Expectations, Life, and Christmas

Thinking this morning about part of the message I preached this past Sunday, Christmas Eve 2017.

While working through the Christmas story found in Luke 2 it occurred to me that things didn’t work out the way Mary and Joseph probably thought they would. They probably thought their baby would be born at home, in the safety and security of their bedroom, with a familiar midwife helping with the delivery. It would be what we might consider the best of circumstances, but for them it was normal. There would be water nearby. It would be clean. Family would come to help. Their support system would kick in and life would be pretty normal, with the exception of having to raise the Son of God.

But a census command by Caesar Augustus changed everything. Now they had to travel when they didn’t want to travel. It was late in the pregnancy and travel would not be recommended, especially by donkey. They had to stay where they didn’t want to stay. Even after traveling, perhaps things wouldn’t be so bad if they could find a nice place to stay. But with so many others also going to Bethlehem there was no place for them to stay. I have no doubt Joseph worked hard to find some place, any place, indoors at least.

There would be no indoor birthing room. A dark, damp stable became their hospital room. A pile of hay the birthing bed. A feeding trough became a baby bed. It was outdoor, unsanitary, unhealthy, and they were feeling unwelcome.

Life often does not live up to our expectations.

Each of us can point to things in our lives that haven’t gone as we expected. There are hopes that have been dashed and dreams that have been set aside or cancelled. Maybe even your family Christmas gathering that you hoped would bring family unity turned out to be awkward and difficult. Our kids don’t do what we hoped. Our parents don’t do as we wished. Our friends fall away. We let ourselves down. Circumstances sometimes seem to be conspiring against us with concerted anger. Nothing seems as easy as it ought to be. Life isn’t turning out the way we thought it would.

What do you do? How do you respond? Quit? Take out your frustration on others? Get angry? Get even?

Consider this young couple in Bethlehem with no family around at the birth of their first born, sitting alone in a cave (stable) with their young child laying in the feeding trough. How had they envisioned the birth of the one they knew to be the Son of God? What did they think would happen?

Even when we may not understand how or why, we must remember this: Just because it didn’t work out the way you thought doesn’t mean that God is not at work.

It may not be the way you would’ve done it, but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t working. His ways are not our ways. Trust Him. Know that He works in all things (Romans 8:28) to accomplish His purposes in His way.

When life seems to not be meeting your expectations, take a moment to look around and try to figure out what God might be up to. Don’t quit and don’t get angry. Realize that God has a plan for your life and that He is working to accomplish His will in you and through you. Trust Him and trust His plan.


Why didn’t He tell Paul to begin with?

Yesterday I preached at Spring Baptist Church (video will be on later this week) from Acts 16:6-10, where Paul and Silas are seeking God’s will as they embark on Paul’s second missionary journey. They try to go to Asia, then to Bithynia and end up in Troas where Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man asking them to bring the gospel to Macedonia.

It occurred to me in between services that there was one question I hadn’t talked about in the first service. I addressed it briefly in the second one and I thought I’d throw out some thoughts on it here: Why didn’t God just give Paul the vision to begin with instead of letting them walk around the desert for a couple of weeks?

This is a question most of us ask when we are searching for God’s will. We just want God to give us the directions now, show us the road map and we’ll get on our way. But most often the process of finding His will is a journey, not a moment.

I can’t say I know the answer to the question, but I can think of some possibilities:
1. The search forced Paul to seek God and not rely merely on his past experience.
2. Paul’s call was going to be so dramatically different that the Lord had to get Paul in the right spot to be ready to listen.
3. Paul’s experience was as much for Silas, and maybe us, as it was for Paul. We needed to see the lesson found in the journey of Paul. So maybe it wasn’t about Paul at all, but about us.

I’m sure there are other reasons but these are a few I thought of this morning.

Jesus Sets You Free


Jesus brings truth serum to challenge the self-deception and to deliver you from your bondage. The reality, Jesus says, is that everyone who commits sin (which means all of us since we are all sinners) is a slave or in bondage to sin. It doesn’t matter who your parents are or how far back you may trace your spiritual lineage, you are responsible for your own life and your own sin. You have no righteous insulation from sin because your parents were good people or because Abraham is your ancestor.

The act of committing sin reveals that the one doing the act is under the power and authority of sin. The word “commits” is a present tense verb. In Greek, the written language of the New Testament, a present tense verb describes current and continual action. It could be translated, “keeps on committing.” Jesus is describing a person who continues to commit sin without regret or repentance. The Pharisees thought themselves to be free, but they were in spiritual bondage to sin.

When you are in bondage to sin you are living under the influence of your rebellious human nature. Your worldview is affected by human intuition apart from the truth of God. Your way of responding to the world is determined by selfish motives, not by the fruit of the Spirit. Your reaction to crisis situations and conflict is defensive and focused on self-preservation instead of with godly wisdom and humility. A person who is in bondage to sin doesn’t realize they are held prisoner. You act as everyone around you acts. You respond based on the advice of your peers. Their actions are accepted and endorsed by others because all are in slavery to sin, so everyone around you is living the same way.

But this is not the condition of the believer. Jesus delivers you from sin and by His truth He sets you free from the slavery of sin. In verse 35 Jesus presents the opportunity to become a child of God as opposed to living as a slave to sin.

Jesus sets you free by changing your identity. This change of identity is monumental. You do not have to remain as a slave to sin; you can become a child of God!

As a son of God, you are no longer under the sole influence of your rebellious human nature. You are free to resist sin and to cling to truth, integrity and joy. Your worldview is transformed as you begin seeing the world through His eyes. The fruit of the Spirit works outward in your life and you respond to the world differently. You react to conflict with grace and patience, exhibiting wisdom and humility, knowing that God is in control of your life. You don’t worry about being rejected by your peers if you don’t act like them because you know you have been fully accepted by God through Christ. You don’t have to protect your reputation or save face by conforming to the world, because you are secure in your place with Christ.

Your history doesn’t have to be altered or hidden. It is what it is and it is forgiven. You are free from your history. Rahab was a prostitute, but now is forgiven. Thomas doubted, but now is with Jesus. The thief deserved death, but now has life eternal. The woman was caught in adultery, but now is free from all the stain of sin.

“Therefore if the Son sets you free, you really will be free.” John 8:36

This freedom is not circumstantial, based on what you have done. It is not based on your actions or your inherent value or worth to God. This freedom is based completely on the grace of God on your behalf in sending His Son to the cross.

Once again you see the moment and the process in this verse. Jesus Christ sets you free – this is the moment you receive by faith His forgiveness offered through grace. Then you really will be free – through this process you come to understand and live in freedom. This is justification and sanctification. You need to be set free, that is to be made a child of God; so that you can become free, experience knowing Jesus in all His glory.

Freedom from sin, darkness, ignorance, superstition, good and bad expectations, past mistakes, wrong thinking can only be known after Jesus sets you free. This freedom can only be experienced by spending time with God’s word, worshipping Him, praying with Him and following Jesus day after day, year after year.

As you commit yourself to the process of being set free, you come to understand that your identity doesn’t have to come from where you were born, what family you come from, who your friends are, your past failures or others expectations. Your identity can come from the work of God on your behalf. You can be His child and be free.

There is a new way to live, a new way to see yourself and a new path to walk. You are free. This is who you are. So live free.


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Barriers to Experiencing Freedom in Your Walk with Christ

The greatest barrier to real freedom is that most don’t think it is needed. In John 8 the non-believing Jews respond to Jesus with what many think as they come to Christ. Three phrases in their statement in John 8:33 reveal great barriers to the experience of true freedom.

“We are descendants of Abraham” – The Jews who spoke to Jesus claimed a heritage that did not require outside intervention. They saw themselves through the lens of their ancestors, not just their parents, but they traced their heritage back to Abraham! For these Jews, this heritage was their identity and there was neither way nor reason to deny it. Proud of their ancestry, they were unwilling to accept the freedom offered by Jesus.

Sometimes you can be so caught up in your family identity, who your parents are and how important they are or how important that makes you, that you deny the opportunity to follow Jesus wherever He leads. More than one person has wrecked their own spiritual opportunities because they were intent on protecting their family name or station in life. More than one church has been wrecked by a family or individual who is trying to hold on to an inherited position in the church and community. I am not saying that you should disavow your family, but certainly you should not choose anything over the clear call of Christ. Several times Jesus challenged his followers to do that very thing (Matthew 4:21-22; 8:21-22; 19:28-29; Mark 1:19-20; 10:28-30; Luke 9:59-60; 14:26). Jesus’ promise of freedom is powerful because he opens the door for you to break free from the hold of generations.

“We have never been enslaved to anyone.” – The Jews make a claim that on its face is preposterous. The most important festival of the Jewish calendar is Passover, a celebration of God’s deliverance of the nation from Egyptian slavery. The northern kingdom of Israel disappeared during Assyrian slavery. The southern kingdom was taken into slavery for 70 years by the Babylonians. As they spoke the nation of Israel was under the thumb of the Romans, subject to their laws and the whims of their governors.

There is a deceitfulness of denial that leaves you with a false view of your own circumstance. Most teenagers claim a deep need to not be stereotyped, to be treated as individuals, yet they dress like their peers, talk like them and think like them. They may reject their parents, but they will conform to a group in school and defying that group is deemed social suicide. Adults bend under the same pressures adapting to a work culture or a social setting to “fit in.” This is one reason that advertising works so well. There is a deep hunger to be an individual, but to not stand out too much. The worst kind of bondage is when a prisoner thinks himself to be free, yet he is a slave.

“How can you say ‘You will become free’?” – The Jews utter the frustration so many voice: “I can’t change.” The sense of helplessness you feel, trapped in your life with no way out. Often I’ve heard people say things like this: “This is just how I am.” “I can’t help it.” “I don’t know why I do it.” “I’ve always been like this.” The trap of believing that your past must be your future keeps many from walking through the process of being set free, even though they may have made a decision to follow Christ.

One of the great tragedies of this generation is that so many have fallen for the lie that a genetic predisposition means there are no options in life. That is to say, too many think because “you are born this way” you must live “this way.” It’s easy to understand why you might believe that a lifestyle, life choices and values, that have been ingrained for so many years could never be abandoned or transformed. This is part of what makes the claim of Jesus so amazing. How could He promise freedom from something so deeply ingrained in your identity?

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Know Jesus; Know Freedom

John chapter 8 begins with the story about the woman caught in adultery. Since that day we only know her by this designation as she is brought to Jesus for judgment. Jesus confronts the scribes and Pharisees saying, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” As they walked away the woman was set free from the penalty of death. His counsel to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” Perhaps she should be known as the “woman set free from adultery” or the “woman whom Jesus forgave.”

Jesus then deals with the Pharisees who continually question Him and His teaching asking: Where is Your Father? Who are You? (John 8:19, 25) They challenge His statements: Your testimony is not valid (John 8:13). In the midst of this conflict many Jews believed in Jesus.

30 As He was saying these things, many believed in Him. 31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. 32 You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 “We are descendants of Abraham,” they answered Him, “and we have never been enslaved to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus responded, “I assure you: Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 A slave does not remain in the household forever, but a son does remain forever. 36 Therefore, if the Son sets you free, you really will be free.
John 8:30-36 (HCSB)

Some of those who have been listening to Jesus are now new believers. The Pharisees are questioning, prodding, plotting and attempting to lure Jesus into a theological trap. As he speaks many of them are not aligning themselves with the Pharisees, but with Jesus. They believe Him and they believe in Him. It is to these new believers that Jesus makes a grand promise: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” What is the truth? How does it set us free?

Truth is not a philosophical proposition or a theoretical claim about the workings of the world. The truth is a person. His name is Jesus.

True freedom, not merely political or societal freedom, is centered in knowing Jesus, both objectively and experientially. The beauty of Jesus’ promise is that you can enjoy true freedom in any situation without changing where you live, how much money you make or who is running the government.

To really understand this freedom requires an objective knowledge of Jesus and His word. The first thing Jesus tells these new believers is to “continue in My word.” Those who are truly His followers will continue to learn and follow His word. He is not saying that you gain salvation by studying His word, but that you show your salvation by spending time in His word. This is a call to knowledge, to understanding objective truth. You must seek more knowledge of Jesus through His word. You will not experience real freedom unless you spend lots of time learning truth from God’s word. Without this revelation of truth in your life you will be trapped by falsehoods that will hold you prisoner to the very things from which Jesus desires to set you free.

Bible study should be done consistently. More than on Sunday mornings, the Bible should be a regular part of your reading. Read through it, chapters at a time. Read it in depth, spending time with small sections or short chapters. Read for an overall sense of the book and study for deeper knowledge. Read it instead of the devotional book or with the devotional book. Read it, then pick up the book about it. There is no substitute for reading His word.

Reading the Bible should be done systematically. Follow a reading plan or devise one yourself. Reading or studying through a book of the Bible gives you a sense of the entire counsel of God’s word. If you only read your favorite parts, you tend to only reinforce what you already know and are not challenged to deal with those truths that are uncomfortable or that do not support your preconceived notions.

As a side note, deep understanding isn’t required to become a believer, but it is required of those who are believers. Sometimes we emphasize a false idea that a person must know a lot of theology to become a Christian. The plain truth of Scripture is that all you need to know is that you have sinned and that God has provided a remedy for that sin in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Some people, after maturing in their understanding of truth, think, “I had no idea what I was doing when I was baptized. I didn’t understand the meaning of my sin or the depth of God’s forgiveness. I must not have been saved. I need to do it again.” While no one should be talked out of a deeper commitment to Christ, newfound knowledge does not negate childlike faith at the moment of salvation. Most of those who are married would say some of the same things about love and marriage: “We had no idea what it really meant when we exchanged vows at the altar. We didn’t understand the depth of commitment or patience required for marriage.” Immature ignorance about love and commitment does not mean a marriage is no longer valid.

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Who Are You?

Rahab the Harlot. Doubting Thomas. The “thief on the cross.” The “woman caught in adultery.”

You probably recognize the names and maybe even know their stories, at least how they received these monikers. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who hid Jewish spies, protecting them from the king of Jericho. Those spies gained crucial information in the conquest of Jericho and Rahab’s acts secured her future with Israel. In Joshua 2 and 6 she is called Rahab the prostitute 4 times, simply Rahab only twice; even in the New Testament she is Rahad the prostitute (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25) to identify her from the other Rahab’s found in scripture (Job 9:13; 26:12; Psalm 87:4; 89:10; Isaiah 30:7; 51:9; Matthew 1:5). Many remember her as a prostitute, but few may remember her acts of courage and of God’s provision for her.

Thomas was a twin and one of the twelve disciples, a faithful follower of Jesus who for some reason was found to be absent when Jesus first appeared to the disciples as recorded in John 20:19-23. When he heard of the appearance from the other ten he expressed his famous statement of doubt: “If I don’t see the mark of the nails in His hands, put my finger into the mark of the nails and put my hand into His side, I will never believe!” (John 20:25) Forever known from that point as Doubting Thomas, he was confronted by the resurrected Jesus eight days later. Jesus offered his hand and his side and Thomas responded with one of the first statements of the deity of Christ: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) It is interesting that many know to call him Doubting Thomas, but few may realize that his was one of the first recorded statements of Jesus’ deity.

The thief was one of three hanging on the cross that day. Joining him that day were one more thief and Jesus. His name is not known, he is recalled simply as the thief. He is remembered for his cry out to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when You come into your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42) Jesus responds with a promise: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) That promise assures those who believe and trust Jesus as Savior and Lord that there is immediate presence with Him after death and that there is nothing required for salvation beyond a faithful call to Him. This thief, in his simple request, leaves all Christendom with lessons about salvation that are spoken simply in his story.

As important and theologically significant as these individuals are in the story of faith, they are all popularly known for their mistakes and not their faith. Rahab is still called a prostitute. Thomas is still a doubter. The thief is, well, a thief. Be assured that today, as she stands in heaven, Rahab is not called a prostitute by her heavenly father and Thomas is not known as the doubter and the thief is called by his name, not by his sin.

I use these to illustrate what often happens in life. People are often called or known by what they have done wrong, not what God has made right. Everyone has committed sin and everyone has fallen short of the glory of God. You may have been able to hide your sin from the masses, or it may be well known. Sometimes there is no way to keep it secret. An out of wedlock birth, a DWI conviction, a public divorce or any other number of public transgressions cannot be hidden from others and can become the most common way others identify you. Even if it doesn’t become part of your name, like Rahab the prostitute, it can last as your reputation long after you have left that lifestyle or repented of the sin.

Even worse than the public humiliation, you might feel a private shame that never leaves. You might be haunted by your own past to the point where you are unable to go forward. You may not feel worthy to serve God or to speak on His behalf to others whose sin is less public. Without the benefit of God’s work and His truth on your life, your failures may define your identity for the rest of your life.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is hope for us all. Rahab, Thomas and the Remembered One each found new life and hope for an eternal future when they came to faith. This new identity is here for you also.

By faith you confess your own sinfulness and accept the truth that only the death of Christ can redeem you from the wrath of God. You commit your life to Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord. You are justified by His death, cleansed from all sin, adopted into the family of God and sealed by the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of your sure salvation. Now God’s work of sanctification begins. You bring to Him all of your mess of identity and He begins to remake you.

Do you remember your sins that have been forgiven? Do they follow you wherever you go? Have you allowed the truth of God to set you free from your past? Have you begun to live in the freedom promised in John 8:32?

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The downfall of man isn’t new – The Cain Generation

Have you noticed how our society seems to be turning farther away from righteousness and into greater denial of any moral compass at all? We are less likely to label anything as right or wrong and certainly less likely to feel guilty about anything. If someone does try to make us feel guilty, we have the wonderful spiritual retort that ends all conversation: “Judge not.” Jesus said it, so no one can do it. Is this new? Have we stumbled into a spiritual abyss never before known or experienced?

The short answer is, “No.”

Let’s go back to the beginning, the first man and woman. Adam and Eve committed the sin of eating from the one prohibited tree in the world. They could’ve eaten from any of the other trees, good fruit on all of them, yet they fell for the one thing that was off limits. We’ve examined their sin in depth over the years, but I want to look specifically at their response. When you read Genesis 3:7-10 there are several things that stick out in the aftermath of sin:
1. “they knew they were naked” – Suddenly Adam and Eve had a knowledge beyond the mere facts. They had been naked, but there had been no shame. Suddenly they saw things differently, sewed fig leaves together to mask the shame they felt and hid in the bushes from God. An instant earlier, they were naked, but without shame, without sin.
2. “they hid themselves from the Lord God” – The context seems to indicate that Adam and Eve had freely walked with the Lord through the garden, enjoying creation and spending time together. Now the relationship has been broken, there is something amiss and Adam and Eve know it. They hide, not wanting to face the Lord.
3. “I was afraid because I was naked” – Had it not occurred to Adam that he had always been naked and that in fact the Lord is the one who had created him. The Lord knew what he looked like naked. This was a holy fear, Adam knew he had violated the law. His fear wasn’t because of his lack of proper garments, but because he knew his own acts were in violation of the commands of his creator.

Now contrast this response with what happens in chapter 4, only one generation later. Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, out of pure jealousy commits the heinous murder of his own brother Abel.  Keep in mind that this murder happened after the Lord had spoken to Cain, warning him to fend off the sin “crouching at the door.”  Once the deed is done, how does Cain respond to his own sin?  You can read Genesis 4:9-16 to see.  Cain doesn’t hide.  The Lord finds Cain without any difficult search and Cain is defiant.
1. “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper.”  This response to the simple question of “where is your brother” is a picture of defiance.  Cain isn’t a seemingly innocent four year old pleading ignorance, he is a defiant adult confronted directly by the creator of the universe.  His response isn’t to hide or to be ashamed, but to pose ignorance thinking or hoping his transgression will be ignored by the Lord.  He has no intention of confessing to the sin, as far as he is concerned what he did was bring some justice to an unjust world.  His offering was rejected for no good reason and Abel’s was accepted for no good reason.  He had every right to demand satisfaction.  His murderous act wasn’t against Abel as much as it was against God.  Now to whom would God show favoritism?
2. “My punishment is too great”  Cain’s willingness to correct the Lord as He passes judgment is amazing.  Adam and Eve accepted their judgment without question.  “The Lord is the creator, He established the rules, we broke the rules.” But Cain rebels against the judgment.  “Who is God to make me live as a wanderer?”  He even complains about being hidden from the presence of the Lord, yet Cain himself was defiant of the Lord’s word.  How often today we want God, but only as we want Him, in our own convenience and acting in ways that please us.

So here we are, one generation removed from the Garden of Eden and humanity is in deep rebellion against the Lord.  Man is establishing his own rules, declaring his own truth and living by his own idea of right and wrong based mostly on selfish intent.  It doesn’t take us long to abandon the truth of God for our own truth, to trade relationship with the creator for selfish indulgence and to make our own desires so important that we willingly redefine the world to fit them.  So we will change the definition of words like marriage or life to fit our own indulgences.  We will chastise moralists who try to uphold a standard, marginalizing them by calling them judgmental bigots and extremists.  We will elevate tolerance as a supreme value except when faced with the intolerant traditionalist who dares voice an opinion that calls our actions into question.  An opinion, I might add, that would have been the standard belief of all the people in the world for most of world history.

As so we become the Cain Generation.