DESSERTS OR DESERTS?

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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COME AS YOU ARE

“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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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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GOING TRASH-FREE

A wise person is hungry for knowledge, while the fool feeds on trash. [Proverbs 15:14 (NLT)]

eastern tiger swallowtail butterflyEvery breakfast, lunch and dinner, a recent house guest consumed between five and fifteen supplements like flaxseed and fish oils, magnesium, vitamin D, calcium, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and resveratrol (among others). Annually, people like our guest spend around $35 billion on supplements, vitamins, minerals, botanicals, and other substances to enhance their health. It doesn’t stop there; every year, five million diet books are published, at least 17 million cookbooks are purchased, and $33 billion is spent on weight loss products. Add to that all of the magazines, food channels, websites, blogs, and podcasts dedicated to nutrition, recipes, and weight loss and you have a nation of people who seem obsessed with what goes into their bodies.

Recently, a several hours delay at the airport led me into one of the terminal’s newsstands. After browsing the magazine rack for something to read during the long wait, it occurred to me that our nation appears to be more concerned about what we feed our bodies than the material with which we nourish our minds. I’m no prude but just looking at the topics listed on the covers of many magazines caused me to blush and the exposed bodies on the covers should have made the models blush! Although the Bible is pretty clear about not gossiping, many of those magazines and tabloids were nothing but gossip about the private lives of various celebrities. Rather than being so concerned with the calories or fat grams we put in our bodies, we might want to give some consideration to what we put in our minds. Instead of going fat-free, we could try going trash-free!

If we go on a trash-free diet, however, we should give serious thought to the other things we consume. We have television programs with housewives unlike any I’ve ever met, bachelors and bachelorettes trying out one another the way King Xerxes did with Esther, and hook-ups instead of relationships. While I wouldn’t want to return to the 50s when Elvis’ gyrations meant he was televised only from the waist up, it seems that we’ve gone too far the other way as near naked entertainers twerk while singing disgusting lyrics like “Sex in the air, I don’t care … Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me.” As Christ followers, we should give serious thought to all that we consume, not just in print, but also on our phones, radios, iPods, computers, television, and movie screens.

The words and images we take in affect our spiritual well-being as much as food affects our physical health. If we want high-quality ideas and words to come out of us, we need first-rate ideas and words to enter into us. Are we looking at and listening to the media with the eyes and ears of Jesus or just mindlessly snacking on the equivalent of the empty calories found in junk food?

As for supplements—in actuality, the efficacy of many of my friend’s supplements is questionable; all they really do is create expensive urine. Supplementing our lives with daily Scripture, prayer, Bible study, Christian fellowship, and church, however, is guaranteed to make us better, stronger, and happier than any pill could!

Today, let’s spend more time thinking about our spiritual food than our daily bread.

Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength? Why pay for food that does you no good? Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food. Come to me with your ears wide open. Listen, and you will find life. [Isaiah 55:2-3a (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. [Philippians 4:8 (NLT)]

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