CLEAN GARMENTS

If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. [Romans 8:31-34 (NLT)]

star jasmine

Around 520 BC, the prophet Zechariah revealed God’s future deliverance through the Messiah to the Jews who had just returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian captivity. In Zechariah’s fourth vision, the high priest Jeshua stood before an angel of the Lord. Instead of being attired in the spotless white linen robe and turban of a priest, Jeshua’s clothing was filthy (the Hebrew word used was tsow’ and referred to the filth of excrement). Standing to the angel’s right, in a court prosecutor’s position, was Satan. The Hebrew word śāṭān means “accuser” or “adversary” and Satan was living up to his name by making accusations that the unclean priest was unworthy of standing before the Lord. Calling the priest “a burning stick that has been snatched from the fire,” the Lord rejected the accuser’s charges.

In Zechariah’s vision, Jeshua symbolized the nation of Israel, his foul clothing the sins of the people, and his rescue from the coals the nation’s release from their Babylonian exile. Satan, of course, had a vested interest in his accusations; if he could get God to reject Israel, God’s plan of redemption would be thwarted. It wasn’t as if God didn’t recognize Israel’s sin; they’d been punished with seventy years of captivity. God, however, hadn’t turned from His people because of their sins; having delivered them back to Jerusalem, they were still His people.

After the angels around Jeshua took off his filthy garments, the priest was told that his sins were removed and he was given new clothes and a clean turban. On the front of the priest’s turban would have been a medallion with the words “Holy to the Lord.” Just as Jeshua was reinstated as a priest with his clean priestly attire, the nation of Israel was cleansed and restored as a priestly nation and made holy to the Lord! What an amazing image this is. The filthy robe of sins was removed and replaced with garments of God’s righteousness.

What followed was a Messianic vision in which the Lord of Heaven’s Armies promised the coming of a servant called “the Branch,” the removal of all the land’s sins in a single day, and an era of peace and blessings when “each of you will invite your neighbor to sit with you peacefully under your own grapevine and fig tree.” [3:10]

What do Zachariah’s words from over 2,500 years ago mean to us? God’s chosen servant was Jesus; He was the promised Branch stemming from Adam, Abraham, and David. The day Jesus died on the cross was the single day when all our sins were removed! Although Satan continues to accuse us, Jesus is now at God’s right hand and, instead of indicting us, He is pleading for us!

Just as God didn’t reject Israel, He hasn’t rejected us. Because of God’s grace, like Jeshua, we can hand off our sin-covered garments to the Lord and have robes of righteousness returned. Our robes, however, are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Social distancing may have kept us from sitting under a tree with our neighbors, but that promised day of peace and plenty will happen when Jesus returns and reigns as King.

God will not lightly or easily lose His people. He has provided well for us: blood to wash us in; a Priest to pray for us, that we may be made to persevere; and, in case we foully fall, an Advocate to plead our cause. [John Bunyan]

They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. They will never again be hungry or thirsty; they will never be scorched by the heat of the sun. For the Lamb on the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” [Revelation 7:14,16-17 (NLT)]

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LIKE A CHILD

“I’m telling you the truth,” he said. “Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 18:3-4 (NTE)]

kiboni school - arusha - tanzaniaI used the NTE version of today’s verse because it better captures the original meaning with the words “turn inside out.” Usually translated as change, turn, or convert, the original Greek was strephō which meant more than a slight change of direction. It meant being turned (even from one thing into another) which requires submission. Far more than a mental acknowledgment or intellectual assent to certain ideas, it’s a turning of one’s whole life and person toward God. The kind of conversion or turning meant in strephō is like having one’s life turned inside out.

When Jesus said to become like children, He wasn’t telling us to act childish but to come to Him as would a child. When thinking of some of today’s often spoiled and demanding children, it’s easy to question His words. Children in His day, however, were far less presumptuous, self-sufficient, disrespectful or defiant than today’s youngsters. They were more like a little girl I encountered in Tanzania. She walked across the schoolyard, stopped, looked up at me and, with a shy smile, presented me with her foot. Her shoe needed tying and, as I knelt down in the dust to tie it, she was a perfect example of Jesus words. Knowing she wasn’t self-sufficient, she openly and humbly depended upon someone older and wiser. Trusting and unpretentious, this beautiful child came to me with a faith and simplicity that we adults don’t seem to have.

A child knows when he or she needs help and will freely ask and accept it. Adults, on the other hand, rarely admit their needs or weakness for fear of appearing vulnerable. We want to be in control but, if we’re ever going to enter into God’s Kingdom and enjoy His peace, we have to turn ourselves inside out, cede control and admit our powerlessness.

Any 12-step recovery program begins with admitting our helplessness but we don’t need to have an addiction or compulsive behavior to have our lives spin out of control. Without Jesus, we are broken beings separated from God and powerless over sin. We may be incapable of saving ourselves, but Jesus is not. What He won’t do, however, is force Himself upon us or chase after every loosened shoelace to tie it. It’s up to us to admit our need and turn to Him, as that child did to me.

I will always remember that brief encounter with a little girl who showed me what it means to turn and be like a child: with humility, trust, openness and a lack of self-sufficiency. The kingdom of God is not earned by human effort but is received in childlike trust as a gift through the mercy and grace of God.

With time, that little girl will become more self-sufficient and won’t need someone to tie her shoes. I pray, however, that she always will be willing to acknowledge her weakness and needs to God.

And this is what he said to me: “My grace is enough for you; my power comes to perfection in weakness.” So I will be all the more pleased to boast of my weaknesses, so that the Messiah’s power may rest upon me. [2 Corinthians 12:9 (NTE)]

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FEELING GUILTY

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! [Deuteronomy 32:4 (NLT)]

For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose. [Exodus 33:19b (NLT)]

sunflowerShe washes her hands with soap and water but, doubting the brown liquid coming from the faucet (water that’s unsafe to drink) could rid her hands of germs, my friend also uses hand sanitizer. She’s not in a third world country but at a Native American pueblo less than a half hour from a major American city. One third of its residents live in “poverty” and the rest aren’t much better. Several generations live together in overcrowded homes, no one has appliances like washers, dryers or dishwashers, and cell service is iffy at best. In spite of all they lack, the people she meets are kind and generous. Never apologetic for their homes, they welcome her and always offer food and bottled water; proud of their heritage, they invite her to their feasts. Serving this indigenous nation in a medical capacity, she tries to shake off the feeling of guilt as she pulls into her driveway. She knows that her ethnicity is much of the reason she enjoys a life easier than theirs.

The next day, she visits a juvenile detention center. In spite of its name, it’s a prison. The youth incarcerated there have committed serious crimes and many will move into the adult prison when old enough. She tries not to look at their criminal records but she can’t help seeing their troubled histories. In most cases, they are from broken homes or victims of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse. Some were given drugs and alcohol or turning tricks as young children. The dysfunction in their families makes the Gallaghers on Shameless look functional. My friend recognizes how different her life would have been had she not been born into the family God gave her. She knows she didn’t deserve her good childhood any more than those youngsters deserved their bad ones and she again feels a pang of guilt!

I understand my friend’s feelings; she is not alone. We’ve all thought, “There, but for the grace of God go I!” It’s often easier to feel forgiven and free of guilt for our sins than not to feel guilty for God’s blessings. While both forgiveness and blessed circumstances are undeserved—all believers get the one but not all believers get the other. God’s blessings seem inequitable at best; some people face seemingly endless obstacles and crises while others seem to breeze through life with only minor setbacks. It’s not just that bad things happen to good people and good things to bad but that we don’t all start out from a level playing field. Life, however, is not fair; if it were, Jesus never would have died for our sins!

The parable of the gracious landowner tells us that God is sovereign, righteous, and free to dispense His blessings any way he wants. Some inequities can be part of God’s design; for example, even before they were born, God chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. Most inequities, however, are because we live in a world with sin: one cursed with things like disease, prejudice, deception, pain, poverty, defect, injury, hate, suffering, and poor decisions.

We’re told to be like children and (whether or not they deserve it) I’ve never heard any child say, “You shouldn’t have!” when receiving a gift. Blessings should only generate thanks and praise. We always should be humble about God’s gifts but never ashamed of them. Yet, many of us feel guilty for our undeserved blessings and then even guiltier for feeling that way! Guilt of any kind is a gift from Satan, the accuser, and one we’re not meant to keep! Let us replace any guilt with gratitude.

The book of Job makes it abundantly clear that we will never understand the “why” of God’s ways. Instead of feeling guilty about our blessings and wondering why we’ve been given the life we have, let us accept it with joy. Our task is to be good and faithful stewards both by using our blessings wisely and by redistributing them to others. My friend does that every time she visits the pueblo or prison and brings both her medical training and the light of Jesus with her. We should only feel guilty about our blessings if we’re hoarding them rather than giving them away!

Nobody has a right to take credit for what he or she was born with—only for what they have done with it. [Sydney J. Harris]

Who and what you now are is a gift from God in King Jesus, who has become for us God’s wisdom – and righteousness, sanctification and redemption as well; so that, as the Bible puts it, “Anyone who boasts should boast in the Lord.” [1 Corinthians 1:30-31 (NTE)]

What about people who are rich in this present world? Tell them not to think of themselves too highly, and to set their hopes, not on something so uncertain as riches, but on the God who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and eager to share. That way, they will treasure up for themselves a good foundation for the future, and thereby come to possess the life which really is life. [1 Timothy 6:17-19 (NTE)]

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THE GRACIOUS LANDOWNER

The wages paid by sin, you see, are death; but God’s free gift is the life of the age to come, in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 (NTE)]

In Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus telling the disciples about a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his harvest. The landowner went out again at mid-morning, lunchtime, and in mid-afternoon to hire more idle laborers to join the harvest, each time promising them the right wage. Finally, shortly before quitting time, he saw more men standing around. Since no one had hired them for the day, the landowner offered them a job and the new laborers joined the rest of the workers in the vineyard.

When quitting time arrived, the landowner gathered his workers to receive their wages. He paid the last ones hired first and, even though they’d worked only one hour, the latecomers received a full day’s wage of a denarius. When the first-hired laborers received only one denarius, they protested. Rather than complaining about the wage they received, however, the laborers really were complaining about the landowner’s generosity and benevolence toward the other workers! He’d done nothing wrong by showing extra kindness to the latecomers; in fact, the Torah valued benevolence. Reminding the men that they received the wage upon which they had agreed, the landowner pointed out that he was free the pay his laborers whatever he desired, whether deserved or not. “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” he asked the disgruntled men.

We might wonder why the landowner kept going out and hiring more laborers. Was it because he needed them to complete the work faster or could it have been because those unemployed laborers needed the wage? God wants everyone saved and, when we accept God’s invitation to be His followers, we will be given his grace, no matter when we accept his offer. The Christian-come-lately will get the same grace as God’s faithful long-term servants.

Since we live in a world of earning and deserving, it’s easy to think we can earn God’s grace. This parable, however, tells us that grace can’t be calculated like wages because grace can’t be earned. God’s grace is not a wage for works but an unearned gift from God. Moreover, like the landowner, God is sovereign in dispensing His grace and blessings. His mercy and unconditional love are His alone to give.

You have been saved by grace, through faith! This doesn’t happen on your own initiative; it’s God’s gift. It isn’t on the basis of works, so no one is able to boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9 (NTE)]

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PENTECOST

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. [John 14:16-18 (NLT)]

roseate spoonbill

After His resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with his disciples. On the fortieth day, He told them to remain in Jerusalem until they received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. Then, with his followers watching, Jesus was taken up in a cloud and ascended into heaven. Bewildered, the disciples stood there until two angels promised that someday Jesus would return. We know the disciples attended to business by choosing a replacement for Judas, but how else did they spend their time? There were twelve apostles and about 120 believers. How difficult was it for this diverse group of people to keep the faith and wait ten days for something which seemed so perplexing? Where was this Holy Spirit promised to them? When would Jesus return? Did they grow impatient or begin to doubt what they’d seen with their eyes?

Yesterday was Pentecost (meaning fiftieth). At that first Pentecost, all of Jesus’ followers were gathered together because the Jewish holiday of Shavu’ot was being observed. Also called the Feast of Weeks, Shavu’ot (or Pentecost) occurred seven weeks after Passover and celebrated both the first harvest and Moses being given the law at Mt. Sinai. It was one of three pilgrimage festivals when all able-bodied Jewish men were required to visit the temple and offer sacrifices.

It was on this fiftieth day after Jesus’ resurrection that the Holy Spirit, accompanied by high winds and tongues of fire, descended upon Christ’s followers. As every believer was filled with the Spirit’s power, he or she began to speak in other languages. Shavu’ot had brought together Jews from fifteen or more different regions, each with its own language, and yet everyone was able to understand the Spirit-filled Christians as they spoke. The Holy Spirit had empowered the disciples to bring Christ’s message of salvation to all people.

It hardly seems an accident that God chose Shavu’ot for such a miraculous event to occur and not just because Jerusalem was teeming with people from far and wide. On a day when people went to the temple to be in God’s presence, the Holy Spirit’s arrival meant that God could always be present in His people. On a day that commemorated the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai—an external means of keeping Israel from sin—the Holy Spirit descended and believers no longer had to adhere to laws carved on stone. By His power, the law was now written on their hearts and, through Him, believers could live righteously. On a day that celebrated the first harvest, 3,000 people were baptized. That incredible first harvest of souls marked the beginning of the New Testament church. So, in a way, while Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, Pentecost celebrates the birth of the Christian church.

Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away—all who have been called by the Lord our God.” [Acts 2:38-39 (NLT)]

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PERPETUAL

I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life. [John 5:24 (NLT)]

monarch - caterpillar - butterflyDeath is the consequence of sin—of living in a fallen world—but Jesus promised that all believers have eternal life. In the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm our belief in this “life everlasting.” Eternal life, life in perpetuity, life forever and ever: how can that be? For centuries thousands of inventors have attempted to make a perpetual motion machine that will run indefinitely with no input of energy and have failed every time. Apparently perpetual motion violates the first and second laws of thermodynamics. If perpetual motion is an impossibility, perpetual life seems improbable, as well. It seems to violate all sorts of natural laws let alone human logic. God, however, isn’t limited by thermodynamics, any other law of nature, or human understanding; after all, He’s the author of them all!

The Greek word translated as “eternal” is aiónios which means eternal, forever, everlasting or perpetual. When combined with the Greek zoe (meaning life), it focuses not just on quantity of time but also on the quality of that time! The eternal life promised in the gospel isn’t just about the number of years; it is about the fullness of that unending life. Independent of time as we know it, eternal life is not something for which we need to hope. Jesus didn’t promise eternal life at some point in the future. Using the present tense, He said that “anyone who believes has eternal life” [John 6:47] For Christians, eternal life starts when we first believe in Christ. It has begun!

When our heart stops beating, our brain ceases functioning, and life has ebbed out of our body, we won’t stop existing. We will, however, change form. The caterpillar that wriggles along leaves and branches with its sixteen legs looks nothing like the butterfly whose beautiful wings enable it to flit from flower to flower. Nevertheless, they are the same creature with the same DNA. It will be much like that for us when we leave this dimension and enter into the next. While our bodies as we knew them will cease to exist in this world, our spirit or soul will continue into the next and (unlike a butterfly) last forever!

As a believer who is closer to the end of her years than the beginning, I find comfort in knowing that Jesus has already made good on His promise of eternal life. It’s mine already! When the time comes for my last breath, it simply will be like going to sleep as a caterpillar and awakening as a perpetual butterfly.

For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. [1 Peter 1:23 (NLT)]

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