Rescue Is a Messy Business

For the week of October 21, 2017 / 1 Heshvan 5778

Rescue workers at a building collapse

No’ah & Rosh Hodesh
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

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Then God said to Noah, “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh – birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth – that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” (Bereshit/Genesis 8:15-17)

There are few Bible stories that are as misunderstood as Noah’s Ark. Most who are familiar with it can easily recite its key elements: world becomes extremely wicked; God decides to destroy it but saves Noah, his family, and two of every animal. Innumerable children’s books have depicted these scenes in a most delightful and fun way with happy streams of animals taking a sea voyage along with positive images of the dove of peace and a colorful rainbow at its conclusion.

While there are certainly positive elements in the story of Noah, there is very little in it that I would call delightful and hardly the stuff of small children’s picture books. It’s a terrible story really. Everyone alive at that time plus all the air-breathing land animals and birds, except for eight people and the animals on the ark, drowned – a most horrible way to die. From this we are supposed to understand that wickedness leads to destruction, and that God’s patience only lasts so long before his judgement comes. Even though there’s been only one universal flood, since then this has been experienced over and over in much smaller, but no less devastating, ways. Noah’s Ark also serves as a warning that there is a greater and more final judgement coming, where fire, not water, will be God’s instrument (see 2 Peter 3:5-7).

The judgement element of Noah’s Ark is not the only part of this story that is generally misunderstood, however. Have you thought about what it must have been like for Noah and company on the ark for all that time? Eight people and some great number of animals cooped up in a big box-like boat tossed violently for over a month, having nothing to do except survive. And by the way, they weren’t in the ark for just forty days and forty nights. That was just the duration of the extreme weather event. It took over ten months more for the earth to be suitable for habitation again.

It’s a messy business being rescued.

Life’s like that. People don’t always escape dangerous situations unscathed. Being rescued is often the beginning of a complex process of restoration. Like the passengers on the ark, the act of rescue itself may be unpleasant, not to mention the aftermath. Think of what people go through when facing serious surgery, for example, from the preparations through recuperation. Yet, we usually deem all the necessary unpleasantness as acceptable given the potential outcome.

Could you imagine if the negative aspects of surgery kept us from allowing our lives to be saved? It’s not that hard, actually. I know I have avoided medical tests out of fear of discomfort. The fact is we naturally resist pain even if it is for our good. It can take effort to be rescued, as it did for Noah.

The same is true in the case of the greatest rescue anyone could ever experience, the rescue from our alienation from God. The same wickedness at work before the flood continues to affect us all. Unless we are delivered from sin, we will be lost forever. But we can be rescued through faith in the Messiah Yeshua. However, it’s a messy business being rescued, and it appears not everyone is up to it. That’s really too bad, since the end result is absolutely off-the-charts wonderful! To be rescued by God through Yeshua includes freedom from guilt and shame; a sense of purpose and reason for living; being equipped by God’s own Spirit enabling us to live good and effective lives; a guaranty of living in the presence of God forever, and much, much more! Yet, in order to realize the benefits of God’s rescue, you have to be willing to face all sorts of unpleasantness. You will have to take responsibility for your failings and wrongs, expressing regret to both God and to the people affected by your mismanagement of your life. You will have to stop depending on yourself and trust in God, who may lead you into all sorts of new, exciting, and possibly dangerous situations. You may have to face rejection for the first time in your life. Don’t worry, God won’t make you deal with everything at once; it’s a lifelong thing. But it’s worth it!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Back to the Beginning

For the week of October 14, 2017 / 24 Tishri 5778

The word Reset on a pointing wooden sign by a road

Bereshit
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Bereshit/Genesis 1:1)

It’s that time of year again when we return to the beginning of the Torah. This is anything but “same old, same old.” Yes, the words don’t change year by year. And neither does their essential meaning, though I don’t know if we will ever fully plunge their depth. Yet, apart from learning aspects of God’s revealed Word that we never noticed before, it’s amazing how much we forget year by year; and that’s true even when we’ve been paying attention. But there’s another reason why these ancient words retain their freshness: life in the world as we know it constantly changes.

Certainly there are fundamentals to human life on earth that have been constant throughout the ages, both the good and the bad. Expositors of Scripture often focus on this fact. Perhaps we feel the need to justify the relevance of the Bible to those who dismiss it as out of date. For example, in this very parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), when God confronts Adam and then Eve on their eating of the forbidden fruit, they both blame shift, something we human beings have been doing ever since (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:11-13). From this we learn our need to take responsibility for our actions.

It is good to point out how the Bible is full of content, which while situated in a distant time and setting, is easily relatable by people today wherever we might live. But are there not factors of our contemporary existence that are way beyond the Bible’s scope? Isn’t the truth of Scripture based on a worldview and culture so different from ours, so as to make much of its teaching obsolete, not to mention that its writers could have no way foreseen the world of the 21st century, with its technological advancements and apparent cultural progression? Even if you don’t accept many of today’s cultural categories and approaches to morality, how could the Bible provide answers to questions and issues of which the people of that day would have no clue?

The Bible’s timeliness is not due to a focus on unchanging themes even though that is the way it is often taught. The stories in the Bible are not moralistic lessons. Neither is the Bible a collection of timeless sayings. There are some in the Book of Proverbs, but that’s the exception. The rule is that the Bible communicates via stories, the technical term for story-like writing is “narrative.” Most biblical narrative is historical. Even large non-narrative sections, such as the Psalms or the Prophets, are speaking within the context of historical happenings. The hundreds of commandments found in the Books of Moses are given within a specific cultural and historical setting. The New Covenant Letters are written to real people in real places, addressing specific issues. In almost no cases are the implications for or applications to our day spelled out for us. Rather, when we read the Bible, we are exposed to God’s perspective on life and living. It is through these writings that God has ingeniously provided us with everything we need to address any and all issues we may encounter anywhere at any time. Garnering the knowledge and understanding from the Bible that we need to effectively engage the world in which we live can be hard work, but it’s worth it.

For example, it’s worth it to take the time to examine God’s establishment of the human family as revealed in the first few verses of the Torah (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-30). Here we learn that man and woman are created, not as the product of natural causes, but both in and as the image of God. Also, we are created on purpose and for a purpose, being commissioned as stewards of the planet and that having children is key to our fulfilling our God-given roles. Chew over that for a while and see what happens. See what happens to your view of yourself, of marriage, of sex, of children, and your purpose for living. And that’s just the beginning!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Generous Leadership

For the week of October 7, 2017 / 17 Tishri 5778

Paper cutouts depicting leadership in team

Sukkot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:17-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16

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And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then he said to Him, “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” (Shemot/Exodus 33:14-15)

In preparation to depart from Mt. Sinai, not long after the tragic incident of the Golden Calf, Moses is praying. He is praying and he is listening. While most of us will unlikely experience divine communication at anywhere near this level, prayer is more of a conversation than we generally think. We are not going to delve into that now, however. It’s the dynamic of this particular conversation that I wish to focus on.

What’s going on here sounds more like an argument than a conversation. And a strange argument at that. It’s sounds like one of those I-am-agreeing-with-you type arguments, where people passionately just about echo each other’s words, while somehow implying that each party isn’t quite satisfied that they’re getting their point across.

God: My presence will go with you.

Moses: We’re not going anywhere unless you go with us.

What’s Moses problem here? God said he would go with them. Why does Moses keep on about this if God said he would do it?

The problem is a little worse in the original Hebrew, which reads more like this:

God: My presence shall go…

Moses: If your presence does not go…

In the Hebrew, both instances of “go” doesn’t specify with whom God is going or not going. Presumably the confusion is only the reader’s, since God and Moses seem to know what they were arguing over. The translation I chose irons out the ambiguity by adding “with you” (singular) to what God says and “with us” to Moses’s words. This clarification on the part of the translators is justified by a reading of the entire interaction. The back and forth between Moses and God is due to God’s commitment to Moses alone, assuring him that his presence will be with him personally. But that’s not good enough for Moses. He wants assurance that God will be present with the whole nation. This isn’t clear until verse 16: “For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (emphasis mine).

This is the mark of a true leader. Moses has extraordinary favor with God. But that’s not good enough for him. He wants the people to have what he has. He isn’t satisfied to be their champion or their hero. He knows that in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t about his success, his fame, nor even his legacy. We justify leader focus because of our assumption that as leaders go, so do the people they lead. Certainly there is some truth in this. We see such an example in the history of the Israelite monarchy. If a king was good, which was rarely the case, things went well for the nation. If a king was evil, the nation suffered. The principle works, but should this principle be our goal? Instead should not our hearts be for the people we lead, whatever be the scope and scale of our leadership?

For our families, our friends, co-workers, employees, congregations, and nations, it should not be sufficient to simply strive to be the best person possible. We need to truly care about people like Moses did. The blessings we ask for needn’t be channeled through us. May God bless people directly. If we get to play a part in that process, that’s great. But is it necessary? Isn’t God’s blessing a result of his undeserved love and mercy? He doesn’t really need us anyway. Yet he delights to use us.

I know we know this. And yet, it is so easy to fixate on ourselves. Perhaps that is why this interchange between God and Moses is so instructive. It’s a battle to fight for blessing upon others and not just ourselves. It isn’t as if blessing needs to be wrenched from God, who is so generous. It’s we whose hands need to be pried open through prayer that we might come to that place where we will fight for God’s blessing upon others.

Scriptures taken from New American Standard Bible

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Reflecting Relationship

For the week of September 30, 2017 / 10 Tishri 5778

Red heart on a black reflective background

Yom Kippur
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1-34; Bemidbar/Numbers 29:7-11
Haftarah: Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14

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Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 57:5-6)

The most likely reason why this selection from the prophet Isaiah (57:14 – 58:14) was chosen to be read at Yom Kippur (English: Day of Atonement) is because of its reference to fasting, the personal ritual that has become core to the traditional observance of this high holy day. Interestingly, however, God’s instruction regarding fasting here is not really about fasting itself. Rather, it is that religious ritual is futile unless it is accompanied by godly living.

Note how intimately God through the prophet connects the ritual with action. It’s not as if giving oneself to acts of justice functions as fasting. It’s that true fasting only has real benefit when the life of the person doing so is given to righteousness. This makes a lot of sense. Activities such as fasting and prayer are expressions of love and devotion to God. Good things for God followers to do. But expressions of love and devotion only really mean something when the other areas of life reflect those expressions. Fasting unto the Lord (as opposed to fasting for health, for example) makes God a special priority for that time. The giving up of food, drink, and other common needs and pleasures creates an opportunity to intensely focus on God. But to do so while normally ignoring his will is hypocritical. It’s downright deceitful, in fact, because the religious activity pretends to represent a lifestyle that is far from reality. It’s also self-deceiving, because the intensity of something like fasting can fool ourselves into thinking we are devoted to God, when we are not.

It’s like being really good at giving gifts to your wife. On one hand, your ability and willingness to do so gives every appearance of being reflective of a loving heart, when the remainder of the time you are unfaithful to her. Maybe you aren’t having an affair, but your heart is not truly hers; it’s yours. You may be able to fool your wife (though you probably aren’t). You may be able to fool yourself. But your gifts mean nothing. On the other hand, expressions of love, such as gift giving, builds relationship when they are from a sincere heart. It’s the same with God. To fast, to pray, to give to charity when our lives are reflective of the devotion we claim will deepen our relationship with him.

It is very clear from this passage what a true reflection of a genuine relationship with God looks like. Too often godliness is depicted as little more than being nice as if getting along with everyone, staying out of trouble, and not standing out in a crowd are what righteousness is all about. Nothing could be further from the truth according to Isaiah here. On the contrary, God’s people are called to notice injustice (which isn’t hard to do, if we are willing to look) and do something about it. Nice people don’t disturb the status quo. Oppressors and other nice people won’t like you confronting wickedness and oppression. The process is messy; you’ll probably make mistakes along the way. Even if you don’t, you’ll be noticed and will likely get into trouble. But isn’t that exactly what the Messiah said would happen?

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

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Israel, God’s Portion

For the week of September 23, 2017 / 3 Tishri 5778

The word Israel hovering over an open hand

Ha’azinu
Torah: Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:1-52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English 14:1-8); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel. For the LORD’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:8-9; NASB)

Near the end of Moses’s life, God directed him to teach the people a song. This is no simple folk song, but rather a complex prophetic lyric designed to confront them as they will inevitably one day stray from God and his ways. Contained within these inspired words is a reference to God’s providence in the establishment of peoples and their God-allotted regions. Nationhood and defined territorial boundaries are not the outcome of human will alone, but primarily emerge from the purposeful oversight of the Almighty.

That much is clear in the verses above, but they include a curious statement about the relationship between borders and, according to this Bible version, “the number of the sons of Israel.” I make mention of this particular version because the text here is controversial. A quick glance over other English translations shows that another common rendering of this phrase is along the lines of “the number of the sons of God” (see ESV, etc.). Exactly what is meant by “sons of God” isn’t certain. It could be another way to refer to the sons of Israel, a generic reference to people of God, or to heavenly beings such as angels. The reason for the difference is in the manuscripts. The most common Hebrew manuscript is called the Masoretic Text (MT). Some English versions rely heavily on it, and only seldom prefer readings from other manuscripts. The MT reads, “sons of Israel.” The alternate reading, “sons of God” is from the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew called the Septuagint (LXX). While it may seem to be more reasonable to prefer the MT over the LXX, since it is written in the original Hebrew, many scholars believe that the Hebrew manuscripts that were used by the LXX translators were older and thus closer to the original than the copies upon which the MT relies.

Textual Criticism is the study of ancient manuscripts to determine what the original writings were. It might come as a surprise to some of you that this sort of thing is necessary at all. We might prefer to believe that exact copy after exact copy was passed on from generation to generation, but that isn’t the case. But note that in spite of differences like the one we are looking at here, there is far more agreement between manuscripts than not. Remarkably and thankfully, no discrepancy threatens any major element of Scripture. Whether the text reads “sons of Israel” or “sons of God” certainly doesn’t greatly affect the Bible’s teaching either in this passage or others.

What I find most interesting is that many English versions prefer “sons of God” even though most other versions rely on the MT. While I hope the various translation committees followed this route due to high standards of scholarship, there may be something else going on. If indeed the correct reading is “when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel,” then we are made to understand that the makeup of world geography is intimately linked to the people of Israel. I am concerned that the real reason to prefer the LXX over the MT here is a resistance on the part of Christian scholarship to accept the centrality of Israel in the outworking of world history.

Few biblical scholars deny the place of ancient Israel in the development of God’s plans and purposes particularly with regard to salvation. But there is a tendency to cast off literal Israel in favor of a supposed New Israel, a generic people of God as it were. But if the MT reading is correct, then the very framework of nations and borders is somehow dependent on the people of Israel. By disregarding the ongoing nature of Israel in God’s economy, Christians unknowingly contribute to the disintegration of legitimate nationhood through misguided globalization in the name of unity, Christian or otherwise.

But as I mentioned, the Bible’s central teachings are unaffected by the relatively few discrepancies in the various manuscripts. This verse is no exception. Whatever may be intended in this statement concerning the connection between national boundaries and the sons of Israel or sons of God, Scripture is abundantly clear about the foundational and ongoing place of literal Israel. For there is nothing controversial about what follows. As verse nine reads: “For the LORD’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.” The use of Jacob reminds us that references to Israel in Scripture is not code for “the Church” or a post-Jewish generic “sons of God,” but that God has special regard and connection to the real, actual, physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To deny that is to deny the essence of the Bible.

Scriptures, New American Standard Bible

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False Accusations

For the week of September 2, 2017 / 11 Elul 5777

Male figure pointng finger at female figure

Ki Teze
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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If a man marries a woman, has sexual relations with her and then, having come to dislike her, brings false charges against her… (Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:13-14)

Many people assume that the Bible is an archaic, backward book, written when people were superstitious, given over to mythical stories, and all round ignorant – nothing like we are today: enlightened, progressive, and intelligent. This might be hard to accept, but very little about humans has changed since the beginning, except for technological advances. We continue to do what we have always done, just faster and more efficiently. And that goes for things both good and bad.

This is not to say that the ancients weren’t superstitious. Many were. But many still are today. We continue to believe in all sorts of fanciful ideas, and ignorance over life essentials is rampant. Yes, much has been learned through the millennia, while some basic lessons of life continue to be ignored. The idea that people started off ignorant and foolish and have been progressing mentally and morally since then has no basis in fact.

One of the areas where the progress assumption is strongest is with regards to the Bible’s view of women. Some will even use the Bible itself to back up this claim by comparing the Old and New Testaments’ depictions and treatment of women. It is typical to assert that Yeshua was the great liberator of women, since he freely engaged females and considered some as associates in his work. That he did that is indeed the case, but making it sound as if he was being so-called progressive isn’t valid. Even a casual reading of his interactions with women demonstrates there was no scandal or even concern over them. There is his disciples’ questioning over the Samaritan Woman in John chapter four, but it isn’t clear from the text exactly what their issue was.

This is not to say that the world of that day, Jewish or otherwise, was necessarily altogether correct, vis a vis women’s rights. Certainly, all sorts of injustices were done unto women, but injustices of all kinds occurred to both men and women and have continued to this day. Whether or not we have significantly progressed to a higher moral plain is difficult to determine.

What we can determine, however, is that the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, has a high regard for women. The divinely inspired wisdom of Scripture is displayed within a realistic view of life. Simply stating that all people should be treated equally does nothing to alleviate harmful behavior. But God knew that if left unchecked men and women would abuse each other.

In this week’s parsha, we have a situation where a man accuses his wife of deceitful impropriety prior to their marriage (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:13-21). The penalties for slander on the part of the man or impropriety on the part of his wife are harsh by today’s standards, but note the equality shown towards each party. If the man’s accusation is correct, then the woman was to be executed, the normal penalty for such things. But if the accusation is false, he was to be whipped, fined, and not allowed to ever divorce her. I know some will find these consequences backward in the way I referred to at the beginning, but don’t miss the sentiment here. Contrary to popular misconception, wives weren’t property to do with whatever their husbands pleased. Men were not allowed to say whatever they wanted about their wives and get away with it. There were repercussions for false accusations against women. These directives were designed to keep male selfishness in check. Yet, there is no preferential treatment here. Justice was to be done regardless of which partner was at fault.

There’s more. If I read this correctly, the result of God’s word here goes beyond this specific scenario. Because God provided a disincentive regarding false accusations, one would hope that men should think twice before acting on their suspicions toward their wives. In that day as well as our own, accusations in and of themselves destroy people’s reputations whether or not the accusation is valid. Yet, unlike in Moses’ time, there are no penalties for falsely accusing someone. Unlike the Torah, many justice systems tolerate false accusations to encourage victims to come forward. But that’s not just. True justice shows no bias toward supposed victims nor alleged perpetrators. Everyone should be treated fairly before the law. To allow otherwise is not progress.

Scriptures, Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)

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That’s Good News!

For the week of August 26, 2017 / 4 Elul 5777

A megaphone announcing good news with a blackboard background

Shofetim
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)

This week’s Haftarah (excerpt from the Hebrew prophets) includes what might be the prophetic high mark in all Scripture (if I am exaggerating, then I should only correct myself by saying “one of”). The great prophet Isaiah makes this proclamation after much of ancient Israel had been overrun and scattered by the brutal Assyrians, while the remaining region known as the Kingdom of Judah, where he lived, had barely escaped the same fate. Moreover, God had revealed to Isaiah that it was only a matter of time before Judah would be exiled by the next great world power, Babylon. Yet like much of the Bible’s prophetic literature gloom and doom is tempered with words of hope.

And a good deal of the last third of Isaiah’s book contains some of the Scripture’s brightest light and this one verse I quoted is the brightest (or one of the brightest) of them all. The picture painted here is one of relief and excitement due to a messenger’s appearing upon the hills surrounding Jerusalem as he announces good news of peace and deliverance.

The core of this hopeful expectation is found in the promise of the eventual reign of Israel’s God. This is what makes this proclamation so climactic. For it is God’s being established as king – first and foremost over Israel and then extended to the entire creation – that is the supreme goal of Scripture. But doesn’t the Bible teach that God was, is, and will always be king? Yes and no. Ultimately that is always true. The traditional Jewish way to address God in prayer as “Lord God, King of the universe” is certainly correct. But in another sense, God’s rule over the earth is dependent upon the submission of human beings. From the beginning, God desired that people do his will on earth as it is in heaven. Our failure to do so undermines his reign.

Through the Scriptures we see this played out in the story of Israel. The spotlight of divine revelation shone on this particular people to demonstrate to the whole world how God’s reign was to be lived out. Or not, as was the case. And in case I need to remind you, any nation would have similarly failed, for this is the state of human nature. But in the genius of God, through his commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he made a way to establish his rule on earth in spite of human dysfunctionality. And that’s good news!

And that’s the good news first proclaimed by messengers in around Jerusalem two thousand years ago. The Middle English word, “gospel,” based on the Old English, “godspel” (meaning “good tale”), is the translation of the Greek word “euangelion,” the term used in the Greek New Covenant Writings (New Testament). Euangelion is the word that was used to translate the Hebrew for “good news” in this verse. Therefore, the good news expressed through the proclamation of the coming of the Messiah is summed up in: “Your God reigns.” The early Jewish followers of Yeshua, therefore, were announcing that through his coming the long-anticipated reign of God over Israel (and the whole world) had come.

The power of the Greek word euangelion is made even greater by its use outside the Jewish community. This is the word commonly used to describe proclamations about Caesar, the Lord and King of the Roman Empire. To proclaim the Good News of the Jewish Messiah, was to announce the reign of the earth’s true king. In other words: Yeshua is King and Caesar is not. The subversive nature of Gospel proclamation is in full keeping with the essence of Isaiah’s’ prophesy – through the Messiah the reign of the God of Israel has come.

Knowing Yeshua is not simply a personal, private spiritual experience designed to comfort adherents by giving them a ticket to heaven. It is about welcoming the rule of God into our lives, allowing him to be Lord in every way. And that’s not just something that lives inside a tiny spiritual vault called our hearts. It’s a reality that is to affect every part of us and to be lived out in every aspect of life, because our God reigns. That’s good news!

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

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Our Children’s Peace

For the week of August 19, 2017 / 27 Av 5777

Colorful illustration of multi-ethic children holding hands around the earth

Re’eh
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5

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All your children shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children. (Isaiah 54:13)

This week’s Haftarah (selection from the Prophets) looks to a future age and the restoration of the creation. One of the central aspects of these wonderful days is shalom (English: peace). Shalom is a personal and societal condition much deeper than the lack of war and strife. It’s a way to describe life in perfect harmony, everything in its place, functioning as it should in right relationship to everything else.

The reference to children here is particularly interesting. The conditions of those days are to result in peace for children. When life is out of sorts, children are greatly impacted. Children suffer when their parents’ individual lives or marriage relationship is dysfunctional. Simply observing their parents, not to mention experiencing direct harm, has long-term, potential devastating effects on the young. Similarly, when the society at large is failing, children most often suffer the most. But one day according to God’s promise to ancient Israel, “great shall be the shalom of your children.”

But notice that their experience of shalom is not just an outcome of general peace upon the adults. It is the direct result of their being taught by God. We shouldn’t get distracted by attempting to figure out the details of what the Bible terms, “the age to come.” To do so would result in missing the point. What God through the prophet is saying is that the children’s peace would be a direct outcome of their being taught by God.

Parents have been mandated by God to be the prime educators of their children. Moses reiterates this at the end of last week’s Torah reading: “You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:19). The educational content referred to is, of course, God’s commandments. But when we understand the broad nature of God’s directives in the Scriptures, it becomes obvious that they are designed to be at the core of all education, not just things spiritual, moral, or religious. Exactly how our children’s education is done, formally and informally, is a serious task every parent needs to address.

That said, no matter how well-meaning, diligent, or capable a parent may be, we live in a broken world, where things don’t work in the way God intends. That doesn’t get us off the hook. Whether it’s our children’s education or anything else in life, we need to do our best. The problem is our best will never be good enough. The taint of sin undermines our efforts to fully meet God’s standards. No matter how well we do regarding education, human dysfunctionality will continue to get in the way of lasting peace. But one day, the barriers preventing God’s direct access to his people will be completely removed and children will no longer be the victims of their parents’ dysfunctions. Instead, the instruction of God himself will be the guiding force for everyone, kids included.

The promised shalom is not only something for a far-off day, however. Through the coming of the Messiah and the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit), God has made available to us now the resources of the age to come. This doesn’t only apply to children’s education, but it’s included. Parents who know the God of Israel through faith in Yeshua the Messiah have the opportunity to be conduits of his shalom. The reality of God present in the homes of true believers provides a foretaste of the great shalom to come. The effectiveness of educating our children is not solely due to our experience of God, but that of our children as well. As our children come to know Yeshua for themselves, the same Spirit directly works in their hearts too, thus making God their ultimate teacher. Our role, then, is to cooperate with what he is doing in their lives as he teaches them. The result? Our children’s peace.

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

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Spiritual Ecosystems

For the week of August 12, 2017 / 20 Av 5777

Photos illustrating the Egypt's and Israel's differant ecosystems

Ekev
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

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For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables. But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that the LORD your God cares for. The eyes of the LORD your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:10-12)

The people of Israel were not simply rescued from an old, oppressed life of slavery in Egypt. They were rescued to a new life of freedom in the Promised Land. The contrast between these two situations is great. Not only were they liberated from bondage, taken from being under the abusive control of the king of Egypt in order to be servants of the Master of the Universe, their entire sphere of existence was radically altered. It would have been sufficiently wonderful if they only had been granted a status change, free to thrive in Egypt as they had when they first settled there. But instead God led them to an entirely different territory as was promised to their ancestors centuries earlier.

Yet another significant difference between their former existence and the one yet ahead was that life in their new land worked completely differently from how it did in Egypt. And I don’t mean culturally, although it included that too. Settling the Land of Israel would necessitate new challenges with other peoples, and the working out of a new culture based on God’s Torah directives. The dynamics of living in the Promised Land were so different compared to Egypt that it was almost like being taken to another planet.

Egypt and Israel, though neighboring regions, are controlled by different ecosystems. An ecosystem, according to Merriam-Webster is “the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit.” Agriculture in Egypt was dependent on the Nile River. As far as the Egyptians were concerned, the Nile was a permanent and dependable resource. Having such a vast water supply in those days in that part of world was more valuable than anything. No wonder the Egyptians regarded the Nile as a god.

Israel’s ecosystem was not like that at all. As Moses said: “The land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that the LORD your God cares for” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:11-12). Israel even today has very little permanent water resources, notwithstanding current technological advances in desalination and waste-water purification. Without adequate annual rain, Israel would quickly experience a drought induced famine situation. Regular provision of rain would be a matter of life and death.

Israel’s ongoing dependence upon rain was to lead them to an ongoing dependence on God. Of course, Egypt was actually as dependent on God as Israel was to be. As the Creator and Sustainer of all things, he is behind all provision, including the presence and abundance of the Nile. But since the rain-dependent source of the Nile was far removed from the center of Egyptian life, the people would not be readily aware of that. Israel’s ecosystem forced them to look to God in a way that was not so obvious in Egypt. They had spent hundreds of years in a land, which, while oppressive, was rich in water, but now they were called to live in a land where their water situation would be precarious.

The uncertainty surrounding this essential resource didn’t mean they wouldn’t have water. Moses’s words were not geared to make them anxious due to the fear of drought, but rather confident in God’s provision. As we read, this would be living in “a land that the LORD your God cares for.” While Israel lacked the luxury of taking water for granted they were gaining an environment that was under the watchful eye of a loving and caring God.

The level of trust in God required of Israel is no different from the basic faith of any true follower of the Messiah. Yet, not all environments are the same. We know we should always be dependent upon him, yet he leads us into all kinds of situations where we find ourselves having to trust him in ways we’ve never had to before. We may not know that we have been taking certain areas of life for granted until they are not as readily available as we had been used to.

We need to take care not to overreact when we discover we have been depending on things instead of on the God who provides them. It can be jarring to all of a sudden have to trust God for things we have been taking for granted. But let’s remember, like the Land of Israel, the eyes of our God are always upon us. We can trust him even when the ecosystems of our lives radically change.

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

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Nothing Better

For the week of August 5, 2017 / 13 Av 5777

Magnifying glass with the words The Best inside.

Va-Ethannan
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:7-8)

Standing (or sitting) before the people of Israel after forty years of wilderness wanderings, which followed being powerfully rescued by God from slavery in Egypt, Moses recounts their experiences as he prepares them to enter the Promised Land. At this point he enthusiastically exclaims the uniqueness of their relationship to God. No other nation on earth has what they have. Two things: an intimate relationship with the Creator, and his revelation of how to live within his creation.

Other cultures of that day had religion along with formal or informal philosophy. They had concepts of gods and other spiritual forces, both good and evil. They had theories of life’s origins and purpose. People related to one another and to the world around them based on their various beliefs, which, by the way, included agnosticism and atheism, just like today. But no other people group apart from ancient Israel were gifted with a genuine relationship with the only authentic God as well as insight into the workings of the world he had made.

Some may have difficulty with the exclusivity of this arrangement. Why would God only reveal himself to one nation? I trust the Master of the Universe knows what he was doing. From the perspective of the New Covenant, we know that this exclusivity was only to be until the time when the followers of Messiah, King of Israel, would be sent out into the whole world. But even when Moses spoke these words hundreds of years earlier, the other nations were in mind. For they were to notice the great wisdom and understanding that was given to Israel.

In the current social climate, we tend to forget the great blessing that God’s revelation through the Scriptures really is. Constant critiques of the Judeo-Christian worldview attempt to shame its adherents into hiding. Principles of Scripture are misrepresented as backward and bigoted. But nothing could be further from reality. Rightly understood, no philosophy, religion, or lifestyle comes close to the goodness of God’s ways as delineated in the Bible. Not only does it provide wisdom unto eternal life, observing its principles leads to health and long life in the current age. Bible-based living results in strong families and communities. The Scriptures contain the highest standards of honest and fair business practices, conflict resolution strategies, racial reconciliation techniques, personal psychological insights, and on and on.

This is not to say that the Bible hasn’t been extremely twisted through the centuries. Verses have been taken out of context and passages used nefariously for personal gain or control. That something so good and beneficial would be abused like that is the epitome of evil. Not only has this caused much harm, but it also results in preventing other people who might otherwise be helped by it.

Today, the problem is different. Many who claim to value the Bible neglect it or at least large portions of it, while others shape it to fit into the current culture’s expectations. Clearly much of the Bible’s values and approach to life’s practicalities are in stark contrast to popular thought. To accept its perspective necessitates major adjustments and invites aggressive reaction from others. But that in itself shouldn’t be reason to ignore it, especially once we realize its benefits.

Notwithstanding certain elements of the Bible that were for the time in which it was written, nothing compares to it. Its life-giving power that has benefited so many through the centuries is still as effective as ever. But let’s not forget the other remarkable thing that Moses mentions. That which made Israel unique was not simply that it possessed superior information in the body of writings we now call the Bible. It is that the knowledge of Scripture was to be acquired as part of an intimate relationship with God. In fact, it was Israel’s difficulty in maintaining that relationship that made the Bible virtually ineffective. Only through the coming of the Messiah Yeshua, and putting our trust in him, does the Bible become the life source God intended. There’s nothing better!

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

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