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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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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Letter to the Editor on a Misguided Critique of Messianic Judaism - Part Two


In the fullness of time, the Editor of the Fredericksburg paper wrote me asking for a shorter version of the letter I first sent her. Below you will find the shorter version I sent, and the URL for their edited version which they published.

Just bringing you all up to date. Shalom.

The recent article by Joe Katz reminds me of what children might say about a big, gabled, somewhat gothic neighborhood house, frightening one another away by saying it is haunted. However, just as when one actually meets the people in the house, and discovers them to be warmly human, even if a bit quirky, so when one actually meets the people dwelling in the “House of Messianic Judaism,” one finds us to be somewhat average!

Mr. Katz’s facts and perceptions are disordered and distorted. For example, he alleges that Messianic Judaism is but the creation of Moishe Rosen’s Jews for Jesus. In order to do so, he employs a mixture of half-truths, untruths, and boogey-men. attempting to level the many varieties of Messianic Judaism into one malicious conspiracy. However, anyone at all familiar with Messianic Judaism will know us to be extremely diverse, and that wide swaths of the movement take sharp issue with Jews for Jesus on a number of matters, and that one Jews for Jesus staff member wrote a book denouncing Messianic Judaism, for which Moishe Rosen, Jews for Jesus founder, wrote the Foreword. This is hardly the unified conspiracy Mr. Katz alleges to have exposed!

Mr.Katz is not lying, but rather frightened and misinformed. He cares about Jewish continuity and Jewish-Christian relations, as do we. For example, this week I will be speaking at a local church on why Christians have low credibility with many Jews, providing eight reasons why the Jews are not a has-been people, as alleged in some Christian theological constructs, and why Jewish continuity should be the concern of all well-meaning Christians.Instead of standing outside our gate, crying “Boogey-man,” I recommend that he and your readers muster courage and come inside the Messianic Jewish house to meet the sometimes quirky, highly diverse, but genuine people who live within.

As one of them, I welcome you, and wish you all, Shalom.
Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD

Professor of Spirituality - Messianic Jewish Theological Institute of the
Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations

To see how they edited it and published it visit the following URL:

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

One Good, or Bad, Thing Leads to Another

The following is a sermon for Parshat Shemini, which includes the account of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu offering "strange fire/unauthorized fire" before the Lord, and being struck down for it. The sermon considers how one one bad decision tends to lead to another, and one good one to another as well.

1 Now Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. 2 And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord meant when He said:

Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people."

And Aaron was silent.

4 Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, "Come forward and carry your kinsmen away from the front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp." 5 They came forward and carried them out of the camp by their tunics, as Moses had ordered. 6 And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, "Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought. 7 And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the Lord's anointing oil is upon you." And they did as Moses had bidden.

8 And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: 9 Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, 10 for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; 11 and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.

What do we learn from this account? What was it that Nadav and Avihu did wrong and why did they do it? As recorded in chapter nine, hey had just seen God manifest his power by coming down in fire to ignite the altar, and apparently, they were just so very jazzed by that that they go a little boozed up and tried to get God to do it again. I draw that conclusion from God’s word to Aaron and his sons after this incident, that they ought not to drink liquor when they tend the altar of the Lord. What is the lesson for us? Is this about being teatotalers? No, it’s not so much a lesson in abstinence, as a lesson in humility.

Rabbi Jonathan Kaplan, of our own UMJC concurs, and reminds us that our sages had reached the same conclusion, which should not entirely surprise us since our ancestors took the text of Scripture very seriously and thought deeply about it.

Rabbi Kaplan comments rightly, how the text calls their offering “’esh zara ’asher lo’ tzivva ’otam”an alien fire which God had not commanded them.” He then quotes contemporary Jewish scholar, Baruch Levine, who suggests they were offering something extra which Hashem had not commanded, and that “their offering was well-intentioned but done improperly, an offering not prescribed by God.”

Rabbi Kaplan notes as well how the subsequent reference to the prohibition against priests drinking wine when they perform their duties suggests that Nadav and Avihu had gotten too boozed up celebrating the dedication of the Mishkan and their own investiture as priests.

He reports how another ancient source, Sifra, “suggests the foolhardy act of the two young priests proceeded from unrestrained exuberance. They too in their joy, as soon as they saw the new fire, stood forth to heap love unto their love’ (Parashat Shemini Mekhilta Demiluim 32). Here, our ancestors attribute their poor judgment not to booze but to unrestrained enthusiasm.

We might therefore draw a lesson about drinking, or a lesson about exuberance: about the need to keep a cool head at all times, especially in the service of God. It seems that one of the core lessons is that we who claim to serve God is that we must respect the boundaries he has set, and not get cute.

The same lesson is evident in the first part of our Haftarah. In putting the Ark of God on an ox cart, the Levites had gone outside of the boundaries God had set—the Ark was meant to be carried on the shoulders of the Levites. And because, either in exuberance or in ignorance, the Ark was being transported as it should not have been transported, Uzzah reached out to steady it and did what he should not have done—he touched the holy Ark itself, something which no one was supposed to do.

This reminds one of a lesson taught by our tradition: “mitzvah goreret mitzvah, v’avon goreret avon”—one mitzvah leads to another, and one sin leads to another. One compromise of God’s standards is likely to lead to another, until eventually, one finds oneself far from where one ought to be.

But there is another interpretation of this principle, that one person's mitzvah leads to another's good deed, and one person’s sin leads to another’s transgression.

Let’s look at these two principles in concluding today.

First, it is important to pay attention to the smaller details of obedience, because one good habit, one good action, leads to others.

Second, it is important to pay attention to how we live, because our good example can embolden someone else to do what is right. How many times have you been inspired by someone else’s example? How often have others been inspired to do what is right due to your example? Yes, one mitvzah leads to another: whether your own or someone else’s.

Third, one sin leads to another. Nadav and Avihu got boozed up, this led to their offering an offering God had not commanded. Uzzah and his friends put the Ark of God on an ox-cart, something they should not have done. This led to another transgression—reaching out and touching something not meant to be touched.

Similarly, we must examine our own lives, how one compromise leads to another. We must also consider how our sins can become a stumbling block for others, something Scripture speaks of repeatedly—putting a stumbling block in someone else’s way. Yeshua spoke of this in frightening terms: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever ensnares one of these little ones who trust me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the open sea!” (Matthew 18:5-6).

Finally, lets finish on a positive note. It is within our power to begin forming good habits, knowing that good habits drive out bad ones. Each of us would do well to focus one at a time upon areas where we have formed bad habits. Starting with one habit, we should form a plan on how to replace that bad habit with a new one, practicing that consistently and intentionally for six weeks. By that time, the new habit will be so ingrained as to be subconscious—you won’t even have to think about it!

Let’s choose something relatively benign and very common as an example. Suppose you have a bad habit of misplacing your keys when you return home. You often have to scramble around the house looking for them when you must go somewhere, and this upsets you and everyone around you. You need to form, and then follow, a plan.

First, choose a logical and always available place where you should put those keys whenever you come home. It must be a place no one will disturb.

Second, whenever you come home, as you come in the door, put the keys in that place/on that place saying aloud “I am putting the keys in the/on the______.” I know this sounds silly, but believe me, saying it aloud elevates your attention and forms the new habit much more deeply and faster.

Third, continue reinforcing this habit for from three to six weeks (it depends on how quickly you habituate to the new practice). At that point, you will have conquered a problem habit, ready to move on to another!

Let’s go for it, shall we? One good habit leads to another. And one mitzvah leads to another. Let’s take stock of our habits, identify the bad ones, and one by one, replace them with something better. Bad habits decrease our freedom and joy, good habits increase our freedom and joy.

What choice will you make?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Letter to the Editor on a Misguided Critique of Messianic Judaism

The following is a Letter to the Editor sent in response to
Please read that first.

To the Editor,

I was saddened to read the recent article by Joe Katz which, while well-intentioned, was full of half truths, untruths and boogey-men. It reminds me of what children might say about a big, dark, and somewhat gothic looking house, frightening one another away with “cross my heart and hope to die ‘true to life stories’’ about how the house is certainly haunted.

Mr Katz would tell everyone in the neighborhood that Messianic Judaism is a haunted house, he would warn your readers away. However, just as when one actually meets the people in the gothic gabled house, and discovers they are warm, human, even if a bit quirky, so with Messianic Judaism.

Mr Katz appears well-intentioned. He really believes what he is saying, but, as one long involved in Messianic Judaism, as one who knows the people in Messianic Judaism’s great gothic gabled house, and as one who lives there, I want to tell your readers—we are not haunted nor are we people to be avoided.

What sorts of half truths does Mr. Katz express? First, he forecloses his argument by terminological sleight of hand: he simply alleges that we are a form of Christianity, and in no way, and in no case, to be considered a Judaism. He also tars with a broad brush leveling the many varieties and eccentricities of Messianic Judaism as if everyone in the Messianic Jewish house were the same. Not so! For example, anyone familiar at all with Messianic Judaism will know that wide swaths of the movement take sharp issue with Jews for Jesus on a number of matters. My point is not to discredit Jews for Jesus, but to say loud and clear: there is a wider variance in what the public broadly calls Messianic Judaism, which variance Mr. Katz ignores or seeks to dismiss. Instead, he seeks to scare people away from the Messianic Jewish house saying that we are all the same and divisive masquerading charlatans, to boot.

Painting with a broad brush dipped in bile, he attributes to us the most despicable of motives saying that our Jewish masquerade is simply an attempt to lure Jews to Christianity--and away from Judaism. He considers us to be nothing but soul-snatchers. Were you to visit our congregations you would instead find people struggling to work out their lives with God and man in Jewish space, normal people, trying make sense of the world while attempting to make it a better place.

His alarmist rhetoric may go over well with the kinds of uninformed people who enjoy being frightened, just as some people love riding roller coasters, or hearing ghost stories. But Mr Katz is telling a tall tale. Don’t believe him. Just because he believes it does not make it true.

Again, Messianic Judaism is a diverse and new phenomenon. While some Messianic Jews are very happy being called a Christian sect, others reject the label and insist they are Jews who regard the wider Jewish community as their primary community of reference, and themselves that part of the Remnant of Israel who believe in Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah. Mr Katz is entitled to dispute the veracity of those who make such claims, but he is not free to paper over these differences in an article which purports to set people straight. You cannot set people straight with crooked lines, and Mr. Katz’s article is full of crooked lines.

I don’t believe he is telling lies: I don’t think him to be willfully deceitful, which flaw he attributes to myself and people like me. But the facts demonstrate his article to be little more than a catalogue of stigmatizing untruths, misconceptions, and manipulative scare tactics, unworthy of him and of your paper.

I encourage people to re-read Mr. Katz’s article and note the consistently alarmist tone and the monolithic portrayal of all Messianic Jews as little more than religious con-men.The last three paragraphs are a good case in point. If what he says is true, that Messianic Judaism has a history as “a controversial, anti-Jewish, Christian organization,” that uses “destructive tactics [which] only lead to bickering between Jews and Christians, thus making it “more difficult for people of both faiths to work together to reach out to the nonreligious [being] harmful to the spirit of inter-religious respect and tolerance,” then, by all means everyone should avoid us. Fortunately, he is telling what we Jews call “bubbe-meises—old wives tales,” more appropriate for scaring children than informing anyone.

Mr.Katz means well: he cares about Jewish continuity—so do I. He cares about Christian-Jewish relations—so do I. In fact, this week I will be beginning a series at a local Church on “The Jewish Connection.” My first session speaks of why Christians have low credibility with most Jews, and provides eight reasons why the Jews are not a has-been people, contrary to the theme of some Christian theological constructs. But just because he means well, does not mean he is doing any service in what he says.

Instead of actually coming in and meeting the people in our great gothic gabled house, he is but standing outside our gate, warning people that the house is haunted. Would it not be better if you, he, and all your readers would instead muster courage and come inside to meet the sometimes quirky, but genuine people who live inside?

As one of them, I welcome you all, and wish you Shalom.

Stuart Dauermann, PhD
Rabbi of Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA
Professor of Jewish Spirituality, Messianic Jewish Theological Institute of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations

Saturday, April 07, 2007

When All Hope is Gone

Lk 23:55The women who had come with Yeshua from the Galil followed (Yosef of Aramathea, to the tomb where he place the body of Yeshua); they saw the tomb and how his body was placed in it. 56 Then they went back home to prepare spices and ointments. On Shabbat the women rested, in obedience to the commandment;
24:1 but the next day, while it was still very early, they took the spices they had prepared, went to the tomb, 2 and found the stone rolled away from the tomb! 3 On entering, they discovered that the body of the Lord Yeshua was gone! They were 4 standing there, not knowing what to think about it, when suddenly two men in daz zlingly bright clothing stood next to them. 5 Terror-stricken, they bowed down with their faces to the ground. The two men said to them, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has been raised. Remember how he told you while he was still in the Galil, 7 `The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be executed on a stake as a criminal, but on the third day be raised again'?" 8 Then they remembered his words; 9 and, returning from the tomb, they told everything to the Eleven and to all the rest. 10 The women who told the emissaries these things were Miryam of Magdala, Yochanah, Miryam the mother of Ya`akov, and the others in their circle. 11 But the emissaries didn't believe them; in fact, they thought that what they said was utter nonsense! 12 However, Kefa got up and ran to the tomb. Stooping down, he saw only the burial cloths and went home wondering what had happened.

The disciples are now reeling, knocked back on their heels, no, worse than that, knocked down to their knees by the worst news imaginable.

O, they had dealt with death before. Death was a fact of life in their first century world, not something that undertakers dealt with, but family, friends, neighbors. Preparing the dead for burial was then, as now, for religious Jews, the most honorable thing you could do for them—the mitzvah of all mitzvot—helping someone who was in no position to pay you back.

They had seen death before—the bodies of beloved family and friends whose spirits had returned to the God who gave them.

But this was different. This was infinitely worse.

The one who had died was the Prince of Life—or so they thought. It had taken years for the disciples to put it all together, but they had become convinced he was the Promised One, the Liberator from the heel of cruel, idolatrous Rome. Had they not seen him raise Elazar/Lazarus of Bethany from the tomb, four days after having died, wrapped, and laid in a tomb? What of the daughter of Jairus ? Had not Kefa and Yochanan, Peter and John, seen Yeshua raise her from the dead while the sound of the wailing mourners was yet ringing in their ears?

With all this and more, had they not been given ample reason to believe that he was the one who would call not just Lazarus, not just Jairus’s daughter, but all of the dead, even their own beloved dead, out of their graves as part of the grand sweep of the final and decisive triumph of the God of Israel and the Israel of God, when Israel would become the head and not the tail, and when all the nations would then stream up to Jerusalem to behold their vindicated glory?

And now, this. Their beloved, charismatic, wonder-working Rabbi, who made blind eyes see, lame men walk, and even the dead to come back to life, before their very eyes had been stipped naked, humiliated, scourged, whipped, beaten, broken, and hung on a Roman cross like so much dead meat.

In this passage we see a group of women from the circle of disciples coming to the tomb to dress his body for a proper burial. It had all been over too hastily three days earlier, and shabbat and Passover had intervened. Now they were coming to dress in spices his dead, and, by now, surely rancid body. Quite an act of love, of faith, of devotion , and of slow-moving, deliberate sorrow.

From this distance of 2000 years and light years of cultural distance, it is absolutely impossible for us to enter into the explosion of incredulous, uncomprehending, exhilarated and adrenalized joy mingled with terror that burst from them as they found the tomb empty, and heard the words of two luminous, otherwordly strangers asking them, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has been raised. Remember how he told you while he was still in the Galil, 7 `The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be executed on a stake as a criminal, but on the third day be raised again'?"

After they had run back to the group of mourners from which they had come, their words gushing, tumbling, and mangled in the torrent of their panting and excitement, the apostles and other disciples reacted just like we would: they didn’t believe a word these whacked out women were shouting at them. “These things just don’t happen. Don’t bother us now with your foolish fantasies while we are still on our knees picking up the pieces of our shattered lives.” Still, Peter/Kefa, ran to see for himself, just in case. He saw the empty tomb too, but, “because these things just don’t happen,” notice, the text says, “[he] went home wondering what had happened.” He was more confused than convinced.

In today’s passage we read about two others of this circle of disciples, one named Cleophas, the other unnamed. It is now much later the same day, and if you will note the details, you will see that they too are just devastated, shattered, and hardly able to go on.

13 That same day, two of them were going toward a village about seven miles from Yerushalayim called Amma'us, 14 and they were talking with each other about all the things that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed, Yeshua himself came up and walked along with them, 16 but something kept them from recognizing him. 17 He asked them, "What are you talking about with each other as you walk along?" They stopped short, their faces downcast; 18 and one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only person staying in Yerushalayim that doesn't know the things that have been going on there the last few days?" 19 "What things?" he asked them. They said to him, "The things about Yeshua from Natzeret. He was a prophet and proved it by the things he did and said before God and all the people. 20 Our head cohanim and our leaders handed him over, so that he could be sentenced to death and executed on a stake as a criminal. 21 And we had hoped that he would be the one to liberate Isra'el! Besides all that, today is the third day since these things happened; 22 and this morning, some of the women astounded us. They were at the tomb early 23 and couldn't find his body, so they came back; but they also reported that they had seen a vision of angels who say he's alive! 24 Some of our friends went to the tomb and found it exactly as the women had said, but they didn't see him." 25 He said to them, "Foolish people! So unwilling to put your trust in everything the prophets spoke! 26 Didn't the Messiah have to die like this before entering his glory?" 27 Then, starting with Moshe and all the prophets, he explained to them the things that can be found throughout the Tanakh concerning himself. 28 They approached the village where they were going. He made as if he were going on farther; 29 but they held him back, saying, "Stay with us, for it's almost evening, and it's getting dark." So he went in to stay with them. 30 As he was reclining with them at the table, he took the matzah, made the b'rakhah, broke it and handed it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. But he became invisible to them. 32 They said to each other, "Didn't our hearts burn inside us as he spoke to us on the road, opening up the Tanakh to us?" 33 They got up at once, returned to Yerushalayim and found the Eleven gathered together with their friends, 34 saying, "It's true! The Lord has risen! Shim`on saw him!" 35 Then the two told what had happened on the road and how he had become known to them in the breaking of the matzah.

36 They were still talking about it when -- there he was, standing among them! 37 Startled and terrified, they thought they were seeing a ghost. 38 But he said to them, "Why are you so upset? Why are these doubts welling up inside you? 39 Look at my hands and my feet -- it is I, myself! Touch me and see -- a ghost doesn't have flesh and bones, as you can see I do." 40 As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 While they were still unable to believe it for joy and stood there dumb founded, he said to them, "Have you something here to eat?" 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 which he took and ate in their presence. 44 Yeshua said to them, "This is what I meant when I was still with you and told you that everything written about me in the Torah of Moshe, the Prophets and the Psalms had to be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds, so that they could understand the Tanakh, 46 telling them, "Here is what it says: the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day; 47 and in his name repentance leading to forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to people from all nations, starting with Yerushalayim. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 Now I am sending forth upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been equipped with power from above."

50 He led them out toward Beit-Anyah; then, raising his hands, he said a b'rakhah over them; 51 and as he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 They bowed in worship to him, then returned to Yerushalayim, overflowing with joy. 53 And they spent all their time in the Temple courts, praising God.

They are talking with one another about what had happened, about the scourging, the rejection of Yeshua by Israel’s leadership circle, the crucifixion itself, and these loony stories being circulated by a bunch of women who must have come unhinged by grief, because the kinds of things they were talking about just don’t happen. We read here of these two men are downcast, the Greek says, skuthropoi—sad, gloomy, downcast. They are so sunk in grief they cannot even recognize Yeshua who is walking with them—everything has gone dark in them and around them, even their perceptions and senses. They are in the pitch blackness of deep grief.

And when this stranger walking with them asks, “What’s the problem,” how do they respond? They talk about what is most on their minds and hearts: “"The things about Yeshua from Natzeret. He was a prophet and proved it by the things he did and said before God and all the people. 20 Our head cohanim and our leaders handed him over, so that he could be sentenced to death and executed on a stake as a criminal. 21 And we had hoped that he would be the one to liberate Isra'el!"

How telling . . . “we had hoped”. . . but no more. "Hope is gone, and all we are left with is this unbearable weight, dragging it along on the Road to Emmaus.”

There are a number of important lessons for us here, lessons for us in our own hopeless situations, seasons of life one feels one just can’t go on.

The first lesson is that at such times, we need the light of Scripture to illumine the darkness.
The first thing Yeshua does is to bring them back to the Scriptures—and that is where you and I need to go when all grows dark for us. We need to read the Bible, but also to be able to turn to the Bible within our hearts, to the treasury of Scripture we should have within us from years of pouring over it, taking it in, and digesting it. Of course, if that has not been our habit, there won’t be much of a light to turn on when the darkness comes, as surely it will, sooner or later. If we have been chronicly neglectful in this matter, when the darkness comes, our battery may just be too low to light our darkness.

The second thing we need is for God’s mercy to prevail and for him to make Himself known to us in our times of darkness,just as Yeshua does for these disciples here, and later for the circle of the twelve when He drops in on them. In times of disaster, we will find ourselves asking, “Where is God in all of this,” and it’s a good question. Eventually, because God does some of his best work in the darkness, we will detect some glimmer of light, some pin-prick of illumination. We will need to follow that light because it comes from God and leads us back to him. It is the light of a new perspective on the entire situation, a light turning arising in our darkness where we will gradually begin to see things a bit differently than we did before.

The third thing we must do is to do as they did—to go and tell others—to spread the light of the Word, and the light of our new perspective, unaccountably renewed because, right in the midst of our shattered world, God has shown us something we had not seen before, something that makes everything everlastingly different.

Finally, for all of us here, 2000 years further down the road to Emmaus, there is something else to remember, a light for our darkness that has been shining since way back then. “He is risen, just like he said.”
The resurrection of Yeshua, his ascension to the Father’s right hand, the marvelous works of the Spirit whom he sent among all the nations of the world for the past two millennia, these bright lights remind us that the darkness is not total, that the darkness is not the final word, but rather, blazing, glorious light filled with song.

Some years later, one from the apostolic circle said this:

1 The Word, which gives life! He existed from the beginning. We have heard him, we have seen him with our eyes, we have contemplated him, we have touched him with our hands! 2 The life appeared, and we have seen it. We are testifying to it and announcing it to you - eternal life! He was with the Father, and he appeared to us. 3 What we have seen and heard, we are proclaiming to you; so that you too may have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Yeshua the Messiah. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 Yochanan/John 1:1-4).

Weeping may endure for the night . . . but because He lives, we will live also. Life will go on, and on, and on, and on some more.

“Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Now, go tell the others.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Turning Our Disasters into Doorways

(This is a Sermon on the Parasha for Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesach. It concerns a crisis in the life of Moses, not entirely unlike the crises some of us face from time to time.)

12 Moses said to the Lord, "See, You say to me, 'Lead this people forward,' but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, 'I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.' 13 Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people" (Shemot/Ex. 33)

Even though we are the people of God, and even were we great servants of God like Moses, this does not mean we will not encounter negative, painful, scary, and trying times and conditions. Here, Moses feels he can no longer deal with his circumstances: he just can’t take it any more.

Notice, he is not flipping out over some glitch, a stressful life, or a dysfunctional marriage. Certainly, not because he is having a bad hair day. It is a measure of his holiness that what bothers Moses is that the people of Israel have fallen into idolatry. He is undone by the fact that his people have built for themselves a golden calf and spiraled down into orgiastic rites because they couldn’t deal with the stress of his being away atop Mt Sinai for forty days and forty nights. He is upset because his own brother was complicit in this disaster. Moses is undone, destroyed, depressed . . . and over something really big.

We too will encounter situations, periods, conditions in life which leave us feeling decimated, and discouraged, whether over matters small or really big. Each of us, even the best of us, may well be called upon to face situations that drive us to our limits and beyond.

At such times, what can we expect of God? This is the issue I wish to examine with you in today’s consideration. I think it may help us all to adopt Moses’ requests and God’s promises found here a template for our own perspective.

14 And He said, "I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden." 15 And he said to Him, "Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place. 16 For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?"
17 And the Lord said to Moses, "I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name."

Verse 14 tells us one promise we can claim: God tells Moses “I will go in the lead and lighten your burden.” Knowing that he does so for us, no less than for Moses, should be for us a source of reassurance, of protection, and of provision. Of course, we should all endeavor to be people with Moses’ kind of unflinching devotion to God, walking in the fear of Him all our days and in all our ways. And if we will but stumble along, in some measure seeking to honor the God whom Moses honored, we will recognize that the promise of the Divine Presence is the answer to our need, and give thanks as Moses did. In fact, that thankfulness will be a characteristic of our lives.

Moses goes beyond that to ask God for more—not just a deeper knowledge about him, and not even just companionship, but intimacy. Let’s look at this for a moment.

To know about God is a wonderful thing—the knowledge of who He is, the knowledge of His mighty works, the knowledge of his attributes, as some schools of religious thought speak of him, and of course, the knowledge of His Word, these are in themselves great things. But beyond that is companionship—knowing that this God is with us, experiencing in some measure that He is Emmanuel, God with us, on the Emmaus roads of our lives, that through the Holy Spirit, he has come to be with us—that he is our companion, this is wonderful, splendid and glorious. And certainly, one could argue that this brings a deeper, or at least different level of satisfaction than that prior and utterly foundational level, knowledge about God. In a sense then, one could say that the first level is knowledge about God, and the second level, a sense of companionship in the knowledge that God is with us.

But beyond this is a third level--knowing God, that is, intimacy with him. Moses speaks of this as “let me behold your Presence,” of which God says, "You cannot see My face, for man may not see my face and live!” Moses is asking for the deepest of intimacies with God. I don’t think I am being merely cynical when I say that it doesn’t often occur to most of us to even aspire to such a thing. We are usually too preoccupied with other, far lesser things.

And if I am right in my suspicions that our level of knowledge of God is woefully deficient, perhaps one reason is that we do not crave his nearness. But for those who will diligently seek God’s Presence, even in the midst of their dark nights of the soul, God’s promise and response to Moses may become ours as well: We may not quite see his face, but he will take us deeper, draw us closer, into greater intimacy with Himself.

18 He said, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" 19 And He answered, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. 20 But," He said, "you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live." 21 And the Lord said, "See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock 22 and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen."

But note this: Moses is still stuck with his situation. The Israelites remain a burden. And we are likely to be required to continue confronting our own burdens as well. But although the conditions of his life are unchanged, but the condition of his life is revolutionized. And so may it be for us, if we will take our eyes away from our situation, and truly seek the face of God.

Finally, in our parasha, we see how God provides guidance.

1 The Lord said to Moses: "Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered. . . .
4 So Moses carved two tablets of stone, like the first . . . (Shemot/Ex. 34).

Even if we must walk through difficult situations, we may always count on God’s willingness to provide us guidance as to how we ought to deal with them and conduct ourselves. He provided Israel with Torah, with covenant stipulations and guarantees. The word Torah is more properly “guidance,” than anything else—it is instruction that points the way we should go.

In the midst of our sometimes trying lives, the burdens we must bear, our sometimes irksome and difficult responsibilities, God promises guidance to those who truly seek it. Ya’akov/James says it this way in the Newer Covenant,

2 Regard it all as joy, my brothers, when you face various kinds of temptations; 3 for you know that the testing of your trust produces perseverance. 4 But let perseverance do its complete work; so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing. 5 Now if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all generously and without reproach; and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in trust, doubting nothing; for the doubter is like a wave in the sea being tossed and driven by the wind. 7 Indeed that person should not think that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 because he is double-minded, unstable in all his ways (Ya’akov/James 1).

What many miss is that this wisdom, this guidance, is promised to those undergoing trials. This is a promise for people like us facing circumstances like those Moses faces here—trying, burdensome circumstances. We must tend to our hearts, and ask of God within the context of a well-aimed life and mindset. We must seek to be done with being double-minded, ambivalent about seeking God, uncertain of His trustworthiness, and undecided about seeking to walk in his ways. We must aim our lives like an arrow, following his guidance as to where we should point ourselves.

In our trying circumstances, God provides us with an opportunity to go deeper, to find him going before us and with us, to grow in knowledge about him and his ways, in the certainty of his companionship and the surprising revelation of his nearness and intimate involvement in our lives.

Our trials remain with us. They continue to be trials, perhaps scary and painful, the kinds of things that wear us down, and that we would so much prefer to avoid. If we will take our trials as a spur to seek him earnestly, God may not change our conditions, but he will change our condition.

Through seeking, encountering, and discovering God in new ways, we can find him turning our valleys of disaster into doorways of hope.

May it be so for you. May it be so for me.

God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you (1 Peter 5:5-6).

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon (Isa 55:6).

A few questions for you to ponder as you go your way:

(1) What kinds of stresses, life situations are you preoccupied with right now?
(2) Stepping back and looking at your own level of preoccupation, is there an immaturity, self-centeredness, or tendency to self-pity which needs to be overcome?
(3) In these stress areas, have you implemented the best wisdom you know in dealing with them, and if not, why not?
(4) Are there any promises from God, perspectives from Moses, matters for prayer arising from our study of this passage that particulary impress themselves upon you at this time? If so, what new action, practice, or decision are you going to implement as a result? Why not pray about that now?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Messianic Judaism: Moving From Fringe, To Focus, To Future

Anyone who has been among Jewish believers in Yeshua for forty years or more, as I have, has lived amidst a whirlwind of change. When I came to believe in Yeshua, there were effectively no Messianic Congregations, although some isolated experiments, more along the lines of Hebrew Christian churches, had been attempted here and there. The idea of Messianic Congregations simply did not enter our minds. Until the 1970’s, Jews who believed in Jesus routinely went to churches and tried to maintain or nurture their Jewish identity as a side issue, all the while being careful to balance that pursuit with the “higher purpose” of “preserving the unity of the Body of Christ.” While some sought to maintain their Jewish identities, almost no one ever asked, “How have I grown as a Jew lately?”

But, as Bob Dylan reminds us, “The times they are a-changing.” Now there are hundreds of Messianic Congregations, and, in the words of an old Jews for Jesus song, “eyes can finally see that Jewishness and Christ go hand in hand.” Today, thousands of Messianic Jews are eating kosher, keeping shabbat, debating halakha, and seeking to grow as Jews, phenomena both inconceivable and stigmatized just four decades past.

To understand these changes as being simply a matter of greater numbers, institutional growth, style, or organizational skill would be to misconstrue both the changes and the Change Agent. Leaders and laity, Jews and Gentiles, Church people and doctrinaire Messianic Jews widely agree that God seems to be up to something among Jews who believe in Yeshua. Not only are the numbers of Messianic Jews growing, Messianic Judaism is maturing, and becoming de-marginalized. Responsible leaders in both the Jewish and Christian communities are detecting a gravitational force moving Messianic Jews and Messianic Judaism from the periphery to the center, from fringe to focus.

Messianic Jews have come into focus partly because we have come into our own. It is as if we have awakened from a deep sleep. Now we are awake to our deep connection not only to the Jewish past, but also to the Jewish present and future. We see ourselves as we truly are, part of the Jewish people, the community of Jacob. Increasingly, we are recognizing how that citizenship obliges us to honor the covenants God made with our ancestors, both now and into the future. We are the community of the covenant. Increasingly, we realize that we have a collective destiny. We are a community of the future—in anticipation of the Age to Come.

This blog and related activities exist to serve this growing movement for Yeshua within the covenant community of Jacob, assisting both our leaders and our constituents in serving a destiny that draws nearer day by day. We want to be fully awake to what kind of movement we must be, and what kind of leaders we must have if we would maintain and hasten our transition from fringe to focus to future, serving the purposes of God.

Many Christians, alert to the identity of the Jewish people as a people of destiny, are drawing near to us as well, seeking to understand and respond to the impact of changing times upon their own identity and calling.

“The times they are a-changing.” This blog, and all of my efforts, are aimed at helping the Messianic Jewish movement not only to change with the times, but to be God’s instrument in helping make change happen.

May the favor of the Lord rest upon us.

"My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. . . . My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Ezekiel 37:24, 27).

Monday, April 02, 2007

Sufferings First, Glories to Follow: The Pattern of God's Dealings

The beginning of the Torah reading from last shabbat provides a provocative and helpful perspective as we anticipate the coming commemoration of the death and resurrection of Messiah Yeshua.

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. 3 The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. 4 He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. 5 The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. 6 A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out (Vayikra/Leviticus 6).

Rabbi Chayim ben Attar, an 18th century Moroccan, notes that rather than beginning the discussion of the burnt offering with a description of how the offering is to be prepared, the text instead begins with a description of the disposal of the ashes from the night before—and all of this before even discussing how that offering may have been brought. Why begin the description with the disposal of ashes from an earlier offering? Rabbi Elazar Mushkin points out that Rabbi ben Attar “argued that it depicted Jewish history in which suffering seems to dominate, but in the end victory will reign” [“After the Ashes” in The Jewish Journal, March 25, 2005, page 40].

This insight is crucial not only to our understanding of Jewish history, but also to our appreciation of the story of Yeshua and the meaning of the resurrection of Messiah, and ultimately important to an understanding of the pattern of our own lives. It has always been, sufferings first, and glories to follow.

For example, over and over again, Messiah spoke to his disciples of how he must first suffer and die and afterward be raised on the third day. Always, it was suffering first, glory later. In Mark’s gospel, Peter speaks for all the disciples when he responds to Yeshua’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” by saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” The text goes on to say, “And he began to teach them all that the Messiah must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and after three days rise again” [Mk. 8:31]. Peter speaks of this in his first letter, saying the prophets spoke the same way. . .sufferings first, glories later. He says this: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Messiah in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Messiah and the glories that would follow” [1 Peter 1:11-12]. On the road to Emmaus, when Messiah made one of his earliest appearances after his resurrection, he struck the same note: “He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" [Lk. 24:25-26].

Sufferings first, and glories to follow.

Rabbi Mushkin tells a story illustrating how this pattern of Messiah’s life, sufferings first, glories to follow, is replicated in the experience of Israel and in our individual lives as well. He speaks of how Natan Sharanksy was invited to visit Russia a year after his election to the Knesset. It was the first time in history that a past prisoner of the Russian government returned as a leader in the free world. The Russian officials wanted to take him to the Bolshoi Ballet, but Sharansky insisted he wanted instead to visit the KGB prison where he had been incarcerated and tortured as a Refusenik.

Before finally taking him there as requested, and seeking to limit their own embarrassment, the Russians made sure the prison and his former cell were scrubbed clean and made as benign looking as one could possible make a Russian prison. As Sharansky and his wife, Avital, were escorted around the prison by very uncomfortable hosts, he made them more uncomfortable still. He asked that they take him to the punishment cell where he had once been tortured. The Russians at first wanted to deny that such a cell existed, and instead showed him an ordinary cell. But Sharansky was undeterred . . . and insistent.

Finally, he and Avital were brought to the cell, where he asked that they be left alone for fifteen minutes.

When they emerged from the cell, the members of the press who had been waiting outside clamored to understand why the Sharanskys had subjected themselves to such a retrograde, masochistic revisiting of his sufferings. Sharansky’s response was both penetrating and illumining. Here is what he said:

“It was the most inspiring moment of my life. When I was a prisoner of the Soviet Union, my jailers tortured and taunted me and told me that world Jewry had betrayed me and that I would never leave the prison alive. Today, the KGB does not exist, the Soviet Union does not exist, and one million Jews have left the punishment cell called the Soviet Union. This is what I went back to see. This is what I am thankful for."

People have long debated over Isaiah 53, as to whether the text speaks of the sufferings of Israel or of the Messiah. The answer is to this question is, “Yes.” Israel suffers as the servant nation, and Messiah suffers as the epitome of Israel. Yeshua is the one man Israel. And the pattern of his life is and will continue to be the pattern of Israel’s life until He comes again: sufferings first, and glories to follow. The pattern that Natan Sharansky noted, of his own sufferings and eventual exaltation to a position of rulership, the pattern that he noted of the sufferings of Russias Jews with their eventual liberation, while their enemies were judged and dismantled, all of this is part of the pattern of Messiah’s life, of Israel’s life, the pattern woven into the warp and woof of creation.

Paul the Apostle spoke as well of how this pattern is replicated in our individual lives. He said: “18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” [Romans 8:18-23].

But meanwhile, as Paul says, like the creation itself, and like all of God’s children, Israel groans and waits.

So what’s the point of all this? The sufferings and resurrection to glory of Messiah are good news on many fronts and in many ways.

[1] We are most apt to focus on the meaning of his resurrection for us as individuals, that through his death and resurrection we receive forgiveness of sins, and the hope of our own resurrection: “Because I live, you will live also.” And of course, this is true. But there is also a meaning for us in all of life. The death and resurrection of Messiah is a message of hope because it reminds us that suffering itself is not simply tragedy. Woven into the warp and woof of all creation is this pattern, “sufferings first, glories to follow.” If you are suffering, or know others who are suffering, this too is a message of hope.

[2] There is message of hope here as well for God’s people Israel. Since the Messiah is the one man Israel, what was true of him will be true for Israel as a whole: sufferings first, glories later. The Resurrection of Messiah is not only the vindication of His own claims, and a vindication of sinners who can now rest assured that their sins have been carried away through the cross and open tomb. The resurrection of Messiah is a vindication of Israel’s hope: that through this same Messiah, Israel itself will one day enter into the glories that have been prophesied of her, through this suffering, risen, and vindicated Messiah.

Commenting on the Torah passage with which this article began, Rabbi Mushkin concludes: “Jewish history is not only fire and ashes. It is the promise of a glorious destiny. Our job is to make that destiny happen sooner rather than later.” Rabbi Mushkin doesn’t realize that Yeshua our Messiah God’s agent in bringing all of this to pass, but Messianic Jews declare this to be the case.

In this season and every season, may the Holy One, Blessed be He, enable us to bear our own sufferings faithfully, to bind up the wounds of our people Israel, and help them to see what we see, to know what we know, and to serve whom we serve, in anticipation of glories which are sure to follow.