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.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Maccabean Courage Is So Needed Today

Hanukkah begins this year on the evening of November 27 and lasts for eight days. Hanukkah commemorates the miraculous victory of the Maccabees, a small Jewish army led by their namesake Judah Maccabee over the mighty Seleucids in the second century before the coming of the Messiah. In those days the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, attempted to consolidate his rule through the imposing of Greek culture and religion. He banned Judaism and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by erecting a statue of Zeus there and ordering that pigs be sacrificed on the altar. Many Jewish people living in Israel at that time gladly went along with his assimilation plan until Judah's father, Mattityahu the priest, killed a fellow Jewish man who was in the process of making a pagan sacrifice, thus sparking a revolt. Early in the struggle the Temple was recaptured, a new altar was built and dedicated to the Lord. The word for dedication in Hebrew is "hanukkah". Judah instituted a joyous eight-day celebration, which today is observed through the lighting of candles on each of the eight nights of the holiday accompanied by traditional prayers, songs, and foods, including latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). There is even a special toy associated with this holiday, a spinning top called a dreidel  in Yiddish or a sevivon in Hebrew, designed to remember the miracle of Hanukkah.

But what is the miracle of Hanukkah? The common answer has to do with a legend recounted in the Talmud (a large collection of Jewish teachings, discussions, and commentary), where it is said that when the Temple in Jerusalem was restored there was found only one day's worth of holy oil for the menorah (seven-branched golden lampstand). Miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to make a new batch. The problem with this story is that the most trustworthy historical accounts of Hanukkah (the Jewish apocryphal book of First Maccabees and the writings of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus) make no mention of the oil. The actual miracle is the amazing victory God gave the people of Israel as is recounted in the prayer Al Hanissim (For the Miracles), which contain these words:

You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.

Through Hanukkah we affirm the biblical understanding of God as the one who comes to the aid of his covenant people, giving them the power to do far more than what they could do on their own. From Pharaoh's enslavement to Jericho's walls, from David's enemies to Haman's murderous threats, the God of Israel delivered his people again and again.

Hanukkah marks the last recorded victory of this type prior to the coming of Yeshua. Hanukkah actually had a great influence upon the Jewish outlook of the first century. By then messianic fervor was gripping the nation. The oppression of yet another group of foreigners, this time the Romans, was becoming more and more intolerable. As they expected the Messiah's soon arrival, they envisioned him in the manner of Judah Maccabee, another brave warrior who would inspire the people and lead them to their final victory over paganism.

The brave warrior did come, the Deliver who would break the power of oppression once and for all. The problem is that he didn't fit the expected Maccabean mold. They didn't understand that the Messiah's tactics would be so different and more powerful than anything Israel had experienced before. Instead of a sword of steel; his would be a sword of words. For with the coming of the Messiah, no longer would God further his purposes through the military armies of Israel, but through the teaching of his followers. Nations would no longer be subdued by the spilling of their blood. Instead the spilled blood of the Messiah followed by his conquest of death through his resurrection would break the power of the sword, since the power of death itself would be broken.

We cannot underestimate the power of the Messiah's teaching. War can slay the enemy, but his Word can change his heart. Whole people groups who at one time were hostile to the God of Israel now submit to him and serve his purposes because Yeshua's followers taught them his ways.

Still, Hanukkah has much to teach us. Judah Maccabee and his army have much to teach us. They, like so many before them, who have faithfully and effectively served God, demonstrate to us the need to stand against the forces of assimilation. Paganism was ready to swallow up God's people until the Maccabees firmly stood against it. They found themselves having to oppose even their own countrymen as so many were drawn into evil, ungodly practices which threatened the whole nation. While our mandate in the Messiah doesn't include the military component of the Maccabees, it still requires great depth of courage in order to oppose the assimilating forces all around us.

Hanukkah also reminds us that faithfulness to God is not passive. On the contrary! It is a call to action. Believing in Yeshua is not about cheering his past victories, but following him to new ones. And following is not about watching his exploits from the sidelines, but fighting alongside him on the front lines of battle.

The Enemy knows the power of words. More people today are trapped by the teachings of philosophies, ideologies, and false religion than are held captive at gunpoint. Bombs and tanks cannot set free those who are entrapped by lies. That is why the Messiah gave his followers the mandate to "make disciples of all nations, ...teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20; ESV - the "everything" is far more than "love God and love your neighbor," by the way; but we'll have to leave that issue for another time). This is more than simply "telling people about Yeshua". Teaching the nations includes proclaiming what Yeshua did for us, but also confronts every area of life. Doing so takes Maccabean courage. It may even cost us our lives.

Monday, November 18, 2013

TorahBytes: Exceptional (Va-Yeshev)

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. (Bereshit / Genesis 37:2; ESV)

This week's portion begins the story of Joseph, one of the most noble of all Bible characters. To be honest, I have always thought of him as more than just noble. To me, he seemed to be just about perfect, if not perfect. I know nobody's perfect, but the favor of God was on him in such an unusual way that set him apart from everyone else. I always thought of his suffering and enslavement at the hands of his jealous brothers and his eventual unjust imprisonment as nothing less than absolute victimization of a pure and innocent man.

But after pondering this story over the years, I started thinking that perhaps Joseph may not be so pure and innocent after all. I know it's not his fault that he was the object of his father's favoritism, but it appears that he allowed that to get to his head. His bringing a bad report about his brothers may have been innocent enough. And we probably should cut him some slack for telling his brothers the first dream. Chalk it up to immaturity. But after they understood it to signify Joseph's eventual reign over them, why would he share the second similar dream? By that time, there was no doubt how his brothers felt about him. Did he not realize that telling them about the second dream would only infuriate them all the more? It's possible he thought that the confirmation of the first dream would put them in their place, but, regardless, his lack of wisdom is evident.

He seems to be far more the innocent victim in the later incident, after his brothers sell him into slavery and his master's wife attempts to seduce him. His resistance against her advances is exemplary; the basis of his moral stand appears to be rooted in his relationship to God. For he said to her, "How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?" (Bereshit / Genesis 39:9; ESV). But I wonder if, like in his situation with his brothers, he didn't contribute to his own problem. Just before her final seductive attempt, the narration may hint at another unwise action on Joseph's part. We read, "But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house" (Bereshit / Genesis 39:11; ESV). In his role as chief servant, would he not have known he would be alone with her, thus purposely putting himself in a potentially compromising situation?

It's not that I am trying to place blame on Joseph for his troubles. There are no excuses for what his brothers or his master's wife did. It's that I have come to realize that how I saw Joseph got in the way of what God was seeking to teach me through him. To me Joseph had been more than a good example; he was exceptional - a cut about the rest, somehow immune to the normal weaknesses of life. The problem is there is no such human, except for the Messiah.

What made Joseph exceptional was not that he possessed a superior moral quality that enabled him to withstand intense rejection, hardships, and temptations, but that as a normal human being with common strengths and weaknesses, he was able to do endure as he did. The Bible doesn't depict its exceptional characters as heroes, but as normal people like you and me. What made them exceptional are not exceptional innate qualities, but their relationship to an exceptional God.  The power of God to do exceptional things is available to all.

But in order to experience the power of God in your life, you need to first be on good terms with him. This is only possible by trusting in the Messiah Yeshua, who gave up his life for our sins, and rose from the dead, so that we could be reconciled to God and be his true children. If you want to know more about how you can be exceptional, contact me.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

TorahBytes: Hidden Idols (Va-Yishlah)

God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau." So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone." So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem. (Bereshit / Genesis 35:1-4; ESV)

Last week's message was about Rachel, Jacob's wife, and how she didn't get caught for stealing her father's idols. There is no indication in last week's Torah portion, or anywhere else in Scripture that I am aware of, that her crime was ever discovered or that she suffered as a result of it. But, as I mentioned last week, I don't think the story of the stolen idols ends there.

This week's portion includes Jacob's unusual and dramatic encounter with God in which God comes to Jacob in human form and wrestles with him through the night. Jacob emerges from this as a transformed man with a new name, Israel. God then directs him to resettle in the Promised Land in the town of Bethel and instructed him to build an altar there. In preparation for that, Jacob directs his large household to, as we read, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments." And so they did. In fact, they gave all their foreign gods to him and he buried them. This would have included the ones that Rachel stole from her father and lied about.

There is no excuse for Rachel's wrong, but better late than never. It certainly would have been preferable had she owned up when confronted by her father, but at least she finally got rid of the idols. In case you might be thinking that she should have made arrangements to return them to her dad, we need to remember that these were evil objects that were wrong for anyone to have. But for the purposes of our discussion, that's beside the point. So let's move on.

It must have been difficult for Rachel to part with the idols. It isn't clear why she took them in the first place. She might have believed in their power and wanted whatever benefit she thought they could provide, or it was a little piece of home to connect her with her past. Whatever the reason, it was clear that she was willing to risk much to steal them and then to cover up her crime in order to keep them. It's not easy to part with something like that. But she did.

Note, however, it took Jacob's directive to bring her to the point of ridding herself of these destructive items. His instruction to his family to "put away the foreign gods" tells us that he was aware of their existence within the clan. Regardless of whether or not he knew that his own wife was in possession of such things, he knew there were idols in their midst and it was wrong to have them. We may wonder what took him so long to address this, but he did eventually. As head of his household Jacob took a stand in order that his family would be right with God.

That it took so long for Jacob's family to address their hidden idols should not encourage us to take our time before addressing ours. On the contrary! That they finally dealt with such things should encourage us to come clean now regardless of how long we have held on to our hidden idols. The longer we wait, the harder it gets. Hidden, secret sins have a way of becoming an accepted part of our lives. After a while they no longer seem like idols. That's why from time to time we need people to say to us, "Put away your foreign gods." Perhaps it's time to do personal, family, and community inventory and clear out any and all foreign items that don't belong.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

TorahBytes: God Knows (Va-Yeze)

Then Jacob became angry and berated Laban. Jacob said to Laban, "What is my offense? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? For you have felt through all my goods; what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, that they may decide between us two." (Bereshit / Genesis 31:36-37; ESV)

Jacob had a difficult relationship with his father-in-law, Laban. Between the two of them, they more or less met each other's match with regard to their shrewdness as businessmen. Jacob fled to the land of his relatives out of fear of his older twin brother, Esau, after he tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the firstborn blessing which rightfully belonged to Esau. Upon arriving, Jacob fell in love with the younger of Laban's daughters, Rachel, and agreed to work for seven years in exchange for her hand in marriage. But on the wedding night, unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel's sister, Leah was given to him instead. He then agreed to work another seven years for Rachel as well. During the final years of Jacob's time within Laban's household there was great competition between them, mixed with suspicion and underhanded business practices. Before critiquing the intrigue, dishonesty, and customs of those days and these men, take a close look at the intrigue, dishonesty, and customs common in our day. I don't know how much better our society is faring. But this is not what I want to focus on this week. I wanted to give this background before looking at the final recorded incident between these two men.

When God told Jacob to return to the Promised Land, he managed to leave with his large entourage of wives, children, servants, and animals without Laban noticing. This made Laban very angry and he pursued them. It took a week to catch up. Thankfully God warned Laban in a dream not to harm Jacob or else greater trouble would have likely ensued. Still, Laban confronted Jacob over two things. First, he wanted to know why he snuck off as he did. And second, he accused Jacob of stealing his idols. As for the first issue, Jacob replied that he was afraid that Laban would take his daughters back by force. As for the second, not knowing that Rachel did indeed steal them, Jacob pledged retribution towards anyone who may have done so. So Laban searched their tents. Rachel put the idols in a saddle bag and sat on them. When Laban got to her tent, she claimed she was not able to get up due to her having her menstrual period. That she had her period may or may not have been true, but either way it was an effective ruse, for he didn't find his idols and no one knew that Rachel took them. And that's the end of the story; sort of. Something happens in next week's portion that may relate to this. Perhaps we will look at it then (if you are curious, you can read ahead. See Bereshit / Genesis 35:1-4)

But for now note that Rachel got away with theft. She rips off her own father and fools both him and her husband. And nothing bad happens to her. No one but her knows what she did. No one, but God, that is. But God did know. God always knows.

Just because Rachel's wrong didn't result in immediate consequences doesn't mean that she got away with it. It's true she didn't get in trouble with her father or her husband. As far as we can tell she didn't get into trouble at all over this in the same way it seems lots of people get away with lots of things all the time. But God still knows.

It's not just that God knows that makes the difference. It's that who we are and how we live matters to him. We don't exist for ourselves. We were created by God on purpose and for a purpose. To ignore that, pretending that we are free to live life any way we wish has dire consequences. Just because it looks like we are getting away with it, doesn't mean we are.