Sunday, May 31, 2009

TorahBytes: Is God Stirring You? (Naso)

And the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol. (Shoftim / Judges 13:25; ESV)

This week's Haftarah tells the story of the birth of Samson. Samson is a most difficult Bible character, due to the fact that his behavior doesn't seem to always be in line with the divine inspiration under which he apparently operated. His life is an example of a biblical interpretive principle referred to as "descriptive, not prescriptive", meaning that just because something is mentioned in the Scriptures doesn't mean that it is to be taken as an example for us to follow. Samson's foibles are confusing to the reader, but at the same time it reminds us that the reality of God in a person's life doesn't justify their bad behavior. I am mentioning this because I wanted to discuss an aspect of God's reality in Samson's life without justifying everything he did.

God had definite plans for Samson and his role among his people for deliverance from their enemies. God gifted Samson with extraordinary strength and the courage to take on the enemy in great numbers. This week's portion concludes with the statement that at a certain time God's Spirit began to "stir him."

Samson was born with a calling, but there was a point in his life where God began to prod him to begin to do that for which he was called. At times in the Bible we read of people to whom God spoke, giving them specific direction as to a certain course of action. But this is not always the case, as we see here with Samson. Something was going on in his heart that urged him to do something about the dire circumstances of his day. This perhaps is similar to David when he heard Goliath's challenge to Israel and saw the fear prevalent among his own people. Without a specific directive from God, as far as we know, something happened inside of David that motivated him to take on the challenge.

Have you ever been stirred? You were living your normal life and something began to brew inside you? It might have been an all-of-a-sudden thing or it grew over a period of time. But the sense of stirring got to the point that you could in no way ignore it. You knew you had to do something - exactly what it was may not have been clear - but you had to do something. Whatever it was most likely had to do with change - changing the way things were to the way things should be. The thought of things continuing as they were was unbearable.

Of course not all stirrings we experience are of God. We can be stirred by anything from human pity to evil passions. Advertising, for example, depends on our being stirred to action, usually by making a purchase.

How then do we know when it is God who is stirring us? That's a question not always easy to answer. In Samson's case, he was called by God to "save Israel from the hand of the Philistines" (Shoftim / Judges 13:5; ESV). So when God began to prod him to fight against the Philistines, he knew it was in keeping with God's plan. You and I may not have received such a clear blueprint for our lives as did Samson, but the Scriptures are a general blueprint for our lives. As God prods us to confront the sub-standard situations in which we find ourselves, in order to subject them to his rule, we would be well-advised to heed that prodding. As to the exact course of action, we should seek God for wisdom and direction before doing anything. But as God gives that wisdom, we need to begin to act upon his stirrings.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

TorahBytes: Depth (Shavuot 2)

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer's; he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:17-19; ESV)

When I first came to know the reality of God through the Messiah over thirty years ago, it was pretty much me-centered. I was told that if I believed in Yeshua then I would be happy for the rest of my life. There was much more to it at the time. Yet while the person who shared this with me also explained my need of forgiveness before God and how the Hebrew Scriptures pointed to Yeshua as the Messiah, the motive for accepting what was presented to me was for the most part how it would make me happy.

Thankfully, God made himself known to me in spite of this inaccurate information. Don't get me wrong, it is not as if knowing God has no personal benefit. It's that knowing him is not primarily about me, my personal needs and my happiness. I would eventually learn that I would not be happy all the time, even though through Yeshua I have indeed experienced a depth of happiness that I never dreamed possible, but I also have experienced a type of peace and security in the midst of difficulties I never thought possible.

The depth of reality that comes from truly knowing the God of Israel is well-expressed through the words I read from this week's Haftarah. It is striking that this portion is a special reading for the festival of Shavuot (English: Pentecost or Weeks). Shavuot is a harvest festival, a time to rejoice over God's provision. But Habakkuk says that he will rejoice in God even when the harvest produces nothing. This is a difficult concept if we think, as I originally did, that following God is all about what we get out of it.

Habakkuk's words remind me of the Jewish men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who, in exile in Babylon, faced excruciating death due to their unwillingness to commit idolatry. Just before being thrown into the fiery furnace, they said to the king of Bablyon, "...our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up" (Daniel 3:17,18; ESV).

This understanding of God and life went far beyond their own selves, their personal welfare, comfort, and prosperity. They knew that there is a reality of life through knowing God that is far deeper than what many of us normally experience.

Habukkuk could rejoice in God even in the face of starvation. His strength and ability to face dire circumstances was not based on normal material prosperity but in God himself. This is no abstract spirituality detached from the realities of life, but a strength that enables us to live this life in the midst of enormous challenges.

In order to begin to grasp the depths of this reality we need to first turn away from our obsession with self and our desire to please self. It is as we submit ourselves to God and his will for our lives, whatever that may be, that we can find a joy and a strength beyond our wildest dreams.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

TorahBytes: Guard the Truth (Bemidbar)

But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony. (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:53; ESV)

The tribe of Levi was set apart by God for the work of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later in Israel's history, the Temple. The cohanim (English: "priests") were a subset of the tribe of Levi as they were the sons of Aaron, Moses' brother, both of whom themselves were Levites. The cohanim were responsible for the sacrifices, while the rest of the Levites looked after all sorts of other things regarding the Mishkan. One of the Levites' responsibilities was to guard the Mishkan. According to the verse above, the reason for this was " that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel." The protection of true religion with its priesthood and rituals was for the welfare of the people.

Religious leaders need to stand guard on behalf of the things of God. The preservation of true religion is necessary to ensure that people relate to God according to his reality. Otherwise it is not really God they are encountering. And if it is not really God whom people encounter, they will suffer harm through delusion, demonic influence, and immorality.

In order to effectively stand guard for God's Truth, we must first understand that God isn't the one who needs protecting. God is God and his truth is eternal. He will show himself to be who he is and his truth will prevail. We are the ones who suffer when God's Truth is perverted. We protect God's Truth, not because God needs us to, but rather because people need us to.

Second, religious leaders don't stand guard for God's Truth to protect themselves. Too often religious leaders are threatened by perceived attacks on the things they espouse. But if their motive is to protect self and position, they will not be able to discern the difference between an attack on the Truth or a necessary correction to their own errors,

What does need to be protected is the Truth of God as given to us in the Scriptures. Too many people who otherwise claim to uphold the revelation of God through the Bible have become careless in preserving an accurate understanding of God's Truth. In most cases this carelessness is due to one of three things. The first one is a commitment to one's tradition over and against the Truth of Scripture. In this case what is being protected is something other than the Truth itself. As a result the Truth of God is neglected and/or made inaccessible to others.

The second cause of carelessness stems from an outright denial of God's Truth. These are leaders who remain part of traditions that at one time carefully guarded the things of God, but now have turned their backs on the Truth, purposely redefining it due to their denial of Scripture.

The third cause comes from a desire to make God's reality accessible to as many people as possible. These leaders tend to think of the notion of guarding God's Truth as harmfully restrictive. They fail to see that preserving an accurate revelation of God is necessary for people to truly know the God they are anxious to make known. By not insisting that the God they claim to offer people is in strict accordance to the truth of Scripture, they are actually doing people far more harm than good.

When leaders are careful to stand guard for God's Truth, insisting that he is accurately represented to the world around us, then people will have the opportunity to really know him and be effectively equipped to live life the way God designed us to.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

TorahBytes: Are You Well Rooted? (Be-Har & Be-Hukkotai)

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

Most of the time you can't tell how people are doing just by looking at them. While some people are better at hiding their struggles than others, it seems that most people are pretty good at it. I continue to be surprised at some of the horrific things people go through in life and the amount of unresolved trauma that haunts them. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise me due to my own hardships, but like many others, I have tended to think that my negative experiences have been unique to me rather than seeing them as the common plight of human beings. I know that not everyone goes through extreme traumatic experiences, but they are far more common than we may admit.

While trouble and trauma are common human experiences, God did not design us to face such things on our own. Rather he has availed himself to us by providing sustenance for those times when our own resources are completely depleted. The picture painted through the prophet Jeremiah is that of a tree whose roots are driven down deep into a fresh water source. Whatever might be going on above ground, the tree's nourishment is derived from that rich underground source. That which determines the health and strength of the tree is hidden from view, yet it is the tree's secure connection to this life source that enables it to withstand the harsh realities above the surface.

So it is for those who trust in God. Trusting in God is not simply fulfilling religious rituals or spouting a creed. It isn't based on your parents' supposed faith or some decision or experience you have had in the past. Trusting in God is a continuous giving of one's life to God in such a way that you accept his forgiveness and salvation through his provision of the Messiah, and allow him to determine the course of your life by following his directives. Trusting in God is not a passive state of non-engagement with the realities of life. On the contrary, it is a cooperation with God as he desires to drive your roots deep down into himself so that you will be able to withstand all that he is leading you to face in life.

The picture of the healthy tree flourishing in the midst of harsh circumstances is contrasted to those who trust in people, whether themselves or others (see 17:5,6). With no connection to a nourishing life source, like a shrub in the desert, this person is blown away when hardships come.

Though we often try, we cannot control our circumstances. Harsh circumstance are common to the human experience. Yet, we were not designed to face these things alone, left to our own meager resources. God intends that we should live our lives dependent on him. Moreover, the person who trusts in God is called "blessed." This is not about mere survival in hard times, it is about flourishing - even being a resource to others - when everything around us seeks to suck us dry.

Access to God's nourishing resources is available to anyone who puts their trust in him through Yeshua the Messiah. But perhaps this is something that you have done, yet you seem to be more like the dry shrub than the flourishing tree. Your willingness to admit it is your first step to effectively connecting with God's life-giving resources. Perhaps you have been trusting in yourself and others more than in him. Ask God to drive your roots down deep until you know his refreshing, life-giving nourishment.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

TorahBytes: Holiness Matters (Emor)

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

I don't imagine that the subject of holiness matters to most people. I would guess that most people don't even know what holiness is. So let's start there. The world "holy" is the English translation of the Hebrew word "kadosh", which has to do with something being set apart from common use and given over to God. The priests, for example, were considered holy, not because there was anything special about them in and of themselves, but rather because their lives were dedicated to God's service. The sacrificial system itself included the use of items such as pots, pans, knives, forks, and so on. And just like the priests, what made these items holy was that they were to be used only for God.

It is interesting that God himself is called holy. This likely refers to God's absolute otherliness in contrast to human beings. When we call God, "holy", we are making a statement that he is completely otherly, absolutely separated unto himself. This is in contrast to the prevailing spirit of paganism that confuses God with his creation.

The third book of the Torah of which we are in the midst deals quite a bit with the subject of holiness. The verses I read at the beginning refer to how the priest had to make sure that they did not handle holy things when they, for one reason or another, were not fit to do so. It was a very serious matter to mistreat holy things. It could have cost someone their life to transgress one of God's holiness directives.

The seriousness of the holiness laws stem from the holiness of God himself, which as I said relates to who he is. To belittle God's holiness is to misrepresent him. To misrepresent God is not just some little inaccuracy that could be easily overlooked. To misrepresent him is to deny him entirely and fabricate a false god.

One of the greatest things that the Messiah accomplished for us through his sacrificial death and resurrection is that he made us holy. Like the priests of old, if we truly entrust our lives to Yeshua, we are set apart to God's service. Like the priests we are not special in and of ourselves, we have been made distinct because we have been dedicated to God.

Since God has made us holy, we need to understand the importance of holiness. Some may think that because our holiness is solely based on what God has done for us through Yeshua, we needn't be concerned about it anymore as if holiness no longer mattered. But since holiness is about who God is, then our holiness, just like that of the ancient priests, is to be a reflection of who God really is.

Holiness requires that God be represented accurately according to his own self-disclosure. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the one who sent Moses and Aaron to free us from bondage in Egypt. He is the God of Joshua through whom the Promised Land was conquered. He is the God of King David through whom the Kingdom of Israel was established. He is the God of the Hebrew prophets, who prophesied both exile and restoration - a restoration of Israel to God through the Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth.

God is not just a god of concept and spirituality. While he is indeed a God of love and forgiveness, these are some of his attributes, not the essence of his being. To reformulate God's self disclosure into images contrary to that which he himself has chosen is to misrepresent him; it is to disregard his holiness.

We must avoid the temptation to make the God of Israel more appealing to people. God's revelation of himself may be offensive to some, but recasting the true God into something other than himself is deceptive, which is of no benefit to anyone, not to mention the disdain it shows towards the true God.

As God's holy people we must be the set-apart people we are called to be. For it is only through our commitment to holiness that God will be seen for who he really is.