ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME

Photo: Dennis Johnson

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. … Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:13-14,17 (NLT)]

Last week, I missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—the longest lunar eclipse to occur in a span of 1,000 years. The last time a lengthy lunar eclipse happened was in 1440 and the next one won’t occur until 2669! Although I woke in the middle of the night and remembered the eclipse, I let the threat of clouds, the inconvenience of going outside in the middle of the night, and the lure of sleep deter me. Instead of seizing the opportunity, I rolled over and went back to sleep. Although it will be much shorter, I can always see another lunar eclipse next year. Then again, there’s no guarantee that the sky will be clear that night or that I’ll be awake (or even alive) between midnight and 3:00 AM on May 22! A missed opportunity is missed forever!

When pondering once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, I think of the time Jesus passed through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem. A blind man named Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that Jesus was passing by, he called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Annoyed by his cries, the crowd following Jesus yelled at him to be quiet. Perhaps, like many of their time, they considered illness and disability God’s punishment for one’s sins and didn’t think the blind man deserved Jesus’ attention. In any case, Bartimaeus was not to be deterred. Taking the opportunity before him, he called out so loudly and persistently that Jesus heard the blind man’s voice, called to him, and restored the man’s sight.

As Jesus walked through Jericho, a wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus wanted to catch a glimpse of the famous rabbi. A little man, Zacchaeus was too short to see over people’s heads and couldn’t push his way to the front of the crowd. As the chief tax-collector, he probably was the most hated man in Jericho and no one was about to make way for the man. In fact, Zacchaeus probably was shoved around by the crowd and may have encountered a few deliberate pokes in his ribs. Like Bartimaeus, however, the publican was not about to be deterred. He ran ahead (a very undignified thing for a government official) and climbed up a sycamore tree to get a view of Jesus as He passed. Seeing his determination, Jesus called him down and invited himself to the tax man’s house.

That day, Jesus restored the sight of Bartimaeus and brought salvation to the home of Zacchaeus but what if those two men had allowed the opportunity to know Jesus slip past them? Like most, they thought Jesus was going to Jerusalem for Passover and would be passing back through town again. Thinking they’d catch Jesus next time He came through town, they easily could have allowed the crowd to deter them. Jesus, however, was on His way to the cross and that one day in Jericho was their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Regretfully, I’ve missed far more important opportunities than seeing a six-hour lunar eclipse—opportunities to be kind, helpful, compassionate, and generous. I’ve allowed myself to be deterred from opportunities to witness, defend, advocate, assist, and support. Like Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus, we don’t know if today is the last day a particular opportunity will arise nor do we know what tomorrow will bring. Today, let us take advantage of all the God-given opportunities it offers.

If today were your last, would you do what you’re doing? Or would you love more, give more, forgive more? Then do so! Forgive and give as if it were your last opportunity. Love like there’s no tomorrow, and if tomorrow comes, love again. [Max Lucado]

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (NLT)]

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. [Galatians 6:9-10 (NLT)]

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NEW WINE (Matthew 9:16-17 – Part 2)

But now we have been cut loose from the law; we have died to the thing in which we were held tightly. The aim is that we should now be enslaved in the new life of the spirit, not in the old life of the letter. [Romans 7:6 (NTE)]

concord grapesWhen explaining to some of John the Baptist’s followers why His disciples didn’t fast, along with the illustration of patching an old garment, Jesus compared His new way with winemaking. While many of us have sewn patches on clothing, few of us are experienced winemakers. Nevertheless, we know that today’s vintners ferment their wine in oak, stainless, concrete, or clay barrels rather than wineskins. Our only experience with wineskins may hearken back to college football games and ski trips when some fellows carried a wineskin filled with an alcoholic beverage hidden under their coats.

In the 1st century, however, wine often was fermented in large wineskins made from animal hide or bladders. Like new material sewn on old fabric, new wine in old skins also would be a failure. When unfermented juice was put into a skin and left to age, gasses would form. Although new wineskins were pliable enough to hold both wine and gasses as they fermented, old skins were hard and brittle. Without elasticity, the old skins would be unyielding as the new wine expanded during fermentation. Eventually, the old skins would burst and both wineskin and wine would be spoiled.

Thinking of new wine, today is Beaujolais Nouveau Day in France. Observed with music, fireworks and festivals, it celebrates the release of the first wine of the season. Bottled and sold just six weeks after harvest, Beaujolais Nouveau is intended for immediate drinking. I thought of this fruity red when Jesus concluded His two parables with these words in Luke 5:39: “But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say.”

With Beaujolais Nouveau, people who prefer the old to the new are correct. In spite of its popularity, Beaujolais Nouveau rarely lives up to its promise and never is as rich as properly aged red wine. The result of shortcuts and additives, unlike other wines, it doesn’t even improve with age. Calling it “near wine,” wine critics have compared Beaujolais Nouveau to eating raw cookie dough.

Jesus, however, wasn’t talking about new wine; He was talking about the difference between the old religious legalism of the Pharisees and the new way of God’s grace found in Him. He cautioned that it is far easier to fall back into the old familiar ways than to take on anything new. Grace through faith was a radical idea and Jesus knew He couldn’t put new ideas into inflexible closed minds. For many people, it was easier to remain in a life governed by laws and regulations than to step out in faith and live according the Spirit.

Unlike Beaujolais Nouveau, the rich life found in Christ isn’t the result of shortcuts or additives. Following Him lives up to its promise and only gets richer and better with time. Like Beaujolais Nouveau, however, the message of hope and salvation Jesus brought into the world is worthy of celebration (and not just on the third Thursday of November)!

Then he took some bread. He gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them. “This is my body,” he said, “which is given for you. Do this in memory of me.” So too, after supper, with the cup: “This cup,” he said, “is the new covenant, in my blood which is shed for you.” [Luke 22:19-20 NTE]

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SEWING ON A PATCH (Matthew 9:16-17 – Part 1)

juvenile green heronYou have stripped off the old human nature, complete with its patterns of behaviour, and you have put on the new one – which is being renewed in the image of the creator, bringing you into possession of new knowledge. In this new humanity there is no question of ‘Greek and Jew’, or ‘circumcised and uncircumcised’, of ‘barbarian, Scythian’, or ‘slave and free’. The king is everything and in everything!  [Colossians 3: 9-11 (NTE)]

Even though it wasn’t required, zealous Jews like the Pharisees and John the Baptist’s ascetic disciples fasted twice a week. For many of them, their religion had become one of laws, rituals, and works. When some of John’s followers questioned why Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast as did they, Jesus explained with the illustration of patching an old garment with new fabric.

No 1st century seamstress would sew a new piece of unshrunk cloth onto a worn and washed piece of clothing and not just because the two pieces wouldn’t match. Ancient cloth was usually wool or linen, both of which shrunk when washed. After the garment was washed, the new patch would shrink causing it to pucker and pull away from the old. Such a repair job would only make the original tear larger. Cutting a hole out of new fabric would ruin it, as well. The new way of Jesus, a way of grace rather than law, relationship rather than ritual, and faith rather than works, could not be patched into the old religious practices of Judaism.

It’s important to remember that Jesus never said the garment was bad, only that it was old. In fact, the Greek word translated as old was palaios. Meaning old in the sense of worn out and decrepit, palaios conveyed the sense of being obsolete, antiquated, or on its last legs. The garment had served its purpose and it was time for a new one!

Jesus’ way couldn’t be patched into the old religious practices of Judaism and His simple illustration made it clear that, in spite of their shared beginning, Christianity is not an extension or Version 2.1 of Judaism. Rather than repairing or reforming Judaism, He inaugurated a brand-new covenant. He didn’t improve the old system; He replaced it with a new version of man’s relationship with God. Jesus didn’t die on the cross just to repair us; He died and rose again to make us new!

Thus, if anyone is in the Messiah, there is a new creation! Old things have gone, and look – everything has become new! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NTE)]

Don’t suppose that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfil them! [Matthew 5:17]

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HE ALWAYS ANSWERS

Why do you accuse God of not answering anyone?  God does speak—sometimes one way and sometimes another—even though people may not understand it. He speaks in a dream or a vision of the night when people are in a deep sleep, lying on their beds. He speaks in their ears and frightens them with warnings to turn them away from doing wrong and to keep them from being proud. [Job 33:13-17 (NCV)]

monarch butterflyWhile sorting through comic strips I’d saved, I came across an old Beetle Bailey (written by Greg and Mort Walker). In it, the inept General Halftrack approaches the chaplain and says, “I’d like to talk to God like you do, but when I try to talk to him, He doesn’t answer.” Chaplain Stainglass replies, “Maybe you’ve been calling the wrong number!” Indeed, sometimes the silence seems deafening when we call on God but I don’t think it’s because we’ve called the wrong number. The general simply may have hung up too quickly! Abraham determinedly pled for the city of Sodom, Hannah untiringly prayed for a son, Elijah persisted in praying for rain, and the Syrophoenician woman stubbornly begged Jesus to heal her daughter. They continued to call and God answered them all! Then again, maybe the General was so busy talking, that he didn’t hear God answer him!

The General may have missed the answer because he didn’t recognize God’s voice. Perhaps he expected to hear an audible voice as did Moses in the meeting tent or Paul on the road to Damascus. Maybe the general imagined God’s words would come from an angel as they did to Mary and the shepherds long ago. Most of us, however, will have neither a face-to-face meeting with God nor an encounter with a host of angels. It’s more likely that God will use the voices of other believers when He talks to us as He did with the prophets to Israel and Judah, Jethro to Moses, Samuel to Saul, and Paul to Timothy.

Nature and natural events are another way God speaks. The thunder, lightning, quaking and smoke at Mt. Sinai certainly made God’s presence clear to the Israelites. He spoke through both a flood and a rainbow to Noah and a star to the Magi. Because God has a specific plan for our lives, we also will find God’s voice in our circumstances. When, like the Israelites, we find ourselves between an army and the sea or a rock and a hard place, He may be telling us to trust Him. If, like Jonah, we end up in the belly of a whale, He might be teaching us about obedience. Sometimes God’s even speaks through the supernatural as He did to Gideon with the fleece, to Moses with the burning bush, to Balaam with a talking donkey, and to King Belshazzar with writing on the wall.

Dreams and visions are another way God speaks. It was in a dream that God told Abimelech that Sarah was Abraham’s wife and a vision led Ananias to visit Paul. In one dream, Jacob saw angels ascending and descending from a ladder and, in another, God told him to return home. It was through Joseph’s dreams God spoke to him and through Pharaoh’s dreams that Joseph knew of Egypt’s future famine.

God also He speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. While some refer to Him as that “still small voice,” the Holy Spirit is anything but still or small when He points out our sins or has an assignment for us. Speaking to our hearts and often through our conscience, the Holy Spirit helps us discern God’s will, convicts us when we go astray, and gives us a sense of peace when we’ve taken the right path.

Perhaps the General forgot that God already provided him with plenty of answers in the Bible. All of scripture is God-breathed and His word is filled with wisdom and guidance. The words of Jesus are as relevant today as they were over 2,000 years ago. We, however, have to do our part by reading those words!

Like the General, we all have times when it seems God is away from his desk and ignoring our calls. The problem isn’t with God; it’s with us. We’re just not listening with our ears, eyes and hearts!

And the sheep listen to the voice of the shepherd. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he brings all his sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. … My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. [John 10:3-4,27 (NCV)]

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DAILY AFFIRMATIONS

For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. [1 Corinthians 4:20 (NLT)]

little blue heronThirty years ago, Al Franken played a character on Saturday Night Live named Stuart Smalley. Host of a fictitious self-help show called “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley,” Stuart would look into in a mirror and affirm that he was good enough, smart enough, and that people liked him. A member of several twelve-step programs, Stuart often shared maxims like, “Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt!” along with affirmations that he was entitled to his share of happiness and (my personal favorite) that it is easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world.

Even though we laughed at Stuart’s corny affirmations, what we say to ourselves is important. The word affirmation comes from the Latin word affirmare, which means to make steady or strengthen. Affirmations really do strengthen us because they can break the cycle of negative thoughts that lead to negative speech and actions. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.”

Last May, Jonathon Borge, Senior Editor of Oprah Daily, compiled 40 daily affirmations. It’s no surprise that most quotes came from life-coaches, motivational speakers, self-help authors, and Oprah. One notable exception was boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s: “I am the greatest!” First said in 1964, Ali may or may not have been the greatest boxer but, as Christians, we know that God is greater. Ali’s was a prideful affirmation bordering on blasphemy! Life-coach Tim Storey’s affirmation was, “Your life is about to be incredible.” That’s probably true as far as it goes since Storey never specified incredibly what. Incredibly difficult, confusing, boring, exciting, happy, painful, easy, or sad? We must never forget that, along with an abundant life, Jesus promised troubles so it will be all of those things at one time or another.

Self-help author Louise Hay’s affirmation was, “I am in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing.” While that’s a great way to justify our situation and actions, it’s not true. While they may have been in the right place at the right time, Adam and Eve didn’t do the right thing when they disobeyed God, nor did Jacob when he impersonated Esau, Rachel when she stole her father’s idols, Aaron when he fashioned the golden calf, David when he bedded Bathsheba, Solomon when he amassed his enormous harem, Peter when he denied knowing Jesus, the Pharisees when they falsely accused Jesus, or John Mark when he abandoned Paul. Sadly, being in the right place at the right time doesn’t mean we’re doing the right thing!

As Christians, what sort of things should we affirm? Rather than turning to Stuart Smalley, self-help authors, or talk show hosts, perhaps we should look to God’s Word to guide us. God’s promise found in Isaiah 41:10 tell us that we can face life with confidence: “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” We can affirm an attitude of thanksgiving with the words of 1 Chronicles 16:34: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.” With the words of Ephesians 4:32, we can affirm how we’ll treat others: “Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” The words of 1 Peter 4:8 affirm our love for our neighbors: “Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Because of Galatians 5:22-23, we can choose to be filled with His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The words of Psalm 118 affirm that we can know that God is good, His faithful love endures forever, He is our strength and song, and that His love endures forever. Perhaps my favorite affirmation of all is found in verse 24: “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” It’s one with which I start my day.

We don’t have to look in a mirror to convince ourselves of our value or that we are loved. We know because the Bible tells us so!

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)

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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FOUR GENERATIONS

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. [Ephesians 1:4-6 (NLT)]

black skimmersSince there are about 25 genealogy lists in the Bible, genealogy must be important to both God and His people. Genealogies were important to the Jews since priests and Levites could serve only if they were of pure ancestry. In Chronicles we saw how genealogies provide a connection between generations and the promises made to their ancestors. Matthew and Luke’s genealogies were important to Jewish believers because they showed that Jesus came from the Davidic line and important to Gentiles because Jesus’ Gentile ancestry shows that God sent His son for all people. What do they mean to Christians today?

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) had an interesting take on genealogies in his book Good Thoughts in Bad Times, Together with Good Thoughts in Worse Times, Consisting of….Scripture Observations…. Published in 1659, the complete title is 34 words long so I took the liberty of shortening it along with bringing some of Fuller’s old English spelling into 21st century. When writing about our Lord’s genealogy found in Matthew 1:7-8, the churchman and historian observed the following:

“Lord, I find the genealogy of my Saviour strangely checkered with four remarkable changes in four immediate generations. (1) Rehoboam begat Abijam; that is, a bad father begat a bad son. (2) Abijam begat Asa; that is, a bad father, a good son. (3) Asa begat Jehoshaphat; that is, a good father, a good son. (4) Jehoshaphat begat Jehoram; that is, a good father, a bad son.

I see, Lord, from hence, that my father’s piety cannot be entailed [transmitted]; that is bad news for me. But I see also that actual impiety is not always hereditary; that is good news for my son.”

The power-hungry Rehoboam looked only to his desires rather than his people’s needs and his harshness in taxing the people excessively caused the division of the nation. During his troubled reign, he married foreign women and pagan practices flourished as Judeans set up Asherah poles, sacred pillars, and pagan shrines. 1 Kings tells us Rehoboam’s son, Abijah, was unfaithful to the Lord and committed the same sins as did his father. As Fuller pointed out—like father, like son!

Abijah was the father of Asa. Scripture tells us that, in spite of his sinful father and pagan mother, Asa “did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight … [and] remained completely faithful to the Lord.” That Asa was one of Judah’s good kings shows that having a bad father doesn’t condemn one to being a bad man. While “like father, like son” doesn’t necessarily hold true, good king Asa’s son, Jehoshaphat, was like his father and “did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight.” Sadly, we then come to Jehoshaphat’s son Jehoram. 2 Kings compares him to the northern kingdom’s evil king Ahab. Jehoram “did what was evil in the Lord’s sight” and even allied himself with Ahab by marrying one of his daughters. Clearly, as Fuller pointed out, a father’s godliness and virtue cannot be inherited. The good news, of course, is that neither can a father’s wickedness.

Fuller’s observation about these four generations reminds us that we each are responsible for our own actions. The good news of the gospel tells us that no matter who our ancestors are or what they did, we don’t have to be victims of our heredity, childhood, or circumstances. Although we inherit genes, we don’t inherit character. As Christians, our family is not determined by bloodline or the people with whom we grew up. We have a new family—God’s family! Because of Jesus, we were adopted by God, brought into His family, and became heirs to His kingdom. We have a good Father and, because of the Holy Spirit, we can be His good sons and daughters!

Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. [Romans 8:15-17 (NLT)]

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