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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Friday, January 14, 2005

Let My People Go! - Freedom and Worship

(The following is a sermon on Parshat Bo, delivered Shabbat, January 15, 2005 at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA).

Repeatedly in the Exodus story we read this refrain: "Let my people go." Without doubt this is one of the most familiar of biblical phrases. Were you to ask the average person, "In what book do we find the statement ‘Let my people go?’" almost everyone would say, "In the Bible," and many would be able to add " I think it’s in Exodus."

The phrase "Let my people go" is repeated ten times in the Exodus story. The first time it is a little different. God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh, "Israel is my first born son. . .let my son go." There are numerous echoes of this phrase throughout the Exodus story, repeating parts of this key phrase: "Israel is my first-born son—let my son go," or "Let my people go."

However, as familiar as it is, "Let my people go" is only part of the story. To misunderstand the full meaning and setting of this phrase is to misinterpret the entire story of the Exodus, and indeed, to misunderstand the entire Torah. More to the point, to miss out on the fuller context and meaning of this phrase is to absolutely misunderstand Judaism and our liturgy. More important still, to misunderstand this passage is to risk misunderstanding the meaning of our own lives as part of the covenant people.

There is a missing element in most people’s quoting of this passage. This missing element is so crucial that we cannot expect to cover it fully today. But we can begin, and we shall begin.

What is that missing element? Just this: God said "Let my people go that they may worship me." Let us take a few minutes to begin exploring this astounding and neglected reality.

1. If we would understand the Bible, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, and the meaning of our own lives, we must be prepared to deal with what might be termed the unapologetic ego-centricity of the Holy One. He deserves, expects, and even demands to be worshiped. There are three terms widely used for worship in the Torah: shacha – ‘"to bow down," avad ‘ "to work or serve", and yarah "to be in awe (of someone, or something)", and here that Someone is Hashem. God deserves to be treated as central, surrounded by those who are utterly aware that their highest destiny and ultimate desire is to do His bidding. We serve him like waiters serve customers, but more than that: we bow before Him as subjects do a King. We serve him as lovers do their beloved. But more than that, we serve him as slaves do their master. Standing in awe of His greatness, we utterly, completely, gladly, want nothing else and nothing more than to do His will because He is altogether, incomparably and infinitely worthy And that is what worship is—it is devotion and service born out of the worth-ship, the worthiness of its object.

Since the time of the Exodus, the Jewish people have focused on four aspects of His worthiness: His worthiness as Creator, as Redeemer, as Revealer, and His worthiness of character. He is worthy because He created all that is, He is worthy because He redeemed us from Egypt and ultimately from death, He is worthy because He revealed his ways to Israel through His saving acts as recorded in the Torah and Tanach, and He is worthy because of who He is in Himself (as revealed, for example, in the thirteen attributes declared to Moses on Sinai).

2. If we would understand the Bible, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, and the meaning of our own lives, we must be prepared to deal with the idolatrous nature of our own concept of freedom. We have learned to accept the idea that freedom is autonomy, the condition of being uncoerced and unrestricted by anything exterior to ourselves in making our own choices. In other words, we think of freedom as doing what we decide is right—what we choose to do, as long as others are not manifestly injured by our choices. This concept of freedom is pure idolatry, because such a viewpoint assumes that the good life is the life which seems right to me and where I get to do as I please. The Bible disagrees—the good life is doing as God pleases: all else is theft, idolatry and sin. We were freed from Egypt not to pursue and do our own will, but to pursue and do His will. "Let me people go that they may worship [or serve] me" says the Lord, not themselves.

By now you should be uncomfortable. You are uncomfortable because what the Bible teaches, what the Jewish people were made and redeemed for, and what Messianic Judaism rightly understood is all about fundamentally contradicts what we have all assumed in our secret hearts to be true, right, good, and reasonable. Feel the discomfort. That discomfort is probably the most instructive moment you will have this morning.

3. If we would understand the Bible, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, and the meaning of our own lives, we must be prepared to deal with the confrontational nature of worship. We should never ever seek to offend people by our worship of God. We should never ever adopt a cavalier "Who cares about them?" attitude, because the Bible specifically prohibits us from doing that, urging that we maintain the kind of proper decorum that takes into account the possible reactions of both those without our repertoire of spiritual experiences and those who do not believe as we do [1 Cor 14:23-40]. But even bearing this in mind, we must bear in mind that our focused worship of Hashem will be resented by others. They will find it offensive. They will be annoyed and angry that you insist on coming to services rather than doing what they think you ought to be doing. To the degree that your ideas about G-d are specific, they will accuse you of thinking you are better than they are. The call to Israel to worship the LORD from out of the midst of Egypt where they had plenty of gods already was deemed to be insulting and excessive as far as Pharaoh and the Egyptians were concerned. The same will be true of us: our dedicated worship of God is an implicit repudiation of what others believe and choose to do.

4. If we would understand the Bible, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, and the meaning of our own lives, we must be prepared to deal with the other-directed nature of true worship. The fancy word for this is "heteronomy," meaning "ruled by another," the opposite of "autonomy," ruled by oneself. This means true worship for the descendants of Jacob is directed from outside of us ["heteronomy"] rather than inside of us ["autonomy"]. It is directed by and toward to the God of our ancestors, the God of Sinai, the God who Himself calls the shots. We do not get to shop around for the God-concept we most like. We do not get to choose what is reasonable and not excessive in the worship of Him. The God who has revealed Himself to Israel as the object of worship is the God of the Exodus, the God of Sinai. The God who gives commandments, not suggestions.

5. If we would understand the Bible, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, and the meaning of our own lives, we must be prepared to deal with the fact that the worship of Hashem is priority One. Now we are all prepared to pay lipservice to this idea, but probably none of us, myself included, take it seriously enough. It is interesting that when our people came back from the Exile, the first thing they did was build the altar—to worship Hashem in Jerusalem. When Hashem gives declares His covenant to Israel at Sinai, what comes first? "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculpture image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them [two of the key words for worship in Torah—shachah/to bow down; avad/to serve, from which we get the word "avodah" which is the term for sacred service, such as the one we are having this morning]. For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God [or more familiarly, 'a jealous God']". We must be prepared to deal with the centrality and priority not merely of worship, not simply of religion, but of the structured worship of this particular God who did these particular things for us and who called us into a covenant with Himself embodying particular responsibilities. Yeshua put it this way, quoting from Deuteronomy: "You shall worship Hashem your God and Him only shall you serve."

6. If we would understand the Bible, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, and the meaning of our own lives, we must be prepared to deal with the fact that worshipping Him includes "keeping festival in his honor"—in other words structured communal celebrations of God, who He is, and what He has done. That is why it is good that all of you are here today, and, frankly, why it is sad that some of us come so sporadically if at all. You see, we are here to celebrate Hashem—who He is and what He has done. He deserves and expects that, and anything less indicates that other priorities have won out over Priority One. There is no other justifiable interpretation.

7. If we would understand the Bible, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, and the meaning of our own lives, we must be prepared to deal with the fact that God calls the entire community to worship him—not just the religiously fixated, or the superstars. Notice that when Pharaoh is willing to let the men go to worship God, but not the women and children, Moses says that just will not do! We live in the United States, and this is 2005, and not 1400 or 1250 B.C.E. I recognize that what I am saying here is not going to fly with most people. But we should at least be honest enough to say "This is what Torah teaches," and "This is what is meant by Judaism or Messianic Judaism." Hashem was not satisfied that just some of the adults and children should go out and worship Hashem—no, He wanted the entire community to worship Him. All of the descendants of Jacob owe this to Him—that is, if we take the Exodus and the authority of God seriously. The worship of God is for all the people of God and not just for the people we are used to thinking of as "the spiritual ones," whom we term "religious."

Yehudah Ha-Levi, the great medieval Jewish poet, commented on the paradoxical nature of knowing and worshiping God when he said:

"The servants of time are slaves of slaves
The servant of God, he alone is free
Therefore, when each man doth sue for his portion,
‘My portion is God,’ saith my soul."

I mentioned John Donne last week. One of my favorite poets, in one of his Holy Sonnets, he expands upon the paradox extolled by HaLevi, and exposes for our consideration some of the ways that the worship of God goes against what we are accustomed to see as ‘normal’ and ‘reasonable.’ Listen to this poem and feel the paradox [Holy Sonnet XIV]:

"Batter my heart, three personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie or break that not again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."

There is no real freedom apart from total abandonment to the worship of God. Most people take a lifetime, actually, an eternity to discover this. It is only when they die that they realize how little they gave to God in their life and how utterly and completely worthy He is. But you have had the opportunity to learn this lesson today, while you are still among the living! What you will do with the knowledge that only those who truly worship God are truly free will determine if you will ever know in this life "the glorious freedom of the children of God."

That freedom is the freedom to serve Him in obedience to His will. Will you accept freedom on His terms—unreserved, unfettered responsiveness to His worthiness? Or do you prefer something less demanding. . .some tailor-made religion?

Yeshua said that the Father is seeking worshipers. It is up to us to determine that he finds such worshipers here. Will you be one of them? Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, the God and Father of Yeshua our Messiah: "Israel is my firstborn son. Let my people go so that they may worship me."