All posts by Ivan

Come to the Manger: Issues of Character

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 “And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” 24 And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, 25 and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

Though this section of scripture is brief, it speaks volumes about Joseph. This common man could have very easily missed Jesus at Christmas…the Holy One’s birth did not depend upon him at all. Certain things are revealed about Joseph, however, that make it clear why he ends up coming to the manger on that very first Christmas.

  • He was man of great character (verse 19). Neither anger nor selfish revenge moved Joseph at all. Though his shock concerning Mary’s condition must have been great, his disappointment acute, and his disillusionment significant, he treats Mary with dignity.
  • He was ready to receive a word from the Lord (verse 20). We may think now that God speaking through dreams was common, but not really. Here are the facts: Joseph was ready to hear a radical word from God…and then take action to embrace it.
  • He practiced complete obedience (verse24). Joseph didn’t hesitate one moment. The morning after his divine dream, Joseph took the necessary steps to take Mary to be his wife. Yes…this crazy message that could easily be dismissed was embraced by a true faith-filled follower.
  • He was a man of integrity (verse 25). He kept her a virgin until she gave birth to Jesus in order that the scriptures would be fulfilled, “A virgin will give birth…” In the most private arena of life, Joseph honored God.

As I consider Joseph, I am gripped by His character. This, of course, is not something that is developed in a day, month, or year. It is a life-time quest of seeking God in all things at all times. Joseph was ready to listen, learn, adapt, obey, and sacrifice in order to come to the manger that first Christmas.

Are only those like Joseph invited to come? No—not at all! The wonderful message of Christmas is that this child born in a barn beckons everyone to come. But here’s the truth of the matter: Most people miss Jesus because they are not prepared to come. They fail to hear God’s invitation, are unwilling to change, are stuck in their own plans for their lives, or are unwilling to do whatever it takes to come. If we miss the directives of God, we may miss Jesus. If we are unteachable, thinking we know pretty much everything we need to know, we have precluded our opportunity to come. If we are unwilling to sacrifice or make radical changes to come to Jesus, we will never get there. If we want to live life our way rather than God’s way, we will never travel that journey to the manger.

What an amazing example Joseph is for all of us. Because he was a man of character, he found himself hovering over the innocent and glorious face of Immanuel. If Joseph would visit us today, He would tell us that every sacrifice was worth the experience of gazing into the face of God.

ACTION: What character flaw may keep you from making your journey to the manger this Christmas? Be honest…  Right now, write down a commitment you want to make to God about this weakness in your character.

Come to the Manger: Bold Faith

Luke 1:26-28, 35-38

26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

35 “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God. 36 “And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 “For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Why did God choose Mary? The answer is found in the verses above…

First, Mary was favored (verse 28). The Greek word for “favored one” is the word charis. At its root, it means grace…the idea of an undeserved favor or kindness extended to someone without them earning it. This was happening because God chose to be good to Mary, not because she reached some level of spirituality never attained before. God was simply showing favor to Mary.

I’m guessing it didn’t feel much like a favor at first. Imagine the quandary she was in—pregnant outside of marriage in a culture where this is punishable by stoning. Think of how perceptions of Mary changed when it was no-longer possible to hide the bulging tummy. What cruel assaults on her character were thrust unjustly at this one chosen by God? Still, the angel calls her the “favored one” because there is no greater honor than to be chosen by God to serve…no greater service than to bear the very child of God in the womb. Though life would be hard and the days ahead tentative, what incredible meaning Mary’s life would hold because God chose her for this once-ever task.

Second, Mary was a bondslave by her own confession (verse 38). This word in the original text is the word doule meaning a female slave. The King James Version translates this word “handmaid”. Mary was ready to do whatever Almighty God asked her to do. She did not see her life as her own. Because she realized that God owned her, she lived that way every day. She was willing to do what very few women were available to do. This Mary was ready to take abuse, be misunderstood, suffer hardship, accept a completely different course in life, to bear deity in the womb, and parent Immanuel (God among us)! And this decision was made in a brief encounter with an angel sent from Heaven! How could she do this? She was able because this was her modus operandi all the time. She always lived as a slave, recognizing that her life could be lived for a higher purpose and a greater call than she could ever imagine on her own.

Take note of something else. Mary had no idea how all of this would happen or turn out. She didn’t know if Joseph would reject her, if the community would stone her, what deity in the womb would feel like, or how she would raise and provide for this child. She only knew that God wanted her to do this…and He would guide her one step at a time.

We often want to know every detail, the cost required, the changes that will follow, and the end result of following before we ever take a first step. But almost always, God invites us to a journey without showing us many of the details. He just says, “Come”. He calls us to a journey of trusting Him every step of the way. Around each corner, beyond every hill, through every valley He calls us to take the next step—to follow through on the next leg of this faith experience.

As we celebrate God becoming man, Jehovah again invites us to come. Come to the manger and see Jesus. He came all the way from glory to enter a simple unassuming place so that all can come. But don’t kid yourself…it is a journey of faith. Once you gaze into the manger and see the face of Jesus, you will never be the same—not if you really see Him. We don’t know how we will be changed nor what will be required as a result of this encounter. Still, God calls us to come.

ACTION: What is the number one thing that is holding you back from following after God without reservation? Write it down.

Now—tell God about this…

Come to the Manger: Actions of Obedience

5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 And they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. Luke 1:5-7

Zacharias and Elizabeth became the parents of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. “Prepare the way for the Lord!” he declared in later years. But it was only by God’s grace that John was ever born. It is an amazing thing that Zacharias and Elizabeth ever became a part of the Christmas story. Scripture tells us that these two simple but godly people positioned themselves to be a part of God’s most amazing plan for all of human history. “They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord,” the Word reveals. God is giving us important insight into why they were involved in the incarnation of the Son of God.

Would you like to position yourself for God’s involvement in your life this Christmas? You can. Zacharias and Elizabeth were “righteous” by “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” The key presented here is obedience. Even though, for this ancient couple, obedience meant adhering to so many details of the Old Testament law, verse six emphasizes that they were “righteous in the sight of God.” Theirs was not only an outward obedience (which is what the Pharisees had), but a purity and holiness of the inner person. Their outward behavior was a direct result of their inner selves. And God saw it. And God responded with abundant grace.

Our natural tendency is to want what God offers at a clearance price. We’re often unwilling to do what it takes to position ourselves for God’s involvement in our lives. We can drift through life hoping that every so often we hit the jackpot of God’s blessing upon us. Yes—God’s grace is undeserved. No—we cannot earn it or buy it. But God’s involvement in our lives almost always is found in the position of obedience and sincere authenticity before God. He sees the heart. He longs to extend His blessing and favor upon you. It’s just that so many of us are busy walking our path that we fail get in on God’s plans.

Zacharias and Elizabeth were not perfect…and God doesn’t require that of you either. But what does grab His attention is a heart for Him coupled with actions of obedience. These things will never be yours by accident. Have you chosen to let Him give you a new heart…over and over and over again? Is there an arena in your life where God is not welcome…a secret place that is all yours because you have never allowed God to step in to clean it out? Is there something risky, radical, or difficult that God is urging you to do, but you have reasoned it away? These are your issues of obedience.

This Christmas, God invites you to come to the manger. He wants you to experience His here-and-now presence in a life-transforming way. Are you in position to receive what He has for you? Are you in a position to come to the manger?

ACTION: Be bold as you consider what one or two actions you must take, with God’s help, to be obedient to God’s voice. Write them down if you can… 

Now pray to offer these to God. Also, ask Him to show you the way to the manger this Christmas.

Come to the Manger: Being Intentional

There are so many people that missed Jesus on that first Christmas.

Herod missed Jesus. The power-hungry king of Judea fixated on his own agenda and was determined to have control over his own destiny. Do you know that he really believed the scriptures were inspired?

4 And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet, 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler, Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ” Matthew 2:4-6

After discovering where the Messiah was to be born, he sent off the magi with hopes of acquiring the infant’s location so that he could snuff Him out. Consider the bravado of such intentions. Herod thought He could out-maneuver God! Herod missed Jesus.

The religious leaders missed Jesus. The scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests and high priests all missed Jesus that first Christmas. Even if you don’t understand the specific functions of the list here, know that these are the ones who had all the answers. With a fastidious passion, these pastor-teacher types studied the scriptures laboriously in order to know the answers to every question imaginable. Many of these memorized the Old Testament scrolls completely! Yet, when it came to the hinge-point in all of human history, they were completely oblivious. Now that God was fulfilling the most incredible promise ever given with the greatest gift ever offered, they were totally ignorant.

The tragic mistake of these religious elites was that they assumed knowledge, understanding, and self-achievement was the essence of godliness. With pompous pride rather than brokenness, humility, and a hungry heart these great achievers missed Jesus completely.

The people on the streets of Bethlehem missed Jesus. Scripture records the fact that so many people visited Bethlehem at this time that there was “no room in the inn.” Due to the timely taxation by Caesar Augustus, each man was required to return to the town of his roots in order to be counted in a census and pay the required tax. Joseph and Mary made the trek home and found the little town inundated with people. This may have been the kind of place that was nice to be from! But even though Bethlehem was packed with people, we have no record of any of them coming to the manger!

I’m guessing that things were too exciting and harried at the time. Just imagine all of the reunions taking place—families getting reacquainted again, childhood friends vaguely recognizing each other…and then musing over the good old days, or the insecurity of some who felt like “fish out of water” in this bustling environment of giddy, boisterous and energized masses. (Sounds a little like our Christmases today…) Besides all of this, the visitors must have been busy finding food, water, and the basic necessities of life. Attentiveness to the divine intersecting with the here-and-now was absent in this adventure. And so…the people on the streets of Bethlehem missed Jesus.

Come to the manger. That’s right—don’t miss Jesus. How easy it is for us to be like those mentioned above. They didn’t intend to miss Him…they just did! Those that came to the manger, by the way, were very intentional about it and made sacrifices to do it. (Just consider the sensitivity of the wise men and the sacrifices they made to find the Christ-child.) Here’s a guarantee: If you do not intentionally choose to find Jesus this Christmas, you will miss Him. That’s the nature of God’s gift. And we must find Him over and over.

Herod missed Jesus because his heart was hard.

The religious people missed Jesus because they were self-sufficient.

The common folk missed Jesus because they were distracted.

How are you today? Is there a hardness of heart, an air of self-sufficiency, or the reality of distractions present in your life right now? Do you really want to meet Jesus this Christmas?

Prepare now to come to the manger. Jesus is there…and the invitation is open.

ACTION: Write down a brief prayer right now telling Jesus how much you want to meet Him in this Christmas season. Also, jot down a couple of things you will do to make sure that happens.

Becoming Nothing

Jesus consistently demonstrated his care and compassion for “the least of these.” In the following Scripture passage, we see another beautiful example of both Jesus’ love for broken people and his ability to reveal the condition of a person’s heart in a matter of seconds.

Mark 7:24 And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. 25 But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

This woman was most likely overlooked by her community because she had a demon possessed daughter. They were cursed, unclean, scary, and devalued. Yet, this woman has a conviction that if she could only get Jesus’ attention, her daughter could be freed from the unclean spirit. This mom is on a mission, determined, and willing to go to all lengths to find a future for her little girl. Scripture states, “She begged.” There is a sense of determined desperation here.

Jesus’ response is, quite frankly, startling.

And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (v.27) In this statement, Jesus is clearly communicating that this “food”, the truth of God, is for the Israelites, not the Gentiles (dogs). By the way, a dog was not a positive term in these days. They were dirty diseased scavengers.

Seems harsh? Listen to the woman’s response…

“Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (v.28)

And here is revealed a profound spiritual truth. This woman demonstrates absolute authentic humility. She doesn’t dispute the fact that she’s nothing. She doesn’t try to convince him of some entitlement. She doesn’t even get upset that she is reduced in value to a scavenging dog. She simply states another fact of life–even dogs get to eat a few scraps from the table–and in saying that, she is asking only for that.

Jesus confirms that her humble response is the key to unleashing his favor and power: For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” (v.29)

Especially as Americans, we struggle with this kind of authentic humility. We are hard-wired to be capable, self-confident, oozing with self-worth and independence. But it all flies in the face of the gospel. Jesus is looking for people who actually recognize they are broken and have no right to receive anything from God–that they are, quite literally, beggars in the presence of a holy capable God.

The Syrophoenician Gentile modeled well what need to fully embrace: Absolute authentic humility.

Broken

I’m broken. It’s not easy to admit and it’s easier to write it than it is even to say. Who likes to flaunt their weaknesses or failures. Not me! But if I’m honest with myself, I see that sin is at work in me ALL THE TIME. I can relate to the apostle Paul all too well when he said, The very thing I want to do I do not do and the very thing I don’t want to do, that is what I do. Oh wretched man that I am!”

I’ve just come off a three-month season of deep reflection, plumbing the dark places of my soul and have been humbled significantly. For a season, I had become quite numb to the realities of life, who I am, how I’m faring, the deadness of my relationship with God, etc. These are hard things to find–and not so fun to admit.

There’s good news, too. I’ve recently studied a section of Scripture in Mark. In chapter 7:24-8:13, we see four short stories about Jesus. Three reveal how we get in on God’s grace, experience his power and find transformation happening in our lives. The last story draws a sobering contrast–how we are certain to repel the grace of God. For today, let me keep it simple:

In each of these three stories, we see needy, unimportant, overlooked, even despised people capturing the attention of Jesus. They are all broken, but Jesus is compelled to action BECAUSE of their brokenness. Here’s the key, however. In each story, the people knew and embraced their brokenness. They didn’t hide it. They didn’t reason it away. They didn’t attempt to put on masks, or sound pious, or present themselves in sophisticated or respectable ways. They were broken and honest about it. In fact, their brokenness drew them to Jesus because they embrace it so well. We’ll consider those spiritual truths in the days ahead.

Are you broken? Do you know it? Are you honest with yourself? With God? With others? Is it driving you to look to Jesus or inserting a wedge between you?

Yet You are Holy

It’s easy, even exhilarating to proclaim God’s holiness when we gather for worship or are giddy about God or feel immersed in his blessings. It doesn’t come natural, however, to celebrate God’s holiness when our world is crumbling or when the soul is parched or when we feel abandoned by God.

Psalm 22 begins with David’s lament.

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.” verses 1-2

The Psalmist David suffered torturous experiences in his lifetime–for years being unjustly hunted by King Saul, having his troops forsake him, and experiencing the depths of family depravity and betrayal. These were not momentary afflictions, but episodes of life that rocks your world and assaults easy faith in God. David couldn’t figure out, at times, how God could be in these things.

After the above cry of honesty, he also declares his unmoving conviction–“Yet you are holy, verse 3.

David recognizes that God is one of a kind, set apart, in a completely other category than any other person or being. He’s holy! He cannot fit into our best logic, most sophisticated theology, deepest thoughts or most creative solutions. He’s so much bigger than we can understand, especially in the deepest agonies and struggles of life. God is there. He knows. He cares. He’s working out His plan–for His kingdom and your good. He’s holy.

The God who turned the most hopeless Friday into Sunday’s most mind-blowing victory is the one who takes our worst seasons and manufactures his best scenarios.

No matter what you’re facing, “Yet He is holy.”

Doing Things the Right Way

“They placed the Ark of God on a new cart and brought it from Abinidab’s house. Uzzah and Ahio were guiding the cart,” 1 Chronicles 13:7

David was the new King of Israel. Meaning well, David decided to bring the powerful and mysterious Ark of the Covenant from a remote location back to Jerusalem. In the midst of singing, dancing, many instruments playing and raucous jubilation, “the oxen stumbled and Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the Ark of God. Then God’s anger was roused against Uzzah, and God struck him dead because of this. So Uzzah died right there beside the Ark of God,” 2 Samuel 6:6b-7.

You can only imagine how quickly the climate shifted from the heights of celebration to the depths of shock and despair. The party ended. Scripture also tells us that David “was now afraid of God” and decided to stop transporting the Ark. It stayed right there for the next three months in the private home of Obed-edom.

I have often wrestled with this story. It seems harsh, unfair, and quite frankly, reactionary by God. But when you understand the full picture, it changes the story. A lot.

Check out 1 Chronicles 15:13. After three months of wrestling with this event, King David discovered why it happened the way it did. He decides to move the Ark of God again, but listen to what he states to the Levite tribe as they prepare: “Because you Levites did not carry the Ark the first time, the anger of the Lord our God burst out against us. We failed to ask God how to move it properly.”

God had given previous instructions as to who and how the Ark of God was always to be transported. In David’s eagerness to do what was right, he overlooked the right way to do it. The Ark was never to be put on an oxcart and it was not to be “handled” by anyone other than a Levite–those designated by God to care for the temple and religious activities.

What a great reminder that God has declared standards. There are ways His work should be done. In our age of efficiency and pursuit of measurable results, we can easily overlook the godly way things should be done. Human wisdom is no match for God’s declared ways, though we often revert to that instead of God’s best plan. It still matters how we get God’s work done–not only that we do.

By the way, on this second try, all went well.

“So all Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant with shouts of joy, the blowing of rams’ horns and trumpets, the crashing of cymbals, and loud playing on harps and lyres,” 1 Chronicles 15:28

Now that’ my kind of party!

This World is not my home

Life is hard–even when things are pretty good. The little things are what throw me, especially when they come in waves. Like the last few weeks…

I’ve been driving a 93 Lincoln Town Car for the last year, a wonderful providential gift from the Lord. There’s a really cool story that goes with that. Suffice it to say here that I told my wife Susan one day, “I just need to get a different car and the next one is going to be white!” (The Florida sun burns off every other color if the car sits out.) Two days later, an acquaintance from Texas texts us and tells us they have a car we can have if we want it. “But,” they say, “you may not want it because it’s white.” Listen, a Town Car was choice number 178 in a list of my most wanted cars, but if that’s what God had to give me, I was going to take it. It’s actually been a great car.

Having driven the Lincoln for a year, I had been looking at used vehicles. I had been saving for five years! I finally made a private party purchase to replace the Town Car. It drove like a dream the 35 miles home. Susan and I were thanking God for allowing us to find a great deal on a pretty nice car — a 2012 GMC. The next morning, as I was driving to register the car and transfer the title, the engine started on fire! That was five weeks ago and it’s still isn’t running. It may be a total loss.

And there are so many other things, like the prominent hotel chain that can’t figure how to cancel a $620 charge on my card–after a week of trying. Or the repair shop that charged me $1500 dollars for…nothing! and won’t communicate with me at all. Or the ongoing thyroid struggles Susan is dealing with that affects about 37 other systems and symptoms in her body. Or the sizable reimbursement check from a family member that got lost in the mail. Really, it is lost!

Then I remember Jesus’ words, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world,” John 16:33. The Devil loves to toy with us, the world wants to assault us, the hosts of evil look to discourage us. But when I think of the tantamount victory of Jesus on Easter, my issues don’t seem so big.

I’m reminded of an old gospel quartet chorus:

“This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven’ open door and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

Ragamuffin

Brennan Manning describes a ragamuffin as one who is dirty, bedraggled, and beat-up. None of us like to think of ourselves this way, but for many of us, it’s a mighty accurate description. Though I may look good on the outside, I’m fighting like crazy on the inside. Even as I produce notable accomplishments for Christ’s kingdom, I find myself struggling for spiritual survival much of the time. Yes–dirty, bedraggled and beat up is a pretty good description, not only of a ragamuffin, but of me.

Of course, this shouldn’t be any surprise. We’re in a war!

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” Ephesians 6:12.

This is not a theoretical war–it’s real! It’s not something far off like Afghanistan or Iraq or Yemen–it’s in our mind, heart, homes and closest relationships! It affects us every day. To pretend the war doesn’t exist is to sentence your life to ruin or insignificance. To fight the battles in human strength is futile. We must use the weapons and equipment Christ has provided as described in Ephesians 6.

We Christians are quite proficient at presenting ourselves as victors. We aren’t too fond of revealing our real selves, the ongoing struggles, the temptations we fight nor the battles we lose. But remember, even in the losing, in the fray of battle, in the wrong moves, missed opportunities, stupid choices, areas of weakness and remorseful decisions, God loves us and is waiting to make something beautiful in the midst of the mess.

Want to see a GREAT movie that shows it well? Watch Ragamuffin (it’s on Prime)–the true story of Rich Mullins. It’s unsettling, sobering, inspiring, and real.

“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:3-4)