Sunday, December 22, 2013

TorahBytes: Rejection Fear (Va-Era)

You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. (Shemot / Exodus 7:2–4; ESV)

When we study the Bible we need to not let our knowing how the stories end, get in the way of our learning the lessons God is seeking to teach us. Knowing how stories end may be essential in getting an overall perspective and to encourage us to face similar challenges to the ones we read about, but we need to remember that the characters in these stories didn’t know how things would turn out, just as we don’t know how our circumstances will unfold. For us to learn how to go through the situations of life, we need to carefully observe how the Bible characters went through theirs.

In the case of Moses, we know how things turned out. The people of Israel left Egypt after years of oppressive servitude due to the signs and wonders God did at Moses’ hand. But this didn’t happen in an instant. Pharaoh was far from accommodating; it took much arm twisting, so to speak, on God’s part to secure the release of his people. Have you ever thought what this must have been like from Moses’ perspective?

Moses’ primary role was that of a messenger. He was to tell Pharaoh, king of Egypt, that the God of the Israelites demanded their release. As long as he was able to secure an audience with the king, his task was pretty straightforward: deliver a message, except for one thing. God made it clear right at the beginning that Pharaoh wouldn’t listen to him. This is where we have to stop for a second—don’t jump to the end of the story. Moses knew before performing his assigned task that he was going to get a negative response; yet he did it anyway. But didn’t God encourage him by telling him that it will all work out in the end? Yes, but, let’s be honest. How many of us would that actually encourage? It apparently worked with Moses, because the predicted negativity didn’t stop him. And that’s the point. Even though Moses knew how Pharaoh would respond, he confronted him anyway.

One way to respond to this is to think, “better Moses than me!” This is the viewing-Bible-characters-as-heroes approach. We read the exploits of these men and women and we are wowed by their super-human abilities. We cheer their exploits and perhaps take comfort in our being on the same team as them. But this completely misses the point! These people are to be our examples. While we are not all given the same tasks or scope of influence, people like Moses are showing us what it is like when the reality of God is working in and through a human life. God, through the Bible, is seeking to teach us what it means to know him and to follow him.

One of the challenges I face, and my guess is I am not alone in this, is the fear of negative reactions. Many years ago, for a summer job while in college, I sold encyclopedias door-to-door in the city of Toronto. I lasted two weeks. I actually sold a set at my last door! But I struggled so much with both the anticipation and experience of rejection. What made it all the more difficult was seeing how the successful salespeople didn’t let the reactions of potential customers get to them. Temperament aside, it appears that they really believed (and rightly so!) that if they didn’t get overwhelmed by rejection, and kept at their task, they would be successful. For some reason, I couldn’t fully grasp that and quit.

Whether or not I did the right thing by quitting, I mention this to illustrate how crippling fear of rejection can be. Being successful at selling encyclopedias was not really a priority to me at the time. I got (what I think was) a much better summer job eventually. Still, I have had to face this challenge since then many times, and I share this here, wondering how many of you are debilitated by this same fear.

It’s wonderful when God tells us that things will work out in the end, as he did with Moses, but sometimes he doesn’t. We don’t know how much of a difference this made for Moses. All we know is that he did what God told him to do in spite of anticipating rejection. Anticipating rejection can be a scary thing. But does it need to get in the way?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

TorahBytes: Moses Is Good for You (Shemot)

The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. (Shemot / Exodus 2:2; ESV)

Moses was special. His parents somehow knew that. Different translations have Moses’ mother describing him as fine, fair, goodly, beautiful, or healthy. The Hebrew word used is “tov,” which basically means “good.” That translators prefer one of these other words is likely an attempt to capture how they think the word tov is being used in this context. But not translating tov as good obscures that it could be an echo of the creation account, where several times God looked at what he created and said it was tov, good (see NET Bible, Exodus 2:2, note 8 -!bible/Exodus+2). Could it be that Moses’ mother looked with satisfaction at her offspring in the same way God looked at his creation? Could it be a signal in the biblical text that God felt the same way—that he had his hand on this special child in such a way like nothing since creation?

Is this not the case regardless of the text’s intention? Moses was a key player in God’s plan to rescue his creation from the curse he pronounced on it as a result of our first parents' sin. Having promised Abraham that through his descendants “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Bereshit / Genesis 12:3), God chose Moses to reveal his ways to his people. It would be Moses who brings to a world lost in the darkness of ignorance, God’s version of life.

Among some people Moses’ teaching is misunderstood as having nothing but a negative function as if all it does is tell us how bad we are. It is true that the more we are aware of God’s standards, the more we become aware of how much we fall short of them. Yet it is though Moses we learn God’s ways of love, justice, equity, holiness, and goodness in every area of life. That we are unable live up to his instructions should create in us a profound dependability upon God in everything and drive us to Yeshua. The forgiveness and acceptance offered to us as a free gift through the Messiah frees us to embrace Moses’ words not cut us off from them.

This is not to say that Yeshua calls us back to an Old Covenant lifestyle. The system God established through Moses is long broken, having been replaced by the New Covenant in Yeshua (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; compare Luke 22:20). Still the essence of God’s ways as outlined by Moses and expounded on by the Hebrew prophets and upheld by the New Covenant writings (New Testament) are as relevant as ever.

Moses is good for you. Paul, so often misunderstood by so many, thought so. When he wrote “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), he was reminding his protégé, Timothy (and us!) of the value of the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses included.

To neglect Moses is to neglect God, for so much of who God is is revealed to us through this special child. His mother could see it. How about you?

Sunday, December 08, 2013

TorahBytes: Do You Know Your Place? (Va-Yehi)

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Bereshit / Genesis 50:19-21; ESV)

The past few weeks we have been looking at a truly remarkable character, Jacob’s son Joseph. In the message, Exceptional, we looked at what made Joseph remarkable. In Are You Ready?, we saw how Joseph’s difficult circumstances prepared him to do remarkable things. Then, last week, in Joseph: The Messiah’s Mirror, we listed a number of ways in which Joseph’s life remarkably foreshadows the Messiah. But what is perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is Joseph’s lack of bitterness toward his brothers.

This must have been remarkable to his brothers too. For they had a hard time accepting that Joseph’s kindness was truly genuine. They thought he was only being nice to them on account of their father. They surmised that upon Jacob’s death, Joseph would finally get back at them for all the terrible things they had done to him. While it grieved Joseph that his brothers would think this way, their concern doesn’t surprise me. I don’t know how many people would behave as Joseph did. It’s difficult enough to get over minor offenses, let alone spending years in servitude and imprisonment due to the jealousy of one’s own family members! Yet Joseph did get over it. The injustice of the past didn’t prevent him from becoming a kind and generous leader. He exhibited no resentment toward his brothers whatsoever.

Why was Joseph like this? If this was a current news story, commentators would look for ulterior motives. Was he was being nice to them for the sake of advantageous political policy, since his being regarded as kind and generous was good for his image? Or perhaps he knew that coming down on his brothers would be more of a hassle than keeping the family peace.

But we don’t have to guess why he was the way he was. He himself tells us (and I believe him!), when he says to his brothers, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?” Joseph knew his place. He knew he wasn’t God and that God has an exclusive claim on certain areas of life. He knew he had no right to encroach on God’s domain. He realized that through his difficult circumstances, even though his brothers’ motives were evil, God was at work to preserve his family. He was not going to overrule God now by bringing harm to those to whom God intended good.

Human beings possess immeasurable ability for good and evil. Created for good, we have the potential to do much harm when we forget to give God his place. This is especially true when people’s lives are at stake as Joseph’s brothers’ were. When we don’t accept our place as Joseph did, we put the most vulnerable within our society (the preborn, the infirm, the elderly, etc.) at great risk. We encroach on God’s domain when we presume that we, rather than God, have the right to determine who among us may live and who will die. The prevalence of abortion and euthanasia appear to be logical outcomes in a culture marked by selfish consumerism. Unless we accept our place, no one is safe.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

TorahBytes: Joseph: The Messiah's Mirror (Va-Yiggash)

Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy's life, as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, "If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life." Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father. (Bereshit / Genesis 44:30-34; ESV)

One of the most amazing things about the story of Joseph is how much his life is a reflection of the Messiah. What makes this all the more amazing is that the New Covenant writings make no mention of this. If the New Covenant writers were so keen to draw these kinds of parallels with other characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, then why didn't they do so with the Joseph story? We don't know, but contrary to the New Testament's cynics and naysayers, this is evidence that the story of Yeshua was in no way contrived. For if it had been, then they would have made much of the Joseph story, but they didn't. Let's take a look ourselves and see what we find.

First, just as Joseph was rejected by his own brothers, so Yeshua was rejected by his own people. Both were destined by God for great things. Each in his own way was to rule over their people: Joseph, as second in command in Egypt; Yeshua, as King Messiah. Also, they both unjustly suffered. Joseph was sold into slavery and eventually spent years in a dungeon for a crime he didn't commit. Yeshua was wrongly convicted and executed through most torturous means. I know the parallel is not exact. As far as we know Joseph was never beaten, and, obviously, he was not executed. But like Yeshua he suffered unjustly. Similarly they both experienced a resurrection of sorts: Joseph in being freed from prison and Yeshua in literally coming back from the dead. Then they were both exalted to a high position, Joseph as Prime Minister of Egypt and Yeshua as Lord of heaven and earth. The result of their positions was the saving of lives: Joseph through administering the famine food plan that preserved the people of Egypt and the surrounding region; Yeshua in being the Savior of the world.

Another interesting parallel has to do with how Joseph's brothers didn't recognize him when they came to Egypt to buy food during the famine. He looked like an Egyptian and talked Egyptian. In the same way Yeshua today looks like a non-Jew. But just as Joseph eventually revealed his true identity to his brothers, so the day is coming when Yeshua will reveal himself to his own people as he really is - the Jewish Messiah. I discuss this more thoroughly in the TorahBytes message That's Funny, You Don't Look Jewish!

One more. As explained in another previous message, called Roots of RelationalDifficulties, Joseph's motive for giving his brothers a hard time when they came to Egypt to buy grain had do to with seeing if they had changed from when they mistreated him years before. What he was looking for - perhaps even trying to bring about - was not a changed attitude toward him necessarily, but toward their father. Joseph rightly assumed that their past betrayal of him devastated their father. As recounted in the passage I quoted at the beginning, it wasn't until Judah expressed his concern for their father that Joseph revealed himself to them. From this we discover that one of Joseph's primary roles within all this was to bring about reconciliation between his brothers and their father. This is one of Yeshua's primary roles as well. A key aspect of the Bible's overall storyline is the need of the Jewish people to be reconciled to God. According to the Hebrew prophets this was an essential aspect of the Messiah's coming. The whole thrust of the New Covenant was to be "I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:33; ESV)".

The alienation of Jewish people from God is profound. Called to be his people, yet so few know him as our ancestors did. The intimacy with God experienced by people such as Abraham, Moses, David, and Isaiah are viewed as stuff of mythology, not examples for today. For many, if not most, God himself is nothing but myth. The glorious Torah of which the religious are so proud has become an end in itself instead of the means to truly know our God and our Father.

But just as Joseph helped to restore right relationship between his brothers and their father, so Yeshua will do the same for his people. He already has, but it's just the beginning. When Israel finally recognizes him as our brother, we will also be fully reconciled to God.

Monday, November 25, 2013

TorahBytes: Are You Ready? (Mi-Kez / Hanukkah)

Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it." Joseph answered Pharaoh, "It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer." (Bereshit / Genesis 41:14-16; ESV)

Last week I explained that the Bible is not about exceptional people, but rather ordinary people trusting an exceptional God. Joseph is certainly one of the shinier lights among Bible characters. Yet he wasn't perfect. Like the rest of us, he didn't always make the wisest of decisions. Still, he remains a remarkable individual, who endured great hardship and became a wise and able leader. That ordinary people like Joseph can accomplish exceptional things should encourage you and me to be ready to do the same - not exactly the same, of course, but to be ready to do whatever exceptional things God calls us to do.

Recognizing that greatness is not derived from ourselves but from God doesn't mean that we can't learn from the lives of people like Joseph. Giving God credit for our successes doesn't mean that we are to be completely passive. Far from it! The more we realize how much we need God to live effective lives, the more we will be actively dependent on him. This is evident in Joseph. Notice how he was confident to interpret Pharaoh's dream but knew that the ability to do so came from God, not himself.

How could it be, after all he went through, that Joseph could be so wise, clear, confident, and genuinely humble? Why didn't his years in a dungeon turn him into an animal? He had been imprisoned for something he didn't do - worse than that, he was doing what was right in resisting the lustful advances of Pharaoh's wayward wife, but in the end was spitefully framed by her. The reason why he was in Egypt at all was due to his brothers' murderous jealousy. His own brothers sold him into slavery! Stop for a second and think how such horrendous circumstances would affect you. Yet, when the time came he is advising Pharaoh in world affairs and becomes a key player in God's rescue operation for the whole world by preserving his own clan, the people of Israel. Why wasn't he completely dysfunctional?

The reason why Joseph was able to rise up to the occasion is he was ready. We don't know a lot about his life in Egypt prior to his appearing before Pharaoh, except that God was with him and made him successful, both as a slave and then as a prisoner. But that God was with him doesn't mean life was nice and easy. In spite of horrible circumstances, in both situations, he faithfully gave himself to his work, serving others diligently. He kept on doing good amidst the most dismal of environments. Reading through his story it is clear that the character of the person who advised Pharaoh was the same as the one who had spent years as a slave and wrongly convicted prisoner.

How many of us are waiting for our big break? How many people are wishing for some golden opportunity to come our way that will make us famous? Or perhaps you just want to make a positive difference, but wonder why you find yourself stuck in a boring job, doing nothing much for no apparent reason.

I don't know why you are doing what you are doing. I don't know why you are in the situation you are in. I don't know what opportunities are coming your way or if you will ever get that big break. But I do know this: opportunities are not going to make you into something you are not. Your problems might, that is if you remain teachable through them; so that you will be ready for whatever it is God might be preparing you for. But if you are simply biding your time, hoping your problems will disappear, thinking that one day you will show the world how great you are, you're deluded. It's time to get ready, before it's too late.