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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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Saturday, January 08, 2005

Serve the Lord With Sadness

(This is a sermon delivered at my synagogue on Shabbat Va'era, wherein one of the passages read is chapter six of Shemot/Exodus, beginning with verse two. In this connection, I had reason to contemplate that too many people have a tendency to bail out on their spiritual commitments when they encounter disappointment and difficulty in their lives. It seems to me that this tendency is due to a prior presupposition that the nature and purpose of a religious commitment is that "God is there to meet my needs [as I see them], and my life will go so much better, and be so much happier if I pursue a religious/spiritual path.'" I contend that such presuppositions misconstrue and misrepresent the nature of what it means to know and serve the God of Israel. Read here to see why I say this.)

A religious Jewish man wakes up in the morning about to davven. But he discovers his teen-age son, who normally joins him, staying in bed. He goes to get his son out of bed, and the son says, "Pop. I’m not going to do it any more. I just can’t say the liturgy anymore. It would be hypocritical."

"What do you mean, son?"

"Well, you know, at the beginning of the service we the liturgy says, ‘Blessed be He who has mercy on all creatures.’ Well, when I look at how so many people are suffering, I just don’t believe that any more. I don’t believe that God has mercy on all creatures."

"I know, son. I have a problem with that too."

"And another thing, Pop. The liturgy says "Happy are those who dwell in your house: they are ever praising Thee." Well, Pop, I dwell in God’s house as much as the next guy I keep kosher, I try to live by Torah in every area of life, I go to synagogue whenever it’s open And I am still miserable too much of the time. I just don’t believe any more, ‘Happy are those who dwell in your house,’ because I know that most of the time I am not happy, even in God’s house.

"I know son. I have a problem with that too."

"And another thing Dad. At the end of the liturgy we pray, ‘May be soul be silent to those who insult me; let my soul be lowly as the dust.’ Well, I don’t really believe that Dad. I don’t want to be some kind of door mat others walk over. So, with all of these problems, I’m just not going to pray any more."

I have problems with all of that too, Son. For a long, long time.

At that point the father begins to put on his own tallis and tefillin on getting ready to pray.

"Wait, Dad! Didn’t you just tell me you have the same objections I do?"

"Yes, son. Every one of them., And more too!"

"So what are you doing?"

"Well, son, we’re Jews and Jews pray!"

What is the point of this story? Simply that, despite whatever faith problems one might be having, one should keep up with one’s spiritual disciplines and responsibilities. Even when we don’t understand what is going on, and when life is tough and even cruel, our calling in life is to serve the Lord—whether in gladness, as Psalm 100 puts it, or in sadness.

Let’s talk about this.

When writing the letter to the Philippians, Paul is in chains. . .certainly a situation which would discourage most of us. But for him this is an opportunity for him to honor God amidst the entire Praetorian Guard, and also a means of emboldening others to be more outspoken about their faith—inspired as they are by Paul’s courageous and confident example.

He has confidence that whatever happens to him is under God’s control, and he is prepared to take the bad with the good. "I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Messiah will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death" [1:20]. His joy, confidence and faith are not dependent upon how things are going or how they will go, but upon his conviction that God is working out His purposes in, through, around, and beyond the events of Paul’s own life.

Paul knows what his life is about: serving the God of his ancestors by sharing among the nations the news of Yeshua, his death and resurrection, bringing all nations to share in the Kingdom of God with Israel, His people. And he knows this God is with him, come what may.

Paul has a "whatever happens" faith. He reminds the Philippians, "whatever happens, conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the good news of Messiah" [1:27]. This idea burns a hole right through one of the most entrenched misconceptions we have about the spiritual life. Most people embrace a relationship with God because they believe their life "goes better" as a result. There is an implicit and sometimes explicit expectation that if we are following God, our lives will go better, and things will work out for us.

Not necessarily.

In fact, when we have an implicit expectation that things will go better because of our faith in Yeshua, we set ourselves up not only for disappointment but also for crashing and burning. This is because there are sure to come times when that expectation will not be met. There will come times when things go badly, as they did for Paul when he got thrown into prison. People with a "Things go better with Yeshua" kind of faith do not do well when they are unexpectedly thrown into prison, as Paul was. At such times, the tendency will be to jettison our faith commitment, our "walk with God" if you will.. We will instead chuck it all because God is not coming through for us. I have seen too many people do this. . . .unnecessarily.

Today’s message is inspired by one verse in today’s Torah reading. It is helpful and necessary to see this verse in context.

"2 God spoke to Moses and said to him, 'I am Hashem. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My most holy Name. 4 I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. 5 I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. 6 Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am Hashem. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. 7 And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, Hashem, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I Hashem.' 9 But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage."

One would be hard pressed to find another passage in Torah with so much good news packed into it. Look at verses two to eight and see how good news is piled on top of good news and is topped off with yet more good news.

And yet, what do we read about the reaction of the children of Israel when they heard this message? "But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage."

The question comes to us loud and clear: what is it that is crushing your spirit today? What is it that keeps you from joyfully taking in the good news of God’s provisions and promises for you. What cruel bondage is quenching the fire of faith that should be burning in your heart?

I am convinced that in a congregation like this, there are quite a few people with crushed spirits—people who do not really hear the good news that God has for them. I am equally convinced that there are some here who are suffering from one or the other kind of cruel bondage.

Our Messianic faith proclaims an invincible message of hope to those with a crushed spirit or suffering from any kind of cruel bondage. It is no more God’s will that you have a crushed spirit or be suffering from cruel bondage than it was God’s will that Israel remain in Egypt, so beaten down they couldn’t arouse themselves to believe when Moses reported the very words of God telling them that he had come to deliver them and to fulfill the promises he had made to our ancestors.

The secret for us is the same as it was for Paul, the secret he shared with the Philippians—"4:12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need." You see, his confidence and faith were not at all founded on stability of circumstances. He did not know what life had in store for him. . .but he did know who was going with him into whatever lay ahead. Paul put it this way: " 13 I can do (that is I can endure and handle) all things through him who strengthens me." You see the common denominator in his life was this: not circumstance, but the unfailing and determined presence of God. When God assures us through the Messiah, "I will never leave you nor forsake you. . .whoever comes to me I will in no manner cast out. . . I am with you forever, even until the end of the age,. . ." He means it.

What this means to us is that whatever we face, whatever comes our way, we face within the embrace of this mighty companionship, this everlasting friendship, this faithful commitment of the Almighty.

This is the God who says in the Older Testament to people with crushed spirits, "I live in a high and holy place, and also with whoever is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite". . .a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" [Isaiah 55; Psalm 51].

This is also the God who says seeks to "loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and break every yoke" [Isaiah 58]. The Messiah is the Divine agent through whom Hashem revives crushed spirits and oppressed people. He said of himself, "The Spirit of Adonai is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the bind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the L-rd’s favor" [Lk 4].

Through Yeshua, Hashem draws nearer than ever to us a Friend, Companion, and the one who sets us free, even in the midst of contrary circumstances.

Paul was in prison in Philippi—but he was totally free. Whatever circumstances or forces have crushed your spirit or oppress you, you can know this freedom too through centering your life in friendship, companionship, to the One we honor and serve, and who stands ready to empower us.

This also means that we must learn to be friends, companions and liberators of one another and all people everywhere. We experience greater freedom as we spread the freedom around—being friends, companions and liberators of all. And we have no business expecting His friendship, companionship, liberation and empowerment if we deny such aid to others, or worse still, crush their spirits or oppress them in some manner

Let’s become friends, companions, and liberators of others—through Him who strengthens us. And when we are glad, let us "Serve the Lord with gladness and come before His presence with singing" (Psalm 100). When we are sad, let us never bail out on our relationship with him. Instead, let us "Serve the Lord with sadness and come before His presence with sighing," letting him share it with us and bear it with us, like we would do with the best of friends, sharing with that friend the good times and the bad. When life gets tough, don’t close God out, and don’t bail out on the responsibilities and practices through which we honor Him and make room for Him in our lives. The tough times, the sad times, the darkest times are just the kinds of times we ought to be opening the door wider.

Behold—he stands at the door and knocks.