.

“He touched me, Oh He touched me,

and oh the joy that floods my soul!

Something happened and now I know,

He touched me and made me whole.”