Sunday, September 27, 2009

TorahBytes: Yom Kippur - God's Provision (Sukkot)

And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one. (Zechariah 14:9; ESV)

I present this week's message in anticipation of the holy day of Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement), which begins this evening. At the same time the synagogue readings upon which this message is based are for the Feast of Sukkot (English: Feast of Tabernacles or Booths), which begins Friday evening. These two God-ordained occasions are intimately related, being part of the series of holidays of this Jewish month. Ten days ago was what is commonly known as Rosh Hashanah (English: New Year), but referred to in the Torah as Yom Teruah (English: the Day of Blowing [most likely of the shofar]). The blowing of the shofar (English: ram's horn) at Rosh Hashanah reminds us in our busyness not to forget that God is the creator of all things and the one to whom we must give an account. This begins a process of self-examination to make sure that we are in right relationship with both God and other people. The culmination of this process is Yom Kippur, when in ancient times, the Kohen HaGadol (English: the High Priest) would take the blood of a special annual sacrifice into the Kodesh Ha'kedashim (English: Holy of Holies). Contrary to how some may think, the observance of Yom Kippur was not to attain spiritual cleansing and forgiveness from God, but to receive it. Once this process was complete, then we are sufficiently prepared for the week-long festival of thanksgiving and rejoicing, Sukkot, five days later.

According to the prophet Zechariah, the Feast of Sukkot is intimately associated with the restoration of all things and the establishment of the age to come. The culmination of the ages will be marked by this festival of thanksgiving and joy.

Just like in the Torah where Yom Kippur is part of the necessary process on the way to celebrating Sukkot, so there are necessary steps to participating in the Sukkot of God's future reign. Unless we are right with God, we will not be part of this celebration. Being right with God requires that we take our lives very seriously and accept God's standards for cleansing and forgiveness. I don't know how many people attending synagogue for the high holy days understand how much the ritual has strayed from its roots in the Torah. While the essential aspect of humbling oneself before God has been retained, God's provision of cleansing and forgiveness through the blood of the sacrifice has been replaced by the merits of our own actions. The provision of God has been replaced by the deeds of people as if our own efforts could ever make us right with God.

The main reason for this error is our failure as a people to accept God's provision of cleansing and forgiveness, the one that the original Yom Kippur rituals foreshadowed, that is the atoning sacrificial death of the Messiah. While we must play our part in our restoration of right relationship with God, we will never attain to God's standards in this regard as long as we reject his provision of cleansing and forgiveness in the Messiah.

Yeshua the Messiah is the fulfillment of all that Yom Kippur anticipated. It is through him, his death and his resurrection, that we become adequately prepared to participate in the great celebration of Sukkot in the age to come. Yom Kippur reminds us that God's intent for us is to know his cleansing and forgiveness. A great future celebration awaits us if we would receive God's provision though Yeshua now.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

TorahBytes: God's Sovereignty (Ha'azinu)

See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:39; ESV)

I have been giving considerable thought lately to the subject of God's sovereignty. This has to do with the issue of how much God is in control of life. I am not looking for philosophical conclusions as much as biblical ones, since I accept that the Scriptures (Old and New Covenant writings) are God's accurate revelation of himself and of life. From my study of the Scriptures throughout the years I have discovered that God reveals his many-faceted truth without necessarily providing how its complexities work together. God is in no way obliged to satisfy our intellect. Rather he has graciously provided us in the Scriptures everything we need in order to live life the way he intended. This includes the command to seek him as to how we are to apply his Word to our lives. This is why we need to work hard at understanding what the Scriptures say and grow in the wisdom of how to live lives firmly based on its teaching.

Therefore struggling over what the Scriptures teach about God's sovereignty and what it means for our lives is not a waste of time. Far from it! It is easy to claim to believe the Bible, but if we don't take the time to grapple with what it is saying, it is doubtful whether or not we have really allowed its teaching to have access to our hearts and minds.

In Jewish tradition the days between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are a period of introspection, of spiritual house cleaning so to speak. Having a set time each year to do this prevents us from neglecting this much-needed process and also from looking in on ourselves too much. From time to time we need to purposely check ourselves to make sure that we are truly in the faith and that we are right with God and with others. As we do, we then need to make whatever necessary adjustments are appropriate.

The issue of God's sovereignty is most relevant to this period of introspection, for it deals with a concept called primary cause. If God is truly sovereign then he is ultimately responsible for everything that happens. Since we don't normally deal directly with God, but rather with others as well as with both animate and inanimate objects, then if God is sovereign, it is his decisions that are ultimately behind everything that happens through these secondary causes. One of the common philosophical difficulties regarding this subject is the relationship between God and the secondary causes for it seems that this is an area that God has chosen to keep hidden from us.

What we can surmise from what the Bible does teach on this is that while life doesn't always seem to be in God's control, it is. I am well aware of the many other questions that arise, but whether or not there are answers to those questions, that God is sovereign is clear. To believe anything less is to reject God as he is revealed in the Scriptures. If how you comfort your heart and mind over this subject in anyway diminishes this truth, you have also diminished God himself.

To take the time to examine ourselves to make sure that we are right with God and others is a useless exercise if we don't accept God for who he is. If God is not really the Master of the Universe as we say in countless traditional Hebrew prayers, then we will not know what adjustments to make or how to make them. Diminishing God's rulership over the universe to anything less than all powerful raises other forces to places of authority that God never assigned to them.

On the other hand, if we could accept God's own statement as spoken through Moses that life, death, danger and restoration are exclusively in his control, then our focus can be fixed firmly on God, the primary cause of everything that happens to us. Once we accept that God is ultimately in control of all of life, then not only can we learn to relate to him as we ought, but how we relate to others will begin to fall into place.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

TorahBytes: Connecting with God's Reality (Rosh Hashanah)

There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God. (1 Samuel 2:2; ESV)

God gets a lot of attention. We hear about him all the time from the mouths of believers and non-believers alike. He is adored, he is scorned, he is exalted, he is mocked. Though many try, he cannot be ignored. I don't think there is a being or concept in all human experience upon which so much effort has been spent trying to disprove his existence. As for those who choose not to ignore him, how to relate to him has been far from straightforward. Millions of people claim some sort of belief in God, but the differences between their versions of him are so great that many curious seekers are turned off, thinking it impossible to come to any definite understanding. It doesn't have to be this way though.

To some the Bible is just another book of superstitions and myths - one of a multitude of human attempts to define spiritual reality. That it claims to reveal the one true God is taken to be no different from all the other so-called sacred texts in existence. Yet there is something about how God is presented in the Bible that sets it apart from everything else. The Bible doesn't try to convince us to accept a God who is distant and unknowable. On the contrary it invites us to know God, to encounter his reality for ourselves.

This week's Haftarah is special for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It was likely chosen to parallel the special holiday Torah reading that speaks of the miraculous birth of Abraham and Sarah's son, Isaac. The Haftarah speaks of another special birth, that of the prophet to be, Samuel. In both cases the mothers to be could not conceive. In the case of Samuel's mother, Hannah, she was desperate for a child - a desperation she took to God. We might miss how profound her request was. She performed no complex ritual nor did she pronounce some elaborate incantation. Rather from an honest, but hurting heart she cried out to the invisible creator God, who, if he made the universe, and if he gave Sarah a child in her old age, certainly could make a barren woman pregnant. And he did.

When Hannah fulfilled her promise to God by dedicating Samuel to his service, she broke out in an exuberant song through which she proclaimed her understanding of God. What makes her song special is that it emerged from a reality that until that time was just hypothetical. It's not that she didn't know God before. Obviously she did or else she would have not prayed as she did. But God's provision of a son was confirmation of what she already believed, thus allowing her to walk in God's reality at a much deeper level.

God doesn't expect us to only know him at a theoretical level. That which we know about him in theory is meant to be responded to. His reality is meant to be proven through lives willing to take him at his word. We may not be desperate like Hannah was, but as we earnestly pursue him, we will find him. Hannah is just one example of people just like us, whom God is inviting to experience his reality.

At this the beginning of another year, we have an opportunity to see if our understanding of God is one simply of theory or a proven reality. The Bible claims that God desires to be real in our lives. We are not expected to pretend, get hyped up, or be content in our confusion and emptiness. There is a reality beyond our wildest dreams waiting for us to take hold of if we are willing to let it take hold of us.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

TorahBytes:Bitter Roots (Nizzavim & Va-Yelekh)

Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, "I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart." This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:18,19; ESV)

It appears that the writer of the New Covenant book of "Hebrews" had this week's Torah portion in mind when he wrote:
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. (Hebrews 12:15,16; ESV)
These passages are encouraging God's people to make sure that there doesn't arise among them what in one place is called "a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit" and in the other a "root of bitterness." The Torah portion refers to a person who on one hand claims to be part of the covenant community yet stubbornly follows his own way. Similarly, in Hebrews, there is concern over people in their midst who are immoral and self-seeking.

In the Torah we learn that tolerating such behavior will "lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike" or, in other words, destructive behavior is destructive not only for the individual doing it, but for the community at large. Similarly in Hebrews, such behavior, "causes trouble, and by it many become defiled." In both cases it seems that the issue being addressed is not so much that this kind of behavior is unacceptable, but that the community needs to understand that such behavior has a profound negative affect on the whole community.

It can be difficult for us to comprehend the truth expressed in these passages. Many of us have been brought up to think of ourselves in strict individualistic terms. We don't readily see the implications of how our lives strongly affect the communities we are a part of, including family, neighborhood, school, congregation, company, and so on. Sometimes our unwillingness to accept this truth leads us to say things such as, "if someone has an issue with what I am doing, that's their problem". While that attitude may be appropriate on the occasions when we need to take a stand for what is right, it is inappropriate when we insist on doing what is wrong.

That someone hearing or reading this might get right with God out of a realization that their misbehavior affects those around them would be wonderful, but this is not whom is being address by these passages. Rather it is the communities that these people are a part of that need to take this message seriously. It is the communities, both the leaders and the other members, who need to make sure that this kind of misbehavior does not have a place among them.

The need for communities to address misbehavior challenges the concept of individuality. Many of us hesitate to speak into the lives of others, even those closest to us. Because we value individuality over community, we think that to address misbehavior is worse than the attempt to correct it. It's not as if the Bible places community over individuality, it is that it provides us with a truly balanced approach to each.

The reality is that failing to address misbehavior in our communities leads to the disastrous results mentioned in these passages. Failing to deal with sin in individuals will result in great trouble for the wider community. On the other hand if we would confront the emergence of bitter roots in our midst, then not only will our communities be far better off, but we will also give these troubling individuals the opportunity they need to get themselves right with God.