Sunday, September 25, 2011

Torahbytes: Trusting in the God Who Is (Ha'azinu)

The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:4; ESV)

I think that understanding this verse and its implications is key to truly knowing God and understanding how life really works. First, let me muse over what the words here are saying. The God of Israel is "the Rock" - absolutely dependable and stable. He is who he is and he does what he says. "His work is perfect" - what he does, he does exactly as it should be done. It is never incomplete and lacking in any way. "For all his ways are justice" - whatever he does is right for everyone everywhere. He sets the standard for justice and meets that standard every time. "A God of faithfulness" - He is consistent and loyal to all of his commitments. You can count on him. "And without iniquity" - there is no evil, weakness, or decay in God nor in anything he does. "Just and upright is he" - he is always in the right and is honest and forthright.

For this verse to be the key I contend it is, it needs to be grasped within the reality of living life as we know it. If the Torah portrayed God as disconnected from human activity, then it would be relatively easy to accept these attributes. If God was a distant cosmic power who existed to fuel our spiritual fantasies, then what difference does it make how our holy book describes him. We might even be inspired by stories of other worldly exploits of divine super powers. But the Torah creates a problem for us, because it claims that this amazing Supreme Being is involved in our day-to-day lives. If God as described by these attributes is truly involved in human affairs, how do we reconcile his attributes with the prevalence of tragedy and suffering?

The Torah reveals to us that the reason for the invasion of evil is our first parents' rebellion against God's command. Since then life on earth has been out of whack. While retaining so much of God's original design, humans, animals, and the environment are tainted through and through, which is the effect of sin.

But this does not change God, nor his dealings with us. Our predicament is not a reflection upon God, except in the sense that his oversight of our predicament is an example of his wonderful attributes discussed earlier.

The reason the verse I read is the key to knowing God and understanding how life really works is that something happens when a person is able to fully accept the reality of the goodness and power of God in a world as broken as ours. This is not spiritual escapism. In fact it is when we grasp the reality of the attributes of God and are willing to face the state of the world as it is that we can begin to live life to its fullest.

The Bible gives us examples of many people who understood this. Noah knew that God called him to prepare the rescue mission for his family and the animals in the face of impending doom. The evil of his day and the resulting judgment were as real as God's word to him to build the ark. Moses trusted God to do the impossible in the freeing of his people from the tyranny of foreign control. David did the same, not only in his slaying of the giant, but throughout his entire life. In the midst of all sorts of difficulties he lived his life based on the belief that God was greater than anything.

Noah, Moses, and David lived as they did not because God was somewhat powerful and sometimes gets involved in our affairs. They knew he was altogether trustworthy and all powerful, which freed them to do his will in their day regardless of their circumstances. No other example is as vivid as the Messiah's conquering of death. His entrusting of himself to the will of God even in the face of execution and his resulting vindication through his resurrection is proof positive that God can be trusted no matter what.

One day, we will no longer have to live with the tension between the attributes of God and life as we know it. But for now if we are willing to do so, we can know him as he is and live life as we were meant to. Let me quote the verse again: "The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Torahbytes: The Best Is Yet To Come (Nizzavim & Va-Yelekh)

For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11; ESV)

Last week I made the claim that the biblical perspective of history, especially regarding the centuries since Yeshua's coming, is a positive one. I contrasted the traditional Jewish view of Messiah's coming with how it plays out within the pages of the New Covenant Scriptures. In many ways the rabbinic view and the New Covenant view are similar. The major difference is that instead of the Messiah's coming immediately bringing history as we know it to an end, it is actually the beginning of a long process over time.

Also last week I corrected a popular notion among some Christians that the outplaying of the time between the Messiah's first and second coming is a fundamentally negative one, whereby history goes from bad to worse. The truth of the matter is that the messianic mission that began with Yeshua's coming has been bringing the truth and reality of the God of Israel to the whole world. In these last two thousand years, Yeshua's followers have impacted cultures for good the world over.

Some may accept that this is true, but assert that the time period we are in right now is worse than ever morally, politically, and environmentally and that this is a sign that Yeshua's return is at hand. This view is problematic for several reasons. First, it is debatable that we are in the worst time in history. Sure, there are bad things happening, but worse than ever? That would be difficult to prove. There are significant wars occurring and violent situations in the world, but more than in the days of the First and Second World Wars? There are terrible diseases affecting large populations, but worse than the Black Plague of the Dark Ages? I admit that it does seem that there is an increase of earthquakes and extreme weather in the past few years, but do we have a way of knowing that this is the worst ever?

The reason why some people look to these types of events as signs of the end of the age is due to these words of Yeshua:

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains (Matthew 24:6-8; ESV).

What Yeshua is describing here has been going on throughout history. It is more reasonable to understand his words as meaning that his followers should not be put off by the continuation of war, famines, and earthquakes. This is simply the state of the human story in the midst of a creation that is anticipating the final redemption of God (compare with Romans 8:19-21).

Regardless of whether or not our time is worse than any other, I contend that this is beside the point. Yeshua said "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33; ESV). He clearly states here that his followers would have troubles during the time between his comings, but we are to view life, not through the lens of trouble, but with the understanding that we follow the one who has overcome the world. Yeshua's followers have been demonstrating this for two thousand years. It is through the messianic mission that God has caused, in the words of Isaiah, "righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations." Whatever negative events occur, we need to remember that we are following the Overcoming One. The age in which we live will culminate in his return to fully establish God's absolute reign over the creation. In the meantime we are called to continue the messianic mission and guard against any notion that it's hopeless to serve God since life is just going to get worse and worse (whether that will be the case or not). As we anticipate the Messiah's return we can be confident that the best is yet to come!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Torahbytes: Half Empty or Half Full? (Ki Tavo)

And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:3; ESV)

I have been accused of being a "half-empty" kind of guy. Personally I think of myself as a realist, but I admit that I do have trouble seeing silver linings around clouds. It doesn't help that God has brought people into my life that don't even see the clouds or that to them it's not that the glass is half full, it's overflowing! I actually does help that these people are in my life.

Whatever the reasons for my psychological or spiritual deficiencies (or strengths!), I mention this to say that I don't tend to put a positive slant on things. This means that I usually need some pretty good reasons to see things in a positive light. One of those things is the impact of the coming of the Messiah into the world.

The human experience since creation has been mixed. Life is full of ecstatic pleasures and agonizing suffering. Dreams come true beyond expectations; hopes dashed and hearts crushed. Goodness, kindness, and sacrifice abound amidst evils beyond comprehension. Half-full or half empty? How do you see human history?

The Torah sees history as a process. Creation was deemed "very good" by God himself (Bereshit / Genesis 1:31), but due to our first parents' disobedience, the human experience was thrust into a negative trajectory. Yet not without hope as God promised the eventual destruction of evil (see Bereshit / Genesis 3:15). The rest of the Hebrew Bible lays out for us the outworking of this promise culminating in the expectation of the coming of the Messiah (see Isaiah 9:6; 11:1-10; 53:1-12; Micah 5:1 [English: 5:2], Zechariah 12:10; Daniel 9:24-27; etc.). The Messiah's coming would mark a major positive transition in history. In fact in Jewish tradition, the Messiah's coming would put an end to evil once and for all. What our ancient teachers failed to see was that the Messiah's coming would initiate a new stage in the process, rather than the final transformation itself.

The claim of the New Covenant Scriptures is that the Messiah has come and has set history on a new course. The evil that first entered the human heart in Eden has been dealt a substantial blow. The followers of the Messiah are called to extend his rule throughout the world and in all of life.

What has been happening since Yeshua's coming two thousand years ago is that the glass has been filling up. So while life has included both negative and positive aspects, the process which God has been developing over time is a positive one.

Many followers of the Messiah don't see it this way, however. To them the evil still prevalent in the world colors the whole picture. The glass is not only half empty, it is emptying at an ever increasing rate. The culmination of history will occur when the glass is completely empty. While grateful for whatever positive effects the messianic mission has on the world, to them the world is going down the drain.

This way of looking at history fails to understand what really happened when Yeshua came. Until that time the hope of the world had been kept under a bushel, so to speak. The nation of Israel had hope that God's rule would prevail, but their hope was faint and for the most part kept to themselves. But with the coming of the Messiah the message of salvation and restoration burst onto the world's stage and has been transforming individuals, communities, and cultures ever since. No matter how dismal life seems, God through the Messiah is triumphing the world over.

The glass is definitely half full (maybe a lot more than half).

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Torahbytes: Living Right Doesn’t Come Naturally (Ki Teze)

Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 23:14; ESV)

My eldest daughter has been working as a missionary in Haiti for two years. I find her stories of life there overwhelming. Haiti is not like most places on earth. Its level of dysfunction is hard to believe at times. In fact, she has told us that many Haitians don’t know the difference between drinking water and waste water. If your response to that fact is “How can that be?” then you possess a misconception about how it is our society came to grasp this most fundamental principle of hygiene.

Our presuppositions are based on the traditions of past generations. These traditions are so ingrained we don’t realize that they are learned. We think that they are innately part of us just like our ability to breathe. But ways of living are not naturally acquired. Our understanding of the difference between drinking and waste water did not arise from our genes but from other people. Even though we most likely didn’t learn this in school, it is possible that when we were very young, we may have attempted to drink from a puddle or other unclean source only to be sternly prevented by an elder who had learned this same thing from an elder of his and so on going back centuries.

The Torah’s directive to store human waste away from the community was a necessary lesson to be learned to ensure health. The verse we read suggests that there was more than just physical health at stake. Like so many of God’s directives it has a spiritual foundation and a physical benefit. Tolerating indecency in the community first and foremost threatens the people’s relationship with God, which in turn negatively affects our health.

It might be difficult for us to imagine how a society can neglect so foundational and simple a concept as keeping drinking and waste water separate, but we forget how for centuries in Europe people unnecessarily died due to ignorance about simple hygiene. Simple perhaps, but not natural. Our natural inclination is to do our own thing in our own way to our peril. Without careful adherence to God’s revelation as laid out in the Scriptures, we naturally find ourselves on the road to destruction. It doesn’t matter if we claim to love God or not. No matter how spiritual you think you are, drinking waste water may very well kill you. No matter how much you say you love God, ignoring his directives will destroy you. This applies to moral issues as much as it does hygiene. We may not be drinking waste water, but might we be neglecting others of God’s directives?

Those of us who live in countries that emerged from strong biblical roots need to take note of the abundant blessings we take for granted. So much of what is truly good is due to rightly applying the principles found in God’s Word. It is easy to bemoan how society is losing touch with these ancient principles while missing how we ourselves may be failing in the same way regarding our personal, family, and congregational lives. Having faith or being good hearted or sincere doesn’t automatically separate waste water from drinking water. The only way to live the kind of good and blessed lives God desires for us is by our paying close attention to his instructions and applying them accordingly.