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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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Monday, September 25, 2006

God's Mercy to All Through Three Suffering Sons

The following is a sermon presented at Rosh Hashana services at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA, on September 23, 2006. It is based on the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashana, Genesis 22, the Akkedah, that is, the Binding of Isaac.

We saw last night how this season of the year focuses on our need to receive mercy ourselves, and to demonstrate that mercy to one another. Indeed, the story is told of one of our rabbis who suggested that it is only when we seek mercy for others that we receive mercy ourselves, as it is written of Job “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.”

This season of seeking mercy speaks to us far more widely than of our personal lives, our struggles and our sins. The Bible’s scope is usually wider than that, and today’s Torah reading speaks to us of God’s merciful purposes for Israel and the Nations.

And if there was ever a time when we needed mercy for Israel and the nations, it is now.

The root of it all is the story of the Binding of Isaac, the Akkedah

Today we have the interesting opportunity to consider a midrash on this account as provided by Paul in his letter to the Romans.

In Romans 8:32, Paul indicates that he is thinking of the Akkedah, when he says, “He who did not spare even his own Son, but gave him up on behalf of us all - is it possible that, having given us his Son, he would not give us everything else too?”

Here he is echoing the language of the Akkedah.

11 But the angel of ADONAI called to him out of heaven: "Avraham? Avraham!"He answered, "Here I am." 12 He said, "Don't lay your hand on the boy! Don't do anything to him! For now I know that you are a man who fears God, because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." 13 Avraham raised his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in the bushes by its horns. Avraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 Avraham called the place ADONAI Yir'eh [ADONAI will see (to it), ADONAI provides] -as it is said to this day, "On the mountain ADONAI is seen."

15 The angel of ADONAI called to Avraham a second time out of heaven. 16 He said, "I have sworn by myself - says ADONAI- that because you have done this, because you haven't withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will most certainly bless you; and I will most certainly increase your descendants to as many as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will possess the cities of their enemies, 18 and by your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed - because you obeyed my order."

Abraham did not withhold his son, his only son, identified as his beloved son at the beginning of the chapter. And it is because he did not withhold his son, that both Israel and the nations receive promised blessings from God.

Paul echoes this argument very powerfully indeed in Romans 8, where he speaks of another Beloved Son, the Messiah.

31 What, then, are we to say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare even his own Son, but gave him up on behalf of us all - is it possible that, having given us his Son, he would not give us everything else too? 33 So who will bring a charge against God's chosen people? Certainly not God - he is the one who causes them to be considered righteous!”

The language here is identical to the language in the Septuagint of Genesis 22. In Genesis 22, Abraham spared not his son—he withheld not his son. Through Issac being sacrificially given up, Israel and the nations are blessed. In Romans 8:31-33, through Messiah being sacrificially given up, Israel and the nations are blessed.

All of this is rather well known and predictable. But there is a reference to this theme, a bit more hidden, another reference to the sufferings of a beloved son, which sheds entirely new and necessary light on intercommunal relations between Israel and the nations.

At this stage in his argument, Paul is considering the mystery of the fact that most of the Jewish people not flocked to believing in Yeshua. In Paul’s mind, it was the purpose of God that things should be this way. In Romans chapter 9, he says that it was God who hardened the heart of Israel toward this reality, as a means whereby the other nations might have opportunity to buy into the good news of Yeshua, as Gentiles,

Paul sees all of this as rooted in God’s ancient promises to the patriarchs, for example, to Abraham at the binding of Isaac, to bless both Israel and the other families of the earth. He compares this ornate purpose to an olive tree, rooted in the promises to and faithfulness of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This root is holy.

Paul extends this metaphor to that of an olive tree with Jewish branches and Gentile branches. Speaking to the Gentiles as grafted in, Johnny come lately wild olive branches, with the people of Israel being the natural branches, Paul says this.

16 . . . if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you - a wild olive - were grafted in among them and have become equal sharers in the rich root of the olive tree, 18 then don't boast as if you were better than the branches! However, if you do boast, remember that you are not supporting the root, the root is supporting you. 19 So you will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." 20 True, but so what? They were broken off because of their lack of trust. However, you keep your place only because of your trust. So don't be arrogant; on the contrary, be terrified! 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he certainly won't spare you!

This is the today’s third reference to a suffering beloved son. Israel is God’s son, or as he tells Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Israel is My firstborn son.” Just as Abraham did not spare Isaac his son, and just as God did not spare the Messiah, his son, so God did not spare his son Israel. Through the binding of Isaac, Israel and the nations are blessed, through the sacrifice of Messiah, Israel and the nations are blessed, and through the temporary divine blinded condition of Israel, unable to recognize that Yeshua is indeed the Messiah, all the nations on earth are blessed.
What does this mean?

It means that God is up to something in the world that is not the sole franchise of the Church, nor of Israel. God is determined to bring blessing to Israel and the Nations.

Second, it shows how wrong-headed and wrong-hearted are those who criticize the Jewish people for not recognizing that Yeshua is the Messiah. Every Gentile who claims to love Yeshua should be grateful for and not contemptuous of Jewish resistance to the good news of Yeshua. From Paul’s point of view, Jewish resistance to Yeshua is God’s idea—the means whereby the door is opened for Gentiles to become the people of God without their having to become Jews first. They can come as Gentiles, as wild olive branches.

Third, it means that Yeshua is the Messiah through whom both Israel and the nations receive the mercies promised to our ancestors. That most of our Jewish people don’t see this now is no impediment to God’s showing them His mercy, and is in the end, a temporary expedient that will eventually pass away, when "Out of Tziyon will come the Redeemer; he will turn away ungodliness from Ya'akov and this will be my covenant with them, . . . when I take away their sins" . . .when "they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son."

During this season of the year, when we think about the mercies of God, it is important to remember than they come through the sufferings of Isaac, of Yeshua, and of the Jewish people.

Let’s learn to be grateful. Whether Jew or gentile. All of us. As Paul says concerning the Jews and Gentiles in and around the community of Yeshua believers in chapter 15:

7 So welcome each other, just as the Messiah has welcomed you into God's glory. 8 For I say that the Messiah became a servant of the Jewish people in order to show God's truthfulness by making good his promises to the Patriarchs, 9 and in order to show his mercy by causing the Gentiles to glorify God - as it is written in the Tanakh, "Because of this I will acknowledge you among the Gentiles and sing praise to your name." 10 And again it says, "Gentiles, rejoice with his people." 11 And again, "Praise ADONAI, all Gentiles! Let all peoples praise him!" 12 And again, Yesha'yahu says, "The root of Yishai will come, he who arises to rule Gentiles; Gentiles will put their hope in him."

And as he says at the conclusion of his argument in Romans 11, concerning the people of Israel to the Gentiles in Rome:

For, brothers, I want you to understand this truth which God formerly concealed but has now revealed, so that you won't imagine you know more than you actually do. It is that stoniness, to a degree, has come upon Isra'el, until the Gentile world enters in its fullness; 26 and that it is in this way that all Isra'el will be saved. As the Tanakh says, "Out of Tziyon will come the Redeemer; he will turn away ungodliness from Ya'akov 27 and this will be my covenant with them, . . . when I take away their sins." 28 With respect to the Good News they are hated for your sake. But with respect to being chosen they are loved for the Patriarchs' sake, 29 for God's free gifts and his calling are irrevocable. 30 Just as you yourselves were disobedient to God before but have received mercy now because of Isra'el's disobedience; 31 so also Isra'el has been disobedient now, so that by your showing them the same mercy that God has shown you, they too may now receive God's mercy. 32 For God has shut up all mankind together in disobedience, in order that he might show mercy to all.

33 O the depth of the riches and the wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments! How unsearchable are his ways! 34 For, 'Who has known the mind of the Lord? Who has been his counselor?'c 35 Or, 'Who has given him anything and made him pay it back?' 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.


This is a sermon prsented Erev Rosh Hashana, September 23, 2006, at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA. It is based on the for the first Day of Rosh Hashana, Genesis 21 and 2 Samuel 1-2, which speak of Sarah and Yitzchak, Hagar and Ishamel, and Hannah and Samuel.

Hagar, Sarah, and Hannah, three women, and Yishma’el, Yitzchak, and Shmu’el, three sons. Different people with different destinies, but all of them had one thing in common. All experienced the mercy of God.

The Hebrew term is for “compassion,” sometimes translated “mercy,” is “rachamim” and it is related to the noun “rechem” which means womb. In groping for a word to describe God’s merciful compassion, the Hebrew tongue settled on this comparison.

God’s mercy toward us may best be approximated by thinking of the bond a woman has for the child of her womb.

And all three of the women in our readings had that strong bond with their sons: a bond which caused them to seek out what was best for them. Hagar wanted her son to survive and thrive, Sarah wanted her son to inherit free of the interference of an alternate heir, that is, Ishmael, and Hannah loved and doted on the son who became hers in her older age through God’s mercy shown to her.

And if you will think for a moment about these women and what they felt for their sons, you will understand just a little bit about God’s mercy.

The prophets remind us, however, that God’s mercy is even greater than a woman’s mercy toward the child of her womb. “Can a woman forget her child at the breast, not show pity on the child from her womb? Even if these were to forget, I would not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).

Nevertheless, remembering the compassion a woman has for the child of her womb is a good way of remembering the compassion of God.

Now compassion very much like mercy. We might think of compassion as a feeling, an inner response, literally a “feeling with” someone. it is a deep form of sympathy and empathy. But compassion often leads to mercy. If compassion is one’s inner response to a beloved other, then mercy is what one does—or what one refrains from doing—toward that other.

I want to look with you for a moment at mercy.

Who deserves God’s mercy?

The answer is, no one. Mercy means receiving the benefit you do not deserve instead of the negative consequences you DO deserve. I will say it again. No one deserves God’s mercy: if they did, it would not be mercy.

Paul picks up this argument in Romans chapter nine, when her reminds us of what God told Israel through Moses. He says this:

15 For to Moshe he says, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will pity whom I pity." 16 Thus it doesn't depend on human desires or efforts, but on God, who has mercy.

Now my point is this: mercy is undeserved, and it is something God does.

Now I will ask you a question about God’s mercy. When we stand up and protest that some individual or some class of people does not deserve God’s mercy, what is wrong with our thinking? Two things: first of all, of course, they don’t deserve God’s mercy—no one does. Secondly, a big mistake we make is the underlying assumption behind such conduct. We are really usually saying, “That person/those people don’t deserve mercy because they are not like me,” or in other words, “They don’t deserve mercy, but I do.”

Our tradition and the Scriptures remind us that this mentality is entirely off base. It leads to all sorts of self-congratulation, and abuse of others. We learn to love ourselves and people like us, and to hate people unlike us. We see “our kind of people” as candidates for mercy, and see “their kind of people” as obviously candidates for wrath and destruction.

But it is not that simple.

And every year at Yom Kippur, our tradition confronts us with the story of Jonah, who wanted to deny mercy to the Assyrians, the terrorists of his day, and implacable enemies of Israel. Jonah wanted to deny them the mercy which God wanted to extend to them. Is it not a wonder that the Jewish people have kept alivve and intact a Scrripture which repeatedly confronts us in ways we prefer not to be confonted? And is it not a lesson we need to learn at this time of year, that we are not entitled to seek the mercy of God ourselves when we categorically deny it to others.

I like to quote Lesslie Newbigin, who says that we must not spend our time postulating the possible fate of other people—nor their status as candidates for God’s mercy or not. He points out how many of Yeshua’s parables and teachings highlight the element of surprise and the unexpected at the final judgment. Many who are first will be last, and the last first. Things are not as they appear.
During this season when we are supposed to be seeking the mercy of God, I want to leave us with some challenges.

It is important that during these Ten Days of Awe, we all get in touch with the fact that we do not deserve God’s mercy,

It is important that during these Ten Days of Awe, we all get in touch with the fact that we need God’s mercy, because what we deserve is very unpleasant.

It is important that during these Ten Days of Awe, that we all get in touch with the fact that that we need to be very careful about denying mercy to others, for to deny mercy to others is to pretend we deserve it ourselves. We do not.

This is the time of year for us to beseech God for His mercy toward us and toward our people, and to dig deep down to find the humility and the grace to extend mercy to those to whom we normally deny it.

Our attitude should be as found in this very familiar High Holy Day prayer.

Our Father our King
Be gracious unto us
And answer us
For we are wanting
In good deeds
Deal with us in covenant mercy
And save us

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Roses and Thorns

For reasons stated on this blog, by God’s design, the community confirms the validity of a prophet’s call. Also, people experience and Scripture demonstrate that people who insist on being self-validating in their claims to have "heard from God" are more often than not self-deluded, even if benignly so. Hence, the wisdom of checking out our perceptions not only against Scripture and sound reason, but also against the voices of community and tradition. Some people find this irksome, as if such a teaching pretends to obliterate the truth that God does speak to individuals. What people miss is that God’s truth can be both/and rather than either/or. And sometimes it doesn’t occur to either/or people that yes, God does speak to individuals, and yes, God does validate or invalidate prophetic words through the community, and yes, God does validate or invalidate the community's perceptions through prophetic insights, and that, yes, the truth may just be both/and.

But it is.

So, without at all contradicting what I have said elsewhere on this blog about all of these matters, I would like to share here about how I think God spoke to me through a series of recent incidents.

Recently, two friends criticized me in public in a manner they later regretted. The Jewish tradition calls this “halvanat panim,” and it is considered a major ethical breech. Jewish religious culture’s sensitivity to this is not unlike Sino/Japanese culture’s sensitivity to not causing someone to “lose face.”

My coping mechanism of choice when such things happen is to withdraw. However, in both of the cases I allude to here, instead, I wrote privately to each of the parties, and resolved matters. Still, I was thinking of how difficult and wounding human relationships can be.

Later that same week, I was moving a very heavy electric piano into my wife’s van. In doing so, I brushed against a bare rose bush and caught a thorn in my thigh. I then discovered my trouser let was wet with blood, as I had bled profusely.

Then it all came together in my mind. Human relationships are like living together amidst a thorn bush. It is unavoidable that people wound us and that we wound others. This is the nature of relationships of any kind of intimacy. The task in living together is to learn to expect wounds, to learn not to wound others, and take care to bind up wounds—both our own and those of others.

In my experience, one of the earmarks of God's speaking is that it is never coercive. In fact, heeding the voice of God inevitably increases freedom. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty"(2 Cor 3:17).

I invite you to think about the thorniness of your own intimate relationships. May God help you to bind up more wounds than you cause. And may he bind up your wounds too.

Abraham Lincoln has a related insight. He said this: "We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses."

Rejoice. And again I say, rejoice.

And smell the roses.

Friday, September 08, 2006

On Hearing God's Voice - Part Three

Some have questioned, challenged and attacked my statement on the previous posting in this series that part of discerning the voice of God is the confirmation of the community. I have chosen not to post the comments because of previous communications with the commentators, but would like to briefly address the issue here and support my position.

First, I am not surprised at the response. As I said, our spiritual assumptions are so individualistic that we are blind to the more commuunal texture of much that the Bible says. I do not blame blind people for stumbling, and my interlocutors are blind, or if you prefer, deaf to this voice of Scripture, as are many in our culture.

Second, as I said before, I most certainly DO believe that God speaks today to individuals, and know the experience myself.

Third, I stand by my position that it is the Scriptural and sensible norm to test one's perceptions against the wisdom of trusted advisors and communal tradition. My interlocutors are outraged at this, presenting cases where prophets, Yeshua himself, and prominent Bible figures did not do so, and where the "wisdom" of the community was at odds with the will of God. True. Nevertheless, the thrust and counsel of Scripture supports my position as part of a sane approach to discerning the will of God.

Fourth, I would challenge my interlocutors who give examples of people like Yeshua, David, Gideon, Paul, etc., "Are you saying that YOU are Yeshua, David, Gideon or Paul, and that you hear the voice of God as accurately as did they?" Good question. And good reason why God has advised a system of checks and balances.

For example, in Deuteronomy 18 we are told,"21 And if you say in your heart, 'How may we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?' -- 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him." Notice, it is the community which decides if the word of the prophet is valid or not. My interlocutors heap scorn on this position, but, as you can see, it is part of God's counsel to us.

Similarly, in Deuteronomy 13 we are told,

1 If a prophet arises among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder which he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, 'Let us go after other gods,' which you have not known, 'and let us serve them,' 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him, and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and cleave to him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.

Notice again that it is the community that tests the validity of the prophetic experience: it is not the prophet who determines the validity of that experience.

In the Newer Testmant, the same principle is in effect, even in the case of those whose "words from the Lord" do not have the kind of canonoical status that the Older Testament prophets manifested. Here too, the validity of a prophetic word is determined by communal process, and the mind of God is also determined communally in a manner scarely reflected in modern practice.

In 1 Corinthians 14 we read of the gift of prophecy as it operates in
the assembly--people with a true gift of prophecy, by the way, as they are referred to by Paul as prophets. In verse 29 we read this: " 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let
the others weigh what is said."
The term for "weighing" is
"diakrino/diakrisis" from which we get the word "discern," and which
means "judge, separate discriminate, to learn by discriminating to
determine or decide. Judging the evidence. Decide differentiate prove
test discriminate. To dissect to get to the basic parts or elements."

Paul was teaching that when the prophets spoke in the assembly, it was
the responsibility of the others to weigh--to evaluate--what
was said, to determine the validity of the word given, and in fact, what was wheat and what was chaff in the prophetic statement.

The use of group process in making decisions and in discerning the
voice of God is common in the Newer Testament, one of the most glaring
examples being Acts 15, where it took a group process to discern the
mind of the Spirit on the matter of the Gentiles' status.

Here is more material on the subject. [The Mennonites are big on this
issue, but this is not from a Mennonite source]. The following
material, except for the last sentence by myself, is all from

The book of Acts records four occasions when the church sought to discern God’s will (see Acts 1:12-26; 6:1-7; 11:1-18; and 15). Members of the New Testament church believed that God would guide individuals andcommunities; they expected to be led by the Spirit (see Galatians 5:18, Romans 8:14). Their relationship with God, their awareness of the presence and gifts of the Spirit, their practice of prayer, their reception and proclamation of the good news, and their infectious love
of the community present a convincing picture of a way of life with discernment at its core.

Early Christians feared the voices of false prophets, so they tested
the spirits [communally—see what I said earlier from Deut 13 and 18]. Only the presence of the Spirit of God would determine what served the common good of the community and would offer the love and knowledge to provide the community with authentic spiritual leadership. . . .

When the church in Jerusalem heard that Christians were arguing about whether converts should be circumcised, the apostles and elders met to
consider the question. They came to one mind and heart through
discernment (read Acts 15). . . . The early church used the language of discernment:

“Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole
church, decided . . .” (Acts 15:22) or “It seemed good to the apostles
and elders, with the whole church . . .” (nrsv). Paul and Barnabas
were sent to Antioch with a letter that said, “We have decided
unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you” (verse
25). Again, the letter reads, “For it has seemed good to the Holy
Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these
essentials” (Acts 15:28-29). All of this is the language of
discernment [and, I would remind you, of communal process].

So let's not have any more disparagement of the voice of the community. God sees fit to involve the community in validation or invalidation of those who claim to speak in the name of God. I would suggest that those who refuse to agree this is so have a problem not with me, but with Scripture and appropriate caution.

Shalom, my friends!

Monday, September 04, 2006

On Hearing God's Voice - Part Two

The other night I had coffee with a friend who is doing his dissertation on a study of individualism as it affects matters of spirituality, especially here in the United States. Very interesting stuff. More than we realize, we have accepted the individual as the basic integer of spiritual reality—this is an unquestioned given, but not necessarily truth. In fact, one could argue that the Bible emphasizes the collective, the communal, the familial to a degree scarcely noticed, much less honored in our generation.

One witness to this is some of the hostile comments I have received but not posted on this blog which take issue with my suggestion that one must test what one perceives to be the voice of God against the wisdom of tradition and of the community. Such objectors evoke the names of prophets Elijah and Isaiah, figures like Paul, and Yeshua, and harangue me for not insisting instead that it is the individual, standing alone, Bible in hand, who should, who can, who does hear and discern the voice of God. Such parties apparently infer that my insistence in testing one’s perceptions against the wisdom of the community and its leaders now and in the past [tradition] is a form of self-aggrandizement for myself as a leader, and a form of faithless wimping out, as if I did not believe that people can and should hear from God themselves.

Of course I do believe that people can and should hear from God themselves. But the question remains, is the community and its wisdom to be a non-issue when compared with the individual’s experience and judgment?

Years ago when I was co-leading a drop-in center in San Francisco, a young man who had been visiting our services reported to us that God was leading him to go to Israel. This was a matter of concern to us, because this young man was generally a bewildered and impractical person, and didn’t seem to have a job nor be capable of holding one. When we inquired as to how he knew God was leading him that way, he told us that when he prayed, if his right elbow started to twitch, it was a “Yes” from God, and if his left elbow started to twitch, it was a “No.” Now, I know that I have at least one commentator out there who will write me and ask, “So how do you know, Great Rabbi Dauermann, that God doesn’t speak to him in that manner? Who are you to say it isn’t so?” as if my reticence on the matter were simply a matter of smug, overweening pride. To such a person I would say that it is rule of thumb that God is not stupid nor given to treating the bizarre as the norm. I would say that for this young man to avoid submitting his “guidance” to the judgment of experienced elders, and the experience of the community throughout time, was at best naïve, prideful, foolish and dangerous. And it would have been irresponsible for me and my colleague to have shrugged our shoulders and said, “Well , who are we to say. Maybe that is the leading of God. We’ll help you pack!”

Another example, also true. I met a young woman in the SF Bay area who claimed that the risen Christ had come and visited with her one week end and spent the week-end giving her a seminar in Bible study. Aside from the fact that such an encounter would certainly be out of the ordinary, this young woman’s subsequent life demonstrated a moral instability that undermined here claim. What are we to do? Are we to simply shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, who are YOU to say that Jesus didn’t visit with her that week-end? And if God spoke to Moses, and Elijah, Jesus and Paul, why not her?” Well, again, without denying that God can and does speak to individuals, I would say that God is not stupid or foolish, and that as a rule of thumb, we all do well to check our perceptions of his leading against the wisdom of the community and the tradition. And if any of you consider me a wimp for saying so, enjoy yourselves. I can handle it.

I would suggest five criteria that should be aligned when we are seeking to validate or invalidated something that claims to be a leading from God:

(1) Is this in line with the thrust of Scripture [and not simply one proof-text];
(2) Upon consulting with them, is this leading confirmed by leaders and mentors whose character and track-record demonstrates them to be reliable?
(3) Is this leading in line with the tenor of the wisdom of the people of God in general—the voice of tradition?
(4) Does heeding this leading lead you in the direction of humility and growth in godly character?
(5) Is following this “leading” reasonable in view of at least the preponderance of the foregoing?

I think following such guidelines is far more reliable than heeding twitching elbows and perspectives that imply or state a direct comparison between the experience of canonical prophets and apostles and ourselves.

And if that makes me out to be a wimp, well, I’ll just have to learn to live with that.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Secret of Congregational Growth

(This sermon on the Haftarah of Parashat Ki Teitzei was preesented September 2, 2006, at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills. CA. It calls for a paradigm shift in how we view the challenge of congregational growth.)

What is the secret of congregational growth? Scripture supplies us with an answer to this question in today’s Haftarah reading, Isaiah 54:1-10.

1 "Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD. 2 Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; hold not back, lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. 3 For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. 4 "Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be put to shame; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. 5 For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.

6 For the LORD has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. 7 For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. 8 In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer. 9 "For this is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. 10 For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you.

The fundamental secret of congregational growth is the intent of God. Here, with the people of Judah in a sorry state, preparing to eventually go off into exile, God says, “That’s not going to be the end of the story! I will bring you back and your going to have to knock down some walls because you are going to expand, expand, expand."

The only difference in Judah’s situation was to be the intent of God.

We read in the Psalms, “Unless ADONAI builds the house, its builders work in vain. Unless ADONAI guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain” [Psalm 127:1]. So all of our efforts at building the household of God would be futile, were it not for the intent of God that it should be built.

But can we know that this is His intent?

The building of the household of God has always been at His initiative. Even when David wanted to build a house for God, God said, “No.” But God DID want a house for His name built; just not by David, but by his son, Solomon.

And in the wildnerness, it was the Lord Himself who told Moses and the children of Israel to build him a Tabernacle—even providing the blueprints Himself.

But what about us? Well, there’s just two more passages I want to look at with you this morning. The first is in Matthew 16, beginning in verse 13.

13 When Yeshua came into the territory around Caesarea Philippi, he asked his talmidim, "Who are people saying the Son of Man is?" 14 They said, "Well, some say Yochanan the Immerser, others Eliyahu, still others Yirmeyahu or one of the prophets." 15 "But you," he said to them, "who do you say I am?" 16 Shim`on Kefa answered, "You are the Mashiach, the Son of the living God." 17 "Shim`on Bar-Yochanan," Yeshua said to him, "how blessed you are! For no human being revealed this to you, no, it was my Father in heaven. 18 I also tell you this: you are Kefa," [which means `Rock,'] "and on this rock I will build my Community, and the gates of Sh'ol will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven." 20 Then he warned the talmidim not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Now, in this passage there are a few things I want us to note.

First, coming to the knowledge the Yeshua is the Messiah is central and it is supernatural.

Second, this certitude that Yeshua is the Messiah is foundational to the community he wants to build.

Third, Messiah IS building his community.

Fourth, even the gates of hell will not overcome it. It is meant to be a dynamic and prevailing community.

Fifth, this kingdom is one with spiritual authority.

Sixth, there was a time when it was in eclipse, but no longer. It is interesting to note that the passage begins with the supernatural recognition that Yeshua is the Messiah, and ends, in verse 20 saying, "Then he warned the talmidim not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah." This was because the time was not yet for Him to be fully revealed. Yeshua wanted to strictly monitor when things were to come to a head with Him being betrayed, crucified, buried, risen and ascended. He told the talmidim not to say anything yet.

But "yet" has come. Yeshua has been betrayed, crucified, buried, risen and ascended and the time is now for Him to be revealed, no longer in eclipse.

The intent of God, the intent of Messiah, the intent of the Spirit is clear—to build a holy community on the foundation rock of Yeshua the Messiah.

How is that to be done and what do we have to do with it? Let’s look at another passage, in Ephesians 4.

7 Each one of us, however, has been given grace to be measured by the Messiah's bounty. 8 This is why it says, "After he went up into the heights, he led captivity captive and he gave gifts to mankind." 9 Now this phrase, "he went up," what can it mean if not that he first went down into the lower parts, that is, the earth? 10 The one who went down is himself the one who also went up, far above all of heaven, in order to fill all things.

In the building of His community, God has given to each of us graces—the word is charis—empowerments from God that contribute to the growth of the Messianic Jewish community—built on the rock of faith in the Messiah.

11 Furthermore, he gave some people as emissaries, some as prophets, some as proclaimers of the Good News, and some as shepherds and teachers. 12 Their task is to equip God's people for the work of service that builds the body of the Messiah, . . .

Some people have leadership gifts—gifts for training others. That includes me—I am a teacher, a shepherd, an equipper of God’s people, as are other elders here and scattered throughout the communities of God's people.

So we see here that there is a three way partnership: God is the architect and builder; teachers and shepherds are the contractors; and the rest of the community is the workforce, and all the gifts and abilities necessary to get the job done are divinely provided. But what is the job?

13 until we all arrive at the unity implied by trusting and knowing the Son of God, at full manhood, at the standard of maturity set by the Messiah's perfection. 14 We will then no longer be infants tossed about by the waves and blown along by every wind of teaching, at the mercy of people clever in devising ways to deceive. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in every respect grow up into him who is the head, the Messiah. 16 Under his control, the whole body is being fitted and held together by the support of every joint, with each part working to fulfill its function; this is how the body grows and builds itself up in love.

The goal is not only the numerical growth of the congregation, but also its communal maturation—the body building itself up in love. Maturing as people, becoming more like the Messiah, the perfection of human potential.

So where does that leave us? A few thoughts:

(1) God’s intent is clear. It is supernatural yet entirely normal for congregations to grow in size and in depth.
(2) He provides the means whereby this happens—giving all the training and all the gifts necessary to get things done.
(3) If congregational growth is normal, and atrophy is abnormal, then we must ask ourselves—what are we doing to hinder the intent of God?
(4) Suggestion—it is as each of us does his part that the normal process of growth occurs: “Under his control, the whole body is being fitted and held together by the support of every joint, with each part working to fulfill its function; this is how the body grows and builds itself up in love.
(5) So the final question for all of us is this: If everyone in the congregation was as involved as I am, what would that mean?

The secret of congregational growth is the intention of God. The only question for us is, are we going to get in the way of God’s intent being accomplished? Or will we get with the program?