Advent 2022: Wise Men and Ancient Prophecies

What kind of faith must you have to chase a star for two years and hundreds of miles based on an ancient prophecy? The wise men – Matthew calls them “Magi” – traveled what scholars suppose to be about 800-900 miles “from the east” (Matt. 2:1), most likely ancient Persia, or our modern Iran. They were probably devout scholars who studied the ancient holy texts of many religions. The writings of the Jewish faith – which would include prophecies of a special King – would have likely come to them via Daniel’s time in Babylon. Through their studies, they came to recognize that the star that rose at a specific time signaled the birth of this very King. So they set out on a long, difficult journey with gifts fit for royalty.

Here’s what amazes me about the Magi – it wasn’t curiosity that caused them to leave their homes and families for such an arduous journey. It was worship. Matthew records their words to King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship him” (v. 2). Here’s the other thing that is surprising to me – He wasn’t their king. Remember – they identified Him as the “King of the Jews.” The Magi didn’t owe him homage. Why would they worship a king not their own? They realized from all they had studied that this king was worthy of worship – not just the worship of the Jews, but the worship of all men everywhere. These Magi took ancient prophecies, looked forward, and recognized that Jesus was a unique king. In faith and awe, they set out on a long journey to worship Him.

You and I have more than just ancient prophecies; we have the New Testament Scriptures that proclaim that Jesus is this King. We have the eye-witness of the Apostles and we have the heart-witness of the martyrs that testify that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The faith of all these should inspire faith in us. Jesus – the baby in the manger, the child in Bethlehem, the man healing lepers and raising the dead and dying on a cross and bursting alive out of the grave – this Jesus is worthy of our faith and worthy of our worship. Let’s give Him all the honor and glory He deserves this Christmas – and every day.

Wonder and Awe

Piggy-backing on my post from yesterday, I once read an article about awe. There was actually a three-year research project done on awe at UCal Berkley, their report included such awesome findings as “Awe binds us together,” “Awe helps us see things in new ways,” “Awe makes us nicer – and happier,” and “Awe alters our bodies.” It also touted “the healing potential of awe.” Suggestions for finding awe included observing nature, listening to music, and one I heartily agree with – putting down the ever-present cell phone and simply looking up. I don’t dispute any of their findings or suggestions, but the article failed to ask and answer some very important questions, such as “Why do we feel awe?” and “What makes something awe-inspiring?” I’d like to take a stab at them myself – with the help of the Scriptures.

We feel awe because we were created for worship – and worship is at its purest and truest when it is accompanied by awe. The article says “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things.” (Dacher Keltner) Is there anything more vast or farther beyond our human understanding than the God of the Universe? David declared “You are awesome, O God, in your sanctuary” (Psalm 68:35)!

What makes something awe-inspiring is when we, in our smallness, stand in the presence of greatness. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, and it is awesome because it is huge and beautiful. Deuteronomy 7:21 says “The Lord your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God.” When we sense the presence of God we have no other response but awe. Actually, when we truly sense the awesome presence of God we cannot stand at all. As one of my spiritual mentors said, “There is nothing to do but stand in awe and bow in worship” (J.D. Walt). Still, the most important question is, “What happened to our sense of awe?” Sin happened. Pride happened. The sin of Adam and Eve, at its root, is the sin of pride. Where pride reigns, we lose the necessary humility to be awed. Beloved, if you ponder the fact that the holy, exalted, sovereign God of heaven and earth has singled you out for salvation and relationship and eternal life you should be humbled and awed. Could anything be more incredible, more grand and glorious, more awe-inspiring than that?

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.

Christ in You

It’s in the music on Christian radio. It’s in the studies on the shelves of Christian books stores. It’s in the podcasts and messages by Christian speakers. What is it? Me, me, me. I recently discovered a 90’s channel on my favorite Christian radio station. I’m a sucker for nostalgia so I listened to the music of my early days in the faith and quickly noticed a huge difference in the songs. The older music was much more Christ-centric. It was true worship music – who Jesus is and what He has done in His power and holiness. I flipped back to the current channel and the theme of the music was who Jesus is – to me, and what He has done – for me, and how He makes me feel. The studies that Christian publishers produce follow the same format. It’s all designed to invoke feelings, but it falls short of truth. Now I’m not a fuddy-duddy here to complain about the younger generation. I am a Bible teacher and I’m here to turn your focus from self to the Savior.

Charles Spurgeon said, “My faith rests not upon what I am or shall be or feel or know, but in what Christ is, in what He has done. Hallelujah!” So should ours. In his letter to the Colossian church, Paul said the most glorious mystery man can ever know is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Think about that. Christ. In you.

Christ in you means that “your spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10). The very same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead now lives in you (v. 11). Christ in you means that you can live by faith and walk in God’s love (Gal 2:20). Christ in you means that His power is at work within you, strengthening you in your inner being (Eph 3:16). Christ in you means that God’s glory is yours. Jesus said, “I have given them the glory that You gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and You in me” (John 17:22-23).

Christ in you means that have “the mind of Christ” (I Cor 2:16). Whoa! And Christ did not think about Himself. Listen to Paul again: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself . . . “ (Phil 2:5-8). And so must we. Sing about Christ. Study Christ. Hear the words of Christ. Christ is in you, Beloved. Now that’s something to sing about!

Does Anyone See Me? Does Anyone Care?

When her cousin Elizabeth blessed the Baby in her womb, Mary broke out in praise. Luke 1:46-55 is called “The Magnificat” for the first word of her song: Magnificat anima mea Dominum – “My soul glorifies the Lord.” Her reasons run from His blessings to her as an individual to His work on behalf of the nation of Israel to His mighty hand in the world – all declaring His faithfulness.

She said, “He has been mindful of the humble state of His servant”. (v. 48) The NLT renders this “He took notice of His lowly servant girl.” Mary was just one more simple girl living in a poor Judean village – she had no wealth, no status, no theological or religious education – but the Lord God of Heaven and Earth was mindful of her. She celebrated the God who “lifted up the humble – the lowly and despised” (v. 52).

I wonder if you feel unnoticed, overlooked, or disregarded. Day after day you do the thing – care for your family, work a long day at your job, pour over the books as you study, sit with sick loved ones (or maybe not-so-loved ones), wipe noses and bottoms (your own littles or someone else’s), clean floors and dishes, carry responsibilities that aren’t yours to bear. Maybe you come home to a quiet empty apartment every day, or to kids looking to you alone to meet their wants and needs. You are probably wondering how to stretch a little money a long way and when you will ever get a break. Does anyone see you? Does anyone care?

Yes, beloved – God sees you and God cares. Mary could praise the God who took notice of her – a lowly servant girl in a poor village. This is the same God who was named “El Roi” – the God who sees me – by a pregnant Egyptian slave girl on the run in the desert. God told her to name her son “Ishmael,” which means “God hears.” This same God sees and hears you – every tear, every sigh, every lonely, exhausting night, every whispered prayer for help and hope and strength. You are not unnoticed Beloved. The God who created you, who sent His Son to die for you, is mindful of you. He loves you. You are precious in His sight.

Think About the Good Stuff

Words are powerful things. They can build up or tear down. Words can change a person’s life – for good or bad. I am very careful with my words to Joy – one because she just inspires sweet words, but also because I don’t want to imprint her heart with negative words.

Words are under much scrutiny today. Speech writers plan every single word a politician says (if they stay on the script). Universities have a list of “trigger words” that must not be spoken lest someone is offended or traumatized. There are words that our society has declared unspeakable – words that meant something completely inoffensive just twenty years ago. Our culture has its ears on high alert, like radar scanning the air for every utterance of potential offense. You must carefully measure every word before you speak these days. Perhaps King Solomon was on to something when he said, “Let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). The less you say, the less risk of saying the wrong thing.

David presents a different principle: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). David doesn’t concern himself with how men perceive his words, He wants to speak in a manner that pleases God. He knows that the words of his mouth are the evidence of his relationship to God and they are rooted in the mediation of his heart, his most private thoughts.

Words that please God come from a heart that thinks about God. Do you need some inspiration? Spend some time in the Psalms – the mediation of David’s heart. The words of the Psalms reveal David’s deep love for God. His thoughts range from praise and worship to honest lament and raw emotion, but he always comes back to what he knows – God is trustworthy and loving. God is faithful and just. God is gracious and merciful. God is . . . and that’s how you turn the thoughts of your heart – and the words of your mouth to “whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8).

So what will you think about today, Beloved? I’m setting my mind on the good stuff – a little girl and a big God.

Broken Pieces

For several years my son and I served as the Collection Center Coordinators for Operation Christmas Child. We received thousands of gift-filled shoeboxes from churches in the North Florida region and packaged them in shipping cartons for transport. We quickly learned the most efficient ways to arrange the boxes to get as many as possible in the cartons. We turned them this way and that and searched for small boxes to fit in small spaces. It was like a real-life game of Tetris.

We like it when things fit together well – when there is order and balance. But things in our lives don’t always fit neatly in place, do they? Like that scary diagnosis or the spouse who walked away. Losing your job didn’t fit in with your well-planned life and that hard-headed, rebellious child of yours has turned your home into chaos. Maybe depression has wrecked your tidy world. If only life cooperated with our well-thought-out plans.

When God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, He commanded them to build an altar for burnt offerings and sacrifices but “do not build it out of cut stones. If you use your chisel on it, you will defile it” (Exodus 20:25). Doesn’t that seem odd? Wouldn’t a perfect God want a perfect alter made of perfectly shaped stones? But God did not want man’s “perfection.” I believe this is because true worship – the kind that honors God – comes from imperfect lives. And isn’t that all of us?

Try as we might, we’re not going to make all the pieces fit neatly together. But when God takes the fragments of our lives, the odd shapes and sizes, and even the rubble, He makes something beautiful. Something that speaks of Him – not us – to a world full of imperfect, broken people. Real life is not neat and tidy. It’s messy and misshapen and shattered. But God can take your imperfect life and turn it into a beautiful testimony of His grace. Put all the pieces of your life – and your heart – in God’s hands Beloved, and worship at the altar of His love.

Why Do You Worship God?

Sunday morning as I walked Joy to her “Honey School” class we walked past the sanctuary and she asked me if I was going to the big church to sing. I said yes. Then, like all good three-year-olds should do, she started peppering me with “Why’s.” “Why do you want to sing” “To worship God.” “Why do you want to worship God?” “Because I love God and because He is great,” I answered.

All of creation worships its Creator. David said, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands” (Ps 19:1). Every rumble of thunder is a call to praise. The trees clap their hands in worship (Is 55:12). The rocks cry out His praise (Luke 19:40). Birds sing. Crickets chirp. Frogs croak. The sound of their worship fills the skies. I love to worship. Corporately, privately, with shouts, and through tears. I love Sundays with my church family, all our voices blending together to praise the One who saved us. If you see me when I’m driving you may catch me belting out a song with one hand on the steering wheel and the other raised to the roof. You might want to proceed with caution. And worship is not just music. I usually write out my private worship – words are my love language. But the sweetest worship is singing of the goodness of God in lovely harmony with my granddaughter.

We are commanded in Scripture to worship God but the purest worship is voluntary – no, more than voluntary – it is drawn out of us from deep within. Like the angels in Isaiah’s vision who called to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory” (Is 6:3). It is the response of our spirits to the Spirit of God. I think that when we get to heaven and stand in His presence, worship will be more than something we want to do, it will be something we have to do just by the sheer majesty of His glory.

Joy’s question stuck with me all day.  I mulled it over and over: Why do I worship God?  I realized the answer I gave her was true. I worship God because I love Him. I worship God because He is great. I worship God because He is worthy. Beloved, I encourage you to ponder her question: “Why do you worship God?” Then do it.

How to Make the Devil Run

Is there anything more precious than the “Cherub Choir” – those little preschoolers singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and “This Little Light of Mine” (won’t let Satan blow it out-whoosh!)? Precious to you and me, but a sight and sound that makes satan tremble. That’s why I love these words from the quill of King David: “From the lips of children and infants, you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger” (Psalm 8:2).

It is a sweet image with a powerful truth: Praise silences the enemy!

What is the devil’s most powerful weapon against us? Verbal abuse. He throws a constant barrage of words, thoughts, doubts, fear, condemnation, lies, lies, and more lies at us. Jesus said that lies are satan’s “native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44) This verse gives us the secret to disarming the devil and shutting down his lies: Praise the Lord! Praising God puts Satan in his place by reminding him that he is a defeated foe and that Jesus will soon return to complete his destruction.

It seems too easy to be real, but it works. Just open your mouth and pour forth praise. Search the scriptures, especially the Psalms where expressions of praise abound. Write them out so they will be handy. Better yet, commit them to memory. Let your praises drown out the lies of Satan. And surround yourself with songs of praise and worship. I know this works because I’ve experienced it in my own life. Several years ago during a deep and serious bout with depression, “After All/Holy” by Crowder came on the radio. I tried to sing, but all I could do was sob until the 2nd verse and slowly words began to replace my cries, and by the end of that song I was singing with full voice and a face full of tears. It was the turning point in my depression. 

When the enemy of your soul is berating you, when he’s pouring condemnation and doubt into your mind,  resist him with songs and words of praise. Not only does it stab at satan’s evil heart, but it refocuses your mind and lifts your own heart.  And the best reason of all to praise God? Because He is worthy. Beloved it’s time to stand on the Name and the Praise of God Almighty and make the devil run!

Hebrews: Awe and Wonder

Quick! What are you thinking about right now? Right now, I’m thinking about the pain in my knee. I’m thinking about my next course coming up in two weeks. I’m thinking about all the things I didn’t get done this weekend added to all the things I need to do this week. I’m thinking about getting Joy to her nanny and me to work on time.  

The writer of Hebrews said, “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (3:1). One of the first things we learn in Bible study is to pay attention to the word, “therefore” and ask ourselves, “what’s it there for?” Therefore always refers us back to the previous text – in this case, the author has just listed eight reasons why God would send His one and only Son from glory to earth. He is saying, in light of all that Jesus is and has done, our natural response is to “fix our thoughts” on Him, meaning to mentally focus with intentional consideration. That sounds a lot like studying algebra to me.  I would stare at my textbook for hours but just could not wrap my mind around those useless equations and formulas. Thankfully, that’s not what’s happening here.

Glance back just a few words, where the author, speaking to his “holy brothers” (and sisters), said that they – and we – “share in the heavenly calling.” That calling is a divine invitation from heaven to consider all that Jesus is. Redeemer. Savior. Brother. Victor. High Priest. Sacrifice. Helper. Apostle. The book of Hebrews is all about discovering Jesus. Like looking through a kaleidoscope, we keep turning the dial and seeing new and wonderful sides to Him.  

Fixing our thoughts on Jesus is more than a mental exercise we have to push ourselves through like my algebra book. It’s lifting our thoughts above the mundane things of this world and filling our minds with awe and wonder at the Son of the Most High God. It’s not something we have to do, it’s something we get to do! What a high and holy privilege we’ve been given.

That brings me back to the question we opened with. Beloved, what are you thinking about right now?