Are You Agitated?

For the week of June 3, 2017 / 9 Sivan 5777

Young man, deep in thought

Naso
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25

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And the woman bore a son and called his name Samson. And the young man grew, and the LORD blessed him. And the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol. (Shoftim/Judges 13:24-25)

The story of Samson (Hebrew: Shimshon) is a troubling one. Clearly he is especially chosen by God to make a positive difference in his day, but on a personal level, he is pretty much dysfunctional. For some Bible readers this is problematic. But I think that’s because we tend to have difficulty accepting that God might use a person of questionable character. Yet the Bible demonstrates how God uses both good and bad people to accomplish his purposes. That he uses someone in no way validates them. It is reasonable to assume that God would have preferred Samson be of much more noble character, but it should be comforting to know that a person’s irresponsible behavior can’t undermine God’s purposes (at least not in the long run). We are not looking at Samson this week to derive life lessons on virtue. Instead, we will focus on an aspect of how to discern God’s will in spite of Samson’s character.

Before Samson began to live out his God-given call, we read in our Haftarah (supplemental Scripture reading): “the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him” (Shoftim/Judges 13:5). The Hebrew word translated “stir” is “pa-am” and conveys the idea of being troubled. It’s how Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, were feeling after their hard-to-understand dreams (see Bereshit/Genesis 41:8 & Daniel 2:1-2). In Samson’s case, it wasn’t dreams that made him feel that way, but God. My guess is that the Bible translators resisted using more negative-sounding words, such as “troubled” or “anxious,” since God was the cause. But even though “stir” sounds more positive (or at least not negative) the result is similar. God caused Samson to experience some sort of internal agitation. How the biblical narrator understood the source of the agitation to be God, we don’t know. Regardless, we are to understand that it was this stirring that moved Samson to engage the oppressive situation Israel was under at that time.

I wonder if it is possible to misunderstand the stirring of the Lord in our lives. Could it be that there are people who right now are experiencing agitation from God and don’t know that it is from him? We may find ourselves sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed, or anxious. But because these are deemed to be negative emotions, we try to get rid of them, thinking that trusting God means to always be joyful and at peace. Others may not be so quick to be free of such feelings, but instead of responding to God’s promptings, act them out in personally and relationally destructive ways.

As in Samson’s day, there is much in our world that should trouble us. Yeshua taught his followers to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This means that the way things are is not the way they should be. It is not God’s will that we simply accept evil. One day, all evil will be eradicated, but until then, we must pray that God does something about it. When he answers those prayers, it is often through the efforts of people like you and me. And the first thing those people experience is stirring.

Are you being stirred? While some people are very sensitive to the ills of life and seem to be burdened by all sorts of things, most folks appear to be oblivious as they are only concerned about their own existence. But perhaps there is more going on in the hearts of people than we realize. What would happen if we stopped and took inventory of what agitates us. What would we find? While some agitation is due to our own selfishness and lack of faith, it could be that we are being stirred by God to do something.

When we find ourselves upset over issues that are truly wrong from God’s perspective, we may discover that he is the source of our agitation. To resist his agitation, is to resist what he wants to do through you. But if God is our agitation source, then it’s time to seek him as to what he would have us do about it.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Israel Will Flourish

For the week of May 27, 2017 / 2 Sivan 5777

The Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem filled with people

B’midbar
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (English: 1:10-2:22)

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Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hosea 2:1 [English 1:10])

This week’s parasha is the first of the fourth book of the Torah. The Hebrew title, “B’midbar” (“In the Wilderness”) is taken from the first sentence of the book, and aptly describes much of its overall content as we read about Israel’s journey through the wilderness. The English title, “Numbers,” is a translation of the Greek title “Arithmoi” and is due to the long description of Moses’s census of the people. The choosing of the accompanying Haftarah reading from the prophet Hosea is likely because of its reference to “the number of the children of Israel” I quoted at the start.

Paul’s quoting this passage in his letter to the Romans is often misunderstood. Tragically, he tends to be misrepresented regarding his understanding of God’s relationship to the Jewish people in the New Covenant era. This Hosea passage is quoted by Paul early in the section of Romans where he discusses that very issue (see Romans 9-11). It is most likely there were non-Jewish believers in Rome who had deduced that God had rejected the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob due to the combination of a significant amount of Jewish people who were antagonistic to Yeshua’s messianic claim and the openness to Yeshua on the part of a number of Gentiles (non-Jews). But Paul states that the rejection conclusion is both ignorant (see Romans 11:25) and arrogant (see Romans 11:18). God’s faithfulness to Israel was always and continues to be based on his unchanging, unconditional promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The current situation, however perceived, in no way undermines that.

However, there are two places in Romans that can appear to support the rejection scenario. The first is 2:17-29. This is where Paul defines what constitutes a genuine Jewish person. But contrary to the conclusions of some, he is not establishing a notion of the “spiritual Jew” in contrast to Jews by natural descent. Rather, he is emphasizing that the matters of the heart are more important than external forms. This is in keeping with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and the teaching of Yeshua that religious rituals, while having their place, are not that which express true godliness. What really counts is (in no particular order) faith, love, mercy, truth, humility, justice, and so on. Yet people, not just Jewish people, have always tended to focus on externals. Paul is not claiming that Gentile believers are the real Jews, while the natural ones are not.

Romans chapter nine, where he quotes our Haftarah, also tends to be misunderstood. To conclude Paul means anything but that God has not rejected natural Israel completely ignores God’s message through Hosea. God called Hosea to graphically illustrate God’s love for Israel by having him marry an unfaithful woman. Hosea’s heartbreak over his wayward wife is likened to God’s own yearning for his people. By Hosea’s referring to “the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea,” God confirms his promise made to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 22:17). And by quoting Hosea, Paul is doing the exact same thing. That Gentiles who have put their faith in the Jewish Messiah are accepted as God’s children too, does not negate God’s faithfulness to Israel.

We need to remember that the purpose of God’s promise to Abraham and his natural descendants through Isaac and Jacob was to bless the nations (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3), which, according to Paul, is the very essence of the Gospel (see Galatians 3:8). The inclusive nature of the New Covenant in Yeshua is not an abrogation of his particular purposes regarding Israel.

To use New Covenant inclusiveness to redefine Israel as the generic community of believers is to negate God’s commitment to the forefathers. Undermining his faithfulness to natural Israel defames his character and puts the onus of his acceptance on human performance rather than on his mercy and grace.

But if we listen carefully to God’s reaffirmation of his promise to Israel through Hosea and Paul, then we have grounds for hope. That Israel will flourish in spite of the common human tendency shared with the rest of the world to wander from God encourages us to trust God in the midst of every challenge we might face.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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To Thrive

For the week of May 20, 2017 / 24 Iyar 5777

Tree with roots

Be-Har & Be-Hukkotai
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14

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Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

Jeremiah provides us with a beautiful illustration of the outcome of trusting in God. These verses are similar to the first Psalm, where we read of the person who rejects ungodliness and whose life focus is upon God’s Word: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Tehillim/Psalms 1:3). But Jeremiah’s metaphor is a little surprising. While the Psalm speaks of a healthy life, Jeremiah tells us something more, something extraordinary in fact. He says that the person who trusts in the God of Israel, “is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8).

Simply surviving a year of drought would be impressive. But bearing fruit while everything else around is drying up and dying? That’s superb! This is a tree, notes Jeremiah, whose roots have found their way to a sufficient water supply in spite of (or perhaps because of) the dry conditions. Not only does this tree survive in an extremely hostile environment, it becomes an essential source of nourishment when little else is to be found.

This is what a person who truly learns to trust in God is like. Whatever hardships may come, a person who trusts in God continues to thrive and benefit others. It is in the most difficult circumstances we realize on whom or upon what we have been depending. When the heat is on, it becomes evident where we have been sending our roots.

Sometimes when I am struggling with life’s challenges and don’t seem to be like this kind of tree, I try to find comfort by comparing myself to others. Whether my assessment is accurate or not, as long as I think I am doing better than the other guy, I assure myself that I must be okay or at least good enough. But there is something about Jeremiah’s tree that doesn’t let me get away with this illusionary version of myself. It would be one thing if surviving, whatever that means, was sufficient. But people who really trust in God, don’t just survive, they thrive.

I will never truly thrive unless I admit I don’t. Ironically – and thankfully! – that’s the first step in learning to trust God. For it is only as I accept that my roots are not digging down deep into the true Source of Life that they can be redirected to him. And trusting God isn’t achieved through effort anyway. It can’t be achieved at all. It can only be realized by letting go of misdirected reliance on self, others, or things, and learning instead to rest in God’s enduring love and presence in Yeshua the Messiah.

The dryness I experience from time to time is God’s way of reminding me to redirect my roots to him. The sense of failure I experience can easily become a temptation to give up, condemn myself, and despair. But that’s only until I am reminded of Jeremiah’s tree. Being exposed to the truth of God’s written Word calls me back to the genuine source of rejuvenating life. This is when I receive God’s comfort that, contrary to incorrectly thinking I was slipping away from him and his Truth, he is, in fact, using times of spiritual dryness to prepare me for when life will be even more difficult. And this is the greatest comfort of all: as I experience God’s redirecting of my roots, I can rest assured that he will enable me to thrive in the hardest of times.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Let’s Eat

For the week of May 13, 2017 / 17 Iyar 5777

Friends eating

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

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And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons so that they abstain from the holy things of the people of Israel, which they dedicate to me, so that they do not profane my holy name: I am the LORD.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:1-2)

A good portion of this week’s parsha (weekly Torah selection) cautions the cohanim (English: priests) from participating in their assigned duties when deemed to be ritually unclean. There were particular prohibitions regarding their being in the presence of the dead as well as certain mourning practices. They were more limited than the general population as far as whom they could marry and the conditions under which consecrated foods were to be eaten.

It is striking how much eating played a part in the priestly service. Very few of the edible items that were offered by the people were completely consumed on the altar. Most of the offered meat, grain, and drink were either eaten by the cohanim only or by both the person making the offering and the cohanim. The dominant smell in the area of the altar must have been like a barbecue. Eating wasn’t the only thing happening, but there must have been quite a bit going on at any given time. I don’t think I am off course to say that eating was therefore a central aspect of Old Covenant worship.

Even before sin and evil had the creation in its clutches due to our first parents’ rebellion in the Garden of Eden, eating was a part of God’s good design. Just because death was not a factor until after Adam and Eve’s first sin, that doesn’t mean they didn’t need to eat. The harmony within the creation they briefly enjoyed prior to the curse included regular access to an abundance of food. Sin and the curse didn’t create the need to eat, but rather make accessing food difficult (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:17-19).

The need for food established an essential dependency of humans upon the rest of creation. It’s no wonder then that much of ancient religion is focused on relating to a god or gods in order to ensure there be sufficient food to eat. That in itself isn’t misguided, but by design. Yet there is more to food than how it drives people to seek spiritual assistance.

The personal intimacy of eating food appears also to be by design. The conditions placed upon the cohanim’s eating of the offerings were primarily due to whether or not they were fit to be in God’s presence. To eat of the offerings, they had to be ritually clean. To eat or not to eat, therefore, represented one’s ability to be in fellowship with God. While this may sound strange, it was not only in the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple where people ate with God. Abraham did so when three mysterious persons came to announce in advance the birth of Isaac (Bereshit/Genesis 18:1-8), and Moses and the Elders of Israel ate with him at Mt. Sinai (Shemot/Exodus 24:9-11).

It is not a random social accident that eating food is one of our primary contexts in which fellowship between people occurs. It is clear to me, if not to most, that eating alone or on the go is not best for us. Sharing the eating experience has been the basis of so much meaningful human interaction for family and friends throughout time.

In addition, it’s a meal that is the primary context of remembering God’s establishing of relationship with his people. Through the Passover, God directed Israel to year after year celebrate his victory over the tyrant, Pharaoh. It’s not just through the symbolic elements alone that the power of remembrance is conveyed, but the festive meal itself speaks of relationship with God and one another. The New Covenant version of this same meal as established by the Messiah is all this and more as Jew and Gentile together celebrate God’s victory over the greater tyrant, death. I wish more communities of believers did so as part of a large meal.

When we lose the joy of celebration, it’s easy to simply go through the motions of religious observance. Perhaps that’s what happened to the Laodiceans, a community of believers in ancient Turkey who had lost their zeal for God. Yeshua invited them to intimately engage him again: “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

Unlike the ancient priests, burdened by all sorts of requirements preventing them from eating with God, Yeshua wants to walk right in and sit right down with us. He has made us fit to eat with God personally and intimately forever. Let’s eat!

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Gone!

For the week of May 6, 2017 / 10 Iyar 5777

Infinite road to the mountains

Aharei Mot & Kedoshim
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

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And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:21-22)

Recently I have been giving quite a bit of thought to the meaning of Yeshua’s death. I tend to overreact to the great emphasis many of his followers give to that essential event. It’s not that I don’t think it is important. Far from it! But as one of the most crucial events of history, my desire is to give it its proper due. I want to understand it from a biblical perspective and allow it to have its God-given place within the grand scheme of things. I get the impression that some think that because something is important, then it eclipses everything else.  But that’s not the world that God made nor how his story unfolds.

In my opinion too many people spend too much time on trying to figure out how Yeshua’s death accomplishes forgiveness, rather than meditate on the fact that it does. The focus on the how creates a certain fogginess, especially when looking at the reality of forgiveness experienced by the people of Israel prior to Yeshua’s coming. If forgiveness is completely based on the mechanics of his death, then whatever Israel thought they were getting from God in earlier times must not be real.

But David didn’t seem to think so. He must have thought forgiveness from God was real when he penned the words, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). Where did he get such an idea? Perhaps it was from one of the rituals of Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement) as recorded in this week’s parsha (weekly reading from the Torah).

The holiest of holy days takes place ten days after what is commonly referred to as Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), but in the Torah is Yom Truah (the Day of the Blowing [of the Shofar]), when people stopped in the midst of the busy-ness of the fall harvest to remember God and to prepare for Yom Kippur, the national day of humility, which in turn prepared them for the week-long thanksgiving festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles). Yom Kippur includes several rituals, including various special sacrifices. One ritual was unique to this particular day. Two goats were taken from the people and lots were cast to decide which of the two would be offered as a sin offering and which one was to be led away into the wilderness.

It’s this second goat that has a unique function within the overall sacrificial system. It is the only animal that is a component of the priestly ritual that is not killed. In addition, it is the only animal upon which the sins of the people were placed. The goat was then led off into the wilderness never to return. As the goat was led off into the horizon, the people saw their sins disappearing from sight “as far as the east is from the west” just as David wrote. What an amazing picture of God’s love and mercy toward his people Israel.

The New Covenant doesn’t deny the reality of the forgiveness of sins under the Old Covenant. Rather the Old Covenant is the basis upon which we understand the greater, deeper, and wider forgiveness available through Yeshua. It is greater because it is permanent in contrast to the repetitive nature of the older system. It’s deeper in that it fully changes human hearts, making a way for unhindered access to the very presence of God. And it’s wider, for it is not limited to Israel alone, but available to all who trust in the Messiah – Jews and Gentiles alike.

Just as the goat was led away, so was our Messiah. He bore our shame outside the city, unjustly executed among common thieves. But that was just the beginning. He was led further into the wilderness, so to speak, as he entered the realm of the dead. I don’t know how it works, but it sounds like a greater distance than how far the east is from the west. Yeshua took our sins and buried them away forever. When he returned on the third day, the sin and the shame he took to the grave were gone forever.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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