Sunday, December 19, 2010

TorahBytes: A People in Process (Shemot)

Then the LORD said, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites." (Shemot / Exodus 3:7, 8; ESV)

There are many unique features regarding the nation of Israel. First and foremost is that even though every nation is the product of the providence of God, Israel was specially created by God for a particular purpose, namely to be God's chosen channel through which to make himself known to the world. It is no wonder therefore that Israel's history should be as complex and interesting as it is.

One interesting aspect to Israel's history is how the nation migrated from place to place under God's direction for very specific reasons. This started with Abraham and his call to move his household from Mesopotamia to what was then known as the land of Canaan. Even though all he came to possess in his own lifetime was a burial plot, God said his descendants would one day possess the entire region. But God told Abraham that before this would happen his descendants would first be servants in a foreign land for 400 years (Bereshit / Genesis 15:13, 14).

It would be through a most complex set of circumstances that Abraham's grandson Jacob and his clan would be brought to Egypt, where at first they were most graciously treated and only sometime later would come under oppressive servitude. This is what sets the stage for God's deliverance of the people under the leadership of Moses and his brother, Aaron.

God's deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt was itself a process by which God demonstrated his power. It was necessary for Israel to witness God's mighty hand in this way in order to prepare them for serving God in the years ahead. They would be taught many important lessons through this and their years of wandering in the wilderness followed by the conquest of Canaan under Moses' successor, Joshua.

As they came to possess the Land, God would continue to instruct them in his ways. As the people and their leaders would most often fail to live according to God's instructions, God would send prophets, his spokespeople, to speak his Word to them in hopes that they would trust God and live life as he intended. However, human nature as it is, Israel did not live up to God's standards, thus resulting in dispersion and exile. Most nations by this time would cease to exist, but God was not finished with Israel - more lessons to be learned - more of God and his ways to be revealed to them and through them. During this period, the anticipation of a Great Deliver, the Messiah, began to become part of the psyche of the nation.

Eventually some of Israel returned to re-establish itself in the Promised Land. The anticipation of the Messiah grew until Yeshua appeared on the scene. He accomplished all that God purposed for him, including the giving of himself as the perfect and eternal sacrifice for sin and the conquering of death through his rising from the dead. During his time on earth he continued to put Israel through a process by preparing a small remnant to journey out into the world, thus fulfilling God's promise to Abraham by making himself known to all peoples.

I get the impression that people don't like being put through process. We tend to want to learn things easily and quickly and get to a place in life where we are done: no more learning; no more process. We like to have things figured out. This is true for the atheist and believer alike. We make our philosophical and theological determinations and spend the rest of lives defending our positions and/or ignoring challenging ideas. The agnostic is no
different in their stubbornness to accept that Truth can be known, preferring to hold onto the illusionary comfort of indecision.

But for those who truly walk with God, there is a process through which God puts us. God is preparing us for an eternity with him. This preparation involves a lifelong education through which all sorts of means are at God's disposal. God is not satisfied with leaving us where we are at in life. In order for his plans and purposes to be accomplished in and through us, he will often upset our circumstances, taking us on to the unknown and the uncomfortable. It is as we give ourselves over to God's process that we are most able to learn the lessons he is seeking to teach us and be all that he wants us to be.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

TorahBytes: Misinformed Feelings (Va-Yehi)

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him." So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this command before he died, 'Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.' And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. (Bereshit / Genesis 50:15-17; ESV)

Just as God revealed to Joseph in dreams years before, God placed him in a position of power over his family. No one could have guessed the context in which this would occur. Second only to Pharaoh in Egypt, Joseph administered a massive food program which sustained not only Egypt during a severe famine, but also the surrounding region. Joseph's brothers had no clue that when they plotted against him they were seeking to destroy the very person God had planned to use to save them. In a way only God can do, he used Joseph's brothers' violent hatred of him as the means by which Joseph was put into a position to preserve not only their own lives, but the destiny of their whole nation.

Imagine what it must have been like for the brothers to spend the rest of their lives in Egypt under the good graces of Joseph. I am sure they were well aware of how blessed they were in a material sense, having suffered through the first years of the famine. At the same time, it must have been very difficult emotionally. We know this from our passage. They had figured that Joseph was only being kind to them for their father's sake. They thought that once Jacob had died, they would be the targets of Joseph's vengeance.

It is most likely that the message they sent to Joseph about Jacob's request regarding forgiving them was fabricated. But they were understandably scared of what Joseph might do to them. After all, they deserved retribution for their evil, and Joseph had it in his power to severely mistreat them.

But note Joseph's response to them. He wept. Joseph was heartbroken that they thought the way they did. As we saw last week, Joseph regarded God as having the upper hand in his ordeal. He knew that God was using him to preserve his family. He had no animosity towards them, his graciousness toward his brothers was firmly rooted in his trust in God.

I don't blame the brothers for not being quick to accept where Joseph was at. They certainly had not conducted their own lives this way. If the roles would have been reversed, then they may have taken advantage of their position of power and insist on retribution. They couldn't fathom that someone could forgive, accept, and love them as Joseph did.

I wonder if God weeps for us much like Joseph did for his brothers.

How often do we relate to God, not on the basis of reality, but from misinformed feelings? He has done everything necessary so that we could be in an intimate relationship with him. Through the Messiah he has demonstrated to us his forgiveness, acceptance, and love. It is understandable that those who refuse to turn to him in repentance and trust would feel alienated from him, but those who have been reconciled to him have no reason to fear his rejection.

One reason for being uncertain about how God relates to us could be due to serious unresolved issues in our lives. Having a sense of God's disapproval when we are involved in truly wrong things is appropriate. That sense of disapproval is a sign of God's work in our lives and should drive us to get right with him.

But other times we are uncertain in our relationship with God due to misinformed feelings. This comes from basing our understanding of him more on how we see ourselves and life, than on how God has revealed himself. God, like Joseph, grieves over our how we allow our feelings to misinform us. When we begin to base our understanding of God on his own revelation of himself rather than upon our misinformed feelings, we will begin to relate to him in the way he longs for us to.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Hanukkah Day Eight: Taking Action

Tonight we light the eighth and final Hanukkah light for another year. We wouldn't have anything to celebrate if Matitiyahu and the Maccabees hadn't moved from thought to action. It is one thing to remember the events of the past and perhaps respond emotionally, but until these events move us to action, then the purpose of the holiday is not fulfilled.

As we light the eighth light this evening and once more acknowledge the miracles God did for our ancestors long ago at this time of year, may God do miracles through us now. And just like long ago, miracles happen when we don't just think about them, but act upon what we claim to believe.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Hanukkah Day Six: On being a lamp stand

The most common symbol of Hanukkah is a nine-branch candelabra, called a Hanukiah or Hanukah Menorah. Eight of the lights represent the eight days of Hanukah. On the first evening (the Jewish day begins at sundown) one candle is lit and then an additional candle is lit on each subsequent evening until all eight are lit on the final evening. The special ninth candle is called the Shamash or the "servant ". Its purpose is to light the other lights and is always offset from the others. This way the purpose of the eight lights is preserved, whose sole purpose is to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah and nothing else.

Hanukkah happened partly because the Jewish people had forgotten their purpose. Having been called to be a light to the nations, their light had all but extinguished. The people were beginning to adopt the customs of the prevailing culture and neglected those things that distinguished them from the rest of the world.

In order to be what we are called to be we need to be what we are called to be. Obvious perhaps? Yes, but it is so easy to neglect what distinguishes us from the rest of the world. To be the lights we are called to be, we must make sure that we don't give ourselves to other purposes.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

TorahBytes: God Has the Upper Hand (Va-Yiggash)

And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. (Bereshit / Genesis 45:7, 8; ESV)

Joseph was a victim of betrayal and abuse from his immediate family, which resulted in his being sold into slavery in Egypt and eventually into spending years imprisoned in a dungeon. Yet the day would come when he would face the perpetrators of his abuse and tell them that it was not them who sent him to Egypt, but God.

Did Joseph only say this because he was now the second most powerful person in Egypt? When we experience remarkable changes of circumstances for the better, it is easy to give God the credit. But would he have said this sort of thing if he would have remained in the dungeon till his dying day? It's hard to say, since that is not what happened. Still, a reasonable question would be does God only deserve the credit when we experience positive remarkable circumstances or is he intimately involved like this in both good and bad times? A third possibility is does God only get intimately involved like this occasionally? Does life normally go on without his direct intervention? If so, then most of the time it would be inappropriate to make a statement like Joseph's even when things do turn out well, unless we somehow know for certain God was involved.

My impression is that most people live life according to this third possibility. If God exists at all, his involvement in life is viewed as unpredictable and sporadic and therefore undependable. Sure, there are stories like Joseph's, but even if they are true, they are special cases.

Certainly there are aspects of Joseph's story that are unusual. First, this is the unfolding of God's specific plan for the world through the development of his chosen people, Israel. Second, God had already predicted Joseph's rise to power through his dreams while he was still living with his family in Canaan. So perhaps Joseph was only commenting on God's special role in his particular circumstances without purposely implying that this was a general principle that applies to everyone at all times.

While Joseph was most likely not making a general statement about God's workings in all of life, could he have made this statement without having such an understanding? There is something about Joseph's composure and faithfulness to God throughout his ordeal that speaks of real depth of faith on his part. So his comments about God's involvement in his circumstances were not a result of the outcome only, but of a life that was truly grounded in the understanding that God always has the upper hand in everything.

God's upper hand is not always evident as our lives unfold. But for those who truly love God, knowing that he has the upper hand is a great comfort. As we read in the New Covenant Scriptures, "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; ESV).

This is not cold deterministic fatalism. Far from it! The confidence exemplified by Joseph does not stem from a philosophical conviction over how the universe works, but rather from an intimate, personal relationship with the universe's Creator and Master. How comforting to know that our Father in Heaven has the upper hand!

Hanukkah Day Five: Taking a stand

The true story of Hanukkah begins in the ancient Israeli town of Modi'in with a cohen (English: priest) named Matitiyahu, who not only refused to sacrifice to Greek gods, but also slew his fellow Jewish countryman, who was willing to do so. The adoption of Greek pagan customs was prevalent throughout the land. Matitiyahu's drastic action was what was necessary to begin to restore righteousness in Israel.

How often do we find ourselves in situations where taking a stand for what is right is necessary? And yet, for one reason or another, we do nothing. Most of the time the issue at hand is nowhere near as drastic as what Israel faced in those days. Most of the time the type of drastic measures that Matitiyahu employed are not necessary. Most of the time what's needed is simply saying, "no". Yet, we say nothing. We do nothing. Sadly, when we get in the habit of not taking a stand for small things, we won't for the bigger ones either.

So as we prepare to light the fifth candle this evening, may God bring to mind those things for which we need to take a stand right now.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Hanukkah Day Three: Festival of Lights

Another name for Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, a name given to it by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. The lighting of lights at Hanukkah may be due to its being patterned after the Festival of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles), which in ancient times featured the lighting of lamps.

We read in the Psalms, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 199:105; ESV). Life without God's Word is to live in darkness. Without God's Word we are left to human opinion and power, groping meaninglessly is an enormous universe. With God's Word, we live in light, our way illumined before enabling us to navigate a hostile world.

This was the experience of the Maccabees. In the midst of the growing darkness of oppressive assimilation, they stood in the light of God's Word and took action based on his Truth, which resulted in the restoration of the true worship of God in the land of Israel in their day.

When our eyes are opened to God's Word, we see life according to reality. We can no longer pretend that life is something it is not. If we let his light burn bright within us, then we, like the Maccabees, will no longer allow darkness to prevail.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Hanukkah Day Two: The true miracle

Each night of Hanukkah, when we light the candles, we say the following blessing: Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam she-asa nissim la-avoteinu bayamim hahem bazman ha-ze (English: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who did miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season). What miracles? In answer to that question, most people would recount the legend of the single cruse of holy oil that was found when the Maccabees reclaimed and cleansed the temple. It is said that this single cruse of oil miraculously lasted for eight days. But what most people are not aware of is that there is very little evidence for the historicity of this legend. It seems that it was introduced by the rabbis as to detract from the military and political victory of the Maccabees.

If the oil story is legend, then what are the miracles being recounted by the blessing. It is noteworthy that Yeshua when he was in Jerusalem for Hanukkah, used the occasion of this feast to speak about his own miracles (see John 10:22-28). The miracles of Hanukkah have to do with the surprising victory of the small Jewish army over the vast, mighty Greco-Syrian army. It was the Maccabees' faithfulness to God and his ways that spurred them on to resist the oppressive, assimilating policies of that day's world power. And like King David before Goliath, the God of Israel gave Israel's enemies into their hands.

Hanukkah then is a reminder to us, that those who trust and follow the true God can expect great wonders from his hand. Because of him, there is no reason to be intimidated by whatever the world might throw at us. As we anticipate the second night of Hanukkah, let us expect the miraculous again.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hanukkah Day One: Heritage of Light

Tonight we light the first light of Hanukkah. Did you know that it was to a large crowd of Jewish people that Yeshua said the words, "You are the light of the world? (Matthew 5:14). The people of Israel are called by God to be a light. It is difficult for us to picture the state of the world when these words were spoken two thousand years ago, but most of it was it was in utter darkness - "having no hope and without God" (Ephesians 2:12). Israel was different, for the Jewish people had the gift of God's light, his Torah (see Romans 3:1, 2). What a marvelous heritage - what a great responsibility!

With the coming of Yeshua, God's light has shone, not just in Israel, but throughout the whole world, dispelling the darkness. On this the first night of Hanukkah, may the light of God's reality in the Messiah shine in us and through us.