Hanukkah & the Big Picture

For the week of December 4, 2021 / 30 Kislev 5782

Illustration of a hanukkiah on a globe

Miketz / Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15; 7:42-53
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English 2:10 – 4:7); Isaiah 66:1-24; 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” (Bereshit/Genesis 41:38-40)

It’s Hanukkah this week! Hanukkah commemorates the triumph of the small Jewish army over the powerful Seleucids in the year 165 BC under the tyrannical reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus sought to consolidate his rule by imposing Greek culture and religion upon his diverse and expansive region, including the land of Israel. The temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by pagan worship, including the presence of a statue of Zeus and the sacrificing of a pig on the altar. The recapturing and cleansing of the temple along with the rededication of the altar was marked by a festival modelled after Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths). Battles against the Seleucids continued until independence for Israel was re-established for the first time since the Babylonian captivity.

A key component of the circumstances that led to the first Hanukkah is that Antiochus’s assimilation plan had been fairly successful in Israel. In First Maccabees, the primary historical source for Hanukkah, we read,

In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil. (1 Maccabees 1:11-15 [Jubilee Bible 2000]).

It is difficult to know exactly what “for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” is referring to, but it is likely a general critique, or should I say, rejection, of God’s choosing of the Jewish people. God established the people of Israel as a distinct nation. To ensure that distinction, he deemed it necessary to make them different from other nations.

It’s hard to be different. It creates suspicion. It makes interaction awkward, if not impossible. And, at times, it results in severe persecution and conflict. Eventually, a significant portion of the people couldn’t take it anymore. And so, they not only embraced the prevailing culture of their day, they also submitted to a medical procedure to hide their circumcision. All so that they would no longer be considered a separate people.

It is interesting that Hanukkah occurs in the midst of the story of Joseph in the weekly Torah readings. Much of Joseph’s suffering was due to his being different. It began with his father’s preferential treatment, followed by God’s unusual dream impartation. His brother’s hatred of him for these things thrust him into slavery and years of imprisonment. Yet, through it all, Joseph remained faithful to God, which kept him from the bitterness that would have undermined his calling.

The renegades, as they are called in First Maccabees, didn’t follow Joseph’s example. They lost sight of who they really were and were willing to give it all up. I in no way want to belittle their suffering. I don’t know what I would have done in their situation. But one thing I do know. They were not seeing the whole picture. Unlike Joseph, the only thing they took into account was their suffering. The “many disasters” had indeed happened to Israel, but they had neglected to remember their calling to be a blessing to the whole world (see Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:28). The failure to retain their higher purpose made them susceptible to assimilation. As a result, they could no longer see how deceptive the lure of the prevailing culture was. The short-term benefits may have seemed appealing, but the long-term results would be disastrous.

It’s only when we keep the big picture of God’s plan in mind that we can endure the difficulties along the way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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God the Stabilizer

For the week of November 27, 2021 / 23 Kislev 5782

Message title info with Hohenzollern Castle, Wurttemberg, Germany, as the background

Vayeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8

And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. (Bereshit/Genesis 39:20-21)

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In my message two weeks ago (Say the Words), I shared one of my concerns about how I was first introduced to trusting in Yeshua as Messiah. At the time, it was framed as just say the words and my life would change. As it turned out, that’s what happened, though I have realized that there was much more going on than simply reciting a formula.

There was another aspect of that day’s interaction that I have struggled with. Before I continue, let me be clear that, again, there was far more right about what happened that day than these two questionable items. The second issue is I was promised that if I said those words, I would be happy for the rest of my life. The person who told me about Yeshua that day, whom I just met, had no idea the depths of depression and anxiety in which I was trapped. So, such an offer was most enticing.

Honestly, I wasn’t disappointed. Almost immediately after asking God to forgive my sins and inviting Yeshua into my life, I went on an emotional high that I had never had before and haven’t had since. I therefore assumed that this is what my newfound faith was going to be like forever.

I didn’t start reading the Bible for myself until about two weeks after praying to receive Yeshua. Even then, in my euphoria, I didn’t notice that the Bible doesn’t make such a promise. Rather, the actual truth is more along the lines of: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Tehillim/Psalms 46:1). I eventually learned that God’s security in the midst of life-threating disaster is far more meaningful and helpful than the superficiality of a permanent residence on cloud nine.

I wonder if Jacob’s son Joseph went through a similar shift in things as I. I am not claiming for one moment that our lives are in direct parallel. The only point of connection between my story and his is we both share an original misinformed positive expectation. Joseph, like myself, underestimated the positive. All he had was a glimpse of his eventual leadership role in relation to his family. He didn’t know that would be only one aspect of his role in saving the entire region from starvation as Prime Minister of Egypt. While there’s no comparison between my impact and Joseph’s, I too underestimated the positive as God’s faithfulness has proven itself in my life over and over again.

Joseph and I don’t only share misinformed positive outlooks, we didn’t foresee the hardships either. Here too, I in no way compare my life challenges to Joseph’s. But that takes nothing away from the lesson to be learned.

All through Scripture we see people of God go through exceedingly difficult times. Sometimes due to their own foolishness, other times simply because they are doing exactly what God wanted them to do. Joseph was a victim of his brothers’ jealousy, not that he did much to alleviate that. But through it all, God was accomplishing his purpose in and through him. Torah doesn’t comment on how Joseph managed to not break under unjust circumstances. But he didn’t. God sustained him all those years as he prepared him to become the leader he was destined to be.

People love to quote Yeshua’s promise of abundant life (see John 10:10), but fail, as in my experience years ago, to mention that he also said, “In the world you will have tribulation (a fancy word for trouble)” (John 16:33). That’s not the last word, of course. The Messiah continues in that same verse: “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

I may have been surprised to learn that I wasn’t going to be happy all the time. Instead, I received something much better. Knowing that God is with us in trouble, working to fulfill his purposes, is the greatest stabilizing force in the universe.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Holy Discontentment

For the week of November 20, 2021 / 16 Kislev 5782

Young child with an earnest pained expression

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

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Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Bereshit / Genesis 32:26-28)

This is one of the most, if not the most, profound moments in the entire Bible. How could anyone strive with God and prevail? But Jacob did, and it resulted, not only in he himself becoming known as “Israel,” the one who strives with God, but his people as well. The Chosen People of God would continue this striving (and sometimes prevailing) from then until now.

For many striving with God appears to be contrary to what a life of faith should be. We have images of serene saints disconnected from their passions and cares, humbly and unquestioningly receiving divine directions, submissively doing his bidding no matter how difficult it might be. We may have such images, but they are not derived from the Bible. Instead, Scripture paints a picture of struggle, doubt, fear, hope, failure, and lots of questions.

Our failure to grasp the struggle we are called to often results in a false version of contentment. Contentment is a good thing when it comes to our possessions and other worldly markers of success. But, on the other hand, we are not to be content. The Messiah himself taught his disciples to pray, saying: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We are to pray that the world would coming into alignment with God’s will. This demands we not accept things the way they are, but rather to seek God for radical change. This necessitates a holy discontentment.

Holy discontentment doesn’t automatically direct us to constructive solutions. Too often our solutions are worse than the problems. This is why we are called to pray for change before we seek to implement it. Only God’s will in God’s way will extend his kingdom on earth.

Prayer as our response to holy discontentment should not take us back to those images of pious serenity. Instead, we should remember Jacob. I am aware that he was not concerned about what was wrong with the world. In his case, he was overwhelmed with terror as he anticipated encountering his brother. He was worried about what Esau might do to him after being ripped off by Jacob twenty or so years before. Still, his approach to God illustrates for us the struggle in prayer that God values.

Too often prayer is a thought-toss to the sky, slighted dusted with the hope that perhaps God Almighty may deem us worthy of his attention and, if we are lucky, things will go our way. I know most people would never think of prayer exactly like that, but I wonder. How many, like Jacob, won’t let go of God until he blesses them, despite being injured in the process?

Jacob isn’t alone in such an earnest approach to God. When Hannah prays for a son, who ended up being the great prophet Samuel, we read “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly” (1 Samuel 1:10). King David prays prayers such as “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Tehillim/Psalms 13:1). Jeremiah cries out: “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 8:23; English 9:1). The Messiah himself “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). Some think this is a reference to his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it is more likely a description of his general posture in prayer.

Is this intensity in prayer necessary? Doesn’t God know the desires of our hearts, not to mention his awareness of his own plans and purposes. If we think about it enough, we may be tempted to conclude that prayer shouldn’t be necessary, let alone require the effort we see in these examples. However, I don’t think it is an issue of necessity. Jacob and the others weren’t concerned about the theology of prayer. They were only concerned about two things, their need and the only one who could meet that need. Their intensity was a result of their desperation connecting with an understanding of God’s power and generosity.

This cannot be put on. Such intensity can’t be faked. But, at the same time, taking these and other biblical examples seriously can encourage us to get honest about our deepest needs and our lack of faith with regard to God’s response to our prayers. I wonder what would happen if we gave ourselves permission to strive with him, to hold on to him until he blesses us (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:26).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Say the Words

For the week of November 13, 2021 / 9 Kislev 5782

Two men, sitting on some stairs, talking

Vayetzei
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10-32:3 (English 28:10 – 32:2)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13-14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)

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Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity” (Micah 14:3; English: 14:2)

There’s something that has always bothered me about the day I came to know Yeshua as the Messiah (check out my faith story here). Over forty-five years later, I am still impressed by the compelling godly presentation given to me by this person whom I just met that afternoon. God used an hour and a half intense conversation to completely transform my life. Still, there was something about what I was asked to do I have wondered about since then. This is the first time I am seriously working through it.

After providing a convincing case for the validity of the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, sharing the prophecies about the Messiah, and explaining the need for forgiveness as provided by Yeshua’s death, I was invited to say a prayer. The prayer was to include my admitting I had sinned against God, acknowledging that Yeshua (we called him “Jesus” back then) died for my sins and that he had risen from the dead. Then I was to ask Yeshua to take over my life (or something like that). Based on everything I was told that day, I felt I had everything to gain and nothing to lose. So, I prayed the prayer. I remember how I had a sense that something special had happened, though I was not fully prepared for the wonderful transformation I was going to experience over the next few days and weeks.

However, despite the great positive change I experienced that day, you may be surprised to learn that I have wondered how legitimate it is to ask someone to pray a prayer that he or she has next to no real grasp of. While I accepted the possibility of my being a sinner as it was explained to me (breaking a commandment of God is a sin; people who sin are sinners), did I actually believe that when I said this prayer? I knew next to nothing about Yeshua before that day, yet I was praying to ask him into my life. Did I mean it? How could I? It was all completely new to me.

Despite whatever level of understanding I had in the moment, the words given to me to say were true. They were true about me; they were true about God. There’s something about the power of words apart from our full understanding of them.

Up until now, I have assumed that for our words to be legitimate, they have to be authentic. To be authentic, I have to honestly mean them, which necessarily includes fully understanding them. But is that really the case? From when our children were very young, we taught them to apologize to each other. The offending party needed to say, “Please forgive me for” – and then name the offense. Then the offended party was to say, “I forgive you.” I am well aware that neither party had a full grasp of the interchange, including the probability that they were just mouthing the words. But apart from learning the importance of apologizing, forgiving, and being forgiven, the words of regret and forgiveness effectively served to preserve relationship. Another example is in the promises we make. We often have little grasp of the implications of those promises, but they carry weight regardless. Further, kind words, such as compliments, have a strong positive effect on people, regardless of how sincere they may be.

You might think, “But God sees through our insincerity. What good is parroting what someone else tells us to say especially when God knows all?” I would agree in the case of complete hypocrisy. But how much sincerity and understanding is necessary before God responds to our words? Apparently, not much. This brings to mind the oft-mentioned parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32). What did it take to provoke his father’s generous response? After not caring about his father at all and exploiting his resources, the son’s return was more about himself and his own suffering than a true change of heart. And yet, as soon as the father saw his wayward son approaching, he ran to him and enthusiastically restored him to the household with great celebration.

So, as we read in this week’s Haftarah (reading portion from the Hebrew prophets), it doesn’t take much to return to the Lord. Restoration to God just starts with a simple prayer. He will take over from there.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Divine Inquiries

Toledot

Young woman praying expectantly
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1-2:7
For the week of November 10, 2018 / 2 Kislev 5779

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The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22)

Something wasn’t right. Rebekah was in physical turmoil. After being married for twenty years without conceiving, she finally got pregnant. As the Torah tells it this was an answer to her husband’s prayers. Miracle pregnancies were becoming a tradition in this family as her mother-in-law had Isaac when she was ninety. Still, most mothers-to-be would get anxious when the rumbly-tumblies in their tummies are harsher than normal, not to mention that, for Rebekah, getting pregnant was no easy feat. Whether it was the discomfort alone or that she was afraid she was miscarrying, it was sufficient to send her to inquire of the Master of the Universe.

The Hebrew word translated “inquire” is “darash,” and it paints a picture of her going to God with the expectation of getting an answer. I wonder if that’s how most people think of prayer. You judge if I am wrongly judging, but my guess is that the vast majority of prayers prayed involve zero expectation. Most prayers are prayed out of obligation: obligation to religious duty, obligation to parents, obligation to peers, even obligation to self. A smaller percentage arises from sincere desire from people who for one reason or other truly want to pray. They may really want to take the time to talk to God. But do we expect him to respond? Some prayers, of course, aren’t requests, including expressions of worship or thanks. But many prayers are. And yet, how often do we throw up our requests to heaven, more or less satisfied with our utterances, and move on with life?

Access to information today has never been easier. Instant search results are so common that it’s difficult to remember what it was like before broadband Internet and Google. Now almost anything we need to know is at our fingertips or in response to our voice. I once successfully used Google to help me find my car in a very large parking lot when I was out of town. Whether it’s how to get a stain out of a particular material or finding the facts about a strange skin rash, we search the Net with the can-do attitude of “It’s got to be here somewhere!” And yet when we “inquire of the Lord,” we don’t expect much.

Not to be glib, but Rebekah related to God a lot more like today’s Internet. She went to him expecting answers. While the Bible in no way implies that there’s a push-button dynamic to prayer, it expects us to expect answers from God. Here’s what the Messiah taught. Familiar words to many, but listen to what he is saying:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11).

Don’t get distracted by the important sub-topic of unanswered prayer. However you grapple with that, any conclusion that contradicts the Messiah’s teaching here is wrong. Which is why later on we read: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). James accepted Yeshua’s teaching on prayer. James knew the story of Rebekah. The Master of the Universe delights to answer our inquiries.

Now for the big question: How much of our lack of hearing from God is due to lack of expectancy? What are we not hearing because we are not being earnest enough? Why should he respond to half-hearted disinterest? This is not to say that we can manipulate our Father in Heaven into answering prayer. What I am saying is let’s at least start by accepting that he “gives generously to all without reproach.” Praying believing that he answers will certainly result in far more answers than praying believing that he won’t.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard VersionFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail