LOST AND FOUND

After three days they found Jesus sitting in the Temple with the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. … When Jesus’ parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why did you do this to us? Your father and I were very worried about you and have been looking for you.” Jesus said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [Luke 2:46-49 (NCV)]

nativity

Last month, during my pre-dawn walks, I enjoyed seeing the bright holiday lights decorating many of our community’s homes. One morning, I passed by a beautifully lit arbor surrounding a nativity scene. Even though the twinkle lights and star didn’t fully illuminate the figures below them, I took a photo and hoped that a little Photoshop magic would result in a picture for a future devotion. When I finally got around to editing the photo, I discovered that Jesus was missing from the scene!

The missing baby reminded me of when my daughter’s family visited us several years ago. The young cousins were playing together at my son’s home. While the adults talked, the girls investigated the many toys in Mali’s toy chest. When Bree discovered parts from the Fisher Price Noah’s ark and nativity sets, she and Mali started rummaging through the box to find their various pieces. Bree started explaining the two stories to her younger cousin as they organized the figures. After digging to the bottom of the box, they realized one figure was missing. The girls jumped up and frantically dashed through the house toward Mali’s bedroom shouting, “We’ve lost baby Jesus!” Fortunately, after a thorough search, the missing baby was found among a few dust bunnies under Mali’s bed.

Mary and Joseph lost Jesus after they’d been in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The city’s population had quadrupled as caravans of Jews from all over came to observe the holiday. Somehow, in the mayhem of people gathering to return to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lost track of their boy and left Jerusalem without Him. Perhaps the people with the missing figure in their nativity had overlooked Jesus in a dark corner of their attic or lost him in the confusion of cartons and crates when they came to Florida. Like Mary, Joseph, and the little cousins, they didn’t notice they’d lost Jesus until they wanted Him! The same thing can happen to us in the challenges and chaos of our busy lives. Sometimes, we forget to bring Jesus with us and don’t even notice He’s missing until we need Him.

It’s important to remember that even though Mary and Joseph lost Jesus, they didn’t lose their relationship with Him. He remained their son but, by leaving Him behind, they lost His presence. The same thing can happen with us. When we lose Jesus, we don’t lose the salvation that comes with our relationship but we do lose His fellowship, our sense of His presence, and His peace and joy.

When the sheep can’t find the shepherd, it’s not the shepherd who is lost. The good shepherd is exactly where He belongs; it’s the sheep that have strayed. In actuality, Mary and Joseph were the ones who were lost, not Jesus. He was where He belonged—in His Father’s house studying God’s word. Our Lord promises He’ll never leave us but that pesky thing called free will allows us to leave Him and walk off on our own. When we feel empty or alone, when we wonder where Jesus is in our trouble, Jesus hasn’t forgotten about us. We are the ones who forgot and lost Him!

Yesterday, I walked by the house with the missing baby Jesus and was pleased to see that he’d been found and was in his rightful place. When Jesus is missing in our lives, like Joseph, Mary, Bree, Mali, and the people with the nativity scene, we must search until we find Him. Rather than looking in dark corners or under the bed, the first place to look might be where we’d expect to find Him—in His Father’s house and in His word.

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. [Psalm 105:4 (NLT)]

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LAMB OF GOD

He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. [Isaiah 53:7 (NLT)]

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29 (NLT)]

lamb of godAs I put away our various nativity sets until next December, I noticed they all include at least one lamb. Since shepherds came to see Jesus, it’s logical there would be a lamb or two in most depictions of Christmas. Nevertheless, as I packed up the figures, I thought about the shepherds and sheep visiting the child who was both the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God. That Jesus took on both roles is a bit of a paradox. The shepherd may have watched over the sheep but, in the end, his lambs were destined to be slaughtered for food or ritual sacrifice.

Nowadays, the whole concept of animal sacrifice seems alien and primitive to us but lambs were sacrificed to God as far back as Abel. Israel’s history as a nation began that first Passover in Egypt when they smeared lamb’s blood on the doorframes of each house. The sacrifice of a lamb as atonement for sin appears frequently in the Hebrew Bible and, of the 151 Old Testament references to lambs in my NLT, 125 are about their sacrifice to God. By Jesus’ time, the priests in the temple sacrificed a lamb every morning and night, on every Sabbath, and at the feasts of the New Moon, Trumpets, Tabernacles, Pentecost, Passover, along with other occasions. The purpose of these animal sacrifices was sanctification (to purify the people from sin), righteousness (to obtain right standing with God), and forgiveness. Being a perfect lamb without blemish did not bode well for a lamb and being the sinless Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world did not foreshadow a good ending for Jesus. Yet, “Lamb of God” is what John the Baptist called Him.

John’s words pointed to Jesus as being the perfect sacrifice for mankind’s sins but I don’t think he grasped the full implication of those words. Until the very end, even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand that being the Lamb of God meant that Jesus would willingly submit and go “like a lamb to the slaughter” to suffer and die on the cross. There was however, only one way the Lamb could take away the sin of the world. For the one perfect and final sacrifice to remove man’s guilt and open the way to God, the Lamb’s blood had to be shed and His life relinquished.

Earlier I mentioned that being both the Good Shepherd and Lamb of God seems a bit of a paradox—that the one who cares for the flock couldn’t also be the sacrificial lamb. Jesus, however, turns our expectations upside down. In His world, the week are strong, the first must be last, we reign by serving, the greatest is the least, and we find our lives by losing them. Jesus is both the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God because, “The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. …I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep.” [John 10:11,14-15]

Next December, when we set out our nativity sets and place the shepherd and lamb around the crèche, let us remember that, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus tends, protects and guides us and, as the Lamb of God, He defeated Satan by dying on the cross and taking away the sins of the world. The Lamb, however, is more than a sacrificial victim. In Revelation, John describes the victorious and very much alive Lamb, enthroned with God, serving as judge of God’s opponents, and praised by all creation!

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. [1 Peter 1:18-19 (NLT)]

And they sang in a mighty chorus: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.” And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang: “Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.”  [Revelation 6:12-13 (NLT)]

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THE TWELFTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

nativity

Today is the Feast of Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas. For me, this is the day the holiday CDs return to the back of the cabinet and the last of our holiday decorations disappear. The tree is stripped, disassembled, and crammed in its box and the ornaments, stockings, nativity scenes, and Christmas books returned to their plastic tubs. Once everything is packed up, we’ll haul the boxes back to the storage unit where they will remain until next November. Except for some left-over Christmas candy and a few spritz cookies, the only remnants of Christmas will be a few needles from the tree and bits of sparkle from the holiday flower arrangements that will elude my vacuum for weeks.

Although the outer trapping of Christmas will vanish, we must never let the message of Christmas depart from our lives. Christmas didn’t come in a box from Amazon; it came with a baby in a manger. Yet, Christmas really isn’t about a baby; it’s about a God whose greatness was reduced to a microscopic fertilized egg and born of a virgin. Christmas isn’t about a wreath hanging on the door or Christmas cards and carols; it’s about the love and sacrifice that led to Jesus hanging on a cross. It’s more than the Grinch, Santa, Rudolph, or Scrooge because it says that God’s love for us was so great that he laid aside His divine privileges to live and die as a man. Christmas isn’t about brightly colored lights or holiday candles; it’s about the light of the world. Christmas lasts more than twelve days because that baby’s name was Immanuel (meaning God with us). Jesus was with us then, as a man, and He continues to be with us today, as the Holy Spirit.

A few years ago, after everything Christmassy had been crated and stowed, I discovered one small figure of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus that I’d forgotten to put away. Rather than pack it up, I moved it to my desk where it remains regardless of the season. The outer trappings of Christmas won’t return for another eleven months but that carving of the holy family reminds me that Christmas doesn’t end on January 6. The message of Christmas must remain in our hearts all year long.

May you have the gladness of Christmas which is hope; The spirit of Christmas which is peace; The heart of Christmas which is love. (Ada V. Hendricks)

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:6-11 (NLT)]

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IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – NEW YEAR’S DAY

Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (MSG)]

Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page. Take up one hole more in the buckle if necessary, or let down one, according to circumstances; but on the first of January let every man gird himself once more, with his face to the front, and take no interest in the things that were and are past. [Henry Ward Beecher]

zebra longwingSeveral years ago, one of my children asked if, with the benefit of hindsight, would I do it all over again—leave school, get married at twenty, have three children, and be a stay-at-home mom. Admitting that I had no idea what marriage and motherhood entailed when I did it, I would have enjoyed having had a life of my own, a career, and an opportunity to live without parental responsibility. Nevertheless, I added, in spite of the sacrifices, challenges, and trials over the years, I wouldn’t trade the life I’ve lived or the children God gave me for anything.

Later, I thanked God for not telling us the future or giving us do-overs. Knowing how difficult life is and all that can go wrong, we’d be terrified to do anything. Moses might never have signed on had he known leading the Israelites was a forty year project and that he’d never even step into the Promised Land. Mary might have refused the angel had she known she’d have to flee to Egypt or watch her child die a gruesome death on the cross. Would Paul have become an evangelist if, when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, he’d known ahead of time about the brutal whippings and beating, shipwrecks, hunger, poverty, arrests, imprisonments, and betrayals he’d endure for the Lord?

Here we are at the end of one year and the beginning of another. Far too often, this is a time of regrets and wishing we could start over again. We’re sure that, this time, we could do it better than the first go around. Granted, if Esau had hindsight, he might not have asked for that lentil stew and, if David had known the ramifications of bedding Bathsheba and killing Uriah, he wouldn’t have brought her to the palace. Had they known how it would end, Sampson wouldn’t have dallied with Delilah and Sarah wouldn’t have given Hagar to Abraham. Be that as it may, there is no doubt they would still have made mistakes, just different (and possibly worse) ones.

I remembered my son’s question when we did our annual viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey (the Jimmy Stewart character) gave up his dreams to fulfill the dreams of others and, when life goes seriously awry, he wishes he’d never been born. After an angel shows him what life in his community would be like if his wish came true, George realizes what a wonderful life he actually had. As for me—someone else had that exciting professional life about which I once dreamed when I was a girl. Instead, God blessed me with a good man, three wonderful children, great in-laws, five delightful grands, and a life of real purpose, love and joy.

Are there parts of the past that, if given a choice, we’d have skipped? Of course! We all have endured heartache, trials, pain, loss, and wounds we never would have deliberately chosen. Moreover, we all regret things that we’ve done or left undone and the hurt we’ve caused others. Yet, our experiences, both good and bad, are what made us who we are today.

While God doesn’t let us hit the rewind button and start the same life over, he does give us a whole new life when we accept Jesus. Because of God’s grace and forgiveness, the old life is over, done and gone, and a new one has begun. For a Christian, because of God’s grace, every day is a new day, the beginning of a new year, and an opportunity to love better and live wiser than we did yesterday. Instead of regrets on this, the first day of the year, let us have faith—not in the new year but in the One who makes all things new. It is, indeed, a wonderful life and it can only get better. Thank you, God!

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year; it is that we should have a new soul. [G.K. Chesterton]

I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. [Philippians 3:12-14 (MSG)]

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THE GRATITUDE JAR

Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Ephesians 5:18b-20 (NLT)]

roseate spoonbill - corkscrew swampEvery year a dear friend sends me a bayberry candle to burn on New Year’s eve. Legend has it that lighting a bayberry candle when the first star appears, burning it past midnight, and allowing it to extinguish on its own, will ensure a year of prosperity and good fortune. Since we can’t manage to stay awake to midnight, leaving a burning candle unattended seems more a guarantee of fire and disaster than good luck. A safer tradition is a “gratitude jar.” Little notes of thanks are dropped into it throughout the year and, on New Year’s eve, the jar is emptied, the messages read, and a new year of gratitude begins with an empty jar.

What sort of notes might go into your jar? There might ones written in thanks for finding things: the baby’s “binky” or favorite blanket, the car keys, or the money to pay the mortgage. There certainly would be mention of blessings received: recovery from COVID-19, technical assistance that spoke English, extra time to finish a project, or a stimulus check. There might be thanks for the ability to give: blood or convalescent plasma, food to the food pantry, an opportunity to a deserving person, or good advice to a friend. Gratitude would probably be expressed for the various people in our lives: exterminators, trash collectors, skilled surgeons, first responders, compassionate hospice volunteers, helpful sales associates, pastors, or a loving spouse.

In all likelihood, there’d be note of gratitude for our accomplishments and those of others: not burning the holiday pies, finishing chemo, a good report card, or learning how to use Photoshop. There might be mention of moments that took our breath away: a roseate spoonbill feeding in the swamp, a double rainbow, or seeing the green flash at sunset. Notes might be written for things we found: the solution to a problem, the right words, a lost locket, or a new friend. In addition, there would be thanks for things we received like a good biopsy report or words of encouragement, forgiveness, and love.

Of course, there would be thanks given for arrivals: the prodigal who returned home, spring daffodils, or a new baby. There’d be gratitude notes for things that happened, like the virtual holiday brass concert or your silver anniversary (even if it was just the two of you celebrating) and notes of thanks for things that didn’t, like a hurricane, being “downsized,” or getting COVID-19. Perhaps there would be thanks for surviving an experience: the terrible twos, working from home, or on-line schooling. There might be messages giving thanks for things as simple as purring cats, comfy shoes, a child’s giggle, NetFlix, curb-side pick-up, or pizza.

There is so much for which to be grateful—big things like Jesus, salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life, along with little ones like warm chocolate chip cookies, a phone call from a friend, or still fitting into your skinny jeans—that our gratitude jars need to be huge!

New Year’s resolutions are made and broken every year. Perhaps the best way to start this year is to start with the determination to look for our blessings and offer thanks for them daily. Although keeping a gratitude journal or filling a gratitude jar isn’t necessary, they might make us more mindful of the many blessings (both large and small) we receive. The notes will also make good reading come next New Year’s eve!

Happy New Year, dear friends. May 2021 be filled with a multitude of blessings and gratitude.

Give us, O Lord, thankful hearts which never forget your goodness to us. Give us, O Lord, grateful hearts, which do not waste time complaining. [St. Thomas Aquinas]

Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise his name.  For the Lord is good.  His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:4-5 (NLT)]

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PASS IT ON

Christmas lightsThe Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. [John 1:4-5 (NLT)

It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing;
That’s how it is with God’s Love,
Once you’ve experienced it,
Your spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on. [Kurt Kaiser]

Last year, our entire family celebrated Christmas in the Keys and we were able to worship together Christmas Eve. Typical of most Christmas Eve services, everyone received a small candle when entering the church. At the end of the service, the lights were dimmed and the first person’s candle was lit from an altar candle. As we sang Silent Night, the flame from that first candle was passed to the next person and continued to be passed from person to person until everyone’s candles were burning brightly. It was a tiny church with about one hundred worshippers. Nevertheless, even though each individual candle gave off only a little light, by the time the song was finished, the sanctuary was 100 times brighter than when we’d started.

While listening to praise music today, I heard an old favorite from my Girl Scout days: Pass It On by Kurt Kaiser. The words, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going,” got me thinking about those candles. When we light a candle, we can pass along the flame without our own light diminishing. In fact, as the light gets passed along, it only gets brighter! Just as the flame of a candle doesn’t weaken as it is spread around, neither does love—it simply grows larger and stronger. While having more children may lessen the amount of money we can spend on each child, it certainly doesn’t lessen the love we have each one of them. In fact, our love increases so that we still can love each child as if he or she were our only one. That’s how it is with our Heavenly Father’s love; His love is limitless and He loves each and every one of us as if we were his only child.

This year, my family was separated by thousands of miles and we only saw one another on Zoom. Instead of going to a church Christmas Eve, we attended church on our computers. No flames were passed from person to person and no candles illuminated a darkened church as we sang Silent Night. Nevertheless, it only takes a spark to get the fire going and we don’t need a candle’s flame to spread the blessings of God’s grace and love. Let us remember these words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” It can’t extinguish God’s love, either!

The candlelight from last year’s Christmas Eve service was limited by the number of people in the church but there is no limit to the brightness that can be brought into this dark world by Christ’s church. What if every one of us took the light of God’s love with us and passed it on to all who cross our path? Remember, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going!”

I wish for you my friend This happiness that I’ve found;
You can depend on God It matters not where you’re bound.
I’ll shout it from the mountain top;
I want the world to know
The Lord of love has come to me
I want to pass it on. [Kurt Kaiser]

For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” [Galatians 5:13-14 (NLT)]

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. [1 John 3:23 (NLT)]

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