Lessons Learned in 2017

Looking back over the past year, there are many lessons I’ve learned.  I’ve learned anew God’s faithfulness to care for His children, and I’ve gotten a tiny glimpse into His enormous heart of love with my first grandchild. I’ve learned that Jesus wants me to know Him, not just know about Him, and He wants me to teach the Bible, not just someone’s opinion of the Bible.  But I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is how Jesus expects the church – make that how He expects me – to respond to the “least and the lost.”

What do good church folk do when someone comes in who is rough around the edges, who doesn’t dress in the acceptable modest style, who uses the language of the streets instead of the language of the sacred? Do we (and I’m including myself here) offer a handshake followed by a liberal application of hand sanitizer? Do we walk away shaking our heads at the way they’re dressed? Do we cringe at the things they say in our small group? Do we make it clear they they don’t fit in?  Jesus had a word for the religious leaders of His day that we as a church need to take to heart. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces . . . you will not let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).

Look at the Christmas story one more time. God sent His son to be born to a poor teenage girl and to be raised by a common laborer father. The fact that they were poor is confirmed in the consecration offering they gave of a pair of birds (Luke 2:24).  He trained in the woodworking trade of his father Joseph.  The glorious birth announcement was given, not to the religious elite nor to the king, but to lowly shepherds doing the most menial work of all.  Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry He was found among the lepers, the lame, the blind, women with scandalous lives, men who cheated their neighbors, the demon-possessed, and the outcasts.  His closest friends and followers were tax collectors and fishermen, not students from the best Jewish schools.  When he was in the company of religious folk, He didn’t rub elbows –  He often rubbed them the wrong way and the sparks would fly.  He saved His most severe rebukes for them, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, and a “brood of vipers,” but gently told the ones outside the religious establishment, “Go, and sin no more.” He blessed, He touched, He noticed, and He welcomed.  I believe He expects no less from those who claim to be His Body.  I think Jesus wants us to put away our hand sanitizer and our ideas of who belongs in the church and  to simply be a refuge of welcome. I think people need to feel accepted before they will accept the Gospel. Then I think we need to love them as we disciple them to follow Christ.  Is it easy? No. It requires effort and patience and a humble, obedient spirit, but so did dying on the cross.

I want to hang on to all the lessons God taught me in the past year, but the one I want to hold the tightest is this one: Jesus doesn’t turn anyone away (John 6:37). The truth is when He found me I was one of the least and the lost, and He welcomed me with arms stretched the width of the cross.  May my heart and my arms be open wide to whomever Jesus sends to me this year.

Holy Father, this year, let me be a caring shepherd to lost sheep, a warm embrace to a hurting heart, and a conduit of Your love to the one on the outside looking in. 


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

Just Give Me the Truth

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses; seat.  So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. Everything they do is done for men to see.”    Matthew 23:2-3, 5

I don’t like “fake.”  I have such distaste for pretense or anything contrived.  I especially dislike having someone play on my emotions or feign friendliness trying to get something from me. I know I am not alone in this.  Nobody likes to be lied to or deceived.

Jesus encountered many false people during His time here on earth.  He loved every person, because every man, woman and child is made by and in the image of God. Yet He saw through people as if they were transparent.  Matthew 9:4 says, “Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?’”

The woman at the well in Samaria was trying to hide her true self from Him because she was living a sinful life.  Jesus gently exposed her deception.  When she acknowledged what they both knew, He offered her Living Water and she drank deeply.  Her life was changed by truth, as were the lives of her neighbors who came to know Jesus through her. Truth had set her free.  (John 4:1-42)

Jesus also dealt with many fake, yet very religious people.    Matthew 23 records some of Jesus’ harshest criticism spoken to the religious leaders of His day.  Seven times in this chapter, Jesus says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Matthew 23: 13, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29)  He even called them “snakes” and “vipers”.  These were the religious folks!

What’s the difference between the Samaritan woman at the well and those religious leaders? She was living a lie and she knew it.  The Pharisees were living a lie, only they didn’t know it.  Jesus did.  It is impossible to deceive God.

In my prayer journal recently I wrote, “I don’t like fake in anyone – and I especially despise it in myself.  God, I don’t want to be the kind of person that is fake, manipulative, deceptive or pretentious.  I want to be genuine, real, and sincere.  I want truth God.”  Then the Jack Nicholson line from the movie: “A Few Good Men” popped into my head: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Do I really want to know the truth about myself?  Can I handle the raw, “natural” me?  Would I be shocked by my self-righteousness and judgmental nature?  Would my heart break at the lack of compassion and kindness in me?  Would I cringe to hear gossip and unkind words come from the same lips that teach the Word of God?  When I see my lack of faith, my tendency to anxiety, fear and doubt, would my tears flow?  Can I survive even a glimpse of my selfishness, sinful desires, impatience, laziness, and ingratitude?

Paul felt the same angst as he described his own struggle with sin in Romans 7.  Listen to verses 18 & 21: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I find this law at work: when I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”  In verse 24 his self-condemnation hits a crescendo, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul asks the same question I ask of myself.  Is there any hope for me?

The answer rings with God’s truth – “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!  There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” (Romans 7:25, 8:1) Paul goes on to say, “God [sent} His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.”  What wonderful news!  Rather than condemn me, He took all my sins with Him to the cross.  I know that I am a sinner, and I live a lie when I try to pretend that I am “good”.  Jesus shows me who I really am.  He bought my pardon on the cross.  He cleansed me, purified my heart, transformed my character and brought purpose to my life.   Ephesians 5: 8 says “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”  I am not who I once was.  Jesus Christ has written a new truth for me.

The truth is I am in Christ and His righteousness is mine. (Philippians 3:9)

The truth is I am God’s child. (1 John 3:1)

The truth is I am a new creation in Christ Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The truth is I am made holy by His blood. (1 Corinthians 1:2)

The truth is I have been set free. (Romans 6:18)

The truth is I am forgiven. (1 John 2:12)

The truth is I have the power of the Holy Spirit within me (Ephesians 1:19-20)

It is important for me to see both sides of myself.  I need to be aware of how “wretched” I am on my own, and I need to know the truth of who I am in Christ.  His truth keeps me humble and close by His side. I can hold my head up confident in my new identity.  I don’t have to live a lie any more, trying to appear good.  I only need to walk every day as the child of God that I am.

I pray that my life will always be filled with holiness, godliness, kindness, compassion, and faith in God.  I want to honor and glorify my Savior Jesus Christ as I write and teach. My heart’s highest desire is to stir in others a passion for God and for His Word. But like Paul, I am still encased in human flesh and prone to stumble.  I rejoice that I am in Christ. I no longer fear His wrath, nor need to hide my sin.   When I fall, my Father lifts me up and reminds me of the Truth of who I am, and most importantly whose I am.

“Lord Jesus, in love, You that took my sins to the cross and set me free.  In love, You gave me a new identity, a new future and a new hope.  When I look at myself through Your eyes, I see the beloved child I am.  Thank you.”      Amen.