Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

spiderwortThe tradition of New Year’s resolutions goes back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. During their 12-day celebration of the new year (held in mid-March), they either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the old one. They also promised to return anything borrowed and pledged the repayment of all their debts. While returning borrowed items and paying our debts are good goals for the coming year, our resolutions usually have something to do with exercise, diet, getting better organized, learning a new skill, spending less money, or reading the entire Bible in a year.

Perhaps, before resolving to floss or eat more vegetables, we should pray and ask God what it is that He would like to see us change. “Search me, O God,” is what could be called a dangerous prayer; when we ask Him to look, we’d better be ready for what He finds. Chances are that it will have nothing to do with developing better dental or nutrition habits. Asking God to examine our innermost being is asking Him to perform exploratory surgery in search of sin. While a surgeon may not find a tumor, God is sure to find plenty of areas in our hearts and minds in need of improvement! If a surgeon does find cancer, we expect him to remove it but, when God finds something offensive in us, He expects us to repent and turn away from it.

Our spiritual goals can fail as readily as the non-spiritual ones and, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, less than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful at keeping them. Perhaps we’d do better if we understood that we can’t change by ourselves. Maybe will-power alone can keep us away from Dunkin’ Donuts or get us to a 6 AM aerobics class but it isn’t enough when we’re combating spiritual enemies. Fortunately, we are powered by the Holy Spirit and, through Him, all things are possible.

Let us remember that Jesus is in the business of transformation. It was at a wedding party in Cana that He transformed water into wine. He then transformed the blind into the sighted, the lame into the strong, and the diseased into the healthy. He changed the churning sea into calm water, a few morsels of food into a feast, and the dead into the living. Jesus’s miracles of transformation continue today. He turns darkness into light, anger into peace, fear into hope, animosity into love, selfishness into generosity, mourning into joy, shame into honor, and sinners into saints.

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]

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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But the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! [Luke 2:10-11 (NLT)]

christmas cactusSeveral years ago, I was given a Christmas cactus in early December. It had just started to blossom and, by Christmas, it was in full bloom and beautiful. A Christmas cactus typically goes dormant by Easter but mine bloomed until mid-May. The next year, it blossomed again at Christmas but the flowers weren’t as spectacular; it was dormant by February and didn’t survive the summer. Regretfully, I’m a neglectful gardener and my record with plants is dismal. The cactus actually lasted longer than any of my holiday poinsettias.

The spirit of Christmas shouldn’t end when we take down the tree, put away the crèche, the flowers drop from the Christmas cactus, or the poinsettia gets tossed! We can’t leave the baby Jesus in the manger and forget that He grew, taught, led, suffered, died, rose, ascended into heaven, and will come again! We need to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts well beyond the time the toys break, the holiday cookies are eaten, the Christmas cactus goes dormant and the poinsettia dies. The spirit of Christmas—its joy and anticipation—the good news of the gospel message—shouldn’t be dependent upon the calendar. It should flower all year long unless, of course, we become neglectful and forget to fertilize and water it with God’s word and prayer. A pastor friend always keeps a small nativity scene in her office to remind her (and her visitors) that the manger is as important a symbol to Christianity as is the cross. If we have Jesus in our hearts, we can be Christmas people no matter what season it is. May the spirit of hope, love, joy and peace, so present during Christmastime, continue in your hearts all year long!

Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. [Calvin Coolidge]

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)]

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For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3 16-17 (NLT)]

creche and crossPew Research reports that while 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, more than half of them celebrate it only as a cultural holiday! While they’ll decorate their house with lights and wreaths, trim a tree, send cards, and exchange gifts, Christmas is just an excuse for good food, parties, family gatherings, and presents. While they’re not indifferent to Santa, gifts, merriment, or decorations, like the people of 1st century Palestine, they are indifferent to the Christ child. The shepherds saw the star and sought the babe in the manger and a caravan from the East brought Him gifts, but we don’t read of any townspeople visiting Joseph and Mary. What of the priests and scribes who told Herod where the Messiah would be born? They knew the prophecies but didn’t join the Magi in their quest to find the One who would fulfill those prophecies. Lowly shepherds and men from a faraway land recognized Jesus as the Messiah but most of God’s chosen people ignored the greatest event in all of history.

Some people react to Christmas with antipathy; like Herod, they hate its message. Rather than join the magi and seek the newborn King of the Jews, the enraged Herod slaughtered all of the male babies around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the king! The “bah humbuggers” are like the atheist who erected a 10-foot 300-pound pentagram just 20-feet from a nativity scene in a Boca Raton park in 2016. Non-believers don’t want a King who might knock them off their pedestals any more than Herod wanted one who could knock him off his throne. They’re uncomfortable with the concepts of sin, salvation, love, sacrifice, obedience and forgiveness that surround Christmas. Then again, maybe they dislike this day simply because Christmas reminds them of the emptiness of their lives.

Some people respond to Christmas as did the angels, shepherds, magi, Simeon, and Anna: with worship. Tonight and tomorrow, people around the world will raise their voices in praise and thanksgiving, light candles, sing carols, kneel in prayer, lift their hands in worship, and share bread and wine at communion. Some will come and adore Him tonight but won’t return to church until next Christmas. But others will ponder the events of this night, as did Mary. They will allow the Christ child to enter into their hearts and lives and affect their every thought, word, and action for the rest of their lives. After extinguishing the Christmas Eve candles, they will continue to let their lights shine all year long. They are the ones who know that God came as a baby and lay in a manger so that He could suffer, die on the cross as a common criminal, and pay the penalty for mankind’s sins. They know that the crèche is meaningless without the cross!

Let us behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

But Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. [Luke 2:19b-20 (NLT)]

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God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. [John 1:6-9 (NLT)]

Steamboat Ski“I didn’t know Van was racing,” I said as he skied through the gates and sped across the finish line. “He isn’t,” explained his wife. “He’s just a forerunner.” While the focus is on the racers at a ski race, there wouldn’t be any race without the forerunners. Before the race begins, forerunners ski the course, set the line, allow the officials to test their systems, and assess course conditions. While proficient enough to race the course well, they are not in the competition. Although it’s an honor to be a forerunner, forerunners don’t get a number, nobody knows their names, and only the judges care about their times. It’s the races’ winners who get the accolades. Understanding that the race is not theirs to run, forerunners are happy just to prepare the way!

After 400 years of silence from God’s prophets, John the Baptist appeared as the forerunner for Jesus. Like prophets before him, he called for the people to repent and turn back to God. Linking the Old Testament and the New, John also prepared the way for the coming Messiah. Denying that he was the Messiah, John quoted the words of Isaiah 40:3 saying, “I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Clear the way for the Lord’s coming!’” John knew his qualifications were to prepare the way, not to be the Way. When he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus after His baptism, John knew whose way he’d been preparing and testified that Jesus was “the chosen One of God.” [John 1:34]

After acting as forerunner, John condemned Herod for marrying his brother’s wife which resulted in his imprisonment. Having heard about all that Jesus was doing, John sent his disciples to openly ask if He were the Messiah. Had John started to doubt? Let’s not forget the expectations people (even John) had of the Messiah: a political and military prince who would slay Israel’s enemies, not a Prince of Peace. Having prophesied that the Messiah would inflict punishment upon the wicked, did John wonder why, if Jesus were the Messiah, he’d done nothing to punish the Romans or free him from Herod’s prison?

At first glance, Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples seems evasive: “Tell them what you have seen—the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” [Matthew 11:4-5] But, to anyone as familiar with Isaiah’s prophecies as John would have been, it was a straightforward answer in the affirmative. Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would do those very things [Isaiah 35:5-6,61:1-2] and Jesus had done them all. I have no doubt that, upon hearing that answer, John no longer questioned the identity of Jesus. Having prepared the way for the one true Messiah, His task as forerunner was over; it was up to Jesus to complete the race!

Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The Lord has spoken!” [Is. 40:3-5 (NLT)]

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Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. [Matthew 1:19 (NLT)]

Joseph Yesterday’s devotion about Mary made me wonder about Joseph. Other than having the right lineage, why did God chose this carpenter to raise His one and only Son? Mary and Joseph were betrothed and engagement in 1st century Palestine was a serious commitment. A legally binding relationship, betrothal usually lasted ten to twelve months. Although the bride continued to live at home and the couple did not have marital relations, their engagement ended only through death or a divorce-like proceeding.

We have no idea when or how Mary told Joseph she was pregnant. Having gone to stay with Elizabeth just a few days after the annunciation, we assume she told him of her pregnancy after returning to Nazareth. The conversation couldn’t have been pleasant. We’re never told that Joseph was angry but it’s hard to think he wasn’t upset and perplexed by this turn of events. His fiancée went away for three months and returned pregnant! No matter how Mary explained it, there was no way she could prove its truth. Her story made no sense so Joseph assumed Mary had been unfaithful to him.

Betrothal was a sacred relationship and the law required a man to divorce an unfaithful fiancée. Joseph was a righteous man, a man who abided by the law; he was obligated to end the engagement by divorcing Mary. Although the Torah demanded stoning an adulterous woman, people couldn’t be executed without Roman permission. Instead, Jewish tradition called for any divorce on adulterous grounds to take place publicly. Mary would have stood in the public square to answer questions about her unfaithfulness while the townspeople watched and judged. Making Mary’s pregnancy public knowledge would have been a fitting punishment for her suspected betrayal, preserved Joseph’s reputation as a righteous man, and freed him of any responsibility for Mary’s child.

It would have been easy for Joseph to wreak revenge on his unfaithful bride, but he didn’t. While he wanted to do the right thing, which was divorce the woman he believed adulterous, he wanted to do it so that she wouldn’t suffer. Joseph decided on a “writ of divorcement” which could be done quietly in the presence of a few witnesses. The equivalent of “irreconcilable differences” or no-fault divorce, it would have allowed Mary the freedom to marry someone else. Once her pregnancy became public knowledge, however, Joseph’s reputation would suffer since he would be suspected of being the father. Nevertheless, because he loved Mary more than he wanted revenge or people’s respect, Joseph put her needs first.

Not a rash man, Joseph took no action immediately. While considering his plan of action, an angel appeared to him and reaffirmed Mary’s story that the child she was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph now had a third option: marry the girl! But, by marrying her, Joseph assumed responsibility for the pregnancy, shared in Mary’s shame, gave the village fodder for gossip, became the legal father of Jesus, and accepted responsibility for a child who wasn’t his.

Although we don’t know much about Joseph, we know all we need to know: he was a man of integrity who valued God more than other people’s opinions of him. In spite of the consequences, he immediately obeyed God and took Mary as his wife. What kind of man was Joseph? A godly man is my answer. He displayed the character of God we find in Exodus 34 when the Lord passed in front of Moses: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” That’s the sort of man God chose to act as father to his boy!

“Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:  “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. [Matthew 1:20-24 (NLT)]

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And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. [Luke 1:38 (RSV)]

Mary - ChristmasIgnoring the fact that most of us in the room couldn’t qualify as virgins, are well-past child-bearing age, and our genealogies don’t link us to the tribe of Judah and the line of David, the pastor leading our women’s Bible study asked if we were the kind of women God would chose to give birth to His son.

Aside from being young, virginal, and of the right lineage, what kind of woman was Mary? At first glance, she seems little different than any other young girl in the obscure village of Nazareth. There is no mention of her having wealth, exceptional beauty, or social status. Looking like any other peasant girl, she seems unsuitable for a job as mother of God. What about Mary set her apart from every other girl in Palestine who met the lineage and virtue requirements?

Rather than looking at outward appearance, God looks into hearts; while we don’t know about Mary’s physical beauty, her character must have been exceptionally beautiful. Faithful, obedient and humble, she was filled with love for God. She risked her entire future when she submitted to Him. In many translations, Mary calls herself the “Lord’s servant.” The original Greek, however, was doule, which means bondmaid, female slave or handmaid. A doule wasn’t hired help who could quit when she wanted. She was someone who surrendered completely to her Master’s will.

I thought about the pastor’s question. Had I fit the physical and lineage requirements, would God have chosen me to bear His son? He wouldn’t have given me a second look when I was Mary’s age—I was far too willful, rebellious, selfish and unsure of myself to ever call myself a servant to anyone, even God! Even if the woman I am today fit the physical and lineage requirements, God wouldn’t consider me. It’s not that He wouldn’t trust me to feed, comfort, teach, love, guide, encourage, and protect His Son; I’d qualify in the mothering department. It’s that submission thing; I don’t think I’d freely surrender my will to His and God will not force Himself upon anyone. Mary had enough faith to yield her will to God but, even with 72 years of experiencing God’s faithfulness under my belt, I’m not sure I have the heart of a handmaiden. Humble and complete submission to the Master’s will does not come easily. “Thy will be done,” are some of the hardest words to pray and truly mean.

Both Mary and Jesus submitted to God’s divine will; should we do anything less? Father, forgive us for choosing our will over Yours. Give us a handmaid’s heart.

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” [Luke 22:41-42 (RSV)]

Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:9-10 (RSV)]

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