But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” [Luke 23:40-41 (NLT)]

wild turkeyWe’re hosting family and friends for Thanksgiving dinner and I’m still planning the menu. One guest won’t eat anything green, another doesn’t eat seafood, one dislikes turkey, and two are vegetarians. While I’m still working on appetizers, salad, main course and sides, dessert is a given. Between the sweets our guests are bringing and my pecan pumpkin pie topped with caramel sauce and whipped cream, even the pickiest eater will be happy! I probably could please everyone with just desserts!

Thinking of eating just desserts reminded me of a show I saw several years ago about non-traditional Thanksgiving menus. Prepared by the owner of a confectionery, the entire meal consisted of sweets masquerading as traditional savory holiday dishes. The turkey was formed of dark and light chocolate and the mashed potatoes and gravy were a white cake heaped in a bowl, topped with buttercream frosting, and drizzled with butterscotch syrup. The dinner rolls were doughnuts, the yams were sweet pumpkin soufflé, and the peas were made of marzipan. After their initial dismay, everyone enjoyed eating just desserts. In fact, upon cleaning his dinner plate, one little boy asked for dessert!

The life God give us isn’t like that holiday dinner of just desserts; there always will be things like sadness, trouble, loss, and pain. We didn’t enjoy them the first time around and certainly don’t want second or third helpings. Nevertheless, like that little boy, rather than relishing whatever sweetness we’re given, we often think we deserve more. While we might prefer a life of just desserts, what we don’t want is one of just deserts!

You see, in spite of their similar pronunciation, the phrases “just desserts” and “just deserts” are not the same thing.  “Just deserts” uses a now obsolete definition of “desert” as “something that is deserved” and precedes the mid-16th century concept of an after dinner sweet called “dessert” by several hundred years.

In fact, we’re blessed that God doesn’t give us our just deserts. As sinners, we don’t even deserve the blessings we’ve already been given. We certainly don’t deserve God’s love—a love so great that He sacrificed His only son for us. Without sin, Jesus didn’t get His just deserts when he suffered on the cross; He took our just deserts! Dying so that we might live, our Lord got what He didn’t deserve so that we could receive what we didn’t! We deserve condemnation and punishment but God’s mercy gives us love and forgiveness. Let’s be careful when we demand what we truly deserve from God; we don’t want Him to give us our just deserts!

The Gospel is good news of mercy to the undeserving. The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales. [John Stott]

He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve. For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. [Psalm 103:10-12 (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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“Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.” So the servants brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the banquet hall was filled with guests. [Matthew 22:9-10 (NLT)]

My in-laws were great ones for giving theme parties. When they hosted a “Backwards Party,” guests entered through the back door, wore their clothes backwards (which my mother-in-law admitted made it difficult for the men), and ate dessert before dinner. At another get-together, attendees came dressed as children, received jump ropes and jacks, pulled taffy, and played games like “Mother May I?” and “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” My introduction to their parties was in 1966 when they turned their house into a Prohibition era speakeasy and guests needed a password to enter. Women dressed as flappers while the men wore fedoras, vests, and spats. Another party had the theme, “Come as You Wish You Had Been.” My mother-in-law, dressed in shorts with a whistle around her neck, came as the PE teacher she once dreamed of becoming and my father-in-law dressed as the train conductor he once aspired to be. Other attendees dressed as ballerinas, weight lifters, princesses, cowboys, or baseball players.

The one theme party they never hosted was “Come as You Are!” After all, no one wants to come as they are. If we can’t be someone else entirely, at least we want to be a better version of ourselves! If I were invited to a “Come as You Are” party, I know I would cheat. I’d change out of my yoga pants, tee, and Crocs into an outfit that would suggest my life is far more exciting than it really is. Then I’d put on make-up, touch up my nails, comb my hair, and spritz on perfume before leaving the house. Yet, “Come as you are!” is exactly how God invites us to come to Him.

We don’t have to be neat, clean or accomplished, nor do we have to repair what’s broken in our lives to accept the invitation to Jesus’ party. Our Lord didn’t invite the elite or influential to be his disciples; He invited twelve ordinary, uneducated, and imperfect men. He knew Peter was impulsive, John and James hot-tempered, Judas flawed, and Matthew a traitorous tax-collector. The woman at the well and the thief on the cross didn’t have to pretend to be anything but the sinners they were and neither do we! The blind, lame, adulterous, afflicted, possessed, soiled and corrupt—they all came to Jesus, not as the innocent children they once were nor as they once wished they could have been, but just as they were. It’s hard to believe that our perfect God could love and accept us, as imperfect and flawed as we are, but He does.

Although we can come to Him as we are, make no mistake about it, we won’t remain that way. We must shed the old us and put on the new in the same way that Saul, the self-righteous Pharisee, did when he became Paul, the Apostle. When we accept Jesus’ invitation to come as we are, He will make of us what we should be.

The church is not a select circle of the immaculate, but a home where the outcast may come in. It is not a palace with gate attendants and challenging sentinels along the entrance-ways holding off at arm’s-length the stranger, but rather a hospital where the broken-hearted may be healed, and where all the weary and troubled may find rest and take counsel together. [James H. Aughey]

Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” [Luke 5:31-32 (NLT)]

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. [Colossians 3:10-11 (NLT)]

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What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Matthew 23:27-28 (NLT)]

purple coneflowerJesus often took the Pharisees to task, not for their theology, but for their behavior. With the Talmud’s description of seven different kinds of Pharisees, six of whom were contemptible, we know that the Jews were not unaware of their failings. Since Jesus was well-versed in Jewish law and tradition, I wonder if He was thinking about the Talmud’s list when He pronounced seven woes upon the scribes and Pharisees.

The Talmud mentions the Shikmi or “Shoulder” Pharisee who ostentatiously wore his good works on his shoulder for all to see. Next was the Nikip Pharisee; he was the “Stumbling” or “Wait-a-Minute” fellow who could always find a good deed that needed to be done and a reason why he couldn’t do it. The Kizai was the “Bruised” or “Bleeding” Pharisee who was so sanctimonious that he kept his eyes turned away from any woman. As a result, he kept bumping into things and hurting himself. The “Hump-Backed” or “Mortar and Pestle” Pharisee pretentiously showed his extreme humility by remaining bent over and shuffling his feet. Believing that God owed Him for every good he did, the “Ever-Reckoning” or “Always-Counting” Pharisee self-righteously kept score of his good deeds and the “Timid” or “Fearful” Pharisee did good works only out of fear that God would punish him if he didn’t. The seventh type was the “God-Loving” or “God-Fearing” Pharisee who really loved God and did good deeds to please the Lord. Perhaps Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to Jesus personally, defended Him, and brought spices to His grave was such a man.

Jesus’ words of condemnation shouldn’t be limited to 1st Century Pharisees; they hold true for all of us. What might Jesus say about some of those who profess to be His followers today? Thinking of the seven kinds of Pharisee, I replaced the word “Pharisee” with “Christian” and saw much that was recognizable in the 21st century church.

There are plenty of “Shoulder” believers who subtly manage to make sure everyone is aware of their good works. If we don’t pat them on the back, they’ll do it for us. Yet, Jesus told us not to do our good works for the admiration of others. As for the “Wait-a-Minute” believers, if you’ve ever served on a church committee, you’ve met one (or more) of these. “Yes, it needs to be done but I can’t do it now,” is their permanent response to any call. They forget that sins of omission are no less wrong than sins of commission. When I reflect on the scandals and abuse that have rocked our churches, I think of the “Bruised” believer—the one who so publicly and virtuously denounces sexual sin while secretly bumping right into it. Then there’s the “Hump-Backed” believer whose pious self-effacement and insincere humility beg for public praise. False modesty is no more attractive in a Christian than it was for a Pharisee.

We also have the “Always-Counting” believers who can list every noble thing they’ve ever done (and every ignoble one done by anyone else). Thinking their score card entitles them to preferred treatment, they get angry with God when life goes awry. Good works, however, are to be done from the heart and not as a way of warding off trouble. Moreover, God is the only one allowed to keep score and any reward will occur in in the next life, not this one. The “Fearful” believer is the one who can’t accept his salvation or believe that he’s really forgiven. Afraid of hellfire and damnation, he tries to earn his ticket into heaven with good works. Salvation, however, is God’s gift and can’t be earned. Saving the best for last, we come to the “God-loving” believer, the one who does good works, not for praise, brownie points, or to ward off trouble, but out of love for God and his fellow man.

If Jesus walked into your church today, which of the seven would you be?

But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven! [Matthew 5:20 (NLT)]

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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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