The Impossible

For the week of January 27, 2018 / 11 Shevat 5778

Violent ocean surf

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4-5:31

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea.” (Shemot/Exodus 14:1-2)

You may be familiar with the oft-quoted, eighteenth-century hymn that begins with “God moves in a mysterious way; his wonders to perform.” This captures the difficulty of understanding what God is doing amidst difficult circumstances. A life of faith can be a life of confusion as we face the tension of the love and goodness of God with the pain and sorrow we must endure at times.

As we grapple with this, there is an aspect of God’s intentions that we may miss. Our failure to fully reckon with these intentions may prevent us from walking through difficulty as effectively as we should. At times we regard coping with difficulties as sufficient, when what God wants is something way more than that. Godly endurance isn’t necessarily passive, as if the best course of action when facing a storm is always hunkering down waiting for it to pass.

This is not what God wanted the people of Israel to do when they faced the impossible situation of being between the Egyptian Army and the Red Sea. Moses seemed to think all they needed to do was to stand there, trust God, and all would be well. Certainly there are such incidences in the Bible, but this is not one of them. Here, God told the people to go forward towards the Sea. We know what was going to happen, because the story is so familiar. We also have the luxury of being able to read this on paper, not live through it as they did. Imagine, God’s expressed will was to head toward the water.

This is not simply a case of finding yourself in a difficult situation, confused by circumstances, wondering where God might be in it all, as you try to find comfort in sayings such as “God moves in a mysterious way.” This is not simply an opportunity to cope with the broken nature of life. This is God thrusting his people into what appears to be the jaws of death, while expecting them to do the impossible.

God is not hiding in the shadows here. He is smack in the middle of this terrifying situation, calling his people to go for it as never before. Hey, the water’s fine! You only think you’re committing suicide. Get going; you are about to do the impossible!

I don’t think Israel had much choice with this one. To disobey the command to move forward toward the sea meant annihilation by the Egyptians. We also at times find ourselves moving forward toward the impossible in spite of ourselves. How many terrifying things have we had to face only to experience the power of God to get us through?

I wonder if there might be other times, when God wants to thrust us toward the impossible, but because there is no army threating our backs, we pull back. Overwhelmed by apparently insurmountable challenges, we miss the opportunity to accomplish what God has for us. Can that happen? It happened in the Bible. Think of this same group of people, who about two years later lost their opportunity to enter the Promised Land due to fear and lack of faith (see Numbers 13-14). One of the issues at that time was they doubted God’s intentions in calling them to face the impossible, thinking he was out to destroy them. Sounds ridiculous to us now, but at the time the impossible can be so overwhelming that we lose sight of God’s good intent.

God calls for a faith in keeping with the great and awesome God he is. Yeshua told his followers during his last Passover with them, that after he was gone, they would do greater works than he did. Instead of shrinking the word “greater” into tiny packages we can handle, we should allow the enormity of his statement to saturate our beings. Not only does God want us to do “greater works,” he fabricates the situations in which they are to occur by thrusting us into the impossible. That’s impossible for us; not impossible to God. It’s time to move forward!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


What’s in a New Year?

For the week of January 20, 2018 / 4 Shevat 5778

Happy New Year as a world map in multiple languages

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.” (Shemot/Exodus 12:1-2)

Much of the world recently celebrated the beginning of the new year. Regarding January as the beginning of months appears to go back to ancient Rome. In 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar introduced his new solar calendar, the Julian Calendar, January 1 was established as the first day of the year. In the sixth century, the Council of Tours abolished that day as the new year, regarding its associated celebrations as pagan. Various regions in Medieval Europe celebrated the beginning of the year at different times. January 1 was restored as New Year’s Day by the Gregorian Calendar reform in 1582, though it would be some time before it was commonly accepted.

It is curious that in what has become the most common calendar in use today, the new year begins when it does. It is true that in the Northern Hemisphere, the long dark nights of winter begin to give way to longer days. Also, its proximity to Christmas, the traditional time when the birth of the Messiah is celebrated, may have some bearing. However, if his birth was reason to mark the beginning of the year, then why not celebrate the new year precisely on that day?

When it comes down to it, January 1 is nothing more than a way to mark the passage of time, an acceptable device in a world devoid of meaning. But contrary to popular misconception, the world isn’t meaningless, which is why the Torah has a different take on new year’s. Not that anyone, including Jews or Christians, takes notice, however.

God established the beginning of months to coincide with the most important event in Israel’s history, the exodus. The first month of the year commemorates the birth of a nation, when God liberated his people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. From that time on, the new year was to function in terms of a national birthday through the celebration of Passover. Every year in the spring, the people of Israel were to look back to this moment of salvation.

Hold on. Isn’t the Jewish new year in the fall, not the spring, observed as Rosh Hashanah (English: the head of the year), the biblical Feast of Trumpets? Yes and no. Jewish tradition recognizes four different new years. That might sound strange, but we are more familiar with the concept of different new years than we might think. Besides the beginning of the calendar year in January, we have the beginning of the school year in late August/early September. Companies also have fiscal years. In Jewish tradition, the first of Nisan, in which Passover occurs, is regarded as the beginning of the religious year. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of cattle. The first of Tishrei, coinciding with Rosh Hashanah, is the civil new year, and the fifteenth of Shevat is the new year for trees and the tithing of fruit.

Even though the first of Nisan is acknowledged as the beginning of the religious year, at some point and for reasons not altogether clear, the Jewish world shifted focus from the biblically explicit new year to Rosh Hashanah. Let me offer an observation. How we mark our beginnings makes a difference on how we understand who we are. While Passover is one of the most observed of all the festivals, diminishing its primacy in any way results in losing awareness of what our fundamental identity is as slaves set free. Further, we are to remember that God rescued us from our desperate state because of his commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are intimately and irreversibly connected to God’s committed faithful love. How we live, everything we do, is rooted in this primary event. To place the fall feasts or anything else ahead of the exodus is to skew the way we understand how God relates to us and us to him.

What relevance does this have, if any, to non-Jewish believers in the Messiah? First, as it is for the people of Israel, the exodus is the primary event for all believers. Israel’s rescue from bondage in Egypt is the prototype of the universal rescue of all people through faith in Yeshua. This is made vividly clear by Yeshua’s leveraging the Passover seder as the vehicle through which all people would remember his death and resurrection. What has become known as the Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, or Communion cannot be fully understood outside of its Passover context.

I am not necessarily making a case for a new calendar. What we need to do is make sure we never forget that first and foremost we are all slaves set free. Regardless of nationality, the exodus is the beginning for every child of God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


New Perspective

For the week of December 30, 2017 / 12 Tevet 5778

A zipper opening a stormy sky to reveal a bright blue sky

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 2:1-12

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:19-20)

Last week I mentioned that I consider Joseph’s words of consolation to his brothers after their father’s death to be an extremely healthy balanced expression of the workings of God in the midst of difficult painful circumstances. Without excusing his brothers’ evil intentions and behavior, he acknowledged God’s hand at work for good through it all. In my previous message, I clarified that the forces of good and evil are not equal according to Joseph. God is the Supreme Force always having the upper hand.

This is why in the New Covenant writings, Paul could write with so much confidence:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

“All things work together for good?” This would be too good to be true, if it wasn’t really true. I would not be surprised if Paul was thinking about Joseph when he dictated these words. After all, like Joseph, he knew what it was like to be wrongfully imprisoned in a dungeon. And he, like Joseph, knew this to be how life worked “for those who love God.” The condition connected to this truth is important, however. What Joseph said to his brothers was not a universal life principle. He wasn’t saying that he clued into how life worked in general for everyone. Instead this is how God works in relation to his children. And not necessarily all his children, but rather “who are called according to his purpose.” I don’t think we can lay claim to this promise if we willfully do our own thing. This is not to say that God only works for our good when we live a perfect life. Rather, if our general life direction is within the scope of God’s purposes, we can be confident that whatever evil others mean for us, God will work out for good.

I don’t know about you, but I have experienced a great many disappointments in my life. Time and time again, people whom I assumed cared and loved me, have let me down. Might it be that I suffer from too high expectations of others? Perhaps. At times. Still, from my father’s abandoning me when I was a teenager to unsolicited promises of place and position, I have had my hopes dashed time and time again. Please don’t get out the violins, there’s more to all this.

About four months ago, it happened again. I was offered a promise of crucial help and was given a time to meet up with someone especially equipped to give me the assistance I needed only to be stood up, forgotten actually. I hadn’t had one of those experiences in a while, and it completely sideswiped me. The sense of abandonment dogged me for days as I sought God’s help in sorting this out amidst the fog of memories of similar past incidents. Then, I remembered Joseph’s words. It came to me (perhaps directly from heaven) to purposely step through all such past experiences, looking for the possible good that God did in and through each and every one of them. Reflecting on my past is not unusual for me. I tend do so in order to tap into a source of encouragement as I recall the amazing things God has done for me and my family. Until this time, however, I have never purposely looked for the outworking of the “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” principle.

I was surprised to discover that almost every single disappointing, hurtful experience I could think of eventually resulted in a positive outcome. The Lord shed light even on my father’s abandonment, showing me that in spite of the pain and scars, it worked out to my benefit. I couldn’t yet see the good that God was working out from the most recent disappointing episode, except that it led to this blessed gift of new perspective. That would be good enough, but I am happy to report that now, over four months later, that painful experience led to a much better source of help.

Maybe your life hasn’t been filled with disappointment. Maybe it has. May I suggest you do what I did: ask God to walk you through them all to see the good he has been working out. Don’t forget, however, that in order to apply the principle, you need to love God and be called according to his purpose. If you are, may God open your eyes to see the truth of his good work in your life.

One more thing. You might be in the middle of a difficult time right now. That’s when it’s the hardest, of course. I have been there many times. Joseph was there a long time. Remember, God will bring about good eventually. Keep looking to him, and don’t give up.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Supreme Force

For the week of December 23, 2017 / 5 Tevet 5778

The text The Supreme Force on a starfield background

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Bereshit/Genesis 45:8)

The story of Joseph illustrates the Torah’s understanding of the interplay between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. One of the surprising elements about the Bible’s perspective on this issue is that we don’t encounter the type of philosophical tension that Westerners have argued over for hundreds of years. Instead, the characters of Scripture appear to simply accept that God is supreme over everything in his universe, while at the very same time expecting human beings to take responsibility for their actions. Few express this as well as Joseph. I can’t get over what he will tell his brothers in next week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading section) in order to convince them that he was in no way bearing a grudge against them.

Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Bereshit/Genesis 45:8).

Somehow Joseph was able to fully comprehend the essential nature of the two forces at work in his life. First, an evil force sought his undoing as expressed through his brothers’ ill will. Second, through it all, a good force was also at work to bring about God’s purposes. His faith in God’s goodness didn’t excuse the evil of his brothers’ conspiracy; it enabled him to accept that evil didn’t win in the end.

Evil didn’t win, because it couldn’t. This week’s parsha includes Joseph’s revelation of his true identity to his brothers. Dismayed when the great Egyptian ruler they had been dealing with told them he was actually Joseph, he immediately sought to console them. He did so by telling them God was the supreme force at work in all this. As quoted above, Joseph made it clear, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” This statement is a lot stronger than “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” The later statement sounds like a balance between opposing forces – the accepting of two truths in the way I mentioned at the start. Standing on its own, we may get the impression that these are two equal forces at play. The earlier one, however, clarifies that they are not equal at all. Evil is real; the brothers did wrong; yet God’s power prevails because it is supreme.

Notice too that unlike a popular myth of our day, there are two distinct forces at work in this story: one good, one evil. There is no dark side to God. Second, these forces are not impersonal. We are not talking energy here. Forces are involved but they are the activities of intelligent beings. Though non-physical, they interact with humans who respond to their purposeful directives. Third, the good and evil forces of the real universe cannot be manipulated or used, though evil may want us to believe we can. Instead, we are designed by God, the supreme force, to hear his word and act accordingly.

The evil force is real, but will not have the last word. If that was true for Joseph while he was trapped in an oppressive situation, how much more is that true for those of us who are free to come and go as we please. Too many live as if evil has the upper hand, when it doesn’t, especially in these days of the Messiah. We who genuinely trust in Yeshua are recipients of the greatest force in the universe, the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit), making us forces of good to reckon with. We have been assigned to be instruments of God’s power, equipped to extend his rescue operation throughout Planet Earth.

The mythic forces and superpowers of Hollywood lore have nothing on the Supreme Force who wishes to work through us to overcome evil wherever it may lurk. This is not magic. However, we will remain powerless as long as we think we are. If we will allow God to have his way in and through us, no earthly power will stand in our way. May God, the true Supreme Force, be with us!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


You Gotta Serve Somebody

For the week December 16, 2017 / 28 Kislev 5778

Business man inside gears (hamster wheel metaphor)

Mi-Kez & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17; Bemidbar/Numbers 7:30 – 41
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt. (Bereshit/Genesis 41:46)

The story of Joseph is one of the greatest “rags to riches” tales of all time. Sold into slavery by his own brothers due to their murderous jealously, he is purchased by an Egyptian captain named Potiphar. After refusing to give into Potiphar’s wife’s advances, she frames him, resulting in his spending years imprisoned in a dungeon. In both situations, Joseph is given significant responsibility. Be that as it may, few can comprehend how difficult those many years must have been, especially his time in the dungeon.

As we know, due to the predictive dreams Joseph had before his enslavement, God had big plans for him. How it would be that he would rise to some sort of rulership position over his family someday was unknown. We also don’t know what was going on in Joseph’s mind all that time. Whatever he figured the dreams meant, it must have seemed impossible given his predicament.

Then the surprising day came. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, having heard of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, called him to attempt to explain the meaning of two most troubling dreams he had. Pharaoh was pretty impressed with what he heard and appointed Joseph second in command over the whole country. Joseph’s main responsibility was to administer grain during the coming years of plenty and the subsequent famine.

It was only recently that I thought to myself, if Joseph was given such authority, why didn’t he go see his family? While he may have had no interest in his jealous brothers, we know he was concerned for his father and had a heart for his younger brother, Benjamin, who likely had no part in the plot against him. If he was concerned about his older brothers, he could have brought along an armed guard for protection. And why settle for a visit? Now that he was freed from prison, why stay in Egypt at all? Was it for the job? It’s not every day you’re offered anything close to Vice-Pharaoh with its prestige and other benefits. What would he do back home anyway? Be a shepherd? And with the coming famine, maybe staying in Egypt wouldn’t be too bad after all. Then again, why not at least visit?

Then it occurred to me, he couldn’t go home even if he wanted to. Pharaoh didn’t offer him a job; he appointed him to it. Pharaoh’s authority over Joseph wasn’t simply due to his being king, but that Joseph was still a slave. He was released from prison, but nowhere do we read he was made a free man. I imagine his life of service under Pharaoh was far more comfortable than most non-slaves anywhere in those days. But whatever perks he enjoyed, personal freedom was not one of them.

Looking at Joseph’s circumstances through a modern lens, we might determine that no perk could ever be a substitute for freedom. However, besides misunderstanding how difficult life must have been for people in those days, we also misunderstand the very essence of our God-given roles as human beings. When God created man and woman, he assigned them, and everyone else since then, to care for the creation under his rulership. A key theme of the Bible’s story is the broken nature of the world due to human refusal to submit to God’s established authority structure. We were designed to be servants, fulfilling God’s call in our lives as stewards of his creation. Never were we to be free to do whatever we wanted. This doesn’t mean that anyone should be subjected to slavery. That’s clear by both God’s providing moral freedom to Adam and Eve as well as the liberation of the nation of Israel in Egypt some generations after Joseph. Still, while slavery is an unjust, evil institution, we are to be servants.

Absolute personal freedom doesn’t exist in the real world. Whether we like it or not, we are part of a vast interconnected, complex system of life. In the design of God, our role is to serve his interests within that system, making positive contributions in the world. Yet it seems most people choose to serve their own interests instead; many creating the illusion that they are free, not realizing that they are being controlled by nefarious forces.

In 1979, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan got it right in his song “Gotta Serve Somebody”:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Like Joseph, we’re gonna serve somebody. The only question is: who is it going to be?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Internal Forces

For the week of December 9, 2017 / 21 Kislev 5778
Arrows depicting external and internal forceVa-Yeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. (Bereshit/Genesis 37:5)

While the story of Jacob’s son Joseph is one of the more comprehensive Bible stories, his personality is often overly simplified to be the God-favored victim of his brothers’ murderous hatred. Staying faithful to God through it all, God uses his terrible circumstances to save the day. The message to us is equally simple: trust God and he will take care of us no matter what. Nice thought. It certainly contains dependable truth. The problem is this story, including Joseph’s part, isn’t that straightforward. Neither is real life. Within the complexity of Joseph’s character, we can find real hope for our own complicated lives.

Was Joseph a passive victim? No one should blame him for being his father’s favorite. That wasn’t fair to his brothers, of course. But life isn’t fair. God also favored him by giving him dreams. I am aware favored persons can be the object of other people’s ire. But that’s not really Joseph’s story. Without excusing what his brothers did, Joseph was not passive. Joseph had a bit of a mouth. When we are first introduced to him, we are told he had brought a bad report of his brothers to their father. Not given the details of that, we don’t know what he said or how he said it. He may have been completely in the right. But when trouble ensued later on, most people would wonder if they could have done things differently.

It’s the sharing of the dreams, however, that is of greatest concern. The bad report may have been necessary. But did he have to tell his brothers and father about the dreams? Didn’t he know he would further infuriate his brothers? Even if he was clued out about the meaning of the first dream, he knew how his brothers took it (and correctly so) as a prediction of his eventual prominence in the family. Therefore, he knew exactly how they would understand the second similar dream. He may have been purposely trying to put them in their place. Joseph most likely figured his being favored by his father and God would protect him from his brothers’ wrath. If so, he figured wrong.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what was going on in Joseph’s mind through his ordeal. What we do know is after all was said and done, he was able to be gracious to his brothers in spite of what they did to him. His perspective he expresses as “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:20) is an unusually healthy balanced understanding of the interplay between human activity and God’s sovereignty. It’s easy to say, but Joseph’s freedom from bitterness and demonstration of generosity towards those who aggressively hated him is extraordinary.

Still, that was his state at the end of a very long and arduous personal journey. What about all the time in between, especially as he finds himself enslaved in Egypt, followed by unjust imprisonment in a vile dungeon? Shall we assume he took it all in stride as he made up songs about ruling over his family one day? That’s possible, but not probable. It’s reasonable to assume he wondered about his big mouth. Did he really have to talk up his dreams? Too late now, of course. But what if he had kept his big mouth shut?

Perhaps he didn’t give much thought to his contribution to his dismal situation. That would make him even more remarkable than most people think. Most of us spend considerable amount of time with our should’ve/ would’ve/could’ves. We obsess over the possibility that we are the ones who got us into our messes. Others blame shift, of course, refusing to take any responsibility for their lives. But that’s a different story for another time. Here I want to address those of us who get stuck over ourselves.

Whether or not Joseph blamed himself partly or completely for his situation, it is clear it didn’t cripple him. Dreams, something that got him in trouble earlier in life, would be key to his release and promotion in Egypt later on. Also, whether as a slave, prison foreman, or Prime Minister; his leadership skills, which may have helped precipitate his tense relationship with his brothers when a teenager, were fully expressed. How many people, when their abilities get them into trouble, out of fear vow to “never do that again”? Some may even think they are being responsible by avoiding the potential damage their God-given abilities may cause. Somehow Joseph didn’t fall into that trap.

Perhaps the way Joseph dealt with the relationship of his brothers’ evil to God’s sovereignty is a clue to how he coped with his own role in the story. Consciously or unconsciously, Joseph’s trust in God set him free to fully function in the role God assigned to him. He knew God was bigger than the outside forces of his life. Obviously, he also learned that God was bigger than his own internal forces as well.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Necessary Adjustments

For the week of December 2, 2017 / 14 Kislev 5778

Hands adjusting professional studio mixing console

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 (English 32:3 – 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12 (English 11:7 – 12:11)

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:21; English 32:20)

Jacob was on the brink of a life-changing event, though he didn’t know it. After a life of self-reliance, manipulation, finagling, and deception; he would have an encounter with God that would finally get through to him. It would leave him with a limp and a new name – Israel – the official and enduring brand of God’s specially chosen nation.

Jacob’s change was not a transformation of every aspect of his personality. I am not referring to the way true followers of the God of Israel remain a mixed bag until the Messiah returns, the continuing battle of spirit and flesh, so to speak. God affirmed a key aspect of what we might call the old Jacob, when he said, “you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:29; English 32:28). A couple of years ago, I commented on the positive nature of Jacob’s tenacity. His “go-get-it” attitude to life is something we should emulate.

Like so many human attributes, tenacity in and of itself is neutral. It can be used or abused. When something is a part of our personality, it can be difficult to recognize that. Let me explain. In the case of Jacob, it would be easier for us to divide his life into before and after his encounter with God. Prior to this, he was Jacob, the deceiver. Afterwards, he is Israel, the Prince of God. By the way, I know that he was sometimes still called Jacob, which may indicate his own ongoing internal struggle, but that is beside the point for now. What I am trying to point out is that it isn’t correct to categorize his tenacity as negative, since God himself affirms it as I quoted. However, we shouldn’t regard every way he expressed that tenacity in the past as acceptable.

Not to compare myself with Jacob, but when I came into a personal relationship with his God through the Messiah, my life radically changed. Still today, over forty years later, I refer to my first nineteen years on this planet as “the bad old days” as I was so misguided. It would take too long to list the changes: philosophical, theological, economical, psychological, and relational. But there is another sense in which I haven’t changed at all. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s that I am still me. However it works, like everyone, I am a unique personality with strengths and weaknesses, many of which are morally and practically neutral.

It would be easy for me to reject every aspect of my pre-messianic life due to how miserable and dysfunctional I was. But to do that would be to reject myself altogether. God didn’t want that for Jacob; neither does he want that for me (or you). The other extreme would be to think that because God made me a certain way, then I (and everyone around me) needs to accept my personality as is. But that too is not what God wanted for Jacob or anyone else. While he affirmed Jacob’s tenacity, he transformed his focus. Until his encounter, Jacob was self-driven. Once God got hold of him (quite literally in fact), God displaced self on the throne of Jacob’s life.

With a new ruler in charge change would be inevitable. Some things would have to go altogether, such as lies and deception; other things would need tweaking, such as the motivations and objects of his tenacity; while other things would stay intact. But that would now be under God’s direction, not Jacob’s.

It’s taken me a long time to accept some of what I was as gifts of God wrongly used, but now with his help can be instruments of blessing. If God is on the throne of our lives, then we need to get off. That entails releasing ourselves from our own judgments and allowing God to dictate what needs to go, what should be tweaked, and what might be fine just the way it is.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The House of God

For the week of November 25, 2017 / 7 Kislev 5778

Celestial portalVa-Yeze
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)
Originally posted December 9, 2000 / 12 Kislev 5761
Revised version from the book Torah Light: Insights from the Books of Moses

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:16–17)

Jacob had a vision of God in a dream. He’d never had an experience like this before. When he awoke, he surmised that there was something special about the place he was in, referring to it as the house of God, the gate of heaven. We don’t know if his conclusion about the place was accurate or if it was nothing more than his own interpretation of the experience.

Jacob assumed that this was a special place. He gave a new name to the town, calling it Bet-el (English, Bethel)—meaning “House of God”—and set up a pillar there. He then made a pledge that if God would keep his promise to bring him back there, this same god would be his God.

Whatever the significance of the place, Jacob thought God was more in Bet-el than he would be in the land of his ancestors where he was going. It would take many years before he realized how real and how present God was. Jacob’s dream was meant to reveal to him that God was going to take care of him. But Jacob focused more on the experience than on the message.

Like Jacob, we sometimes have difficulty knowing God beyond our experiences of him. I know many of us have not experienced anything like Jacob did, but still God is often confined to our specific events, activities, and experiences. We like to focus more on the wonderful things that God does than to learn the lessons those things were designed to teach us.

The essence of idolatry is the substituting of something in place of the reality of God. It may or may not be a physical object that we can touch. It might be a memory or a concept through which we relate to God. These things may function in our lives as helps in knowing God, but the fact is they get in the way.

It sounds so spiritual to be like Jacob and get excited over an experience. But God remained someone who seemed far from him for a very long time. It would not be until later difficult circumstances that God would finally become personal to him.

Could it have been any different for Jacob? We don’t know. But it can be different for us. Instead of getting hyped over what God is doing (or not doing) in our lives, maybe we should listen to what God is saying to us. Let’s stop making monuments of our experiences (or lack thereof) and let God into our hearts right now.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Shrinking World

For the week of November 18, 2017 / 29 Heshvan 5778

A miniature globe held by a hand

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22-23)

We have no idea what we are. Our view of life seems to get more and more narrow. For most people it is nothing more than the avoidance of suffering and pursuit of pleasure. Sure, we may have family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, but life is wrapped up in self, and not much more. Let’s be honest, why do we pursue what we pursue? Who is it for? The other guy or yourself? I don’t assume this is everyone, but the self-driven life is certainly driving the traffic of much human endeavor today. I am not surprised by this. After being told for so long that life has no meaning, the universe shrinks and shrinks until it is no bigger than me.

But it’s not true. We are not meaningless blobs of tissue, the happenstance of random, mindless processes, existing only for a few short years simply to decompose to recyclable waste. But perhaps you knew that already. You may even be a person of faith – a believer in the one true God, the God of Israel, the God of the Bible. Maybe you pray and read that Bible of yours. You try to live a good life, keeping out of trouble as much as you can. You’ve got your ticket to heaven, or so you think, which gives you something to look forward to beyond your feeble current existence. But as for your feeble existence, is your life, your world, any bigger than that of your atheistic or agnostic friends? You have “Jesus in your heart,” and you know that’s supposed to make a difference, but this eternal life you claim to have has a tendency to shrivel up into the same self-focus of most everybody else.

It’s because we don’t get it. We don’t get that there is something really big going on. The world has its issues, of course. The Bible doesn’t pretend otherwise. Rebellion against God is at the core of all human dysfunction as well as the broken nature of the planet in which we live. But the purpose of life isn’t found in biding our time as we medicate our suffering through all sorts of distractions as we wait for heaven. We are here on a mission – God’s mission. All humans have been mandated by God, whether we know him or not, to be his representatives on earth (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-28). Through Yeshua the Messiah we are more than adequately equipped to not only fulfill that mandate, but to rescue others from sin and its effects (see Matthew 28:18-20).

Because people are made in God’s image, every one of us has potential for great positive impact. Yet we squander what we are due to ignorance. If we would only know what we are, we would get our eyes off ourselves and onto the grand mission God has for us.

When Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, was pregnant, she was concerned about the turmoil she felt inside. Asking God what was going on, he told her that she was carrying two nations. Get that? Not two blobs of tissue. Two nations. Not two products of pregnancy that may develop into something more one day. Two nations.

I understand that not every human being will necessarily generate offspring like Jacob and Esau did. But the potential for life that exists within every human being at the point of conception should encourage us to see that we are part of something way bigger than ourselves. God’s initiation of the universe and his intent on rescuing it from our mismanagement includes, not precludes, the ongoing generation of more human beings.

The Scripture is clear that everything that is wrong with the world is because of humans. But it is equally clear that the solution to everything that is wrong with the world is also human beings. That’s why God became human to save the creation. And that’s why he is calling us to be part of his rescue mission today. The more we embrace that mission, the bigger our world will become.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


When It’s Not You

For the week of November 11, 2017 / 22 Heshvan 5778

A business man pointing his finger in blame toward a businesswoman

Hayyei Sarah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/2 Kings 1:1-31

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:1-3)

Abraham is depicted in the Bible as the model of faith. It was him of whom we read, “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:6). It was his trust in God (faith is trust) that established his right relationship with God. What did he trust God for? The seemingly impossible prospect of innumerable offspring (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:5). Why was this a seemingly impossible prospect? He and his wife, Sarah, were childless and already advanced in years. They astonishingly have the child of promise when Abraham is one hundred years old and Sarah is ninety.

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), Sarah dies, and sometime later Abraham remarries. Obviously, he is way over a hundred by now, but ends up having a whack of kids through his second wife, Keturah. Not bad for an old man, eh? But wait a second! I thought Abraham couldn’t conceive. Perhaps God healed whatever his condition was, so that he could have Isaac, the promised one. But that’s not right. Years before, after waiting and waiting and still no child, Sarah suggested going the surrogate mother route through her servant Hagar (see Genesis 16). Can’t say for sure, but looks like Hagar conceived pretty quickly. You know what that means, don’t you? The problem wasn’t with Abraham. It was Sarah who couldn’t conceive, at least not until God intervened.

If I am right, then Abraham’s faith challenge was not his own inability, but his wife’s. Did he understand that? He must have. They knew how conception worked. The Bible tells us many times something to the effect of so-and-so lay with her, and she conceived. Abraham knew he could produce kids. And he knew Sarah couldn’t. And yet he stuck with her until the end. He was open to the surrogacy solution, and appeared to believe that that was part of God’s plan until told differently. He thought it was funny when it became clear that his wife would finally conceive. Isaac, meaning laughter, would be identified with this act of heavenly humor forever. It was funny, but he went for it, lying with his long-time committed spouse at least one more time.

While many of the challenges to our fulfilling God’s will are due to our own weaknesses, struggles, and so on, we often find ourselves, like Abraham, frustrated by issues arising from others. Being confronted by actual enemies is one thing, but being constrained by those closest to us is another. How many people have started off on some Great Adventure and have been thwarted in pursuing what are clearly God-given goals, hitting a rock wall because of a loved one? Household obligations may dictate holding off on all sorts of noble, inspired objectives.

Abraham’s willingness to alleviate his situation only stemmed as far as surrogacy within the confines of his understanding of the cultural norms of the day. But that didn’t resolve the matter. Note that he never took a second wife. Maybe God kept him from that temptation by taking him to a hostile, alien land. We don’t know. What we do know is that God wasn’t put off by the length of time or Sarah’s infertility and that Abraham was willing to cooperate with the details of God’s plan as they were revealed to him.

There may be times when we unnecessarily accept obstacles to God’s plans for our lives. We may assume a false sense of responsibility towards family, friends, or business. We may have misguided financial expectations. But at other times, we need to resist skirting God-given limitations, trusting he knows what he is doing and will bring to pass whatever he wants in his time and in his way.

Some time later, God would say to Isaac, concerning his dad: “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Bereshit/Genesis 26:5). The exemplary nature of Abraham’s faith is not confined to a few highlighted moments, but includes a lifestyle, imperfect though it was, loyal to God. This is no less found in his faithfulness to Sarah in spite of her insufficiency. He knew that the God who called him to be a great nation had also determined that marriage be permanent. He accepted the challenge and became the father of all who truly believe.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version