Strive To Enter Your Rest

For the week of June 29, 2019 / 26 Sivan 5779

Silhouette of three people on a hill viewing a sunset overlaid with the words" "Strive to Enter Your Rest."

Sh’lach L’cha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

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Not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell (B’midbar/Numbers 14:30)

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion) contains one of the most tragic, yet instructive, episodes in the Bible. The people of Israel are on the brink of attaining the promise first given centuries earlier to Abraham. After all the patriarchs went through followed by years of slavery in Egypt, this generation witnessed evidences of God’s faithfulness and power like no one else before or since. It’s been two years since the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. They have known miraculous provision of food and water. God enabled them to face battles and saw them through all sorts of other challenges.

Now it’s time for Israel to enter the next chapter of their history. Everything up to now was preparation for this moment. It’s time to acquire their God-given inheritance, the Promised Land. To do so would not be easy, however. Without God’s help, it would be impossible. But they had God’s help. They knew that. They were trained by him for this. Sadly, this wasn’t enough for them. After receiving the report from the scouts who spied out the Land, the people were too afraid to do what God was calling them to do. Somehow, they were not able to bridge their past experiences into the intimidating future. In spite of God’s continual demonstration of his powerful presence among them, they somehow couldn’t apply what they had already experienced into the new situation. As a result, except for two exceptions, Joshua and Caleb, all the adults were destined to die in the wilderness as the nation was sent wandering for an additional thirty-eight years. At least the next generation would succeed where their parents had failed.

This episode is taken up by the writer of the New Covenant book of Hebrews. He is writing to a community of Jewish Yeshua followers who were giving in to a fear something like that of the Israelites here. They too had previously encountered the reality of God, for some time demonstrating genuine trust amidst all sorts of difficulty. Whether their current situation was considerably different from their past experiences, or the ongoing nature of their challenges was becoming too much for them, the writer calls them to learn from their ancestors’ failure.

The writer of Hebrews articulates the call to overcome their fears with this brilliant statement: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11). Striving to enter rest may seem like an oxymoron, but this captures the dynamic of genuine faith necessary to truly walk with God in any and all circumstances of life. The Promised Land is being regarded here as the place of rest. It’s the great destination where the fulness of God’s promises are to be attained. Their attainment is not granted on the basis of achievement, but rather as gifts received due to promise. The Promised Land and its blessing are derived via the graciousness of God unto his beloved chosen people.

While the inheritance is not the result of achievement, as if there is something to prove, it is not to be received with complete passivity either. Great forces of darkness stand in the way, threatening anyone who dares enter God’s place of rest, the fulness of life offered to us in the Messiah. Without unwavering trust in God and his word, we easily fall victim to evil’s snares.

It is pretty clear in Hebrews that this community of believers was beginning to succumb to the pressure they had endured for some time. The writer’s objective was to urge them forward before it was too late.

God has a place of rest for each one of us. Besides the hope of the new heavens and new earth upon Yeshua’s return, God has a unique inheritance for each one of us to attain even now. Evil’s armies will throw everything in our direction to dissuade us from becoming what God wants us to be. If you are reading this now, it isn’t too late for you. Don’t give in to the intimidation. Gather to mind every act of God’s faithfulness and power in your life until this moment and take whatever steps he is calling you to take and enter your inheritance. Strive to enter your rest.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Have You Ever Really Prayed?

For the week of June 22, 2019 / 19 Sivan 5779

A man pondering the question, "Have You Ever Really Prayed?"

Be-Ha’alotkha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English 2:10 – 4:7)

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If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness. (B’midbar/Numbers 11:15)

I was recently chatting with a waitress in a restaurant about some weaknesses in the overall service there. It was exactly what I had read in an online review and thought she should know. She wholeheartedly agreed with me yet could do little about it since she was new at her job. So I suggested she pray. She looked at me funny for a moment. So I repeated myself, not knowing where she was at on this subject. I told her that praying was simply talking to God and that not only does he have infinite resources at his disposal, he is generous. She made it clear to me I gave her something to think about.

As believers in Yeshua we know this (though some may want to have a discussion on the theology of prayer and whether it is appropriate to describe prayer like this to a stranger). Be that as it may, what I shared with this stranger included an essential dynamic. I offered no formulas; I didn’t tell her what to say. At the same time, I made no promise as to what God’s answer might be. All I did was encourage her to start the conversation. The conversation would be on a particular topic, which in this case was help in resolving a need which she could not resolve on her own. Since right at the beginning I defined prayer as talking to God, the conversation had to start with her personally and purposely talking to him. There’s so much more we can say about prayer, but without this dynamic, I don’t know if much of what we call prayer is actually prayer at all.

Moses knew how to pray. That he did is vividly illustrated in the brief verse I quoted from this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). Moses found himself being a waiter extreme. The whole nation of Israel whined like children for food. He had seen God do so much, yet the pressure of the people’s demands had completely overwhelmed him. He was done, and he told God so in no uncertain terms. Talk about a prayer from the heart! Moses held nothing back and told God exactly what he thought and how he felt. Thankfully, however, answered prayer isn’t always getting the items on our list. It’s about God meaningfully engaging us in response to our requests and desires.

I don’t know about you, but the best way I can describe some of my prayers is muddled. Even though I set aside some time each day to pray, am I really praying? To be honest, it’s not too unusual for me to do some sort of combination of wondering, thinking, wishing, and muttering. I’ll catch myself daydreaming of who knows what before I realize what I am doing. At that point I try to focus and really pray, which sometimes I do. When I do, it’s as if I shift from muddled to clear. I know who I am talking to and what I am trying to say.

This is why I remind myself what I encourage others to do: pray out loud. While I cannot discount all silent prayer, there is very little Scriptural basis for it. Even if there were, attempting to project thoughts to God from our heads is very difficult, if not impossible. How would we differentiate thinking from praying when silent? Praying out loud reminds us that we are actually speaking to another being who is not us.

Many years ago when I was in Bible college. I had a roommate from Africa. He would wake up before me and have a time with the Lord at his desk. I would hear him whispering in prayer. I thought, he really believes he is talking to someone! It encouraged me to do the same.

Realizing we are truly talking to God makes all the difference. And that’s just the beginning. Unless we intentionally do so, then whatever else we may be doing, we are not praying. Why not start right now?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Smiling God

For the week of June 15, 2019 / 12 Sivan 5779

Collage of many smiling faces

Naso
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25
Originally posted the week of May 31, 2014 / 2 Sivan 5774 (revised)

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The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (B’midbar/Numbers 6:25)

The cohanim, the Jewish priests of ancient Israel, were given the responsibility to bless their people. Blessing is an essential biblical concept which has to do with the impartation of life in all aspects. The pronouncement of blessing is not magic. The words given to them to say in themselves don’t cause blessing to occur. This blessing was but one of the many functions the cohanim performed as part of their role as intermediaries between God and the people. Just as they represented the people before God through the offering of sacrifices on their behalf, so God spoke to the people through the priests. The priests didn’t cause the blessing of God to come upon the people. God had already determined to bless them and appointed the priests to communicate that blessing on his behalf.

An interesting statement included in this blessing is “The LORD make his face to shine upon you.” What does that mean? Does God have a face? If so, how does it shine? And when shining, what does it mean to shine upon someone? When the Torah refers to God as having body parts, this is what is called anthropomorphism. It’s a way of speaking about a non-human being in human terms. Not only is God not human, he isn’t physical. There are times when he reveals himself in human form, however. In fact, the Haftarah portion for this week includes an example of that (see Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25) and most importantly, in the Messiah. But most of the time, when we read about God’s hand, his arms, or, as in this case, his face, the words we read are expressing something about God that is best expressed in this sort of way.

God desired that his people would experience his shining face. As best we can tell, a shining face is a smiling face, as if to say, may God look at you with a smile.

Sometime ago I posted the message, God Is Dangerous, where I emphasized that the God of Israel is the most powerful force in the entire universe. Therefore we cannot approach him any way we wish. Approaching God on our own terms may result in an untimely death. So what’s this about “The Smiling God?” How could the same God be depicted in both these ways?

That’s one of the most wondrous things about the true God. The dangerous God is the smiling God. Not that he is necessarily smiling all the time. The wonderful thing is that the only all-powerful, Supreme Being, who made the entire universe and holds our lives in his hands, may actually smile at us.

To live under the smiling face of God is to experience the reversal of the alienation experienced by our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Having been designed to be his co-workers as stewards over his creation, they turned their backs on him through mistrust and rebellion, no longer beholding his smiling face. Thankfully that wasn’t the end of it. God determined to restore relationship with his human creatures, culminating in the redemption brought about through the Messiah’s death and resurrection. Because of what Yeshua has done, we can experience the cohanim’s blessing in its fullness and see God’s smiling face again.

To have God’s smile upon us means his posture towards us is favorable. We are objects of his graciousness, which is explicitly mentioned in the next phrase in the blessing. Don’t forget, the biblical view of God is far more about his inapproachability, his grandeur, his nobility as the king of all kings. Such majesty doesn’t normally give commoners like you and me the time of day, much less a full-face smile.

But if we have been made right with him though Yeshua, God is smiling at us right now. As we get up each morning, we can be reminded that the good graces of the Master of the Universe are upon us. Not only can we enjoy intimate relationship with him, we can effectively represent him in the world. Like the cohanim of old, we now can bring the blessing of God’s smile to others.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Getting Right with the Environment

For the week of June 8, 2019 / 5 Sivan 5779

Illustration of a small green island with evergreen trees and a large sun in the background with superimposed words: "Getting Right with the Environment"

B’midbar
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (English 1:10 – 2:20)
Originally posted the week of May 31, 2008 / 26 Iyar 5768

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And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. (Hosea 2:10; English: 2:8)

What a world we live in! While I am well aware of the reality of suffering and tragedy, we live in a most marvelous place. I have heard that for many astronauts, their biggest thrill was not being thrust out into the darkness of space at unimaginable speeds, floating in zero gravity, or walking on the moon, but rather seeing the earth. When I take my daily walk, I can be so focused on my own thoughts that I miss what is around me. But every now and then I am struck by the beauty of nature: a magnolia tree in full bloom, a scarlet cardinal, or a pair of deer sitting on the forest floor. It takes my breath away to encounter nature’s beauty and intricacy.

Aside from beauty, nature provides us with so much, including our basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. It also enhances our lives through the pleasures of comfort and entertainment.

This might seem obvious, but we were made for this place. While the state that the earth is in is not what God intended, nor is it now what it will be one day, it is the sphere of our existence. I am aware that many people think that our destiny is in a heavenly, non-earthly sphere, but that is not actually what the Bible teaches. We look forward to a new heaven and a new earth, and those who are right with God will be resurrected to live on the new earth. Maybe we will come back to this subject some other time. Suffice it to say for now that we were made to live on planet earth.

One of the things that God has sought to teach us is how to understand our place on this planet. Because of the rebellion of our first parents against God, everything about life on earth has been out of sorts. We are surrounded by such bountiful beauty provided by God for our good, yet due to the disruption of our relationship with him, we tend to abuse nature.

The prophet Hosea speaks of this in this week’s Haftarah. God through his prophet says that Israel was ignorant of the fact that God was the provider of the good things of earth. The result of this ignorance is destructive. Having been blessed with precious metals, instead of using them appropriately, they became instruments of idolatry.

When we fail to acknowledge God as creator and provider of the good gifts he bestows upon us, we end up wrongly focusing on the very things he has graciously given us. God designed the elements of his creation for all sorts of good purposes, but when we fail to understand their true origins, they become destructive.

The only way to fully appreciate and properly relate to nature, therefore, is to know the God of creation. Once we are restored to him through Yeshua we can see this planet through his eyes, discover our God-given place here, and learn to utilize the things of his creation in the way he intended.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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